Sunday, February 18, 2007

When in Shepherd's Bush...

With the first mincing-machines, prison, school and seaside boarding house cooks acquired a new weapon to depress their victims, with watery mince, shepherd's pie with rubbery granules of left-over meat, rissoles capable of being fired from a gun.
- Jane Grigson
Some of our readers may know that Tam is in the midst of a career crisis; in fact, you may have read it in our profile. Some years ago, between jobs, he seriously considered herding sheep for Laura's cherry-farming cousin, who was entertaining the idea of using a flock of sheep to keep the grass short in the orchard, with the additional hope that the residual sheep's milk would make excellent cheese. "I'd make a great shepherd," Tam told him. "I look fabulous with a crook, and I can be sore afraid at the drop of a hat." Alas, it turns out that sheep prefer the taste of cherry bark to grass, but then, who doesn't?

So, instead, for the past few months Tam has been wrestling with his future from Shepherd's Bush in west London, each glance at the tube station sign a constant reminder of the tragic failure of his shepherding career before it even began. There are competing explanations of the name of our fine neighborhood; it may have arisen from the use of the common land here as a resting point for shepherds on their way to Smithfield Market, or, rather less romantically, the area might have been named after someone in the neighborhood (in 1635 the name was recorded as "Sheppards Bush Green"). Either way, mustn't grumble; even if you're not a shepherd, you can still have pie...

Despite her less-than-inspiring description, we adapted our recipe for shepherd's pie from the classic English Food by the queen of English food (or anyway, British food writing), Jane Grigson. If you do it right, she admits somewhat reluctantly, shepherd's pie "can be well worth eating." It definitely makes a splendid meal for a cold February evening in the bush.

Shepherd's Bush Pie

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 lb minced lamb
1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary
pinch crushed red pepper
1 teaspoon tomato paste
1/3 cup dry white wine
2/3 cup beef broth
2 tablespoons flour

4 medium potatoes
1/2 cup whole milk
1 tablespoon butter
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 325 F.

Heat oil in skillet over medium heat. Add onions and cook until translucent; add garlic and stir for a minute. Turn heat to medium-high and add lamb, rosemary and red pepper, and season with salt and pepper. Cook until lamb is thoroughly browned. Mix half of broth with flour and stir or shake to combine. Add tomato paste, wine, broth and broth/flour mixture to the lamb and simmer for about 10 minutes, covered.

Boil potatoes and mash with milk and butter, seasoning well with salt and pepper. Spread lamb mixture in a baking dish and top with potatoes, drawing fork over top to create ridges. Bake for about 40 minutes, then put the dish under the broiler for a few minutes to brown the top. Let sit for 10 minutes before serving.

Serves 2-3.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

<- Europa Latina ->

A couple of weeks ago, we popped into the travel agency over lunch to book a trip to Barcelona, having determined that a weekend in the Spanish sun was just what was needed to boost our spirits during the February doldrums. Sadly, the girl behind the counter - her countenance becoming wistful as she half eavesdropped on the traveller next to us who was planning a voyage to Tonga, Tahiti and Easter Island - informed us that Spain was out of our meager budget and suggested a trip to Scandinavia, apparently a real mid-winter deal. No matter how great the bargain, we decided, we weren't in the market for a bleaker, darker weekend than we could spend in Shepherd's Bush. We were about to depart despondent when Tam's eye fell on the map on the desk. "What about Lisbon?" he asked.

This is how we ended up in the airport on Friday afternoon, gleefully leaving the uncharacteristic snow in London behind and browsing through guidebooks to find out what there was to do in Portugal, about which we knew almost nothing (beyond its role as the producer of the delicious port Tam got for Christmas and has been sharing, generously). When we landed, we took a bus into the city and spent nearly an hour looking for our hotel. Our maps of Lisbon totally failed to indicate that the city is built on lots of extremely steep hills, and by the time we found the hotel and dumped our bags in the rather monastic room, we were panting for some liquid refreshment.

We stopped by the Solar do Vinho do Porto, the Port Wine Institute of Lisbon, where you can learn about port in the best way possible: by choosing from among dozens of makers and types of wine and sipping it in armchairs in the quiet room. We tried a tawny and a late bottled vintage port, swirling, sniffing and nodding vigorously with the best of them.

