Salt in my chocolate

mexican cacao nibs, almonds and cinnamon sticks ground up with sugar for our delight 
 
I knew this morning that today would be a day of tears.  The tide of emotion has been rising for some time, the dam wall I have built hampering the natural ebb and flow of joy and sorrow, until I am overwhelmed by a flash flood.  My time in Africa is coming to an end and I have been too long away from home, yet the impending departure is heartwrenching, so much will be left behind forever.  And so I weep.
The beauty of the morning stabs at my heart, the unfettered joy of leaping whales catches my breath from my throat, and an unexpected gift arriving in the post, at last brings the tears gushing through.
bearing-gifts
The smell assaults me as I unwrap the parcel, and the thought that has gone into the packing sends my mind striding through early morning misty London streets, down to the docksides to  welcome long awaited clipper ships returning from the spice islands.  Cacao & cinnamon rise and swirl headily in the deli as two enourmous bars of Mexican drinking chocolate are revealed. 
I can barely see through the floods to read the beautiful letter accompanying this generous gift, but the picture it paints of slightly lugubrious burros laden with this mexican gold makes me smile in spite of myself.  And then I cry some more.
There is nothing for it but to crumble some of this bounty into a few  of my grandmother’s tiny old coffee cups and set the cappuccino machine to frothing a fresh cold jug of milk.  I pour minute amounts of hot, thickened white over great chunks of chocolatey dark, and true to the letter’s description, watch as they melt glacier like into an oil slick puddle.  I top up the tiny demitasses with more foam and froth and we, the lucky, early few breathe in, then sip in silent reverence.  Aaah! Now this is chocolate! 
Intense, emotional, the moment is redolent with family memories, joy and pain, friends past and friends new-found.
Yes, today is clearly my day for tears, and what better to weep over than food and friends. 
rich, creamy, spicy & comforting

rich, creamy, spicy & comforting

 

homemade sausage with garden veg & beans

 

homemade-sausage-and-beans

One of the surest signs of my peasant ancestry is my absolute love of stews.  Call it what you will - cassoulet, ragout, chunky soups, potroasts; chuck it all in one pan and slow cook it till all the flavours have melded, the juice is viscous  and the individual ingredients are on the verge of total disintegration, and I’m a happy girl. 

My nephew calls it cowboy food but his version is a little different to mine.  He just throws everything he can find in the fridge or store cupboard in a pot and cooks it up.  I like to think I put a little more thought into mine.  Essentially though, they are almost the same.  Any odds and ends of veggies and herbs can go in and often do, root veggies being a favourite as they really lend themselves to slow cooking.

Another thing that lends itself to slow cooking is an old African favourite, the ’straw cooker’ more recently re-invented as the Hot Box.  It’s a simple principle really, start your meal off in a pot, brown and flavour your ingredients, add a little liquid, close the lid tightly, then insulate the pot in a hot box, and leave it to slow cook overnight or through the day. 

You can buy hotboxes all over Cape Town, and as well as being great for old-fashioned slow cooking , they are real energy savers.  I know people who are evangelical about them and think they are the answer to global warming. 

More immediately relevant  though, they are an ideal answer to the power shortages the Cape experiences every winter.  You can start your oats off the night before, leave them in the hotbox overnight, and wake up to hot porridge in the morning.  An extra 15 minutes to prep some onions, veg and some lamb neck, or stewing steak  in the morning, and your children can come home to a hot, nutritous meal after school. 

The value of this becomes clear when you think that a vast majority of Cape women are  sole bread winners for their families.  These women travel long distances to their jobs,  extending their working day to over 12 hours in some cases, so the children have to sort themselves out when they come home from school.  A hot meal filled with all the vitamins and minerals retained by the slow cooker method is a real godsend.  And of course there is the added advantage of reducing the risk of fire, as no heat source is required after the initial 20 minutes or so.  No going out and leaving your slow cooker plugged in.  No leaving pots simmering on the stove.  Actually, I think I am waxing evangelical about them myself.  A hotbox is definitely on my list of things to bring back from Africa.  Who needs an AGA?

But back to the food.  It’s difficult to get a picture of soup or stew that truly does justice to the dish.  Pictures are so visual, and lets face it , a whole bunch of things cooked together for several hours is almost always going to turn out in various shades of brown.  But close your eyes and remember for a moment curling cold hands around a deep bowl of warm winter food ; the heavenly smell wafting up, the depth of flavour always inherent in slow cooked food…Are you salivating yet?  I am. 

The dish pictured above is my version of Cassoulet.  Being French only by dint of long-distant nomadic ancestors, anything from my repertoire with a French flavour has been corrupted by the influences of the countries and cultures encountered in their (and my) journeys.  A Frenchman might immediately notice the lack of pork belly, so feel free to add some if you wish, and this version has no crusty bread crumb blanket, so go ahead and include that too if you’re feeling traditional.  Some might argue about the necessity for tomatoes, but that, I think , is a regional thing in France so I am still within the bounds of a cassoulet there.  Others may note the lack of goose in this recipe, once again my defence is that this recipe is as French as I am, which is to say partly, mixed in with Dutch, English, Irish, Scottish, Polish, Jewish and Malay…

Basically I just browned some onions and homemade sausages (which I will post about at a later date), threw in a load of veggies from the garden, topped it up with tinned tomatoes and beans, and left it to slow-cook its way to perfection.  If you require a more precise recipe, I’ve posted one straight to the Vanielje Kitchen Cook Book (VKCB) in the sidebar.

