Getting a taste for the terroir (or How an American learned to love British food)

I wrote an article for the Food Culture section of the Campaign for Real Farming website, and it was published today.

Here’s a repost …

Bridget Jones movie poster

Before I moved to Britain, everything I knew about British food I learned from Bridget Jones's Diary (i.e., that everyone eats Turkey Curry after Christmas)


There are nearly 14 million acres of farmland in my home state of Ohio, USA. I grew up surrounded by some of these acres – a green expanse of soybeans to my left, and a waving field of corn across the street. Yet I have no concept of my home state’s goût de terroir – literally the ‘taste of the Earth’. This is the term winemakers, farmers and the otherwise food-inclined use to describe the relationship between a food and the place it comes from, and how the soil, sunshine, rain and other conditions infuse a food with its unique characteristics.

My mother briefly flirted with growing beefsteak tomatoes and kohlrabi when I was very young, and I dabbled in gardening in early adulthood and had a brief stint working on an organic farm. Otherwise most of the food I ate was from California. No doubt much of that food included soybeans and corn – as fillers in burgers and sweeteners in processed foods, like fizzy drinks – but that hardly qualifies as ‘eating locally’: California is as far from Ohio as England is from Azerbaijan.

After thirty years living in Ohio, I came to live with my British husband in Oxford. What I knew about British food at that time came from a few chuckle-worthy spotted dick stories and a mention of turkey curry in Bridget Jones’s Diary. I hadn’t given it much thought, but was sure of one thing: I didn’t want to look, sound or eat like an American. These were the years of President Bush, Jr, and Americans were taking a hit in the popularity department. I decided that my ambassadorial contribution would be to experience my new home with an open mind, and ‘gustatorially’ that meant I wouldn’t insist on every dish being saltier, sweeter, fizzier and faster … or served in front of the television.

I failed. Despite my best efforts, I missed the salt, the sweet, the fizz. Some evenings I even scoffed nachos while watching Friends on Channel 4. During the first couple of years my impressions of British food culture consisted not of what it offered, but what it lacked … or rather what I missed. This included big slices of New York-style pepperoni pizza, made by independently owned pizzerias and delivered steaming hot to my door. It also included Tex-Mex and ‘interior’ Mexican food: fresh corn tortillas, black beans, fish tacos, and mole poblano (a blend of chocolate, chillies and as many as 20 spices, simmered with chicken).

Frozen pizza

I missed big, greasy New York-style pepperoni pizzas from small pizzerias in America. Sometimes I settled for frozen, like this one ...

I also started to crave the garlicky Polish kielbasa (sausage) my grandmother served at Christmas. The kind I found in Britain just didn’t taste the same (and now I’m committed to eating high-welfare pork, making most imported Polish sausage off-limits). I missed my all-time favourite dish – veal paprikash. My Hungarian-descended mother would make it for me when I visited: thick egg dumplings and chunks of veal simmered in a thick soured-cream gravy. (For the past 20 years my mom made this dish with chicken instead of veal, after discovering that veal calves were under-fed and raised in crates.)

I also craved my paternal grandmother’s green-jelly ‘salad’. (My husband rolls his eyes incredulously when I call jelly a ‘salad’, comparing it to Ronald Reagan’s reclassification of ketchup as a vegetable.) The dish is green jelly with a tin of fruit suspended in it, and cream cheese mixed in when the jelly is warm, causing the cheese to float to the top and create a solid layer of sweet, pale-green ‘icing’. While not the height of sophistication, that dish takes me right back to Christmas dinner in my grandmother’s tiny dining room in east Toledo.

Though I missed many things, I grudgingly got on with my new life in England, including trying to like the food. I joined the local Slow Food group, and heard about a box scheme that offered fresh vegetables each week. While I was no stranger to vegetables, I hadn’t spent much time with parsnips or Jerusalem artichokes, and I was only mildly acquainted with leeks. I liked beetroot, but felt cooking it demanded a lot of my time.

