Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Witches' Brew

When we arrived in London, we knew very little about the institution of the English pub and even less about the dark, warm, uncarbonated ales that they serve. Of course, we were not new to beer culture. As former residents of New Orleans (we miss gumbo a lot) and New England, we were familiar with some of the most common American microbrews, Abita and Sam Adams, and during our domestics travels, we always seek out new (to us) local beers like Victory in Philadelphia, Bell's in Michigan, and the selections at the aforementioned Piece in Chicago. Still, while British lagers have long been familiar to the American palate, ales, bitters, stouts, milds and porters are harder to come by and the legal and cultural relics of prohibition in many states have prevented the Yankee bar from claiming the same social and cultural significance as the English pub.

The internet is full of blogs and websites by and for aficionados of British pubs and ales. Some careful drinkers document every pint they sink in every pub; their sites are sources that cater primarily to the truly dedicated, like the group of eight middle-aged men we met on the train to Bath last Saturday who were undertaking a twelve-pub (!) crawl of the city, beginning at 11 in the morning. As relative rookies, and Americans to boot, we ventured forth into the pub-o-sphere armed with little more than our (fleeting) wits and a powerful thirst for beer and insight. After many arduous hours of painstaking research, we are now ready to share what will undoubtedly be the first of several installments elucidating what we've learned in our search for the perfect pint.

First, a (very) brief history may be useful. Beer was invented in ancient Egypt and brought to Britain by the Arabs who occupied Spain during the Middle Ages. London's first drinking establishments were the tabernae erected by the Romans; after the demise of the empire, they diversified into taverns, alehouses and inns. The pub (short for Public House) as we know it dates to the Victorian era, when it established itself as the social center of virtually every British village. In larger cities, neighborhood pubs known as "locals" proliferated and became the hub of each area of town; in the 1870s, the St. James area of Westminster boasted one pub for every 116 residents. Today, most pubs in England fall into one of three categories:

  1. The corporately owned chain pub, which offers a standard (predictable) selection of beers and microwaved grub. These pubs are a last resort for beer snobs, or anyone who wants to avoid leaving with a pounding headache.
  2. The brewery-owned pub, serving a selection of ales from a specific brewery (Fuller's, Young's & Adnams, for example) and often a "guest ale" or two.
  3. The independent pub, where they pour whatever they please.

The latter two of these pub types are likely to meet the first of our three criteria for choosing a pub: real ale. Ale is made from barley malt, pumped by hand from a cask in the pub's cellar and served at room temperature. Another authentic option, the bitter, is made by adding hops during fermentation. Our American readers are probably familiar with India Pale Ale (IPA); this was developed when sailors charged with the task of transporting bitter by ship to homesick Brits in India solved the problem of spoilage by infusing the beer with extra hops, which acted as a preservative. If you like IPA, you would have made a great colonial administrator.

Our second criterion is harder to quantify, but may be summed up in one word, atmosphere, atmosphere, atmosphere. We look for two main qualities:

  1. Coziness: fireplaces, candles, low ceilings, anything to make hunkering down on a cold grey London evening when it gets dark at 4 PM just a little more bearable.
  2. Character: something architecturally or decoratively unique. A favorite Soho pub, the Dog and Duck, has walls lined from floor to ceiling with ceramic tiles. Bill Bryson says that this style of pub makes him feel like he's drinking in Prince Albert's loo. If you're of this mind, a punched tin ceiling, sunny conservatory or garden, pots of geraniums or a smiling Polish barmaid can help to meet this criterion. Some traditional architectural hallmarks include frosted or etched glass windows, "snob screens" (eye level barriers atop the bar, protecting the nobility from potentially polluting contact with the hoi polloi providing their refreshment) and other remnants of wooden or glass structures which at one time would have divided the drinking space into public (exclusively male) and private (coed) rooms. A great name - Laura's favorite is "The Frog and Trousers" - and an interesting coat of arms can also assist a pub in its quest for atmosphere.

Our third criterion is the most subjective: the unique appeal of a pub. What makes a pub great? How can a neighborhood joint make you feel like there's nowhere in the world you'd rather be? This is the mystery element. For us, this appeal often lies in the friendliness of staff, as well as the nature of the food available. In the burgeoning number of gastropubs, fantastic and unusual pub grub is often to be had; less gourmet but equally tasty fare can also be found in institutions like the charmingly bizarre Churchill Arms in Notting Hill, which serves incredible (and super-cheap!) Thai food in a Victorian glass conservatory at its rear.

