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Welcoming feasts

South African flavors, British traditions and animal-print decor bring an inviting end to the day

By Mike Leggett
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF



POTGIETERSRUS, South Africa - At the end of a long day in the bush, hungry hunters aren't always particular about their meals. Just get the chow on the table and don't block the door to the shower.

But Marinda du Plessis, who cooks for husband Mel and sons Mel Jr. and Marco, along with the hunters who visit the family's Antelope for Africa Safaris hunting grounds in northern South Africa, refuses to let the day's dust or fatigue or the clock's chiming midnight stop her from putting a quality meal on the table.

Hunters have traveled almost 10,000 miles to get to the 700-acre family farm that serves as hunting headquarters, and besides overseeing laundry and cleaning, Marinda intends to end the day with a genteel gathering around the dining table. Tradition must be served.

The atmosphere is British, tea steeping in china pots, biscuits and cheese after dessert, with a nod to the South African hunting tradition in the form of zebra-, giraffe- and lion-patterned table cloths and napkins. Guests never see the same linen twice, nor the same food, except rice, which, along with corn and meat, is a staple of South African cooking.

"I really try to vary the meals so that we have different dishes and that our hunters have the chance to experience South African cuisine," Marinda says.

That cuisine draws heavily from the country's British heritage, sausages, potatoes, beef, but also has a Malaysian influence in foods such as bobotie, a meat and bread casserole.

Native foods such as squashes and legumes also are a part of South African safari cooking. "You use every variety of squash you can find," Marinda says. "Rice I cook very often. Mel loves rice. Rice and potatoes are a basic starch in South Africa, and you will see that often both of those are added to the same meal."

Texans think we invented barbecue, of course, and grilled meats and vegetables are staples in both places. However, what some naively might refer to as a "barbecue" (barbecue is a certain kind of food, not a certain kind of party, but that's another story) is called a "grill" in South Africa. And it's not a bad way to finish off a successful day in the African bush.

In the round, roofless structure made of stone and known as a lapa, the du Plessis family builds a nice sicklebush fire for grilling impala steaks. They serve them as an appetizer to be enjoyed with a cold Castle Lager beer or one of the good South African red wines we enjoyed on our trip. The merlot and shiraz were especially nice.

Perhaps the best wines, though, were the whites, sauvignon blanc, riesling, auslese, which were crisp and almost bubbly to the tongue.

But the food, straightforward and often consisting of wild game from the day's hunting, takes center stage on the safari table. Here are a couple of recipes that were big hits on our trip.

Bobotie

2 lbs. of British-style mincemeat (available at local grocery stores)

2 eggs

1 slice of white bread

2 cups whole milk

1/2 tsp. pepper

2 Tbsps. vinegar

2 Tbsps. chutney (Marinda used a mostly raisin chutney called Mrs. Ball's fruit chutney)

1 Tbsp. apricot jam

Salt to taste

1/2 cup white raisins

2 chopped onions (medium)

2 Tbsps. curry powder

1 Tbsp. sugar

2 Tbsps. ground nutmeg

2 bay leaves

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Soak bread in a bit of the milk and break it up. Set egg and milk and bread aside. Put the rest of the ingredients in a pot with a little bit of water and cook until the meat is done.

Place contents of pot in a flat, 9-inch-by-13-inch casserole dish. Pour beaten egg and milk and egg over the top. Place in oven and bake for 50 minutes. Serve with yellow rice, flavored with either turmeric or saffron.

Butternut Squash Soup

1 onion, chopped

4 cups of butternut squash, cooked and removed from skin

1 Granny Smith apple

2 Tbsps. flour

2 tsps. curry

Black pepper and salt to taste

1 cube of chicken bouillon (or stock equivalent)

3 cups water

1 cup milk

2-4 Tbsps. butter

3/4 cup cream

Parsley for garnish

Melt butter in pot. Sweat onion and apple over low heat until they begin to soften. Add flour and seasonings. Cook briefly. Add water and milk and simmer until onion and apple are soft. Add cooked squash. Using a blender (a hand blender is fine) blend all ingredients until smooth. Add cream. Remove from heat, garnish with parsley and serve.




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