Monday, 27 April 2009

Oven-poached Chicken Breasts with a Cold Lemon-Tarragon Cream

A pale, silken sauce, enriched with cream and eggs yolks and zinged with lemon and tarragon, makes this dish one of my all-time favourites for a cooling lunch on a hot day.

Tender poached chicken breasts in a creamy lemon-tarragon sauce: perfect for very hot weather.

 I can't remember who gave me this recipe, but when I first made it for my mother-in-law (a wonderful cook) some 18 years ago, it was a disaster. The sauce was lovely, but the breasts were rubbery enough to bounce across the kitchen. I was desperate to impress her, and she ate it politely, but I had the sense she went away from our house feeling as if she had elastic bands between her molars.

It's really tricky to poach deboned chicken breasts and keep them succulent and tender (you can try the clingfilm method), and it's only recently that I experimented with poaching them in the oven, with great success. A quick poaching and a long cooling in the cooking liquid is definitely the way to go.

If you're nervous about reheating the sauce (it has a tendency to curdle) once you've added the yolks, skip this reheating step, and add an extra teaspoon (5 ml) of flour when you make the initial roux.

Please note that this sauce contains partially cooked eggs.

This is delicious with salad leaves dressed in lemon juice and olive oil; the ones in my picture are red-vein sorrel, which grows like a weed in my herb patch.

I've used dried tarragon here as fresh leaves are hard to find at the moment; if you can find fresh tarragon leaves, you can afford to be a little more generous with quantities.

Oven-poached Chicken Breasts with a Cold Lemon-Tarragon Cream

8 deboned, skinned free-range chicken breasts
salt and milled black pepper

For poaching:
1 bay leaf
a thick slice of onion
8 peppercorns
a few sprigs of parsley
a slice of lemon, peel and all
the juice of 1 lemon
hot water (about 500 ml)

For the sauce:
2 Tbsp (30 ml) butter
2 Tbsp (30 ml) flour
grated rind and juice of 1 lemon
1 Tbsp (15 ml) dried tarragon leaves
2 large free-range egg yolks
300 ml single cream
a pinch of white pepper

To serve:
a little finely grated lemon zest
lemon slices
salad leaves

Heat the oven to 180 °C. Season the chicken breasts with salt and pepper and put them in a single layer in a ceramic baking dish (don't pack them too tightly). Add the bay leaf, onion, peppercorns, parsley, lemon slice and lemon juice, and pour over enough very hot water to just cover the breasts (about 500 ml).

Place, uncovered, in the hot oven for 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and poke a hole into the thickest end of a breast: it should be just cooked. If there's any trace of pinkness, place the dish back in the oven for another few minutes. Cover with clingfilm and allow the breasts to cool for an hour or so in their cooking liquid. Refrigerate.

Strain off 300 ml of the cooking liquid and set aside. Now make the roux: melt the butter in a saucepan over a medium heat and stir in the flour. Cook, stirring, for a minute or so (don't let the mixture brown). Whisk in the reserved 300 ml of cooking liquid and bring to the boil, stirring constantly, until the mixture is slightly thickened. Cook over a gentle heat for two minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the lemon rind, lemon juice and tarragon. Season with salt and pepper.

In a separate bowl, lightly beat together the cream and egg yolks. Strain the mixture through a sieve into the hot sauce. Now put the pot back on a very gentle heat and cook gently for a minute or so to slightly thicken the sauce, as if you're making a custard. (You can skip this step: see notes above). I find it helps to keep a finger in the sauce as you stir: once it feels very hot (but not unbearably hot), it's ready; cook it any longer and it will curdle.

Remove from the heat and cover the surface of the sauce with a piece of clingfilm to prevent a skin forming. Cool completely, and then place in the fridge for an hour.

Tear the chicken breasts along the grain into strips as big as your pinkie finger, place them in a bowl and cover with the cold sauce. Toss well to coat, and allow to stand for another hour (in the fridge or out, depending on how cold you'd like the dish) so that the breasts absorb some of the flavour.

