A Few Of My Flavourite Things

July 26th, 2016 § 2 comments § permalink

We all have our meals, ingredients, cuts and condiments that we gravitate to on a regular basis. But when I cook myself into a lacklustre corner it’s time to shake up the shopping trolley, so to speak, because you’re only as good as the contents of your pantry and fridge. These are the ingredients that keep my meal wheels turning. Most of them are good flavour mates to each other and although some are pricey, they’re good value given their potency and shelf life. I’ve not listed great olive oil, salt, pepper and butter as they’re non-negotiable. So, before the yodeling kicks in, here are A Few Of My Flavourite Things:

 

O Captain! My Captain Beefheart!

O Captain! My Captain Beefheart!

TOMATOES – My great love. Sadly, all tomatoes are picked before they’re properly ripe. Never ever ever refrigerate a tomato unless it’s been really mean to you. Give them at least a few days on the shelf to ripen and for some reason, they last longer if placed bottom up. If you have a really beautiful ripe tomato (like a beefheart, which is scarce in SA), peel it with a sharp knife before slicing and serving with a generous amount of excellent olive oil, Maldon salt and a few drops of vinegar. If you’ve bought a really decent mozzarella or burrata, take the time to peel smaller tomatoes by first immersing in hot water, then cold, and removing the peel with the help of a sharp blade. It does taste better. The Italians and Spanish do it, and they are world leaders in Tomatoism. » Read the rest of this entry «

Melt Sieberhagen answers the PROST! Questionnaire

June 8th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

Talker, actor, writer and joke-machine Melt Sieberhagen talks kitchen melt-downs, flavour fiestas and why bacon should get back to basics.  A generous host, he insists any injury-by-artichoke would be unintentional. Also, it is now officially official: Peppadews are not cool.

Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 12.02.49

 

What is your favourite flavour combination?  I’m a total sucker for bold, powerful flavours. And combining them. Strong umami and savoury tastes. The sharp chilli, garlic and ginger in a fresh stir fry, enhanced with a big dash of soy sauce. A feisty vinaigrette, pickles, olives… » Read the rest of this entry «

You can’t have your cake preservative-free and eat it next month

May 9th, 2016 § 6 comments § permalink

I thought of Lunchbox Lies as a title for this post because I’m a sucker for sensationalist alliteration. Also because it started out as a mother’s earnest quest to analise the content of her son’s lunchbox – an exploration of the toxic-sounding components of modern food, if you will – that devolved into a whole lot of bitching about how small ‘small print’ has become. Almost like it’s not meant to be read.

Before I take you down the preservative-lined rabbit hole, let me say that I am not a health food fanatic. My life has been characterised by pervasive hunger and what I like to think of as discerning taste buds (my mom called it ‘being full of shit’). I’ve always punched above my financial weight when it comes to food shopping. I’ve eaten little organic fruit and veg (limited availability and just too expensive) but I buy the cleanest meat, eggs and dairy on the shelf. I stay away from artificial sweeteners, fruit “juice”, pre-cooked sauces, long-life anything and carbonated cold drinks, unless heavily diluted with hard tack. In short, I think I’m quite balanced.

Sometimes I play with Ben's food

Sometimes I play with my son’s food

But the food industry is full of horror stories. Good old MSG was the first scary blip on my radar, then tartrazine, followed by growth hormones causing young boys to grow breasts and girls to menstruate at 9, carbon dioxide-ripened tunnel tomatoes, pesticides, a plethora of preservatives, carcinogenic colourants, mad cow’s disease, BPA-seepage from plastic packaging, the alluminium free radicals in tinned food and let’s not forget those GMO-peddling mofos over at Monsanto. I can’t even begin with the cruelty at the heart of the meat industry. There is a certain poetic justice in humanity being eradicated by a cloud of cow fart. » Read the rest of this entry «

Koekedoor Twee is kolwyntjies in high polfies

April 12th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

Die tyd om te bak is sommer nóú nóú! Koekedoor is terug en hierdie keer draai hulle nie vatdoekies om nie. Koekedoor Een was vir my ‘n meditasie in pastelskakerings met sagte skadus wat deur meelwolkies filter, ‘n spel van soet en sout wat hom nooit verstout het nie. Tot die saggeaarde en perfeksionistiese Martjie Malan die f-bom sommer drie keer in ‘n ry gedrop het. Maar bak kán dit mos aan ‘n mens doen.

Ek was onlangs bevoorreg om die eerste 90-minute episode van Koekedoor Twee saam met beoordelaars tannie Elizabeth, Tiaan Langenegger en Mari-Louis Guy te kyk terwyl ons aan soet- en southappies uit die einste episode gesmul het.

