Friday, March 26, 2010

Delving Into the Goodie Bag

The Cape Town Food Bloggers Conference on Sunday is nearly a week gone, but the flavours are lingering. Some in the memory, like Jenny Morris’ wonderful pear and blue cheese tart which has outlived all the other wonderful lunch dishes in my taste bud memory bank, and my first ever sushi from Saul's (I’ve lived on a farm with small kids for a long time now!). Other flavours brought home in the hefty goodie bag to peruse at leisure or inhale rapidly (like the Lindt chocolate bar).

I got lucky and won a whole box of Kara’s Original Greek herb and spice mix. I decided to try it out as a marinade for some beef strips, which I was briefly stir frying to go in tortillas, along with some extra garlic and olive oil. Mixing culinary metaphors de luxe here I know, but I couldn’t see any reason why tortillas shouldn’t have a Greek flavour once in a while. The verdict from my family was positive and I really liked the simplicity of the Greek herbs, transporting me straight to a Mediterranean shore and a dry scrubby island hillside scratchy with wild herbs. Oregano, rosemary, garlic, mustard and black pepper are listed as ingredients and I can see them going wonderfully with chunks of lamb char-grilled over the coals of our next braai. So thanks Kara, I've never yet been to Greece, but now I can waft there on an aroma of herby freshness!

The other thing I’ve sampled was the Verlaque balsamic reduction with Persian pomegranate. It’s a sweet fruity vinegar infusion, gentle in flavour and perfect for salads where you don’t want too aggressive a dressing. I tried it drizzled over sliced avocado and tomatoes and it mellowed nicely to a background note of fruit.

The Lindt chocolate bar is long gone. Mine was a crème brulée version, really rich and sweet, more like a pudding than a bar of chocolate and I swore it was too sweet for me… yet the packet is empty and I alone am responsible!

Non-food memories of the event are the fun of meeting fellow South African bloggers for the first time, listening to some excellent talks by Cooksister, Juno, Sam and Nina, and gathering new impetus to add life to my nearly four year old blog. My blogiversary is next week and the old lady (borrowing from Charlotte’s imagery on her 4th blog birthday) desperately needs a facelift, or at least a haircut and a new outfit.

I now intend to take the tripod into the kitchen more often and give myself more time to take photos before the food is devoured, find a new banner photo, who knows where the old one disappeared to, update my blog roll and post more consistently. My blog is unlikely to become a pure food blog, despite all the inspiration from the conference, as the family, farm and snippets of life here will always be jostling for room, but our life here does revolve around food, no day complete without it, and my blogging will always be a reflection of that.

So here's to another year of food and flavours. Now I need to figure out what to do with the organic coconut oil from Kapruka. Any ideas?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Vinegar for Cleaning – A Mild Obsession

The smell of vinegar wafts in my nostrils. This time it is not balsamic, not destined to adorn crinkly salad leaves or rich marinades. It is plain old spirit vinegar, not going anywhere near my food if I can help it, but my latest discovery on the cleaning front.

I’ve never been a neat freak. My Virgo star sign has never yet extended its renowned attention to detail to the housework. I have a high tolerance threshold for dust and clutter and, as long as the kitchen is wiped down regularly, I usually manage to turn a blind eye to the rest. So my latest obsession with environmentally sound (and cheap) cleaning alternatives has to be put down to a hormonal obsessive compulsive episode. Tomorrow it will probably be over and the house will settle back into its shabby chic dustiness with a sigh of relief.

But for now I have discovered the joys of surface cleaner in a squirty bottle. Half and half vinegar and water is all you need for instant, non-polluting, spray-on, wipe-off shiny brightness. It works on the counters, on the sink, on the fridge, on the cooker. I’ve wiped the light switches (I swear that never in my life before have I cleaned a light switch or even noticed their grubbiness… it must be the hormones). I even started wiping the plug sockets. I took apart the free-standing fan which has gathered a warm cloak of woolly dust over the last couple of years but now is pristine and sparkling. My husband was getting worried that if he sat still long enough he’d be on the receiving end of a squirt of vinegar water and a wipe with a damp cloth.