We mentioned that this may be the first of many posts on the subject, not because we anticipate a need for heavy drinking in the near future, but because creating a personal pub taxonomy is tricky. Our friend John has listened carefully to our thoughts on the subject and laughed to himself over the brim of his pint glass. In his six years in London, he has developed a system of pub classification which dictates where to drink a first, second, third or seventh pint, depending on time of day, day of the week, month of the year, the weather and his disposition at the moment of consumption - among other things. So, needless to say, this is complicated stuff and we welcome your comments, criticisms, insights and advice. Better yet, take us out to your favorite pub and buy us a pint! Or at least tell us where it is...

Happy Halloween!

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Splish Splash

Perhaps there are those among you, our devoted readers, who are now convinced that food in London has risen to the standard of its cosmopolitan counterparts throughout the world, finally shaking off the scorn and ridicule which for so long were heaped on the purveyors even of the haute-est English cuisine. It's possible, you'll allow, that it's no longer difficult to seek out a great meal in this most international of cities. Londoners' tastes, shaped by decades of exposure to the varied fare of other lands through the innumerable immigrant communities of the city, have become more sophisticated. London now offers organic, free range, fair trade and gourmet food prepared well and presented with elegance by chefs whose repertoires reflect all sorts of international influences and the highest standards of culinary training. Maybe so, you say, but what of the rest of the country? What's happening in the 'shires and 'hams and 'chesters and 'mouths? Have standards really changed in the 'burys and 'boroughs and 'fords? To find out, we set out before sunrise on Saturday morning for Bath, an historical city just southeast of Bristol on the River Avon. We hereby submit our findings.

Bath has always been a tourist town. It is situated on top of Britain's only hot spring, which since Celtic times has been thought to provide physical and spiritual benefit to those suffering from various ailments. The Celts associated the springs with their goddess Sulis, to whom healing powers were attributed. When the Romans invaded Britain in 43 A.D. (veni, vidi, vici!), they quickly moved into Bath and began building one of the most magnificent bath complexes in northern Europe. From the Roman conquest through the fourth century A.D., worshippers traveled long distances to partake of the healing powers of the thermal springs and offer sacrifices to the Roman goddess Minerva, who had officially supplanted Sulis as the guardian spirit of the waters. In actuality, Sulis continued to be revered, and depictions of the goddess in Bath are usually referred to as "Sulis Minerva" due to the conflation of the two deities.

The present appearance of Bath is dominated by the Great Bath of the Romans, the fifteenth-century Bath Abbey (noted for the beauty of its fan vaulting and the unusual external facade depicting a dream of its founder in which angels climbed up a ladder to heaven, as well as for being the site of the coronation of the first king of all England, Edgar, in 973) and the elegant Georgian architecture of the residential parts of the city. In the eighteenth century, Bath became one of the most fashionable resort towns in England, again due to the supposed healing powers of its bubbling waters and its proximity to the lovely Somerset countryside. The architect John Wood and his eponymous son created such famous architectural splendors as the Circus and the Royal Crescent, where the wealthy and aristocratic of Georgian England, including resident dandy Beau Nash, whiled away their days in between spa visits. Bath is the setting of the outwardly polite but inwardly vicious social encounters chronicled by Jane Austen, a short-term resident of the city but not a fan, in Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Sheridan's The Rivals, featuring the unforgettable Mrs. Malaprop, also takes place in Bath; and in Dickens' The Pickwick Papers, the Cockney servant Sam Wellers expresses an aversion to the taste of the spring water, which he describes as having "a very strong flavour o' warm flat irons" - a characterization with which we must say we concur.

We arrived in the morning, and took in the splendours of the abbey and the vaults before venturing out in search of food, which we found at the King William Pub on Thomas Street. This tiny establishment offers unusual, authentic ales and makes an attempt to resurrect truly traditional English food - not the typical pub grub of meat pies and fish and chips, but rather such nearly forgotten delicacies as beer battered sweetbreads with tartare sauce and ham hock terrine on toast. Laura, in honor of her English father who has always proclaimed the culinary virtues of various kinds of innards to the extent of single-handedly boiling and consuming each year's Thanksgiving turkey gizzards, had devilled kidneys on toast; Tam had a steak of pork belly.

Both were delicious. The kidneys were rich, creamy and satisfying, recalling steak and mushrooms. Devilled, a term which the Oxford Companion to Food dates to the eighteenth century, refers to the use of hot spices or condiments in a preparation (thus connecting it with the heat in hell); in this case, it described a mustardy cream sauce with lots of pepper which perfectly complemented the seared kidney slices. Pork belly is a relatively fatty cut of meat which in the United States is most commonly used to make bacon, but is traditionally eaten as a steak in Britain; here, it was glazed with spiced apple jelly and accompanied by beautifully cooked frills of buttery kale and crushed potatoes.

