Monday, April 29, 2013

Spinach Torta For Sunday Lunch

A Sunday roast tends to be meat-centric by its very definition. The crispy roast potatoes, the steamed veggies, the baked butternut are all there to cluster around in a supporting role to the main meat event on the plate.

So what do you add to the array if you have a vegetarian joining you for Sunday lunch? They might of course be perfectly happy with fresh steamed vegetables, roasted butternut chunks and roast potatoes, but it still feels to me like there isn’t a centrepiece to hold the meal together if you leave out the meat.

So yesterday morning first thing I went looking for a recipe that would live up to a central role and go well with all the traditional roast accompaniments. I wanted something that would go in the oven with everything else and that could be prepared in advance, so that there would be no extra last minute tasks to compete with making gravy and dishing up the roast potatoes at the very last minute. I also had to already have all the ingredients to hand, either in the larder or the veggie garden.

I found a perfect recipe in one of my Marcella Hazan recipe books. I’d been looking for a recipe for sformato, an Italian baked vegetable dish that I remember from my earliest days working in Tuscany. Instead I found this ‘turta di spinaci e riso’. It was providential because we currently have an over-abundance of swiss chard/spinach in the garden, and this recipe uses a lot of spinach! The flavours manage to be both delicate and robust enough to take on a starring role. The spinach is intensified by cooking without water, parmesan and butter add a rich depth and nutmeg contributes a subtle hint of spice. Our vegetarian guest loved it and so did all the meat-eaters, including three out of five kids present.

I would usually tweak, adapt or add to a recipe before sharing it here, but this one is so good just as it is, that I hope Marcella won’t mind me sharing the ingredients unchanged. It’s from my copy of Marcella's Kitchen , which is out of print now, but still very well worth looking for if you can find a second hand copy. I think Marcella's Italian Kitchen is the US version of the book, which is more easily available.

Spinach and rice torta - photo snapped in middle of Sunday lunch!

“Turta’ di Spinaci e Riso Recipe

900g / 2lb fresh spinach or swiss chard
200g / 7oz long grain rice
60g / 2 oz butter
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 onion
50g /  1 ¾ oz freshly grated parmesan
1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg
 4 eggs
Salt and pepper
30g / 1 oz lightly toasted breadcrumbs

Wash the spinach well in several changes of water, until there is no more sand or grit left at the bottom of the sink.

Put the spinach in a large pan (this is a lot of spinach, so I used my stockpot to fit it all in) with only the water still clinging to the leaves. Add a pinch or two of salt and cook covered over a medium heat until the spinach is tender. Turn the spinach once or twice so that it cooks evenly and keep an eye on the heat so that it doesn’t boil dry and stick. At the end of cooking all the spinach should be tender and there’ll only be a little liquid in the bottom of the pan. Allow to cool, then squeeze out the excess liquid and chop roughly..

In a small pan bring water to the boil, add the rice and cook until just tender/al dente. Drain and cool.

Chop the onion fairly finely.

In a large sauté pan, heat the oil and half the butter. Cook the onion for 4 minutes or so until light golden. (Don’t let it catch.) Add the chopped spinach and rice to the pan and toss everything together over a medium heat for 3-4 minutes until all coated and flavoured with the onion, oil and butter. (Note – don’t stint on the oil and butter, even if it seems excessive – this is part of the flavour combination that makes it work). Tip it out into a bowl and allow to cool before proceeding.

You can make the recipe up to this point a few hours in advance, which I would recommend if you are making it as part of a Sunday roast... I ended up using every single pan in the kitchen yesterday!

Preheat the oven to 220C / 450F.

When the mixture is cool, stir in half the grated parmesan and the nutmeg. Mix in eggs one at a time. Season generously to taste with freshly ground black pepper and sea salt.

Prepare a loose bottomed tin ( I use my 23cm cake tin but anything 20-25cm would work) by smearing generously with butter. Sprinkle in the breadcrumbs to cover the butter. Shake them around until the tin is well coated, then tip the excess crumbs onto a plate.
Put the spinach mixture into the tin, level it off, then sprinkle the top with the rest of the grated parmesan and the leftover  breadcrumbs. Dot the top with butter.

