My interest in writing about food started with what I call the Coffee Chronicles: journal entries written at coffee houses and after coffee experiences in various cities and countries. These stories were rarely about the coffee itself – they were about the atmosphere or circumstances, about the experience of drinking a coffee in a particular place or time. So here’s a first sip.
Coffee by the bag
First I should say – controversially — that I don’t always like the taste of coffee or the caffeine kick. Sometimes I love it, if it’s been well made (for example, the flat white I’ve just been served here at the Missing Bean in Oxford) and if I’m in the mood … or eating cake. Other times the caffeine makes me jittery or the taste just doesn’t do the trick, and I order herbal tea instead (shock! horror! for the true coffee devotees out there). For me, the pleasure comes from coffee’s association with distinctive moments, like right now, in a noisy cafe in Oxford, at a wobbly table, the Rolling Stones on the speakers, cups and saucers clinking around me. I associate the bitter taste, the milky top, with flashes of clarity while writing, watching people, listening.
These associations don’t always involve coffee houses, though. I remember standing in line at a coffee kiosk next to a jetty where we waited for the ferry in Bangkok. Around me was a dusty, bustling place, with people coming and going and many waiting for the next ferry to take them down the Chao Phraya River. It cost pennies to ride the ferry, so there were people from all walks of life – middle-class business people, working-class men wearing cement-dusted boots, old men with tattered clothes carrying massive bundles on their backs. As I got nearer the front of the queue to order coffee, I noticed the menu was in Thai. Fortunately, two women in front of me offered help reading it. They pointed out which coffees on the menu were grown and roasted there in Thailand – in the northern hill areas, often by indigenous hill tribes – and what the different concoctions were: espresso, with steamed or frothed milk, filter coffee, etc. They explained that that particular coffee kiosk was part of a Thai chain – Black Canyon – inspired by Starbuck’s but totally Thai owned and operated.
I got my coffee in plenty of time to catch the next ferry. It was fine, but not memorable: not unlike a coffee I could have had in any city in the USA or Europe, and served in a disposable paper cup with a plastic lid. I have to admit to a prejudice against disposable cups. This is in part because of the environmental implications of another piece of rubbish being sent to landfill, all to indulge my fancy for coffee. Equally though, I enjoy the sensory satisfaction of coffee in ceramic or glass – the feel of the warm cup, especially while seated and relaxing, noticing my surroundings. As a result, I tend to avoid coffee to-go unless I bring my own thermal cup, and even that is a rarity (and it never tastes as good). My next taste of coffee, though, was to challenge what I thought I knew about drinking on the go, as it wasn’t served in a cup at all.
It was a hot spring day in an upscale part of Bangkok, and in the shadow of an ultra-modern shopping center, with floor after floor of giant tinted glass windows, I spotted a Thai man next to a metal cart. I said hello in Thai (the only Thai I knew), and asked for a coffee, unaware if there was a choice of coffees, content just to take what I was given. The man poured boiled water from a dented tin kettle through a cloth coffee filter into a glass, then placed another glass beneath the filter and poured the same liquid through again. He did this multiple times, each time making the coffee darker and stronger. Next he filled a small, clear plastic bag with ice, poured in the coffee he’d just prepared, and added sweetened condensed and evaporated milk. He popped in a bendy straw, and sealed the bag around the straw with a rubber band. This kaafae yen (iced coffee) or kaafae tung (bag coffee) was, as I’ve heard it described by others, like liquid candy. (I’ve never made it myself, but if you’d like to try, here are two recipes: from the guardian.co.uk and MyRecipes.com.) I’ve since heard that a hot coffee can be ordered from a street vendor and is served in a glass, which you hold by the rim to avoid burning your fingers, and drink right there standing in the street (note to self: learn a bit of Thai, at least enough to order coffee in a glass).
Sweet Thai iced coffee is not to everyone’s taste, but I enjoy a really sweet coffee now and then, especially in Asia. Spicy food, hot sun and a sweet, strong coffee brings back memories of travels in Thailand, and also Malaysia, where breakfast was nasi lemak: coconut rice topped with fried egg, cucumber slices, dried anchovies and very hot sambal (chilli sauce), washed down with super-sweet, strong coffee.
That day in Bangkok, the street vendor’s cart happened to be next to one of the hundreds of Starbuck’s that now serve American-style coffee in Thailand. I sat on the steps of that ubiquitous coffee chain, sipping my sweet Thai iced coffee from a plastic bag, a local, home-grown coffee experience amidst an increasingly homogenized global coffee culture. However, I don’t want to get too precious about this: Starbuck’s is part of modern Thailand, and its cafes are filled with laptop-tapping young Thais and middle-class white-collar workers, who generally look like they’re quite enjoying themselves. So perhaps my search for ‘authentic’ experiences could lead me to over-romanticize traditional things a bit.
