Separating the wheat from the chaf. And also, everything else.

In which Jono (unsurprisingly) rambles for a couple of hundred words before getting to the point – and then figures out he doesn’t quite know what his point is and that even if he did, he’s probably not qualified to actually make it.

So… I dunno, maybe just skip to the end where there’s a nice recipe for sweet potato flatbreads.

I recently had a fairly odd exchange with a close friend of mine. Luckily, most people who know me, are used to ‘odd’ being the default setting for any exchanges I’m ever involved in, so at least it didn’t take anyone by surprise.

So, Gil and I had met for an after-work beer/bourbon (beer for him, bourbon for me). This had quickly turned into a few more after-work beers, and then a fairly rousing discussion about how being single was having an adverse effect on his sex-life, which is clearly a topic that benefits greatly from the number of beers that accompany it being ‘a lot’. Without even noticing, we had quickly gotten to that point where it’s time to balance out the pints with something that comes on a skewer or in-between two bits of bun.

And so, in a stunning display of common sense and pragmatism, he suggested that we go and eat somewhere, which is an entirely normal thing to suggest. I went slightly red in the face, and (in a tone of voice reminiscent of someone having to admit that they’ve just had a lavatory accident on your carpet) slightly sheepishly replied that I’d quite been looking forward to eating by myself, and was it okay if I did that rather?

Which is slightly less normal.

I’m pretty sure that the very first thing I wrote on this blog was about eating by yourself, and in the four years or so that I’ve been parking random bits of belly-button fluff on this corner of the Internet, my love for eating alone hasn’t changed. Nor has my puzzlement as to why it’s something that very few people ever do, and the equal puzzlement of people for whom this isn’t an everyday thing.

By the way, Gil, being an emotionally sensitive and socially developed person was completely unfazed by my plan, so high-fives all round.

For me, eating by myself in public is like a reset button – it’s a chance to breathe the air of the World At Large (albeit a World At Large that’s specifically oriented around selling me a mussel pot or something) – without it being coloured or filtered though the expectations of the person sitting across from me. Where else can you slip anonymously into a crowded room of people, and purely by the safety afforded you by a table in the corner, soak in their stories, habits, conversations and lifestyles without being ‘that weird guy at the party that no one else knew and everyone was fairly confused as to how he got invited’?

Which is how I got to the steamy and crowded Greek place, Parea, that I squeezed into in an attempt do some of that ‘breathing the air of the world at large’ stuff I was talking about. And also to write about something which is completely not what I’m currently writing about.

This just goes to show, that a horse led to his ipad via a plate of squid heads won’t necessarily drink the ouzo.

Oh dear. This is all going stupidly and weirdly wrong…

Urg, this is what generally happens when I have to ask the Internet to look at a thing I did and am quite proud of, I get all procrastinaty and obscure. So let me rather stop beating around the bush and just say “Hey, so I don’t know if any of you guys noticed, but I was in the Sunday Times a week or so back, and it was very nice of them indeed to do a big fancy feature on me and five of my recipes”.

Phew. Okay that’s out of the way now.

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Anyone who knows my history with the Sunday Times, will probably understand how much of a nice thing this is for me, and will hopefully also indulge my wanting to show it off just a bit. So, thanks for that.

Interestingly, the reason they did it was because of an eating choice I made towards the end of last year that I’ve been doing for about 10 months now and have thus far not mentioned on this blog – which considering this is my blog about me and food, is either oddly negligent or protectively cynical on my part.

The ‘eating choice’ I’m talking about is going gluten-free, and the reasons I haven’t really talked about it here? Myriad and fairly complex. And mostly to do with the fact that I get eye-rollingly exhausted whenever I come across someone earnestly trying to tell me about ‘why they don’t eat shellfish or food that’s harvested in September’ – EVEN THOUGH I’M NOW ONE OF THOSE PEOPLE.

I’m seriously conflicted about this – trust me.

Let me try a quick experiment. I’m interested to see if there’s a sort of gut, reflex negative reaction to the following words or phrases: vegan, locavore, dairy-free, vegetarian, pescatarian, paleo diet, ethical eater, ‘no carbs after 5pm’. I’d be surprised if, when confronted by someone who claims to be one or more of these things (or some variant I’ve forgotten), that the majority of us don’t have to suppress some sort of visible sigh, because, you know – “Jeez, can’t you just eat normally like the rest of us? None of us need these stupid self-involved diets and we’re all awesome.”

Right. The problem is that I’m simultaneously confused by that weird reaction we all have (and I totally have it as well) to people who’s dietary choices don’t reflect either ours or what we consider to be ‘normal’ – and I am also confused by the self-righteous douchiness displayed by people who’ve chosen to have a slightly different way of going about eating stuff, and the apparent superiority they feel entitled to as a result.

Yoh. You guys? You make it so hard for everyone. We all get so defensive about this stuff, and it really puts roadblocks in the way of being common-sense about it all.

