The Imperfect art of feasting

Nigella Lawson’s Feast is a book that is very dear to my heart. It reminds me that food is central to our celebrations, be they a religious festival, a birthday, or even a romantic dinner for two. However, I don’t feel that we need an ear-marked day to celebrate with loved ones. The blessing that is friendship should be the only excuse we need to cook for them.  As such, I am sometimes averse to this culture of the bring & braai that we have in South Africa. Yes, it is a wonderful thing to make a fire and to use its flames to chargrill a chop. But the dinner party still holds its place for me.

I think sometimes the notion of a dinner party overwhelms us. I was guilty of this recently. We are so eager to impress that we lose sight of purer intentions. While, make no mistake, I am a fan of a beautifully seared salmon, of sweet melon wrapped in dry-cured prosciutto, of sumptuously matured cheeses, a dinner party is not about sourcing the finest and most expensive ingredients for your guests. It is about cooking from the heart and nourishing people.

Some of my fondest memories of family members and friends are intrinsically connected to certain meals. A soft-boiled egg or a flapjack spread generously with butter and drizzled with syrup will always remind me of weekends spent at my grandparents’ house. These memories are so entrenched in me that the only thing I wish to inherit one day is the chipped, porcelain egg cup my breakfasts were served in.

Whenever I eat lasagne, I am transported back to the eve of my friend, Renata’s, 21st. A long table was constructed down their hallway and her mother served us the most sublime lasagne I have ever eaten. Her Italian uncles were well adept at topping up my wine glass and by the end of the night, I had professed my undying love for this food. I drunkenly told her mother that it was better than Garfield lasagne because I suddenly understood Garfield’s predilection for the dish.

It was Renata, in fact, who first passed on this tradition to me, of feasting with others. Whether it was a spicy Indian curry on a winter’s night, a bowl of pasta in a robust tomato sauce with shavings of parmesan, or a simple spread of salami, olives and ciabatta, you never left her family’s home hungry. She cooks for people with a deep-seated passion and you can taste it in her food. Today, I never let anyone leave my home hungry. Sometimes it is a slice of toast with Bovril and butter. Other days it might be a tuna mayo toastie with feta cheese and gherkins. It all depends on what I have in my kitchen. As often as possible, it is a feast.

I have been told that I myself am responsible for passing this tradition on to my friend, Nicole. Her and her husband, Samesh, have unquestionably surpassed my own skills (students becoming the masters and such). Their vegan Mexican feasts are famous in some circles and to receive an invitation to one is like getting the golden ticket in a Wonka bar.

Ultimately though, in cooking for each other, we have learnt one thing… And that is to never underestimate what a few humble ingredients can do. The best example I can provide is Samesh’s reinvention of beans and toast. Now this may not sound particularly ‘gourmet’, but believe me, you have not lived until you have tasted Samesh’s curried beans on toasted ciabatta.

He was kind enough to give me the recipe for this blog, so you will have it all to yourself in a moment if you will be patient while I say a few final words…

There is no particular trick to hosting a dinner party. I would perhaps say that candlelight always helps. Music also never goes amiss. I often like to ask my guests if they would mind selecting a CD from my shelf so that the night is not only dominated by the kind of music I feel like listening to at the time.

These are small things, however. In the end, you cannot go too wrong if you simply take the time to consider your guests. Find out how spicy they like their Thai soup. Perhaps they do not like spicy food at all. Find out if there are particular meats they do not eat, such as pork. Are they allergic to shellfish? If they are vegan, then you will have to cook without animal products. Cater for their needs; don’t simply do a roast veggie dish as an alternative for a couple of individuals. You will be excluding them from the larger experience.

As a guest, there is only one piece of advice I have. Enter someone’s home with nothing in your heart but gratitude. They are cooking for you, and they will be clearing your dishes and cleaning them later. They deserve your gratitude. My roommate, Thalia, is a pleasure to cook for because as long as it is vegetarian, she will soak it up like a dassie does the warmth of the sun. So if you are a guest, try and be that person. You will be eternally welcome in the homes of others.

That said, I trust you will find these curried baked beans a treat!

Ingredients

Olive/canola/sunflower oil (any oil works fine)

1 Tbspn Mustard seeds

1 medium onion chopped

1 twig of curry leaves (about 6-7 leaves)

1 clove of garlic crushed

A piece of ginger equivalent to the amount of garlic you use, chopped finely

1 or 2 chillies chopped/sliced (depending on your heat preference – omit if necessary)

1 tspn cumin

1 tspn coriander

1 tspn masala

1/4 tspn turmeric

1/2 tspn salt

1 Tblspn sugar

2 small tomatoes chopped

1/4 cup of passata

1/2 cup water

2 tins baked beans

1 Tbspn lemon juice

Salt and pepper to taste

Fresh coriander for garnish

Heat the oil in medium sized pot on medium high heat.Throw in the mustard seeds and fry until they start popping.Next, add the onions and fry until caramelised and golden brown.Add the curry leaves, garlic, ginger and chillies.Fry for a minute being careful not to burn the garlic.Add the spices, salt and sugar while stirring.Add the tomatoes and stir. You may need to reduce the heat here.Once the tomatoes have softened (about five to ten minutes), add the passata and water, and simmer for five more minutes. Taste for seasoning and adjust accordingly.Finally, add the baked beans, reduce heat, and simmer for about thirty minutes to an hour. You’re done when the beans are soft and tasty. Stir often to ensure that the beans don’t stick to the bottom of the pot.To finish, drizzle with olive oil and lemon juice. Stir and garnish with coriander.

 

 

 

 

 

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