Monday, November 24, 2008

WTSIM Sunday Roast

The scent of roast chicken wafts through the house – the reassuring smell of Sundays, leisurely family days spent at home, everyone doing their own thing in different directions until lunch gathers them around the table. One nose buried deep in a book, another child intent on an elaborate game with toys and animals, another off at an aunt’s house until recalled for the meal. Sunday lunch is a family ritual that holds fast through winter, but loses ground to Saturday evening braais in summer, when just the thought of a roaring stove at midday would bring you out n a sweat.

Johanna announced the roast for the theme of this month’s WTSIM and I wondered whether the weather would allow me to sneak one last roast in before summer took hold. Luckily this weekend was sunny but not too hot, with a cool wind that dissuaded the children from swimming, so last week’s summer braai by the pool has been followed by a return to a wintry Sunday lunch round the table.

Crispy roast potatoes are the draw card in our house – even without the meat the kids would be happy with a plateful of them. The meat can be chicken or lamb, we hardly ever do beef or pork. This week it was a chicken: lemon-scented, a whole lemon in its cavity keeping it fresh and juicy as it cooks and preventing it from drying out; a clove or two of garlic and some herbs underneath it, with a quartered onion or two grouped around in the tin and a liberal splash or olive oil to anoint the skin. The lemon makes sure there are plenty of juices (don’t forget to pierce the lemon skin) and the onions caramelize to give a wonderful rich colour and flavour to the resulting gravy. One tip I learned from Marcella Hazan is to start the chicken off breast down in the pan, so the lemon juice soaks it and the underside browns, then turn it over for the second half of cooking. It doesn't keep so perfectly shaped but it really does taste better.

Besides the chicken and potatoes we always do a tray of baked butternut, sprinkled with cinnamon and just catching at the edges for a sweet caramelly taste. Some fresh steamed vegetables are needed to offset all this roast richness, something green like broccoli and some carrots or peas.

Roasts are simple enough, once you have mastered the rhythm. Most of the work is in the preparation: peeling and par-boiling the potatoes, anointing the chicken with whatever oils and herbs you’ve chosen, peeling and dicing the butternut. Then you can shove it all in the oven for an hour and a half and leave it to cook, just checking in a couple of times to turn the potatoes and butternut and baste the chicken. Too much attention and you let all the heat out of the oven, losing the necessary degrees to achieve crispness and perfection. At the end there is another flurry of activity, draining vegetables and making gravy, carving the meat. The potatoes stay in the oven until the last minute, so they are as crisp and crunchy as possible and don’t sit sulkily in their bowl going soggy in their steam, while people are called to the table.

I have written a whole article on the perfect roast potato, so I won’t repeat the secret here and anyway, everyone has their own pet way of getting them just right, from Nigella Lawson’s semolina to those who swear by using goose fat for flavour. Mine just require short par-boiling, a shake in the pan to rough the corners and just enough hot olive oil to coat with a bit over, followed by an hour and a half in a hot oven.

Gravy is another controversial topic. My mother always used the juices from the meat, without any help from Bisto and that is what I like best, while my brother-in-law likes ‘army sauce’, thick brown Bisto blanket sauce, so sometimes we have two jugs on the table. To make my gravy, I roast onions in the pan with the meat to get a good caramelised flavour and brown colour, as chicken juices are pretty anaemic looking. When the chicken is cooked I take it out of the roasting pan and keep in warm, draw off most of the fat from the pan and then add in a liberal dash of wine, some water reserved from par-boiling the potatoes and then bubble it all up. The flavour is usually fairly concentrated, so taste it and see if you need more water. The only problem is it almost never quite makes enough gravy for my family, who love it soaked into their potatoes, even on their third helping!

After at least three weeks without a roast, there were a series of yums around the table as everyone tucked in happily to their favourite meal. The potatoes were shared out equitably, totaling six each and there were very few leftovers. I remember in my childhood, my mother managed to carve a chicken, so one half was Sunday lunch and the other half eaten cold with salad the next day. I think chickens have shrunk since then, as ours was a quivering ruin of bones with a few shreds of leg meat still attached by the end! And they had room for pudding...

