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.

Monday, 13 October 2008

An Ex-Pat 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 eleven and ten 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 next 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

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

The Food of Memory

My Dad was one of those wonderful folks who not only loved to cook, but who cooked extremely well. Whether it was a roast dinner or his famous spare ribs on the barbeque, you could always be sure of something good to eat if Joe was cooking. He had a patience when it came to food that was quite staggering. One time at a cottage in Northern Ontario, when after days of fishing I became discouraged after not being able to catch anything I considered worthy of cooking, Dad began to collect all the smaller fish I caught. He then painstakingly filleted and froze them. The last night of our holiday, Dad cooked a fish fry that not only tasted delicious, it taught me that success is sometimes more in how you look at things than in what you actually achieve.

So after all the amazing things he cooked in his lifetime, it would probably surprise my dear old Dad to know that the meal that reminds me most of him is Sunday brunch. I’m not thinking of the multi-layered buffet brunch extravaganzas that seem to proliferate today. Rather, I’m remembering brunch as it used to be, a simple meal served in the late morning consisting of eggs, bacon and toast or maybe pancakes. I can still see my Dad with his apron on most Sunday mornings, gin and orange juice beside him, cooking up the bacon and eggs. And it was the eggs that were the thing. My Dad made the most amazing scrambled eggs. Now scrambled eggs may not seem important enough to warrant an entire blog entry, but trust me, my Dad’s scrambled eggs really do.

Dad didn’t always make scrambled eggs when he made brunch. In fact, he originally made fried eggs every Sunday. His fried eggs were good, but as a child I was not a big fan of fried eggs, and for my mother, fried eggs were verboten, being as they were, fried. My poor mother was almost always on a diet, and had a propensity towards anorexia that made her obsessively careful of what she ate. As it was, she would not eat the bacon that I loved so much, so if she would not eat the fried eggs, that left only the toast for her to eat for brunch, and maybe the fried tomatoes if they were in season. Now, I know I’ve just said fried tomatoes, and Mom wouldn’t eat the eggs because they were fried, but for my Mom, fried tomatoes were acceptable diet food, fried eggs were not. Please just don’t ask.

Anyway, one Sunday Dad made scrambled eggs. But these were not just any scrambled eggs – these were ambrosia even for the scrambled egg devotee. I can remember thinking at the tender age of six they were the best eggs I’d ever eaten. I have not yet changed my mind. So they became a regular part of Sunday brunch for the next several decades. Later in his life, Dad would hear his grandson say that “Grandpa makes the best scrambled eggs in the world”, and I firmly believe he was right.

Dad’s scrambled eggs were velvety, light and beautifully cooked – not too runny, but gently tender – no rubbery eggs ever left his kitchen. And his eggs had flavour, they were not tasteless as scrambled eggs can be. This was thanks to the addition of dehydrated onion and parsley. For those of you who are turning up your nose at this point, I urge you not to scoff until you have tried the addition of these rather unusual ingredients. Somehow the eggs hydrate the dried ingredients until they are quite simply the most flavoursome additions you could make. Once I tried to duplicate Dad’s eggs with fresh flavourings – that is fresh chopped onion and parsley - and the taste was nowhere near the same. The concentration of the dehydrated ingredients makes for a flavour hit their fresh counterparts simply cannot touch.

Dad really loved his microwave, it was a technological miracle he took full advantage of, and a lot of his most delicious meals came out of it. It was in the microwave he always cooked his eggs. In retrospect, I imagine the idea to use the microwave was originally born out of the fact that Mom would have been concerned about her scrambled eggs being cooked in a frying pan, and cooking them in the microwave did not require the addition of any fat (or so both she and I believed).

