Super smoothies!

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Cooked breakfasts are a rarity here at Vastrap, usually saved for Sunday mornings when we have a house full of visitors. On a normal day, we have coffee and a rusk early in the morning before Quentin goes out to do his rounds on the farm. He usually returns home between 9h30 and 10h00 for breakfast and without fail, when I ask what he would like to eat he asks for a smoothie. Not exactly what you’d expect from a farmer! The disappointment on his face when there’s no smoothie is too terrible so I try to be prepared and serve up something fresh and delicious every morning. Of course it’s much easier to do this in summer when there’s an abundance of fruit, but I’ve figured out some tricks to keep our smoothies rolling throughout the year.

Our Vastrap smoothies graduated to super smoothies about a year ago when I started investigating the effects of raw food and various super foods like cacao, Maca and chia seeds on fertility. For a few months I decided to go all out and tried everything and anything until I found something that worked. I subjected Quentin to the terrible bitter taste of Maca and a concoction of weird looking green smoothies. I made almond milk and nut butters and tried to steer clear of dairy for a while. Eventually I realised that this would not be sustainable if I couldn’t find a way for all this stuff to taste good and for us to look forward to eating it every day.

The turning point was replacing our stick blender with a proper high-speed blender. It made a huge difference to the taste and texture of the end product because I was suddenly able to use a much wider variety of frozen fruit, including frozen bananas, which add a beautiful creamy texture and a refreshing chill. Overripe bananas in our fruit bowl are a thing of the past because I simply peel and freeze them – alas, that means no more banana bread! I have a dedicated freezer drawer packed with smoothie ingredients including peeled bananas, peeled and sliced mango, frozen berries and cherries, catawba grapes, nuts and seeds. The contents of the drawer change according to seasons. For example, I bought a box of overripe guavas on the side of the road in September, which I peeled and quartered before popping in the freezer. They were absolutely perfect and added a fabulous depth of flavour to our usual smoothie combination.

2013-11-11_0006There is no perfect smoothie recipe. The beauty is that you can adapt it to your taste and what you have on hand. Our fruit supply in town is quite limited so I buy things when I see them. In addition to the frozen fruit mentioned above I always have a stash of raw almonds, cashew nuts, brazil nuts, mixed seeds, honey, nut butters, rolled oats, cacao nibs and chia seeds. I sometimes use milk as the base, but mostly I use fruit juice and fresh orange juice if I have a bag of oranges. The other day I bought a fresh coconut and used the coconut water as the base, which was delicious! For green smoothies I often just use water as the base. I always add some yoghurt. My favourite is the Organic Vanilla yoghurt from Woolworths, but any plain or flavoured yoghurt will do.

2013-11-11_0007Basic super smoothie for two: 

2 x frozen peeled bananas

3 oranges juiced (or equivalent milk, fruit juice, almond milk or coconut water)

Hand full of strawberries or frozen berries (frozen grapes work well too and the seeds are full of antioxidants)

A few pieces of fresh and/or frozen fruit (guava, mango, pineapple, papaya, sweet melon)

Hand full of raw almonds, other nuts or equivalent home made nut butter

Half a hand full of seed mix or chia seeds

1/2-1 cup of Organic vanilla yogurt

Optional: honey, rolled oats, cacao nibs, goji berries, Maca powder

Whizz together for at least 35 seconds in a high-speed blender until smooth and creamy. The smoothie will still have some bite if you’ve used things like seeds and seeded grapes or guavas, but this is good because it makes the drink feel more substantial as a breakfast if you need to chew on it a bit.

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Lately I’ve been using frozen pitted cherries that I saved after last year’s Ficksburg Cherry Festival. I’ve been very precious about these cherries, but am happy to use them liberally now because cherries are in season again. Frozen cherries are deliciously decadent paired with cacao nibs in the smoothie!

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Green smoothies are a slightly different proposition that I’m less comfortable with. I’ve had some big hits, but also some disasters. I tend to stick with a similar base of frozen banana, yoghurt, water, nuts and seeds and then add some green leaves, sprouts, cucumber and other fresh ingredients like sweet melon. Cold sweet melon adds an amazing fresh taste to any smoothie as long as it really is a sweet one! To add some real zing you can also add a whole lemon, skin and all. It’s incredibly refreshing on a hot summer morning and super healthy to boot!

Happy Cooking Pasta (Again!)

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We had a long-overdue meeting of our cooking club last week hosted by Heidi at the White House (so called because it’s painted white inside and out, including the floors!) Last year, we had lots of fun making pasta and all the girls had requested that we have another session to brush up on our skills (see Happy Cooking Pasta!) It is always great to get together on a Friday afternoon to share our common interest in cooking and learn something new. We kicked off the day with some champagne to celebrate the happy news of my pregnancy. I sipped on a small glass! Vicky bought bags full of lemons for everyone from her garden, which added an amazing splash of colour to the table.