But the adventures of the day were not over. We spent the afternoon exploring the Roman baths, breathing in the healing steam and marveling at the grandeur of the structures, and then went to refresh ourselves in the splendid Pump Room, where Catherine unsuccessfully searches for Mr. Tilney in Northanger Abbey:
Every creature in Bath, except himself, was to be seen in the room at different
periods of the fashionable hours; crowds of people were every moment passing in
and out, up the steps and down; people whom nobody cared about, and nobody
wanted to see; and he only was absent. 'What a delightful place Bath is,'said
Mrs. Allen as they sat down near the great clock, after parading the room till
they were tired; 'and how pleasant it would be if we had any acquaintance
Under the great clock and the swirling Georgian plasterwork, we partook in a another authentically English culinary experience: afternoon tea. The waiter was dressed in a striped vest and spoke with an exaggerately fake posh accent which he dropped as soon as he left us to exchange pleasantries with his fellow workers. We shared a pot of loose-leaf Assam tea, and sampled scones with strawberry jam and clotted cream, raspberry orange cake, a cream-filled praline eclair and a tiny kiwi and almond tart, and felt for poor Catherine Morland and Mrs. Allen as we sipped our tea and observed the scenery.

After a leisurely post-tea stroll around the city, taking in the golden architecture and observing the progress of an uber-fancy soiree through the open windows of a splendid house in the Royal Crescent, we felt the need for a fortifying pint before undertaking the train journey back to the crowds and fumes of Paddington Station. The Salamander, offering local Bath Ales like the cool Gem bitter, and appropriately cozy, wood-paneled environs in which to sip them, proved the perfect spot to wind up our English spa town adventure.

It was a Saturday night at a pub in England, though, and as the cozy space filled up with people and smoke, and the guy standing above Laura's head inadvertently stuck his straw up his nose in his haste to imbibe, we took our leave in an effort to keep our aristocratic vision of Georgian Bath as intact as possible. The savvy traveler has to know when to head home.

A postscript:

Incidentally, our recent lunch of traditional English food at the Dining Rooms at the National Gallery of Art here in London also deserves mention. With a loaf of dark soda bread, we enjoyed a delicious salad of cured salmon with raw fennel and extra virgin rapeseed oil, a perfectly balanced plate of duck pate with a salad of apple, frizzy endive and shallots, and an exquisite grilled fillet of trout with spelt, lemon and parsley. Our faithful readers may be interested to know that the menu also listed roast haunch of venison with parsnips (!) and glazed chestnuts.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Cod Piece

In September of 1958, Britain declared war on Iceland, opening a conflict that would come to be known as the First Cod War. The casus belli was a new Icelandic law extending the nation's fishing zone from four to twelve nautical miles from shore and ousting British fishing vessels from the area. The outraged British decided to defy the new law and sent out their trawlers, now protected by warships. A number of desultory confrontations at sea followed, including one in which an Icelandic ship and a British vessel collided, more or less inadvertently. At one point, Britain equipped one of its fishing boats with a Soviet flag, contravening international law and sparking considerable Russian indignation. After a few months of irritable encounters between English and Icelandic fishermen, the British admitted defeat and withdrew.

But more piscine drama was yet to come. A Second Cod War began in September 1972, when the Icelanders further extended their fishing area to fifty nautical miles and once again came into conflict with British ships. NATO was forced to intervene and negotiate a settlement, which limited British ships to certain areas within the Icelandic zone.

Three years later, Iceland once again increased the extent of its fishing zone, this time to 200 miles from the coast. Britain refused to recognize the change and another extended battle - the Third Cod War - ensued, involving numerous incidences of economically damaging net-cutting and vicious boat ramming; tactics on both sides were more damaging for the boats and the fish than for the human combatants. The conflict eventually came to a close when the Icelandic government threatened to shut down the NATO base it hosted at Keflavik, considered a crucial Cold War defense point against potential Soviet incursions in the Atlantic. Britain withdrew from the 200 mile zone and the Cod Wars officially ended in June of 1976.

Who could have believed that these two peace-loving nations would duke it out over a few cod fillets? But let us recall the vital role that cod plays in British culture and identity. It is, after all, the central ingredient in what the Rough Guide to Britain rather cattily identifies as "Britain's one truly significant contribution to world cuisine" - fish and chips. (Incidentally, the Rough Guide appears to have been written by someone who harbors a covert but deep-seated loathing for these lovely green isles.)

Cod appears in a number of other guises in British cuisine as well, not the least of which is the justly celebrated fishcake. More modest than crabcakes but very nearly as delicious, our version of this tasty English dish incorporates some Mediterranean touches.