Yet I was determined to cook what was in that box every week. My husband took pity on me and handed me The Cookery Year,which his mother had given him. It’s handily organised by month, with recipes using a lot of local, seasonal ingredients. Along with additional support from Constance Spry and Jamie Oliver’s more British recipes in the Ministry of Food, I was soon roasting parsnips and swede and experimenting with lamb joints (lamb being expensive and hard to come by in the USA). Eventually I whipped up a somewhat puffy toad-in-the-hole and even attempted a few (flat but tasty) Victoria sponges.

My British food education was also helped along by the traditional food tastes of my husband’s Welsh mother and English father. From the first meal I had at their house, we sat at a properly ‘laid’ table (in America, we ‘set’ the table), and I learned to eat with the fork in my left hand and knife in my right (in America we hold the fork in our right hand to eat). I sampled boiled tongue, Yorkshires and beef, kippers in tomato sauce, and beetroot (boiled expediently in a pressure cooker).

British vegetables

Some of the fantastic and flavourful winter vegetables we get to eat in Britain.

A few years later I started shopping at two local farmers’ markets, one of which sources food from within 30 miles of Oxford. Along with the box scheme, cookery books and my in-laws, I was gaining something I never had in my 30 years in Ohio – an understanding of the goût de terroir of my adopted home. I found myself dipping soldiers into the golden yolk of a soft boiled egg, which was from a chicken who lived in a village down the road. I was eating toast topped with damson jam which my husband made from the fruit trees in our garden.

Toad in the hole

My first toad-in-the-hole (for those who don't know it, it's sausages baked with Yorkshire pudding). A bit overdone, but not bad for an American...

Fortunately, I also learned to adapt some of my favourite dishes from America to the ingredients native to Britain. A chat with my local butcher revealed spicy Toulouse sausage, which is a fine substitute for garlicky kielbasa (Toulouse sausages are from a French recipe, but widely produced in Britain). One of my favourite comfort foods – macaroni cheese – is an even more comforting dish here, made with cheddar and leeks. And getting educated about ‘rose’ veal – crate-free and well-fed at North Aston Dairy – means veal paprikash is back on the menu after two decades. I’ve even had some inspiration for great Mexican dishes by eating at Wahaca Mexican Market in London, where they use as many British-sourced ingredients as possible.

“Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are,” wrote the 18th-century gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. To my surprise, I think Jean might look at what I eat today and think I’m British, even if my passport says otherwise. I still haven’t managed to make a decent green-jelly-and-cream-cheese ‘salad’ the way my grandma did, and occasionally I eat crisps while watching CSI. But I also fantasise about roast parsnips, carrots and potatoes in the middle of winter, and look forward to nettle and red onion omelettes in spring. And, yes … I do like Marmite, smeared on bubbly cheese-on-toast.

This article first appeared in the Food Culture section of the Campaign for Real Farming website, 2 February 2012.


Wombat lebkuchen

iced lebkuchen

Glazed lebkuchen wombats and koalas with slivered almonds

This year, Christmas dinner will be low-key: just me, my husband and Harvey the Corgi. So there are no pressures to cook anything in particular.

No pressure to prepare my maternal grandmother’s stuffing made with dried white bread crumbs, a truckload of butter and chopped turkey livers; or my paternal grandmother’s stuffing made with white bread crumbs, a truckload of butter and celery. Not a turkey or goose in the style of my husband’s British family, nor Polish kielbasa as my dad’s mom used to do. And for one of the first times in a decade, we won’t be having Christmas dinner in Australia, eating winter foods in the heat of summer.

Instead of enjoying this freedom to do things just the way we like, I find myself befuddled trying to choose among the many culinary traditions my husband and I bring to the table.

Fortunately, there was support and inspiration from the BBC last night, via a programme called ‘Jerusalem on a Plate‘. It was a chef’s tour of the ancient city, featuring Arab and Jewish cuisine and the evolving, exciting fusion of the two. One chef remarked that the fusion of cuisines in Jerusalem is a way of creating a national identity and peace at the table, in a country struggling for both.

“Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you who you are”

Betty Crocker CB with grandmas notes

My main source of holiday cookie recipes: my late grandmother's 1950 Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book, with hand-written notes and recipes

This is a famous quote from one of history’s most famous foodies: Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, circa 1825. It reminds me why food goes beyond sustenance for many of us — it is linked to our identity and sense of belonging. I find this most striking during holidays like Christmas. What might Brillat-Savarin have said about the Christmas menu of a Polish-Hungarian-Swiss-German-American living in England, married to a half-English/half-Welsh man, with family ties to Australia? … especially when I serve up my first Christmas culinary offering of 2011: Wombat Lebkuchen.

Lebkuchen are traditional German honey-flavoured cookies, usually spiced similarly to gingerbread. There are as many variations of lebkuchen as there are decades since it was supposedly first made, in the 1200s. I’ve heard stories about strained arm muscles after stirring the stiff dough, and frustrations when rolling it out as it sticks to everything. The biggest challenge, though, is not eating them all at once: the longer they mellow, the better the taste and texture. With its long history and huge variation, lebkuchen seems appropriate for my experiment in culinary and cultural fusion.

The (grand) mother of all cook books

Cookie tab in BC cookbook

The worn out and then replaced tab for 'Cookies' in my grandmother's cook book

My choice of lebkuchen is something of a tribute to my paternal grandfather’s roots in Germany and Switzerland. But the recipe I’m using comes from my Polish grandmother’s American classic: the Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book, published in 1950. The book has tabbed sections for breads, cakes, salads, meats and desserts, and one tab has fallen off from overuse: cookies. My grandma replaced the tab with a sturdy bit of card on which she wrote COOKIES, and reinforced with a tiny bit of wood. She taped it all together with multiple layers of tape. She also added comments to some of the cookie recipes, such as ‘Delicious!’ next to the Russian Tea Cakes and a post-it on the Thumbprint Cookies page saying she added chopped nuts and chocolate chips when she made them in 1985.

The lebkuchen recipe is based on a mixture of molasses and honey, but I’ve replaced the molasses (less common in England) with black treacle, a sugar derivative which isn’t quite as dark as molasses but still has a strong, smoky flavour. I made the dough Monday night and let it sit in the fridge until Tuesday. The recipe suggests cutting the rolled out dough into rectangular bars, but I like to take any opportunity I have to make fun shapes. Once again, though, I had forgotten that I don’t have any Christmas cookie cutters  – the result of a transatlantic move and rarely being home at Christmas for the past decade. What I do have, however, is even better: my late sister-in-law’s Australian cookie cutters.

Rolling out the sticky dough

Rolling out the sticky dough required a lot of flour

Spicy German marsupials

Because my sister-in-law moved to Australia nearly two decades ago and even became an Australian citizen, the place has become a second home for our family. Adding Australia into my family cookie mix seems fitting, and so the wombat and koala lebkuchen were born.

Boiling the glazing icing

Making a simple glaze of sugar and water

Once I tackled the tricky rolling out of the very sticky dough, I placed the critters on oiled cookie sheets. The recipe suggested giving them 10-12 minutes to bake, but in my fan oven each batch took about six-and-a-half minutes. As they baked I was meant to be making a glaze of boiled sugar syrup and confectioner’s sugar, then brushing it on the hot wombats as soon as they were out of the oven. But they baked so fast I wasn’t ready. The glaze was a bit gloppy, then it hardened and I had to add more water, which made it runny. Boiled sugar things are not my strong point.

My wombats won’t win any beauty contests and I won’t be crowned most elegant baker, but the cookies are pretty good. I’ve tasted them. Several of them. This whole “putting them away to ‘mellow’ in a cookie tin” isn’t going over very big in our house. (Try the recipe yourself and good luck letting them mellow!)

Sweet remembrance

pre-iced lebkuchen wombats

Baked wombats, ready to be glazed

Sadly, I can’t share these cookies with the two people whose far-flung kitchens inspired me to make them: my grandmother and my sister-in-law. They both passed away within two months of each other, in 2009. I can, however, imagine them laughing at my ragged, badly iced wombats and koalas, over a good cup of Italian coffee (with my sister-in-law) or a filter coffee with a shot of whiskey (with my grandma).

