Not quite

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It is that time of the year all right, and in spite of it being Monday, I am glad that it is. Only because I finished and dispatched my 3000 words to PP, and I only have one more programme to mix (code for “my work is just about done”) – tomorrow. So, it’s like being not quite on holiday,  which helps one cope with the end-of-year madness that would otherwise frustrate one if one still had serious work to do.

Like, for example, the fact that everybody and their aunt is forever out-of-friggen-office having a celebratory booze-up somewhere. Our little open-plan broom cupboard felt a like a tomb this morning – one where the corpse had come back to life and is off somewhere sucking the blood out of people with deadline stress. Not like me. Monday has never been so rosy.

In anticipation of this halcyon dream and because I have not seen them for ages, I had lunch with the girls at Ciro’s  yesterday.  I have not really been there much since my last birthday supper, perhaps three years ago, when the duck was dry, and Ciro unapologetically put it on the bill. Before that I went there regularly. Not anymore.

And yesterday I remembered why not. Look, it’s hard to find a better place to have good food under cool trees made cooler by that fine-mist cool-down spray contraption in the summer. The tables are prettily laid with cloth tablecloths and real serviettes. And mostly, Ciro’s food is still very good. Jacques says that Ciro makes the best risotto in Johannesburg after mine. (OK maybe he did not say that, but this is almost certainly the case.) But I do not think that the food in a restaurant that charges R110 for a starter that does not – at the very least – contain truffles and foie gras or Alaskan king crab, should be “mostly very good”. It should be consistently excellent, and Chiro’s is not.

I had the chicken, stuffed with couscous, crumbed with polenta and served with a delicious cream sauce of some kind (but not too much). The chicken had a great range of textures (the polenta really crisps on the outside) and was sufficiently full of flavour. I chose the chicken, perversely, because I knew the cost-to-labour ratio was low. I know how long  it takes to make little roulades out of chicken breast, to crumb them, and deep fry them.

By comparison, slapping a curry-like sauce on top of a piece of salmon is a one-hand-behind-your-back job.  And I did not like the salmon. I thought it was a waste of a good piece of fish, and other than the curry splat on the top, did not really taste like R175,00.  Ruth shared a bit with me, and she said she liked it. Jules, lactose intolerant, had pizza with prawns and capers. That was also excellent, not a crumb remained.

And  then it was time for pudding. I ordered the tarte tatin and Jules the crème brulee. Ruth likes to share when it comes to dessert. The crème brulee had separated: none of that silken, dense, melt-in-your-mouth vanilla custard stuff. I took us quite a long time to get someone to take it away, and by then the bit where we dipped our spoon was looking quite watery, as if you added some scrambled egg to dishwater. The tarte tatin was a pleasant apple-tart kind of a thing, but not quite a tarte tatin, which, as we all know, has golden, deeply caramelised apples, rich and moist, on top of a crisp pastry. To see what a beautiful mini tarte tatin should look like, go here. Or even  here. What a beautiful tarte tatin looks like is no mystery.

Ciro’s version is more like  a small stack of sweet, pale, slightly dry slices of unpeeled apple on op top of a crisp pastry. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the pastry. It was served with some custard, and it was, as I said, a pleasant apple-dish-thing.

I felt vindicated, a little, that we took our own bottle of bubbly. (Has anybody noticed that when you take your own MCC to a restaurant that they always give you the most amazingly cheap glasses?)

I know Ciro’s is very popular in spite of the dazzling price tag, but I suspect, nay, FEAR, that the bulk of Johannesburgers may not always have palates equal to those of our snotty compatriots of the mountain. There really is no other explanation.

Anyway. I am off to PE on Thursday, where I will practice mini tarte tatins in my mother’s kitchen and put pictures on the blog.

Aluta Continua.

According to the Daily Maverick this morning, most people spend 12 minutes every Monday complaining. Just saying.

No, seriously

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Okay. The beetroot ring was not a great mission; once I decided how many leaves of gelatine to use in 600ml of the cooking liquid things went swimmingly. I cooked the beetroot yesterday, so the only thing that took time was the “season to taste” part.

