Coconuts Playschool’s Hearty Lamb and Bean Stew

You really need to smell it.
No amount of instagramming could save this pic. But it tastes really good, promise.

The playschool Elisabeth attended when we moved back to South Africa was hosted by a woman I strongly suspect is one of those angels who parades as a human. Her house was (and remains, I am certain) a place of astonishing warmth and generosity where, at any given time – and usually way after they were supposed to be collected by us, their errant mothers – a rag-tag collection of children would be tearing around her enormous kitchen on small, plastic motorbikes, helping themselves to home-made rusks or nibbling on phyllo pastry triangles stuffed with feta and spinach from the garden.

The cooking smells in that house were incredible, but one dish in particular made me so hungry that I had to go home and make it right away. Now it’s one of my favourites. Few smells are as delicious as that of lamb cooking, and sometimes when I arrived this stew, in all its rich, tomato-y aromaticness, would be bubbling away on the stove to be mopped up, come evening-time, with a slice of brown bread fresh out of the oven and cooling somewhere on a rack. The permanent inhabitants of Sandy’s house are lucky people indeed.

It’s no coincidence that this kitchen is the site of such joy – before deciding to stay home with her young children, Sandy was a successful restauranteur which meant that our kids were the lucky benefactors of some seriously good (not to mention healthy, home-grown) grub. I cried big tears when Elisabeth’s days at that school ended. I loved going there in the mornings and the afternoons. There was a certain grace to this large, lovely home one doesn’t often encounter anymore.

When winter strikes this is one of the first dishes I make, and it always reminds me of Sandy’s beautiful, warm kitchen with its little fire burning and its tribe of happy people. The sweet potato lends a little natural sweetness to this dish, and the beans break up and make it thick and hearty and satisfying. (In fairness to Sandy, I must say I never did procure her exact recipe, but this is how I make it and I imagine the tastes would be similar). Here’s how to do it:

Ingredients
Stewing lamb or ornery old lamb chops
A tin of tomatoes
2 tins of beans (I like to mix butter beans and speckled red beans)
An onion
A few carrots
Garlic
Butternut
Green beans
A sweet potato
A cube of mutton stock (optional, but it gives it extra oomph)
Dried or fresh rosemary

Method:
Sautee your chopped onion in a bit of oil, and brown your lamb. Add a tin of tomatoes, two cups of water, the stock cube, your tinned beans, the rosemary, the garlic, the butternut, the carrots and the sweet potato. Put a lid on the pot and let this all simmer for at least three hours. Add the green beans, chopped, about half an hour before you want to eat it. Taste it and season if necessary. A bit of red wine won’t hurt, either. It should be thick and rich and yummy when it’s done. Serve it steaming hot with the freshest bread you can find. It’ll make winter so much warmer.

Sandy to the left, and Belia, Coconut's teacher, whom Elisabeth loves a bit more than me.
At my 40th birthday party – Sandy to the left, and Belia, Coconuts’ teacher, whom I suspect Elisabeth loves a bit more than me.
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The Man Perm

Rocking the mullet.
Rocking the mullet.

This week over coffee one of my best guy friends reminded me about the time his hairdresser persuaded him to have a man perm (and yes, it was the same hairdresser who cut my hair like Lady Di’s – not). While it’s with enormous regret that I don’t remember him showing up at school on Monday morning with curly hair, it must have been pretty funny. Because even very good-looking people – like him – have a pretty hard time pulling off this particular look. The eighties were cruel, but the worst part must have been the fact that we all believed we’d look better with tight ringlets around our faces.

I'm sure I dated this guy when I was sixteen. He used to borrow my gel.
I’m sure I dated this guy when I was sixteen. He used to borrow my gel.

I even remember the picture I took along with me to the salon of the way I wanted to look. It was a page torn from a glossy magazine, and the girl was extremely beautiful but with huge, pretty dodgy hair. So, take someone who’s not extremely beautiful but does have nice hair, destroy her one redeeming feature, and what do you have? A bad Monday morning in assembly. And again, what hairdressers failed to mention was the fact that the way you looked when you left the salon, all blow-dried and fabulous, was not the way you looked when you emerged from the pool after P.T.

