S.O.L.! (Save Our Limburger)

limburger
I find that some of the words people use to describe wine are…well…pretty awful, don’t you think? Gregory Dal Piaz gives a great list in the Huffington Post of exactly the words I mean. The word ‘rustic’ is another good example and isn’t limited to descriptions of wine alone. I’ve often heard it in relation to cheese and wondered: besides indicating a rough or handmade looking appearance, what the hell does ‘rustic’ taste like?

I learned the answer one night a couple of Decembers ago when attending an ‘Evening of Cheese’ at Borough Market with my friend Gwynedd. We were sort of shopping for holiday booty but mostly just gorging ourselves on samples, elbowing yuppies out of the way to get our nibbles of Compte and Thom, and along the way came across one very special wheel of cheese. I’m so sorry that I don’t remember the type, only that the maker was English and it had a very soft, custard-like texture. We were warned before trying it that it was not for the feint of heart, and the word ‘rustic’ was emphasised. It was described more like ‘RUSTIC!

‘Pish,’ Gwynedd and I exclaimed and dived in.

Now, let me take you to a field. A pasture, to be exact. Your eyes are closed, the breeze is blowing through your hair, you can feel the warm afternoon sun on your back. Open your mouth. A morsel of cow dung is placed on your tongue—you chew, and it wraps around the inside of your mouth, coating your teeth and tongue. It burns the back of your throat and makes your eyes water, filling your nose with noxious fumes. The taste is aggressive, overwhelming, and it’s like…grass…dirt…and shit.

That’s ‘RUSTIC!’ As terrible as it sounds, and as much as I wouldn’t want to sit down with a wheel of' ‘RUSTIC!’ on a regular basis, I don’t want to give the impression that ‘rustic’ is in and of itself a bad thing. In smaller doses, it’s kind of nice. It’s a clear taste, distinctive, like driving through fertile farmland while you happen to have a piece of cheese in your mouth.

Last week, I acquired a block of Limburger cheese while visiting the town of Monroe in Green County, Wisconsin. I had never tried it before—in fact, all I’ve ever known about Limburger I learned in ‘The Invalid’s Story’ by Mark Twain, which is about some folks on a train who mistake a chunk of cheese for a rotting corpse. I could only assume it was pretty stinky stuff.

And yes, it’s a little stinky, but no more so than many of the amazing washed rind cheeses that can be found all over Europe, like Hand, Livarot, Mainz, or Maroilles. ‘Washed rind’ refers to the process of scrubbing down the outside of the cheese every day while it ages. This causes particular types of bacteria to flourish, forming a stinky rind which protects the interior of the cheese.

Limburger is the colour and consistency of butter, with a soft golden skin at the edge. It tastes sweet, creamy, and nutty at first, and then gives way to a ‘rustic’ earthiness. It kind of reminds me of a stronger version of Le Rustique Camembert. This is a good thing.

old-cheese-factory-bw
In Monroe, I visited the Historical Center for Cheese making (oh yes, such a place exists!), where I met Ivan Franklin, a third-generation Swiss-American cheese maker who described the traditional process of artisan cheese making as he had grown up doing it. He told me that in 1920, there were nearly 200 cheese factories in Monroe, making three types of cheese: Swiss, Limburger, and Brick. Today, only about 10 factories remain, but together they make more cheese than Monroe ever did in 1920, including every type the market demands from all around the world.

Sadly, the production of Limburger has declined dramatically. Only one factory in the US still makes the stuff: Country Castle in Monroe. Ivan says that interest in it is slowly dying out because the younger generations don’t like the taste of strong cheeses anymore. I have to admit, it does sound like the sort of thing my grandmother would have kept around the house.

I think it’s too bad: here we have a little chunk of Swiss-American history, an artisan product that is excellent and not far off from some of the specialty European cheeses that many of us pay big bucks for, but it’s disappearing because it sounds like something Great Aunt Matilda would eat. I say, let’s all embrace our inner grandmother and enjoy the Limburger in all its rustic, stinky glory.

Classic Limburger Cheese Sandwich

Two slices of thick rye bread
Brown Mustard
White onion, sliced
Limburger cheese

Spread mustard on one slice of bread, and a thick layer of Limburger on the other. Top the cheese with a 1/4 inch slice of onion, and sandwich all together. You may want to get a breath mint ready…

The trendy Amish

chicken-noodle-soup

I am an experience junkie. There, I said it, I feel better for having gotten that off my chest. I have ridden motorcycles through Vietnam, jumped out of airplanes, navigated the streets of Moscow alone, and eaten unknown substances like Korean mudfish, just to have done it. I’m obviously no Anthony Bourdain, but I do my best.

So when I found myself eye to eye with an Amish waitress at Boyd and Wurthmann in Berlin, Ohio, I couldn’t help feeling some amount of curiosity about her lifestyle. Has she ever canoed drunkenly down a river full of alligators? Has she ever touched a shark in a Tahitian lagoon? For that matter, has she ever been to college or even left Ohio?

While I sat speculating, the waitress placed our lunches on the counter: a bowl of chicken noodle soup for me, swimming with big chunks of tender breast meat, carrots and celery with just enough bite, and thin egg noodles in a deeply flavored stock. A large hunk of local swiss cheese sat on the side. Mr. ordered a roast beef sandwich, which turned out to contain a fist full of slow-braised meat that melted in our mouths without any need for chewing, and a side of hand-cut potato wedges with tangier-than-commercial house sour cream. No wonder the place is packed.

Boyd-and-Wurthmann

Plenty of times I’ve gone for ‘home cooking’ in a diner only to find the food has obviously been trucked in by Sysco, frozen, canned, certainly NOT made from scratch. Boyd & Wurthmann is the real deal, the thing you really want when you pay a restaurant to serve you up some comfort food.

We devoured our lunch, topped it off with pecan pie (him) and raspberry cream pie (me) and then wandered out into Holmes county on a sugar high. The car was slowed by horses and buggies carrying locals, as we passed homesteads containing neat rows of crops, community-raised barns, and houses big enough to hold several generations.

A stop at Lehman’s Store revealed a wonderland of cheesemaking supplies, ingenious electricity-free machines, locally crafted furniture, and highest quality pottery and kitchen ware. This is what a store should be—actual hand-made goods sold for a price that fairly reflects the work and resources that went into them. It’s a far cry from the mass production and artificially low pricing we have come to expect.

roast-beef-sandwich

Then it occurs to me: isn’t this it? Community, craft, whole foods, simple living—aren’t these the trendy ideals that we aspire to in our alienated modern lives? Here are people (and let’s face it, far from what most of us would consider to be ‘cool’), who have been living these ideals for generations. Setting aside religious beliefs, the Amish are starting to look more interesting.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to convert. I understand that while it’s easy to give lip service to a wholesome lifestyle, an agricultural existence represents an awful lot of hard work, the kind I’ve never experienced. It must also be incredibly difficult to live with such an outward expression of your difference from the rest of the world. Perhaps not so much as a small child when you don’t know any other way or as an adult when you have made your own choices in life, but as a young person it must take some coming to terms with.

Even still, over the course of a day I start to look at the anachronisms around me and I feel…envy. Maybe the waitress hasn’t travelled as much as I have, but she has something in this community that I lack. Everything is a trade-off, but it’s still worth recognising greatness when you see it. Here in Berlin, it’s in a bowl of ordinary chicken noodle soup.