Cod Cakes with Lemon-Caper Aioli

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large fillet of cod
2/3 cup stale bread, cubed into 1/4 inch pieces
2 tablespoons finely chopped onion
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 egg, lightly beaten
2/3 cup fine breadcrumbs or panko

1/2 cup mayonnaise
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon capers, finely chopped

Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Season cod with salt and pepper. Panfry cod until just cooked through, about 2 minutes per side. Remove to a plate and let cool, then flake into small pieces.

Combine fish, bread, onion, garlic, 1/2 teaspoon oregano, red pepper and lemon zest in large bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add enough egg to moisten the mixture (you may not need the whole egg). Mix to combine and let sit until bread has soaked up egg and mixture coheres when pressed. Form into six small patties.

Mix breadcrumbs, remainder of oregano and salt and pepper on a plate. Coat patties with breadcrumb mixture, pressing to adhere. Refrigerate patties for 15-20 minutes (this helps them hold together when cooked).

Meanwhile, make aioli by combining mayonnaise, garlic, lemon juice, capers and salt and pepper in a small bowl.

Heat remainder of olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add fishcakes and cook until golden brown, about 3 minutes per side.

Serve with aioli.

Makes about 6 small fishcakes.

For more information on the Cod Wars and other facts about this fascinating fish, check out Mark Kurlansky's Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Fall of the Empire

Every year at about this time, back home in Connecticut, we make a pilgrimage to Litchfield for some leaf peeping, joining the crowds of Upper East Siders masquerading as simple country folk for the weekend. In England, autumn is less noticeable, characterized mainly by frequent sudden downpours and a rapidly descending darkness. Nevertheless, determined not to let the season pass altogether unmarked, we spent yesterday afternoon at the Autumn Festival at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew.

Initially we felt right at home, what with the five and a half million cranberries afloat in the Palm House pond and a few yellow leaves floating just at kicking distance above the ground, as well as displays of over a hundred apple varieties and a stand selling pumpkin soup. (The true New Englander undoubtedly knows already what we learned yesterday, which is that cranberries do not grow in water, but on low shrubs; the familiar "bogs" are created every fall when the farmers flood the cranberry beds to expedite the harvesting process. Incidentally, the beds are flooded again in the winter to protect the plants against the cold, but we digress.)

There were, admittedly, some pecularities in the English version of autumnal celebration: a twenty-foot-high pumpkin man looming over the apple cider table (Laura, usually not a Halloween enthusiast, is writing to Congress immediately to lobby for the introduction of NEA grants for the encouragement of an American school of pumpkin sculpture, which we now see can be a truly moving form of artistic expression), as well as a pagoda and a Japanese garden. We spied a pair of rather forward peacocks wandering through the cafe, joining in the universal search for snacks. A tour through the Palm House's dramatic jungle plants, unapologetically appropriated by monocled botanists at a time when imperial Britain enjoyed all the spoils of balmier lands, provided an unexpected tropical counterpart to the chilly air and falling leaves outside.

In the end, our jaunt was quite colorful and autumnal enough to feed our nostalgia for New England, and this morning we were hungry for an October-appropriate American-style brunch. This recipe may be the perfect way to satisfy pancake cravings in a land without maple syrup.

Lemon Buttermilk Pancakes with Apple Cinnamon Compote

For pancakes:

1 1/2 cups flour
3 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup buttermilk (alternatively, try whole or even spoiled milk - lumpy is OK, green is not!)
2 eggs
3 tablespoons butter, melted
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 tablespooon grated lemon zest

Whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, mix buttermilk, eggs, butter and vanilla. Combine wet ingredients with dry ingredients. Mix in lemon zest.

Heat griddle or large skillet over medium heat. Drop batter by 1/3 cupfuls onto griddle. Cook pancakes until undersides are golden, edges are set and bubbles appear on top surface and pop. Turn pancakes over and cook until bottoms are brown and pancakes are barely firm to touch.

For compote:

1 tablespoon butter
3 large apples, peeled, cored and chopped into bite-size pieces
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

Heat butter over medium-high heat in large skillet. When foam has subsided, add apples. Saute until slightly browned, about 5 minutes. Add sugar, lemon juice, cinnamon and water; turn heat up and bring mixture to a boil. Let boil, stirring occasionally, until liquid is reduced to a thick syrup and apples are tender. Stir in lemon zest.

Spoon compote over pancakes and serve.

Serves 2 very, very hungry people, or 4 normal appetites.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Brassica oleracea

Boy, if we had a 10p piece for every time someone said, "Geez, who'd want to read a blog about English food?!?" there's no telling what we could do. Move somewhere with a better culinary reputation, maybe.

