Monday, February 20, 2012


A while back, I got to thinking about the times over the years when I’ve cooked as a declaration of love. A couple of times I aced the menu, but didn’t win the guy. One time I tried a chicken and leek bake that was a spectacular crash and burn. Yet, it must have been love, as he ate it anyway, and then stayed for the next 4 years.
I had been planning to do a classic Valentine’s day post. That looming February date had led me back to the foodie novel for the diehard romantic. Like Water for Chocolateby Laura Esquival, is the book for anyone in love with the idea of the grand passion being thwarted by fate. Set in Mexico, Tita spends 20 years in a state of longing. Her love is requited, but Pedro is married off to her sister. The delight of the story is in the consequences of Tita pouring her heartache into the dishes she creates. One such dish, Quail in Rose Petal Sauce (made with the roses Pedro secretly gives to Tita), is made with so much desire that anyone who eats it is overcome with uncontrollable passion. 

I reread the novel for this post, and sadly, the moment has passed (20 years of unrequited love? A life sentence!). Yep, you can’t go back, but this is my modest ode to a novel I once had a big crush on.

Chocolate Chilli Pots
(Serves 6)
From delicious magazine, November 2011
1 ancho chilli*
300ml pure (thin) cream
200g dark chocolate, roughly chopped
3 egg yolks, lightly beaten
2 tbsp caster sugar
25g unsalted butter, softened
1 tsp dried chilli flakes
Place the ancho chilli and cream in a small saucepan over medium heat and bring to just below boiling point. Remove from heat and discard chilli. Add chocolate, stirring until melted and smooth. Set aside to cool slightly, then whisk in egg yolks, sugar and butter until combined.
Pour into six 100ml serving cups or remekins. Transfer to the fridge and chill for 1 hour, then sprinkle chilli flakes on top. Chill for a further 2-3 hours until set.
*Try gourmet food shops or; or substitute with long dried chillies.

Mexican Wedding Cakes
Makes 20
(Can be stored in an airtight container for up to 1 week)
1 cup (140g) pecans, toasted, cooled
2 cups (300g) plain flour, plus extra to dust
1 tsp ground cinnamon
250g unsalted butter, softened
2 cups (300g) icing sugar, sifted
1 tsp vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 180C.
Line 2 large baking trays with baking paper. Place the cooled pecans, flour, cinnamon and a pinch of salt in a food processor and pulse until the nuts are finely chopped. Set aside.
Place the butter and 1 cup (150g) icing sugar in an electric mixer and beat until pale. Add the vanilla extract and pecan mixture, then beat until a soft dough forms. Divide the dough in half, then roll out each portion with your hands on a lightly floured work surface to form two 3cm-wide logs. Cut each log into 10 pieces and roll each piece into a ball. Place on the lined trays, 3cm apart, then bake for 20-25 minutes until lightly golden. Cool slightly.
Place the remaining 1 cup (150g) icing sugar in a separate bowl. Once the cakes are cool enough to handle, place them in the bowl with the icing sugar and toss to thoroughly coat. Cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes, then toss again in the icing sugar and serve.
In the end I didn’t cook on Valentine’s Day itself, hence this post not making the day. Too much pressure. And anyway, I wanted to honour a friend, and the majority where some years the day feels more like loss than love. 
Three years ago, early on in their romance, my friend Jac, hastily organised a Valentine’s Day night out with her newish flame, James. They went to Brick Cafe in Astoria, Queens, NYC. You see, James was an Astoria guy through and through, Jac was a Brooklyn local, via New Zealand and Sydney. That’s quite a hike, so they must have really liked each other. Only a couple of months later they were talking about the possibility of making a life together and where. But it was not to be. James died that July, after a short illness. 
This past fall in New York, Jac took me out to Astoria to visit some of James’ favourite haunts, Astoria Park, and Steinway Street, Astoria.

He was an expert in the history and culture of the Near East and had lived and worked in Jordan and Yemen. He loved Egypt, and Steinway Street is known as Little Egypt, in no small part because of Ali El Sayed’s Kabab Cafe, and his brother’s restaurant Mombar. James would sometimes smoke shisha at the Egyptian Coffee Shop and then wander a few doors down to the Kabab Cafe. This is Ali, and the mezze plate he made for us. 

James really loved the life he’d made, and a large part of this was his total engagement with each day come what may. He had a natural talent for happiness, and ate, cooked and lived with gusto, preferably with the volume turned to high, and a soundtrack, Jac tells me, dominated by Grant Green and Lonnie Smith when in the kitchen.
I never met James, but it got me to thinking how we love, whether in or on the outer of the romantic ideal, and how one might honour the past. Occasionally, Jac will hang out in Astoria, at the places where James moved through his days. Part of his history is a now layer of hers, and adds to the memories they made together.
So although I started with chocolate, and perhaps Valentine’s Day is the one day of the year where chocolate should be consumed as a starter, I end with chicken. It’s good for the soul, and I wolfed down this tender, mouthwatering dish one Saturday night alone when I wondered where it’s all going. Falling in and out of love, occasionally losing your way, trying to stay the course when you’re sailing off into the unknown. It’s the beginning of the story, even if at the time it feels like the end.

Baked Chicken with Yoghurt
Serves 6
From Gourmet Traveller, October 2011
50ml olive oil
Chicken pieces (about 1.7kg)
2 cups (500ml) chicken stock
400g Greek-style yoghurt
8 golden shallots, diced
2 garlic cloves, crushed
4 thyme sprigs
Grated rind and juice of 1 lemon
1 tbsp honey
Preheat the oven to 160C. Heat oil in a large casserole pot over medium high heat, add chicken and cook until browned all over (5-10 minutes), then add remaining ingredients. Cover with baking paper and a lid and braise in oven until very tender and falling off the bone (2-3 hours).
Serve with a burghul or couscous salad. Spring onion, tomatoes, parsley, mint, and lemon are flavours that will complement this dish.