Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Parsnip, Potato and Leek Gratin

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, I crave warming, delicious food that not only tastes good, but also fills the house with wonderful smells so that as soon as you walk in the door you are enveloped by comfort and cosiness.

For this reason, I've always made a lot of gratin dishes in the Autumn months. They are always well received and they are also easy on the cook. There is a fair bit of slicing involved, but after that it is pretty much an assembly job. They are also easy to cook – you simply put them in a low oven for an hour or so and voila, dinner! Easy on the pocket in these days of economic meltdown, gratins hold beautifully in the oven if everyone is eating at different times on busy Autumn evenings. 

I was keen to incorporate some vegetables from my organic veg box in my gratin this week so decided to experiment with parsnips and leeks.  The results were delicious.  You do need a bit less liquid when you are making this sort of a gratin as parsnips and leeks release some of their own liquid during cooking.  (Be sure to drain the leeks well after you wash them as the last thing you want is watery gratin.)   I always use half fat (2%) milk for health reasons, but if you wanted a richer dish you could use full cream milk instead.  I recommend using cheddar cheese in this dish as its strong flavour really compliments the root vegetables.  In fact, this is an ideal dish for vegetarians, provided you use a vegetarian cheddar. The recipe that follows can be a meal in its entirety; simply add a little something green and crisp on the side. 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, this gratin is equally delicious as a partner to any meat or fish.
1 – 2  large baking potatoes, scrubbed, peeled and thinly sliced
4 medium leeks, washed, drained and very thinly sliced
5 large (or 7 medium) parsnips, washed, peeled and thinly sliced
2 vegetable stock cubes
2 handful of bread crumbs
3 handfuls grated cheddar cheese
2 ½ cups (that is roughly a pint, or 600 ml) milk
Prepare the vegetables.  Mix together the bread crumbs and cheddar cheese in a medium size bowl.  Finely crumble the stock cubes into this mixture and stir to combine. 
In a large casserole dish, begin to layer the gratin.  Start with a thin layer of potatoes, then of parsnips and then leeks.  Sprinkle with one third of the cheesy breadcrumb mixture.  Repeat with another layer of potatoes, parsnips and leeks and again sprinkle with one third of the cheesy breadcrumbs.  

For the third layer of vegetables, reverse the layering order and start with the parsnips. Follow with the leeks and finish with a layer of potatoes.  Do not sprinkle the last portion of breadcrumb mixture over top just yet.
Heat the milk in a saucepan or in the microwave until it is just warm (not boiling).  Pour the milk over the gratin.  Now sprinkle the last one third of the cheesy breadcrumb mixture over the top of the gratin.  Bake at 170ºC ( about 350ºF) for about an hour and a half. The gratin is done when the vegetables are tender (a good way to check this is to insert a dinner knife in the gratin - it should slide in really easily) and and the top is golden brown.

Cool any leftovers quickly. They will keep for a couple of days in the refrigerator and are delicious rewarmed. Be sure to reheat until piping hot.

Food, Glorious Food

Food is such a huge part of Christmas. The flavours of the season are so important, and one of the things that warms our hearts is traditional foods and remembering people and times long gone through the food they shared with us. Perhaps that is why hampers have always been such a big part of Christmas here in England. In Victorian times, hampers were given as gifts to friends and family, and food parcels were often given to the poor as well. More recently, when food was scarce here during wartime, those who had moved to the New World sent hampers of non-perishables back by sea. Nowadays the tradition of hampers continues here in England, and it is not just at Christmas that you might receive one. However, Christmas hampers are the ones that people think of most, and one of ‘the‘ places to purchase your hampers is the iconic London department store Fortnum and Mason. Located at 181 Piccadilly, Fortnum and Mason has been in the same location since it was founded over three hundred years ago in 1707. Just walking through its imposing doors gives you a huge sense of history. Holder of perhaps more Royal Warrants over the years than any other store, Fortnum and Mason is an amazing place at any time of the year, but in the run up to Christmas it becomes nigh on magical. The decorations are stunning and I think the store is more beautiful than at any other time of year.

Now you might think it is a bit early to be thinking about Christmas, but here in England it seems to start earlier every year. Last week, Fortnum and Mason were hosting a ‘by invitation only’ Christmas Preview Evening in the beautiful St James’ Restaurant on the fourth floor of the store. (Being invited to things like this is one of the really great things about being The 21st Century Housewife©.)

Once my name had been checked off the guest list and a glass of champagne pressed into my hand, I was free to wander through the wonderful displays of ideas for Christmas 2009. There were decorations, cards and gifts galore, but most of all, there was table after table full of hampers. Fortnum and Mason have always specialized in “provisions” – food and drink that is just that little bit extra special. Their Christmas hampers are just incredible. Sadly, many of the hampers including fresh food are not suitable for export, but some of the smaller hampers are, so you can enjoy them even if you do not live here in England.

Hampers come at all price points, and there really is something for everyone. As I perused them, I was offered samples of many of the different items that were contained inside by waiting staff who wandered amongst the guests. There were piquant olives and spiced oat cakes, shortbread flavored with rose water, tiny scones spread with exquisite jams and fudge that absolutely melted in the mouth. Tiny cakes, biscuits and sweets kept appearing by my side on silver trays, and I found myself quite powerless to resist them.

The most reasonable hamper on display was the ‘Flavour of Afternoon Tea’ hamper at £35 (about US$55). A beautiful peaked wicker basket holds a quarter bottle of champagne, the cutest baby fruitcake I have ever seen, Cornish Clotted Cream biscuits, loose-leaf tea, a jar of lime curd (a delicious sort of spread for bread and scones which is also used as a filling for desserts), and one of raspberry jam. Other fairly reasonably priced options included ‘A Taste of Fortnum’s’, a wicker basket holding items chosen by ballot as the favourite items from Fortnum’s famous food halls. I’m not quite sure who participated in the ballot, but they definitely had good taste! The hamper is comprised of three kinds of tea including Fortnum’s Royal Blend, Bounteous Butter English Thins (what a great name!), Demerera Shortbread, various preserves and jam, Cognac butter to dress the Christmas pudding which is also tucked inside, mints and a bottle of Côtes de Rhone. What isn’t to love?