I Googled vinegar and found about a hundred uses for vinegar in cleaning, some alone and others combined with bicarbonate of soda. It’s a revelation! No more need for a cluster of specialist chemical cleaning fluids cluttering up the place. Just one big bottle of vinegar and a tub of bicarb…. but I might tire of the smell.

I can feel the obsession dwindling to liveable proportions as the hormones recede. I haven’t yet made it around the whole house and my computer still bears a gentle layer of dust. Probably a true neat freak visiting would still be horrified at the state of our house, in fact I know they would. Straw bales with clay plaster, a posse of sandy farm dogs, a clutch of cats with a liking for sleeping on the ironing board and three kids of a creative disposition, don’t make for labour saving neatness But I know those light switches are sparkling, so I can hold my head up high with the rest of the Virgo brigade.

Anyone got any frugal and environmentally brilliant cleaning tips, just in case this uncharacteristic obsession keeps on for a little while longer?!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Late Summer Tomato Fest

Our son is away for the night taking part with his class in the Waldorf schools’ Greek Olympics. They do all sorts of ancient Greek athletic events and sleep out under the stars, for a taste of what is was like for those Spartan youths way back when. Except they have nice warm sleeping bags to tuck up in and a blow up mattress to keep out the damp. By the time we go to watch them compete tomorrow I’m sure they’ll all be knackered, but hopefully they will have had fun.

Back home I took the opportunity of his absence to cook something he hates – pasta with a fresh tomato sauce. Our self-seeded tomatoes are still going crazy and loving this late summer sunshine, so when I went to pick as the sun was setting, it was like collecting bright baubles off the Christmas tree. Every time I moved I could see another one glowing in the depths of the tangled vine. My colander was overflowing with little red rosa tomatoes in no time and there are loads still to pick.

With so many gorgeous fresh tomatoes it would be a crime to open a tin of the lesser stuff, so I changed my quick tuna and tinned tomato pasta sauce recipe to use fresh ones instead and it was a hit with the girls.

It doesn't look that pretty but tasted great!

Pasta with fresh rosa tomatoes, tuna and fresh basil

150g fresh rosa tomatoes (or as many as you like!)
1 clove garlic, peeled and halved
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
1 tin tuna
fresh basil
salt and pepper
300g farfalle pasta

Start the pasta cooking first, as this sauce is really quick.
Halve all the tomatoes.
Heat the olive oil with the garlic clove in it, then remove the garlic once it turns light gold.
Add the tomatoes and turn them in the sizzling oil. Season with salt and pepper.
As soon as they are softened but not mushy (only 1-2 minutes) turn off the heat.
Stir in the drained tuna and torn basil leaves. Check the seasoning.
As soon as the pasta is al dente, drain it and toss with the sauce.
You don't need parmesan, but could perhaps add some diced feta or goats cheese for an extra dimension.
Buon appetito!

I hope our son got something to eat that he liked too.

Now I'm having a bit of an anxious time over my latest batch of yoghurt, for which I'm trying a new culture. I peeked at it way too early and it wasn't set, so I just hope I haven't scared it into not setting. I'll update the yoghurt adventures here, when I know!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Further Yoghurt Adventures

I’m getting the hang of this yoghurt making business now. The third batch came out a little on the sharp side, much to Youngest’s displeasure. A fair amount of Googling later, I came to the conclusion that I had left it incubating too long.

Once it has set, any further time just allows the yoghurt to get tangier and sharper. So overnight was too long in the case of the culture that I am using. Most of the guides suggest 6-8 hours, but in my latest batch I checked after 4 hours and it was set already, quite tangy, and I think I just caught it in time before the cultures had partied on too long and got the tang levels too high. Phew! I shoved it in teh freezer for half an hour to calm them down, then left them in the fridge overnight and now have the best batch so far.

I have high hopes that it will be acceptable to Youngest. She is the one who eats the most plain yoghurt without mixing in anything else (virulent pink, smooth, strawberry yoghurt in our son's case), so I don’t want to drive her to adding sugar by getting it wrong, and there’s no way I’m going back to buying her favourite brand of plain yoghurt now that I’ve discovered the joys of home-made.

