Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Heading off on a Culinary Adventure

The 21st Century Household is about to embark on a culinary adventure – six nights in the Big Apple dining at some of the city’s most famous and historic restaurants. We are celebrating the New Year, and a significant birthday in the life of the 21st Century Teenager. Making the gorgeous Art Deco palace, the Waldorf Astoria, the base for our stay, we will be bringing in the New Year at one of their famous gala dinners. Over the course of our visit, we will be dining at some of the city’s finest restaurants, including the Russian Tea Room and Rockefeller Centre’s historic supper club, The Rainbow Room. Watch this space as we journey into the delicious past, present and future of a remarkable city, the city like no other, New York, New York.

Monday, 29 December 2008

Life's Too Short To Stuff A Brussel Sprout

In one of the many holiday food magazines I bought this year, I found a recipe for Stuffed Brussel Sprouts. This completely floored me. First of all, why would anyone want to stuff a Brussel sprout, and secondly, how on earth do you accomplish it without going completely insane? Brussel sprouts are tiny for heaven’s sake, and not a lot of people even like them. Anyway, why fuss over a vegetable that is frankly at its best when lightly steamed and then sautéed with some pancetta? However, this recipe insisted that if you carefully cut out the core of the sprouts after cooking and allowed them to drain on paper towels, you could then stuff them with a cheese mixture that would turn them into delicious appetisers.

For me, this recipe perfectly illustrated why so many people find themselves close to a nervous breakdown at this time of year. Although the main event – Christmas - may be over, most people spread their celebrations throughout the week, and of course New Year celebrations can be every bit as exciting as those held over Christmas. Everywhere people are still celebrating and feasting, and where there is feasting there is always someone (or even several someones) working hard behind the scenes.

Those of us who enjoy entertaining often bite off more than we can chew this time of year, hence someone even inventing a recipe for Stuffed Brussel Sprouts. There is a certain point most of us reach while we are planning holiday entertainment that makes us wildly underestimate the effort some recipes take, or wildly overestimate the speed at which we can work. All this is often born out of our wish to recreate the memories we have of holidays past, which this time of year, are almost always seen through rose coloured glasses.

So instead of taking the easy route of preparing recipes we know and love, or even asking for help in the kitchen, we formulate entertaining plans that even a professional caterer might struggle to accomplish. Unfamiliar recipes, new and untried food combinations and a fear of under-catering lead many of us to the brink of meltdowns in the kitchen and the curious phenomenon of hostesses (and even hosts) practically in tears.

Why do we do it to ourselves? We have had all year to try new things. But no, we wait until the busiest time of the year to try the recipes we would not even consider were we not so fully immersed in the holiday spirit. Multi-course feasts and impossible canapés bring us to the edge of reason. Glossy magazines that insist they aim to assist us do not help either, as they show us airbrushed hostesses beaming over tables of food they have allegedly prepared themselves. “If they can do it, why can’t I?”, we wonder – temporarily forgetting the army of cooks and food stylists behind many magazine photo shoots.

I think that is why cooks like Nigella Lawson are proving so popular at the moment, as they freely admit that holiday entertaining is by its very nature stressful and that anything you can do to make it easier is something that should be readily embraced. And stuffing a brussel sprout is not something that can possibly make your life easier.

Furthermore, although most of us entertain regularly throughout the year, there is no probably no other time save the holidays that we entertain so much. Many people host a traditional Christmas Eve cocktail party, then Christmas dinner, followed by Boxing Day brunch, so it is pretty certain that by 27th December they will find themselves more than a little exhausted – with only a couple of days to recover before the New Year celebrations start.

So although preaching restraint is never a popular a holiday theme, and it may be too late for this year anyway, I have devised a plan for years to come. While it might not completely avoid nervous breakdowns in the kitchen, it might at least take some of the pressure off. First of all, decide what holiday entertaining you plan to do and then immediately cut it in half. For example, if you are cooking Christmas dinner, ditch Boxing Day brunch completely. If you feel you simply cannot do that, decide to make it a potluck affair where everyone brings a dish. Buy glossy magazines that offer short cuts and easy recipes - like Rachael Ray's wonderful magazine. Enjoy the other magazines for what they are – sources of ideas, not a template. Make it a rule not to try any new recipes for guests from the 1st of December until the end of the year. And please, whatever you do, don’t be tempted to try that recipe for Stuffed Brussel Sprouts. The road to holiday hell is paved with them.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Saving Christmas Past

I remember Christmas in years gone by being much more relaxed and calm – and I am not just talking about the Christmases when I was a child and innocent of all the work it takes to create the ‘perfect ‘ Christmas. Even as recently as a few years ago, I remember a much more leisurely pace leading up to the big day. Yes, there was still a lot to do, but the frantic, grasping panic that exists today was definitely not a part of it. I don’t know if it is because we are all getting busier and busier, or if it is just an effect of the post-modern age, but everyone I meet this year is rushed off their feet, stressed and panicked. And I have to admit I’m feeling pretty much that way myself.

It used to be that folks shopping for Christmas would be in a jovial mood. People would smile cheerfully in the supermarket and there were always enough parking spaces at the mall. Now it’s a fight nearly to the death for the last parking space and only a few brave souls are smiling. People are either stressed out about how they are going to pay for all their shopping, or worried that they won’t get the right turkey or the last bag of Brussel sprouts. Most of us are pressed for time, pressed for cash and in far too much of a hurry to actually enjoy the festive season.

Everyone I know is looking for a shortcut – a way to a special Christmas that does not involve spending much time or much cash. Whilst I can understand the desire to be frugal, particularly this year, I’m sad to think that so many of us are in such a vortex of activity that we do not feel we have time to celebrate and honour the traditions we hold dear. I heard one lady say that she was not going to make a Christmas cake with her mother this year, even though they had made one together for the last thirty years. “I’m just buying it; it’s quicker.” I wondered how old her mother was, and how many more chances they would have to bake together. I watched another lady put ready made Christmas cookies into her shopping trolley while the little girl walking beside her protested, “But Mommy we always bake those together. I like icing them.” Her mother’s harassed stare and icy reply put paid to her protests.

Don’t get me wrong, I know what it is like to be pressed for time – and I have a huge amount of sympathy for both these frazzled women – but sacrificing our traditions is not the way forward.

It’s easy enough losing our traditions by mistake, let alone on purpose. Our recent move means that two of my handwritten recipe books containing old family recipes are currently somewhere in the last few boxes waiting to be unpacked. At least I hope they are. Only the happy accident of finding a scrap of paper with my Mom’s handwritten recipe for Meat Loaf Wellington on it saved the tradition of an old favourite main course being served in the weeks leading up to Christmas. My son informed me the other day that we were definitely making Christmas cookies from scratch this year because it has been three years since we have done so. I was genuinely shocked to realise he was telling the truth. The last three Christmases have been very difficult ones due to my parents’ illnesses – indeed by last Christmas my Dad had passed away and my Mom would follow him not long after - so I guess I sort of forgot about the cookie tradition. In retrospect, it would have been enormously comforting to spend just a few hours doing something as therapeutic as rolling out dough and icing cookies. In fact, I’m definitely looking forward to some cookie therapy over the next couple of days.

And therapeutic is exactly what tradition is. In fact I would go so far as to say that there is no greater remedy for melancholy than to revive an old tradition – or even to create a new one. And what better place is there for Christmas tradition than the kitchen? Food, family and friends have always been the centre of this most wonderful of holidays.

It troubles me that in all the hustle bustle of our post-modern Christmas, family traditions are often being lost and forgotten. In many cases, we are so busy trying to create the perfect Christmas we forget that what made Christmas seem perfect all those years ago is the traditions our parents and grandparents passed on to us. We risk a generation of children remembering Christmases filled with fraught, stressed parents and a distinct lack of goodwill if we carry on like this. We are trying to buy the perfect Christmas – and trying to find something in those very crowded shops that simply is not for sale is an absolute waste of our very precious time.

So forget about perfection. Roll up your sleeves and bake some cookies, or make your Auntie’s recipe for Christmas squares and serve them on the plate she left you. Talk about your memories of her over a cup of tea while enjoying them. Or take a walk in the crisp winter air, and come home to steaming coffee and pumpkin pie. Revisit some of the traditions you learned as a child, and share your memories of them with your own children, grandchildren or nieces and nephews. And while you are at it, create some Christmas traditions of your own. It needn’t be expensive – all it requires is a little time and a little love.

The perfect Christmas really is not about how much money you have or finding the perfect gift, it is about sharing that most precious of commodities - love. One of the best ways to do that is to share the traditions that helped make you who you are today. And who knows - saving Christmas Past might just help you find the perfect Christmas Present.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Cooking with Kids is for Life, Not Just for Christmas

Whether it is Christmas cookies in America, mince pies in England or any other number of delicious treats in a myriad of other countries, you can pretty much guarantee that this time of year there will be kids in the kitchen helping with the baking. It is fun for them, and fun for the grown up helping them too – a real part of the Christmas celebrations.

With some very rare exceptions, kids love to cook. There is something incredibly satisfying about making something for yourself and others to eat, particularly if it is something sweet and delicious. The thing I find kind of sad is that a lot of kids only cook at Christmas or for special occasions. We all want to raise happy, well-rounded children, so we teach them absolutely everything under the sun – except how to cook healthy food for themselves and their families to eat. In years gone by, most young people learned to cook at their parents’ side. Unfortunately in these days of not enough time, family members rushing off in different directions and ready prepared meals, that often does not happen.

Both cooking and eating together as a family are incredibly important. It’s something notable television cooks - from Rachael Ray to Jamie Oliver - encourage us to do. Rachael Ray’s Yum-O Foundation works to help empower families to develop healthy relationships with food and cooking. It is one of many groups attempting to change our relationship with cooking and food in our post-modern era. Yet somehow we are still a society where young people on the whole have diets that are not very healthy. A huge part of the reason for this is that they are not learning how to cook healthy nutritious meals with their families.