Chicken Noodle Soup

2 boneless chicken breasts
2 pints chicken stock
1 T olive oil
1 medium carrot, diced
1 rib of celery, diced
80 g linguine pasta or flat egg noodles
salt and pepper

Poach the chicken in the stock for 15-20 minutes or until just cooked through, then remove the chicken to a cutting board and cut into 1/2 inch chunks. In a separate saucepan, heat the oil and saute the vegetables for 2-3 minutes. Add the chicken stock to this pan, and bring to a boil. Throw in the pasta and allow to cook for about 5 minutes, then add in the chicken, salt and pepper to taste, and you’re done. Simple stuff.

The Big Apples

New-York-orchard

Driving west from the Adirondack National Forest, we’ve spent the last few days slowly pecking our way across the south shore of Lake Ontario towards retro honeymoon paradise in Niagara Falls. This is not the New York you think of. This is not 24-hour-beauty-salons-, steaming-manhole-covers-, brunch-everyday-, young beautiful-things-partying-on-the-roof-terraces-of-their-Tribeca-highrises-New York, this is the other one. Sleepy mountain hamlets, retiree dream houses on the edges of postcard-perfect lakes, all but abandoned industrial towns, crumbling trailer parks on roads to and from nowhere. It’s a big state.

Eager to start sampling the local foods on offer—the stuff you just can’t get anywhere else—I’ve been watching the roadside like a hawk. We’ve gone through hours-long stretches of back roads, passing nothing but forest, houses, the occasional roadkill and a touch of fast food. Not exactly what I had in mind. Finally we passed through Rochester and on the other side, still heading ever West, we started to see lovely tidy rows of apple trees making order out of the countryside.

Yes! Something local! Ok, so it isn’t something that I can’t find anywhere else, but I still started to salivate over the thought of biting into a crisp autumnal red delicious straight from the picking.

apple-standWe stopped at Sanger’s Farm store in Youngstown. The place was bursting with baskets of enormous fruit, and smelled like the inside of Grandma’s oven. Well, not my Grandma of course, but someone’s. Over the soft banter of Jamaican migrant workers sorting through the bounty, my honey and I made our choice—a $2 basket of Fujis in mottled red and yellow, and a cheeky mini walnut pie for extra good measure. Saveur’s Anna Stockwell would have been proud.

A couple of hours down the road, mini pie long gone, we stopped by a lake for lunch and began with an hors d’oeuvre of fresh, cold, crunchy apple. Perfect. Not mealy, not soft, just enough sweetness but not overdoing it—a good apple is a master of understated quality. I relished the unadulterated goodness of it, and then made a beeline for the campsite to experiment.

Now, the Mr. can be a real pain-in-the-you-know-what about eating anything to do with cooked apples, so I met with some resistance to my ideas of cobblers, crumbles, crisps, and the like. Instead I opted for a little savoury-sweet trick, and whipped up some apple and cheddar biscuits.

Wary of my track record with the camp oven, I moved some coals away from the main portion of the fire in order to keep a more comfortable cooking temperature. We made use of technology, and inserted an electronic probe thermometer into the oven, heaping the coals on until it reached around 325F. 20 minutes on, and eureka! I have successfully baked biscuits out in the woods. Mr. Stephfret downed the lot and pretended the I-hate-cooked-apples conversation never happened.

apple-cheddar-biscuits

Apple Cheddar biscuits

2 cups all purpose flour

1 T baking powder

generous pinch of salt

1/2 cup butter

2 handfuls of grated cheddar cheese

1 medium apple, cored, peeled, and finely diced

1/2 cup milk

Mix flour, baking powder, and salt together with a fork. Work the butter into the flour mixture with the tips of your fingers until the texture resembles breadcrumbs, then mix in the cheese and apples. Pour in some but not all of the milk, and mix with your hands until the dough holds together, no more. Add a little more milk if you need to, but stop once you have a moist dough. Pinch off handfuls of dough and form into 2 1/2 inch discs. Place in a greased baking dish in a 325F oven for about 20 minutes, or until cooked through and golden.

Deer and squirrels and bears, oh my

IMG_5668

As I sit with my morning coffee, I am deep in the Adirondack mountains in upstate New York on an unseasonably warm, cloudless day. This is day three of The Great Adventure, in which my husband and I have quit our big city jobs in London to drive around the US for several months, hiking through national forests, visiting friends, cooking in the great outdoors, and sleeping in our car. In the winter.

This poses a slight dilemma in regards to this blog, because until sometime in 2011, I will only have access to a camp stove, a pot, a pan, a coffee percolator, and the few perishables we can safely store in a small cooler. Oh, and did I mention (or did I have to?) that being recently jobless, we are now on a shoestring?

You may by now have guessed that during this period of my life there will be distinctly fewer stories of me buying fresh sardines at Borough Market, for example, or showing up to parties with a plateful of profiteroles.

Never mind, we can still have fun with out food, right? We can still take a bite out of all life has to offer, can’t we?

Well yes, in a rustic sort of a way. Cooking outdoors is like being a 14 year old again, trying to  navigate such complexities as baking a potato or making a plate of pasta. I’m no Hunter Angler Gardener Cook: I’ve lost all sense of comfort and ease with myself in the kitchen, and suddenly feel like exactly what I am: a city girl who can put on a mean dinner party with a fully equipped kitchen at her disposal, but who is reduced to fighting aggressive campsite squirrels for her beans on toast when she leaves the comforts of home behind.

IMG_5662I’m ok with that, I just have to start back at the beginning, with the basics. To that end, I’ve allowed myself one exciting new piece of equipment: the 10” Lodge Dutch Camp Oven. You know, the kind of cast iron lidded pot with little legs that hold it directly over the open fire? The kind that pioneer women and grisly old men named ‘cookie’ used to use all the time? I spent a few days keeping it clean and oiled in the hopes that it will last me for the rest of my life, and then decided to dig in and bake a loaf of bread in it.

IMG_5647I used my standard basic white loaf recipe (with a few tweaks due to my limited pantry), sat the mixing bowl on the car engine to keep it warm while it rose, and then got the fire going. Unfortunately there’s no gauge on the outside of the oven to let you know what temperature you’re working with. Nope, just me and a pot and a fire. I decided 20 minutes would do it, but checked the contents of the pot after 10 to find a finished loaf, slightly undercooked inside, and most definitely overcooked on the outside. The squirrels stood watching from the sidelines, laughing at my ineptitude…

Basic Camping Loaf

1/2 C warm water
1 sachet dried yeast
3T olive oil
1T honey
300 g all purpose flour
big pinch salt

Mix water, oil, honey, and yeast together to dissolve, and then add the salt and flour. Knead until smooth and elastic, and then leave to rise in a warm place for 1 hour. Punch the dough down and leave for another hour, then carefully transfer to the dutch oven, covering the lid with hot coals. Experiment until you determine the level of heat and the time it takes to make a good loaf—and then let me know how you did it!