Arrange on plates and serve with lemon slices, salad leaves and perhaps some boiled baby potatoes.

Serves 6.

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Saturday, 25 April 2009

Mead-tasting and olive-noshing at the Jozi Food Market

I'm so heartened to see little food- and farmers'-markets popping up all over Johannesburg, showcasing the very best fresh local produce and a variety of gorgeous home-manufactured, hand-made foodstuffs.

For decades, the famous Bryanston Organic Market was the only real farmer's market in the city, but in the past year or so, a number of little weekly markets have started in shopping centres in and around the city, driven by foodie entrepreneurs with a real passion for artisanal foods.

Closest to me is the Jozi Food Market, held every Saturday morning in a shaded car park in Parktown North. The adjacent shopping centre, once a slightly tatty but agreeable centre hosting a famous video shop and one of Johannesburg's earlier branches of Nando's, has been swankified beyond recognition: it's now crammed with ludicrously expensive decor shops and coffee shops, and has been renamed 'The Parktown Quarter' (as if there are not enough retail 'quarters' in Johannesburg's northern suburbs to form several wholes).

Still, this is an excellent market with an energetic buzz. You'll find plenty of parking, friendly stall-holders, good music, trestle tables for impromptu picnics, and entertainment for your kids (including gingerbread-man decorating and live goats for petting).

It's a pity this market isn't set in a park with shady trees and rolling lawns but, heck, this is Johannesburg, land of the eternal car park (and I'm referring to the city's motorways).

Do go early, when all is crisp and fresh, because the early bird gets the worm - by 11.30 or 12 pm, the market has a slightly jaded, sold-out feeling.

There is a good variety of produce: coffee, organic veggies, wholegrain breads, smoothies, preserves, pickles, herbs, hot samoosas and spring rolls, cupcakes, smoked meats, excellent pizzas, ice-cream and hand-made cheeses.

I was irresistably drawn to the stall of librarian-turned-beekeeper Caroline Whitehead, where you can sample a range of lovely badger-friendly honeys and honey products, and a delicious range of South African meads. Honey Sun Mead is produced by Makana Meadery in the Eastern Cape; its Herbal Blossom Mead (a semi-sweet mead with rooibos, honeybush tea, cinnamon and apple) won a gold medal for the second year running at this year's International Mead Festival held in Colorado, USA.

Do try the African Bird's Eye Chili Mead (which delivers a lip-tingling double blast of honey and heat). The bottles are beautifully packaged, their tops dipped in beeswax.

By far the most popular stall is that of Elbow's Up (owned by food fanatic and deli owner Dave Moss) which sells an dazzling variety of sauces, syrups, preserves, vinegars, oils, glazes and olives, sourced from some of South Africa's leading producers. What sets this stall apart is not only the enormous range of bottled goodies, but also their enthusiastic sales staff, who will ensnare you by offering you samples of all sorts of titillating taste combinations: a little dab of Balsamic Gold Reduction here; a little splash of pomegranate syrup there, or perhaps a spicy rub? Don't leave without buying a jar of lovely Romesco Olives: grown in McGregor and processed in Mooi River, these gorgeous olives come in a variety of flavours and are preserved in fruity olive oil that makes wonderful salad dressings; try the Orangey Kalamata Olives, the Campfire Smoked Olives and the Heavenly Chilli Olives.

Another table I never miss is the Moema stall (the outstanding Moema's coffee shop and patisserie is in the adjacent shopping centre) for its billowing, crispy, tennis-ball-sized meringues, which are quite simply the best meringues I have ever tasted. The picture shown on the left is of Moema's Raspberry Swirl Meringues: here is the recipe.

And here is a pic of my daughter Elinor giving a make-over to a gingerbread woman.

