Sunday, May 31, 2009

WTSIM Boeuf Bourgignon

Winter is really here now, a chill in the air and cold fronts bustling over in a hurry to get somewhere, showering us with torrents of rain as they pass. The scarlet vine leaves are dropping fast now, our only real autumn colour carpeting the ground with its finery.

Today was the perfect day to cook a slow stew in the oven, the aroma of its winey juices pervading the house, and the warmth of the oven giving me a place to lean against and warm up, after sitting at the computer too long. Squalls of rain drumming on the roof have no power to damp your spirits when such uplifting scents keep enticing you back to the kitchen to draw in deep satisfying breaths. If you can remember the Bisto kid, being pulled home by the wafting, come-hither tendrils of steam from the gravy on the stove, boeuf bourgignon has to be the inspiration for that! It’s worth cooking on every rainy winter weekend, just for the feel-good factor.

In fact the real title of this post should be: Waiter there’s something in my Boeuf Bourgignon and it looks like a dumpling!

The purists would be turning in their graves, after all, boeuf bourgignon is a classic French dish that should ideally be served with garlicky croutons on top, but dumplings… ? Dumplings come from a Northern European heritage and are a staple of English country culinary tradition. They are designed to fill up hungry farm labourers, soak up the stew juices and make the meat go further, distract attention from the fact that there is hardly any meat in the stew at all. They are frugal cooking at its finest. And I have another confession to make: I didn’t use burgundy, I used a South African Merlot, so this isn’t boeuf bourgignon except in the method. It is something that I am hereby classifying as Bistro Fusion: Merlot Beef with Parmesan Dumplings, invented especially for the May edition of WTSIM Bistro Food!

I’d been wanting to make dumplings for ages, ever since Homemade Heaven made them and reminded me what good winter fare they are. They don’t form part of my usual repertoire and the kids didn’t even know what dumplings were, so it’s been a long time. I went for a simple flour dumpling recipe in one of Nigel Slater’s books, that promised light and fluffy dumplings, and then left out the herbs, as I wanted the kids to eat them without being put off by green bits. They were incredibly quick and easy to make and puffed up to double their size without any fuss. These are going to be on the menu more often! Please excuse the inartistic photography - it was dark and I was hungry!!

But the proof is in the eating… I had the timing down exactly right to fit in with half time in the most exciting rugby match in years (according to my husband... it was the final of the Super14 where the Bulls trashed the Chiefs, if any of you are rugby fans!), so the dish had serious competition in making an impression. But it went down a storm with my husband and with the two girls, so it took me a while to notice the heavy silence emanating from my son’s place. He had that neutral, set look and a barely touched plate. My pickiest eater wasn’t going to be fooled into believing that dumplings are really just another version of bread. As his sisters enthusiastically ate their platefuls and eventually discovered the filling properties that dumplings are renowned for, he sloped off to the fridge and got himself an apple. Never mind – he won’t fade away – we’re having guests for lunch tomorrow: roast potatoes and roast chicken, so I’ll allow about ten potatoes just for him.

Here is my version of the recipe:

Boeuf Bourgignon or Merlot Beef with Parmesan Dumplings

About 900g/2lb chuck steak (I used stewing steak)
1 medium onion
2 cups red wine – burgundy or Merlot!
2 cloves garlic
bay leaf
2 sprigs thyme
100g/4 oz mushrooms
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon flour

For the dumplings
200g/7oz flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons grated parmesan
1 egg
about 120ml/half cup milk
(add chopped parsley and thyme if your kids eat green things!)

Cut the meat into largish chunks. In a heavy casserole heat 2 tablespoons of oil and brown the meat on all sides in batches. Put the meat aside on a plate, while you soften the onions in the same pan. Return the meat to the pan, sprinkle the flour over and stir it all in till it has soaked up the juices. Pour in the wine and stir it all together, allow to bubble. Add the chopped garlic and herbs, season with salt and pepper. Cover with a tight lid and cook in a low oven (140C/275F) for about 2 hours. Add the mushrooms (the recipe also added bacon and small onions at this point, but I didn’t have any and it still tasted great) then return covered to the oven for another hour. It can be cooked to this point in advance and reheated later, when you want to add the dumplings.

