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Playing with Fire

Oscar Foulkes August 16, 2005 Uncategorized No comments

Fire food has become an integral part of the Dish repertoire. The most obvious reason for this is that we can produce hot, tasty food, even if we’re in the middle of nowhere. The other reason is that it’s just one of those things we do. We get a huge kick out of taking something that people most usually associate with men-drinking-beer-around-a-fire-while-burning meat, and using it to produce the kind of stylish, sophisticated food they would normally expect to find in a good restaurant.

It’s not that we’re the only ones. You will even find a charcoal grill holding centre stage with the super-stylish cocktail bar at London’s vaunted Zuma restaurant in Knightsbridge. Contrary to expectation, Zuma does not refer to South Africa’s heat-taking ex-Deputy President. The restaurant is Japanese, with a particular focus on robata.

Coals are a heat source, just like any other. No matter what stove, oven, pot or pan a chef is using, the dish needs to be matched to the appropriate type and degree of heat. It so happens that the kind of intense heat one can get over coals is absolutely perfect for cooking various ingredients. Or perhaps one is after a gentler preparation with some wood chips for extra smokiness. The problem with braais, charcoal grills or barbecues, is that they can be extremely hot – even to stand next to – and one has less control over the exact degree of heat. In a way, it’s the culinary equivalent of extreme downhill sports. With experience one can learn to manage the variables with skill, but disaster can be looming at any moment.

One of the early events we did at Cloof was a small lunch for a book launch. Well, it was supposed to be small – so small that I didn’t think we needed someone to open and serve wine. At the last minute the publisher added half a dozen additional guests, which kind of tipped the whole thing over the edge. I seem to recall the starter being a salad with caramelised pear and gorgonzola cheese. No great challenge there for the grillmester. But with the main course being rolled loins of lamb, lengthy preparation time was needed. So, as the guests were busy arriving I put the loins onto the grill and went inside to open more wine. I returned to find my meat engulfed by flames that looked as if they extended three foot above the grill. Doing a passable Red Adaire impersonation (but without the asbestos suit) I dashed in and rapidly grabbed the meat off the fire. I swear that my arms were thereafter devoid of hair below the elbow, and I may also have done my eyebrows some damage.

Lamb, of course, is one of the best meats to barbecue, precisely because of its fat content, and no part of a lamb is fattier than the outside flap that gets rolled around the loin. Fortunately the burnt parts flaked off, so a major crisis was averted, but cooking these loins were more than a little trying as I’d started with too much heat. The slightest drop of fat – an inevitability given the fat on the outside of the rolls – resulted in more flames. Having charred the exterior of these things it became much harder to judge the degree of done-ness in the centre. When Andrea started slicing in preparation for plating, the lamb wasn’t only just a little bit too pink. Scorpio started venting at Libra, who went in search of a cooler spot next to the fire.

Even at long-distance, well-balanced Libra has a part to play. I’d checked into a hotel in Edinburgh, sitting on the bed reading the Sunday papers for the first time that day, flush with the spiritual experiences I’d had on the East Lothian links over the weekend. I was in a Zen state (and it wasn’t just because my legs were crossed) when my phone rang. Andrea was in the middle of a crisis to end all crises. She was doing a barbecue for a group of 20 or 30 lawyers in Camps Bay in conditions very far removed from the grey, gentle drizzle in Scotland. The legendary Cape south-easter was in such full force that the Weber had been moved into the garage. So, Andrea had her Spanish-flavoured rolled chicken legs and thighs on the conventional, brick braai-place in the front of the house, and salmon in the garage. She popped into the kitchen quickly and returned to the garage to find the salmon on fire. Fortunately the fish had been packed onto a grill that enabled her to lift it off quickly. As she did so, the wind caused a (new) black garbage bag to swirl around the garage, which then shrink-wrapped itself around the fish-filled grill. This was when she phoned.

She didn’t get much sympathy, I have to admit, “I never leave salmon unattended,” I deadpanned (which was true – all the fat that makes salmon so gorgeous over coals is also its nemesis if it is left on the grill). The conversation didn’t go much further.

Feeling remorseful I called her a few minutes later with some suggestions for what she could do to rescue the situation. By now the chicken – which was similarly unattended – was also surrounded by flames (the predictable consequence of fat dripping onto hot coals as the chicken starts cooking).

Fortunately events like these are the exception rather than the rule. We have successfully cooked a huge variety of dishes, in dozens of different locations, using direct – or indirect – heat from coals.

