Braai is the answer

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Summer is here and that means braai season is upon us. For anyone who’s never heard the word Braai before (pronouced brr-eye), it is what South Africans call a BBQ.  I think braai makes it sound deliciously more juicy and hedonistically  meaty,  and us South Africans really do enjoy our meat.

With the current World Cup party going down south of the Limpopo,  South Africa is in the spotlight and when not proudly practising our vuvuzela paaaarp, hopefully, we are introducing the world to out vast rainbow cuisine, but I digress slightly.

I was talking about that quintessential South African thing called The Braai. Despite all the gorgeous sunny days we have had so far I have yet to strike a match over a pile of charcoal and get those lamb chops on the fire. I have been thinking about the other kind of stuff we do with the braai back home that you don’t see much of here. Like wrapping potatoes and onions in tin foil and sticking it under the hot coals, toasting these special braai style mini garlic butter rolls over the grill, making the must-have potato salad with tangy mayonnaise, putting on the wors (uniquely South African sausage sold in a thick coil), grilling a whole leg of lamb that has been deboned and flattened out, or grilling whole spatch-cocked chicken, lobsters and large crayfish. Then there is the fish braai (probably more common along the garden route and in Cape Town than what I am familiar with on the Dolphin Coast) or cooking mussels that were freshly pried off the rocks that very morning…

A braai is an excuse to over-indulge, it is also an excuse to over cater and be eating the left overs for lunch and dinner the next day. There would be chicken and spicy sausages and lamb chops and cold potato salad and hot dog rolls that were probably left out in the open for a little too long. And there would be garlic sauce and chilli sauce and bloated tummies galore. Oh, and don’t forget the Castle Lager!

And you don’t have to have the latest or fanciest weber grill or shiny giant grill contraption with  a fold back lid. Braai stands can often be homemade, fashioned out of a large metal drum that has been sawn in half lengthways with metal legs and fittings welded to it.

A braai is also a social experience and something South Africans might take for granted. Living in the UK has really made me homesick for that laid back camaraderie, the smoky smell of fat being charred hanging in the late afternoon air, a generous serving spoon of my mom’s potato salad and chilli chicken sausage to make your eyes water.

Cherry Tomato Jam

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Ripe and ready  tomatoes (not my own!)The closest I came to tomato harvest glory this year was listening to inspired tales from co-workers about all the different recipes they were trying with their crop of homegrown juicies, and looking out my bathroom window at my neighbour’s verdant pot-planted crop. If I had planted cherry tomatoes in the British summer and received a delightful crop that was ripened by the sun (if only), I would make cherry tomato jam.

My earliest memories of such a jam was when I was a teenager. My dad was given a jar by the wife of a friendly farmer in the Natal Midlands, from whom he’d bought a few specialist foul – Rail Road Red hens or something like that. There was a time when we were kids when our back yard was filled with all kinds of foul – many varieties of chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese…but I digress. The jam was a mystery to me – a teenager who was not that fond of anything that was not apricot or melon, in a South Africa where there didn’t seem to be much variety (or adventure) in the way of shop-bought jams. Although, you might argue that melon jam is pretty adventurous… (I was never fond of red coloured jams because they reminded me of blood.) Anyway, I was about to give this red-coloured jam a go cos I was intrigued, plus it was given to my dad by bona fide white farmer’s wife. I clearly had some strange ideas about the world back then, but that’s what you get from growing up in Apartheid South Africa!

My sister and I polished off the slim jar in a matter of days and begged my grandmother to make us some more. My gran, excellent cook that she was, dug up a recipe she felt could be easily modified and graciously let me use her small harvest of cherry tomatoes. She helped me every step of the way from cleaning the tomatoes to storing in a jar. Can’t remember exactly what we did or where she got the recipe from but it was an absolute disaster. The jam turned out bitter and was completely inedible. Plus, it went off in a few days.

As you could imagine, that experience put me off making jam – I thought, for life. But when a friend was talking about what more she could do with her tomato crop, I thought, hey, wouldn’t it be nice to make some cherry tomato jam?