While the best way to experience a culture through its food and drink is never as clear or straightforward as I would like, that day I followed the only rule I know when it comes to eating well: relish the moment and the food on my plate (or in this case, in my bag).
I’ve just made plans to meet a colleague for Mexican food at a fantastic place in London called Wahaca. While no big thing for those of you in the USA, there are precious few restaurants serving good Mexican food or even Tex-Mex here in the UK, and those that do are pricey.
Affordable Tex-Mex was so ubiquitous where I grew up (Ohio) that I never imagined I would miss it. As a child, tacos were a particular joy. Mom or dad would brown ground beef sprinkled with a packet of Old El Paso™ taco spice mix (a blend of things most people have in their cupboard, combined with some things I don’t recognize as actual food). We’d fill a few thick, hard, taco-shaped corn shells with the beef, then pile on spoonfuls of rainbow-coloured fillings: bright-orange shredded cheese, chopped red tomatoes, pale-green iceberg lettuce, chopped black olives from a can, and snowy-white sour cream. We ate while balancing our plates on our laps in front of the television, enjoying sensational dancing on ‘Solid Gold!‘ or reruns of Happy Days. Bliss.
You call that a tortilla?
My Mexican food education expanded considerably when I spent four months living with a family in Mérida, Mexico. I learned that those hard taco-like things we ate were sad substitutes for the real thing. I went walking early one morning and found steam pouring from the chimney of a tiny, low-ceilinged adobe building, from which short, round women with long braids – Mayan women – emerged carrying towel-wrapped bundles of warm tortillas. We ate the tortillas at our big mid-day meal, with simple roast chicken tinted with red anatto (a natural food coloring derived from the achiote tree), topped with lettuce and sliced onions in fresh lime juice and salt. After lunch, as the rest of us napped in hammocks, our hard-working cook, who was one of the Mayan women I’d seen that morning, fried the uneaten tortillas in oil for our dinner or a snack.
Years later I moved to Austin, Texas, and the variety of Mexican foodie delights are too abundant to list. A favorite was Saturday mornings at Magnolia with my pal V, for gingerbread pancakes (click for the recipe) and a T. Rex omelet (shredded smoked turkey, cheese, avocado and pico de gallo salsa), or El Sol y la Luna for chilaquiles (bits of corn tortilla fried, then simmered with salsa and mixed with scrambled eggs, topped with cheese). It was also a treat to drive into a dusty parking lot for a couple of breakfast tacos (favorites were potato and bean or cheese and egg) from one of the little trailers that set up shop in the mornings.
Viva Mexico … pero No Viva Chi Chi’s
After the flood of incredible Mexican and Tex-Mex in Austin, came the drought: I moved to Belgium. Early on I spotted a Chi-Chi’s Mexican Restaurant in Brussels. It brought back memories of birthdays spent at the Chi-Chi’s in Toledo, where staff would plop a giant sombrero on your head and sing happy birthday, as you sweated over a candle stuck in a bowl of cinnamon-fried ice cream. While lame in the realm of culinary snobbery, the fried ice cream tasted awesome. Once I asked our waitress how it was made and was told the ice cream is rolled in cinnamon and crushed cornflakes, then quickly fried. I tried it at home but, as expected, the ice cream melted. Oh Chi-Chi’s … how DO you do it?
In a sad epilogue, Chi Chi’s stopped doing it soon after I moved to Brussels. They were blamed for a deadly outbreak of Hepatitis A, which apparently originated at their location in a mall in Pennsylvania.
Far from the Hep A catastrophe, things were looking up in Brussels: I got a hot tip from an expatriate Texan about a Mexican woman living in a suburb-of-a-suburb of Brussels, who sells Mexican food supplies out of her garage. We called this mysterious woman and were told to stop by her place that evening. Cookie-cutter houses lined the street, which was pin-drop quiet on that cool autumn evening. We skeptically rang the doorbell, worried that our request for Mexican food would be met with the same sort of incredulity and disdain I got every time I tried to speak French at a shop in Brussels. After what seemed an eternity, the garage door opened. Inside were metal shelves stacked with cans of black beans, massive bags of dried chilies, sacks of masa harina, cast-iron tortilla presses, bottles of tequila and jars of salsa. The woman was middle-aged, married to a German, and she missed Mexican food. We weren’t clear on the legality of this business venture, but didn’t care as we filled the back of our Toyota with the makings of many fine Mexican meals. With the complement of fresh avocados and other vegetables from Brussels’s biggest weekly market, the Marché du Midi, the drought was over.
