My First Laska



A few weeks ago, I went for a celebratory dinner with some friends to The Providores and Tapa Room on Marylebone High Street, where they serve all of their dishes in taster portions, and the style of food is an unexpected East-West fusion.

It had been a beautiful day, with the perfect kind of London-y atmosphere that you feel when you meet up in the Spring sunshine with a big group of friends, and wander through narrow streets of Edwardian terraced houses until you find some funky pub full of knick-knacks to kill an afternoon in. We were all in good spirits, and by the time we made it to the restaurant, everyone was a little tipsy and a lot hungry.

The dish I remember most from the menu was a smoked duck, tamarind, licorice, and coconut laska with green tea noodles and a soft-boiled quail's egg. I just had to order it, for no other reason than to try tamarind and licorice together with duck. It was irrelevant that I didn't know what a laska was.

I've been thinking of laska ever since. I can't figure out how I've never encountered it before- spicy coconutty broth with noodles and the meat-y topping of your choice? Sounds like the perfect way to bring a little bit of spice (and the memory of a wonderful day) into an ordinary weekday dinner.

I've started out by improvising my own laska with the ingredients I had at home, but am already thinking of the endless variations that would be possible using the key elements...

Prawn, Chili, and Coconut Laska
serves 2

1 fresh red chili
2 cloves of garlic
an inch piece of fresh ginger
1 teaspoon coriander seed
a handful of fresh coriander (cilantro)
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 can coconut milk
250 ml chicken stock
sweetheart cabbage
king prawns
soba noodles
small handful of fresh basil
2 spring onions
1 tablespoon fish sauce
juice of 1 lime

Start by making a paste. If you've got a good mortar and pestle, bash together the chili, garlic, ginger, coriander seed, fresh coriander, and sesame oil until it's a pulp. Otherwise you could use a small food processor, or if like me you don't want to make extra washing up, you could just chop everything together by hand as finely as possible.
Fry the paste on a meduim heat until it is smelling great, then add the coconut milk and stock, and let it bubble away for a few minutes to reduce down. Add the fish sauce, and then try your broth. If it doesn't taste salty enough, add a little more fish sauce.
In the meantime, put your noodles into boiling water according to the pack instructions, around 5 or 6 minutes.
Your cabbage can go into the coconut broth now, and then just about 2 minutes before the end, throw the prawns into the coconut mix as well. Turn off the heat and then stir in the lime juice.
Drain your noodles and place them in the bottom of two bowls, then ladle the coconut, prawns, and veggies over the top. Garnish with a handful of chopped spring onion and finely sliced fresh basil, and serve with lime wedges.

Buttermilk Party Cake- A Manifesto


When I was 16 I started cooking at home because I had decided to become a vegetarian, and while my mother didn’t give me a hard time about the choice, she wasn’t quite sure what to feed me. Since we lived alone at the time, I naturally began to cook for our little household to show that it could be done, and that I wouldn’t waste away and die. Mostly my efforts consisted of baked potatoes or spaghetti with various vegetable toppings, though I eventually started eating meat again and branched out into more advanced scenarios like preparing Thanksgiving dinner.

This is when I learned things like- no joke- mashed potatoes come from whole potatoes, NOT potato flakes! It was nothing short of a revelation. If the thing about potatoes was true, what about green bean casserole with French's fried onions on top? What the hell was in Manwich anyway? Is it ever ok to include mini marshmallows, whole or melted, into your dinner? Can you make a pot of chili without a flavor packet to aid you? It was as if I ate the red pill, the Matrix fell away, and I could see the truth, that food comes from…whole ingredients. Actual fruits, vegetables, grains, starches, the works!

Investigating and refining this concept over the last good-lord-has-it-been fifteen years, I’ve plunged myself into finding out anything and everything I can about where my food comes from and how I can make it myself. And way back in the beginning, after ransacking my childhood home for anything other than the Betty Crocker Cookbook, I discovered a very important document which now makes up something of my philosophy of food and home and cooking, which I am still dissecting and pondering: my great-grandmother Nettie’s own hand-typed book of recipes. It is crumbling and yellowed and hasn’t been used for at least a generation. The recipes are firmly old-fashioned (marrow balls, anyone?). The most interesting bit- which prevented me from actually using it for years- is that Nettie didn’t bother to write instructions for how to ‘do’ any of the recipes in the book. She only gives the name of the dish, the ingredients and their amounts or proportions, and then leaves you to figure out the rest for yourself. Sometimes she gives a helpful note like ‘(good),’ to let you know this one’s worth a go, and she always tells you who gave her the recipe. Her sisters Gussie and Bessie feature heavily, as do various aunts, grandmothers, and other women from their Brooklyn neighborhood.