So, having said all that, I’m incredibly aware of the extent to which sub-editors all around the world have, over the last couple of months, been trotting out GLUTEN-FREE, FAD OR FACT? type headlines. Partly I think this is because sub-editors as a class don’t like Gwyneth Paltrow – as the highest profile gluten-free acolyte around these days, and her rather annoying habit of calling her kids odd names and arriving at movie premiers looking fucking gorgeous.

Any new dietary approach generally gets labelled a ‘fad’ before its even had a chance to get out the gate, and in so doing, main-stream commentators have quite neatly branded anyone silly enough to give it a go the equivalent of hopeless novelty-chasers, like everyone who wore buffaloes in the late 90s. But it’s a genuine question and should be answered pragmatically. And it was my attempt to do so in the article in the Sunday Times that sort of got me into trouble.

Here is the Q&A that went with the recipes, and the important bit for the purposes of this conversation is the last question.

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So, it was that question and the answer that I gave, which prompted a lady called Dr Helen Wright (which is terrifying in and of itself, being called out by a doctor) to post the following letter on this blog.

I followed the Gluten Free tag having read your piece in the Sunday paper entitled “Feeling Good is the New Normal”. I also note that you mention in the blog Simpler Times that you have problems with “that stuff”. I am disturbed by your answer to the question posed in the Sunday paper article “Has gluten intolerance become a fad?” in that you failed to take a wonderful opportunity to educate the South African public that while eating gluten free may indeed be a fad for some people, or a preferred diet, (as for yourself it appears), it is in fact imperative that others follow a gluten free diet or they will become seriously ill. I have Coeliac Disease, proven by intestinal biopsy, which is a genetic disorder and I must follow a gluten free diet or I will become ill for several months. It is not a fad or a result of post WW2 eating habits as you suggest in the article.

This is a lot to do with why I, thus far, haven’t really gone into the gluten-free thing on this blog – for fear of being mistaken for some sort of expert or advocate for it as a medical necessity or lifestyle choice. Because really at the end of the day I’m just a guy who discovered, mostly by accident, that I generally felt a lot better if I didn’t eat things with gluten in them.

In the interests of balance, this was my response:

Hello!

I’m so glad you brought this up, because it was a facet to the privilege of being included in the Sunday Times piece that I was struggling to figure out how to address.

My original answer to that question was, as I’d written it, actually quit a lot longer than that which ended up being printed (to be fair, all of my answers were a lot longer – I’m a hopeless windbag) – and, inasmuch as I could, addressed the concerns and totally valid points you raise. Having said that, and also having a background in journalism, I do however understand the necessity for the newspaper to edit copy for column space and brevity, and so I can’t be too grumpy about the fact that my slightly more nuanced answer to what (as you so rightly point out) is a question that deserves a far more comprehensive answer to the one that was printed, for no other reason than that’s how newspapers work.

So much so, that in the two weeks since that have passed since the article was printed, I have been prepping a rather more lengthy blog post to specifically address my background with gluten-fee eating, and a more detailed perspective on why it deserves more weight and attention than ‘just a fad’. I am fully aware of the difficulties suffered by those with coeliac disease (several lifelong friends of mine suffer from it), as well as a lot of the science and biology behind the various degrees of sensitivity and symptoms that most humans have in reaction to gluten, and in a perfect world I would have had the space to fully lay those out in the Sunday Times.

But then again, this is why I have a blog, so that I can write those things down and park them somewhere for those who are interested to read. It perhaps hasn’t been posted as quick as I’d like, because I’m not the most talented or natural writer on the planet and getting all the full-stops, capitals and commas in the right place alas takes me longer than most.

Interestingly I’m trying to gauge how much of an audience there currently is for more dedicated gluten-free food discussion and recipes, and subsequently whether or not this dusty little corner of the Internet could actually become that space, and so I totally welcome and appreciate conversations like this, and hope to have many more in the future.

Thank you so much for your post.

But, now that we’re all here (and if you’ve read this far, then you’re definitely intent on going on this journey with me, and for that I can only say, “I’m sorry – I’ll get back to lame pop culture jokes soon, I promise”) let’s get into it shall we?.

The thing I return to most often, is the feeling that so much of what we experience physiologically, we sort of just accept as being ‘that’s the way it is.’ I did this for about a decade. Feeling low? Feeling listless? Digestion a constant plague of rumbling and farting? My general response to feeling all of those things was along the lines of: Well, I’m a fairly healthy person who doesn’t eat too much crap and so this must just be normal, something our bodies are designed to do after a certain point in life. You know, the same way a Land Rover Defender is designed to just leak oil all the time and break down for the rest of it. However, what we might be experiencing or think of as being ‘normal’ is sometimes actually a largely cumulative sequence of feelings and physiological symptoms caused by eating things that we all kinda know we shouldn’t be eating in quite as much volume as we do: mainly bread, sugar and dairy. Because, our bodies aren’t land rovers. They’ve evolved over millennia to be incredibly effective machines that perform superbly if you treat them right, and alas it appears (I say that very deliberately because I'm clearly not a medical expert, but my armchair research and self-experimentation has indicated that I'm possibly not wildly off) that excessive amounts of the Tricky Trio (bread, milk and sugar) isn't really that great for us. But what makes this all so fucked up is those three are just about the basis of everything we eat these days. And so, because this is widely considered (in the western world) to be ‘normal’, it’s almost unfathomable that the way we feel as a result could be ‘abnormal’. It’s like being told that you’re allergic to air or Downton Abbey. It seems fundamentally incorrect that something that’s so inherently part of everything we do as westernised humans from a food perspective, could be ‘bad’.

