Sunday, 22 July 2007

Celebrations - Food fit for a bride?

Wedding food can be more elaborate than any other celebratory feast, even more so than some major religious festivals. As with any aspects of the wedding, a lot of preparation is required. It is significant that an emotional, legal and often spiritual joining of two poeple is celebrated by inviting large groups of friends and family together to feast and share food.

In Mexico, wedding food contains a lot of fruit, symbolising sweetness in the marriage and of course, fertility. Elaborate fruit jellies are made and presented to the bride and her family. In parts of India, sweetmeats are served at the wedding for similar reasons. In Cape Malay cuisine, Muslims cook up extremely complex, rich dishes to show off both their hospitality, and their prosperity.

In Britain, reserved understatment capital of the world, we do not really get it right. The idea is there - get everyone together for the celebration, but collectively we are far more likely to have a light finger buffet than a full sit-down feast. The emphasis is on the celebrating, not necessarily on feasting.

There is one tradition we all adhere to though, and that is the wedding cake. These are elaborate, far more so than any other part of the wedding food. Wedding cakes are usually huge, three-tiered affairs, plastered in white icing to match the bride's dress. They are also almost always fruit cake as well. Whereas this is not necessarily the nationsl preference, it does lend itself nicely to the other purpose of the wedding cake. Fruit cake does not go stale very quickly, it is also quite dry, meaning it is more easily transported. It can be sent to far off relatives who cannot attend the wedding for instance. Pieces are often kept by the newly-weds as souvenirs of the day. It is a very British irony that the main focal point of the wedding feast is not designed to be eaten.

There are those, of course, who flaut tradition. My husband happens to like penguins, so for our wedding, we had a three-tier cake with sugar penguins sliding between the layers, and a bride and groom penguin sitting on top, complete with top hat and bridal veil. We also tried to keep everyone happy; we had one fruit layer, one chocolate and one sponge layer. We did send slices to obscure relatives (I think one bit made it to Peru in fact!) and we kept the sugar pengins as keepsakes.

My friend also had a wonderful cake at her wedding. Not only was it chocolate flavoured, it was also shaped like Terry Pratchett's Discworld - a cake turtle, with four sugar elephants supporting the 'disc' depicted in icing sugar on the top.

This was not the only thing unusual about her wedding food. They opted for a buffet at the evening reception, but for various long and complicated reasons, quite a few guests, and the bride herself, ended up hanging round their house before the ceremony, looking hungry. I offered to cook, and was then faced with the slightly daunting prospect of trying to feed a dozen people very quickly, with few ingredients, in a tiny kitchen, with no idea what they liked... Worse still, I was prevented from spilling anything down bridesmaids dresses, and banned from using any chilli or garlic (my staple ingredients!) for fear of foul breath making the groom run a mile before the ceremony was completed.

I did want the meal to be vaguely unusual and memorable though, and it also had to be varied to cater for all tastes. Eventually I decided on quite a haphazard spread. One very rich red meat dish to add luxury, an 'interesting' chicken dish for the less adventurous, a token vegetarian dish and a simple but filling salad. With my husband employed as commis chef ('Commis' is a technical term, short fot 'commiserations darling, you are the skivvy'), and another friend volunteered at short notice to be the Chef de Partie in charge of dessert, we managed to create the following five dishes in under two hours. I was quite proud of myself.

All quantities in the following are negotiable - basically add to taste, and multiply by the number of people catering for. Eventually, it will just 'look right'.

Dead Bambi Avec Chocolat

A few decent sized venison steaks, roughly cubed
A bar of strong black chocolate
Roughly half a bottle of full-bodied red wine (we used South African Pinotage because we like it)
Half a dozen small shallots, finely sliced
Slog of Olive oil
Several cloves of garlic if the bride doesn't object!
Large pinch of rosemary.
Freshly ground black pepper to season.

Heat the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan, brown off the meat and sweat the shallots with the garlic.
After a few minutes, add the wine and rosemary, and heat through.
When the pan is simmering, grate in the chocolate and stir through until it has all melted.
Simmer for a further 20-30 minutes until the meat is gorgeously tender.