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Trip into Town in an Orange Silk Scarf

Most of the time I am at home here, take sights that would astound someone fresh in from Europe for granted, like a lorry crammed with people in the open back, barreling along the main road. Sometimes, though, I feel like a tourist here, seeing things with fresh eyes, especially when I go into Cape Town on an almost joll, which doesn’t happen all that often.

I don’t know whether it was my bright orange silk scarf, or the flu I was warding off, but I seemed to float around the most confusing shopping mall in Cape Town (the Cavendish, if you’re wondering) even with a heavy bag over my shoulder. It is the local mall for loads of Cape Town friends, who treat its tortuous layout with casual familiarity, but I was adrift without a compass.

Desperately in need of a pee, with no obvious signs in sight, I at last found the X marks the spot map of the centre. Pondering its intricacies I was rescued by a kindly young security man, who politely enquired if he could help. I immediately received detailed and step by step instructions to the nearest toilets without a hesitation, or a flicker of amusement at my plight. The instructions were spot on and I found the elusive rest rooms round a corner, up a flight of stairs and across a hallway, just as he said.

Upon entering I was welcomed by an effusive and genuine ‘Hellooo’, by a smiling, tall and elegant woman who was mopping the charcoal tiled floor, in case a drip from the basin should cause anyone to slip. She made me feel like a long-lost friend, maybe she thought she knew me? Telling it back now, I fear I was hallucinating – this has never happened to me before, not even in Harrods or Liberty’s!

The main errand to the bank was achieved and some atypical advance Christmas shopping completed before fatigue set in, the flu was fighting back, despite the floaty orange scarf. I put on Mamma Mia to get me home on a wave of good cheer.

At the petrol station heading home was a truly modern African scene. It is undergoing building renovations and was bristling with men in hard hats, doing complicated things on scaffolding. At the pump next to mine two sinewy men in orange hard hats were trying to trim a short metal rod with a hand saw. Their orange reflective vests were flapping in the gusting south-easter, as they stood round a black plastic dustbin, which they had turned into a makeshift workbench. A half brick on top raised the rod enough to clear the dustbin lid and one man held the rod while the other sawed. It wasn’t working and a petrol attendant came over to help by holding the other end, several more men grouping round to watch. They were still sawing when the attendant brought back my card and I drove off, wondering what would happen in Europe if Health and Safety caught you up to something like that … but at least they were wearing hard hats!

The flu did get me, but I took yesterday off and am feeling well enough to go to belly dancing tonight. It must be the orange scarf doing its work after all!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Bob the Builder Eat Your Heart Out!

Bob the Builder, look to your laurels! This team can fix it and handle the business side too, all in fairy dresses. And they know how to use a spirit level!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Monday Mornings

When you bake bread every other day there are bound to be some disasters occasionally: usually forgetting about it, either while it is rising or once it is in the oven, as the computer inveigles you away to another time zone. Most of them are salvageable though – bread is very accommodating stuff and you can usually knock it down and re-form loaves that have risen too much, and still eat a rather crusty loaf that had 20 minutes too long in the oven.

This morning I woke gradually, still clinging on to sleep and recalling dreams... then came to full consciousness with a jolt, shrieking silently: “Aaaagh, my bread!”.

Monday morning struck with a vengeance – the batch of bread I’d got going before supper the previous day, with just enough time to rise, knock down, shape, rise and bake before bed-time, had spent the whole night on its first rise – the yeast would be grumpy and exhausted, reduced to alcoholic fermentation to pass the time. The resulting bread would taste revolting and be horribly indigestible.

I’d have to chuck it.

I hate wasting so much good ingredients, purely through my own fault.

It would be shop bought sliced bread from the freezer emergency stash for the kids’ sandwiches and another batch to knead for lunch.