When I was a child, my mom and I spent a lot of time together in the kitchen making food for special occasions. So when I first arrived in England as a young woman, I was able to bake amazing cakes, cookies and desserts. But what I had never learned was how to cook was good, basic food. Luckily I found out I was good at cooking pasta dishes so I managed to eat pretty well for a while, and even had my fiancé convinced that I was an experienced cook. Then we moved in together and the issue of the Sunday roast reared its ugly head. I had no idea how to cook most meats or where to start when it came to cooking the ever popular British meal of “meat and two veg”. And when my husband to be suggested having people round for dinner I nearly had a nervous breakdown. Thankfully, he was incredibly encouraging when I made my first few attempts at more complicated home cooking. I was also an eager student, and between some very helpful cookbooks and some even more helpful friends, I began the learning process that made me the extremely keen cook I am today. And of course, throughout that process I did always have the comfort of knowing, that whatever happened to the main course, at least I could count on dessert tasting good!

A lot of young people today find themselves in the same position I did - on their own for the first time with little or no idea of how to cook. So when it comes time for dinner, they reach for a ready meal or takeaway. Not only is this not the most nutritious option, it is also the most expensive, at a time when budgets are generally very tight. Thanks to the very prevalent practice of only cooking with our children on special occasions, a huge proportion of this generation are growing up exactly as I did, and go out into the world not knowing how to cook for themselves.

There are a lot of mistaken assumptions about teaching kids to cook. The most common of these is that there is not enough time. But whatever you eat, from beans on toast to a three-course meal, it has to be prepared. There is almost no reason that children cannot be involved in this. Although they may be too young to handle a knife or work with high temperatures, even the youngest of children can do basic tasks, such as stirring things together, tearing lettuce leaves for salad or peeling fresh corn. It just takes a tiny bit of patience on the part of the supervising adult. As children grow older, they can gradually become involved in the more complicated parts of food preparation. Depending on the age of the child, they can begin to prepare vegetables and even put together whole meals.

I’ve been cooking with my son for a number of years now. From his first adventures in the kitchen at the age of three decorating cookies, he has progressed over the years to making complete meals. We often work together to prepare meals and I involve him in everything, from deciding what to cook right down to serving it. Not only does this mean I can pass my knowledge, it also allows us to spend time together sharing our experiences and taking about life, the universe and everything. When special occasions do arise, I teach him the old family recipes I have found in my mom’s recipe file or we work together on a project for the holidays. For example, this year we have been asked to bring a cake to the family Christmas celebrations. Up until a couple of weeks ago, I had only ever made a Christmas cake once, so this was a bit of a challenge. However, it was one both my son and I have relished as we have tried various different recipes, tasting and weighing up which is our favourite, in order to choose the recipe we will make for Christmas.

The time I spend in the kitchen with my son is special for both of us. When he is able to, my husband joins us as well, and we all enjoy not only the fruits of our labours, but the conversation and laughter that is a part of the preparations. Of course, we cannot cook together every day, but even if I am cooking alone, I make sure how what I have cooked is prepared. He is busy studying for exams today, but I spent ten minutes earlier telling him exactly how I was preparing our roast beef for dinner – from what cut of beef we enjoy the most to how I season it and how long I cook it for. So he now has the basic knowledge to cook a roast of beef. One day we’ll do it together and he will be able to add experience to that knowledge.

It’s not difficult to involve children and young people in family cooking and there are lots of different ways to approach it. As I have described, I try to include my son wherever possible in the preparation of our meals – and as a rule I do that at least once or twice a week. There are also lots of other ways to go about it. At the BBC Good Food Show, I watched a cookery demonstration by the amazing Nigella Lawson. I listened to her describe how she encourages each of her children to cook for the family once per week. She asks each child to cook the same dish of their choice each week for a month. So whether it be spaghetti carbonara or chicken soup, by the time the month is out, each child has not only had the experience of feeding their family, they have also cooked one recipe four times, learning from their mistakes, and adding another dish to their cooking repertoire. One of my friends has three children, and she lets them loose all together in the kitchen one night a week, getting them to prepare three courses for the family to share. They work together on the menu, and each child is responsible for preparing one of the courses.

However you choose to do it, I believe it is crucial that we as adults make a concerted effort to teach the children in our lives how to cook a wide variety of foods. Not only does it mean we can pass down family recipes and anecdotes, but it allows us to equip the next generation of children with some of the most basic survival information there is – how to feed themselves. It is not rocket science, but it is vitally important. If we do not do this, we risk losing not only some of our precious family traditions, but also the practice of sharing our food together. Research recently highlighted the fact that only twenty percent of families in the US sit down together at a table regularly to eat a meal. If we continue on this way not only will we lose the precious interaction of family mealtime, but we also risk raising a generation of children dependent on other people – be they restaurants or large companies who prepare ready meals – for their most basic need. This is not something that even bears thinking about.

Teaching our children to cook is a lifetime project, a joyful sharing of the wonderful traditions of food and eating we all enjoy. Cooking with kids really is for life, not just for Christmas.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Post Modern Christmas Turkey Dilemma

It’s not a good time of year for turkeys. First there’s Thanksgiving and then only a month later, it’s Christmas. Not only are supermarkets full of turkeys, but local farms and specialty butchers are advertising them as well. This time of year, turkeys are definitely an endangered species. Of course I do not mean this is the case for them corporately in terms of a species, but as individuals, they are definitely candidates for a least likely to survive the season award.

But when it comes to your Christmas turkey, does it really matter what kind you choose? Is it that important to worry about how your turkey has been raised and what it has eaten? And furthermore, does buying an organic turkey mean that you will have a better tasting bird?

The answer to all three of these questions is yes. Believe it or not, your choice of turkey not only affects the success of your Christmas dinner, it actually impacts on your family’s health and even the environment.

Most of us have been purchasing turkeys that have been intensively reared for years. Intensively reared turkeys are often kept in windowless ‘houses’ with as many as 25,000 birds in one house. I was told by a friend about a visit he made to a turkey farm and how horrific it was, picking his way amongst the very unhappy birds, who were frantically pecking at each other to try to get some space. This crowding and lack of stimulation can often cause the turkeys to become aggressive and even cannibalistic. In fact, intensively reared turkeys are often de-beaked to prevent this. Furthermore, these crowded conditions often lead to disease spreading throughout the flock. To avoid this, the birds may be preventatively medicated with antibiotics. Sometimes they are even given growth hormones to make them develop faster. When you buy and eat intensively reared turkeys, some of these chemical residues are extremely likely to be passed on to you.

An free range organic turkey is a different thing altogether. They are raised mostly outdoors with more space allocated per bird. Grain fed, they are never given feed which may contain animal byproducts, and their grain cannot be genetically modified in any way. Organic turkeys are not medicated unless they are actually ill, and this is done only as a last resort. This more natural way of life is not only better for the turkey, it is better for you, Organic turkeys generally have leaner meat, developing more muscle and less fat than intensively reared turkeys which get virtually no exercise whatsoever.

Lots of people will argue that they have been eating intensively reared turkeys for years and it hasn’t done them any harm, nor do they feel they have been deprived in the taste department. But have they ever tasted a free range bird that has been raised organically? If they are sticking to their argument, probably not. Organic turkey definitely tastes better. The meat is leaner and is a better source of protein than the intensively raised alternative.

Not only is organically raised turkey better for you, it is better for the environment because organic farming methods are less disruptive to local ecosystems and are not dependent on the use of chemicals and drugs. Organic farmers work in harmony with nature to ensure biodiversity and sustainability. It is also much kinder to the animals involved as they are raised more naturally, and allowed to develop for longer.

So when you choose your turkey this Christmas, I urge you to purchase an organic bird. It may be slightly more expensive, but not only will you enjoy the flavor more, you will also be benefitting the environment and your family’s health. It’s an investment not only in the taste of Christmas present, but also in the taste of Christmas future.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Post Thanksgiving Credit Crunch Christmas Blues

Thanksgiving has always heralded that start of the holidays in America, and traditionally people are pretty much in the holiday spirit from then on. Similarly, in other countries including Canada and England, the first day of December heralds the start of the festive season. This year however, something seems to be amiss. People worldwide seem to be more cautious about their holiday joy. Everyone is talking about cancelling Christmas parties, or at the very least scaling them down. The stores are packed full of Christmas shoppers as they always are this time of year, but most of them look stressed and worried. So do the shopkeepers. Suddenly we are faced with the unavoidable truth. We have all become so commercial about the holidays that a lot of folks are feeling very blue indeed. We feel our celebrations are threatened because we have to tighten our belts. I’m here to tell you that does not have to be the case.

I’m not about to suggest that you can ignore the credit crunch, or the fact that most of the world seems to be sliding into recession. I can insist however that it does not have to affect your holiday celebrations. In the last few years of plenty, we all got pretty used to holiday extravagance. Where we used to drink wine, champagne became the norm. Luxury ingredients like foie gras, truffles and caviar, once the preserve of only the very rich, moved into the diet of the middle classes. In some cases, the importance of these luxuries overtook the importance of the celebrations. We were all out to impress, whether it was by what we ordered in a restaurant, or what we served when we entertained. Within the big corporates, there was practically a competition as to who could put on the best (ie. most extravagant) Christmas entertainment. We forgot that entertaining and being entertained is all about having fun and connecting with other people. It is not what you eat or drink or where you party. Yet suddenly we all seem to think that because we can’t put on the Ritz like we used to, it isn’t worth bothering to celebrate at all. Well, that is just pure nonsense.

