Thursday, 31 January 2008

Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Leaves.

I've been a fan of Michael Pollan's writing (and thinking) since I first read an extract of Botany of Desire, in which he speculates on how plants and us humans are in a implicit pact to fulfill each other's needs. I was eager to read his follow-up book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, in which he explores the implications of being an omnivore and traces four different (and differently sourced) meals to the origin of all their component parts. Not an easy read at times, for a large part because it makes you face the reality that eating industrially produced meats and foods are not just harmful to the animal (which we all know but chose to ignore in varying degrees) but are tremendously, horribly harmful to the environment and make us all petroleum addicts. It's made me really question how I approach foods and prompted me to start making changes to my eating and buying habits.

This week, an email came around work announcing that Michael Pollan would be giving a talk that afternoon. I had to read it a few times while almost jumping out of my seat, and began thinking of how I could ask my manager for the approval
to go to the talk while not coming across as something of a sad groupie (even if that's not far from the truth of what I am). Access to this talk, I thought, is the first time in many years of working in higher education that I had the chance to get excited about my own learning.

Michael came to talk about his new book and to talk to our own food gurus and students. His latest book, In Defence of Food, was born of The Omnivore's Dilemma: people kept approaching him to let him know they got the book's 'message', but were confused as to what they should do now and how best to go about eating well. Hence the 7 word distillation of the book: Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly Leaves.

I was interested to hear him address an aspect of the debate that I consider thorny. How can we all access better produce and healthier eating, particularly the urban and the poor and those groups that are identified as the least healthy eaters. Michael made the point that if someone wanted to eat more in the style he was recommending, they would have to chose between cheap food or fast food. Healthy produce doesn't have to be prohibitively expensive, but we do also need to devote time to cooking some of these less expensive foods - such as setting a large pot of dried beans on to boil and leaving them there for a few hours. Many people are unwilling to take the time to make food, and consider it an intrusion rather than a pleasure to spend a weekend afternoon cooking with the family to prepare ahead for the week's meals. Cooking a pot of beans might not seem as much fun as taking the family out to see a film, but these are the choices we make.

I'm sure to many this will come across as the privileged telling the less well-off what to do. That's certainly the accusation that has been leveled at Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall and his chicken campaign, for example. And wrapped up within these debates is the environment issue, about which I'm acutely paying attention to but don't always find it easy to figure out what to do - hearing variously that eating beef is more polluting than taking a 3 hour drive, that animal feed production is a large contributer to deforestation, that eating naturally fed New Zealand lamb might or might not be less carbon-emitting than eating locally fed lamb, and that, unsurprisingly, all these statistics and claims are a lot muddier than most of us would consider them to be, can make the whole issue very confusing, and make every trip to the grocery store a moral maze.
These sort of uncomfortable debates about food and eating are coming around more often and although they might not sit easily with everyone, I'd rather be confused and thinking about them than not addressing them in the first place

Monday, 28 January 2008

The Daring Bakers: Lemon Meringue Pie

When I joined the Daring Bakers, Mr A&N was quite excited on his own behalf. Guarantee baked goods, at least once a month, is something easy to see the bright side of. There was a burning question he had, though. “When will you get to make me a lemon meringue pie?” As the asking of this question implies, lemon meringue is his favorite sweet treat. “Honey,” I gently explained “of all the baked goods in this world, pies and cookies and cakes and breads, what do you think the chances are of us having to bake a lemon meringue pie?”

This month the Daring Bakers have made a lemon meringue pie.

The recipe is a Wanda Beaver recipe, as chosen by Jen at The Canadian Baker. The last time we made lemon meringue in our house was last Valentine’s Day, when Mr A&N wanted to give me a treat (by baking his favorite dessert, mind you). Instead of grabbing the vanilla to flavor the meringue with, though, he chucked in a generous spalsh of red food coloring to the egg white mixture. The resulting pink meringue was valentines- appropriate, as it turned out, but it did but us off lemon meringue for a short while.

The crust in this meringue, for starters, was addictive. It is a very simple sweet crust , is worthy of being given pride of place in your favorite pie recipe. There was more than enough pastry for a full-sized pie as well as a half-dozen mini-pies, and the left over pastry pieces were baked (and eaten) as if they were butter cookies. I had a minor pastry mishap when cutting it for the large pie dish and not allowing enough coverage for it to climb up and cling over the sides of the dish. The result was that when I blind baked it, despite weighing it down, it shrunk on me. I first thought the crust was a write-off, but then thought of transferring the still-warm crust to a slightly smaller tin and breaking off any overhang to enjoy as more butter cookies. This, surprisingly, worked well.

The mishap became more dangerous when Mr A&N, not noticing how I had turned the situation from tragedy to triumph in a few easy steps, thought that we were still writing the crust off and took too much liberty with the amount of crust he broke off and ate. With my back turned, he broke off a whole side of pie crust and was blithely nibbling it when I caught him and let him know my opinion of his actions (with words that could best be expressed with these symbols: ??!?**&$@!!!). Having already lost and regained this pastry crust once, I didn’t want to lose it again, so decided to go th
rough with making the pie and simply earmarking that side for MR A&N to eat – he should be the one to feel the consequences of his actions.