Drie dae lank was die Cakebread Studio 'n fees van kleure en geure

So reg uit Riaan Cruywagen se kinderdae uit…

 

En glo my, hierdie is ‘n Koekedoor van ‘n ander kleur. Die Barbie-pienk en Sound of Music saligheid van die eerste reeks het ‘n gravitas bygekry wat jou laat regop sit. Koekedoor Twee se intro is so belaai met hartsnaarbeelde en dramatiese musiek, ek het skoon tranerig geraak. Goeie hel, dog ek, dis soos een van daai epiese, opswepende bankadvertensies. Of het ek straks PMS, moes ek myself vra. Any which way, dames, moenie julle pêrels stukkend druk nie! » Read the rest of this entry «

Alex Hamilton answers the PROST! Questionnaire

April 8th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

Pop artist, exhibition curator and creator of the word Hoepelpoep, Alex Hamilton also owns what may well be the world’s largest collection of vintage wall sconces. He talks about his fear of 1000-year-old eggs and middle-aged mozzarella sticks in New Mexico.

The fascinating Alex Hamilton with fascinator

Fascinating with fascinator

 What is your favourite flavour combination? Quince jelly and Gruyère cheese. » Read the rest of this entry «

Mari-Louis Guy answers the Prost! Questionnaire

March 29th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

 

She whirled from baking on boats to churning out cookbooks and judging the popular Koekedoor baking program. Mari-Louis Guy takes a short break from preparing an Easter feast for thirty family members to have a stern word with bacon and ponder the prevalence of all things sugary in her life.

 

Magnificent multi-tasker Mari-Louis Guy

What is your favourite flavour combination? The royal combo of peaches and cream.

What is your most cherished food memoryMy husband Chris and I travelled the American South on a pie-eating trip – we even visited Graceland. Deep dish apple pie, Shoofly pie, peaches and cream pie, cherry cobbler pie… » Read the rest of this entry «

Edible Ode To The Vine

February 18th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

I’m back in the Helshoogte mountains, surrounded by an undulating carpet of vine leaves. Just before Christmas, I was moved to express my gratitude for once again living in this verdant valley that produces such outstanding gossip wines. In a way that required a little more effort than simply raising a glass to the lights of Paarl twinkling across the valley at sunset.

Stuff them, I figured. With rice or pork, Greek or Middle-Eastern style. Undeterred by the fact that spring was a good few months past and the leaves were somewhat mature (thick and inflexible) for this exercise, I set off into the vineyard with a plastic shopping bag, clippers and a large hat. I was a straw hamper and wavy blonde hair short of a bucolic cliché. Or a shampoo ad.

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Pick shiraz leaves, the winemaker yelled as he drove past. » Read the rest of this entry «

Hola cariños! Shall we braai?

September 23rd, 2014 § 4 comments § permalink

Yes, hello darlings! I am back in the shadow of old Table Mountain. We’ve been back for all of ten weeks now. I wish I could regale you with glamorous tales of dipping into the culinary delights of Cape Town, or basking in it’s low-slung wintry sunsets on an expensive lounger taking selfies of my sunglassed self chugging MCC.

But alas, the Vixen is now a mother and life is a Clockword Orange of trying to make ends meet. Nappy ends. Dog leash and stroller straps. Baby meals and adult-friendly suppers. Is it just me or do other mothers of really active toddlers also habitually find themselves leaving the house with their belt ends hanging loose, like some limp invitation to a deadbeat disco? » Read the rest of this entry «

The not so great Basque bake-off

November 21st, 2013 § 8 comments § permalink

In which I pitted myself against a small yet obstinately hot oven, a bag of moist flour and a baking culture that harbours deep suspicions of butter. The challenge was twofold. Deliver a plain biscocho (vanilla sponge) to my son’s play school for his first birthday. And bake something a bit more  extravagant to enjoy with friends later. I am not a baker. But when your baby turns one, you slap that apron on and go cruising the internet for a suitably simple recipe.

 

Birthday boy Ben

Forgive me for saying this but Spain’s baking culture is so dour and devoid of, well, BUTTER – that emissary of melt-in-the-mouth morishness – not to mention icing or ganache, without which no pious sponge can ever be pimped into a thing of wonder. So with two cakes to deliver in one day (never before, I tell you) my last flash of equilibrium entailed opting for a box of cake mix for the vanilla sponge. Thinking being: they’re one year old, most of it will end up on the floor, plus why waste precious time on something which is dull by definition. No. Instead I would lavish all my attention on the masterpiece for home consumption.

