Bringing a Skewer to a Swordfight.

Whoever invented the whole genre of 'Food on a stick' either deserves our profound thanks, or to be made to go and sit in the corner.

Men in general, and South African men in particular, have a fundamental psychosis when it comes to weekend sporting events. We can’t just allow them to merely pass by. You know…perhaps taking note of the score, maybe even going as far as to sit in front of the TV for at least the second half, when we should actually be fixing that thing that hasn’t been working for a while now.

No no.

We clear the schedule, cast off every bit of common sense we’ve ever had, dive in headfirst, swim about and then rub it in our faces like it’s the cure for being an idiot – which is the long way of saying that it’s very very important that we make the most of The Big Sporting Weekend. Of which we in South Africa have many.

Of course, the expectation that comes with these things is enormous: the sun must hold up its end of the bargain, the host must under no circumstances run out of charcoal or ice, the braai (a South African term for ‘barbecue’, but better and more full of testosterone) cannot under any condition fail to cook the entire farm’s worth of meat that will inevitably need taking care of, someone’s girlfriend/wife/shag must provide a potato-salad (any other type of salad will be welcomed with smiles and heartfelt thanks, but then ignored for the rest of the day (because no-one wants to look like a salad-loving nancy boy), while the person who made it pitifully encourages everyone to try some “because it’s delicious”) and obviously the appropriate team needs to win. You see, failing to sufficiently wrestle every last ounce of “event” out of a weekend rugby/soccer/cricket/who-gives-a-shit-as-long-as-there-are-commentators match, is as much of a faux pas as accidentally punching a small child in the face.

Unless you’re from Uitenhage, where an accidental face-punching is pretty much how you say ‘hi’.

We shouldn’t forget that this is also an altar that’s attended to by the artery-hating high priests of mayonnaise, mielie pap and beer, which is to be expected – considering that “grilled things with sauce on it and some kind of starch nearby” is kinda the go-to cooking province of men world-wide.

Which is why arriving at a friend’s house for the Super 14 Semifinal Saturday braai with distinctly non-macho calamari skewers was risky. At best, I’d be laughed at while I wasn’t looking. At worst, someone would ‘accidentally’ drop them in the bin before they ever got within a mile of the grill (most of this isn’t true, my friends aren’t nearly that mean).  Either way, it’s a little bit like being the guy who brings quiche to the weekly poker game. Stunned silence. Sniggers. But I wasn’t going to let being alternative get in the way of trying something different on the braai – which, when you strip it down to the essentials, is still the ultimate way of cooking anything – with all those natural smoky flavours and a heat that doesn’t dry out whatever it is that’s being slapped down on it.

Plus, I have my whole well-documented ‘nervousness of cooking seafood’ thing – and so this was part of my continuing attempt to get comfortable with the cooking of my favourite sea-dwelling friends. Because ultimately who doesn’t like calamari right?  But it can’t always be about coating the buggers in breadcrumbs and then deep-frying the crap out of them.  And so (freshly inspired by Rick Stein) this seemed like a good alternative at the time.

Besides, on this particular day, the right teams won – so no one was really paying too much attention to the guy who brought bamboo skewers to a red meat rumble.

Braai’d Calamari Skewers

Saucy and Juicy, like my friend Leanne.

Ingredients (serves 6)

6 whole calamari pouches

Marinade

2 tbspn fish sauce

2 tbspn lime juice

2 tbspn brown sugar

1 tspn cumin seeds

1 tspn chili flakes

1 tspn coriander seeds

Sauce

2 mild chilies (de-seeded and finely chopped)

1 thumb-sized piece of ginger (finely chopped)

1 large garlic clove

2 tbspn fish sauce

3 tbspn lime juice

2 tbspn brown sugar

half a handful of roasted peanuts (crushed into smallish ‘crumbs’)

a handful of fresh coriander (finely chopped)

What to do

Soak some bamboo skewers in water for about an hour or so.

Toast the cumin, coriander and chili flakes in a dry pan until they brown a bit and start to get really fragrant. You should keep swirling the pan around, just so it all doesn’t catch and burn. Then empty the spices into a pestle and mortar and grind it up into a rough powder. Add the fish sauce, lime juice and sugar and mix it up until the sugar is dissolved. This wont look like a lot of liquid – but trust me on this, a little goes a long way.

Meanwhile slice the calamari pouches down one side so that you can flatten the whole thing out. Then cut 4 strips out of each pouch and then, in a flat dish cover them with the marinade and leave it to soak for about an hour, longer if you can.

For the sauce, finely chop the fresh chili, ginger and the garlic and gently fry them all in a pan with a bit of olive oil. Once they’re all softened and just starting to go brown, whip it all out – and add the fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, crushed peanuts and fresh coriander. At this point I like to empty this mix into a small jar with a lid that seals properly, give it a monster shake and then leave it all to get to know each other until it’s needed.

Take the calamari strips and thread them onto the skewers – about three strips per skewer, and keep whatever marinade is left for basting.

All dressed up and waiting for their turn on the grill.

At this point you’ll need the braai (barbecue) to be good and hot. An excellent indication of a good cooking heat is if you’re able to hold your hand about two inches over the grill for about 3 seconds. Any less and its too hot, more and you don’t have enough heat (the night I cooked mine the fire wasn’t quite coping, and so I had to finish them off in pan).

Size isn't everything, okay?