Next up: there’s honey-infused cookie dough made with my grandma’s Betty Crocker recipe for ‘Merry Christmas Cookies’. It’s chilling in the fridge, and just about ready to be transformed into red- and green-iced kangaroos.

Iced kangaroo red

Iced kangaroo prototype

Chocolate cake on a school night

Belgian chocolate cake with lemon-peel rose

Quick Belgian chocolate cake (with lemon-peel rose) based on my friend S's recipe

On a crisp, cold Monday evening in Brussels, I waited outside my hotel for my friend, S, to pick me up and take me to her house for dinner. I was met by an entourage of shiny black cars with tinted windows, a small crowd of smartly dressed people and a concierge in a top hat.

Turns out they weren’t there for me:  I’d blundered my way into the arrival of the Turkish Minister of Trade. I nodded and smiled faintly as the Minister and his people looked my way, and I shuffled away from the hotel entrance. I tried not to think about whether the Turkish Minister of Trade might have enemies, and if this would be one of those ‘wrong place, wrong time’ scenarios for me.

S's pumpkin tart

S's pumpkin tart in puff pastry crust

It all went fine (at least for me … I’m not sure how the Minister got on). S arrived and we walked the 15 minutes to her cozy home, where she regaled me with a pumpkin tart in a buttery puff-pastry crust. She served it with a refreshing salad that included toasted hazelnuts and thinly sliced chicon — also known as Belgian Endive, and one of my very favourite vegetables (baked or roasted chicon is divine). We drank red wine and competed with the youngest member of the household and his band of Napoleonic Lego soldiers to spear olives, cherry tomatoes and rounds of Belgian goat’s cheese on our toothpicks (or swords, in the case of the Lego soldiers).

S making chocolate cake

S preparing her quick Belgian chocolate cake in under an hour

The tart and salad were fantastic, but the real treat was yet to come.

A different kind of fast food

At around 8.30 pm S announced that she would be making a cake. Despite my unabashed reverence of cake, my first thought was: It’s a school night! A cake will take hours!’ But S has a reassuring manner — maybe it’s a Belgian thing, maybe it’s just her. As she got to work in the kitchen I decided to trust that she would, indeed, get me back to my hotel before sunrise.

Baking the cake

Lovely aroma from the oven as the chocolate cake baked

In fact, I only made my way through half a glass of wine before the cake was in the oven. Another half glass (delicately nursed) and the oven timer ‘pinged’. S boiled the kettle for tea (a blend from a special Brussels tea shop), and sprinkled powdered sugar over the cake.

S's Belgian chocolate cake with figs and pineapple

S's Belgian chocolate cake with fresh figs and pineapple

In less than an hour we were sitting down for a delicious Belgian chocolate cake, served with fresh pineapple and figs. The finished cake was very rich, like a light, fudgy brownie, and shallow like a flourless torte, rather than airy like a sponge cake. It’s made of only five ingredients: equal weights of butter,sugar and chocolate, a small amount of flour, and three eggs. That’s it. S told me the recipe demands good, dark chocolate (with a high percentage of cocoa), so don’t skimp on the chocolate.

I took her advice and bought a monster-sized bar of chocolate — a Jacques Bloc dessert cooking chocolate — at the supermarket before heading back to the UK, so I would be ready to try the recipe at home.

Supersize this

Jacques Bloc cooking chocolate

Giant Callebaut Jacques Bloc Belgian cooking chocolate (compared to a puny Snickers bar)

I found the recipe to be just as quick and easy as it looked that tipsy night in Brussels. In fact, I decided to make it again this morning, but with a few ‘American’ tweaks. No, this doesn’t mean making it three times the size and replacing most of the recipe with a box of cake mix, but you would be forgiven for thinking so.

First, I wanted to see if it would work as a pan of brownies rather than a cake — would it hold together in little squares?

Second, it’s common here to line a pan with grease-proof paper (in the US this is called parchment paper), which prevents baked goods sticking to the pan, making it easier to clean up. But I know this is less common in the US, so I buttered and floured the pan instead.

