Medicinal, holy and alcoholic? Yes please!

Vintage Benedictine poster

Vintage poster for my tipple of choice

It’s a cold, damp November night. There’s a fire in the wood-burning stove, a dog dozing on the floor, and I’m sipping my version of a hot toddy: fresh lemon juice, honey, hot water and my tipple of choice: Bénédictine. I fell in love with this sweet liqueur after visiting the old monastery where it’s been made, according to some accounts, for more than 500 years.

The Bénédictine Abbey of Fécamp in Normandy was one of the first places I visited in France, eight years ago. I took a tour of the abbey, complete with a tasting at the end, particularly enjoying Bénédictine mixed with grapefruit juice.

I walked through the exhibits and felt the weight of 500 years of history, and the virtue of monks through the ages who first created this drink as a medicinal elixir. The exhibits showed many of the herbs that were used in the original recipe, with descriptions of all the ills they could cure.

Benedictine label

If monks make it, it must be good for you.

Each bottle of Bénédictine includes the initials D.O.M. on the label, which means Deo Optimo Maximo: “For our best, greatest God”. I’m not a Christian, but I feel more virtuous when I drink this holy, golden nectar.

I like a bit of Bénédictine when I’m coming down with a cold. This requires me to ignore my better judgment, as I’m pretty sure alcohol isn’t the best choice when I’m ill. But I pretend that I’m an old lady from an old country: my grandmother said her Polish mom gave her and her sister blackberry brandy when they were ill. An ex-boyfriend’s Yugoslavian grandfather gave me all manner of liquor when I showed up one Thanksgiving with a small burn on my hand, the result of a tragic herbal tea incident. My hand healed nicely … probably because of the booze.

The Bénédictine drinker is a lonely drinker

I have come to realize that I may be among a small group of people who actually enjoys Bénédictine. If it’s found at a bar, it’s likely to be in the form of B&B: Bénédictine and Brandy. The story goes that, in the 1930s, a New York bartender mixed Bénédictine with brandy to make a drier drink (Bénédictine is very sweet), and eventually the makers of Bénédictine packaged and sold that drink as B&B. I’ve asked for straight-up Bénédictine at a number of establishments and watched in slight embarrassment as the young bartenders searched the huge collection of liquors. Sometimes they searched for an interminable time, then got a look of satisfaction and relief, reaching for a dusty bottle at the back of the display, the label faded and the lid sugared on from disuse.

After years of enjoying the myth of Bénédictine ‘s religious and medicinal pedigree, I’ve discovered it’s now produced by Bacardi. This certainly destroys some of the mystique, but I choose to ignore this and hold fast to the Bénédictine of old — curer of ills and bringer of virtue.

What do you drink when you’re under the weather?

Tell me: do you have a favourite drink when you’re under the weather? If you’re someone who follows modern medical advice and avoids alcohol when you’re ill, please allow me to stay in my fantasy world of virtuous, health-giving booze. But if you, too, have a weakness for a tipple when you’re sick, write and tell me so I can try it.

Happy drinking during this cold and flu season!

Sleepless (and saucy) in Brussels

Maison Antoine, Brussels

Known as the best frites in Brussels, today I'm making a pilgrimage to Maison Antoine, Place Jourdan

It’s 4am here in Brussels, Belgium, where I’ve been working for the past few days. Long hours of meetings and a reception at the European Parliament last night (where the nibbles and drinks were lovely) have left me restless. I can’t sleep, and my mind is going over and over the plan for the day.

This plan involves attending more meetings and catching a train back to England, but will also provide a precious three-hour window, within which I will make a cross-city trek, noisily rolling my suitcase over old cobbles, to indulge in two of Brussels’s delicacies.

1. Les frites. 

Destination: Maison Antoine.

The mis-attributed ‘French’ fries were born here in Belgium. On this trip, the Frites Goddess is smiling upon me, for she has given me a hotel room on Place Jourdan, the location of what is arguably the very best frites in Brussels: Maison Antoine. This place has been serving up one of Belgium’s great delights for more than 50 years. I remember it from when I lived here, and can’t wait to try it again today. However, a burning question remains: which sauce will I choose for dipping my frites?

Among those who know me, it’s no secret that I’m a sauce woman, especially when it comes to fries. In America, the ketchup flows freely from squeezy bottles. In the UK, I’m accustomed to having to request (and pay for) extra ketchup in plastic packets. Belgians, however, take saucing to new heights, offering more than a dozen sauces for your frites, dolloped atop the crispy spears, which are served in paper cones. Maison Antoine has 29 varieties.

That’s twenty. Nine.

… Now perhaps you understand why I’m awake at 4 am.