This, for me, is an example of how tricky this stuff gets – and also a prime example of why I haven’t brought it up on this blog before. Because, as much as I’m aware of and sensitive to the seriousness of coeliac disease, I also know that’s not really what most people experience. Yes, gluten causes major problems for coeliacs like Dr Wright, but the majority of people are more likely to be a bit more like me (not that way, god forbid) in that gluten causes them (if they’re even affected at all) varying degrees of mild discomfort (bloating, gas, mental fuzziness, weight gain, a general tetchiness and gloominess) which usually gets passed off as ‘getting older’ or as the effects of ‘the pace of modern life’ – all of which are certainly real things and have real effects, but which often aren’t really at the heart of what’s going on.

It’s also not helped by (and one of the things that Dr Wright took issue with) my reference to the post World War II industrialization of food production. What I was trying to get at (and what makes this water so muddy) is that often people feel like they might have a gluten sensitivity, but what they’re maybe actually experiencing is their bodies reacting to the chemical-heavy, unfathomably-processed and refined, sugar-packed quality of most food we eat these days, and here’s the key, especially bread. Most people who feel like they’re gluten intolerant or sensitive, won’t have any adverse reaction to a properly-made sourdough bread, baked with flour that hasn’t been chemically treated or processed. So, you can see why it maybe gets extra confusing if sometimes we can’t tell if we’re having a reaction to the gluten, or the chemicals that are generally found in foods that also happen to have gluten in them.

Oh dear. Again. All this wheat and chaff to sort out…

I think, if there’s one main take-out I’d like from this super-indulgent and rambling post, is that – for me – the benefits of going gluten-free have been undeniable. I’ve lost weight, my digestive system seems to be working normally these days as opposed to behaving like the crazed leader of a fundamentalist religious cult, and most importantly my energy is back, not just my physical energy, but my drive, my excitement and desire to do things. Oh, I also stopped snoring – which let me tell you, is fucking fantastic. But that is no way meant to be a zealous haranguing for any of you reading this to do the same. Do what you want to do, all I can say is that at the very least do it with a sense of curiosity.

Yes, it’s a pretty inconvenient way to live (unless of course you’re in South America, India, Sri Lanka, most of Asia and large parts of Africa – where wheat doesn’t feature so prominently), and the gluten-free substitutes for things like bread and biscuits and pasta are depressingly expensive. But as I increasingly stumble and totter down this path, the truth is that I honestly can’t see myself changing this way of living anytime soon. And I can only predict that those substitutes or alternatives will become cheaper and more readily available as more people discover the benefits.

So, if any of this stuff has been at all useful or appealing, let me know – and maybe I can start writing recipes specifically for this niche. I’d be happy to.

In the mean-time, here is the first of the recipes that were published in the Sunday Times, the rest of which I’ll post over the next couple of weeks.

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The rice flour used int this is one of those ingredients that used to turn me off recipes like this, it just seemed like a schlep to find, but these days just about every single supermarket stocks it and it’s not nearly as much of a mission as I used to think.

Ingredients – makes 6-8 flatbreads

350g sweet potatoes, peeled
250g of rice flour, with another 50g for dusting
2 tsp brown sugar
A cup of the sweet potato cooking liquid
A pinch of salt
1 tbsp olive oil

What to do

Boil the sweet potatoes in a pot until lovely and soft. Keep a cup’s worth of the cooking liquid to one side, and drain away the rest, letting the potato cool. Sprinkle in the sugar and a somewhat generous pinch of salt. In the pot, use a stick blender to blitz the potato into a soft mash, then start adding the flour – about 75g at a time, splashing a little bit of the cooking liquid as necessary to keep it from getting too dry. Once the potato has soak up all the flour, scrape out all the dough onto a surface dusted with the extra rice flour, and kneed for a a good ten minutes or so until you’ve got a silky ball of dough. Cover in cling-film and set aside for 30 minutes.

Brush a non-stick pan with the olive oil, so that it’s very lightly coated and get it onto a high heat. Break off a palm-size piece of the dough, press it into a rough circle shape, then roll out into a disc about half a centimeter thick, pop this into the pan for about 5 minutes each side so that it’s cooked through, and crispy and golden for the most part, slightly charred and blackened in others.

Serve with a poached egg, fresh coriander leaves and a tomato sauce made with plenty of cumin and a touch of green chilli.

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.

Let’s Go Bowling

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Who knows why men do anything?

