You spend weeks and weeks in a state of semi-depression at the weather. Despite it officially being summer here in London, it just stays grey, blustery and a little damp. Great for the garden, but not so great for South African sun bunnies like me. You complain with your work colleagues over coffee. You look wistfully at your sundress before putting it away and pulling out a cardigan. And you tell your frends and family in South Africa about the depressing English weather and they all cluck in sympathy.
Then one of said friends from South Africa comes to visit you in London for a few days en route to a conference… and the weather is fantastic. Sweltering, in fact. And they look at you as if to say “you crazy woman – this weather is perfect! What on earth are you always moaning about?”. You then have the choice to:
a) stick to your guns of misery and explain what the average summer temperature has been this year (well below average) and how much it’s rained (well above average), and that this week is a freak occurrence; or
b) haul out the Weber braai (BBQ) and make hay while the sun shines!
Clearly, here at Chez Cooksister we chose the latter option! And because I’d hate all of you, my dear readers, to run short of braai recipes in this rare spell of warm weather, I thought I’d share a modern South African classic.
When Nick announces that we are braaing, I ask the crucial question: bake or salad? He knows South African braai etiquette well enough to know that I am referring to the format in which he’d like his potatoes to be served (because obviously you can’t braai without potatoes!). When I first came to London, I thought everybody made potato bakes, but it seems that they are far more of a South African habit than I knew – my English friends treat them like a rare delicacy.
If Nick chooses a bake, the end result depends on how enthusiastic I’m feeling and what I have available in the cupboard or fridge. But the one ingredient that no self respecting Saffer would leave out of a potato bake is… brown onion soup. I’ve written before about our collective love of packets of brown onion soup – it’s one of the things that my store cupboard is seldom without. Once you are sure you have potatoes, cream, onions and the soup powder, the rest is just bells and whistles. The bake that’s pictured above was made for frends, so I took a little extra care, adding mushrooms, cheese and breadcrumbs – but a simple bake can but just as addictively yummy. The secret is in long, slow cooking so that the liquid is reduced and absorbed by the poatoes, so leave yourself plenty of cooking time. It’s not health food (!) but I can vouch for its cheesy, starchy deliciousness – whatever the weather.
POTATO MUSHROOM BAKE (serves 4-6)
4 large baking potatoes
1 large onion
2 cloves garlic, crushed
250ml cream (single or double)
1 pkt brown onion soup powder
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup of sliced mushrooms
1 cup grated cheese (mature cheddar or similar)
1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs
Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Butter a large, shallow oven-proof dish lightly.
Scrub the potatoes well and slice into thin slices (5mm or less). Crush the garlic and slice the onion into thin rings. In a jug, mix the cream with the onion soup powder.
Lay a single layer of potato slices on the base of the buttered dish. Scatter a little crushed garlic, some onion rings and some sliced mushrooms over the top. Pour about about a quarter of the cream mix evenly over the vegetables, then sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper, a little thyme, and salt (but go easy on the salt as the soup is already salty).
Repeat until the ingredients are used up – you will probably make at least 4 layers. Cover the dish with aluminium foil and place in the pre-heated oven for an hour to 90 minutes, or until the potatoes are soft and most of the liquid has been absorbed.
Turn on the grill, remove the aluminium foil from the dish and spread the grated cheese on top of the final potato later. Sprinkle the breadcrumbs over the top and return to the oven, under the grill.
Grill until the cheese is melted and the crumbs are beginning to brown, then remove from the oven and serve.