When in Fryeburg

fried-dough-crop

Oh how my life has changed in the last 3 months. We used to hurry because we didn’t want to miss dinner reservations, or a flight to Bologna. Now it’s the tractor pull. Waking up at 6:00 on a brisk Tuesday morning, we set off down painted tunnels of autumn leaves. The country roads were clogged with creeping carloads of ‘leaf peepers,’ and we were filled with excitement as we got closer and closer to Fryeburg, Maine, and the granddaddy of all state fairs.

girl-watching-tractor-pullIn the crisp autumn air, we watched grown men bouncing up and down on their farm equipment, beer bellies jiggling in the slanted sunlight, exhaust intermingling with cigarette smoke to billow around contestants’ heads while they pulled their concrete loads forward inch by inch. It was mesmerising.

After a quick snack break, we checked out the livestock. The poultry house was especially impressive, with birds sporting various plumages as exotic as their beautiful names: red golden pheasant, grey saddleback pom, buff orpington, wheaten millay. They sound like Farrow and Ball paint colors—I’d take a living room in ‘salmon faverolle’ any day.

no-parkingWe climbed into the grandstand for the afternoon to watch the harness races. After a few practice rounds and a long look at the program, we got serious and placed some bets. I won $3.40 on No Shoes, but unfortunately spent $10 for the privilege. We cut our losses and moved on.

By now we had worked up an appetite, and got to the real business of the fair. Pulled pork barbecue, which has been cooking so low and slow all day that it falls apart on its own. The bloomin’ onion, a massive white onion which has been peeled, sliced to but not through the root until it resembles a lotus flower, and then battered and deep fried and served with remoulade sauce for dipping. The corndog: an American standard involving one hot dog on a stick which has been enveloped in a cornbread jacket and then (what else?) fried. These things are completely foreign to my English fella, so we had to have one of each. But the piece de resistance? Elephant ears. Beaver tails. Pizza Frita. Flying saucers. These names are all very cute, but here in New England, people call it what it is. Fried dough.

fried-dough-sign

It’s a mainline of grease into the system. You might as well just chew on a sponge soaked in hot fat. So why does it taste so good? Standing next to the midway under a clear blue sky, $3.40 (minus $10) burning a hole in my pocket, it just seems right. I guess it’s all about context.

Fried Dough
(adapted from Cooks.com)

1 ½ cups milk
1 T sugar
pinch salt
6 T melted butter
2 T dry yeast
4 cups flour
Oil for frying
Icing sugar

Combine milk, sugar, salt, and butter, and then mix in the yeast. Whisk in flour until combined, then cover and let rise in warm place until doubled in size. Pinch off golf ball-sized pieces, and roll out to ½ inch thick discs. Fry in a deep fryer or a few inches of oil until it puffs up, then turn over and fry for 30 more seconds. Drain on paper towels, and dust with icing sugar.

I get by with a little help from…

bean-and-feta-salad-crop Sometimes I get carried away. When I decided to become a runner, I signed up for a marathon. When I wanted to travel, I moved to South Korea. And when I had a crush on the English guy I met on holiday, I found myself living and working in London. I can’t help it— every now and again, I am overcome with a sense of blind optimism, and a belief in the slightly cheesy notion that ‘when you really want something the whole world conspires to make it happen.’

My most recent over-commitment came in the form of a wedding—my own, to the holiday crush no less—which I decided would be more authentic, more delicious, more beautiful...more better, if I skipped hiring professionals and did everything myself. I lined up a tent, bought some decorations, wrote a ‘thanks but no thanks’ email to the caterers, and then sat back and waited for the big day.

Everything was fine until guests started sending in their RSVPs. That’s when I realised that people really were going to show up, and that they would expect something to happen when they got there. It’s fair to say I began to feel some panic.

wedding-buffet The interesting thing about a big event in your life is that you learn who your friends are. Lucky for me, one of my friends is a chef. Dougie flew in from Australia, went shopping with me, and then told everyone to get out of the kitchen while he cooked everything. Yes, everything.

In fact, one of the best parts of the days leading up to the wedding was wandering around the Portland, Maine farmer’s market with Dougie, buying any and everything that looked exciting. Beautiful bunches of flowering dill? We’ll have that. Golden beets the size of two fists? Yes, please! We scooped up punnets of rainbow colored heirloom cherry tomatoes for the canapés, and filled bags with intensely peppery lettuce leaves, several varieties of runner beans, and deep purple potatoes.

wedding-menu On the day, we washed our champagne down with crostini with salmon rillette, heirloom cherry tomato and buffalo mozzarella skewers, and mini jalapeno Johnnycakes with smoked trout. For dinner, we had rainbow beet and lentil salad, asian chicken coleslaw, purple potato salad, homemade pickles, feta and green bean salad, and whole steamed lobsters. We finished the meal off with fruit, local cheeses from Liberty Fields Farm, blueberry and carrot cakes, and ice cream. Oh, and did I mention that Dougie was also the best man, gave a speech with less than 24 hours notice, then partied for the rest of the night like it was 1999? Who the hell IS this guy?

wedding-lobsters Tom sourced, transported, and cooked the lobsters. My mother-in-law made napkins and table runners. My sister- and brother-in-law hung strings of lights, and their aunt made my dress. Bel made arrangements with the flowers my mother foraged from the edges of the marshland, while a flock of girlfriends put all of the finishing touches on the tables. When there was a mix-up with the servers I’d hired, some cousins jumped in and started running food out from the kitchen.

Perhaps it isn’t the whole world that conspires to make things happen in your life. Maybe it’s just friends, good old fashioned friends, who are willing to muck in and bail you out when you get in over your head. I’ve got some special ones, and I am truly grateful.

 

bean-and-feta-salad

Mixed bean and feta salad (inspired by Dougie’s version)

1 lb mixed varieties of runner beans
4 oz feta cheese
juice of 1 lemon
handful chopped parsley
4 T olive oil
handful sliced almonds
salt and pepper

Top and tail the beans and then blanch for about 3 minutes in boiling water. Don’t overdo it, you want them to keep their bite. Drain the beans and run under cold water to stop the cooking, and then set aside.

In a salad bowl, mash the lemon juice, oil, and feta together with the back of a fork to make a kind of chunky dressing. Mix in the beans, parsley, and almonds, and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Happy Hour



My grandmother Lois was not known for her cooking. Well, maybe I should say she was not known for her good cooking. She was famous for her judicious use of the pressure cooker, for serving economic cuts of meat like tongue and tripe, for insisting on cooking on her own mother's 1905 wood burning stove (even in 2005), and for her love of canned...everything. Lois's dishes always contained at least a pinch of cat hair.

One thing she was good at was mixing a drink. I can remember shuffling downstairs in my pajamas at 11:00 in the morning on my summer holidays, to find Grandma at the breakfast table with a tumbler of 'juice,' which she must have felt she deserved after a morning of tending her garden, cutting the acre and a half of back lawn, playing bridge (and winning, no doubt) with the ladies at the Senior Center, completing the New York Times crossword of the day, and drawing up a 'to do' list for everyone else in the house, all before her grandchildren could even be bothered to get out of bed. It must have felt positively like afternoon by the time she reached 11:00.

As my uncle says, Grandma was a woman of traditions and routines. She always drank coffee from the same mug. She always served porcupine meatballs for Christmas Eve dinner, with a dessert of green jello and maraschino cherries. She always ate dinner at 6 o'clock. And at 5, it was always happy hour.

As a young wife and mother, Grandma started happy hour the minute my grandfather came home from work. Everything else stopped: no cooking, no cleaning, no kids running around the house. The two of them would each have a cocktail, a salty snack, and a cigarette (it was the 50's after all), and sit together to talk about their day. A simple moment, but one to look forward to.