Brunch was the last meal my Dad cooked for us the Sunday before he moved to a retirement home with my Mom about six months before he died. He wasn’t very well by then, and I helped a great deal, but he still made the eggs. I didn’t realise I was watching him do it for the last time and yet I remember every detail in technicolour, as if somehow what my heart refused to accept the part of my brain responsible for memories knew only too well. Just as the eggs came out of the microwave, Dad asked if I minded if he added a knob of butter at the end of cooking – years of my Mom and I watching our weight had made him cautious of upsetting me. On the contrary, it revealed to me the one ingredient I had never realised was a part of my Dad’s amazing eggs, and I urged him to carry on. Dad took a good tablespoon of butter and stirred it through the eggs. As always, they were delicious.

And so here is my Dad’s recipe. It tastes extremely good when I make it, but not as good as when my Dad did. Despite the fact I now know the secret ingredient, Dad had a knack for cooking those eggs that I can’t seem to emulate. It doesn’t stop me trying.

Although I’ve included measurements, Dad never measured anything, so go according to your own tastes and just use my measurements as a guideline. And remember, scrambled eggs are not just for brunch or breakfast, they make a great snack or light meal. They are delicious and nutritious, and in my experience even the fussiest child will eat them, making them a real saviour for frazzled mums at teatime. You might want to cut back on the flavourings, adding just a small amount of the onion and parsley if you are cooking these for very small children. Don’t leave them out though – I once managed to convince a reluctant eater that they were Dr Zeuss’ green eggs thanks to the flecks of green provided by the parsley. He ate every bite, much to his mum’s amazement.

Joe’s Scrambled Eggs

2 medium to large eggs per person
A dollop of milk (approximately 2 tablespoons milk for every six eggs)
About 1 – 2 teaspoons each of dried onions or chives and dried parsley for every six eggs

Beat the eggs in a large bowl (Dad always used a large Pyrex measuring jug and I do likewise) until light and fluffy. Add the milk and beat a bit more. Stir in the dried onions or chives and the parsley. You can add salt and pepper to taste at this point if you like. Let sit for about five minutes.

To cook in the microwave, place the bowl or jug in the microwave for one minute on high. Then remove the eggs and fluff with a fork. Continue cooking, one minute at a time, fluffing after each minute, until the eggs are light and fluffy but not rubbery. Remember the eggs will continue to cook a bit once removed from the microwave so once they start to look as if the runniness is gone, go carefully. You can always cook them more, but you sure can’t un-cook them! Cooking time will depend on the volume of eggs you have, but usually three minutes does it. At this point, stir in a knob of butter (about one tablespoon depending on how many eggs you are cooking). The butter should melt into the eggs and literally disappear. Once the butter has melted in, serve the eggs either on toast or with toast on the side or as part of a Sunday brunch.

As I am not as dexterous with a microwave as Dad was, I often cook these eggs in a frying pan. I find the resulting eggs taste are closer to Dad’s version, despite the fact I am not cooking them in the same way he did. So if you are deficient in microwaving skills like me, melt a tablespoon of butter over low to medium heat in a frying pan. Add the egg mixture. Stir gently and push round the pan until the eggs are cooked – neither too dry nor too runny. When they are done, add a knob of butter and stir through until melted. Serve and enjoy.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Great Taste on a Budget the 21st Century Housewife's Way

I’m not terribly good at economising. My family and I travel a lot, we love to eat in nice restaurants, and if you are a regular reader of my blog on you’ll know I have a taste for designer handbags and shoes that is anything but frugal. However, we all need to tighten our belts these days, and happily I have found that by saving on things you don’t notice there is a lot more money to spend on things that you do. In short, if I can save money in the kitchen, I’ll have more money to spend outside of it. But as someone who loves good food and good eating, I don’t want to compromise on taste or quality. Thankfully the word “compromise” has never been used in my kitchen and I have no intention of starting to use it now.

Most supermarkets today have a dazzling array of ready prepared sauces, dressings and spice mixes to tempt you when you go shopping. These are often on special offer – buy one get one free or something like that – but of course it’s never really free and the price has probably already been inflated to cover the supermarket’s costs. Despite this, up until recently I used to find my shopping trolley full of these supposed time savers and my grocery budget going through the roof. To be fair, these ready prepared items can be very helpful. The trouble is, as we’ve already established, they are expensive and furthermore, they don’t go very far.

