Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The first batch

Another of our favorite uses for molasses is these delicious cookies, baked in preparation for this weekend's great big annual London foodblogger cookie swap, hosted by the Passionate Cook and with probable appearances by the folks at Cook Sister!, SpittoonExtra, Xochitl Cooks, Pertelote, Bill, Please, Cherry's Kitchen , Daydream Delicious, Il Blog di San Lorenzo and more. Watch this space for pictures of the event.

This is the first cookie baking of the season here in Shepherd's Bush! By the time Christmas rolls around, we'll have it down pat.

Ginger Spice Drop Cookies

2 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup chopped stem ginger in syrup (or crystallized ginger)
1 cup dark brown sugar
3/4 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 large egg
1/4 cup black treacle (blackstrap molasses)

Combine dry ingredients in medium bowl; whisk to blend. Using electric mixer, beat brown sugar and butter in large bowl until fluffy. Add egg and molasses and beat until blended. Add flour mixture and mix just until blended. Mix in stem (or crystallized) ginger.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Drop tablespoonfuls of batter onto sheets, spacing 2 inches apart.

Bake cookies until cracked on top but still soft to touch, about 12 minutes. Cool on sheets 1 minute. Carefully transfer to racks and cool. (Can be made 5 days ahead. Store airtight at room temperature.)

Makes about 30.

Adapted from Bon Appétit, March 2000

Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Gobblers Abroad

Culinarily speaking, Thanksgiving is a unique holiday. Every year on the fourth Thursday in November, Americans of all colors, creeds and kinds gather with their loved ones to eat turkey. Naturally, the traditional accoutrements and sides dishes vary from family to family, but on this one day, with a few rule-proving exceptions, nearly everyone in the country eats the same thing. Moreover, save for lunch meat and cafeteria entrees, Americans almost never eat turkey at any other time of the year.

As part of his campaign to change the national Thanksgiving dish from turkey to spaghetti carbonara, Calvin Trillin has reasoned that the primary reason Americans don’t eat turkey more often is that it’s not very good. One might argue, though, that this is a “turkey and egg” kind of issue. If Americans don’t eat turkey more frequently because they don’t really like it, it may be because they don’t know how to cook it well because they don’t eat it very often because they don’t really like it because they don’t know how to cook it well ... or, on the other hand, it might just be an uninspiring entree. Still, we as a nation persevere and, despite last year’s dry, tasteless breast meat, we will roast another bird and we will try a new recipe and we will hope. Perhaps it is for this very process – a testament to the ingenuity, resolve and eternal optimism of the American spirit – that we return to the turkey year after year.

And there is no shortage of new recipes for preparing your Thanksgiving bird. While in New Orleans at the height of the deep frying craze, Tam was privileged to taste two turkeys that had been injected with no less than six quarts (!) of seasoning each before their dip in a barrel of bubbling oil. (This was a major undertaking, and it did yield deliciously juicy meat and crispy, finger-licking-good skin.) His mom says that for years when she was first married, she would put on her heat-proof oven gloves and, with considerable physical effort, flip her hot, half-roasted turkey upside down midway through the cooking process to better distribute the juices, always being careful not to let the stuffing fall out! To baste or not to baste? Sausage or chestnuts? Stuffing or dressing? Wouldn’t you rather just have salmon?

And it's not just turkey! Another standard item on the Thanksgiving menu, cranberry sauce, has always been a particular bane of Laura's. She has attempted to make it many times, and has - without fail - met with some kind of disaster. Her first cranberry catastrophe came when she was inspired to make Mother Stamberg's Cranberry Sauce, a recipe which NPR correspondent Susan Stamberg has, with the permission of her mother-in-law Marjorie, broadcast nationally on Thanksgiving day every year since 1971. How could something so renowned fail to please? Laura was unfazed by the inclusion of such ingredients as raw onion and horseradish and the idiosyncractic technique of freezing the ingredients together and then serving the sauce only partially thawed. She persevered, followed Mother Stamberg's instructions faithfully and carefully, and ended up with something that looked like a chunky variety of Pepto-Bismol, and tasted like something that would cause you to reach for the real thing.

A second disaster came when we hosted Thanksgiving dinner at our tiny apartment in New Haven a couple of years ago, squeezing twelve friends and relatives around an expanded table in our miniscule study. (Tam had to sneak into work and secretly borrow chairs from his closed office to provide seating for everyone.) The pre-dinner oysters on the half shell were fabulous; the stuffing was delectable; even the turkey was quite succulent. But the cranberry sauce! Laura misread the amount of fresh parsley that went into it; by the time she realized her error, the sauce was more green than red. We spent the next twenty minutes attempting to remove chopped parsley from the sauce with spoons and our hands (not, by the way, an easy task, and made no easier by Tam's periodic fits of the giggles as he looked at the growing pile of sodden chopped parsley on the cutting board), but even with all our efforts, the sauce looked like a premature celebration of Christmas and tasted like an entire cranberry bush ground up into little pieces.

