Guilty: so good, I forgot to photograph it!
What do you do when you travel 27 hours to get someplace?
You eat, of course…you eat!
There’s other prerequisite things one must do. There’s showering… that’s always good. There’s sleeping on a bed- something most of us take for granted until we become weary travelers emerging from two nights spent cramped on ever-narrowing airplane seats. And then there’s the food issue.
Food is my mandatory favorite thing to set straight after a long trip.
My family recently traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa from Miami, Florida.
That’s a long-ass haul that required hours of shoving whatever oversalted snacks you brought to sustain you.
The other option, of course, was eating grey rubbery puffs on plastic trays that the airline referred to as “eggs” or “chicken” or “beef,” depending on the hour. Can they legally do that?
Yes, landing on terra firma required setting the food situation straight.
I’m talking about a home-cooked, delectable, sit-at-the-table meal. Something that doesn’t entail counting the freckles on the bald head of the inconsiderate bum in front of you who has decided to recline his chair all the way onto your lap for the next nine and a half hours.
Let me get finicky and tell you that it helps if you cook said meal with one of your best friends, like I did. You know, a forever friend. The kind you exchanged Hello Kitty stickers with on the school playground in 1978. Now you exchange shoes, parenting advice, and recipes.
It also helps if said best friend has an industrially-equipped kitchen the size of your living room.
My friend has been tempting me to come visit her in Johannesburg since she moved there two years ago and I finally understand why.
It was not because I’d love it there (I did.)
Nor because Johannesburg’s lush landscape would remind me of where we grew up in Caracas, Venezuela. (It does.)
Or even because I must meet her smiley baby girl, whom I’d instantly adore (I do.)
It was because of her kitchen.
“Good God Alona when you see this kitchen you will never want to leave,” my friend promised.
I’d been hearing about all the comforts of life in South Africa, but the most loudly spoken comfort of all was this kitchen.
Forever friends know the straight route to my heart.
South Africa is magnificent.
Sofia, my friend’s 17-month old blonde cherub, is delightful.
But the kitchen, the kitchen is indeed glorious.
It boasts every possible professional appliance a chef could ever dream of.
I have to emphasize this, you see. As a person obsessed with food, I can’t help myself.
Industrial gas range, mammoth hood, open flame grill, food warmer, food steamer, and three ovens.
But wait! There’s more! Off to one corner is a wood-burning pizza oven.
Off to the other corner, just to balance things out, is a walk-in cooling unit. With two rooms! In between lie three endless counter tops of cool marble, perfect for kneading, shaping, stirring, chopping, or sifting anything.
My friend’s kitchen most certainly had me at hello.
I wanted to chain myself to this kitchen and never leave it.
But of course, I had the country of South Africa to visit.
The baby to play with.
The gossip to catch up on.
Luckily, my friend had my itinerary all set up, and first and foremost on her list was cooking a meal together in her kitchen.
That first night we chatted, sipped a crisp local chardonnay and chopped onions while our husbands sliced and simmered the meat. In my kitchen, one’s a crowd, but in this one, we all had our own zip code.
Appliances crooned and food sizzled.
Nuts were blended.
Thyme was picked from the extensive herb garden (off of the main garden boasting the pool, jungle gym, and tennis court.)
You can see why my friend insisted I come.
We sat down to our first dinner in South Africa: a Spanish dish of slow-cooked pork shoulder served in an almond cream sauce.
We caught up with each other’s lives and laughed and watched Sofia sleep on the baby monitor as intensely as if we were watching the championship game of March Madness. My husband was astounded at how thin those things have gotten since our own kids were babies. I squeezed his hand and smiled at him, for all the baby milestones we’ve long passed as parents of a high schooler and a middle schooler and then I raised my glass and toasted my friend for the unpredictable journey of parenthood that awaits her.
The kitchen watched and waited quietly nearby. Breakfast would be our next rendezvous.
There were many South African moments I enjoyed during my stay. Safari adventures where I was surrounded by a herd of wild elephants and hungrily scoped out by lions, beach excursions where I rolled down gigantic sand dunes and ducked surfer waves in the Indian Ocean. I relish them all. But the simple pleasure of preparing a meal with one of my closest friends in her gourmet kitchen as her baby daughter waddled around us and my own teenage girl took her one hundredth South African selfie nearby sits comfortably in my mind as a moment, now that I am back home, I replay over and over again.
Adapted from Rick Stein's "Spain."
- 5 tablespoons olive oil
- 8 garlic cloves, 4 chopped and 4 left whole
- 2 slices crustless white bread
- 1 rindless pork shoulder (about ½ lbs.)
- ¼ cup flour, for dusting
- 1 large onion, finely chopped
- ½ teaspoon smoked sweet Spanish paprika
- leaves from 1 large sprig of fresh thyme
- 2 bay leaves
- ¾ cup dry white wine
- ¾ cup chicken stock
- ½ cup toasted blanched almonds
- 1 tablespoon flat-leaf parsley, chopped
- salt and pepper, to taste
- Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large flameproof casserole dish. Add the whole garlic and the slices of bread and fry over a medium-high heat for 2 minutes, turning once, until golden brown. Lift out and leave to drain and cool.
- Cut the pork across into 1” slices and then into 2” chunks. You want them to be quite large.
- Season the pieces of pork well, then dust in the flour. Add another 2 tablespoons of oil to the pan and, when hot, add the pieces of meat and fry briefly until lightly golden.
- Remove to a plate and set to one side.
- Add the remaining tablespoon of oil to the pan with the onion, chopped garlic, Spanish paprika, thyme and bay leaves and cook gently for about 10 minutes until the onions are soft and translucent.
- Add the wine and stock and bring to the boil, rubbing the base of the pan to release any bits and pieces.
- Return the pork to the pan, lower the heat, and season with some salt and pepper.
- Cover and simmer gently for 1½ hours or until the meat is tender.
- Spoon about ½ cup of the sauce into a blender, add the fried bread, garlic cloves, almonds and parsley leaves and blend to a smooth paste.
- Add to meat and stir. Simmer for 5 minutes until blended.
- Serves 4