Birthday Brunch – Corn Hotcakes

Corn hotcakes

It was Noel’s birthday last month, and so as with all good birthdays, we made a Plan. As the birthday itself fell on a Monday, we decided to celebrate with friends the day before, and invited some people round for a roast dinner, followed by watching the Patriots lose to the Ravens (as it turned out…), and playing silly games. On the day itself, we had tickets to see the Boston Bruins (ice hockey, for my non-American friends…) – my first time at a game! A late addition to the Plan was the last-minute arrival in Boston of one of our closest friends from the UK – posted to New York for six months with 24hrs notice. The obvious way for him to start this adventure was with a weekend in Boston with us beforehand – and so the whole weekend was a big celebration.

Unbeknownst to Noel, I had formulated another part of the Plan, which was to cook him a special birthday brunch before we went to the lunchtime Bruins game. Unfortunately, the downside of cooking roast beef for 12 people and drinking a lot of wine the night before was that my kitchen and my head both resembled a bomb site come Monday morning… So I decided to reschedule.

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This recipe is a recreation of a dish I ate while visiting my parents in Johannesburg. For those of you who don’t know it Jozi, as it’s known, is an amazing city – vibrant, exciting, with loads going on. I don’t need to tell you that it’s often best known around the world as a place of troubles – as a hot-bed of tragedy and brutality during the apartheid era, and more recently as a crime-riddled city not safe for tourists. I can’t pretend there isn’t truth in this, but the focus on Johannesburg’s problems doesn’t do the city justice. For while Johannesburg, and for that matter South Africa, still has a long way to go, you have only to look at how far it’s already come to know it will get there. Johannesburg is a city of contradictions and frustrations – unthinkable wealth alongside the most abject poverty, opportunity and promise alongside lingering prejudice. But for me, the thing which stands out about the city, and the country as a whole, is an overwhelming feeling of hope, and the desire to do better.

There are things about Johannesburg which make me smile, even as I sigh in frustration – such as the fact that you have to unplug the internet when there’s a big thunder storm (of which there are many). Talk to a local about this, and you will be met with a wry smile, a shrug of the shoulders, and the reminder that, after all, ‘T.I.A’ (This is Africa)… Quite frankly, it’s a place I never thought I would visit – but even in the relatively short time I’ve known it, it’s a place I have come to love and count as a second home.

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And this is before I even begin to talk about the food. I’ve eaten some of the best meals in my life in South Africa, and any trip there is preceded, weeks before arrival, by detailed plans of what and where we are going to eat while we’re there. It is a meat-lover’s paradise – beautiful steak, for one thing, but also more unusual meats: ostrich, kudu, impala… I could go on. From fine dining to cafe eating – Johannesburg has it all.

Which brings me to this post. One of my favourite places to go in Johannesburg is 44 Stanley – a group of old industrial buildings which have been redeveloped and now house restaurants, cafes, and small boutiques. We visit regularly – for the wonderful food, shopping and people watching. When it comes to food, you are spoilt for choice – I have had wonderful meals at the Salvationcafe and the beautiful Il Giardino Degli Ulivi, to name but two. On my most recent visit, my mum and I had brunch at Vovo Telo – an artisan bakery and restaurant. I had the most amazing corn hotcakes – poached eggs on a corn hotcake, with crispy coppa ham, roasted tomatoes, rocket and pesto. It was so simple, but yet so delicious, I was desperate to try to recreate it – and Noel’s belated birthday brunch was the perfect opportunity.

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For my version, I used Bill Granger’s Sweetcorn Fritters with Avocado Salsa recipe (without the salsa) for the hotcakes – I halved the recipe and made four slightly larger cakes (rather than six smaller ones), which was fine for two of us. I used frozen sweetcorn, and substituted basil for cilantro. In terms of the original dish – I used streaky bacon rather than coppa as I had it in the fridge – I think either works equally well. Noel is not the biggest fan of roasted tomatoes, so I left those out – I don’t think the dish suffered for it. I also substituted a drizzle of this incredible truffle balsamic vinegar for the basil pesto, which was amazing!! If you don’t have pesto to hand, a small drizzle of straightforward balsamic vinegar would also be nice.