The cranberry sauce curse continued on Saturday, when we served a Thanksgiving-inspired meal to some London friends. No turkey, but pork chops, potatoes mashed with squash and roasted garlic, cornbread and green beans. And cranberry sauce, which was pretty good until Laura was inspired to add some orange zest at the last minute ... way too much orange zest, resulting in a sauce that appeared to be the appropriate shade of glossy dark red but tasted like nothing so much as warm orange juice concentrate.

This year, as newlywed Americans away from home, we’re not feeling the need to produce a giant turkey dinner for two. Of course, we miss our families and will be thinking of them on this day, but it can't be denied that there is a certain freedom in shaking off the mantle of tradition when you’re abroad. We don't need to fret about lumps in the gravy. Except for the purposes of entertaining blogging, there’s no reason to scour the city for canned pumpkin pie filling or fresh cranberries. The two of us couldn't possible finish off even the smallest turkey, which would be nearly impossible to cook in our tiny oven anyway. What to do instead?

In planning the day, our thoughts did turn at least briefly to the Pilgrim Fathers and their fateful journey in 1620 from Plymouth in Devonshire to the New World. In 1926, the ultra-excitable British travel writer H.V. Morton noted, “The sailing of the Mayflower was one of the most dramatic events of the last three hundred years. Think how much was storing up for the world when that little ship went Westward Ho!” Indeed.

Inspired by his enthusiasm, we pondered a trip to Plymouth to pay our respects but opted instead to celebrate in an unconventional manner by checking out what the Pilgrims were in such a hurry to put behind them, at the new British galleries in the Victoria & Albert Museum. These collections feature such splendid possessions as the Great Bed of Ware, the copes and collars of the Henries VII and VIII, and the platters, bowls and posset pots from which the feasts of Olde Englande were served. (Posset was a hot drink of curdled milk, popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, that was drunk from traditional pots that resembled small decorative teapots with the pipe or spout used like a straw. It was sometimes drunk for medicinal purposes, and these posset pots were often given as gifts to new mothers who would drink posset after childbirth for its restorative qualities.)

We ended the day with a completely turkey-free meal at a lovely neighborhood French restaurant (wouldn't Art Buchwald be proud?), the Brackenbury in Hammersmith. The spread included cauliflower soup with roasted almonds; mushroom pappardelle with shaved autumn truffles; duck confit with roasted pumpkin and cannellini beans; roasted cod with mussels and corn chowder, bacon and fennel; and, we are delighted to report, lemon posset with raspberry coulis and shortbread! While the food was unorthodox Thanksgiving fare, the quantity in which we consumed it was fully in line with tradition.

Next year, we will happily return to the turkey-and-stuffing routine; and we've made the life-changing decision to shift the cranberry sauce duties to Auntie Janet.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 19, 2006

P is for Pears; Pears are for Poaching

Pears Poached in Spiced Port

4 pears, peeled, stems left intact
1/2 orange, cut into 4 pieces
2 cups ruby port
2 cups cranberry juice cocktail
1/2 cup sugar
1 cinnamon stick
2 cloves
3 peppercorns
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg

Combine liquids, orange pieces and spices in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Remove core of pear from the botton with a melon baller or small spoon. Put pears into poaching liquid and simmer for about 25 minutes or until pears are just tender. Remove from heat and allow pears to sit in liquid for 2 hours.

Remove pears from poaching liquid; strain it, then bring it back to a boil and boil until it is reduced to about half its original volume. Put each pear in a bowl and spoon some poaching liquid over it. Serve plain or with vanilla ice cream.

Serves 4.

The Inside Man

Tam is done doing the Devil's work ... for now. He's found gainful employment at our local pub, the Crown and Sceptre. It happened that after a grueling trip to the store, he stopped in for a quick drink and found Mike the manager interviewing a young thespian for a post pulling pints.

TAM: Hey Mike, are you hiring?
MIKE: Yeah.
TAM: Actually, I'm looking for a job, myself.
MIKE (motioning towards the bar): Have you ever done it before?
TAM: No.
MIKE: Great. Can you start Tuesday?
Actually, Tam interviewed Mike over a few beers for our Halloween post on English ales. When asked what he looked for in a good pub, Mike replied, "Good food and a slack bar staff." We shall see...

The Inside Man, outside.

A romantic comedy about an ordinary man who is in love with the most famous woman in the world

As the days grow ever shorter (and do they ever in London!), the gastronome's thoughts turn invariably to "comfort food" - the stews and casseroles that remind us of home and childhood and Mom and that warm us to the core. Even before winter has truly set in, we have already, on rainy, blustery days, returned to our flat with our brollies blown inside-out and sought refuge in the solace of roasts with heavy gravy and mashed potatoes. Macaroni and cheese: we do declare! There were times when we were so cold, we took some comfort there.

