Monday, January 29, 2007

Ah, the peat

Late January roasting barley fermenting hops stout hopscotch hopwhiskey stench of coffee but not Irish; cash in fish and chips on the jade lawn of Christ Church / gruel at Gruel, breakfast at Bewley's, Guinness at any pub that would have us have ourselves have we mentioned Dublin?

Yes, we spent the weekend in Dublin, and had all kinds of exciting emerald-tinted adventures, recalled here not in feeble stab at a stream-of-consciousness rant but chronologically...


1. The Irish Museum of Modern Art, whose commitment to brand-new work far outshines any of its English counterparts - no Matisse to be seen there! - is housed in the old Royal Hospital at Kilmainham, built in 1684 to accommodate invalid soldiers. The combination of 17th-century architecture and 21st-century art is striking, and the restored gardens on the side of the building are beautiful. It took some determination to trudge up the hill around the cranes and tractors of an immense construction site, wending our way through a maze of orange fences; but the juxtaposition of old and new - the purple walls against the old stone, the five-foot silver axe leaning casually against a tree - made the trip
more than worthwhile.

2. The Guinness brewery, of course! This Irish landmark occupies a huge chunk of western Dublin, and is surrounded by forbidding 20-foot-high cement walls that put us in mind of a medieval castle more than a repository of alcoholic pleasures. The pilgrim can smell it some distance away, and approaches accompanied by dozens of other dedicated travellers en route to the Canterbury of stout. The caws of apparently giant ravens meet you as you enter the shadows of the towering fermentation tanks, lending a somewhat macabre aspect to the whole experience. This impression is dispelled, however, when you realize that the sounds are actually coming from loudspeakers placed at the top of the tanks; they are there to scare away pigeons, who, we were informed by a temporarily unoccupied hansom cab driver, "ru'n the Guinness."

The inside of the "Storehouse" is the glitziest tour this side of Chocolate World. We were guided by a video version of the master brewer, who walked in and out of giant flat-screen TVs explaining the details of the brewing process and inviting his guests to taste the barley and watch the malting. We gradually made our way upstairs following his instructions, and engaged in a little quality control at the bar at the very top of the building, where you exchange your entrance ticket for a pint of the good stuff and sip it as you look round the glassed-in circular room, which offers unrivaled views of the city and quotes from Joyce embossed on the windows.

3. Lunchtime! - and we had the most fantastic fish and chips of our young lives, bought at the tiny shop Leo Burdock's and messily consumed without benefit of fork, knife or napkin on the green of Christ Church Cathedral.

A wander around Dublin Castle, built by the English after their occupation of Ireland and standing as a reminder of Ireland's colonial past. It was built on the site of Dubh Linn, "Black Pool," after which Dublin is named. We skipped the tour of the state apartments in favor of a trip to the Chester Beatty Library, a truly fabulous collection of Christian, Islamic, Buddhist and Hindu religious manuscripts. But after a lengthy perusal of small print in dark rooms, we began to feel the need for a rejuvenating pint - it had been nearly four hours since our last one, after all - and headed to the Palace, one of Dublin's oldest pubs and a traditional hangout of Irish journalists and writers, among them Yeats and Kavanaugh. We engaged in much pithy conversation, peppered with salty wisdom and Celtic metaphors.

5. Dinner at Gruel. A cheaper offshoot of the renowned Mermaid Cafe, this hipster restaurant specializes in simple but delicious Irish dishes, including a salad of greens with pinto beans, sweet potatoes, radicchio and a blue cheese dressing; smoked haddock fish pie; and shank of lamb - seared, braised, re-seared and served with beans and root vegetables - which Tam reduced to a clean bone.


1. The next morning, we woke relatively early and headed to Grafton Street (Dublin's main shopping area, and the part of town most obviously benefited by the economic assistance of the European Union) for breakfast at the recently reopened Dublin institution Bewley's Oriental Cafe. The building boasts high ceilings and some remarkable art deco glass windows, featuring lots of stylized peacocks; it's just the place to down some eggs and black pudding for breakfast, or to wonder aloud how they manage to make porridge taste like an ice cream sundae (top-quality steel-cut oats - okay, and the giant gob of whipped cream on the top might have something to do with it, too). Dublin is a real coffee city, with loads of cafes and a population that prefers double espressos to Earl Grey tea; Bewley's roasts its own beans, and provided our first cup of genuinely hardcore coffee since we visited Paris last month.

