2011: The (pizza) wheels go grinding on

Well I’ve more than once intended to post pictures of groaning festive season tables over the last few weeks, but technical problems have gotten in the way of that venture (probably for the best, since no one really needed to see a picture of me wearing a paper hat that came out of a Christmas cracker). So this will instead by my customary grumpy “new year” post in which I express relief that all the silliness is over and we can get back to work/life/normal silliness.

So, back to work, which for me means continuing to read too much food media, and which at this time of year gets particularly annoying as most people are on the predictable “detox” curve. (Fortunately these are as predictably countered by detox-debunking stories like this one, though unfortunately stupidity is as stubborn as people who continue to buy and wear PowerBalance bracelets, or refuse to vaccinate their children (%^$#%$#%!!!!), even though it’s clearly bullshit – to paraphrase Penn & Teller once more).

Yes, January is predictably an echo of this remarkable cover from Time in 1972 – back in the days when such a magazine cost 50c! Perhaps there’s a correlation between stupidity and inflation (hmm, behavioral economists?).

OK fine, so I admit that I once again ordered a wagon for the first days of this year, and this time I remembered to specify that it should NOT be stocked with whisky. So I did glide into this new year feeling rather virtuous (and slightly more grumpy than usual). But I’ll be the first to reiterate the fact that the idea of modifying your behaviour based on the time of the year is just plain stupid. Anyone notice how the gyms were suddenly packed in the first weeks of December? Then they were blissfully quiet between Christmas and New Year when everyone was off stuffing their faces. Now they’re full of guilty people again. I had a good chuckle at the story related by someone who I meet there quite regularly, let’s call her X (because I don’t know her actual name) – X told me she had been working out next to some new and eager gym bunny getting “in shape” for Christmas, and when bunny asked her when she had started training, X replied “40 years ago”.

So, wha’ever – the time of sanctified excess is over, and yes, it’s time to get back to work. Now if people could just remember that salads do not mean punishment. Sometimes salads are the very nicest thing to eat, especially when it’s too hot to slave over home-made pizza. But sometimes that’s what you have to do, just like sometimes you have to cook on an open fire on the hottest day of the year. And when that happens, you better make sure you have some premium ice cream (preferably home-made, with lots of cream) to cool you down and send you into sweet dreams.

Sometimes on a working weekday when the sun is shining you also have to give it up and go have lunch somewhere nice by the sea. Just because you can, and because you better be grateful for the fact that you aren’t in Brisbane right now.

On that note, and with my best grumpy cheer, happy 2011. Let’s hope we make it past 21 May. Oh wait, that’s bullshit too. Bon appetit.

When it’s time to stake a claim

It was big news in the foodie world last month when the US magazine Cook’s Source reprinted a blogger’s story about apple pie without her permission. In fact it was big news on all sorts of levels that together combine to create a rather juicy narrative: first, the discovery; then the “apology” (in which the now much-maligned editor of Cook’s Source made the mistake of suggesting that the original author ought to have compensated her for fixing a piece which was ‘in very bad need of editing‘), and finally the dramatic finale: “The Internet Has Killed Cook’s Source. Lessons learned: don’t underestimate the power of the interwebs, aka don’t believe for a second that you can get away with anything as stupid as stealing in a glass house.

(Bonus irony: apple pie is apparently one of those recipes that is not, by law, copyrightable because it’s as American as, well, apple pie, and therefore, like the blue sky, is regarded as common property).

All of which is a roundabout way of seizing my (self-appointed) title of biscotti queen, more about which shortly. But first, my adventures with “Trevor’s” infuriatingly ubiquitous moist cappuccino cake. I still can’t figure out where Cell C (yes, the mobile phone company) is going with this, but whenever I do a recipe search (never for a moist cappuccino cake, by the way), somewhere on the page is a link to “the moist cake“. Click it, and you are directed to this silly photograph, plus a recipe for…a moist cappuccino cake.

Well it looks like a pretty nice moist cake, so with the Philosophe’s birthday coming up, I thought it the perfect opportunity to get Trevor out of my system.

Except, this is of course not Trevor’s cake at all – as the recipe rightly states, it originates from BBC’s Good Food magazine (and a brief Google search will take you to that very fount). Fair and well, but half the reason I wanted to make this cake is because of what it looks like in Trevor’s hands. In real life, however, it should look more like this:

(Naturally you should never trust a mobile phone company to provide you with correctly represented recipes).