What I find so interesting about this is that she took it for granted that whoever read her book would already KNOW how to assemble a basic cake using the creaming method, or would already KNOW not to overwork a biscuit dough. And this brings me to my second revelation: over the last fifteen years, I have been doing nothing less than reinventing the wheel. What my mother’s generation did was to reject the traditions that were forced on them, so that we wouldn’t have to be put in that box. But now I find that I wish I had inherited those traditions. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to be trapped in a box with them- part of what’s so enjoyable about cooking for me is that it is an interest I have elected to have- but it would have been nice if the baby hadn’t been thrown out with the ol’ bathwater.

So I am teaching myself the basics: how to make bread, how to make basic sauces, how to know if your roast is done- the list goes on and I will bring you along with me on my journey, dear reader, into the forgotten nuts and bolts of everyday kitchen life. And I am also teaching myself how to economise in the kitchen- to eat really genuinely well, with fresh foods and formerly happy meats but without throwing out half a roast chicken because it didn’t occur to me to do anything else with it- not only because I’m cheap (I am), but because I don’t want to participate in the kind of shameless waste of resources that would make Nettie turn over in her grave. And finally, I am forging a new connection with my antecedents, getting to know Gussie and Bessie and the ladies of the neighborhood by trying the recipes that they thought were (good), like Nettie’s Buttermilk Party Cake, which I imagine they all enjoyed together in their Brooklyn brownstone for someone or other’s birthday.

This is not to say that I am only interested in kitchen traditions and comfort food. I am a great seeker of new experiences, an appreciator of cutures far from my own, and a practitioner of variety being the spice of life and all that. I can comfortably say that I have never encountered a food that I wouldn’t at least try, and that’s saying a lot after two years of living in Asia. In fact, I can hardly think of any foods that I categorically don’t like.

If I were wealthy I’d spend my evenings in cutting edge restaurants being fed by chefs who are really pushing the boundaries, but sadly, I am not and I don’t. Instead, I occasionally splurge on some nice ingredients and try one of those boundary-pushers’ recipes at home, and every great once in a while, I save up a little cash for a special occasion and try the real thing.

So…I’m reclaiming lost traditions and chasing the world’s endless variety at the same time. Not an easy feat, I realise, but one I’m willing to commit to, dragging my friends and family along with me, and possibly even a few strangers too. One meal at a time.

On saving split mayonnaise

Homemade mayonnaise is my white whale. No wait, making a decent gnocchi is my white whale- I've never, ever managed that. Homemade mayonnaise is just a real pain in the ass and only works half the time, but for some reason whenever I think to make it I get all excited, like it's the best idea I've had in years and why didn't I think of it earlier, and what's the point of eating crappy storebought anyway?

For yesterday's barbecue my housemate, The Boy, wanted to make some potato salad and I had a brilliant moment of clarity in which I said 'I know, I'll MAKE you some mayonnaise!!' He agreed and we passed by the mayo aisle of Sainsbury's confidently.

Deciding it was best to do the mayo first, give it to The Boy, and then move on to my own side dishes before making myself presentable before everyone showed up, I got to work on my favorite machine, the one that sits bathing in a beam of sunlight on my kitchen counter, while angels fill the air with song. The Kitchen-Aid mixer, best £240 I ever spent on a second-hand item. With Kitchen-Aid by my side, there is no way the mayo can beat me!

I cracked open Jamie Oliver's Cook with Jamie, and started the long, slow, overcautious dribble of one drop of oil at a time, with a full prayer said between each drop to be sure it's fully incorporated. Now, Jamie tells me to use one egg yolk, a spoonful of dijon mustard, then whisk in ONE PINT of oil, following up with some fresh lemon juice to tart it all up. I have found in the past that the mayo looks right when I've only incorporated about half of the suggested oil, and usually I just count my blessings and leave it at that. But for some reason yesterday I had an impulse to go for broke, and whisk the whole damn lot in. It works for Jamie, right?

Halfway through, things were looking distinctly mayo-y, I was feeling good, I was bragging to the boys about what a clever cook I am, how I could just MAKE mayonnaise from egg and oil and my own two hands (with the assistance of a very expensive machine), and all the while I kept going, kept pouring that full pint of oil into the whisk, pushing it all in there. And then this happened:



This is a heartbreaking moment. Seriously, I had followed the whole 'drop 1, hail mary, drop 2 hail mary' procedure the whole time, which makes dribbling a pint of oil into a bowl a very lengthy process indeed. I had been working on it for a good half an hour, and production on all other food items had stopped until I got it right. I went back to Jaimie, and felt hopeful at the suggestion that a little bit of hot water can sometimes make it come back together. It can't. Or at least, it didn't.

The only thing to do is close the book, follow your common sense, and start again. This time I started with two egg yolks and a spoonful of dijon mustard, incorporated a few tablespoons of oil into the yolks to get the emulsion going, and then dribbled in the chunks-of-egg-folating-in-oil that was the result of my first attempt. One clump at a time.

