Saturday, 23 June 2007

Why I hate Ding-Ding food.

For the record, this is an old post, I just hadn't uploaded it here before. I survived three weeks of making ding-ding food. The following explains my total lack of patience with it.

My Dad just rang. "How's the new job going?" he asks. A resoundingly apathetic 'MEH' is the reply.
The New Job, at a pub/company which ought to remain anonymous given the following rant, is neither faaaabulous nor hideous. It is just... MEH.  Working there has numbed so many braincells already that MEH is about the limit of my relevant vocabulary right now.

Sunday roasts....that staple of British 'cuisine'. Homely comfort food. Carl's speciality in fact. Nuked beyond all recognition at work.
Chicken 'saddles' arrive in individual vaccuum-packed frozen parcels. They are then microwaved for exactly four minutes.
If you have the beef option, this means I get to stick another frozen bag in a pan of hot water. The meat is already sliced and comes frozen in gravy.
Mash potato is in frozen plastic tubs, already portioned up, and microwaved.
'Roast' potatoes are sliced up, frozen and bunged in the deep fat fryer.
Miscellaneous frozen veg is 'steamed' in a little plastic bag in the microwave.
Synthetically spherical balls of stuffing are frozen and deep fried too.
Yorkshire puddings are Auntie Bessies frozen finest.
Gravy has never been introduced to the meat before, and comes in individual frozen blue sachets and unceremoniously dumped into gravy boats.
The whole plateful (with each item placed on exactly the right spot on the plate, according to the dreaded Spec cards) takes under ten minutes to "prepare" - they don't even use the word "cook"!!!

Something deep in my brain is beginning to tell me: I can do better than this.
I really really hope I can, anyway. Is this really better than being unemployed?

Nevertheless, Carl sends me cute little Positive Affirmation messages when I'm at work: "Going to make my Bel the best roast in the world ever today! xxx" At least I get decent meals at home then...

I also found this, which tells you all you need to know about the food there:


The wonderfully named Potjiekos

Another enormous South African feast. Potjiekos (pronounced, delightfully, Poi-kee-koss) is perhaps even more of a social event than a Braai, mainly because it can be an all day affair. Potjiekos literally means Pot Food, it's a huge stew where everything is cooked in one big pot. Potjie pots can be bought in South Africa although I have never seen them anywhere else. They are large round cast iron pots with lids, and look remarkably like witches' cauldrons. A traditional potjie has three legs, so it can stand in, or over, a fire. You can now buy 'platpotjie', with flat bottoms too however, enabling them to be used over gas hobs. All are very heavy and awkward, and from personal experience, a right pain to get through customs when faced with baggage weight limits!
The pots themselves need a lot of looking after. The cast iron can easily rust, and although we all need more iron in our diet, this is not the best method of obtaining it! After initially 'firing' by viciously scrubbing it and then heating oil in it until it smokes, it then needs to be cleaned thoroughly after every use, and re-oiled before storage. However, the more the pot is used, the better it is for cooking.

The history of the Potjiekos started with the Voortrekkers, Dutch explorers who first moved their settlements out of the Cape, and slowly conquered a larger area of southern Africa. This meant, among other things, that whole families spent a long time travelling together, living out of wagons. The potjie pot was relatively easy to transport, and this style of one-pot cookery suited outdoor cooking over open fires. Whatever animal was shot that day ended up in the pot, with a new animal added each day, guts and all, making for a very interesting stew!

The contents of modern potjiekos is entirely a matter of personal preference. The Afrikaners will usually opt for meat, meat and more meat, but this is not always compulsory. The idea is to slow cook it, so it is ideally suited to tougher meats; an Afrikaans staple is mutton, although I use lamb since it is more readily available in this country. . Along with meat goes 'filler' – usually potatoes, but sometimes winter squashes such as pumpkin, or even pasta for the more experimental cooks. And then vegetables (as long as you have onion in there, everything else is negotiable). And then spices. You can actually buy official potjiekos spice mix, but the packet does not admit what goes in this. At an educated guess and a good sniff, I would say a lot of garlic powder, chilli and monosodium glutemate (MSG). Cape Malay cooking, with the heavy Indian influences, use a lot more spices, often giving the dish a very rich, sweet taste, and in my humble opinion, far more pleasant than excessive use of MSG.