The filling and meringue were an excellent double-act: the tart, slightly acerbic lemon with just the hint of sweetness, being smoothed and coddled by the light and airy, ever-marshmallowy meringue enclosing it. It was the Burns and Allen of the pie world. Since we enjoy tart and tangy desserts in our house, we both felt that the pie would have been just as welcome a dessert without the meringue on top, but it’s hard to think of what to do with those 5 left-over egg whites other than make meringue.

The proof of this pudding was certainly in the eating – I knew it would be a hit with Mr A&N but the bigger surprise was how his father responded to it. A man who loves his food but considers dessert a useless blockade between the main course and the cheese board
asked for a polite initial slice of pie, and then followed up the next night’s dinner with a declaration that he wouldn’t have seconds of his meal so that he could have a slice of the lemon meringue. It is a palate-cleansing pleaser for those who don’t mind a bit of sharp with their sweetness and can appreciate a good crust when they bite into it.

Lemon Meringue Pie

From "Wanda's Pie in the Sky"
- makes 1 10 inch pie

For the Crust:
3/4 cup (180 mL) cold butter; cut into ½-inch (1.2 cm) pieces
2 cups (475 mL) all-purpose flour
1/4 cup (60 mL) granulated sugar
1/4 tsp (1.2 mL) salt
1/3 cup (80 mL) ice water

For the Filling:
2 cups (475 mL) water
1 cup (240 mL) granulated sugar
1/2 cup (120 mL) cornstarch
5 egg yolks, beaten
1/4 cup (60 mL) butter
3/4 cup (180 mL) fresh lemon juice
1 tbsp (15 mL) lemon zest
1 tsp (5 mL) vanilla extract

For the Meringue:
5 egg whites, room temperature
1/2 tsp (2.5 mL) cream of tartar
1/4 tsp (1.2 mL) salt
1/2 tsp (2.5 mL) vanilla extract
3/4 cup (180 mL) granulated sugar

To Make the Crust:
Make sure all ingredients are as cold as possible. Using a food processor or pastry cutter and a large bowl, combine the butter, flour, sugar and salt.Process or cut in until the mixture resembles coarse meal and begins to clump together. Sprinkle with water, let rest 30 seconds and then either process very briefly or cut in with about 15 strokes of the pastry cutter, just until the dough begins to stick together and come away from the sides of the bowl. Turn onto a lightly floured work surface and press together to form a disk. Wrap in plastic and chill for at least 20 minutes.

Allow the dough to warm slightly to room temperature if it is too hard to roll. On a lightly floured board (or countertop) roll the disk to a thickness of 1/8 inch (.3 cm). Cut a circle about 2 inches (5 cm) larger than the pie plate and transfer the pastry into the plate by folding it in half or by rolling it onto the rolling pin. Turn the pastry under, leaving an edge that hangs over the plate about 1/2 inch (1.2 cm). Flute decoratively. Chill for 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350ºF (180ºC). Line the crust with foil and fill with metal pie weights or dried beans. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes. Carefully remove the foil and continue baking for 10 to 15 minutes, until golden. Cool completely before filling.

To Make the Filling:
Bring the water to a boil in a large, heavy saucepan. Remove from the heat and let rest 5 minutes. Whisk the sugar and cornstarch together. Add the mixture gradually to the hot water, whisking until completely incorporated. Return to the heat and cook over medium heat, whisking constantly until the mixture comes to a boil. The mixture will be very thick. Add about 1 cup (240 mL) of the hot mixture to the beaten egg yolks, whisking until smooth. Whisking vigorously, add the warmed yolks to the pot and continue cooking, stirring constantly, until mixture comes to a boil. Remove from the heat and stir in butter until incorporated. Add the lemon juice, zest and vanilla, stirring until combined. Pour into the prepared crust. Cover with plastic wrap to prevent a skin from forming on the surface, and cool to room temperature.

To Make the Meringue:
Preheat the oven to 375ºF (190ºC). Using an electric mixer beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar, salt and vanilla extract until soft peaks form. Add the sugar gradually, beating until it forms stiff, glossy peaks. Pile onto the cooled pie, bringing the meringue all the way over to the edge of the crust to seal it completely. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until golden. Cool on a rack. Serve within 6 hours to avoid a soggy crust.

Friday, 25 January 2008

Squash and Jerusalem Artichoke: A Winter Salad

One of the things I miss the most during the winter is big, colorful salads (that, and daylight). I love take the fresh summer offerings - green leaves, crunchy vegetable, sweet soft fruit of some kind - and throwing them all together with some oil and lemon juice and calling that my dinner. Winter vegetables have their own strengths but I do miss my all-in-one meals from the summertime.

One winter vegetable strength is the ease with which you can roast many of them and draw out a richer, often sweeter flavor. This works best with squashes - butternut, acorn, or plan old pumpkin - and whenever there's one on hand I'm very tempted to stick it in the oven and figure out what to do once it's done. This time around, I happened to have jerusalem artichoke on hand as well, and so I began thinking of ways of using the two together.

