Friday, 29 January 2010

Pretty Little Individual Tuna Salads for Children

I'm trying to convince my daughter that a fresh, crunchy salad can be a meal on its own, and that crisp things are exceedingly delicious and well worth eating. It's not that Elinor is averse to salady stuff: like many kids, she happily eats lettuce, cucumber, cherry tomatoes and carrot sticks. But she pales at the sight of a huge platter of salad, and grudgingly eats just a little. Perhaps the problem is that an overflowing bowl of salad is just too intimidating for a 10-year-old child.

Plate by David Walters

Recently, having lunch at Café Bon Bon in Franschhoek, I was served a little leafy salad encircled by a cucumber slice, and it looked so pretty that I thought I'd use the same trick with a protein-packed tuna salad. (Look, I normally wouldn't be seen dead stacking food in a tower, but I reckon this presentation might just get Ellie to chow down.)  We'll see when she gets home from school.

You will need one of those cheffy food rings to form this salad: if you don't have one (and why should you, indeed?) take the bottom off the tuna tin you've just opened, and use that as a ring.

Pretty Little Individual Tuna Salads for Children

For four salads: 
2 large free-range eggs
1 English cucumber
iceberg or any other crispy lettuce, torn into small pieces
a handful of cherry tomatoes, halved
a can of tuna, drained of its oil
8 calamata olives, stoned and halved
75 g feta cheese
chives, finely snipped

For the dressing:
4 Tbsp (60 ml) olive oil
the juice of a lemon
a pinch of salt
1 tsp (5 ml) honey

First make the dressing: whisk all the ingredients together and set aside. Slide the eggs into gently boiling water and cook for 9 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and set it under a trickling cold tap for 3 minutes. Rinse the cucumber and cut a 5mm horizontal slice off the long side to expose the flesh. Using a mandolin or sharp knife, cut the cucumber into horizontal slices, each about 1-2 mm thick. Place a metal ring (or similar) on a small plate and firmly press the cucumber slice around the inside to form a circle (you may need to use two overlapping slices, depending on the length of your cucumber). Cut any left-over slices into matchstick-sized pieces. Fill the cucumber ring with a mixture of lettuce, cucumber sticks, tomatoes, tuna, olives and feta. Now gently slide the food ring up and off. Repeat with the other three salads. Peel and quarter the eggs. Top the salads with the warm egg quarters and a scattering of snipped chives. Trickle the dressing over the top of each salad. Serve immediately.

Makes 4 salads.
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Tuesday, 26 January 2010

David Walters, master potter of Franschhoek

I consider myself lucky to be the niece of one of South Africa's preeminent master potters, David Walters. Not only is he a good uncle (and good uncles, like Proper Aunts, are important) but he is also a designer-craftsman of astonishing skill.

In his studio in Franschhoek, Dave produces wheel-thrown porcelain, specialising in smoke-fired ceramics and fine dinnerware.

In recent years, he's become all the rage among local restaurateurs who've commissioned him to make bespoke pieces - designed in consultation with the chefs - to showcase the fine cuisine for which Franschhoek has become so famous.  Among the award-winning restaurants David's designed dinnerware for are Reuben's, Rust en Vrede and Le Quartier Français.

David Walters
Dave invited me to a raku workshop the Sunday before last, and while we were waiting for the kiln to heat, he demonstrated his throwing techniques.

I've watched him do this dozens of times over the years, but once again was entranced watching a lump of characterless porcelain clay beneath the hands of a master craftsman: rippling and swelling like a living substance and then transmuting, in a matter of minutes, into a practical, long-lasting work of art.

Here's a video I took of Dave throwing a beautiful salad bowl > 

As David pointed out in his speech, the act of making a clay vessel is one of the oldest human technologies, and I was fascinated to think that his extraordinary skills were built upon techniques stretching back in an unbroken line through the millennia.

On the same day, David presented me with the salad platter I commissioned last year (see below). Isn't it beautiful? I had asked him to put the words 'Eat up your greens' on the perimeter of the platter, but he went further and added this delicate leaf detailing, which is achieved by painting on the surface of the clay with wax, and then, when the wax has dried, rubbing away at the unmasked areas.

At the same time, I raided his shelves and borrowed a pile of plates and bowls which I'll be using in the future for the photographs on this blog.

David Walters Platter
This beautiful salad platter by David Walters.  The salad consists of sliced roasted fillet,
boiled baby potatoes, lettuce and feta, with a light lemon-garlic vinaigrette.

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Sunday, 24 January 2010

Prickly Pear Granita, and a scorpion

Prickly Pear GranitaI have prickles, spikes and burny things on my mind today.  Last night, my son discovered a large scorpion skulking (with intent, I imagined) in my dog's food bowl.

I thought we might see the odd critter in our new garden - which is tucked  up against a mountain - but I hadn't figured on scorpions, and am going to think twice now about walking barefoot in the garden at night.

