The Most Important Meal of the Day doesn’t have to be cornflakes.

I'm totally thinking about edible frisbees right now.

So, I know there’s usually a fairly lengthy preamble before the recipes that I put on this page.  You know, some cutesy observation about life, our place in the world blah blah wank wank – then all tied back to stuffing our faces in the metaphoric equivalent of someone pulling your pants down in a public place and then running away laughing.

Not this time. This time, it’s just about breakfast. Plain and simple. Eggs, coffee, the swish of newspaper and (mostly) self-indulgent conversations about shared scraps of life.

In this light, it might even appear that breakfast’s most important job is actually just to be there, while people emerge from the dark of sleep and rediscover themselves for a bit. And sometimes, in the case of the severely hungover (which is most of us), be gently greasy enough to convince us that just ending it all should only really be Plan B.

Of course its not really. Breakfast needs to be your first deep breath of fresh air – and there are times when that’s really worth putting a smidge of effort into, because that first breath is really going to be the foundation for everything that comes after it.  I guess I’m trying to fluff its status as some sort of strange cleansing ritual that (at its best) points us in the right direction, winds us up, slaps us on the ass and whispers throatily in our ear, “Go get ’em tiger.”

I think it all ties back to a quote that I heard the other day, which I thought was brilliant. So much so, that I completely changed it and then cannibalized for my own purposes, like some literary homeless person turning a plastic bag into a hat. And here it is:

Those who know only food, don’t actually know food*.

The people whose cooking has always inspired me the most, those who make me just want to throw it all away and spend the rest of my days over a skillet – know exactly what cooking is for. It’s the fucking coat-hook upon which we either hang the most meaningful bits of our existence, or over which we dissect those experiences later on – and in so doing, hopefully get to really touch all the important pieces that make us us, both alone and together.  And so the best cooking – wherever it comes from – always seems to be put together by people who themselves have that shit crackling through their veins – who’ve seen things and done them and had their shoes stolen on a beach in Mexico.

Oh balls, I think I’ve totally just gone and done it again.

This really was just meant to be about eggs.

* The original quote was about cricket, which is probably not as interesting for the people who like reading this page.

Frittata (for 4)

This really is just an omelette really, with one major difference – which is that it’s finished off by being baked in the oven. The result is a slightly lighter, fluffier and yet somehow (and paradoxically) more solid version of an omelette. And, like an omelette – completely versatile and adaptable to what you have in the house.

 

It's not breakfast without tomato sauce. And I'll fight anyone who says different.

Ingredients

4/5 eggs

a splash of milk

salt

pepper

olive oil

Whatever veggies/bacon/herbs/cheese you have lying around the house.

What to do

Crack the eggs into a bowl, add a splash of milk and whisk it all together until completely blended and foaming ever-so-slightly.

Heat a pan on the stove with a bit of olive oil and then add whatever herbs/bacon/veggies you happen to be using. This particular morning it was scraps of smoked bacon, chopped tomato, half a red onion and a couple of healthy pinches of fresh thyme. Fry that all up until it’s starting to soften and combine – literally only about three or four minutes or so. Then get it out the pan and set aside.

At this point, pre-heat your oven to about 200 degrees celsius.

Wipe the pan clean with a paper towel and return to the stove. Add a good lug of olive oil (about 2 table-spoons or so), then add your whisked eggs. What you’ll see is that all the olive oil actually rises to sit on top of the eggs – and it actually looks a bit gross.  But this is the key, because when it’s baking that olive oil will help crisp and brown the top of your frittata.

As soon as the eggs have started to stiffen slightly, add your veggie mix evenly over the top, and if you’ve got some leftover herbage, sprinkle that over the top as well with a pinch of salt and pepper.

Right, now whack the whole thing in the oven, pan and all, and let it bake for about 5-7 minutes, or until it looks nicely golden brown on the top.

Make sure you’ve got oven gloves for when you remove the pan, grate some cheese over the top and serve it in the pan at the table with crusty bread, lots of coffee and self-indulgent conversation about yourself.

The best-laid plans of Mice and Me. (No, this is not a recipe for mouse)

These little lamb cutlets remind me of synchronised swimmers with their legs in the air.

So, I was completely taken by surprise by the long weekend we’ve just had.

This isn’t really something one should be taken by surprise by, it’s slightly more normal to be surprised by guys with knives and rubber masks, potholes, unfortunately-timed burping, or caterpillars in a salad (which happened to me at boarding school, we kept him and called him Lazarus. True story).

