It’s been ages since I posted here, quietly awaiting the end of winter and the ‘hungry gap’ — the period between the end of winter crops and the new produce of spring. Surprisingly, we’ve had some brilliant warm, sunny weather in the UK for the past two weeks, and it feels like spring even if the Earth has only just started sending up its tender green shoots.
With all this sunshine, inspiration hit me like a big yellow lightning flash — a lemon-flavoured one to be exact.
Nothing embodies warm weather and sunshine for me like lemon. I realize lemons aren’t exactly a traditionally British fruit, but even I get a taste for the exotic, and can’t do without lemons (especially Spanish lemons, which have a lovely taste and are grown close-ish to home).
I love lemony desserts, and especially lemon-infused cakes. My dad’s favourite cake has always been a white sponge with lemon filling and a marshmallow frosting. His mother made it for him for his birthday every year, and then my mother took over the tradition (with much cursing, as the seven-minute frosting can easily go wrong and become a sticky glob; mom always triumphed in the end, though). The cake was filled with lemon pudding made from a box, which was the only way I knew to make lemon filling. Then I discovered lemon curd – sunshine in a jar. My mother-in-law told me it was easy to make, which I hardly believed, considering it’s awesomeness. But I decided to give it a go.
Reality TV for cake junkies
Having misplaced my mother-in-law’s recipe for lemon curd, I found one on The Pink Whisk. This is the site of Ruth Clemens, a once-amateur baker who competed in BBC’s The Great British Bake Off, the only reality TV show I like to watch. Each week, amateur bakers — ordinary folks — compete to make beautiful breads, delicate cupcakes and innovative tarts and cookies. I was mesmerized – honestly! It was exciting to see real, unpretentious people doing something they love, and wondering if they were any good at it, sometimes screwing up, often doing ‘good enough’, and occasionally baking something brilliant and (according to the judges) delicious. It was humbling and inspiring for an amateur like me. Ruth Clemens came second in the first series of the Bake Off, and now she bakes, teaches and writes about baking full-time at The Pink Whisk.
Curd, curd, curd … curd is the word
I took an hour away from doing my work today to try my hand at Ruth’s lemon curd recipe. It was really easy, and based on the puddles of it I licked off the counter (after discovering that the pouring spout on my pan was useless), it tastes really good. In fact, to my surprise. it tastes like lemon curd. It’s still cooling on the counter, so I’ve yet to find out if it has thickened as I expected. I hope so, because I’ll need it for tomorrow’s springtime baking adventure: a vanilla sponge-cake with lemon curd filling and piped cream on top.
NB: I’m no friend of a piping bag, so this will be something of a challenge. I expect a tasty cake with some very interesting cream sculptures on top. If it’s as artistically interesting as I anticipate, I’ll be sure to post a photo. I know I can’t compete with the 12 Ugliest Cakes or the beauties at Cake Wrecks, but I’ll do my best!
Find the lemon curd recipe I used at The Pink Whisk.
I use recipes. Some people think that’s a weakness, a sign of someone lacking creativity or confidence in the kitchen. A person who is afraid to take risks. Perhaps they’re right, but I have good reason to cling to my cookbooks, and to my scraps of paper with hastily scribbled recipes from Epicurious. It has to do with:
A) a particular dish I made several years ago;
B) the 1995 film The Usual Suspects; and
C) my husband’s disused degree in German from Exeter University.
Here’s how it went. At a time when I wasn’t cooking as much as I do now, I set out to make one of our staple meals: pasta with cheese sauce. But boredom struck – I wanted to mix it up, do something different. As the flour and butter gently sizzled for my white sauce, emitting its nutty aroma, I opened the spice cabinet for inspiration. Oregano? Paprika? Turmeric? Yes! A curry sauce! With pasta? Maybe not. My forehead wrinkled at the thought. I can’t remember the rest of the details, but there was a lemon involved. And an onion. Salt, pepper and, of course, the milk for the sauce.
The result was gray, thick, mucilaginous, and mixed with al dente fusili. I warned my husband that it didn’t look good. He was optimistic as always, but after a few bites admitted that, in fact, it wasn’t very good. I said it was sh!t. He said, yes, it is. It is sh!t sauce. Shizer Soße, he said, pulling up those German language skills from bygone days. He also thought the sauce was mysterious and evil, like the similar-sounding Keyser Söze – the mysterious and evil unseen crime lord from the The Usual Suspects.