Fifteen minutes before you want to eat, make the dumplings: sieve the flour together with the baking powder and salt (the sieving helps lighten the dumplings so don’t skip this). Add the grated parmesan. Mix in the beaten egg and then add milk a bit at a time, until it comes together in a soft but not too sticky dough. Form into 8-10 balls. Slide them gently into the top of the casserole and let it simmer covered for 10-12 minutes, until the dumplings have doubled in size. I did this last bit on top of the stove, to make sure the liquid was simmering properly.

Serve with some green vegetables.

This is my last minute entry for Johanna’s WTSIM Bistro event - the deadline is today, so get moving if you haven't already submitted your entry!

Sunday, May 24, 2009


Last night the children had a sleepover at their aunt’s house. This is all of 50m away, just down the hill, but is a major step forward on the road to independence, when up till a year ago the girls had never spent a night away from us.

Over the last year they have evolved their own traditions for the sleepover. In the morning the girls go in to town with their aunt and choose a movie to watch that evening at the video rental shop. They generally return with three, having not been able to decide on just one. Sometime in the afternoon the girls solemnly pack a black bin-bag with their essentials: duvet, pillows, slippers, soft toy, book, angel painting, pyjamas, spare clothes for the morning, tooth brush, favourite knick knacks etc. They then lug them down the hill and unpack them neatly onto a side table or chair by the bed. Our son will, a bit later, casually sling his duvet over his arm along with pillow and a spare pair of underpants and saunter down the hill, returning for forgotten necessities like pyjamas if reminded.

While they are feasting on roast chicken and roast potatoes and then trying to cram all three movies into the evening, then morning, tv-watching slots, we are rattling around in the unaccustomed silence of our house, trying to get used to just being us. The first time it happened we were completely at a loss, the house felt empty and echoey, two dimensional and flat, but this weekend we expanded to fill the empty space, with music playing and a Thai green curry on the menu.

The spectacular sunset, with whirls of rain capturing rainbows in the mid distance lured me away from the kitchen, calling to my husband, who raced back for his camera, and we stood out on the lawn in front of our house revolving 360 degrees to catch every shade of the sunset’s progress: pink glowing mountains, followed by clouds laced with pink edging in the east; rain showers creating a vertical section of rainbow suspended in the sky; sweeps of rain capturing a burnt orange hue to the west over the hill behind us. Changing every few seconds the colours held us out there for almost half an hour, until the show ended and the clouds returned to uniform grey as darkness fell. I returned to the kitchen and began cooking our supper.

The dogs are completely distraught by the sleepover concept, especially the two male border collies. Restlessly they run back and forward between the two houses. How are they supposed to guard their family when it is split in two? As soon as they come into our house they scrabble at the door to be let out again and end up sleeping outside – one by the cottage containing the sleeping children, the other on our stoep.

We lit a fire, ate our spicy supper by candlelight and settled down to watch Bourne Identity: a thriller instead of our usual chick flick (going wild without the restraining influence of children in the next room!) then slept for once undisturbed by sleep walking, sleep talking children and restless dogs.

The next morning I lounged in bed, with a cup of tea, trying to finish the fifth Artemis Fowl book. My husband is next in line to read it and itching to get his hands on it. One by one the children returned from their sleepover, and came in for a hug with reports of the entertainment: The movie was good – Firehouse Dog – the best yet. Someone snored last night. They managed to watch all three movies. Bin bags are unceremoniously dumped beside their beds and they slot back into their normal Sunday activities.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


England in autumn applies orange lavishly with broad brush strokes. Dripping and splattering all shades of sunset, it spreads throughout the landscape: beech trees a golden or coppery shade, through to fiery oranges and rusts in London parks, interspersed with reds and golds. The bright colors make up for dull skies and flat light and just occasionally are picked up by bursts of sunlight that set the whole landscape on fire.

