Compared to most people I know, we entertain rather a lot here at Cooksister HQ. Sometimes it’s ambitious all-day braais for 30 people; sometimes more intimate lunch parties for six; sometimes just the neighbours over for dinner. But however many people are coming, I always hope that they find my house a relaxed and comfortable place to be; that they do not feel as if they have to be on their best behaviour, or that I am neglecting them in any way. So when I recently saw an article in a local newspaper headed “Biggest dinner party host faux pas”, I felt compelled to go and have a look and see whether I was guilty of any major ones.
The list was the result of a survey by furniture manufacturer Hygena and was a peculiar combination of the expected and the unexpected:
- 54% of guests are annoyed by a host doing too much texting on the phone or playing with a tablet
- 45% of guests expect an abundance of toilet paper
- 43% of visitors cringe at couples’ public displays of affection
- 42% of guests complained that their hosts leave them alone for too long
- 36% of guests despair at not being offered any liquid refreshments
- 36% of guests have hated being left on the doorstep due to a broken doorbell or the host being out
- 31% dread fending off their hosts’ pets or dealing with animal hair
- 26% get annoyed by low temperatures in a host’s home
- and an equal number (19%) resent being left to play with their hosts’ children or being asked to take their shoes off
OK, the texting, being left on the doorstep, being abandoned alone, dying of thirst, shivering with cold, or enforced babysitting duties of the host’s kids do not come as a surprise to me. And to be fair, I have also been in lounges where I simply did not know where to sit as everything was fuzzed over with a layer of pet fur. But are guests really upset by PDAs? Would they prefer open conflict (always a greater likelihood in my house when the pressure is high in the kitchen!)? And I am not sure how anybody can get truly upset by being asked to remove their shoes in the house – but then my guests are always offered slippers or socks. And there is always enough loo paper to sink a small frigate, so maybe guests will forgive my cat when he brings them his toy to play fetch (yes, he really does this). On balance, I think I’m doing OK as a host if I:
- provide drinks and snacks upon arrival
- let guests choose whether to hang out with me in the kitchen or with Nick in the lounge
- err on the side of overcatering so that nobody goes home hungry
- scrub the guest bathroom to within an inch of its life and stock it with towels, soap and loo paper
- offer guests our WiFi password (you can so tell I hang out with bloggers!)
What are YOUR biggest turn-offs when you are a guest in somebody’s home?
A couple of weeks ago we had some friends over and I had to muddle through without the benefit of this list. Ignorant as I was of the needs of my guests (!), I figured the important part was to have tasty food on the table at a reasonable hour before everybody chewed off their hands; and to spend less time in the kitchen and more time enjoying myself with my guests. In an effort to clear some space in my freezer, I had done a quick inventory and discovered a frozen lamb breast stashed behind the ice-cream (as one does!), and had decided to make that the centrepiece of the meal. Now the lamb breast is a curious and lesser-known cut, also known as lamb belly but lacking the cachet and tenderness of the ever-popular pork belly. It is an oblong-shaped part of the forequarter containing ribs and alternating layers of fat and meat. If the ribs are removed you end up with a thin layer of meat, fat and gristle, usually sold rolled up in the style of a roast. But do not be fooled – this is no more good for roasting than stewing steak is good for barbecuing. It is, however, very very cheap and in these straitened times, that makes up for a lot.
The only way to coax a delicious meal out of lamb breast is by long, slow cooking and in this house, that means dusting off my sous vide machine. I have previously written at some length about what sous vide cooking is and how it works, but in a nutshell it denotes a method of cooking food sealed in airtight plastic bags in a water bath at a carefully regulated constant temperature. The cooking times are unusually long (up to 72 hours) and the temperatures are much lower than are normally used for cooking, typically between 55°C (131 °F) and 60°C (140 °F). Cooking sous vide means that much of your dinner party prep can take place while you sleep or while you are at work; and it also means that given enough time, even the toughest, cheapest piece of meat can be cooked to fork-tender perfection using this method. Having previously had edible but disappointing results cooking a lamb breast like a traditional roast, I’d been dying to see how it would turn out if cooked sous vide.
The spice rub I used is an adaptation of the one on my favourite Nigel Slater slow-roast lamb recipe, given added Morroccan flavour by the addition of ras-el-hanout. I have made this twice, once for something like 18 hours at 55C; and once for 8 hours at 57.5. Both work fine: the meat remains pink but becomes beautifully tender – streets better than my previous attempt at speedy oven roasting! The long time that the spices spend in close quarters with the meat means that their flavours truly infuse right through, and the fat that can sometimes be overwhelming with lamb cooks out into the bag so that you can discard it. I served my lamb on an appropriately Moroccan bed of fresh herb couscous alongside roasted slices of aubergine doused in more ras-el-hanout. And who can complain about taking off their shoes when the food tastes this good?
More blogger lamb recipes include:
- FOR THE LAMB
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 1 Tbs sea salt flakes
- ¼ tsp sweet paprika
- ½ tsp ras-el-hanout
- 1 Tbs coriander seed
- 1 Tbs cumin seeds
- 2 Tbs thyme leaves
- 2 Tbs olive oil
- a thick slice of butter
- FOR THE COUSCOUS
- 250g quick-cook couscous
- 375ml hot water or stock
- A handful of fresh chives
- A handful of fresh mint leaves
- A handful of fresh flat-leaf parsley
- salt and pepper
- Fill the sous vide machine and pre-heat to 55C.
- To make the spice rub, peel the garlic cloves and lightly crush them together with the salt using a pestle and mortar. Add the paprika, cumin seeds, coriander seed, ras el hanout and thyme leaves and continue to crush together. Gradually add the oil so as to end up with a thickish paste. Melt the butter in a small pan and stir into the spice paste.
- Carefully remove any string or elastic tying your lamb belly roll together and flatten the meat (you may find that it is actually several pieces of flattish meat rolled together. Spread all sides generously with the spice paste.
- Re-roll the meat and tie securely into a roll. Place the meat into a heavy duty plastic pouch and vacuum seal it. Place the sealed pouch into the sous vide machine, close the lid and set the timer to 12 hours.
- When the meat is ready, turn off the machine and prepare the couscous. Finely chop the herbs. Place the couscous into a large bowl and add the hot water/stock. Cover with a plate and allow to stand for 10 minutes or so, then fluff up with a fork and stir in the chopped herbs. Check for seasoning and add salt and pepper as necessary.
- Remove the pouch containing the meat from the sous vide machine. Cut open the bag and remove the meat, reserving the juices. If you want a crispy exterior, place the meat in a roasting tin in a very hot oven for 10 minutes, turning frequently till browned - but I did not bother with this.
- If you want gravy, spoon or pour off as much of the fat as possible from the juices and heat the remainder in a small saucepan and thicken with a little cornflour mixed with cold water.
- Serve the lamb sliced on the couscous, alongside slices of roasted aubergine.
- NOTE: If you have no sous vide machine, try slow-roasting the lamb in a closed casserole dish with 500 ml of stock at 150C for three hours.