Third, the recipe is measured in weights (grams) rather than volume (cups), so I wanted to see if I could convert it. I’m now devoted to cooking by weight rather than volume — I find it remarkably easier and more efficient. But I know cooking by weight is less common in the USA (and Australia), and I want everyone to be able to make this cake. Fortunately (sort of), when I got to the kitchen this morning I found that our scale needed new batteries, and we didn’t have any. So I had no choice but to measure by volume and hope for the best.

Overall, I think this recipe works best as a cake rather than brownies. Buttering and flouring is fine, except it makes it hard to remove the cake from the pan to serve it — greaseproof paper is far better in that regard. Also, the simplicity of this recipe is somewhat dimmed by measuring by volume instead of weight. The European method is easy to memorize: 150 grams each sugar, butter and chocolate + 50 grams flour + 3 eggs. But see the recipe itself for more on the Americanized version.

The ‘little black dress’ of baking

I gave a piece of my version of this cake to my Swiss friend B, and await her review. If I play my cards right, maybe she’ll share a secret Swiss chocolate cake recipe with me one day (knowing that it won’t be so secret anymore if she tells me …).

Belgian chocolate brownie

The brownie version of this recipe

It’s intimidating making chocolate desserts for friends from two of the most famous centres of European chocolate making: Belgium and Switzerland. But it’s worth the risk. I consider a simple, fool-proof chocolate cake recipe to be the ‘little black dress’ of baking — it’s perfect for any occasion, you can dress it up or down, and it never goes out of style. S’s recipe is the perfect example. I accessorized it with a ‘rose’ made of lemon peel and served it with single (pourable) cream. (In fact, some of the lemon from the ‘rose’ soaked into the cake and tasted very nice. Next time I might try adding some lemon or orange peel to the mix.) It’s equally good with fruit, ice cream or just a strong coffee, and with a few tweaks can be made into brownies.

I’ll be back in Brussels in a month’s time and plan to stock up on more giant blocks of cooking chocolate (hopefully fairly traded chocolate, so my conscience will be as satisfied as my taste buds). In the meantime, check out the recipe. Let me know if you try it and how it goes.

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.

Children of the (creamed) corn: scary stories from small-town diners

In honour of Halloween, I watched one of my favourite scary movies, one that influenced me during my formative years growing up in small-town America: Stephen King’s ‘Children of the Corn’.

Children of the Corn

Horror classic 'Children of the Corn'

Afterwards, I sat pondering how to make it fit the remit of my food blog.

Food connection 1: obviously, it’s about corn, which is a food, or at least used to be before Monsanto and friends got hold of it. Now it is the root of all evil, a subject covered in another corn-related horror film: Robert Kenner’s ‘Food, Inc.

‘Children of the Corn’ is about an ambitious bunch of fundamentalist kids worshipping the devil in a cornfield. ‘Food, Inc.’, on the other hand, is the true story of a bunch of ambitious corporate billionaires worshipping corn and getting tax breaks for it. Way scarier!

Diner scene from 'Children of the Corn'

Isaac, the creepy devil-worshipping 'Corn' kid, peering in through the diner window

Food connection 2: the big murder scene in ‘Children of the Corn’ takes place in a small-town diner. This is where, on a Sunday after church, the creepy kids kill all the grown-ups by poisoning the coffee. (Not the coffee!)

But it was food connection 3 which hit a chord: three years after the murders in the diner, two big-city grown-ups show up to discover the kids making ritual sacrifices in the name of corn. One of these grown-ups was none other than my Hollywood doppelgänger: Linda Hamilton, a.k.a. Sarah Connor, a.k.a. That girl from the ‘Terminator’.

It just so happens that, during one of my short-lived stints as a diner waitress,  a customer said, “Hey, it’s the Terminator Girl!” Apparently, I looked a bit like Sarah Connor when I was about 18. In fact, I didn’t just look like her – in the first ‘Terminator’ film she was also a waitress in a diner. Coincidence?