I’m was going to enter this dish into My Legume Love Affair (MLLA), started by Susan, The Well Seasoned Cook.  I’ve never joined this popular event before.  I don’t know why, I love legumes!  This 12th edition is hosted by Annarasa, who has a beautiful blog, and unfortunately (for me) she is restricting the event to vegetarian recipes.  So I guess I will have to join another round, but this event always draws a good crowd so mark her blog down and check out her roundup at the end of the month.  It should be well worth it.

French apple flan, my version of a bistro dessert

Classy comfort food.

Classy comfort food.

The week before last was a bad week.  Last week was worse.  My kids and dog were threatened with a firearm, then I discovered my daughter was the victim of some hate email, my dad had a bad round of chemo, but hey, we all laagered-up (that’s gathered around in a protective circle for you non-South Africans, and not lagered-up as in Castle Lager) and we dealt with it.  Or so I thought.  Obviously some of us are better at dealing than others and the residual fallout inevitably splashed over into the rest of my week.

In my heart of hearts I’ve always had this vision of myself as an elegantly clad Greta Garbo type.  Bizarrely, my husband has this same image.  And I say bizarrely because this elegant, organised alter-ego is diametrically opposed to the reality of my life.  I’m actually more Goldie Hawn than Greta Garbo, more Commedia del’arte than Film Noir.

I won’t go into all the sordid details, I’ll just hit you with the highlights.  Sunday afternoon, packed Deli, one of our regular customers happens to be sitting in the window overlooking the busy road.  He quietly informs me that there’s a bit of an odd situation going on with the parked cars.  A car alarm is going off and they have just seen someone disappearing into the car.  They think he could be hotwiring it.  Okay, I say, and I step outside to take a look.  So far this is all in the realms of possibility.  This is South Africa we are talking about.  I’m just going to check it out so I can ask around the deli if it is anyone’s car.  ‘Oh fudge!’  I murmer very quietly (not) ‘That’s my dad’s car!’  and I promptly abandon the shop and take off running up the road.  Now I’m not really very fond of running, and halfway there common sense starts to rear its unwelcome head.  What am I going to do if someone is trying to steal my dad’s car? 

I arrive on the scene and slightly apprehensively, peer into the car only to find one of our kp’s on his knees with a dustpan and broom in his hands, cleaning out the car for my dad.  ‘Oh, it’s you Alex’  I say, to which inane comment I get a perfectly reasonable blank look.  I turn around to go back to work, only to find the entire human contents of the deli on the pavement, with one socially minded gent running up the road behind me, ready to back me up.  Needless to say, his coffee went on my tab, and yes, I’m still blushing.

Monday was no less harrowing as we had to put our 15 year old siamese cat to sleep.  We were all still reeling, and after such a long week at the deli no-one had had time to go shopping for home.  The kids got home from school, we dug a grave next to our other cat in the garden and interred him with due ceremony and one of his favourite shortbread biscuits for the journey.  Then I got busy scrounging through a very bare larder in the effort to cobble together some sort of supper.  1 cup of jasmine rice, a few bits of salad, a small box of frozen shrimp and a package of frozen marinara mix.  Unusual finds really as we generally don’t eat frozen shrimp and/or marinara mix.  Still, neccessity is the mother of invention.  I picked some lemon thyme from my mom’s pot at the front door, heated some butter, put the rice on to cook and flung the contents of the freezer into the buttery pan. 

‘Oh fudge!’ I murmered genteely (again not!) ‘Look at this!  This is shocking!  There’s a massive rusty fishhoek in this marinara mix!  I can’t believe this!’  All wrapped up with a tracer (I think that’s what it’s called, I’m a cook, not a fisherman) and loads of fishing line.  My genteel murmer must have been reaching concert level decibals because my mom heard me from upstairs. 

‘What are you cooking?’  she called down to me.  ‘Don’t use the stuff in the freezer, that’s Tud’s bait!’

You can always rely on your family to back you up in a crisis.  But clearly mine didn’t fully appreciate how close to the edge I was.  Amidst their gales of laughter I flung ’supper’ in the bin, stuck a few stale slices of sourdough in the toaster, and opened an emergency tin of pilchards in tomato sauce, before stomping downstairs to sulk. 

My sister has been dining out on this story all week, but I have only just managed to bring myself to repeat it, perhaps so you will understand why I completely and utterly failed to send in my entry for Johanna’s round of WTSIM… Bistro Food event.  She mentioned the dearth of desserts in the event, but the roundup was full of fabulous dishes so pop on over and check it out.  And anyway, although this is a French apple flan recipe, I’m not entirely sure it is Bistro Food.  It’s certainly the comfortingly country French version of a great British pub Apple Pie, and served while still warm with lashings of whipped cream, made me feel better, even after the fortnight from hell!

The recipe is posted to the sidebar (as usual), so enjoy.