My grandmother died last month at 94 years old. Two weeks later, I got married and as a thank-you gift, a friend gave my mother a bottle of Hendrick's gin. It's special: aromatic like perfume, but not cloying. With cucumbers from my cousin's garden, we started making G,T,&C's to drink by the sea wall every day before dinner, where we would sit and talk about the day, spot seals on the rocks, and throw stones into the ocean. It's a tradition that I cherish, and which makes me think of Grandma every time. I think I'll skip the cat hair though...


G, T, and C

1 shot of Hendrick's Gin
1 cup of tonic water
2 ice cubes
2 slices of cucumber to garnish

No need for instructions on this one, just put it all in a glass and stir.

Second Act

Well! That was a long break and I'm sorry for leaving you hanging. But it has been a wild couple of months and now that the dust has settled, I find myself back in my country of birth, newly married, jobless, and ready for an adventure. I'm living on the Southern coast of Maine, enjoying the ocean and changing leaves while my husband and I get ready for a big road trip around the US. I'm working very hard on doing the things that matter to me, and crossing my fingers that some form of a financial living will emerge in the process. In the meantime, I may be writing about how to eat on the cheap!

And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming....

Intermission...

HI!

You may have noticed a little slowdown in my blog activity lately. I'm still here and of course, still eating, but I've run into a thunderstorm of Other Things In My Life That Need Immediate Attention. I will be back in full force soon, but for now have to focus on some tedious things that don't make for very interesting reading.

In the meantime, thanks for being patient!
Stephanie

City foraging 2: elderflower sorbet

elderflower-sorbet

It is a hot day in London. For those of you who aren’t that familiar with English weather, that’s a little like saying it’s a cold day in hell. People are freaking out, exposing parts of their bodies that have never seen the light of day, getting good and red before the sun disappears again. The crowds on Oxford Street are stumbling around in a crispy daze, buying teeny weeny clothing that they will have to store for a year until the next hot day comes in 2011.

For me, it feels sort of like summer. Growing up in Georgia, you get pretty used to the idea that for three months of the year you will be breathing through the atmospheric equivalent of a hot wet towel. I never noticed the little details of summer in the American South until they were gone from my life, and here is what I miss: crickets making a constant hum, especially at night; sitting on the back porch at 4 AM in a torrential thunderstorm so loud that you have to shout to be heard over the rain; catching fireflies, then learning very quickly that they don’t live long in a jar with holes punched in the top; eating baked beans with barbecue instead of with breakfast; sitting in the ditch behind our house (waaay back when ditches were interesting places to spend time), carefully avoiding the poison ivy, picking honeysuckle blossoms and pulling the nectar out to dabble on my tongue.

Here, summer offers different charms: daylight until 10:30PM; ice lollies from the Sri Lankan shop across the street; Saturday afternoons spent having a pint or two too many in a pub garden with friends; and an infectious happiness that spreads through the population when the sky is blue, so marked from the usual grumbling that it is almost tangible. Or…you know, not packing away your jackets and sweaters for the season, just in case. This year, I have especially learned to love the smell of elderflower floating through my house on the breeze.

elderflowers

A couple of weekends ago, I spent time with my friends Robbie and Matt in their lovely country house. We walked in to find them steeping elderflower blossoms in lemon juice and syrup to make a cordial, thus confirming my romantic vision of their rural lifestyle. I thought, I’d like to do that, if only I knew how to find elderflowers! Back in the Big Smoke, I looked online for a course or some instruction in urban foraging, and found some very expensive days out along with a reference to elderflowers growing around Blackheath.

‘Let’s go to Blackheath.’ I announced on Saturday.

‘I’d rather not get out of my chair, thank you.’ My sweetie said.

‘But I must hunt the elusive elderflower, and I hear Blackheath is ripe for the picking.’

‘Elderflowers are everywhere. I will stay here in my chair.’

OK, perhaps I’m paraphrasing, but that was about the gist of it. In a huff, I took a walk around my own neighbourhood… and lo and behold… the place is lousy with elderflowers! Parks, gardens, front lawns, the side of the road—they’re everywhere. Once I started looking for them, I couldn’t stop seeing them. I also discovered that there is an enormous stretch of blackberry bushes on the way to the supermarket. It’s as if a pantry of wild food has suddenly materialised in front of me. Amazing what you start to see if you just look.

It being hot (and because I already have a jar of Matt and Robbie’s cordial that I’m sure I couldn’t top), I decided to make the spoils of my foray into a sorbet. It came out more like a granita in texture, but that’s mostly down to the fact that my ice cream maker wouldn’t work. The taste though is perfect—like honeysuckle and ice lollies combined. I think the Sri Lankan shop should consider selling this stuff….

Elderflower Sorbet

200 g/ 1 cup sugar
600 ml/ 2 1/4 cups water
10 fresh elderflower heads
zest of 2 lemons
juice of 1 lemon
1T vodka

Bring sugar and water to a boil, and simmer for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and stir in elderflower heads and lemon zest, and then set aside for about two hours while the flowers steep.

Strain the mixture through cheesecloth or a very fine sieve, and then add lemon juice and vodka to the resulting syrup.

Pour the syrup into your ice cream maker and churn until frozen, then put your sorbet into the freezer in an airtight container until you’re ready to eat it.

If you don’t have an ice cream maker, you can put the syrup straight into the freezer, but take it out every hour or so, break up the partially frozen mix with a fork, and return it to the freezer. Keep doing this until the whole mix is frozen, then cover your airtight container and leave in the freezer until you’re ready to eat it.

Pea, Lettuce, and Spring Onion Soup

pea-lettuce-and-spring-onion-soup-2-crop

There is a German word that I love which has no equivalent in the English language. Gemütlich is an adjective describing a feeling or atmosphere of friendliness and comfort. See? They’ve got one word for an idea that just took me nine to describe to you. We’ve got cosy, which is close but not quite right—cosy captures warm and snug, but is missing anything social. Gemütlich is Christmas at your grandmother’s house (with no family feuds), or lying on a blanket in your garden with your very best friends. It is laughing over a drink after work in the sunshine, watching the bustle of London’s South Bank from the picnic table you managed to score despite the crowds, or sitting on a canal lock at 2am, holding hands with the person you want to marry.

When I first arrived in the UK, I was a lost soul. I had recently quit my teaching job in South Korea but wasn’t ready to go back to the States. After months of travelling vaguely west from Asia, I found myself in London, standing outside of Embankment Station in a classic red phone booth, calling an old family friend from Atlanta who had been living in the UK for the past 25 years. I hadn’t seen her since I was about eight years old, and I couldn’t even really remember her. But I was tired of drifting, and I didn’t have anywhere else to go.

Arriving at Robbie’s was like a dream. She lives in a tiny 2-pub village in the English countryside, in the most perfectly formed house I have ever seen in my life. A writer and publisher, her house is a fairy tale for a bookworm like me, with novels and cookbooks and magazines nestled into every available nook and cranny. Each bedroom is silent and private, with lavender-scented linen sheets on fluffy down bedding, and soft floor-length bathrobes hanging on the back of every door. Nothing disturbed me there. The only sound that would enter my sleep was a soft tap on the door at 10am, and Robbie’s husband Matt stepping in quietly to place a hot cup of tea on the bedside table before padding back downstairs to lay out croissants and his homemade jam for breakfast. They let me stay off and on for weeks, while I tried to decide where I wanted to be and what I wanted to be doing.