Bake at the top of the oven for about 15 mins until the torta is set and golden.

Allow to cool for about half an hour, as it is best eaten warm rather than piping hot.

Anyone want some spinach? - we have plenty and to spare!

A blog post featuring this recipe with US quantities.
Another Italian recipe from Marcella Hazan featured on my blog - celery risotto.

Friday, April 26, 2013

In Memory of Badger

We returned from our  blissful visit to Grootbos to find all the children happy and well, but Badger, our 10 year old border collie, was not doing so well. He’d been to the vet a week before and there were no obvious infections, so we knew it was probably going to be something more serious if he hadn’t improved with the general remedies they’d given him.

On the Sunday evening he didn’t eat, although he plainly wanted to, so first thing on Monday I took him in and left him for the vets to check him out. Sadly it turned out to be a horrible throat cancer and so we had to make a decision over the phone then and there. I was far more upset than I’d expected to be, usually I manage a stiff upper lip with the eventual demise of pets, perhaps it was because it felt too soon and too sudden.

We’ve had Badger from a puppy. He was born on the farm, one of six pups to Berry, my SILs collie who has also recently died. Cobalt our collie, inherited from our dear friend Ursie, was his father, an incestuous liaison that is probably against all the rules of good breeding and happened by accident.

We’d picked one puppy from the litter already, Indigo, who our son had fallen in love with, and were only intending to keep the one puppy. But when a family of prospective puppy buyers came to view the last three pups, this little ball of fluff with huge brown eyes kept coming up to me and gazing up with those eyes saying 'pick me, pick me'. Impulsively and irrationally we kept him too.

So there we were with a four year old, a toddler, a three month old baby and two border collie puppies to bring up. The puppies used to curl up on the baby play mat in the kitchen with Youngest, when I was cooking supper.

Indi was bright, energetic and eager to please, Badger, noble looking and we suspected slightly on the dim side for a border collie, but very loyal and protective of his family. He was always ‘badgering’  us for attention, so the name (given for the broad white blaze down his nose) became doubly apt . He was a total farm dog and hated going in the car. We tried to get both puppies used to it, by taking them to pick up the kids from kindergarten. In the end we gave up and they have always stayed home to guard the house, a duty they take seriously.

A stormy relationship with his father Cobalt, made the  house less than peaceful as Badger grew up and there was much snarling and jockeying for the prime position under the kitchen table. They never did resolve their differences, so it has only been since Cobalt died a year ago that Badger has really had a chance to be the boss and lie unchallenged in all the best places.

It feels strange to only have the two dogs following me out to the washing line or the veggie garden. There is a gap. Indi feels the responsibility of having to bark for two at arriving and departing cars. Amy, the Jack Russell, tends to join in noisily only once the defences have been truly breached and  the invaders are at the door.

The family has been clamouring for a puppy for months now, ever since my husband suggested that as our dogs are starting to get older we need to introduce and train the next generation (me as always resisting the pressure as long as possible). So we have to decide whether we will go the puppy route or adopt a rescue dog. We will be getting another dog, when the time feels right, but we will miss Badger for a while yet.

Badger joining in Youngest's birthday party six years ago.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Grootbos Nature Reserve Part 2 - Fynbos and Philosophy

This is the second installment of our wonderful night away at Grootbos Private Nature Reserve. Read the first part here.

The view from our deck at dawn
Waking up in the morning to a dawn sky, soaking in the bath and watching colours change as the sun creeps over the hill behind us, listening to bird chatter in the fynbos, a magical start to the day at Grootbos
The bath tub with the best ever view
We’d planned two activities for the morning – if we’d been staying longer we would have just chosen one and had a lazy lie-in, but as it was we were at breakfast by 8 and spoilt for choice both with the buffet and the cooked to order hot breakfast.

There were cereals, muesli, yoghurt and bowls of seeds, nuts, raspberry and passionfruit puree as toppings, fruit salad, sliced fruits, cold meats and even smoked trout as well as fresh croissants and muffins. I went for a very decadent Eggs Benedict and then re-visited the buffet because I couldn’t resist the smoked trout and a croissant.

