If it’s red and wet, I’ll drink it.

There are very few questions that have simple answers.  For example: “Would you like a handjob in the parking lot?” seems fairly straightforward, but poke at this proposition a bit more and suddenly it’s 2am and in you’re in the back of your car with a surprisingly convincing transvestite with removable front teeth.

However, without nearly as many pitfalls as that is “Would you like free wine and steak?”

Easy. Yes please. With knobs on.

This was what was put to me about two weeks ago, when Winestyle Magazine (a seriously well-put-together glossy that’s free, but subscription-only: learn more here) assembled  a loose collection of excellent wine, food and general good-living writers to blind-taste six red blends, eat some sirloin courtesy of HQ restaurant in Sandton, and generally burst at the seams with things that only the French can describe, but usually only with long and difficult-to-say phrases.

And then there was me.

You see, normally at things like this (where usually I’ve been invited by clerical error), I can get by with nodding my head at what seems like the appropriate time, and by just repeating the last word of whatever anyone else says.  In my head it makes it look like I had the thought at almost the exact same time as whoever’s speaking but just couldn’t get it out fast enough because I was too busy not spitting out some Shiraz.

Person Who Knows What They’re Talking About: “Oh, yes – it got a lovely gravelly quality,”

Me: “Gravelly”

Other Person Who Knows What They’re Talking About: “I really think this is great value.”

Me: “Great value.”

Third Person Who Knows What They’re Talking About: “Can you taste the pears? I’m getting such strong pears from this.”

Me: “Mm, pears”

Original Person Who Knows What They’re Talking About: “If I had a choice between licking Colin Firth and drinking this – I’d probably choose this.”

Me: “Colin Firth, I was totally going to say that.”

It’s an approach that’s held me in good stead so far – but it probably wasn’t going to work around people who actually do this for a living, so I decided to just drink a lot and hope that everyone just mistook this for boyish enthusiasm.

I did draw this picture of a tree on the tablepaper (I miss the days of getting crayons and colouring-book at restaurants) after my first bottle-or-so, which kept people from asking too many questions (“I’d like to express my appreciation of this wine through an Interpretive Doodle. Thank you, thank you very much”).

From this picture you can deduce that I really know very little about trees.

What was amazing however – and I guess this is what the clever Jenny and Andy who organised the whole thing intended all along – is that I learned that things I like, I actually do like.  Now, that makes almost no sense, but bear with me for a second. A lot of the time, especially when it comes to wine, I wonder if I like something just because other people who are scary and say Complicated Wine Things like it, or maybe because I know it’s supposed to be good and that if I don’t like it I’m a cretin – and ultimately not just because, if I clear my mind and concentrate on what’s going on in my mouth, that I actually like it.

The 'Kleinboet' and 'Posmeester'. Great names.

Now I stuck my mini-flag of approval (there’s a walrus emblem on it and everything) on Hermanuspietersfontein’s range of reds long ago. They’re smoky, big wines and they feel like they’re trying to pick a fight with me – which I think is an excellent quality in something that’s going to get me drunk.  But it’s one thing to say – “oh yes I like that one” (when really you just like the label, or that it’s cheap or whatever), and quite another to have it definitively proven.  Which is what happened when, blind, I picked the two Hermanuspieterfontein blends that were part of the tasting as being my favourite (I was alone in this by the way – but that was fine, because it meant getting a bottle to myself to wash down my steak, airfist).  It was gratifying that, yes, my palate genuinely recgonised those flavours, and it’s not just because I was trying to look good in front of a girl or something.

So, thank you Winestyle and thank you Real Time Wine for your clerical error.

Right, what with the weather being cold enough to freeze a man’s testicles to the inside of his own leg, I started thinking about breakfasts that could only really be eaten in this kind of cold.  You know, warm and hearty and all those other things that people start to say when they’re freezing and miserable and just want an excuse to eat meat in the morning.

Meatballs with charred red pepper sauce, rye toast and poached egg 

It's very tempting to write something here that rhymes 'yummy', with 'runny'...but I'll act with restraint.