Wandering into the deceptively sleepy Bairro Alto neighborhood, famous for its late-night party scene, we came across Pap'Acorda, one of the hippest restaurants in Lisbon and highly recommended by nearly all of the travel literature we had read on the plane. There, under the tutelage of the world's haughtiest waiter (seriously, career waiters in hundred-year-old Parisian brasseries have nothing on this guy), we sampled Portuguese-style tuna and ultra-intense grilled salt cod with cabbage and potatoes. Lisbon looks like a Mediterranean city, with its pastel buildings with ruched terracotta roofs, the curly flourishes of iron surrounding its balconies, its glorious sweeping harbor and warm open squares filled with coffee and wine drinkers at all hours of the day and night (oh, and it's balmy even in February); but the cuisine is firmly based in the Atlantic, emphasizing cod, potatoes, greens like kale and spinach and cabbage, sausages and sheep's milk cheese. Tam finally elicited a friendly response from the waiter when he ordered the chocolate mousse for dessert, which was spooned onto a plate tableside from a giant metal bowl containing enough mousse to satisfy an army of chocoholics.

With our bellies full of fish and our heads light from the slightly bubbly vinho verde, we emerged from the restaurant and into a full-blown block party! The cobbled streets that had been deserted only a few hours earlier were now, just after midnight, in full swing with groups of beautiful young Portuguese revellers weaving from bar to bar and spilling Sagres lager from their plastic cups. We had no choice but to succumb...

The next day, we started off with strong coffee in the Praça da Figueira, a lovely tiled square featuring a statue of Joao I. Much of Lisbon was destroyed in a tremendous earthquake in 1755; after the catastrophe, most of the city was rebuilt and laid out in broad boulevards and elegantly proportioned squares. We wandered through the shopping district down to the Praça do Comércio, the pre-earthquake location of the royal palace, now a wide-open pavilion surrounded on three sides by the faded yellow facades of eighteenth-century government buildings.

Lisbon is full of tiny, clanging wooden trams, winding their way slowly up the steep hills. We caught one up to the Castelo São Jorge , where there were spectacular miradouros (lookout points) over the city; then we proceded to get radically, completely lost in one of the few neighborhoods that survived the earthquake. Alfama is a conglomeration of narrow crooked paths winding up and down vertical inclines, houses leaning to the side, laundry fluttering from windows, neighbors yelling to each other. We felt like voyeurs (which we were, of course) peering curiously into the windows of a medieval village.

[The larger building on the left of the horizon above is the Igreja e Mosteiro de São Vicente de Fora (Church and Monastery of St Vincent Beyond the Walls). Vincent was martyred in Valencia in 336. When the Moors sacked that city in the 8th century, his remains were brought by sea to Portugal and are now kept at the monastery. Legend has it that two ravens escorted the relics, and so the image of a ship accompanied by two birds is prominent in Lisbon.]

Stops in some churches, including the cathedral, followed, along with a fantastic lunch of eggs and Portuguese sausages at a hip little restaurant (Lisbon is among the most design-conscious cities we've ever visited, with a profusion of weirdly shaped furniture and avant-garde lighting fixtures). When
we finally made it out of Alfama (we were thinking we might have to move
in, and were planning the color scheme of our publicly aired laundry), we went to dinner at the Casa do Alentejo, another delighful institution designed to educate through delicious consumption - in this case of the regional specialties of Alentejo, east of Lisbon. Tam had some pretty great monkfish stew, but was jealous of Laura's truly fabulous octopus. Here again the atmosphere was conceived with great care; in this case the architecture swung wildly from Moorish to art deco, and the walls were tiled with traditional Portugese azulejos. We ended the night with little plastic cups of ginjo, a homemade cherry brandy sold out of a streetside stand, across the road from a clarinetist playing an astonishingly perky version of "Strangers in the Night." We dropped a couple of coins in his hat and waltzed home.

Lisbon is one of those appealing cities - like New Orleans - that went through a long, slow decline, and now exists on the edge of the world it occupies, central to nothing and with a concomitant commitment to food, drink, poetry and fashion, accompanied by a rejection of economic endeavor and urban gloss. Black-clad elderly women lean out their crooked windows, shouting to their neighbors up the steep hills; ultra-trendy teenagers ride the trams in their skinny jeans and super-hip kicks; both are celebrating living in a city whose moment of power and glory was a full five centuries ago, its brief ascendancy remembered but apparently unmourned.