The thing was, quite simply, that I didn’t know that there even was a long weekend – and so hadn’t done any of the things that one generally does for long weekends – like plan a trip to Warmbaths.  And then when one discovers that everyone you know is going to Warmbaths and that you’re faced with three days in an empty city, where most of everything is going to be shut and the rest will be absolutely bananas full of the few people who are not in Warmbaths, it’s suddenly a bit depressing. Which is not the point of public holidays or long weekends.

So, in preparation for this longer-than-usual weekend, I started a list of things that could potentially fill up my time, which started to look something like this:

  1. Wake up with cat on face.
  2. Remove cat.
  3. Have a bath.
  4. Go to shops. Realise they’re mostly closed and/or full of people who look like they’ve been feasting on the warm remains of their own young.
  5. Come home.
  6. Eat toast with marmite.
  7. Go back to shops to buy loo-paper.
  8. Try rent a DVD, but discover that the only thing that hasn’t been taken out is Land Before Time XI: The Invasion of the Tinysauruses (this is real, look it up).
  9. Go home without DVD.
  10. Have another bath.
  11. Realise it’s only 10am.
  12. Shoot myself.

Which, I think everyone can agree, is a crappy plan.

I clearly needed a bold strategy to take this weekend and show it who’s boss. Which is how I came up with this alternative:

  1. Go to pub.
  2. Drink and watch sport for 48 hours.
  3. Spend Monday crying from hangover.

This felt way better. It was direct, it was simple and drew heavily on my perceived healing power of beer.

In reality, the idea of reverting to a mental, self-centered, alcohol-fueled idiotface, similar to when I was an incredibly strange-looking BA student at Rhodes, was appealing. The last couple of years spent trying to do a vague impression of a grown-up had meant neglecting the casual reprobate in me, and so it was nice to feel like a special weekend had been set aside for me to act like a giant moron in.

Which is how I learned the following (yes, another list):

  1. Drinking for two days is a lot harder than it looks. Seriously. It’s harder than re-packing electronic equipment into the box that it came in, with all the special polystyrene holders that are meant to make it easy and convenient but somehow make everything take up seven times more space.
  2. Bar-stools are really tough on one’s ass after a while.
  3. Reading The Economist in bars attracts the wrong kind of attention.
  4. It’s difficult to feel positive about life when all your teams are rubbish and lose.

Because of this, Monday wasn’t the recovery day full of weak-but-satisfied groaning that I thought it’d be, but … just another day really. Which meant, obviously that it was time to pop in Land Before Time XI: The Invasion of the Tinysauruses, fire up the oven and spend a bit of quality time with my kitchen and a bottle of something or other.

Just a quick aside, I’m planning on changing the look of this page, it’s waaaaay overdue for an update. So, if anyone has suggestions for a couple of simple, clean layouts that could work, please let me know!

Purple Basil Pesto crusted rack of lamb with cheesy, wet polenta

I’d popped by one of the organic markets that cling to their existence in the suburbs of Johannesburg, and found that one of the stalls had a supply of purple basil – which you don’t see everyday, that meant of course that I had to buy it.  Purple basil is not all that different from regular basil, perhaps just slightly more peppery in its flavour. The major difference is that it’s purple, which is great for looking superior in front of your friends.

This is a recipe that relies very simply on the quite strong, not-to-everyone’s-taste flavours of lamb and polenta. I didn’t want to oversauce it or drown it in mint or rosemary as is usually the case with lamb recipes – I wanted a more subtle accompaniment to the meat  that would lend it a fresh, herby quality without overstaying the welcome. As such, this isn’t probably going to be to a lot of people’s taste – lamb is tricky that way – but I will say that this did produce some of the most delicious tomatoes I’ve had in a while.

Ingredients (for 4)

1 tspn minced chili (whatever your favourite happens to be)

2 cloves of garlic

2 big handfuls of purple basil

1 handful of pecan nuts

olive oil

salt

pepper

1 rack of lamb, trimmed

2 large handfuls of rosa tomatoes

2 cups of water

3 quarters of a cup of polenta

a big handful of grated pecorino cheese

What to do

In a pestle and mortar or a blender, add the basil, chili, garlic, nuts, and a healthy pinch of salt and pepper and start to bash/blend the crap out of it.  As you go – keep adding olive oil so that it retains a loose/wet quality – you want this to be fine and slightly runny, rather than thick and pasty. Keep bashing/blending until everything has been completely reduced to a fine herb-porridge, adding olive oil as you go. This should also make more than you need, and just pop whatever you don’t use in a jar and put in the fridge. It’ll keep nicely for about a week.

