Southern Angola, early nineties...

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Pan Fried Guinea Fowl

The first book my father ever gave me to read was 'Biggles and the Little Green God'. The next was Robert Ruarke’s ‘Use Enough Gun’. Both books made a huge impression on a childish mind and quickly brought me on to Ernest Hemmingway. As a child, therefore, I not only assumed, but felt deep down in my heart, that an ‘Englishman’ (and I suppose I have to include Americans as well) was essentially decent and invariably right and the idea of blowing any kind of wildlife and the occasional native away seemed perfectly natural. After all, my Father’s oft-quoted claim to fame was being able to hit a running Arab at two hundred paces. What chance did I stand? Racial preconceptions would evaporate with experience but my love of shooting would intensify and during my tours of Belize, I spent many a happy day dropping game birds at an abandoned rice plantation teeming with wildlife including a massive variety of incredibly well fed snakes, one of which left me writhing in pain after venting its displeasure at being disturbed by my erratic perambulations by biting me on the leg, and another that, because it clearly wanted to bite me, was blown into eternity by a now very senior RAF Officer with the most impressive display of marksmanship I have ever seen.

Sadly, while I had picked up the desire and skill, I had not learnt the etiquette of shooting so, much to the horror of my more refined colleagues to whom even an ‘over and under’ was anathema, I was unable to remain content with standing on my pitch and waiting for the little blighters to fly down the barrel of my gun so that I could sportingly dispatch them. Instead I stalked around the overgrown and waterlogged paddy fields blasting away with my 5 shot, semi-automatic Browning. I received no offers to join any of the Gentlemen’s Clubs of which my esteemed fellow officers and guns were members but I generally rewarded the Mess Chef with a heck of a sight more game.

In spite of Ruarke’s and Hemmingway’s thrilling tales of the personal endurance and skill required to do so, I could never see the point of stalking and shooting anything I couldn’t eat. Naturally, my eight year old son feels the same way (about shooting for the pot, not Englishmen always being right; and he has no idea what ‘native’ means, all men in his eyes being divided into friends or dickheads, regardless of ethnic origin or creed) and for him, as me, it is not just the thrill and companionship of a few days shooting in the bush, it is also the pleasure of the cooking and eating afterwards.

For this dish you will need:

2 x Guinea Fowl or wild duck (farmed duck is far too bland and fatty, use pheasant if you cannot get GF or wild duck). The best way to gurantee the quality of the product is to go out and shoot it yourself.
Smoked bacon, preferably a chunk that you have diced.
3 medium onions (or a handful of shallots)
2 Garlic cloves
2 decent sized carrots
4 celery stalks with leaves
2 lemons
2 decent sized oranges
Pepper corns
Bay leaf
Chicken Stock
A few sprigs of Thyme

Pluck the birds, cut the feet and heads off and discard. Separate the neck from the body and put to one side. Clean the birds and retain the liver, which we will use to enrich the sauce.

Cut the legs off the bird and filet the breasts off. Place them in a dish and cover so that they do not go dry.

Chop the hips off the carcass and cut the remainder, the chest, in half.

Roughly chop two onions, a garlic clove, a carrot, a couple of celery stalks (leaves and all), add half a dozen peppercorns, a couple of cloves and a bay leaf, throw in the diced smoked bacon and fry the lot up quickly in a casserole pan (cast iron) that has an oven proof lid. Add the chopped Guinea Fowl carcass and neck and brown it all off. Grind some black pepper over the lot and chuck in a pinch of salt.

Pour in half a pint of chicken stock and a 30cl bottle of ale and heat the lot until it is boiling nicely. Bang the lid on a place the pot in a pre-heated, fairly hot oven and let it simmer away for about 45 minutes. Check it at around half time and if you need to add more liquid, add another beer.

Finely chop the remaining onion, garlic clove, one carrot and about six inches of celery stalk. Finely grate the rind from one orange.

Remove the pot from the oven and carefully strain the liquid off into a jug. There are various ways of separating the fat from the liquid, I usually just pour it into tall glasses and let it settle. The fat separates out in a clear layer on the top.

Spoon out the fat from the liquid into a heavy based deep frying pan (remember the glasses will be boiling oil hot so use oven gloves), add a tablespoon of olive oil and heat the pan up. Season the Guinea Fowl legs and breasts with salt and freshly ground black pepper and lay them in the frying pan. Fry them up until they are nicely browned. Remove from the pan and place to one side.