But let us remind the skeptics that, while there are undoubtedly myriad reasons not to read our blog, British food isn't all overcooked roasts and limp, soggy veg. In fact, the UK is in the midst of something of a gastronomical revolution and London is commonly considered to be the gourmet city of the moment; and this trend is not limited to the prohibitively expensive, Michelin-rated restaurant. Organic and fair trade items dominate grocery store shelves, and tasty pub food is served everywhere with great aplomb, paired with delicious British ales and wines from around the world.

(A future posting on the British preference for room temperature beer is in the works ... but we have to do some more research first. Much, much more research.)

Samuel Chamberlain reminds us that we Americans are not in a position to criticize British food, "coming from a country, as we do, where steaks are cooked in a few seconds under infrared rays, where the steam table is the restaurateur's faithful ally and where TV dinners, hot dogs, hamburgers, pickles, soft drinks, and peanut butter sandwiches are among the essentials of life. At least the British don't bake marshmallows on top of sweet potatoes." Now, we love our peanut butter (and have had a devil of a time finding the edible stuff here), but the truth is that modern English cuisine ain't all that bad. Indeed, our own cooking is more and more frequently drawing inspiration from it. (Tam is putting clotted cream on everything he eats.)

The sight, smell and oddly squeaky sound of boiling cabbage have often seemed to exemplify the direst of British culinary offerings. Our friends at Wikipedia note that "boiled cabbage seems to have fallen out of favor in North America, possibly due to the strong smell released during the cooking, to its image as a food of the poor, or to its reputation for promoting flatulence." Certainly you wouldn't want to put such a description on a menu, but while we're not attempting to dedicate this blog to the American revival of previously underappreciated vegetables (despite our comments on the parsnip), we will confess that we ourselves are big fans of red cabbage - although not in its boiled state.

This recipe makes a splendid English fall dinner, and is healthy to boot. If you wanted to be more adventurous, and have just returned in your red blazer and jodhpurs from a shooting expedition in Windsor Park, you could replace the chicken with quail, partridge or other catch of the day.

Apricot Chicken with Red Cabbage

2 teaspoons olive oil
2 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves

1 small onion, sliced
1/2 head red cabbage, outer leaves removed, cored and sliced
1/4 cup white wine
1/4 cup water
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar

1/4 cup apricot preserves (chop up any large apricot pieces)
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon coarse-grained English mustard
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper

Chopped toasted walnuts for garnish

Heat 1 teaspoon olive oil in large skillet over medium high heat until hot but not smoking. Add onion; sprinkle with salt and saute until beginning to turn translucent. Add cabbage and sprinkle with salt. Saute for about 5 minutes or until beginning to wilt. Add wine and water. Cover, turn heat down and simmer until cabbage is tender and liquid is absorbed, about 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat remaining olive oil in another skillet over medium high heat and season chicken with salt and pepper. Pan-fry chicken until just cooked through, about 4 minutes per side.

In a small saucepan, combine apricot preserves, soy sauce, mustard, lemon juice and red pepper. Stir together and cook over low heat until slightly reduced, about 4 minutes.

Add vinegar to cabbage mixture and season to taste. Pour sauce over chicken and garnish with chopped walnuts. Serve over cabbage.

Serves 2.

Remember, you are what you eat!

Monday, October 16, 2006

The Days Are Just Packed

It’s true for gastronomes and travelers alike: a resolute spirit of adventure and initiative is necessary to satisfy both wanderlust and hunger. The committed eater, like the committed traveler, must keep his curiosity alive and constantly summon the energy to venture forth with determination and joie de vivre. You’ve got to want it.

After an exhausting week of research and job applications, we were naturally tempted to while away the weekend with long naps and downloaded TV shows from home, with some open bags of crisps conveniently at hand, and perhaps an occasional peek out the window at the passing world. But our commitment to carpe-ing the diem won out over inertia (if only just), and the result was an exciting weekend of adventure.

We bucked up on Friday afternoon and headed for the Tate Modern, which is open late on weekend evenings, for a couple of slides down the Carsten Höller installation. There’s been a lot of discussion in the London press over the last week about whether or not this constitutes art. We will not debate such thorny issues, but will merely comment that the Test Sites are faster and twistier than you might expect, and that Picasso is only improved when one is shooting by at high speed.

Next, to the Anchor and Hope, an excellent gastropub in south London, where we shared a warm salad of snails and bacon over spring greens and a whole roasted sea bass with black cabbage in an anchovy sauce. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as leaving nothing but an intact (and remarkably cartoonish) fish skeleton on your plate at the end of a meal. The poached quince with praline ice cream also deserves a mention – sour, sweet, crunchy, creamy, scrumptious – in short, everything you might want in a dessert.