One of the hampers suitable for export that was reasonably priced was specially made for children and included two kid-sized china teacups and saucers along with other child friendly treats. This gorgeous hamper is definitely on my list for children of friends and family back in North America.

Humorously named hampers included The Entente Cordiale (a political agreement between England and France signed in 1904 and still in force today), with wines from France and cheeses from England. At £100 it is extravagant in a recession, but it doesn’t break the bank. The aptly named ‘Glorious Three Hundred’ however, costs three hundred pounds. Now, for nigh on five hundred dollars you would expect quite a lot of hamper, and Fortnum’s definitely delivers. Three kinds of tea, coffee, three boxes of chocolates, jams, marmalades, several boxes of cookies and biscuits, a fruit cake that weighs over a pound, cognac and rum butters, Christmas pudding, a bottle of champagne, three bottles of fine wine and a myriad of other treats are all a part of this extravaganza.

Sadly the hampers do get more expensive from here but their contents do become even more exotic. You could give someone everything they need for Christmas barring the turkey in some of these hampers (and Fortnum’s would be happy to arrange that separately). For example, The Christmas Feast which comes in at an eye watering £500 (US$800) really does have practically everything one needs for Christmas in England – from wines and champagnes to pickles, biscuits, cookies, chuntey, foie gras, cheeses, hams and even a bottle of 9 year old single malt whiskey. The crème de la crème of hampers is ‘The Windsor’ ringing in at £1000 (over US$1500). However it does contain a huge amount. The display hamper sat on the floor and covered an area of about four feet square. As well as contents like those in ‘The Christmas Feast’ there are also more champagnes and wines, 40 year Madeira, Port and such delights as brie and foie gras with truffles and even that most curious of English Christmas delicacies, pickled walnuts. Admittedly, these last two hampers are most likely out of reach for us ordinary mortal but they are beautiful to behold.

If you prefer to give a slightly less expensive, but slightly more intoxicating gift, Fortnum’s offer several wonderful hampers and boxed sets of Christmas tipples, including a not un-reasonably priced Champagne Tasting Box at £110 (US$175). It contains four bottles of different Fortnum’s champagnes. Based on my experience on the Preview Evening, these are extremely good. There is also a Provence Box with two bottles of red wine and two of white at £40 (a little over US$60). I was very taken with The Connoisseur Case which does sound expensive at £400 (circa US$600), but is actually well priced, as it contains a dozen bottles of excellent wines (including Gevrey-Chambertin and Pommerol), champagne and an excellent nine year old single malt whiskey.

I came away from this wonderful evening armed with a catalogue of many of the wonderful things Fortnum’s provides for Christmas, a gift bag and a head full of ideas. For as well as the wildly extravagant, Fortnum and Mason also offer exquisite items for those on a budget. Downstairs in their food hall, everything is available separately, so you could put together a rather lovely selection of treats to fit any budget. (Jams and chutneys start at around £5 each.) In fact, their iconic turquoise bags are so pretty you could present your gift in the bag, with the addition of perhaps a bit of tissue. I'd have no objection to receiving a bottle of one of their lovely jams or honeys tied with a ribbon frankly! Furthermore, there were some lovely gift ideas for those “hard to buy for” folk on your gift list including musical tins of yummy Christmas biscuits with an actual wind up music box on the bottom priced at under £10. Boxes of Rose and Violet Creams hark back to days of yore, and Turkish delight is sold in several different flavors. You can even buy your own ready-made gingerbread house covered in candies without breaking the bank.

I think my favourite thing of the evening, which really appealed to the child in me, was the beautiful Advent Calendar Fortnum’s have on offer. Made of wood, and painted to look just like the Fortnum and Mason store, its little doors have real wooden handles. No one at the Preview Evening could resist peeking inside. On opening, each little door revealed a small chamber containing a treat. There were little containers of jelly beans, chocolate and even miniatures of the traditional blue Fortnum and Mason boxes filled with sweets inside. You can choose to buy refills every year so that this beautiful calendar can be used again and again. It is even available for purchase empty if you want to fill it with treats of your choice. It’s gloriously extravagant, but charmingly so.

If you find yourself in London this Christmastide, do pay a visit to the historic and delightful Fortnum and Mason store. Just a few blocks down from The Ritz, its beautiful blue awnings stand out proudly only a few minutes walk down Piccadilly from Green Park Tube Station (heading towards Piccadilly Circus). Don’t forget to look at their wonderful window displays – they stretch all round the front of the store. But don’t be intimidated or confine your visit to window shopping, even if your purse is feeling the bite of the recession. I’ve always found the staff welcoming and helpful in Fortnum’s, even back in the day when actually purchasing something there was seriously out of the question for me. They are happy for you to browse, and should you want any help, they are friendly and approachable. It may be one of the oldest stores in London, and the staff may dress in formal attire, but it is anything but stuffy! It certainly is a great place for Christmas inspiration. And if a visit to London is not on the cards, you can always check them out on the web. Just click here, and let me be the first to wish you a Merry Christmas!

Sunday, 27 September 2009

The 21st Century Housewife's© Warming Autumn Sandwich

Although we have had some fabulous weather here in England recently, the odd chilly day really does make you realise that Autumn is taking hold. These are the kind of days when you want more than just an ordinary sandwich for lunch; you want something warming and delicious.

I always like to keep some roast vegetables ready in the fridge. They are incredibly versatile and very nutritious. They are also very easy to make. I wrote about them in a lot more detail back in June, so if you missed the original article, please click here.

For a small pan of roast vegetables, you will need:-
1 courgette/zucchini, sliced in half moons
1 red pepper, de-seeded and cut in small chunks
1 yellow pepper, de-seeded and cut in small chunks
1 red onion, peeled and cut in eighths
1 - 2 cloves of garlic, peeled (optional)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon Balsamic vinegar

Put all the ingredients except the olive oil and vinegar in a medium roasting tin. Mix together the oil and vinegar and pour over the vegetables, tossing lightly to coat. Roast in a hot oven (about 190℃ or 375℉) for approximately twenty to thirty minutes, stirring once. You want the vegetables to soften a bit and go slightly golden in colour.