In South Africa too orange is the colour of autumn and winter, but here it is in the details, a fine brush picking out highlights: aloe flowers, wilde dagga, tekoma (Cape honeysuckle), gazanias. As soon as the first autumn showers wake the plants from summer slumber they burst into bloom: first the wilde dagga providing nectar for the sunbirds whose iridescent green flits between them and the tekoma.

Later on the aloes will provide scarlet exclamation points amid the winter green, and at the end of winter pincushion proteas provide a full stop to the orangefest. You can see why nature is sparing with her bright colors over here.

The bright winter sunshine picks up the oranges and intensifies them into glorious Technicolor – no need for a broad backdrop of orange which would dazzle and blind. We feast our eyes on the cooler green of new winter growth and then look for sparkle and joyous abandon to the shocking oranges of the flowers around us.

We’re feasting on oranges literally too. The fruit are already in season, cheap enough to buy several kilos and eat one for breakfast every day, but soon they will be piled high in the supermarket in 5kg bags for R8 each.

That is when we start drinking freshly squeezed juice, make orange sorbet to freeze for the summer, make marmalade or just eat them by the score, for breakfast, lunch and snacks. They are my secret weapon against winter ills and children who don't like vegetables are happy to eat them at any time of day. Naartjies too for school lunch boxes – all the varieties parade through the shops. At the moment it is the loose skinned tangerine, but our best clementines aren’t here yet, we have to be patient a while longer. Vitamin C and colour to cheer us through the winter, even when it is a grey rainy one.

Flaming log fires, tall orange candles, fiery sunsets and sunrises, orange silk scarves and fleeces, Le Creuset pots filled with hot casseroles and soups, these are a few of my favourite things....!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Treasure in the Rain

Eleven is a transition age – the automatic magic inherent in birthdays, that has the girls excited even when it’s someone else’s birthday, has worn off for our son. His birthday fell on a Monday this year, with a long day of school and for the first time ever we decided to hold his party on a different day, so that he could have a sleepover party with just a few of his friends on the weekend. A rather restrained and grown-up present and cake ceremony celebrated the day itself and then he had unlimited time on the new upgraded computer that was his present from us and Granny. He said it felt like we were just celebrating a normal day - he didn't feel any different. A pang of regret for childhood passing clutched at me!

We then had to postpone the party as one of his friends was sick and another couldn’t stay the night, reducing the number of sleepover guests to two. We watched the perfect sunny autumn Saturday pass with a sigh of regret, but he was philosophical and decided that he would rather have all of his friends there than go ahead without some of them.

We watched the weather forecasts with trepidation as the next weekend approached. Everyone was relatively healthy, but a major storm was predicted for the Saturday night. Our son steadily maintained that the weathermen were often wrong and he was sure it would be fine. We told everyone to come anyway. Come rain or shine the party would go on.

We’d planned for a braai, followed by a treasure hunt in the dark with torches and the new, birthday-present, walkie talkie. Our son wanted codes and cryptic messages. As the cold front rolled in on Friday and the rain fell in buckets we were perhaps a little half-hearted in thinking up clues and working out how to do it. Visions of soaking-wet kids lost in the darkness and falling in puddles had us planning a shorter route than usual. Over a grown-up dinner celebrating my SIL’s birthday on the Friday night we came up with a few ideas, before the red wine, rich chocolate cake and orange sorbet put paid to any more brain activity and we procrastinated on ironing out the details.

Saturday dawned wet. Windguru became my online obsession. I checked in with it neurotically every couple of hours to see if the wind and rain predicted for the treasure hunt time slot had decreased at all. Outside a heavy shower would drum on the roof and then clear tantalizingly, before another blast blew through. Every now and then our son would look at the sky and say determinedly, ‘I think all the clouds have gone through now, those ones only look light grey’.

After lunch we resolutely banished our lack of faith in the friendly weather gods and sat down to work out the nitty gritty of the clues and the hunt, my husband in partnership with me this time. Time pressures and anticipation of a wet evening curtailed our grander plans for elaborately coded clues – best if we got them round quickly and back undercover to solve a Morse code message, which would take them to the treasure somewhere dry.