Place the skewers on the grill and cook them for about 10 minutes on each side. There should be a lovely, juicy, slightly charred quality about them when they come off the fire and onto a platter. Give the sauce a last shake and cover the calamari evenly.

Don’t worry – you can still eat these, drink beer and look (somewhat) like a man.

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Biting off more than you can chew.

Everyone loves a comeback. Unless it’s Cliff Richard or one of the boy bands that wasn’t N’Sync. Actually scratch that, the only comeback I want to see from a boy band is in an X-box game called “Shoot All Boy Bands.”

You see, I’ve been going through a particularly horrendous cooking patch. Nothing particularly fun, nothing particularly inventive – it was all rather beginning to feel like the third season of one of those shows that originally started off full of bright promise and pretty starlets and punchy dialogue, but by the third year it’s all getting tired and flabby and the writers couldn’t really be bothered, which is why most episodes are 85% montage sequences cut to stoopid pop music and 15% excuses for product placement. I call it Josh Schwartzitis (come back to us Gossip Girl, just one good episode and all will be forgiven).

Then this happened.

This honestly should come with some type of orchestral fanfare.

And it felt like the moment when someone finally musters the energy to lift themselves out from under the mountain of salt ‘n vinegar chip packets, wade through the empty tubs of ‘mucho mexicano monster dip’, lift their fringe off their face long enough to see where they’re going and switch the VH1 ‘So 80s!’ marathon off.

It was unexpected and, amazingly, there were witnesses. My viciously talented friend Dale captured the whole evening here in between eating the hell out of it

So, hallelujah, this was possibly the most delicious and aesthetically pleasing thing I’ve ever made, and I was totally poised to write some fairly self-congratulatory stuff about it. Which means it was entirely possible that most of the people who somehow still read this blog would immediately consign me to a box in their heads marked “insufferable cocksmoker”. This would have been okay by me because none of those people had managed to make a Madagascan curry prawn starter on sweet potato roti with minted yoghurt. So there.

But then something else happened, something that made a pretty little seafood dish seem totally insignificant (when it rains, it clearly pours).

Quite nervously, over a dinner of sushi and red wine (not Technically Correct I know, but screw it, it’s getting colder down this neck of the woods and white wine is getting less fun by the day), some dear friends of mine asked me to cater their wedding for them.

Happy people in the road.

Now let me explain something here.  I have fairly large balls when it comes to Impossible Ventures That Are Certain To End In Failure (Trevor and Justine don’t read this bit, I’m sure your wedding will turn out just fine). What I mean to say is that I’m too stupid to know when to say no. Plus, I really like these two and cooking for 80 people on Their Special Day seems like more fun than having to make making small talk with Auntie Merle in the queue for the champagne cocktails (“No I’m not gay. Yes I’m sure. Well I can’t explain why no girls want to talk to me. I understand it was different in your day. I’m sure your niece is a lovely girl, but maybe now isn’t the best time. Okay fine. Here’s my number. Tell her she can call any time.”) Which are all factors that contributed towards me saying “yes!!!” before even pausing for a moment to run through a list of the things I should have been thinking about when considering their request.

Like:

a)    80 people is a lot. It’s more people that can fit my apartment. It’s more people than I’m likely to sleep with in my life. It’s more people than know the actual answer to the question, “What is the proof to Fermat’s Last Theorem?”

b)   80 people is a lot. It’s more people than I can buy pizza for. It’s like inviting Jacob Zuma and his extended family for lunch.

c)    80 people is a lot.

So. For the next little bit I’m going to be using this blog as a virtual pillow in which to scream into. Whenever the idea of what I’ve taken on board here gets too much, I will turn to the Great Big Nothingness of the internet for either reassurance, or people telling me I’m a nutjob and what the hell was I thinking.

So. By my reckoning there are approximately 212 (ish) days left until their wedding.  I have, in this time, got to figure out a 3-course menu that I can conceivably put together for the money they have, in the time they have, and for the amount of people they’ve invited. I’m thinking of calling it: Help Me To Not Fuck Up Trevor And Justine’s Wedding.

Catchy.

And (sort of) the process has already begun. A recent cold and rainy day saw me invite the happily engaged couple for Sunday Lunch – mostly as an excuse to spend a day drinking wine, but also because I wanted to start feeling them out as to what they were eager to eat on the day they look each other in the eye and say ‘I do’.

So as an opening salvo for a starter, I offer:

My balls on the block. As it were.

Crispy-fried Risotto Balls with Rocket and Plum Chutney.

This is very simple.

Follow the risotto recipe previously offered on this site, which is here (or alternately any risotto recipe you fancy).

Then, put the finished risotto in a sealable container and place in the freezer for about 45 minutes – you need this to get quite solid.

After that, use your hands to shape the risotto into golf-ball sized balls, then roll them in flour.

Meanwhile, get a pot of sunflower oil (about four fingers deep – enough to totally cover your risotto) nice and hot. You can test it by dropping a crumb of bread into the oil, if it starts to bubble and spit, it’s hot enough.

Carefully drop the risotto balls into the oil and fry until golden brown. Remove them with a slotted spoon and pat dry with some paper towel.

Serve with fresh rocket leaves and plum chutney (I did not make mine from scratch, I sourced this amazing chutney).

So? Good enough for a wedding?

As a footnote. If anyone’s interested in what I’m actually doing during the long gaps between posts on this blog, all that’s needed is to click here and go to Jono Hall on the left hand side.