Jo’s Save-the-day Tuna Bake

tuna bake pic It would have looked better if the cheese grater hadn’t been in the dishwasher. Luckily it tasted the same.

This is about to become your children’s number one favourite dish, so if you make it once, be prepared to make it lots of times after that. Jo is Foundation Phase Head of Department at Muizenburg Primary School, one of those South African institutions which, quietly and without fuss, makes miracles happen every day. Jo plays a big part in stretching the school’s tiny budget so that kids from disadvantaged homes don’t fall through the cracks of a system not equipped to bail them out. This means putting in a lot of personal time, dipping into her own wallet and being super-creative about coming up with learning solutions.

A few years back her school won a prize for most integrated in the Western Cape (woo-hoo!). Jo deserves some big accolades which will come to her in time because that’s how the universe works. My kids ate this dish one evening at her house, and now I make it weekly, especially when there’s zip-diddly in the cupboards, everyone’s hungry and I am not driving to the Spar. It takes about twenty minutes from start to finish, and it’s not half bad with some salad and a glass of cold Sauv Blanc.

Ingredients:

Tuna in oil (because life is too short for the other kind)
Mayo (the cheap and nasty kind works fine)
One cup of rice
A small onion
Cheese
Salt and Pepper

Method
While your rice is cooking, chop that onion up finely as you can get it. In a mixing bowl, combine the cooked rice, tuna, raw onion and about six tablespoons of mayo. Season with salt and pepper, and put it in a baking dish. Cover with grated cheese, pop it under the grill for 10 minutes, and voila! Dinner is served.

Jo and Grant. Two very, very good people.
Jo and Grant. Two very, very good people.
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Putu, Wors and Chakalaka

chakalaka and pap As South African as Bafana Bafana, Lion matches and Leon Schuster.

Now that I know I’m actually Khoi San I’ve become more interested in traditional dishes, and nothing on this planet can be more traditionally South African than putu, wors and chakalaka. Bizarrely, the first time I ever ate putu, or krummelpap as it’s called in Afrikaans, was in Copenhagen at a meeting of the South African Social Club. Talk about losing your roots. But it’s delicious, and for some reason (probably my blackness) I’ve been craving it lately. For non-South Africans, putu is a type of dry porridge made from maize or corn meal which is kept crumbly by cooking it in very little water. I guess my ancestors couldn’t be arsed to keep trudging back to the river so they adapted their dishes accordingly.

In Gauteng, it’s usually eaten as a savoury side at a braai with a spicy tomato and onion sauce known as chakalaka and boerewors, a local sausage. Here in the Western Cape it’s more commonly eaten at breakfast time with milk and sugar. Though (as my facebook friends will testify) I’m breaking with tradition and this morning I had the leftovers with scrambled egg and sausage. Man, it was good. Never having cooked it before, I had no idea there were so many varieties, and I had to ask a shelf-packer at Pick n Pay which kind was best. Once he’d stopped giggling enough to speak (I guess blonde chicks in biker jackets don’t usually go around cooking putu), he told me they were all the same.

pap in pot pic See how nice and crumbly? My grandpa Botha would have been proud.

Luckily, two sensible elderly women came to my rescue, and after a long debate between them about which brand was less inclined to burn, White Star got the thumbs up. I was mightily excited to cook this new thing, and a little apprehensive as I had invited a friend around for supper. Luckily, she is a good enough friend that if it all turned out to be a disaster we’d just laugh and drink more wine. But, it came out pretty nicely, and we all had second helpings. Well, except for my six-year-old who murdered hers with tomato sauce and then still refused to touch it. She’ll learn sense eventually. Strangely, there are no cooking instructions on the packet, but I found them on Google, followed them exactly and it turned out fine. I think the hardest part is not letting it burn, so just keep an eye and it’s kind of imperative that you use a heavy-bottomed pot. Otherwise it’s going to stick a lot and washing up will be a pain. Thank god we don’t still walk to the river for that stuff, right?