Grootbos is so much more than just a lovely five star retreat, though it does all that superbly well in a friendly and unpretentious style. I loved all the pampering, fantastic food and comfort, but it was the activities and the place itself that made the biggest impression. The nature  reserve grew out of the owner, Michael Lutzeyer’s, mission to conserve the beautiful fynbos eco-system of this region and their conservation programme has developed to an award-winning world class level. Not just that but the importance of enriching and giving back to the community here is actively recognised in two very successful social responsibility programmes.

The plant nursery at the Green Futures project

We were shown round both by Anecke, herself a graduate of the horticulture Green Futures training programme. Every year eight candidates are carefully selected from the two neighbouring communities of Stanford and Gansbaai and receive a very thorough grounding in both indigenous horticulture and basic life skills. As well as learning all about the fynbos plants and how to grow them, they learn computer skills, how to keep accounts, how to drive, language and interview skills. There is also an exchange link with the Eden Project in Cornwall UK, so every year three students get to travel there for three weeks and experience conservation  overseas.

The vegetable gardens at the Growing the Future programme

The second programme Growing the Future is aimed at local women between the ages of 18 and 35 and is a year course in growing organic vegetables and fruits. After three years this is becoming a self-sustaining initiative, growing produce to sell to the lodges, free-range chickens providing the eggs we’d just eaten for our breakfasts, bee-keeping producing delicious fynbos honey to sell in the shop and making preserves for the restaurants. Graduates from both programmes receive a nationally accredited certificate and can go on to do further training on site as guides or as lodge staff, or apply to do further horticultural training elsewhere. Many of them choose to work at Grootbos and the cheerful faces, confident and individual personalities of all the staff and guides we met are a testament to the success of the training.

Lavender for companion planting in the vegetable garden

We were whisked back to the lodge just in time to sally forth once more on our 4x4 fynbos safari with Jo, a wonderfully eccentric guide with a passion for her subject and a sprinkling of philosophy thrown in.

As we left the road and headed up a mountain trail she stopped to pick mysterious sprigs of restio, erica, protea and with hilarious deadpan anecdotes showed us so much more about how the natural fynbos eco-system works.

I’d never realised that the humble sour fig, which grows like crazy on our farm, is a vital refuge for small animals such as tortoises during fires. They can creep into its shelter and the succulent leaves protect them from the fire’s heat. I hadn’t known that restios are either male or female, that certain ericas need fire to reproduce: so many details shared in an entertaining and fascinating way. We also discovered the source of that elusive honey fynbos scent  that pervades the bush around the lodge – metalasia muricata, or its less than glamorous common name, the cauliflower bush.

Jo picking sprigs of metalasia muricata

Jo stopped the vehicle at a beautiful viewpoint for snacks, delicious home-baked cookies in four flavours, and while we were eating and chatting she wove all the plant samples picked on the way into a stunning bouquet, then turned wedding photographer to each couple in turn.

After this tour we were filled with even more respect  and admiration for how much Grootbos has done in the last 20 years to preserve, restore and protect the incredibly rich flora, gradually acquiring more land as neighbouring farms were sold, until they now have over 2000 hectares of pristine hill, milkwood forest and mountain.

The main lodge at sunset
Back at the lodge it was already lunch time, time for us to reluctantly leave, but we stayed long enough  to sample the lunch buffet, a fresh and flavoursome feast of salads with a choice of three hot mains to follow and even a dessert, though we were still too full from breakfast to make it all the way through the menu.

There were so many more activities that there just wasn’t time for in our short visit: horse riding trails through the fynbos, beach walks and picnics, a coastal cave tour, whale watching in the winter months, and of course the spa in the milkwood forest where there is no need of canned birdsong relaxation tapes, as the real thing wafts in through the open doors.

All in all I found Grootbos a thoroughly magical place to visit and the memories are sustaining me through a rather hectic week. If you get the opportunity, do not hesitate – go there and stay for as long as you can!