Rub the rack of lamb with a bit of olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Get a compact, high-sided roasting tray, and place the rack of lamb in it, skin/fatty-side down, then put the tray directly onto your stove-top on one of the large plates, and turn it to a medium heat. Let the lamb sizzle gently away for about 4 or 5 minutes letting some of the fat melt into the dish and the skin begin browning. Then turn it over and let it brown on the other side.

Pre-heat the oven to 220 degrees celsius. Remove the lamb from the tray onto a cutting-board, and then with a sharp knife, slice down in-between each rib about three quarters of the way. Then just start packing the pesto into those cuts and rubbing it over the rest of the  lamb as well. Another sprinkle of salt and pepper, back into the roasting tray and you’re good to go. Before you slap it back in the oven, scatter the tomatoes around the lamb (you can slice them in half if you prefer – I find they soak up more flavour that way…) and cover with a tiny dash of olive oil.  All that’s left is to let it all roast up in the oven, for about 30 minutes or so if you want it medium-done and pinkish, about 40 minutes if you’d prefer it well-done.

Pour the two cups of water into a small pot that has a tight-fitting lid, add a sprinkle of salt and bring it to a rolling boil. Now – this is the tricky bit. In one hand have a hand-whisk ready, and in the other – your polenta. Start whisking away at the water, and as you’re doing so, add the polenta in a steady stream. DON’T STOP WHISKING, that’s how you get lumps. The second it looks like it’s starting to thicken, whip the pot off the heat and add the cheese, whisking all the while. Once it’s thickened to the consistency of dense cream, get the lid on and let it steam for about 5 minutes.

Once the lamb is done, get it out the tray and onto a chopping board and let it rest for about five minutes. There should be a lovely little bit of lamb fat in the tray – so shake up the tomatoes in it, and put it back in the oven for another 7 minutes or so. All that’s left is to slice between the ribs completely, separating them into individual portions, spoon the polenta onto a plate, and scatter them with the tomatoes that have roasted in the lamb-fat.

Happy long-weekend.

A helping hand. With cannelloni in it.

A sugar-bowl was lost in the creation of this picture. Seriously - I had to balance the camera on it, with unintended and disastrous consequences.

A dear friend of mine has recently been having a somewhat rough time of it. One of those lows that life seems to throw in our path every now and again with a raised eyebrow and a look that says: “Yeah? Huh huh? What you gonna do about it?”

It’s at these points where we generally have two choices: either cry and go home,  or… roundhouse life in the groin Tony Jaa-style, wipe your hands theatrically on your pants and walk on whistling a happy tune, and if things could explode in slow-motion while you’re doing this, so much the better.

I’m happy to say that my friend is doing the second one.

But still… that doesn’t mean that every now and again we don’t all need someone to take the world’s decision-making off our hands, sit us down in a corner, stick a monster glass of wine in our hands and then feed us a lot of something. Preferably with cheese in it. And also preferably stopping to say “The Bastards!”, and “How could they?” at all the right moments.  Jewish moms have known the secret of this for centuries, which is what probably keeps the psychological community comfortably in BMWs and nice houses in Blairgowrie – mostly because of what this does to their daughter-in-laws.

Maybe it’s because I don’t generally have a lot else to offer in these situations (I can’t for instance send people on a Caribbean cruise to take their minds of the woes of the world, and I’ve never been to a strip club so that’s not really within my range either), but I’ve always been a monstrous believer in the power of food as a way to escape from one’s pain and turmoil, even if it is for just a short while. I’ve written about this before this year, so don’t really want to harp on about it all over again – other than to say that this sort of thing probably makes me even happier than the people I’m cooking for, so actually the joke’s totally on them. Nyah nyah.

Also – I know this is two pastas in a row on the blog should finally shatter any illusions any of you might have that this is a well-thought-out and considered exercise, executed with precision and forethought, other than the improvised shambles that it really is.

Three Cheese Cannelloni (for 4)

Yes. That is a lot of cheese.

Okay – this recipe was a somewhat cavalier affair, and as such the measurements are completely vague and mostly based on quantities provided by the punnets and packets of  things I had lying around in the fridge. It’s also incredibly rich.  I know it.  So feel free to adapt a less-fat-oriented version of this, or alternatively just shake your head and quietly judge me for chronic dietary irresponsibility. I don’t care. I ran 4kms this morning and I feel fine.