I am a person who does not like to use sugar in food that is not pudding. At all. I do not even put a teaspoon of sugar in my made-from-fresh-tomatoes or from tomatoes-in-a-can tomato sauce. I know. It’s radical. I have been called that before. But considering that the recipe (S.J.A. de Villiers’ Kook en Geniet, 1979) suggests that instead of the gelatine, sugar and vinegar you can just use a packet of red jelly, I gingerly sprinkled a teaspoon into the mix.

I was also hesitant about the ½ cup of vinegar in the recipe, so I halved that. I tasted. It was very vinegary, and clearly needed more sugar. I added more salt too. I tasted, and added more sugar. As it cooled (the colder food becomes the less flavour it has) I added more vinegar, more sugar and then, more vinegar. By the time the mixture went into the mould, I had added six teaspoons of sugar (I think) and I suspect the whole ½ cup of vinegar.

The measurements, in the recipe below,  should thus be taken with a pinch of salt.

When doing the “season to taste” thing, I suggest imagining those Koo bottles of beetroot salad.  The beetroot is very vinegary, very sugary, and a gastronomic horror in the era of drizzled balsamic and sprinkled zest, but in the minds of thousands of South Africans, it must surely be remembered as the first vegetable they were willing to eat. That, and the fact that the juice was always running on the plate and colouring the potato salad pink. Personally, I loved it.

Point is, a heavy hand will reward you rather than ruin everything.

Notes about the gelatine. Cookbook writers are very la-di-da about gelatine. I learnt everything I know about leaf gelatine from multiple attempts to make perfect panna cotta, which is that you have to make the same recipe three or four times before you get it right. No matter how acute your calculations. And at some stage, I will write a blog about it.

In the Kook en Geniet  S.J.A. suggests “2 e” for “1 ½ k water”. That would be 30ml (no idea how many grams) for 375ml of water.  So I looked around in recipe books and after some vague calculations, used 9 leaves of leaf gelatine (15g) in 600ml of water. It produced a firm jelly, but not rubber, I think one could probably use a leaf or so less, but not much.

About the mould – I could not find a jelly mould, so I used a cake tin. It worked fine. The one I have is 25cm at the base. Smaller or bigger, I can’t imagine how it would make a difference. It’s not baking.

So, to make the ring:

  1. 4 medium beetroot
  2. 1 litre water
  3. ½ cup vinegar (-ish)
  4. ¼ cup of sugar (or more, really)
  5. 8-9 leaves of gelatine (not more)
  6. Salt and pepper

Boil the beetroot  in the water until soft. Depending on the size of the beetroot, this could take more than an hour. Remove the skins and grate, or cut into small cubes. (Just grate it, really.)

Soak the gelatine leaves in a cold water, until they expand and become soft. Squeeze the water out of the leaves and dissolve in 600ml of the beetroot cooking liquid.

Add the vinegar and sugar and season to taste. (It’s a bit like the allegorical line in the movie script that takes forty days to shoot and half an hour of screen time, like “the Titanic sinks”).

Stir until cool, but not until it begins to set. Add the grated beetroot, and pour into the wet ring mould. Put on a flat surface in the fridge until set.

When it is firm, dip quickly in hot water (not even boiling) and turn out on a plate. Decorate with shredded iceberg and/or other lettuce, fill the centre with peas, or anything else you fancy, and serve with mayonnaise or salad dressing.

I am posting this today because it is not clear what the deadline is: the first post said 4 May, and the next one said 3 May. Tomorrow (4th) which is also my birthday, I will add a picture and say what it tasted like. Oh yes, this is my entry into Cook sister!’s Waiter, there’s something in my… retro classic competition.

On writing #3: Nothing to say

I am going through an alarming phase in which I have nothing to say. This did not worry me over the weekend, as I was in the company of friends and, apparently, 27 bottles of wine. And then, when I got back on Monday, I could string a sentence or two together about recycling these very friends that had such a terrible influence on me.  

But yesterday, nothing, and today… nothing. (I think there was a column written by a columnist once about writing about not knowing what to write about. I feel like that person right now.)