You can have a very glitzy party without breaking the bank. It would be such a shame to abandon entertaining because you feel somehow inadequate, or that you can’t live up to impossible standards. With some rare exceptions, most people just want to have a bit of fun with their friends, colleagues and families during the holidays. I certainly do not go to a party expecting a particular standard of entertainment, nor do I judge what is served or where it is held. I’m pleased to have been invited and happy to have the opportunity to celebrate with others – and I am willing to bet most other people feel the same way. Frankly, if they don’t, do you really want them at your party anyway?

So here are some ideas for entertaining this holiday season that will still keep the glamour in the holidays without breaking the bank. To start with, one of the best kept secrets in London is that good Proscecco (Italian sparkling wine) can, in many cases, taste better than some champagnes. It is not too sweet and has a crisp, dry finish. And at about one third the price of champagne, it’s a great way to keep the sparkle in your entertaining without champagne prices. It’s lovely straight, or you can mix it with a bit of Kir (blackberry liqueur) or Chambord (raspberry liqueur). Just pour a tiny drop in the bottom of a champagne glass and top up with Proscecco. It’s delicious and looks gorgeous. You can also use it in champagne cocktails in place of the real thing. It’s unlikely anyone will even notice.

If you are planning a dinner party, ring the changes and serve comfort food. Not only do people love it, it usually costs a lot less to prepare than other things. Coq au Vin, Boeuf Bourginion, even good old stew can make a fabulous main course. I served traditional British sausage and mash at a dinner party recently and everyone raved about how wonderful it was to eat something so comforting and delicious.. I made sure to use excellent quality sausages from a great butcher and served a nice, warming bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon alongside. The evening was a resounding success and it cost a good deal less than my dinner parties normally do. We even had champagne cocktails to start – with Prosecco of course!

Really hard up? Invite friends and family to a pot luck supper. These used to be all the rage when I was growing up and frankly, it’s time we resurrected them. With everyone bringing a dish, the costs to the host are kept to a minimum. Ask folks to bring a bottle as well – nobody minds and they would probably have brought one as a hostess gift anyway! Of course you need to know what everyone is bringing to avoid the horror of twelve salads and no main course, but that’s just easy organisational stuff anyone can sort out. You can even do this with cocktail parties. Ask everyone to bring one kind of cold canapé or some nibbles and a bottle of their favourite drink. As the host you could provide one fabulous hot canapé and lots of soft drinks and juices. Consider making punch if anyone brings a bottle of rum or vodka. Or you could make mulled wine, which is wonderfully warming and goes a long way as it is very strong. My favourite recipe involves studding an oranges with cloves and slicing a further two oranges. Add all the oranges to a large saucepan along with a bottle of gutsy red wine (try Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon), 4 ounces of brandy or Grand Marnier, 2 tablespoons of brown sugar, a cinnamon stick and a bit of grated nutmeg. Heat gently over very low heat until it is a comfortable drinking temperature – not too hot. Serve in small (heat proof) glasses. This is not just for reasons of economy – it’s very intoxicating!

You can jazz up your house for a big party without breaking the bank as well. Remember paper chains and stringing popcorn for decorations? What about homemade cookie decorations for your tree? All of these are a charmingly retro way of embracing the spirit of the 1950’s and 60’s. They also cost next to nothing and are a great way of involving the kids in the decorating.

So light up a log fire, crack open the Prosecco, mull some wine and invite your friends round for a real celebration. There is absolutely no need for the Post Thanksgiving Credit Crunch Christmas Blues. With a bit of creativity and a spirit of fun, you can entertain just like you always have. Credit crunch or no credit crunch, here’s to a wonderful Holiday Season 2008!

Thursday, 27 November 2008

A Goat By Any Other Name Still Would Not Smell Sweet

There is another ingredient out there that is used in the kitchens of fine restaurants with almost as much frequency as the ubiquitous foie gras. It’s even turning up on some Christmas menus this year! Produced in most countries in the world, this cheese has many fans world wide. Sadly I am not one of them. So I set out to discover more about this very popular cheese I would really love to enjoy, but just cannot seem to.

The ingredient I am referring to is, of course, goat’s cheese. Now I have been trying to like goat’s cheese for about fifteen years now. I can remember the first time I tasted it, taking a piece from a cheese platter at a dinner party. We were chatting about the cheeses on the platter and when I asked what kind of cheese this particular one was the reply was “chevre”. I was very good at French in school and I do manage to get by when we visit my husband’s old school friends in France, but I'd had a couple glasses of wine and it took me a minute to remember that chevre meant goat. Just about as much time as it took me to get the cheese to my lips in fact.

I cannot honestly say that I tasted that piece of cheese in an unbiased manner, as the horror of the word I had just translated in my head was only just beginning to seep through. Nothing against goats you understand, but having been forced to participate in numerous school trips to local farms as a child I was not a huge fan of these animals. The thing about goats for me is that they look so cute from a distance, but when you get close up they look dirty and the smell, well, let’s just not go there. Not only that, but they tend to nip when you feed them – rather painfully in fact – although I was assured this was just nuzzling. Yeah right.

So the piece of cheese I was tasting immediately took on a life of its own, and all those overwhelming farmyard smells of the past assailed my brain. I just managed to swallow the piece of cheese I was eating. I did not, I decided, like goat’s cheese at all.

This is a real shame, because goat’s cheese is actually incredibly good for you. Easier to digest than cheese made from cow’s milk and full of calcium and nutrients, it’s smaller fat globules make it easier to digest than bovine alternatives. It’s also an incredibly versatile cooking ingredient and is lower in cholesterol than cheese made from cow’s milk.

Everyone else I know seems to love goat’s cheese. Not only that, but they are vocal campaigners for it. Whenever I have had the temerity to admit I don’t actually like it, I find folks are very quick to come to its defence. Their major argument is that not all goat’s cheese tastes the same. This is very true. In fact, the French goat’s cheese I tasted the first time was probably the strongest sort available, due to the diet consumed by French goats. You see goat’s cheese tastes different depending on where it is made. The diet goats eat varies wildly from country to country. For example, while Canadian goat’s cheese is quite mildly flavoured, Spanish goat’s cheese is more distinctive as the goats eat wild herbs. English goat’s cheese tastes different yet again. Incidentally, the old wives’ tale that goats will eat garbage if they are allowed to is not true. Goats are just naturally curious and will nibble anything just to find out what it is (including my fingers). However they won’t actually eat it, indeed goat farmers are quick to point out that goats are actually quite fussy and will refuse poor quality food.

The other good thing about goat’s cheese is that most of it is made in a way that makes it suitable for vegetarians. This means you can use it when cooking for vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike, a real boon if you have both carnivores and herbivores coming to dinner. This does raise a problem for me though.

Although I am far from vegetarian, I love vegetarian food and often like to order it in restaurants. Unfortunately, more and more, the vegetarian choice on a lot of menus includes goat’s cheese. One of my favourite vegetarian pizzas in our local pizzeria is now off limits for me as they have replaced the mozzarella with goat’s cheese, much to my intense disappointment. In fact, in most restaurants I have been to recently, there is a surfeit of dishes containing this ingredient. It’s almost getting hard to avoid!

So, I have continued to attempt to like goat’s cheese. Over the last few months, I have re-tasted the French variety, sampled Italian Caprino, British goat’s cheese, Canadian goat’s cheese and everything in between. I have tasted crumbly White Nancy and I have even sampled the hysterically named Welsh Pantysgawn. (Okay it doesn’t sound funny if you pronounce it correctly in Welsh, but if you pronounce it phonetically – well, I’ll leave you to do that for yourselves.)

I really, truly, do not like any of the goat’s cheeses I have tasted, and goodness knows I have tried to! Now goat farmers will insist that improved farming methods and hygiene have ensured that goat’s cheese no longer has the terrible smell it’s reputation has been tarnished with, and I agree that is the case, but it still does not help. I have even tasted goat’s cheese not knowing it was goat’s cheese and somehow knew from the taste what it was.

So sadly for me, I don’t think I will ever be a convert to this amazing cheese. I’d urge everyone else to try it though. You can eat it as it comes with bread or crackers or you can cook with it very successfully. I’m told it is lovely toasted or even fried, and friends of mine have recipes for everything from peppers with lentils and goats cheese to roasted tomato and goat’s cheese tart. You can even make cheesecake with it! Added to its versatility are the clear health benefits of a cheese that is lower in cholesterol, calories and fat than other cheeses.

Sounds like a wonderful cheese for the 21st Century. Perhaps I’ll just give it one more try…

Friday, 21 November 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

I’m sure most everyone in the United States is already getting excited about Thanksgiving. It’s not long now till the fourth Thursday in November. Growing up in Canada, I always thought that Americans had it right when it came to celebrating Thanksgiving. Although the holiday weekend was a big deal in Canada, we only got one day off school, not two. We did have big family dinners, but it seemed to me that the ones in America looked much more exciting. We had parades as well, but who could compete with the spectacular balloons of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in New York? So I never felt that passionately about Canadian Thanksgiving. As the Canadian ancestors in my family tree travelled to America on the Mayflower (but later fled to Canada as United Empire Loyalists), I liked the pilgrim story. It was much more interesting than dusty old explorers Martin Frobisher and Samuel de Champlain celebrating with the Indians. This opinion made me very unpopular with patriotic teachers in primary school. I did love the family get-togethers and Thanksgiving food, and of course, I was grateful for all the blessings I had, but it wasn’t until I left Canada in 1989, that I suddenly realised how much I loved Thanksgiving.

I came to this realisation because Thanksgiving just didn’t seem to exist here in England. The first year I lived here, the second Monday in October came and went, and no mention was made of Thanksgiving. As my fiancées family had lived in the United States for several years I nurtured the faint hope that they might celebrate Thanksgiving in November, but that didn’t materialise either. I never said anything, because I was at the point in my life where I didn’t want to stand out. I was the new kid on the block – okay I was the immigrant – and hated to mention anything that made me seem any more foreign than I already felt. But as a married woman two years later, I decided that we would celebrate Thanksgiving, and we would celebrate it the second Monday in October just as my family always had. Unfortunately I had no idea just how difficult that was going to be. My first stop was, of course, the grocery store. Finding the usual Thanksgiving ingredients seemed like it would be fairly easy in Autumnal England. Potatoes were readily available, and vegetables of every description lined the shelves of the produce department. It was not until I got to the meat department that my problems began. I looked everywhere for a turkey but there was none to be found. I went to the butcher counter to ask the man himself. After I made my request, the butcher looked at me as though I had asked for something very exotic, like maybe ostrich or boar.