My first easy-peasy box of cake mix exited the oven in an angry hard lump with an unattractive bulging centre and what can only be described as cake acne. I deduced from the drawings on the box that the oven had been too hot. No problem, I bought another. This was a small distraction from the major crisis I was entering into regarding the showstopper I had to produce.

 

A lethal weapon at 20 paces

 

The week prior to Ben’s birthday I was so excited. So full of love for this little being. I needed to express it. And through some mysterious internal process the medium was to be cake. I became possessed and as the day drew closer, terribly anxious. I decided on red velvet cupcakes. A veritable sensory sucker punch. Cupcakes are only now becoming fashionable in Spain and surely Getaria had yet to taste its first. But when you live in Vanillaspongeville, decent red food colouring is impossible to find.

Martha Stewart came to the rescue via her website. Strawberry cupcakes with buttercream icing. Easy (Martha’s claim) and with enough fresh fruit to charm parents weary of nasty additives. You know how they say the first rule is read the entire recipe? Before you start? You should. And of course I didn’t. Because I never do. Which, in a nutshell, is why I suck at baking. I read the cupcake recipe which seemed easy enough but not the buttercream icing recipe. Who could anticipate that a buttercream icing would require a thermometer? And sugar heated to exactly 160 degrees. Clearly Martha and I have different definitions of ‘easy’.

I realised, as I buttered the cupcake pans, that my anxiety levels were completely out of whack. It was not about the cake. Despite being so excited about celebrating Ben’s first year with us, on the actual day, I was a sobbing mess. I missed my departed parents terribly. I felt overwhelmed by the responsibility of providing a wonderful life for this little man. Out of my comfort zone in a place where you can’t order a fun birthday cake or even a box of pretty cupcakes. I had managed to successfully infuse the baking of a cake with an entire existential crisis. Let it not be said that I do not, at times, overachieve.

 

I wish my parents could have met their grandson. Pictured here on their wedding day.

 

I took Martha´s hand and braved forth. The cupcake batter was delicious. Raw. Winning, I thought, feeling bolstered. The old gung-ho kitchen vixen reemerged. A batch of 12 cupcakes went in. There was a whole lot of batter left…just…in…case. And then it happened again. I took twelve rather pale (didn’t want hard edges again) cupcakes from the oven to find that some were still raw in the centre. All that strawberry pulp. Bugger. I quickly filled another cupcake tray and a small heart-shaped mould. Cranked the heat up just a little and got going with the buttercream frosting.

 

Heart-soaringly delicious batter

 

Which is when I read the recipe and realised I was just plain fucked. With no thermometer and no clue as to how sugar performed at 160 degrees, I cursed Martha and decided to blunder forth because this was the Titanic of baking and I was going down with it. With the feverish gleam of a gambler on his last chip, I separated four eggs and heated the whites with some sugar in a too small bowl, plonked in a pot of simmering water. Sure enough, the sugar melted. I whisked away, wondering what 160 degrees of molten sugar and egg white was supposed to look like. The odds were against me miraculously gauging the temperature but a giddy optimism took hold and I whisked and whisked until it became gluey, like taffy. This must be it, I thought, because what else could happen? A quick tally of all the wasted eggs, butter and batter that I had manifested in the past 24 hours brought a calm resignation. I had nothing left to lose. One egg, basically, I cackled.

 

Note crappy utensil

 

I thought of my mom whom I was missing so much. She was a wonderful cook and a reluctant baker. I couldn’t think of a single cake that defined the birthdays of my youth. Except, when I was about six years old, I was smitten with Moirs strawberry cake mix and insisted on having it a few years running. Then it struck that I was also making strawberry cake. Albeit the made-from-scratch version. So was all this about me trying to replicate my happy place? In my efforts to create a happy place for my son.  And stressing myself silly in the process. But let’s stay with the buttercream.  I was in the zone, beating the temperature-unknown sugary egg mix. Five minutes to stiff peaks, Martha said. The clear goo went a silky white and hope once again stirred in my breast. Could I still wing it? A quick peek in the oven revealed the cakes were coming along nicely. Rising evenly with edges not too brown.

 

It's no yolk

 

By God these eggs shall peak, I cried, if only by sheer force of will. And prayer and a fair bit of cussing. I prefer a multi-fangled approach. They thickened and clung coquettishly to the whisk but nothing peaked. Fine. I added the butter, whisked, tasted. A sugary mucus with globules of cow fat. Not to worry. A brisk whisk and two cups of fresh strawberry pulp later and I could almost see where Martha was going with this.