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Most of us have our own pasta rollers, but some of us have been too nervous to use them. After this session I think we are all sorted and ready to show off our skills. We experimented with different flours, like cake flour, ’00 and semolina and how they impact on the texture of the pasta. The semolina is much courser and requires a lot more kneading, whereas the ’00 flour very quickly results in a smooth fine texture. It really depends on individual taste which one you prefer and also the kind of pasta you are making. We use a general guide of 1 egg to 100g of flour with a touch of olive oil and some extra water if needed to bind it all together. Depending on the consistency you are after you can combine the different flours. For example, I like to use 1/2 white bread flour to 1/2 ’00 flour for ravioli pasta because it creates something more robust that won’t fall apart easily with a wet filling inside. For fettucine ’00 flour creates a beautifully smooth texture, but Wendy’s boys (who have become pasta making experts since our last session!) prefer the bite of semolina pasta. That is the beauty of it – you can do pretty much whatever you like! We all had a go at kneading and rolling different kinds of pasta which were then combined with different sauces. Laura made a delicious saffron and prawn sauce, which we paired with fettucine infused with saffron water. We also made a butternut and pork filling for ravioli, which goes perfectly with burnt butter and sage – a firm favourite with all of us. Wendy made a red pepper pesto, which we combined with the thin spaghetti pasta. All totally delicious!

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We also experimented with a slightly different kind of “pasta” called malfatti, which is a spinach and ricotta gnocchi served with a napolitana sauce. This has been a staple recipe in my family for years and is a perfect vegetarian alternative. Good quality ricotta cheese is hard to come by in a small town so we decided to make some after reading a very easy looking recipe on the Bartolini Kitchen’s blog (click HERE for the recipe). It is so simple and totally delicious! Absolutely perfect for the job. Making the malfatti is a messy business because you have to roll the little balls with your hands. Our mixture was slightly too wet and extra messy, but still worked out well. We used the recipe from Tessa Kiros’ book Twelve, with slight adjustments to reflect the way my mother taught me.

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After far too many courses we moved on to the all-important desert! Heidi presented affogato made with home-made ice cream which was amazing and some Italian pastries called crostoli. Some chocolate salami bought in Clarens rounded it all off perfectly.

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After such exertion there was nothing left to do, but fill a glass of wine (Cola Tonic and soda for me!) and enjoy the last rays of late afternoon sun. On the way home, I couldn’t help thinking of all the poor people sitting in Friday afternoon rush-hour traffic in cities all over the country. What a pleasure to be the only car on our farm road home. It’s only a pity about all the potholes I had to negotiate to get out of town!

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Cooking in a Castle

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I had the most wonderful weekend of cooking with good friends from Ladybrand, Maseru and Bloemfontein. The cooking club I belong to, which is called “Happy Cooking”, organised a two day course with a well-known Johannesburg-based teacher, Alexis Kriel, who specialises in vegetarian Indian cooking. Unfortunately I have missed all our cooking club meetings this year, which have included a Spanish day and a master class in meat cutting (for examples of what we did last year see our blog Happy Cooking Club). I wasn’t going to miss out on this weekend though as I knew it would be special. Our friend Adri organised for us to stay at a wonderful guest house called Union House near Fouriesburg and we spent the whole of Saturday cooking in the kitchen of Destiny Castle, which is perched on a cliff with 360 degree views of the Maluti mountains. It was simply spectacular. In Alexis’ words: like being on top of the beanstalk! 

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And the cooking was spectacular too. Alexis has a very particular food philosophy or consciousness, which stems from her years living in a hindu temple in Chastworth. In essence, it is thought that the person who cooks the food and the way in which they interact with it makes a huge difference to how the food is experienced on a physical, emotional and spiritual level. Before we started she explained all the different spices we would use. There were some that we had never heard of like asafoetida (hing), which is often used in place of onion or garlic. Then she requested us to use all of our senses whilst cooking so that rather than constantly tasting everything we should touch, smell, listen and observe the food to assess when it is ready. We should also not tamper with or stir the food too much. This was quite a difficult thing for many of us, but it really worked to maintain the integrity and beauty of the final dishes.

DSC_4163We chose to cook her Bollywood menu, which includes deep and pungent Indian flavours based on dishes we know well from restaurants. Although everything was vegetarian, most of the dishes could be easily done with meat too. The first day included: Paneer Tikka Masala (including home made paneer); Mushroom Rogan Josh; Apricot Chutney; Biryani; and a sweet dessert called Dhapa Dhoi.