Poaching eggs is something I’ve discovered only fairly recently – I’ve always been a big fussy when it comes to eggs, but I am starting to see the light and try new ways of cooking them. There are so many different ways of poaching an egg – I used Felicity Cloake’s version, and I was happy with the results.

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Corn hotcakes with poached eggs and bacon 
Serves 2

For the hotcakes:

  • 1 1/3 cups sweetcorn
  • 1/2 small red onion, chopped
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup chopped basil leaves
  • 1/2 cup plain/all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • oil (for shallow frying)
  • 6 rashers streaky bacon
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 handfuls of peppery salad leaves (such as watercress or rocket)
  • Basil pesto or balsamic vinegar (to serve)

Broil or grill the bacon until it’s cooked to your liking. Once it is cooked, remove from the broiler/grill and heat the oven to 120C/250F. Put the bacon in the oven to keep warm

While the bacon is cooking, start preparing the hotcakes. Place one cup of the sweetcorn in the bowl of a food processor. Put the remaining kernels in a bowl and cover with warm water to allow them to defrost slightly. Add the onion, egg, basil, flour and baking powder to the food processor, and season with salt and pepper. Process until the mixture is combined. Transfer to a bowl and stir in the remaining whole corn kernels.

Heat 1 tbsp oil in a frying pan over a medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, drop 2 – 3 tablespoons of the mix per cake into the pan and cook in batches for one minute on each side. Drain on paper towels, and keep warm in the oven while you cook the other cakes. Once all cakes are cooked and in the oven, bring a medium pan of generously salted water to the boil. Crack the remaining eggs into a small jug, bowl or mug (you can do this two at a time). When the water is boiling, stir vigorously with a balloon whisk to create a whirlpool. Slip two eggs (one at a time) into the centre of the whirlpool. Reduce the heat to low, and cook for three minutes. Remove the eggs with a slotted spoon, and drain on kitchen paper. Repeat for the remaining two eggs.

Arrange the salad leaves on two plates, and top with the hotcakes. Place an egg on top of each hotcake, and arrange the bacon around the plate. Season with salt and pepper, and drizzle over pesto and/or balsamic vinegar.

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Pasta alla Puttanesca – or, store-cupboard-supper

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Well, well – it’s been an eventful few weeks here in the Orange Kitchen household, and I’m sorry not to have posted for a while. Last week, we were in Colorado for our first experience of skiing in the States. It was the most wonderful week – made all the more enjoyable because it almost didn’t happen…

We were due to leave Boston on the evening of 8th February – yes, the very same night that mega-storm Nemo rolled into town. Realising the chances of us getting a flight that night were nil, we changed our flight to leave from New York, thinking it might not be hit quite as hard. As it turned out, our Friday night flight from NY was cancelled more than 24hrs before we were due to leave – thankfully, we managed to get a flight to Denver via Chicago first thing on Friday morning, and, disaster averted, had the most amazing week. On the plus side, our holiday started a day early, with a fabulous night in NY with friends – which made the 6.30 departure from JFK the next morning all the more painful…

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Our hurried departure meant that I got half way through a post, meaning to finish it on Thursday before we left, but in all the chaos I didn’t get a chance. That post will follow soon, but for now, here’s a little post about one of my favourite pasta dishes – something delicious, easy, and using ingredients you may well have in the store cupboard.

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Funnily enough, Pasta alla Puttanesca is full of ingredients I really didn’t like until recently – anchovies, capers, and (to a lesser extent) olives. It’s strange how our tastes change – I can remember picking capers out of my mum’s fish pie, which is a really tedious thing to do, but such was my dislike of them that I thought it was worth it… Now, I can’t get enough of them, and use them a lot in my cooking. And while I still wouldn’t eat anchovies straight from the tin, I am a total convert to their use in cooking. They impart a wonderful savoury saltiness which can completely transform a dish – be it puttanesca, my earlier meatball recipe, or roast lamb.

