Pea, Lettuce, and Spring Onion Soup

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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

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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

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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.

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Weekday improvisation: Smoky chicken and chorizo stew

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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.