2. Onward, to stroll around Fitzwillam and Merrion Squares and admire the Georgian architecture of Dublin's finest houses, elegant squares and the beautiful landscaped parks of St Stephen's Square and the Iveagh Gardens. Laura was especially enamored of the candy-colored Georgian doors, and took many pictures of them, most of which were inexplicably blurry or deleted as being of no interest whatsoever. This one survived.

We reverently entered the gates of Trinity College, Dublin's most venerable institution of higher education. It was founded in 1592 and for many centuries remained one of the most prominent bastions of the Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendancy, until the Catholic Church determined that Catholic attendance there would no longer be considered a mortal sin - in 1970. We wandered through the quads and got a close-up of the famous Book of Kells, as well as a look at the aptly named Long Room library, featuring a mini-exhibit on the Irish playwright J.M. Synge and the foundation of the Abbey Theatre under his and Yeats' direction.

(Incidentally, although his talents as a thespian are not widely known or commonly esteemed, Laura's dad once made a memorable one-off appearance in a production of Synge's The Playboy of the Western World for the British Council in Barcelona. His effortless conversion of tragedy to comedy with the delivery of a single line is the stuff of legend.)

4. Definitely time for another pint: an excellent Guinness at the Stag's Head followed by another, this time to wash down Irish rock oysters at Davy Byrne's, where Leopold Bloom eats a Gorgonzola sandwich (rather un-Irish fare, actually) in Ulysses.

5. We finished up the day with a stroll through the grittier neighborhoods of Northern Dublin, where you can see bullet marks from the 1916 Easter Rising in the columns of the General Post Office. You can also take in the much-discussed Spire of Dublin, built to improve the tone of the neighborhood but given various unflattering nicknames by the Celtic Tiger's good citizens (some choice examples: "Stiletto in the Ghetto," "the Rod to God", the "Erection at the Intersection," and the "Stiffy by the Liffey").

And finally, a look at Customs House and a sunset stroll by the river on the way to catch the bus to the airport.

More pictures of our exciting adventure are available here:

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Frightful weather, old chap

We awoke this morning to find a soft blanket of white and drifting (OK, grey and drippy) snow, an extreme rarity in London. South Kensington was a bona fide wonderland, with the shop windows of warm patisseries carefully filled with freshly prepared winter treats and bouncy children with adorable English accents launching ineptly constructed snowballs at anything that moved.

After a mild, Al Gore-ish start to the season, winter has come to London! And, as everybody knows, the best way to warm up is from the inside out. So here, we offer three ways to face the chill and prevent yourself from wasting away this January...

Let It Snow!

Another Uxbridge-Road-inspired dish. We enjoyed this hearty side with a roasted breast of chicken and the last leftover bottle of Christmas muscadet.

Lentil, Onion and Rice Pilaf with Minty Yogurt Sauce

4 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
2 1/2 cups water
3/4 cup dried lentils, rinsed, picked over
3/4 cup long-grain white rice
juice of 1/2 lemon

2 large onions, sliced

1 cup plain yogurt
1 cucumber, peeled, diced
1/2 cup chopped fresh mint
juice of 1/2 lemon

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add chopped onion and spices; sauteé until onion softens, about 4 minutes. Add garlic and saute another minute. Add water and lentils; bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, covered, 10 minutes. Stir in rice; return to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low; cover and cook until liquid is absorbed and rice and lentils are tender, about 15 minutes longer.

Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons oil in heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add sliced onions; sauteé until soft and beginning to blacken, about 20 minutes. Mix onions into pilaf, add lemon juice and season with salt and pepper.

Mix yogurt, cucumber, mint and remaining lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Top pilaf with dollop of yogurt.

Serves 4.

Adapted from Bon Appétit, November 2003

Let it Snow!!

Our regular readers will be aware that one of our favorite sanctuaries on a cold evening (or any evening, really) is the pub. The very first London gastropub, The Eagle, proudly pioneered all of the now cliché gastropub accoutrements like chalkboard menus, an open plan kitchen and careful approaches to traditional English dishes like rabbit casserole or "Ste. Ana" marinated steak sandwiches. Our favorite tipple-on-tap was the Eagle IPA - not a traditional winter warmer, but a fine ale nonetheless.

Let It Snow!!!

Tam grew up in south central Pennsylvania, where the local German Baptists and Mennonites eat egg noodles on their mashed potatoes (topped with something aptly called "yellow gravy," which will go undiscussed here). The same tendencies presumably influenced this traditional Swiss dish, which combines pasta AND potatoes with a delicious cheesy sauce and is meant to be served with tart applesauce; it sounds like a peculiar combination, but is actually very delicious. Plus, it's totally a great way to carboload, man...