Mole, mole, mole
We moved to England in 2005, where I managed to grow two huge tomatillo (husk tomato) plants: these produce small, green tomatoes in husks which are whisked up with chillies, cilantro (fresh coriander) and other ingredients to make salsa verde (green salsa). I’d actually given up on the tomatillos since we were (and still are) having such dreadfully wet, cool summers. And when I visited my forlorn vegetable patch in October that year I was shocked to see the tomatillos had survived and were ready to pick (the lesson seems to be that when I ignore the plants, they grow). For all the space the plants take up (they grew to about 3 feet wide and 4 feet tall), they made only one luscious, much-appreciated bowl of salsa verde, which we still remember fondly. (Here’s a recipe from Another Freaking Cooking Blog.)
A few years later we visited friends living in Oaxaca, Mexico. They took us to the one and only market stall from which they would buy mole poblano, the rich sauce made of dozens of ingredients, most popularly chocolate, which is often served with chicken (or in the case of my vegan friend, black beans). I have a faint memory of eating chicken with mole poblano for the first time in Chiapas in 1991, when I was a student. I had been served a hot tea-like beverage with a shot of some sort of alcohol, and I was told to pour the shot into the tea. I did so, drank it, and don’t remember much about the evening or the mole after that. So it was years later that I really gained an appreciation for mole poblano.
We bought several kilos of black and red mole from my friend’s favorite stallholder in Oaxaca, brought it back to the UK and stored it in the freezer. For a year, each meal we made with it was a ritual of indulgence. We barely spoke during those meals, so busy were we devouring the oily, dark mole and chicken, scooping it up with freshly made tortillas, washed down with beer, and then licking our fingers of greasy goodness.
While mole is an indulgence, fresh tortillas are a staple. The heavy flour ‘wraps’ from the supermarket and thick yellow shells of my youth simply won’t do. Masa harina for making tortillas is six times the price in the UK compared to Ohio, so when we pack for a trip to the USA we leave a four-kilo space in our suitcases for masa. Occasionally, a sympathetic friend brings over a bag of it when they visit (thanks to T from Texas for our most recent bag). In one case, a friend from the UK was returning from Florida and got cold feet at the last minute: couriering a kilo of white powder from Miami was just a bit too unsettling.
We’re dangerously short of masa now, with no plans for a trip back to the USA to replenish. And we’ve scoured the many food shops selling all manner of corn products aimed at South Asians and Africans, but none works for making Mexican tortillas. It’s a shame, but then it makes those past meals so much sweeter, whether watching re-runs while crunching mass-produced Tex-Mex in Toledo, snacking on leftover deep-fried tortillas in Merida, or savouring our own version of burritos with ingredients from the garage-cum-Mexican-tienda outside Leuven, Belgium. Viva Mexico, wherever you may be.
I took today off work, sort of. I started my computer and checked email, then browsed Facebook and the latest celebrity gossip (the nice kind, not the Grazia-esque or phone-tapping variety). This is how I assuage my life-long guilt of taking days off work – by pretending I’m working, as if being at a computer is tantamount to doing something useful.
After about an hour I snapped myself out of this and left my office. I tore the plastic wrapping off my just-bought copy of Red magazine and examined the ‘free-with-this-month’s-issue’ tube of rose-scented bath and shower gel. I went to the bathroom and ran a warm bath.
Before entering the bath, I visited the kitchen. I resisted the three Belgian chocolates left over from dinner with friends last night. Instead, I went for a sweet-salty combo: I poured a glass of orange squash (for Americans, this is like a cheap cordial, which you mix with water); and I grabbed one nearly-empty and one unopened bag of “mature cheddar and pickled onion flavour” Tyrrell’s potato chips (apparently now called ‘crisps’, in ‘proper’ British fashion, according to Tyrrell’s website and the many comments from Brits who don’t seem very happy about the way we Americans refer to fried potatoes).
As I undressed, I felt the giddy pleasure – but also slight ‘ick’ factor – of eating in my bathroom. It brought to mind an episode of Seinfeld, when Kramer realized he enjoyed being in the shower so much that he installed a food waste disposal in the drain and did all his cooking and dishwashing in the shower. (To my friends who came over for dinner last night, I assure you all the food was prepared in the kitchen. Though judging by the state of the kitchen I’m not sure that’s much consolation.)
