We don’t entertain nearly as much as we used to, which is a shame because I miss the lively conversation around our dining room table and the cheering company of good friends. What I don’t miss is the bloody performance I used to turn it into, back in the day. I often complicated what should’ve been a simple pleasure, making it a time consuming and expensive exercise. I would always try to create the perfect atmosphere when people visited and this often involved frenzied cleaning, tidying and decorating.
All of that, of course, is not necessary in order to have a good time and I remember some of the most fun times were those that happened spontaneously, without any pre-planning or preparation. One such occasion happened over 40 years ago when Peter and I lived in a tiny, one-bedroomed flat off Umbilo Road. (And when I say tiny, it was so small you could not open the stove door fully as it banged against the opposite wall). We had arranged to go for a picnic in a nearby park with friends John and Des. However, on the day it rained and Des, determined to go ahead with the picnic, suggested we have it in our flat, which we did. We sat on the floor, spread the food out on a blanket and proceeded to have the most wonderful, convivial indoor picnic.
Another time, also in Amaryllis Court, we invited friends, Jane and Jeff, together with Peter’s sister, Sue, and her husband, Corrie, for dinner. We had bought a huge box of prawns but hadn’t thought the evening through as the prawns had not been cleaned and we had no idea how to cook them. So most of the evening was spent, again sitting on the floor, with everyone peeling, cleaning and helping to cook the prawns. But with lots of chatter and laughter in the process. A few days later Jane bought us a Kitchen Devil – our very first sharp knife!
A few years later we had moved slightly up in the world and were living in a semi-detached house just off Davenport Road. Friends of ours lived down the road, in a block of flats and, on a weekend, John (another John this time) would take his toddler, Bronwen, for a walk. If they walked past our house, Bronwen would stop and rattle our gate to get our attention. They would come in and often there would already be a few people around – in those days, our house was like a railway station with visitors coming and going and friends popping in. John would call his wife (we could see their front door from our back garden and he would literally shout for her to join us!), the braai would come out and we would cook and sit around the fire until dark when the records would be put on and the dancing would begin.
Later, when we entertained more formally, as in actually inviting people over, I used to make the mistake of slaving away in the kitchen while everyone else was having fun. Now when we have friends over, I like to prepare as much as possible in advance. When I was younger, there never seemed to be enough time to get everything organised but since we “retired”, I have more time on my hands and Peter is more available to help get the meal ready ahead of guests arriving. Tray bakes are perfect for this. There is already a Mediterranean Vegetable Bake on my Recipe page, however I have prepared this vegetable bake a few times and just love the flavours (especially the lemon), so I’m including it as well.
Vegetable Tray-Bake with Haloumi
(Use your discretion when it comes to quantities, taking into account how many people you want to serve and size of the baking tray.)
- baby potatoes
- courgette (zucchini),
- 1 garlic bulb
- 1 lemon
- 2 T fresh rosemary, chopped
- 60 ml olive oil
- sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 250 g haloumi
- 12 black Kalamata olives, drained and pitted
Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F) and line a baking tray with parchment paper.
Cut the potatoes, carrots, peppers and courgette into bite-sized pieces, cut the garlic in half crosswise and cut the lemon into thin wedges. Place in a large bowl and add the rosemary. Drizzle over the oil, season to taste with salt and pepper and toss until well coated. Transfer to the baking tray and bake for 25–30 minutes or until the vegetables are almost tender.
Break the haloumi into bite-sized pieces and scatter it over the vegetables along with the olives. Change the oven mode to grill, increase the temperature and grill the haloumi, olives and vegetables for 5–10 minutes or until the haloumi is soft and golden and the vegetables are tender and golden.
Serve topped with a handful of something green, a sprinkling of nuts or seeds and seasoning and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
We had friends over to play bridge one Sunday afternoon and to stay for supper afterwards. I prepared the above tray-bake in advance but just before I popped it back in the oven to finish it off, I added some par-cooked, spicy Italian sausage – made locally by Franco. I tossed diagonally sliced pieces of sausage, together with the haloumi and olives, over the veggies and they crisped up rather nicely under the grill, making it a more substantial meal for meat-eaters.
Salad greens grow with great abundance in my allotment and, as a result, we eat a lot of “green” salads. Tabbouleh is a great way to ring the changes every now and then and I’ve become quite partial to the nutty crunchiness of bulgur wheat. I couldn’t find bulgur wheat in Kiera’s local supermarket when I was last in America but perhaps one could substitute it with other grains like couscous or quinoa.
Tabbouleh is a Middle Eastern salad made of mostly finely chopped parsley with tomatoes, mint, onion, bulgur and seasoned with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Some variations add garlic, lettuce or cucumber. This recipe, based on one in Stephanie Alexander’s Kitchen Garden Companion, uses winter vegetables.
Winter Tabbouleh with Cabbage
- 1 cup bulgur (prepare the bulgur wheat according to package instructions)
- 2 spring onions, trimmed and thinly sliced
- 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
- 1 carrot, grated
- 1 celery stick, thinly sliced
- 1 cup cabbage, shredded
- ½ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
- ½ cup mint leaves, shredded
- 2 T extra-virgin olive oil
- Juice of 1 lemon
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Place all the ingredients in a large salad bowl. Pour in the dressing and mix everything together very well.
Instead of the olive oil and lemon juice dressing, one can add pesto. I also like to add roasted veggies, especially butternut and orange sweet potato.
Roasted Butternut and Sweet Potato
- 1 cup each sweet potato and butternut, cut into chunks
- Enough olive oil to coat the vegetables
- 1 Tbsp honey
- Good pinch of dried chilli flakes – as hot as you like
- salt & pepper
Preheat the oven to 200ºC. Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl and tip onto a lined baking tray that is big enough to spread them around. Lining the tin just makes the cleaning up so much easier. Roast for about 50-60 minutes (depending on their size).
Recently I cooked, for the first time, a small pork fillet – which I marinated in ½ cup soya sauce, 1 T brown sugar, 1 T honey, 2 crushed cloves garlic, 1 sliced red chilli and a glug of olive oil.
After browning it in a hot pan, I transferred it to a roasting pan and roasted it in the oven at 180°C for 10- 15 minutes. I added slices of the pork fillet to a tabbouleh and it made quite a delicious meal.