Sarah Connor in 'Terminator'


Sarah Connor in 'Terminator'

Sarah Connor in 'Terminator', played by my doppelgänger Linda Hamilton

According to an online Terminator fansite, here’s her profile:

NAME: Sarah Connor
GENDER: Female (check!)
AGE: 19 (I was 18)
HEIGHT: 5’6 (okay, not quite)
EYE COLOUR: Brown-Light (well, mine are green)
OCCUPATION: Waitress, Fugitive (like it!)
STATUS:  Targeted for Termination (awesome)

Diner of the damned

Sarah worked for meagre tips at a place called Big Jeff’s Restaurant. I’ve decided not to tell you the name of the place I worked, out of respect … and fear of lawsuits. To its credit, though, it’s been in business for about 60 years, which suggests it has serious staying power (much like the food it serves, which has staying power in your arteries). While it’s often true that nostalgia is rose-tinted, a quick internet search suggests that my recollections of my former place of employment are accurate.

According to an online review:

“It’s 3 A.M. on Sunday morning. You’ve been home from the bar long enough to realize that you only have cigarettes, pickle juice and ketchup in your apartment. … head to [diner I’m not going to name]. … Their breakfast portions are so crazy big that you’re glad they’re right across from the hospital, because you might just need an emergency angioplasty after wolfing down a stupendous plate of stuffed crepes.”

From another review:

“The only positive thing to say … is it is across the street from a hospital, so a family member keeping a death vigil in the ICU can walk across the road at 2am and get a cup of stale coffee and maybe a greaseburger. Being open 24 hrs it also attracts the drunks and bums on the street late at night.”

Yep, that’s the place. I remember it well. And on this, the eve of Halloween, I’m reminiscing about a scary experience I had at that diner …

Waitressing in the Twilight Zone

Chicken-fried steak

Chicken-fried steak, also known as country-fried steak - a diner classic

It is an ordinary day in northwest Ohio. I’m a young Linda Hamilton lookalike (from Terminator 1, not Terminator 2 when she gets all buff), wearing the required uniform of a pale blue blouse and long denim tube skirt (the ankle-length kind, designed to make it hard to run away). As a new waitress, I’m working the undesirable 3-11pm shift. This means I miss out on the lucrative tips from the breakfast and lunch trades, and also the late-night crowd of drunk people, who often leave big tips due to their loss of math faculties.

I retrieve my meagre tip from the counter, which was left by a kind trucker who has since hit the open road, his stomach full of chicken-fried steak, cream gravy, and a bottomless cup of joe. As I wipe down the counter with a bleach-soaked cloth, I sense silent footsteps behind me. High-top sneakers, unlaced as per the fashion of the day, are padding towards me.

A voice says, “You know I date all the waitresses here, right?” This comes from the skinny, mullet-topped cook (his doppelgänger is the lead singer of Journey, circa 1982). Apparently this young gentleman had spent some time in juvie (i.e., a juvenile detention center), which explains his lack of good pickup lines.

“In your dreams, “ I say, and proceed to straighten up the ketchup and mustard bottles on the counter.

At this point, mullet boy grabs my wrist and twists my arm behind my back in an armlock. A bit freaked out (but not nearly as freaked out as I should have been, with hindsight), I channel the spirit of Sarah Connor (from Terminator 2, when she’s a buff warrior and mother of the rebel leader of the human race).

In a calm, steady voice, I say, “If you don’t let me go right now … I WILL kill you.”

He let go. And he never did ask me on a date. (Bummer.)

Food service warriors, unite!

Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor

My role model in food service: Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in Terminator 2

It turns out, working in the food service industry prepared me in unexpected ways for life’s challenges, in much the same way that Sarah’s experiences in Terminator 1 prepared her for kicking ass in the sequel. I started out unsure of myself, lacking in confidence, much like Sarah, who says at the beginning of the first film:

“Come on. Do I look like the mother of the future? I mean, am I tough, organized? I can’t even balance my check book!”

