Chicken, Chorizo and Butter Bean Stewois (another French dish)

stew pic.jpg
As it cooks the chorizo lends a fabulous smokiness to the sauce.

As everyone in my family knows, I’m somewhat of a cheat. I believe cheating wherever possible is an intelligent way of getting where you need to be with a minimum of hassle and stress. I cheat at things like boule and Monopoly and now and again I forget to tell MyFitnessPal about the chocolate croissant I inhaled on the school run because anyway food that isn’t eaten on a plate doesn’t count. The thing is, if I didn’t cheat I would regularly lose at things which would negatively impact my self-esteem, and since I’m so kak at games of all descriptions, it’s a survival mechanism I’ve had no choice but to hone over the years.

Like this past July in Copenhagen when we went for Sunday lunch at some friends who were spending the summer in a fancy house by the sea where the rich people of Denmark live. After a wonderful lunch of steak and fried potatoes (our hostess was French where they not only eat carbs but fry them and yet remain as thin as mist), we did what rich Danish and ordinary French people do and went out onto the lawn to play boule. I’m not great at boule, and while I’m not a bad loser as such it just gets embarrassing when you’re competing against a wafer-thin French girl who wears silk lingerie and not beige broeks like me (I know this because I snooped around and found a clothes horse hung with tiny, diaphanous items of underwear, like Barbie had one hell of a night) and you’re coming totally stone last, being beaten even by young children.

king and queen pic.jpg
Rich people of Denmark.

So, when the players ahead of me were distracted and talking about the various merits of a la-la-Pinot Noir I would subtly use my foot to get the ball into a more favourable position, significantly hoisting myself up in the rankings. The fact that I’d had several glasses of the above-mentioned Pinot Noir which impacted my balance somewhat and made me fall over once or twice alerting everyone to my tricks we don’t really need to go into, but they were polite enough to let me pretend I really came fourth.

Also when we play Monopoly, even when I try really hard to save and make sound financial decisions and not be like I am in real life somehow I end up alternately in jail or on Regent Street at the doorstep of the hotel my husband has yet again unkindly purchased and keeps laughing meanly when I land there round after round. So you can’t really blame me for taking advantage of the times my fellow players are momentarily distracted by the loud gwang of a hadeda landing on the roof and everyone gets up to look out the window to see if it’s a baddie come to kill us and I pilfer the money of the other players and hide it under the board so the theft is not immediately apparent. Because this is the only way I’m not bankrupt and out of the game within 15 minutes. And I know it’s not ideal that the people I’m stealing from are my own children, but on the other hand they need to learn that the world is full of robbers and swindlers and nobody should be trusted, least of all their own kin. But enough about that.

This French dish (which possibly isn’t even really, but it goes with the cheating theme and it does contain French tarragonois) is so ridiculously easy and yet appears quite fancy and sophisticated when you serve it to guests, so naturally it’s a hit with the likes of me. There are one or two things you can’t cheat with, though. It has very few ingredients, so you must buy good things. Pay more for your chicken and don’t even think about buying Chorizo from a poofy shop. It’s going to ruin everything and nobody will think you’re Nigella anymore which defeats the whole object of cooking for anybody ever. This is what you’ll need.

ingredients pic.jpg
No filter on earth can make raw chicken look appealing. But see how few ingredients 👍🏼

Ingredients:

  • Several chicken pieces
  • Chorizo
  • bacon
  • 2 tins of butter beans
  • 2 tins of tomatoes
  • dried French tarragonois
  • chicken stock
  • an onion
  • garlic
  • rosemary
  • a bay leaf

Method:

Fry your chicken in olive (or any damn) oil and season with salt and pepper and sprinkle with flour if you feel like it. Remove browned chicken pieces from the pot and in the lovely, chickeny fat fry your bacon, then add your onion, garlic and chorizo not whole but sliced, obvs. When you’ve fried that for a while add your tomatoes, a tablespoon of tarragonois, chicken stock, fresh rosemary, 2 tins of butter beans and the chicken. Put the lid on the pot and let it simmer gently for a couple of hours. Serve with rice and/or crusty bread and a nice bottle of white. It’s very tasty and your friends will be impressed with your cooking skills. Also, the amazing thing about this dish is that halfway through cooking it you’ll find that you are thinner and also able to speak fluent French even if you didn’t speak a word of that language before. That surprised me quite a lot, but then life is full of surprises. Bon appetit!