On Saturday, it was off to Greenwich for an exciting afternoon at zero degrees of longitude. We visited the National Maritime Museum, wandered the grounds of the Royal Naval College, and noted that the 24 hour clock at the Royal Observatory was a good 33 minutes slow, perhaps offering some insight into the loss of Britain’s formerly grand empire (standards, people!). We met some friends for an elegant dinner of scallops and tuna, paired with some really exquisite wines; our South African hostess was the consummate sommelier.

Sunday saw us again at the British Museum for some research into power and taboo (northwest Michigan is shortly to be the new Hawaii, when the fire pit and totemic carvings are finished at Laura’s family summer home – stay posted!) and back in Shepherd’s Bush for our last bottle of Tavel rosé and this new dinner fave, to be followed by ice cream and (at last!) a little down time.

Seared Salmon & Lentils

¼ cup lardons or 2 strips chopped bacon
½ cup dried lentils (preferably French green lentils, but ordinary red lentils will work as well)
1 small onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped roughly
½ teaspoon dried thyme
1 lemon
1 tablespoon heavy cream (optional)

1 teaspoon olive oil
½ lb center-cut salmon fillet

Finely chopped cherry tomatoes, for garnish

Heat medium-sized saucepan over medium heat. When hot, sauté lardons until brown and crisp. Remove lardons to a paper towel, leaving drippings in pan. Add onions and thyme, and sauté until soft. Add garlic and stir for a minute.

Put the lentils into the pot. Add just enough water to cover the lentils. Peel two long sections of lemon rind from the lemon with a vegetable peeler and add to mixture. Cover and bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer until tender, about 35 minutes.

Cut salmon into two pieces. Season with salt and pepper. Heat olive oil in sauté pan over medium high heat until hot but not smoking. Add salmon, skin side up, and cook for about 4 minutes, or until golden brown. Turn and cook for another 2 minutes, or until golden brown on the outside but still translucent in the middle. Remove to plate.

Add lardons to sauté pan and warm through, about 1 minute. Season lentils with salt and plenty of freshly ground pepper. Add juice of ½ lemon. Add cream to lentils, if desired. Mix in lardons.

Serve salmon and lentils topped with chopped cherry tomatoes, with wedges of lemon alongside.

Serves 2.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

A Depressing Vegetable

Q: What's the most English of all vegetables?

A: Okay, you get points if you answered mushy peas, but the answer is actually the parsnip. The English eat more parsnips than any other nation; in fact, they can be hard to find elsewhere, and don't have a glittering reputation in the rest of the world. But the parsnip has a long and storied history. It is closely related to - but more nutritious than - the carrot, and references to its cultivation in the eastern Mediterranean appear in both Greek and Roman writings. (Interestingly, Britain is the only European country that consumes more carrots than potatoes per capita - but that's a topic for a different entry. Another day, another root vegetable, as they say.) Medieval Europeans valued parsnips for their supposed healing powers; they were thought to be efficacious for a number of intractable medical problems, including toothache, stomach pains and swollen testicles. Before the advent of the sugar beet in the nineteenth century, parsnips were used as a sweetener in both Europe and North America. But beware when foraging for parsnip in the wild; it is easily confused with the toxic and potentially fatal poison hemlock, another plant associated with the less salubrious side of ancient Greece.

Recently, a national contest recognized the frightful parsnip pictured here as the ugliest vegetable in Britain. The Guardian described it as "resembling a creature from the abyss."

Jane Grigson, in her classic English Food, declines to comment on the aesthetic qualities of the parsnip, but does issue a stern warning about its preparation. " 'PARSNIPS NEED BUTTER' should be inscribed in letters of fire in every kitchen," she writes. "Without butter, or an equivalent fat of quality (which does not mean margarine, but good beef dripping), they can be a depressing vegetable." This preparation uses olive oil, and is quite delicious; the bitterness of the salad leaves provides a beautiful contrast to the caramelized sweetness of the parsnips, and the chicken adds a salty, meaty layer of flavor.

Chicken, Parsnip and Potato Salad

1 teaspoon plus 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

3 medium parsnips
2 small potatoes (preferably Yukon Gold)
6 cloves garlic
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme (not ground)

1 cup chopped cooked chicken

1 teaspoon white wine vinegar

Mixed greens with frisee

Preheat oven to 400° F (!)

Peel, quarter and core parsnips. Cut into French-fry-sized pieces. Peel potates and cut into 1-inch cubes. Leave garlic cloves whole. Toss parsnips, potatoes and garlic in 1 teaspoon olive oil with the thyme and plenty of salt and pepper. Roast, stirring occasionally, until golden brown and tender, about 40 minutes (but keep an eye on them; parsnips get too crunchy very easily).