Henceforth, terrible dishes were christened, for example, Shizer suppe, which was a memorable soup my husband made with tonic water instead of the recipe’s suggested spring water.
Since the sauce incident, I mostly stuck to using recipes. Now and then, though, I improvised. Once I prepared something to share with the book group I belong to, and mixed ideas from a few different recipes to create what I envisioned would be a festive pumpkin filled with spicy fruit. The actual result was a baked pumpkin filled with clovey, gray stuff, in which floated raisins and dried dates. My friend B asked if it was savoury or meant to be a dessert. I wasn’t sure. It was Shizerkürbispampe (sh!t pumpkin mush), and went directly on the compost pile.
Recipes are there so we don’t kill ourselves
Recipes, of course, aren’t foolproof and there are so many available online now (including on this blog) that it’s likely you’ll come across a few which just don’t work (probably also from this blog). That’s why I tend to rely mostly on cookbooks, where the recipes are at least (or should be) tested. Even if you’re more of a ‘going commando’ cook, though, it’s good to pay homage to recipes: they keep us from killing ourselves.
As omnivores, we can eat lots of things (unlike most other animals), so recipes are a “condensed survival guide”, according to Michael Symons in A History of Cooks and Cooking. “Recipes signal safe, proper, and delicious eating,” claims Janet Flamang in her fascinating book The Taste for Civilization.
My Shizer Soße and freaky pumpkin mush weren’t unsafe to eat, but they were a waste of time and ingredients (as well as an assault on the palate). But cooks are like “scientists, developing cuisines through trial and error” according to Flamang. I’ve now spent a number of years cooking with my survival guides, and can at last call myself a cook/scientist in the kitchen.
This recipe is an example of one of my more successful experiments: a layered vegetable bake. It takes a couple of hours to prepare and bake, but the majority of that is unattended. Hopefully it works for you, and doesn’t get compared to an evil crime lord.
Layered vegetable bake
¾ cup milk or cream (or a mixture of both)
¼ cup yogurt, soured cream or crème fraiche
Salt and pepper to taste
Dash of nutmeg
1 – 2 cups each of cleaned, peeled and thinly sliced root vegetables: e.g., potatoes, rutabaga (aka swede), carrots, squash, leeks.
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1 onion, sliced in thin rings
Preheat oven to 190C (375 F). Whisk together the first five ingredients and set aside.
Butter a large, shallow rectangular baking dish. Place a layer of vegetable slices in the dish, then sprinkle with some of the cheese. Keep layering vegetables and cheese until you run out of vegetables.
Pour the egg-milk mixture evenly over the whole thing. Arrange your onion rings over the top of the dish, then sprinkle on the remaining cheese. If you have any bread crumbs or sesame seeds around, sprinkle those on top, too, for added crunch.
Cover the dish with foil and bake for around 1 ½ hours, or until the vegetables are tender. Remove the foil and put back in the oven for 10 minutes to crisp the top. Serve with a salad.
Last week I was inspired, infuriated and energized at the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC). This is the third ORFC to take place during the same week as (and right across the street from) the mainstream Oxford Farming Conference (OFC).
The ORFC is about innovations and activism related to growing healthy, tasty food without destroying rural communities, the soil and human and animal health. The OFC is about growing more food more intensively, and is sponsored by investment banks, agribusiness companies and pillars of healthy eating such as McDonalds.
Of course, the OFC wasn’t just a bunch of baddies meeting to decide how to make us buy more fizzy drinks and destroy local food markets. They allowed a few people to discuss things like sustainable agriculture. That was so nice of them.
Be a local yokel
While I could just hang my head and cry into my fair-trade coffee about the very depressing state of the global food system, I won’t. Instead, I’ll focus on taking action.
Some of the clear messages from the ORFC were to buy locally produced food and cut out the middle men (er, middle people) by buying from farmer’s markets or direct from growers (such as through a community supported agriculture (CSA) farm – find one near you in the US or UK).
Another important message was to inspire people to go back to the land, especially young people, thus encouraging a generation of young farmers.
For the rest of us, we need to rediscover the “lost arts”: learning about the foods grown or raised in our region, cooking and preserving those foods, baking bread, sharing meals at home, and just generally getting back into the kitchen or garden (this applies to women and men).