Cullin Skink, the Most Delicious Fish Soup in the Whole Entire World

The Loch Ness Lodge Hotel and a cleaner's bum.
The Loch Ness Lodge Hotel and a cleaner’s bum.

If you ever happen to find yourself in the Scottish village of Drumnadrochit (population 813), I can tell you with authority that there is something better than catching a glimpse of Old Nessie, and that thing is getting yourself a bowl of Cullin Skink or smoked fish soup. For this serving of heaven you will have to make your way to the maddest, most eccentric hotel you will likely ever stay in in your days called – naturally – the Loch Ness Lodge Hotel. Being situated on the loch, and all. If you’re looking for a deeply, madly Scottish experience you won’t be disappointed. This hotel was surely decorated by leprechauns on speed and it’s completely fantastic (I know, leprechauns are Irish, but these ones were contracted in). What you get when you walk in is floor-to-ceiling tartan, 24/7 bagpipes and bedroom décor straight out of Alice in Wonderland. You also get door handles perfectly positioned for one of those leprechauns. In fact, we had to get on our knees to unlock the door. Needless to say, we were sold.

Unlocking the door to our hotel room.
Unlocking the door to our hotel room.

We had no idea what a Cullin Skink was when it was at home in tartan pyjamas, but being pretty adventurous diners (we ate haggis and black pudding every day. Promise. Both are delicious) we wanted to eat the things we can’t get in Cape Town, and Cullin Skink certainly seemed to be that. What we didn’t know was that we would be struck silent by the mind-boggling deliciousness of this relatively unknown dish, talk about it for days and try to replicate it when we got home. What it is (said Google) is a soup consisting of smoked fish (any kind, but the Scottish version favours haddock), potatoes, leeks, dill, cream and butter. Just writing these words makes me drool. Imagine it’s really cold out (it wasn’t, but imagine it was), you’ve been Loch Nessing all day with barely an oat cake for sustenance (we’d been eating Pringles the whole drive down, sadly, but who knew that was on the menu?) you stumble inside and order a wee dram or three. You’re so hungry your bum’s nibbling the (tartan) seat and before you, like an angel, a waiter (who looks just like Spud from Trainspotting) brings you a bowl of this piping hot soup. It’s creamy, it’s smoky and it’s tasty as hell. I mean, a guy could sing an aria for the joy of it.

Very, very much tartan.
So much tartan of an afternoon.

So once we had scraped the last small droplet of remaining soup up with our fingers and gathered ourselves enough to speak we decided, then and there, that our mission in life would be to recreate this marvelous dish. Un-dyed Finnan haddock is not as easy to get in Green Point as it is in Drumnadrochit, but luckily the recipe assured us that any smoked white fish would do. So, off to the Waterfront City Market we went and bought this…

Smoked Angelfish from the Waterfront City Market because we're fancy like that, but any smoked white fish would do.
Smoked Angelfish from the Waterfront City Market because we like to pretend we’re fancy, but any smoked white fish will do.

…along with a large block of butter, cream and dill. We forgot the leeks, but decided large spring onions would have to do because the loser of paper-rock-scissors reneged on the deal (a-hem). The recipe said to simmer the fish in water with bay leaves till it was ‘cooked.’ A small discussion ensued around whether or not smoked fish qualifies as uncooked since it is, technically, cooked by the smoking. The loser of paper-rock-scissors lost that argument, too. Then, there was a discussion around when it was best to add the cream because some people in this house, even when they have never made a thing, feel that they still know more than the people who wrote the recipe. It went in at the end which I think was the right time. But enough about that.