There are several marinades we use regularly. Our Chermoula works brilliantly with lamb – French-trimmed chops or butterflied leg – especially in conjunction with the smokiness from the coals. Beef is great with olive oil, rosemary, Dijon mustard, raw onion and garlic. Asian flavours – ginger, soy, chilli, garlic have an amazing affinity for being grilled over coals.

Universally, though, nothing has earned us more compliments than the Dish Oriental BBQ sauce. If culinary achievements qualified for Nobel prizes, this sauce would have to be a nominee. It is just the most miraculous flavour combo with salmon, tuna, duck or beef. Especially on the braai. Lest you think that culinary salvation awaits you over the next page, accept that we’ll gladly share dozens of our recipes, but this one particular receipt (as they used to say in the very old days) will have to remain a family secret.

Canard on the Wing

Oscar Foulkes August 15, 2005 Uncategorized No comments

The first time I roasted a duck was one of the most disappointing experiences of my life. I’d started with something the size of a rugby ball, expecting to feed six people. By the time it was cooked I had a pan-full of duck fat, and I needed to roast a chicken as well. But, having discovered Magret de Canard in France, I was determined to try again.

During 2001 we did a series of dinners at Enoteca (my wine shops), in one of the branches. Entitled Pleasure In Store, they were intended as a means of generating some income and getting feet into the shop without having to splash out on additional wine stocks. More than anything, though, it was probably the beginnings of Andrea’s later catering activities. Duck was on at least two of the menus, which we sourced from a free-range farmer that Andrea still uses. His identity is a closely-guarded secret at Dish.

One does occasionally find people who don’t like duck, but as a menu item it has huge glamour value. People are generally too intimidated to ever cook it for themselves, and usually associate it with smart French restaurants. Simply put, there is an expectation that is an expensive item (partially correct), so the perceived value can sometimes be useful when one is pitching for a job against other caterers. The other benefit of duck is that it is relatively forgiving of caterer-style cooking.

Restaurant chefs have the stress of getting out a la carte orders on time to the correct tables. They are also forced to keep stocks of perishables. But they work in the same controlled environment every single day. On the other hand, caterers are forever schlepping food and equipment around. They prepare as much as possible in their kitchen. Then everything gets packed up, loaded into vehicles, off-loaded at the venue, and unpacked so that the food can be assembled. Often there is no kitchen at the venue. If there is one, it’s fine for a domestic quantity of guests, not the 80 to 200 that usually attend parties. It is not unusual to arrive at a client’s house to find that the designer oven has never actually been connected. For all its usefulness they may as well have installed a flat screen TV.

So, how does one go about cooking a duck breast? Step one is to use a very sharp knife to score the skin on the diagonal, at about 3 mm intervals. The breast is put, skin-side down, into a pan, so that the fat can be cooked. This takes anything up to 10 minutes. I have also done this on the barbecue. The dripping fat results in flames, but the crisping of the skin is actually much better. This part of the process is done in advance of leaving for a function. At the last minute the breasts are put into a hot oven, skin-side up, and roasted for the 10 minutes, or so, it will take for them to reach medium. Depending upon the flow of the meal, they can be rested for a few minutes, before being sliced (again on the diagonal, but about 5mm apart). [One of a caterer’s most important tools is heavy-duty foil. With insufficient oven space, or people making longer speeches than programmed, one is forever needing to keep food warm.]

Duck legs and thighs require slow-roasting. Again, nothing could be easier. We put them in a roasting dish (with high sides to cope with the inevitable rendering of fat) flesh-side down on top of a sprinkling of fresh thyme. We liberally spread Dijon mustard on the skin-side, drizzle a little honey onto this, and then grind black pepper and salt over everything. We cover the dish with foil and put it into a medium oven for 90 to 120 minutes, by which time the meat should just about be falling off the bone. Up to this point can be done in advance of departure. Just before serving, the foil is removed and the dish is put into a hot oven to crisp the skin (if it isn’t already sufficiently crispy).

We also do a variation, following the method for Confit de Canard. This requires that we first brown the flesh side of the legs and thighs. They are then put into a roasting dish with fresh thyme and slivers of garlic (if we have time they spend a night curing on salt and thyme in advance of being browned). We cover the whole lot with duck fat and roast it gently for a couple of hours. It can now be stored in a cool larder almost indefinitely, but we generally use it within day. One of the tastiest ways of warming the legs & thighs is over hot coals. The outside is crispy; the flesh has a slight smoky taste and literally falls off the bone.

