Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Designer Labels

Ever since I gave my husband a hard time for cutting garlic on my fruit chopping board, he has had a plan to label the boards and avoid any confusion for the uninitiated into my complex system of wooden boards.

Finally on Saturday he put the kids to work burning names into the wood. I'd envisaged lethal red hot pokers being needed, with major danger to life and limb.

All it actually took was some sunshine and a magnifying glass each and it took only a few minutes. Now they are looking for more wooden objects to practise their new-found skills on.

And I'm the proud owner of some designer labelled chopping boards. There is also one called Meat and another named Cheese.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Baked Pasta Cravings

I’ve been craving proper Italian pasta al forno for ages. There’s just one hitch. My kids aren’t really into creamy/mixed sauces… in fact sauces are a bit problematic altogether. The only pasta our son likes is Dad’s aglio olio with bits of bacon in, as it leaves the pasta practically bare, so it doesn’t activate the sauce detector alarm.

When you’re cooking pasta al forno, you need to have an army to feed to make it worth the effort of making meat sauce, making béchamel and then baking it all together with the cooked pasta, so I put off satisfying my craving. And then yesterday I did have an army to feed. The four German students, who have come over with two of their teachers to help at our school for a few weeks, all stayed the night with us so that they could all leave early to drive up to Addo Elephant Park today.

It was nearly a week since I’d shopped. But the teacher we are hosting had cooked spaghetti bolognese for us a couple of nights before and had drastically over-estimated the quantities need to feed a family of five with sauce-averse kids. So there was a ton of meat sauce and loads of parmesan just begging to be used up. I seized my opportunity and it tasted great! So good that we finished up the leftovers cold for lunch today.

Cold pasta al forno, doesn't look as delicious as when it is hot from the oven, but it still tastes great!

Our son declined to even taste it last night, but luckily I’d second-guessed him and shoved some potatoes in to bake alongside the pasta. And I’d thrown together a second pot of pasta for the vegan student with fresh tomatoes, rosemary and chickpeas sizzled in hot garlic oil. And the students made a salad. And I’d baked yet more bread. So it was a feast of carbohydrates that even defeated the three seventeen-year old boys at the table, to produce yet more leftovers.

You don’t have to use a meat sauce for this baked pasta dish. Any sauce with a good strong flavour would work well: roasted vegetables, tomato and basil, porcini mushrooms, whatever you feel like adding to it. It makes sense to make a double batch of sauce, use it to sauce normal pasta one night and keep the rest to make this a couple of nights later, then you don’t have nearly so much work to do for your pasta al forno. The béchamel sauce is quite light and subtly flavoured with nutmeg and only a little parmesan, so it needs a contrasting sauce with a bit of oomph to bring the baked pasta to life.

Recipe for Rigatoni or Penne al Forno

Bolognese sauce made with approx 450g / 1lb meat
Or about 4 cups of pasta sauce of your choice
500g / 1lb penne rigate or rigatoni
750ml / 3 cups milk
90g / 3oz butter
4 ½ tablespoons flour
40g / 1 ½ oz freshly grated parmesan
¼ teaspoon grated nutmeg
4 tablespoons millk
30g / 1oz butter

Preheat the oven to 200C / 400F.

Make your béchamel first. Melt 90g butter in a heavy based pan. Stir in the flour and keep stirring for about a minute so it cooks, but don’t let it turn dark. Add the milk a little at a time, giving it a chance to warm on the base of the pan and then stirring it in well, before adding the next lot.

Most recipes tell you to heat the milk separately before adding it, which is sensible, but I learned from a friend that if you give it a chance to warm on the base of the béchamel pan before you stir it in it works just as well.

Keep adding milk and stirring it in until it is all incorporated, then carry on stirring until the béchamel thickens to a thick pouring cream consistency. Season with pepper, salt and nutmeg then stir in half the parmesan. Taste to check the seasoning.

Cook the pasta till it is al dente. Take care not to over-cook it, or it will collapse to a dense solid indigestible mass when baked. You want the shapes to hold up and trap the sauces nicely. Toss the pasta with the warmed meat sauce and then with about two thirds of the béchamel.

Tip the sauced pasta into a roasting tin buttered with the remaining butter. Level it off. Pour the milk over, then pour the rest of the béchamel on top. Sprinkle with the remaining parmesan. Bake for 20-30 minutes until golden and bubbling. Let it rest for at least five minutes before serving.