You can use these straight away or allow them to cool and refrigerate.

For each sandwich you need:-

1 crusty roll, sliced in half
(I like to use seeded rolls as I think they give a nice texture)
1 slice of ham
1 slice of ready-sliced cheddar cheese or some grated cheddar
a couple spoonfuls of roast vegetables

Take each roll and lay it open on a large square of aluminium foil (you are going to wrap it all round the sandwich so make sure it is big enough). I don’t use butter on these as the vegetables have the olive oil on them so you really don’t need it.

Lay a slice of ham on the bottom piece of the roll and top with the vegetables. Place the cheese on top, followed by the top of the roll. Wrap tightly in aluminium foil and place on a baking sheet.

Cook at about 190℃ or 375℉ for fifteen to twenty minutes, or until warm through. Remove from oven and allow to sit for about two or three minutes before carefully opening the hot foil parcel.

Serve and enjoy - being careful not to burn yourself on the lovely hot melted cheese!

For a vegetarian version, omit the ham and replace it with another slice of cheese (or more grated cheese). Be sure to use vegetarian cheddar.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Beating the Recession the Delicious Way

Autumn is such a bountiful season. How wonderful that even in this time of recession and economic downturn, we can still rejoice in an amazing harvest. Of course one of the best ways to fight the recession is to eat seasonally and buy locally. It’s environmentally friendly plus it helps small businesses and farmers during these difficult times. It’s also a fantastically delicious and healthy option, as freshly picked fruit and vegetables taste so much better and retain more of their vitamins than those that have been kept in cold storage for weeks on end by large supermarket chains.

On Sunday my husband and I drove out into the Berkshire countryside to visit Cross Lanes Fruit Farm*. They grow apples, pears and plums there. I originally discovered their yummy produce at the local monthly farmer’s market in Purley-on-Thames, sampling some of their Worcester Permain and Ellisons Orange variety apples. Cross Farm also runs a shop at the farm Wednesday to Saturday between August and January.

I was struck by how beautiful the orchards were as we drove in through the narrow gates. It was a pretty cloudy day, but the apples stood out proudly against the stormy skies. There was so much on offer in the shop. They had several varieties of apples and pears, along with two kinds of apple juice and local honey. We bought more Ellisons Orange apples along with some James Grieve apples and sweet and juicy Onward pears (onward to what, I wonder?). Actually the apples and pears you will find available locally do have wonderful names. Of course they vary from place to place and country to country, but some of them sound almost as intriguing as they taste. When I was a child in Canada my favourite apple was “Northern Spy”; it sounded very exotic indeed to my childlike ears. Today, some of my favourite apple names include Greensleeves, Delbarestivale, St Edmond’s Russet, Peasegood Nonsuch and Red Devil. As for pears, there’s a lot more than just Conference out there - you can find Packham’s Triumph, Beurre Hardy and Glou Morceau.

Most places do have farm shops relatively nearby, and if you live in the centre of a town what better excuse for a day out in the country than an excursion to a lovely farm or two? It’s a great day out with kids as well - especially in this day and age where so many children have little opportunity to see where fruit and vegetables really come from. They love to see things actually growing, and in my experience, it makes reluctant eaters much less so. There is something about seeing a thing growing that makes it so much more exciting to eat. Another option is to search the internet for local farmer’s markets, as fresh produce is on offer there, and it is usually only a day or so from the tree or field. In many cases things are much less expensive than in larger shops too.

So for the healthy, delicious option, explore shopping locally as an alternative to the big supermarkets. It might take a bit more time and effort, but when you can manage it, the rewards are well worth it. Money saved, fresher, extra delicious food, saving the planet and helping local producers - it’s a great way to benefit yourself and lots of other people at the same time - and have some fun into the bargain!

*Cross Lanes Fruit Farm
Mapledurham, Reading

Sunday, 20 September 2009

The 21st Century Housewife's© Luscious Lemon Tart

Lemon tart is such a wonderful way to end a meal. Its (forgive the pun!) tart flavour is light, delicious and palate cleansing and my version really could not be easier to make. Once again I’ve used a no-roll pastry which means you can simply press it into the pie plate or tart dish. However, if you really, really want to roll the pastry out, by all means feel free. You will achieve a slightly tidier edge to your pastry and the tart will look a little less rustic, but that is not necessarily a bad thing! I always like to think that lemon tart is good for you with all the vitamin C in the lemon juice, so that makes up a bit for a slightly high calorie count. This may be slightly off-base as I’m not sure vitamin C survives cooking very well, but it makes me feel better anyway!

250 grams plain (all purpose) flour
125 grams white sugar (caster for preference but granulated is okay)
125 grams unsalted butter, softened
1 large egg
a pinch of salt

Blend all these ingredients together in an electric mixer. Roll into a ball and then press into the pie plate or tart dish, bringing the mixture up the edges nicely. Pop in the fridge for a few minutes while you mix up the filling.

100 grams unsalted butter, melted (and cooled a bit so it doesn’t scramble the eggs!)
200 grams white sugar
(again caster for preference but granulated is okay)
4 large eggs
finely grated rind of two unwaxed lemons
150 ml freshly squeezed lemon juice (that’s the juice of about 4 lemons)

Break the eggs into a small bowl and beat lightly with a fork. Set aside. Wash the electric mixer bowl that you used to make the pastry and dry thoroughly. Put the slightly cooled melted butter, sugar, beaten eggs and lemon rind in it. Beat until smooth. Add the lemon juice and beat until smooth. Remove the pie plate or tart dish from the fridge and carefully pour in the filling.

Place the tart in the oven and bake at 160℃ (325℉) for about 30 to 35 minutes or until the filling is set and just beginning to take on a golden tinge. Cool on a wire rack.

This tart is delicious but not really very beautiful, so before serving decorate with a few sliced strawberries or some raspberries and sieve some icing (powdered) sugar over the top. This is lovely served with cream or some very good vanilla ice cream.