Undaunted, I forged on and got on with my own version of the Good Food cappuccino cake. Important tweaks: soak cake layers in Ponchos “tequila coffee” instead of boring old coffee; fill cake with icing of mascarpone and orange-scented dulche de leche instead of boring old mascarpone with coffee; slather cake with Lindt’s fabulous Twist of Sea Salt chocolate. And then build an android munching an apple out of marzipan:

It was moist and boozy, like a good cake should be. Thanks to Trevor and Good Food, I think this was some of my best work yet.

To the biscotti. Unlike my various misadventures down the elusive brownie hole, I’ve only ever used one biscotti recipe. I am sorry to say I don’t remember where I found it, but it was something that I photocopied and then cut out to stick in my then-little private recipe collection. I’ve used the recipe so many times that I should know it off by heart, yet I return to that grubby page every time I make them – which is doubly silly given that I think I started tweaking the recipe the second time I made them (approx. 500 batches ago).

So here it is, “my” (tweaked) recipe for the best biscotti:

– Toast a 100g of almonds, set aside to cool, then chop roughly

– In one bowl, mix 240g flour + 180g sugar + 1 tsp baking powder + pinch of salt

– In another, lightly whisk 3 eggs + 1 tsp vanilla

– Add eggs to the dry stuff, mix a bit, and then add almonds just before it all starts coming together nicely. Now take off your wedding ring and get your hands in there to knead until all the dry stuff is just incorporated (tricky timing: overknead and it will become too sticky to form into nice logs)

– Form into two nice logs and bake at 150C for 50 mins. Turn oven down to 140C. Cool logs for 5 mins, then slice horizontally into pieces that look like biscotti. Place back in the oven for 15-17 per side. Cool, store, eat.

Uhm, as a final note, it should hardly need saying that the buck obviously does not stop at almonds. Go crazy. Add aniseed. Chocolate chunks. Cocoa powder for a full chocolate monty. Caramelised ginger. Pistachio and cardamom. Cashew and coconut. Add some bran and raisins, if that’s what you need. Just don’t blame me when someone tells you they are no longer biscotti. I do think these babies need nuts. I also think they need to be thick and hard enough to deliver a satisfying mouthful of crunch.

In fact I am apparently such a snob about this that a well-known restaurateur in this city has instructed his staff not to offer me the wafer-thin, nut-free “biscotti” they offer everyone with their coffee. I think he means to punish me. That’s pretty funny.

“If it’s green, it’s trouble. If it’s fried, get double.”

I do like that quote, which comes from a TV series called Wings – which I’ve never seen. But as it is so often, we learn by osmosis, and imagine that we know about things that we actually have no experience with. Just the other night, for instance, I had my first taste of Key Lime pie from a new joint called Knife (sister to the existing, and ever delicious, Fork). It was delicious, but I was disappointed, because it wasn’t as limey as I had expected – and I even said as much in a little online “review“. But who am I to know – maybe it was totally authentic. Then again, that probably doesn’t matter, because we are all critics now, so I apparently have the right to say whatever I goddamn choose (aah, the controversy: read all about it here, or here, or here – or right here in about a year’s time when I’ve finished writing a book about it).

Well, so the pie was good, but the smoky ribs were better, and the onion rings perhaps even better than that.

(Crunch and no-grease factor: 9/10)

I do love crunch. So imagine my pleasure when I was shopping this afternoon and stumbled on something I don’t think I’ve ever seen in this country:

No, those are not Granny Smith apples. They are the kind of thing that you see a recipe for, decide to make it, and then go into 15 different shops looking for the impossible: green tomatoes.

You can probably tell where I’m going with this (hint). And this time I even have experience. I once ate fried green tomatoes at the famous Mama Dips in North Carolina.

So if it’s green and fried, double trouble? That’s exactly how I like to roll.

The cookbook review no one asked me to write

Once, many many moons ago, I decided it would be a good idea to dye my hair red. I was always envious of dark-haired people because they could do all sorts of cool, subtle things with their hair colour. Auburn sheen, raven black… Not so if you’re a (natural!) blonde, because a) you are naturally pale, and b) blond eyebrows! Anyway, I took the plunge, and for a few days quite enjoyed looking like a freak. Besides, my flaming hair was altogether less weird than my dear nephew’s predilection for getting liquorice sprinkles on his soft-ice (pictured here, eating just that, next to his weird aunt).

