Monday, May 19, 2008

Italian Chicken for Saturday Supper

As far as food goes, I've been treading a well-worn path of late. Children of conservative tastes, last minute cooking of supper, rushing to do my weekly shop without having been anywhere near a recipe book, all conspire to put the same old meals on the table. Ones that I know some of my children will eat, at least in part, ones that can be rustled up in half an hour, from standard ingredients that can be found on the shelves of our local supermarket.

On Saturday I finally made time to look at a recipe book, determined to try at least one new recipe this week and find something slightly different to enliven my dulled palate.

Marcella Hazan provided it. Italian food has been on my mind, as my latest job is translating an Italian recipe book into English and converting the amounts from metric to imperial (a challenge when the writer even gives amounts in grams for parsley 5g).

I love Marcella's books, even more than Nigella's when it comes down to it. She has a tried and true purity to her cooking, a distilled essence of Italian food from her regional viewpoint. Most of her dishes have an elegant simplicity - just the right amount of everything to give subtle balanced flavour.

The recipe that thrilled me on Saturday night, was a simple chicken casserole cooked with vinegar and resulted in the tenderest chicken pieces I've ever cooked. The flavour was understated but sprightly and what is more the kids loved it. Youngest eating her second drumstick said "It's not different. It's the same" which I took as the highest of compliments from her. It was different enough to be refreshing for us and not so different as to freak out these connoisseurs of plain un-messed-with food.

Pollo con Aceto
Recipe for Italian chicken with vinegar

1 chicken cut into 8 pieces
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
60g flour
black pepper
1 teaspoon chopped rosemary
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
4 flat anchovy fillets chopped finely
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
6 tablespoons wine vinegar

Heat the vegetable oil in a pan. When it is hot but not smoking, dredge the chicken pieces in the flour and fry over a medium heat till golden on all sides. Remove onto a warm plate and season with salt and pepper.

Combine the rosemary, garlic, and chopped anchovies.

In a casserole with a lid, which will take all the chicken pieces in one layer, put the olive oil over a medium heat. Add the rosemary mixture and cook stirring for a brief minute. Add the chicken to the pan and turn the pieces to coat then add the vinegar. Cook for 1-2 minutes until the vinegar fumes dissipate the turn the heat to low and cover the pan. Cook for about 1 hour, turning the chicken now and again, until the chicken feels tender when pricked with a fork. you can add a few tablespoons of water if there is not enough liquid left in the pan towards the end of cooking. Serve as soon as it is cooked.

We are this with mashed potato and green beans which went perfectly with it. Unglamorous and delicious.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Mystery of the Missing Geese

A few weeks ago we had a whole gaggle of geese on the farm. The proud Mama Goose had raised a whole family of five goslings successfully, without losing one. They would parade in formation around their enclosure at the bottom of the farm, necks stretched out honking, whenever we drove past.

Over the last two weeks their numbers have been dropping off. We'd drive off early in the morning to school and pass a tell-tale snowdrift of white feathers beside the road. Two disappeared one night, then another a few nights later. We didn't know what was getting them. First of all we blamed the neighbour's dogs who can get over our fence. We didn't ring up and rant because we weren't sure and they had their own geese, so it was unlikely that their dogs would be selective goose killers abroad.

We were down to four geese, one female and three males. Another one went the next night so then there were three. The next morning we set off for school, late and in a hurry and came across my sister-in-law armed with a shovel. She was digging a grave for the last female goose, whose body had been abandoned in the beefwood trees and not even been eaten. The two bereft males stood a little way off honking anxiously, the survival of the species now threatened.

Yesterday I had a house full after school. Middle Daughter had organised a play date with her two friends, Youngest had her sometimes-friend to play (now she is at kindergarten she has been discovering the complicated dynamics of girls' friendships and comes home devastated because this friend said she wouldn't be her friend any more). I had a bread-baking play date going for myself - a friend having asked me to show her how, and her daughter and two friends had come home from school with my son. He, at 10, handled having to come home from school with three girls from his class with great dignity and panache. As soon as he was home though, he detached himself from the proceedings and retired to the sofa with his latest discovery - a book with 101 magic tricks.

Into this hum and bustle of activity came my sister-in-law, big with news. The goose killer had been identified, its corpse lying in the goose pen, caught red-handed. Children and adults poured out of the house to the goose pen.

It was a hefty rooi kat, lynx, caracole - a South African wild cat quite a bit bigger than a domestic cat, reddish fur and black tufts of hair on its long ears. It looked like two of our dogs must have caught and killed it. Two of the border collies have learned to leave the house cats alone, but reckon anything else is fair game. We were all slightly sad to see it pathetically stretched out there in the restios. It was the first time I'd ever seen one - they are nocturnal and it would have been beautiful alive. Now its rather pitiful scraggy remains had flies buzzing round and another grave was awaiting it once we'd all looked at it. But at least the two geese should survive now unless there is a whole family of lynx hiding out somewhere. We just need to go looking for another Mama Goose to ensure that the dynasty continues.

