Monday, February 27, 2012

When I was a Baker

During my fall break (what would be an early spring break in the Northern hemisphere I guess) I had a brief stint baking at Closer Cafe in Muizenberg.

Closer is an interesting little din, it doesn't quite know whether it wants to be a coffee shop or a gourmet vegan restaurant. My friend Nicole runs it, and has aspirations to three-star cuisine - but she doesn't own it, and thus is relegated to frying burgers a lot of the time. Those are pretty tasty though, and while I was there we made many a delicious salad as well.

The week started on Monday with a Raspberry-Apple-Crumbcake, and lots of cookies. Gingerbread cut-outs, made into black-and-white icebox cookies crusted with brown sugar and some chocolate ginger hearts for Valentine's day.

Tuesday saw me baking lots of marbled banana bread muffins. I particularly like the banana slice as a decoration on top :)

Wednesday I took an easy day and sat by the window, cutting out leftover cookie dough into all sorts of fun shapes.

Thursday, we made some Berry Cream Tartlets, inspired by the post-punk kitchen. Cashews were soaked, berries and coconut pureed, delicate chocolate-olive oil crusts fabricated - then we realized there was no agar-agar to be found anywhere in the village. (Actually, we realized that on Tuesday, and that's why these babies didn't happen for Valentine's day, as they should have.) I took the daring step to do a corn-starch-only cream cheese substitute, and it came out heavenly.

On Friday, the Cafe was sold. Yes. Because it hasn't been turning a profit, and the previous owners were too busy with the rest of their lives, they sold it to the South African Vegan Society.
Around mid-afternoon, we were serving delicious home-made flour tortillas stuffed with an old favorite of mine, my friend Lissa's ginger black beans, mango salsa and brown rice.

Some American tourists were swooning over this creation of mine, and I was congratulating myself on my first-time-ever tortilla success, as the SAVS's head popped in. A tall, skinny, long-haired anarcho-vegan type with the hilarious name of Aragorn, he was easily convinced to try one of my "Pink Post-Punk Passion" tartlets. After he finished every last crumb of it, he asked me my number and whether I'd be able to bake for Closer on occasion in the future.

Success, I say.

The Baker
The Chef

(All the photos were taken by poet-photographer Arlie, who was experimenting with some borrowed, slightly out-of-date, slightly broken camera at the time - thanks, lady!)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Broccoli hummus

First they told us you can make mashed potatoes from cauliflower (for instance, here). Of course, I didn't believe it was going to be any good - until my favorite vegan blogger ever was talking about it as well, and I gave it a try. Ever since, I've been eating super-easy, super-healthy low-carb mashed cauliflower, conveniently prepared in single servings between my microwave and my blender. Pink beet root and orange carrot colored "caulipots" are now among the regulars in my kitchen.

Then they told us about broccoli hummus. I love hummus, but chickpeas, while delicious and protein-rich, also pack a lot of carbs. And I thought, maybe brassica oleracea really is a magical plant: I'll try it.

Believe you me, it's a miracle. The recipe I started with also had zucchini added, which I didn't have on hand and am not a huge fan of anyways - so I forged ahead with just broccoli, and the usual delicious add-ins; garlic, lemon juice, tahini, cumin.

Ok, maybe it tastes a bit like broccoli. But that's alright with me. I like vegetables.

Broccoli Hummus
(This version doesn't have added oil or salt, because I'm trying to really optimize these days when it comes to nutrition. You might want to throw in a spoonful of extra virgin olive oil, and a bit of salt to taste.)
  • 200g broccoli, steamed
  • 1Tbs tahini
  • 1-2Tbs lemon juice
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • cumin to taste (~1ts)
Now just throw it all in the blender, blend until smooth, and enjoy on crackers, carrots, poppadums, whatever dipping implements you care for.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Visual versus verbal

I find that the abundance of visual content in my life, on the internet, in lectures, in books makes me lazy. I first realized this when I broke my camera in December - how to document my travels or cooking ventures? How to compose a blog post?

Our lives become a stream of pictures. What hasn't been visualized isn't real. I am reluctant to describe if I can just show. As a result, my thoughts and my narrative become simpler, more focussed on stunning vistas. Less attention goes to logical connections, to progressions and developments. I almost feel like the more I carry my camera, the less attention I give to detail.

Well, now I have it back, and you can expect to see more photographs again (if I can make it past my growing frustration with Blogger's image uploading interface) - let me know if you have an opinion on images vs words!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

South African Critters

 I'm going to admit it. That a few weeks ago, I managed to destroy my camera. By driving over it with my little dump of a rental car. This was at the Cape of Good Hope, and I didn't realize I had dropped it until after dinner! Some kind soul found it and actually returned it to me, and it looks like it can be saved - fingers crossed.

Yes, and that's why I've been posting old pictures. Today from that very last ride with my dear little S90, down to the Cape Point National Park. Wildlife is one of SA's big tourist attractions - and though some of the ones here weren't quite wild when we saw them, all of them are native to subsaharan Africa.

There are actually plenty of ostrich farms down here, one just outside the park, and ostriches are strange creatures! They eat stones, to help them digest all the fibre they eat. As you can see, the babies start on little grains on sand, and move on to rocks the size of my fist later in life.