Then, this morning, I was alarmed when my husband complained that he was burning and itching all over: had - shudder - a scorpion burrowed into the bedclothes?  Then I remembered that yesterday my daughter had -  in the interests of science, you understand -  'tested' my canister of pepper spray .  I'd laughed it off, and told her to wipe up any residue. 'What did you clean up the mess with?' I asked her now, the penny slowly dropping.  'With dad's bath towel!' she yelled.

Finally, scratching in the fridge for breakfast, I found a big bag of prickly pears I'd bought a few days ago and forgotten about. They were the last thing I wanted to touch, feeling as creepy and crawly as I did, but I am just smitten by this most beautiful and refreshing fruit (see my earlier post) so I put on a pair of gloves and turned them into a granita. This is a delicate ice with an ethereal flavour: so easy to make and  perfect for a hot day.

Foodista Cookbook Winner

Prickly Pear Granita

1 cup (250 ml) sugar
2 cups (500 ml) water
4 chilled prickly pears, peeled (click here for peeling tips)
the juice of a lemon

Place a large, flat metal dish (a clean roasting pan is ideal; a ceramic one will do) in your freezer and turn the freezer to its lowest setting. Put the sugar and water in a saucepan and bring to the boil, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar. Boil for 5 minutes, remove from the heat and allow to cool completely.

Peel the prickly pears, chop roughly and place in a blender. Blend to a thick pulp. Measure the pulp, place it in a bowl, and add the equivalent amount of cooled sugar syrup (keep the rest in the fridge for future ices). Stir in the juice of a lemon.

Pour the mixture into the frozen dish, which should be smoking cold by now, and place back in the freezer. After about half an hour, or when the mixture starts to get slushy, scrape and scratch the mixture with a fork to form crystals. Continue scraping and scratching every twenty minutes or so, so you end up with a pile of icy, fluffy, crystalline flakes. Set a timer so ensure that you don't forget to scrape: if you do, the mixture will harden and you will have to start all over again.

Half an hour before serving, put some martini glasses or small dessert bowls in the freezer. Pile the granita into the cold glasses and serve immediately. Garnish with a scorpion. Kidding.

Makes about 500 ml; serves 4.

The scorpion I found in my garden

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Thursday, 21 January 2010

Sour Cream Cheesecake with Fresh Redcurrants

How, you may well ask, did I get my hands on these glorious fresh redcurrants? I've never, ever seen this quintessentially British summer fruit in a South African supermarket or greengrocer nor, indeed, on a bush.

Until a week or so ago, when I saw a little box of them at my local Woolworths. I made a lunge for them, blanched at the price and then, after a brief wrestle with my conscience, crossly put them back on the grounds that it's not very greeny-beany to buy stuff that's been flown in from Europe.

But I now discover that these are local redcurrants, grown near Porterville in the Western Cape, and in season for the next six weeks.

This intelligence came from my mate Trevor, blueberry grower and fruit-packer, and his wife Cindy, number one fan of this blog. Just a week after showering me with blueberries, she, bless her cotton socks, gave me two boxes of redcurrants. (Cindy saw on Facebook that I was on my way to see my uncle in Franschhoek on Sunday and, as she was having lunch nearby, got into her car and waylaid me on the road homewards to press upon me the fresh fruit.

(Reminds me of  Monty Python's Self-Defence Against Fresh Fruit sketch: 'Fresh fruit not good enough for you, eh? Well let me tell you something lad! When you're walking home tonight and some great homicidal maniac comes after YOU with a bunch of loganberries, don't come cryin' to me!')

Can there be a more beautiful breed of berry? I was tempted to bake them into the filling of this cheesecake, and then thought of making a glowing red jelly to top the cake, but honestly I think they are so luscious on their own that all you need do is drape them on top of the cake, and pop them onto your tongue between mouthfuls of cheesecake.

Here is my mum's old recipe for Sour Cream Cheesecake. I used low-fat Woolies cream cheese in this recipe, but go ahead and use full-fat if that's what your heart desires. I have reduced the amount of sugar in this recipe from a cup to three-quarters of a cup; use the full amount if you have a sweet tooth.

The original recipe calls for a teaspoon of lemon juice and the finely grated zest of a lemon, but as the redcurrants are tart enough on their own, I've flavoured mine with vanilla and just a whisper of cinnamon.

Sour Cream Cheesecake with Fresh Redcurrants

For the biscuit base:
¾ packet (about 150 g) plain sweet biscuits (Marie biscuits, or digestives)
½ cup (125 ml/125 g) very soft butter

For the filling:
500 g (2 tubs) low-fat cream cheese
1 cup (250 ml) sour cream
3 large eggs
2 Tbsp (30 ml) cake flour
a pinch of salt
3/4 cup (190 ml) white sugar
1 tsp (5 ml) vanilla extract
½ tsp  (2.5 ml) cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 160ºC. Crush the biscuits to a coarse powder in a food processor fitted with a metal blade, or place them in a plastic bag and pulverise them with a rolling pin. Put the crumbs in a mixing bowl, add the soft butter and mix well.  Press the mixture lightly into the base of a 22-cm, greased springform cake pan. Set aside.