On our last day, we took a (much more modern) tram out to Belém, a neighborhood to the west of Lisbon hosting the remaining symbols of this long-ago power: the famous Mósteiro dos Jeronimos and the Torre de Belém, both outposts of the medieval city and shining examples of ornate Manueline architecture. The Tower's turrets are adorned with carvings of various beasts, including the first Western image of a rhinoceros (sculpted after a pet given to Dom Manuel I, which was eventually presented to Pope Leo X and served as the model for Dürer's famous drawing); from the top we could see little explorers practicing their mad maritime skills in the River Tagus. We were rewarded for our bracing riverside perabulations with shots of coffee and the local delicacy, pastéis de Belém, custard tarts topped with cinnamon and powdered sugar. We can confirm that the best are served at the Antigua Casa Pastéis de Belém, but then, you knew that already...

Before catching the bus back to the airport, we acted on a hot tip that Bonjardim, an unassuming fish restaurant among a sea of competitors on the Rua das Portas de Santo Antão, was the place for succulent spit-roasted chicken. Satiated, we had just enough time for a pre-flight spot of tea at a smoke-shrouded airport outpost of Harrods, where Portugese explorers can pick up a green-vested English teddy bear before they set out on their modern-day adventures. Hey, Vasco da Gama never went anywhere without his.

More pictures of our exciting adventure are available here:

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Les Oeufs à la Benedicte

The genesis of the original Eggs Benedict is shrouded in mystery, with at least two Benedicts offering competing claims to the dish's invention; but it is certain that it came out of a hotel restaurant in New York City in the late nineteenth century, and it seems probable that its ingredients were, among other things, intended to provide consolation to customers suffering from the after-effects of a night of debauchery. In the hundred years since its creation, Eggs Benedict has acquired any number of well-known variants, among them Lox Benedict, Eggs Florentine, and the New Orleans version Eggs Hussard.

We've always been fans of both the original version and the spinoffs. And the other day, in the depths of the rainy English winter, we were recalling a sunny summer breakfast we had with our families in Leland, Michigan at the idyllic Riverside Inn. Their Sunday brunch menu is essentially a list of riffs on Eggs Benedict: one eschews the traditional Canadian bacon in favor of a grilled-to-order Black Angus tenderloin; another not only replaces the bacon with smoked salmon but, in an inspired move, also substitutes crabcakes for the traditional English muffins.

Tam's brother Charley ordered a rugged Benedict that substitutes Applewood smoked bacon and sourdough bread for the typical pig and carb, and adds a side of fresh asparagus. In this case, the truly original turn was to smother the layers, not with hollandaise, but with a smoked Gouda cream sauce (henceforth known as SGCS). Around the table on that sunny day fans were easily won, and some became fiercely devoted to the sauce; indeed, Charley's many travels through the world since then have often embodied a long search for a culinary experience to equal his first encounter with SGCS.

This morning we took inspiration from the memory of that lovely summer brunch, and created our own, rather Francophile version of Eggs Benedict. This recipe features, with apologies to the Riverside Inn, a gruyere cream sauce spooned over poached eggs and smoked ham layered on a croissant. It's worthy of a special occasion and would go splendidly with a mimosa (or a Bloody Mary, if necessary), but will perk up any Sunday morning when accompanied by steaming coffee, orange juice and the Sunday paper.

Les Oeufs à la Benedicte

2 croissants, split lengthwise and toasted

4 slices smoked ham, warmed briefly in skillet

4 large eggs (as always, as fresh as possible, please)

1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons dry white wine
1/4 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/4 cup grated Gruyere, packed

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Heat cream to just under boiling point. Add wine and mustard and stir for a few minutes. Add Gruyere and turn off heat. Stir until cheese is melted and sauce is smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Poach eggs in simmering water just until yolks are set. Layer ham on top of croissant halves, then top with eggs. Spoon sauce over the top and grind pepper over it.

Serves 2.

A postscript:

Another possibility for Sunday breakfast... Recently, looking for a way to use up some rapidly blackening bananas in our fruit bowl, we searched banana bread on Epicurious and came across a recipe whose more than 200 user reviews were not for the site's recipe but for the narrative instructions of one of the early commenters, a guy named John who gave an extremely simple recipe for banana bread that he claimed was the best ever. All the commenters agreed, so we tried it out and can verify that it's hands down the most fantastic banana bread we've ever eaten. So, kudos to John and check out his instructions and all the comments here. Yum.