But then there are weekends like this one. Brisk November Saturdays when the sun shines bright and low from the South and the wind blows the last of the golden leaves to the ground; days when Portobello Road is packed with rosy-cheeked shoppers, wrapped in scarves and flushed with mulled wine. We spent yesterday afternoon browsing the market there for the ingredients for an autumn dinner party: fresh rosemary, squash, cranberries and a couple of bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau.*

Portobello Road, in the Notting Hill neighborhood of West London, ranks among the world's most famous markets. The street itself dates from the eighteenth century; it was named after the 1739 English victory at Puerto Bello in New Granada (modern Panama) during the unforgettably named War of Jenkins' Ear. But it was little more than a two-track country road through fields and farms until the 1840s, when wealthy Londoners began to move west and colonize Notting Hill. An unsuccessful Hippodrome which had flooded and closed in 1837 was built over with houses, its tracks forming the curving "crescents" that characterize the area today. In 1864, Notting Hill's conversion from rural to urban area was completed with the construction of the Hammersmith and City railway line, running right through Ladbroke Grove. The beautiful, glowing terraced houses in pastel colours sprang up in the later 1800s to accommodate the newcomers, who also demanded supplies of fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and fish for their elaborate multi-course Victorian dinner parties. The northern end of the road housed more modest shops and markets, serving the needs of the substantial numbers of domestic servants and construction workers who followed their masters west.

During the twentieth century, Notting Hill became considerably less fashionable, and the huge houses built for families with armies of servants were divided up into small and often grotty apartments. By the 1950s, it was considered one of the most down-at-heel parts of London, and was home to a large West Indian immigrant community. In 1958, Notting Hill was the scene of Britain's first race riots, sparked by a confrontation between the fascist British Union and some of the area's black residents. The Notting Hill Carnival, which still celebrates Caribbean traditions and the multi-ethnic nature of the neighborhood, was conceived as a response to the rioting but was a site of further violence at various times during the 1970s. In the 1980s, though, upper middle class families began to reclaim Notting Hill, beginning its restoration as one of London's fashionable areas. Now, the Portobello Road market and the swanky shops on Westbourne Grove are major tourist attractions as well as the source of fancy food, clothes and jewelry for the locals. As well as the aforementioned dinner party ingredients, we found an ultra-hip vintage German army jacket for Tam and some Christmas presents for the folks back home (who will just have to wait and see).

Sunday afternoon proved to be no less sunny and picturesque. After a quick stroll through Ravenscourt Park and an afternoon half-pint at The Seven Stars, it was clear that this weekend we would be in need of no culinary comfort whatsoever! Relieved of the mantle of spirit-lifting, fall food has the freedom to be brighter, spicier and more delicious. To match the bracing day, some strong, fresh flavors, inspired by the "blushed" tomatoes we bought from a Greek olive vendor during our delightful perigrinations.

*Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé is the mantra every third Thursday in November. It's not necessarily the perfect wine pairing for turkey, but the happy confluence of the release of the first Beaujolais of the year and the Thanksgiving holiday just one week later is - we think - reason for careful holiday menu planning so as to include some appropriately grateful Beaujolais glugging. Fun fact: along with Champagne, Beaujolais is the only wine for which the grapes (in this case, Gamay) must be picked entirely by hand.

Linguini with Spicy Shrimp, Blushed Tomatoes and Double Garlic

This recipe is simple, but if you take care with it and use really good ingredients it is truly delicious. And, yes, however spicy, linguine is the source of some good comfort.

1/2 lb linguine fini
Water for boiling

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, preferably a good, fruity type
3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped, and 1 small clove very finely chopped
1/2 small hot red chili, chopped, or 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper (or to taste)
1/2 cup "blushed" tomatoes,** chopped
1/2 cup white wine
1 cup peeled shrimp
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Bring plenty of heavily salted water to a boil in a large pot. Add pasta and cook until al dente. Drain pasta, reserving 1/4 cup of the water.

Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in skillet over medium high heat until hot but not smoking. Add roughly chopped garlic and saute for 1 minutes. Add pepper and saute another minute. Add tomatoes and saute another minute. Add white wine and pasta water and boil to reduce slightly. When liquid is reduced, add shrimp and cook just until pink, about 1-2 minutes depending on their size. Turn off heat and add parsley, finely chopped garlic and lemon juice, and season with salt and pepper.

Toss pasta with sauce and remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Serve immediately.

Serves 2; can be doubled.

**Blushed tomatoes are partially sundried sliced tomatoes that have been marinated in vinaigrette. If you can't find them, soak some sundried tomatoes in hot water for 15 minutes, then drain and marinate in olive oil, onion and a little balsamic vinegar for at least a few hours.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Poussin, encore

On Sunday evening at our favorite London gastropub, the Anglesea Arms, Laura had an experience that is, for an American dining out, unusual: she found a small piece of shot in her wood pigeon! Needless to say, we were delighted. There is romance in knowing your food had a sporting chance.