I had never made anything with jerusalem artichoke before, so felt I had to do a bit of research in order to get the best of them. The name of the artichoke, it turns out, is a funny thing - it's not really an artichoke (it's a tuber, like a potato), and it has no connection to jerusalem (it's a mis-pronunciation of the Italian word for sunflower, girasole). Unlike some other tubers, the artichoke can be eaten raw as well as roasted or boiled. Also curious about the artichoke is a fact that most sites featuring information about the vegetable throw up: it's high in a carbohydrate called inulin, which is linked with excessive flatulence in some people. Not a topic for a friendly foodblog, perhaps, but considering how often that fact is brought up in relation to the artichokes, I thought it only fair to warn all and sundry about the dangerous grounds on which I and my bag full of artichokes were standing.

Despite these gastric dangers, I thought it would be a brilliant idea to make a winter salad out of my squash, aritichokes, and any other bits laying around that needed eating (in this case, thyme, pine nuts, rocket and bacon, and cous cous to bulk it all out, though quinoa would work just as well). The squash and artichokes were roasted together with olive oil, a generous handful of thyme and a few cloves of garlic, and the bacon set to grill on top of it when the vegetables were nearly done. Roasted pine nuts in the cous cous, dress it all with a bit of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and you have yourselves a winter salad.

And how was it? Very, very good, thank you - just the thing to scratch that salad itch during the winter. It felt healthy, and combined a bit of sweet and salty with a variety of textures.

Ah yes, and how were the artichokes? Nutty, crunchy, and still nicely crisp even after a bit of roasting. My first foray into the jerusalem artichoke world was a good one.

Yes, but, the the inulin, I hear you ask. What about the famed effects of the inulin? Well...this is a mature blog and I'm nothing but a dignified woman, so I shan't be discussing that. I will admit that one of the two of us in the A&N household was susceptible to the inulin's effect, but I shan't reveal which of the two of us it was. Who says the mystery from romance is dead.

A Winter Salad of Squash and Jerusalem Artichokes (an approximate recipe)
serves 4 as a salad main

  • 1 medium butternut squash (although other squashes would be fine as long as they're big enough)
  • 1 lb of jerusalem artichokes
  • bunch of thyme
  • 3 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
  • olive oil
  • 300g cous cous
  • 300g hot water
  • about 30g of pine nuts
  • a couple of handfuls of small salad leaves, such as rocket
  • 1 packet of streaky bacon, about 250g
  • olive oil
  • balsamic vinegar
  • salt and pepper to taste
  1. Pre-heat the oven to 180 C / 375 F.
  2. Peel the squash and cut into 1 inch cubes.
  3. Clean the artichokes and cut into chunks that are about 1 1/2 times the size of the squash cubes.
  4. Spread the squash and artichokes out on an oven tray or oven-proof dish. Add in the thyme and chopped garlic, and drizzle with olive oil. Toss all together until roughly mixed.
  5. Set to cook in the oven for about 20 minutes.
  6. If you have a rack that sets on top of the roasting tray, lay the bacon strips on top of the rack and then place on top of the roasting vegetables. Otherwise, remove the vegetables from the oven and lay the bacon strips on top.
  7. Cook for another 15 minutes or until the bacon is nicely crispy.
  8. Meanwhile, prepare the cous cous by boiling the water and placing the cous cous in a large bowl. When boiled, pour the water onto the cous cous, stir lightly with a fork, and cover with a plate to let the cous cous steam for a few minutes.
  9. Set a small frying pan on medium heat, and lightly toast the pine nuts until they're just slightly brown.
  10. After about 3 minutes, toss the cous cous with a fork and add in the salad greens, pine nuts, olive oil and vinegar enough to lightly dress and flavor everything, and some salt and pepper.
  11. When the vegetables and bacon are done, remove the thyme stalks from the tray and add in the vegetables and pan juices to the cous cous.
  12. Cut the bacon up into bite-sized pieces, and add that to the salad mixture.
  13. Toss all together, and adjust for flavor.

Monday, 21 January 2008

Fish Pie

"What can I say about fish pie?" I asked Mr A&N.

I could talk about how after all the turkeys and hams, beef and lamb and sausage indulgences over Christmas, we've wanted to give farm animals a break
for a bit and so the fish pie became a natural choice for our Sunday lunch with friends around.

Or, I could discuss the wonderfully named Star Gazey Pie I intended to make for Mr A&N's birthday but for which I failed to source my pilchards in time. The pie, in which the fish heads poke out of the crust and gaze at the stars, is traditionally served on the same day as Mr A&N's birthday but due to my forgetfulness our own tradition of serving the pie will have to wait another year.

Or, I could talk about the comforting creaminess of fish pies. The white sauce, the white fish, the mashed potatoes and cheese on top - a medley of wintertime whiteness that's warm and wonderful in a way that the monotony of the color wouldn't
lead you to believe.

"What can you say about fish pie?" he responded. "You can say it's a pie, which is a very good thing, and that it's fishy and potatoey and cheesey and nice and tasty and that I like to eat it because it makes me go 'Mmmmm'."

Well then. That showed me.