My first taste of potjie was at my husband's family's house, on a mango farm in the Limpopo province of South Africa. My father in law was extremely proud of his creation, cooked on a braai he had built himself. He was very attentive to the pot, stiring away merrily, whilst all the time getting us all to chop things for him, and swigging from cans of his beloved Castle lager. Potjies take so long to do, it is more or less compulsory to start the drinking several hours in advance!

While this recipe is not necessarily the most traditional in terms of ingredients, it is far quicker and more simple to cook than other varieties. This should not take much longer than an hour to do. It is also extremely rich. Biltong, incidentally, is just portions of dried meat, like jerky. This recipe can easily be doubled or halved,depending on the size of the feast, the trick is to keep the ingredients in proportion with one another.

Biltong Potjiekos – By Les Townsend

Serves 10-12

6 onions, chopped roughly
1.5kg shell pasta
1kg grated biltong (any animal!)
750ml cream
3 green peppers, sliced
5 chicken stock cubes
5 cloves garlic, crushed
6-8 tbsp tomato paste
1kg cheddar cheese, grated
500g mushrooms
Vegetable oil

In the prepared potjie pot, fry the onions and green peppers in a little oil until softened.
Combine stock cubes with 1½ litres of boiling water and add to the pot. Add the pasta and cook through.
Add the cream, biltong and cheese and cook until thick and bubbly.
Finally, add the mushrooms, heat through, and serve.

Now we have established the basics of potjie cooking, here's a more traditional recipe. 'Bredies' are a Cape Malay stew, slow cooked, and go perfectly in a potjie pot. I came across this recipe when on a cultural tour of the Townships around Cape Town; the original uses mutton, but I adapted it to include ingredients you are more likely to find in Britain. Desperate to try out the potjie pot that I had lugged half way around the world, I first cooked this for my parents, using lambs' neck slices from their friendly local (Welsh) butcher. My parents are the sort who shudder at the thought of garlic and adding even half a teaspoon of chilli powder makes them gibber incoherently in the corner, rocking backwards and forwards alarmingly. As such, I did not go for the interesting Cape Malay curries, which can also be cooked in this manner. The spices in this give the dish a warming aromatic flavour, but for anyone prone to ordering the blandest thing on the menu, this is not gastonomic terrorism. Just close your eyes when you add the garlic.

Lamb's Neck Potjiekos – loosely based on Cass Abraham's Tomato Bredie

Serves 4 hungry people

8 slices of lamb's neck, including bone
very large glass red wine (Pinotage of course!)
250g new potatoes, chopped (halved if small)
1 large onion, roughly chopped
2 red peppers, sliced
12 vine tomatoes, halved
1½ tsp ground cloves
1½ tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp sweet paprika
3cm fresh ginger, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tbsp fresh chopped coriander
Plenty of vegetable oil.

Add the cloves, cinnamon, paprika, ginger and garlic to some oil and heat in the potjie pot until fragrant. Add the meat and potatoes to the pot, then add layers of onion and pepper. Finally, add the tomatoes to the top of the pot, and sprinkle over the coriander. Pour the wine over the top and allow to drain through. Put the lid on the pot and leave to simmer.
After half an hour, stir the pot well so that the meat is now on the top. Cover again, turn the heat down if necessary, and leave to slow cook for as long as possible. Good after two hours, even better the next day.
Serve with rice – if you have room!

The Social Life of Food

An old Portuguese legend tells of that most creative of dishes, Stone Soup. Stone Soup was first made by hungry Travellers, who, arriving in a quiet village with no money or provisions, were refused food by the locals. Desperate for something to eat, they set about boiling a large stone in nothing but water. Soon enough, the villagers were intrigued. Not wanting to show too much interest of course, each wandered over separately to inquire what the Travellers were up to.

We're making Stone Soup!” came the reply. “It's nearly ready.” And with that, they would enthusiastically taste it. “Almost perfect. Almost, but, it needs a little seasoning. Could we trouble you for a little salt? Just a pinch will do.”

So, one villager brought salt; no-one can deny a cook a little salt, can they? The soup was definitely getting there, but it could still do with a little something. Stock? Could anyone spare some stock? It would make all the difference. And potatoes. Just a few, you know, to thicken it up a bit. “We want to make sure there's enough Stone Soup to feed everyone, after all.” One villager was convinced that a handful of greens would also be a perfect addition to the wonderful Stone Soup. “A little pork too, perhaps? Not too much, you don't want to drown the flavour of the stone....”