There have been times when our fabled supplier has run short. The only solution, under the circumstances, has been to buy whole frozen ducks. These are delivered in cardboard boxes, usually eight to the box. In the beginning refrigerated storage was in very short supply at Dish, so we used to leave them in the original packaging, where they would remain frozen in the store room for at least 24 hours. So it was that when Andrea arrived home one Saturday morning and started quizzing everyone on the progress in each respective job that needed to be done, I could quite truthfully answer that the ducks were swimming. Sure enough, when I led the disbelieving Andrea into the bathroom, the day’s duck requirements were slowly defrosting in a bath of water. All-consuming laughs are never far away in the Dish kitchen.

I sometimes wonder if I’m a closet surgeon, rather than a closet chef. Filleting, cutting and portioning are tasks I happily fulfil for the kitchen. My only requirement is that I have my own, sharp, knives. All those swimming ducks are my responsibility. I can reduce a whole – defrosted – duck into separate piles of wings, breasts, legs and thighs, and carcass in a couple of minutes.

Returning to the house later that day Andrea got into a flat spin wanting to know where the legs and thighs were. Once again I led her to the bathroom, where the dressed duck portions were on roasting trays, ready for the oven, underneath a sheet of cardboard, and resting on a bed of ice. Perfectly good refrigeration!

It’s a wonder, though, that we still offer duck. We had the famous legs and thighs on the menu for a major Cape Town society wedding, for about 170 guests. I personally put six roasting trays, each containing 30 portions, into the ovens. I also took them out of the oven. There were six; I know it for certain.

Because of the size of the main course plates they weren’t all set out at once, so we didn’t have a running tally of how many portions had gone out. There was also a vegetarian option, which would have thrown the numbers out slightly. We were just starting to relax, having plated all the duck in the kitchen (a trying experience to say the least, because the ground in the field kitchen was sloping, with the result that carefully-positioned sauce kept running to one edge of the plate), when waiters started returning to pick up more food. Like a scene from a Hollywood slapstick comedy, the later arrivals were slamming into the backs of the waiters in front.

We had to put something on the plates. More butternut ravioli with burnt sage butter sauce was rapidly knocked together. One guest, who didn’t eat any yellow vegetables, was extremely gracious about having a dinner of rather sweet caramelized onion tarte tatin with sundry mushrooms.

Dead ducks don’t fly (certainly not when they’re crispy). The staffing company insists that the waiters didn’t build up a private stash of plated main courses around the corner. Somehow the equivalent of one entire roasting tray of duck went missing; where to, no-one has ever been able to establish.

During the same wedding I was having some of my own difficulties. The staffing company were responsible for making bonfires in half oil drums around the garden. The boss-man had loaded them up with anthracite, and carefully stacked the logs underneath the drums. I have no idea how he thought he was going to get the coal burning without first having some blazing logs. I dashed around repacking and lighting the fires – not necessarily the caterer’s responsibility, but when things aren’t running smoothly at a function the host generally regards the caterer as the scapegoat.

The host had arranged his own coastal (i.e. not cultivated) oysters, as well as someone to shuck them at an oyster bar where guests would help themselves. The same staffing company were supposed to have a couple of hot-shot shuckers on standby to assist. Coastal oysters are flatter, and don’t have the same uniform shape as cultivated oysters, so opening them takes at least twice as long. So, guess who had to jump in and assist when the standbys weren’t available? After wrestling with oysters for more than an hour my arms were aching. I had lost the use of my hands. The sole consolation was the sparsely dressed women unwittingly exposing their breasts at us as they reached across the trestle table to get to the condiments.

Some months later Andrea was once again doing the same duck at a wedding. Among the guests at this wedding were renowned foodies who had been so blown away by the duck at The Society Wedding (clearly they were among the lucky ones) that they insisted Dish be given the job. Around the same time, Andrea lost a wedding because the mother of the prospective groom had heard about Dish running out of food at The Society Wedding. You win some; you lose some.

A Black South-Easter

Oscar Foulkes December 3, 2004 Uncategorized No comments

I have no doubt that on a sunny, windless day Oudekraal beach, on Cape Town’s Atlantic seaboard, is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. Huge, wave-rounded granite rocks rise out of the almost perfectly blue sea. The view is back towards Camps Bay, with the Twelve Apostles looming to the right of the picturesque scene. The sun sets over the horizon to the left. It’s a great venue for events. If you get the weather right.