If chicken is cold, add it to roasting pan about 5 minutes before vegetables are done to heat through.

Remove garlic cloves from roasting pan, and squeeze their pulp into a small bowl. Add remainder of olive oil, vinegar, salt and freshly ground pepper, and beat well.

Toss half of dressing with chicken/vegetable mixture, and the other half with mixed greens. Divide mixed greens among plates and top with chicken and vegetables. Serve with lots of crusty bread.

Serves 2 as a main course or 4 as a first course.

Adapted from a recipe by Celia Barbour, published in the New York Times on September 20, 2006

Saturday, October 07, 2006

We ate their livers with mashed potatoes and a nice Beaujolais

After spending our time in Provence trying to get our fill of foie gras (an impossibility, at least in a week, as it turns out), we set our sights on preparing a less decadent alternative - chicken livers. Although back home in Connecticut it is not uncommon for Laura to spend a Sunday afternoon in the kitchen with her beloved Cuisinart whipping up some paté for Tam's halftime snack, this time we opted for a more holistic approach.

Port-Glazed Chicken Livers with Mustard Mashed Potatoes

2 tablespoons butter
1 large onion, sliced
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

1/2 lb chicken livers*
1/4 cup port

2 large potatoes (we like Yukon Gold)
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup milk
2 tablespoons coarse-grained mustard (or to taste)

1/4 cup chopped toasted walnuts

Peel potatoes if desired, then chop them into large pieces and simmer in salted water until tender.

Meanwhile, melt 1 tablespoon butter in large skillet over medium heat. When butter has stopped bubbling, add the onions, thyme and some salt, and saute until tender and golder brown. Remove onion mixture to a plate.
Add 1 tablespoon butter to the same pan and put over medium-high heat. Sprinkle livers with salt and pepper and add to pan. Saute until brown on the outside and just cooked but still pink on the inside, 3-4 minutes. Remove to a plate.

Return onion mixture to pan over medium-high heat, and add port. Stir, scraping up bits on the bottom of the pan, for about 2 minutes or until slightly thickened. Turn heat off, add chicken livers back in and check seasonings.

Mash potatoes with butter, milk, salt and pepper. Add mustard and stir to combine.

Serve chicken livers over mashed potatoes, and top with walnuts. A salad of sharp mixed greens dressed with a simple vinaigrette makes an excellent accompaniment.

* Elizabeth David suggests soaking chicken livers in milk before using to remove any bitterness. It can't hurt, anyway.

In addition to being quite yummy, this dish has the benefit of being really cheap. On the other hand, this mayn't be the healthiest of meals; as Laura says, "Cooking chicken livers does inspire one to pile on the butter," so it is perhaps best enjoyed upon your return from a bracing walk in Hampstead Heath or some other jaunt-spot of comparable beauty.

A bite before the opera

For a quick but elegant and delicious dinner before you rush off to, say, Lady Macbeth of Mtensk at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, try...

Zucchini Carbonara

1 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 pound small zucchini, sliced into thin rounds
2 medium cloves of garlic, crushed (not chopped)
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper

6 oz. linguini fini (or other comparable pasta shape)
1 large egg

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

6-8 fresh basil leaves, cut into chiffonade
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted

Put salted water on to boil for the pasta.

Heat olive oil over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Add crushed red pepper and garlic cloves and saute briefly until lightly browned. Add zucchini and saute until golden brown, about 7-8 mins. Season zucchini mixture with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Meanwhile, cook pasta until al dente. Beat eggs in bowl and mix in grated Parmesan. When pasta is done, reserve 1/4 cup of cooking water and drain. In a large bowl, mix pasta with reserved water and egg-Parmesan mixture. Season to taste. Add zucchini and half of basil and pine nuts.

Serve topped with remaining basil and pine nuts, adding more Parmesan if desired.

Serves 2.

Variation: Replace pine nuts with walnuts, eliminate red pepper and add 1/4 cup of cream instead of pasta water for a richer, creamier version of this pasta.

Laura says, "C'est magnifique!"

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Here's to you, Mrs. Cichowicz

Of course, we must mention the real reason for our visit to Provence, the lovely wedding of our good friends, Casey and Danielle; and we now have a great picture of them on their honeymoon. Here they are at the sunken gardens next to Kensington Palace after high tea at the Orangery (mmm, orange sponge cake). They're en route to Africa as we write and we wish them safe travels and all good things in their new life together.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Le vin, l'amour, c'est la France

Last Thursday, we took an eight-hour wine tour in Cotes du Rhone. We tasted award-winning rosés in Tavel. We picnicked at the ruins of the Chateau du Pape (the antipopes' summer getaway) and drank Chateauneuf du Pape made from grapes harvested from a single acre that was planted in 1912. In the end, the most interesting stop was the Domaine de Mourchon, a relatively new vineyard run by a Scottish ex-pat and his son-in-law, Hugo (below). It's wine-making season in southern France and, while many of the vintners we met along the way eyed our cameras with suspicions of corporate espionage (might we be undercover agents for Yellow Tail?), Hugo was gracious enough to take us on a tour of their entire operation.