For more details about this market, visit their site: Jozi Food Market

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Saturday, 18 April 2009

Old-fashioned Quince Paste: a right royal Elizabethan treat

No fruit was more highly prized in in Tudor and Jacobean times than the noble quince, according to scholar and author Hilary Spurling. 'Why the quince and its products should have fallen utterly out of favour in England, when they didn't elsewhere, is a mystery', she writes in her wonderful, scholarly book Elinor Fettiplace's Receipt Book (more about Elinor Fettiplace here).

Spurling offers a fascinating insight into just how important and prized fruit 'marmalades' (with 'marmalade' used in its original sense; the word being derived from the word the Portuguese marmelada, meaning 'quince cheese' or 'quince jam').

Boxes of quince marmalade were a favourite medieval wedding present, 'and they remained a luxury gift for anyone from royalty downwards until well into the seventeenth century'. Quince marmalades, Spurling adds, sold in boxes or by the brick, were an established favourite in England long before the arrival of the orange variety that 'eventually got the upper hand on the breakfast table'.

Pastes, cheeses and jellies made from quinces live on in various forms: in Spain, Mexico and South America as membrillo, which is usually eaten with cheese; and in France as Pate de Coing or cotignac. And here endeth the history lesson.

Juicy little quince cubes
I was determined to try my hand at making quince cheese, for several reasons: the shops here in South Africa are full of quinces, a fruit I have come to love; I wanted to know what quince paste tasted like; and last but not least, because this recipe for Quince Jelly is - peculiarly - one of the most visited pages on this blog.

The quince paste was easy to make, and tastes sensational: very intense and fruity, and a beautiful deep carnelian colour. It's delicious paired with sharp, salty cheeses. Cubed and rolled in sugar, it's not unlike those treasured South African fruit delicacies mebos and guava or apricot roll (fruit leathers), although it has less gritty texture.

The magic of this recipe is watching the honey-coloured quinces turn, over three hours of cooking, into a gorgeous orange-ruby colour.

A mistake I made was to make the poured-out layer of paste too deep (mine was about 12 mm deep; and it took a full 10 days to dry to the point where I could easily cut it into cubes; I had to turn it over several times). I wasn't in any hurry, but next time I'll pour it out in a thinner - say, about 7 mm - layer.

None of the recipes I consulted (see below) specified a drying time, but I gather, in my reading, that the longer you keep the paste, the more leathery it becomes.

So what to do with the paste once you've made it? Er, that's a good question. I've cut half the paste into cubes, tossed them in granulated sugar and stored them between sheets of greaseproof paper, for lunchboxes and sweeties, and cut the rest into bars for enjoying, in slivers, with cheese and pickles. I read somewhere - and I wish I could remember where - that a few cubes of quince paste are wonderful for enriching gravies, or adding a fruity sharpness to casseroles and stews.

I used as references for this blog post several centuries-old recipes: Elinor Fettiplace's recipe To Make a Paste of Quinces, from the book mentioned above; To Make Quince Paste, from The Complete Confectioner by Hannah Glasse and others; Quince Paste, from Domestic Economy, and Cookery, for Rich and Poor, by a Lady, and instructions from The Italian Confectioner.

Elizabethan Quince Paste or 'Cheese'

6 large quinces
water to cover
a slice of lemon
white granulated sugar (see recipe for quantity)

Half-fill a big pot with cold water and into it squeeze a lemon quarter. Put the squeezed lemon quarter into the water. Using a cloth or tea towel, vigorously rub the quinces to remove any fluff. Now, using a heavy, sharp knife or cleaver, chop the quinces into big chunks - don't bother to peel, core or depip them (these bits contain the pectin that will set the jelly) - and drop the chunks into the lemoned water as you go (this will prevent them from discolouring).

 When you've chopped and added all the fruit, adjust the water level by removing or adding water: the quince chunks should be just covered. Bring to the boil, and then reduce the heat and boil over a gentle heat for about 45 minutes, or until the chunks are very tender and beginning to break apart.

Remove from the heat and allow to cool for 20 minutes. Tip the contents of the pot (in batches, if necessary) into the bowl of a food processor or a blender fitted with a metal blade. Process to a fine purée.