Don’t get me wrong – I love liquorice. And being a Dane (when it so pleases me), I indeed have a healthy superiority complex when it comes to liquorice. Us Vikings, you see, like it strong and eye-puckeringly salty. Far from this sweet, cloying substance that goes by the name most other places. And neither of those have any rightful place near ice cream.

Well, things change. My hair is fortunately back to its natural pallor. I do enjoy Liquorice Allsorts (I will eat ALL the coconutty wheels), and I will gladly concoct almost any flavour of wacky ice cream. So when I recently borrowed a copy of Marcus Wareing’s Nutmeg and Custard, the very first recipe that caught my eye was for Liquorice Allsorts ice-cream. How delightfully tacky, from ‘Britain’s finest chef’, as the book’s cover declares.

(click on here if you dare try this at home)

And then there was of course the pork belly, looking all crispy and crunchy and meltingly tender:

So, last night, a little Wareing feast. Verdict? The belly was good, but it wasn’t “my” best. Partly because the crackling on ours got burnt to a crisp, which I’m sure I can’t blame Mr. Wareing for. But this recipe did allow me to try the low-and-slow-then-blast-the-crackling method, which is what they must do in restaurants – without blasting the crackling to carcinogenic levels of course. So if you want to cook your pig in advance, go for it. If not, then I’d still recommend Mr. Ottolenghi’s delicious blast-the-crackling-then-low-and-slow method, which always yields fantastic crackle. But the flavours here were properly righteous: think chilli, maple syrup, soya sauce, sticky sweet and sour.

The ice cream was… interesting. OK, so I tweaked it by blasting some nutella and maple syrup in the microwave for a hot fudgy sauce to go on top, and added a liberal splosh of Pernod to the mix (original recipe calls for Sambuca: same same). It was delicious, but in a decidedly weird way. In fact I’ve got no idea what the Philosophe thought of it; he didn’t say a word. But he did finish his bowl.

Still, I’ve decided that I like Marcus Wareing. Come on: tiramisu doughnuts, turkish delight cheesecake, cola jelly with vanilla ice cream… and a whole section on POPCORN, including parmesan and black pepper popcorn with prosciutto, sesame toffee popcorn bars… and a lot of one of my favourite things in the word: monkfish with chorizo crust, sweetcorn veloute with chorizo foam (!!), chorizo stuffed french toast with manchego…

Dear Santa,

You know what to do.

Dinner for one

It is rare that I eat alone – and not at all ideal, I might add, simply because try as I might, I cannot by myself conjure up the delightful banter that the Philosophe (co-)provides on a daily basis. Not to mention that it is nowhere near as interesting trying to impress myself with delicious food as it is hoping to impress others. But sometimes that determined path of life leads you somewhere where inventiveness and sparkling conversation have no place, and the next best thing is a big old bowl of popcorn smothered in wasabi butter (no sharing!), and of course a good measure of whisky.

The great thing about popcorn is that it (generally) lasts longer than a plate of food, which makes it ideal if you find yourself watching two hour-long episodes of food competition (basically cues for hedonic hunger). I caught the first episode of Top Chef “Just Desserts” , which is entertaining enough if you enjoy imagining yourself as one of a bunch of hopefuls (each of whom is, gringo-style, *certain* they “have what it takes” to be the best) running around looking for ingredients to make their signature dessert, only to be told 5 minutes into prep that they have to reconfigure it as a … cupcake. (What the hell is it with Americans and cupcakes?). Their next task is to conjure up the “most decadent” chocolate dessert ever, and for a few seconds I felt cold sweat on my neck as I imagined what I would come up with and couldn’t think of anything fantastic. But then I remembered that I will thankfully never be in such a silly contrived circumstance, so I relaxed and carried on chomping my popcorn.

Then I chomped my way through Masterchef USA, which reliably delivers good verbal abuse with Ramsay at the helm (and given that they did their silly cupcake challenge three weeks ago, was fortunately focused on real food again).