Fish Pie, an approximate recipe (inspired by Delia Smith, prepared by Mr A&N)
Serves 6-8

  • 2 kilos of potatoes
  • 1 1/2 kilos of white fish (cod, haddock, pollack, halibut - any white fish will do)
  • 2/3 of a bottle of dry, inexpensive white wine
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 1/2 pints milk
  • 45g / 3 Tbs butter, softened
  • 45g / 3 Tbs flour (plus possibly a bit more)
  • about 30 good-sized cooked prawns, peeled
  • 6 eggs, hardboiled and each one cut into about 8 pieces
  • about 1 dozen cornichons, chopped
  • 3-4 Tbs flat leaf parsley, chopped
  • butter and milk to make the mash
  • around 200g of cheddar cheese
  • salt and pepper throughout
  1. Pre-heat the oven to 180 C / 375 F.
  2. Peel and cut the potatoes into chunks for boiling.
  3. In a large pot, boil enough water for the potatoes to fit into. When boiling, add some salt and then add the potatoes.
  4. Meanwhile, heat the white wine and bay leaf in a large pan or pot. The fish will be poaching in this, so you want the liquid to just about cover the fish.
  5. When the white wine is hot, add the fish and cook until the fish is just turning firm but is not quite cooked.
  6. Remove the fish from the liquid and place aside to drain slightly and cool. Keep behind a ladle-full of the poaching liquid.
  7. Gently heat the butter in a large enough pan to later hold the milk and poaching liquid. As the butter is melting, stir in the flour.
  8. Keeping stirring the butter/flour mixture for a couple of minutes, until it browns very slightly and comes away from the base and sides of the pan.
  9. Add in about 1/4 of the milk, and stir well until the milk is blended with the butter-flour mixture.
  10. Add the rest of the milk and the ladle-full of poaching liquid, stirring well throughout. Mixture should be fairly thick, like a bechamel sauce.
  11. Season with salt and pepper, and add the chopped parsely into the sauce.
  12. If the skin is still attached to the fish, peel it off at the point. Start flaking the fish off in chunks, and add the chunks to a large bowl.
  13. Add the prawns, cornichons, and hard-boiled eggs to the bowl with the fish chunks.
  14. Add the white sauce to the bowl with the fish. Stir thoroughly but delicately enough not to break apart the fish.
  15. Pour this mixture into a large, deep, oven proof dish (about 15 x 8 inches, or divide into two if you don't have a dish that big). This mixture should come about three-quarters of the way up the sides of the dish, since the rest will be taken up by the mash and cheese.
  16. Drain the potatoes (they should break apart easily at this point) and mash them with the amount of butter, milk, salt, and pepper that you would normally use for mash.
  17. Smooth the mash evenly on top of the fish mixture in the dish.
  18. Cook in the oven for about 20 minutes.
  19. Remove the dish from the oven, and turn the grill on rather than the oven.
  20. Grate enough cheese on top so that the mash is evenly covered in cheese.
  21. Heat under the grill until the cheese is fully melted and a bit brown, about 5 - 10 minutes.
  22. Remove from the grill and serve warm.

Sunday, 20 January 2008

Home-Made Pasta

In the panoply of international cooking gadgets we received for Christmas, Mr A&N and I gained a pasta maker. We had put it on our Amazon wishlist and crossed our fingers, and were gifted it by my parents. The gift was less of a surprise than they intended: having paid extra for the gift wrapping and specifying we weren't to open it until Christmas, they then wrote on the card attached to the gift "Hope you enjoy your present - there's nothing like fresh pasta!". All gifts are gratefully received here, and we finally had a chance to turn the handle on the machine last weekend.

The ingredients for pasta are simple - flour and egg. You can fancify it to make it green (adding water from boiled spinach to the dough), red (water from boiled beetroot), or presumably another color derived from the left-overs of other boiled vegetable water. Our main intentions are to make our own ravioli but we haven't had the chance to get the ravioli-making kit to enable that. I'm a by-the-rules sort of person who wants to wait to attempt ravioli until we know it won't be a complete disaster, while Mr A&N is just e-a-g-e-r and was trying his hardest to get me to throw caution to the wind and just go for it. Sometimes it pays to be stubborn; I talked us down from that precipice and our first home-made pasta adventure involved a simple tagliatelli cut and bolognese sauce.

We didn't revolutionize the history of pasta with what we made, but we did prove to ourselves that the effort was worth it. Home-made pasta compared to dried (or even supermarket-fresh) is the difference between silk and satin; freshly-brewed and instant coffee; a 3-day weekend versus a 2-day weekend. It's subtly, and yet substantially, different. It is smoother in taste and lighter in texture without feeling you've gone as far as eating something delicate. It is the pasta of Italy, the reason that the non-descript restaurant you discovered during your last visit seemed to serve the best bowl of spaghetti you ever tasted.

The greatest mystery to me is how your average Italian grandmother can operate the thing on her own. The 3-foot long sheets of dough that had to be fed through the contraption needed to be both lightly fed through and gently grabbed at the other end, and at least at the novice stage we needed all hands on deck to prevent disaster. Frankly, I don't think I have the right Mediterranean genes to ever operate it on my own. Pasta will have to be a team effort in the A&N household the next time we want to go fresh, but it does add to the feelings of family togetherness that Italian food brings out in you anyway.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Celeriac, Chickpea, and Cabbage Soup

After reading (yet) another soup recipe from me, Kate from Applemint recently threatened to dub me The Soup Queen. Well, I'm afraid The Soup Queen is at it again so hang on to your seats everyone.

