Doing It In Front Of People

Salad, meet fish. Fish, try not to make fun of his accent.

We all have problems of some kind.  You know, from “Don’t tell anyone but I have a third nipple” to wearing pants that would fit better on a twelve year-old (hipster men, seriously – stop shopping in the little girl’s section for your jeans, I know you’re all skinny and stuff but it makes you look like you’re being dressed by someone who’s playing a practical joke on you).

I reckon (like a lot of people) that one of the most frustrating things is that I’m better at stuff when no one’s looking.  I know for a fact that I’m awesome at pool, training cats and disco-inspired 80s dance moves – just not whenever anyone happens to be around to see me do it.  This is also how I once lost a lot of money in Bloemfontein – but that’s a different story, the climax of which involves me drinking something that was on fire through a straw and then proclaiming I was going to Mauritius to have a shit.

It’s annoying, but it’s something that amateur sportsmen, wannabe game show contestants, shower-singers and of course – home cooks discover every single day.  And, not to put too fine a point on it, it sucks.  There’s definitely some magic ass-pixie that delights in making us fumble the thing we’ve done perfectly a million times the second hungry people arrive with an expectation.

The major difference between those of us who try and those who do it for a living under the harsh glare of the public/television/paying customer gaze, is that they can do it to that incredible standard no matter the circumstances, almost every single time – and then even they sometimes have off days.  Just ask that poor bastard Ard Matthews (a quick aside – a. Dude, why oh why did you put a D at the end of your name? – you are not a rapper or a character on Ben10, b. you definitely need to rethink your taste in hats c. consider this as some sort of cosmic retribution for that I Love You Madly song…).   Shame, that guy really will now have “Fucked Up The National Anthem On Live TV” behind his name for a long time – but that’s the risk you take.  Which is also why the people who do it well are usually paid a lot of money and given lucrative deals to endorse rubber wristbands and shampoo.  At the end of the day what ultimately separates us from them is that no one really believes us when we plaintively moan that it was so much better the other day and if only everyone had been around that time.  And it hurts, because a lot of the time that’s actually the truth.

This is of course what practice is for.

Cooking in front of and for people is something I’ve spent a lot of time doing over the years – with varying degrees of success.  Sometimes it’s been a disaster (having to scramble to make up a main course for 20 people after 4kgs of Ostrich was found out to be unpleasantly off is not something I’d like to do ever again), and sometimes it’s been bloody brilliant, and people haven’t gone on a London-style riot while demanding I compensate them for the loss of their sense of smell.

The key of course is simple:

  • Always make sure that there is wine, and lots of it.
  • Never let people see you bleed or burn
  • Don’t have a small kitchen.  They may have been practical in the 70s when people lived off whatever you could spear on the end of a cocktail stick, but these days it’s a pain in the ass and most likely going to fuck it  up.
  • Don’t fuck it up.

Useful hey?

This last week I think has been firmly in the place of the ‘bloody brilliant’ column – two very different dinners, two very different groups of people – but both wonderful.  So, thanks to everyone who came out to eat.

Ooh, "Behind the Scenes" style!


Trout with Prosciutto, Tabasco and Lemon (for 4)

 

I’ve just bought Rick Stein’s new book Spain – and so far it’s been brilliant.  This is a recipe I’ve adapted from those pages – and if I were to be completely honest, I didn’t do that much to it other than swap out the Serrano Ham for prosciutto (mostly because it’s easier to find), dialed up the lemon and then added Tabasco for what I felt was a bit of a needed kick in the pants.

Ingredients

4 fresh whole trout (cleaned and gutted)

a handful of flour

8 slices of prosciutto

2 lemons

a handful of parsley (finely chopped)

a large chunk of butter

2 large cloves of garlic (finely chopped)

tabasco

salt

pepper

What to do

Carefully fry the whole slices of Prosciutto in a hot, lightly oiled pan and then remove them to drain on some paper towel.  Keep four of the slices of prosciutto and finely chop the rest and set aside.