Friday, 18 September 2009

A Treasure Trove of Food and Drink

Was there ever a more iconic store than the fabled Harrods? Its castle-like façade has graced the Brompton Road in London’s Knightsbridge for over a hundred years. But Harrod’s is not just a place for the rich and famous to shop, nor just for designer clothes and jewels. It’s also an amazing place for people who love to cook, and especially for those who love to eat.

Harrods boasts over twenty places to eat, from the elegant Georgian Restaurant to the busy Harry Morgan Deli. There is a branch of Paris’ Ladurée tea room here as well, where you can sample their light as air macaroons and other delicacies. A Veuve Clicquot Champagne Bar where you can wash down gourmet delicacies with any number of varieties of the one of the world’s most renowned champagnes is set amongst the first floor’s designer fashion collections. Should you have simpler tastes, there is also a Krispy Kreme donut kiosk downstairs as well!

However the most amazing part of Harrods is its Food Halls. They seem to stretch on for ages. You can buy almost anything here. One of the halls contains provisions – boxes of cookies, teas, coffee, chocolates and treats. Another has glass cases absolutely heaving with cuts of cold meat and cheeses.

Choose your most fashionable of ready prepared meals here:-

They offer shepherd's pie, fish pie, salmon en croûte, shish kebabs or even ready to reheat Beef Wellington. Or start from scratch and make your own gourmet meal with the finest provisions:-

Harrods is the place to buy the different and even strange. I saw venison in the cabinets here, whole pigeons, sad little boned rabbits, and even ostrich meat. There is every kind of fish imaginable, including some I have never even heard of.

There is a fresh pasta cabinet containing so many kinds of pasta I could hardly count them all. This is just a small section showing the many types of ravioli available.

Spinach and ricotta, pumpkin and sage, venison, smoked salmon and speck ravioli are only a few of the choices.

If you fancy a picnic, you could buy everything for it here - including the basket!

You can choose from delicious cold meat pies and pates, cold meat, cheeses and fish. There are all manner of treats here that would be as welcome on a buffet table as in the aforementioned basket! These traditional meat pies are cooked and served cold. The meat becomes almost like a terrine inside, encased in good strong flaky pastry. The ones with cranberries on top are especially nice.

If your tastes run to the more exotic, there is a huge selection of sushi.

Want to taste the champagne and caviar lifestyle? After you choose from hundreds of different sorts of caviar, ranging in price from ten pounds to well over a thousand pounds an ounce,

then all you have to do is pop downstairs to their very well-stocked wine cellar to choose your champagne.

Harrods have not forgotten those with a sweet tooth either, as there is such a selection of desserts, sweets and chocolate that it is hard to even imagine. Here is just a tiny sample of what is on offer.

The food halls at Harrods are a magical place, filled with delicious foods from around the world. It's well worth braving the crowds to visit, but be sure to allow plenty of time. I've wiled away many an afternoon perusing the many delicacies and have always been pleased with my purchases - as have my guests!

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Time for Tea

It’s Autumn in England, which means that, aside from a few precious and rare Indian Summer days, our island is getting much cooler, very damp and if there is any sunshine, it is only in the middle of the day. It’s dark when we get up in the morning, and by the time folks are returning home from work it is beginning to get dark again. Before long that will happen by 4pm, and in winter’s depths, much earlier. In fact, on many a Christmas Day I have known it to be dark by 2pm.

Although most people here do have many cups of tea in a day, and often stop for a little something with their cuppa about four or five o’clock, it’s this time of year when you see more people visiting a restaurant or tea room for a proper “afternoon tea”.

In the summer, cream teas are popular. These consist of tea (of course) and scones served with butter, jam and clotted cream. And while people do take tea at the Ritz and other top London restaurants in the summer, full afternoon tea is hardly light summer fare, so now is the time of year when it becomes truly the thing to do. It’s cold, dark and probably wet, and there is nothing like afternoon tea to cheer you up.

If you are going to do afternoon tea “properly”, there is no place on earth like the Ritz in London’s Park Avenue. However you will need plenty of time, a fair amount of money, and last but not least, reservations booked well in advance. Sadly you will also need these things at other top London venues as well including The Criterion in Piccadilly Circus and The Mandarin Orient Hotel opposite Harrods – or indeed at Harrods itself. The Georgian Restaurant on their fourth floor, where the aristocracy once dined, offers a lovely afternoon tea. So does the Savoy, and pretty much every other top London hotel. If you happen to be elsewhere in England, there is sure to be somewhere offering this famous repast. Birmingham has the Marriott Hotel among other lovely venues, in Derbyshire there is Dovecliffe Hall and Harrogate has the famous “Betty’s”. If there is one thing it is not hard to find in England it is a place that serves afternoon tea.

Full afternoon tea will set you back between £30 and £40 each. Now, at about $65, this might sound a bit on the extravagant side, but believe me, it is an experience you won’t soon forget – and I can promise you that if you do want any supper, you won’t want very much. However, if you want a more economical option, there are lots of lovely little tea rooms and restaurants that offer a wonderful afternoon tea that is much less hard on the pocketbook!

Tea time normally falls roughly anytime between three and six o’clock, although the Ritz does offer sittings at 11.30, 1.30 and 7.30 pm as well as 3.30 and 5.30. Strictly speaking the earlier and latest time are not traditional or “proper” but if you are on a diet it is probably a good idea to replace lunch or dinner with tea instead of having it as a meal unto itself. The most difficult question you are likely to be asked at tea time is what sort of tea you would like. Most places offer a selection of at least twelve kinds, and many offer even more than that. However as long as you can describe how you like your tea to taste (strong, weak etc), the waiter will be able to help, much as a sommelier would help you to choose your wine. As a general guide – or if you feel too intimidated to ask – Assam tea is quite strong, Lapsang Souchong is very smoky, Darjeeling is light and easy to drink, as is Ceylon tea. Many restaurants, including the Ritz and Betty’s, offer their own blend which is usually absolutely delicious. Incidentally, if you fancy a glass of something stronger than tea, most places offer a “champagne afternoon tea” at a slightly higher price – but you only get a glass of champagne – you still have to drink tea as well!!