I waited for a break in the showers and ran around the property to hide the clues, sheltering under the swimming pool shelter from the worst of the downpour that caught me halfway. By now friends were arriving at the gate, mildly surprised to see me exiting the chicken house in the rain and then doubling back on my tracks, so as not to give the clue position away to potential watchers in the house.

The assembled guests zoomed round the house on scooters in ever decreasing circles, or invented weird creatures on Spore, practised talking on the walkie talkie and made intricate Lego vehicles.

At six o’clock our tin roof drummed once more with slanting rain. We fed the children boerewors (cooked in the oven) rolls and racked the positive thinking up a notch.

At seven it was dark and damp outside, but the tin roof was quiet. A sudden flurry of activity took place. Finding fleeces and rain jackets for woefully inadequately dressed children, looking for spare torches and borrowing more from the other houses. I fretted that our rain free window was passing by, my stress levels rose, but I kept a calm fa├žade and persuaded a boy to accept a borrowed jacket, even it if was a girls’ one.

A minor hiccup occurred, when we found our son had switched off his computer, and the first clue to start off the treasure hunt had been skyped to it, but it delayed us only another couple of minutes and then two teams of four surged out into the dark night, torches held high, to forge through the restios and bush. The clues turned out to be all too easy, but the two way communication on the walkie talkie was a hit.

Where are you? over!
Nearly at the hut. over
Have you found the clue yet. over
Here it is. over….

The clues were designed so that each team had to tell the other team where to go to find their next clue, meaning constant chat on the walkie talkie. We had an adult with each team, just in case, but they were fine. I split off at a designated spot into my sister-in-law's house and had to wrestle with sending a vital Morse code message for the first time in my life. It’s a lot harder than you’d think, getting dots and dashes evenly spaced! Trying to read my crib notes in the dark was also interesting. I had to memorize the next bit by the light of the dashes as I signalled! I also had to repeat it about 10 times, as it turned out to be even trickier for the observers on our stoep to de-code, especially as I got a couple of letters wrong the first time round!

If the clue complexity wasn’t quite what our son had ordered, the treasure went down well. The stink bombs that my husband had encouraged me to get were let off outside on the lawn, thank goodness – they were seriously stinky! – then there were flashing light spinning tops and sparklers. By now the rain had started again in earnest and after the sparklers were finished, the kids all came in and had hot chocolate and toasted marshmallows by the fire.

A great movie, Bridge to Terabithia, enthralled all of them, from six year old Youngest to the nearly twelve year old friend. They finished watching it the next morning, when they all woke up horribly early, despite having kept each other awake till late.

I blearily watched the rest of the movie with them, then as they revved up the scooters and chased each other round the house, managed to crown my temporary supermom status by making buttermilk pancakes and fruit salad for breakfast, after which it all went mercifully quiet, as they all took to the computer to play Spore.

How could a few extra children to stay be so exhausting? We were all ragged round the edges by the end of Sunday, not least our son, whose grumpiness turned out to be because he was sickening for something. He came back from school with a temperature on Monday, but is already better this afternoon, and the sun is now shining outside as I write, as if butter wouldn’t melt.

Middle Daughter asked if she could have a sleepover for her birthday. She took a quick look at my face which must have said it all.
“When I’m older” she answered herself resignedly.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Cheap Shoe Shuffle

Children’s shoes have been the trial of mothers for generations, I’m sure. They grow out of them in no time, but good quality ones cost as much as adult shoes. Buy cheap ones and it is a gamble whether they will last until they are grown out of.

Faced with a barefoot Middle Daughter, who had grown out of all her shoes over the summer, with only three pairs of flip flops left to her name, the thought of equipping her with a winter wardrobe of good quality shoes was daunting.

