Picking Potjies

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:

Seb and SA friend Peter setting up early

Seb and SA friend Peter setting up early

Matt, the organizer, and his Moroccan-style stew that was quite tasty

Matt, the organizer, and his exempt-from-competition but very tasty Moroccan lamb stew

Overly optimistic Denny & Seb

Overly optimistic Dennis & Seb

Typical mining camp scene

Typical mining camp scene

Potbelly contest, naturally

Potbelly contest, naturally

Peter and his vuvuzela

Peter and his vuvuzela

Fire dancing by Willie

Fire dancing by Willie


Next, 2012 and our doomed-to-karmic-failure repeat:

We tried to disguise our repeat effort as "elephant stew"

We tried to disguise our repeat effort as “elephant stew”

Our 2012 team, with Denny, Marilyn, Bob and Theo

Our 2012 team, with Denny, Marilyn, Bob and Theo

A game of bridge on the side... hey who's manning the potjie??

A game of bridge on the side… hey who’s manning the potjie??


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.

The prizes :)

The traveling trophies

You can never be too careful...

You can never be too careful…

Seb added "bribery of judges" as a scoring category, which often meant free cocktails

Seb added “bribery of judges” as a scoring category, which often meant free cocktails

Edana and I probably had to pay for our drinks... :(

Edana and I probably had to pay for our drinks… 😦

More hot coals on the way

More hot coals on the way

The judges' table... note the ostrich egg shell in back

The judges’ table… note the ostrich egg shell in back

Second place (good guess on the t-shirts)

Second place (close guess on the t-shirts)

First place, visiting auditors who joined on a whim (yet managed to carry an ostrich shell from SA in their luggage)

First place, visiting auditors who joined on a whim (yet managed to carry an ostrich shell from SA in their luggage??)


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. 😉

They put the "pot" in potjie

They put the “pot” in potjie

Ross tending his garden

Ross tending the garden of the “green team”

The Indonesians had a nice theme going, too

The Indonesians had a nice theme going, too

Our catering company and their braai

Our catering company manning the braai

The third place vegetarians: Laura, Colleen, Russ & Ross

The third place vegetarian team: Laura, Colleen, Russ & Ross

First place, I'm guessing something meaty

First place, I’m guessing something meaty by the looks of them


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!

T3 drillers managed to get their name and their drill bits into their sign

T3 drillers managed to get their name and their drill bits into their sign

The prizes keep getting more elaborate, thanks to sponsor Congo Equipment

The prizes keep getting more elaborate, thanks to sponsor Congo Equipment

A glass of wine was about the only "judges' bribe" I received... bummer

A glass of wine was about the only “judges’ bribe” I received… bummer

Winners of the "People's Choice" category

Winners of the “People’s Choice” category

Overall winners... FINALLY, actual South Africans!!!

Overall winners… FINALLY, actual South Africans!!!

4 comments

  1. Jen, it was such a pleasure to read this piece and to look at the pictures! So many memories, although I was there during only one competiotion, the first one. Thanks for the good memories…

    Like

  2. How fun! The ingredients list sounds almost like Julia Child’s Boeuf Bourguignon, but with far fewer steps involved – yummo, to quote Rachel Ray. Very interesting how the competitions have changed from guys standing around the potjie to elaborate stands and decorations, and prizes supplied by vendors!

    Like

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