Thursday, 30 July 2009

Some Wonderful Home Cooking in the Middle of Our Holiday

As part of our holiday, we went to visit my cousin Esther and her family in Southern Ontario for a long weekend. We all get along really well, and any visit with them is the highlight of a trip. There is always lots of camaraderie, laughter and fun. There is also a lot of really wonderful food.

My cousin Esther is one of the very best cooks I know. She brings home cooking to a whole new level, a reminder of another era when the table was the centre of every home. (She also makes and decorates totally amazing cakes, but that is another story.)

I have learned a lot from Esther. Although her kitchen is always full of delicious things to eat, she is a very busy lady – one who works outside the home as well as in it – but somehow she still finds time to cook delicious meals and snacks. Whenever she visits anyone she comes bearing gifts of food – from her wonderful banana bread to her delicious blueberry lemon muffins and peanut butter cookies. At Christmas she bakes cookies, squares and cakes, sharing them with family, friends and colleagues.

How many of us actually cook on a regular basis these days? In today’s post-modern world, food is often reduced to something we grab in the middle of a busy day, or eat exhausted at the end of one. And although there are more cooking programs than ever before, how many of us watch other people cooking more than we actually cook for ourselves?

Studies show that despite the economic downturn, more and more people are turning to ready prepared meals – often of the frozen variety. While these are not bad for us from time to time, many contain far more salt and fat than we need. And despite the best efforts of chefs like Rachael Ray and Jamie Oliver to show us that rustling up a meal can often take less time than ordering a take away, many people are still ordering in on a regular basis.

But my cousin Esther is proof positive that you can have an incredibly busy life and still prepare home cooked food for your family. How does she do it? Years of practice, great organizational skills and a few labor saving tips are just the beginning. One of the reasons for this is that she plans ahead. Whenever she cooks things, she cooks extra for another time. Leftover cooked bacon gets put in the fridge or freezer for use in salads and pasta. Muffins and cookies are made in double or triple batches, with extra frozen ready for another day. Extra waffles and pancakes end up in the deep freeze too – ready for popping in the toaster to re-warm on busy mornings.

She’s also great with leftovers, something so many people miss out on. Any food that is not eaten first time round is refrigerated promptly or frozen, so there is always something delicious available for that last minute meal. The carcass from the roast chicken we had for lunch on our last day with the family was in a stockpot bubbling away as we left– destined for soup or gorgeous gravy.

I’m one of those people who loves to cook, and because my career centers around home and food issues, I do a lot of it. But sometimes I get really stressed about it, especially when I am catering for lots of people. My cousin’s attitude to cooking is an inspiration. She’s so relaxed. She has loads of great shortcuts, and she is happy to share both recipes and ideas. It seems like every time we visit we get to taste something new and delicious. I always come home with new recipes, and usually planning to buy some new kitchen gadget or other. Last time I got home I bought an electric frying pan and an electric griddle, both fantastic additions to my kitchen arsenal. This time she (and her amazing blueberry walnut waffles!) have revealed to me the benefits of owning a waffle maker.

It’s also lovely to get to taste the family dishes I remember from my childhood on our visits. Of course I have the recipes and make them myself, but somehow, when Esther makes them they always taste better!

I’m so glad we got to spend some time with Esther and family again this holiday, not only because they are great company, but because Esther’s amazing food and cooking always inspire me. As we head off on the last leg of our holiday, back into the world of restaurants and hotels, I’ve got some great memories of wonderful home cooking to take back to my own home with me when the holiday is over. Thanks Esther!

Friday, 24 July 2009

Not Just For Honeymooners After All...

Ever since I was a little girl I have wanted to stay at one of the hotels overlooking the falls in Niagara Falls Canada. I can remember staring up at their tall glass facades, aged about four, and thinking how wonderful it would be to sleep overlooking the falls. My parents told me they were only for people on honeymoon – and I can understand why – as a young couple with a small child, they were hardly a frugal accommodation choice.

Of course, as I got older, I realised people other than honeymooners stayed at those hotels, but they stayed firmly out of my reach for the early years of my marriage. Thankfully times have changed, so when the opportunity to visit Niagara again arose recently, I decided it was time to fulfil my long held dream of staying overlooking this wonder of the world, I chose the Sheraton Fallsview Hotel on Fallsview Road for our adventure. Having seen the hotel for themselves as well, my husband and son had absolutely no hesitation in encouraging me to go ahead with this plan.

Travelling as a family of three – especially when one of us is aged sixteen - can have its challenges. Although most hotel rooms in North America have two double beds, one room does not really afford any of us the privacy we need. However many hotel suites only have one king sized bed so this is no good either. On many occasions my husband and I have had a suite and our son has had an ordinary double room. This has been fine for us, but has not pleased our son very much at all! This is where the Sheraton Fallsview is wonderful. They have family suites, overlooking both the Canadian and American falls, with two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a living area. It was perfect. This also meant we could take advantage of a special service offered by the Sheraton – in room candlelit dining overlooking the falls.

Okay, I know this feature is probably designed mainly for those honeymooners my Dad told me about all those years ago, but dining by candlelight as a family is really nice too. It makes you slow down a bit, and really talk about things – and with a view like we had, there was no shortage of conversation topics on offer. I was a bit concerned though, as room service is normally either spectacularly good or spectacularly awful. I’ve had wonderful room service meals, but I’ve also had cold food that was not really very good at all. I need not have worried.

The Sheraton offers a really good choice of food and wines – several starters, a number of main courses and four desserts. They also have a good wine list with a selection of wines and champagnes at all price points. We had a long day driving all the way from Boston, and felt the need for a little celebration, so we ordered some Canadian champagne (which is of course actually sparkling wine as champagne can only come from Champagne in France). We also decided to work our way through the menu – all in the name of research of course!

Just a few minutes before our meal arrived, a member of staff prepared a table for us in front of our floor to ceiling windows in the living area. A linen tablecloth and napkins were laid on the table, along with heavy silver cutlery and crystal wine glasses. A candle was lit just in time for the food to arrive, all covered with heatproof domes to keep everything hot (or cold as the case might be).