As the days continue to grow shorter, restaurant menus are featuring more and more seasonal "game." Back home in the States, though, this claim can deceive unwary consumers. US Federal law forbids the commercial sale of indigenous American wildlife that isn’t being raised for commercial slaughter, and requires pre-mortem inspections of animals before butchering. This means that the duck, venison, and "wild boar"sold in the States are almost never hunted; in fact, the latter name is often (rather misleadingly) used to refer to a breed of boar that is raised commercially, like pigs. Regulations in other countries are not nearly so strict, and usually allow for post-mortem inspections, a practice common in the UK.

Life in the wild can dramatically alter the taste of meat. Several industrious American entrepreneurs are finding ways to raise animals in a sort of ultra-free-range manner that allows the game to live and eat as it would naturally, before being rounded up for pre-slaughter inspection. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni describes this process in his recent blog entry on this subject:

[The operators of a company in Salem, New Jersey] breed the birds, put bands on them, then release them into the wild, so that they can “fly around the salt marshes,” move the way a wild bird would move and eat much of what a wild bird would eat. Then ... the operators “put out corn” to lure the birds. That corn ... leads to a large pen. They close the door of the pen. They check the ducks. If a duck has a band on its leg, they keep it. If it’s wild, they release it.

For those who like their game birds to be wild but prefer not to run the risk of chipping a tooth on a bit of shot, we are delighted to share news of a product that will surely revolutionize your hunting technique. Season Shot is hunting ammunition made of tightly packed seasoning that is injected into the bird on impact, supposedly seasoning the meat from the inside out. We intended to share our favorite phrase from the Season Shot website, but couldn't reach a consensus, so we've opted to list these few amazing quotes:
  1. "Ammo with flavor."
  2. "Forget worrying about shot breaking your teeth and start wondering about which flavor shot to use!"
  3. "Watch as your bird is seasoned on impact."
  4. "Shoots, kills, seasons."
Seriously. You'll know the trend has started when you walk past a deer blind smelling enticingly of coriander and lemon pepper blend...

In a 1996 episode of Seinfeld, entitled "The Rye," George is mortified by his father Frank's ignorance of Cornish game hen:

FRANK: What is that, like a little chicken?
GEORGE: It's, uh, it's not a little chicken. [laughing] Little chicken. It's a gamebird.
FRANK: Gamebird?
FRANK: What do you mean? Like, you - you hunt it? How hard could it be to kill this thing?

Despite its name - and George's protests - the Cornish game hen (also known as spring chicken, coquelet and poussin) is not a game bird at all, but rather a crossbreed of two domestic chickens, the Cornish and the Plymouth Rock. The Cornish is a breed of chicken from Cornwall and is sometimes known here in the UK as Indian Game, because it descends from an Indian type called the Asil.

We pan-fried ours and served it with a great autumnal stuffing-esque rice.

Spiced Cornish Game Hen

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 Cornish game hen, split in half, backbone removed (your butcher can do this for you, but it's also pretty easy to do yourself)
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon coriander
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Rub hen halves with 1 tablespoon olive oil and season all over with spices and generous amounts of salt and pepper.

Heat remaining tablespoon of oil in skillet over medium high heat. When hot, add hen pieces, skin side down. Cook until skin is browned and juices run clear, about 8-10 minutes per side. Let rest for 5-10 minutes.

Serves 2.

Nutty Apple Rice

1 1/2 tablespoons butter
1 small onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 small apple, peeled and diced medium fine
Salt and freshly ground pepper

3/4 cup rice
1 1/4 cups chicken broth or apple cider, or a mixture of both

1/2 cup toasted chopped walnuts (almonds or chestnuts would also work well)

Melt 1/2 tablespoon butter in skillet over medium heat. When butter stops foaming, add onions and cook until beginning to turn translucent. Add garlic, ginger, cumin and salt and pepper and saute until soft. Add apple and saute for another 5 minutes until tender. Remove mixture to bowl.

In a saucepan, combine rice and broth and season with salt. Bring to a boil, then turn heat to low and simmer until rice is cooked. Add remainder of butter and fluff rice with a fork. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Mix in onion/apple mixture and walnuts.

Serves 2.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Show us the food

The BBC Good Food Show 2006 was like nothing more than a thousand infomercials come to life. We strolled past booth after booth of food and wine vendors nibbling and sipping, nibbling and sipping. There were cheeses and sausages, chutneys and jellies, wines, beer and champagnes and gadgets for making easier such grueling kitchen tasks as chopping garlic, making sandwiches, toasting bread, steaming vegetables and wiping counters. Frankly, it’s amazing that any of us has managed to put a meal on the table at all over these many years without Fancy Francis’ Amazing Toaster Pockets or any number of other hilarious must-haves that were being made available by special offer and for a limited time for the low, low price of …

Actually, despite being fairly silly, the Good Food Show made for a fun time. The highlight of the afternoon was the cooking demonstration given by celebrity chef and restaurateur Gordon Ramsay; among London’s most famous kitchen gurus, he was certainly the star of the weekend. With the exception of England’s most popular wino, Oz Clarke, most of the presenters were former Ramsay protégés who now serve as head chefs at one of the many restaurants in his empire. None of the others, though, came close to matching his finesse as he demonstrated how to make fennel-and-watercress salad, braised chicken (see below), sautéed endive and a fig tart – all in under twenty-five minutes. We’re going to try out his menu soon and will report back, but everything looked eminently doable, practical and delicious, and his patter and little tips were fast-paced and smooth.