I slipped into the bath, then realized I’d left the nearly-empty bag of chips on the other side of the room, while the unopened bag was close to hand. Just last night my husband spluttered when I opened the second box of Belgian chocolates because one chocolate still remained in the first box. It was as if he didn’t think I would finish the first box and move on to the second – these were BELGIAN chocolates. Clearly he’s deranged.
So as the warm bathwater soothed my muscles, I realized it would be counter-productive to hoist myself, drippingly, up and out of the bath to get the already-opened bag of crisps on the other side of the bathroom. I ripped open the new bag – which was filled with big, perfect, unbroken chips, rather than the shards and crumbs the other bag had to offer.
Holding the magazine at eye level without getting bathwater or cheddar-and-pickled-onion-fingerprints on the pages proved difficult, especially since I insisted on reading without breaking my chip-munching stride. Add to this the occasional effort to take a sip of squash while lying half-prone, and you start to get the picture. Eventually I found that eating a chip, cleaning my fingers by dipping them in the bathwater then drying them on a nearby towel enabled me to safely turn the pages of the magazine without undue damage.
The bath was hardly rose-scented by the end, what with all the mature-cheddar-and-pickled-onion I’d added, but maybe there was an idea there for an eclectic dinner: rose-water scented cheese-and-onion potato pasties?
When my delightful cheese-and-onion bath was done, I guiltily remembered the nearly-empty bag of crisps that I couldn’t reach. For the sake of my marriage, I poured the shards and crumbs into the now-half-eaten newer bag … as if none of this had ever happened.
To follow up my last post about my excursion into making (sourdough) pain de campagne, I’m happy to report that it worked … well enough.
By that I mean that my loaf was not big or impressive, but it tasted great, with a crunchy exterior and a slightly sour flavour. I was on my own for lunch the day I baked it, but I wanted to celebrate. So I set the table for one, with a clean(!) table cloth and matching (!) napkin, a bit of wine, and an Italian white bean soup.
The bread was still warm, and it was wonderful spread with soft, salted butter and dipped in the soup. The next day, me and my significant other (henceforth known as J) also found it fantastic as toast – nice and crispy on the outside, and spread with his mom’s homemade orange marmalade.
After letting the dough rise for that first loaf, I cut off a bit to save for the next batch. That brings me to the title of this post, as today I’m making the second loaf with my saved levain, which has been in the fridge for three days.
I took it out of the fridge and left it uncovered on the kitchen counter, in hopes it would ferment a bit more and get a bit more sour, but also, maybe, to capture some of that yeast I’d heard is floating about. (If the yeast thing is a myth, please someone enlighten me so I can stop leaving my food to “ferment” on the kitchen counters.) After about 12 hours I measured out the amount of starter called for in a recipe I found online and left it overnight.
The next morning I mixed in the first “refreshment” of water and flour and put the starter in the airing cupboard (for US readers, that’s the closet where the hot-water heater and bath towels live), covered with an oiled piece of plastic. The following morning the starter had at least doubled in bulk and was looking bubbly and alive. I mixed it with lukewarm water, and three kinds of flour: white, wheat and Cotswold crunch (all from Matthews, a local flour mill, est. 1912). I added salt, kneaded it and put it in the cupboard again to rise. After about eight hours I punched it down (take that!) and put it in the cupboard for its final rise. In fact, I went wild (!) and left it to rise overnight, just to see if I could actually get a nice, fluffy loaf.
Once again, it tasted great and had a nice texture, though was a bit over-baked so rather tough to cut with a knife (fortunately, I find tearing the bread is fun and relieves stress). J said it tasted more sour than before, which I like but isn’t to everyone’s taste. I attribute that to leaving it sitting out for a long time with the lid off (or what some people might call “poor health and safety measures”). However, I’m happy with the result. Sure, a small part of me would like to have the patience, follow-through and skill to make a really spectacular loaf of pain de campagne, but that’s the same part of me that wants to have ripped abs and a couple of novels to my name.
I won’t be baring my midriff or going on a book tour any time soon, but I can make a passable White Bean Soup. Check out the recipe here.
Saute chopped onions and garlic in olive oil (I didn’t use garlic because I’d run out, but this is an Italian-inspired soup so that’s probably illegal). Add a chopped piece of bacon if you wish. Once the onions are translucent, add a chopped carrot and cook for a few minutes. Then add some broth (I used fresh chicken broth, but stock/bouillon cubes in water will do), chopped kale (or other greens, such as collard or beet), a can of tomatoes, and a splash of white wine (optional). Simmer until the kale is cooked (about 5 minutes), then add cooked or canned navy/cannellini beans. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve with a squeeze of lemon juice and grated Parmesan or other hard cheese. Enjoy!
