It’s amazing how many restaurateurs will spend a fortune on fitting their premises, equipping their kitchen, stocking pantries and fridges and hiring a marketing company to make them famous – and not spend just one grand more on paying a sub-editor to check the menu for literals.
Most menus have at least a smattering of grammatical or spelling errors, and many are littered with them. The one that gets the blood boiling furiously over a high heat is the blackboard with the word ‘Special’s’ emblazoned on it. The special’s what, Daisy? Is it possessive, denoting that something belongs to the special? Or is it an apostrophe replacing a letter of the alphabet?
Best advice to the apostrophically challenged (after being cautioned that it would be best not to attempt any writing outside of a Twitter account) is to suggest that they should never use an apostrophe at all rather than do what most of them do, which is to fling an apostrophe in a sentence wherever they see an “s” at the end of a word. “Prawn’s with olive’s and tomatoe’s”.
There are also words frequently used in menu descriptions that make me want to run screaming for the restaurant next door. “Nestled” tops my hate list, especially “nestled on a bed of”. “Draped” is a close second. And don’t even get me started on “jus”, which is no more and no less than the French word for “sauce”. Since we have in English a perfectly good word for “sauce” (it’s “sauce”), I see no reason other than idiotic pretention why we should use the pompous little French equivalent. I mean, you try saying “jus” (pronounced “szjooo”) and not feeling like a blithering pompous idiot. Go on, right now, turn to the person nearest you and say, “Do you like mushroom jus with a steak?” Or try replacing “sauce” with “jus” in this sentence: “Could I have some tomato sauce with my chicken pie please?”
Some of the smarter restaurants – the ones frequented by the Pedicured Princesses of Posh Galore – have replaced such verbal excess with a new minimalism. Beneath the dish’s name will be a listing of random ingredients, almost invariably including one of which 90 percent of their customers will have never heard, and one which you feel sure does not belong in any recipe. The words will all be lower case, with no plurals (which sometimes means you’re only getting one), to illustrate just how cool the establishment is, such as:
springbok – edamame – haricot – frangipane
I observe things like that, and then, when I’m wondering up and down the aisles of a supermarket, I wonder about all those tins of things which nobody ever claims to eat. And the lie is clear: most people say one thing, but mean another. Almost everybody in the entire Cape Town City Bowl will tell you that they only eat the freshest, most organic ingredients. So who is buying all the tinned tuna, the cans of chopped tomatoes, the olives in brine?
I certainly do. I don’t expect every last ingredient to have been picked at pry of night by Punjabi eunuchs born under a crescent moon. I love tuna straight out of the tin. And I do buy those peeled cooked prawns Woolies sells, always beautifully prepared and perfectly delicious.
Only the other day in fact. In the heat of the past few weeks, I took to making salads for supper (rather than as the starter role a salad more often plays). With a salad, it’s as much about presentation and sheer good looks as it is about the crispness and crunchiness and lovely bright colours.
So follow some simple rules:
◊ Blanch harder ingredients such as courgettes, carrots, asparagus and broccoli. (Just slip them in gently boiling water for a minute or two, then refresh in icy water and drain. This make the colours bright and cheery and softens them a little.)
◊ Be creative with looks and shapes. Use a potato peeler to shave ribbons of courgettes or carrots, cut spring onions into long strips, plop them in a jug of iced water and refrigerate overnight. They will curl nicely; then drain before use.
◊ Make a dressing that’s reasonably tart and also a little sweet (learn to balance oil and acidic ingredients like vinegar or lemon juice. I like two parts oil to one part of the other, with a splash of, say, rooibos syrup or honey or whatever’s to hand. Season.)
◊ Make the salad only shortly before it’s to be used. A soggy salad is a nasty thing.
◊ Only dress a salad just before serving or even on the plate. Not everyone wants a dressing.
This week I made a salad of prawn tails with avocado, sauce Marie-Rose (mayonnaise with tomato sauce, a dash of brandy and salt and pepper) and baby gem lettuce. I also chopped spring onion finely and made tiny dice of several radishes, and stirred this into the sauce.
I also made a family favourite: tinned tuna mixed with spring onion, salt and pepper, a squeeze of lemon juice and a hint of mustard, with courgette ribbons, asparagus spears, baby Italian tomatoes, olives and boiled egg. Whole anchovies would not be out of place in this dish.
What would be out of place would have been to use tomato jus in the sauce Marie-Rose. Tomato sauce was just fine.
First published in Weekend Argus January 2011