Add a splash of Cointreau to glaze the pan, followed by a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. Add the chopped vegetables and fry them until they are soft. Add the grated orange rind and give it a good stir. Add the stock, the juice of the two oranges and one lemon and reduce the liquid to about a third of its original volume. Add a sprig of Thyme about halfway through this process and remove it when the stock is reduced.

Check the seasoning adding salt and pepper as required. Add a knob of butter to thicken the sauce and mash up the livers and stir them in as well. Then lay in the breasts and thighs and heat them up in the sauce.

Remove the Guinea Fowl and lay out on a warmed serving dish and cover with the sauce. Garnish with a sprig of Thyme.

I like to serve this dish with homemade Spatzle, a type of German pasta, which soaks up the sauce nicely but you can serve it with anything you prefer (or have available). It also works well with roasted sweet potatoes and any green vegetable such as broccoli.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Eggs Benedict

This has got to be one of the nicest breakfasts one could ever wish for. The recipe calls for English Muffins. I did ask for them at the South African shop near the port of Luanda but didn’t get any joy. Not surprising really as any South African with ‘van’ in his name is likely to be descended from someone who suffered terribly at the hands of the English and would no more stock anything from the old country than a Republican would serve Borsht. So, if you cannot get muffins, use thick sliced white bread instead.

Eggs Benedict uses ham or bacon. A variation, Eggs Florentine substitutes the ham or bacon for spinach. Well, as I said the to the maitre d' hotel in Port Gentil, ‘why not use both?’

One thing Africa does not seem to be short of is aluminium pots and bowls. Eggs, vinegar, artisan bread, these things were quite often available around vilages so it was perfectly possible to rustle up this quite exotic breakfast over a charcoal fire in the bush. With duck eggs, the dish is supreme. There are places, in Angola especially, where you can drive for hours and not see a soul. Stop to relieve yourself, however, and as you tuck the jewels away and look up, there'll be a row of faces solemnly watching you. I never managed to cook without a big audience but they were always, without exception, very polite. Even the kids. If I did something stupid lke burn myself on a hot pot and then treat the countryside to a series of Anglo Saxon expletives, they would hide their titters behind a hand, only the bright eyes and convulsions giving the game away.

For this dish you will need:

An egg
English Muffins or thick sliced white bread.
Lean back bacon with any rind cut off.
Spinach or any other succulent green leaves. Lettuce is no good once steamed so, if you decide to use lettuce (and why not?), use it raw.
Sauce Hollandaise
Finely chopped parsley
If it is past 11 0’clock, you are somewhere civilised and the cricket is on, a pint of Boddington’s Bitter to wash the dish down (oh, how I dream of the Cream of Manchester)

First up, make the Sauce Hollandaise (see basics 2)
Start the process of poaching an egg (or however many eggs you need for the number of people you intend to serve). If you do not have an egg poacher, place some of the hot water from the Bain Marie you used to make the Sauce Hollandaise into a pot, wipe the inside of a teacup with olive oil, crack an egg into it and place the cup in the pot (the water should come a third of the way up the cup), cover with a lid and simmer for three or four minutes.
Lightly toast the muffin or slice of bread.
Fry up the rindless bacon in butter. We want the bacon to be soft, not crispy and free of crunchy gristle or tough rind.
Remove the bacon and place to one side
Place the muffin or slice of bread serving face down in the frying pan to soak up the bacon fat and toast a little more.
Remove the muffin/toast, pour an egg cup full of water into the pan and add the spinach/succulent leaves and cover the pan. Steam the leaves for five minutes or so until they are nicely soft.

Place a muffin half, or slice of toast, onto the plate fried side up. Smear a smidgin of Sauce Hollandaise over the bread and then cover with a bed of spinach or whatever leaves you are using. Lay the bacon over this and then the poached egg on top. With the bacon and the seasoning of the sauce, it is unlikely that you will need any salt but a sprinkle of freshly ground black pepper would not hurt. Spoon Sauce Hollandaise over the top, add a sprinkle of chopped Parsley for garnish and serve. Sometimes I like to quickly brown the dish under the grill before serving and, if I am in the mood, ocasionally I like to place a slice of cheese on the bread while the bread is still hot, fresh out of the pan, before placing the spinach and other layers.

And this is the point I am making about my attitude to cooking. Recipes are a guide, no more. If you want to substitute all the meat and veg and replace them with seaweed and poached oysters, go ahead, I bet it would taste great!