“Turkeys?” he asked. “Yes, please, “ I replied. “You won’t find fresh turkeys this time of year, only at Christmas. You might find a frozen one though”. He looked at me as if I’d lost my mind. Three grocery stores later and I was still in the same boat. No one had fresh turkey and the frozen ones were clearly left over from Christmas 1985 (this was 1991), totally frosted up and unappetising. There wasn’t a Butterball to be found. You should have seen the butcher’s face in the store where I asked for those! “Butter’s in the dairy section,” was only the beginning. In the end all I had for my first Thanksgiving dinner in England was some potatoes, vegetables and some very dodgy looking packaged stuffing. Not only that, but my request for cranberry sauce had been met with utter confusion. Ocean Spray wouldn’t make it over here for several years after that. So in the end I cooked a chicken. The stuffing tasted rather strange to me and without the cranberry sauce, well, as far as I was concerned, it could have been any old Sunday lunch. There was not even any pumpkin pie. It was very disappointing. Over the years I coped by either arranging to be in Canada for Thanksgiving or by smuggling jars of cranberry sauce and packages of Stove Top stuffing back in my luggage after our Canadian summer vacations. But if it was Thanksgiving in England, it was always chicken. The past five or six years have been so chaotic for us I hardly even thought about making Thanksgiving dinner, except the times we were in Canada with my Dad and Mom. But their deaths twelve and eleven months ago respectively suddenly made me crave the Thanksgiving tradition again. It was important to me to celebrate not only Thanksgiving itself, but also the happy memories I have of them at Thanksgiving. This year, cooking Thanksgiving dinner was a little different. I still had to cook chicken, but the rest of the ingredients were much easier. I managed to find a supplier of Stove Top stuffing here in England. Okay, it makes my hair curl paying the equivalent seven dollars for something I could have bought for $1.99 in Canada, but for a treat, it’s worth it. And I found proper Ocean Spray Cranberry Sauce here too. We finally got Ocean Spray products about seven years ago, but this year I even found the sauce with whole berries like I used to buy in Canada – oh joy! And my son helped me make the dinner. While he peeled parsnips I shared my secrets for a homemade Butterball. If you buy a big chicken, lift the skin up off the breast and slide a few pieces of butter in underneath you get an effect not unlike a Butterball turkey. I also showed him how to make a pumpkin pie using Libby’s Tinned Pumpkin – in my opinion, the only way to go. But that’s another column.

And when we sat down to steaming plates heaving with juicy chicken (which I insisted on referring to as turkey), stuffing, mashed potatoes, roast parsnips, leeks and gravy it was with glad and thankful hearts. We rejoiced in our blessings, toasted absent friends and family, talked about happy memories and celebrated Thanksgiving as never before. So spare a thought for friends and family abroad when you celebrate Thanksgiving. Remember that sometimes it isn’t easy to keep to traditions and think how much you’d miss them if you couldn’t. It even makes listening to the same old stories for the seven hundredth time or keeping Great Aunt Mildred out of the sherry seem like fun. Wherever and whenever you celebrate, I wish you many blessings, and a very Happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

The 21st Century Housewife Meets the Original Domestic Goddess

On Sunday my family and I attended the BBC Good Food Show at Olympia in London. The British Broadcasting Corporation holds several Good Food Shows every year in throughout the UK. They are a coming together of food and beverage producers, television personalities and people who love food and drink - so they are my kind of place!

I was more excited about the show on Sunday than I have ever been before as it afforded an opportunity to see Nigella Lawson cooking live. Back in 2003, when Nigella published her book "How to be a Domestic Goddess", I had gotten to the stage where cooking stressed me out completely. Although I was good at it, I was getting myself so worked up about doing everything perfectly I had stopped enjoying it. Dinner parties were no longer fun, they were incredibly stressful events that often found me near to tears in the kitchen. Nigella's relaxed attitude - and her firmly tongue in cheek use of the word "domestic goddess" - encouraged me to get back in there and enjoy myself. It was life changing. I've been a huge fan ever since.

I've been to several BBC Good Food shows before, but never one at Olympia. I have to say it is the best venue I have ever visited. The layout of the hall it was held in was such that you did not feel claustrophobic, despite the fact it was very busy. You could easily visit all the exhibitors and taste their wares. There was a really lovely atmosphere as well. Most of the exhibitors were hugely enthusiastic about their products and it showed. The funniest was a chap at a kiosk selling home-made fudge who was shouting "Come here my lovelies and taste my fudge" to all the girls. Let's just say he didn't have to ask anyone twice! All in all, there were a huge number of exhibitors at Olympia - organic producers, small farmers, the slow food movement, butchers, bakers, candy makers – almost everything you could imagine. There was even an entire section of producers of Gluten Free products. From bread to cookies and cakes to ice cream cones, there were a huge number of products available for those with a gluten allergy. Although I don't have any allergies, I tasted many of them and you really could not tell they were not "the real thing" - even the white bread! And as for some of the cookies and cakes, well, they were among the most delicious packaged products I have ever tasted.

In the centre of the hall was "The Restaurant Experience" - a section of kiosks from ten of London's top restaurants. Each one was producing small portions of their signature dishes that you could buy for your lunch. Sterling was exchanged for "dining currency" - which bore a strong resemblance to poker chips - in 1, 2 and 5 DC (dining currency) denominations. Most dishes cost between 3 and 5 DC. We were lucky enough to have reserved seats in the VIP area so we were able to sit down with a menu and decide what we wanted for starter, main course and dessert. There were suggested wines for each course as well although I stuck to soft drinks. The lovely thing was you could have as many dishes as you liked (budget permitting of course!) from as many of the kiosks as you wanted. For example, my starter was a fabulous Szechuan miso soup from Kai Mayfair, followed by Italian Tortellini with pork ragu at Refettorio and then dessert at Sumosan. Dessert was amazing - dark chocolate fondant filled with white chocolate, baked in the oven and then covered in green tea chocolate sauce. It looked beautiful and tasted delicious.

There was also an entire section where you could taste wines and spirits. I tend to avoid this section as it can lead to serious headaches, but it is a great opportunity to try new things and order wines and spirits at a serious discount. But as this was a daytime event (I rarely drink alcohol before 6pm), I resisted temptation and confined my beverage purchases to half a dozen bottles of a fabulous non-alcoholic ginger wine for mulling from Gran Stead's Ginger and some lovely cordials from the Pixley Berries Company.

The highlight of the day was Nigella Lawson’s presentation in the Icon Theatre. She was demonstrating how to make her edible Christmas Tree decorations. The nice thing about her demonstration was that she made you feel like you could actually make what she had, and that it didn’t matter if it wasn’t picture perfect, it really only mattered that you had fun doing it. It is such a refreshing attitude in these days of “perfect” this and “perfect” that! Nothing against Martha Stewart, but I always feel vaguely inadequate when I look at her flawless projects. I much prefer Nigella’s attitude – particularly as I am a recovering perfectionist! I left the presentation positively inspired and ready to do lots of Christmas baking this year.

Nigella has just published another book entitled Nigella Christmas, a gorgeous coffee table book, full of wonderful photographs as well as her inimitable writing. It transpired that she was doing a book signing after her presentation. I did not realise that my VIP pass meant that I would be taken straight to the front of the queue, so when I arrived at the signing and was immediately whisked up to meet the lady herself, I was a bit taken aback. I have always admired Nigella’s relaxed and joyful attitude towards food and cooking and I think her books are just amazing so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to meet her. It was just the speed with which the opportunity presented itself was very startling and I found myself almost speechless. I need not have been nervous though. As you can see from the photograph above (that’s me in blue on the right), she is just as relaxed and friendly in person as she comes across in her writing and appears to be on television. I have met quite a number of high profile people over the years but I have never before met anyone in the public eye who was quite as genuine and unaffected as she was.

It was a really super show this year, one that all three of us enjoyed. There was plenty to hold the interest of both the 21st Century Husband and the 21st Century Teenager. As for me, I’m happy anywhere that good food, wine and inspiration come together. So bring on the mincemeat, glace cherries and candied peel, I’m all fired up and ready to get started on the Christmas preparations!

Monday, 17 November 2008

The Great Steak Controversy

Why is it that ordering a steak in a restaurant is almost always a difficult experience? First you explain to the waiter how you want your steak cooked, then you wait expectantly for it to arrive. Then, more often than not, you will have to send it back. Failing that, you will grit your teeth and eat it anyway even though it is either too rare or too well done. And then you pay for it. Not good. I travel a lot, and believe me, this happens in more restaurants than I'd like to admit.

Despite this, I have to confess, I have a real weakness for a good steak. Now, my definition of a good steak might not be yours. I like my steak cooked medium, warm throughout with a pink centre. Your good steak might be rare or even well done. Whatever your preference, you should be able to get exactly what you want when you order a steak in a restaurant. Unfortunately this is not always the case.

There are wildly varying degrees of how steak is cooked in restaurants around the world. A medium steak in America is a very different thing from a medium steak in England, as is a medium steak in England from one that has been cooked in France. And that is before you get to the medium steak cooked in England by a French chef! Travel to Cyprus and you’ll find that medium is closer to rare, and well done to medium. Different parts of Europe follow different rules of thumb, but generally lean towards cooking steak quite lightly. Even chefs in the same town cook according to different rules of doneness, many influenced by their country of birth or even how they like to eat their own steak.