The air in the Olympia Grand Hall (formerly the National Agricultural Hall and, at 450 by 250 feet, once the largest building in the kingdom covered by a single span of iron and glass) was thick with the scent and haze of ambitious in-booth cooking. The actual food and drink being hocked ranged from pretty good (Cornish blue cheese, Jordanian olive oil with zaatar) to truly awful (pink Spanish cava that tasted like vinegar sweetened with sugar cubes, some horrifyingly authentic Cumberland sausage). There was a heavy emphasis on chutney and alcohol, and a considerable number of people wandering around for whom this was evidently a dangerous combination.

With our appetites sufficiently whetted, we headed for our favorite London gastropub, the Anglesea Arms, for a dinner of terrine of foie gras, wood pigeon and prune with fig chutney; daube of beef with French beans; and roasted wood pigeon on a bed of savoy cabbage with celeriac puree – all washed down with a delightful Grenache from the terre du sud - good food indeed! Other highlights of Tam's birthday weekend were the Velázquez exhibit at the National Gallery and a blistering set by Yo La Tengo...

Braised Chicken á la Gordon Ramsay
(We haven't actually tried this yet; caveat chef.)
2 tablespoons butter
1 whole chicken, cut into pieces
2 heads garlic, halved
4 stalks fresh thyme
2 cups red wine
2 cups chicken stock
Salt and pepper
Chopped fresh thyme

Heat butter over medium high heat in large skillet until it stops foaming. Add garlic, thyme and chicken pieces, skin side down; season with salt and pepper and cook until deeply browned, about 7-8 minutes. Add half of wine and reduce until thickened, about 5 minutes. Add remainder of wine and reduce again until syrupy. Add stock and reduce for another 10 minutes or until chicken is done. (Mr. Ramsay was very insistent that the reducing should be done a bit at a time, as when making risotto.) Remove garlic and thyme stalks.

Sprinkle with fresh thyme and serve.

Serves 4-6, we assume.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Second time's the charm

Actually, there are several accounts of how hush puppies got their name, all involving fried cornmeal being thrown to a barking canine, variously by fishermen, hunters, trappers, Confederate soldiers and a cook from ... Atlanta - ha! Few folks deny that this Southern staple originated shortly after 1727 in the settlement of Nouvelle Orleans, with a group of Ursuline nuns who had emigrated from France. The nuns called their fried cornmeal croquettes de maise. The Old Ursuline Convent still stands at the corner of Ursuline and Chartres (pronounced chahr-ters) streets in the French Quarter, not far from the supposed "House of the Rising Sun."

Well, it didn't take us long to get back on the horse and plan a menu of blackened rainbow trout, roasted potatoes, collard greens and - wait for it - hush puppies. (Incidentally, our interim dinner last night was at a charming North African restaurant around the corner, rather un-exotically named the Adams Café. We got a free "plate of invigorating nibbles," including some spicy mini meatballs - kefta - and pickled vegetables. Tam ordered a roasted lamb skewer, served blistered and rare with tomatoes and rice, and Laura had a tagine of chicken with pickled lemons and green olives. Mmm. We're pondering making our own pickled lemons and putting them in everything. Any recipes?)

As for tonight's "blackened" fish, we'll leave discussions of the Maillard reaction to Harold McGee. Well... okay. The Maillard reaction is named for the chemist Louis-Camille Maillard, who figured out why golden brown equals delicious. Turns out, flavor compounds are created as the result of a chemical reaction between amino acids and sugars when exposed to heat. With continued cooking, these flavor compounds yield new compounds - and new flavors - and the right combination of these flavor compounds yields yumminess. Mr. McGee notes that the typical cooked food contains between 300 and 800 compounds. Our trout had at least a thousand - Tam was counting - and with the rest of the meal, they added up very quickly. Back home in the States, we've often blackened catfish or tilapia, but trout works very well.

Hush Puppies

1/2 small onion, finely chopped
1/2 cup buttermilk (or milk with 1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice added)

Generous 1/2 cup cornmeal
1/4 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 large egg, lightly beaten

Canola oil for frying

Pour buttermilk over onion in small bowl and let sit for 15 minutes.

Mix dry ingredients in large bowl. Add beaten egg to onion-buttermilk mixture. Combine dry and wet ingredients and mix just until combined.

Pour 1 inch of oil into cast iron skillet. Heat over high heat until shimmering but not smoking. Carefully drop large tablespoons of batter into oil, leaving space around each piece. Cook until golden brown, about 3 minutes per side. Remove to paper towel.

Sprinkle with salt and pepper and serve immediately with butter. (No, this is not a low-fat menu item! But it's really excellent.)

Serves 4 as appetizer.