Some of my colleagues are serving right now as I write, in countries where Pork, along with alcohol and scantily clad women (all the good things that life has to offer) are frowned upon. Try replacing the bacon with thinly sliced calves liver. Fry the liver up as you would the bacon, perhaps with half a finely chopped shallot, it should only take seconds, and then make up the dish as normal. Trust me, it is outstanding and will give you enough energy to lug that GPMG all day long.

Basics 2 - Hollandaise Sauce

I was always afraid of trying to make Sauce Hollandaise having heard how, supposedly, it is easy to make a complete pigs ear of it. To be honest, if you follow the instructions and do not let the mixture boil, it is easy. The sauce makes all the difference to fish, vegetables, especially asparagus and, in Eggs Benedict, makes a marvelous breakfast (or brunch with a decent pint as I used to enjoy it in Cape Town).

For this sauce you will need:

250g butter (we will use this melted so leave it out of the fridge to go soft)
4 egg yolks
3 tbsp water (or asparagus water if you are going to serve it over asparagus)
1 tbsp wine vinegar
1/2 lemon

1 finely chopped shallot

In small pan, reduce the finely chopped onions/shallots, water and vinegar to about a third of the original volume. Strain the juice out through a sieve and let it cool.
Place a steel mixing bowl over a pot of hot, not quite boiling water, and whisk up the eggs and the cooled reduction. Pour the melted butter a dribble at a time into the mixture and whisk away using a balloon whisk. Make sure that the melted butter is fully incorporated before adding more. Keep an eye on the heat, we do not want scrambled eggs. Keep adding and mixing until you have a nice, creamy mayonnaise like consistency. Add salt and pepper and a squirt of lemon juice to taste. It really should be served fairly soon thereafter.

Tagliatelli Carbonara

I had not enjoyed any time off for two years when I had the chance to spend some time in Cape Town. Coming from war torn Angola where just about everything except malaria was difficult to get, Cape Town was a revelation. Naturally, I behaved like a tourist and headed straight down to the Waterfront, a shamelessly touristy sort of place but definitely worth a visit. Right on the waterfront where the seals play and bask in the sun is the Hildebrand Restaurant. Not German cuisine as the name might suggest, but Italian. I have a particular fondness for oysters and I could go on at length about the quality of the oysters served by the Hildebrand, their freshness and succulence never in doubt but it was their Tagliatelli Carbonara that was truly memorable. Now I have eaten Italian pasta dishes all over the world but I had never enjoyed anything quite like this. The sauce was rich and just loose enough to properly coat the Tagliatelli. The meat was tender, the mushrooms full of flavour and the liberal use of fresh herbs was evident. I don’t speak Italian but I imagine, by the way it was delivered, the response to my request for the recipe was the Italian equivalent of, ‘Bugger off!’

I decided, therefore, that I would have a go myself and, after much trial and error, realised that actually, it was quite easy. It went down a treat with the lads and is still a firm favourite both with my family and my current crew. It freezes nicely so when I do make it, I make a huge batch and then divide the excess into man-sized portions which the night shift help themselves to from the freezer.

For this dish, you will require the following:

Smoked Ham (to be honest, you can use any kind of ham. Smoked ham has a stronger flavour, which really does add to the final taste experience but, in extremis, you could use bacon or even boiled ham. I have made it with sliced veal and chicken. In Angola, they sell what they call 'bacon' in chunks, about and inch or two wide and sealed in plastic bags which is strongly flavoured and a job to slice by hand so tough is it, but it works very well in this dish)
Mushrooms (take your pick. In Angola only tinned champignons are available, their flavour much less than fresh mushrooms so if you can get fresh, then it is worth the effort)
Garlic, two or three cloves chopped nice and small
Onions, four medium onions chopped fine
Green Pepper, one diced finely to add colour, texture and a bit of extra flavour.
Parsley (with stalks).
Italian herb seasoning. If you can get the fresh ingredients, so much the better. If not, buy it at your local supermarket in dried, pre mixed form. If you cannot find the mix, then make it yourself using 1 teaspoon Oregano; 1 teaspoon Marjoram; 1 teaspoon Thyme; 1 teaspoon Basil; 1 teaspoon Rosemary; 1 teaspoon Sage. This will give you more than you need for this dish
Bay leaf
Cheese (we can only get Dutch style Edam here, a bit bland to say the least but it works. If you can get a stronger cheese, like cheddar, then use that but adjust the quantity to taste, the sauce should have the pleasant hint of cheese only, it is not meant to be a cheese sauce)
Olive Oil

There are two parts to this dish, three if you count boiling the Tagliattelli. The first is the preparation of the sauce. The second, the preparation of the Carbonara, or meat ingredients, to flavour the sauce. Before dong anything, place a pot of at least a litre and a half of water on the boil.