I had a bruschetta starter. Fresh chopped tomato and onion was served alongside garlic rubbed French bread. It was delicious. My husband had a shrimp cocktail – four giant shrimp were served over lettuce with a spicy sauce. Our son had a Caesar salad and pronounced it the best he had ever tasted. He can definitely speak with authority on that score, as Caesar salad is one of his favourites.

For main course our son had pork ribs served in a maple based barbeque sauce, along with French fries and a side dish of both golden and regular beets. Being sixteen, he is not a fan of beets, but in my opinion they were delicious! He did pronounce the rest of his meal wonderful. It must have been – I got in trouble for trying to sneak a taste of some of the sauce on his ribs and normally he is very good at sharing! My husband and I both had a seafood pasta dish in a light Alfredo sauce. The seafood was fresh and plentiful – lots of scallops, shrimps, clams and mussels. The fresh pasta was perfectly cooked and the sauce was scrumptious. We drank a Jackson Trigg Sauvignon Blanc with our main course; it was the perfect compliment to the fish and pasta.

We were almost too full for dessert - but not quite!. Our son had a chocolate gateau that was light and delicious (he was very generous with tastes of it). My husband and I had a New York Cheesecake served with a blueberry coulis. It was beautifully made, delicious and light, as cheesecake should be. All the desserts were served with big fat strawberries dipped in both milk and white chocolate. They looked and tasted beautiful.

Of course, the food was complimented by the incredible view. This was an experience we won’t soon forget, and although it was far from a frugal option, it was extremely good value for money. Portions were generous and the food was beautifully prepared and presented. We enjoyed it so much that we are planning a repeat of the experience when we stay at the Sheraton again next week on our way back to New York City. The best part was that just as we finished our meals and sat drinking the last of the “champagne”, the sky was filled with fireworks over the falls. It was perfect end to an outstanding meal.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

It's Not Just a Great Place to Visit...

I feel utterly decadent. The last three meals I have eaten (except breakfast this morning), I’ve had lobster. Where I come from, lobster is pretty hard to come by, and it costs about fifty dollars a throw. It’s not the sort of thing you get to eat very often. In fact, the last time I had a whole lobster was about three years ago. I’ve had lobster bisque and things like that, but not anything that had more than a couple tablespoons of lobster meat in it.

But yesterday for lunch, sitting on the harbour front in Boston at Legal Seafood, I had one of the best lobsters I have ever eaten. It was served whole, on a bed of fresh pasta with garlic, mushrooms and cherry tomatoes. Then for dinner I had a fresh lobster roll at Stephanie’s on Newbury, and today for lunch I had another lobster roll back at Legal Seafood on the harbour front – although this time we sat inside as it was raining.

Of course, it is no secret that Boston is a great place for seafood. You are pretty much right on the coast, so most fish you get haven’t had to travel very far, and is pretty much as fresh as it can be. But actually I’ve found that Boston is just a great place for food in general. We have yet to have a bad meal here, or even a mediocre one, and we have been here for nearly three days now.

Boston has a pretty rich history when it comes to food. From Boston Baked Beans and Parker House Rolls to Boston Cream Pie, there are a lot of traditional dishes that Boston can lay claim to. And that helps to make it a really delicious place to visit.

We arrived on a Sunday evening, and as the restaurant in our hotel was closed we decided to go for a walk. We found ourselves at Cheers bar, which is not far from our hotel on Beacon Street. We had a wonderful meal here, delicious food beautifully served. Despite my worries that it might be a tourist trap, it was nothing of the sort. The food was reasonably priced and portions were generous. The menu was really varied too – I had a fantastic chicken salad, my husband had a seafood platter and my son had a cheeseburger. It was a good start.

We’ve been breakfasting at our hotel, the Nine Zero Hotel on Tremont Street. It’s a Kimpton hotel and the menu here is the same as at their Cyprus Hotel in Cupertino, California where we stayed recently – although I have to say the food is better here. You can get a mean Eggs Benedict (with the hollandaise served on the side if you like it like I do) for around $13, and the coffee is good too. If you prefer something a bit sweeter, try their Brioche French Toast at $14, which is served with caramelized bananas, hazelnuts, and Vermont Maple Syrup. I’m informed by reliable sources that it is incredibly delicious.

There is no shortage of good restaurants around Boston for lunch or dinner. Legal Seafood, where I had the wonderful lobster pasta dish on Monday, has become one of our favourites. There are branches all over the city, but we have stuck to the one down by the harbour. Whether you sit outside in the sunshine or inside at one of their tables or the buzzing lunch counter, you will be treated to some delicious seafood. Their menu is creative and offers a fantastic choice – also watch out for their daily specials which offer really good value for money and fantastic flavor. The pasta dish with the whole lobster I had there on Monday only cost $17.95 and their delicious lobster roll was served with French fries and a lovely light coleslaw.

Stephanie’s on Newbury was recommended to us, and after our visit there on Monday night I can understand why. It was not just my lobster roll dinner that was outstanding. Their menu offered a huge choice of good basic dishes – things I would describe as comfort food – served fresh and delicious to order. My son had a beautifully presented burger and my husband had some outstanding fresh fish and chips. There were several other things on their menu I would like to try; we will have to return on our next visit to Boston.

So where did we go for dinner on our last evening in Boston? Believe it or not, we headed back to Cheers. The place I thought I would like the least has ended up being one the one we enjoyed the most. We all had different dishes this time, and once again we were impressed. It’s basic pub food, but it is done really, really well, and sometimes that is all you really want. It was a wonderful way to finish off our visit to Boston, and get us ready to head off for the next stop on our summer road trip.

One thing is for sure, Boston is more than a great place to visit; it’s also a wonderful place to eat!