I think I make so many soups because I have access to good seasonable vegetables through Walthamstow's two markets, one a traditional fruit and veg market and the
other a farmer's market. These two markets sell both quality and quantity of food, and I find it easy to get tangled up in over-zealous vegetable buying. I then often wind up with more vegetables than a vegetarian family of 7 would be able to tackle in a week. As it seems to be the case, the road to soups is paved with good vegetable intentions.

So what to do when you find yourself with extra celeriac, curly kale, and savoy cabbage on your hands? That's right, you make soup. A quick look around the cookbooks showed me that my wonderful River Cafe Cookbook Green had the perfect soup for me in it. It was one of the earlier cookbooks to organize recipes by season and month, and I still find it an excellent resource for helping me to do the most w
ith the ingredients that are abundant at the moment.

The celeriac soup isn't a tremendous departure from many soup recipes, but the addition of fennel seeds once again takes the flavor to a deeper and warmer place (my polenta shortcake earlier in the week showed off fennel seed's versitility with sweet things). The scent that came from frying the fennel was an intoxicating tempter that made you reconsider whether or not you actually need to finish the recipe before dipping your spoon into it.

I added kale to my soup and it fit in to the original recipe easily. I also used dried chickpeas despite my dislike of them, and my dislike was confirmed since those darn things didn't soften up even after 5 hours of boiling. I'm repeating the recipe as is, though, so you can make your own decisions. Do make sure you are generous with the parmesan cheese on top, though, which makes the eating of the soup that much more worthwhile.

For my abundance of vegetables and the wonderful fennel seeds, this is being submitted to Rinku at Cooking in Westchester for Weekend Herb Blogging.

Celeriac, chickpea, and cabbage soup
from River Cafe Cookbook Green

  • 800 g celeriac, cut into 1 inch cubes
  • 200 g dried chickpeas, cooked, or 800 g tinned chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 500 g savoy cabbage, thick stalks discarded, and finely shredded
  • 1 large red onion, chopped
  • 4 Tbs olive oil
  • 150 g pancetta, cut into fine matchsticks
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 tsp fennel seeds, crushed
  • 1.25 liters chicken stock
  • sea salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 ciabatta loaf, cut on the diagonal to make crostini
  • 1 garlic clove, peeled
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • parmesan cheese, freshly grated
  • 2 Tbs chopped flat-leaf parsley

  1. Heat the 4 Tbs of oil in a heavy, large pot and add the pancetta, bay leaves, and fennel seeds. Cook for a few minutes to allow the flavors to combine.
  2. Add the onion and celeriac, stirring, and allow to cook for 8 - 10 minutes until the onion has softened and the celeriac has colored.
  3. Add the cabbage and chickpeas, again stirring and allowing to cook for another few minutes.
  4. Add enough stock to cover the contents. Season with salt and pepper and simmer gently for 30 minutes, until the celeriac is soft and the chickpeas have begun to break.
  5. Toast the crostini on both sides and lightly rub with the garlic clove.
  6. Place a slice of toast in each bowl, drizzle with extra virgin olive oil, and grate some parmesan cheese on top.
  7. Ladle in the soup, and top with parsley and some more extra virgin olive oil.

Sunday, 13 January 2008

Polenta Shortcake with Raisins, Dried Figs, and Pine Nuts

I hope that many of you can identify with this feeling: last weekend, I woke up and felt an overwhelming need to bake a cake. I didn't want an overly sweet, icing-ed cake but rather something I could eat plenty of without either feeling sick or a bit too guilty. In my Marcella Hazan Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, I hit upon a polenta cake crammed with dried fruits and nuts that sounded just the ticket. There wasn't much fat or sugar in it so it was a nice cake to make after the indulgences of Christmas, and the dried fruits made me feel it had a touch of the fruitcake to it (without having some of the other horrible dried citrus rinds in there). Marcella stated that the cake was a Venetian specialty, made during the hey-day of Venice's trading prowess and was studded with exotic specialties acquired from trade with the Middle East.

Mr A&N approved the recipe, although with only 1/2 cup of sugar for the whole cake he was a bit concerned that the cake wouldn't quell his ov
er-active sweet tooth. Bless him and his concerns. I agreed to make a pomegranate syrup to drizzle over the cake to bridge the gap between his tastes and what was in the recipe; the fennel, figs, and pine nuts in the cake already made me think of middle eastern flavors and I thought the pomegranate would continue that theme (plus, it needed eating).

Without any levening agents, the cake was going to stay fairly flat. When it came out of the oven, Mr A&N's hopes were even lower than before it went in, and he implored me to pour even more of the syrup over the cake. It seemed cruel, in his thinking, for me to tell him I'd be baking a cake and then turn out a flat, un-sweetened disc flavored with things as odd as fennel seeds and olive oil. Almost as if I had promised him chocolate and then offered up a piece of fruit.