I took the gamble. We went to Ackermans (the cheap and cheerful store, but still not the very cheapest) and bought her three pairs of shoes for the price of one good pair from Woolies. Trainers, pumps and a pair of pretty canvas shoes that were in the sale. That was the day that immediately on her return she gashed her arm and we had to turn straight around to get it sewn up at the doctor's in town. Perhaps that was an omen, a doom-laden peal foretelling the premature demise of the shoes, because five weeks later I was back at the store with my receipt and a pair of shoes that had perfect looking uppers (they might well still have been perfect-looking when excavated by archeologists in 200 years time, being about as biodegradable as the plastic chemicals they smelled of) but with deep cracks right across the soles. The trainers also had holes in the outer surface of the mock-leather upper that let the wet in, but my husband reckons he can use gaffa tape on that and I've twice stitched the strap back on the canvas shoes, so far, but I was only going to argue about the cracked soles of the mock leather pumps, which really were beyond remedy.

The cashier pointed at my till slip, which said a 30 days returns policy.
I argued.
The supervisor came and offered an exchange.
I said I didn’t want to buy shoes from them any more, as they are such bad quality.
She said "What do you expect? They’re cheap shoes. "
I persisted and eventually she got sick of me and gave me my money back.

And so duly chastened after my misguided attempt at economy, I sneaked back into the camp of ‘quality shoes are a must for growing feet’. If there had been a Clarks shoes over here I’d have legged it there, kissed the carpet and swooned over the leather shoes with width fittings. Here though we have Woolworths and that is about it. (If I’m wrong and there is somewhere else that does decent leather children’s shoes that fit, please, please tell me)

So today I took my barefoot princess to shop in Woolies in Canal Walk and Youngest came too. Another downside in the small market of South Africa is that shops get in their season’s stock and then that is it for the season. If a size runs out, it runs out. Canny Cape Town mothers have the Woolworths new season stock arrival date penciled in to their diary, fit their kids out for the season and then smile sympathetically and slightly smugly at less organized, belated and harassed mothers with two girls in tow, trying to find anything in a 2 or a 12, when the shelves are stripped bare of those sizes and now clearly only equipped for kindergarten aged tots.

Frustrated, as there were some quite nice looking leather sandals up to size 11, I found some white flowery leather ones in a size 2 and Middle Daughter tried them. Not comfortable. We drifted across to the rows of dull ‘school’ shoes and she happily enough tried them on too. Still no good. In the end she took matters into her own hands, wandered round the shelves, even into the boys section and came back with these.

And they fitted, are comfortable and, even better, they look like riding boots, so she can wear them for riding. So in one quick step I went from stingy, economical Mum to extravagant, profligate Mum and got a pair for Youngest too. It is only a matter of time before her trainers wear out, by which time there will be nothing at all left in Woolies shoe department, and she has no leather winter shoes and now I’m firmly back on the ‘leather shoes so the feet can breathe’ bandwagon. After a childhood of Clarks sandals myself I can’t really inflict premature bunions or foot rot on my own girls after all!

Anyone know how to stop children’s feet growing? These shoes need to last till summer now!

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

In Our Back Garden

Unicorns frolic in a flowery bower

Horses prance and toss their manes

Leopards pace and the lion lies down with the lamb

A hippo wallows in a watering hole

A girl waits patiently to go fishing

Cows graze peacefully in the evening sunshine.

A few mishaps mar the idyll...

Indian Jones tried one stunt too many

And the Italian Job did too good a job money laundering and jackknifed their lorry.

But overall tis a peaceful scene

Just a shame that the camel didn’t live to see it.

Vignettes photographed in my herb garden after Youngest had spent the afternoon out there.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

WTSIM Avocado and Prawn Cocktail

Jeanne has asked us to cast our minds back to the Seventies for this month’s WTSIM – the theme is retro classics, things that we would now blush to present at a dinner party but which were the epitome of cool way back then.