I have grown my own roots over the past six years, but I always look forward to visiting Robbie and Matt for the weekend. Dinner invariably consists of some seasonal gem they’ve grown in their garden or gathered from the hedgerows, skilfully incorporated by Matt into a three course meal of pure comfort food. I love the dishes he makes: spicy fresh radishes dipped in sea salt, juicy belly pork with crisp crackling, roasted chicken in a pot with white wine and fresh herbs, apple crumble in the winter, and summer berries with fresh cream. What I admire about his cooking style is the sheer simplicity of everything he does—made with the best ingredients, never overdone, never fussy, always delicious.

Last weekend Matt served the most amazing soup of gentle early summer flavours: peas, lettuce, and spring onions simmered in a butter and cream broth. I’m not sure if I’ve ever tasted more pea-like peas. Who would have thought that boiling three green vegetables in water would be the start of a dish worth salivating over? It doesn’t sound like much, but I urge you to give it a try. Just be sure to get really fresh organic ingredients, and you’ll feel like you’re eating the very best the Earth has to offer right now. I encourage you to drink plenty of wine with this, and to eat it with people who always make you laugh, or tell you something you didn’t already know, or introduce you to interesting people you would have never met otherwise. How gemütlich…

pea-lettuce-and-spring-onion-soup

Pea, Lettuce, and Spring Onion Soup
serves 4

2 heads baby gem lettuce
1 cup shelled fresh peas
4 spring onions
3 cups water
50 g/ 3 T butter
1 cup cream
salt and  pepper
pea shoots to garnish

Start by cutting the lettuces in half lengthwise, and then cut each half into thirds, also lengthwise. Try to keep a bit of the root intact on each piece, so the leaves hold together. Cut the spring onions into 1/2 inch long pieces.

Put the lettuce, peas, and onions into a saucepan, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Cover with the water, add the butter and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down and simmer for about 15 minutes, until the peas and lettuce are completely tender. You don’t really want any crunch left in the veggies for this soup.

Strain the vegetables from the broth, reserving both. Divide the vegetables equally among four bowls. Mix the cream into the broth and then ladle into the bowls. Garnish with pea shoots and serve.

Coq au vin from the French countryside

coq-au-vin-2

Isabelle and I became friends over food. For the last six years, we have eaten lunch together at least three times a week in our company canteen, both passionately enjoying one of the greatest perks our company has to offer: a home-cooked meal, served every day at 1PM. Over onion tarts, Thai curries, and cannellini bean soups, she tells me stories of growing up on a farm in the Rhône Valley, while I try to curb my secret desire to have been born French.

According to Isabelle it was all incredibly boring, but I’m fascinated by her childhood experiences thinning out the sunflower crop and picking ripe apricots. She also tells me about her mother Hélène, who runs their farm and still finds time to keep a personal vegetable garden, cook traditional meals every day, make all of the family’s jams and preserves, and ferment bruised fruit into liqueur. Hélène has become a kind of food hero to me, even though we have never met.

So, last week when I decided to participate in the slaughter of a chicken for my dinner, I knew exactly who to go to for advice. Hélène first killed an animal when she was about seventeen. Her job was to cook lunch at the local school, but the school system didn’t provide a budget for buying ingredients. Instead, farmers would drop off surplus crops, and it was Hélène’s job to make a meal of whatever she was given. One day she was handed a boxful of live rabbits, and was forced to learn there and then how to kill and clean them or else the children would go without lunch.

What resourcefulness, what guts! She must think we’re ridiculous: a bunch of thirty-something city dwellers trying to figure out how to kill a chicken and cook it, a task she’s been performing for forty years. But graciously, she carefully described her methods and shared her recipe for coq au vin. Yes, you lucky people, I’m going to share it with you.

coq-au-vin

Traditionally, coq au vin is made with a cockerel. Once the bird reaches its viagra years it’s time for the chop, but because an older animal is tough and has plenty of connective tissue, it is best cooked very slowly in liquid to break it down and tenderise it. The origins of the dish aren’t entirely clear—though there are some legends involving both Julius Cesar and Napoleon, it isn’t likely that they are true. What is known is that the dish is over 400 years old, and that it likely grew out of necessity on farms where no resources could be wasted.

‘But it’s a very old-fashioned recipe,’ Hélène protested when Isabelle asked how she makes it. Exactly! There’s a time for trendy food and a time to stick to traditions, and I figure that making a country coq au vin is just the right occasion to take advice from someone with experience. Hélène holds a precious knowledge of the culinary traditions of her region, and I’m grateful for the chance to learn even a little part of her repertoire.


Hélène Gamon’s Coq au Vin


1 kilo/ 2 pound chicken, jointed
50 g/ 3 T butter
2 onions, sliced in rounds
2 T plain flour
2 T cognac
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/2 bottle red wine
bouquet garni
80 g/ 1 cup bacon lardons
1 piece fatback or salt pork
salt and pepper
100 g/ 2 cups mushrooms (any kind will do, or mix several types)
200 ml/ 3/4  cup very fresh chicken blood (optional)

Brown the chicken pieces in the butter. Half way through the browning, add the onions. Once the chicken pieces are brown on all sides, mix in the flour, then pour in the cognac and light it on fire. Add the garlic, wine, bouquet garni, bacon, and salt pork. Season with salt and pepper, and bring to a boil.

Cover and turn the heat way down, as low as your stovetop will possibly go. Let simmer on very low heat for about 2 hours, then turn the heat off for an hour or two. Turn the heat back on as low as possible for another 2 hours, and then off again. Continue this way all day, until you are ready to eat. The idea is to let it cook as slowly and with as little heat as possible.

When you are just about ready to eat, turn the heat up to medium and add the mushrooms and blood. Let simmer for another 10 minutes until the mushrooms are just cooked through. Remove the bouquet garni and salt pork piece, and serve.

Cooking from the coop

Warning: this post contains descriptions which may upset sensitive readers

7am, Saturday morning. I am full of nervous energy, running through the possibilities of what might happen today. I can hear Peter stomping around the kitchen, so he must be ready to do it. Getting dressed to go downstairs, I suddenly realise I’m a total moron and have only packed nice clothes to wear this weekend. What if I get blood on them?

‘About time,’ Peter says when I get downstairs. ‘We’re ready. Colin’s in that box.’ He points to a cardboard box sitting on the lawn, which used to contain some kitchen appliance, but now contains a hen named Colin. There is a large rock holding it shut. Peter is visibly nervous. He bounces from one foot to the other and takes a few deep breaths, shaking his arms and stretching his neck like a boxer about to enter the ring.

As many people do, Peter dreams of living self-sufficiently. One day he hopes to build a smallholding with enough land to keep a sustainable garden and some livestock, but that is years away. For now, he and his fiancé Mandy live in a town, in a row of terraced houses with fenced-in backyards. They’ve been keeping chickens in the garden for about a year, getting up early in the morning to feed and water them before leaving for their office jobs, and selling eggs to colleagues. They try to keep their little dog from pestering the hens too much, for fear that the barking and clucking will disturb the neighbours.