Blackened Rainbow Trout

1 tablespoon flour
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 fillets rainbow trout

Lemon wedges

Mix flour and spices on large plate. Dredge fish thoroughly in spice mixture, shaking off excess.

Heat oil in large skillet over high heat until hot but not smoking. Add fish fillets, skin side up, and cook for about 3 minutes. Turn and cook for another 2 minutes. Remove from heat.

Serve with lemon wedges.

Makes 2 servings.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

A Series of Substitutions

Our plan for dinner this evening was set. Tam would pick up some fish and kale at the market; Laura would stop into the wine shop on her way home from work. We would reconvene with our wares and commence cooking.

Although we've been enjoying our investigations into English cuisine, what with all the deviled innards and sticky puddings, there are some days when you just get homesick; and what we were missing was the highly spiced seafood of our college days in New Orleans, which has, in fact, maintained a constant presence in our kitchen (especially on football days) even since we've moved from the Big Easy. Furthermore, some good old American fare seemed appropriate for the celebration of a day when we woke to the fantastic news that the Democrats were back in control of the House - cheers and huzzahs! So: blackened fish fillets, roasted potatoes, braised kale (which we thought was about as close as we could come to collard greens in Shepherd's Bush), and, oh yes, hush puppies. (For the uninitiated, these are little round balls of deep-fried cornbread batter, salty and addictive and fundamental to Southern cuisine. According to the Joy of Cooking, their name comes from the former practice of Louisiana fishermen who would throw these little scraps to their barking dogs while preparing for a crawfish boil, shouting "Hush, puppy." Apocryphal perhaps, but an appealing explanation.)

The first glitch came when Tam's hurried stop at the fish market found the mongers out of everything but salmon and cod, neither of which seemed quite appropriate for the planned menu. His search for kale was likewise unlucky. In despair, he emailed Laura to see if she might be more fortunate at the market in Kew. Alas, no; there was - oddly - a van selling fish out of its back door just outside the tube station, but it smelled funny and she was suspicious. Instead, she bought two poussins on sale and found collard greens (labeled simply "fresh greens," but collards nonetheless!) at the shop, and hauled her booty home on the train plotting new culinary directions for the evening. At home, we spread potatoes, collards, and our little chickens out on the counter. Inspiration came in the form of an Epicurious recipe for a potato galette.

The elastic French term "galette" can refer to any number of flat, round dishes, including savory buckwheat crêpes that are cooked on only one side; rustic, pastry-based desserts like Galettes des Rois (the traditional cake served during Twelfth Night festivities, and the ancestor of the New Orleans "king cake"); and sweet or savory rustic tarts. This version combines potatoes and collard greens.

Like kale, collard greens are a primitive ancestor of the cabbage and were cultivated by the ancient Greeks and Romans. The word "collard" derives from the Anglo-Saxon coleworts or colewyrts, meaning "cabbage plants." Collards are popular in the cuisine of the American South, where they're often served on New Year's Day, usually in a braised preparation which yields a soupy result tasting strongly of bacon, garlic and vinegar. If this doesn't sound appealing, let us assure you that it is truly delicious, as is the resulting "pot liquor."

We blanched the collards and sauteed them with garlic and hot pepper to infuse them with flavor, then arranged them between layers of sliced potatoes. This could be a jumping-off point for experimenting with any number of galette fillings; we thought that mushrooms or an herb/chive mixture might make good candidates. The tiny chicken was rubbed with olive oil, garlic and lemon and very simply roasted. Together, they made a tasty French-influenced New South plate, silencing at least some of our cravings for the flavors of New Orleans. Which is not to say that blackened fish and hush puppies won't make an appearance sometime soon...

Roasted Lemon Poussin

1 poussin (baby chicken)
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 lemon, halved
4 cloves garlic, crushed
Salt and pepper

Rub 2 crushed garlic cloves all over poussin and then insert them under the skin of the breast. Rub olive oil, salt and pepper over poussin, inside and out. Put 1/2 lemon and 2 remaining garlic cloves into the cavity. Let sit for 1/2 hour at room temperature.

Preheat oven to 425 F. Place chicken on roasting pan or in cast iron skillet and roast for about 30 minutes or until juices run clear. Let rest for 5-10 minutes before carving or cleaving in half.

Serves 2.

Collard-Filled Potato Galette

3 tablespoon melted butter
1/2 lb collard greens, ribs removed, chopped into 1-inch pieces
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 scotch bonnet pepper, chopped, or 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

3 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, very thinly sliced into rounds
Salt and pepper

Blanch collards in a large pot of salted water for about 5 minutes, until just tender. Drain collards and squeeze to expel water.

Heat 1 tablespoon butter over medium high heat in heavy 9-inch skillet. Add garlic and stir briefly until browned. Add pepper and stir for another minutes. Add collards and saute for about 5 minutes. Season with lemon juice. Remove mixture to bowl and wipe out skillet.