The surprise was that we both loved the cake, and the only thing we would have adjusted was to have it in its natural state without the syrup. The texture was the same wonderful slight grainy and crunchiness of anything made with corn meal, but with even more moistness than normal. The pine nuts softened and sweetned a bit, and the dried fruits were a nice touch without being overwhelming. The biggest surprise, mainly because I was so skeptical about them, were the fennel seeds; they infused the whole cake with a gentle aniseed flavor that tied all the other ingredients together. The cake was thoroughly wonderful and Mr A&N was already trying to schedule another batch of it before the first was finished. Rest assured, my dear, we'll both be eating this again soon.

Polenta Shortcake with Raisins, Dried Figs, and Pine Nuts
from Marcella Hazan

  • 500 ml / 16 oz water
  • 140 g / 5 oz coarse cornmeal
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 1/2 Tbs olive oil
  • 125 g / 4 1/2 oz caster sugar
  • 50 g / 2 oz pine nutes
  • 50 g / 2 oz seedless raisins (preferable muscat)
  • 115 g / 4 oz dried figs, cut into 1/4 pieces
  • 2 Tbs butter
  • 1 egg
  • 1 Tbs fennel seeds
  • 115 g / 4 oz plain flour
  1. Pre-heat oven to 200 C / 400 F
  2. Bring the water to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and pour in the cornmeal in a thin stream, letting it sift through your clenched fist while constantly stirring with your other hand.
  3. When all the cornmeal is in, add salt and olive oil.
  4. Continue to stir for another 15 seconds until the mixture thickens slightly and pulls away from the sides. At this point, remove from the heat.
  5. Add the sugar, pine nuts, raisins, figs, butter, egg, and fennel seeds to the cornmeal. Mix thoroughly.
  6. Add the flour and mix well to form a smooth, uniform batter.
  7. Smear a 9 inch round tin with butter and dust with flour, and pour the batter into it, using a spatula to smooth it off.
  8. Bake on the upper shelf of the oven for 45 - 50 minutes.
  9. When the cake is out and while it's still warm, loosen the sides of the cake from the tin by using a knife. Turn the cake out onto a plate, and then flip into other-side-up onto another plate.
  10. Serve when cake is completely cool.

Thursday, 10 January 2008

Smashed Swede with Pears and Ginger

There was something about the vegetable named 'rutabaga' that always made me want to giggle. I had never knowingly eaten one (my parents weren't big vegetable pushers) so I'm not sure where the fondness for saying those syllables came from, but between rutabaga and ratatouille, the 'R' section in the food alphabet provided me with much mirth.

The next amusing vegetable name came to light as an adult, when I moved to Britain and heard there was something called a swede. What made someo
ne name this one veg after that nationality, I wondered? And where was your greek, your irish, and your spaniard in your vegetable drawer? Well, imagine how happy it made me to find out that the veg name that was making me giggle as an adult was actually another name for the same rutabaga that delighted me so much as a child. I felt like I had come full circle and that the spheres of the Universe were working as they ought.

Now, during all of this silliness, I had never actually bothered to taste our humble swede/rutabaga. I just didn't know what to do with it. I tried buying one and throwing it in with some stew, but that wasn't hugely revealing as to what the vegetable was really like. A year passed. Another winter, I tried roasting it with a host of other winter vegetables but it once again got subsumed between the other tastes of carrots, parsnips and squashes. Another year passed. I tried stew again - ho hum. Then, this winter, there was a confluence of events: I spotted a recipe on epicurious for mashed rutabaga that
sounded intriguing, and Mr A&N's mother (prolific gardener and healthy person extraordinairre) brought some home-grown swedes with her when she was up visiting for Christmas. The stage was set for the Great Swede Experiment, Winter 2007/2008 Chapter.

The epicurious recipe was quite simple: it called to boil the swede while roasting the pears with ginger and lemon juice. The two factions would come together after a bit of mashing and the addition of cream and thyme. All went well in the making of it, but no one was that bowled over by the sweet and creamy taste that tried to mask the fact there was a vegetable involved. And I once again didn't get a sense for what the swede itself was like.

After a few attempts, my guess is that the swede isn't the most flavor-packed of the winter vegetables but is fine to use accompanying other veg or in a mash. The next time I cook with it, though, I might insist on making everyone refer to it as a rutabaga - which can only improve the taste.

Smashed Swede with Pears and Ginger

  • 4 pounds swede, peeled, cut into 3/4- to 1-inch cubes
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon minced peeled fresh ginger
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
  • 3 firm Anjou pears (about 1 3/4 pounds), peeled, cored, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
  • 1/3 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 5 tablespoons butter
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
  • Coarse kosher salt
  1. Preheat the oven to 180 C / 400 F
  2. Boil the swede in water for about 35 minutes or until the pieces are tender.
  3. Combine oil, lemon juice, ginger, and sugar in large bowl. Add pears; toss to coat.
  4. In a oven-proof ceramic dish or a baking sheet sprayed with non-stick spray, lay out the pear mixture.
  5. Roast until tender, turning pears every 10 minutes, about 35 minutes total.
  6. Drain the swede and return to same pot. Mash to until it's a coarse puree.
  7. Stir over medium heat until excess moisture evaporates, about 5 minutes.
  8. Add cream, butter, and thyme.
  9. Mix in pears and any juices from baking sheet.
  10. Season with salt and pepper.