Oh, a quick internet tip-of-the-hat to the prolific www.sciencesightseeingandsustenance.wordpress.com, where, while doing a spot of internet-spying the other day, I came across a whole bunch of pictures of poached eggs and reminded of a) how fucking long it’d been since I’d actually made some of those, and b) how bloody delicious they are.

Ingredients (for 4)

1 fat garlic clove

1 small dry chilli, seeds removed, finely chopped

1 tsp smoked paprika

half a red onion, roughly chopped

3 red peppers

1 400g tin of whole peeled tomatoes

3 of your favourite type of sausages, meat removed, casings discarded

olive oil

salt and pepper

4 eggs

white wine vinegar

a couple of slices of rye bread

What to do

Firstly – turn the largest plate on your stove top up to full and put the three peppers directly onto them (if you have gas – do the same, you’ll just have to use tongs to hold the peppers into the flame). After about 2-3 minutes the side of the pepper in direct contact with the plate with start to blacken and char – this is a good thing. Keep turning the peppers so that they’re like this on all sides, then get them off the heat, pop them in a plastic bag, tie it shut and let the peppers sweat for about 10 minutes.

Now, rub your hands with some olive or vegetable oil (it’ll help stop the sausage meat from sticking to your hands) and break of small chunks of sausage and roll them into large marble-sized balls, setting them aside on a clean plate as you go. Once you’ve used up all the sausage meat, heat some vegetable oil in a pan and gently fry all your meatballs until they’re crispy and golden on all sides.

Take the peppers out the plastic bag, trim off the bottoms and remove the seeds and core and cut them into slices.

In a pot, heat some olive oil and then add the chilli, chopped onion, paprika and garlic. Gently fry this all together for about 4 minutes until fragrant and sweated. Then add the peppers and get this all mixed and getting to know wach other for another 5 minutes or so.  It should start to really great and peppery round about now. Finally add in the tinned tomatoes breaking them up with a wooden spoon, season to taste with salt and pepper – turn the heat down and let this simmer for about 20 minutes.

Once it’s darkened and thickened, either pop the sauce in a blender or use a hand blender to reduce it to a smooth-ish sauce (I don’t like to blend it too fine – it’s nice to have some chunky-ish bits), then add the meatballs and let this gently simmer away for another 15 minutes.

Pop some rye bread in the toaster, and once it’s done, spoon onto it some meatballs and sauce.

Heat a pot of water, add a pinch of salt and a teaspoon of white wine vinegar and bring it to the boil.  As it’s beginning to boil, use a whisk to froth up the water and then gently crack in an egg.  Don’t be alarmed when it looks like it’s just turning into a mess – magic is going to happen in that pot – and it’ll all pull together to make a lovely fluffy poached egg.

After about two and half minutes (for soft, three for a slightly more solid yolk), lift out your poached egg with a slotted spoon and place onto your saucy meatballs.

Yes please.

Get the coffee and someone warm – and tuck in. To the breakfast, not the someone warm. Although you can totally do that too.

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Don’t make the fat guy angry – he will come for your children with a fork.

Why weren't the pyramids made of these? Waaay better than boring old sandstone.

Being an only child means being a completely irrational dork-head about certain things, and then merely garden-variety irrational about the rest of it.  Maybe it’s because I didn’t have to fight off an older brother who constantly wanted to sit on my face and fart the theme-tune from Knight Rider, or an older sister who would have preferred if I’d leapt out of the womb and straight into a lake of fire – but there are certain things I don’t do well in life.

Sharing is definitely one of them.

This also could have absolutely nothing to do with childhood sibling issues and more just because I’m greedy and antisocial and just everyone watch it otherwise you might just get a Fart-Rider.

Sharing is a problem for me, and particularly with food.  And then if you factor in nine years of boarding school where I generally had to eat in under ten minutes otherwise I’d be late for orchestra practice (you can start the laughing and pointing now), then you’ve got like…the funnest dinner-party guest ever.   I guess the bottom line for me is that there seems to be a simple logic to all of this: I have what I want in front of me, and you should have what you want in front of you, so why can’t everyone just keep their eyes forward and their forks on their own plates?  I do understand that it’s a completely ‘Pre-World War II Isolationist Policy in America Every Man Is An Island’ way of thinking about it – but once you’ve stabbed a couple of people in the hand with a restaurant steak knife (which are generally blunter than a side-on bus), they get the idea.