Coat skillet with 1/3 of the remaining butter. Arrange half of potato slices in overlapping circles in pan. Brush top of potatoes with another 1/3 of butter and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Top with collard mixture. Arrange remainder of potatoes in the same pattern over the collards; again brush with the rest of the butter and season with salt and pepper. Weight with a heavy skillet.

Cook uncovered over medium high heat for about 12 minutes. Then carefully flip galette (the easiest way to do this is to invert it onto a plate and then slide it gently back into the pan) and cook on other side, again weighting it with the skillet, for another 10 minutes.

Makes about 4 servings.

Adapted from Gourmet, September 2006

Sunday, November 05, 2006

#3: Remember, Remember...

Remember, remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.
- Old English rhyme

The last week in London has been marked by sudden explosions of fireworks in the middle of busy roads and sidewalks throughout the city. This can be quite alarming when one is quietly walking home from the tube station after work and is startled out of a blissful reverie by unexpected earsplitting cracks and a shower of red sparks. All this pyrotechnic activity climaxed with citywide fireworks shows last night which left Shepherd's Bush so hazy with smoke that it was impossible to see more than half a block down the street. Why all the fiery celebrations?

On November 5, 1605, a Catholic soldier from York named Guy (Guido) Fawkes was discovered in an attempt to assassinate the Protestant King James I and most of the Protestant aristocracy by blowing up Westminster Palace during the opening joint session of Parliament. The plot was uncovered when one collaborator, worried about inadvertently injuring Catholic members of Parliament, sent a letter to the Catholic sympathizer Lord Monteagle warning him of the plan. Monteagle alerted the secretary of state, who ordered a search of the cellars beneath the House of Lords. The investigators found more than eighteen hundred pounds of gunpowder hidden in a cache in the cellar, and arrested Fawkes and his collaborators. The king ordered him to be tortured into revealing the names of his other co-conspirators, and on January 31st 1606 Guy Fawkes and several of his allies were tried for treason at Westminster and condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Determined to escape this dreadful form of punishment, Fawkes leapt from the gallows in a last gesture of defiance, breaking his neck and killing himself.

It has often been noted that the British have a particular enthusiasm for colorful failures (there is no other adequate explanation, for example, for their national fondness for Eddie the Eagle), and so, naturally, the ineptitude of Guy Fawkes is celebrated in Britain with an annual night of bonfires, fireworks and revelry. His effigy is often burned, to general rejoicing. The holiday mixes jubilation that the plot was foiled with glee that it was attempted, and Guy Fawkes has sometimes been conceived as a folk hero, bravely challenging unjust authority - hence the oft-heard comment, probably originating in nineteenth-century pantomime, that Guy Fawkes was "the only man ever to enter parliament with honourable intentions."

That Guy Fawkes remains a politically-charged topic was demonstrated in 2003 when the Scottish Socialist Party caused a national uproar by using this phrase on an election poster. Bill Aitken, the Tory chief whip, was quoted as saying, "To celebrate someone who was a terrorist and whose aim was to be a mass-murderer plumbs the depths, even for the SSP. You have to ask the question, which other terrorists do they also back? Next they'll be telling us they back the Brighton bomber." This debate came a week after scientists released a study announcing that if Guy Fawkes had in fact detonated his pile of gunpowder, it would have destroyed not only the Houses of Parliament but much of central London as well.

Over the centuries, a variety of culinary traditions have developed around Guy Fawkes Day. Some of these are simply traditional autumn dishes, like caramel apples, flaming rum cakes, and candy made with nuts. Others relate more specifically to the bonfires associated with this celebration: grilled meats, potatoes baked in coals. But the most popular, as well as the most gastronomically rewarding, is a dessert known as "Parkin" and always eaten on November 5th; it is a moist, dark ginger cake which, like Guy Fawkes, originated in Yorkshire. Here is our version of this delicious fall treat.

Parkin (English Ginger Treacle Cake)

This is a dark, spicy, sophisticated autumn dessert whose complexity of flavour belies its simplicity of preparation. It will also make your house smell wonderful.

3/4 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup rolled oats
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup black treacle (blackstrap molasses)*
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
1/3 cup chopped crystallized ginger
1/3 cup chopped walnuts

Lightly sweetened whipped cream

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 325°F. Butter a 9-inch square cake pan.

In a small saucepan, melt butter over low heat. Add treacle and sugar and stir until ingredients have melted together. Remove from heat and cool.

Mix flour, oats, baking powder, baking soda, salt and spices in a large bowl. Add in treacle mixture (be sure it's not too hot) and egg; stir to combine. Fold in crystallized ginger and walnuts.

Spread mixture into prepared pan and bake until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean, about 35-40 minutes.

Serve warm with whipped cream alongside.
Makes 9 servings.

*Treacle is the English term for molasses, and the basis for a number of famous English puddings. There are three different kinds of molasses; for this recipe, be sure to use blackstrap molasses (known in Britain as black treacle), which results from boiling cane sugar three times to intensify its flavor and thicken its texture. This type of molasses contains substantial amounts of calcium, iron and magnesium, and as such is much healthier than refined white cane sugar. It gives this dessert a terrifically dark, rich flavour.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

#2: Neither Science nor a Sausage...