Tip the cream cheese and sour cream into a mixing bowl and whisk in one of the eggs, to slacken the mixture. Now add the remaining eggs and continue whisking until you have smooth, lump-free mixture. Add the flour, salt, sugar, vanilla extract and cinnamon and stir well to combine. Pour the mixture over the prepared crumb base. Tap the sides of the pan sharply with the back of a knife to pop any air bubbles.

Put the tin on a baking sheet and place in the middle of the oven. Bake at 160ºC for an hour to an hour and a quarter (this will depend on the efficiency of your oven. It is done when it is slightly risen, developing small cracks at the edges, lightly freckled with brown, and still wobbles reluctantly when you give it a shake). Turn off the oven and allow the cheesecake to cool completely in the oven.

Remove from the tin, place on a plate, and drape artistically with redcurrants.

Makes one 22-cm cake.

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Saturday, 16 January 2010

Hout Bay Linefish Simmered in a Spiced Coconut Gravy

Tamarind water adds a lovely tartness to this creamy, delicately spiced curry. This is a subtle dish which I think is just right without any extra heat, but if you like a bit of a kick, you can spike it with a few chopped fresh green chillis.

I was reluctant to put the word 'curry' in the title of this dish, because an artfully spiced curry is, to my mind, a work of sheer culinary magic, and best left to experts.

 Now that I've provided this disclaimer, I can tell you that I loved this dish - which I came up with after consulting numerous books by my favourite experts, namely Madhur Jaffrey, Atul Kochhar and others - so much that I couldn't stop eating it.

I had made enough for six, but - predictably - my fish-loathing family turned their noses up, without even tasting it.  So I ate it for lunch and supper for two days running, and had the dregs on toast this morning for breakfast. (I know, I know. But these flakes of fresh fish bathed in spicy, aromatic, creamy gravy were just what my brainbuds desperately craved, and who am I to refuse them?).

This dish is better the day after it was made, but do reheat it very gently to avoid over-cooking the fish.

You can use any robust, firm-fleshed, fresh fillets of fish in this dish; I used kabeljou from my local Hout Bay Harbour.  This is my all-time favourite fish, but I try not to buy it too often, as it is ranked orange (meaning 'use with caution') on the South African Seafood Sustainable Initiative (SASSI).

[Postscript, 7 May 2012:  I no longer cook with orange-listed seafood.]

As always, very fresh spices make all the difference to a dish like this.  Please use plenty of oil in which to brown the onions: you will not achieve the right depth of flavour if you use just a lick.  You can always drain off the oil once they're cooked.

Compressed tamarind pulp is available at Asian spice shops. If you can't find it, add 4 teaspoons of prepared, bottled tamarind sauce or the same quantity of freshly squeezed lemon juice, plus 200 ml water, to the dish.

Hout Bay Linefish Simmered in a Spiced Coconut Gravy

1.2 kg fresh, firm-fleshed white fish fillets, skinned and boned
4 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
a thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger, grated
1½  tsp (7.5 ml) red chilli powder
1½  tsp (7.5 ml) turmeric
1 tsp (5 ml) salt
30 g pressed tamarind, soaked for 20 minutes in 250 ml warm water
100 ml vegetable oil (sunflower or canola)
1½  tsp (7.5 ml) mustard seeds, brown or blonde
1½  tsp (7.5 ml) whole fenugreek seeds
2 whole cloves
3 whole white cardamom pods
1 quill of cinnamon, about  7 cm long, or a thumb-sized piece of cassia bark
2 large onions (about 400g), peeled and very finely chopped (or grated, or whizzed to a slush in a food processor)
340 ml coconut milk
2 t (10 ml) powdered cumin
freshly milled black pepper

To serve: 
a handful of chopped fresh coriander [cilantro]

Remove all bones from the fish and cut into large (about 5cm x 5cm) chunks.  Place in a bowl and add half the prepared garlic and ginger (reserve the rest) , and all the chilli powder, turmeric and salt.  Toss so that every cube of fish is well coated with the seasonings, cover, and place in the fridge for 30 minutes.

Put the cube of tamarind pulp in a bowl and add 200 ml warm water. Set aside to soften for 20 minutes.

Heat the oil in a large saucepan, and when it is very hot, but not smoking, add the mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, cloves, cardamom and cinnamon quill. Sizzle the spices in the hot oil until the mustard seeds begin to pop and crackle. Add the onions and the reserved ginger and garlic, turn down the flame and fry over a brisk heat for 10 minutes, or until the onions are a rich golden brown.  (At this point, you can, if you want to, tip the mixture into a sieve and drain off any excess oil.)