Typical, formal afternoon tea consists of three courses. First you will be served with tea sandwiches – tiny, crust-less offerings made with gorgeous fillings. From Cucumber, smoked salmon or egg mayonnaise to the more common ham and cheese, these are nothing like your normal lunchtime sandwich. Chances are, if you do manage to finish offerings you are brought, the sandwich stand will miraculously refill as well. (This is why the cost of a proper afternoon tea is nearly always a set price.) Next course is warmed scones, served with butter, jam and clotted cream. Once, when I was served afternoon tea (in Switzerland of all places!) the scones were tiny miniature versions of a normal scone, quite magical really. But whatever size they are, these melt in your mouth morsels are delicious. Purists will argue about whether the jam goes on before or after the cream, but in my experience the least messy option is butter first, jam second and a dollop of cream last. Be careful not to eat too many though, because the next course is the real star – it’s the cake and pastries course. Usually the serving plate offers tiny versions of delicious favourites – millefeuille, miniature chocolate cakes, baby lemon tarts, meringues and fondant fancies (known as petits-four in North America). I’ve had some beautiful things. This summer one London hotel – the Berkeley in Knightsbridge - offered a lighter “Prêt-à-Portea” featuring confections inspired by the Spring/Summer 09 fashion collections including designs by Michael Kors, Balmain and Oscar de la Renta among others. There were handbag cakes, bikinis on cookie models and dresses – amazing! Afternoon tea is any pastry chef’s opportunity to show off, and believe me, they do.

If you do come to England this Autumn – or anytime at all to be fair – I highly recommend indulging in Afternoon Tea at least once. Taking tea is the most British of things to do, and we really are not half as stuffy about it as we used to be! Most afternoon tea experiences are nothing short of delightful and the perfect outing whether you are with family or friends. It’s a great way to introduce children (I’d suggest over the age of eight) to a more formal dining experience, but one filled with food they will really like to eat! Whether you choose the glamorous option of Tea at the Ritz (gentlemen have to wear ties) or go for something a little more cozy in a quaint tea room in the countryside, it is an experience not to be missed.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

In Praise of Leftovers

These days we are being exhorted by everyone to waste less, reduce our carbon footprint, and to use only what we need. But with today’s hectic lifestyle, all that can be easier said than done. Not only that, but who wants to eat leftovers all the time? Back in the day, the Sunday roast would last for two or three days, most often reincarnated as cold meat or sandwiches. By the time it was finally finished, everyone was well fed up with it.

Actually, leftovers are lovely. Seriously. In fact, I like them so much I deliberately buy larger cuts of meat in order to be sure we have some. Not only that, but leftovers actually make it easier to keep up with today’s hectic lifestyle. Don’t believe me? Read on.

In the pursuit of the quick and easy, we have forgotten how little effort it requires to cook a nice big roast or a whole chicken or turkey. For some reason the belief is that this is a difficult thing to do. Actually roasting a piece of meat is of the easiest things you can imagine. Yes, it takes time, but very little effort is involved from the cook. In fact, one of the easiest dinner party ideas I can think of is to roast a beautiful sirloin or rib roast. All you have to do is bring it out of the fridge about a half hour before (so it does not go straight into the oven bone chillingly cold), season it with salt and pepper and perhaps anoint it with a bit of olive oil. Put it in a hot oven (say about 375℉ or 175℃) and depending on the size of the roast or bird (and in the case of a roast how well you like it done), about two hours later, dinner is served. (Be sure to allow about twenty minutes at the end for the meat to rest covered outside of the oven, or all the lovely juices will be lost when you carve the meat.)

Yes, you need to make gravy or a sauce, potatoes or rice and a vegetable or salad, but this is all pretty light work. In fact, my favourite potato dishes at the moment is to heat some olive oil on a baking sheet in the oven for about five minutes and then (carefully – you don’t want to burn yourself with hot oil!) remove it and put washed and dried baby new potatoes in the oil. Using a spoon, roll them to coat, and pop them back in the oven for about forty to fifty minutes. Roast baby new potatoes – yummy and so very easy. If you think of it, take them out about halfway through cooking and turn, but they are so small it is no tragedy if you forget to do this. All this is so easy as to render it do-able not just on a weekend or special occasion, but even – dare I suggest it – one evening during the week.

But back to the leftovers bit. I’m going to concentrate on a roast beef in this entry as it is my roast of the moment, the thing I am really into as the nights grow cooler. So, if you are serving a roast to several friends as I did last night (and last Saturday and the one before as well incidentally) buy a nice big roast, say twice the size you need. Check with your butcher or ask at the meat counter in your grocery store if you are not sure about sizes – and if you are like me take their suggestion and add a bit again. I usually work on roast that is about 3 kilograms, so a bit over six pounds of meat. It might sound like a lot, but believe me we are going to have fun with it.

So, when you first cook this very large piece of meat, you could serves it perhaps as I suggested above, with a nice gravy or sauce (I have been known to purchase good ready made gravy or sauce for ease if I’m having a dinner party). Side dishes could include roast baby new potatoes and say, some steamed vegetables or a nice salad. Even if you are serving six or seven with a roast like this (as I did last night) you are definitely going to have a nice size piece of meat left. I like to just slice off what I need, and leave the rest to cool. Be sure to refrigerate it promptly after it has cooled off a bit. That is the key to delicious, safe leftovers.

The next day when it has all gone quiet, slice the meat into as many tidy slices as you can, and separate the slices from the bits that are slightly chunkier. You should have enough for at least two, or maybe three meals left here. Now of course, you can use some of the slices in cold sandwiches, with a bit of horseradish or sharp mustard on some nice crusty bread for lunch. However, if you want a more substantial, really satisfying supper sandwich, try this. Sauté some thinly sliced mild onions in a bit of butter. Now when I say, sauté, I mean cook over very low heat for a very long time. The longer you can cook onions, the yummier they are – I like to go for at least twenty minutes. Add a teaspoon of sugar to the onions about halfway through cooking. Now stir in a bit of leftover homemade or packaged liquid gravy (canned or fresh from the chiller cabinet) – just a bit though; you want it fairly thick. Now, very gently lay the leftover slices of beef in the pan with your oniony gravy over low heat just to warm through. Cut a nice crusty loaf of French baguette or an Italian ciabatta in generous chunks (about four to six inches long) and slice each one of those in half. We are going for an open-faced production here. Serve the oniony beef and gravy mixture over slices of crusty bread. It’s positively ambrosial comfort food for a Fall evening.