The official standards for degrees of cooking are pictured left. The top steak in the picture, in which seventy-five percent of the centre is red and has an internal temperature of thirty to fifty-one degrees Celsius, is rare. Working downwards, medium rare has a fifty percent red centre and comes in at fifty-seven to sixty-three degrees Celsius. Third from the top, a medium steak should have a centre which is twenty-five percent pink and be sixty-three to sixty-eight degrees Celsius. Below that there is medium well, which has only a hint of pink and should be seventy-two to seventy-seven degrees Celsius internally. Finally, well done steak should be brown (not charred) and have an internal temperature of seventy-seven degrees Celsius.

Sadly, in my experience, chefs rarely pay attention to this guideline – and this incenses me. There seems to be a real prejudice against medium to well done steak, and an almost sinister attempt to force those of us who prefer our steaks cooked this way to change our ways.

Steak – and beef in general - is a very personal thing. Those who like it rare will explain that it keeps the steak tender, and that the juices are delicious. (At this point I cannot keep silent – if those “juices” are red then they are not “juices”. They are blood. But I digress.) Those of us who like our steaks medium will say that any further cooking dries the steak and spoils the experience. And those who prefer well done say that it is unappetising to eat meat that is still pink or red. And do you know what? On one level or another, we are all correct. Because you should have your steak cooked the way you like it – not the way you are told you ought to have it.

I used to like my steak well done – and more than once was served something that virtually resembled charcoal on the outside but was still red on the inside. Over the years, either my tastes have evolved or I have been beaten into submission, but I now enjoy a medium steak. Sadly, this does not seem to have helped much. Not that long ago, I sent back a steak three times in a very elegant (and expensive) restaurant in England as the French chef virtually refused to cook it anything beyond medium rare. Although we never saw the whites of each other’s eyes, the tension between us was palpable. The poor waiter was shaking by the end of it, and I had been very calm and polite throughout. Clearly the chef was not. If I am paying for a steak, I expect it to be cooked how I want it cooked, not how the chef feels it ought to be cooked. And if anyone tells me the steak will be tough if it is not cooked lightly, they ought to buy better steak.

So often a medium steak arrives looking very rare indeed – a medium steak I had a few weeks ago in Cyprus was actually bleeding on the plate. What is this preoccupation with undercooking a good steak? I mean, if you want to eat it rare, fine. I don’t. I want my steak cooked to medium – pink centre, warm throughout.

Now the obvious solution to this seems to be to order the steak cooked more thoroughly than how you would like it to be. In my experience, as soon as you ask for anything beyond medium well, many chefs just hear “burned” and provide you with what they think you’ve asked for. Many of my friends do like their steak well done. They have assured me that well done definitely does not mean burned. It means cooked slowly over low heat until it is brown (not black – brown) and warm throughout.

To any chefs out there who are trying to convert the world to the joys of rare steak – seriously, stick to the rules. You are the cook and I am the customer. If you think I’m a heathen for eating my steak cooked till it is pink inside and warm throughout, I have to confess I do not care. Just please cook it that way. You can try all you like, but I’m not going to eat rare steak just because you insist that is the way I should eat it. That just is not how it works.

Of course there are some amazing chefs out there and there are many places in the world where you can get a really good steak, cooked exactly as you want it to be. Some I have yet to discover, but I've found a good few. Harris’ Steak House in San Francisco is a place where they cook steak just as you order it. At the other end of the scale, most Outback restaurant chefs really hear you when you tell them how you want your steak cooked. The Brook House Restaurant in Staffordshire, England also does a very nice steak – particularly Steak Diane - as does Sam Sneed’s Restaurant in Savannah, Georgia.

But if you are not close to one of those, don’ t be like the woman next to me in the restaurant in Cyprus who not only did not eat her $50 steak because it was too rare, but was too intimidated to send it back. If the steak that arrives at your table is not cooked how you would like to eat it, ask the waiter to request it is cooked a little longer. Expect the steak that returns to your table to have been gently helped along to the next level of doneness. If it has been anywhere near a microwave, complain again. If you are paying for it, it should be served as you have ordered it. Don’t be intimidated. Ordering steak in a restaurant should never be a stressful experience!

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

A Very Reluctant Detox

Recently I found myself hitting a bit of a low point. I was totally stressed out, always feeling exhausted and there were points during the month where I took moodiness to a whole new level. Now it just happened that my husband was also very stressed at this point as was our son, who had exams in the offing. So a holiday was suggested. This sounded like a very good idea, so off we went for a week in the Cyprus sunshine. The first few days were idyllic. We laid by the pool, swam, visited the spa and totally relaxed. In the evenings, cocktails at seven led to dinner at eight, and after a walk in the evening breezes we would retire early and sleep like babies. Perfect.

Now, how often have you heard a friend complain that they no sooner went on holiday than they got sick? Well, that’s what happened to my husband and I. Clearly we had waited too long to take a break from the rat race because suddenly two people who had not been sick in literally years picked up a bacterial infection that made them feel utterly awful.

Aside from getting the appropriate treatment, my husband and I decided that perhaps it might be time to do a little light detoxing. This was not a decision I reached easily.

In fact, not so long ago, my yoga teacher suggested that I give up caffeine. I was horrified. My morning cup of coffee was sacrosanct, and I have always felt that any grumpiness exhibited before this cup of coffee was not only to be tolerated, it was to be expected. I’ve tried to moderate my caffeine intake before, limiting it to three caffeinated beverages a day. This was accomplished with a great deal of stress and was not usually very successful. Without sounding too negative, I tried to explain to my yoga teacher that this was a Very Bad Idea. After all, I was feeling exhausted as it was and without caffeine surely I would be even worse. “Caffeine,” she said to me patiently, “is the reason you are walking round exhausted. You are complaining of fatigue and stress. Aside from practicing yoga, you need to think about what you are putting in your body.”

She then proceeded to gently explain that everything I put in my mouth, from my first bite of toast in the morning to my glass of wine in the evening, affects how I feel. Now, I’ve known for years this is true in principle, but it is one of the facts of life I prefer to ignore. The 21st Century Housewife’s Kitchen is not a place where you often hear the word detox. I enjoy the finer things in life and I love to share them with my friends. Wine, champagne, rich coffee and dark chocolate all have a place in my kitchen, alongside truffle oil, good fillet steak and a nice bottle of vintage port.

I have always been blessed with good health. I do drink lots of water, at least a couple of litres a day, and I watch what I eat both for reasons of appearance and health. I also exercise regularly and practice yoga. I have not even had so much as a cold in the last four years. But clearly I was sick now, and I needed to do something.

I decided to finally listen to my yoga teacher and drop the caffeine, and as we were taking antibiotics, my husband and I also decided to give alcohol a miss for a week or so. This was not a hardship for my husband, who has always been able to take or leave alcohol and who rarely finishes a cup of tea. For me, it was a decision taken very reluctantly. I love my coffee and my wine, and even knowing that I was not giving it up forever was making me feel really uncomfortable. I mean, wine was my great indulgence after the working day was over, and especially in these days of bad news all round the markets (both financial markets and supermarkets!) it was something I really looked forward to. I wanted to feel better though, and so very reluctantly committed to drop both wine and alcohol at the same time.

I was fascinated to discover that I found it easier to give up my glass of wine than my coffee. If you had asked me, I always would have said if I had to trade in coffee or wine, the coffee would go. But amazingly giving up the wine had absolutely no negative physical or mental effects on me at all. I’m not saying I didn’t fancy a glass, but it was just a matter of saying “no” to myself and that was it. Caffeine was a different story.

Three painful days into our detox, I was stressed out, tired, and had a caffeine withdrawal headache that could make me understand how the mythical Zeus might have felt when Athena burst forth from his head. It was taking a great deal of self control to prevent me from heading straight for the nearest Starbuck’s – or at least having a nice glass of Sauvignon Blanc. However, after some thought, I was horrified to realise that if someone asked me what my top “cure” for stress or anxiety would be, my choices would be to have a coffee or (if it was the evening) a glass of wine. The shock of this realisation gave me all the willpower I needed to power through the caffeine withdrawal and pass on the Sauvignon.

Now, after nearly a week with absolutely no liquid caffeine at all (there is a line, I’m not giving up chocolate!) and no alcohol, I feel much more energised, I’m sleeping better and I have not been moody at all. Also the three o’clock slump is a thing of the past. I am also delighted to say we are both nearly better.

They say there is a reason for everything and whilst I am not very happy about coming back from holiday sick, or the stressful week we have had because of it, I have learned something very important. Caffeine, alcohol, sugar, indeed everything we put in our mouths has a consequence. I don’t honestly think we realise how easy it is to develop a habit totally unwittingly. I mean, it’s not like a couple of glasses of wine makes you an alcoholic, nor that caffeine is the worst thing for you. (In fact there are those who would argue that coffee is actually beneficial to your health.) But this last week or so has taught me that many of the things we use to perk us up or help us to relax are often accomplishing the exact opposite.

The other amazing side effect to this rather unwilling detox is that I have lost a huge amount of weight. I never weigh myself, but my trousers are hanging off my waist and my stomach is almost washboard flat. (I do a lot of sit ups, but up until now I have never had results like this.) It turns out that although a small amount of caffeine can have a diuretic effect, too much can actually dehydrate the body and thus cause water retention. Of course, alcohol does this too, and that is before we even start to talk about the calories in my favourite Sauvignon or a latte.

It turns out that for me, caffeine is not really a good idea at all, and when I am not drinking a glass of wine every evening, I feel more energetic and healthy. So is the 21st Century Household destined to become a Teetotal Temple to Decaffeinated Bliss? Somehow I don’t think so. Good wine is one of my great pleasures in life and if anyone opens a bottle of champagne, I expect to be offered some. However, now I’ll really think before having a second (or third) glass. As for caffeine, I live in England. It's positively unpatriotic not to drink tea.