DSC_4209On the second day we combined all the dishes that she would normally teach in two classes: Cashew Nut Curry; Soy Beef Vindaloo; Pear Chutney with Star Anise; Dried Fruit Pulao; Paneer Makhani; Coconut and Cashew Nut Rice with Mustard Seed and Curry Leaf Tempering; Pistachio Korma with Cauliflower; Green Chutney; and dessert of  Choclat Burfie and Black Tea Cinnamon Truffles. We also begged Alexis to share her secret for perfect rotis, which she graciously did and they were a big hit!

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We cooked in the amazing kitchen in the castle with a roaring log fire in the dining room. Destiny Castle used to run as a guest house, but the owners recently tithed it to the Church and plan to use it as the location for a very high level faith-based leadership academy. It certainly is the right place for quiet thought and contemplation of the complex leadership issues facing our continent.

Needless to say, it all ended in a feast of flavours! The pictures speak for themselves. We drove down the treacherous hill back home sated and satisfied. Everyone agreed that we had experienced something truly unique in a quiet little corner of the Free State.

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The magic of AGA

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Because it’s winter… because we only lit her this week… because my porridge is busy bubbling on the stove… and because I love her SO much I simply must document the history of our AGA stove.

Kettle on the boil for the first cup of tea!

Since October last year the house at Vastrap has undergone a complete transformation. The biggest change has been the kitchen living area and one of the best additions has been our beautiful anthracite fired AGA stove. There is something about an AGA that conjures the romanticism of farm life. One simply has to have one. Especially in an area like ours that gets extremely cold in winter. The reality, however, is that most farm houses do not have AGA’s anymore. The traditional old ones were hard to manage, made a big mess and were slowly displaced when electric stoves became fashionable. So imagine my disappointment when I arrived at the farm to no AGA….

When we started discussing the kitchen renovation I pleaded with Quentin to find me one. Fortunately his sister Lesley had an old one standing in her garage on her farm, which is about 20 kilometers away from us. Lesley and her husband Gary moved to Mauritz about 5 years ago but before that the house had been empty for decades while Bill farmed on the lands. Quentin can never remember anyone living there so they must have left in the late 1960s or early 1970s. The AGA had been standing abandoned and unused in the garage since then… can you imagine such a beautiful thing treated so badly!

Lesley and Gary very kindly gave us the stove as they had decided not to use it in their house. We were very excited to go and fetch it, but when it got to Vastrap we realised with shock that it was in a very bad state of repair. Full of rats nests, all rusted and the paint peeling off. Stupidly I didn’t take a photo of what she looked like then. I think I was too stressed about the mad rush to get the kitchen finished before our Christmas visitors arrived!

I quickly went to work to find someone who could help us. The AGA was an integral part of our kitchen design so I was determined to fix it. I got in touch with a woman from Pietermaritzburg  called Emmie who travels around the country with her husband Morris servicing anthracite stoves. Given my general experience with building I thought it would take months to get this done, but to my surprise Emmie and Morris arrived a few days later, loaded the AGA onto a trailer and delivered it back fully restored within 10 days. It was the best service I’ve ever experienced… but as Quentin likes to remind me it did come at a price! It was worth it though and we were thrilled with her new look.

The problem is that these stoves weigh tonnes… the following photos show how we used the strength of 9 men to get her into the house and into position.

Morris undoing the straps on the trailer. The bags of sand are poured in afterwards for extra insulation.

Heave ho there we go!

Negotiating a tricky corner.

She isn’t going anywhere now!

In her place with the chimney section kept open so that we can access it for her once a year service.

Of course this was done in December and we didn’t need to light her until winter in June. So we just admired her instead and finished the renovation around her.

Finishing touches… the chimney is covered with panels of old metal pressed ceiling that we sanded down and painted.

On Sunday when Quentin and I returned from being away we decided to take the plunge and light her. Everyone had said it would be difficult, but Quentin made it look like a breeze. The next day she was warm and cosy and gorgeous. I just had to put a kettle on to boil to see her in action. And then yesterday I simply had to boil some eggs for lunch and then just to make sure she was working okay I left a pot of lamb stock simmering the whole day… imagine that heavenly aroma. And again this morning I simply  had to make some porridge. So I can happily confirm that she is indeed working, but I haven’t made bread or cooked anything in the oven yet… it’s only a matter of time though!

Hot coals burning bright.

Farm eggs on the boil for lunch and lamb stock on the boil just because.

Poepsie cat definitely approves of this big new heater in the house. I bet she would even climb into the oven if I let her!

Poepsie cat approves of the new spot.

Inspecting the ovens… the top one is the hot oven and the bottom one is more like a warmer drawer.