Another delicious sandwich idea is to make hot hoagie style sandwiches. You can even use French baguette or rolls that are a bit on the stale side as they will be revitalised when you heat these yummy sandwiches in the oven.

The 21st Century Housewife’s© Hot Hoagie Sandwiches
Serves 4

I large baguette or 4 rolls
Several slices of cold leftover pork or beef
1 large onion, sliced
1 tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon sugar
Leftover roasted peppers or vegetables
Grated cheese

Slice the baguette into 4 pieces and split it so that you can put the fillings inside. If you are using rolls, slice them in the same way. Butter the baguette or rolls. Place each baguette on a piece of aluminum foil big enough to wrap around the entire sandwich. Preheat the oven to about 150ºC or 325ºF.

Melt the 1 tablespoon butter in a frying pan and gently fry the onion until it begins to take on a golden colour. Sprinkle with the sugar and cook a little longer. Turn off the heat and set aside.

Fill each piece of baguette or roll with a quarter of the meat, roasted vegetables, fried onions and cheese. Now wrap each sandwich firmly in the foil. Place the foil wrapped sandwiches on a baking sheet and place in the oven for 1o to 15 minutes or until heated through. Unwrap the sandwiches carefully (they will be steaming hot!) and enjoy. These taste great with a cold beer and some crisps or potato chips on the side.

But what to do with the not-so-tidy slices, those chunks of meat that often end up lost in the back of the freezer? That need never happen again. Those chunky slices can make the most wonderful stroganoff. Normally beef stroganoff is made with slices of fresh beef fillet, cooked at the very last minute. However you can definitely use leftovers for a yummy (much less pricey) version too.

The 21st Century Housewife’s© Leftovers Stroganoff
Serves about 4

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
2 large onions, finely sliced (red or white onions or one of each)
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup sliced white mushrooms
1 cup beef stock (made from a cube is fine)
2 tablespoons wholegrain Dijon mustard
(if you don’t have wholegrain Dijon, use 1 tablespoon of ordinary Dijon)
½ cup half fat crème fraîche or light sour cream
1 teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon nutmeg, preferably freshly grated
about 2 cups ragged bits of leftover beef from a roast, sliced as thinly as you can

Melt the butter with the oil in a fairly deep frying pan. Add the onions and sauté gently over low heat for twenty minutes, until they are soft and beginning to colour. Add the sugar and then stir in the mushrooms. Cook for a couple of minutes. Turn the heat up to medium, add the beef stock and reduce for about two or three minutes, stirring constantly. Turn the heat back and stir in the mustard, crème fraîche, paprika and nutmeg. Heat through. Gently stir in the beef and heat just until piping hot throughout. (As it is already cooked, you don’t want to make the beef dry by overheating.)

Serve over some warm, buttery rice. It’s absolutely delicious.

From you average 3 kilogram/seven pound-ish roast you are likely to get the main meal for four to six people, one or two cold sandwiches, supper sandwiches for three to four people and stroganoff for three or four. That’s one (not very major) cooking effort the first night, followed by a very light amount of effort on the other occasions. (The very easy stroganoff is probably the most complicated suggestion here.) As cold meat will keep for up to three days in the fridge, you can use everything up in plenty of time. Of course if there are only one or two of you – or you don’t fancy beef three days in a row - feel free to freeze any leftovers (carefully labelled at the front of the freezer!). It takes no time at all to thaw a couple of slices of roast beef or a small bag of chunky bits.

So you see, using up your leftovers need not be tedious or boring – a little bit of creativity and they won’t even be recognisable as leftovers at all. Being economical and reducing your carbon footprint isn’t all that difficult after all. It’s also very delicious!

Thursday, 10 September 2009

The 21st Century Housewife's© Wholegrain Mustard and Tarragon Sauce

We had friends visiting last weekend and I wanted to make something new. My butcher does beautiful pork tenderloin and I found some lovely fresh tarragon at a local shop, so I let my creativity loose and this was the result. Wholegrain Dijon mustard is made with whole grains of mustard and has a delicious flavour. Most varieties are milder than traditional Dijon, but add as much or as little as you like. I love a good punchy mustard flavour in a sauce so I use 3 tablespoons, but taste as you go, and see what suits you. Take your time sautéing the onion. The longer you cook it, the sweeter and more delicious it will be.

This sauce was wonderful with the pork tenderloin, but I think it would be equally delicious with chicken. I’d quite like to try it with salmon and monkfish as well. It is definitely not low fat, but it is really delicious!

1 tablespoon butter (preferably unsalted - I like the French brand President)
1 small red onion, very finely chopped
1-1/2 cups (12 ounces or 355 ml) single cream (light cream or half and half)
2 - 3 tablespoons wholegrain Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon fresh tarragon, very finely chopped
squeeze of lemon

Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Sauté the onion gently over low heat for at least fifteen minutes, stirring occasionally. Gently stir in the cream. Add mustard to taste and heat through, continuing to stir occasionally. Add a little squeeze of lemon juice, and the tarragon. Stir through and serve over pork, chicken or fish.

Monday, 7 September 2009

The 21st Century Housewife's© White Chocolate and Macadamia Nut Cookies

Macadamia nuts are wonderful all by themselves, but combined with white chocolate chunks they are quite simply ambrosial. In fact, my son said these were the best cookies I have ever made. I took that as a huge compliment, as he has been eating my cookies for over sixteen years!

I won’t try to tell you that cookies are good for you (that would be fibbing), but macadamia nuts can be. Although they are high in fat, they do contain the highest amount of beneficial monounsaturated fats of any nut. They are also low in carbohydrates and a good source of protein and calcium. So don’t feel too guilty when you reach for your second (or third) cookie warm from the oven!!