Their eggs contain as much, well, egg as about 24 chicken eggs (big omelette!), and their shells are so thick that the mother ostrich has to help break them with its chest bone. In the wild about two thirds of young ostriches die because they are crushed by the mothers chest bone. And, well, they do look a bit evil.

Later in the park, my brother and I were lucky enough to have one of these guys cross our path in the wild.

The Baboons were just chilling, lazily showing off their genitalia near the entrance gate.

And then of course the dassie, a small little mammal. It reminds me a lot of a marmot, but is in fact the closest living relative to... the elephant! I think they're much cuter though.

Another really common sight around the Cape are Agames, little lizards which come in different colors. We saw lots in black, and a few beautiful jewel-like multicolored ones (like the one getting friendly with a dassie in the first picture).

Monday, February 6, 2012

Meeting Afrika

South Africa is the Cape, beautiful beaches, Table Mountain, winelands. But also: millions of people living in the Townships, segregated communities outside the main city centers established under Apartheid. In Cape Town they range from  "colored" zones with reasonable if modest houses in the Cape Flats, to formerly "black" townships or completely informal settlements, motley assemblies of houses, shanties and shacks, overcrowded with ten to a hundred times as many people per square kilometer as they were planned for.

The largest one in the country is Khayelitsha, with over 400 000 inhabitants as of '05 and growing rapidly, located on the outskirts of CT. When my friend Michael came to visit, the first thing he remarked upon getting off the plane was "this place is very orderly, you know, even the shantytowns are built on a grid" -- that was Khayelitsha from a bird's eye view, planned and executed by the Apartheid regime.
The next thing you see when leaving the airport, fittingly, is another big semi-informal township named Guguletu. 340 000 inhabitants, one murder every 2.5 days, and on most days a cloud of smoke hanging over some burning block of shacks off in the distance; the gas burners they use in these make-shift homes tend to self-ignite.

After some searching we found a guided tour through a smaller township named Imizamo Yetu, Xhosa for "our struggle". Our prospective guide was an inhabitant of that same township, and we decided it was way better to be shown around by a local than to oggle at dirt and poverty from the top of a tour bus.

Afrika Moni - first I thought my travel companion was pulling my leg, but that is actually the name that our guide introduced himself by when we met him in the parking lot of the local police station. From there it was just a few steps to the first shacks built on the edge and into the drains of the official settlement of Imizamo Yetu. A recycling center on the edge of the township provides a welcome service to the surrounding neighborhoods and employment for the locals - out front stands a big papier machee elephant, soon to be painted by local children.

Then Afrika led us into the township proper. The central road, paid for by Lufthansa's fundraising efforts, looked new and well-paved, while the further-out streets barely deserved the name. Some few hundred small single-family houses had been built by various charities along the main streets, most of them now sporting one or two make-shift shacks in the yard, homes to subletters - no square inch was left uninhabited. When I asked about growing vegetables or keeping chicken at home, the reply was "space is too precious". Children soon came up to us and tried to climb on our backs; My first reaction was to shake them off and clutch at my valuables, until I realized that they in fact just wanted to play with some interesting strangers, and maybe get some candy out of it.

Stopping at a shabeen, the not-quite-legal bars selling beer to locals out of the owner's home, we got to admire one of the charity houses from the inside: the kitchen looked pristine, just like in a little townhous in Germany. We met the future president of Uganda ("Once we kill Mugabe, I will go back and go into politics"), and found out that corruption reaches deep into the townships: the lists governing the distribution of these nice little houses are kept by city hall and can be altered at the price of a few thousand Rand slipped under a door. This was how Afrika's uncle lost his rights to one of them and still lived in a shack, after 20 years in IY.

Many things were not so bad here, compared to other places: this township sports the first clinic distributing free anti-retroviral drugs in all of Cape Town, a Kindergarten had been established a few years earlier through the fundraising efforts of a German couple, and a new, modern, big school for the children was under construction during our visit. "The children are our future, they are our hope", said Afrika.

Because he had some extra time and seemed to enjoy my incessant questions about everything, he then decided to take us to a less visited place, where even he doesn't go at night, the outskirts of the township. Shacks built into the national park bordering IY, the sprawl of the underbelly of the city. No running water, electricity haphazardly tapped from the main grid, no streets, under the majestic trees at the foot of Table Mountain. "They say 'we don't have the nice things you have down there, but at least we have a view'" - of the rich villas of Hout Bay on the other side of the valley.

We encountered more children, keen on being photographed and see their pictures on the little screens of our cameras. Many of them barely spoke English. Afrika insisted that "they don't let it show, they keep their dignity - if you saw these people outside the township, you would never know they live here". And it's true, many of the locals we saw were far better dressed than us. Meanwhile I began to wonder how positive the old phrase of holding on to your dignity really was; maybe it was just a sign of resignation to take better care of your suit than of your life?