Fynbos bouquet

Note for my non-South African readers: fynbos is the name given to a particular type of vegetation mainly found in the southern tip of Africa. Low bushy green scrub is what it looks like to the eye, not a tree in sight. But when you look up close you find an enormous variety of different plants and flowers. Our guide, Jo, explained that to be identified as fynbos it should have four principal types of plants: proteas, ericas, restios and bulbinous plants. It’s an eco-system that supports many birds and small animals, but not a single giraffe or elephant! It's beautiful, fascinating and just as an essential item on any traveller's bucket list as the Big Five.

Disclosure: Our stay at Grootbos was complimentary, but I received no remuneration for writing this post and all opinions are my own.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Grootbos Nature Reserve – Five Star Fynbos Getaway

The view from our suite

We’re back from a fabulous night away at Grootbos, a gorgeous nature reserve overlooking Walker Bay, near Hermanus, whither I was very kindly invited, to experience its magic for myself. A patchwork of impressions and memories: a rich green canvas of incredibly varied fynbos, friendly faces, fabulous flavours, mysterious milkwood forest, winding paths and entrancing views. You could stay for a week and never have a dull moment, but we crammed as much as we could into our 24 hours and would happily go back for more tomorrow!

Looking up at Forest Lodge from the road, we had no idea of what we’d find... we saw an unimposing row of low linear buildings perched high on a hill that seemed uniformly green with the native fynbos, dense and bushy, of the forest there was no obvious sign... But as soon as we parked the car the magic began to weave its spell.

Winding paths led through a beautifully planted fynbos garden, scented with honey and shaded by ancient milkwood trees. The paths are designed so that you hardly see the main lodge building until you are upon it, feeling almost lost in the forest, when in fact it is right there all the time.
Forest Lodge is spacious, understated and modern, soaking up the views from huge glass walls, softened by lots of wood, textured fabrics with patterns of leaf and protea, natural decorations and fynbos flower arrangements.

The warm welcome from all the staff, who are always smiling and genuinely happy to be working in such a beautiful place really adds to the positive energy.
The pool at Forest Lodge overlooks pristine fynbos and the ocean

In our suite/cottage we were spoilt for space. Built on the same understated modern lines as the main lodge, it is warm and welcoming, with wooden floors.

There’s a bedroom, a sitting room with a built in fireplace, a huge bathroom with the tub right in the big window looking out of the view and even a second bathroom. The deck in front links both rooms and the fynbos comes right up to it, so that you can lie in bed watching the birds flitting in and out of bushes and smell that delicious honey scent in elusive wafts on the morning breeze. There’s an outdoor shower out there too, but it wasn’t quite warm enough to tempt us. The sitting room has a comfortable leather sofa, lovely wooden tables and best of all the fireplace with a generous stack of logs. We lost no time in making a cup of tea and putting our feet up after our long drive.

Patrick and Chumani  on our Milkwood Forest walk

We’d signed up for a guided walk through the milkwood forest at 5. It was just us and our guide Chumani, who led us off down the paved paths, until we came to the beginning of a small trail. As soon as we’d left the main path it felt like we were in the middle of ancient forests far from anywhere. The milkwood trees take forever to grow, some of them being several hundred years old, and they are not tall, but there is a peace and quietness to the air, hanging lichens, twisted branches. It’s baboon territory, the home of birds and buck, but although we see the tracks of buck and the baboon poo and twigs they have broken, the animals themselves are elusive. Chumani was an entertaining guide, telling us all sorts of stories and  the uses of many plants learned from his grandfather.

Twisting branches of ancient milkwoods, festooned with lichens and mosses

Then it’s a meander back to our cottage to relax and change before dinner. The sun is streaming in now as the sun dips lower and we both start to go mad with our cameras catching angles and patterns and feeling almost giddy off on our own without the kids.
Photographers on holiday

  A spectacular sunset over the ocean reminds us why sundowners are such a great South African institution. We have cups of tea instead and leap up every five seconds to take another photo.