What did I learn?  For starters, I learned what an armlock felt like, so it wouldn’t be shocking the next time a co-worker performed one on me. I also learned never to take a job that required restrictive clothing, in case a cyborg (or Monsanto) came after me and I had to escape.

I even had my own sequel: the following summer I got a job waitressing at a family restaurant in Northwood, Ohio. However, I only lasted a month before being felled by chicken pox. They asked me to take some time off  — apparently plagues are bad for business (see earlier post about Chi Chi’s Restaurant and hepatitis).

I never returned to food service after that, but I learned enough to last a lifetime. And I’m confident those lessons will serve me well when the machines, the corn-worshipping fundamentalists, or Monsanto try to take over the world.

Actually, Monsanto has already taken over the world. I’m forming an army. Let me know if you’d like to enlist.

Eating in the “Rainbow Nation”: South Africa

Table Mountain and the Bo Kaap area of Cape Town

Table Mountain rises dramatically from the middle of Cape Town. This is a view from the colourful, (mostly) Muslim neighbourhood of Bo Kaap.

After a blogging hiatus, I’m sipping a steaming cup of Rooibos (red bush) tea on a cool English morning. I wasn’t a big fan of Rooibos until two weeks ago — when I sipped it at its source: South Africa. During the short trip, I greeted each day with a cup of the smoky red brew, and somehow it just tasted better there, especially while gazing up at Table Mountain, the centerpiece of Cape Town. I also found Rooibos yogurt, which has red flecks suspended in thick, honey-sweetened creaminess. I ate it in large quantities – because it tasted great, but also to care for my sensitive tummy, which isn’t nearly as adventurous as the rest of me when it comes to travel (let’s just say, Muhammad Ali’s wasn’t the only rumble in the jungle).

This short trip (for work and pleasure) was packed with food adventures. They ranged from an ultra-posh farmers markets serving ostrich breakfast burgers and kudu biltong (antelope jerky), to simple pap or samp (corn meal porridge) and beans at a place with a single table in the heart of Cape Town. There was fish on the braai (barbecue) with 20 members of the Port Elizabeth Wolves Football (i.e., soccer) Club seniors team, and fresh strawberries eaten while watching whales at De Hoop Nature Reserve. There were also koeksisters, syrupy sweet twisted donut strips, bought at the inaugural farmer’s market in Mossel Bay, to the background sounds of the Indian Ocean crashing into the rocky coastline. Nelson Mandela famously ate koeksisters during lunch with the widow of the architect of Apartheid, an unprecedented gesture of reconciliation in what is still – nearly two decades after the end of apartheid – a divided country.

Strawberries and whale watching - De Hoop

Strawberries and whale watching at De Hoop Nature Reserve

Africa is a big country [sic]

I’ll share many of these adventures in future posts, but for now, I’ll just tell you about a food education I received while awaiting some (delectable) chicken and pap (cornmeal porridge, served in a lump that looks like a cloud) at a humble place called Yoggata Mini Kitchen. This was the place with one table, tucked away behind a women’s craft market on Long Street. Outside the market was a small sandwich board advertising foods we didn’t recognize, but which sounded like traditional African food … or at least our idea of African food.

In truth, we had no idea because we’d never been to Africa before (except north of the Sahara), and were relying on advice from our guide book and our imaginations, influenced by films and books. And of course … Africa is a really big place. Any notion we had of ‘African food’ was bound to be dashed by the diversity of the continent, not to mention South Africa’s unique status in Africa: it has the continent’s largest economy and the largest communities of people of European and Asian descent. Plus, Cape Town was first settled by Europeans in the 1600s, so it shouldn’t have been surprising that modern European fare was on offer everywhere we looked, including sandwiches and salads, pizzas and burgers, pastas and even a Mexican cantina serving cheap tequila shots.

Pap my ride

Yoggata table

The communal table at Yoggata Mini Kitchen, Long Street, Cape Town (behind the African Women's Craft Market)

Despite the realization that modern South African cuisine did not coincide with my romantic daydreams about ‘Africa’ (which were largely influenced by the soft-rock stylings of Toto and the movie ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ … neither of which has anything to do with South Africa), I was still keen to try something new. So when we came across the sign for Yoggata Mini Kitchen, we were intrigued. We walked through the colourful stalls packed with crafts and dangling with beaded jewelry, all the way to the back, where we found a dozen shops constructed from largely unadorned white walls, lighted by brash fluorescent bulbs, and mostly without signs to tell us what they were offering.