Having said that, it can be very costly to buy the ingredients to make sauces, particularly if you are cooking more exotic recipes. But with a bit of experimentation I’ve managed to develop ideas that will help you get round this and also avoid buying a lot of expensive bottles and jars that you do not really need. I must say, the freshly made versions of these usually taste a lot better than their bottled counterparts anyway.

I make a wonderful sauce for stir fries from 3 tablespoons of sweet chilli or plum sauce and 3 tablespoons of soy sauce. Just mix them together, stir in at the end of cooking and allow to heat through. A jar of sweet chilli or plum sauce and a bottle of soy sauce will make enough for about four stir fries, unlike one jar of stir fry sauce which makes enough for only one.

Instead of buying expensive ready prepared chicken marinades, just mix together 2 tablespoons olive oil, the juice of half a lemon, 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard, 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar, 1 chopped clove of garlic, and salt and pepper to taste in a large zip lock bag. Put the chicken in the bag with the marinade ingredients and place in the fridge for at least thirty minutes. (You can make this marinade in the morning and marinate the chicken all day in the fridge if you like.) You can then bake, broil, fry or even barbeque the chicken. This marinade works particularly well for chicken breasts, keeping them moist and delicious.

If you fancy fried chicken, leave the shake in bag mixes on the shelf, and instead dip your chicken in a beaten egg and bread it with matzo meal or bread crumbs seasoned with salt and pepper or a crumbled stock cube. You can then either shallow fry or bake the chicken. This breading works equally well for turkey or pork escalopes, although these are better shallow fried rather than baked.

And then there is salad dressing. Forego the attractive bottles lining the grocery shelves and try this. It’s a basic template recipe for dressing green salads. Mix together 2 tablespoons oil, 2 tablespoons vinegar, 1 teaspoon white sugar, and 1 generous teaspoon Dijon mustard. Shake together and serve over salad greens. Possible oil and vinegar combinations include olive oil with white wine or balsamic vinegar, or walnut oil with cider vinegar or Canola oil with red wine vinegar. Just add the mustard and sugar to the oil and vinegar combination of your choice and you are set to go. When I make the walnut oil and cider vinegar combination I like to scatter some chopped apple and walnuts over the salad. It’s delicious and real nod to Autumn’s bounty.

And finally, I do shake my head when folks say that stock cubes are not a good idea. Seriously, who has time to make homemade stock? Plus, they are great for seasoning your recipes, particularly if the cost of buying individual spices is prohibitive. This is a great tip for students or those just starting out. Try crumbling a beef stock cube over your mince beef while you are browning it for chilli, spaghetti with meat sauce or shepherd’s pie, or crumble a vegetable stock cube into your risotto recipes. The possibilities are endless. Of course, you won’t need to add salt if you are using stock cubes as they tend to be high in salt so go carefully, particularly if you are watching your sodium intake.

You don’t have to compromise on taste or convenience to save money in the kitchen in these difficult economic times. All of these ideas include basic ingredients that are easy to obtain and don’t cost the earth. If you try them, you will find that you can save your pennies for the more important things in life whilst still enjoying the very best of good taste from your kitchen.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

To Foie Gras or Not to Foie Gras

We are planning a visit to New York over the New Year to celebrate the 21st Century Teenager’s sixteenth birthday. This is a very special occasion, so we have booked into a very special hotel – a historic hotel which shall remain nameless. As we arrive on New Year’s Eve, we have planned a rather quiet celebration since we will be tired from the flight. Of course, this hotel does not do quiet celebrations on New Year’s as the celebrations there are the stuff of legend. As for us, we are saving ourselves for our very big celebration a few days later. When my husband corresponded with the concierge about whether it would be possible to have a low key small evening meal on the 31st, the concierge replied with a list of three wonderful parties they are having, all of which sound brilliant. The only flaw is that there is a very real risk of me falling asleep in my soup and at a minimum of $275 a plate that is something I really do not care to do. When I spend that much on a meal, I want to be completely alert whilst eating it. However, we did read the menus while considering our options and as we did so, a strange pattern emerged. Every menu in every restaurant included a dish containing foie gras. From Lobster and Foie Gras Ravioli to Foie Gras Royale and Foie Gras Terrine, the selection seemed never ending. So we decided to try to find another restaurant outside the hotel so we can indulge in a relatively light early evening meal. Six of the nine restaurants I have checked out also have quite expensive, heavy set menus for New Year’s Eve, and seven of them include foie gras on their menu for the evening.