Using your fingers, mash and crush the now-softened tamarind pulp into its soaking water.  Strain the water into a little clean bowl, pressing down hard on the pulp to extract all the juices. Discard the pulp and add the tamarind water to the fried onions, along with the coconut cream, cumin and milled black pepper.  Stir well and simmer for 15 minutes.  Remove the marinated fish from the fridge and tip it into the sauce. Toss gently to combine.  Turn up the heat and simmer, over a low flame, until the fish chunks are just cooked through (about 7 minutes). Do not stir or mash, as this will disturb the fish chunks: rather give the pan a gentle shake.

Serve hot, with a shower of chopped fresh coriander, and Basmati rice.

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Friday, 15 January 2010

Lemon Butter Cake with Blueberries

Here's a second recipe using the wonderful blueberries I was given last week. This light, moist butter cake, scented with lemon zest and vanilla and topped with a crust of sugar and lemon juice, has been in my recipe file since I was in my early teens.

My mum, whose recipe it is, called it 'Lemon Nut Loaf' because the original contained pecan nuts. This lemon cake - and its variations - was popular during the 60s and 70s, and I am willing to bet that your mum or your grandma has a very similar recipe in her arsenal.

I have a particular nostalgia for this recipe because, on the morning my second son was born, I was seized, like a nesting hen, by a compulsion to clean the house from top to bottom, which involved a lot of waddling and gasping.  Then along came a fierce craving for lemon cake, and this was what I made. The cake had not been out of the oven ten minutes when I sat down on a chair and then leaped up again like a scalded cat, thinking I'd sat on the sharp end of a large carrot. I'll spare you the details of my labour, but my son was born an hour and a half later and I never got a chance to eat the cake.

This is very good served warm with cream, or custard, or both.  The recipe is easily doubled but you may need to add a little more milk to slacken the batter.

Lemon Butter Cake with Blueberries

90 g butter, softened
1 cup (250 ml) white sugar
the zest of 1 lemon
2 large eggs
1½ cups (375 ml) cake flour
a pinch of salt
1 tsp (5 ml) baking powder
½ cup (125 ml) milk
1 tsp (5 ml) vanilla extract
1 cup (250 ml) fresh or frozen blueberries

the juice of a lemon
½ cup (125 ml) white granulated sugar

Preheat the oven to 160ºC. Cream the butter and sugar together in a large mixing bowl until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs one by one and stir in the lemon zest. Sift the flour, salt and baking powder into the bowl. Add the milk and vanilla essence and stir gently until well combined. This is quite a stiff batter: add a little more milk if it seems too rigid. Butter a 22-cm cake tin or a loaf pan and line its base with greaseproof paper. Pour in the batter and smooth the top. Push any protruding blueberries deep into the batter. Bake at 160ºC for an hour, or until risen, firm, and golden on top. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 10 minutes. Take the cake out of its tin and put it on a plate. Mix together the lemon juice and sugar and, before the sugar has a chance to dissolve, drizzle it over the top of the warm cake.

Makes one 22-cm round cake. Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Smoked Mackerel and Chickpea Salad with Crunchy Chilli Breadcrumbs

A lovely mingling of textures and punchy flavours.
A big nutritional boost and long-lasting energy is what this salad delivers, but please don't be put off by just how good it is for you.

Flavour-wise, it's the equivalent of a a cluster bomb exploding on your palate.

Fortunately for me, I got to eat all of it (although not at one sitting, I hasten to add).

I adore all kinds of preserved fish, especially anchovies, smoked peppered mackerel, smoked salmon, kippers and Cape-Malay-style pickled fish. Perhaps this is because my grandmother was Norwegian.

Every time I try to introduce these delicacies to our family menu, there is an outcry and a holding of nostrils, closely followed by a wild outward stampede. 'Eeeeeu! Naaasty!' cry the teens. 'Gross!' wails my daughter. 'Not quite my thing,' says my husband, diplomatically.

I just can't understand their aversion. What could be more delicious than a sliver of salty anchovy, furred with fine bones, eaten straight out of its bottle, with the juice trickling down your chin? Or mashed into a stew to add a particular warm savouriness? Or how about those silken white Italian anchovies that occasionally show up in Woolworths and other food stores?

If you don't like smoked mackerel, use tinned-in-oil tuna, or seared fresh tuna. 

No, on second thoughts, make this with the mackerel, or don't make it at all.

Very fresh, aromatic powdered cumin and excellent paprika make all the difference to the dressing.

The crisped breadcrumbs strewn on the top of this salad are a pure indulgence. Leave them out if you are feeling virtuous.

Smoked Mackerel and Chickpea Salad with Crunchy Chilli Breadcrumbs

For the topping: 
3 slices of white bread
1 tsp (5 ml) cayenne pepper, or fine red chilli-pepper flakes
a pinch of salt

For the dressing:
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
juice of 2 lemons
100 ml olive oil
1 tsp (5 ml) powdered cumin
1 tsp (5 ml) good-quality paprika
1 tsp  (5 ml)  hot English mustard
salt and milled black pepper

For the salad:
2 tins of chickpeas, drained
4 10-cm-long stalks of young celery, sliced
6 purple spring onions, finely sliced
1 cup (250 ml) chopped fresh coriander
2 fillets of smoked, peppered mackerel

First prepare the breadcrumb topping.  Heat the oil in a frying pan. Tear the bread slices into little tatters and fry them in the hot oil for a minute or so, or until golden brown and crispy. Drain on a piece of newspaper or kitchen paper. Sprinkle with salt  and cayenne pepper. Set aside.