Cape Town has a few pockets that are sheltered from the south-easter, and Oudekraal is not one of them. When it’s blowing – a regular occurrence throughout the Cape summer – this has to be the closest thing to hell on earth. It’s certainly not a place where you’d want to be cooking. The wind comes racing down the mountainside, directly at the beach. There is no temporary structure immune to the force of this gale, and certainly not the free-form, open-sided Bedouin-style tents that event planners like to use here.

After the first time, when we struggled in the dark to get hot, grit-free food onto guests’ plates, after which all our equipment had to be carried back up the hundred-and-plenty steps at 1.00am, I swore that I would never – ever – again set foot on Oudekraal if the wind was blowing.

Just enough time had passed when Andrea was asked by a client to cater for his weekend-long birthday extravaganza. Guests had been flown in from the UK, and were being accommodated at various swish hotels. Friday night was to take place on Oudekraal, with a succession of gorgeous nibbles coming off the fire. After several days of unceasing wind I was in the process of slowly going mad. As Friday approached there was no chance of the wind letting up. Even after a site meeting at lunch time on Friday, where the tent-man said that putting up the tent would physically endanger his staff, the client insisted on going ahead. I was getting more and more grumpy, not aided by the failure of said client to pay the necessary 50% deposit.

“If we’re going to end up paying for an expensive party, let’s at least do it in nice weather”, I moaned to Andrea.

I wandered around the venue, trying to find a relatively sheltered spot. Eventually I gave up, and picked a spot on the sand (the last thing I needed was to start a fire that would rage across Table Mountain for days). I amused myself with visions of the guests trying to snort cocaine in a howling south-easter. It helped. What helped even more was that the host had assembled a whole crowd of very beautiful people. As long-legged babes with short dresses wandered by I found myself praying for that strategic gust of wind that would console me for being consigned to misery by my wife.

No matter where I stood, I had smoke in my eyes. I seemed to have sand in every orifice. I couldn’t see what I was doing. And then Andrea had the cheek to arrive from the dinner she’d been doing (indoors) elsewhere, and be cheerful! How dare she? All this when the host, in Gatsby-esque white suit (who hadn’t come up with any dosh yet) was drifting around in a narcotic haze.

Mood-enhanced guests crowded around the fires to keep warm. They grabbed food straight off the grill before it was ready to be sent out. They dropped forks into the sand, never to be found again. They dropped their cigarette butts onto the coals I was using for cooking. The host was starting to get hyperactive; not only, I suspected because the transport was arriving soon and dessert still needed to go out.

Oh yes, the dessert – pistachio baklava phyllo springrolls cooked over coals. In broad daylight, for a dozen people, I happily take on this highly skilled and technical bit of barbecuing. Doing it in pitch darkness, with sand flying everywhere, for 70 people, has a substantial difficulty level.

Feeling very sorry for myself I thought that my just reward would be to get sent home with one of the faux models I’d been admiring. But no, what goes down has to come back up. Headachy with fatigue I then joined the rest of the crew in carrying equipment back up to the car park. My entire body was aching, and still the wind was blowing. All I could think of was getting into the shower.

My face was black – I truly could barely recognise the frizzy-haired apparition that looked blearily back at me from the mirror. I was too tired for thought; I cursed the circumstances that had put me out on Oudekraal on a night like this.

The difference between Andrea and I is that she was at it again the following night. Client Gatsby hadn’t yet decided what he wanted to be serving his guests for dinner. Somewhere around midday on Saturday he finally made up his mind, leaving Andrea to dash around Cape Town finding crayfish tails, duck and assorted other delicacies, for which she had to shell out her own money (no deposit yet). She also had to shop for crockery and cutlery on his behalf. I truly do not know where she finds the patience.

Dinner itself was relatively straightforward, except for Andrea’s usual angst about having enough food. First she thought she’d be OK, because the guests all seemed to be powdering their noses upstairs (up the stairway “to heaven”, as she puts it). Then she smelt someone smoking a joint and feared them all getting the munchies. Taking a break outside the kitchen she then discovered two women having very noisy sex. I really do pick my moments to take the night off! (I was on my way to Hong Kong on a night they catered for an up-market swingers’ party.)

Calls and emails to client in the weeks that followed were dodged or ignored. All the suppliers on the job were chasing Andrea for payment. Finally she managed to get a morning appointment with him. He was making himself an espresso when she arrived at his house. He sloshed some J&B into the cup and lit up a joint, “May as well put all that leftover booze to good use.” (One of the queries on his account was that the bar service had left him with more than a case of unwanted whisky).

Without ever resorting to confrontation or threat, the way that most of us would have, she did finally get paid in full.

Oak in wine – a blessing or curse?