Perfect for those in need of a carbohydrate fix!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


“Are you ready for a story?” I enquire, walking into the kids’ bedroom to see figures balancing precariously on their beds still in their day clothes, flying a small toy figure around in the pull cord of the electric ceiling fan.

“Yes!” they chorus.

I point out the lack of pyjamas.

"You can read to us while we get into pjs," they say, continuing to play.

I decline to start down that slippery slope of insubordination and shake my head in a stern motherly manner.

“I command you,” declaims Youngest, dramatically throwing out an arm in a grand gesture.

“I’m the queen around here,” I reply and exit strategically before we get into an argument that will go nowhere.

From my computer next door I hear fierce whispers, as they exhort each other to get undressed.
“SHE won’t read to us unless we do,” Youngest hisses across the room at her older siblings.

In a matter of minutes I am recalled.

“We’re ready!” and I return to see Youngest just pulling her pyjama top over her head and slipping into bed.

Long may the pull of a good story work as a failsafe bedtime carrot.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Red Lentil Dhal Recipe

I love it when I stumble on a new recipe that’s easy and is an immediate hit with at least one member of the family. I found this dhal recipe when I was desperately looking for inspiration for making packed lunches for a vegan student, who is visiting our school.

We have a group of four students and two teachers from our sister school in Germany visiting at the moment. They’ve raised funds and have come to build a woodwork room for the school in the three weeks they’re here. I volunteered for making sandwiches for their lunch every day and so have been baking bread every day and madly slicing, buttering and throwing together mountains of sandwiches every morning before school.

But how do you provide variety in vegan sandwiches? Hummus two days running and then what? So the idea of making a thick dhal came to mind and I found this recipe on the net, adapted it to fit with what I had available in the cupboard and I now have a new recipe to turn to when my husband yearns for spicy food. He was over the moon when I produced it to go with the baked potatoes last night and we had it spread on bread for lunch today too. I really love the hint of fragrant cardomom among the other spices. The original recipe asks you to roast and grind your own whole spices, which I suspect would be even better, but this version was good enough already.

Recipe for Red Lentil Dhal

1 onion
2 cm root ginger peeled and grated
3 cloves garlic finely chopped
1 cup red lentils
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 cup / 250ml chopped tomatoes
2 red chillis de-seeded and chopped fine
4 cups water or stock
lemon or lime juice

2 teaspoons mustard seeds
4 cardomom pods
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon

Chop the onion finely. Saute it in the oil over a medium heat for 5 minutes. Add ginger and garlic and continue to cook for 5 more minutes. Add mustard seeds and seeds from cardamom pod and stir for 1 more minute, then add ground spices and salt.
Stir in red lentils, then add tomatoes. Cook for a minute, then add water. Bring to a boil then cook at a simmer for 30-35 minutes until lentils are tender. Add a squeeze of lemon or lime. Add more water if it is too thick.

Hopefully this will have made a change from the soya sausages that his host family have rustled up for him so far. It's good for me to have a culinary challenge now and again too, otherwise it's easy to get into a rut and just cook the same old things day after day. Anyone got any great ideas for easy vegan meals that will fit in to the packed lunch category?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Birthday on a School Day

A birthday falling on a school day leaves you out of breath and gasping from the onslaught of cake, presents and wishes, even when it’s not your birthday. Youngest was seven the other day. She was a bit fed up that she had to go to school on her birthday. After all, it’s too tantalizing opening up pressies over breakfast and then having to go off and leave them in a pristine, untouched state on the table. The one consolation was that we had promised to pick her up as soon as she finished, instead of her going into aftercare until the older ones came out of class, as she usually does on a Monday.

She was over the moon with all her presents, especially the horse themed ones. Middle Daughter had had the idea of making her a stable out of wood for her toy horses; she designed it herself and enlisted Dad’s co-operation for the woodwork, spending most of Sunday out in the garage supervising and then painting her creation. This stood proudly on the breakfast table enveloped in a sarong to be unveiled the moment the cereal had been dispatched.

And then more presents enticingly swathed in pink crepe paper with ribbon and roses arrived with her aunt, to reveal a riding academy set with horses and jumps, fences and mucking out equipment. How can a girl possibly go to school when all these treasures await investigation. But she did, without too much complaint, clutching a big chocolate cake with Smarties on that she’d decorated the night before.