Oxford gave the world marmalade and a manner, Cambridge science and a sausage.
- Anonymous

In 1874, Mrs. Sarah Jane Cooper at the Angel Hotel in Oxford began selling a particular kind of preserve she called Oxford marmalade (made to her mother's recipe and featuring chunky Seville orange peel in an unusually dark orange jelly) in Frank Cooper's shop on the High Street; it became famous and was sold throughout the empire, travelling as far as the South Pole. Cambridge's primary culinary accomplishment was the invention of a new type of English sausage in which rice instead of breadcrumbs acted as a filler. These kinds of sausages with starchy fillers are no longer particularly popular in England, and now what the Essex Pig Company calls "Cambridge sausage" has nutmeg and ginger in place of the characteristic rice. So, while Oxford marmalade is still celebrated and can be found in shops throughout Britain, Cambridge's most famous contribution to culinary history seems to have fallen into disfavor, and when we travelled to Cambridge yesterday we found little else of gastrononic interest there.

Its beauty, though, is indisputable. We spent the late morning and early afternoon strolling from college to college and through the picturesque "Backs" along the River Cam. An Oxford alum and self-proclaimed river sports expert, Laura insisted that it was not punting season, so we stayed on land and chuckled as the other tourists embarrassed themselves.

We made a quick stop at the fourteenth-century Church of St. Botolphe, the patron saint of farming and travelers, and attended an Evensong service at the King's College Chapel, complete with candles and the famous boys' choir.

This unaccustomed spiritual exercise, on top of all the strolling, had the effect of making us very hungry. Fortunately, our appetites were not made to languish for long, but were restored by a loaf of crusty sourdough bread, a couple of glasses of Valpolicella, and this wilted green salad - an excellent and easy late supper at home.

Warm Spinach Salad with Mushrooms and Red Onion

2 cups baby spinach
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 clove garlic, minced

1/2 lb. chestnut or baby bella mushrooms, quartered
1 small red onion, thickly sliced

Toasted pine nuts or walnuts

Heat 1 teaspoon olive oil in skillet until hot but not smoking. Add onions and cook until browned and tender but not soft, about 3 minutes. Add mushrooms and season with salt and pepper. Stir until mushrooms are tender, about 3 minutes.

Mix remaining oil, vinegar and garlic in a large bowl. Season with salt and plenty of freshly ground pepper. Add spinach and toss to coat.

Divide spinach between 2 plates and top with mushroom-onion mixture. Sprinkle nuts over the top and serve immediately.

Serves 2.

Friday, November 03, 2006

#1: A Travelling Mind-Set...

If only we could apply a travelling mind-set to our own locales, we might find these places becoming no less interesting than, say, the high mountain passes and butterfly-filled jungles of Humboldt's South America.
- Alain de Botton

In his collection of essays The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton (our new neighbor!) describes his attempts to re-instill in himself an “attentiveness to beauty, any associative thoughts, and sense of wonder or gratitude, and philosophical digressions sparked by visual elements” by taking a slow, observant stroll through his over-familiar neighborhood. Ever the obedient students of philosophy and pleasure, we savoured a walk to the bus stop in an effort to recover our own attentiveness, if not to beauty, at least to indications that delicious snacks might be hidden beyond the storefronts that line our road. Herewith, a photographic record of what we saw. Be warned: if you treasure your vision of London as portrayed in Masterpiece Theater productions of the Forsyte Saga or brightly coloured postcards of the Houses of Parliament on a sunny day, you may wish to skip ahead.

But sometimes encounters with such exoticism - even just down the street - can leave the traveller exhausted rather than exhilarated, and in need of comfort food rather than culinary experimentation. We returned home and turned to an old favorite, leaving novelty for another day.

Pork Chops with Spiced Apple Compote

2 center cut boneless pork chops
1/8 cup plus 1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon dijon mustard

1 tablespoon butter
2 large apples, cored, peeled and chopped
1/3 cup water
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of salt
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Mix 1/8 cup olive oil, vinegar and mustard in a bowl; season generously with salt and pepper. Add pork chops and turn to coat. Leave to marinate for at least 2 hours.

Heat butter in large skillet over medium high heat until foam subsides. Add apples and cook for 5 minutes or until browned. Add water, sugar, spices, salt and lemon juice and continue to cook until liquid reduces to a thick syrup. Remove to bowl.

Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium high heat. Remove pork chops from marinade and pat dry. Add chops to pan and cook until just done, about 3-4 minutes per side. Serve with compote.
Mustard mashed potatoes make a good accompaniment to this dish.

Serves 2.

With its sly nod to Jackson Browne, Dixy Chicken is Tam's favorite among the many interestingly monikered fried chicken restaurants in the neighborhood. The contest was close, though, and these also-rans deserve mention: Chicken Cottage, Rooster Express, and Tantalise Fried Chicken, along with the incorporation of every state name from the American South besides Kentucky.