I was determined to see this fiasco through and started doing what all party planners do when they realise they’re bombing. I listened to 80s hits. I was dancing on the ceiling as the slack strawberry buttercream went into the fridge and the cake emerged from the oven. At Ben’s play school the teacher mentioned the weird lemony flavour of the biscocho but I shrugged it off with “it’s from a packet”. We had lunch with his lovely Spanish grandparents, filled the kitchen with balloons and Maya the Bee birthday paraphernalia (yet another of my childhood favourites) and just before the mini guests arrived, I took the buttercream from the fridge. Well, what do you know. The top few inches had set to a spreadable substance not unlike the topping on Martha’s cupcakes. I covered the heart – which ironically had survived the creation process in best shape – and the seven cupcakes I estimated were least likely to be raw in the centre with buttercream, perched a fresh strawberry on each and all of a sudden it looked just as it should. A nice kiddies party!

 

By the skin of my teeth

 

I had pulled it off, just like my mom had done for me. My son was so blown away by the people, balloons and gifts, the cake was of zero importance. But somehow, of everything, it had become the benchmark of my maternal fitness in this whole exercise. A rather dumb benchmark if you’re not a baker to begin with.

 

Lovely people. The key ingredient

But I did learn a few things.  Spanish flour (the plain kind) is too heavy for baked goods. Especially if the bag is left unsealed for two months. We live in a very humid place. In future I shall only bake with fresh cake flour. Am I blaming the flour? Well, yes. Mostly. Also the oven. And my fundamental inability to acknowledge and follow rules. And maybe also to focus on what Ben really wants rather than rehash my own childhood for sentimental reasons. But in all fairness, he is one year old. Maya, Willie and strawberry cupcakes are just fine. Soon it will be his call. And I will do my best to bake it or fake it. With a light and airy heart, even if the crumb isn’t.

 

Birthdays are cool, mama

The world could do with more Getaria

October 18th, 2013 § 10 comments § permalink

We came for lunch and decided to stay. I’d never heard of Getaria before nor could I remember the name until well past dessert. We’d been house hunting for several months in towns surrounding San Sebastian but nothing clicked. Row upon row of new and uninhabited apartment blocks in Orio gave me the creeps, Fuenterrabía was posh and out of the way, Zarautz homeowners sniffed and looked the other way at the mention of our dog, Astigarraga didn’t seem to have anything particularly for or against it, so when we finally sat down at Txoko restaurant in Getaria for beautifully grilled fish, in the shadow of an imposing Gothic cathedral and with a spectacular view of the quaint harbour, I turned to the señor and said ‘Why not here?’

 

Who wouldn't

When a week later I learnt that Getaria was number 41 on the New York Times list of 46 places to go in 2013, well, a rather extended visit seemed like a fine idea. Six months down the line, I feel blessed to be in this particular spot on earth and at the same time, am a little perplexed that it made the list. Not that it isn’t everything the New York Times said it would be. A gorgeous, centuries-old fishing village (of which there are many along the Basque coast) that serves excellent grilled fish (true, all restaurants have outdoor grills by special government concession) with ancient winding cobbled streets (standard stuff in Europe if you weren’t on a WW2 flight path) and despite its size (current population 2500) home to two famous sons: navigator Juan Sebastián Elcano, who was the first to circumnavigate the globe in the early 16th century, as well as 20th century haute couturist Cristóbal Balenciaga. Getaria has honoured its famous fashionista with a massive mirrored museum that clings to the hillside above the old town like a shiny armadillo. And, according to the New York Times, it is the museum that, since its opening in 2011, has drawn a more ‘sophisticated design set’ to Getaria. Of course, well-heeled French have long been trotting over the border for a good plate of food at better prices than their own restaurants can provide.

View from el Raton

I have my own idea of why Getaria has become such a hotspot. It includes the spectacular coastal drive, vine covered hilltops, ancient old city, beautiful harbour, historical statues and hi-tech museum, beaches and great fish, but more than that, Getaria offers all of this in a contained, easy to consume package. You can step off the bus, ride the escalator up to the Balenciaga museum, stroll down the cobbled main road, pass underneath the 12th century Gothic cathedral and step out into the sunshine on a high wall dotted with restaurants that overlook the harbour, hugged by the mouse-shaped el Raton mountain on the left and a sickle of beach to the right. It can all be consumed, including your three-course lunch with copious glasses of Txakoli, with enough time to spare for a siesta.