Meat ingredients

In a heavy pan, sweat off the finely chopped onions, finely chopped parsley stems and garlic in a few tablespoons of olive oil. Once the onions are nicely soft and golden, add the chopped smoked bacon and bay leaf and fry the lot until it is soft but not crisp. Add the chopped mushrooms and diced green pepper and two teaspoonfuls of Italian herb seasoning and allow the ingredients to warm through thoroughly. Take off the heat and place to one side.

Sauce base

In another heavy based pan, add about a third of a 250 gramme pack of butter and melt the butter down, being careful not to let it burn brown. Add three heaped tablespoons of flour and stir incorporating the flour and butter into a dough like lump. Break the lump up a bit with a wooden spoon and smear it against the sides of the pan to ensure a homogenous mix without burning it. Slide the pan on and off the heat as required to control the temperature.

Add a small amount of milk and gently incorporate the ingredients. The milk will sizzle and boil as it hits the pan and the butter and flour mixture will swell and go all sticky. Add a little more milk and gently mix it all together each time ensuring that you have a smooth paste before adding more milk. Keep doing this until the sauce has the consistency of a very thick cream. This should use about two thirds of a litre of milk. It is very important to ensure that the mixture is completely smooth before adding more liquid as it will go lumpy if you don’t. The process does not take long and is quite physical in the early stages. Add plenty of ground black pepper and a couple of pinches of salt.

Add the cheese gradually allowing it to melt into the sauce. Once it has warmed through, check the consistency. If it is too thick, add more milk as necessary. The sauce should have the consistency of a very thick soup. Check the seasoning again.

Pick out the bay leaf and add the meat ingredients to the sauce and stir to combine them all. Add a generous amount of chopped parsley leaves, stir, cover the pot with a lid and take off the heat.


Add two or three tablespoons of olive oil and a good pinch of salt to the boiling water and add the Tagliatelli. The dish always looks nice if you mix a packet of the normal, yellow pasta with the spinach coloured green pasta. It should take only about five to eight minutes to cook through to the al dente stage. Strain the liquid out and pour the Tagliatelli and the sauce into serving dishes. Garnish with a bit of chopped parsley.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Curry Fish in Coconut Milk

Any time that we were near the coast, we could supplement our meagre diet with fresh fish. Getting hold of a few bags of charcoal and rigging up a quick barbecue was the easiest, and in no way unpleasant, way to prepare the cleaned and gutted fish. We could buy butter in tins, marketed by a company called Breda if memory serves me correctly, and the liberal application of this over the sizzling fish was a delight. Even better if we could find fresh Salsa (parsley), a bit of that chopped up and sprinkled over the fish along with a squirt of lemon juice turned it into something quite memorable.

But even starving, we quickly tired of just plain old grilled fish. With no sauce it, in combination with our staple boiled rice, was a bit dry so, once again, a bit of artistry was required.

For this dish you will need:

Any kind of cleaned fish. Seriously, any type will do so long as it is fresh and not the oily kind. It can be whole or portioned. A good, chunky sort of fish cut up into steaks works exceptionally well
2 onions finely chopped
2 sweet peppers (one red, one green, just for visual effect) sliced long and thin
Fresh coriander leaves roughly chopped
Fresh ginger finely sliced
Succulent leaves with stalks, such as Chinese leaf, spinach, anything like that, very roughly chopped, try and leave the stalks long
Two juicy red tomatoes roughly chopped
Fresh chillies chopped small
A fat, crispy carrot sliced as long and fine as you can
Powdered Coriander seeds
Coconut cream (or coconut milk)
Olive oil

Heat the heavy pan up over the beach barbeque with a few tablespoons of olive oil in it. As soon as it is hot, tip in the chopped onions, ginger and chillies and sweat them off.

Add a teaspoon of powdered coriander, a teaspoon of turmeric and half a teaspoon of cumin. The pan will tend to go dry so keep stirring to prevent the mixture burning.

Add the tomatoes, finely sliced carrots and sweet peppers and stir them around to incorporate the flavours. You may need to add an egg cupful of water at this stage just to stop the spices toasting too much until the juice from the tomatoes and peppers takes over.

Once the vegetables are getting soft, pour in the coconut milk and stir gently to incorporate all the ingredients and flavours. The heat now should be gentle, as we do not want to boil the coconut milk. Check the seasoning, adding salt as required.