The other tip from my Google trip that I tried, which worked well, was creating a double boiler from two saucepans that sort of fitted one in the other, so that the milk can be heated without it burning on the bottom of the pan.

It leaves you with that much less scrubbing later and it was easier to heat in a controlled way.

I also found the solution to the initial stringy texture in my first batch - I'd used a bought live yoghurt that had corn starch as a thickener - apparently that or pectin results in that strange elasticity. Luckily by the third batch, using each last batch as a starter, that effect had completely gone and now the texture is perfect.

I went one step further today and made the rest of the too tangy batch into yoghurt ice cream. Several people recommended draining the yoghurt through muslin first, to reduce the water content and get a creamier frozen yoghurt. In the absence of muslin I used a new J-cloth, well-rinsed, and it worked fine.

I got a cupful of whey from it (that strange cloudy liquid in the background of the picture), which is supposed to be excellent in baking and full of good enzymes and minerals, so that I kept for my next batch of bread.

Somehow I got very excited about the whole neat process of dairying: turning milk into yoghurt, using the whey, and turning excess yoghurt into ice cream. It's not just that it is frugal with no waste, which often seems like a good thing but rather dull, it is something about the whole natural cycle of it with everything slotting into place and nothing being thrown out or wasted... and more importantly it all tasting good. Now all we need is our own cow... but I'm not quite ready to start milking one yet!

After all that domestic goddessness, I felt I should be adding home-grown organic fruit puree to make my first ever yoghurt ice cream, but I blew my self-sufficiency badge and any chance of earth mother status and used tinned peaches instead. The only ripe fruits we have at the moment are tomatoes and I couldn’t really see the kids going for tomato flavoured ice cream.

The peach yoghurt ice cream is now in the freezer so I have to wait until tomorrow to taste the results, but pre freezing it was pretty darn good. Just hope it passes the child taste test. This could be the answer for any yoghurt batches that get too sharp in the future, that and yoghurt muffins. Gotta have a back up plan.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Adventures in Yoghurt

It took me a long time to get my head around making my own bread. I thought it would be too fiddly to fit into my day, all that rising and knocking down and stuff. Once I tried my first ever white loaf I never looked back and we’ve been eating home-made bread ever since. Now it has become just part of the daily routine, like doing the dishes, or putting on a load of washing.

So why has it taken me so long to try making my own yoghurt? I’ve been thinking about it for a few years, and dismissed it. After all I’m already making our bread, so why add another thing to the list of chores. But it’s been creeping up on me and last week I finally bit the bullet and gave it a go.

I did my research on the internet and found several accounts of yoghurt making that de-mystified it nicely and finally one that told me how to do it without a thermometer. So on Saturday I gave it a go.

The whole process is straightforward:
1: Heat up the milk to just below boiling to kill any bacteria
2. Let it cool to a temperature that is comfortable to dip your finger in and hold it there.
3. Stir in 2 tablespoons of live yoghurt.
4. Put in clean jars and tuck up nicely at a warm temperature for 6-8 hours.
5. Refrigerate.

And it worked! The yoghurt thickened and set and both girls pronounced it edible, though Youngest didn’t like it as much as the Darling yoghurt that we usually buy. Unfortunately that one doesn’t have live cultures in, at least it doesn’t say so on the label, so I can’t use it as a starter.

The only thing I wasn’t quite happy with is that the yoghurt had a slight stringiness to it when it dripped. I looked up that on one of the sites I’d read and found that it could be due to too hot a temperature when it is brewing. The two jars disappeared quite quickly anyway, so I’ve since tried another batch which had a better texture and more of the tanginess that Youngest was missing in the first one. So it looks like I’m on a roll here. Yoghurt making should be quite easy to slot into an evening after the kids are in bed or even while I’m making supper. It can then be tucked up overnight in the cool box, wrapped in a towel, until morning when it will have miraculously turned into nice creamy yoghurt.