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Like most historic places, Boston has its share of tourist attractions for those of us who love food and drink. Among them are the Green Dragon pub where the Sons of Liberty planned the American Revolution, and the Omni Parker Hotel which not only claims the distinction of having invented Boston Cream Pie and Parker House rolls, but also of housing the restaurant where JFK proposed to Jacqueline Bouvier. For those interested in more recent, possibly less important history, it is also the home of “Cheers”, the bar that provided the inspiration for the long running television series of the same name.

On this, my first visit to Boston, I really did want to eat at Cheers, despite the fact I was expecting it to be a tourist trap. I thought we would find a limited menu, with extremely high prices and fairly mediocre food. I was destined to be pleasantly surprised.

Tour guides are quick to point out that the pub was (and still is) actually called “The Bull and Finch” and that it was not called “Cheers” until after some Hollywood writers on assignment discovered it. They also mention that only the exterior shots for the show were shot there; the interiors were of course all shot on a set in Hollywood. But even without the addition of the actual bar from the set upstairs, the place is so like the location I remember watching on the television show I would not have been at all surprised to see a young Ted Danson pop his head round the bar.

We arrived fairly early on a Sunday evening, walking across Boston Common from our hotel to Beacon Street. I was surprised to find there was no queue for dinner. The bar itself was very full and almost ready to start turning people away, but when I said we wanted to eat, we were immediately shown to a table in “the back room”. Like the rest of the pub, the back room really does resemble the set I remember on television. There is hardly a space on the wall without something stuck on it, and Sam’s baseball jersey hangs in pride of place. Our waitress was really friendly, and I was pleased to be handed a menu that had lots of choices on it. In fact, there was so much choice, it took us quite a while to decide what to eat!

The prices at Cheers are pretty much in line with prices in other restaurants in Boston. I really did not feel that there was any sort of additional mark up. With dinner salads running about eleven dollars and main courses going for between ten and fifteen, it did not feel like we were breaking the bank. In fact, in the end it was one of the least expensive meals we have had so far in Boston. My son chose the Cheers Cheeseburger, which he described as big, juicy and cheesy – and what else do you really want from a cheeseburger? My husband had the seafood platter, a lightly breaded selection of cod, clams, scallops and shrimp served with French fries and coleslaw. I chose Lillith’s Pan Asian Salad, a delicious combination of chicken breast in a soy ginger sauce, lettuce, carrots, oranges and tomatoes in a soy dressing topped with strips of crispy fried wonton wrappers.

All the food was fresh and delicious, beautifully prepared and presented and, in my opinion, offered very good value for money. The servings were really generous as well. In fact, we had very little room for dessert, although we did force ourselves to share a Boston Cream Pie – it seemed almost rude not to.

Yes, there is a souvenir shop upstairs, but no one is forcing you to buy anything, and if you want a souvenir glass, it only costs a couple of dollars on top of the cost of a cocktail (and they serve a nice selection of non-alcoholic cocktails for those who do not drink alcohol). I have to say that Cheers is one of the least “touristy” tourist attractions I have ever visited. And for folks like my husband and I, who grew up watching the television series, it was a real treat to walk into a place that really did seem to have not only the look, but also the feel, of its namesake.

We enjoyed our visit to the Bull and Finch so much that we are hoping to go back before we leave Boston tomorrow, not only for a taste of the famous “Cheers” atmosphere, but also for the very, very delicious food!

Monday, 20 July 2009

Service From Another Era

Sadly these days, it can be hard to get really good service. The days of “service with a smile” and “satisfaction guaranteed” can seem like they are long gone. But once in a while you experience service as it used to be, and it reminds you that there are still people out there who really care about what they do, and who take pride in their work.

New Year’s Eve this year was an important one for us. After a couple of really sad years during which I lost both my parents, we were going to try to make a new start, and move forward by doing something really memorable. Not only that, but our son was about to turn sixteen, a very important age in my opinion, and we wanted to do something really special for him. We decided a trip to New York City fit the bill, and I looked into how we could celebrate his birthday and the New Year in style. We decided to stay at the iconic Waldorf Astoria Hotel, and go to the New Year’s Eve celebration at their Bull and Bear restaurant.

We were really looking forward to this event, expecting something quite outstanding at the Bull and Bear. Firstly there was the reputation the Waldorf Astoria has for New Year’s Eve celebrations and secondly, as you would expect, the meal (for which we had completely pre-paid) was quite expensive. Sadly, from beginning to end, it was a bit of a disaster. The atmosphere was not good, the service was not up to standard, the food was mediocre and the whole thing was a major disappointment. I was so upset I did not even complain until a few days later when we ate at one of the Waldorf’s other restaurants, Peacock Alley. I did so almost in passing, when I was complimenting the waiter on that evening’s dinner.

The manager there offered us a complimentary after dinner drink, and passed my concerns on to the General Manager of the Bull and Bear, Oran Kierans. He rang me first thing the next day, apologised profusely and refunded over half the cost of the evening. He then said that we should get in touch when next we were in New York, and he would treat us to dinner. He said he was proud of his restaurant, and wanted us to see just how wonderful it could be.

We were not sure when we were going to be back, but I kept Mr Kieran’s email address on file. When we decided to return to New York recently, I contacted him, wondering if, six months later, he would even remember us, let alone his offer of dinner. I need not have worried. He replied to my email immediately, and Saturday night found us once again at the Waldorf Astoria, enjoying a meal at the Bull and Bear. From the very start, it was a totally different experience from New Year’s Eve. The whole atmosphere was different. (Everyone has a bad day once in a while, and clearly for the Bull and Bear New Year’s Eve last year was it.) We felt so welcome, and we were so impressed with the food. From our entrées to our desserts, everything was beautifully prepared and tasted amazing.

My son started with Waldorf salad, and enjoyed a crisp salad of shredded apples in a light mayonnaise, garnished with candied walnuts. My husband’s smoked salmon appetiser was delicious (I had to take his word on this; I don’t like smoked salmon!), and my shrimp cocktail was one of the nicest I have ever had. The cocktail sauce was a beautiful balance of flavors, and I have no idea where the chef found shrimp that were as big as these and yet still so tender and delicious. We all had the same thing for our main course – prime fillet mignon. We love our steak, and we sure have eaten a lot of it over the years, both at home and in restaurants all over the world. We all agreed that the fillets we had Saturday night at the Bull and Bear were among the most delicious steaks we have ever had. The meat was wonderful and they were beautifully seasoned and cooked, served with a Bearnaise sauce that was absolutely ambrosial.

