Reuben Riffel is not well-known in the UK (although he did work in Cambridge in the early 2000s), but in South Africa he is regarded as the king of the braai or barbecue. Reuben – he seems usually to be known only by his first name – did come to British attention earlier this year in the MasterChef Finals, when the contestants travelled to South Africa and worked with him on some massive barbecues. I seem to remember he scowled a lot. A few years ago we ate in Reuben’s first restaurant, in Franschhoek, and much enjoyed it. On the back of that Tuula bought me one of his books, Braai: Reuben on Fire.
I have struggled a little with the book. The recipes I have cooked have been very good. But there are many more I haven’t yet tried. Some use game for which we have no obvious equivalent and others use cuts and ingredients that are uncommon to us. I need to make more of an effort and plan what I can substitute because many of the dishes shout out to be tried.
I also struggle a bit because it’s very male-centric. The intent is good: presumably to persuade South African men that the braai can be for more than cooking a whole beast. It even includes vegetables and desserts… But that doesn’t stop me wincing at some of the macho matiness and the quirky names designed to make recipes seem more acceptable (‘The Lad Salad’…). It can be a bit like early Jamie Oliver on speed. None of this is a reason not to seek out the book if you can (it’s not easily available in the UK, even on Amazon).
Several times this year, I have put two dishes from the book together – beef with an ‘umami sauce’ and a vegetable salad with a surprising dressing. They are both novel and they go together brilliantly. The recipes are not available online, so I have included them in full below. I have altered the technique because I was cooking in the kitchen with a gas grill outside the back door – in contrast to Reuben’s concept of cooking everything on the braai, including, for example, frying onions in a foil dish over the flames. These are still very much his recipes, but tweaked for British sensibilities. And British weather.
I can recommend each dish on its own but I even more strongly recommend them together. I generally also serve new potatoes – not minted, which is our normal choice, but with butter, tarragon and parsley tossed through, which seems better alongside the salad.
Umami Beef – Beef with Anchovy Cream, Crispy Fried Onions and Garlic
(Reuben’s title: The Umami Army Rump)
This dish is a lesson in balance. It has three components: beef, grilled with a mustardy-sweet basting mix, a simple but highly moreish sauce and some crispy contrast from the onions. It’s a glorious combination, using anchovies and Worcester sauce to achieve a deep umami-ness in the sauce. The saltiness of the anchovies also draws out the flavour of the meat without tasting overly salty.
Reuben bases the recipe on rump, whereas I tend towards ribeye for two reasons. We prefer the marbled flavour of ribeye. But, as important, for this dish ribeye is also a more convenient shape. A 700g piece of ribeye is the ideal size for barbecuing and it is also easier to slice.
It’s important to get the onions and garlic properly crispy. Without that crispiness, the dish would lack a dimension.
To serve 3-4
- 600-750g beef rump or ribeye
- 2 tbsp wholegrain mustard
- 1 tbsp brown sugar
- Oil for frying
- 1 small-medium onion, sliced
- 4 garlic gloves, thinly-sliced
- 1 tsp rosemary, roughly (not too finely) chopped
- 1 cup cream
- 2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
- 7 anchovy fillets
- Season the rump well with salt and pepper. Sear on the BBQ over a medium-high heat, turning, for 10 minutes.
- Mix together the wholegrain mustard and sugar and use this to baste the meat. Continue cooking, basting occasionally, for 10-20 minutes (our piece of 700g ribeye took about 15 minutes at this stage to get to medium-rare). Remove from the heat and leave to rest for 7 minutes (I have left it for longer).
- While cooking the meat, heat the oil to a depth of 1-2cm or so in a small pan over a medium heat, then fry the onion. You want to get the onion crispy, which should take 15-20 minutes. Remove the onion with a slotted spoon and leave to drain on kitchen paper. (I put the plate of onions in the oven on its lowest setting).
- In the same oil, fry the garlic slices. Keep a very close eye on the pan because the garlic will darken and turn acrid quickly; it needs to be just coloured and crispy. Drain on kitchen paper and mix with the rosemary.
- Reduce the cream by half (take care – even on the lowest heat, it can boil over). Add the Worcestershire sauce and anchovies and blend until smooth (I use a hand blender).
- Slice the meat, drizzle over the sauce and top with the onions and garlic/rosemary mix.
Chopped Vegetable Salad with Evaporated Milk Vinaigrette
(Reuben’s title: Ideal Scenario Salad)
Evaporated milk? Yes, you read that right. I was sceptical when I saw this recipe and even as I write it now it almost sounds sickly. But it’s a revelation. The sweet creaminess of the milk, which is combined with oil to create an emulsion, is a contrast to the crunchy freshness of the raw vegetables. Evaporated milk is far more popular in South Africa than in the UK – probably even more than in its heyday here when I remember it being poured over tinned fruit salad. Reuben professes to a gastronomic nostalgia for it but, whatever the motivation, he has come up with a winning combination. Supermarkets sell half tins of evaporated milk, which are ideal for this recipe.
For slicing the carrot, cucumber and (if using) courgette, I use a cheap julienning tool that looks like a peeler with a serrated edge. That produces good matchsticks of vegetables, as well as a few scratched fingers. Please don’t be tempted to use asparagus when it is not in season – I have made this since the season ended and substituted a julienned courgette. That was fine, even if in season the sweet earthiness and bite of the asparagus is the ideal.
To serve 6-8 (I have made half this amount for two and still had plenty for lunch the next day)
- 2-3 sticks celery, finely sliced diagonally
- 1 bunch asparagus, sliced diagonally (out of season I substitute a courgette, finely sliced)
- ½ punnet sugar snap peas
- 4 carrots, finely sliced diagonally – I chose purple and yellow for some extra colour
- ¼ cucumber, deseeded and finely sliced diagonally
- red onion, finely sliced
- ¼ cup parsley, leaves torn but not chopped
- ¼ cup basil, leaves torn
- black pepper
- olive oil, for drizzling
For the vinaigrette
- 1 tbsp English mustard
- 3 tbsp sugar
- 1 tbsp white wine vinegar
- ½ cup evaporated milk
- ½ cup olive oil
- Make the vinaigrette by mixing together all the ingredients, except the olive oil, then gradually whisk in the oil. Set aside.
- After slicing the vegetables and picking the herbs, place them in a bowl of iced water to refresh . Drain well, then take handfuls of the mix and place in the middle of a clean tea towel. Shake out the excess water or use a salad spinner. (I confess I don’t always do this, but it does maximise the crunchiness and vibrancy of the raw veg).
- In a large bowl, dress the salad with the vinaigrette. Layer on a serving dish; try to give it some height. Season lightly with salt and pepper and drizzle with a little olive oil.