In my head, it’s a serious question that at least deserves a whole-hearted attempt to tackle it appropriately seriously. Or at the very least a half-hearted attempt to make it look like that’s what’s happening.

If a brief scan of this morning’s newspapers is to provide any insight into the answer, here is a roster of potentials.

Men are:

Undersexed, oversexed, unfairly maintaining unprecedented power in the workplace, unfairly experiencing decreasing power in the workplace, too many carbs, too much protein, too little protein, too many pictures in magazines of cars/women/expensive watches they can’t have, veganism, porn, prevailing economic conditions, advertising for men’s conditioning and beauty products makes us all feel like goblins, too few new beauty and conditions products to meet our goblin needs, we suck at knock-out cricket, Tom Cruise, not enough of us are Ryan Gosling, we now spend more time thinking about social media than sex.

I’ve probably left out a few. I’m sorry – I was temporarily distracted by a YouTube clip of a sleepwalking kitten that sneezed on a ghost panda.

So, let’s just say that it was for all of those reasons that I decided to make an entire three-course lunch based around food-that-you-can-serve-in-bowls. It felt important, like something that might help the kids or stop people from cutting off Rhino’s noses.

Although in truth, a lot of it has to do with the fact that all my plates were dirty and I reeeeeally couldn’t be bothered to do much washing up. Also, speaking of newspapers – there was also a very particular soup recipe that I’d come across in one of them that I was intrigued to try, and so decided to make the rest of the meal similarly ‘bowl oriented’ (Chilli con Carne and an amazing cake made by the brilliant Leanne Rencken – @inderbelly on Twitter). Just so that the soup wouldn’t feel different from all the other parts of lunch and maybe wouldn’t be invited to play on the swings or something.

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This thing with the newspapers isn’t a coincidence, incidentally (balls, I feel a tangent coming on). It’s a ridiculous prejudice to have, but I’ve long viewed recipes skimmed from newspapers or magazines to be suspect; somehow second-class recipe citizens, not quite good enough to be in a stupidly-expensive hardcover book featuring the author on the cover making a face with the punchable grin of someone about to pass out from the effort of desperately having to suck in their stomach for the length of a four-hour photo shoot.
But that’s dumb – and I know that now – because the ’second class soup’ was an unadulterated winner, which is when I started to think a little harder about this anti-newspaper recipe thing I’ve cultivated and began to realise how completely hypocritical it was. Considering that one of my most treasured possessions is a scrap-book of recipes from my mom, almost all of which were clipped from newspapers and magazines or handwritten on the back of oil-splattered pieces of paper. I also found, the more that I’ve thought about this, that I liked the transience of a newspaper recipe; if you don’t actively hold onto it, cut it out, photocopy it, scan it or, lets face it, just take a picture of it with your iPhone, then it’s not coming back. You become something like a curator, adding to your own private gallery of collected recipes – creating an assembly that’s unique to only you.

Holy crap. I started this with a diatribe about the opaqueness of men’s decision-making hierarchy and ended with recipe curation via a wobbly speech about soup.

It must be October.

Sweet corn and yellow pepper soup (for 8)

adapted from a recipe that appeared in The Financial Times

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Ingredients

1 onion
2 sticks celery
30g butter
4 yellow peppers (de-seeded and thinly sliced)
3 mielies (corn on the cob for the non-saffas)
Fresh thyme
A bay leaf
1 tsp rice
1l of chicken stock
2 ripe tomatoes
60g goat’s cheese
12 leaves of fresh mint
Olive oil.

What to do

Finely Chop up the onion and the celery and whack it into a large pot with the butter, and get it on the stove over a medium heat so that they can stew gently. Once they’ve gone soft and transparent add the peppers, shove them in and leave to calmly bubble away for ten to fifteen minutes.

Cut all the corn off the cob, then add to the pot with the thyme and bay leaf, and get it all nice and mixed in. Then add the chicken stock and half a liter of water, bring to the boil and let it simmer away and boil down for 45 minutes. Once that’s done, liquidise the soup until, rich, thick and yellow.

Slice the tomatoes into quarters and remove all the interior seeds and pulp, then cut into small cubes. Finely chop the mint and crumble the goat’s cheese.

Serve the soup hot, with the tomato, cheese and mint sprinkled on top.

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Your Hands Smell Like Fish

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I'm in a weird 'fuck you' kind of mood. Not belligerent as such – more just… acerbically contrarian.

This can only mean it's definitely time to write a blog post.

So, I'm not good at summer. No good at it at all. I hate open shoes, shorts, "summer advertising", the insane pressure to be at a fucking picnic every five goddam minutes, I hate that I live hundreds of kilometers away from the nearest salt water, and I hate the fact that I'm not nearly in as good a shape as I'd like – something that summer as an event (because that's what it seems to be these days rather than, you know…a change in the weather or something) is clearly, specifically and cruelly designed to expose in me.