My childhood memories of food are mostly of traditional home-cooked fare, ageless dishes like shepherds pie and Sunday roasts, and then the unchanging school-food themes of stews and pies, sausages and mashed potatoes, none of which were the height of food fashion even in the Seventies. But I do remember going out as a family for meals as a special treat at half-term or to start off the holidays. In our early teens the Berni Inn was our favourite venue, a chain of steak houses that served steak and chips in all its permutations, followed by ice cream with chocolate sauce and, as a hugely daring end to the meal, one of those Irish coffees where the cream floats in a thick layer on top leaving you to create swirls and patterns as you stir it in.

Very occasionally though we would dress up and be taken to a more sophisticated, grown-up restaurant called The Pheasant, usually with grandparents or to celebrate a momentous birthday. There we would order from big menus in the lounge by a log fire and only be shown to our table as the starters were about to be served. The main courses have faded from my memory, but I do remember my favourite starter, which I thought was incredibly sophisticated – half an avocado filled with a prawn cocktail heaped into the hollow left by the stone. Avocados were still a bit of a luxury then, and getting them to ripen, as now, was a challenge, so scooping out the succulent smooth flesh with a spoon with the addition of the prawns and a dash of sauce was the ultimate in indulgence.

I don’t think I have had a prawn cocktail since the Seventies and certainly couldn’t remember what went into the sauce, so I Googled it and found Delia’s recipe (and she should know the authentic Seventies style, as that was the era when she was really cool too!). My memories of the prawns in prawn cocktail back then, reveal them to be small in size, so probably not actually prawns at all but what are sold here as shrimps. And though Delia suggests organic ketchup and home-made mayonnaise, I am sure the Seventies wasn’t big on those either, so I went for good old Heinz tomato ketchup (bought specially for this as I am mean and never brought my kids up to eat it, though two of them acquired a taste for it regardless!) and bought mayonnaise. She also says to use lime juice but I don’t think we could get limes back then, so have used lemons for the sake of authenticity (also because I can’t get limes in my local town either!)

One thing I was sure I wouldn’t have a problem with was getting good ripe avos, as the avocado season has started here now and I bought two specially last week for this. But they stayed stubbornly hard and I had to resort to putting them in a bag with a banana in a belated attempt to ripen and soften them sufficiently to be eaten with a spoon. The flesh should be velvety and seductive, not hacked out in solid lumps sending prawns flying in every direction.

I did very little measuring for this, just mixing up the sauce ingredients to taste, though I overdid the Tabasco to start and had to increase the quantities of everything else.

Avocado Prawn Cocktail

2 ripe avocados
a couple of handfuls of peeled small prawns or shrimps
4 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 tablespoons tomato ketchup
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
2-3 drops Tabasco sauce
squeeze of lemon juice

Mix up the sauce to taste. Cut avocados in half and remove the stone. Put a dollop of sauce in the hollow of each avo, fill with defrosted prawns and top with either a squeeze of lemon juice or more sauce depending on how much sauce you like. Sprinkle some shredded parsley on top for contrast. Eat with a spoon and add more sauce and prawns if you like.

The dog has to be part of the photo shoot

The kids were unimpressed by my culinary retrospective and fled down the hill to lunch at their aunt’s, but my husband gamely sampled his. We were both rather underwhelmed however – it didn’t live up to my fond recollections – probably because I don’t really like cocktail sauce much! The frozen shrimps were fairly flavourless and need the clout of a strong sauce, but next time I would forget tradition and go with a strong balsamic vinaigrette and good sea salt.

The other reason that this dish has lost its glamour for me, besides the fact that I seem to have a more sophisticated palate, is that in South Africa the avocado has never been an exotic rarefied ingredient. My husband remembers having avocado breakfasts as a child in the Sixties and Seventies, when they would each fill half and avocado with a selection of toppings, ranging from crispy bacon, to cream cheese or plain vinaigrette and guzzle however many they could manage, as in winter here avocados are plentiful and cheap. All you really need with a perfectly ripe avocado is some good olive oil, a dash of lemon juice and some sea salt for an exquisite lunch or starter. Who needs prawns and cocktail sauce when it tastes so good alone?!

We did enjoy the novelty though and there is an intrigued candidate for finishing off the de-frosted shrimps!

Fluff is into Seventies haute cuisine