Insert a slice of crispy prosciutto into the belly cavity of each of the fish, squeeze in 1 lemon’s worth of juice between the four trout (keep the used-up lemon), and season with a sprinkle of salt, pepper and a couple of drops of Tabasco each.

At this point, pre-heat the oven to 200ºC.

Dust the fish on both sides with flour and then carefully lay them in a hot, oiled pan to fry for about 5 minutes on each side until they’ve started to brown and crisp up.  Then take the pan off the heat, remove the fish and put them into a baking tray covered with tinfoil.  Cut up your used lemon into wedges, arrange around the trout and pop it in the oven for 15 minutes or so.  Then, in the pan that was used to fry the fish, melt the butter, add the garlic, chopped prosciutto, squeeze in the remaining lemon’s juice, add the chopped parsley and half a teaspoon of Tabasco sauce.  Stir over a low heat until all combined, softened and silky.

Remove the fish from the oven, spoon over the sauce and get it to the table.

I served this with a very simple combination of ciabatta bread rubbed with olive oil, toasted and then combined with the wild rocket I had left over from the bacon sandwiches from the last post and chopped olives.

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Any Given Sunday

I don’t want to get too thinky thinky at the moment – because really this is just an excuse to put up a picture of a ball-strokingly good bacon sandwich I ate yesterday (you must must use the smoked bacon sold by the gentleman Roy Gibbs from the Heartwood Smokehouse stand – currently at the Jozi Food Market at the Pirates Club on Saturday mornings, it’s the only way).

The Great Bacon Sandwich Index: A. how much of it was smeared all over my face after I was finished, and B. how much my house still continued to smell like bacon when I got back from gym the next morning? The answer to both questions, lots. High Score.

Sunday is generally a fairly divisive day – you’re either swimming in a smug haze of sexed-up laziness and then all that other stuff: newspapers, coffee, eggs, walks with dogs/cats/other–people-who-own-or-have-stolen-dogs/cats, lunch that features more drinking than actual lunch, rambling conversations about blue and how totally great it is, gin-soaked sunsets framed by paper umbrellas and completely impractical garnishes made of pineapple, and then maybe a movie and some more of that laziness thing.  Or you take a lot of baths and wonder how the hell your navel fluff is always purple before watching that episode of Friends where Chandler is shut in a box.  Again.

Yep, a pretty all-or-nothing day.

And oddly, it sometimes takes a particular kind of energy and lets face it – practice, to make sure that more of the first types of Sunday happen than the second kind, because a couple of those in a row and the next thing you’re starting to think that Engelbert Humperdink is an excellent name for the Korean child you’d suddenly like to adopt.

What’s funny, is that right now in Johannesburg this dear city of ours, there’s a sense that just about everyone and everything is holding a breath.  The air is slowly getting that delicious thickness that heralds a highveld summer, cleavage is slowly blinking its way into the daylight and remembering how fun it was to be outside, and the people (okay, me) who bought jerseys at the Winter Sales are starting to feel really stupid.  And yet – we’re all juuust holding back during these final weeks of August, perhaps keeping everything in check before September happens and we all allow ourselves to finally go utterly insane.  But the anticipation is there, and yesterday I felt it good and proper. Like one of those long jokes where unexpectedly the punchline is really funny and makes you laugh from right down in your wobbly bits.

So, I guess it’s okay to lie just that little bit low for a week or two more, eat a couple more bacon sandwiches, build up some strength, and maybe learn how to say “do you like tickle tickle?” in Finnish.

Sniff me. I’m in a magazine.

Um, so yes.  This happened a little while ago.  I don’t really have a lot to say about it other than I don’t know how I managed to look quite so rumpled in a freshly ironed shirt.  Ridiculous amounts of thanks to House & Leisure for putting me in their mag in the first place, and also for working so hard to make me look vaguely human.

Being in a magazine is fairly strange. I hope I don’t have to get implants now or anything.