I have not been able to find a plain cherry tomato jam recipe and will probably have to modify a recipe – will let you know how it goes. By the way, these recipes look really interesting:

1.Three kinds of tomato jam – spicy; with ginger; with thyme
2. Italian style recipe with garlic and basil:
3. Tomato jam with cinnamon
4. Thai inspired sweet tomato and chilli jam

To have earth under foot and fingernails

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Peeled carrot, yam and apple

Peeled apple, sweet potato and carrot

I am constantly disappointed with the quality of the ‘fresh’ produce available in many supermarkets and local shops. Unless you buy organic straight from the farm, like Riverford or Abel & Cole box schemes delivered to your home, you are at the mercy of bland, ripened-in-storage fruit or vegetable that is often about to expire even before they even put it on the shelf (Sainsbury’s). 

 

Some days I just long to be able to grow my own and come Spring each year, I enviously eye out the allotments in my area, knowing that the waiting lists are long and that chances of getting my paws on one are pretty slim. Yesterday I was eyeing out my neighbour’s tomato and capsicum plants which have trebled in size almost overnight, and wish I had more time to have potted a few plants like those. But seeing as I’m still adjusting to life with baby, I celebrate when I get a chance to mow the lawn or rake up leaves, and getting to scamper around in potting soil is a dream.

When I was growing up, I took for granted the bounty of fruit and veg available in my family’s oversized back garden, at one stage also filled with foul ( chickens, ducks, turkey, geese) and not just mango, banana, avocado, lychee, orange, lemon, guava, satsuma trees. We also had sugar cane, passion fruit, chilli, curry leaf, a variety of herbs and beans and gourd, mustard seed, aubergine, carrot, radish, wild garlic and mushroom… And all of it what is now called organic. Those were the days.

I think I have a gardener’s instinct to care for and nuture plants. And I’d like to think I have green fingers, even if all my indoor pot plants, including a much-prized bonsai tree, have slowly passed on in our current flat. I blame it on poor ventilation and damp. We are moving again soon, hopefully the air is better in a new place.

Baby on board

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It’s just over three weeks before our baby is due and I’m contemplating what staples, pre-prepared dishes and food items we will need to stock the store cupboard, freezer and fridge with to see the husband and I through those tough first weeks of bleary eyes and sleeplessness.

I don’t want us to just be eating easy stuff, though, like fish fingers or Swedish meatballs – I want a good nutritional balance, with colour and vitamins and protein, and taste!

For someone who can spend days contemplating a dinner party menu, this simple task is a right challenge, and I’m not feeling very creative… So far, I have jotted down the following: Chicken and lentil soup, chicken curry, bolognaise sauce/ or a nice chilli, meatballs(!), burgers, dhall (yellow split peas/ or red lentil) curry, a veggie pie.

But there’s also the limited freezer space to think about…

Swedish cinnamon buns (Kanelbullar)

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Swedish cinnamon buns (kanelbullar)These are my absolute favourite when it comes to buns – they look pretty and taste heavenly, and are delicious with an ice-cold glass of milk, or a strong caffeinated brew. In Sweden they drink coffee so strong it’s sometimes like molten tar, but a good, strong brew offsets the fragrant spices in the buns, and complements the sweetness of the filling and the loaf/ pearl sugar sprinkled on top.

I tasted these for the first in a coffee shop in Haga, Gothenburg’s arty quarter, brimming with little shops and cafes. Anyway, I managed to find a fab recipe in a Swedish cookbook, which I’ve modified slightly.

Swedish Cinnamon Buns
Makes about 30 buns

50g fresh yeast (or equivalent of dried active yeast, according to the pack instructions)
1-1.2kg flour (or slightly more depending on moistness of dough)
100ml white syrup (or golden syrup)
100g butter
400ml milk
2 tsp salt
2 tbsp freshly ground cardamom seeds

Filling
120g butter, softened to room temperature
4-6 tsp cinnamon
6 tbsp granulated sugar
1 tsp freshly ground cardamom seeds

To brush & decorate

1 egg, beaten
Pearl/ loaf sugar

32 bun/ large muffin cases

Method

If you’re using a block of fresh yeast, crumble this into a large bowl, or if you’re using re-hydrated dried active yeast, pour the mixture into said bowl. Melt the butter in a saucepan, add the milk and heat gently until hot to the touch. Add this to the yeast and mix well, then add the syryp and stir until dissolved.

Add the flour and salt a little at a time and mix well until the dough comes away from the side of the bowl. You may need to add additional flour at your own discretion if the dough is still a little sticky after the addition of the amount of flour the recipe calls for. Cover with a cloth and leave to rise for about 30 mins in a draught-free spot.