Raiders of the lost arts
Part of rediscovering the “lost arts” involves learning about vegetables we’re unfamiliar with, don’t know how to cook, or dislike because we’ve had them badly prepared. This includes the mushy canned spinach you had in the school cafeteria, and Brussels sprouts, which I hated as a child but now adore (if they’re fresh).
Local eating requires local knowledge, something that’s been lost as the sources of our food have moved further and further away from where we live. A great way to learn is to ask the sellers at farmer’s markets how to cook the things they grow. You can do this at a butcher’s, too, if they’re selling locally produced meats (and find out how to cook weird and wonderful parts of animals that our ancestors coveted).
In an effort to inspire your adventures in the “lost arts”, I’m offering a hearty vegetarian risotto recipe using winter root vegetables. I love risotto, but when I think about making it I immediately remember the 20+ minutes I’ll need to stand and stir over the stove. Fortunately, this recipe is done in the oven, and I was impressed by how rich it tasted despite the lack of stirring.
Winter vegetable risotto
I’ve made risotto often in the spring and summer with spring greens, aubergine (eggplant) or courgette (zucchini), but I hadn’t experimented much with using the muddy root vegetables we get this time of year. The recipe I’m sharing is adapted from one at Waitrose.com. I substituted sweet potato for the swede (aka rutabaga — though sweet potatoes aren’t grown very widely here in the UK, so swede is usually a better option). I also added garlic, and used parmesan-style cheese instead of the special sheep’s cheese they recommend. Feta or another rich white cheese would have been very good, but I used what was in the fridge (try it with a cheese made locally!).
While it takes about an hour and a half to make this, most of that is with the dish in the oven, unattended. So it may not be a quick option for after work during the week, but perfect if you’re pottering around the house on a weekend.
What you’ll need
250 grams (about 1-1/2 cups) each sweet potato (or swede/rutabaga), celeriac and carrots
2 small red onions
Several cloves of garlic
3 tablespoons olive oil
A handful of fresh sage leaves (or use a couple of teaspoons dried)
175 grams (or just over 3/4 cup) of Arborio risotto rice
150 ml (just over 1/2 cup) of dry white wine
500 ml (2 cups) of hot vegetable stock (I used a vegetarian bouillon)
100g (1 cup) parmesan-style (or other) cheese (try feta, or whatever’s local)
How to do it
Preheat oven to 200 C (400 F, gas mark 6). Wash and peel the vegetables and cut into 2-cm (or just smaller than 1 inch) pieces. Peel and quarter the onions. Peel the garlic.
Place the veggies in a large, shallow baking dish or tin, toss with olive oil to coat, sprinkle over chopped sage. Place in the oven for 35-45 minutes, stirring once or twice during the cooking. Next, add the rice, wine and hot stock and return to the oven for 35 minutes, stirring once.
Remove from the oven and stir in the cheese (add a hunk of butter if you like it really creamy, a la Jamie Oliver). Add salt and pepper to taste.
The original recipe suggests you eat this with a tomato and onion salad, but it’s winter, and tomatoes are grown in summer. Instead, try this lovely recipe from the very tasty and creative blog Not Eating Out in New York: Raw carrot and parsnip salad.
This recipe comes from my grandmother’s 1950 edition of Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book.
Mix together and bring to a boil: ½ cup honey, ½ cup molasses (or black treacle)
Stir in: 1 egg, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 1 teaspoon grated lemon rind.
Sift together and stir in: 2 ¾ cups of sifted flour, ½ teaspoon of baking soda, and 1 teaspoon each of ground cinnamon, cloves, allspice and nutmeg.
Mix in: 1/3 cup each of cut-up citron (or candied citrus peel) and chopped nuts (I used slivered almonds)
Chill dough overnight. Preheat oven to 400F (200C). Roll a small amount at a time, keeping the rest chilled. Roll out ¼” thick and cut into oblongs 1 ½ x 2 ½ “ (or use big-ish cookie cutters). Place them one inch apart on a greased baking sheet. Bake until, when touched lightly, no imprint remains (the recipe says this should take 10–12 minutes, but in my fan oven it only took about 6 ½ minutes). While the cookies bake (or before) make Glazing Icing.
Glazing Icing: boil together 1 cup sugar and ½ cup water until the first indication of a thread appears (230F). Remove from heat. Stir in ¼ cup powdered (icing) sugar.