However, detoxing has made some very good economic sense for us. Seriously – add up how much you spend on caffeinated drinks and alcohol in a week. Most of you will be surprised. When I did it, I was staggered. I’ve saved about $50 on wine alone (my husband and I probably drink about three to four bottles between us in a week), and that’s before we get anywhere near a Starbuck’s.

If you feel inspired by this, I do recommend that you cut back slowly on caffeine to avoid the mind bending headaches I described, eliminating (or replacing with decaffeinated) one cup of coffee or tea a day over a period of a few weeks. Remember that drinks like cola and even soda can have caffeine in them as well. As for alcohol, the odd glass of wine can do you good. Just remember, “everything in moderation”. Too much is too much. And you don’t need that seven o’clock cocktail or glass of wine every day (honestly you don’t, I’m proof of that!). Try doing something else, maybe going to the gym or treating yourself to a nice walk a couple of evenings a week instead. You will definitely feel better for it. Incidentally, Vacuvin wine saver is a great way to seal a bottle of wine so that it still tastes delicious even a couple of days later – so there is no “we need to finish the bottle” excuse.

It may seem odd for someone who writes about food, wine and travel to be preaching moderation, but I have an almost evangelical zeal to share my experience of how simply moderating a couple of things can make a huge difference to how you feel. Despite the fact I am only just fully recovered from my illness, I have loads more energy than I did before and I’m sleeping better too.

Why not choose to have “a little of what you fancy” from time to time so that you can really enjoy it when you do? It’s better for you, your pocketbook and the planet.

PS- This afternoon on a long drive I desperately needed something to perk me up so I succumbed to a cup of tea. After so many days without it I found it tasted pretty awful (mind you it was from the motorway services!) but it made me high as a kite. I actually got the giggles, much to my son’s intense embarrassment. I’m still so full of energy I’m buzzing. If I ever had any doubts that caffeine is a drug, I sure don’t now!

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

England's National Dish

If England had a national dish, what would it be? The French jokingly refer to us as "les rosbifs" because of our perceived love of roast beef, and I suppose, as meat goes, it probably used to be the most commonly eaten meat here. Now roast beef is a very expensive choice, and whilst many Brits still love it, it is a treat rather than a staple. Some folks say fish and chips are our national dish. Certainly fish and chips are a big part of many a British person's diet and I often see tourists coming out of fish and chip shops enjoying this wonderful treat, whilst wondering at the absence of the newspaper it was always said to be wrapped in. (Health and safety regulations put an end to that in the late 1980's.) Back in 2001, the late Robin Cook hailed Chicken Tikka Masala as Britain's national dish, but I'm still not sure of that - even if we are an incredibly multi-cultural society and this variation on Indian cuisine was actually invented in England.

To my mind, the quintessentially British dish will always be Shepherd's Pie. This wonderful blend of meat and vegetables topped with fluffy mashed potato is a one dish meal that comforts and soothes. Interestingly, there is absolutely no pastry involved despite the word "pie" in the dish's name. There is also often confusion between Shepherd's Pie and Cottage Pie. I find both of these names deceptive as of course, Shepherd's Pie is not made of shepherds, nor is Cottage Pie made of cottages. In fact, Shepherd's Pie was traditionally made with lamb (hence the shepherd tag) and cottage pie was made with beef. This can vary regionally, and even from family to family, and I have to say that in my house and my husband's childhood home, Shepherd's Pie has always been made with beef.

Now, in years gone by, the lamb or beef would be left over from the Sunday roast, finely chopped, mixed with vegetables and gravy and topped with potato. It was a way that the housewife could stretch a roast to last, if not the whole week, at least part of it. Nowadays people tend to use ground beef or lamb to make their pies. There are two reasons for this. The first is that not everyone has a Sunday roast these days, and the second is that ground beef is much less expensive to buy. Shepherd's Pie is a perfect dish for these troubled economic times. You can either use leftovers to make it as it was originally invented, or you can start fresh with ground meat. It freezes easily (without the potato topping) and can even be adapted for vegetarians by using ground vege-mince or ground Quorn.

Even the potato topping can be varied by including different "mashable" vegetables, such as parsnips, turnip or swede. A dollop of mustard in the potato topping adds a nice hint of zing, as does a dollop of horseradish. Or you can stir a small amount of grated cheese into the potato topping. The variations are endless. If you find you have less than the amount of meat called for, you can always up the ante with extra chopped vegetables or a can of good old Heinz baked beans. You can even make it with just vegetables topped with potato, although I'm not sure you could really call it Shepherd's Pie anymore. Perhaps Gardener's Pie would be more appropriate in that case!

What follows below is merely a guideline. Whilst the original dish might be steeped in tradition, the 21st Century Housewife's Shepherd's Pie is not a dish you can be bossy about simply because it lends itself so easily to variation. However, it is a dish I do urge you to make as it is hearty, economical, flexible and utterly delicious.

The 21st Century Housewife's
Shepherd's Pie
Serves 4

1 - 2 teaspoons olive oil (or other cooking oil such as Canola or sunflower oil)
I large onion, peeled and finely chopped
500 grams of ground beef, lamb or vegetarian mince product OR about 2 cups of finely shredded leftover roast beef or lamb
2 cups of finely chopped vegetables (carrots, frozen peas or corn, parsnips, turnip, swede or any variation thereof)
2 beef stock cubes
1 can (approximately 400 grams) of chopped tomatoes OR 1 cup of boiling water
Hot mashed potato made from 8 medium potatoes, peeled, cooked, mashed with butter and milk, and seasoned with salt and pepper to taste.
You will need a medium sized casserole. Preheat the oven to about 175 degrees Celsius or 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Heat the oil in a medium frying pan. Gently cook the onions for a minute or two until they begin to soften. Now add the ground beef or lamb and cook until no pink remains. (If you are using Quorn, cook according to the package instructions. For leftover beef, just heat it gently and proceed virtually immediately to the next step as you do not want it to dry out.) Crumble the stock cubes over the browned meat. Now add either the can of tomatoes OR 1 cup of boiling water to make a gravy. Stir in the vegetables and heat through.

Transfer the beef mixture to a casserole. Heads up, if you wish to freeze the dish, cool it quickly and refrigerate until cold at this point and then place in the freezer. If you are not freezing it, now is the time to top the dish with the lovely fluffy mashed potatoes. (As I mentioned before, as an alternative, you can add other mashable vegetables to the potatoes. For example, try boiling four potatoes with four chopped parsnips or 1 cup of chopped turnip or swede. Drain and mash together with butter and milk and spread on top of the beef mixture.) I like to run the tines of a fork over the mashed potatoes to make little sticky uppy bits that go nice and brown in the oven.

Bake in the oven for about 30 minutes until lovely and golden brown. If you prefer a slower cooked dish, lower the oven temperature to about 150 degrees Celsius or 325 degrees Fahrenheit and cook for about 45 minutes. Either way, this dish "holds" well in the oven if dinner gets delayed because someone is late. Just turn the heat back a bit, but ensure that the dish stays at a safe temperature (don't hold it for more than 30 minutes or so either).

You can serve this straight from the casserole at the table. I sometimes steam a few more vegetables to have on the side - broccoli or Brussel sprouts are a popular choice in our house because of their vivid green colour, but choose your own favourite vegetable. Or defy tradition and serve with a salad. As I said, it's totally flexible.

Cool any leftovers quickly, refrigerate and use within 2 days. You can reheat this in the microwave very easily, just make sure it is piping hot before you serve it. Alternatively, use four small individual casserole dishes and make individual portions. If you are not going to use them all the first night, cool and refrigerate those that won't be used till the next day immediately after topping them with the hot potato. They will keep for up to two days. When you want to use them, bake in the oven at 175 degrees Celsius or 350 degrees Fahrenheit for about 45 minutes until piping hot. Flexible, economical and delicious - what more can you ask for?

Friday, 31 October 2008

If I don't eat it quickly I'll thnk about it too much

We have had a lovely week in Cyprus. Their summer doesn’t officially finish until the end of this week and the weather has been just beautiful. All of us, even the sun phobic 21st Century Teenager (to be fair he has cause to be), have picked up some colour. The only thing I have not enjoyed as much as I expected to is the food.

I had hoped to have accumulated a list of good restaurants in Paphos for my blog, but I can honestly say that, despite a great deal of effort and money spent, we have only found one restaurant we feel is excellent, and one that is very good, both of them in the hotel. This is, sadly, partly because of the effect of tourism on Cyprus, in that the very hospitable Cypriots try to serve us what they feel we like. This often turns out to be a great deal of meat and chips or French fries, alongside very few vegetables, which is of course perceived as the typical British/European diet. Nowadays, not everyone (particularly not the sort of folk to frequent more expensive hotels) eats like that anymore and it makes finding something to eat rather tricky. Olive oil is used in virtually everything. I am aware of the benefits of this wonderful oil, and indeed I use it myself in almost all my recipes calling for oil of any kind, but the use of it in cuisine here is almost to excess. It’s just a cultural thing, but sadly it has not agreed with me. The 21st Century Husband and I have suffered from regular indigestion along with various other difficulties arising from a huge change in diet.

Having said that, the breakfasts served in the hotel are very good, particularly the made to order omelettes. The chef who makes them is a jovial chap, and looks every inch the part of the typical chef, from his tall white chef’s cap to his very rotund tummy. I am amazed at how he remembers each guest by name, and even the things they like on their omelettes. This is a very large hotel, and it is fully booked at the moment. I don’t know how he does it. The rest of breakfast is a buffet,including a huge table full of fresh fruit of every description, yogurt, and even fresh dates. These juicy mouthfuls bear little resemblance to their dried cousins and I found them an absolute delight. There is another table full of pastries to rival those from some of the finest patisseries in Europe, and for those who like a full English breaksfast, a table with silver chafing dishes full of bacon, eggs and even pancakes and French toast awaits.

