So I was recently asked to help judge a potjiekos competition. A potjie is a uniquely South African dish that originated with the Voortrekkers in the 1800s. It’s a stew but it’s not a stew with many variations and plenty of room for creative thinking.
To start with you need the all important pot, a cute-looking cooking vessel that comes in around 25 different sizes so you can cook for a family of six or as many as 50 people. The cast iron pot is placed over hot coals and you regulate the heat by moving the coals closer or further away. Quite a tricky balancing act!
The dish is built in layers, starting with searing the meat and onions (and whatever else you decide to add to your pot) and then adding stock and the vegetables in the order of how long they are going to take to cook. So you would start with carrots for example, put the lid back on your pot, cook for a while and then add the next layer at a later stage, finishing with quick-cooking veggies like peas and broccoli.
The important difference between a potjie and a stew is that you never stir a potjie once you have put the lid on. Keeping it on the right heat is also crucial, and the best way to monitor this is to listen to your pot. You should hear a slight bubbling, nothing too violent or the all-important stock will dry up.
I’ve judged a lot of cooking competitions in my time and usually they’re a pretty chaotic affair. Potjies on the other hand are a peaceful way to cook. The whole method is designed to be a calm and social affair with the dish pretty much preparing itself with plenty of time to mingle with your guests.
This does of course mean that your ingredient choice is vital. Preparation is everything, from making sure vegetables are chopped into the right size through mixing your own spice blends to suit the dish to creating a delicious stock. And of course good quality meat.
Cooking time depends on the type of meat you choose, so chicken will be ready fairly quickly and oxtail should be brewed for hours. And the size of the pot is a crucial factor.
Here’s a picture of the winning potjie of the day. And the man who created it, Warren Buys’ recipe so you can try it, too.
1.8kg beef shin off the bone cut in chunks or chuck
200g Pancetta, chopped
6 fresh tomatoes
3 large onions
1 litre beef stock – I used this Justin North veal stock with beef bones http://tvnz.co.nz/masterchef-australia/ep-12-justin-north-s-basic-sauces-and-veal-stock-4313090
400 ml red wine
200 ml port
250g sundried tomato’s in oil
4 sticks celery
4 large carrots
500g green beans
4 large potatoes (quartered)
4 cloves of garlic
1 cinnamon stick
3 bay leaves
4 stalks of rosemary
Small bunch of thyme
Olive oil for frying
300g tomato paste
1 packet brown onion soup
Heat up the potjie pot until it is sizzling hot, add olive oil and fry pancetta until it is nicely crisp, remove pancetta.
Season beef with salt and pepper, add to oil and brown until caramelised, add oil if need be, remove beef.
Add onions to oil, cook until they are soft and starting to brown.
Add garlic, fresh chopped tomatoes, finely chopped celery and chopped carrots (cut into larger chunks), cook until veggies begin to caramelise and soften (about 10 mins).
Add tomato paste and cook for about another 3 minutes, this takes away the acidity of the paste.
Add back the beef and pancetta.
Add the red wine, port, chopped sundried tomatoes (and the oil they are in), beef stock and potatoes.
Add the cinnamon, bay leaves, rosemary (I usually remove the leaves and chop them up) and thyme leaves
Bring the pot to the boil then regulate the temperature so that the pot is at a slow steady boil – cook for about 2 hours.
Add the green beans and courgettes – these can be cut in larger pieces – cook for another hour.
Stir in the packet of brown onion soup to thicken. Serve.
Warren says: ” We’ve cooked this Potije a number of times on the Cape west coast of during winter. It is a very comforting rich tomato based sauce that is perfect with a glass of Shiraz after a surf! Making the stock yourself makes a huge difference, it takes time but you can always make a lot beforehand a freeze it. The wine and port will give it a richness without a homemade stock anyway. Regulating the potjie is key, make you sure you have another fire going on the side to feed your potjie fire. Using charcoal briquettes can give you a nice steady heat so will using gas
Thanks to Warren for his recipe. I highly recommend you cook it, the resulting dish is beautifulluy flavoursome and comforting and you can have fun with this uniquely relaxing way to cook.
The potjie contest was held in the Tokai forest in Cape Town. A perfectly peaceful picnic spot that I’d never been to before. And there were plenty of potjies bubbling away.
Oh, and potjies are also great for making really tasty bread.