Welcome to the first official post at ethical relish, where each week I aim to write about my explorations into food, ethical eating and shopping, food cultures, healthy (or less healthy) cravings, travel and more.
I might share a bit about what’s in season and how I’ve cooked it (sometimes well … sometimes not so well). I may also talk about the daily pleasures and struggles of trying to eat ethically, locally and healthily in my adopted country (England), while satisfying cravings for comfort foods from home (the USA). And I’ll blog about my efforts to strike a balance between eating by my values … and giving myself a break.
I’ll pepper my posts with experiences from past meals at home and abroad, and if I’m reading a good book or have heard some news related to food or food issues, I might tell you a bit about it. This could be about the sensual delights of a certain cuisine, policy changes that affect where and how our food is produced, or something multinational food corporations are doing that ticks me off (let me count the ways…).
So I hope you’ll stop by each week for a tasty bit of conversation and even leave a comment when the spirit moves you. For starters, check out this morning’s food escapade: making French pain de campagne at 5am.
It’s 5am and I can’t sleep. I’m no stranger to waking ridiculously early, but still resist it. Today I decide to surrender, get out of bed, and get a jump on my pain de campagne (French country bread), which I started making on Sunday. That’s when I finished reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, in which he recounts making a huge meal with the local, seasonal ingredients he’s gathered. This included a type of sourdough bread, for which you make your own yeast (by “collecting” it from the air … apparently the air is crawling with the stuff!). As soon as I read that — fuelled with enthusiasm for good, slow, local food thanks to Pollan’s excellent storytelling — I went straight to the kitchen to make my own.
Now, in my sleepy 5am haze, with the dog giving me his most incredulous expression for being up so early, I’m ready to make what is my very favourite bread.
Pain de campagne is a crusty, round loaf with a slightly sour taste, and I’ve seen recipes which require you to get a sourdough starter or spend a week or, in some cases, months, making a starter from all manner of ingredients. The recipe I have (from The Book of Bread, by Christine Ingram and Jennie Shapter) takes a total of four days for the whole recipe, including the starter. While this bread is my favourite French variety, I know there are subtleties to making it and to its taste that I can’t begin to appreciate (e.g., see this well-informed blog by a real baker about variations in taste, texture, etc., or this one, which suggests I’m getting in over my head).
Despite the challenge, I enjoy this kind of slow-food process: thinking about it on Sunday and knowing I have to be patient and then I’ll get to eat it on Thursday. In the realm of slow food, of course, where making artisanal bread requires months or years to make the starter, this is fairly fast food, but I it’s pretty slow for me. All week I’ve been thinking about what I’ll serve the bread with — white bean soup? lentil soup? I’m in search of a refreshing summery soup that will complement the bread. I’ll let you know what I come up with, or please make a suggestion.
So on Sunday I began making the chef (whole wheat flour and water), which is the first stage. I let it sit for two days in a warm place (which, for once, wasn’t difficult as we actually have some summer weather here in the UK).
On Tuesday I added a first ‘refreshment’ of warm water and whole wheat flour, then Wednesday night the second ‘refreshment’. The recipe suggests letting it rise until doubled in quantity for about 10 hours, but when I looked at it this morning, eight hours later, it was already doubled. So I added water, white flour and salt and am now letting it rise, which should take 1.5-2 hours. I’ll update when I move to the next stage.
I rarely bake bread, so although I’ve made pain de campagne before, it’s always an adventure when I try it again. My husband is the baker. About eight years ago, when we were living in Belgium and he had some time on his hands, he decided to give breadmaking a try. Since then he’s made bread for us every week. Frankly, I wasn’t big on bread — I love artisanal and French breads, but I didn’t eat ordinary wheat or white loaves every day until he started making it. Something about it being made with love by him makes me want to eat bread more (it’s about the love, of course, but it’s also about having a vehicle for butter, which is my other true love … for a romantic tale of butter, see Jeffrey Steingarten’s essay Buttering Up, from Best Food Writing 2003).
Before I sign off to have breakfast, I just did a bit of surfing to learn more about the bread I’m making, and the more I read (about how difficult it is to make, about all the ways I might fail), the more daunted I am. I’ve made it before, though, and it worked fine. So I think the best strategy is to go forward, make my bread, and hope for the best.