Now make the dressing.  Put all the ingredients in a little bowl and whisk well to combine. Finally, make the salad: put the chickpeas, celery, spring onions and chopped coriander into a mixing bowl. Pour the dressing over these ingredients and toss well to combine. Allow to stand for 10 minutes.

Tip the salad into a big serving platter. Take the skin off the skin of the mackerel fillets and remove any fine bones. Pull the flesh into flakes and scatter them over the top of the salad. Roughly crumble the fried bread bits over the salad.

Sprinkle with a little more paprika and olive oil and serve.

Serves 1.  Only joking.  Serves 4.  Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Vanilla-and-Mace-Scented Panna Cotta with Warm Blueberries

An enormous box of plump Ceres cherries and three punnets of dewy blueberries and luscious litchis arrived at my door on Saturday.  Hand-delivered, nogal, in a coolbox, by my new mate Trevor, who farms  blueberries in Stellenbosch and who also packages fruit for export and for top-end South African supermarkets. If this wasn't enough to make me emit hamster-like squeaks of delight, in walked Trevor's wife, Cindy, who is the Number One Fan of this blog, and whom I have never met in real life.  We fell into each other's arms like long-lost family friends (which, in a tangential way, we are).

Life is so curious. Some months ago I received a lovely chatty email from Cindy, a stranger, telling me that this blog had 'ruined' her first-ever holiday in Mauritius. Cindy, while reclining on the beach, picked up an issue of Femina (a South African women's magazine) and was intrigued by a feature piece about my blog. "I became quite desperate to see what the blog was all about," she told me in her email, "so I  toiled up to Reception and, once there, spend twenty Euros for the four hours' worth of Internet access on the hotel computer.  It was somewhat difficult for me to concentrate, after drinking two cocktails before 11am (then again, we were on the Serenity Plus All Inclusive Package!)

"So I phoned my 18-year-old son, whom we'd left back home in Stellenbosch, and asked him to check out the site and get back to me.

"Dumb thing to do. He got so inspired that he started cooking like a maniac and every night held a party for different friends to enjoy the fruits of his labours.

"I had left cash, and my credit card, with them in case of emergencies. Apparently cooking your recipes constituted an emergency.  I was dazed with the speed with which SMS alerts arrived from my bank notifying me of transactions.  I spent the week on tenterhooks and got home to find the following:
  • A sleeping son
  • A cross daughter (she put on weight licking out the bowls)
  • An almost empty fridge
  • An entirely empty booze cupboard and drinks fridge
  • 3 cross cats who had been ignored in the thrill of it all
  • My birthday  bottle of homemade Limoncello mysteriously gone missing
  • My credit card balancing on a huge pile of faked signature slips
  • A letter from my char that read " Hallo ther Ciny I is ver cross met eksra werk wat Nick se kosmaakery bring. [I am very cross about the extra work caused by Nick's food-making]. I take my hollidey neks week please 2 WEEK thankyou RACHEL".
"I suppose I should look on the bright side and beg you not to stop blogging because it's cheaper than buying Nick recipe books," she concluded.

I was delighted and flattered by Cindy's warm email (let's face it, blogging is vanity publishing) and we became virtual friends, via email and Facebook.  Shortly after that, Cindy sent her email to Femina magazine, and won a handsome suitcase when it became the star letter of the month.  Now here's the curious bit: my husband saw Cindy's name on an email in my inbox, and immediately recognised her name.  It turned out that they knew each other well, and were at school together at Bryanston High School during the late 1970s.

Anyway, it was lovely to meet her at last and for two days we have been feasting on fruit. I had no idea that blueberries were grown so extensively in South Africa - Trevor tells me that he sources blueberries from at least 18 different South African growers, and that the bulk of his own crop is exported to the United Kingdom.

I've only ever used blueberries in smoothies and muffins, so I promised Cindy that, to repay her in part for her  unswerving support of my blog, I'd come up with some blueberry recipes.

So, for starters, here is a delicate vanilla-and mace-flavoured panna cotta with blueberries.

Panna cotta so easy and quick to make that an 8-year-old could manage it, but it's vital to use just enough gelatine to achieve a light, trembling, barely set texture. I have used leaf gelatine in this recipe, which in my experience produces a more delicate jelly than powdered gelatine. You can - at last - buy leaf gelatine in South Africa (I bought mine in a Spar in Johannesburg; it's also available in specialist food stores) but if you can't lay your hands on some, you can use powder. I believe that, in general, two sheets of leaf gelatine are the equivalent of one teaspoon of gelatine powder (in which case this recipe would require 2 teaspoons, or 10 ml), but as I haven't tested this particular panna cotta using powder I can't vouch for the results.  I will make it again tomorrow using powder and give you a definitive measurement.