Now tip the purée (again, in batches if necessary) into a metal sieve and, using the back of a soup ladle, strain the mixture into a bowl. This is quite a laborious process, and will take up to ten minutes, but persist until you are left with just a mush of fibrous material. Scrape down the outside of the sieve and discard its contents. Now measure the smooth purée as you tip it back into the rinsed pot. Add an equal quantity of white granulated sugar (ie, if you have three cups of purée, add three cups of sugar). Put the pot over a medium heat and cook, stirring constantly, until every grain of sugar is dissolved. Now turn down the heat to its very lowest setting, and allow the mixture to simmer very slowly (you may need a heat-diffusing pad), stirring every 10 to 15 minutes, for about three to four hours. How long this will take depends on the type and ripeness of your fruit, the heat, and so on. As the mixture burbles (beware of volcanic bubbles) it will darken and eventually turn a deep, glorious brick-red. It is ready when it is very thick, and begins to pull away from the sides of the pot as you stir it: or when, as you pull a spoon through the middle of the paste, it leaves a gap (like the Red Sea parting) that closes very reluctantly. It should be very thick, like a polenta, and very red. Don't be tempted to turn up the heat and overcook it: it will candy and burn.

Line a large (about 40 cm x 40 cm) ceramic dish or a metal pan with clingfilm and pour the paste in, to a depth of about 7-10 mm. If you have any small fancy jelly moulds, with embossed bottoms, you can use these.

Cover with a net cloth or a metal-gauze food-protector to keep away insects, and set aside, in a warm, draughty place, or until the paste has set. For quicker drying, place the paste in the sun, and turn it every now and then. This will take between two and five days, depending on where on earth you live.

If you want the paste for sweetmeats, cube them, or cut them into lozenges, or use a small fancy cutter (such as a heart shape) to cut them up, and roll them in white granulated sugar. Stack the pieces between sheets of greaseproof or parchment paper, in a cardboard box, and store in a cool place. If you'd like to use the paste for serving with cheese, cut it into big chunks and allow to dry out completely (ie, it should have no trace of surface stickiness) before wrapping it in parchment paper.

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Monday, 6 April 2009

Parsnip, Potato and Cumin Cakes with Crème Fraîche and Chives

I love a parsnip. Partly because 'parsnip' is such a great word (it sounds like the tip of a pair of sharp scissors snicker-snacking a parson's robe) but also because this humble vegetable is so earthily delicious, so cheap, so nourishing and so easy to cook.

Crisp parsnip 'latkes' dolloped with crème fraîche.  
 It might not be the most alluring-looking vegetable, with its whiskers and scrawny legs, but it has a lovely, nutty flavour that I find quite addictive.

These pancakes are similar to latkes, but have a warm hint of cumin. I wouldn't consider making them if I didn't have a food processor, which makes the preparation so quick and easy. If you don't have a food processor, grate the ingredients by hand. If you have the patience.

I can't quantify the size of the potatoes or parsnips in this recipe, because I don't know how big yours are (that sounds rude; parsnippy snicker!). But the ratio of potato to parsnip should be roughly equal.

Parsnip, Potato and Cumin Pancakes with Crème Fraîche and Chives

For the cakes:

the juice of one lemon
1 onion, peeled and cut into chunks
3 medium-sized, floury potatoes
3 large parsnips
2 cloves of fresh garlic, peeled and crushed
2 tsp (10 ml) ground cumin
salt and freshly milled black pepper
vegetable oil and butter, for frying

For the topping:
crème fraîche
snipped fresh chives

Cut the lemon in half and squeeze its juice into a deep mixing bowl. Put the onion chunks into the goblet of a food processor and blitz until finely chopped, but not a mushy paste. Leave them in the food processor bowl.

Now fit a coarse grating blade to your food processor. Peel the potatoes, cut them into chunks, and feed them quickly through the grater. Peel the parsnips and do the same. Tip the blitzed onions, and the grated potatoes and parsnips into the bowl containing the lemon juice and, using your hands, toss well (this will prevent the gratings from browning). Leave to stand for 15 minutes, and then tip the contents of the bowl into a sieve or colander. Place the sieve over the sink, and, using your hands, press down on the gratings to squeeze out any remaining liquid.