Peter removes the rock and opens the box, and gently lifts Colin into his arms. Colin clucks and flaps a few times, then settles down. We take a photo for posterity.

colin-the-hen-crop

It’s a far cry from my usual process of acquiring dinner. Normally I would find myself at the supermarket on a Saturday, running through the crowded store in a mad rush to get out of there before I go insane. But always, ALWAYS, they are missing one thing I really need. Usually it’s free range chicken thighs. Sometimes it’s free range chicken anything.

We seem to have an awful lot of choices as consumers. But when I find myself staring down a long aisle of parcels of pinky flesh, clean and hermetically sealed from the chaos of the supermarket, I can’t see if this chicken lived well, or if that meat is of higher quality. I can only see labels which have been carefully designed to appeal to different demographics. Were the chickens happy, well-fed, comfortable? What about the ones labelled ‘freedom food’—what the hell does that mean, anyway?

‘Just get the factory stuff,’ a little voice (who shall remain nameless, you know who you are!) says over my shoulder. ‘It’s cheaper anyway.’ He’s right…but…I’m not sure. I know logically that I don’t want to support factory farming, but I’ll be honest with you, I’m not a terribly political creature. Sometimes I cave in and get the cheap stuff, and sometimes I stand by my principles and decide to make something else for dinner.

Back in the garden, Peter is ready to go. He has only done this once before, and his biggest concern is that the bird will be hurt but not killed. We all agree that it’s better to pull too hard than not hard enough. He takes Colin’s feet into one hand, and lets the bird dangle upside down. Very gently, he reaches for Colin’s neck with the other hand and fits her throat between his first two fingers, like he’s holding a cigar. He pulls quickly and firmly, as if he’s trying to straighten the bird out into a single taut line from foot to neck. Colin dies instantly, pooping and flapping as her nerves react automatically. Peter pulls so hard that the head comes off, which is kind of awful but at least we know there were no half measures.

He hangs the dead chicken over a bucket to collect the blood, which in my enthusiasm for using the whole animal I had planned on incorporating into our dinner. But with the flapping and feathers and dirt flying around, it’s clear that as amateur chicken killers, we won’t be using the blood after all.

Sherri is next. This time it’s a little cleaner and quicker. Peter pulls her neck just hard enough—he is getting better at this already, not bad for an accountant. He sits down with a garbage bag and the first chicken while Sherri has her turn over the draining bucket, and begins gently pulling the feathers out one tuft at a time. He’s much more relaxed now that the big moment is over.

colin-the-chicken-3

Feathers are still flying in the early summer breeze. Breakfast will have to wait until the chickens are completely finished and the house and garden are clean. Unfortunately Peter’s struggling with the feathers—some come out easily but others hold fast. If he pulls too hard the skin will rip, which we want to avoid. We try dipping the second bird into boiling water for a few seconds to loosen the feathers’ grip. Unfortunately, that just leaves us with wet feathers, still stuck to the bird.

It takes well over an hour, but finally both birds are plucked. Strangely, they are already looking more and more like meat and less and less like Colin and Sherri. We take them into the kitchen and begin the process of ‘dressing’ them- that is, taking out their organs, cutting out their necks, trimming their wings, and generally making them look like they do when you find them in the store. Frankly, it’s rather disgusting and all I can think about the whole time is how dirty the whole process has been. Can we really eat these pieces of meat, just like we would a sterile supermarket chicken-pack? Will we not acquire some disease from the blood and guts and dirt and feathers that have been flying around all morning?

Of course we won’t. The only difference between these birds and the ones I find in the supermarket is that I’ve seen the dirt and blood and shit with my own eyes, instead of it happening behind the scenes somewhere. That, and I know without a doubt that Colin and Sherri were well cared for while they were alive.

colin-the-chicken-2

Three and a half hours of hard work has gone into producing the two small chickens we will make into coq au vin for our dinner, and that doesn’t include the months of care they received from Mandy and Peter. It strikes me as completely ridiculous that any supermarket chicken should only cost a few pounds. How can that be possible? How can all of the energy and resource put into raising, keeping, killing, plucking, gutting, and cleaning a single chicken be reduced to £3? It just seems unnatural.

After the kitchen and garden are cleaned and disinfected, I start getting ready for a day of cooking- I want Colin and Sherri to taste their very best after all they’ve been through to give us a meal. As I chop onions and garlic and gather my ingredients, I wonder to myself if this experience will change the way I think about meat. I’m not about to begin raising and butchering my own (it is just too much work,) but I will stop and consider where my meal has come from—not just some of the time when I’m feeling virtuous, but every time I sit down to eat. Because the luxury of shovelling food into my face without thought just isn’t worth an animal’s life. Next time, the little voice over my shoulder will be out of luck: I’m buying the expensive stuff.

Wondering about that coq au vin? Don’t worry, I’ll tell you all the details of how to make it in my next post….

An elevenses tea party

pistachio-cardamom-and-lemon-biscotti-3

Hello! I’m so glad you could make it! Here at Buttermilk Party Cake we are having a virtual tea party. Come on in and make yourself comfortable—I think there’s a space there on the sofa for you. How do you take your tea?

For those of you just joining us, you may have never heard of elevenses: just tap into your inner-English-grandmother and think about what you’d like to eat at that particular time of morning when you’ve run out of steam from your breakfast, but it’s still too early to legitimately go to lunch. That’s it, that’s elevenses!

We’re in good company: Paddington Bear enjoys his daily tea and sticky bun over a chat with Mr. Gruber in his Portobello Road antique shop. Winnie-the-Pooh indulges in honey and bread with condensed milk, and calls it ‘smakerel.’ And no Hobbit could go with out that all-important meal between second breakfast and luncheon. Once you join the ranks of these loveable gluttons, you’ll never go back to eating three measly meals a day.

Today we’ve got a table full of  irresistible treats from some great bloggers. Thanks so much to Five and Spice, InnBrooklyn, Cake Walk, Lemons and Lavender, Sasasunakku, and Fun and Food Cafe for each bringing a dish. Feel free to help yourself to the buffet. That’s OK, you can choose more than one…

RhubarbCake

Brown butter rhubarb cake from Five and Spice

 

babka Chocolate and Hazelnut Babka from InnBrooklyn

 

poppyseed

Poppyseed coffee cake from Cake Walk

 

Sour Cream Coffee Cake1959 Los Angeles school system’s Sour Cream Coffee Cake from Lemons and Lavender

 

Seasame_and_Ginger_slice_plated

Sesame and Ginger Slice from Sasasunakku

 

strawberry-buttermilk-cakesmall Eggless strawberry and buttermilk cake from Fun and Food Cafe

 

pistachio-cardamom-and-lemon-biscotti-2 Pistachio, cardamom, and lemon biscotti from…right here!

 

Pistachio, cardamom, and lemon biscotti


350 g/ 2 1/2 cups plain flour
1 t baking powder
pinch of salt
100 g/ 1/3 cup sugar
4 T honey
3 eggs
50 g/ 1/2 cup chopped pistachios
zest of 1 lemon
seeds from 10 cardamom pods

Mix your dry ingredients with the sugar and honey. Beat the eggs and add them into the dry mix a little at a time, until a wet dough forms. Then mix in the pistachios, lemon zest, and cardamom seeds.

