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!