Eureka! Here it is:



By the time I'd managed this precious little emulsion, I had a house full of guests, hadn't finished any of the other food, and was hot, sweaty, and wild-eyed, with oil and egg dribbling down the front of my top. But I conquered the mayo. Oh yes.

Next time, I will not attempt to fit an elephant into a Mini. I will follow the more resonable portions that every other internet recipe for mayonnaise calls for.

Mayonnaise

2 free range egg yolks (as fresh as possible)
1 tablespoon dijon mustard
300 mililiters of olive oil
juice of 1 lemon

Whisk the egg yolks and mustard together, using a machine if you've got one or a hand whisk if you're really tough and want a good workout. Dribble the oil into the mix one drop at a time, whisking like your life depends on it, and incorporating prayer if that's your thing. You can substitute half of your olive oil with veggie oil if you're worried about wasting the expensive stuff should the whole thing go wrong.

Once you've dripped in a few tablespoons you should be able to increase your speed to a thin stream, and when it's looking thick and smooth and mayo-y, that's it! You can stop. Stir in your lemon juice to loosen up the texture, and enjoy the kind of satisfaction you'll never get from a jar of Kraft...

Fennel-icious


Fennel is one of my favorite vegetables ever, of all time. I don't think I had ever used it before it arrived a couple of years ago in my weekly fruit and veggie box from Abel and Cole, which just confirms what a great idea it is to give up the power of choice every now and again, and figure out what you can do with whatever the universe (or the veggie company, in this case) sends your way.

Since then, I've experimented with fennel heavily, baking it with parmesan, braising it with pork belly, and simmering it down with white wine, sausage, basil, and a touch of cream for an irresistable pasta sauce. I guess it's the aromatic lightness it brings to heavier ingredients that makes it such a go-to vegetable for me. Add fennel to an otherwise ordinary meal, and suddenly it seems special and complex.

So yesterday my little household decided to have a barbecue to celebrate one of the first glimpses of good weather this year, and I thought immediately of a fennel salad to balance out the juicy burgers and oily whole mackerel we cooked over the coals. This recipe was inspired by the 'Fennel and feta with pomegranate seeds and sumac' found in Ottolenghi: The Cookbook, but in mine I replaced some of the fennel with thinly sliced pears, and omitted the sumac.

Fennel, Pear and Pomegranate Salad

1 bulb of fennel
2 conference pears
1 pomegranate
100 grams crumbled feta cheese
juice of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons olive oil
sea salt and ground black pepper
one bunch of flat leaf parsley

Cut off the top and base of the fennel and slice it as thinly as possible lengthways. If it has a leafy top chop this and sprinkle it over the finished salad. Peel and thinly slice the pears lenthways as well, and remove the pomegranate seeds by cutting the fruit in half and whacking the back of each half with a wooden spoon, letting the seeds fall out into a bowl. Roughly chop the parsley.

Combine the fennel, pear, pomegranate seeds, feta, and parsley with the lemon juice and olive oil in a pretty bowl, and season generouly with salt and pepper.

A beginning

Hello!

This is officially my first entry into blog-hood...I've spent a few days picking out the right template, playing with the background colors, deciding if things should line up on the left or the right side of the screen. You know, virtually nesting. I feel like it's the last hour before a party starts- the house is clean, the food's in the oven, I've checked my makeup, and...now what? Should I watch TV? What if no one shows up?

Let's do some introductions: I'm Stephanie, I'm the host. I'm American but I live in London, via South Korea, Arizona, Oregon, Florida, and my hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. I guess you could say I've been a little bit of a drifter, but I've been living happily in London for nearly six years now, working in children's publishing and generally enjoying myself. And for me, enjoying myself always involves food.

Take today, a regular old workday. Wednesday. There won't be much in the way of interesting eating I'm afraid, but I did come into my office this morning to find something very special indeed. I've received a delivery of cookbooks, compliments of another publishing friend who has access to these sorts of things. She actually gave me her entire stocklist and told me to pick out whatever I want- incredible! It's pretty much the best thing that's happened to me all month.

I'm not going to open the box until I get home, because then I really wouldn't get any work done. Erm, not like I'm doing now. But I know that inside is one on classic British cooking (more on that subject in the future, no doubt, since it has such a reputation for being very very bad, but is in fact very very good and at certain times, just hits the chintz-and-lace-doily spot in my stomach...), one on smoking and preserving your own fish and meat at home, and a cheffy one from Tom Aikens who I've seen on TV and I must say is rather good-looking, but sadly whose restaurants are a bit out of my, ahem, price range. And, well, another six books or so. I just couldn't choose a polite number from the hundred I was given to choose from.

There's a lot to do. So much food to cook, and only three meals a day. Let the party begin!