A few weeks ago I got an invite for a cook-along with celebrity chef, restaurateur and My Kitchen Rules SA (MKRSA) co-host and judge, David Higgs. I quickly accepted. See, a few weeks ago I had joined the M-Net show's launch of the third season of MKRSA, which premieres Sunday at 5pm – where Higgs and his co-host, J'Something cooked a simple shitake mushrooms and edamame ramen dish.
But this time, we were going gourmet. Higgs has signed up with meal kit company, UCook, to curate dishes from his award-winning restaurants, Marble and Saint and also his book, Mile 8.
The one thing I have always been nervous about being a food writer, is whether my knowledge of food was enough to even qualify me to write about it. Had I experienced enough food adventures? Was my cooking basic? Do people read my food stories and roll their eyes and move on to the next interesting story?
I often remind myself that I need to go to all the top restaurants in the country so I can write with authority on South Africa's restaurant culture. My heart broke when Restaurant Mosaic closed. I had been planning to go last year before Covid-19 hit. The plan was to do Restaurant Mosaic first, and then end the weekend with Marble, which I had heard good things about.
As I prepared the ingredients of what we were going to make – Higgs’ Emerald Risotto with goat’s cheese, truffle zest and mushrooms, I realised that finally, here was my chance to sample something prepared by Higgs, even though he would be on a video call, and I in my small, barely lit kitchen.
But what I got, was what many patrons of his restaurants will likely never experience – tips on how to make the dish better. It's great to have the recipe with you, sure, but the little tips that Higgs shared, which required one to deviate from the recipe, made the experience so much better.
And the biggest tip he shared was one that my mother believes in – "Don't overcook! It loses colour and nutritional value. We sometimes forget that we eat for goodness, for goodness sake!"
He also shared that green veggies love the salt and adding a pinch of it, is good for the colour, and that we should all learn to cook by feeling. "It's not always a direct science – it's important to give food time to breathe."
And that's exactly what he urged us to do with the risotto. He suggested that we just needed to leave it alone and let it cook. "Give it a shake and let it simmer to move it around. Once again, it's all about feeling... Your food needs to cater for you and your taste."
I've always felt so out of place at fine dining restaurants. While the food looks great, I always feel weird when I have to dig in. It's like destroying art. Weird, I know.
And yet, in the comfort of my home, there were none of those feelings. Here I could have fun with gourmet food and take the pretence out of it. Instead, it was just a hearty home cooked meal that left me feeling very warm and fulfilled. I just couldn't help smacking my lips as I dug into the risotto. It was damn good!
Other tips from Higgs:
TRUFFLE OIL – Be careful with truffle oil. It can take over the flavour. There's no need to glug it in your dish. All you need is a drop here, a pinch there. You don't want it to taste like toilet soap.
SEASONING – Don't season before you are finished cooking. Let the flavours come through while you are cooking.
JUST BEFORE SERVING – Just a little sprinkle of lemon zest to finish off the meal before serving. The food picks up the zest and you get this amazing aroma just as you begin to dig in.
Higgs’ Emerald Risotto (Serves 2)
250g button mushrooms, wiped clean and quartered
5g fresh thyme, rinsed, picked and finely chopped
30ml vegetable stock
160g spinach rinsed
1 onion peeled and finely diced
2 garlic cloves peeled and grated
200ml Arborio rice
100ml de-alcoholised white wine
5ml truffle oil
50g whole Italian-style hard cheese grated
50g goat's cheese
1 lemon zested and cut into wedges
Boil the kettle. Place a pot (big enough for the risotto) over a medium-high heat with oil. When hot, fry the quartered mushrooms and chopped thyme for 4-5 minutes until golden brown.
Remove from the pot on completion and season.
Dilute the stock with 700ml of boiling water and set aside. Bring a pot of water to a boil. When boiling, blanch ⅔ of the spinach for 1-2 minutes until wilted – be careful not to overcook. Drain on completion and rinse under cold water to stop the cooking process.
When cooled, squeeze out as much water as you can. Add the wilted spinach and 60ml of diluted stock to a blender, and pulse until smooth.
Return the pot to a medium-high heat with a drizzle of oil.
When hot, fry the diced onion for 2-3 minutes until soft and translucent. In the final minute, add the grated garlic and cook for a minute until fragrant, shifting constantly. Stir through the rice for a minute. Pour in the wine and simmer until evaporated. Add a ladle of stock and allow it to be absorbed by gently simmering, stirring regularly. Only add the next ladle of stock when the previous one has been fully absorbed. Repeat this process for 20-25 minutes until the rice is cooked al dente.
In the final 2-3 minutes of the risotto, stir through the fried mushrooms, ½ of the truffle zest, ¾ of the grated Italian-style cheese and 40g of butter. Season to taste and remove from the heat. Just before serving, stir through the blended spinach. In a bowl, toss the remaining spinach through some lemon juice, a drizzle of oil and season to taste.
Dish up a helping of risotto and crumble over the goat's cheese. Garnish with the remaining hard cheese and truffle oil (to taste). Top with the dressed spinach. There you have it!
Fans of the chef can order the Higgs UCook meal kits which will be available to order from September 15, with orders closing on September 22. The second week's menu goes live on September 22 and orders will close on September 29.