I’m not sure that this is my most memorable baking disaster – the prize for that would have to be the rye loaf that baked into an offensive weapon after an extra hour in the oven – or the batch of crunchies that set my sister-in-law’s oven on fire - but it is certainly one of the most annoying. What’s your worst baking disaster?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Braai by the Pool

Bright sunshine glints on the water of the swimming pool, which is still slightly murky after its winter rest despite a week’s machinations of chemical cocktails to clear it. Yellow leaves from the karee willow float here and there on the surface, bound to clog the filter, but the tree lives on to dapple us with its shade, fiercely defended by the romantic among us versus the practical ones, who would replace it with a less shedding sort of a tree. Three children shriek with laughter as they create choppy seas with their boogy boards, eventually slopping water over the sides of the pool, until Youngest reprimands them for wasting water. The sprinkler is industriously turning in a desperate attempt to return the grass to some semblance of lawnhood – dry now after a crop of wild daisies clothed it in early spring, it is sparse and stubbly, slightly greener than the surrounding straw-coloured fields but not by much. Spring has finally uttered its last breath - the summer landscape of grey-blue mountains and yellow-brown fields is back.

We are in a celebratory mood – our new summer house by the pool is finished, but for a few trifles. What last year was a tin-roofed shelter, with stick walls that allowed the south-easter to whistle through, now has solid plank walls, lined with plasterboard and painted a sophisticated cool grey –‘like concrete’ was our builder’s disapproving comment, as we insisted that was the colour we wanted! We are having a family braai to christen our new space, lounging on the low walls that enclose the front, enjoying the respite inside from the ever-blowing wind. Wafts of smoke fragrant with braaiing meat drift over. Several conversations eddy backwards and forwards, voices weaving and intertwining in a family that all talks at once. Braai tongs in hand our braai-master admires the growth of the wattle tree, now taller and spreading, after a good winter of endless rain. A discussion on what plants to put in the beds, devastated by the building work, melds with some commentary on the latest springbok rugby match.

Screeches erupt from the braai, as a length of boerewors has fallen in the fire – conflicting advice fires in all directions – put it back on,! it’ll be fine – wash it! – not in the pool, in the sprinkler, I don’t like chlorine on my sausage! Order is eventually restored and the conversation tempo returns to its normal animated hum.

The children emerge from the pool shivering in the wind and dress in the dappled shade of the tree, shouting at Amy, the Jack Russell – a total princess who would like a silken cushion to be carried about for her to lie on, but in the absence of such refinements has at last found a comfortable place to curl up - on the children’s clothes.

Hands cold from the pool embrace my warm bare shoulders, wet hair drips down my T-shirt as Youngest smiles affectionately into my face.

‘Lunch is ready’ announces the braai-master in triumph, bearing aloft a pot of sausage and one of spicy chicken wings, as she comes in out of the heat of sunshine and fire. Calm and silence descends as everyone makes headway into paper platefuls of sausage, wings, salad, foil baked butternut and potatoes.

“A braai is the most satisfying meal there is," announces my braai-maaster sister-in-law at last, as we heave contented sighs of repletion.
“It’s because it’s all about community, we all take part in the preparation and are together as we put it together,’ answers her sister.
“It’s the primitive satisfaction of cooking over a fire” suggests her husband.

The summer house is well christened. We finish off with apple cake and meringues and milk tart, until we are totally stuffed rather than elegantly replete. More plans are made – electricity is the next thing, so we can have a kettle for tea and coffee. Cupboards so we don’t have to carry all the cutlery and crockery down from the house each time. Nets on the ceiling to dissuade the birds from nesting and adding ‘texture' to the floor – once the present brood of starlings has flown the nest, of course. They are cheeping protestingly now, as our presence has kept the parents away too long and they are hungry. It is time to clear away our feast and leave them to theirs.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Reading South Africa

When I met and married my South African husband, I knew we were going to end up living here. It was part of the deal: he had been living in London for fifteen years and wanted to come home. We made a few visits over here to his family before we tied the knot and I started looking for some South African novelists to read, to help me understand a bit more about this country I would be moving to.