Now our detectives have each got their own magnifying glass, I unwisely told them what we used them for as children. I have memories of melting holes in Wellington boots with ours, and if you weren't too clever you then found you'd holed them below the water line… I advised them against this. Today the sun is shining and they have been burning holes in paper to make ancient maps … luckily we have had plenty of rain this week so the incipient pyromania won't result in any bush fires just yet.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The Mystery of the Missing Treasure

Picture me last Saturday night hunched over the kitchen table, armed with the Dangerous Book for Boys, a squeezed lemon, empty fountain pen and a candle.

I'd had over a month to prepare for our son's detective birthday party, mulled ideas around in my head, but I'm beginning to suspect that I'm an adrenaline junkie. Not for me the thrill of a rollercoaster or bungy jumping, I get my fix by playing chicken with deadlines, at least as far as birthday parties are concerned. Once I was a student leaving essays till the day before they were due, now I'm a Mum with fourteen children all expecting the Mystery of the Missing Treasure the next day and only a vague outline in my head. That stress is necessary to spark the creative juices when it comes to thinking up treasure hunts for my children's birthday parties. There are three a year. Each one needs a new theme, a new slant on the clues, a new story and new edge of desperado cutting it fine, thinking up clues only an hour before the guests arrive.

This bunch of newly ten year olds needed a step up from my tried and tested formula of following a trail of clues. Last year the older ones seemed a trifle jaded. Veterans of the 5 previous years' parties, they already knew all the best places for clues on our farm. This year we needed an added element.

So The Dangerous Book for Boys revealed the secret of invisible writing, the principles of the code wheel, things that all good detectives should know ..and all good thieves of course.

By 10 o'clock that evening I had established that lemon juice worked better than milk, and that a candle flame would make the writing appear if you could avoid setting light to the paper. We'd worked out the story and the outline of the hunt but still hadn't encoded the clues and finalised the wording. But our brains had switched off. It was time to hit the sofa.

The next day dawned and I wished I was one of those prepared in advance types, who would have the whole thing worked out the week before. Lying in bed that morning I finalised the wording of the clues, thought out a clever plan to have an e-mail clue that involved searching on Wikipedia.

I'd rashly planned a big roast lunch so that our friends from Cape Town could be tempted out for the birthday, as they don't usually make it to weekday birthdays, it's a bit far to come just for tea, and after all roast chicken and roast potatoes is our son's favourite meal. I still had some baking to do and Middle Daughter wanted to make the cheese biscuits for the party herself.

Stress levels rose as I realised that the number of potatoes to feed sixteen people filled my stockpot, and even my big oven would be stretched to capacity to roast them, the three chickens and baked butternut. It was pouring with rain too, with a playful wind hurling great torrents of water onto our noisy tin roof.

The birthday boy was happy with his new scooter and an MP3 player to try out. He did look at the rain and wonder whether he should have chosen a Lazerquest party. This idea had been vetoed when I found out the cost of entertaining fifteen kids for less than an hour in a dark echoing concrete jungle, just for them to have the pleasure of shooting at each other. He hadn't seriously thought we would agree, but it was worth a try. Anyway in South Africa it hardly ever rains the whole day long and we had a good chance that if it was raining now it would have stopped in time for the party.

Lunch was successfully accomplished, with just enough roast potatoes for all. I left the guests to wash the dishes while I disappeared to encode the clues.

The first party guests arrived early, so I shut myself into the spare room to get busy with the invisible ink. As they hurtled round the house on scooters pretending to be jewel thieves and police, I sneaked out of the side door to position the letter and a candle in an outhouse, other strategic clues along the route, commissioned my husband and a friend to lay a trail of footprints and climb a tree to hide another clue. The treasure was already hidden in the boot of the thieves' getaway car, the car key in the fridge in the garage.

Once the last guest arrived I was ready and the rain had stopped. Instead of the usual story to set the scene I borrowed a bit of drama from Planet Nomad's detective birthday and erupted from our bedroom, shouting that the treasure for the hunt had been stolen and so had all my jewellery. The children poured into the bedroom and looked around. The wide open window and billowing curtain soon had them hot on the trail of the thieves' footprints and we were away.

The coding wheel proved to be a bit of a tricky concept to grasp, (especially as I'd interpreted its use slightly differently than my son and husband had previously, when they constructed it), but one dedicated bunch, with a little adult help, worked it out patiently, while the others cast about for the trail of footprints, which by now was no longer an accurate reflection of the thieves' movements.

My encryption process proved to be rather full of errors too, as I hadn't been wearing my glasses at the time, but I was on hand to interpret the garbled message and they hared off to the hut.

They managed to reveal the secret writing without singeing any eyebrows and it held their attention even though the writing took a while to come through properly.

After a few more clues they eventually tracked down the treasure in the getaway car and were each issued with a cool detective's magnifying glass - a lucky find in the Crazy Store the day before. And even the cool dudes of nearly eleven had a good time. A huge waft of relief hit me as the adrenaline released its grip.

Youngest wants a unicorn birthday for her next one…. she didn't think much of detective birthdays.

Happy Birthday Ten Years Old!