Turn the dough out onto a very well floured surface, and roll it into a log shape. It’s ok if it won’t stay perfectly cylindrical—the log will flatten out a little.

Bake on a baking sheet lined with parchment at 150C/ 300F for 35 minutes, then remove from the oven and let cool for about 10 minutes. Cut the cooled log on the diagonal, in about 3/4 inch slices. Arrange the slices back on the baking tray and bake for 10 minutes. Flip the biscotti over and bake for a further 10 minutes.

pistachio-cardamom-and-lemon-biscotti-4

Weekday improvisation: Smoky chicken and chorizo stew

Chicken-and-Chorizo-Stew-3

I love riding my bike. It makes me feel like I did when I was a 10-year-old, when other kids would knock on my door to ask if I could come out with my bike to play in the cul-de-sac at the end of our street. We would ride the same loop for hours, with handlebar streamers and ponytails flying behind us.

Cycling in London is distinctly more threatening. City busses ride your tail to let you know you’re going too slow, even when your heart is pounding out of your chest from exhaustion. Cars cut you off as if you do not exist and couldn’t possibly die if you weren’t able to stop yourself from hurtling into their bumpers. Pedestrians never look for you before stepping off of the sidewalk and directly into your path. But despite all of this, it still feels like the sweetest moment of my day to walk out of the office into fresh air and throw a leg over the ol’ saddle to go home.

I often spend the ride daydreaming about what I’m going to make for dinner, so that as soon as I walk in the door, I can get started. Some people find it stressful to worry about meals and cooking after a long day at work, but for me it’s all part of the pleasure of unwinding and reverting to my true self after a day of playing the part of ‘Stephanie The Grownup.’ My favourite way of cooking during the week, when I can really lose myself in the kitchen, is to improvise from what I have on hand, rather than trying to create a specific result. One of the best dishes I know for this is a Spanish-esque stew: the beauty of this meal is that it consists of a loose list of ingredients which can be altered or adapted depending on what you have in the house. I’ll describe the basic idea but it isn’t really a recipe that needs careful attention to detail, so I won’t put amounts. Just use as much as you like or as much as you have.

Chicken-and-Chorizo-Stew Essential ingredients:
Chorizo
Can of tomatoes
Another protein
stock
Some form of onion
Smoked paprika
Something hot
Some carbs
Lemon juice

 

Options:
White Wine
garlic
Fresh parsley or coriander/ cilantro
Chicken, shrimp, or beans
Chicken or veggie stock
Fresh chilis or hot sauce
Rice, cous cous, or potatoes
Green or black olives

I start with chopped chorizo, which is one of my standard kitchen staples that I just cannot live without, and fry it for a few minutes in olive oil until it’s crispy and has released its bright orange oil. I remove it with a slotted spoon and set it aside, and then in the same oil fry some chopped onions (red or white) or shallots if that’s all I have.

Next, if I’m using chicken I turn the heat up and throw in a handful of sliced boneless chicken thighs to brown on the outside. I tend to keep thighs in the house, as they cheaper and more moist and flavoursome than breasts, but you could certainly use whole pieces on the bone, or breasts, or even leftover meat from a previous roast chicken dinner. Then I throw in some fresh garlic and a can of chopped tomatoes. Top up the liquid with a little chicken stock and white wine if you have it to make sure everything is covered and add the chorizo back in. Add a can of beans at this stage if that’s your protein of choice. Mix in paprika, chilli or hot sauce, and salt and pepper, and then let the stew bubble away on low heat for 20 minutes or so to reduce down.

If you want a true one-pot dish, you can also put potatoes in to cook in the sauce (if I was using small new potatoes I’d just add them in whole, or if I had bigger ones I’d peel and quarter them first.) Otherwise, cook your couscous or rice separately to serve alongside the stew.

If you’re using shrimp, add them only in the last 3 minutes or so of cooking. Once the meat and potatoes are cooked, and everything has reduced down to a thick stew, I turn off the heat and mix in the juice of one lemon, plus a handful of chopped fresh herbs. If you have olives you can add those too. Dish it up and chow down.

Free-form Apple Galette

Apple-Galette

Sometimes I like to imagine what it would be like to have been born French. I would eat whatever I want and stay enviably slim. I would not be too shy to complain about injustices or even inconveniences. I would be faultlessly dressed at all times, and perhaps enjoy a single Gitane each night after dinner. Lunch would be the most important meal of the day for me, and I would follow it with thick slices of unpasteurised cheese. And forget about eating a meal without a good glass of wine! Ah, yes… the life of Stéphanie, Frenchwoman. Perhaps I was born in the wrong country. Sadly, fluffernutter sandwiches and instant mashed potato flakes have squeezed their way between me and my destiny as a gourmande française. I was raised on individually packaged American cheese slices, awkward fashion choices, and cold Coors Light.

Luckily I can find inspiration in my kitchen. The other day I was looking for something to cook while simultaneously avoiding the grocery store and noticed my fruit bowl overflowing with apples. Usually I have a glut of oranges, but after a juicing massacre recently the apples have completely taken over. I had a gander at this upside down apple sponge from Table for Two or More, and admired the loveliness of this tarte aux pommes from A Walking Dream.  I considered making a tarte tatin, but found the puff pastry in my freezer to be, erm, slightly 2 years out-of-date. So, I closed my eyes and visualized myself riding a rickety bicycle through the French countryside, stopping off at a farmhouse for lunch, and looking at a table full of wholesome food. And what did I see for dessert? A galette! Ouais!

What’s great about an apple galette is that it’s freeform, man. It can’t be tied down to any rules. Here is what dictionary.com has to say:

free-form

[adj. free-fawrm; adv. free-fawrm]

1. not organized or planned in a conventional way

2. encouraged to function or evolve without advance planning

3. without restrictions or preconceptions

Now this is my kind of pie.

 Apple-Galette-2 I feel that I should take this moment to address the elephant in the room: it is true that my galette is not the most beautiful one to grace the internet. You may have noticed that as the incredibly buttery pastry baked, the integrity of the shell was compromised, allowing a mixture of jam and apple syrup to spread out from underneath the pie to form a moat of deliciousness around the outside. It looks more like a loose pile of apples and pastry, like a crumble or a cobbler. But I ask you to eat this galette without restrictions or preconceptions. The butter content alone is enough to make you desperate for a second pile. It is not organized or conventional. It is freeform. Just like my American belly will be after I’ve polished the whole thing off…

Apple Galette
adapted from Jaques Pepin’s Free-form Apple Galette from Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home

for the pastry:
250 g/ 2 cups plain flour
230 g/ 1 3/4 sticks unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1/2 t salt
1/2 t sugar
1/3 cup ice water

for the filling:
8 apples, peeled, cored and diced
juice of 1/2 lemon
2 t cinnamon
50 g/ 1/4 cup sugar
2 T butter
a few spoonfuls of apricot jam

First make the pastry. Put the flour, sugar, salt, and butter into a food processor and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Add most of the water but hold a little back, and pulse a few more times. Test the dough by squeezing some of it in your hand, and if it holds together it is done. If not, add a little more of the water until it reaches the right consistency.

Squeeze all of the dough into a flat disc and wrap tightly with cling film. Refrigerate for an hour.

Meanwhile, mix your apples with the lemon juice to prevent from browning. combine with the sugar and cinnamon.