Then just when I think the drama is over and am about to view the afterglow from the vantage point of the shower, I spot a sliver of new moon hanging just above the sunset orange. It feels like a wonderful promise of more magic to come.

Dinner was a five course gourmet feast. A full on review would be a blog post in itself, but suffice it to say that I had a wonderful time identifying flavours, tasting  my husband’s dishes as well as my own and trying desperately to photograph the plates in appropriate food blogger style in low light conditions. We had a hilarious time improvising a mini studio with his phone as light source and napkin as a diffuser.

The taste highlights for me were the amuse bouche of fish tartare, mussel cracker fish with coriander and lemon zest in a crisp filo pastry shell, and the oh so tender kingklip with a pea and chorizo sauce.

Grilled kingklip, pea and chorizo veloute,tatsoi and truffle salad with improvised studio lighting

The night was clear, starry, windy and rather chilly, so it was a brisk walk rather than romantic stroll back to our cottage after dinner, where the fire had been lit for us, curtains drawn, bed turned down. It was cosy and intimate, the bed very comfortable and, we fell asleep to the sounds of wind gusting around the roof, looking forward to all the activities planned for the next day.

Our next morning’s activities and fynbos safari make up another post, so read Part 2  for more Grootbos magic!

Disclosure: Our stay at Grootbos was complimentary. I received no remuneration for writing this post and all opinions are my own.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Easter Trees and Easter Goodies

The Easter bunny has never been known for his restraint when he visits our farm. Egged on by two doting aunts he provides an egg hunt of epic proportions, spread around the four houses on our farm.  This year one aunt was deeply worried that the children would be disappointed as she hadn’t had a chance to furnish the bunny with much in the way of eggs, and just maybe they wouldn’t  have the usual excessive amount of little eggs.

He has always left an egg in the children’s trees. They each have one. Our son’s planted on his first birthday (now a well established flowering tree), the girls’ planted together just after Youngest was born. Unfortunately theirs never thrived where we put them. Middle Daughter’s pompom tree sadly died, needing richer soil and far more water than it could find and Youngest’s had to be moved into the orchard irrigation system as it was surviving but only just.  So it was of utmost importance to plant themselves new trees before Easter Day.... something that from this tree planting post I see I’d been promising for nearly two years.

On Saturday I finally took them tree buying.  There is a nursery down a very long dirt road not far from us, that we’d never been to, so we trundled and bumped along there and were pleased to find a good selection of indigenous trees. Middle Daughter had in mind a coral tree, which has gorgeous flame red flowers in spring, but they only had some tiny new plugs. The girls perused all the rows, reading all the labels.

Eventually Youngest decided on a White Stinkwood (an elegant deciduous tree much prettier than its name) and Middle Daughter chose a Red Alder (which apparently has creamy white flowers that the birds and insects like in autumn). I bought two coral tree plugs as they are so pretty once they are flowering, even though it will probably be ten years away growing them from so small.

Back home we got out the dowsing rods to find suitable places to plant them.

A few meters each way can make a huge difference to whether a tree grows well here. You can see the ones that have found their own water. The ones that haven’t have hardly grown in ten years, despite being watered through the summer months.

Then we waited for the fierce south-easter to drop to do the actual planting. It never did, so we went back out into it at the end of the afternoon, dug, composted, watered, planted mulched and staked.

Those trees are going to be the best looked after trees on the farm, already having been treated to the proceeds of a cleaned out rabbit hutch today!

Easter morning dawned overcast but not at all cold. I had to hop out of bed fairly smartly to beat the children to it, not that any of them still have any illusions about where the eggs come from, but it still spoils the fun if they actually witness the eggs being hidden by human hands! It turned out that the Easter bunny’s other major source had over-compensated for the one aunt’s lack and I had to be even more ingenious than ever to find enough hiding places that were both in the shade and reasonably dog-proof!

When the children went out to search at 7.30 on Easter morning, eggs were discovered in nooks and crannies all over the place and of course in the new trees.

The total harvest came to more even than last year and after the grand counting and re-distribution had taken place each child had a shocking 79 small eggs! Enough to last them till August at least!