Both the restaurants we have felt are worthy of note are actually in the hotel, which is called The Elysium. Our favourite is the Ristorante Bacco, which as you can tell from the name is Italian. It resembles a typical Italian Cave restaurant, tucked away in the cellars of Rome, although of course this appearance is a total illusion. Our first dinner there I enjoyed a small plate of linguini to start, dressed in the most beautiful pesto I have ever tasted. It was clearly freshly made and the pine nuts bore no resemblance to the ones we get in England, which have clearly been a long time in transport. The 21st Century Husband had a salad of asparagus, mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes with a lovely balsamic dressing. For main course, he and I had fresh sea bass (and the sea bass in Cyprus is like none of have tasted elsewhere, having travelled only a few yards from the sea to the plate) and the 21st Century Teenager enjoyed a Veal Milanese dish which he said was the best he has ever tasted. As I said to the sommelier, he has had Veal Milanese in a lot of different countries, so the restaurant can feel justifiably proud. The desserts were quite exquisite. My Tiramisu was as good as any I have eaten in Italy. We have since had another very enjoyable dinner there, although I would note that their definition of medium, when it comes to cooking steak, veers more towards rare than any medium I have ever encountered – even in France! It left the 21st Century Teenager lost for words, and being reluctant to ask for the steak to be cooked a bit more, he proceeded to eat it at lightening speed. When asked why the rush, he replied, “If I don’t eat it quickly I’ll think about it too much!” It did flag up our British reluctance to complain and I watched incredulous as a lady at an adjacent table sat unable to eat her steak it was so rare, but refusing to complain, and even refusing to allow it to be sent back! We pay so much for food in restaurants and yet we refuse to insist on getting what we want. Hopefully I’ll be able to teach the 21st Century Teenager the art of the diplomatic complaint before he is forced to down a $60 steak at speed again.

The other restaurant we enjoyed is the Epicurean Restaurant. It is not as good as Bacco, and our first meal there was a bit disappointing, with the exception of the incredible Cypriot Orange Cake we all enjoyed for dessert. Made with fresh oranges and ground almonds, this amazing concoction soaked in orange water was tender and almost too delicious to describe. Last night, however, our slightly reluctant determination to return was rewarded with a beautiful meal. A herb crusted salmon followed plates of Cypriot Meze (plates of ham, warmed pitta, hummus, feta cheese and other Greek dips). All were delicious. And our dessert of warm chocolate sauce poured over vanilla ice cream resting on a small bed of brownie style cake with a molten chocolate middle was just incredible.

For those of you who have been following the blog, and my interest in the seemingly world wide fascination with foie gras, I am pleased to report that every restaurant I have been to here has also offered a dish containing this controversial ingredient. Indeed the Quail with Foie Gras came highly recommended at Bacco while the Twice Fried Foie Gras at the Epicurean had many takers. Other restaurants offered variations on this theme, from the expected to the extraordinary. So here in Cyprus foie gras is thriving, just as it seems to be virtually worldwide. Chicago and New York chefs can certainly take heart!

The staff here are very attentive, although the subtleties of language sometimes lead to great confusion. We found out this morning that we were in fact booked into two restaurants last night by hotel reception, one of which we had been told we could not book into as it was fully booked! The staff in the restaurants are much better, particularly the Head Waiter and the Sommelier at Ristorante Bacco, who are attentive in the extreme, but not to the point of intrusion.

Speaking of Sommeliers, we have had some wonderful wines here in Cyprus, many of them recommended by this amazing young woman whose knowledge of wines belies her youth.

So although our holiday may have been an overall disappointment in terms of gastronomic pleasure there have been a few very memorable meals. And in terms of relaxation it has been quite unparalleled. The hotel’s spa and the gorgeous weather have ensured that! So on the whole, a very successful holiday but sadly not much to report back for the blog. If I were seeking total relaxation I would come here again, but for total relaxation with a gourmet edge, I’d probably head for Italy instead.

Friday, 24 October 2008

An Insatiable Taste for Foie Gras

When I wrote my article about New York chefs’ apparent fascination with foie gras back on 1st October, I had no idea the storm that was brewing over here – across the pond from New York in London. It seems London chefs have developed something of a fascination with foie gras as well – in fact restaurant critic Zoe Strimple recently wrote that “London has gone foie gras mad”.

I decided to do a bit of gastronomic research (it’s a hard job but someone’s got to do it), and my forays into London’s finest restaurants revealed that Zoe was right on the mark. From restaurants at the Ritz in Park Lane to those at the Dorchester Hotel, from the Criterion Grill in Piccadilly Circus to the iconic Ivy, every London restaurant I investigated had at least one dish on their menu made with foie gras. Obviously I would not choose these dishes because, as I have mentioned in my first article, I simply do not like the taste. But had I suddenly decided I wanted to try foie gras again, I would have been spoiled for choice of dishes containing it.

Now I appreciate that economic hardship is likely to be felt last at places like the aforementioned hotels and restaurants, but it seems odd to me that in these days of economic slowdown, something as expensive as foie gras would be making such an impact. But making an impact it is. And at the same time, it is also causing huge controversy.

As the production of foie gras requires a process called gavage, many people are quite repelled by the idea of eating it. Gavage involves geese or ducks being force fed copious amounts of grain in order to make their liver swell to many times its normal size. This is accomplished by feeding them through a large tube that is forced down their throats. The birds are then slaughtered and foie gras is made with their swollen livers. As more people learn about this process, their revulsion is translating into action.

It was reported earlier this year that Prince Charles had banned foie gras from his royal residences, and instructed his chefs that they should neither buy nor serve it. He is not the only famous person to take a stand against this cruelly produced delicacy. Musician Phil Collins recently wrote a letter to the famous British department store, Selfridges, imploring them to stop selling foie gras in their stores. The Duke and Duchess of Hamilton publicly boycotted Selfridges earlier this year for their sale of foie gras, and have urged others to do likewise. Sir Roger Moore has publicly backed the PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) campaign to accomplish this as well. It seems to be thought that if we can stop large companies selling foie gras, we might be able to stop it being consumed and therefore reduce demand for it.

Sadly I don’t think that is going to happen. There seems to be an inexplicable fascination with this product that is actually increasing the number of people who enjoy eating it, rather than decreasing it. Now as I’ve said before, I just can’t understand this. I can tolerate neither the taste of foie gras nor its texture. But from the number of restaurant chefs out there who are incorporating it into their menus, I’m almost certainly in the minority. Gastronomes the world over seem to revel in this delicacy. Chefs everywhere are working to develop new and different ways to serve it in order to tickle their pallets. Even the fact that many of these chefs are receiving threatening letters or being targeted by vandals for their use of this controversial ingredient does not seem to bother them. London chefs offer everything from Simmered Duck Foie Gras with Mango to Royale of Foie Gras with Butternut Squash, and still the proliferation of dishes with foie gras in them continues.

Furthermore, a ban on foie gras does not necessarily work. When Chicago banned the sale of foie gras in 2006, the delicacy simply went underground. I’m told by a reliable source that if you wanted foie gras in a Chicago restaurant you could get it during the ban, if you knew how to do it. Some restaurants even became “duckeasies”, where foie gras could be obtained on production of a card or even a code word. As a result, the Chicago ban was recently repealed.

There is an “ethical” version of foie gras available, produced in Spain, which avoids the use of gavage completely. Apparently, wild geese in Spain migrate to Africa every winter. Before the migration, they eat as much as possible in order to build up food stores for the flight. At Pateria de Sousa, a company who makes this “ethical” foie gras, geese are allowed to eat as much as they like on the 30 acres of pasture on which they roam free. As they believe they are about to migrate, they consume huge amounts of natural foods – including figs, lupins, acorns and olives. This fattens the birds up naturally without the trauma of force feeding. The major disappointment for the geese however is that there is no journey to Africa ahead. Rather there is a much shorter journey to place where they are humanely slaughtered (is there such a thing?) and their livers are made into foie gras. Still, at least they had a nicer life, however short it might have been. Plus, Pateria de Sousa’s foie gras has won awards, even in France, so clearly it tastes extremely good if you like that sort of thing.

So why not completely eliminate foie gras produced with the gavage method? Happy birds (well, up till the very last minute of course) and happy people - problem solved. Or not as the case may be. You see, in the first instance, geese only migrate once a year, so this means the “ethical” foie gras can only be made once a year. It also costs more to produce and therefore costs more to the consumer, about half again as much as traditional foie gras, or about 500 euro (625 US dollars) per kilogram.

So it looks like the geese and ducks chosen to make foie gras, are, in most cases, still pretty much out of luck. And the controversy rages on. But in restaurants in London, New York and Chicago, you can still eat as much foie gras as you like in a myriad of dishes designed to tempt you. Maybe it’s a last hurrah before the pressure of public opinion forces foie gras underground once again, or maybe it’s just an attempt to fly in the face of economic slowdown, but for the moment, whether we like it or not, it seems foie gras is here to stay.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Genetically Modified or Genetically Enhanced? That is the Question.

As you may already know, a GMO is a genetically modified organism. Basically, you take an ordinary garden variety organism - say a tomato – and add new genetic material to it in order to change it. You might want to do this to make the tomato taste better, to be resistant to pests without the use of pesticides or perhaps even to make it ripen more quickly. It all sounds fairly innocent, but then words like cross pollination, “mutant” plants and even more frightening ones like “terminator technology” start to creep in and we all get very nervous indeed.

There are few subjects more likely to cause intense and even angry debate in these early years of the twenty-first century. As a housewife and mother, it leaves me more than a little concerned and confused. But what amazes me the most is the role the media have played in people’s perceptions of genetically modified organisms, and how, while opinions are fairly consistent within most individual countries, huge disagreement exists between countries throughout the world as to the safety and desirability of genetically modified crops.