I have one opportunity for frites on this trip, before catching my train this afternoon. I must choose wisely. Once I’ve ordered my frites, there won’t be much time to make decisions. There is likely to be a queue of people behind me, and I will be expected to know what I want. Andalouse? Bernaise? Tartare Maison? I may make a special prayer to the Frites Goddess now, asking for the wisdom to quickly choose the optimal sauce, and, while I’m at it, that I don’t burn my tongue in my haste to eat my Antoine’s frites.

2. Les chocolats.

Mysterious pillow chocolates

These little babies appeared on my pillow last night while I was out. They are not from a humble little Belgian choclatier, but are still very tasty

Destination: an as-yet-unknown but highly recommended choclatier

In a world where most chocolate is processed and sold by a few multinational companies, the small, humble chocolatier still has a presence here in Belgium, and I plan to lend my support by buying as many boxes as I can fit in my suitcase.

To this end, I have sent a message to my Belgian friend S — who invited me for dinner and a delectable chocolate cake on Monday night — to find out the location of her favourite chocolatier. This really is the only way to buy chocolates in Belgium: recommendations from Belgians. A Belgian colleague I spoke to yesterday agreed that it is hard to find the most wonderful things about Brussels unless you ask a local. While this is true in many places, I can confirm it was the case for me — when I lived here, I didn’t know half of the culinary joys of this wonderful city. Fortunately, I get the chance to make up for lost time during these brief business trips, and am lucky to now have Belgian friends, who are generous in sharing what they know.

The metaphysics of great food

Though I do love good chocolate, I am aware that chocolate growers are not always the most well-taken-care-of in the agriculture industry, so I try to buy fairly traded chocolate. This is easy in the UK, but less so here in Belgium. However, this is changing according to some reports, and I’ve noticed the Fair Trade label on chocolate bars in the supermarkets here more than ever. Fortunately, many small choclatiers do make an effort to find ethical sources for their cocoa, so that gives me some peace of mind. According to Fernando Pessoa, a Portuguese poet (1888-1935): ” … there’s no metaphysics on Earth like chocolate.” I’d agree, but would also say there’s nothing on Earth like guilt-free (fairly traded) Belgian chocolate, so I’m pleased to see the promising trends.

And to Senhor Pessoa I’d have to say that it’s a tough call which is the most metaphysically lovely on Earth: chocolate, or some well-sauced Belgian frites. Maybe by the end of today I will have an answer.

Pedaling with pumpkins

I have a fond memory of harvesting pumpkins at a farm in Wisconsin. Someone drove an old delivery van slowly down the side of the squash field. The back doors were open, and another person stood in the back catching the huge vegetables as we tossed them from the rows. It was like a dance: we threw, he caught, he set it on the big orange pile, and on and on.

Great pumpkin

Lovely pumpkin

Bike basket cornucopia

My bike basket of heavy autumn goods, with a weighty U-lock to hit people with if they try to steal my pumpkin

Eventually, one of us threw too soon or aimed badly. The poor guy in the back would get knocked off his feet, or the van looked like the day after Halloween, with a big orange splotch on its white side panel. My aching arms were a testament to the hard work of the pumpkin harvest, and the end of the growing year.

Lessons from Cambodia

These days I know autumn has arrived, not because my arms ache, but because my calves are killing me. This is after I’ve filled my bike baskets with heavy autumn vegetables from the farmers’ market. Last week I precariously balanced on my overweight bike and somehow managed to turn onto my road without falling over.

from daily life blog 2011

From a blog called Daily Life in Cambodia 2011 (click the image to read more about it). It's a great example of what people can do with bikes in this wonderful country, and demonstrates what a wimp I am trying to get a few pumpkins home on my bike.

I mustered my courage to attempt such a dangerous journey by remembering the awe-inspiring cyclists I saw in Cambodia, where my meagre load of veg in baskets would be laughable. There, people pile their bikes (and also scooters) with monstrous loads, stacks of car fenders, other bicycles, and even small families, then pedal through the chaotic traffic, weaving in and out on both sides of the road, somehow dodging trucks and oxen.


Halloween corgi-o-lantern

Despite knowing that cycling with pumpkins in Oxford is child’s play compared to the daredevil cycling in Southeast Asia, I was proud to make it home unscathed with my cache of glorious pumpkins: two for eating, one for carving. Let’s face it, there aren’t many vegetables that you can roast, turn into soup, make sweet or savoury pie with, puree and stuff into ravioli, and even cook with ground beef and rice to make a sort of weird pilaf. The fact that you can also carve them to resemble your dog at Halloween, well, that makes pumpkins pretty special.

What’s cookin’ in our kitchen: the great pumpkin!

