Saturday, January 30, 2010

Beetroot Relished

­I would like to give my solemn thanks to the single beetroot that died in the making of this very post. It was the only seedling that survived through the many trials and tribulations of summer. I remember when it was just a seed and pushing it gently into its very own jiffy peat pellet which, at the time, was purely for novel reasons. And then at some stage I placed it outside along the grey retaining wall to fend for itself out in the open. It was bullied by a tiny little caterpillar once but I took care of that! They grow up fast don't they? Of course time just seems to fly past. You think it will never happen to you and then one day you wake up and everything changes. My dear beetroot passed away on January 2nd, 2010, weighing 450 grams. It will be with us forever in our hearts and stomachs. May we never forget the joy that it has brought to the kitchen table.

Roast Beet Relish

350 g beetroot, peeled and diced (approx. 1 cm cubes)
200 g cherry tomatoes, halved (keeping stalks and stems)
6 g garlic, crushed (3 cloves)
30 g olive oil
5 g rosemary sprigs
3 g salt
35 g brown onion, sliced
85 castor sugar
50 g white wine vinegar
20 g balsamic vinegar
12 g horseradish cream
Heat the oven to 180ºC.
Toss beetroot, tomatoes, garlic, oil, rosemary, salt and any tomato stalks and stems you have, together in a medium bowl.
Transfer to a thick-bottomed tray and spread out evenly.
Roast for 20 minutes.
Sprinkle the sliced onion over the top and give it a good toss.
Return to the oven for a further 15 minutes.
While that's cooking, combine sugar, vinegars and horseradish in a small pot and heat just enough to dissolve the sugar.
Discard tomato sprigs, stems and rosemary.
Pack beetroot into 2 x 300 g jars (sterilised of course).
Pour over vinegar and seal while hot.
Cool to room temperature then refrigerate for 1 week before opening.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Chocolate Pepper Cookies For Comfort

There's a lonely little sunflower poking its bright bronze head out from amongst the tangle of budding tomatoes. It's new here and the pumpkin vines are already trying to drag it down. It's a tough cookie though. I can sense that it will put up a good fight and ride out the hard times ahead with as much strength and courage as it can muster. It may be the only one of its kind but that is not to say that it faces each day alone and friendless.

A dense but relatively neatly trimmed rosemary bush sits to its left and on its right stands a sprightly young black elder sapling. Together all three take turns in providing shade for their companions throughout the scorchingly hot days, the generous display of flowers attesting to their thorough enjoyment of summer rays. Try as we might to avoid it however, things we love in life often leave us. Perhaps it's a lover who is going away (for what seems like a lifetime) until spring or maybe it's a case of two friends who are simply growing apart.
Sunflowers are an interesting species. They're used to produce margarine, latex, biodiesel and something akin to peanut butter called sunbutter. The real advantage they have over other plants though, is their natural ability to cleanse the soil (called phytoremediation), ridding it of toxic substances including arsenic, lead and uranium.

I remember travelling to the sprawling city of Cuenca during my last trip to Spain. Famous for las casas colgadas, the houses hang perilously from the cliffs of Huecar's Gorge that divides the old city from the new. It's funny how I find beauty in strange places sometimes. It wasn't the architectural balancing act or the stark juxtaposition of what appeared to be two vastly different eras rolled into one. What struck me the most was sitting alone on the train returning to Madrid and being surrounded by a never ending field of sunflowers. It was incredibly surreal. They rolled over the hills and stood bravely against the rocky outcrops that bordered the railway tracks. Sitting quietly, staring out of the window and letting the sight wash over me was an experience in itself and it felt so comforting, like I was finally home.

