Potjie (poy-kee): Noun. Afrikaans. A three-legged pot-bellied cast-iron pot used for cooking over a fire. Usually by pot-bellied beer-drinking men.
It’s that time of year around base camp where we feel it’s not quite hot and dusty enough, so we light a huge fire and gather round to cook in cast-iron pots all day long. It’s the annual Potjie Cooking Competition, an homage to our South African employees and contractors. Last month Seb and I celebrated our fifth.
Our South African friends have taught us two of their favorite cooking methods over the years. Both are designed to be performed outside while drinking lots of beer with lots of friends. (Rugby game optional.) One is the braai, a barbecue where brats and other sausages feature prominently, and the other is the stew-like potjie. The idea is to layer the pot with meat and vegetables, add a liquid and maybe some dumplings on top, and let it cook all day long. Purists say it should not even be stirred. (I think they only say that because the beer and/or rugby game has distracted them.)
Our first competition was in June 2011. We teamed up with friends Marilyn and Dennis, and, since we didn’t know the first thing about potjie cooking, did our homework and research as much as our shaky internet could allow. I found a recipe online for one of the traditional meats used in potjie cooking, also happily an option offered by our catering company: oxtail. One practice round and a few adjustments later, we cooked up our oxtail on competition day and won second place, out of nine. And the winners were our French-Caribbean friends with a spicy curry (who took first place the following year, too). The South Africans were not pleased.
You do know what oxtail is, right? I don’t think I did before that particular competition. It’s literally the tail of the cow, skinned and cut into sections. As you might imagine, the meat is tough and a bit scarce, with the tailbone taking up a large portion of each piece. It’s ideal for long, slow cooking. I suspect the marrow that seeps out of the bone during cooking adds just the right touch of umami to the stew. A little red wine doesn’t hurt, either.
Here’s our prize-winning recipe, if you’d like to try it for yourself. It really is quite delicious if you do it right and give it plenty of time. When we overconfidently tried the same recipe in 2012 (a team decision I highly dissented, by the way, based on complete lack of creativity), we made a few mistakes and didn’t even place with it. Worse, we asked a Congolese fellow to taste-test it with us. After politely eating a bowlful without saying a word, we asked him if he liked it. “Non, ce n’est pas bon du tout,” he replied. (Nope, it’s not good at all.)
Ha! Well don’t let him scare you away. Congolese don’t really go for umami in their cuisine, plus it’s true we had made a number of errors in our cooking… your basic lack of attention to detail. Darn beer.
Oxtail Potjie, mostly taken from http://funkymunky.co.za/potjierecipes.html:
- 1kg oxtails, cut in 2” thick pieces
- ½ cup flour
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp coarsely ground black pepper
- 1 tsp paprika
- 1 tsp ground coriander seeds
- 2 Tbsp butter
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
- 10 slices bacon, cut in 1” pieces
- 4 large carrots, finely diced
- 6 large leeks, chopped coarsely
- 2 large onions, chopped coarsely
- 1 bouquet garni (parsley, thyme, bay leaves and black peppercorns tied up in a cheesecloth bag with a long string for easy removal)
- 4 Tbsp minced garlic
- 1 can tomato paste
- 1 cup red wine
- ½ cup sherry
- 1 liter beef stock
- 20 button mushrooms
- 2 large carrots, coarsely chopped
- ½ cup cream
Rinse oxtails and dry with paper towels. Mix flour and seasonings in a plastic bag. Add the oxtail and shake to coat.
In the potjie pot, heat butter & oil. Sauté bacon and then remove to a plate, leaving the fat in the pot. Brown oxtail in batches. Sear all sides and brown well before removing to a plate, leaving the fat in the pot. Sauté carrots, leeks and onions until softened. Add oxtail and bacon back to pot along with the seasonings and liquids. (Leave the string of the bouquet garni outside so it doesn’t get lost!) Bring slowly to a boil; cook slowly for 3-4 hours.
One hour before serving, add mushrooms and carrots; continue cooking slowly.
Just prior to serving, stir in the cream. If you want to thicken the sauce, mix some cornstarch with the cream before adding. Taste and adjust seasonings.
Make sure the meat is falling off the bone before serving, don’t accidentally serve that bouquet garni to the judges thinking it’s a piece of meat (it’s happened), and you too can win second place with this. Add a gremolata garnish, a creative presentation like serving it in an ostrich egg shell, and some homemade bread on the side, and you might even win first!
Scenes from potjies past. First up, the year of beginners’ luck, 2011:
Next, 2012 and our doomed-to-karmic-failure repeat:
2013 was the year Seb took over for Matt and became the new organizer. (We miss you, Matt!) I continued to compete by assisting friend Bob with his corned beef & cabbage stew. We didn’t place, but hey it was worth a try.
During the 2014 competition I was in France, which is (sort of) a bummer because it looks like I missed a fun year. Our friends went all-out on the most creative team design yet, and won third place with a vegetarian potjie. I’ll bet that really irked the South Africans. 😉
And finally, 2015. Having heard some allegations of “conflict of interest” in the past with me being a competitor while Seb was the organizer, I wrestled my way into being a judge this year. Bring on the bribes!