Of course there is a massive and fatal flaw to this system – simply, that this attitude only works when everyone else wants what I have, and not the other way around.  Because lets face it, the Bad Menu Choice happens to everyone and that’s generally when an “I don’t share” policy can really bite you in the ass.  Because let me tell you, it’s absolutely no fun getting a plate of what looks like cold bat-poo, while all around you people are tucking into delicious oxtail, seafood risotto, and spicy marinated strips of fried haloumi with crusty bread.

Which of course, is exactly what happened to me the other night during a dinner at Lucky Bean in Melville (16 7th street – 011 482 5572), when a perfect storm of bad ordering ended up with me having a suuuuper boring chicken thing in dough, very average bread and butter pudding (at which point a lot of people would say “duh! It’s bread and butter pudding – what did you expect it to do, sing Simply Red covers?), which had all been preceded by what had been described as an ‘aubergine and mozzarella stack’ that ended up being slices of raw tomato alternated with cold aubergine.  It made me sad, but no-one noticed because they were too preoccupied with all the lovely things they were cramming into their faces, so I got drunk and started to sing the theme-tune from Pumpkin Patch in my head.  Now I’m not a restaurant nazi – but what was in my head was a delicious, roasted, gooey, cheesy, melty tower of mini melanzane-esque comfort, not something you could have used for a semi-challenging game of Jenga.

So, the other thing about being an only child is that we’re stubborn – and once we get stuck on something we don’t let it go.  And predictably, the aubergine disappointment ended up dominating my whole weekend – making me almost exactly zero fun to be around.  Of course (being me) it got to the point where the only solution was to feverishly make what had been in my mind the whole time.  Because at the end of the day – it’s one of those things that’s really simple to make -utterly delicious and comforting without being heavy, which most other winter foods tend to be.

Which is how – 48 hours after I’d ordered it, I got to eat what I’d wanted all along.

Mini Melanzane 

Mister Herbman, sprinkle me a dream tonight. Okay, that's lame...

Ingredients (as a starter, for 3)

2 aubergines

1 fat garlic clove, finely chopped

1 400g tin of whole peeled tomatoes

1 handful of equal parts fresh chopped basil, oreganum and parsley

1 tbsp red wine vinegar

1 tsp of sugar

2 tbsp olive oil

vegetable oil

half a cup of flour

fresh mozzarella, torn into small chunks

salt and pepper

What to do

Cut the two aubergines into thin slices, then layer them into a colander sprinkling with salt as you go and leave them to one side for about 20 minutes.  You’ll notice a fair amount of brownish juice immediately being drawn out, which is why you’re doing it – it’s bitter and best on your sink, rather than in your melanzane.

Heat the olive oil in a pan, add the garlic, and just as it starts to turn golden add the tinned tomatoes. Break them up with a wooden spoon while stirring, add the herbs and vinegar, then turn the heat down and let it simmer until thick, darker and saucy – usually about 20 minutes or so.  Just before taking it off the heat, add the sugar and vinegar – stir it in and then season with salt and pepper.  Scoop the tomato sauce into a bowl ready to be used, wipe down the pan with paper towel.

Run the aubergine slices under some cold water to rinse them and then pat them dry with paper towel.  Empty the flour onto a plate and then give each slice of aubergine a subtle coating of the flour.  Heat a good splash of vegetable oil in your pan and then fry all the aubergine slices on both sides until pale golden in colour, draining any excess oil by placing the fried slices onto more paper towel once they’ve done cooking.

At this point, heat your oven to about 200 degrees celsius, and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.  You’re going to need either little ceramic ramekins (similar to what I used here for souffles), or steel chef’s rings at this point.  In the ramekin or steel ring, push in a layer of aubergine slices  (I usually use three per layer), then spoon in some of the tomato sauce, then some chunks of mozzarella and keep on going in that way until you’ve used up all the ingredients. I’d save some pieces of the cheese for the top, just so you can get that nice melted, crusty finish.

Pop that onto the tray and into the in the oven for about 20/30 minutes and then serve hot with toasted bread.