One puzzle though from my second batch: The two jars were full, so I put the extra amount into a bowl covered with clingfilm and tucked it into the cool box next to the jars. In the morning, they had set but the yoghurt in the bowl was still runny. I warmed it again and added a little more live yoghurt to try and persuade it to set. When I came back to look at it a few hours later, it had separated perfectly into curds and whey. I’ve drip-dried it and now have a little ball of something approximating cream cheese!

I’ve just made a third batch, which isn’t at all stringy, but Youngest said tasted a bit sour, so I now have to try and get the right balance and work out the exact right combination of factors to get the perfect result.

If there are any experts on yoghurt making out there, I’d love any hints and tips on refining my yoghurt-making, without having to buy any fancy gadgets..

Thursday, March 04, 2010


One of the everyday problems of living on a farm is dealing with rubbish. There are no convenient collections of black plastic bags, magically whisked away to a landfill site a nice distance away from civilization. In the good old days of course there was very little that you couldn’t either compost or re-use on a self-sufficient small farm. But we live in the good old nowadays, which means milk in plastic 2 litre jugs (we don’t have our own cow, not much of a farm!), endless cardboard packaging, cat food tins and miscellaneous bits of plastic packaging.

All of this we have to dispose of somehow. Anything that can’t be composted goes into a big pit a little distance from the house and is burnt. It's been a thorn in my environmental conscience for a long time, but it’s the best we can do, unless we shove those stinky plastic sacks into the back of the car and drive them, using precious fuel, to the dump near our local town and let them fill up their big pit with our rubbish.

Recycling has also been a problem. I refuse point blank to chuck glass into the rubbish pit and the same with tins. But our local town doesn’t have any of those handy bottle banks that are so liberally strewn round Europe and to make recycling worth doing is has to be in a place you are going to anyway on a regular basis. A special journey pretty much cancels out the ecological virtue of all your efforts.

So I was really overjoyed to discover, when I googled local recycling facilities for the nth time, that our local dump actually does have a recycling facility. I rang them up and spoke to an efficient young man who explained exactly which plastic they do and don’t recycle and gave me directions to the dump.

For the next two weeks I diligently separated out the plastic 1s and 2s (good to recycle) from the 5s (all our yoghurt pots, not good, but being reused to plant cuttings) until I had a large sack full of plastic, two bags of tins and a bag of cardboard. I skimmed the surface of our bottle mountain at the back of the garage and filled two boxes with dusty bottles and then drove off to town my halo glowing just a little (low energy bulb of course).

This is recycling African country style. I was given a friendly wave at the weigh bridge and directed over to the recycling depot: a large open fronted shed, with a fork lift truck busy tidying up, by shoving a mountain of recyclable material further into the depths of the shed. The driver climbed down to help me unload. My carefully sorted bags seemed faintly ridiculous in the face of the mountain, but he carried each one over to a lady who was in charge of a conveyor belt. Along the conveyor belt sat a string of other ladies. Bags were emptied onto one end and sorted as it went along. My bottles were dumped straight on, the other bags added to the enormous heap beside and around it. The system obviously works as there were enormous bales of sorted plastic and crushed cans stacked outside.

After my first visit I came away feeling good about it. Not only was my rubbish being recycled instead of polluting the air we breathe and the earth we live on, but at least 10 women were being employed and earning a wage sorting it. A subsequent visit today in the heat, with flies busy showing that not everyone washes out their recyclables, and an ever present mountain of mixed plastic tins and cardboard that never seems to get any smaller, made me think that it must be an extremely dispiriting job to do and perhaps nice tidy bottle banks would be a step forward, but then who would feed their families... an ever present African dilemma.

One side-effect of the recycling drive is that we have far less rubbish in our main kitchen bin. This was great in cool weather, but our summer has now hotted up. First thing in the morning last week my husband called me through to the kitchen in a doom-laden voice. Silently he pointed to the floor around the bin. Without my glasses on I could just distinguish some white specks liberally strewn around.
"Has somebody spilt the rice?" I ventured.
And then even without my glasses I could see the grains were moving, making a break for freedom from the confines of our nicely stewed bin. Maggots… It was left to my husband to vacuum them up.