Brush the glaze over the cookies the minute they are out of the oven. Then quickly remove them from the baking sheet. (When the icing gets sugary, reheat slightly, adding a little water until it’s clear again.)
Cool and store your cookies to let them mellow. This recipe should make about 6 dozen 2” x 3” cookies.
This can also be made as a pan of brownies (see notes below).
What you’ll need:
150 grams (or 2/3 cup) unsalted butter (softened — I do this in the microwave, on low heat, watching it like a hawk to avoid explosions)
150 grams (or 3/4 cup) sugar
50 grams (or just over 1/3 cup) plain white (pastry) flour
3 medium free-range eggs
150 grams (about 1/2 cup melted) of good-quality dark chocolate (this should be sweetened chocolate, with high cocoa content)
Preheat oven to 375F (190C). Line a round, shallow tart or cake pan with grease-proof (i.e. parchment) paper, or grease and flour the pan.*
Cream (ie beat together) the butter and sugar. Beat in a bit of the flour until well mixed, then add an egg until well mixed. Then add a bit more flour, beat thoroughly, then add another egg. Do this until the flour and eggs are all mixed in, ensuring it’s very well blended.
Melt the chocolate in the microwave (on low heat, again watching like a hawk so it doesn’t over-cook or explode). Beat the melted chocolate into the mixture until blended.
Pour it all into your lined or greased/floured pan. Bake for 25-30 minutes. Check it at about 20 minutes by sliding a toothpick in and seeing if it comes out clean (if it doesn’t, lick the batter off the toothpick and put the cake back in the oven). When it’s finished, it might have some cracks on the top, which is fine.
Let the cake cool for a few minutes then move it to a serving dish and sprinkle with powderded/icing sugar (I put the sugar in a fine sieve to get a nice even sprinkle). Serve with cream, ice cream or fruit. Also great with a cup of coffee.
I also made this as a pan of brownies, in a 8 1/2″ x 11″ by 2″-deep baking pan. It was also good, but recommend trying it with only two medium eggs (or 1 large) and see how it goes.
*I’d never used grease-proof paper before moving to Europe, and was accustomed to greasing and flouring cake pans instead. This recipe worked well both ways, but the paper makes it so much easier to lift the cake out and ensures easier clean-up. Some people line a pan with the paper, then grease and flour it. That seems like a lot of work to me, so I don’t do that. You could also use a cake pan with a removable bottom.
Nothing makes me lose my appetite like a big food company that stomps on the little guy, especially when that little guy is holding one of my favourite vegetables: kale.
American fast-food chain Chick-fil-A has a catchy advertising campaign featuring cows holding up a sign reading ‘Eat mor chikin’, and they’re suing a small Vermont t-shirt printer because he makes t-shirts and stickers that say ‘Eat More Kale’.
This Vermonter, Bo Muller-Moore, first designed the t-shirts at the request of two local farmers who were growing and selling kale. Apparently, Chik-fil-A’s lawyers are afraid that we, the eating public, will get confused and mistake the advice to eat kale for the message about eating more overly processed chicken sandwiches (see: Eat More Kale. Just Don’t Confuse It With Chikin. | Common Dreams).
‘What the cluck’?
I remember Chick-fil-A from when I worked at the Woodville Mall in Northwood, Ohio. After a long day flogging jeans at the County Seat, or panty hose at Parklane Hosiery, I would enjoy a Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich and waffle fries with lots of ketchup. In fact, Chick-fil-A’s success seems to be in part its drive to populate shopping malls from sea to shining sea with its shops. Mmmm … shopping mall food … a guilty pleasure.
I’m all for occasional guilty pleasures, but when Chick-fil-A starts messing with a vegetable as beloved to me as kale, I draw the line. It seems I’m not the first person to slam Chick-fil-A for some of its practices: Organic Authority and Eat Me Daily beat me to it. In fact, my literary stylings are no match for some of the clever headlines about this issue from other sources, for example: What the Cluck, Chick-fil-A? (from a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) press release) and Chick-fil-A Sues Hippie Because They Are Insufferable Assholes (from Gawker).
In my view, Chick-fil-A is doing a disservice to kale (not to mention small farmers and locally owned businesses). By selling heart-disease-friendly foods using the captivatingly misspelled refrain ‘Eat mor chikin’, they may also be damaging the hearts and spelling skills of today’s youth. And their representation of cows as advocates for eating chicken suggests something disturbing about the consciousness of farm animals, and begs the question: if chickens could advocate, who would they tell you to eat?