Oscar Foulkes August 22, 2002 Uncategorized No comments

In the world of wine, oak is an international currency. Consumers, collectors and show judges alike are seduced by the flavours and aromas imparted by new oak. Every year tens of thousands of mature trees are cut down for the barrel industry. In the absence of empirical measurement of flavour and quality we are cast adrift in a swamp of subjective opinion. Much of what follows is undeniably the product of my – subjective – tastes and preferences. For that I cannot make any apology. Wine would be a boring industry indeed if we all had the same tastes.

Where oak is concerned I have two major recollections from my early years of tasting. Firstly, how easy it is to be turned on by the sexy aroma of a wine that’s been in new oak, regardless of how it performs on the palate (actually, if you have tasted enough wines, that part becomes partially numbed, anyway). Secondly, the difficulty I had distinguishing between fruit and oak tannins. I think I’ve learned that oak tannins dry out the mouth much more – almost like blotting paper.

I’ve developed the opinion that you can tell more about a wine from how it feels in the mouth, than where it fits on the flavour wheel. This is a critical part of understanding the role of oak in wine. For me, real fruit extraction expresses itself in the feeling of that flavour coating in the mouth, after the wine has been swallowed. The feeling could variously be described as silky, velvety, chunky, syrupy or viscous. A wine novice gave me the best metaphor for describing this. Imagine mixing a glass of Oros concentrate with half a litre of water. Now compare that with a table spoon of oros mixed in the same amount of water. Intensely fruity wines are like the former example, and are preferable under all circumstances.

In my view, oak performs at least two important functions in a wine. The first, and most obvious, are the contributions to flavour and structure. The second is a process of controlled oxidation, which helps to ‘polish’ or finish off a wine. The proviso is that the amount of oak deployed is in balance with the degree of fruit intensity in the wine (see the Oros metaphor above). There is no question that some vineyards have a higher quality potential, and hence deliver better concentrations of fruit. Consequently, not only are these wines better equipped to cope with the oak regimen employed, but are also enhanced by judicious barrel maturation. These cuvées (e.g. grand cru Burgundies, single vineyard wines, classed growth chateaux) happen often to have a high percentage of new oak, but it’s the intrinsic fruit quality that makes these wines exceptional, not the oak per se. They may not be quite as profound without the oak, but it’s the fruit that drives the wine, whether it’s a classical Old World superstar or a New World hype wine.

I have come to develop a rather jaundiced view of ‘Reserve’ wines, particularly from the New World. Occasionally there is a difference in the fruit quality between this and the standard release, but the major difference is generally that the reserve has had a whack of new oak. Yes, it has more flavour; yes, it may win awards, but is this what winemaking is really about? Does it come down to a battle of the barrel budgets?

I am regularly presented with samples of new releases across the price spectrum, but seldom find red wines that deliver on the palate. In many cases these are wannabe premium wines, that fall into that category by virtue of new oak and price tag alone. It must be said that winemakers, like consumers, have their own tastes, and there are many of them that like strong, oaky flavours. It is their prerogative to produce for their own tastes, as it is our prerogative to not drink what they make.

Some of my wine drinking experience is based on wines from the Rhône and Southern France, where oak appears not to be an important tool.

It would appear that the barrel-filled chais of Bordeaux have had a major impact on world winemaking. It was here, after all, that Max Schubert was inspired to make Grange Hermitage. But a very tiny percentage of the wines produced in the world are ‘premier cru’, and only these wines realistically deserve – or need – the full oak treatment. I cannot decide whether so many wines are barrel-driven because of the desire to win awards, or because marketing departments have decreed that oaky wines are easier to sell. What I do believe is that many lesser wines would be a lot easier to drink if they hadn’t gone into barrel.

It intrigues me that the same consumers who won’t drink wooded chardonnay will lap up a sexily oaked, fruity shiraz.

The world is about to experience a glut of wine as a result of huge plantings in the New World (25% of Australia’s vineyards haven’t yet produced a harvest). Now that’s a challenge for marketing departments! No doubt some of that could end up as “90-pointer” wine, but what to do with all the rest? My view is that the dwindling (or stagnant) wine market could be stimulated if the some of this increased production of red were sold as fruity, soft, round, unwooded wine, with a commensurate drop in price. This style of red wine can be marketed within months of the harvest, with much-reduced production and holding costs.

Clearly, all of this is subjective, and perhaps my taste in oak is more conservative than most, but I can’t help feeling that the use of oak is like kicking in rugby. It’s a useful tool, once you have the fundamentals in place.