I received a blog award, The Honest Scrapper, from Extranjera. (Thanks a lot.)

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I am honoured because I think she writes a kick-ass blog, and she is prolific as hell. I wonder where all the great sentences that land up on her page come from, there are so many of them, and she is Finnish to boot. Not that this means anything beyond that she seems to be writing in a second language and that she likes to drink a lot. (She says she does.) I once had dinner with a client who came to shoot an Ericsson commercial in Cape Town. The crew represented the whole Scandinavian peninsula. The producer and director were Swedes, the DOP Norwegian and the steadicam operator was Finnish. They were unanimous on the fact that the Fins drank the most. And that they liked to drink a lot.

But back to the Honest Scrapper, and the problem of having nothing to say.

It is one of those awards where you have to do the work after the honour has been bestowed on you and then pass it along. Like a chain letter in the old days, but better, as it is designed to attract attention to your blog and spread the love at the same time. I suspect it also gives folk something to write about on days when they have absolutely nothing to say. Lots of  people out there really like to write about themselves. Sometimes I do too.

But today, this week, this month, I feel that I may not deserve the award. I tried to write “ten honest things” about myself, but failed. It is not that I cannot put ten things down on a page, it is just that once they are down, they seem of little consequence, and lacking in both wit and gravitas. And if so… who the hell cares?

There were only two items that amused me about myself:

1. I am a BIG Neil Diamond fan. Indra can scoff all he likes, but when the news of a new album hit the stands, I was not even a little surprised. I knew it would be coming.

2. I am a TERRIBLE food snob. It starts with making your own stock. If you do not make your own stock, please do not tick the “Cooking – I LOVE it!” box in the “more about yourself” page of your Dating Buzz profile. Do NOT describe yourself as a good cook. No, really. That, for me, it’s as damning as posting a picture from ten years ago when you were twenty kilo’s lighter. I know it’s pathetic. But a girl has to have at least one standard she is not prepared to lower during a hormonal surge of some kind or the other.

I just thought of another one:

3. My mother thinks that a return to faith in God and prayer will make my life better. I think giving up coffee, alcohol, flour, dairy and sugar will make my life better. If you had to choose, which one would YOU say is the narrow path?

But moving along.  I am also not sure who I would send this to. The initial instruction was “7 cool people” but has been whittled down to “seven five”. It does not help much. Considering the trauma I experienced in trying to be honest about myself, I hesitate to pass on the award, I must admit.

If it is about connecting, and sharing, I must recommend the Hispanic Fanatic very highly . He writes beautifully, and is funny, and engages critically and intelligently with the world he lives in. And he gets on really well with his mother. And Hardspear. I love his blog. (Where the hell have you been?) And then PW and Sons. There something about that one…

This funk I am in may be the result of trying to give up coffee for a whole day this week. I forwent its pleasures on Tuesday, and did pretty well. But on Wednesday I passed via the Chef on my way to work and today I cannot wait to get to Seattle. RIGHT NOW, I am thinking of taking my blog there.

I also started doing a round of Surya Namaskar in the mornings, and cultivating a routine. I thought that falling out of bed and heading for the computer in my pyjamas with an espresso, and staying there, was not an adult way of working at home. Now I get up, stretch, shower, have vegetable juice and THEN sit down, fully dressed and washed, like at a real job. The jury is out on that one.

I have moved my office around and thrown out the months-old newspapers. It is clean, sparkling, and conducive to work.

Still – nothing.

I print and read my preparation for class, I think about working on the tabloid essay. I have figured out that, if I proposed an argument at the beginning of the essay and failed to make it (which I did) I should not rewrite the entire thing, I should change the proposal to fit the argument that I DID make. That is a much easier task, but has not inspired me to action.

In fact, I get a headache just thinking about it. I feel trapped in procrastination, and I am not sure how I am going to get out of it. I think the salute to the sun is a good start, and I think I am going to stick with it for a while. That and the vegetable juice.

And keep on writing. Even when I have absolutely nothing to say.