The cozy cocoon of winter (where for three glorious months men get to dress like men rather than confused schoolboys) basically ebbs away, leaving behind awful rock-pools of people who smell like coconut and have decided that warmer weather is a good reason to cover themselves with some sort of lotion that has glitter in it.

Apart from being generally grumpy about having feet that don’t look good in sandals (seriously, I look like some sort of Slavic rapist), I guess the real source of all this summermosity (see what I did? Oxford English dictionary you’re welcome) is that I suck at summer-appropriate cooking. However I’d like to think of myself as being more Italian in my cooking influences: lighter, less fussy, fewer – better quality ingredients (which is perfect for the hot season) – there’s an evil French beast lurking deep within me that I just can’t get rid of.

No, that’s not a dildo joke.

I can’t help it, I like sauces. I like thick, comforting food. I like the inexplicable magic that happens in a pot when when you let slow heat work its way through for hours and hours. I like things that are crispy on the outside and soft on the inside – and all of that is straight down the line Winter Cooking. Which always makes the retreat of cold nights and sharp mornings, in the face of baking afternoons and warm nights, a real struggle for me. Suddenly my kitchen ideas all seem out of step, inappropriate or just plain at odds with the season’s temperatures and dress-code. What makes it worse is that I live on the top floor of a block of flats, where the balcony was long ago converted into an office. I can’t braai (South African for barbecue), which means that other great summer cooking tradition – doing it outdoors, is also somewhat closed off to me.

But, this isn’t going to only be a moan about weather. Because firstly – I’m as stubborn as fuck. And secondly I don’t like not being good at something; it really bothers me, in a sort of deep-down way that can only be equated with the soulful grip of Ryan Gosling’s natural musk.

Which is why, with the determination of a nasty-ass honey badger – I bullied some friends of mine into firing up the grill on the first warm night that was on offer and doing my best to force some sort of ‘summer-appropriate’ cooking on anyone I could get my hands on.

Because this will not stand. I need to get better at this, and the only way to do it, is to do it.

Summer Salmon

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You can tell I’m desperate to be summery in that it’s almost the most obvious complete cliche to barbecue fish, but things become cliches because they work – and this is no exception.

The trick? Try be more Italian (see paragraph 5). Try not to get farmed salmon, and if you are make sure it’s Scottish. Get the fishmonger to cut you thick steaks vertically so that the flesh is held together by the spine, rather than the fillet one typically buys in the supermarket.

Mix the ingredients fresh, make sure the grill is hot, and eat with a simple salad on a warm summer’s night. Or whenever the fuck you feel like it really…

Ingredients (for 4)

4 thick-cut salmon steaks
The juice of a large lemon, and then an extra lemon cut into quarters
a healthy tsp of minced chilli, or 1 dried red chilli, finely chopped up
a healthy tsp of minced garlic, or 2 fat cloves, finely chopped up
1 tbsp of finely-chopped rosemary
1 healthy tsp of dried mint
A good glug of olive oil
(this one is weird, but it’s inclusion is so, so good) 1 tbsp of the pickle vinegar from a jar of pickled onions.
Salt and pepper.

What to do

Mix all the marinade ingredients and whisk by hand until lightly emulsified. Coat the salmon with the marinade, using a brush until it’s all used up and the salmon is glossy and juicy. Then season generously with salt and pepper. Leave it to sit in those juices for about 20 minutes while the fire gets hot. Rub the grill with olive or vegetable oil, so that the fish doesn’t stick, and get it got over the fire.

Slap that fish on there for about 6-7 minutes on each side so that it’s nicely charred, but still pink on the inside, then get it onto a plate with the lemon wedges. Twist a couple more licks of salt and pepper over the fish and then serve with an extra squeeze from the lemons.

I want to say a quick thank you to HOUSE AND LEISURE for including me on their list of exciting young South Africans and moose-whisperers – they continue to be generous and awesome, and if you’re here because of them, welcome. I hope you stick around. Don’t be afraid to lick something.

Balls.

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The passing of a great restaurant, or even one that one was just mediocre, but had a couple of good things on the menu, is honestly like a death to me.

This is of course because my best friend is a biscuit, and so ‘places that feed me’ is just about all I’ve got to cling to these days.

From a food perspective there are few worse sensations than pitching up at your favourite place, expecting to be tucking into that thing that you order every time with the usual greedy, piggy-face, to not only find that the restaurant isn’t there any more, but that now it’s a shop that sells toilets.

It feels like getting mugged, and then having the mugger kick you in the shins because they’re also communists and you confess to not having read Das Kapital – and I’d know. I’ve been mugged a lot. And even though I claim I’ve read Das Kapital, I haven’t really.

My very, very first experience of this kind of thing was with a place in Grahamstown, which is where I grew up, that my mom used to take me to called Davenports. In reality it was probably a stuffy old-school type tea-room filled exclusively with old ladies who thought that putting a flower arrangement on their head constituted ‘being a progressive about hats’, but in my mind it was The Best Restaurant In The World (aged 4) because it was the first time I was allowed to have an Appletiser. Which was a big deal in those days.