Monday, 7 January 2008

A Slow-Cooked Dinner

The Christmas lists in the A&N household this year heavily featured kitchen gadgets. Besides us both (clearly) being into our food, our New and Improved kitchen allows us so much more cupboard space that we felt obliged to start gracing them with gizmos. Since we stayed in London for Christmas rather than traveling to see my family in New York, my Amazon wishlist gave people a chance to get gifts for us from a distance. The result was a veritable United Nations of objects: a hefty tagine, a lovely old-school pasta maker, a large paella dish, and a slow cooker (I'm not sure what country the slow cooker represents, but there we are).

Friends of ours heartily recommended the slow cooker way o
f preparing dinners while at work during the day, setting it going in the morning and arriving home to the finished article. Mr A&N and I were both easily convinced: we enjoy our one-pot meals anyway, and one evening a week in which we don't undertake heavy-duty cooking but could still enjoy a meal made by us has some very obvious appeal.

We've made two different slow-cooked meals since getting the appliance, both times while friends were around for a silly games day (between our new Wii and a large number of board games, our silly gaming cup runneth over). The first meal featured pork with white wine, sage, onions, cooking apples, and pears. The pork came out tender but the sauce didn't thicken as we would have liked and the separate flavors got lost in the general taste. Our second time around, we made beef with kidneys, onion, celeriac, carrot, thyme, a glug of red wine, and some flour to thicken the sauce. Again, it came out a touch on the watery side and mostly tasting of meat. Not a bad taste if you're a carnivore, but not the same flavor as you would have expected from all those things cooking together over a 6 hour period. Our friends were polite (and hungry - after 4 hours of playing games you can work up an appetite ) but we didn't feel the meal was up to the standard of cooking we would normally treat guests to.

Mr A&N has summed up the two meals we've made as tasting of the filling in a meat pie without the pleasure of the pastry. I still want to believe in the magic of the slow cooker (being able to prepare your night's dinner as you head off to work in the morning is the efficient person's dream) but we haven't found the right formula with it yet. I'll now be on the hunt for some slow cooker recipes and ideas, so if anyone has any suggestions or leads I will be very happy to hear them.

Saturday, 5 January 2008

Special Scrambled Eggs

For Mr A&N's birthday breakfast, he requested my special scrambled eggs with a bit of smoked salmon. Poor man, his birthday is two days before Christmas (Christmas Adam, as I've grown to refer to it - the day before Christmas Eve) and it's very easy for his birthday to become subsumed into the regular holiday runnings around. It was only this breakfast when he received his presents, and that night while laying in bed that either of us really realized it was his birthday, and it's like that most years. Anyone with birthdays around Christmas really do have my sympathy. I was only too happy to oblige him with these eggs, to make him feel the day had any aura of luxury about it.

I read about these scrambled eggs in the New York Times about ten years ago. I don't recall any of the details other than they were recommended by a French chef and promised to make the most glorious eggs ever. Although my memory for the details is lost, I've had no problem remembering the technique since the claim, I found, was correct. It produces eggs that aren't so much scrambled as an emulsion - moist, creamy, smooth, and free of the horrible lumps and runniness that scrambled eggs can produce. I love eating these on some nice crumpets, their butteriness seeping through the pock-marks of the bread. Since having them, neither Mr A&N nor I can go back to ordinary scrambled eggs.

Since this recipe concerns technique more than ingredients, I won't dwell on what should go into the eggs. I tend to make mine with 2 eggs per person, topped up with a bit of milk and a lump of butter; they reduce down quite a bit so don't be surprised if it looks like you're getting a smaller plate-full than usual. The important things to remember about the process is as follows:

  • You must, must, must keep stirring the eggs at all times; it will take a bit longer than normal eggs and therefore take a bit more work, but this is essential.
  • When stirring the eggs away from the heat, you want to see a fair amount of steam come off them before returning them to the heat. You should keep them off the burner for at least a minute each time, until the eggs have stopped cooking off the heat of the pan.
  • Don't over-cook the eggs. When they're done, they'll still look a bit moist (though not runny) - don't be tempted to cook until dry.
  • Any extra ingredients (like smoked salmon, in this instance) are added into the scramble when they are very nearly done cooking.
  • It is easy to become a bit obsessed about taking the eggs off the heat at the first signs of the them coming together. Understandable, but this will mean the whole process can take quite a long time. For the first couple of times, I usually take the egg beginning to coat the bottom or sides of the pan as a sign to remove it from the heat.
There's a good video of Gordon Ramsay showing how to make these eggs, if you're still in any doubt about them.