Before long, the whole village was enjoying a delicious, simple, Stone Soup, and the Travellers got their dinner. The best part of course, was that the stone was so good, it could be saved and reused infinitely.

The purpose of this legend is unclear. Perhaps it is just teaching that something can come from nothing. Or that too many cooks don't actually spoil the broth. Have your stone and eat it too! Maybe it is a stark warning – do not strange trust men boiling water by the side of the road? Either way there are now numerous restaurants in Portugal selling the legendary Stone Soup, or Sopa de Piedra. That surely is the point. Good food can be created out of the simplest of ingredients, and that the acts of cooking and eating can, and should be, enjoyable social events. Food has a social life all of its own.

A Companion is literally, someone you break bread with. We hunger after our ambitions. When we realise something, we wake up and smell the coffee. Traditionally, the “breadwinner”, once he has earned his crust, comes home to his “sugar” “honey” or ”sweetie”, who will be sure to know the way to a man's heart. Troublemakers are known as the 'bad apples.' Pregnancy is euphemistically called “having a bun in the oven.” More strangely, when accompanying a loving couple, we are seen as a 'gooseberry'. When suspicious, we know trouble is brewing. We English 'Roast Beefs' sneer at the 'Frogs' across the channel, or the 'Sauerkrauts' further north, that is until our 'goose is cooked' and we have to eat our words or eat humble pie. We are occasionally starved of love, we lap up information, and we cook up plans. That is just the way the cookie crumbles... Food pervades virtually every aspect of our lives, even down to our language, expressions and proverbs. Food is also culture. The methods of cooking, preparation and serving dishes varies as much between cultures as the choice of ingredients does. One man's roast dinner is another's Holy Cow.

Food also fulfils a basic, instinctive need. We are all required to fill our bodies with some sort of energy source on a daily basis. Every culture on the planet has some sustenance system in place with which to satisfy this need. We humans are lucky in this respect, in that we are omnivorous; we can and do eat anything, unlike, say, poor Koalas that are restricted to a diet of eucalyptus, eucalyptus and more eucalyptus. Instead, we have the whole world in which to grow and produce a huge array of the most luxurious and exotic foods imaginable, and we choose to eat such nutritious culinary delights as Pot Noodle, burgers, oven chips, breakfast cereals covered in chocolate with added marshmallow shapes, cheese strings, canned spaghetti rings, Dinky Doughnuts, donner kebabs, microwaveable rice in little bags and chip shop curry sauce.... I have recently had the pleasure of feeding a group of bright but infinitely cynical teenagers who took up residence in my café. In their world, the five food groups consisted of grease, sugar, caffeine, nicotine and alcohol (although there was always some debate whether 'grease' should be replaced with the more specific “cheese” or even “chips”, and whether chillies should be a food group in their own right.) That said though, they had no hang ups about food as such, as long as it was put in front of them instantaneously and cost them little more than £2.50 a go. This was a demand I was happy to fulfil, as long as no baked beans were ever involved.

This book is not designed to preach, however. The recipes here are not included with a specific diet mantra in mind, following them religiously will not make you lose weight unless you are already morbidly obese (in which case, get help from someone more qualified!). They will not change your life dramatically, I doubt they will help you reach inner peace or enlightenment, and they definitely will not help if you happen to be allergic to half the ingredients.

It also does not make much difference where the ingredients come from. We are assured on a seemingly hourly basis that misshapen vegetables hand-grown in organic certified soil from the Garden of Gethsemane, watered with pure mineral water and tended by born-again, virginal vegans and transported to your (feng shui'd) table by Buddhist monks on solar-powered bicycles, are far better for you. Somehow I doubt it. I would prefer to believe that the animals I eat had happy lives, that vegetables were not sprayed with all manner of carcinogenic chemicals, that the growth of cereal crops did not further the destruction of the rainforest, and that the fruit was not grown by underpaid workers in the developing world, but I am not naïve. As such, I support the Fairtrade movement whenever and howsoever I can, and I try to buy in as much locally produced food as possible. However, buying non-organic food from corporate multinational supermarkets does not mean you will be eternally damned. Honest.