It promptly closed down and became a Spur, which is still there. The ladies who wear hats are not.

Also in Grahamstown was a Bavarian grill-house which was called Tiny’s, because no doubt it was run by a jolly and usually quite sweaty, fat man called George Gruber (which is totally the best fat man’s name ever) and back in the 80s, no one had yet gotten tired of that joke of naming something its opposite. Of course, you can’t be called George Gruber and not be a jolly, big guy who runs a steak-house with his dumpy wife – it goes against nature.
Gruber’s favourite thing in the world was to flambé a steak at your table as an excuse to hold forth on the wonders of Austria for as long as it took to burn your face off with flaming Kirsch, but it was a proper ‘grown-up place’ and the rare occasion when my parents decided on a night out at Tiny’s, it was always a ridiculous highlight to go there. It was also the first time I was introduced to the idea of monkeygland sauce, which let me tell you, provided an endless source of debate for an 8 year-old and his dumb mates; mostly revolving around exactly how many monkey-glands went into making enough sauce for a burger, and did Vervet monkey-gland taste different from, say Baboon or Bonobo?

Sadly Gruber died and the restaurant closed, and for years no-one could make anything else work in the space. At one point someone tried a rip-off KFC-style chicken joint called Southern Fried Chicken, which closed almost immediately after the first person actually tried something off the menu. Today however it’s the legendary and institutional Rat and Parrot, which is the pub equivalent of getting kicked in the face by a pack of talking dingoes in party dresses. Again, I would know.

I’ve long suspected that the Burger Quality Debate Index is the primary indicator of a high standard of living. This must be the case, because apparently it’s the only thing anyone in Cape Town, that dear fishing village by the sea, has any time for – since they’re always super-quick to laconically declare how awesome both they, and their standard of living, are. It seems that the energy of every single person in that city is bent towards a permanent, in-depth, absurdly passionate debate about Who Makes The Best Burger, where if you dare to suggest it’s Royale (as opposed to Hudsons or Clarkes) then you clearly have the taste of a dust mote or a goat-rapist, or you’re from Johannesburg, in which case they pat your head you’re a retarded child who, shame, can’t be expected to know any better.
The reason they’re all wrong, and are about to be robbed of seemingly the only point to their lives, is that the best burger in the world used to be made a lanky vulture-like woman who was the owner/proprietor of a ridiculously-named fast-food joint called Bambi’s. And yes, there was totally a giant picture of Bambi painted in the window – which if you think about it, raises some very odd thoughts about exactly what was in those burgers. Years after she’d retired from fast-food, I actually went and tracked her down at her house, determined to get her to fix me up one last burger, which – incredibly, she did. Because it was that good. Enormous and dinner plate-like in its roundness, the Bambi Burger was a secret-sauced, pickled-up burgerous marvel in a soft white bun – and to this day I’ve never had one to match it.

This ‘passing of a favourite’ thing also happened more poignantly with the first restaurant I ever developed a meaningful relationship with after moving to Johannesburg. It was an Italian place called Lucci’s in Westdene – owned and run by, of course, old Mr Lucci (no such naming cleverness for the Italians – a spade is a spade, and a restaurant run by a Mr Lucci, is called Lucci’s).

Lucci was a clever fucker, because he knew a good thing when he saw it, and he saw quite a lot of his own fine Italian daughters (not in that way fuckos). And as a result, most of the time you were waited on by one or several of those fine and exotic women. That meant that as a teenager I spent a lot of time trying to hide unfortunate boners with a napkin while trying to eat mushroom Risotto.
It was one of those places where you instantly knew that it was run by a real Italian, because instead of stupid faux-Tuscan brickwork and stock art of grinning fat men holding loaves of bread, the walls were covered with the only things truly close to an Italian’s heart – pictures of Ducatis and Ferraris. Of which Lucci had many. There was also a picture of him posing with Pavarotti, and if a guy has fed Big Luciano, then it’s totally okay for him to feed me. It was the first time I’d encountered pesto made properly, and a man who point-blank refused to serve decaffeinated anything in his restaurant and who also probably felt more distraught about Saltimbocca being poorly-made than he did about baby seals being clubbed to death by Japanese people.

It’s an estate-agency now.

The thing about this dirge-like list of places that I used to eat at which don’t exist any more, is that it happened again recently. It’s funny – I’ve written about Lapa Fo on this blog before, and paradoxically enough, it was to complain about their rather cynical pricing of a particular bottle of wine. But it was like one of those relationships where although someone did something shitty to you, you can’t stop seeing them because the sex is just too good to ever sanely give up, and so you just keep on going back and back. Which was the case here, and oddly enough it wasn’t even for the thing they were famous for; because for a place whose speciality was (incredible) pizza, my favourite thing on their menu was the meatballs.

I know right? Fucking meatballs?

Well, I loved the shit out of them, and it was rare that I’d ever go there and order anything but. Well, now it’s gone and I’ll never have those balls in my face again. And so, in an attempt to not let this piece of warmth and nostalgia die completely, I went home the other night and tried to recapture the essence of my favourite thing of theirs. And so, here is my commemorative Lapa Fo meatball recipe, in a sad and probably meaningless tribute to a thing I liked.