Tonight – alone again, alas – I’ll watch the Masterchef season finale, even though Gordon-bloody-Ramsay couldn’t stop himself from tweeting the bloody winner this morning. Sometimes social media sucks (like, when people use it stupidly and spoil the surprise for the rest of us. Or when *some* people apparently can’t refrain from producing ever-more offspring, and must announce it to the whole world).

But I think I”ll head down delicious lane again and do something righteous with a couple of eggs. Because all afternoon I’ve had to deal with the goodness of a kitchen smelling of Ottolenghi’s apple-olive oil-maple syrup (and cinnamon) cake, which promises to be a delicious mess:

I’ll be sticking to Mr. O’s advice to leave it to “mature” for a couple of days before tucking in. Which means this evening, just an omelette and a glass of wine with my Masterchef. And only one more sleep till I can start cooking for two again. As it should be.

Getting what you ask for

Anthony Bourdain once challenged the audience at one of his speaking gigs to “Go home and Google Sandra Lee and Kwanzaa cake and … count how long it’s going to take for your head to explode.” And in another interview: “Watch that clip and tell me your eyeballs don’t burst into flames.”

So of course you Google Sandra Lee and Kwanzaa cake, and wait for the inevitable. You have been warned. (Great publicity for Ms. Lee, Mr. Bourdain!)

Well fortunately my head hasn’t exploded, and neither have my eyeballs burst into flames, but it certainly felt like I was playing with that kind of fire as I sat through 141 minutes of that DUMB-ASS, BRAIN-DEAD, TORTUROUS, WASTE-OF-F**KING-TIME-AND-MONEY film, Sex and the City 2.

Yes, yes. I knew it would be shite. I knew it would be shite even without having read all the reviews telling me it was shite. And being the (generally) level-headed kind of woman that I am, I should have switched it off as soon as that was confirmed, which was about 3 minutes into the film where you have to sit through a god-awful wedding between two men – officiated by Liza Minelli. Call it escalation of commitment bias, or call plain stupid, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to justify saying all kinds of horrible things about the film unless I had seen the whole thing. So I saw it, and now I can’t even find the words to say all those horrible things about it. All I can say is that it was a waste of a Saturday afternoon, and also that I hope – I REALLY REALLY hope – that there are no people in the real world who resemble any of the characters in that film.

Yet I fear that may be wishful thinking. Spotted in my very own neighbourhood the day before:

This dog, by the way, is the very same dog that, with its mommy (not pictured), moved into my(ex-) office earlier this year, and that higher powers in my department expected me to welcome with open arms. I did not welcome them with open arms. Instead I stayed the hell away from my office. Which means that until I took this picture, I had not yet seen the dog in the flesh. But now that I have, and have realised it is in fact not a dog but a handbag, I hate it even more. And lest you think I’m just a grumpy bitch, let me hasten to add that all this makes it even more delightful that I am no longer in said office, or said department, which also means that if I ever have to have a conversation with this doggy’s daddy, I will not have to be politic about his silly ideas about “talk-show democracies.”

There. Now I feel better, and can report on the best part – so far – of the weekend, which was about satisfying my craving for coconut cake.

I’m pretty sure that if I hadn’t had a piece of this piece of moist coconut (and a touch of cardamom) goodness warm from the oven with a Nespresso “flat white” halfway through that film, I would not have survived. And if I hadn’t had another piece for brunch just now, I might indeed be a grumpy bitch. It’s true, coconut makes everything better, and come Women’s Day tomorrow, the Philosophe can celebrate the return of his charming wife.

Things you don’t want to know – but probably should

I recently watched a new Danish film called The Woman That Dreamed About A Man (or Kvinden der drømte om en mand, if you’re a native). It’s certainly not director Per Fly’s best work, but decent enough psycho-thriller entertainment when that’s what you need. Anyway, there’s one of those typically raunchy scenes when two strangers who have been eyeing each other across various rooms finally find themselves alone on a dark road, next to a conveniently located alley that they slip into without saying a word. The air is thick with erotic tension as they silently play the yes-no game, and then finally give in to an anonymous screw against the wall.

If that last sentence came across as rather lacking in finesse, good, because that’s exactly how sex between strangers in an alley should be. But what irritated me was that when their 30 seconds of heavy breathing (anti-)climaxed into a rather awkward button-closing, zip-locking silence, they suddenly lost all credibility as characters. No remorse, no guilt, and more importantly, no mundane panics about contraception, STDs, or the possibility of having just f**ked a psychopath. Just some inevitable exchange about when they can see each other again.