This recipe makes about five dozen cookies.

1 and 1/3 cups soft unsalted butter
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup brown sugar (not packed)
2 eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 cups all purpose (plain) flour
1 teaspoon baking soda (bicarbonate of soda)
pinch of salt
about 1 cup of white chocolate chunks (or chips)
1/2 to 3/4 of a cup macadamia nuts, roughly chopped
Lightly grease baking sheets with butter or line with some greaseproof paper.  Heat the oven to 350ºF or 170ºC (160ºC fan oven). 
Cream together the butter and the sugars.  Add the egg and vanilla and stir in.  Sift together the flour, baking soda and salt.  Add to the butter mixture and mix well. Gently fold in the white chocolate chunks or chips and the macadamia nuts.
Drop the mixture by teaspoons onto the prepared baking sheets. (Or use my trick - a mini ice cream scoop works brilliantly!) You may need to bake the cookies in more than one batch.  Bake for 9 to 12 minutes until lightly brown.  It is worth keeping an eye on them first time as all ovens vary.  The cookies should still be soft, but will get firmer as they cool.  Remove the baking sheets from the oven and allow the cookies to cool on them for about five minutes so they firm up a bit.  Carefully remove the cookies from the baking sheets and place on wire racks to cool. 
These are delicious warm, but they will keep for up to three days in a sealed container at room temperature. You can also freeze them on the day of baking. Cookies that have been frozen taste especially good gently warmed in the oven for about three to five minutes and eaten warm. Another option is to just bake half the recipe, and then cover the cookie dough and store in the fridge for up to three days. Allow the dough to warm a bit before you attempt to bake, then simply drop by teaspoons as before, bake and enjoy!

Friday, 4 September 2009

The Show Before The Show

We are keen theatre goers in our family, and as such, are always looking for good places to eat pre or post theatre. To be honest, I’m mainly a fan of the pre-theatre meal, as by the time most shows are over it is usually nearly ten pm, and frankly by then I’m pretty much past dinner. I could have been the woman for whom Rodgers and Hart wrote the line “She gets too hungry for dinner at eight”, although I really do not consider myself to be a tramp!

I’ve written before about pre-theatre dinners in London, which is now very nearly my hometown, living as I do only a few miles outside the capital. Having travelled as much as I have though, I have to say that even in cities known for their theatre, it can be hard to find a good place for a meal before the show. You want something special, but not overwhelming. Most of all you want something that allows you to eat in time for the opening curtain, without making you feel bloated and over-full as you sit watching the show. So on any given evening, from London to New York and from Chicago to the West Coast, you will find theatre goers searching for the perfect pre-theatre repast.

While I was in New York with my family this summer, I found an amazing place for a pre-theatre dinner, and we were not even heading for Broadway. In fact, we had tickets for an evening visit to Top of the Rock – the observation platform at the top of Rockefeller Center. We had had a full day sightseeing in Manhattan and had returned to our hotel, the Muse Hotel on West 46th Street just off Broadway, for a rest, only to realise we were running a bit late. We wanted to have something delicious and special for dinner, but needed something fairly quick. It was a spur of the moment decision to eat in Nios, the hotel restaurant.

Thankfully it was not too busy when we came downstairs as we had not made a reservation. The hostess greeted us warmly and assured us lack of reservations were not a problem (as we were a bit later, the early rush of diners had subsided). She showed us to a very nice table and then presented us with a menu, entitled “The Show Before The Show”. It was very cleverly divided into sections for easy perusal – “First Act” listed appetizers, “The Show” listed main courses and “Encore” listed desserts. With at least seven choices in each section we were spoiled for choice, and prices were very reasonable for a restaurant within a stone’s throw of Times Square.

My husband and I had the Corn Chowder, which featured manila clams, pee wee potatoes and heirloom baby carrots. It was the nicest chowder I have ever had, served piping hot with delicious, fresh ingredients. A sprinkling of chilli powder round the edge of the bowl meant that you could season it to taste, as well as providing a beautiful decoration. Our son enjoyed the Crispy Pork Ribs flavored with ginger and soy. Other choices for starters included an Arugula Salad, Heirloom Tomato Salad or Sheep’s Milk Gnocchi. I was also seriously tempted by the Butter Poached Shrimp served with creamy grits in a bouillabaisse sauce. That is definitely what I will have next time!

The starters were light and flavorful, perking our appetites for the main course just as they should. The Slow Roasted Pork loin was beautifully cooked and the Apple Barbeque Sauce served alongside was just amazing. Grilled Corn and Fava Beans were the side dishes served with this main course, which both my husband and I chose. Our son enjoyed the Saffron Chicken served with Israeli Couscous, Fava Beans and Zucchini. None of us was brave enough to try the Bison and Bacon Meatloaf that was on offer, but I’ve since been told it is utterly delicious. House Made Fettuccini was another main course choice, and for a five dollar supplement you could also choose from Arctic Char, a Grilled Flat Iron Steak or Seared Sea Scallops.

The desserts at Nios, created (as was the whole menu) by Chef Patricia Williams, are intriguing with a very modern edge. My husband chose the Rose Petal Panna Cotta with pomegranate foam and lemon thyme honey. It was utterly exquisite (he is very good at sharing!). My Peach Crisp was flavored with basil, something I found a bit startling at first, but which definitely grew on me. A mascarpone meringue offset the unique flavors beautifully. Nios also offer a selection of homemade ice creams and sorbets in a choice of unexpected and delicious flavors which our son really enjoyed. Current ice cream flavors include Apricot Tarragon, Root Beer, Yogurt and Cherry Cinnamon. Different yes, but also incredibly delectable. (My son is good at sharing too!)

Chef Patricia Williams should be very proud of this menu, and I understand that the a la carte selection is equally intriguing and delicious. Any meal at Nios will be enhanced by the excellent selection of wines offered on their extensive wine list. Prepared by Master Sommelier Emily Wines, it offers great taste at all price points. We enjoyed one of the mid-priced wines, a delicious Sauvignon Blanc. If you fancy something a bit more exotic, there is also a huge range of cocktails on offer.

