Eating, roll-overing and laughing our way to the Karoo and back

Intrepid braaier, biker and surfer dude Steve Pike, aka "Spike." With the lamb potjie on the fire, he left for a mountain-bike ride at dusk — and didn't come back till well past dark.

CAPE TOWN — Like the African honey badger — and you really must watch this video to understand the full context of this phrase — Steve Pike don’t give a sh*t.

Except when it comes to feeding people and showing them a great time.

Which explains why the South African surfer dude quickly emerged as one of everyone’s favorite pals during our stay in Cambridge during our fellowship year. Better known for surf-forecasting than sauteing, the 47-year-old Capetonian ended up becoming the go-to foodie for our entire Nieman class.

Catering a party for 60? Spike’s the guy to call.

Lamb chops for Janet's birthday on our last night (sniff sniff).

“Braai” was one of the first things he introduced us to when he demonstrated that a fire isn’t really hot enough to grill over unless you can hold your hand just above it and count to just 10 — any more than that, and you’ll get burnt. Braai is an Afrikaans word that refers to the practice of grilling meat over a wood fire while about 10 of your mates stand clutching beers and telling you what to do.

I watched a whole lot of braai-ing during our recent two-week vacation to visit Steve and his wife, Janet Heard, and my foodie pals are clamoring for some food porn — i.e., what I ate and what I learned about along the way:

 • Mix sweet and savory a la Malay cooking — just don’t forget the mustard seed. We had the best beef of our lives during our four-day stay in the Karoo. Sorry I don’t have a photo to show you here — this is actually a lamb stew on the left here. Apparently we were too busy devouring it to photograph it.

Steve prepared the fillet first by rubbing the entire thing in olive oil, whole mustard seeds and cracked black pepper, then searing it to create a crunchy coating. Then he braaied it to medium-rare in a pan set atop another blazing wood fire. At the same time in a separate pan, he carmellized a pan of onions in olive oil, red wine and about a third of a jar of apricot jam, which seemed to be featured in every meal he made. More jam was then slathered over the meat just before its final cooking atop the onion mixture.

And then: Lekker! (South African for “awesome.”)

• Embrace the potjie, which is essentially any kind of stew cooked for a minimum of two hours inside in a Dutch oven or potjie pot (pronounced “poiky”). Midway through our stay in the remote Karoo, about five hours northeast of Cape Town, Steve slow-cooked a lamb potjie this way, stewing the meat with butternut squash, onions, carrots and tomatoes and copious amounts of crushed coriander seed and — of course — apricot jam.

• Road food, African photojournalist style, is not the same as fast food. On our way to the Karoo,  Janet taught us how to make what she calls a “rollover.” She’d developed the lunch years earlier during a working road-trip with Richard Shorey, now a news photographer in KwaZulu-Natel. Leave it to the photogs to figure out a new way to consume chips, bread and meat.

The tension was palpable as our 13-year-old, Will, couldn’t wait for Janet to reveal the mystery of the rollover, which my husband, Tom, documented here on video:

What you end up with is a panini-like concoction, minus the butter and grill marks. (Back in Roanoke last night, Will asked me to make him one in our driveway, which was fun but not quite the same, although the Subaru’s tire print did make a lasting impression.)

A marketing gimmick, Ronnies Sex Shop is really just a pub out in the middle of nowhere.

• Sex sells, even if all you’re really serving is beer. During our journey to the Karoo, we also happened upon an attraction begun 13 years ago by a gray-braided hippie named Ronnie Price, who had the notion that he could actually lure tourists to his bar in the middle of nowhere if he named it “Ronnies Sex Shop.” (No apostrophe necessary.)

No sex toys, either, thankfully. Just beer. But as Ronnie put it: “Sex sells, you know.”

• Food tastes better outdoors. We four three glorious electricity- and cellphone-free days hiking and biking and eating many kinds of braai-cooked meat in the

Cottage caretaker Anne Reid embraces solace in the mountains — but loves company too.

Karoo, where I interviewed Anne Reid, the 63-year-old hearty soul who runs the lodge at Gamkapoort Dam and who joined us for supper most nights. The Karoo is a rugged, almost lunar landscape full of succulent plants, craggy rocks and thorn trees. It’s as ecologically diverse and as beautiful as anywhere I’ve ever been. When she’s not ferrying tourists and their bikes to the top of windy dirt passes, she uses her Land Cruiser battery to charge her computer, and when she needs to check e-mail, she drives an hour away to the top of another ridge. “You learn to do without,” she says. She gave me a start of the plentiful spekboom succulent, a lime-colored cactuslike plant that she swears will be the saving grace of the world. It’s known for reducing blood pressure, and for its amazing capacity to offset harmful carbon emissions.