Fine, you may say, films are supposed to be in la-la land. But in 2010, that just doesn’t fly, no matter how much of a psycho you turn out to be (the woman did become one of note). Good films don’t let the banal stuff go. They linger on it, like that brilliant film Japanese Story, where Toni Collette has an affair with a married Japanese man who accidentally dies when they go skinny dipping. Stuck in the middle of nowhere, and with no one around, she has to get his body into her car, and it turns out to be quite a mission to manoeuvre a dead body. The scene goes on for ages, and is admittedly a little boring, but it’s also thoroughly captivating because it is so “real”.

Too much food media suffers from the same rubbish unreality as those two strangers in the alley. Everything is “dead easy”, or even if it’s complicated but “worth the effort”, it looks fabulous and tastes “divine”. But no one ever talks about how they feel after eating all this beautiful food – and here I’m not just talking about cooking shows, but also high end restaurant reviews. Which is why I was delighted to read the bit in Anthony Bourdain’s new book, Medium Raw, where he talks about how exhausting it can be to eat poncy tasting menu after poncy tasting menu at some of the “best” restaurants in the world. He wasn’t just jaded because luxury gets boring (surprise!), but because a lot of those menus are seriously taxing on one’s digestive system. So post-prandial romance is often off the cards – to paraphrase him very liberally – because the two of you flop into a taxi trying to suppress burps and farts the whole way home, and all you really look forward to is 24 hours later when you’ve managed to get all the crap (literally) out of your system.  (A general note on the book: a fun read IF you haven’t followed Bourdain’s speaking gigs over the last year or so, in which case you will realise that he has become his own speaking puppet. He speaks in quotes rather than thoughts. I call it the Michael Pollan syndrome).

Which leads me to the actual topic of this post: stuffed steak.

Tired of plain old steak, I wanted to make beef olives. But when it came to the whole pounding, rolling and tying bit, I was overcome by laziness, so decided to just stuff the steaks instead.

Pretty simple really. Make some kind of delicious stuffing (for instance, white anchovies, capers, olives, lemon zest, breadcrumbs, garlic, rosemary, pecorino, chilli flakes: all the major foodgroups). Then use a good sharp knife to transform your steak into a meaty pita pocket into which you stuff as much of the stuffing as you can possibly cram in. Now wrap tightly tightly in cling and leave in the fridge for an hour or so (to “set) while you enjoy a spicy Bloody Mary (it being the cocktail hour of course). When you’ve slurped the last of your Mary, get a pan nice and hot, dredge the steaks in a little flour, and get frying:

Look, so they aren’t exactly pretty. In fact we joked that I had produced a Rousseau version of KFC’s Double Down “sandwich” (where chicken stands in for bread, and cheese and bacon stand in for chicken). But apart from the meat being a touch dry, it was pretty delicious. It’s like steak and puttanesca, all in one. What’s not to love?

Should you try this at home? By all means, but I have two recommendations. Don’t forget to deglaze the pan with some sherry (or something), and perhaps a touch of cream, to create a bit of a gravy which you can serve as “jus”. Secondly – and this is important – do make absolutely sure that all your ingredients are good and fresh, and particularly that you don’t use anchovies which may have passed their best-before date.

Otherwise expect to spend most of the night on the loo. Bon appetit!

Strawberries soaked in vodka fail to impress

So after my recent bold declaration that this Doctor’s brownie adventures are officially over, I was naturally confronted with all sorts of Facebook banter offering yet more tips and tricks for that thing I had just renounced. The most evil of these was a recipe which calls for cocoa powder dissolved in hot water (rather than melting chocolate), along with the suggestion that the water be replaced by booze (Nina, you know who you are).

Talk of booze in food often takes the turn of trying to discover how best to keep it in there. If you dissolve cocoa in a cup of bourbon, won’t it all just evaporate during baking (for instance)? In other words, how does one maintain the integrity of a truly boozy brownie?