Make a quick homemade applesauce by combining chopped apples with a little water, lemon juice, sugar, cinnamon and a smidgen of nutmeg and simmering until apples are soft; mash with a fork for a coarse, chunky texture that goes nicely with this dish.


3 small Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
8 ounces spirali pasta (or whatever you've got; tubular shapes work best)
1 tablespoon butter
2 medium onions, sliced
1/2 cup whipping cream
3/4 cup whole milk
1 cup (packed) grated Swiss or sharp cheddar cheese
1/2 teaspoon mustard (use Dijon if you're using Swiss cheese, strong English mustard if you're using cheddar)
Salt and plenty of freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter 8 x 8 x 2-inch baking dish. Cook potato in large pot of boiling salted water until tender, about 10 minutes. Using slotted spoon, transfer potato to large bowl. Add macaroni to same pot of boiling water; cook until just tender but still firm to bite. Drain macaroni. Add to bowl with potato.

Meanwhile, melt 2 tablespoons butter in heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add sliced onions and sauté until tender and brown, stirring often, about 15 minutes.

Add onions, cream, milk and cheese to potato mixture and mix well. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer to prepared dish. Bake until heated through and cheese melts, about 20 minutes. Let cool 5 minutes; serve hot, with applesauce and salad alongside.

Serves 4.

Adapted from Bon Appétit, March 1997

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Over the Thames and through New Forest

After a hectic week - including a goodbye party for an Ozzie mate heading back to Sydney, a friend's birthday celebration at the Crown and Sceptre, a visit from Laura's cousin coming through town after a long Grecian exile, and a (successful!) audition for the London Symphony Chorus - we'd had enough of city life and were craving some fresh salt air and some Hogs Back TEA (Traditional English Ale). So we split for the coast to visit some outdoorsy friends in Hampshire, where they sail, bicycle, walk and swim year-round along the beautiful shore, in view of the Isle of Wight. There's nothing like a bracing walk along the beach on a windy January day to put you in the mood for a fish pie and a pint (or two)...

Monday, January 15, 2007

Oh, and about the pierogis...

Pierogis, whose name comes from the Russian pirog, meaning pie, are small, half-moon-shaped pastries stuffed with a savoury filling. They look a lot like Chinese potstickers, and there has been some speculation that the Mongols introduced them to Eastern Europe on one of their periodical bouts of western warfare; but, as Alton Brown is quick to point out, stuffed pastries appear in nearly every culture (wontons, ravioli, Cornish pasties) and their origin is impossible to trace. On our recent trip to "England’s best Polish supermarket," Mleczko, which happens to be across the street, we bought "pierogis ruskies," filled in this case with dry cottage cheese, potato and onions (the ingredients list laboriously translated word for word from online sources - ah, the marvels of the modern age!). They're traditionally sauced with butter, topped with fried onions and bacon, dolloped with sour cream and served with borscht or as an accompaniment to another kind of soup. Our pathetic non-Polish arteries couldn't quite face such an onslaught, so we opted for a marginally healthier approach; still sauced with butter, but accompanied with a salad of mixed greens and thickly sliced red onion, tossed with olive oil and white wine vinaigrette. This turned out to be a magical combination; the sharpness of the greens and the crunch of the onion provided a splendid foil for the bland, cheesy richness of the pierogis. As a final touch, we topped them with sour cream and authentic Polish horseradish (pictured here with a photogenic interloper), just to give them a little kick.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Ratatouille Kablooie!

Sunday afternoons ... in our home, they're traditionally taken up with thoroughly lazy (Tam says "restful") activities: Scrabble, football, Bill Watterson books. But this week we decided to add cooking-in-quantity to the list. This burst of activity is due mainly to an extremely unfortunate encounter Laura had last week with a ham and cheese sandwich in the cafeteria at the National Archives. In description, it sounded innocuous; but when it arrived, it proved to be not simple ham and cheese but stuffed instead with what the English call a "filling" (in this case, fake mayonnaise, processed shredded cheese and canned ham and onions; cheese and pickle is another popular combination). Having forgotten to make a lunch in the morning, she had no choice but reluctantly to swallow the soggy excuse for a sandwich and resolve to take her vengeance, or anyway to be diligent forevermore in packing her own midday repast.

So, today we engaged in a little easy cooking intended to provide delicious and healthy lunches for the week ahead. This concoction combines Middle Eastern-style couscous, flavored with olive oil, lemon and mint, with French ratatouille, made by roasting peppers, zucchini and eggplant (if you're English, courgettes and aubergines) until caramelly and sweet. Although now commonly made throughout western Europe and the United States, ratatouille was long a virtually unknown regional specialty of southern France, and there was no published recipe for it until the publication of a book called La Cuisine á Nice in 1930. It's highly flexible; you can incorporate any number of vegetables you might have around, and it can be eaten hot or cold. So, feel free to experiment!