Mojito Chicken Stirfry

Oil for stir frying
Chicken fillets, sliced into strips
Green pepper(s) cut into thin strips
1 large white onion, roughly chopped.
Very large slog of rum (I prefer dark, but any sort works!)
2-3 Tbsp dark brown sugar
Several large handfuls of fresh mint, ripped up
Freshly squeezed lime juice.

First, get a large frying pan/Wok very hot until the oil is sizzling. Flash fry the chicken, onion and peppers until the chicken strips are cooked through and the pepper has blistered. Splash in the rum, (it may actually flambe dramatically if you get it right! This is great fun, looks highly professional, but can be dangerous in small kitchens!). The alcohol will boil off, leaving the flavour in the chicken. Turn down the heat in the pan and stir thoroughly.
When the pan has cooled, stir in the sugar, mint and lime juice. The sugar should thicken the lime and other juices, but shouldn't burn.
Serve immediately, spooning left over juices over the chicken.

Creamy Butternut Squish

One large, obscene butternut squash
(I've always found the bigger they are, the more obscene they look, and the worse they look, the more fun they are to chop up violently. Not that I have issues or anything)
Creamy soft cheese, or mascapone.
Olive oil
Rosemary (preferably fresh sprigs)
Freshly ground black pepper.
Large handful of halved walnuts

This really is more of a squish than a squash.
First, peel and chop the squash into large chunks. Drizzle in oil, sprinkle with rosemary and roast in the oven until soft and slightly caramelised. Stir in the walnuts and continue roasting for a further ten minutes. Finally, stir in the soft cheese and season liberally with black pepper. The squash should slightly disintergrate. Return the oven for a few more minutes to heat the cheese, then serve hot and gooey.

Bel's Famous Potato Salad

Large collection of chopped boiled potatoes, cooled.
Very large calorific quantity of mayonnaise
A few teaspoons of mint sauce (or, fresh mint and a splash of vinegar)
A few spring onions very finely chopped.

This was discovered entirely by accident, when I couldn't decide whether to do minted potatoes or a mayo-rich salad. It is dead easy. Basically bung everything in a bowl and stir.

And finally...

Sticky Toffee Pudding

(with many thanks to Hilary Parker for this, who stepped in miraculously as a highly skilled Chef de Party. She excels in the sticky toffee department and this recipe seems to turn out perfectly everytime with little obvious difficulty)

Most recipes seem to have dates in – however I use sultanas instead because they’re easier to find & I like them! And it still tastes yummy. This recipe happily fills an 8 inch-ish (20cm) square cake tin. I find this divides up into 9 decent portions, more if you’re not that hungry!
I’ve also made individual puddings in 4 inch (10cm) sized ramekins, these make about 6 largeish puddings.

Serves lots!

2oz (55g) butter
6oz (170g) demerara sugar
2 tbsp black treacle
1 tbsp golden syrup
2 eggs
7oz (200g) self-raising flour
7oz (200g) sultanas
10fl oz (290ml) boiling water
1 tbsp bicarbonate of soda
½ tsp vanilla extract

For the sauce:
4fl oz (110ml) double cream
2oz (55g) butter, diced
2oz (55g) dark muscavado sugar
2 tbsp black treacle
1 tbsp golden syrup

1. Butter the tin or ramekins and dust with flour and preheat oven 200C/400F/Gas 6.
2. Using a food processor cream the butter and sugar together.
Slowly add the golden syrup, treacle and eggs. Continue mixing until the mixture looks smooth, then turn down to a slow speed and add the flour. Mix until everything is well combined.
3. Add the boiling water to the dates and tip into a blender. Secure the lid firmly and blend to a purée.
4. Add the bicarbonate of soda and vanilla.
5. Pour this into the batter while it is still hot and stir well.
6. Pour into the tin and bake for 20-25 minutes until the top is just firm to the touch.
7. Make the sauce: simply place all the ingredients in a pan, bring to the boil, stirring a few times and then remove from the heat. Put to one side until ready to use.
(This keeps ok for a day or two in the fridge if you make too much – just gently reheat on the stove.)
8. Serve the pudding in bowls and coat with the toffee sauce. I like it with vanilla ice cream, but cream or custard go equally well!