The honey badger eats whatever he wants — and never gains weight. If he wants to, he can even eat an eight-pound ostrich egg after stumbling onto it during a bike ride and subsequently toting it home to Cape Town, where he fixed an omelette with a portion of it the next morning for breakfast.

That’s right: The homemade meals just kept coming, even as our trip sadly came to a close. On our last night, we were treated to a potluck to celebrate Janet’s birthday — with Janet’s mom’s boyfriend, Mike, bringing his to-die-for mussels that he’d collected himself and baked in a homemade cream sauce. (Mike did not, however, care much for the honey badger video, which became the joke of our trip. “Why’d they pick an American to do the narration?” he asked, of the campy voiceover that made the standard nature video so funny — at least to the 11.9 million folks who’ve watched the video so far.)

Vicki, Janet’s sister, chipped in delicious meat pies — which are as ubiquitous in South African as hot dogs are here. And Janet made one of her trademark salads that’s become my new very favorite thing: cooked-but-still-crunchy green beans with veggies (whatever you fancy), chunks of feta and a scattering of nuts, dressed in a lemon vinaigrette. With all the dieting I need to do now, I should eat this and only this at every meal and, luckily, it’s good enough that I can.

"To Hell 'N Gone" -- before our bike ride down the dirt road to Gamkapoort Dam.

I don’t know how many pounds we gained, but it was fewer than we would have had Steve not also been pushing us to take nine-hour hikes on Table Mountain and mountain bike rides in the Karoo and Tokai Forest Reserve.

Long live the real African honey badger, whose outdoor bonafides are as badass as any creature of the night. Steve challenges his houseguests, but I’m happy to report: He feeds them faaaaabulously well.

Best hosts ever, Janet Heard and master braaier Steve Pike. We missing you!

The tonic of garlic, the NYT and ‘a bit more’

Today I had one of those headaches, probably weather-related. It started at the base of my left ear and circumnavigated the span of my frizzy-from-the-rain hair. I took two Tylenol. Then a third. Then an Ibuprofen. The frizzies might as well have been daggers.

Sleep, my husband ordered when I returned home about to fall to my knees. Then he told me about Joe Biden and his unintentionally broadcast, off-color, high-fiver of a remark to the president during the signing of the health care bill. I took my laptop to bed and rushed to the New York Times Web site for the up-to-the-minute scoop (forgetting that the Gray Lady would never, ever print what Biden actually said).

There it was in the right-hand column, one of the best-read stories of the day, and it had nothing to do with health care or bad language. But it was a great tonic for my raging headache. A recipe for garlic soup, exactly one bowl of garlic soup.

(By the way, not long ago a Times reporter talked to the Niemans about an award-winning project he’d written and casually dropped into his talk the importance of those “Most Popular” story links on the side of their home page — and not just to readers. One reporter is so worried about job security that every time she writes a story, she e-mails a link to all her relatives and friends, asking them to e-mail it to someone else.)

But who wants to worry about job security when you have a headache, so back to the soup. I tinkered, as is my wont. And while I can’t say it was the cause of my current pain-free state, it sure didn’t hurt. Were I smart and more enterprising, I’d have had a slice of toast with it, using Penny Wright’s knead-free bread recipe. Were I rich, I’d have ordered the coolest toaster on the planet to help — a lovely appliance I got to use when I stayed at Penny’s sister’s house in Southampton last week. It’s a brand called Breville that features such functions as a “lift up and look” button and “A bit more.” I love that: A bit more!

Garlic Soup

(inspired by Martha Rose Shulman’s version in today’s New York Times)

2 cups chicken broth (Shulman’s recipe calls for water)

2 garlic cloves (big ones), minced

Splash of olive oil

Salt, pepper and red pepper flakes to taste

Handful of pasta (I used rotini)

Two big handfuls of fresh spinach (or any other green or favorite vegetable), chopped

1 egg

Handful of shaved Parmesan cheese

In a small soup pot, pour chicken broth and throw in garlic and cook on medium for about 15 minutes. Then toss in pasta and seasoning. Cook till almost al dente.

Add spinach, stirring for one minute or so, then turn the burner off. Crack egg into a cup; to that add a ladle full of the hot soup and stir. (You’re trying to avoid the egg turning into scrambled bits in your soup.) Return to soup, stir and let sit for another minute or two, and enjoy the buttery color it becomes. Adjust with more salt to taste.

Serve topped with Parmesan or copious amounts of any good cheese. (Next time I cook this up, I’ll start off by sauteing some garlic and bread crumbs in olive oil and then add the broth etc. I might also use arugula instead of spinach, but I’ll only let it simmer 30 seconds or so.)

When it’s all gone and your headache history, ask somebody to make you a bit more.