Couscous with Ratatouille and Mint

6 tablespoons olive oil, divided
4 bell peppers, whatever color you like, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 eggplant, cut into 1-inch pieces
3 large onions, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 large zucchini, you guessed it, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 1/2 cups cherry tomatoes

2 cups couscous
2 1/2 cups water
juice of 1 lemon
1 cup chopped fresh mint
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 400 F. Spread all vegetables except tomatoes on a large baking sheet and toss with 3 tablespoons olive oil, garlic, oregano, red pepper, and salt and pepper to taste. Roast until browned and tender, about 1 hour. Add tomatoes and roast an additional 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat water to boiling and pour over couscous. Cover and seal tightly; leave for 5 minutes. Remove cover and fluff with a fork. Toss with remaining olive oil, lemon juice, mint, and salt and pepper. Mix in vegetables.

Makes about 8 lunch-time servings; this would also make a good side dish to accompany grilled lamb or chicken.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

A trip to the market, a trip around the world

DATELINE: Uxbridge Road ("a west London road which was a decade ahead of its time")

Every day at rush hour, at every busy tube station and bus stop, thousands of London commuters avail themselves of free newspapers. With sensationalist headlines like December's "Killer Fog Traps Travelers" and telefocus paparazzi pictures of Kate Moss sunbathing topless, rags like London Lite are indistinguishable from bad tabloids. This past Thursday, however, in their style section, The London Paper got it right with their full page exposé on our street in Shepherd's Bush, entitled Round the World in One Exotic Trip: "Uxbridge Road doesn't claim to be glamorous ... but for food shopping it cannot be beaten, with a myriad of Lebanese, Polish, Syrian, Caribbean, Sudanese and Somali small businesses thriving there." The full article, and a cute little "audio slide show," is available here (pay no attention to the next slide show about a certain photographer).

Whatever its pretentions to glamour, Shepherd's Bush is undeniably an immigrant neighborhood (we fit right in!), and it's not unique; we've often been surprised at just how international and even transient London's residents are generally. Nearly everyone is here temporarily. Indeed, it's really quite difficult to meet anyone who is actually English, much less a homegrown Londoner. A full third of London's population is foreign-born, and consequently the trade in exotic ex-pat comfort foods - from rose petal paté to peanut butter - is big business; witness the American foods section at the newly remodelled world-famous food hall at Fortnum & Mason.

Inspired by the sensationalist press coverage of our own neighborhood, we spent the afternoon exploring the specialty grocers, delis and international food markets and that spill out onto the sidewalks of our street. While snapping pictures at our favorite Middle Eastern supermarket, Al-Abbas, Tam was stopped by one of the produce vendors, who insisted on posing for a portrait with his wares.

We shopped for sujuk sausages at Naama and picked up some pierogis from "England’s best Polish supermarket," Mleczko. Tomorrow, we plan to construct a multi-cultural experience of our own: eating an English Sunday roast and watching the NFL playoffs at a pub in West Kensington which turns into a gathering of homesick American sports fans every Sunday evening. Go Saints!

Saturday, January 06, 2007

An Epiphany!

It is often said that cooking is about celebration. This is particularly apparent to the dedicated cook during the holidays. For a month every winter, there are myriad excuses for celebration nearly every day, and baking cookies and searing roasts come to seem a karmic necessity, designed to demonstrate our gratitude and full appreciation for our families, communities and homes, and to ward off those elements which threaten them. People who never bake or cook during the rest of the year develop sudden urges during the holidays to try their mother's recipe for cruellers or their grandmother's roasted goose; it is a statement, telling the world that they are aware of their blessings and are doing their utmost to preserve them.

But in January, the guests go home; the tree comes down; the lights work themselves into tangled balls in the closet; all that's left is to vacuum up the pine needles and throw yourself down on the couch to contemplate the inevitable failure of those resolutions to go to the gym more often and eat more bananas. Causes for celebration, and for cooking, vanish overnight. Chinese takeout beckons, and is made all the more attractive by well-intentioned but ultimately depressing articles in January issues of cooking magazines that suggest that now is the perfect time to start eating sprouts for dinner and fruit for dessert.