Leafy greens, southern lawmakers and the NBA
While I consider myself something of a kale enthusiast, I didn’t even know what kale was until I was in my 20s. In my Yankee family, ‘greens’ were lettuce. When I moved to Cincinnati, just north of the Mason-Dixon line, I discovered that collard and mustard greens, as well as kale, are part of the culinary heritage of the south (so much so that, just a few months ago, South Carolina voted to make collard greens the official State leafy green … not the best example of critical policymaking, but a great boost for the humble green). I even met a former professional basketball player from the Deep South who moved north and lamented the absence of collard greens. When he retired, he bought a farm in Wisconsin to grow nothing but collard greens.
I was enchanted by the nutritional value of greens and the multitude of ways they can be prepared. My then-boyfriend and I planted Seeds of Change Red Russian Kale, an heirloom variety, in our community garden (aka allotment) in Cincinnati. The seeds started producing small leaves in the early spring (which can be eaten raw in salads), and kept producing big, hardy crimson-veined leaves until they were covered in snow in December. We planted a 3 foot by 6 foot bed with the seeds, which was way too much. So we became skilled at finding ways to cook kale.
Kale burgers. Kale burritos. Kale and pasta. Stir-fried kale. Crispy kale side-dish. White bean and kale soup. I could go on, but won’t. Instead, I’ll share with you my favourite kale recipe, which is an adaptation of the Sunday’s at Moosewood ‘Ziti with Chard’. I call it …
… ‘Whatever-Kind-of-Pasta-You-Have with Kale’
First, prepare your kale. My favourite is the curly-leaf variety, rather than the black russian kale, but it’s all good. One thing I love about the curly leaf kind – compared to many other types of greens – is how easy it is to remove the stalks. Just grab the stalk at its base with one hand, and run the index finger and thumb of your other hand up along the stalk to shear off all the leaves. Rinse your kale, but leave some of the water on the leaves to help it steam while cooking. Chop it coarsely.
Next, cook your pasta.
Meanwhile, in a skillet heat two or three tablespoons of olive oil, and throw in several chopped cloves of garlic and a dried chilli. You can let the garlic get a bit brown if you like, then throw in the chopped kale. Put a lid on the skillet and cook for about 5-7 minutes, until the kale is bright green and just getting a bit wilted. I don’t like to overcook my kale, so 10 minute would probably be too much. Season with salt and lots of black pepper.
When the pasta and kale are done, spoon pasta onto your plate, top with the kale and garlic sauté, drizzle with more olive oil, top with chopped fresh tomatoes (**see disclaimer), squeeze on some lemon juice, and grate on some hard cheese (e.g., Parmesan).
**Disclaimer: this recipe contains fresh tomatoes, and if you live in the northern hemisphere, I don’t recommend (in fact, I object to) buying tomatoes at this time of year. Those pale red things they sell in the supermarket, the ones they call tomatoes, well, that’s not what this recipe requires. So do me a favour and try this without the tomatoes, or wait to make it until next summer. Better yet, try this recipe from the BBC, which is pretty similar but without tomatoes.
Here’s another recipe to try: Pumpkin, kale and chicken curry.
Heat 1/2 tablespoon oil and toss in 1 small chopped onion and 1 clove of crushed garlic. Throw in a teaspoon or two of the following spices: ground cumin, ground coriander and turmeric. Add 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger root (or half a teaspoon of powdered ginger), and let it sizzle so it smells really fragrant.
Now toss in half a small pumpkin or other winter squash, peeled and chopped into 1/2-inch chunks (scoop out the string and seeds from the pumpkin first), 1 large or two medium chopped carrots, a bunch of finely chopped kale (stems removed first), a pinch of salt and 1/4 cup of water.
Cover loosely and simmer on medium heat until the vegetables are tender (about 15 minutes — top up the water if it’s looking dry), then add some cooked chicken, cut into chunks (you can also use chopped raw chicken breasts, but add it earlier, when you fry the spices). Heat the whole mixture and then turn off the heat. If you like it saucier than it is, stir in a tablespoon or two of plain yogurt.
Serve this curry over rice or with naan or other Indian bread.