How it looked when you left the salon...
How it looked when you left the salon…
Thinning hair? We have just the solution.
…how it looked when you came out the pool.

But at least I was not alone. I remember a whole bunch of us walking around looking like poodles from hell. I don’t have a single picture of myself permed, and there is probably a reason for that. But I chuckled all day at the image of my friend with his curls. They didn’t last long – he went back to the salon shortly after and had them all hacked off. We girls, on the other hand, had to wait till ours finally ‘relaxed’, a process which could take quite a while. Ayayayayay, the eighties. It’s a miracle we survived.

Really want to run my fingers through this.
Really want to run my fingers through this.
No, Bradley Cooper! Just, NO!
No, Bradley Cooper! Just, no.
Justin Timberlake not bringing sexy back.
Justin Timberlake not bringing sexy back.
Wriong on so many levels.
Wriong on so many levels.

Nosipho’s Fancy Samp and Beans

Nosipho Samela
Nosipho Samela

Samp and beans is something that would happen in my home on weekends in winter while rain lashed at the window-panes, the paraffin heater glowed in its corner of the lounge and my mom and dad would be sitting watching the rugby. The smell of it cooking always takes me back to those days. The way my mom made it was with separate grains, a bit like rice, and she served it like my granny Doris did, with a bit of vinegar and a dollop of butter. But one day my girls’ nanny, Nosipho, made it for us for supper and it was so creamy and rich and delicious with a texture like risotto, I made her show me how she did it, and since then I’ve never made it any other way. Sometimes we eat it as it is, but when I make it for supper I like to serve it with a hearty lamb stew. It’s healthier than rice and so much tastier. Here’s how Nosipho made it:

Ingredients:
A packet of samp and beans
A cube of chicken or veggie stock
An onion, a carrot and a clove of garlic
Fresh or dried herbs (I like basil, oreganum and thyme)
Olive and/or cooking oil

Method:
Boil the samp and beans according to the cooking instructions on the packet. When they’re about half-way done (they’ll be softer, but still chewy), add your stock cube plus a finely chopped onion, a finely chopped carrot, your herbs, a chopped clove of garlic and two tablespoons of oil. Using the right amount of water can be tricky – you don’t want it to dry out and burn, or to be too runny. Err on the side of too much liquid, you can always cook it away. But it’ll probably stick to the bottom of the pot a bit anyway. This is normal. Let it all boil up together and the flavours infuse. It’s cooked when the samp is no longer chewy and has the creamy texture of a risotto. Season generously with salt and pepper, and serve with a drizzle of olive oil. Nourishing and delicious.

A South African staple.
A South African staple. White people can eat it, too.

If Real Life Was Like Facebook

Wouldn’t it be the coolest thing ever if real life was like Facebook? As in, people could only see you from a certain angle – your best – the one from which 98% of your pics are taken (we all know the other 2% were snapped by friends who didn’t know you had an angle rule and when it ended up on your timeline you felt too petty to untag yourself). That would be so awesome because everybody knows good-looking better get better jobs, have happier relationships and live more productive lives. You would SO get head-hunted, like, immediately, and meet Mr Right tomorrow.

And not only that. Imagine when people’s voices were making you bored, you could just choose a drop-box and remove them from your Timeline. One minute your boss is droning on about emerging markets, the next, there’s just an empty chair in the boardroom. Gone until further notice, buddy! And best you up your game, or I’ll never listen to your boring voice again. Or, better still, you could replace him with people you find interesting. Like your best girlfriends and that cute guy you picked up at Caprice and friended over the weekend. Suddenly, Monday’s strategy meeting just got way more fun.

If you could organize your office like you do your facebook community, you’d always be surrounded by people in sexy shoes holding cocktails, and your view of the back of the photocopier would immediately transform into a vista of Lion’s Head at sunset or a wintry beach or an adorable puppy. Bit sleepy from staying up to watch Scandinavian TV series all night? No problem: type your manager’s name in the ‘custom’ button under your status update and everybody but her will be able to see you’ve curled up under your desk for a nice little nap. And if the sarmie you made last night starts looking a bit sad, you could just instagram it. With the right filter you can make anything look gourmet.