Once the dough has rested, remove it from the cling film and roll out on a floured surface until it is a big oval about 1/2 cm thick. Place the dough on a baking sheet lined with parchment, and spread a layer of jam in the middle of the oval, stopping about 2 inches from all of the edges. Pile your apple mix into the middle of the dough, and fold the edges up over the sides of the apples to form a lip around the edge of the whole galette. Dot the top of the apples with yet more butter. Bake at 200 C/ 400 F for 45 minutes to an hour, until the apples are cooked through and the pastry is golden brown.

Discovering Ottolenghi: Lentil and Sour Cherry Salad

Lentil-and-sour-cherry-salad

Isn’t it funny how some food trend crops up all over the media, just at the same time that you ‘discover’ it for yourself? You’re left wondering if you did find it on your own, or if the media planted the idea in your head so cleverly that you didn’t even notice them doing it. Just like in fashion, there are trend spotters in the food industry predicting the next year’s big fads, like gourmet popsicles (they’re the new cupcakes, don’t you know?), or liquorice in savoury dishes, or bacon and chocolate. It’s unsettling- are there any original ideas out there, or are we all just puppets in a giant marketing machine?

For example, I’ve recently become enamoured of Yottam Ottolenghi, the Israeli-born, London-based chef who seems to have a magical touch with simple, fresh salads and ordinary vegetables, treating them in such a way that any meat-eater couldn’t help but look twice. Here’s how it happened: a friend of mine made one of his recipes for a dinner party and told me about it, and his name being hard to forget, I found myself drawn to his eponymous cookbook Ottolenghi: The Cookbook a few weeks later. It was calling to me, saying ‘take me home with you!’ in that way that only a cookbook can.

lentil-and-sour-cherry-salad-2

I spent a few days drooling over recipes like Grilled mackerel with green olive, celery, and raisin chutney. I made his Chargrilled asparagus, courgettes, and manouri salad for a barbecue (to rave reviews from my friends), as well as my own version of his Fennel and feta with pomegranate seeds and sumac. And then I realised his name is everywhere. He’s all over the Guardian with his ‘new vegetarian’ recipes, his new book Plenty is getting great reviews, and I’ve since seen his name in food blogs like Matt Bites, David Lebovitz, and Design Sponge. So, uh, I guess I wasn’t the first one to notice him. Hell, I’ve only just got his first book!

Never mind, I don’t really care if I’m the last one to get there, I’m just glad I did. This food is so good, that even my ‘where’s the meat?’ boyfriend can’t help finishing off the last morsels in the bowl. Here’s one that went down particularly well.

Puy lentil and Sour Cherry Salad
adapted from Yottam Ottolenghi’s Ottolenghi: The Cookbook
Serves 4 as a side, or 2 as a main meal

200 g/ 1 cup puy lentils (uncooked)
2T olive oil
3-4 shallots, sliced
75 g/ 1/2 cup dried sour cherries
3T red wine vinegar
1t sugar
3T water
4 slices of prociutto
75 g/ 1/2 cup stilton, gorgonzola, or other crumbly blue cheese
3 large handfuls of fresh spinach, roughly chopped
salt and pepper to taste


Start by picking any stones out of the lentils, then cover with water and bring to a boil. Simmer for about 20 minutes until cooked, and drain.

Meanwhile, sautee the shallots in the olive oil until soft and translucent, then add the cherries, vinegar, sugar, and water, and let simmer for a few minutes to soften. Once the lentils are done, add them to the cherry mixture and set aside to cool.

Fry your prociutto in a little olive oil until crispy, then drain on paper towels.

Once everything is cool, crumble the prociutto and blue cheese into the lentil mixture, and mix in the spinach. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Sweet and Earthy Beetroot Soup

beetroot-soup

Beets taste like sweet dirt, and I mean that as the highest compliment. Mmm…dirt. No, I haven’t developed a case of pica. I just love the beet’s incredible sugary earthiness, and how you know you’re eating something that used to be in the ground when you take a bite. They’re like geodes, innocuous rocks in the earth that when cracked open reveal a hidden treasure that you are the first to witness. And they’re more than just a pretty face: beets are grown for the production of sugar and vodka, and are also used as a de-icing product as well as cattle feed. In the UK, there are plans to use surplus sugar beets as biofuel. Their cultivation stretches back thousands of years.

As a kid, my limited experience with beets came in the form of the pickled slices from a can that you could find in only the finest all-you-can-eat buffet restaurants the suburbs had to offer. They were flavorless discs of slightly vinegar-y matter—not exactly the kind of thing that would set your heart aflame. You may remember that in previous posts I’ve talked about my great-grandmother Nettie and the wonderful culinary legacy she left behind. In direct contrast, my own grandmother Lois was (and still is, but I am safe in writing this because she doesn’t trust computers) a notoriously bad cook. Among the culinary horrors to be had at Lois’s were chalky, dry livers that had been cooked to within an inch of their lives, canned okra packed in slime, and canned pickled beets. You can forgive me for not knowing from an early age what these little gems really had to offer.

beetroot-soup-2 The realization came to me slowly, over a series of kitchen experiments involving the attempt during my high school days to dye a friend’s hair pink using pureed beets (it didn’t work,) and later branching out into attempts to actually eat the fresh stuff, greens and all. I eventually discovered such pleasures as beet and wild rice salad with fresh parsley and lemon vinaigrette, beet greens simmered in garlic, white wine, and butter, and the most magical classic combination of all: beets and goat’s cheese. From then on, I was hooked on sweet dirt.

There are a few particularly tasty-looking beet-based recipes in blog-land right now, including this beet and greens salad with goat cheese and balsamic vinaigrette from Three Many Cooks, and these raw vegan beet ravioli stacks with cashew ricotta from Cake Walk.

When I first moved to England I quickly fell in love with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (he is a major threat to my future marriage.) On one of his River Cottage programs, he made a chilled beetroot (as it is commonly called here) soup that has become a standard in my repertoire. I serve it hot in the winter and chilled in the summer, and have convinced my entire in-law family of beet-haters that these scarlet roots are actually a wonderful thing, just on the basis of this soup.


Beetroot Soup
adapted from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recipe

For the tomato sauce:
8-10 fresh tomatoes sliced in half, or enough to fit snugly in one layer in the bottom of your baking dish
2 cloves of garlic
olive oil
salt and pepper

For the soup:
1 large white onion, roughly chopped
6 medium sized beets, peeled and chopped
1 litre/ 4 cups beef stock
Salt and pepper

First, make the tomato sauce. Cut the tomatoes in half and arrange skin side down in a single layer in a baking dish. Finely chop the garlic and sprinkle over the tomatoes, and add a good healthy glug of olive oil and plenty of salt and pepper. Put in the oven on a low heat—150C/300F for about 45 minutes, until the tomatoes are soft and turning a little brown at the edges. Dump the whole contents of the dish into the blender and puree, then pass through a sieve to strain out the chunky bits.

To make the soup, sweat the onion and beets for a few minutes in olive oil and then add the beef stock. Let it come to a boil and then simmer, covered,  for about 20 minutes, until the beets are cooked through. Add the tomato sauce and then put everything back in the blender (or use a stick blender if you prefer) to make a smooth soup. You can add a little water at this stage if the consistency is too thick. Add salt and pepper to taste, and top with crumbled goat or feta cheese to serve.