Balls.

20120523-103926.jpg

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

20120523-104037.jpg

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.

20120523-104140.jpg

Cheers Lapa Fo, you will be missed.

Advertisements

Memories, in a pot.

20120313-085945.jpg

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.

20120313-090053.jpg

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.

20120313-090214.jpg

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.

20120313-090400.jpg

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.

20120313-090527.jpg

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.

20120313-090649.jpg

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

20120313-090929.jpg

my cat is not mad, I promise

Chicken Nerdvana

Disclaimer!

Okay, all you heart-ridden Valentines boobies. Listen up. There will be none of that Hallmark rubbish in this little corner of the Internet today. It will be business as usual here, which means at least one dubious joke about genitals, a picture of something in my only good serving bowl, and a couple of pop-culture references that are hopelessly out of date, which just illustrates how direly out of touch I am.
Right. Carry on.

This how how they should have taught me topography at school

While some people might say ‘let Jesus take the wheel’, I’m usually more comfortable when my wheel is being taken by a 15th-level Barbarian with a Greatsword +5.

And by ‘wheel’ I don’t mean…okay never mind.

Surprise. I can be a gigantic raging nerd sometimes, but here’s the thing; the older I get the less inclined I am to hide it. Back in the day, it was a one-way ticket to getting either my head stuffed down a toilet or having to lick a door handle, but these days it’s a totally viable alternative to, like…having children. Or pets. Or a job.

I mean, in a world where pushing a ‘like’ button on the bajillionth picture of a cat doing something cute can be passed off as a legitimate way to spend one’s free time, I feel I can be totally left alone to read books that have wizards with pointy hats on the cover and play boardgames that require me every now and again to say something like: “Agarthan the Bard casts Flaming Hands at the Orc leader.” You know?

Better than scraping clean the grouting in the guest-shower I say.

So, when about two weeks ago I stumbled onto this:

aaaaah.....choirs of angels choirs of angels choirs of angels

…there was absolutely no way I was going to leave it there for some sweaty fifteen year-old to buy for his friends to touch (sweatily), rather than me buying it for mine (look, we’re just as sweaty, but the reason for that is all the expensive drugs we take, not pre-teen slime). So I pushed aside the gaggle of rank, shiny kids who were trying to pool R10 notes and some guy who swore he could remember the numbers off his mom’s credit card, and got that thing in a plastic bag and into my car before any of them knew what hit them.

It’s like bullying, just with money.

The nice thing about playing these types of games when you’re (slightly) more grown up. Is that the catering is always a lot better. For one thing, we can drink whiskey now, and our perception of what makes a legitimate party snack has progressed beyond “I don’t really care, as long as its got melted cheese on it.”

For example, as a kid, our gaming menu was always inevitably something along the lines of:

Soya mince bolognese.
Cheese Curls (or, Cheese Hurls as we thought we were so clever calling them)
Coke (a cola, not the other kind)
Unfathomably sweet tea and Marie biscuits.
Scully and Mulder impressions.

So, because people need to eat when they’re locked in a death-struggle for the Iron Throne (and I mean something other than the flesh and blood of their enemies), some wine was thrown on the table, a pot and pan or two were theatrically rattled in the kitchen, and people happily got their fantasy ass-kick on.

Chicken Nerdvana (adapted from a Jamie Oliver recipe in the 2011 round-up edition of his magazine)

This recipe makes truly the best sauce ever, and the use of the limes really does give it a fantastically fresh zing which I reeeally like.

"I think I can I think I can," said Jono's one good serving dish.

Ingredients


a whole chicken, cut into pieces
1 large carrot, chopped up
1 large stick of celery, chopped up
1 large red onion, chopped up
1 large handful of button mushrooms, quartered
A splash of olive oil
1 large bunch of thyme, bound up with string
500 ml of chicken stock
1 glass of white wine
5 bay leaves
1 knob of butter
2 egg yolks
40 g of flour
1 cup of cream
The juice of one lime
2 tbsp dried tarragon
Salt
Pepper

What to do


Heat some olive oil in a pan, season your chicken pieces with a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper, and brown them until golden. Set aside on a plate lined with paper towel to drain off the excess oil.

Pour some of the olive oil and chicken juices from the frying pan you’ve just used into a fresh, large pot, heat and add the celery, onion and carrot. Fry it all up until soft and fragrant – which should take about five minutes or so. Then pour in the wine and vigorously simmer that off until about reduced in volume by half. Now bung in the thyme, the mushrooms and the bay leaves, stir it up and let that simmer for another ten minutes. Finally add the chicken pieces and the stock, reduce the heat so that it settles into a gentle bubbling, and leave it for an hour.

Once that’s done, remove the pot from the heat and strain out the liquid into a bowl to set aside (you can also fish out and throw away the thyme at this point, it’s done it’s job). Gently heat the butter in a saucepan, add the flour and quickly stir together. When it’s just foaming and starting to bubble, mix in the liquid from the chicken that you’ve strained out. Whisk it up and let that roll for ten minutes or so until silky.

While that’s on the go, whisk together the two egg yolks with the cream and then sprinkle in the dried tarragon. Combine this with the chicken liquid mix, stir it up good and proper, and as a finishing kick, add the lime juice. Season to taste, then pour over the chicken pieces and vegetables. Top with a bit of chopped parsley if you fancy, and serve it with potatoes and crusty bread to a room full of hungry nerds doing this:

This is what slaughtering your cowardly enemies looks like at my house on a Sunday.