Lay the fish into the sauce and sprinkle with freshly chopped coriander leaves. Cover the fish and the whole contents of the pan with the succulent leaves (Chinese leaf, spinach, whatever you could find) and then cover the pan and allow the fish to poach gently in the mixture.

Remember that the cooking time of the fish will depend on its size and the manner in which it has been prepared. If it is a whole fish, and large, it will require more time than cut steaks. The latter should require no more than ten minutes.

As soon as the leaves have softened and the succulent stalks are hot but still a little crunchy, lift the steamed leaves out onto the serving platter, gently lift the fish out and place on the bed of leaves and then pour the sauce over the top. Garnish with fresh coriander leaves.

This is another visual and olfactory treat usually served with rice to soak up the sauce.

Chicken in Satay Sauce

It is possible to buy ready-made Satay sauce in bottles. We used to get ours from the Indian shops in Quelimane. There are two types, the concentrated stuff, which comes in small bottles and a rather blander version, which comes in bigger jars. Go for the small bottles, as all we want to do is flavour our sauce, not substitute it with a ready made one. Alternatively, you can get the Satay flavour using peanut butter.

Obviously, out in the bush, we would use every bit of the chicken that was even remotely edible, chicken liver is great for enriching sauces. If you can get hold of chicken thighs, this works very well and saves a lot of preparation time de-boning the carcass. Chicken breasts on their own, although tender, end up a little dry so if you want to use breasts, mix in some thigh meat as well. I prefer to leave the skin on, it gives some much needed fat and stops the end product going dry but if you cannot stomach the skin, then leave it off and maybe consider chopping up a couple of slices of fatty bacon and frying them up with the onions. The Satay sauce is quite salty so watch the seasoning. If you use fatty bacon, then you will need even less salt.

For this dish you will need:

The chicken meat you have decided upon
Chopped bacon if you want it that way
4 large onions, peeled and chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
6 good ripe red tomatoes roughly chopped (you can used tinned peeled tomatoes)
Fresh Coriander leaves
Fresh Chillies
A tin of Coconut cream (or coconut milk)
Satay sauce (or peanut butter)
Saffron (or Turmeric)
Bay leaf
Olive Oil
Vinegar (if you are using peanut butter)
A teaspoon of sugar (if you are using peanut butter)
Lemon juice

It is best to prepare this dish in a heavy based decent sized frying pan. Cast iron pans are great but a bugger to carry around. You might well be lucky enough to be at home with a full set of Le Creuset in the kitchen, in which case you're laughing.

Heat the pan up over a medium to high heat and put a few tablespoons full of olive oil in the pan.

Chuck in the chicken pieces and fry them off until they are golden in colour (not brown). Don’t worry if they are not cooked all the way through, this is only the first stage of the cooking process. If the chicken pieces still have bones in, then they will need a little more time at this stage.

Once they are lovely and golden, remove them from the pan and place to one side.

If the coriander leaves still have their stalks on (best way to buy them), chop off the raggedy ends and discard, then chop off the stalks and finely chop them. Most people throw the stalks away and supermarkets, I notice, are now bowing to consumer demands and only selling the leaves in plastic bags. Shame. There is so much flavour in the stalks and they are far more robust than leaves at this early cooking stage.

If the pan is a bit dry, sling in another tablespoon full of olive oil and then the chopped onions, garlic, bay leaf and coriander stalks (be generous) and the finely chopped bacon if you are using it and sweat it all off until the onion is glassy. I have, when making this dish in the bush been distracted on occasion and allowed the onions to caramelise. The final flavour reflected this but was anything but unpleasant so it is largely a matter of taste. What I am saying is, if you brown the onions a bit too much, it is not a disaster.

Throw in some finely chopped hot pepper chillies to taste, some saffron or a teaspoonful of turmeric and then slice up the tomatoes roughly and sling them in and let them soften up to provide some good cooking juice.

If you are using Satay sauce out of the small bottle, pour in a couple of tablespoons full and give the lot a stir. If you are going to use peanut butter, then again, a couple of tablespoons full should do the trick but then add a teaspoon or two of vinegar and a teaspoonful of sugar.

If the contents look a bit dry, then add more tomatoes and if the tomatoes are not the really juicy kind and do not deliver enough juice, do not be afraid to sling in a bit of water. We do not want a thin broth, but we do need a bit of liquid in which to cook the chicken pieces through.

Return the chicken pieces to the pan, squeeze the juice of half a lemon over them, cover with a lid and simmer for about 10 minutes or so.