Here’s how you do it. And don’t even think about not eating it with chakalaka. That stuff is the best thing I’ve discovered, and I plan to eat it with everything, always. A heads-up: the mild version is pretty damn spicy. Only buy the hot one if you’re a sirryus chilli junky.

Ingredients
• 2½ cups (600 ml) boiling water
• 1 teaspoon (5 ml) salt
• 2½ cups (400 gram) Maize Meal
• A knob of butter

Method
1. Pour boiling water and salt into saucepan with a thick base and a lid. Bring to boil.
2. Add the maize meal to the boiling water and half a teaspoon of salt.
3. Close the lid, without stirring.
4. Reduce heat. Simmer gently for 5 minutes.
5. Remove lid and stir well with a wooden spoon. At this point it takes on its crumbly texture.
6. Replace lid, reduce heat and steam for about half an hour, until done, but be careful not to burn it.
7. Fluff with a fork a few times during cooking. Or don’t. I forgot this part and it didn’t matter.
8. Add a knob of butter to the pap shortly before fluffing it for the last time. Because butter makes everything better.

Okay, I know it doesn't look sexy, but it tasted damn good.
Okay, I know it doesn’t look sexy, but it tasted damn good.

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.

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.

Rather Sexy Ratatouille

Good for empty fridge days.
Perfect for empty fridge days.

This is one of those oh-crap-there’s-nothing-in-the-house dishes that we make a couple of times a month using all the leftover veggies and a tin or two of tomatoes. It’s fresh, delish and, as you can tell by the beautiful colours, full of antioxidants. The thing about a ratatouille is that veggies, by themselves, don’t taste of a hell of a lot so you need to sexy them up. The best way of doing this is by adding things that have lots of flavour like garlic, olives, capers and herbs. Per and the girls like to eat theirs over pasta, but I prefer mine just as it comes or with a few shavings of parmesan cheese if we happen to have any lurking.

Ingredients:
Onion
Garlic
Aubergine
Red or green peppers
A tin of tomatoes (I only buy tinned cherry tomatoes lately. They just taste better)
Fresh tomatoes
Courgettes
Capers
Olives
Herbs like oreganum, basil and thyme (dried or fresh)
Olive oil
Red wine or balsamic vinegar

Method:
Fry your aubergine, onion and garlic in olive oil. Add the herbs – dried oreganum works really well on aubergine. When the aubergine is a little bit brown, add chopped courgettes, peppers, olives, fresh tomatoes, tinned tomatoes, half a cup of water and about two tablespoons of vinegar. Put the lid on and let it simmer for about twenty minutes. Give it a taste – if it’s acidic (tomatoes vary) add a tablespoon of sugar. Season with salt and pepper, and enjoy with pasta, ciabatta or just on its own. Yum, and seriously healthy.

Les Lentilles (yes, you guessed it – this dish is awfully very French)

Really, really good for wintry weather
Really, really good for wintry weather. Even if you only live in Cape Town.

Even though I don’t speak a word of the language (that’s not true, I know ‘les’) and I’ve only been to France once in my life for five minutes, I just know, deep down, that I’m French. Sometimes I’m also Italian, but mainly I’m more French. I get them, those people, with their fabulous dishes of cream and bone marrow and not caring when their husbands have affairs. Well, that part I don’t really get, but the rest I totally do.

My amazing friend Paul who owns Nomu came up with this recipe using fancy puy lentils and fish, but since I wouldn’t know a puy lentil if it had a tantrum on my head, I just use those brown ones you buy at Pick ‘n Pay. And because there wasn’t any fresh fish in my fridge that day or ever, I also substituted that for chorizo because I saw that someone once used that in another lentil dish. But the rest is totally, completely sort of Paul’s recipe.