Well since brownies were out, and I had recently spotted a recipe for white-chocolate-raspberry blondies, things quickly spiralled downhill. In the fridge: raspberries, no; dried strawberries, yes. In the freezer: vodka, yes. The strawberries looked very pretty in their vodka bath, and the vodka looked very pretty when I removed the strawberries a few hours later (it was, in fact, bright red, which leads me to seriously doubt the naturalness of the dried strawberries. But hey, colourful vodka cocktail coming up soon).

Worse: the blondies were dry, and not boozy at all. Had they been presented at tea time as what old Danish aunties call “sandkage” (this one you can work out for yourself), they would have been a hit. But as blondies, they were dismal failures.

I’ve made blondies before, and they were yummy and chewy and more-ish, so I blame the recipe. But I should have known better – it came from a British magazine, and what do the Brits know about blondies? Like, who would actually follow a Jamie Oliver recipe for brownies? (Don’t bother, I already did.)

Speaking of which, I believe Mr. O is now doing his very own 30-minute meals. This is amazing. Because that is exactly what Rachael Ray has built an entire empire on. He was even on her show earlier this year. So it’s not like they don’t know each other. Couldn’t he have called it “29-minute Meals”? Or, “Dinner In A Jiffy”? Or, “Pukka Nosh in Half a Tick”? Really. Anything but “I’m Just Going To Take Someone Else’s Idea And Hope That No One Notices”.

Then again, maybe it’s all the same anyway. As Michael Ruhlman put it not long ago,

‘Part of the problem is the magazine editors and television producers drumming us over the head with fast and easy meal solutions at home. It’s the wrong message to send. These editors and producers and publishers are backing the processed food industry, propelling their message. What I say to you magazine editors and producers, to you Rachael Ray and you Jamie Oliver and your 20 minutes meals: God bless you, but you are advertising and marketing on behalf of the processed food industry.’

Well, I don’t know about the God bless you part. And hey, I’m all for knocking things up in a hurry, and if the Ray and the Oliver can make that happen, then good for them. But when it panders to a public that (apparently) hasn’t got the attention span to realise that what Sir O. says is nothing new, then I’m off that bus.

Those people they create would probably even say my blondies were delicious.

PS. To clarify, when I first heard about the 30-minute meal venture, I tweeted the man himself to ask if RR hadn’t been doing the same thing for years. His response:

I guess we don’t all interpret “potential problem?” equally.

If I were a TV cook…

(or a cookbook author for that matter), I could imagine myself delivering all number of clever little tips and tricks – as they do – to give people the idea that I sit around and think hard and long about what works and what doesn’t.

For my (to die for) “caramelized brussel sprouts with pecan nuts and blue cheese”, for instance, I would tell you that the secret is to add the garlic at the last minute of pan-time. That way you get a kick of fresh garlic to temper the sweetness of the sugar and nuts, but without the harshness of actual fresh garlic. (Because don’t you also find that if you add garlic too early, it loses its oomph?) You want garlic. But you want it just right. This is how, trust me.

(Excuse the photograph. My stylist is away watching Argentina getting thrashed by Germany).

If I were Jamie Oliver, I would tell you that this goes fantastically with small, crumbed pork cutlets (and a nice dollop of horseradish on the side), and then tell you how easy crumbed pork is to throw together. (Like this: bish bash bosh).

If I were Rachael Ray, I would tell you not to bother with the bish bash bosh, because I don’t have the time, and you don’t have the time or money to hop on your scooter, head down to your friendly (organic) butcher, have a chat about the missus, get some beautiful hand-reared, grass-fed, acupuncture-tenderised local pork, and neither do you have half a loaf of day-old sourdough lying around waiting to be whizzed into crumbs in the KitchenAid (which you don’t have either).

Continue reading “If I were a TV cook…”

In my not so humble opinion

Cape Town does like to think of itself as part of the big cosmopolitan world, so it’s no surprise that in recent years, there have cropped up a bunch of self-styled “foodie” blogs in the Mother City. Yes, this *could* be considered one too, but the bunch I’m thinking of are the ones who set themselves up as bona fide restaurant reviewers, with no apparent expertise apart from a) liking to eat, b) having enough disposable income to do so on a(n alarmingly) regular basis, and sometimes c) having eaten at restaurants in the actual Cosmopolitan world, which apparently gives them the authority of comparison.

Now, I like to read about other people’s experiences with food – who doesn’t? Continue reading “In my not so humble opinion”