POSTSCRIPT: Here is that measurement: Use exactly 1½  tsp (7.5 ml) gelatine powder in place of the gelatine leaves. 

Vanilla-and-Mace-Scented Panna Cotta with Warm Blueberries
320 ml  full-cream milk
320 ml rich pouring cream
1 whole vanilla pod
1 blade of mace (or a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg)
100 ml white granulated sugar or caster sugar
4 leaves of gelatine (7 cm x 11 cm rectangles), or 1½  tsp (7.5 ml) gelatine powder
250 ml (1 cup) tepid water, for soaking

For the blueberries:
375 ml fresh or frozen blueberries
3 t (45 ml) white granulated sugar
the juice of half a lemon
4 T (60 ml) water

First make the panna cotta. Put the cream and the milk in a small saucepan. Split the vanilla pod in half, scrape out the seeds, and add the pod and seeds to the saucepan, along with the blade of mace. Bring gently to the boil, whisking now and then. Allow to simmer for a minute, then remove from the heat and lay a piece of clingfilm [saran wrap] directly over the surface of the liquid to prevent a skin forming.  Set aside for 15  minutes to allow the flavours to infuse.

In the meantime, fill a small bowl with a cup of  water and add the gelatine leaves, pressing down so that they are submerged. Set aside. Strain the cream/milk mixture through a sieve into a bowl and discard the flavourings.  Pour the mixture back into the pan, add the sugar and bring back to a gentle boil, stirring all the time to dissolve the sugar. After a minute remove from the heat. Scoop the gelatine leaves out of their water and squeeze out any excess water.  Put them into the hot cream and whisk lightly to dissolve the gelatine  Lightly oil 4 deep ramekin dishes or dariole moulds and pour the cream into them (you can also make this in a single dish or jelly mould).

Allow to cool on the counter for 20 minutes, and then refrigerate for at least 5 hours.

When you're ready to serve the dessert, put the blueberries in a sauce pan, add the sugar, lemon juice and water and bring gently to the boil, stirring frequently so that the sugar dissolves. As soon as the mixture begins to bubble, turn off the heat. Set aside to cool for 10 minutes.

Remove the panna cottas from the fridge. Fill a shallow bowl with very hot water and dip each dish in the water for 30 seconds (shorter if you're using metal moulds).  Use a sharp knife tip to loosen the sides of panna cottas and release the vacuum.  Now unmould them onto little flat plates. (The easiest way to do this is to place each little dish face-down on your - clean! -  hand and with the other hand smack its base sharply so that the jelly plops out onto your palm.)  Slide onto plates and serve with the warm blueberries.

Makes 5 small panna cottas.  Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Summer Linguine with a Cold Sauce of Poached Chicken, Tomatoes and Basil

A perfect lunch for a hot day: a chilled sauce of tender oven-poached chicken, cherry tomatoes, garlic and summer herbs poured over hot linguine. This is an easy dish, quickly put together, and more so if you poach the breasts in the morning and leave them to cool in their liquid until you're ready to use them.

Photograph by Michael Le Grange, from my book Scrumptious. Bowl by David Walters.
 Image © Random House Struik 2012

I have tried many methods of cooking chicken breasts, but this is the only one than results in perfectly tender and succulent flesh without a hint of rubberiness or stringiness. You could poach them in a saucepan, but this method guarantees perfect results and I can heartily recommend it.

This salad is lovely topped with a shower of crumbled peppered Feta cheese.

Summer Linguine with a Cold Sauce of Poached Chicken, Tomatoes and Basil

To poach the chicken:
6 large deboned, skinned chicken breasts
enough hot water to cover them
2 bay leaves
half an onion, thickly sliced
3 whole cloves
a carrot, roughly chopped
a few stalks of parsley
a slice of lemon

For the sauce:
a small bunch of flat-leaf parsley (or rocket, or both)
a small bunch of fresh basil
600 g ripe cherry tomatoes, halved, or sliced if they are big
4 spring onions, finely sliced
2-4 fat cloves garlic, peeled and crushed (to taste: I like it very garlicky)
80 ml fruity olive oil
2 Tbsp (30 ml) white wine vinegar
1 tsp (5 ml) Tabasco sauce (or a teaspoon of red chilli flakes)
1 tsp (5ml) salt
1 tsp (5 ml) white sugar
plenty of milled black pepper

To serve:
a packet of linguine or spaghetti
extra olive oil
crumbled peppered feta cheese [optional]

Heat the oven to 180 ºC. Season the chicken breasts with salt and pepper and put them in a single layer in a ceramic baking dish (don't pack them tightly). Add the bay leaves, onion, cloves, carrot, parsley and lemon slice, and pour over enough boiling water to just cover the breasts (about 500 ml). Place, uncovered, in the hot oven for 25 minutes.