This cookie recipe comes from a place far south, across the Strait of Gibraltar. Adapted from South Africa (Where Flavor Was Born: Recipes and Culinary Travels Along the Indian Ocean Spice Route, Andreas Viestad), these chocolate cookies come out rich and dense like a brownie, with bursts of melted chocolate studded throughout and a potent black pepper kick. For SHF #61 - Sweet Comforts this is a recipe for chocolate pepper cookies - soothing, spicy and awesome with a glass of milk.
Chocolate Pepper Cookies
(adapted from Where Flavor Was Born, Andreas Viestad)

450 g bittersweet chocolate (70% cocoa), coarsely chopped
170 g unsalted butter, chopped
100 g raw cane sugar
2 eggs (110 g)
250 g flour
4 g baking soda
3 g salt
12 g black peppercorns, coarsely ground
Melt half chocolate over a bain marie, set aside to cool to blood temperature.
Cream butter and sugar in an electric mixer with paddle attachment.
Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition until thick.
Sift flour, baking soda and salt into a bowl.
Add to butter and mix thoroughly.
Slowly beat in melted chocolate.
Stir though remaining chocolate and pepper.
Cover and refrigerate dough for 1 hour.
Place heaped tablespoons of dough onto a lined baking sheet (for a smoother cookie roll the dough into balls and flatten them slightly with your palm).
Bake for 12 minutes at 180ºC "until crisp and crunchy on the outside but still somewhat chewy inside".
Allow the cookies to cool on the tray for a minute or two before transferring to a wire rack.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Grow Your Own: Cucumber Pickles!

Cucumbers have been growing prolifically in my tiny little garden patch. It was a wonderful surprise to wake up the day before Christmas to find the first cucurbits of the season ripe and ready for the picking.

Actually, technically speaking, cucumbers are normally picked while they're still unripe, with thin skins and juicy, crunchy flesh. If left to fully ripen, they become pretty cumbersome (haha), bitter and not very nice to eat. Their flowers are a bright and sunny yellow, much like zucchini flowers, only a little smaller. Their skins are smooth and waxy, but unbrushed, they're covered in tiny little prickles. When I run my fingers along the vine, it feels like I'm touching a bristled scouring pad. Cucumbers are also classified as a fruit believe it or not!

The cucumber seeds I planted in late spring are of the 'muncher burpless' variety, often referred to as 'seedless' (a common disambiguation), although they do still contain seeds. They're cultivated mainly for their delicate skins and even slicing qualities. I've harvested 31 cucumbers in the last 3 weeks, averaging around 240 grams a cuke which puts my harvest tally so far at 7.2 kilos! Apparently they also make decent pickles so with such an abundance of fruit I thought I'd join in a GYO event (hosted by Nate and Annie) and give pickling a go!

I used two different methods, one hot and one cold, and a few different spices. The hot pickle (with mustard, fennel, coriander and bay), I poured straight over the packed cucumber slices and sealed straight away. With the cold dill pickle, I let it cool first and then packed it when it was cold. The hot method resulted in a slightly softer and lighter coloured pickle with a crunchy but giving texture, kind of like the ones you get in a burger from a fast food joint. The cold method meant that the slices retained their vibrant green colour and were seriously crisp. I used a little less sugar in the dill pickle which I think works quite well and leaves it very cooling - perfect for that warm afternoon, nibbling on a cucumber sandwich in-between sips of English tea with the ladies on a perfectly manicured lawn at the state country club.

Hot Cucumber Pickle

500 g 'muncher burpless' cucumbers, sliced 4mm thick
75 g eschallots, finely sliced
30 g salt
Place cucumber and eschallot slices in a stainless steel bowl and sprinkle with salt.
Toss to coat, cover and refrigerate for 7 hours (this draws out the excess moisture and keeps the resulting pickle nice and crunchy).

200 g white wine vinegar
250 g castor sugar
17 g salt
5 g yellow mustard seeds
5 g fennel seeds
2 g coriander seeds
3 bay leaves
Rinse salt from cucumbers.
Soak in fresh water for 15 minutes, drain in a colander.
Combine vinegar, sugar, salt and spices in a small pot.
Bring to the boil, take off heat and allow to infuse for half an hour or so.
Pack cucumber and eschallot into 3 sterilised 300 g jars.
Bring pickling liquid back to the boil and pour into jars straight away.
Screw on lids while hot and leave at room temperature until cool.
Allow 1 week before opening.
Keep refrigerated for longest shelf life.