Immediately, in your Facebook World, everything dull and miserable would cease to exist and your days would become endless forays into the winelands, meals with truffle foam and being surrounded by all your friends all the time as you smiled your way happily through life. What’s more, people would have to mind their ‘p’s and ‘q’s or your just wouldn’t ‘like’ them. And everyone knows how crap it is not getting any ‘likes.’ You’ll never have to break up with anybody because you can just press ‘unfriend.’ What’s more, if you report them to the Facebook Police they’ll never be allowed to talk to you ever again. No more end-of-relationship post-mortems – hurrah! By the same token, if you were tired of being single, you could just change your relationship status. Want to be engaged to Caprice boy? Done!

So, there’d be a button for when people bug you; a little air emoticon to warn folks when you’re crabby, and if you were feeling lazy you could just share somebody else’s clever, original post. Wouldn’t that be cool? To your boss: ‘what do I think? Didn’t you see my SHARE? Duh.’ Mark Zuckerberg is a genius, no doubt about that – I’m sure he’ll be up for the challenge.

Letter to Myself at Age 10

window hearts

Dear Susan

Your nose is not as big as you think. While you’ll never be wild about the sight of yourself in profile, you’ll grow into your face and even learn to like it a little, hard as this may be to believe. The next 30 years are going to go quickly, and you’ll look back and be amazed that you could get this old. But don’t fear the passing of time. Life gets easier the longer you’re around, even though you don’t learn as much as you’d expect. This is because, as you grow up, things somehow become more vague; less black-and-white as you begin to grasp the contingency of life, and the fact that most things are actually beyond our control. But with this uncertainty comes a kind of humility which often makes us nicer human beings.

Your parents are raising you to have a healthy disdain for authority. While that is a good thing in principal, your rebellious nature is going to get you into trouble, and you need to learn when it’s time to shut up. Not everybody wants to hear your opinion, and as much as you pretend not to care, the harsh words directed at you will end up hurting you deeply. So, try to be less outspoken and a little more cooperative. In a few years time you’re going to start neglecting your school work and your gymnastics and your dancing in favour of chasing boys. This is a really stupid thing to do. Unfortunately, it will take you many years and a lot of wasted energy to figure this out for yourself.

When you’re 40 you’re going to make jokes about not understanding numbers, but actually having a grounding in maths is pretty important. I know you find it difficult, so work harder at it. There’s going to come a time you’re not going to know how to work out a percentage, and it’s going to be embarassing. Stop taking the easy way out. And stop being so frightened all the time. You’re clever, and you’re going to make good choices. As much as you want this right now, you’re not going to live in Hollywood and be famous or rich. But you’ll do work that you love and your talents will be rewarded and that counts for a whole lot more.

You’re going to have your heart broken, and you’re going to suffer a little. Okay, a lot. You’re also going to break some hearts along the way, though through the inherent self-centredness of human beings, you won’t be aware till much later of the impact you’ve had on some people. Be kind to the ones who love you. They deserve it. High School really is the school of hard knocks. Those cool people who won’t let you be in their crowd and make you feel ugly and unworthy? Let me tell you a secret: they didn’t amount to anything. Their lives are small places, and things didn’t turn out so well for them in the end. So, stop going home after school and crying on your bed. They aren’t worth your tears.

Things are going to go good for you, so try to relax a little. Think carefully about every decision you make because they really do count in the end. Life is long movie with a short storyline, and you don’t want to be left high and dry. And don’t, for the love of god, go to that hairdresser in Somerset West and ask for a Lady Di haircut. Someone should have pointed out to you that she didn’t wake up in the morning with all those glorious flicks, and it’s going to take you a lot of years to grow out that particular mistake. You’ve got good hair; don’t mess with it.

Yours lovingly,
Susan

The most surprising thing about starting a blog

I kind of knew I was going to love blogging. After decades of writing for very specific markets and always having to ask myself whether a Cosmo girl would identify with what I wanted to say, or if I was being too ‘out there’ for the Clicks Club subscribers, or if a word I wanted to use would be understood by a younger audience, the sheer, unfettered joy of sitting down at my keyboard and thrashing out whatever thoughts I care to share using whatever words I choose to share them in is one of the most liberating things I’ve ever experienced. Creating without constraint is a heady feeling indeed.

