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The Big South African Braai

The Big South African Braai
(or Coalside Follies and Other Acts of Culinary Bravery)

Ever watched the look on a man`s face when the fish his friend is braaiing sticks to the grid? Pure joy! Especially when the braaier`s wife, while bustling about pouring Chateau Libertas into glasses and tossing mayo into coleslaw, has told him (a million times, and loudly) that he hasn`t oiled the grid enough.

If the botched fish is cooked to perfection, a few strategically placed herbs and bits of lemon will disguise the most battered bits. However, if the offending object is dried out, this is not the time to ask your man why his friend`s fish tastes much better and never looks like a road kill.

Change the conversation to something even more fraught with tension – like boerewors. Remember of the Kellerprinz Braai competitions? These contests signalled the turning point in the life of boerewors, previously a so-so part of the menu. Flavour, texture, spicings and casings were given the third degree. To check it out properly, judges would taste the stuff raw, and the winning team would go into raptures about what made their wors better than the rest. The press – ever eager to break a brawl-inducing story – took the matter into unparalleled realms of food journalism.

Butchers were given the official once-over about what to put into the stuff (no eyeballs and other unmentionable portions of the animal`s carcass were allowed). Legislation was passed about the permissible meat/fat/whatever content. Purists mixed and minced their own boerewors, flavoured it with reverence, filled casings with care, matured it at 4ºC for a few days and (finally) braaied it to within an inch of its life. Only the bravest wors?manufacturers invited friends and fellow?fundis around for Sunday cook-outs.

Like insufficient oil on the grid of a braaiing fish, the spotlight took all the fun out of tucking into a piece of sausage and the braai became a public clash of tong-twirling titans.

Peace reigned for only a short while and fireside forays reverted to pre-contest innocence. Then someone decided the time was right to resurrect the art of preparing lunch in a potjie. What the main manne of the potjiekos brigade didn`t know (but soon found out) was just how complex an animal a potjie is. Books were written on the subject. Cook-offs were held on sports fields and at church fêtes. Eyes streaming from the smoke of a hundred fires, taste-buds battered by unspeakably bad concoctions masquerading as edible art, judges soldiered on. But not for long. Enough is enough.

When potjiekos competitions bit the dust, along came the 2001 Chateau Libertas World Barbecue Championships. 45 teams descended on Cape Town from all over the world. 150 judges spent two days munching their way into the record books. This significant event signalled the return to competition braaiing big-time and spurned annual regional and national cook-off’s that have turned the events into a spectator sport of note.

In case you’re tempted to put together a team to compete in the next round, here are some quick gourmet tips for short-order braai cooks:

* Spear lamb chops, chicken fillets, crayfish tails or sheep’s kidneys onto rosemary branches, brush with worcestershire sauce or garlicky butter and sizzle over medium-hot coals.

* Braai oil-glossed baby squash over a bed of cool coals. Turn frequently and watch the heat, aiming for lightly toasted skins to offset tender middles. Scatter with sea salt when they`re done.

* For tiny tums, have on hand a stack of sandwiches to toast in a hinged grid. Choose cheese and any of its best friends like tomato, onion and pineapple. More mature palates may enjoy a smear of grainy mustard or a couple of basil leaves as well.

* No matter how tempting the meat is, there`s always call for a starchy side-kick. Mash boiled potatoes with butter and a splash of milk, and sneak in a fistful of snipped chives, a little grated lemon rind, or a couple of finely chopped hard-boiled eggs.

* Homely cauliflower makes an unusual side dish. Cut into large florets, dunk in water and scoop – still wet – onto a sheet of foil. Add some cocktail tomatoes, season and wrap up tight. Cooking time on the grid over medium coals will be about 20 minutes.

* Char sliced red and yellow peppers over the coals and season with sea salt, cracked pepper and a gloss of olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

* Have everything on hand before you start, including meat, basting sauces, seasoning, fuel, fire lighters and equipment. And have the side-dishes (and guests) ready-and-waiting. The feast should be eaten the moment it comes off the grid.

* Have ample coals; the bed should be the width of a flat hand wider than your grid.

* To seal your meat and make good grill-marks, the fire must be right – hold your hand about 150mm above the coals for three to four seconds, it should be so hot that you whip your hand away smartly.

* Keep your grid clean! Burn it off after cooking. Pre-heat it before you’re about to braai. Rub it hard with half a lemon, and brush with a brass wire brush. Heat again just before putting on the food.

* Oil the grid just before putting the food on. For fish, oil both the fish and the grid.

* Don’t turn meat too frequently. Seal it to golden brown, then flip it and cook the other side. Don’t stab or prick the meat; juices and moisture will drain away.

* Bastes and marinades that contain sugar or tomato tend to burn. Rather brush with good quality olive oil and fresh spices. Keep it simple!

* When doing a whole chicken, flat chicken or large joints of meat, cover it with a large baking dish to form a simple oven.

* When your food is on the grid, don’t even think of deserting it! Even if the phone rings, or you need another beer, ask someone else to do the honours.

* Allow meat to rest for a few minutes before serving. This will redistribute the juices, and tenderise the meat.

* When the cooking’s done, pile wood on the fire. The crackling blaze draws everyone into the circle of its friendly glow. Wrap dampened towels in foil, warm them round the edge of the fire and pass them around to fix sticky fingers.

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