Cold Dill Pickle

500 g 'muncher burpless' cucumbers, sliced 4 mm thick
75 g eschallots, finely sliced
30 g salt
Place cucumber and eschallot slices in a stainless steel bowl and sprinkle with salt.
Toss to coat, cover and refrigerate for 7 hours.

200 g white wine vinegar
200 g castor sugar
14 g salt
3 g fresh dill, leaves only
Rinse salt from cucumbers.
Soak in fresh water for 15 minutes, drain in a colander.
Combine vinegar, sugar and salt in a small pot.
Heat to dissolve sugar, remove from heat.
Refrigerate until cold.
Add dill to cucumber and toss to combine.
Pack into 3 sterilised 300 g jars.
Pour cold pickling liquid into jars and seal.
Keep refrigerated.
Allow 1 week before opening.

Sunday, January 3, 2010


I can just imagine myself striding purposefully across the dark carpeted floor, yet feeling for each step tentatively as if learning to walk for the first time. When I climb to the top, the acute nervousness that wasn't there before takes hold over me and the bright studio lights suddenly feel much too close overhead. It's so hot up here. Why did I wear this jacket? Does my blog look good in this? I can't take it off, it's too late for that. Everyone is watching.

Perspiration is beading on my forehead and I brush it away, looking solemn, pretending to run my fingers through my hair. A woman whose face I know but whose name I can't seem to detach from the roof of my mouth at this very present moment, greets me on stage with congratulations and presents me with an award I've spent months coveting in secret. I clear my throat and lean in..

'I'd like to thank my friends and family foremost for their unwavering support. Without their creative criticism and encouragement I would not be where I am today. I'd also like to thank my agent for providing a platform from which I have been able to express myself in all creative aspects. And a big thank you to those who have followed me throughout the years and knew me from humble beginnings. Thank you and God bless you all!'

I manage to stutter through a speech I've said many times before in a semi-conscious state of daydreaming. And then relief washes over me. I step back from the microphone, astounded. I finally did it! I DID IT! With the trophy camera held tightly to my chest, I make a quick retreat down the stairs, nodding to the judges in earnest and grinning proudly. There's a congratulatory drink waiting at the table and as I nestle down amongst friends I raise my glass above our heads to a cry of 'Cheers!'. This year couldn't have started in a better way.

Friday, January 1, 2010

This Is All

cherry tomatoes from my garden

It's that time again when we can wipe our slates clean of all things passed and start anew with fresh resolve and resolution. This year has not been an easy one for many of us, with all that is going on in the world. I've had a few ups and downs, stops and starts, a shade too many periods of emotional turbulence, lightning and stormy weather caused by nothing more than a nondescript drop rippling the surface of a distant ocean. And then, this year has also been one of the most grounding, as a colleague, slightly drunk and more than a little rowdy, summed up in one profound statement: "This (life) is all you get."

Let's help one another to make those resolutions for the new year and a final cheer for 2009 (for me, a year of firsts) and some of the highlights:
- Giving in to impulse and buying my first digital SLR camera,
- Meeting a very lovely Cassandra on a market tour, chatting away idly for hours like old friends and then saying goodbye without getting her number (so stupid!),
- Completing 'The Science of Baking', a 2 year correspondence course run by the Bread Research Institute of Australia, in 8 months by studying laboriously on the train ride to and from work every evening,
- Discovering with horror, the unfortunate depth of my suspected 'minor' seafood allergy,
- Digging up the front lawn to make way for a small 1.5 x 2m vegetable plot,
- Presenting a pastry chef friend with bright yellow nasturtium flowers, picked from my garden, which ended up on a restaurant dessert,
- And uncovering the first hairy, little muncher burpless cucumbers hiding amongst scattered pea straw.

I have my fingers crossed that 2010 will bring just as many exciting moments and cucumbers (of course!) to fruition, and hopefully also a little more personal growth for myself, friends and those around me.

Happy holidays everyone!

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