Also there is bacon in this recipe – but it can very easily be left out to make a vegetarian option. It’s mostly just there because I felt that three types of cheese and half a bottle of red wine hadn’t quite made this excessive enough, and it just needed something to push it over the edge.

Ingredients

1 standard pack of cannelloni tubes

Cannelloni stuffing

1 red onion

1 punnet of portebellini mushrooms

4 leeks

1 wedge of blue cheese

6 or 7 rashers of bacon (optional)

A handful of fresh thyme, leaves stripped – stalks discarded

1 tub of mascarpone cheese

Tomato and red wine sauce

2 stalks of celery

1 handful of baby carrots

1 brown onion

2 tomatoes

tomato passata, or tin of tomato paste

200 mls of red wine

3 cloves

1 chopped chili (optional)

2 cloves of garlic – finely chopped

dried oreganum

2 tbpns butter

Bechamel

three quarters of a cup of flour

200 grams of butter

3 cups of warm milk

2 anchovy fillets

salt

pepper

Wild rocket

Well matured cheddar cheese.

What do do

This is a fairly PT-intensive exercise – so having people around while you’re doing it is always a plus – because you can get them to do all the finnicky annoying bits, like stripping thyme leaves or stuffing cannelloni tubes.

Start off by stripping the leaves off your handful of thyme stalks. Then slice up your red onion. Get a flattish tray, cover it with a sheet of tinfoil, the clump the mushrooms and onions together, sprinkle over your thyme, a bit of salt and pepper and drizzle with a bit of olive oil. Then lay out the rashers of bacon around the outside – like a border if you will. Get the oven onto about 200 degrees celsius, and pop in the tray until the bacon is crisped up on both sides – which should take about 20 minutes or so. At which point the mushrooms and onions should also be nicely softened up. If they aren’t – just remove the bacon and leave the veggies in there for another couple of minutes until nicely roasted and fragrant.

While that’s all going on, it’s time to turn to the wine sauce.  Finely, finely chop up the celery, brown onion, carrot, garlic, chili and the two tomatoes (those you can keep a bit chunkier). In a medium-sized pot, heat a tablespoon of olive oil and then lob everything in there. Let it all sizzle and soften up for about ten minutes or so, stirring so that nothing catches, and when it’s getting really nice and fragrant, add a big pinch of the dried oreganum. Keep stirring (maybe adjusting the heat lower if it’s getting too excited), and add a good squeeze of tomato passata (about two heaped tablespoons should do it).  Stir it in, and once everything has been coated in the tomato paste, add the whole cloves and the wine. Right, now that you’ve got everything in there – you need to get the heat to a point where everything is simmering gently and then leave it until the wine has reduced by about half and starting to take on a slightly more silky quality – maybe about half an hour or so, depending on your pot and stove-top. And be sure to give it a bit of stirring love every now and again and checking its progress.

Now, take your roasted onions, mushrooms and crispy bacon and chop it up so that it’s all nicely mixed together. Then it’s time to haul out those leeks and slice them thinly as well, keeping them close at hand.  Heat up a pan (you shouldn’t need to add any oil), and throw in the mushrooms, bacon and the fresh leeks and get it all stirred about – making sure to keep the heat low enough that its not going mad in that pan – you should be happy with a gentle sizzling. Crumble in the blue cheese bit by bit so that it’s melted in and coating everything nicely. Once it’s all melted in, then stir in the mascarpone so that it all gets creamy and thick. Have a good taste to see if the creamy/blue cheesy balance is right – and then season to taste.

This is where you’ll need helping hands: delicately start spooning your creamy/mushroomy/bacony/blue cheesey mix into the cannelloni tubes and lay them neatly together into a baking tray that’s been rubbed with just a bit of olive oil.  You should have enough mix to finish all the tubes, but it’s not a train-smash if you’re a bit over or under – just keep going until you’ve used up all the stuffing.

By this point, the red wine sauce should be approaching a lovely silky thickness. If it isn’t – just hard boil it for a minute or two until it’s reduced further. Once it’s feeling nice and saucy – haul it off the heat, and either using a stick-blender or a conventional blender, pulse it a couple of times just to get the ingredients a bit smoother.  Put it back on the heat, add the butter, stir it in then set aside.