There is a greater point to all of this – and that is (duh), don’t take these places for granted. Because one day they won’t be there, and you’ll never have that particular thing, in that particular way, ever again (Yes, it’s a metaphor for life. Get over it). There’s something magical about the alchemy that goes into the creation of a signature menu at a favourite restaurant – and that special combination of ingredients, suppliers, techniques, chefs and kitchen atmosphere will never come together again. Don’t just assume that it’ll be there forever – because it won’t, and then you’ll be one of those people that starts conversations with “Remember that whatever that so-and-so used to do at blah blah blah, back in the day? I wish I could have it one last time, we never went there enough.” And then you’ll get sad, and then maybe go home and be cruel to your children and/or plants. And that’s how M Night Shyamalan movies happen.

My Meatballs

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Ingredients

A generous glug of olive oil
2 tins of whole, peeled tomatoes
2 bay leaves
1 tsp brown sugar
1 splash of sherry vinegar

For the meatballs

500g of minced beef
40g of breadcrumbs, some extra for dusting
A goodly handful of grated Parmesan
175 ml milk
2 teaspoons of minced garlic
A handful of finely-chopped parsley
1 tsp dried organum
1 tsp of coriander seeds, crushed into a fine powder
2 large eggs
A generous pinch of Chilli flakes

What to do

Combine all the meatball ingredients in a large bowl, and gently mix them all together until loosely combined. Season well with salt and pepper, then coat your hands with olive oil and gently pack into smallish balls, not pressing them together too tightly. Dust each one with some breadcrumbs.

Rub a roasting tray with olive oil, and get the oven grill onto about 200 degrees Celsius. Pack the meatballs onto the tray, giving each one a bit of breathing space, and brown them on both sides in the oven – it should take about 20 minutes or so.

Then get either a casserole or a cast-iron pot and add the olive oil, tinned tomatoes, bay leaves, sugar and vinegar, then season generously with salt and pepper. Gently break up the tomatoes a bit with a wooden spoon. Toss in the meatballs, pop on the lid and put it back in the oven for another half an hour.

Serve with pasta or as part of a meal with salad and crusty bread.

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Cheers Lapa Fo, you will be missed.

Roamin’ in the gloamin’

Travel is a funny thing. People either use it to confirm the fact that they love the place they come from more than anything else the rest of world has to offer, or it serves to make one restless and dissatisfied with the place you’ve chosen to call home.

I’ve recently had to do a bit of wrestling with those feelings as a result of spending some time in a couple of places on literally the other side of the planet. Rather uncharacteristically – I don’t have a singular vegetable patch of writing to encompass everything, but rather some bitty and scattered thoughts which I wanted to park here, mostly because that’s really what this little corner if the internet is for anyway.

Beer as bond.

There is no single human being more aware of what it means to be an inhabitant of The Global Village than the barman in an international airport.

Sitting with a drink in a proper international hub, somewhere like Dubai, Singapore, New York or Hong Kong, the kind of place that pretty much just exists for people to hang around in for a bit before they go somewhere else, is probably one of the true great pleasures of life. That knowledge that you’ve got a finite and very specific amount of time to spend at a weird airport drinking-hole ordering a pint of something that’s probably not your first choice and eating a plate of crappy nachos paying for it in a currency that you don’t reeally understand, is made magical by the people you stumble across while doing it.

Being able to have a properly meaningful discussion about the IPL with an Aussie and a Texan, bound for Hyderabad and Chennai respectively while watching a Yankees game on the TV, is a lovely illustration of chaos-theory made tangible.

Seriously Australia?

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Australia is a tough place for a South African to be in. Firstly it’s expensive. Like, moere fokken expensive. A pint of beer that you’d normally pay maybe R25 for, will cost you about R80 in Melbourne, slightly less in Brisbane, and don’t even think about in Sydney.

But that’s not the real reason it’s tough. The real reason is a deep cultural one, one of sociology, background, expectation and of life itself.

South Africans expect things to be hard. They expect life to be difficult, for the obstacles between what one hopes will happen, and what will most likely happen to be very high indeed. Nothing is a straight line in our dear, beloved country – and that is what sometimes makes our journeys that much more unexpected and exciting, but it also means that our default setting is to be disappointed, to be thwarted, to just not have things be … easy.

But that’s okay, because you go to other countries, places like, London or Paris or New York, and you see efficient, bustling cities, full of things that just work, but it’s easy to dismiss them, because they’re so different from ‘back home’. The weather is shit, or the buildings are poky, the people are rude or the food is funny. It makes it more comfortable to accept the difficulties that come ready-baked into our country. Our safe-word is, “yes, but we have…” and then we proceed to fill in one of the following: weather, beer, beaches, bush, food, space, people…etc. It’s our safety-blanket – and we’re very loathe to let it go.