As we were walking back to the main part of town, I began questioning Afrika on the fermentation habits of his Xhosa culture. I was not surprised to find that the Xhoisan make a home-brew from cornmeal and sorghum, called Umqombuti, some of which we got to sample out of a large plastic bucket in the back of some woman's shack, at the foot end of her bed. I learned to say "Thank you" in Xhosa - "Ngosi" - much to the delight of the motley crew of Xhoisan ladies assembled in the room.

On the way to our last stop, Afrika's home, we saw some PVC pipes that the government is laying to provide drainage to the higher up parts of Imizamo Yethu. Michael pointed out that while PVC is a fine material for indoors, it will degenerate rapidly when exposed to UV. "These pipes would last at least twice as long if you just covered them up with some cardboard" he said, but Afrika didn't seem to care much. He led us onwards, through the hut of his tuberculotic uncle who was passed out on his bed, to show us his project number one: the Imizamo Yethu museum. So far only a collection of photos and memorabilia in his living room, from old maps with the original street plans to the building of stone houses in the main part, he planned to raise funds and turn it into its own building. The artistic rendition of it showed a wooden structure standing on stilts over Afrika's family's little home.

When we left, our guide gave us the warmest of goodbyes. Nevertheless I felt a bitter aftertaste in my mouth: if there was such warmth and sense of community in these groups at the very edge of South African society, why did they not organize? Why did they not spend less time dressing in proper clothing and going to work for minimum wage and more on forming a political presence and becoming an actual part of society, with a voice of its own?

To my estimate, about a third of Cape Town live in circumstances like these. Their government is neglecting them, and while they are working and surviving - somehow - , they do not seem to be aware of any possibility to change their situation. Is there none?

See more photos of IY

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Almond lemonade

To my great delight I discovered today that the local supermarket carries almond extract! Of course I picked some up - you can never have too many flavor essences in your kitchen. Amaretto oatmeal, anyone?

We had a Braai in the evening, and since I've been trying to live more healthily lately I've strayed away from unnecessary alcohol intake (ask me some time to explain when alcohol intake becomes necessary). So I wasn't too keen on the obligatory cold beer, and promptly incorporated the almond flavor into a delicious low-calorie drink. I thought it was a bit reminiscent of Italian sodas, but I'm really not sure if it's quite like anything I've ever had before...

And yes, if you read the ingredient list it's going to sound disgusting, but don't judge until you've tried it!

Juice of 1 lemon (~3 Tbs?)
2g sucrose sweetener (2 packs Splenda)
1/4 ts almond extract
5 cups cold water
1 cup ice

Mix all the ingredients together in a pitcher, add more of any of the above to taste.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

African Chocolate Loaf

When I started this little blog of mine I had high hopes of writing about African adventures. But I should have been able to predict the outcome: mostly, well, food. Baking is just one of the more fascinating aspects of my life!

Here is a little lesson in substitution. Where lots of vegan baking uses apple sauce, I go for mashed bananas, blended pineapple or whatever other fruit puree happens to be at hand - down at the Cape they only sell one kind of apple sauce, and it's overpriced and loaded with sugar. Same for canned pumpkin: a staple food in North America, it's virtually impossible to get in South Africa. Tried and loved instead are baked sweet potato (a staple of the African diet, so there's usually some leftovers around) or roasted gem squash, a small, round, green squash that is very common here. Potato might work well, too!

The result in this case: what I call African Chocolate Loaf. A moist, dense, chocolatey cake, with a crispy crust and hints of German ginger bread, soy-, egg-, and dairy free!

(This recipe is strongly inspired by the PPK Chocolate Pumpkin Loaf; I got the boiling water trick from Isa as well, it seems to do something good for the texture.)

1/4 cup mashed (about one extra-small) banana
2 Tbs sunflower oil
1/3 cup baking cocoa, unsweetened
1/3 cup + 2 tablespoons boiling water, divided
1 cup mashed yam or squash or...
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 ts vanilla essence
1 ts apple cider vinegar

1 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup pastry flour
1/2 ts ground cinnamon
1/4 ts ground nutmeg
1/4 ts ground ginger
1/8 ts ground cloves
1/8 ts ground black pepper
1 ts baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt

1 bar (90-100g) dark chocolate
  • Preheat your oven to 180C. Line a loaf pan with baking paper. 
  • Mash the banana, use a blender to turn your starchy veg into a smooth puree. Chop the chocolate into ~5mm chunks. Get the water boiling.
  • Sift together the flours, spices, baking soda and salt.
  • In a separate bowl, stir together banana, oil and cocoa.
  • Add 1/3 cp boiling water to the cocoa mass, stirring quickly to make a smooth sauce.
  • To this chocolate sauce, add sugar, vanilla and vinegar.
  • Add about half the dry ingredients to the wet, mix, add 1 Tbs boiling water and briskly stir together until incorporated. Add the second half and another Tbs hot water and mix again, don't overmix!
  • Gently fold in the chocolate (no more stirring...).
  • You should have a pretty thick batter by now; use a spatula to dump it into the baking pan.
  • Bake for about 50 minutes. This one is easy to burn because you can't tell done-ness by the color; after 45 minutes check every 5 min or so by sticking a kebab skewer into the loaf: when it comes out more or less dry your cake is done.
  • Serves 12 at about 180kcal, 6g fat and 4g fibre per serving.