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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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.

You see that Prawn? Now kiss it.

 

A fate no sea-creature should be ashamed of - on a plate with lemon.

Curing emotional stress with food is either the best idea in the world or a one-way ticket to not fitting in your pants. But you know what? Fuck it, that’s what wizened Chinese tailors are for.

Because, lets face it – what with everyone being angry at the fun half of Europe for refusing to allow the rest of the world to just get on with its financial recovery, boy bands re-uniting all over the place like reject circus clowns and the Pentagon being unable to figure out their response to the clear and present danger of rubbish 3D movies – what the hell is there left that’s good in the world, if not stuffing your face?

Comfort food is traditionally one of those topics that’s trotted out during the winter months with glowingly photoshopped picture of stews  (giant chunks of sheep swimming with manly bits of carrot and whatnot), artfully torn hunks of peasant bread and pies that were initially invented to feed a burly miner for an entire day, but which are now generally wolfed down as a warm-up to a main-course of Bourbon-soaked ribs (mmmm… ribs) – but I reject this thoroughly weatherist idea of ‘comfort food’ as only being a meat-bombardment-that’s-meant-to-insulate-you-against-ridiculous-Northern-Hemisphere-winters-that-are-literally-trying-to-freeze-your-balls/wobbly-bits-off-while-you’re-not-looking, and instead suggest that comfort food is whatever the hell makes you feel better about yourself when life has slapped you in the face Days of our Lives-style and you’re feeling pretty kak about it all.

And obviously – when you go by that definition, everyone’s idea of what that might actually be is going to be totally different, and more often than not, delightfully irrational. For example, when I was a kid, it was this bizarre dehydrated soya mince stuff called Toppers (it doesn’t exist anymore, possibly because someone found out that it was actually made of the ancient remains of mummified Pharaohs).  If ever I was miserable  (and I was a 9 year-old, 3’2” vegetarian with allergies to all wheat and dairy – so that was fairly common) – a packet of this stuff would be hauled out and glooped over a baked potato – and it never *ever* failed to cheer me up. Go figure.

So, having been in the doldrums fairly recently and with no soya products near at hand – I turned to the other thing that possibly makes me happier than anything else in the world (and that includes Youtube clips of kittens) – seafood.

No one could ever accuse a prawn of being the cuddliest of animals – in fact they sort of look like mini alien-babies that are trying to eat your brain (damn you District 9), but some would argue that that’s what makes them all the more satisfying to eat by the bucketload.

So, repeat after me class – “When Forlorn,  Eat a Prawn!”

Ingredients

For 2/3 people

Marinade

1 tsp John West minced garlic

1 tsp John West minced chilli     * just a quick word about this stuff – it is my newest discovery and seriously, seriously fucking amazing. Try your best to find it if you can, it’s totally totally worth it (I’m repeating words so you know I must mean it). But if you can’t or you’re too lazy, which is fine too, finely chop up 1 large clove of garlic and one fat fresh chilli, de-seeded instead – that’ll do the trick just as well…

2 large ripe tomatoes (cut into quarters)

1 onion (also cut into quarters)

a handful of fresh basil

a couple of stalks of fresh oreganum, leaves stripped (chuck the stalks after)

zest and juice of 1 lemon (don’t throw away the rind – you’re going to use it!)

1 tbspn brown sugar

1 tbspn tomato paste

salt

pepper

Prawns for 2/3 (only you know how much you can eat) – cleaned, but with the shell on (get these from a fishmonger, they’ll be fresher, cheaper, bigger and all the more satisfying – and you can ask them to clean them and remove all the veiny bits)

What to do

This is so easy it’s not even funny,  either in a large bowl or in a food processor, lob in all the marinade ingredients and either using a handheld blitzing stick (if you’re going the bowl route) or the pulse setting on your food processor, reduce it all to a thick paste. At this point taste it, no matter how unappetizing it may look – dip your finger in and give it a lick.  You might find you want a bit more salt or pepper or that there isn’t enough lemon or whatever – so now’s the time to find out and make the adjustments! (and if you’re feeling like it’s missing just…something, add a shake or two of thai fish sauce – that should sort it out).

Get the prawns into a deep-ish baking tray that’ll comfortably hold them all and cover with the marinade and let them swim in it for about 20 minutes or so. Don’t overdo it though, you want them to be nicely coated – not drowning.  Also, cut the remains of the lemon you used in the marinade into quarters and nestle them in there as well.

Get the oven up to about 200〫C, bung in the tray of prawns and leave them there until they’re pink and sizzling – no more than about 20 minutes worth of cooking.

And then, this is the bit where you get to do whatever you want really, because you can serve these with pasta or potato wedges or even rice or heated flatbreads if that’s your speed. This is totally your comfort-scenario, not mine.

Comfort Food

Okay so it’s winter. Well, let’s just say that it’s the mildly cooler version of “hot” that we experience in South Africa which, for lack of a better description, we call Winter (unless you live in Cape Town and then it’s just wet all the time).  And suddenly it seems that all anyone can talk about when it comes to the colder months is “comfort food” – because apparently having to wear a jersey is traumatic enough that we require comforting. You see, I’ve never really understood why, when confronted with the idea of “comfort food” the default reaction is to hand over a stew with beans in it (see The Totally Fake Cassoulet) or some kind of dessert with enough hot fudge to constitute a CIA interrogation technique. Or a bowl of soup. Because, personally I’m way more comforted by a packet of niknaks and a massage from a small Thai woman, but you know…that’s neither here nor there.

Ultimately, I’ve always really thought that ‘comfort food’ needs only two qualities to qualify: a) that it be hot, and b) there needs to be lots of it.
And so, with that rather difficult set of criteria to meet, here’s my ultimate top 5 comfort-food list: 1) Ribs 2) Ribs) 3) Mashed Potato 4) Ribs 5) Chutney niknaks and dip and a small Thai woman.

And so, because no-one at the niknaks place will tell me how they make those bad-boys, here’s my (not really) Super Secret Ultimate Rib Marinade.

Before the ribs could jump, I totally ate them.
Before the ribs could jump, I totally ate them.


Sticky Ribs and Herbed Potatoes.

1 or 2 racks of Beef Ribs
4 or 5 Baking Potatoes
1 good handful of Rosa tomatoes
a healthy pinch of thyme leaves (fresh or dried)
a splash of balsamic vinegar
salt
pepper
olive oil

For the marinade

3 quarters of a cup of tomato sauce
1 quarter of a cup of honey
1 quarter of a cup of Jack Daniels (you CANNOT substitute this with a Scotch or Irish whiskey, use another Bourbon if you must)
2 tablespoons of Dijon mustard
1 large clove of garlic (finely chopped)

What to do:

Whisk together the tomato sauce, honey, whiskey, mustard and garlic. Rub the ribs thoroughly and let them baste for as long as you have patience for. I’d say a minimum of an hour though.

In the meantime boil the potatoes in salted water (of if you’re in a hurry – microwave them for about ten minutes).

Slice the Rosa tomatoes into halves, and in a bowl add a pinch of salt and pepper and splash with the balsamic, set aside.

Once done, slice the potatoes lengthways into fat chips, and in a baking-tray, combine with the thyme, a splash of olive oil, salt, pepper and the soaked tomatoes and grill on about 200ºC until turning golden brown. Now this is the best bit, arrange you marinated ribs on top of the potatoes and put it back under the grill, the juices will drip down and coat your potato/tomato mix coating them in a delicious meaty/marinated liquid. Keep basting and turning until the ribs are sticky/slightly charred, serve – and then encourage everyone to lick their fingers, a lot.