Take the lid off and roll the chicken pieces around in what should be a steadily reducing and thickening sauce.

Once it looks as if the sauce or chicken might start to burn because is has reduced so far (please do not let it burn, though, this time it is serious), add the tin of coconut cream and a generous amount of roughly chopped coriander leaves. Give the mixture a stir to incorporate the ingredients and then let them simmer over a low heat to warm the coconut milk through. Check the seasoning, adding salt as required, a squirt of lemon juice and maybe a teaspoon of sugar if needed.

Serve with boiled rice and garnish with some finely chopped coriander leaves.

This dish is a visual treat. The sauce is a pale yellow and the red of the tomato and chillie, and the green of the fresh coriander leaf garnish provide a pleasing contrast.

Depending on the season, enormous amounts of fruit were suddenly readily available, particularly Pineapple and Mango, which seem to grow in abundance in Africa. Pineapple is a bit tougher than the softer mango so if you fancy making the dish a little more exotic and choose freshly cut up pineapple chunks, then put them in at the same time as the tomatoes to allow them time to soften up a bit. If you use mango, then put the slices in at the same time as the chicken. Either way, they provide a delicious sweet and sour alternative and a variation on the standard recipe.

The basics (1) - Boiled Rice

If, like me, you thought that cooking rice meant simply tossing a load of it into a pan and boiling the hell out of it until it was soft and then draining the excess water away before serving the sticky mess, then you might be surprised to learn that some people treat the cooking of rice as seriously as they would do a main dish and have turned it into a fine art. Like so much fine art, its secret lies in its simplicity.

We were clearing landmines from a road in Northern Mozambique and, being both tired of cooking slops for ourselves, and now close to a local village, we employed a young girl to cook for us. I showed her what ingredients we had and when I told her to serve the dish with boiled rice as well, she asked for garlic, onions, bay leaves and olive oil. To make boiled rice? Hungry and not wanting to waste time arguing, I gave her the few Meticais necessary for her to buy the extra ingredients and she duly cooked and served up the dish. Brilliant. The rice was fantastic. No gloopy, sticky mess, just al dente, steaming white rice that flowed off the serving spoon and onto the plate. That evening, I paid close attention to the way she made it.

First, get some fresh water up to the boil.

Take a clove of garlic and an onion and chop them up as finely as possible.

Put a pan on the heat and pour in a couple of tablespoon’s full of olive oil and heat the oil up.

Tip in the chopped garlic and onion, and a bay leaf and sweat the ingredients off. Do not let the onion brown, all we want is that soft, glassy texture.

Pour in a mug full of rice and stir it around until all the rice is golden with the oil and starting to stick on the bottom of the pan. Again, do not let the rice burn brown, all we want to do is heat it up and get it to absorb the oil.

Take the same mug you used to pour in the rice and use it to pour in a mug and a half of boiling water into the rice. It will sizzle like mad and the rice will stick to the pan so use a wooden spatula to move it around and unstick it. Sling in salt to taste and then stop stirring, put the lid on the pan and turn the heat down not to low, but a lowish sort of medium. We do not want it to cook too fast, but equally, we do not want it to steam away so slowly it turns to sludge. Please be brave and resist stirring it every few seconds. Try to ignore the pan for about ten minutes.

Have a squint at the rice. The water level should now be below the level of the rice and the surface of the rice should be cratered as the plop, plop, plop of boiling steam forces its way through the surface. Give it a quick, gentle stir just to make sure that there is nothing sticking to the bottom of the pan and that there is no free water left (if there is and the rice is still very wet, give it a few minutes longer), have a nibble of the rice to ensure that it is almost completely soft (the middle should be a little solid still but not crunchy) and then put the lid back on, turn off the heat and leave the rice to steam gently in its own moisture.

Ten minutes later, just before serving, fold the rice over a couple of times with the spatula and transfer it to the serving dish or straight onto the plates. Remove the bay leaf when you come across it.

The thing is, you will not see a single bit of onion in the rice. All you will see is beautifully cooked rice with a lovely texture, not at all sticky (unless you could not resist stirring it every few seconds). Timing and the quantity of water do depend to a certain extent on the type of rice so the trick is to practice a bit with the rice you like/is locally available. The secret is not to keep messing with it and stir too much, just let it cook in its own time.

If you are doing, say, a curry and want the rice yellow, then sling a bit of saffron (we could get that in Mozambique by the bucketful, believe it or not) or a small teaspoonful of turmeric in with the onions when you first fry them up.