As for dessert, the Bull and Bear have such a delicious sounding selection it is hard to choose. It’s a good thing they encourage you to select three of the delicacies on offer, and then serve them to you in miniature. (Actually, they are not even that miniature – the servings are very generous.) It is a dessert lover’s dream. My husband and I shared a perfect little key lime pie, a miniature goblet of honeyed rice pudding with apricot compote, nutmeg and almonds and a vanilla crème brûlée with forest fruits. All three were simply gorgeous. Our son had the same as we did, except instead of the rice pudding, he had an exquisite version of the classic “S’more” dessert. He shared a taste of it with me and it was about as far removed from the sticky sweet concoctions of my Guiding childhood (however delightful they may have been!) as you could possibly imagine. This was a grown up gourmet S’more, and it really has benefitted from the makeover.

As we drank our coffee and finished the meal, I reflected on how rare it is to find places that actually care about their food and service to the point that they clearly do at the Bull and Bear. Not only did we have an outstanding dining experience on our return, but the general manager and staff at the Bull and Bear have reminded me that in some places, old fashioned service and attention to detail still thrive in the post-modern world.

The Bull and Bear, which is located at 301 Park Avenue at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, is well worth a visit when next you are in New York City. I highly recommend it.

Friday, 17 July 2009

On the Road Again...

So here we are, sitting in the British Airways executive lounge, about to embark on our summer vacation. We are headed to New York City first, followed by a visit to Boston, and then on to Niagara Falls, Canada. From there we are heading back to my hometown of Kitchener for a day, and then on to Sarnia to visit family. Then it is back to Niagara Falls, New York en route to New York City for another few days enjoying the Big Apple. I’m really excited about having some uninterrupted time together with my family, and all the things we will be able to see and do. But most of all, I’m excited about what and where we are going to eat.

Considering I write about food and lifestyles, I suppose it is not very surprising that I feel this way. But I wonder if we are the only family who actually plans its visits to major cities around where we are going to eat. Part of the reason for this is of course that it gives me something to write about, but to be honest, even before I started writing about food and lifestyles, planning where we were going to eat was a big part of any journey. I’ve even been known to visit a city just to go to a particular restaurant.

It was January of this year when we last visited New York City. It was a celebration of our son’s sixteen birthday, but it was also a very good excuse to celebrate the New Year at the iconic Waldorf Astoria Hotel. We also planned our trip round visits to the Russian Tea Rooms and the famous Rainbow Room. We had a marvellous time. I’m so glad we visited the Rainbow Room as I had wanted to go there ever since I was a little girl, and it closed its doors just a few days after we visited. I heard a rumor it may have reopened - we'll have to see. We were very disappointed in our meal on New Year’s Eve at the Waldorf Astoria though. It was at their Bull and Bear restaurant, about which I had heard good things. Readers of my blog might remember that it did not go very well at all. When I raised this with a member of staff the next day, we were immediately referred to the General Manager of the Bull and Bear. He came back to me straight away, apologised profusely and refunded a good portion of what we had paid towards our meal (more than half the cost), which really impressed me. What impressed me more though, was his offer of dinner for the three of us the next time we came to New York. When I realised in May we would be visiting again, I got in touch, wondering if he would even remember an event from five months previous. Well, he did, and he has booked us a table for Saturday evening. I am really looking forward to it. I’m sure our experience will be an entirely different one from that of New Year’s Eve. Either way, I’m extremely pleased by the way my complaint was handled. It’s a real example of customer service at its very best.

We are looking forward to going back to the Russian Tea Rooms as well. I thought it was a magical place, and the fact the food and service were so good just made it a delight. As we head off to Boston, a place I have never been before, I’ll be looking forward to sampling some culinary delights there as well. I’ve been told that Legal’s is the place to go for seafood, and Stephanie’s on Newbury is the place to go for steak.

Knowing as I do that Niagara Falls Canada is a very commercial place (it reminds me of many seaside towns in England), I imagine we will wander a bit further afield to Niagara-on-the-Lake in search of fine dining. I know we will be spoiled for choice there. Whatever happens I know my visit to Sarnia will involve lots of good food. We are visiting my cousin, who is an amazing cook!

And then we will have a few more days in New York to sample even more restaurants. I’m hoping to get to the famous Boathouse in Central Park, among others. It’s going to be fun planning things out over the next couple of days.

Of course, there is a price to be paid for all this good food, and it isn’t just a financial one. Luckily all our hotels have great gyms (hopefully I’ll actually use them!) and I’ve already booked appointments with my personal trainer, Pilates and yoga teacher for when I get back. But all the hard work will be worth it in return for all the wonderful food. As always a holiday for us is about way more than just the sights and sounds. It’s also very much about the tastes!

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

A Festival of Food

The Henley Festival, a five-day music and arts festival, is held annually at Henley-on-Thames in early July. It follows on from the famous Henley Regatta and is part of the iconic London “season”. Unlike many outdoor summer music festivals, the dress code is black tie and the mood is glamour. Leading performers from the music world, from classical opera singers to modern bands, perform on both the floating stage and in other venues on site. Along the water’s edge you will find huge tents housing displays from local art galleries alongside outdoor sculpture gardens (this year two original Salvador Dali sculptures were featured). Performance artists wander amongst the crowd, minstrels brushing shoulders with wandering actors, and performers on stilts tower above one’s head. But although it is billed as The Henley Festival of Music and the Arts, I believe the Henley Festival is also a festival of food and drink.