 

 

 

Playing Chicken

The hard work of re-stacking ones cookbooks should always be rewarded with pie and wine.

Chicken is really hard to write about.

I’ve totally stolen this line (thanks Merlin), but if chickens or ex-girlfriends run the afterlife, I’m in serious trouble.  For one thing, they’re ugly (chickens, not ex-girlfriends), which makes them sort of funny.  But it’s an obvious thing – like saying someone falling down a flight of stairs into a giant cheesecake is funny.  Okay yeah, but…um – whatever.

It’s perhaps also a slightly redundant thing to say, considering the ultimate goal is to eat the fucking thing – but the chicken is a long descendent of dinosaurs, and so whenever you happen to be staring one in the face it’s very difficult to escape the sense that there’s some left-over resentment in there somewhere.  Every time a chicken scuttles by I swear they’re still bitterly stewing that their once-great forefathers had the crap evolved out of them by a giant rat, and that the descendants of that giant rat are now eating them with sweet chili sauce.

But the stuff that makes chicken so hard to write about – is exactly what makes it probably one of the most enduring and versatile of ingredients – in that it has no inherent excitement in itself and so carries the flavours that surround it incredibly well.  The chicken in a KFC burger isn’t actually there to bash down the flavour door and do the windmill – it’s there to carry the taste of the deep-fried crust and hydrogenated fat. Which is a million times more delicious than ugly flightless dinosaur bird… for about five minutes.  Then you start to hate yourself, your family and everything associated with being alive.

Ahem.

So, there are those days, when for one reason or another, there’s nothing in the house.  The cupboards are bare, but you’re hungry – so something has to be done, and the last time you called Mr Delivery the guy was late, drunk, brought you something that looked like fried cat in tinfoil parcel and then tried to stay the night on your couch.  It’s my favourite kind of cooking – where one has literally a pile of scraps and odds-and-ends that somehow has to be turned into something that one can call supper.  It becomes a weird game (and one that my mother was particularly good at in between bouts of using me as practice for her Celtic Rune Stone readings), where you’re the winner if what comes out the other end can justifiably be called ‘dinner’ – and all this without a panel of Australian men being mildly disparaging about the outcome, before going off to choose a cravat that’s a slightly different shade of purple.

Cacciatore Chicken Pie with grilled polenta cakes.

"If I was a horny teenage boy, I'd totally want to masturbate with this pie" - overheard in my living room when dinner arrived at the table

This is literally all I had in the house:

Two frozen chicken breasts, a handful of withered potatoes, a scrap of puff pastry, tomato paste, an almost finished bag of lentils, a tin of whole peeled tomatoes, the last of a bottle of olives, a handful of pumpkin seeds and an onion.  Of course a couple of extra things were lying around (chili, garlic, some vegetable stock), and so the challenge became to see if this misfit bunch of scraps could actually become something that I could feed to myself and a couple of other folks.

Time to make some pie.  Chicken to the rescue.

What to do

Cut the potatoes, chicken, olives and onion into appropriate chunks.  Boil some water in a kettle and pour it over a bowl of lentils to soften.  Get a pot of salted water on the boil then add the potatoes and simmer for about 20 minutes.  Heat some olive oil in a largish pot – add the onions, garlic and chili and let that get soft and fragrant in the heat.  Add the chicken until it’s started to brown on all sides, then chuck in the olives, stock and the tomato paste.  Stir stir stir until it’s all starting to get to know each other really nicely, then add the softened lentils and their water, the tin of whole peeled tomato.  Season with salt and pepper, pop on the lid, turn down the heat and let this simmer for about 45 minutes or so.

Roll out the puff pastry, and once the filling is thick and silky – spoon it out into a pie dish and cover with the pastry lid.  Poke it with a fork a couple of times, brush with some beaten egg, scatter with pumpkin seeds and pop it into the oven for about 30 minutes, until golden.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fun? It’s spelled ‘g-n-o-c-c-h-i’

Human beings don’t have reset buttons.