The above five dishes easily fed ten people with leftovers (saved in the fridge for the groom and best man as an unidentified surprise!). Whereas I don't always recommend cooking unfamiliar dishes in strange surrounding within rather stressful circumstances, I can vouch for the fact that everyone seemed to enjoy it, and the wedding afterwards was absolutely beautiful. And neither the bride or I popped out of a dresses either!

Monday, 16 July 2007

The Almighty Braai

Ever since we'e had enough garden space to accomodate one, my husband has been on about getting a braai. Soon enough, a huge barbecue arrived and Carl started to get highly testosterone-fuelled and devolved to a state of caveman-esque fire-tending and meat cooking. To his credit, he does not conform to the stereotype of British men in that he is actually quite good at it. The fire stays lit, and the meat is cooked through properly, rather than burnt on the outside and pink in the middle. Its also delicious!

What is the difference between a barbecue and a braai then? I never really understood this until Carl finally took me to South Afica to meet his family, and essentially, to pig out.

It turns out, the word Braai refers to far more than a barbecue. Braai refers to the contraption on which the fire is contained, and what supports the main grill. South African braais are always done over fires, or at least, hot coals. The idea of a gas fuelled barbecue is practically blasphemous. Many campsites and hostels in South Africa advertise the fact they have 'braai facilities'- meaning space for fires.

Braai can also mean the food - well, meat - that goes on it. Afrikaners are big on their meat. Anything is acceptable; beef, lamb, pork... crocodile, zebra, ostrich, and of course 'venison'. Venison in South Africa does not just mean deer meat, it refers to any edible antelope: springbok, gemsbok, impala, even Kudo. (Of these, I personally love springbok, it's very tender. Kudo tastes more like mutton.) Braais can also include potjiekos - meaty stews slow cooked in special cast iron pots. The favorite braai meat is boerewors though. Boerewors are spicy sausages made with both beef mince and pork, but with garlic and spices. Buying good boerewors can be tricky, as there are hundreds of varieties, including 'braaiwors', designed specifically for the barbecue, but tend to be lower quality and more fatty. Steaks, wors, ribs and potjie are all served up in large quantities with miscellaneous salads and copious amounts of beer.

Finally, a braai is a social event. As soon as we arrived in South Africa, we were invited to braai. "Bring beer!" Getting a fire going, preparing the potjie, getting it up to cooking temperature and grilling the meat all takes time. Generally it is a family event; everyone gets involved, even if it is just to toss salad or chill the beers. And of course, everyone can sit round the fire, usually drinking, while it all cooks. Braais take all evening, so it is used as a good excuse for a mini party, to catch up with people and as an all purpose get together. Even better, it has to be done outside. This means there is plenty of space, and the gathering is very informal and relaxed. In the case of Carl's family braai, three generations were involved including our eighteen month old neice, who joined in by getting her braai potato salad mushed up for her, and toddling round offering people soggy bread rolls. The family dogs were also invited, to chew the bones. Sitting round a fire on a warm evening on the edge of a huge mango farm under the mountains in the Lowveld was a wonderful experience.

That said, however, braais are not confined to more tropical climes. We have successfully held braais in our back garden in north east England. Believe it or not, it has been possible to find a whole evening where it was both warm and dry (though peculiarly, this was easier in April than July this year!). We have a large charcoal fuelled barbecue, which is strong enough to hold our potjie pot, and on it goes as much meat as we can get in our local supermarket or butcher. The trick is, to get everything cooked at the same time, which requires a constant heat source, keeping the temperature even over the whole grill. I have made my own burgers and even veggie burgers to be grilled on the braai, and it is even possible to make boerevors at home. Carl cooks away happily, I make potato salad, hungry friends arrive and the beer flows freely. "Gesondheid!"