Then Australia comes along. Fucking Australia. Because it looks just like us. It sounds like us. The weather is like us. The people are like us. They drink like us. They drive on the same side of the road like us. They like sport like us. Cook like us. Laugh like us. Value the same things as us. But, and here’s the kicker, everything…just…works. It more than just works. It’s brilliant. Proper fucking brilliant. And it truly and utterly messes with your head and your heart. Because suddenly you become acutely and painfully aware of the half-life that you’ve been living. The shadow-version of an existence that you thought was full and vibrant and had meaning, but was actually a shabby, badly-made thing. And it makes you angry. Firstly for the time you’ve spent being a half-person. And then that a place exists with the audacity to be everything you wished your own country could be, but knew in your heart of hearts would never. Which sounds either harsh or pragmatic – depending on how you choose to take it.

Because its not normal to see a thriving city that almost could be Capetown, but with trams and busses and subways and trains, and get angry about it. Angry because it’s so unexpected to see those things in a place that otherwise looks and feels just like home.

This is not to say that I’ve resolved to pack my bags and say cheers – my weird and crooked little path is too tied up in my homeland – but it’s quite a thing to be made aware of.

Melbourne in particular has a food-culture, quirk and a brand of ‘interesting shit’ coming out the wazoo like it has an endless supply and they don’t really get what rationing means. The suburb defined by the rod-straight 2 km stretch of Brunswick street is home to more creative, gastronomic and drinking delights in one little patch than I’ve ever seen before, and it’s almost overwhelming, and that’s not even getting into enclaves like St Kilda or the city center.

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Then, take a deep breath dear possums (see what I did there?) because – having been to food markets in France, Italy, England and of course at home – the Queen Victoria market in Melbourne is probably one of the best I’ve ever been to. No wonder this city is fast (and justifiably) getting a massive reputation as becoming one of the food capitals of the world.

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I didn’t nearly have enough time to look at it all properly, but at least I know that I can go back.

All of this has an uncomfortable sense of rant about it, so I’m going to stop – and just say that Australia is really not what you think, which – funnily enough – is exactly what we like to say about South Africa.

Memories, in a pot.

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Everyone has that dish, that thing that someone used to make for them – whether it was mom or granny or whoever. And however good it actually was, there’s always a fair amount of rhapsodizing that goes on about how no-one’s ever going to make it the same, and it just brings back the memories of whatever-the-fuck.

The funny thing is that I’ve recently started finding out that it’s not only the eaters whose memories get tickled by specific bits of cooking. It’s the cookers as well.

It would be impossible for me to not think of the circumstances around which I first made a specific thing and for the memories of those circumstances to be brought up the next time I make it. It happens with everything; songs, smells, sounds, pictures, tv shows we remember, movies, books – whatever. And for me I’m quickly beginning to realize that cooking is perhaps one of the most powerful of them all.

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I had a couple of people around for Sunday lunch recently, and the things I chose to make were all to remind me of something specific, things I wanted to remember, and cooked to do so.

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Those memories are just for me, but if I’ve got a unusually stupid look on my face (more than normal I mean) when you’re eating something I’ve made, then maybe just don’t make any loud noises around me for a little bit. And if I’m trying something new, then best you pull out all the stops, because a new memory is busy being made.

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Champagne Risotto (for 4 as a main meal, 6 as a light starter)

This is dead easy, and the simplicity of the flavors makes it a wonderfully clean autumn dish. I love how risotto doesn’t actually need a lot done to it to be an excellent and satisfying experience.

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1 cup of arborio rice
2 cups of champagne/method cap classic/sparkling wine (semi-sweet)
1 red onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 handful grated Parmesan
1 handful gated mozzarella
1 generous handful of asparagus tips
About a liter of water, on standby
Juice of half a lemon
Salt
Pepper
a splash of olive oil

What to do

In a large pan, heat the olive oil, then add the chopped onion and garlic. Stir over the heat until softened and fragrant, then add the rice to the pan. Carry on stirring so that the rice is coated in the juices of the onion and olive oil, then add a cup of the champagne. Riding the heat, stir the rice until the champagne has been absorbed.

Now the trick is to just add water, one cup at a time – stirring all the while – so that whenever the rice looks like its getting dry it gets more water to absorb.

After about twenty minutes of stirring and adding water, you should have a pan of plump, juicy rice with a thickish sauce. At this point, give it a taste, and add salt and pepper accordingly. I like using slightly sweeter champagne for this recipe, which means having to season quite generously to balance it out, so just make sure you taste it and work accordingly.

In a separate pan, heat another splash of olive oil, add the asparagus tips, season them salt and pepper and squeeze over the lemon juice. Let them roll around in the heat for about five minutes.

As a final step for the risotto, add the second cup of champagne, the cheese and stir until all absorbed until nice and cheesy and thick but not pasty. Check the seasoning again, and adjust if necessary. Top it with the asparagus, and serve straight from the pan.

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thanks to the always Instagram-ready Candice-Reney for these

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my cat is not mad, I promise