Perhaps it is because I love food so much that I feel this way, but I maintain that eating really is a huge part of the experience at Henley. The Henley Festival boasts three major restaurants with Michelin starred chefs. There are also a myriad of smaller cafes and restaurants. And of course, like at so many summer events in the United Kingdom, you can picnic. Although you cannot picnic in the grounds of the festival, it is positively encouraged before the festival opens in the car park. This may sound like the less than glamorous option, but it definitely isn’t. The Henley car park is actually a green field without an inch of tarmac in sight, and if you get there early you will see examples of British picnicking at its finest. Guests set up small canopies, cloth gazebos, tables and chairs and dine from china plates, drinking champagne from crystal glasses. You can bring your own picnic, but if you prefer they are available to order from Carluccio’s, a wonderful restaurant in the town centre. Carluccio’s provide a gourmet offering that is about as far from the picnics of my childhood as I could possibly imagine. Antipasti Misti, including chilli stuffed olives and balsamic onions, sits alongside Insalata alla Caprese, the classic Italian salad. A delicious chicken liver pate is served on toasted Italian bread. Pan fried breaded lamb cutlets with lemon are accompanied by char-grilled vegetables in a balsamic marinade. Dessert is a beautiful lemon cake, Dolce di Limone . There is even a cheese course and wine is included. There is a vegetarian option to the picnic as well which includes Caponata, a Sicilian aubergine (egg plant), pine nut and olive stew. It’s gourmet picnicking at its best.

If you would rather eat after you have entered the festival grounds, there is a huge choice of venues available. The most luxurious options (which of course require reservations in advance) are the “Roux at the Riverside” restaurant run by Michel and Albert Roux (both Michelin starred chefs) or La Scala (Michel Roux is also the chef here). Roux at the Riverside features a four course Menu Gastronomique and speaking from past experience, it is delicious. The menu changes year to year and this year featured choices including Roast duck, tomato and basil fondant with baby artichokes, rack of new season lamb roasted with preserved lemon and ginger marinade, fillet of halibut and supreme of guinea fowl. I remember the desserts being especially tempting. This year the selection included white chocolate mousse with raspberries and apricot and amaretto almond cream baked with puff pastry. The other luxury option, La Scala, is housed in a beautiful marquee decorated with amazing flower arrangements. They offer hospitality packages, some of which even include a personal appearance by the famous chef. On arrival you are greeted with canapés and champagne. This is followed by a four-course gourmet dinner with fine wines, all finishing in time for the first musical performance on the floating stage at half past eight.

Also requiring reservations in advance, but slightly more casual and relaxed than Roux at the Riverside or La Scala, is The Terrace Restaurant. We dined there this year and it is indeed a terrace, not at all accessible by anyone who cannot manage its many stairs, but offering lovely views over the River Thames. (Outside of London the Thames is very beautiful indeed, running through miles of gorgeous countryside.) The menu at The Terrace is three courses and offers wide choice of both hot and cold dishes. I have to say our experience there this year was faintly disappointing, however they had a good choice of dishes - five starters (entrées), three hot main courses and two cold ones, plus a choice of three desserts or cheese. My husband and I had lobster bisque to start and my son had a Parma ham and melon dish served alongside a cold pea soup. I’m not sure of the wisdom of serving pea soup cold – it resulted in a fair amount of nose wrinkling from my son, who is normally not a fussy eater at all. For the main course, my husband had lamb with fluffy mash potatoes and beautifully cooked green beans. This was the best dish of all those we ordered and he thoroughly enjoyed it. Sadly, my son and I had ordered the fillet of beef. We both like our steak cooked medium, but this was far too close to the rare side of medium for either of us to really enjoy. Sadly the side dishes were disappointing as well. For dessert, we all chose Apple and Sultana Crumble with clotted cream. It was beautiful in appearance (it’s in the photograph above), but it was served stone cold. Had it been warmed, I think it would have been delicious. I’d visit the Terrace again though; I think they were just having a bad night. The variety on the menu is good and the view is wonderful. Performance artists wander by (we were treated to a mini performance of Swan Lake by ballerinas on stilts!) and you can watch the boats on the river, which range from small launches to large yachts.

If you want a more casual dining experience still, there is the Italian Garden restaurant serving Italian specialties, a Tapas garden offering traditional Spanish fare or the Busker’s Bar offering sandwiches and salads alongside champagne and the traditional long British summer drink, Pimms. Should you want something slightly more exotic, the Chinese Garden offers dishes featuring flavors of the East. There is also a Tex-Mex bar and small kiosks offering everything from toasted sandwiches to crêpes. Chairs and tables scattered here and there so you can sit and watch the world go by as you eat, or you can wander along the river eating or sipping champagne.

Wherever you go at the Henley Festival, you will see people enjoying every manner of gourmet fare and partaking of fine wines and champagne. There really is a lot more to it than just music and arts – the Henley Festival is a great place for food lovers too!

(The next Henley Festival of Music and the Arts takes place in July 2010.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

The 21st Century Housewife's© Spicy Chicken with Noodle and Vegetable Stir Fry

I love baby vegetables. They are gorgeous and taste wonderful in just about anything. I particularly like them in stir fry recipes. These little courgettes (zucchini) caught my eye in the store the other day and I just could not resist them.

I decided to make a stir-fry with noodles but to serve the chicken breasts on the side (as opposed to sliced up in with the noodles) as I thought it would make for a nice change in presentation from an ordinary everything in together stir-fry dish.

I’m really hooked on the Waitrose Balsamic and Oregano dressing I talked about in the entry before this one, so decided to use it as a marinade for the chicken. Of course, feel free to use your own favourite balsamic vinegar dressing if you prefer. This would also be delicious if you used a Hoisin-style sauce as a marinade.

To serve four people you need:-

4 skinless boneless chicken breasts
3 to 4 tablespoons Waitrose Balsamic and Oregano dressing
or ready prepared Hoisin-style sauce
1 – 2 tablespoons sesame oil
1 small red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1 red pepper, de-seeded and sliced
1 package baby courgettes (zucchini) topped and tailed and sliced in half lengthwise
a generous handful of snow peas or mange tout
1 – 2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon sesame oil
4 “nests” of Chinese egg noodles

Brush the chicken breasts with the dressing or hoisin sauce and roast in the oven in a large baking dish at about 375℉ (160℃ ) for thirty to forty minutes, turning once half way through. The chicken is done when the juices run clear and there is no pink inside.