Put the gratings back in the bowl and stir in the crushed garlic and cumin. Season with salt and pepper.

Place a few sheets of absorbent kitchen paper on your counter, next to the stove. Heat equal quantities of vegetable oil and butter in a large, flat frying pan (to a depth of about 2 mm). When the butter has stopped sizzling, take a handful of the grated mixture, squeeze it well to remove any more liquid, and place a mound of it in the hot fat.

Using a spatula, press down hard on the mixture to compress it into a flat pancake. Allow it to brown, pressing down on it once or twice, but not stirring or poking, for three minutes, or until the edges are golden and crispy and the cake is holding together. If the frizzly edges are turning to a dark, dangerous brown, turn down the heat. Flip the pancake over, and fry for another three minutes, or until golden brown and crisp.

Drain on kitchen paper.

To serve, top each pancake with a teaspoon of crème fraîche, and a shower of snipped chives.

Makes about 12 small cakes.

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Easter holiday recipes: lazy, lovely high days and braai days

I'm hopping from foot to foot in excitement, because I'm going to the beach, for a week, on Thursday. Not any old beach, but the warm, dozy stretch of sand and ocean that is a stone's throw, down a jungly path, from my family's beach cottage on the south end of the Kwa-Zulu Natal coast.

And not just any beach cottage, but the place where I've spent virtually every holiday for the last 46 years; I first went there when I was just six months old.

You'd think that, by now, I'd be feeling ho-hum at the idea of going back for yet another same-old week in the same-old spot, but I'm just fizzing with excitement at the thought of all the familiar, ancient family rituals that go with holiday at the beach: driving out of Johannesburg in the dark, kids dozing like puppies in the back seat. Unwrapping the padkos - always sandwiches, and little spicy meatballs - as the sun rises over fields of nodding pink-and-white cosmos.

Swooping down Van Reenen's Pass, with the Drakensberg a jaggy slash of indigo on the western horizon. Spotting the first waving banana tree, just outside of Durban, then rolling down the windows and inhaling the humid iodine tang of the Indian Ocean as we barrel southwards past fields of rippling sugar cane; and finally arriving at the cottage, waving and hooting, where aunts and cousins and nieces and nephews come boiling out of every door and window with big sweaty hugs and shouts.

Hauling the suitcases out of the boot, and dumping them on the beds in bedrooms that look and smell exactly the same as they did when I was five: plain as monks' cells, with their speckled mirrors, creaky little teak wardrobes, whitewashed walls and gulping geckos.

But there's more: the first icy bite of an industrial-strength gin-and-tonic, the first, cleansing dive into a fizzing ocean, the scent of smoke from a driftwood fire rising through the branches of the milkwood trees. And then, the evening spread out before me like a jewelled quilt: a long, lazy gathering on the beach as the sun sets behind us; tramping up to the cottage in the dark, through a singing glade; fresh fish sizzling over hot coals; happy conversation around a long candlelit table; children giddily swinging in the hammocks; and many bottles of wine. And then tumbling into beds made up with crisp white cotton sheets, under lazily turning fans - to fall into a coma that lasts for 12 hours.

Until I wake up, in a sunbeam, to the sound of vervet monkeys galumphing on the roof and Natal robins tweetling in the bush, and the smell of bacon drifting from the kitchen.

Can you blame me for being excited? Doesn't that sound like paradise to you?

I almost forgot, during this attack of nostalgia, to tell you about the wonderful holiday food. Most nights, we braai. (That is, have a barbeque.) We always assume that we're braaiing, unless the rain is pelting down, in which case we get a beach umbrella and a torch - and lots of wine to raise our spirits - and cook over damply steaming coals, as the rain water dribbles from the milkwood tree down our necks. I use the term 'we' loosely: actually, to be honest, we girls sit gossiping on the warm comfortable veranda with big glasses of wine while we watch the designated Braai Meisters (husbands and/or brothers-in-law) squat miserably in the dark, turning over the lamb chops and boeries. We might throw them with a beer, every now and then, if they don't complain too much.