Special Scrambled Eggs
  • Allow 2 eggs per person, recommended with a lump of butter and dollop of milk in with the eggs (or whatever your preferred method of creating scrambled eggs is)
  1. Crack the eggs into a good saucepan or skillet - one that has good, even heat distribution.
  2. Place the pan onto a burner with a medium heat (if using a cast-iron pan like a Le Crueset pan, you'll want to turn the heat toward medium-low once the cooking gets started). Start stirring the egg mixture as you place it over the heat.
  3. Continually stir the eggs. Remove from the heat when the first signs of coagulation start in the pan.
  4. Stir the eggs while off the heat, so that all the coagulated bits get mixed in and absorbed into the egg mixutre. The eggs should be off the heat for a good minute, being stirred throughout; they should give off great puffs of steam when first pulled off.
  5. Return the eggs to the heat, still stirring throughout. Again, remove from the heat when the eggs start to solidify at the bottoms and sides of the pan.
  6. Stir away from heat until all the solid bits are well incorporated.
  7. Continue alternating between stirring on and off the heat, pulling away from the heat when the eggs start showing signs of solidifying in the pan.
  8. When approaching done-ness, the eggs will look to come together in something of a mass - they should still look quite moist (if adding extra ingredients, throw them in when the eggs begin coming together). Remove from heat when the eggs are still a little wet and finish them off while stirring off the heat.
  9. Serve as quickly as possible.

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Happy New Year, Happy New Kitchen

I hope everyone has enjoyed a wonderful, restful, holiday season and that 2008 ain't looking too bad from this point-of-view, two days into it. I'm kicking off the year by not returning to work until 7 Jan (ahh, bliss - I do feel a bit smug about it), starting to think about my summer holidays, and reveling in my new kitchen extension.

The much-mentioned kitchen isn't *completely* finished yet, but due to some hard work from Mr A&N, his father, and a few builders and tradespeople, we were able to achieve the goal I set for us last winter: namely, to be able to cook our Christmas turkey within the comfort of the new kitchen. And oh, it is lovely. I am living in the lap of luxury, enjoying on a daily basis the following:

  1. Hot running water. Ooh, get me with my fancy ways. Yes, our previous kitchen had been without hot water since 3 days before our May 2006. At the time, it was low on the list of things to get done (making sure the people who could perform the wedding was slightly more pressing, them having uncovered a double-booking that week we were due to marry; the words "Is it possible to re-arrange your ceremony?" were taken in the best humor possible - i.e., not very well). It was a year and a half of boiled kettles to wash any dishes, and the occasional moment of me begging Mr A&N to just buy any new faucet to save my freezing hands. We reached a compromise in which I saved my hands by simply leaving the dishes to Mr A&N; it struck me as quite fair, actually.

    Out with the old...

  2. Light, both natural and artificial. Ooh, get me with my fancy ways etc. Our old kitchen was a bit tomb-like, with there being little semblance of natural light and too small to be flooded with artificial lights. In the summer it was alright since everything is lighter anyway, but in the winter I could feel myself going a bit crazy whenever I was stuck in there doing the (cold) washing-up. Now, with lights galore and a wall of windows looking out at the garden I feel physically lighter. A dirty dish barely touches down on the counter before I whisk it away and wash it. Mr A&N just thought I was lazy, with my excuses of being trapped in a coffin and my hands freezing; he doesn't know what to do with this new dishwasher wife of his. Luckily, we also got an actually dishwasher for the new kitchen so I can keep up my lazy persona by running a load through there every so often.

  3. Countertop space. We effectively had 3 feet of countertop space on which to work in the old kitchen, since appliances and other natural clutter took up the rest of the space. Suffice it to say, two cooks could not work in that kitchen for long without there being friction. We were so wounded by that experience that we now have about 4 times that old countertop space, plus a kitchen island that doubles as a table and chopping station. Hooray!

  4. A cupboard for everything and everything in its place. No more vegetable rack in the front hallway, no more hand towels kept under the stairs or nice steak knives in the drinks cabinet. Every gadget, teaspoon, and roll of scotch tape is now hid comfortably within a drawer or cabinet. I even snagged us a pull-out food larder. OMG!

    In with the new.

  5. Non-leaking pipes and no danger of an electrical fire. Mmm, this one was less funny. We knew our old pipe to the washing machine dripped a bit and caught it as best we could. It wasn't until pulling the kitchen apart that we discovered the dodgy electrics behind the scenes: a socket hanging off the wall, into which our oven and cooker were fed, having first been spliced onto another (wrong kind of) plug that would let them extend further to this hanging socket. All within the path of the dripping pipe. All a bit scary and v-e-r-y lucky to have avoided catasrophe.

  6. Between-unit gap of greater than 18 inches. In order to get through the rear door of the old kitchen and out into the garden, there was a very small gap of 18 inches. I can't tell you the number of times I tried to carry something large through that gap without lifting it high enough, and bounced back in a Looney Toons manner after hitting both sides with said items while at full speed. The new gap? Oh, about 4 feet. I will need to be carrying something pretty big to have any more cartoon moments (though I am a bit cartoon-ish by nature so maybe I shouldn't discount this just yet).

  7. Seats. I can now sit in my kitchen and enjoy a cup of tea, or, more crucially, have a meal somewhere away from the lure of the television. The seats were just bought and assembled today, and I don't plan on doing much else tomorrow other than sitting on one (or all?) of them, drinking tea and not watching TV.
So though there is more work to do, it is all so very good (minus the fact the under-floor heating doesn't yet work, but soon, soon). We've taken our old 6x9 foot tomb/kitchen and replaced it with an incredible 20x12 feet of joy. I don't think my cooking will necessarily improve because of this new space, but I do think quality of life and two-people-in-the-kitchen-at-once-happiness will increase, which is worth a whole lot to me.