IT WAS a potjie day in Arniston. A potjie day is one where the sun is a little slow to reveal itself, there’s just a tad too much windchill for a braai, but it’s too warm to hang around indoors. It’s a shoulder season thing. Half-warm, half-cool, the Weather Gods dithering about in fence-sitting mode. You put on a jacket, put your back to the breeze coming off the turquoise sea, and think, $#@% it, I’m gonna make me a potjie, crack a bottle of wine and enjoy the view.
I’ve always thought of potjies as wet. Not in an insulting way, to suggest that they’re namby-pamby. They’re far too hardy, and heavy, for that, and I wouldn’t diss any worthwhile cooking vessel or method. But from the first time I was shown how to cook in one, in the early Eighties, it was made clear: you brown your meat in the base, then build it up in layers, starting with chunkier vegetables that require longer cooking, such as potatoes and carrots, and finally pour in your cooking liquid, often a bottle of red wine or a mixture of wine and stock.
Rice, uncooked, could go somewhere in the middle, and if you used that you’d have to be sure there was enough liquid to absorb it. But I’ve never been a particular fan of rice included in a potjie, especially if using potatoes.
But a cook’s life is an eternal quest to find another way to do something you thought you’d cracked, so, eyeing up my empty potjie, I thought about the fact that it is solid, made of cast-iron, and has a heavy, tight-fitting lid. It also conducts heat beautifully, and you can put hot coals on the lid to ensure that it is pretty much as hot at the top as it is at the bottom. So, that makes it an oven. And in an oven, you can cook a roast.
So no liquid at all went into this potjie meal, unless you count the merest squeeze of lemon juice. As you can see in the picture, two small whole chickens went into it. These are small even by South African standards. I was astonished on moving to the UK for a few years in late 2002 to find how large British chickens were – the kind that you find wrapped in cellophane at your local supermarket, that is. They mark them small, medium and large, like socks or T-shirts, and believe me when I say that even the ones marked small are generally larger than most chickens we find in our stores. The medium ones are pretty chunky, and the large ones could pass for turkeys. You wouldn’t get one of those into my potjie, any more than you’d want to encounter one in an alley on a dark night. So the ones that went into my potjie, in those terms, were SS chickens.
By now, the breeze had stiffened, so I had to really work at having enough coals for the potjie to keep going, especially as at one point we nipped to the hotel for a sundowner, leaving the pot sizzling slowly at our rented house. Mistake: the coals had disappeared and the pot had cooled by the time we got back, so I had to build up new coals and rekindle the process.
This is a crucial part of a successful potjie, to always having enough coals just to keep it at a simmer. You don’t ever want to overheat a potjie but, well, ignoring it altogether while you have a drink at the hotel is not all that good an idea. But no matter – once it was on the simmer again, all was well.
To begin, heat the dry pot over hot coals and then pour in some olive oil, about 5T (75ml), a tiny squeeze of lemon juice, 2 cloves of crushed garlic and some sprigs of fresh oregano and thyme, and when the oil is sizzling, brown the chickens on all sides, turning every few minutes. There is nothing else to do put keep the lid on tightly (you can put a layer of foil between the lid and the pot if you want to intensify the heat a little) and make sure that the heat isn’t too hot underneath the potjie to burn the underside of the chickens. I cooked them for about three hours, once in a while opening the pot to carefully turn the chickens as I was worried that they might catch underneath (which they didn’t).
If your potjie is big enough, about an hour into the cooking time, douse some cleaned, unpeeled baby potatoes in olive oil that you’ve seasoned with salt and pepper, and add them to the pot to cook with the chucks. Also good with this is courgettes. I like to slice these in thin rounds and stirfry them in olive oil, garlic and lemon juice in a hot pan, just until they soften but not so long that they singe or become too dry.
All of this, with friendship, good wine and the sound of the sea rushing to shore, is good for the soul and had us raising a glass to the Weather Gods, even if they were in a grumpy mood that day.
First publishd in Weekend Argus September 2011