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The art of the potjie

A potjie over hot coals

The ingredients and cooking techniques that suddenly break out from the pack and become the newest, coolest food fad are usually vaguely exotic, pretty or intriguingly spicy things selected by the editors of Posh Galore to be The New Thing, Dahlings.

They generally do quite well, and I commend them for their efforts, and we foodie lemmings usually climb on the bandwagon and try using whatever it is in new and unexpected ways in dishes that previously would have managed quite well without the pounded seed of something found growing under a dewy knoll in Zheleznodorozhny and unearthed by a castrated yak.

But there’s something they’ve all missed which has potential flavour of the year written all over it. The common, humdrum and very Afrikaans potjie, the three-legged cast-iron pot, is one of the most versatile cooking vessels there is.

The things cooked in potjies, most often called potjiekos (potjie = pot, kos = food), are either treated very traditionally – essentially there’s one recipe that varies only by its prime ingredients – or regarded as too “Afrikaans” to be trotted out for sophisticated guests. This kind of snobbery is daft and unwarranted.

But the possibilities of a potjie are endless. The cast-iron pot, or Dutch oven, is a traditional part of American, Australian and South African cooking lore and history, and for good reason. It came out of hard times, was designed for cooking anywhere and everywhere that you could make a fire, whether in peace or war, at home or on the run. And you can cook almost anything in it.

We don’t, but could, fry an egg or make an omelette in one. You could even fill it with water and boil or poach an egg. You can roast a joint in a potjie, make a pie, or bake bread, biscuits and even cakes. The point was that you could hoik it onto the back of a wagon, and set it down on the ground where you would make – in the case of the Voortrekkers, who are most closely associated with it in southern Africa – food for the whole family, clan or laager.

The pots came out of the Netherlands, where they were used when the Spanish laid siege to Leiden in the 1570s. The French call their variation a cocotte. Australians cook in a bedourie, and Japan has a similar vessel called a tetsunabe.

In the South African tradition, a potjie is used almost invariably to make a very slow-cooked stew of meat and vegetables, often with rice included, while the flat-bottomed variation is often used for making bread.

Beef shortrib potjie with orange, ginger and garlic

But leave out all or most of the moisture, using only a small amount of fat (oil, butter, or the animal’s own fat), and you are roasting or braising whatever meat you have chosen to cook for hours over hot coals in a potjie with its close-fitting lid. You can, to be quite sure no air is getting in, line the perimeter of the lid with pastry to make an impenetrable crust, though the lids are so tight-fitting that this is really not necessary. You also risk steaming the food if there is no escape for the air whatsoever (consider the difference between potjiekos and the same food cooked in the Moroccan tagine – similar but with subtle differences).

Recently, while visiting Arniston for  weekend, I made potjiekos but eschewed the usual mutton or lamb in flavour of beef shortrib. A potjie really intensifies flavours, and I wanted mine to be full of aromatic, flavourful juices, so I chose orange, ginger, cumin, bay leaf, garlic, bacon and red wine as my key ingredients. The flavour combination, after hours of cooking, were beautiful and worthy of all the time and effort, not that the time is in any way begrudged. Making a potjie is one of those primal pleasures, like growing something in earth you’ve tilled yourself, or building a dry-brick wall by hand.

It starts with the fire, which you keep going all the while, so that you have coals whenever you need more to place beneath the potjie.

On the stove in the kitchen, pour half a bottle of red wine and the same quantity of orange juice into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Add three tablespoons each of crushed garlic and chopped and pounded fresh ginger, and the grated zest of two ripe oranges. Boil this furiously on a high heat until reduced by two-thirds. The point here is that too many potjiekos dishes just have two much liquid in them, and also you want the intensity of flavour that reducing creates. So this is the essential difference between my variation and a more traditional potjiekos recipe.

Now go outside. Use more flame to begin with, to get a good heat. First heat your fat (amusingly, I had to use avocado oil as we had packed a bottle of it, mistaking it for olive oil, but it was fine).

A miniature potjie fllled with fluffy rice

When the oil is fairly hot, add bay leaves and cumin seeds, and sizzle to develop the flavours. Add whole garlic cloves (loads – I used about 20 – really, Daisy) and whole baby onions, and simmer for a few minutes. Remove the onions and garlic with a ladle and keep aside. Now add the beef shortrib fat-side down into the fat, cover and leave to burble away for a good half hour or more. You want the meat to brown and the fat to start cooking. Next, toss the meat to brown on all sides, then return the onions and garlic to the pot. Add the reduced stock you’ve made in the kitchen, a packet of bacon, sliced into small pieces, a punnet of halved Italian baby tomatoes, two or three chopped red chillies, and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Stir once, place the lid on firmly and keep the coals hot beneath the potjie for a good five or six hours, the longer and slower the better – up to a point. You can listen to the pot to hear a gentle bubble, and to let it dry out too much would be a rare thing and not at all likely. Also make sure you have a few hot coals on the lid at all times, to draw the heat right through the pot.

About an hour from when you want to eat, place whole black mushrooms on top of the food, close the lid and cook for another hour.

I made rice separately on the stove and served it in a mini potjie because it looked nice in the picture. Which it does, Daisy.

First published in The Good Weekend, Sunday Argus

2 Comments Post a Comment
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