Sight-seeing is hard work. Rome in two days, London in five, half a country in a week. How exhausting. And the success of a trip is too often determined by how many of the must-see boxes are ticked. Even our downtime is infused with competitive objectives. If Paris is a sumptuous banquet and New York a multi-cultural buffet, then Getaria is one perfect little bite. A delicious and comforting morsel that pauses and replenishes. After just a few hours, visitors leave satisfied that they have ‘done Getaria’.  And that imparts a nice sense of accomplishment in a world so vast and multi-thinged that many of us sometimes feel somewhat sidelined.

 

On top of el Raton

We moved here when our son was six months old. To an apartment on the fourth floor of a casa in the old part of town. None of the old houses have elevators. Add a border collie with a dodgy bladder to the mix and suffice to say I found myself in a picturesque corner of hell. A pueblito also has less to offer in terms of amenities, shopping and wifi coverage. At times it felt as if I had stepped back in time to about 1948 without being in the mood for it. In short, I needed help. Which is how the beauty of Getaria unfolded. A fiesty little woman called Ana* helped us get settled in. A week later when our hound was at death’s door and the señor was stuck at work, her husband took Milly to a vet in the neighbouring town. Perfect strangers introduced themselves in the street, enquired how we were and insisted that I call whenever help was needed. I have never known such kindness. Soon everyone knew the South African with the friendly child and the gorgeous, goofy dog.

Winter dragged on forever. Dios mio. It was the worst winter the Basque country had seen in over 200 years. I walked the misty cobbled streets for hours while my baby slept snugly in his waterproof buggy. I once took shelter in a bar, glass of beer in hand, when the lights went out. What’s going on, I asked. A villager had died and as the procession moved through town towards the cathedral, lights were switched off in commiseration. People here grow very old. To reach 85 years of age is not unusual. Getaria nestles against a mountain. If you step out of your front door you are either going uphill, or down. It’s a workout any which way. Older gentleman take to scooters to zip around town but the ladies carry on walking. In many cases, people are born and die in the same house. Married to a childhood sweetheart. It is all so terribly not modern. Yet it is holding true for many of the younger generation.

If these walls could talk, I often think as I pass sandstone structures many hundreds of years old. A town this small must have its feuds, lingering resentments of old lovers’ quarrels, soured business partnerships and rotten eggs. If there is talk it would surely happen in Euskera (or Basque, as the ancient language is known in English) and never to an outsider. Children live close to their parents who care for the grandchildren while the kids get on with work. This sense of continuity provides a security that serves all generations. There are very wealthy people in this town but nothing is ever on display. The wife of the most successful restauranteer can be seen sweeping the forecourt of their restaurant in her sweats early in the morning. A wealthy retired businessman enjoys a pintxo with an old fisherman. Could it be that such a solid, rooted foundation negates the manic quest for materialist trappings?

 

Kids being kids

The Basque country is a wonderful pastiche of hi-tech and ancient. Details change to embrace progress but the underlying structure is, literally, cast in stone. Toddlers learn to walk on the same cobbled streets as did their great-grandparents. Grow up observing the workings of the harbour from the same window. Perhaps, unbeknown, experience the thrilling terror of a first kiss not far from where their parents shared a similar moment. This overlapping of lifelines may seem cloying to some but from what I’ve seen, it makes for a refreshing absence of existential angst.

So much of the fatalism, paranoia and anxiety of the modern world just does not arrive here. It’s hard not to live in fear of disaster given the sometimes horrific ways of the world, not to mention Hollywood’s obsession with annihilation. How often does New York not suffer celluloid destruction by aliens, cataclysmic disaster or some foul regime with too much firepower. I’m not saying a tidal wave can’t hit the Bay of Biscay. I’m probably just the only person who has ever considered it.

Getaria is growing into me, changing my patterns. Even in this quiet place with no real work to speak of, I hurry and stress too much. Pull and poke at the fabric of my life unnecessarily. I cloud my horizon with shadows from the past. Tranquila. We will help you, they say, as they laugh the rain away. There is music in the streets. Be it sardine season, a birthday, or just a jolly lone accordionist who drinks and jams his way through town, hitting keys above his head like a rock star.

 

Milly the muse (pictured here with a more sedate musician)

I don’t know how much time Sarah Wildman of the New York Times spent in Getaria. Whether she got to see past the museum and the pretty harbour. Not that it matters. Whatever their reasons, they chose well. They chose a mensch.

*Her real name. Recently she came to our rescue again by finding a wonderful casa for us. With spectacular views of the bay and only seven stairs. Life is good. If it carries on like this I may feel moved to pen a European romcom in the vein of Under A Tuscan Sun. The working title could be Under A Basque Cloud.


Sunrise from our new casa

 

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