When I make this dish it’s almost like I become Edith Piaf singing about having no regrets. You kind of want to put on a boa and swan about with a cigarette holder and say things that shock your children. But then you remember you’re actually just a mom cooking Thursday night supper, so you have to settle down and be content with a glass of red. And anyway, once I cooked in a boa and the feathers got in everything. This dish is easy, seriously tasty and quite stylish, actually. You wouldn’t be amiss serving it to guests with a nice ciabatta and a bottle of something dusky. Here’s how to access your inner grande dame:

Ingredients:

Brown lentils (they might be called green, but they are most definitely brown)
An onion (the red ones are bit sweeter, I find)
A clove of garlic (okay, three)
A carrot
Celery
Chorizo
Vegetable stock
Dried or fresh tarragon and whatever other herbs you have bumming around. Oreganum and thyme work nicely.
A bay leaf or two

Method:

Chop your onion, garlic, carrots and celery as finely as you can be bothered and fry them in a bit of olive oil. When the onion goes see-through, add your chopped chorizo and fry it up a bit. Add two cups of lentils, four cups of water, your veggie stock cube or powder, your bay leaf and your chopped up herbs. Put the lid on and let it simmer gently. Keep checking that you have enough water in your pot. If it gets too dry, add more. When the lentils are almost done (they should have a bit of a bite), take the lid off and let the rest of the water cook away. Season generously with salt and black pepper. Serve it in bowls with a drizzle of olive oil. SO very yum-ois.

Burning Love – Or, Curry-in-a-Hurry

Maybe I should have used an unchipped bowl and given it a wipe. But you get the idea.
Maybe I should have used an unchipped bowl. But you get the idea.

While my mom is an incredible cook whose chicken pie would beat Jamie’s hands down, she’s not what you’d call adventurous in the kitchen. When I was growing up, the most exotic things she added to her dishes were Bisto and a bit of white pepper. So, I never tasted a proper curry till I was about 27, and in all the years since I’ve had to make up for lost time (though, I have to assert, she has since perfected a lamb curry that would make Madhur Jaffrey hang up her apron).

I do like me a curry. Like my mom, I’m a gooier, which means I gravitate towards forgiving dishes – ones that won’t sulk and flop on you if you add three cloves of garlic instead of one (what’s the point of one?). There is something so wonderful about toasting spices, throwing hefty hunks of meat in the pot along with a tin or two of tomatoes and smelling it thicken and glorify while you mess around on Facebook. It’s a really hard dish to get wrong.

But sometimes my curry cravings come on arbitrary Tuesdays where I cannot (CANNOT) deal with anything that takes longer than 7 minutes. So, I came up with this dish which does all the good things a curry should do without being a nuisance and, what’s more, you will have every single one of these ingredients, I swear. You’ll need:

Ingredients:
1 onion
1 clove of garlic (okay, three)
1 tin of chickpeas
2 fresh tomatoes, chopped/a tin of tomatoes
Curry powder (whatever strength you prefer. I say, go for the hotness)
Cinnamon/turmeric/dried ghania/masala spice/dried ginger/ whatever you’ve got lurking. You don’t have to have them all.
Spinach or frozen peas
Chutney
Plain yoghurt and/or coconut milk (the latter is optional, and only if you were fancy at Pick n Pay)

Method:
Fry your chopped onion and garlic in a bit of oil, then and add your curry powder and whatever other spices you’re using. Be generous with the cinnamon. When they’re dark and your onion’s gone opaque, add the chickpeas. Shmoosh them around so that they’re covered in spices and then add your tomatoes. If using fresh tomatoes, add half a glass of water too or it’ll be too dry. Let this lot cook up a bit, maybe for five minutes. When it’s looking like a curry, add a tablespoon of chutney, a swirl of yoghurt or coconut milk and fresh spinach or frozen peas or both. Season, and stir them around until they’re heated through. Voila! Burning love. Without getting all Nigella, it’s spicy, warming and delicious, and when the world feels hostile – as it totally does some days – this just hits the spot. Curl up on the couch and eat it in a bowl with a spoon and some extra chutney. And don’t share it with your children. Some things need to be just for you.