Hugo is a heartbreaker. Standing in front of the large red doors of the winery, looking down on the rows of hundred-year-old vines bearing loads of purple fruit, gazing soulfully at the mountains beyond, he began to explain his metier. "Sure, winemaking is a science," he said, "it's an art, it's a passion; but above all, in the end, it has to be a way of life." The women in our party melted visibly. The sun was setting over the hills and the vines were glowing above the rocky soil. You could almost see the wheels turning in the heads of our fellow tasters as they pondered whether it might not be worth trading in their pin-striped suits for the muddy jeans and beatific if wine-stained smile of one who lives in harmony with la terre.

(Incidentally, our guide, Guy is a former rat-racer from London who gave it all up to drive other rat-racers around Provence on their holidays. He reported that he had once had a client from Vancouver who tasted too much wine and flew back to Canada to tender his resignation.)

So, we admired the view and imagined ourselves in overalls, while Hugo talked rapturously about terroir (the special characteristics of soil, clime and atmosphere that give a French wine its particular regional quality, and the subject of many an impassioned defense of French wine-making). The technique for growing suitable fodder for Domaine de Mourchon wines is to concentrate the energy of each vine (twisted, gnarly, low-lying growths that in no way resembled the vines we've seen in the
wine-making regions of northern Michigan) into just two bunches of high-intensity grapes. They're
tiny, round, and intensely sweet; it's hard to believe they could even be related to the pale green ovals we buy at the supermarket. At Hugo's behest, we tasted these wonderous orbs and crunched the pits as well to get
a sense of the taste of tannins, the astringent, tactile qualities of red wines that come from the skins and seeds of the grapes. Let's just say that grape seeds are not going to be taking the American snack market by storm any time soon.

We had watched some sturdy French farm boys picking grapes earlier in the day, and were confident that we had this part of our future career as oenologists down pat (the secret is to make your help wear really great hats). As he led the way to the fermenting room, Hugo explained that after harvest, the grapes are stripped of their leaves and stems, goosed (oo la la) to release their juices, and piped into tanks for the first of two fermentations. Stepping into the room with high hopes of viewing a scene of dark-haired French virgins holding up their skirts to dance barefoot in huge wooden buckets of grapes, we were instead met with the sight of these monstrous metal vats. Hugo's rapture was undiminished, and he gleefully filled a large glass with the alarmingly purple concoction and invited us all to take a swig (with the slightly alarming warning that we were not under any circumstances to swallow it; perhaps it magically confers a perfect French accent, or some other such carefully guarded secret). We all spit it onto the floor with gleeful abandon.

The second fermentation takes place in cement casks, after which the expert palates start mixing grapes for that elusive perfect combination. By law, Cotes du Rhone wines must be at least fifty percent Grenache, but often include Syrah, Mourvedre, and a number of other local varieties. Once a final solution is agreed upon, the wines are aged either in oak barrels (barriques) or cement casks and then bottled.

All in all, an enticing mix of ancient technique and shiny new science. We went up to taste the results of all this labor in the tasting room, a rather yuppified space giving little indication of the processes of creation, and were rewarded with some lovely reds.

In the glow of the evening, our picture of terroir was completed with a sighting of le chat du domaine, a rather sad-looking beast missing one eye. The French, Guy informed us, are not really cat people.

Monday, October 02, 2006

A Week in Provence

We realize that few people are interested in reading more of the cloyingly sentimental tripe that American travelers tend to spout after seeing Provence for the first time (sorry, Mr. Mayle). Therefore, we will not bore our readers with hackneyed descriptions of a perfect afternoon in Cassis eating bouillabaisse and moules et frites while overlooking the bustling marina. We will not recount clichés about the endless beauty of the Southern coast and the Route des Cretes, with its breathtaking views of the picturesque countryside and heart-stopping climbs from the astonishingly blue sea. No! Not one formulaic account of idyllic strolls through the Provencal countryside with its rows of rosemary bushes and olive trees or predictable argument for local food production, distribution and preparation. We would not dream of repeating tired narratives of a visit to Avignon and its glorious Palais des Papes. Instead, we merely offer a few photos for your viewing pleasure…

More pictures of our exciting adventure are available here.