Unfortunately.

It’s a problem because every now and again you’ll wind up in a conversation with someone that feels like they’re taking a dump on your head and trying to tell you it’s a massage.  And that’s when you just want to reset the fuck out of them.

Other times, it’s me who feels like I need a good reset – mostly because for whatever reason I start to feel like a walking error message and all I can muster no matter the situation is a long rambling mumble about domesticated ferns.

But it’s okay – because this is what beaches are for.  And cheese.  And drinks with little paper umbrellas in them.  And the ‘off’ button on your phone.   Of course some people are better at this than others.  I am extraordinarily bad at it.  I’ve gotten better over the years, but still, that’s a little bit like saying that these days Vinnie Jones has slightly more range as an actor than he did when he started.

Luckily I have a job that sometimes takes me to nice places in the world where I get to occasionally take five minutes off to eat the cheese and ask for a paper umbrella in my artisanal beer.

And so, because with pictures supposedly being worth a thousand of something or other (and I owe this little corner of the internet a lot of something or others), here’s an insanely smug gallery of things that have been keeping me away for the last two weeks or so.

Butternut gnocchi with porcini and cured pork belly

 

Hi. Remember me?

What I love about this recipe is that all the liquid required to make this creamy and filled with incredible satiny textures comes from the ingredients themselves.  I never have to use oil, added liquid or extra water – which I think is fairly excellent.

Ingredients (for 4)

1 butternut

1 small pack of dried porcini mushrooms

1 250g length of cured pork belly, diced

1 handful of sliced plum tomatoes

1 handful of chopped basil

1 handful of grated pecorino cheese

2 cups of flour

half a teaspoon of baking powder

salt

pepper

 

What to do

 

Boil a kettle of water, and pour about 2 cupfuls of it over the dried porcini mushrooms in a bowl.  Set this aside to soak for about half an hour.

Peel and de-seed the butternut, then chop it up into largish chunks.  Bring a pot of salted water to the boil and add the butternut – let it simmer away until soft and tender – probably about 25 minutes or so.

Once it’s done, drain the water and mash it up with a healthy pinch of salt and pepper to taste.  Slowly add all the baking powder and then flour bit by bit – mixing it in as you go.  Stop adding flour when you have a stiffish dough that’s not too dry.  Remove from the pot onto a clean surface that’s been dusted with flour, and continue to work it with your hands.  When it’s taken on a smooth, silky texture – pull off a sausage-sized piece and (again dusted with flour) work it into a long thin sausage about 2 cm thick.  With a knife, cut it into sections about an inch long.  Keep on going until you’ve made enough gnocchi – then wrap the remaining dough – it’ll keep if stored in the fridge for a day or or two.

...and after, we'll play chess on the walls.

In a hot pan, add the diced pork belly and fry until starting to crisp up, then add the tomatoes and rehydrated porcini mushrooms.  Keep the liquid (which should be a lovely rich brown), because you’re going to use it.  Once everything in the pan has started to sizzle and brown – turn, the heat down a bit and add a ladle of the mushroom liquid.  When it’s look like it’s getting dry again, keep adding liquid.

Get another batch of salted water on the boil in a large pot.  Once it’s on the go, carefully lower in the gnocchi one by one until they’re all in there.  You’ll immediately see them swell up in the hot water. Let this boil for about 10-15 minutes – until cooked through (lift one out and taste – if it’s wet and stodgy in the middle still – let it go for another couple of minutes or so).

Once they’re done – use a slotted spoon to lift them from the water and into the pan of mushrooms and pork belly. Get the gnocchi good and coated with sauce, and keep stirring. Once they’re all in (or as much as your pan can hold) – add a ladle of the gnocchi’s cooking water and the pecorino cheese.  It’ll combine to give it all a lovely silky finish.

Sprinkle with the chopped herbs and either spoon onto plates or just take the whole pan to the table.