So, in homage to this year’s pumpkins, we cooked a yummy autumn feast: roast chicken, potatoes, parsnips, carrots, onions, garlic and, of course, pumpkin. Here’s how:

Roasted pumpkin and other vegetables

Roasted pumpkin and other vegetables

  • Heat oven to a medium temperature.
  • Clean, peel and chop assorted veg so they are all a similar size.
  • Parboil by boiling water in a kettle and pouring it into a big pot. Once it returns to a boil, drop in chopped potatoes and set a timer for 10 minutes. When six minutes remain, drop in chopped carrots and parsnips, and at about four minutes, the chopped pumpkin.
  • Drain the veg in a colander using a slotted spoon and let it drip a bit over the sink to get it nice and dry. (I save the blanching water to make soup later – see below.)
  • Shake your potatoes. I remove all the drained veg to a giant roasting tray, leaving the potatoes alone in the colander. I then shake the potatoes for all their worth until they start to get crumb-y (but stop before they get crumbly) – the crumbs all over the potatoes get nice and crispy in the oven, so the more the better. This is a Jamie Oliver tip, and in our kitchen has made the difference between just-fine roast potatoes, and totally-freakin’-awesome roast potatoes. (Thank you, Jamie! Here he gives more tips for even awesomer potatoes … I haven’t tried it because I’m afraid I’d eat nothing but roast potatoes for the rest of my life.)
  • Lubricate all the veg with olive oil, including the potatoes, which you’ve now tossed onto the huge roasting tray with the other veg and some peeled and quartered onions and unpeeled garlic. It’s important that everything is in a single layer, otherwise the veg will steam rather than roast (which would taste fine, but not totally-freakin’-awesome). Coat it all with olive oil, sprinkle with coarse sea salt, and place in a hot oven, on the shelf below a chicken. We’ve got a fan oven, so it takes about 45 minutes for all of it to be nicely roasted.
  • Feast! It was good. Real good. I think we did the pumpkin proud.

Post-roast soup and scalding, or, what to do with the leftovers

Harvey the Corgi in the kitchen

Harvey the Corgi enjoys chasing punctured soccer balls, eating doggy food with chicken stock, and lapping up splattered soup from kitchen floors

Soup and Scalding sounds a bit like something you’d find on the menu of a traditional English pub, but it’s not. It’s my way of awesome-ing up the leftovers from a roasted feast. Here’s how:

  • Manhandle your chicken carcass and clean off all the remaining meat, then boil it up in a pressure cooker, using the water saved from blanching the vegetables. At pressure, I let it cook for about 10 minutes, then turn it off until the pressure comes down by itself.
  • Make provisions for the dog by straining the stock and putting some in the fridge for your pooch, who probably won’t say no to a splash of chicken stock on his food.
  • Dump everything you didn’t eat yesterday (i.e., roasted vegetables) into the stock and heat it all up on the stove.
  • Scald self by pureeing the stock and veg with one of those hand-held blenders. Honestly, I’ve no idea how you whir hot things up with those blenders without a serious scalding. But it wasn’t all bad, because plenty landed on the floor, where Harvey was patiently waiting to lap it up. And it left a decorative splattery design on my blouse.
  • Apply first-aid and optional toppings, such as aloe for your burns, stain remover for your blouse, and Emmenthal cheese and Greek yogurt for your soup.
  • Eat up. Ours was not a totally freakin’ awesome soup, but it wasn’t half bad for leftovers, only left a few minor burns, and the dog was happy.

My, you have lovely pumpkins...

Pumpkins et. al.

Pumpkins are only one of the many wonderful squashes on offer in autumn. Another favourite is butternut squash. Here’s a recipe for Thai butternut and coconut soup.

Thai butternut and coconut soup

Chopped squash and onions

Try different types of squash with this soup, and let me know how it goes

This recipe is from the Whole Foods website, but here’s how I did it.

1. Chop 1 onion and 1 clove of garlic, and cook in oil for 5 minutes, until soft.

Stir in the following, and cook 1 minute:

  • 2 teaspoons grated ginger (I keep ginger root in the freezer and grate it as I need it)
  • 1 teaspoon curry paste (or more if you like it spicy; I used green paste, but any will do)
  • 2 teaspoons brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Then add:

  • 1 medium butternut (or other sweet) squash, peeled and chopped into 1-inch cubes
  • 2 cups of stock (any will do, including bouillon dissolved in hot water)
  • 1 14-oz can of coconut milk

Bring this to a boil, then simmer 20-25 minutes.

I also tried this with some fish sauce and lime juice added after cooking, and it was nice, but didn’t ‘wow’ me, so I’d say the basic ingredients above should do the trick.