Of course one is not obliged to order a dish containing foie gras, but it amazed me to see it as such a prevalent ingredient. For me, the question of to foie gras or not to foie gras is an easy one because I simply do not like the taste of it. This goose (or duck) liver pate is far too rich for me and I don’t like the texture at all. So I am not just objecting to foie gras on principle, I have tasted it. I adore my husband and he is a wonderful man, but if you are going to tell him you don’t like something, he’ll make darn sure you’ve tasted it first. This is, you understand, just to be sure you have not made a mistake and that you really don’t like it – particularly if it is something he enjoys. Which is not to say he enjoys foie gras, as he tends to avoid it and only eats it if it is served to him. I have never seen him order it, nor a dish containing it, in a restaurant. But he will eat it when, say, a friend or family member includes it in their menu. This happens relatively frequently as my husband and his family lived for several years in France, where foie gras is almost a staple part of the diet. Having said all that, we have never really discussed the ethics of its production and I’m pretty sure that he simply does not think about it very much. I have to confess, the first time I tasted foie gras I was totally uninformed about how it was made. I simply did not like the taste. But my reluctance to try it again, is, I confess, partly because of the method in which it is obtained.

Most people know how foie gras is produced, but if you are one of the innocents who do not, I will enlighten you. Frankly, I think you’d rather be un-enlightened, but here goes. Foie Gras is a goose (or sometimes duck) liver pate made using a process called gavage. Gavage is the process where the animals are force fed grain through a rather large tube that is stuck down their throats in order to make their liver swell to many times its normal size. This makes the liver turn white, become fattier and lose its bitter taste. When the livers are so big they nearly are bursting, the geese are slaughtered and foie gras is made with the swollen organ. Not a nice picture going on in your head now, is it?!

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those folks who thinks about everything I eat in terms of how it is produced. I do buy organic produce, and I refuse to buy battery eggs, but I have eaten veal my whole life, even before there were ways to obtain it ethically. We even served veal for our wedding meal – causing two of our guests to request alternative meals actually at the wedding, much to my confusion. When it comes to veal I’m a bit like the auntie in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. “You don’t eat meat? I’ll cook lamb then.” How could someone not like veal? Okay, okay, I know about the crates, I just don’t think about it that much. But back to the foie gras issue.

I’m intrigued by the absolute proliferation of dishes containing foie gras that New York chefs are planning to serve on New Year’s Eve. I can’t figure out the fascination. Maybe it is because of the threat of foie gras being banned as unethical. Chicago recently repealed a ban on the serving of foie gras in restaurants which was put in place in 2006, but is the California statute that will prohibit the production or sale of foie gras by 2012 in that state causing New York chefs to worry the same might happen there? Or are they ex-Chicago chefs who have missed using it for the last two years?

Please be assured, I am not condemning anyone who does enjoy foie gras, living as I do in my glass house when it comes to veal, nor am I suggesting that a ban on it is necessarily desirable. I live far too close to France to suggest such heresy. But what has caused this foie gras fascination in New York restaurants?

Whatever the cause, I’m still struggling to find somewhere for a nice light New Year’s Eve repast in the Big Apple. Maybe we’ll just order room service and a nice bottle of Veuve Clicquot. Actually, that sounds like a really lovely way to bring in 2009. Perhaps we’ll go with that – and I’ll just stop thinking about the foie gras. It’s making my head hurt.