Pasta alla Puttanesca is one of those dishes, along with for instance Spaghetti alla carbonara, where the origins of both name and recipe are murky to say the least. I probably don’t need to tell you that ‘puttanesca’ is Italian for, ahem, lady of the night – but the reasoning behind the pasta dish being thus named is vague. According to Delia Smith, ‘presumably the sauce has adopted this name because it’s hot, strong and gutsy’, and Angela Hartnett’s theory is that ‘it takes as long to cook the dish as it does the lady to take care of her clients’… As for the dish’s origins, many recipes suggest that it was born in the South of Italy – mainly because of its strong, hearty flavours. Frankly, when it tastes as good as it does, I can’t say I mind where it’s from!

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Unsurprisingly, there are many different ways to cook puttanesca – this is mine! For me, it has to have anchovies, capers, olives, garlic and chili – and I like the sauce to be fairly thick, and to coat each strand of pasta. My preference is for the sauce to coat the pasta so that there is very little sauce left in the bowl once you’ve eaten the pasta. I always use spaghetti or linguine for this dish, but you can use short pasta such as penne if you prefer.

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Pasta alla Puttanesca
Serves 4

  • 1/2 tbsp olive oil
  • 6-8 anchovy fillets
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
  • 1-2 chilis (to taste), de-seeded and finely chopped
  • 2 tbsp capers, drained and rinsed
  • 1 tbsp tomato puree
  • 2 tins chopped tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup pitted black olives, sliced
  • salt & pepper
  • 400g spaghetti

Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over a medium heat. Add the garlic and anchovies, and cook until the garlic is lightly browned and the anchovies have broken down. You are looking for the anchovies to become a paste in the pan with the oil, with no large pieces of fish. Stir in the capers and chilis, and cook for another minute, before stirring in the tomato puree. Allow to cook for another minute or two, and then add the tinned tomatoes. Stir in the chopped olives, and season well with pepper and a little salt – taste as you go when adding the salt as the anchovies, capers and olives are all salty. Allow to cook, uncovered, over a medium-low heat, until the sauce has reduced and thickened.

Cook the spaghetti in a large pan of salted water according to packet instructions, until al dente. Before draining, add a spoonful or two of the pasta water to the sauce and stir through. Drain the pasta, and return to the pan. Stir the sauce into the pasta so that it coats every strand, and serve!

In praise of slow-cooked meat

Here’s a little song I wrote for you:

(To be sung to a truncated version of the tune of ‘Chestnuts roasting on an open fire’)

Short ribs braising in a pot of wine,
Lamb shanks bubbling on the stove.
Big pot of oxtail, been cooked for five hours,
And now just falling off the bone.
Everybody knows…
Boeuf Bourguignon is best cooked slow
The same is true of Bolognese
Although it’s been said, many times, many ways,
Try slow cooking, try slow cooking
Try slow cooking – today! 

Yes, I have too much time on my hands. Yes, it might also be true that I spend too much time on my own without anyone to talk to. However – putting aside these minor concerns for my mental health, slow-cooked meat is completely amazing, and that’s what I want to talk about today.

I do a lot of slow cooking, and have for some years – in fact, I think almost the first thing I cooked for a dinner party was boeuf bourguignon. One of my favourite things to do on a rainy Sunday is cook some sort of slow-cooked meat-in-liquid-type-dish, and now that I *ahem* have more time on my hands, I do this in the week, as well. Braising, stewing, casseroling and the like are up there with baking bread in terms of how to make your house smell amazing, and there are few things better to eat on a cold, blustery day.

On Monday night, I cooked a somewhat bastardised version of the Brazilian dish feijoada – essentially, various cuts of pork cooked slowly with black beans. Although I’m not sure I can speak for its authenticity, it was completely delicious, and Noel asked if I was going to blog about it. In many ways, I would love to write about that recipe, because it was great, but I have held back because I feel like posting recipes for slow-cooking is sort of… cheating.

For one thing, slow cooking meat is really, really, really easy. It does take time, but all but the first 30mins or so is time that involves no effort on your part whatsoever. Cheating, also, because almost every recipe for slow cooking follows the same basic premise – brown meat, sauté onion + other veg, put meat back in pot with some sort of liquid, cook on a low heat until completely scrummy – and so I felt I had very little to add. I do have a recipe for oxtail up my sleeve which I will post on here – probably some time next month. But beyond that, there are so many great recipes for slow cooking out there, I wasn’t sure I could really add to them.

