How to riff with recipes


How to riff with recipes

Riffing in the kitchen is a bit like saddling an unknown horse, writes EMILIA SMUTS.


IF you don't know that a riff is a short improvisation in music, you're past your best, like me. But I'm an old riffer in front of the food pots: I will stand in front of my pantry, wonder a bit, take this out and then that, try to remember a recipe from a long time ago. Then follow it according to memory, hoping for the best. 

The riffing comes from my mother, who could put many dishes together just from memory. But I think it's also an Afrikaans thing. Our Dutch blood means we don't want too much prescription, also in the kitchen.

Riffing is a bit like horse riding: if you saddle an unknown horse, you never know exactly how the business will turn out. There is a family legend about banana peel meatballs, which the children still giggle about. But mostly it's fun to riff.

But what if you slavishly followed recipes before, but now hear the call of the riff? Start like this:

  • Make a good-looking dish a few times, google all the best recipes for it then adapt it to your taste.
  • Shamelessly look at what other people do who cook well — remember there is no copyright on recipes. Ask them, then practise it yourself.
  • Learn to taste — even if it's only sweet, salty, sour and bitter — and listen to your heart.
  • Keep classic flavour combinations in mind and expand on them. Use your favourite flavours and recipe books as a starting point.
  • Learn a basic technique or recipe and riff from there with other ingredients.

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans:

Start at the beginning

Speaking of which: a bowl of crimson autumn tomatoes is just right for such a basic recipe. It's a simple tomato sauce that can serve in a stew, over pasta, in a meat dish or as a base for soup. Here is my favourite recipe, which also freezes well.



  • 60 ml olive oil
  • 2 large onions, thinly sliced
  • 1 hot chilli (or to taste)
  • 4 garlic cloves, pressed
  • 2-3 large carrots, grated
  • 2 kg red ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped, or two 800g tins of whole tomatoes or a combination
  • 60 ml tomato paste
  • 2 bay leaves
  • a glass of white wine (optional)
  • a heaped tablespoon of dry oregano
  • salt, black pepper and sugar to taste


Fry the onion, chilli and half the garlic in the oil until the onion is translucent and soft. Add the carrots and fry for a few more minutes. Then add the tomato — crush tinned tomatoes with your hand as they go into the pot. Add the rest of the ingredients, except the remaining garlic, stir and bring to a boil. Turn off the heat and simmer for at least one hour until you have a delicious red-rich, thick sauce. Add the rest of the garlic and simmer for another 10 minutes. Remove the bay leaves and purée the sauce with an immersion blender until medium smooth.

Taste again for the last time for a good balance of the basic flavours. Remember: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Now you start improvising and playing around: make it thicker or smoother or sharper; roast the tomatoes over a flame for a delicious smoky flavour; use more garlic; rosemary instead of oregano; add olives or anchovy fillets, sweet peppers, mushrooms or baby marrows to the sauce; or how about a dash of cream?


A quick dinner

Another good guide for a riff is ingredients in your home that must be used. I saw lamb's kidneys at a butcher's the other day: R30 for nutritious protein for all of us. And I remembered the last tired potatoes in my pantry, and the cream that really needs to be used, and voilà, there's dinner!


Ingredients (kidneys in a stroganoff style, enough for 4 people)

  • 8 lamb kidneys (about 500g)
  • 4 tbsp butter, halved
  • 1 medium onion, thinly sliced
  • 250 g mushrooms, sliced
  • ½ c sour cream or cream and lemon juice
  • nutmeg, grated
  • onion leaves, coarsely chopped


If the butcher has not cleaned the kidneys beforehand, cut through the membrane around the kidney, pull it off and cut out the connective tissue where it is attached with scissors. Cut into thin slices. Melt half of the butter in a large hot pan and quickly fry the kidneys until they just change colour — not overcooked, because then they become rubbery. Scoop them out and use the remaining butter to first fry the onion for a few minutes until soft, then turn the heat up, add the mushrooms and fry until soft and fragrant.

Scoop the kidneys and their sauce back into the pan and stir in the sour cream. Add a splash of brandy or sweet wine if you feel like it. Season with nutmeg, salt and pepper and sprinkle over the chopped onion leaves. Eat with a baked or boiled potato, on mashed potato for dinner — or on a slice of toast for breakfast.

This recipe, with your own touch, will also be delicious with strips of beef or venison.


Pantry tip: cheap vinegar potluck

Life is too short to drink bad wine. But it breaks my heart to throw such wine away. One day I came across a vinegar mother in the back of my pantry growing on the last dregs in an ordinary bottle of red wine vinegar. I poured it into a larger jar, covered it with a cheesecloth, stored it in a dark place and fed it with a little wine. The result is a delicious wine vinegar which you can endlessly supplement with a little wine.

At first I was careful to remove the sulphur from the leftover wine that I add, because sulphur curdles the mother. You do this by whisking the wine in a mixing bowl for a few minutes, or by leaving the bottle open for a while (but covered with a cheesecloth). Then you dilute the wine you add with a little fresh water, because a young mother doesn't like alcohol above 8% either. Then let the mixture stand until it turns sour, and there's your wine vinegar. The more mature the mother becomes, the more robust it becomes and then you no longer have to dilute your supplements so much, but beware of too much wine at once.

The mother multiplies over time and if it, or the vinegar, becomes too much, you can gift it to other vinegar users. If you do not want the mother to grow further in bottled vinegar, pasteurise the vinegar when it is properly acidic by slowly heating it to between 60 and 70 ºC for about 10 minutes.

If you don't have a vinegar mother, make one by inoculating your sulphur-free wine in a 1:1 ratio with organic, unfiltered vinegar. Domein Doornkraal's farm stall ( sells farm vinegar whose mother is already a great-grandmother. Continue to work as described above and with a little patience you will see the mother start to grow on the surface.

♦ VWB ♦

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