Meanwhile, prepare the vegetables.

When the chicken is nearly done, remove it from the oven and cover with foil to keep warm. Heat 1 – 2 tablespoons of sesame oil in a medium frying pan and stir fry the onion, red pepper and courgettes for three to five minutes.

While they are cooking, prepare the noodles according to package directions. Drain as directed and toss in about 1 tablespoon of sesame oil. Set aside.

Add the snow peas to the stir-fry and toss just to warm them through. Add the soy sauce and stir it through the mixture.

Put a chicken breast and each plate. Divide the noodles between the plates and serve the vegetables on top of them.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Chicken and Bacon Salad with Nectarines and Pecans

When it is as warm as it was here last week (in the high twenties Celsius), you want something that tastes cool and delicious but that is also filling and nutritious. This salad fits the bill perfectly.

The nice thing about salads is that you can make them pretty substantial without a lot of effort. I bought some chicken breasts from the butcher first thing last Thursday morning and cooked them before it got too hot. I then cooled them down and kept them in the fridge until supper time. I also used a big bag of ready washed and prepared lettuce in this salad just to keep the effort involved to a bare minimum. I know the jury is still out on whether bagged salads are really good for you, and whether there are chemicals in the water it is washed in, but once in a while I think you just have to give yourself a break. However, you can use whatever salad leaves you like in this salad - so by all means start from scratch if you want to. It is nice to include some of the sharper tasting leaves like lollo rosso or even rocket (arugula) as well as some sweeter varieties just to give the salad a bit of bite.

My local supermarket, Waitrose, stocks an amazing balsamic vinegar and oregano dressing that is my family’s favorite of the moment. It is really worth using if you can get hold of it. If you can’t, any ready made balsamic vinegar based dressing of your choice is fine. You can even make your own with 1/4 cup of mild olive oil, 1/4 cup good balsamic vinegar, 1 teaspoon mustard, a generous teaspoon of white sugar and about half a teaspoon dried oregano, all shaken together. I also use the salad dressing as a marinade for the chicken when I cook it, just brushing a bit over each side of the chicken. (Be sure to keep the dressing you use for marinade completely separate, and do not put utensils that touch raw meat anywhere near dressing that is going to be used on the salad itself.)

To serve four people, you need:-

3 chicken breasts, cooked, cooled and chilled
1 small package of pancetta chunks or bacon lardons
(or use about four slices of bacon, chopped into small pieces)
1 small red onion, peeled and finely sliced in rings
5 - 6 cups mixed salad leaves
(ready prepared bagged salad is fine)
2 - 3 nectarines
(don’t cut these up till the last minute or they will go brown)
4 small handfuls of pecan halves
Balsamic vinegar based salad dressing

Cook the pancetta or bacon in a frying pan until done. Drain the fat off and set aside.

Divide the salad leaves between four large salad plates. Scatter the onion slices over the salad. Cut the nectarines in slices. (You can peel them if you like, but I love the bright color of the skin against the green of the salad, and normally nectarine skins are not tough.) Divide the nectarine between the salads. Scatter a handful of nuts on each salad.

Slice the chicken breasts and place one on each serving of salad. Drizzle the whole thing with salad dressing and scatter the cooked pancetta or bacon on top of each chicken breast, dividing it between the four plates.

Serve more salad dressing on the side. This is lovely served with warm rolls - or if it is really hot, just serve it with cold, crusty rolls or slices of baguette.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Foie Gras - The Ethical Dilemma That Won't Go Away

Foie Gras fascinates me. I don’t like the taste of it, but it intrigues me nonetheless. The emotions it evokes, the passionate hatred or love of the stuff; I find it amazing.

I’ve been researching and writing about the foie gras debate for some time. As part of my research, I have a Google alert on the words ‘foie gras’. On any given day, at least three articles about this iconic pate show up in my email inbox. I don’t think there is any other food that evokes such controversy. There are incredibly strong feelings on both sides of the debate. Is fois gras a delicacy so delicious it justifies the cruelty of its production? Or is it a terrible ingredient that should be outlawed?

As most people know by now, foie gras is produced using a technique known as gavage. Tubes are put down the throats of geese or ducks and they are force fed in order to make their livers swell. The animals are then slaughtered and their livers made into foie gras. It’s not a pretty picture, and it really is hard to think of it as anything but cruel. However, even though I’m a carnivore, I do have to admit that slaughtering animals for food is cruel no matter how you do it. Just because we have done it since the dawn of man does not make it any less so.

And therein lies the rub. Foie Gras is a delicacy, perceived as something the rich eat, not something many of us put on our tables regularly. Most of us won’t even miss it if it is banned. So it is easy to demonize foie gras production, because standing up against it probably is not going to affect what one eats on a day-to-day basis. However if you protest against another sort of cruelty, like the intensive farming of say, chickens or pigs, then that is going to affect what you eat, and how much it costs you on a pretty regular basis. So are the folks who do protest against foie gras doing it just because it is considered to be elitist and they would not miss it if it was gone?

It’s really hard to say. There are some very rich and famous people out there lending their names to the fight against foie gras. From Phil Collins to Roger Moore, there are lots of stars willing to put their names to the cause of banning it. Even Albert Roux, the Michelin starred French chef, has said foie gras “should carry a health warning” and called for it to be produced more humanely.

And this is the interesting part. You can make foie gras without force feeding the ducks and geese. If they are allowed to gorge themselves naturally (which they will do at certain times of the year in preparation for migration), they can then be slaughtered and their livers made into foie gras. The trouble is, it’s more expensive to produce it this way, you cannot make as much and purists say it just does not taste as good as the ‘real thing’.