Okay, okay, the food: here are some of my favourite beach-cottage recipes:

Durban-Spiced Prawns with Coconut Milk

Squashed Crispy Potatoes with Rosemary

Light Potato Salad with Garlic, Lemon and Yoghurt (scroll down to end of post to find recipe)

I will post more recipes (from our cottage's recipe book, to which everyone contributes) in the next ten days.

Enjoy your holidays, and drive safely, my friends. Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly

Saturday, 4 April 2009

10-minute Phyllo Tartlets: instant, no-hassle party snack

I've been a bit sniffy about phyllo pastry since its heydays in the 80s, when everything including the cat was wrapped in great billowing flounces of the blasted stuff, and you ended up feeling as if you'd eaten the bottom half of a hamster cage. But phyllo really is very useful and convenient: it's not fatty, it bakes in a jiffy, and its neutral taste makes it the perfect casing material for all sorts of zingy ingredients. The secret with phyllo is, I think, to use it fairly sparingly, and to strenuously avoid the temptation to crumple it up or tie it into parcels or purses.

You really can prepare these easy bites in ten minutes, provided that you have the fillings on hand, and you use spray-on olive oil. They're hugely versatile because you can use so many different fillings, in appropriate combinations. They bake in under 7 minutes, and are economical too: you can get 24 tartlets out of just four sheets of phyllo pastry.

You can, of course, use melted butter or olive oil, or a combination, to brush between the layers, but this will take longer.

I usually make these with Gorgonzola and sliced leeks softened in a little butter. The ones in the picture contain Roquefort and a delicious green-olive and artichoke salsa I bought today at the Jozi Food Market; some are filled with fresh ricotta, cherry tomatoes and Woolies pesto.

Suggested filling
brie, camembert, ricotta, or any soft cheese, crème fraîche, blue cheese, Parmesan, mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, tofu, pesto, sautéed onions or leeks, pine nuts, roast butternut, cooked mushrooms, steamed asparagus tips, tinned artichoke hearts, figs, herbs, garlic.

10-minute Phyllo Tartlets
4 sheets phyllo pastry
spray-on olive oil*, or olive oil in an sprayer
a little extra olive oil for sprinkling
salt and milled black pepper

Preheat the oven to 170° C. Put a large piece of greaseproof paper or clingfilm on the counter. Take one sheet of pastry (cover the rest with a damp tea towel) and place it on the paper. Spray a film of olive oil evenly all over the sheet, and cover with another sheet of pastry. Make sure that all your kitchen windows are open and don't inhale the olive oil! Continue layering and spraying until you've used up all four sheets. Now, with the tip of a very sharp knife, a round pizza cutter, or a pair of scissors, cut the sheet into 24 squares. If you'd like deeper tartlet cases, and fewer of them, make the squares bigger (but do put more filling in, so that your guests don't end up eating acres of dry pastry).

Pick up each stacked square, spray its underside with a little olive oil, and tuck it into the bottom of a muffin tin. Fill each case with your chosen filling. Sprinkle a little olive oil over the filling and season with salt and pepper.

Bake at 170°C for 5-7 minutes, but watch them like a hawk. The trick is to get the centre hot and melted, without the outer bits going too brown.

Serve hot.


- If you like, you can dust a little seasoned salt or Parmesan between the layers.

- To make rewrapping your unused pastry easier, unroll it at the beginning onto a sheet of greaseproof paper or clingfilm. When you're finished, fold it in half, and roll it up in the paper or clingfilm, twisting the ends like a cracker. Store in the fridge.

- Brush a little beaten egg white over the outer edges for really crisp and golden finish.

- * I use Antonio's Extra-Virgin Olive Oil Spray.

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