For example, in Europe, public opinion is largely against genetically modified organisms. In the United Kingdom, due to warnings in the media against “Frankenstein Food” and organisations like Greenpeace predicting the end of the world as we know it if we embrace this technology, most people are pretty much afraid of foods that have been genetically modified. They are considered not only bad for you, but unethical as well. There is a small increase of opinion in favour of genetic modification as a few farmers realise it would allow them to grow more crops without having to use as many pesticides. But on the whole, particularly with the strong organic movement that exists here, genetic modification is looked on as very undesirable indeed. In fact, the BBC reported on 12th September of this year that there had been an “unauthorised release of GM seed” in Scotland and the wording of the article was so alarming you would swear it had been a release of unauthorised nuclear waste. Actually, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland have all agreed to make themselves GM free zones, with Dublin declaring the Republic of Ireland wish to do the same thing. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in London are hedging their bets, saying they prefer “to assess each application for GM crops on its merits without blanket approval or rejection”. Yet there is huge pressure on the UK government from the devolved administrations to make the UK entirely GM free.

As a British housewife, I am urged to avoid buying anything that might possibly contain genetically modified material, to read labels and buy organic wherever possible. I should be outraged that some farmers are buying imported feed for their animals containing genetically modified ingredients and that meat is being sold here. I should fight tooth and nail to keep genetically modified products from being imported into this country. And I should definitely not mention that during the time my family and I have spent in North America over the last few years I did knowingly purchase food with genetically modified ingredients and feed them to my family without so much as a second thought. Sadly, here in the UK, the idea that I might not be worried about genetic modification or that I might not check everything I give my family for these “Frankenstein” ingredients, suggests that I might not be a very caring person, and that I’m probably not a very good mother either.

However, in the United States and Canada, you rarely see the words “genetically modified” in the press. Rather you see the words “genetically enhanced”. My goodness, the media have made me feel better already. Enhanced is a good thing, isn’t it? Don’t we all want things to be enhanced and improved? Surely as housewife I would want to give my family something that has been made better? Would I not prefer for them to eat foods that have less pesticides on them? Do I not want food that both tastes and keeps better?

Definitely not here in England apparently. Nor am I to be moved by the fact that it seems that genetic modification might actually help us to feed more of the world. Monsanto’s huge mistake of researching and developing seed that does not actually bear more seed for planting (often referred to as “suicide seed”) has given the anti GM lobby seemingly unshakeable evidence that the big nasty corporate guys are only in this for the money. Of course, providing seed that does not re-seed to developing countries is ludicrous and unethical, but the possible benefits of genetic enhancement are being lost in the bad consumer image of one big multi-national. It is possible that genetic enhancement could provide food that does grow more easily for the poorest of farmers, in climates that are inhospitable and hard to produce food in. That would save lives and build economies in the poorest places in the world.

There’s also a difficult question lurking in the background at the moment no one seems to dare to mention. With the UK’s population constantly increasing, are we actually going to be able to grow enough food in this country to feed ourselves in the future? This applies to other countries too. With the damage caused to the environment by shipping food all over the world, it stands to reason that in time we may have to provide much of our own food resources “in house” as it were. Each country will need to provide food for its own, without relying on imports. And would the benefits of some forms of genetic modification not perhaps help us to grow more food using less resources? If we refuse to even consider this question, will we not find ourselves having to buy food from the countries who have adopted GM technology in the future? And just what impact will that have on our already bruised economies and the environment, not to mention our positions on the world’s political stage?

The debate rages on, and like politics and religion, genetic modification is fast becoming an inflammatory issue that you just don’t mention in polite conversation. And that’s a real shame, because if ever an issue needed to be discussed, this it definitely it.

We are left in a huge quandary, one that seems to have no easy answers. Yes, as a mother I would prefer to give my family natural, home grown products that have not been modified in any way. In fact, I would prefer to eat those products myself as well. But sadly in a few years time that just may not be possible, and burying our heads in the sand and refusing to even consider the benefits of some genetic modification is short-sighted and downright dangerous. I think DEFRA has it right. Each case should be considered on its own merits. I’m not convinced that all genetic enhancements are desirable or even required, nor am I convinced that we are going to start growing two heads or cause Armageddon if we do introduce some GM products carefully into our food chains. GM foods have been in the North American food chain since the early 1990’s and we are not seeing anything negative that can be directly linked to their consumption. In fact, I would wager a guess that here in the UK and Europe, we may be eating a lot more genetically modified products than we think we are.

So what does the 21st Century Housewife do? Well, I try to buy organic wherever possible and I do read labels. I follow the GM issue very closely and keep an open mind. But I’m not naïve enough to think that we can just close our minds and our doors to genetic modification of food and think it is going to go away because we are repelling it on all our borders. Sooner or later, something has to give.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Gorgeous Autumn Gratins

Autumn is a capricious season. One day it’s crisp and colourful with the leaves a spectacular display of gorgeousness , the next it is damp, bone chilling and grey, making you want to go and hide under the duvet. As the nights draw in and it gets dark earlier, I crave warming, delicious food that not only tastes good, but fills the house with wonderful smells so that as soon as you walk in the door you are enveloped by comfort and cosiness.

So what to cook? The obvious choices are soups and stews, to take advantage of autumn’s bounty and the abundant choice of fruit and vegetables. But there is something else I love to cook, which contains the mother of all comfort foods – potatoes. So revered are potatoes in terms of mood boosting properties that Kathleen Desmaisons wrote an entire book in the early part of this decade singing their praises called “Potatoes Not Prozac”. Several articles discussing the mood enhancing possibilities of the humble potato then appeared in the press, including one in the pages of British Vogue by the now very famous Nigella Lawson. While I have to agree with Nigella that one of the best ways of eating potatoes for comfort involves mashing them with lots of butter and cream, my very favourite way of preparing potatoes is au gratin.

The beauty of potatoes au gratin is that they require very little preparation and they are easy to cook – you simply put them in a low oven for an hour or so and voila, dinner! Of course, they make an amazing side dish as well. They are also easy on the pocket in these days of economic meltdown.

The recipe that follows is a meal in its entirety, simply add a little something green and crisp on the side (or bread if you are not worried about carbohydrate overload). It could not be easier to prepare, and it is absolute heaven to eat. However, if for you potatoes will never be more than a side dish, choose the second recipe. It is equally easy and delicious and a perfect partner to any meat or fish.

The 21st Century Housewife’s
Leek and Bacon Potato Gratin
Serves 4 as a main course

3 baking potatoes, washed, peeled and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons butter
3 to 4 leeks, washed and sliced in thin rings
¼ cup (about 125 grams) of cubed pancetta or four to five slices of bacon cut into small pieces
(Vegetarians should feel free to leave the bacon element out. It can simply be omitted, or replaced with a bit of browned vegetarian mince or veggie bacon if desired.)
2 large handfuls cheese (cheddar, Swiss and Gruyere all work well)
1 large handful bread crumbs
3 cups (24 ounces) milk
1 vegetable stock cube

You need a large casserole for this recipe, and as you are going to be layering the ingredients in this dish, it's a good idea to have everything ready first. Peel and slice the onions and potatoes. Mix the bread crumbs and cheese together in a medium size bowl. Crumble the stock cube very finely and mix into the crumbly cheesy mixture .

Melt the butter in a frying pan and sauté the leeks for about ten minutes or until they are beginning to become tender. Remove and set aside. Put the pancetta or bacon in the same pan and sauté until just beginning to brown. Pour the milk into a microwave safe jug and heat in the microwave for about three minutes, until warm, but not boiling.

You are starting with the potatoes so place one third of the sliced potatoes on the bottom of the casserole. Follow with half the tender buttery leeks, half the cooked pancetta or bacon, and one third of the cheesy crumb mixture. Repeat the layers – potatoes, leeks, bacon and then cheesy crumbs. So at this point you should have no more leeks or bacon left. Place the last layer of potatoes on top, followed by the last third of the cheesy crumbs.

Carefully pour the warm milk over the ingredients in the casserole and place in the oven at 170ºC (375ºF) for about an hour and a half, or until the potatoes are tender when you gently insert a knife into the casserole. You want the gratin to be nicely browned, but if it begins to brown too quickly, turn the heat back a little. If you need to hold the gratin after it is cooked for people who are late for dinner, you can do this for about a half hour by simply turn the heat back by about fifty degrees. Leftovers can be cooled to room temperature and then kept in the refrigerator for a couple of days. Reheat thoroughly before serving.

The 21st Century Housewife’s
Potatoes Au Gratin
Serves 4 - 6 as a side dish

3 baking potatoes, washed, peeled and thinly sliced
1 large onion, peeled and thinly sliced in rings
2 large handfuls cheese (cheddar, Swiss and Gruyere all work well)
1 large handful bread crumbs
3 cups (24 ounces) milk
1 vegetable stock cube

Again, you need a large casserole for this recipe, and it is a good idea to have everything ready first. Peel and slice the onions and potatoes. Mix the bread crumbs and cheese together in a medium size bowl. Crumble the stock cube very finely and mix into the crumbly cheesy mixture. Pour the milk into a microwave safe jug and heat in the microwave for about three minutes, until warm, but not boiling.

Put one third of the thinly sliced potatoes on the bottom of the casserole. Now put half the onions on top. Sprinkle with one third of the cheesy crumbly mixture. Now repeat the layers again – potatoes, onions, cheesy crumbs. At this point, you should have no more onions left, but there should still be one third of the potatoes and the cheese mixture remaining. Put the last layer of potatoes on top, and then sprinkle the last of the cheesy crumbs over the top of the potatoes.

Bake in the oven at 170ºC (375ºF) for about an hour and a half, or until the potatoes are lightly brown and tender when you gently insert a knife into the casserole.

Warming, delicious food for Autumn days, the 21st Century Housewife's way.