So the debate rages on – and it is getting nasty. While polite – if sometimes slightly scandalous (one involved topless women) – demonstrations against the sale of foie gras take place outside the famous London department store Selfridges, up and down the country and around the world, other protesters are actually becoming violent in their protests. In April, a restaurant in the British county of Cheshire had windows smashed and the words “foie gras” painted all over the walls. Similar things have happened all over, from New York to California, and even in Europe. Protesters have been known to harass diners going into restaurants that sell foie gras. Other restaurants have had to suffer crowds of protesters making threatening gestures and shouting outside while diners attempt to enjoy themselves inside. Some go even further than this. In Canada, one of Ottawa’s leading restaurateurs Steven Beckta and his staff were subject to a long and exhaustive campaign by the Ottawa Animal Defence League. They were who bombarded with abusive and threatening phone calls, protests were held outside restaurants and at one point protesters allegedly threatened commercial sabotage. Surely this is going too far, but sadly this kind of extortion sometimes works. It did in this case, as Mr Beckta did remove foie gras from his menus.

And yet, sometimes the protests backfire on themselves. I have spoken to restaurateurs who say that if there are protesters outside, patrons inside who had no intention of ordering foie gras may do so just to spite them. One reported a diner saying “If they are going to try to spoil my dinner, I might as well taste what all the fuss is about”.

The city of Chicago banned the sale of foie gras for two years. The ban was recently lifted, and in June of this year, Chicago Chefs for Choice celebrated the anniversary of the repeal of the ban with a Foie Gras fest, offering $10 foie gras dishes at their restaurants. That is a very good price if you are the kind of person who enjoys this delicacy, and cheap enough to tempt the curious to try it if they never have before. It may even have created some new fans. In California, where a ban on the production and sale of foie gras goes into effect in 2012, many restaurateurs are deciding to keep it on the menu while they still can, and worry about the ban when it comes into effect. It is entirely possible they may do as many Chicago restaurateurs allegedly did when the pate was banned there and serve it anyway. It brings to mind visions of 1930’s speakeasys and gin in teacups, but apparently if you wanted foie gras in Chicago during the ban you could definitely get it, as long as you were in the know. It is suggested by many that this is probably what will happen in California as well.

Meanwhile, the debate rages on. Protesters continue to protest. Mark Caro’s book ‘The Foie Gras Wars’ has won awards from the James Beard Foundation and the Association of Food Journalists and continues to sell well. The organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have announced a $10,000 competition, the Fine Faux Foie Gras Challenge, to encourage the development of a purely vegetarian replacement for foie gras. A mini controversy arose when the wife of the British Prime Minister politely declined foie gras at the NATO summit banquet in France in April, and when President Obama dined with his wife in Paris speculation that they might have eaten foie gras was rife. (To be fair, as someone who regularly travels to Paris I have to say it is hard to avoid eating foie gras in France, it is such a staple part of their cuisine.)

So where do we go from here? I have to admit I find it appalling to think of the way in which foie gras is produced but as I really do not like it, it would be easy for me to say I think it should be banned. Having said that, I only buy free range, ethically produced meat, so I’m not being a hypocrite by saying foie gras should be produced more humanely. Or am I? Is there anything humane about eating animals, even if they have had a nice life?

It’s an interesting story to watch, and as developments unfold, the debate really does raise some very uncomfortable issues. We may deplore the violent protesters and chuckle quietly at the civilized ones (especially those who take their clothes off), we may choose to eat foie gras or we may choose to refuse to, but when push comes to shove, how far are we prepared to go to stand on our principles? As far as I’m concerned, if you eat intensively farmed chicken or pork, or buy eggs that are not free range, it is just as bad as eating foie gras. Are the protesters prepared to give up those things too?

One thing is for sure; the debate is going continue for a long time. In the meantime, I’m very grateful to be one of those fortunate souls who don’t like foie gras. I deplore the taste and texture of it, and I see no need to cook with it. But do I think others should be prevented from eating it? I’m not sure. I certainly do not approve of violent protests or harassment; hurting people to protect animals does not make sense to me. But do we have the right to tell other people what they should and should not eat? That question opens up a huge ethical dilemma, involving personal liberty and all sorts of other very tricky issues.

I think I’ll stay firmly on the fence, refusing to eat or cook with foie gras myself, but not actively seeking its abolition. Sometimes it is the quiet, dignified, individual protests that have the most effect, and convince others to come over to your side of the debate. It may not be the bravest choice I have ever made, but it is definitely the right one for me.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Wimbledon - A Delicious Experience

All around the world, Wimbledon is recognised as “the” tennis tournament, but a day out at Wimbledon involves a lot more than just tennis. It’s also about the food and drink that make going to this iconic tournament an experience unlike any other sporting event.

Strawberries, cream and champagne have been forever synonymous with Wimbledon. Tournament goers wander through the grounds carrying small bowls full of red treasures floating in a sea of cream, or topped with a dollop of Cornish clotted cream. Champagne bars sell bubbly in glasses, bottles and magnums. For the price of two small glasses you could nearly buy a bottle of good champagne in a liquor store, but despite the high mark up Wimbledon-goers still quaff over 17,000 bottles of the stuff during the two-week tournament.

Jazz bands play as you wander through the grounds, and there are numerous cafés and snack bars catering to your every desire. From sandwiches and hot snack food to coffee and pastries, there is something for just about everyone. And for those who want something just a bit more special, there is The Wingfield Restaurant. Situated on the first floor of the Centre Court building (which would be considered the second floor in North America), the restaurant has floor to ceiling windows along one side, giving diners lucky enough to get a table by the window a panoramic view over the grounds and a great opportunity to survey the crowds. Despite the strict dress code for players, there is no dress code for visitors to Wimbledon (although jeans are not allowed in the Wingfield Restaurant) so you see everything from the very casual to the extremely dressy. Shorts and tank tops walk alongside designer dresses and handbags, although in reality Wimbledon itself leans heavily towards the very fashionable. This year Ralph Lauren designed all the official on-court wear for umpires, linesmen, ball boys and girls, and copies of all of it are available in the Wimbledon store on the grounds. The female umpires in particular looked amazing this year, in crisp white trousers and shirts, topped with beautifully tailored navy jackets sporting the Ralph Lauren Wimbledon logo.