Ask about classic South African novelists and you will inevitably end up with a selection of Nadine Gordimer for gritty, struggle, political angst and then some Dalene Matthee for ‘how it was back then in the early days of rural South Africa’ atmosphere. They are both excellent reads, but I struggled with Nadine Gordimer. Escapist she certainly is not and identifying with her protagonists was a challenge – too much gritty reality and human failings for bedtime reading. Dalene Matthee I enjoyed more, the characters sprang to life for me and gave me a sense of the history of this complex country. But I never found the South African equivalent of the English books that are my best reads: books about people, their stories, well-written but without an external agenda. Not surprisingly really, as the past century of South Africa’s history is cluttered with meaty agendas that affect everyone’s lives whether they are politically engagĂ© or not.

Recently I stumbled upon two South African novels in the library that I really have enjoyed. Not because they avoided difficult issues, they were each set in a period of huge drama and political change when Apartheid was flexing its muscles, but because the story was about the people and their personal growth amid cataclysmic events.

Sweet Smelling Jasmine by Jenny Hobbs tells the story of a pivotal year in the life of a teenage girl, just south of Durban, parallel with her later life as a mother of three grown-up children, whose marriage has dried up, but who is embarking on a blossoming affair with a man from that year of her youth. Throughout the novel his identity is kept in the dark, as her teenage life unfolds towards the cataclysmic event that overshadows the whole story. This is small-town life where the races are not yet kept separate and a feeling of tension weaves throughout, but it is cleverly written from a teenage perspective so that more importance is given to the unattainable perfect dress in the shop window, than to the political machinations of the adults around her, though they filter through to her as viewed by her adult self. I loved this book for its human drama as well as the clear picture it paints of its place and time.

Dance with a Poor Man's Daughter by Pamela Jooste is also set in a time when cataclysmic events were taking place and is narrated by a teenage girl. This time the overhanging threat is the shameful razing of District Six in Cape Town, a government resettlement policy that has left a still open wound in people’s consciousness today, when a whole homogenous community, made-up of Coloureds, Jews, Muslims was evicted and resettled according to its component parts and the apartheid policy. It is recounted by a vivacious teenager, living in a family of strong women, whose men are all no good, according to her grandmother. She tells everything as she sees it, recounting adult conversation verbatim, and paints a vivid picture of the community and people, her family, her gangster cousin and her runaway mother, who returns a political activist to fight for their cause. The story is of resilient women, living their lives as best they can amid the changes that beset them and never losing faith in themselves or life itself.

Thinking about it, the difference between these two and my experience of Gordimer, is that both their protagonists grow through the story and retain hope for the future, despite the events that happen to and around them, whereas my memory of Gordimer’s books is of an atmosphere where despair has taken over and the characters disintegrate around it, perhaps at the end salvaging the barest, bleak bone of hope for a featureless future. This is not to say that you shouldn’t read her books – you should - they are excellent literature. But this is when I have to admit that I haven’t re-read any of her books over the last ten years. They are uncomfortable sofa companions for me and I prefer my realism with a little patina of optimism. A story doesn’t have to be sugar-coated, but, for me, there is enough doom and gloom about without voluntarily pulling more of it from the book-shelf.

Despair very soon sinks you in apathy, which gets you nowhere but sagging deeper into the sofa. To live in South Africa today I need to hang on to my hope, sipping it from small details of individual stories, one person at a time, keeping my optimism firmly rooted in the human will to survive and grow.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Sunshine in an Orange Skin

Living in a sunshine country we are totally spoilt with the abundance of fruit grown right here in the Cape. We revel in fruit that actually ripens to full flavour, that is sold by the roadside when in season, so that you can buy boxes of peaches that will all ripen at once sending you into an orgy of fruit salads, pavlovas and smoothies, just to use them up before they self-destruct.