Remove from the oven and poke a hole into the thickest end of a breast: it should be just cooked. If there's any trace of pinkness, place the dish back in the oven for another few minutes. Cover with clingfilm and allow the breasts to cool completely. (They should be refrigerated if they're not going to be used immediately).

Now make the sauce. Strip the leaves from half the parsley and basil sprigs and chop roughly (reserve the remaining sprigs).  Place in a mixing bowl and add the tomatoes, spring onions, garlic, olive oil, vinegar, Tabasco, salt, pepper and sugar. Toss well to combine.  Remove the chicken from its poaching liquid and, using your fingers, tear into pieces. Add the chicken to the bowl.  Now measure out 80 ml of the cool poaching liquid and add it to the bowl. Season generously with black pepper and toss again to combine. Cover the bowl and set aside in a cool place, or in the fridge, for 30 minutes to allow the dressing to soak into the chicken.

Cook the linguine in plenty of salted boiling water until just al dente.  Drain the pasta quickly and tip it into a large platter. Chop the remaining basil and parsley and add it to the sauce. Toss again, then pile the cold sauce on top of the hot pasta. Crumble the feta over the pasta, and drizzle with more olive oil. Serve immediately.

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Friday, 8 January 2010

Prickly Pear and Grape Salad with Frozen Rosemary Sugar

I don't know why prickly pears aren't more popular in this country. With their sweet perfumed taste, an elusive mixture of kiwi fruit and watermelon, and their gorgeous nubbly seeds, they are a rare treat in midsummer.

Prickly Pear and Grape Salad with Frozen Rosemary Sugar
My childhood friend Margaret, who lived on a smallholding near ours, introduced me to prickly pears, which grew on a towering cactus behind the barn.  I didn't believe her when she said you could eat the fruit from this plant, with its huge, frightening paddle-shaped leaves, so she put on some gardening gloves and picked a basketful.

She warned me not to touch them:  I did, of course, and later spent hours tweezing the little hairs from my fingertips. The next most important thing, Margaret, aged 8, told me, was that prickly pears should always be served ice-cold, and I have followed this instruction all my life.  I also still use her method of peeling the fruit, using a knife and fork (see recipe, below).

Those pears were a lovely green; these - from my local Pick 'n Pay - are an arresting deep pink that is so intense that my poor cheapie camera broke into a sweat trying to focus on them in poor light (hence the crappy picture).

In this recipe I have combined the pears with with tart, sweet, snappy seedless grapes - coming into high season in the Cape - and a dusting of sugar whizzed up with frozen rosemary needles.  I spied the frozen rosemary while I was rummaging in the freezer for the prickly pears, which I'd put there to cool off, and the combination of sweet pear with a hint of resiny rosemary is just delicious.

Prickly Pear and Grape Salad with Frozen Rosemary Sugar

10 ripe prickly pears [cactus pears]
a big bunch of crisp seedless red grapes
1/2 cup (125 ml) granulated white sugar
2 sprigs fresh rosemary, frozen overnight
the juice of half a lemon

Chill the pears by placing them in the freezer for 45 minutes (or overnight in the fridge). Push a fork into the flesh of each pear to secure it and cut off the top and bottom. Now, using a sharp knife, divide the skin of each pear into four quarters lengthways, cutting about 1 mm deep.

Using another fork, peel away each section of skin, which will come away easily if the pears are fully ripe.  Slice into discs. Halve the grapes and place all the fruit on a chilled platter. Sprinkle with the lemon juice and toss gently.

To make the rosemary sugar, strip the rosemary needles quickly from their stalks (they thaw fast) and place them with the sugar into the small chopping/coffee-grinding attachment on a blender (or use a mortar and pestle). Quickly blitz or pound to a fine dust. Don't worry if a few stray needles remain intact.  Take the dish to the table and serve the 'dust' separately: if you put it on beforehand, it will dissolve into the salad.

Serves 6 as a dessert.

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Thursday, 7 January 2010

Crispy Courgette 'Fritters' with a Gingery Lemon Dressing

Crispy Courgette 'Fritters' with a Gingery Lemon Dressing
I picked up a punnet of big, perfect courgettes yesterday and, seduced by their bright, tight, blemish-free skins, bought them with the intention of using them in a stir-fry. 

But they were rather lacking in flavour (which just goes to show that, in the world of courgettes, size isn't everything).

So I crumbed and frittered them, in a last burst of deep-frying before the January regime of weak thin gruel begins.

These should be served straight from the pan, hot and rustling, with the gingery vinaigrette as a dipping sauce.

Crispy Courgette 'Fritters' with a Gingery Lemon Dressing

10 medium-sized courgettes
1 cup (250 ml) very dry breadcrumbs (I used crushed Melba toast)
2 eggs, lightly beaten
a little flour
salt and milled black pepper
oil for deep frying

For the dressing:
2 Tbsp (30 ml) grated fresh ginger
2 Tbsp (30 ml) fresh lemon juice
1 Tbsp (15 ml) white wine vinegar
1 tsp (5 ml) Tabasco sauce
1 tsp (5 ml) sugar
½ cup (125 ml) fruity olive oil
1 tsp (5 ml) salt

First make the dressing. Put a sieve over a bowl, put the grated ginger in the sieve and with your fingers press down on the ginger to extract all the juice. Discard the pulp. Add all the remaining ingredients to the bowl and whisk well. Set aside.