But it also scared me, the notion of putting myself and my life out there in the no-holds-barred way I’m partial to. What would people say? What would they think? What if they hated my writing and told me so? Because, while I have a pretty big mouth I have a dangerously thin skin. Not an ideal combination. But for some reason I was compelled to head off into this very unknown terrain where anybody who cares enough can read your innermost thoughts, and enter the most private of private spheres – your head.

And I’m not brave. I might sound confident and courageous when I publish a post which is either deeply personal or a bit controversial (I mean, what white South African has the audacity to call themselves black?), but in reality I’m shitting myself and my stomach churns with every new comment I see awaiting approval. Because, maybe even more than other people, I’m terrified of not being liked.

And then an interesting thing happened which kind of changed the way I view the world. Everybody has been nice. Okay, not everybody. Of the nearly 10 000 individuals who have visited and viewed my blog since its launch three weeks ago, one person wrote me a cross letter. Which I pretty much deserved since I kind of tore their blog to pieces (it was my ‘Letter to a Hipster Blogger’. We live and learn). But that girl aside (and you know, dude, I’m sorry. I was totally showing off) everybody has been so freaking amazing. And supportive, and encouraging and share-y.

The love has poured out from all corners of the globe. I had a woman in Texas tell me her story about mothering; a few guys thanking me profusely for the piece about marriage (‘How Marriage Sometimes Feels Really, Really Crap‘); a French chef start a conversation about food . I’ve had a really insightful chat about flaming with a Huffington Post blogger (who is actually following my blog – how cool?); letters from people in China and Holland and Moscow and Tanzania. And the theme is always the same – of our sameness and shared experience of the world.

And it’s gone both ways – through blogging I’ve found blogs which I’ve come to know and love. At the moment I’m following the heart-wrenching day-to-day experience of a 26-year-old woman in the UK whose husband has just left her for another woman. Her writing is raw, gutsy and painful and, by virtue of being almost 20 years her senior and having learnt some stuff along the way, I’m able to see her situation in perspective and offer her the kind of loving, supportive advice older friends gave me when I was her age and equally lost.

It’s been an extraordinary experience this, and it’s revived my faith in humanity. Even when I knew a segment of people would disagree strongly with something I wrote or be offended by my penchant for colourful language, they allowed me the space to state my case in the way I saw fit, and I’m humbled and amazed. Loving what you’re doing and waking up to 50 e-mails from people telling you they’re also loving what you’re doing is the coolest thing I’ve ever known. To everyone reading this, thank you.

Instant Prozac

I got this e-mail yesterday, and while it’s certainly been fiddled with – it’s just too good to be true – anyone who has read instructions on a product brought in from China will accept that it’s probably not that far off, either. I had a good laugh, and thought it was too funny not to share.

“A friend went to Beijing recently and was given this brochure by the hotel. It is precious. She is keeping it and reading it whenever she feels depressed. Obviously, it has been translated directly, word for word from Mandarin to English…

Getting There:

Our representative will make you wait at the airport. The bus to the hotel runs along the lake shore. Soon you will feel pleasure in passing water. You will know that you are getting near the hotel, because you will go round the bend. The manager will await you in the entrance hall. He always tries to have intercourse with all new guests.

The hotel:

This is a family hotel, so children are very welcome. We of course are always pleased to accept adultery. Highly skilled nurses are available in the evenings to put down your children. Guests are invited to conjugate in the bar and expose themselves to others. But please note that ladies are not allowed to have babies in the bar. We organize social games, so no guest is ever left alone to play with them self.

The Restaurant:

Our menus have been carefully chosen to be ordinary and unexciting. At dinner, our quartet will circulate from table to table, and fiddle with you.

Your Room:

Every room has excellent facilities for your private parts. In winter, every room is on heat. Each room has a balcony offering views of outstanding obscenity! . You will not be disturbed by traffic noise, since the road between the hotel and the lake is used only by pederasts.

Bed

Your bed has been made in accordance with local tradition. If you have any other ideas please ring for the chambermaid. Please take advantage of her. She will be very pleased to squash your shirts, blouses and underwear. If asked, she will also squeeze your trousers.

Above all: When you leave us at the end of your holiday, you will have no hope. You will struggle to forget it.”