But back to the food. The Wingfield schedules its lunch (which you must book and pay for in advance) to coincide with the start of the first games on Centre Court. When we were there on Thursday they opened at 11.15, to allow plenty of time for a leisurely lunch before the start of play at 1 o’clock. There was a bit of an awkward start as we all queued until nearly 11.25 before they began to show us to our tables. It seemed odd to everyone as the waiting staff were all lined up facing us doing just as we were - waiting. However once things got started it was all went swimmingly.

You cannot request any particular table at the time of booking, so I was very pleased to be shown to a table by the window, which I had been hoping for. Although it was a mind-numbingly hot day, there was a nice cool breeze blowing through the restaurant so we were quite comfortable. There was a bottle of mineral water waiting for us on our table when we arrived, and we were soon offered a choice of wine - Chardonnay, Shiraz or a White Zinfandel, all by Blossom Hill Wineries. It was too hot a day for red wine in our opinion, and we didn’t fancy the Chardonnay, so the White Zinfandel it was. It was a super choice, light and refreshing.

Although it was a set menu, there were three choices of starter (entrée), three hot or two cold choices for main course and three choices of dessert. My husband chose to start with the Duo of Smoked Salmon which included Beet Gravlax and Shetland Isles Smoked Salmon served in a dill mascarpone with capers. He thooughly enjoyed it, and the Gravlax looked beautiful colored as it was by the beetroot. I chose the Chicken, Pancetta and Basil Terrine with a spicy tomato chutney, which is pictured below.

It tasted just as good as it looks, the pancetta enhancing the flavour of the basil spiced chicken. The homemade cheese straw was delicious as well.

We decided we would prefer a hot main course, so passed on the two cold options, Poached Sheltland Isles Salmond or Seared Chicken Caesar Salad. This left us a choice of either Pan Fried Fillet of Sea Bass, Herb rubbed Rump of Welsh Lamb or Marinated Goat’s Cheese with French Onion Tart. Regular readers will know that I just cannot manage to eat goat’s cheese – it always tastes of wet socks to me - although this is pure conjecture; I have ever eaten a wet sock! I absolutely love fish though, so it was the Sea Bass for me. Served on a bed of crushed new potatoes, accompanied by steamed snow peas and roasted vine tomatoes, this dish was perfect for the warm day, light and refreshing. The fish was tender and beautifully cooked, and the vegetables were the perfect foil for its light flavors. My husband chose the lamb. I have gone off lamb recently, having seen so many baby lambs gambolling in the fields near to us I cannot bear the thought of having part of one on my plate, but when I tasted it I had to admit it was almost worth the guilt. Unlike a lot of lamb, it did not taste in the least bit ‘gamey’ and was set off beautifully by the broad bean and mint risotto it was served with.

We were quite full by the time we got to dessert, but when we were offered either Kentish strawberries with clotted cream, White Chocolate Vanilla Brûlée with Cherry Compote or Baked Lemon Curd Cheesecake with Raspberry Coulis, neither of us had the strength of will to refuse! As it was Wimbledon, my husband chose the strawberries and cream. I was tempted by tradition, but was pretty much lost when I heard the words ‘white chocolate, vanilla and brûlée’ in the same sentence. I’ve eaten an awful lot of desserts in my time, and this one was definitely in the top ten. The crispy broiled topping gave way to gorgeous creamy voluptuousness in the custard below, the white chocolate and vanilla flavorings singing out beautifully. The cherry compote was more for decoration than flavor, as there were only three small drops of it on the plate, but it did provide a nice tart contrast to the sweetness of the brûlée itself.

We finished our meal with coffee just in time to go through to our seats on Centre Court. As we sat, replete, waiting for the Ladies' Semi-Finals to begin, I reflected on how much a part of Wimbledon food and drink really are. People walked past me to their seats, ice cubes chinking in covered glasses of Pimms and off in the distance I heard a champagne cork pop. Of course, the whole reason for the tournament is the tennis, but the traditional food and drink that go along with it are a huge part of the event. Our visit to the Wingfield Restaurant really enhanced our Wimbledon experience, and I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Cottage Cheese Salad

It’s so hot here this week, I cannot bear to turn on my oven, so once again I have turned to salad for delicious rescue! At first glance, the recipe title doesn’t sound too exciting. Cottage cheese has gotten a bad rap over the years. It’s perceived as a sort of retro diet food, something you eat when you are depriving yourself. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. On a hot day, a cottage cheese salad makes a delicious, cooling and nutritious lunch. I offer two variations here, one with sweet and one savory. Whether you use “full fat” or “low fat” cottage cheese is entirely up to you - the purpose of this salad is not weight watching, it’s enjoyment. Both recipes serve one, but it’s no problem to double them (or triple etc).

Both recipes are so easy, they are fabulous for days when you are busy and too hot to think. Try them served with a crusty bread roll or some delicious savory biscuits. If you are feeling really indulgent, serve the sweet salad with a buttered scone. I know that is terribly untraditional, but trust me, it’s delicious!

Sweet Cottage Cheese Salad

two or three handfuls of prepared Iceberg lettuce or sweet Little Gem lettuce
generous scoop of cottage cheese with pineapple
(if you can only find plain cottage cheese, use a small tin of crushed pineapple, drained)
a handful of sliced strawberries

Place the lettuce in a large salad bowl. If you could not find cottage cheese with pineapple already in it, mix the drained tin of crushed pineapple into the cottage cheese. Put a good scoop of cottage cheese and pineapple on top of the lettuce. Scatter the sliced strawberries on top.

Savory Cottage Cheese Salad

two to three handfuls of prepared savory salad leaves
(try Romaine, or a small bag of mixed salad with lollo rosso and/or rocket)
1 generous scoop cottage cheese
Chives, scissored into small pieces (about 1 or 2 teaspoons)
2 juicy tomatoes, sliced in quarters

Combine the cottage cheese with the chives. Place the lettuce in a large salad bowl and top with the cottage cheese. Scatter the tomatoes around.