Here is what you’ll need:

Ingredients:
Smoked white fish
A large yellow onion
Leeks (or overgrown spring onions)
Dill
A large carrot, finely chopped
2 Sticks of celery, finely chopped
5 Medium-sized potatoes, peeled and chopped into bite-sized pieces
Butter
A litre of full cream milk
A swirl of cream
Bay leaves
Fish stock or fish sauce or both

Method:
In a frying pan, cover the fish with the milk and two bay leaves and let it simmer gently for 10 minutes. In a large saucepan, sauté your onion in butter. Add your carrots, celery, potatoes and ‘leeks’ and schmoonk them around till they’re covered in butter. You might want to add more butter. Remove the fish from the milk and put the fish aside. Add the fishy milk to your saucepan together with a handful of dill and a splash of fish stock. Let it simmer until your potatoes are cooked. While they are cooking break the fish up into bite-sized pieces and remove any skin or bones. Let the soup thicken. Add a drizzle of cream and the fish. Let the flavours make friends for a few minutes and then add salt and pepper to taste. Serve very hot with bread and if you’re impressing people, parsley.

Cullin Skink. Ta da!
Cullin Skink. Ta da!

I feared making this dish at home would be a bit like Swedish herring which tastes amazing at a midsummer party with a maypole and schnapps but kind of wrong when eaten in Cape Town, but this soup was actually almost better than the one we had in Scotland. And super easy and super quick. You use a lot of butter so it’s pretty rich. I put the smallest amount of cream in because boiling the milk had made it separate slightly, but it’s not really necessary. Traditional recipes don’t include the celery and carrot, but I like my soup to have a bit of sweetness and I thought their inclusion improved the flavour. Lastly, I added a Knorr fish stock sachet thing. I couldn’t really taste it so I added a bit of fish sauce. I think it depends on how smoky your fish is. Have a spoonful and decide for yourself.

The hauntingly beautiful highlands.
The hauntingly beautiful Highlands. If you’re able to get there in this lifetime, do. If not, just make the soup.

Societi Bistro – a Very Fabulous Thing.

The drawing room.
The drawing room. Just see how cosy and French.

All cities have that one restaurant which is just THE restaurant, and if you haven’t been there you kind of suck. Just kidding, you don’t, but you do need to go there at least one time. It’s got nothing to do with how expensive it is or pretentious the waiters are, it’s just been given the ‘cool’ badge by locals because it’s awesome and vibey and consistently fabulous no matter what time of the day or night you show up in need of carbs.

This pic must have been taken on the only day I wasn't there. So typical.
This pic must have been taken on the only day I wasn’t there. So typical.

In Cape Town, that place is definitely Societi Bistro (www.societibistro.co.za). And I don’t just say that because I’ve known the owner, Peter Weetman, since school. It’s the place Coldplay came for dinner two nights in a row (and God knows, Chris Martin isn’t easy to please); where Annie Lennox is a regular and anyone with vague celebrity status comes by to hang out when they’re visiting the Mother City. The reason is simply because it’s chilled, the food is excellent and inexpensive, it has a drop dead view of Table Mountain (and yes, we Capetonians are pathologically obsessed with our mountain) and the service is always impeccable.

The kind of ridiculously delicious French things they give you to eat.
The kind of ridiculously delicious things they give you to eat.

Oh, and there’s one more reason – there’s a very tasty sandwich on the menu with my name on it. For real. And not because I’m famous, but because nepotism rules. When you go there straight after you’ve read this have the mushroom risotto or the pork belly or the fillet au poivre. Or if you want something sandwich-y, the Susan Hayden (a-hem) and the Sylvie Hurford are divine. And when you spot Annie, it’s okay to go and say hello, she’s really nice and friendly. Do book, though (021 4242100) because it’s packed every night. And there’s free wifi which means you can pretend to work while you people-watch. Punt over. Off you go.

And there she is. So fun.
And there she is. So fun.

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.

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.