Simpler times.

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It’s been a dark couple of weeks for South Africa, what with one thing and another.

In fact, adding last year’s Marikana tragedy into the mix and continual crises in education and our frustrating inability to uplift the poorest and most disadvantaged of our country, it clearly brings into focus the size and range of massive and fundamental moral, social, emotional and existential questions we’re confronting on a daily basis at the moment.

I’m not arguing that we’re the only ones to be facing these questions, in fact most of the Middle East in particular has been doing so in a pressure-cooker of religion and civil war for decades, but South Africans of every colour and socio-economic background, have recently been forced to look at some very nasty sides of life and ourselves. And it’s shaken us, I think – it’s almost as though a dark tar or taint has soaked itself into even the most everyday and mundane of the thousands of little things we do to create this big thing we call “our lives”.

It’s hard not to feel adrift, cut loose from the things you felt you were certain about, or thought were reliable – and conversations become inevitably defined by the prefix of “Did you hear…” – as nuggets, scraps and sound-bite trophies are traded for an odd kind of internal group supremacy. But all we’re really doing is rebounding our own echoes back on ourselves – the same details and pieces, some made-up or invented – who knows? – but because the innumerable social-media platforms we have available to us constantly throw them back at us over and over and over again – we can’t help but be drawn into repeating them.

I think the reality at the moment is the extent to which life can suddenly insert chaos into the bits of yourself that you thought were safe, impenetrable – throwing them uncomfortably wide open. And I in particular don’t deal very well with this feeling of being adrift, of being at the mercy of tides bigger and more sinister than you thought would ever become a part of your day-to-day. I don’t know anyone who does, really…

It’s in these moments that the familiar and simple become the most important possible things that one can hold on to. And for me, those simple things are best found in the kitchen and around the table, with conversations about the stuff that make us smile and laugh. It’s a candle against the darkness.

So this week, get some mates around, make something you really like that’s rich and comforting. Get some wine on the table, and let the rest take its course.

I’ve often talked on this blog about the extent to which I’ve always appreciated the Italian approach to cooking (and life really, except maybe for all that mafia and Mussolini stuff…), which focuses of fewer ingredients, of as good a quality as can possibly be sourced, and letting those flavours just simmer and enrich themselves without to much fuss or faff.

One of my favourite comfort meals in this regard is a wet, cheesy polenta, with spicy salami, sautéed with San Marzano tomatoes and a dash of balsamic. Do your best to get imported ingredients from an Italian deli, it really will make all the difference. Also this dish is wheat and gluten free which means it’s great for a lot of people who have problems with that stuff. Like me.

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Polenta with tomatoes

Ingredients

1 good cup of good quality Italian polenta.
a handful of freshly-grated Parmesan cheese.
salt and pepper

A handful of thinly-sliced spicy salami, preferably handmade Italian.
A 400g tin of San Marzano tomatoes.
1 medium red onion, finely chopped.
1 large clove of garlic, crushed with the flat of a butter knife with some salt and combined to make a paste.
Half a dried red chilli, de-seeded and finely chopped.
1 tbsp of good quality balsamic vinegar.
A handful of fresh basil leaves, chopped.
A slick of truffle-infused oil (if you can)

What to do

In a wide, flat-bottomed saucepan add a slick of olive oil and bring to a medium-high heat. Toss in the chopped onions, the garlic salt paste and the chopped chilli, stirring until the onions have softened and started to become translucent. Turn up the heat a notch, and add the chopped salami and keep stirring as it sizzles and pops. Just as the salami has started to crisp and release its fat, throw in the tin of tomatoes, crush them with the back of your stirring spoon, add the tablespoon of vinegar, a dash of salt and pepper to taste, turn the heat down, and let this rich, wonderful sauce blip away for about 20 minutes or so. Add a little bit of truffle oil, five minutes before taking off the heat.

Just as the sauce is ready, bring two and a half cups of salted water to the boil, in a pot on the stove-top. Get the polenta and the Parmesan close at hand, and as the water is boiling – start to froth it with a whisk. Add the polenta in a steady stream, carrying on whisking as you go. Immediately get the pot off the heat, keep whisking the polenta as it thickens, and add the Parmesan, stirring it in.

Spoon the lovely thick polenta into a bowl, add a ladle of sauce and also a sprinkle of chopped basil leaves.

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