Now – you’ll need two more fresh pots, one in which to warm up your milk, and another to melt the butter – both for the bechamel. Once the butter is melted, add the flour stirring it up quickly. As the butter has absorbed all the flour, add the warm milk – and with a whisk, start beating at it vigorously until it’s nice and smooth. Add the two anchovy fillets and carry on whisking so that they break up and are integrated into the bechamel. This is the secret to this sauce – as you’re not really going to taste the anchovy as such – but it’ll just give a lovely rich salty quality that just can’t be beaten. Once it’s nice and smooth – you’re ready to rock.

Spoon the red wine/tomato sauce over the cannelloni tubes so that everything’s covered evenly, and then delicately add the bechamel over that. Then finely grate your mature cheddar evenly over the lot and pop it in the oven, set to 180 degrees celsius for about 40 minutes, after which the cheese/bechamel topping should be nicely browned and bubbling pleasantly.

Take it out the oven, sprinkle with the wild rocket leaves – plunk that hot tray on the table and let people just help themselves.

Phew. I need a glass of wine after writing all that out.

Yup. Still a lot of cheese. Except this time more of it is on my face.

Rescued by a Big Fat Sausage. In the face.

This is what my hangovers look like. Yes I'm aware there's wine in this picture.

Being accused of hyperbole is nothing new to me.  In fact it happens almost on a daily basis.  I don’t mind this really, because in a way I choose (in a sort of ‘glass half-full’ thing) to take it as an indication that at least I’m still getting excited about things that are happening around me.

Which is a useful knack when two separate sets of pilots choose to miss the runway with planes that I happen to be in at the time. ‘Tail-wind,’ my ass.

So, this hyperbole thing is probably how, on a particular weekend evening, I found myself having an almost United Nations level of intense debate over who manufactures the toilet paper with the puppies printed on it.  This was of course fueled by jagermeister and beer and was ridiculous on many levels, but seemed super important at the time.  I am adamant that it’s Kleenex, my opponent says it’s Twinsaver.  However, after our various standpoints had been exhausted (there is after all, only so long you can say “But it’s Kleenex!”), the only option was to drunkenly google the answer. It which point it turned that we were both wrong and that it’s neither, but the company that does actually manufacture the puppy toilet paper (which is in itself an incredibly odd thing – because if you think about it – wiping your bum with a small dog is really not fun…) it also owns Kleenex, so I felt vaguely vindicated and drank my weight in tequila in celebration.

This brings us to sausage pasta.

Because if there’s anything a human being needs in the wreckage and aftermath of a night where the highlight of the evening was alcoholic Agave Juice and a debate about toilet paper, then it’s a large plate of something to soak up all the idiocy from the night before.

And so, in attempt to rescue my poor savaged self the next day – this is what I turned to. And thank god, because it really ended up being the best thing since the invention of Stockings As Pants on girls.

See? Hyperbole. It’s not so bad.

 

Italian Sausage and Macadamia Nut Pasta

If this picture could sing, it'd sound like all three tenors and their moms.

Ingredients (for 2)

 

2 large Italian-style sausages (spend a bit of time sourcing the best you can get your hands on – it really will make or break this)

1 red onion

1 chili (medium strength)

1 large clove of garlic

1 tbspn dried oreganum

1 tbspn of olive oil

1 healthy splash of sherry

200ml cream

a handful of crushed (unsalted) macadamia nuts

parsley (finely chopped)

Parmesan cheese (finely grated)

salt

pepper

 

What to do.

First things first – remove the sausage meat from the casings. It’s a bit of a finicky job; you have to cut open one end of the sausage and then gently squeeze all the meat out, but once you get going it’s generally okay. Rubbing your hands with a little olive oil before starting also helps.

Then, finely chop the red onion, garlic and the chili (de-seeded if you don’t want the extra heat).  Heat the olive oil in a large pan, then add the onion, chili, sausage meat, garlic and dried oreganum. It should all be sizzling nicely, so make sure that you keep stirring and moving it all about so that nothing catches and burns.

As the sausage and onion is starting to take on a crispier, more golden look (about 7 – 10 minutes should do it…), add the sherry and keep stirring. It’ll bubble like mad for a bit and then the alcohol will mostly burn off, but everything should now have a rich, sweetish glaze to it.

At this point, turn the heat down a bit (to a simmering temperature) add the nuts and the cream – and after it’s all gotten to know each other, taste and season with salt and pepper.

Serve with a pasta of your choice with a good dose of the fresh chopped parsley and grated parmesan.

Everything is going to be okay.