The barber trimming a man’s hair in the first shop was obvious, and we guessed that the next shop was serving food as we saw people walking out with wrapped bundles. Next was a place staffed by Rastafarians printing t-shirts, and finally our destination: Yoggata Mini Kitchen. It was decorated with brightly-coloured curtains and table settings, complemented by a warm greeting from the owner Phyllis Melane. She offered help understanding the menu, and then invited us to take a seat at the single plastic table. We had pap and fried chicken (with crispy, well-seasoned skin that I couldn’t get enough of), samp and beans, and curried vegetables. It cost about GBP4 ($6) for two filling meals.

lamb - pap - beans - veg at Yoggata Mini Kitchen

Lamb stew, pap (cornmeal porridge), beans and vegetables

It was so good we returned the next day. This time we were joined at the communal table by a couple from the Caribbean, who were in South Africa visiting their nephew. The nephew (a lecturer at the local university) sat down next to us. Just before tucking into his steaming plate of lamb stew and pap, he reiterated something I’d read: that Cape Town, among all of South Africa’s cities, is the least integrated, with black, white and coloured (mixed-race) people still inhabiting their own milieus to a large extent. And this extends to its food culture or, more accurately, its food cultures.

So the ‘traditional’ local food you can find in Cape Town and around might be African, like what we were eating at Yogatta; it might be ‘settler’ – mostly Dutch and British, but also German; or it could be Cape Malay, which largely came from the Indonesian or Javan slaves brought to Cape Town hundreds of years ago by the Dutch East India Company. Cape Malay includes South Asian foods (which we might think of in the US as ‘Indian’), such as samosas (samoosas) and curries. And of course, today there is the smattering of other non-traditional cuisines you’d see in any modern city in the world: Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Portuguese (we were rarely far from a Nandos chain restaurant), Spanish and many more.

Cape Town’s food cultures

Roti sign in Bo Kaap neighbourhood

A sign for the diverse foods on offer in one Cape Town neighbourhood

The huge range of what could be considered local and traditional food in Cape Town made me aware of how little I know about this country, which is often called the “Rainbow Nation” because of its diversity. I don’t think I’m the only person who, if asked what I knew about South Africa, would only have been able to conjure up information about Nelson Mandela and apartheid, or about the dreadful crime statistics that so often characterize stories about South Africa today. When it comes to food, I would have drawn a complete blank, except with regard to red bush tea and wine (and even then I knew next to nothing, only that they produce these things).

Now I’m only slightly wiser about South Africa’s food cultures, but more specifically the food of Cape Town and around, since it varies by region, and one look at a map showed me just how little of the country I’d seen.

Despite this, I’m happily savouring the memories of the meals I had and, importantly, the people I met while eating them. It’s this latter point which seems most telling of eating in South Africa, as in all countries – that food is something social, to be shared. For example, the braai, which is translated as ‘barbecue’, has a social significance and set of traditions unique to the region, and unlike what I know of barbecues in the US and UK (but slighly more similar to barbecues in Australia). And while eating my last portion of pap at Marco’s – an upscale pan-African restaurant – the Durban-born woman beside me informed me that pap is meant to be eaten with your hands from a plate shared among family and friends. Upon hearing this, the American woman sitting opposite set down her fork, picked up a chunk of pap with her fingers, used it to scoop up some meat and popped it in her mouth. With that gesture, we all smiled and continued feasting on ostrich, kudu and springbok (gazelle) cooked rare, washed down with a glass of local Cabernet-Merlot. While divisions still exist in South Africa, it’s nice to experience a coming-together around a great meal.

Soccer player tending the Braai at Mossel Bay

Soccer player tending the Braai at Mossel Bay

More South African adventures to come in future posts…