So – rather than give you my version of a slow-cook recipe, I thought I’d talk a bit instead about slow-cooking in general, and share some tips and a few recipes I’ve really enjoyed, which you might like to try.

Tip 1 – brown your meat properly. I can’t emphasise this enough – start by browning your meat properly, and everything else will fall into place. In my opinion, there are few things less appetising to eat than blond, anaemic-looking pieces of meat – and conversely, few things more tasty than meat with a nice toasty crust: this is as true for braising as it is for cooking steak. In addition, if you brown your meat properly, all the yummy crusty goodness will go towards making the final sauce that bit more delicious. There are lots of recipes out there which will tell you the same thing, but the one which, for me, summed it up perfectly is Adam Roberts’ recipe for Daube de Boeuf over on Amateur Gourmet – as he says, ‘If I had to point out how I’ve grown the most as a cook over my 9 years of doing this, it would be my ability to brown meat really, really well’, and I agree – when I figured out this basic step, my casseroles improved massively. He also offers this excellent advice: ‘don’t start chopping your vegetables until you start browning your beef. This’ll ensure that you really let the beef take its time and you don’t stand around impatiently. If you do this right, you’ll have a plate of browned meat and a big bowl of vegetables ready to go at the same time’. So true – if you have nothing else to do when browning meat, you will stand around twiddling your thumbs and the temptation is to rush the process. So give yourself something else to do, and hey presto, the time flies.

Tip 1a – don’t crowd the pan when browning the meat. This is something which frustrated me for years. Countless recipes out there tell you not to brown the meat in batches and not crowd the pan, but I never read one which explained WHY. This drove me mad! Why can’t I shove all the meat in together and speed up the process?! Finally, I found the answer in the wonderful Felicity Cloake’s recipe for ‘perfect chilli con carne’. I should’ve known she would have the answer – and here it is: ‘don’t crowd the pan, or [the meat] will steam rather than brown’. Which makes sense, really. So there you have it.

Tip 2 – fat = flavour. Every recipe I have ever seen for slow cooking calls for what is usually referred to as ‘cheaper’ or ‘economical’ cuts of meat. What this means, is meat which is fattier than its more expensive counterparts – fattier, more full of connective tissue, tough as old boots if cooked quickly, but therefore absolutely ideal for slow cooking. When this meat is cooked slowly at a low temperature, the fat renders and the connective tissue breaks down, leaving the meat itself fork-tender, and the sauce in which it’s been cooked rich and unbelievably tasty. (On a side note – isn’t ‘fork-tender’ a wonderful phrase? So evocative, makes me automatically hungry). Of course, you can remove excess fat from the meat before cooking if you would like, but please don’t go nuts – leave some fat to help your dish along. Which brings me to…

Tip 3 – remove excess fat. I love fat – I am a total glutton for crispy bacon, chops, and don’t even get me started on crackling. What I don’t enjoy, however, is the greasy layer of fat on top of a sauce – and so I tend to spoon off the excess. There are two ways of doing this. Either, once the meat has had its allotted time, spoon the fat off and discard. Or, even more straightforward, if you have time, allow the dish to cool, the fat will solidify, and you can remove it very easily from the top before reheating. This has the added advantage of…

Tip 4 – slow-cooked dishes taste even better the next day. There is nothing wrong whatsoever with eating a casserole or braise straight from the oven. It will be delicious. However, if you have time and are able to plan ahead, another tip which, again, involves no effort on your part but which will take your dish straight from good to great is to leave it to cool overnight and serve it the next day. The flavours will develop and intensify, and it will taste even better. And how’s this – this means you can put a dish in the oven on a Sunday, potter around the house and do chores, then chill it overnight and eat it on Monday evening – seriously, what could be better after a miserable Monday than the most delicious dinner, ready made and waiting for you?

Tip 5 – make a big batch and freeze it. I’ve never yet made a slow-cooked meal which didn’t freeze well. It is such a great thing to have in the freezer. It is, if anything, easier to cook a big batch than a smaller one, and the leftovers will be awesome.

There you go, them’s my tips! Enjoy. To finish, here are a few recipes I’ve enjoyed over the years, and hope you do too.