Our last house guests left yesterday; Laura's brother departed on Wednesday with the sad, sad words, "I guess I'll see you in the summer"; today we spent the day (it was raining, by the way) wrestling the Christmas tree back out of our tiny flat and dealing with a month's worth of laundry. After 22 straight days as hosts, we were nearly at a loss for what to do now that we have the city of London to ourselves again.

What about popping a bottle of cava (left over from the holiday festivities, but no matter) and spending some time chopping and cooking elaborately just for ourselves? We'll look around at our freshly cleaned and suitcase-free domicile and make plans for 2007 with gusto, verve and excitement. To accompany our little celebration of solitude, we will make this light, bright, and flavorful cure-for-too-many-winter-stews-and-the-post-holiday-blues, suggestive of all the exciting travels that (hopefully!) await us this year. (Another cause for celebration is that Tam's begun his new job at Imperial College London. The South Kensington campus is situated a couple of short blocks from the Victoria and Albert Museum, perfect for lunch-hour visits, and within skipping distance of some great local pubs, perfect for any time.)

Ceviche, a specialty of Central and South American countries, is in its most basic form some kind of raw fish marinated and "cooked" in lemon and/or lime juice and some spices. We cooked our shrimp very briefly in boiling water first, since it was from the supermarket and just didn't look quite up to being consumed raw; but if you have a reliable fishmonger and some really fresh shrimp, don't hesitate to do it the traditional way.

There are numerous etymological derivations of the word ceviche; the most commonly cited is that the word comes from the Latin cibus (food), through the Spanish words for food (cebo) and fish stew (cebiche). But it might also derive from the Persian-Arabic word sikbaj, which simply referred to a spicy, aromatic food. Here, the basic idea of ceviche is extended to include some delicious crunchy, spicy and sweet elements which add to both the texture and the taste of the final result. The addition of olive oil is likewise not traditional, but we like the unctuousness it provides, and also the suggestions of the Mediterraean inherent in the citrus-olive combination.

Ceviche-Style Spicy Shrimp Salad with Fennel, Shallots and Tangerines

1 lb large raw shrimp, peeled
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (we like a peppery variety for this)
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 small ginger root, peeled, 1 teaspoon finely chopped and remainder cut into strips
1 cup orange juice
juice of 1 lime
2 small carrots, cut into matchsticks
1 small hot red pepper, seeds and veins removed, chopped finely
1/2 fennel bulb, sliced paper thin
3 large shallots, thinly sliced
2 tangerines, sections halved lengthwise
1 tablespoon finely grated tangerine zest
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Bring small pot of water to boil. Salt water and drop shrimp in for 30 seconds. Drain and run shrimp under cold water to stop cooking. When shrimp are cool, halve them lengthwise and toss them with half of lemon zest, lemon juice, 1 tablespoon olive oil, chopped ginger, and salt and pepper. Chill. (That's you and the shrimp.)

Combine lime juice, orange juice, and strips of ginger in small saucepan. Bring to boil and simmer until reduced by half. Put in bowl of ice water to cool. Season with salt and pepper.

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in skillet over high heat. Add carrot and remainder of lemon zest and toss until carrot is crunchy-tender, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and place carrots over bowl of ice water to cool.

Toss fennel, shallots, pepper, oranges and carrots with half the orange sauce and season to taste with salt and pepper. Toss shrimp with remainder of sauce. Mound shrimp in center of 2 plates and arrange salad around it.

Serves 2 as main course, 4 as appetizer.

Adapted from Gourmet, June 2004

Monday, January 01, 2007

Inside Man III: And a Happy New Year

New Year's Eve at the Crown and Sceptre: the best table in the house, great food, the staff stopping by for champagne toasts every few minutes ... the Inside Man's brief tenure as a barman has paid off in spades with great new friends and solid regular status, if not in actual cash. We went out with the pub staff the night before; Geoffrey (Laura's brother, in from New Haven for the holiday) and his English friend Peter both instantly established themselves as drinking legends in their own time. As it turned out, this was merely a warmup for New Year's Eve, when we boogied late into the night with the Ozzies and other Commonwealthers on staff while Geoffrey tried desperately to decide which of the many girls with charming accents he should dance with next. Laura and Tam threw in the towel and went home at about 3 AM, only to get a scolding phone call from Mike the Manager informing them in no uncertain terms that the party was not over and ordering them to come back immediately. Geoffrey, seeking to understand the soul of the British drinker, spent New Year's Day at the pub as well, among the crowds of Queens Park Rangers fans demonstrating a touching faith in Humphrey Bogart's recipe for curing a hangover. Our last set of holiday guests are coming in tonight and have promised to nurse us back to health in return for a bed to sleep in!