I’d planned to get some work done and then kick in to party planning mode. One lot of visitors were leaving and two more arriving on the same day, but I thought I could scribble a short recipe article or two before baking the cake… until our domestic help called in sick. I looked around the house, in its usually post-weekend chaos and gave up the idea of work… changed beds, swept floors, baked cake, as my husband washed dishes and put the playroom to rights. It was of course raining. The treasure hunt was still to plan, though I’d got ahead of myself and put the treasure bags together the night before.

By the time Youngest returned from school the treasure hunt clues were distributed and I’d got the story thought up: about a Princess whose job was to take care of the royal unicorns, only to have Bad Baron Bolligrew kidnap one of the foals, when she refused to sell him one. We had to track him down and rescue the baby unicorn, following the magic notes she’d been able to leave for us.

The dogs were fascinated with my putting round of clues, especially Amy the Jack Russell; I’d planned to use the pet carry box to put Youngest’s toy unicorn in with the treasure. Amy still reckons that box is hers. She arrived at our house in it, as her previous owner used it for her to travel in. Now, as soon as I opened the door to put in the treasure, in she shot and lay down next to the stuffed unicorn, refusing to come out. This was obviously some new game just for her, one that she was more than willing to play. Eventually I got her out, replaced her with the treasure and whizzed around the rest of the route tying clues to trees and fences with silver ribbon.

Youngest nibbled a bit of bread for lunch and then disappeared off to play with her horses. I’d naively thought that she’d enjoy helping make cheese biscuits with me for tea. Usually the girls love doing that as part of the party preparations, but time was at a premium; horses were more important that any old cheese biscuits. Plus there were phone calls to receive from overseas aunt and Granny.

I made the cheese biscuit dough myself quickly, whipped cream and sliced strawberries and put the cake together before zooming off to collect the rest of the party invitees from school. She’d spent ages deliberating over who to invite and in the end luckily decided on just a few friends, so the car held them all.

The rest of the afternoon went by in a blur.
Sandwiches made, with starving kids hoovering up the crusts the minute I sliced them off.
A shower of rain descending just as we set off on the treasure hunt, necessitating a return for rain jackets, but damping no-one’s enthusiasm for clue-seeking.
Two more sets of visitors duly arriving.
Sandwiches, cheese biscuits and strawberry cake consumed and Happy Birthday sung.
Beads to be threaded to make necklaces, beads all over floor, visiting toddler retrieved from vicinity of beads.
Youngest torn between playing with her friends and wanting to get out the horses again, in the end being drawn into a game of block block.
The last child guest leaving, signalling time to cook supper for the adult guests.
Youngest happy but tired, wishing there was more time to play with her presents, but bed-time had been reached already.
A chapter of Noel Streatfeild’s A Painted Garden read and then lights out.

School day birthdays really are a rush… maybe it’s time to move the party to the weekend, but it has always been so much part of the birthday itself for our kids, that a birthday without a party just seems rather dull.

The next morning Youngest got out of bed and dressed in record time, before I’d even got out of bed. By the time I came through from my shower she’d got her own breakfast and was playing happily with her horses.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

When Spring Turns To Summer

Signs that spring is surging on towards summer:

Last week the yellow daisies swathed the sand in thick blankets. A few days of warm sunny weather have dried them out and the golden carpets have faded away to dry stalks that rattle as you brush past.

Balmy evenings with glowing pink sunsets tempt you outside, just when it is time to cook supper.

The first braai of the season happened last night, instead of last week when it was National Braai Day. The master of the braai is almost completely recovered from an unidentified virus that laid him low for two whole weeks, and was able to resume his duties and do a fine job of cooking the chicken wings, chops and boerewors.

The watsonis are tall and stately and coming into full bloom to replace the fading daisies, as a last splash of colour before summer bleaches us to pale straw once more.

The first swim of the season officially took place on Friday, when the girls took the plunge after a warm day had taken the edge off the chill of the water. They had to be dragged out protesting, because we were being eaten alive by the miggies (midges). Their brother deigned to join them the next day once they'd checked it out.

The lawn has been mown for the first time this spring, but this intrepid self-sown gazania was spared.

The last term of the school year starts on Tuesday, but we're looking forward to a summer of braais and swimming, even though today a cool wind and misty morning made a Sunday roast more than welcome and had us reaching for our fleeces again.