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.

Not so excellent

Here are the things you may not do on the Wheel of Excellence:

In other words, no slouching about looking cool (thanks to the Philosophe for the articulate picto-analysis), no throwing out the Rock when you’re playing *that* game, and no showing off the soles of your shoes.

You are also not permitted to smoke, drink champagne, nor to stand up at any time.

The Wheel of Excellence ((“Cape Town’s answer to the London Eye”) is part of an exciting international family. It has either been, or has a sister, in Copenhagen, where it helped to light up the city night. It is really rather exciting.

If you feel unwell at any time, press the panic button, and we will help you to get off at the next revolution.

!!!

Looking back on that memorable ride (which happened yesterday as we went searching for lunch in the sun and ended up playing tourists in “our” city), I deeply regret not being able to recount the experience of getting off at the next revolution. Then again, maybe the promise of the Wheel of Excellence is like the promise of Microsoft: by asking where you want to go today, they are pretending that they can actually take you there. (Which they can’t). The Wheel of Excellence is similarly designed to remind you of how very far away and how very unattainable excellence really is. At least for the duration of your revolutions on the wheel.

Later, wearied from fantasising about unattainable excellence and revolutions that go Pling Pling Drrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrring (those evil slot machines!), we returned to our trusted Ocean Basket for a light supper of delicious, crispy, deep-fried calamari heads:

Only to be told that they had run out of calamari heads.

The Ocean Basket ran out of calamari heads. That’s like McDonald’s running out of whatever that thing is people go there for. That is a profound WTF moment. Perhaps no less strange, though, was then being told (after some WTF probing) that there was, in fact, one main portion of heads left. So we couldn’t have two starters, but one of us could have a main. Because it was “portioned”. Which means, I take it, that what comes out of a packet has to go onto one plate in its entirety. Clearly nothing else makes sense.

Well, we had already ordered wine, and had also resigned ourselves to eating in the company of rather boisterous adults and children (it was Sunday – one makes allowances), so we milked that situation for what it was worth and added a piece of grilled kingklip to the calamari head main. We also got over the fact that they had no more of their fresh chilli sauce (WTF?), and ate bottled peri-peri with our crispy heads and overcooked kingklip. It was a pretty crappy meal, but excellently so.

The blue Cosmopolitan that was

I’ve been nurturing a craving for cosmopolitan(s). I blame the sun, which has been shining on Cape Town a most unusual amount this “winter”, and has caused more than one person to utter the words “spring has sprung” in the last two weeks. First spring, then summer, and before we know it, the silly season is upon us. That’s when bloody marys give way to cosmos, and red wine becomes an altogether silly idea (which is also why we are compelled to keep drinking it as we char braai our boerewors on all the hottest days of the year).

In silly season it’s also perfectly respectable to drink things the colour of nothing in nature. Oh wait, the sky is blue, right? (That’s “common knowledge” which doesn’t need to be referenced, as I tell students). And the sea, and the lakes. Until you bottle them, that is.

So with no triple sec in the house, but a bottle of blue curacao lurking at the back of the cupboard, out came the blue cosmo – in which there was happily no questioning the presence of vodka, I might add. Though I was rather expecting it to be purple, which is what I seem to remember happening when you mix something red with something blue, but then who am I to argue with the laws of curacao?

And as for the bloody laws of nature, today the skies have opened up again, so as the man in the sky pisses down on our heads, it’s back to bloody miss mary.

PS. I’m not complaining. I’m just saying…

The martini that never was

Once, at our favourite drinking hole, the Philosophe and I had the audacity to question whether our vodka-and-limes had been watered down because (double shots though they were) we couldn’t taste the vodka. Much to our embarrassment, it was simply because they had used a superior (=more expensive) brand of vodka, one clearly too sophisticated for our alcoholic crude palates. Still, being the valued customers that we are, they kindly added another tot to make us happy.

So I was a bit nervous about complaining the other day when we found ourselves at a rather bespoke bar, and the martinis we ordered tasted of water. Actually the first one definitely was watery, because there were shards of ice floating in the glass: not martini-wang! The bartender (his name was Elvis) apologised and quickly went about fixing the mistake. It was all very professional, and he clearly knew what he was doing. We watched the vodka go in, and then the vermouth. We watched him carefully pick a petal off a cold rose and slip it into the glass at the end. It certainly looked like martini-wang (though olives are infinitely preferable to a rose petal, but hey, Elvis was doing his thing).

We took a sip. Water.

Another sip. Nothing. Only the faintest hint of blackcurrant (it was Absolut Kurant).