With their wide range of dishes and the friendly, modern atmosphere, you are sure to have a wonderful experience at Nios, whether you are enjoying their Pre-Theatre Menu, something from their a la carte selection or one of their dishes designed for sharing over drinks. It’s a real gem tucked away round the corner from the excitement of Times Square, and well worth a visit.

Check out Nios’ website at http://www.niosrestaurant.com/

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

You Say Tom-ay-to....

I have a unique accent. I grew up in Canada, but I immigrated to England in my early twenties. When I first arrived in my new home, I was desperate to assimilate, and so picked up as much of the vernacular as I could. I learned words like “flog” (slang for to sell), “chuffed” (for proud) and “knackered” (for exhausted). I softened my a’s and strengthened my h’s (the part of London I lived in over-pronounced the letter h as opposed to dropping it as they do in some areas). So when I returned to Canada for a visit six months after I immigrated, everyone said I had an English accent. But back in England, they were still asking where I was from, and definitely placing me as North American. Over the years, this trend continued, exacerbated by our move to another part of England – the Midlands – where the accent and local slang are different yet again. Suddenly, nice things were “loovely”, good things were “brilliant” and if someone said “eh up me duck” I knew they were just greeting me (although I can honestly say I never ever said that myself!). After a few years, no one could really place me at all. Once a lady asked if I was Scottish, and others would place me as Irish. Other days, when I had been speaking to Canadian friends and family, I was definitely placed as North American. I used to worry about this a lot, because it meant I had to really concentrate when I spoke in order to try to either fit in (at parent–teacher interviews for example, where I sometimes experienced (slightly inaccurate) prejudice “His mum’s American, you know” as if that somehow meant I could not possibly understand the British education system) or when I just wanted to be myself and speak like “me”. But twenty years of living in England, combined with a huge amount of travel, have placed me firmly in the middle of the Atlantic when it comes to accents. And now that I am older, wiser, and not so easily hurt by curious comments, I speak without thinking and really don’t care what people think. My voice and my accent are my own, and I enjoy being unique. I really don’t sound like anyone else in the world. The sting of always being different – with an accent perceived as British in North America, and American in England – has gone.

However, one thing still flummoxes me – and can render me virtually speechless (not an easy thing, as my husband will confirm!). The names for, and pronunciation of various foods, are wildly varied between North America and the United Kingdom. It’s enough to confuse anyone, and can lead to some very interesting situations.

As Shakespeare’s Juliet affirmed when she said “a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet”, a rose is still a rose no matter what you call it. So while an eggplant, so named because its shape puts one in mind of eggs is called an “aubergine” in England because of its color, it still tastes great in ratatouille and Parmigiana regardless of what name it is described by. Zucchini are courgettes here (I’ve no idea why, perhaps because of our proximity to France), scallions are spring onions, snow peas are mange tout (again a French influence) and cilantro is coriander.

If you happen to be ordering lunch of a snack, you have to remember that “chips” are “crisps” here in England, and French Fries are “chips”. A “popsicle” is an “ice lolly” and a “cookie” is a biscuit. In a more formal setting, “sherbert” is “sorbet” (pronounced sorbay), and absolutely any dessert (including cake) is a “pudding”.

Baking can be quite a challenge too. The exotically named bicarbonate of soda is simply baking soda. On the other hand, the British are much more practical in terms of name when it comes to powdered or confectioner’s sugar, simply calling it “icing sugar”. “Treacle” is as close to molasses as you are likely to get here and corn flour is actually corn starch. Sadly, you won’t find corn syrup in England, but you can substitute Golden Syrup instead. It’s not exactly the same thing, but it’s close. “All purpose” flour in England is used for baking cakes and cookies (we don’t have “cake flour” here);“strong” flour is more for baking bread. “Self rising flour” is just that, flour with leavening agents added, meaning you don’t need to use baking soda or baking powder in your recipe. Caster sugar is a more finely ground version of white – or granulated – sugar and desiccated coconut is simply shredded.

All this is before you get into the differences in pronunciation of words that, on paper, look exactly the same. There is the well known “tomayto – tomahto” debate (most Brits go very quiet when one points out that if that is the case then, seriously, why is “potayto” not “potahto”?). It’s these pronunciation differences that get me into trouble. The number of times my pronunciation of the small member of the onion family – a shallot – has been corrected are countless. I say “shallot” which the emphasis on the first syllable. Here, however, the accent is on the last syllable, resulting in “sha-LOT”. I had a waiter practically in hysterics recently when I ordered the “tomayto and shallot” salad – he confirmed I meant “tomahto and sha-LOT” before putting the order in! (What else could I possibly have meant?) People exchange knowing glances when I talk about tomatoes or bananas, often thinking “she’s not from round here”, and being heartily surprised when I tell them that, actually, I am! Don’t even get me started on the scone – scon debate – I’m not sure anyone has that one figured out yet. The pronunciation varies incredibly from one end of England to the other, and I know that is the case in North America too. I never know which to say, and am often reduced to pointing at the nearest scone on the tea trolley!

Of all those food related conundrums that have occurred, only one has made me angry. Many years ago, my son was answering a question in Kindergarten class about things people bake. I make really good banana bread and my son has always loved it. Unfortunately, he copied my pronunciation, standing up and saying, “My mummy makes banana bread” – instead of “banahhna bread” as it is pronounced in England. The (rather racist) teacher laughed and said, “Sit down, American boy”. The whole class laughed at him, and I was extremely upset when he told me about it. The idea that someone is somehow cleverer just because they pronounce ‘a’ like ‘ah’ incensed me. Let’s just put it this way - it never, ever, happened again.

On the whole though, I find the subject of food and pronunciation a fascinating one – and now that I have the confidence of someone who has been negotiating this particular minefield for years, it is now much more a conversation piece than something to be stressed over. As we all begin to travel more, many of us know different words for the same thing and switch between them regularly depending on our location. I can even envisage a time when it really won’t matter how we say something, it will matter far more what we say. Surely that is a good thing, and not just when it comes to food either!