Using a sharp knife, remove the stalks, and cut each courgette in half lengthways. Place the cut side down on a board and, holding the knife blade parallel to the board, and starting at the bottom, cut each half into neat lengthways slices about 3mm thick.  Or use a mandolin with an adjustable blade.

Get out three plates. Put the flour on one plate, the beaten egg in another, and the breadcrumbs on the third.

Heat the oil in a saucepan until it reaches 160 °C. (If you don't have a thermometer, click here for tips). Dip each slice first into the flour, then into the egg, and finally into the crumbs. Press down hard and then shake off any excess. Fry the slices, three to four at a time, for about a minute, or until the crumbs are crisp and golden. Drain well on kitchen paper and serve piping hot, with lemon wedges and the dressing in a separate bowl.

Serves 4 as a snack.

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Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Cape-style Crispy Spiced Battered Fish Bites

Rice flour, chickpea flour and beer give this spiced batter a lovely crispiness: as the nuggets hit the hot oil, the batter puffs up into a crunchy golden cage, while the encased cubes of fresh linefish are quickly cooked by the action of steam. It took me four attempts to find the right formula for the batter, and, in true Goldilocks fashion, the last option - namely, to abandon wheat flour and cornflour altogether - was the best.

Crisp battered fish is, to my mind, the food of the gods, but I very rarely make it at home because deep-fried food isn't exactly wholesome family fare, is it? A McRatburger-and-fries now and then is all my teens can expect in the deep-fried department. (Hah! There is no McDonalds in our new home town!)

I have called this 'Cape-style' because the fish comes from my local harbour, and because the batter contains some of the key spices and flavourings of Cape Malay cuisine.

Served with a cool avocado and coriander dip (but use yoghurt in place of the crème fraîche), this is a delectable snack for a festive occasion, and I promise your guests will fall on them like starving puppies. Do use very fresh, firm-fleshed fish, from which you have removed all the bones, and not frozen fish, which will turn to mush.

I find it easiest to deep-fry food (not that I'm the expert, but for what it's worth) in a small, deep saucepan over a gas flame. You can use a pan over an electric plate, or a domestic deep-fat fryer, but a naked flame is better because it allow you to regulate the heat with ease. For perfect results, I can recommend using a thermometer - I use a jam-making/candy thermometer - to keep the oil at a constant temperature of between 160°C and 170°C. If you don't have such a gadget, have a look at these tips for checking whether the oil is hot enough.

You can use ordinary cake flour, with a little cornflour added, for this recipe, but you will get a much crispier result using rice flour (available from health shops) and chickpea [gram/channa] flour (from Indian spice shops).

Cape-style Crispy Spiced Battered Fish Bites

For the fish:
1 kg fresh, firm-fleshed white fish fillets, deboned and skinned
3 cloves garlic, peeled and finely minced
a thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger, finely grated
2 tsp (10 ml) lemon juice
salt and milled black pepper
a little rice flour
oil for deep-frying

For the batter:
¾  cup (180 ml) rice flour
¾  cup (180 ml) chickpea [channa] flour
2 tsp (10 ml) cumin
2 tsp (10 ml) powdered coriander
1 tsp (5 ml) turmeric
1 tsp (5 ml) red chilli powder (or more, to taste)
1 ½  tsp (7.5 ml) salt
milled black pepper
1 x 330 ml can of ice-cold lager

To serve: 
lemon wedges
flaky sea salt
a dip of your choice (I can recommend my coriander and avocado dip)

First make the batter. Sift the rice flour and chickpea flour into a mixing bowl and add the spices, salt and pepper. Gently pour the beer over the dry ingredients and whisk lightly until you have a smooth, slightly puffy batter about the thickness of cream.  Don’t over-mix the batter. Place in the fridge for 10 minutes.

Cut the fish into 2-cm square cubes. Put the cubes in a bowl and add the garlic, ginger and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper and toss well to combine. Set aside for five minutes.

Warm a platter in the oven. Heat the oil in a small, deep saucepan, until it reaches 160°C. Put a little rice flour on a plate. Roll each fish cube in rice flour, dust well to remove the excess and, using a fork or a pair of tongs, dip the fish into the batter so that it is well coated. Gently lower the nuggets into the oil (five at a time is about right) and cook for a minute and a half to two minutes, or until puffy, crisp and golden. Fish the nuggets out of the oil in the order in which you put them in, using a slotted spoon, and drain well on kitchen paper. Place them in the warm oven while you fry the rest.

Serve piping hot with lemon wedges and a dip.

Serves 6-8 as a snack. 

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