At a time when food prices are rocketing, it has been a joy to me for the last two or three months to buy a huge bag of sweet juicy oranges, 24 in the last bag I counted, for only R8.99 in our supermarket (that’s about $1!). If we could live just on oranges we’d be laughing all the way to the bank!

So we’ve been having oranges segmented like grapefruit and eaten with a spoon for breakfast, then, when that palled, we squeezed the juice and drank it. The best of all has been this orange sorbet recipe, which takes all the goodness and flavour of fresh oranges and stores it in the freezer until it intensifies into a dessert that completely satisfies your taste-buds and which is at its very best with some dark chocolate. I made two huge ice-cream containers full earlier in the season. Unfortunately it went down so well with everyone that they have both all but vanished. My sister-in-law was so horrified at the thought of there being none left for Christmas lunch, that I scooped an extra sack of oranges into my shopping trolley yesterday, to make another big container full; this one labeled with a “Not to be opened before 25th December notice”.

The recipe is very simple, even simpler if you have a machine to squeeze the oranges for you, and doesn’t need anything more doing to it once it’s in the freezer. I made it last year with naartjies (clementines) and served it in their scooped out skins, which was a more fiddly business but looked very pretty.

Orange Sorbet Recipe

20 smallish oranges
juice of half a lemon
100ml/ ½ cup water
icing sugar (if needed to sweeten)

250ml/ 1 cup sugar
150 ml/ 2/3 cup water
juice of ¼ lemon

Make the syrup by heating the syrup ingredients over a low heat until the sugar has dissolved and it looks clear. Boil for 2-3 minutes, then leave to cool, while you prepare the rest.

Wash half the oranges well, then grate their zest finely. Squeeze the juice from all of the oranges and the half lemon. Mix in the water and cooled syrup and taste to see if any more sugar is needed. Add water, lemon juice or sugar until you get the right intensity and sweetness, remembering that frozen desserts need a little extra sweetness to bring out the flavour. Freeze until firm.

The sorbet keeps well and is even better a week after making. Hide it at the back of the freezer if you want it to last till Christmas!

Friday, November 07, 2008

Warm, fuzzy blog awards

I love getting blog awards, it gives me a warm buzz of belonging, so thanks to Jeanne of Cooksister for giving me one of these. Now, according to the rules, I get to share it with seven more blogs I love to read:

Here are the rules:

1) Add the logo of the award to your blog.
2) Add a link to the person who awarded it to you (as shown above).
3) Nominate at least seven other blogs.
4) Add links to those blogs on your blog

So, in no particular order, I nominate:
Mary Alice of From the Frontlines
Charlotte of Charlotte's Web
Hen of Diary of Domestic Hiss
Jenny of Prairie Farmeress
Planet Nomad
Corey of Tongue in Cheek
Meredith of Poppy Fields

And I had to leave out loads more blogs that I love to read to keep it down to seven, so please feel a bit of blog love coming your way, even if I haven't linked to you right this minute!

Now I'm hitting the sofa with a bar of Lindt Intense Orange chocolate and a mug of Rooibos tea - the weekend has begun!

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Brown is the New Black

The post election global exhalation reached our house at breakfast this morning, with another illustration of this generation's different perceptions of colour to those of their hide-bound older generation parents.

It's a normal school day filled with the usual rush to get breakfasted, sandwiched and out of the door by 7.30. This morning it is different though - an air of excitement and celebration riffles across the cereal packets, the TV is on and Dad is leaning forward soaking up Obama’s oratory. The children gravitate over there, forgetful of the need for hair-brushing and shoes. The girls vaguely grasp the idea of someone having won something important, but aren’t quite sure what and why.

They watch attentively as Obama is joined on stage by his vice-president and both their wives.

“Who won?” Middle Daughter asks.

“Barack Obama,” we say.

“But who won?” she repeats, perhaps thinking that this is the name of the game.

“The black guy,” I explain, with only two guys to be seen on the podium.

“ Oh, the brown guy,” she corrects me, happy to get her facts straight and be able to focus on the right guy as the winner.