After 30 minutes, punch the air out the risen dough and knead for about 15 minutes until shiny and elastic. Divide into two balls and roll out into rectangles about 5mm thick. Make the filling and spread onto the rectangles with the back of a spoon. Roll these up lengthways, then cut into 16 segments per roll and place in the bun papers which you will have lined up on baking sheets. Leave these to rise for a further 30 mins (however, this step is not essential if in a hurry).

Brush with the egg and sprinkle with the loaf sugar. Bake for about 6-8 minutes at 250 degrees Celsius until buns are golden brown on top.

Staple Food of Mayan Gods

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mayan Gold potatoes, skin on.The humble potato is more than just a ground vegetable named after a king (King Edward) or a comely Lincolnshire aunt (Maris Piper). Sometimes the story linked to a spud can go back centuries, as I recently discovered, and need not me named after a single person, but rather an entire civilization.

Working on a daily magazine show which covers a generous span of topics means that sometimes, you can get your hands on some really interesting stuff that are being researched for possible inclusion in a film or as a studio item.

A little while back, there was this box of fresh potatoes kicking about, among reams of standard issue photocopy paper and used TV scripts. Now these were, I was assured, no ordinary spuds but Mayan Gold – a gourmet potato hailing from, as the name suggests, South America (Peru, to be precise) and “bred from species found growing on the wilds of Peru, some of which are over 7,000 years old”.

SteamedWhat’s special about this edible tubor is is unique yellow flesh and delicate nutty flavour. The commissioning editor who assumed ownership of said box, patiently explained their history and speciality to little groups of people preparing their mid-afternoon contemplation about dinner menus, providing detailed instructions on how to steam them briefy before roasting them in a hot oven, and offering a few suggestion on the best roast potato. Sufficed to say Nigella Lawson did come up, as did the use of semolina. They were meant to be handled with care, the kind of treatement, I thought, which would pay tribute to their celestial-sounding origins.

roasted potatoesDespite being exceedingly sceptical about his promise of golden, fluffy flesh and taste of nuts, I escorted the spuds home, stripped them of their basic covering and gently placed them in a bamboo steamer for a few minutes. Taking a peek a few minutes into the steaming process I was delighted to see them exhuding a heavenly yellowness. I then bruised them with a little fine grained semolina and roasted them in a hot over for about 20 minutes.

In the food show, Barefoot Contessa, Ina Gaarten talks about Yucatan Gold potatoes in much the same way as our commissioning editor did. They (the potatoes, of course) are clearely related and probably share the same gourmet-tastic status. Either way, they tasted gorgeous and I was tres pleased.

My Year of Meat

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Peppered steaks awaiting the grillThe above is actually the title of a book I read a few years back (by Ruth L. Ozeki), and one I recently recommended to a work colleague for her book club. Every time I see large cuts of beef sprawled on neat trays in butchers’ windows, decorated with plastic lettuce-lookalike, the title of this book, masquerades before me like (sticking with the theme) a prize bullfighter and I am immediately reminded that beef does not spontaneously enter my recipe boudoir.

Rather, beef arrives in my shopping trolley with much contemplation, frowning and lip pursing, and me vainly wondering what could I do beyond perfectly grilled steaks (lines from my prized, square, Le Creuset griddle pan, artfully imprinted on the meaty palms – served with discs of peppery garlic butter), hearty gourmet burgers (spiced with no less that seven secret spices – served with fat handcut oven baked chips, skin-on) or feisty chilli – with aduki beans and fresh majoram.

Did the book put me off eating meat, my colleague asked. Not really, but it did prolongue my gravitation towards the species respectful Hindus did not slaughter and feast on.

If truth be told, I made my first roast beef dinner on the weekend from a topside of organic Argentinean rump (no pictures unfortunately, so eager was I to sample a slice of what also looked like silverside, and so smug that it was a success). But I digress.

My Year of Meat is a fabulous book that will definitely make you think a bit more about juicy – or charred, but once bloody morsels. Before landing on our plates, with or without a garlicky red wine gravy, our slices of prime rib roamed verdant pastures, and perhaps in many cases, if not bred by purists for organic principles, had vast chemicals – of synthetic hormone or antibiotic origin, keeping its body fluids company… But Ozeki’s offering is so much more than a treatise on food conspiracies, or modern farming methods accompanied by unusual recipes – it joins up feminism, food consumption, cross-cultural misunderstanding, and equally, the pursuit and dissemination of Western (read American) values, with lashings of humour. It’s a great read – no additional salt required.