Rescue remedy for busy cooks

2009-12-03 00:00

SOME of my walking mates asked me recently what books I was reviewing. My response made them cackle like manic hyenas and one almost snorted cappuccino through her nose. I said: “Recipe books.”

Their warm and supportive response galvanised me into action. I retreated to the kitchen accompanied by this book.

It’s not as though I cannot cook, my mother made sure I could. While at high school, Thursday night was my night to make supper, so I’m a world authority on preparing mince.

I just do not (often) cook because I don’t enjoy the daily grind of producing family meals. Evenings are also hectic with the “homework-bathing- reading-getting-children-to-bed” routine. Supper just has to be squeezed in there somewhere. However, give me time and a dinner party or other special occasion, and I can produce marvellous, although usually unrepeatable, delights. I love to experiment with ingredients and subscribe to the Intuitive school of cooking, which believes that recipes are mere suggestions.

This is a book for working parents like Biller and her husband, Peter. She writes that it was born “out of necessity” and calls it “a South African version of cheating in the kitchen”. She accurately sums up modern family lifestyles when she says that “... greater emphasis is placed on food that is quick and easy to prepare” than on cooking from scratch as our parents used to do. That daily ritual has been replaced by ready-made meals, fast food and takeaways that many parents will guiltily admit, are of limited nutritional value, if not simply unhealthy.

I have now found the culinary Holy Grail and this book has become my gastronomic Bible. I cooked a three- course meal for friends I knew couldn’t drop us because their son is our godson, but that precaution proved unnecessary. Everyone agreed that the results were eminently worthy of repetition.

Biller describes the book as “a whole new style of cooking” that requires little effort, clever planning and a well-stocked pantry. The key to cheating in the kitchen is quality ingredients, some ready-made items and excellent fresh produce, which we are blessed to enjoy.

The book starts with a helpful alphabetical lists of equipment and ingredients essential to this new mode of cooking. While I did alright on the utensils side, my pantry lacked many of the things she sees as basic ingredients, like anchovies, capers, chilli paste, frozen berries, onion marmalade and walnut oil. Those items provide a clue to the kind of cuisine in the book, what I in my ignorance would call Mediterranean, al fresco sort of food. There’s definitely nothing affirmative or politically correct about this book.

Biller includes time-saving tips, which she calls “stress busters”. These include ideas like freezing ready chopped and fried onions, planning meals for a week at a time, buying fresh chopped ginger, chilli and garlic and freezing in-season fruit covered in castor sugar.

The book is comprehensive, including drinks, desserts, main courses salads, vegetarian meals and breakfast ideas — breakfast entertaining being another modern trend. I chose three meals that sounded quick and tasty, which they were: feta with watermelon salsa, a phyllo pastry tomato tart and a giant scone strawberry cake. All proved to be what Biller claimed: fast, simple and delicious enough to impress our guests. The scone base of the dessert was too heavy and doughy, so I’ll shape the base differently next time I make this. Otherwise my cookery adventure was a triumph. The phyllo tart was nominated the best dish, so here’s the recipe.

A final note to the Walkie Talkies: despite what I’ve said, don’t expect an invitation to dinner any time soon, so there.

• Great Meals Fast by Hilary Biller is published by Struik Lifestyle.


Three sheets phyllo pastry

Four tablespoons (60 ml) butter, melted

Five tablespoons (75 ml) basil pesto or tapenade

Four to six large, ripe, red tomatoes, thickly sliced

A few chives, finely sliced

Provencal herbs (or Moroccan spice mixture if using tapenade)

Freshly grated Parmesan cheese


Preheat the oven to 220 degrees celsius.

Brush the sheets of phyllo with the butter. Fold each sheet in half and place on a baking tray, brushing the top of each folded sheet with pesto or tapenade before topping with another double sheet of phyllo pastry and ending with a layer topped with pesto or tapenade.

Dry the tomato slices with paper towel and arrange them in a single layer over the pastry. Sprinkle the chives and herbs or spice mixture over the pastry, followed by the Parmesan cheese.

Bake for 15 minutes until the pastry is golden and the cheese has melted. Serves four to six.

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