It was a tricky moment, but in the end I refused to believe that I have lost the ability to taste vodka. I had to speak.

And so I should have, because that evening we helped to solve an important mystery in a bespoke bar (which, for reasons of their upstanding reputation, shall remain unnamed). The explanation for our waterinis was the only plausible one: the “vodka” in the bottle was, in fact, water. Or let’s say water with a homeopathic memory of vodka. Someone behind the bar (clearly not Elvis) had been sucking on the Kurant bottle.

Relieved, we accepted a glass of bubbly instead, while the manager set about the (un)enviable task of taste-checking all fifty-plus bottles of vodka in the bar.

So next time you detect too much water in your booze, fear not! Speak up! Maybe I should start a Facebook group.

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!

Country eating..and eating…and still eating

When you are invited to spend the weekend contemplating scenery like this, it is only proper that you devote a few days to thinking about food before the fact, so that nothing can get in the way of two days of carefully planned indolence (not to mention that there are no shops, so if you don’t have it with you, you aren’t going to eat it).

The brief: four (maybe five) adults, two children. No hunger.

How could I not fall down the brownie hole once again? We needed snacks. And I needed to try two recipes that my pathetic poor willpower could not resist. “Peanut butter brownies with chocolate chunks” (you see? Though we may argue about whether they are brownies or blondies, seeing as they came out, well, “blonde”):

And continuing with the healthy theme (I had to think of the children!), there was of course the King Arthur Flour recipe for “Tasting is Believing Whole-Grain Brownies”. These I imagined turning into an adult (=boozy) dessert by topping them generously with sticky-brandy-and-coffee-prunes and a dollop of brandied mascarpone. (I tested this latter idea on the hapless Philosophe the night before we left. It worked. So, apparently, does wholewheat flour in a brownie.)

Well, we never got to that dessert (a coconut pie got in the way, as well as a box of those evil Lindt chocolate balls), but we did manage to scarf most of the brownies, and the prunes and mascarpone have been churned to a delightful (=boozy) ice cream, awaiting the attack of Signe’s sweet tooth later this evening.

More importantly, a delightful weekend in the country was the perfect opportunity to get busy with Ottolenghi’s caramelized garlic tart. Three whole heads of garlic, and a lot of goat’s cheese. I was all over it.

That was a damn fine tart/quiche/lunch, and if you like garlic and goat’s cheese you should do yourself a favour and get Plenty and get cooking.

And if you like lobster and pasta and wondered how the twain should ever meet, consider Alfred Portale’s lobster bolognese. That was our (superb) dinner on the first night, and lunch for some two days later.

In fact, after days of eating (and drinking) magnificently, no meal was perhaps more so than our final one, even though to look at the table you may have struggled to see the narrative thread. It was lunch on the stoep in the sun. There was a delicious Asian-y salmon salad. Warm crusty bread and butter. Guacamole. Salami. A slab of White Rock with Cranberries from Fairview (a most delightful little cheese, tart and sweet and cheesy all at once. And so good for your urinary tract!). There was a slice of caramelised garlic tart which no one wanted to claim but still managed to disappear, crumb by crumb. There was a small bowl of lobster bolognese which went the same way.

We first washed it down with some De Trafford Chenin, and then we carried on washing it down with the Secateurs Chenin.

For dessert there were peanut butter “brownies”. Wholewheat brownies. Some coconut pie. Sticky koeksisters brought by our travelling friend the extra adult the day before. And there was of course also a selection of “sweet shop” goodies from nowhere less than The Fat Duck in Bray (Heston is a genius).

Needless to say we were happy and full when we packed up and got into our cars to roll back to the city. And doubtless already thinking about the next occasion for cornucopia. That’s just how we roll.

We are not unlucky people.

Twitter saga with The Awful Poo Lady (#TAPL)

In case you missed it, here follow accounts of the fascinating saga that unfolded over the last few days involving nutrition-nazi Gillian McKeith (“PhD”), and Ben Goldacre (actual PhD, and author of Bad Science). (Short of long, @gm accused @bg of telling “lies” about her in his book. Read the chapter in question for yourself here). This is a story of the great value of social media over bad science.

From Jack of Kent, (a blog “mainly about the misuse and misrepresentation of Law”), “The Integrity and Honesty of @gillianmckeith”

From Cubik’s Rube, “The Awful Poo Lady Loses her Shit

From David Naylor, “Gillian McKeith vs. Ben Goldacre

From BoingBoing, “Pseudoscience’s “Awful Poo Lady” can’t flush twitterings

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.