Friday, 28 August 2009

The 21st Century Housewife's© Blueberry Tart

I'm not sure if I had ever tasted blueberries before my Kindergarten teacher read "Blueberries for Sal" by Robert McCloskey to our class, but I know I was fascinated with them from then on. I love blueberry anything - from pancakes to pie - and I love eating them straight too. I was thrilled when I found out that blueberries are amongst the fruits with the highest antioxidant activity. They are at their peak at the moment, and as my friend was visiting with her two sons last weekend, I decided to make a dessert with my favorite fruit. I was going to make a blueberry pie, but then I thought it might be more fun to get a bit creative, and my blueberry tart was born.

It's a delicious recipe; the orangey hit of the Grand Mariner is the perfect foil for blueberries. You could add some grated orange peel to intensify this if you wanted to, although I did not have any so left it out. Anyway, the blueberries were so scrumptious they really did not need much enhancement! It's also really easy, with a no-roll pastry that makes it a quick recipe to put together.

A tart this size will serve six, and it's really yummy with a scoop of good vanilla ice cream on the side. I'd serve this anytime - at a formal luncheon, on its own for tea, or as a dessert at a dinner party. I'm not sure I'd be able to justify eating it for breakfast, but if I could, I certainly would!

For the crust:-

125 grams cold butter, diced in small cubes
200 grams plain (all-purpose) flour
50 grams ground almonds
2 tablespoons caster or granulated (white) sugar
(vanilla sugar is lovely if you have it)
2 - 3 tablespoons milk

For the filling:-

2 - 3 tablespoons blueberry conserve or good fruity jam
(I use Bonne Maman)

40 grams butter, melted
100 grams white sugar
90 grams ground almonds
10 grams plain flour
1 egg, lightly beaten
3 tablespoons half fat crème fraîche
1 tablespoon Grand Mariner or Cointreau
1 cup fresh blueberries, washed and drained

For the topping:-
1 - 2 tablespoons white or demerera sugar

To make the pastry, blend together the butter, flour, ground almonds and sugar until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. You can do this in a mixer or food processor or with a pastry cutter. Now gradually add the milk, tablespoon by tablespoon, until the mixture just begins to cling together and you can form it into a ball. (You may not need the whole 3 tablespoons of milk.)

Dust your hands with a little flour and press the mixture into a fairly deep 10 inch (25 centimeter) round pie plate, working the pastry up the sides until you have formed a proper crust. (There is nothing to stop you rolling this pastry out if you want to, but I’m not a big fan of rolling pastry out, so I simply press it into the pan.)

Using a pastry brush, brush the blueberry conserve over the bottom of the crust, covering it completely. Set the pastry case aside.

Blend together all the remaining filling ingredients except the blueberries until smooth. Now fold the blueberries gently into the batter and pour evenly into the crust.

Sprinkle the tart with the 1 - 2 tablespoons white sugar. Bake at 170℃(about 350℉) for about twenty minutes and then turn the oven back to about 150℃ (about 300℉) and cook for another five to fifteen minutes, depending on your oven. The filling should be well set when the tart is cooked and it should be a lovely golden color. You have to really watch this tart to make sure it does not over brown. I also always turn the pie plate half way through cooking to ensure it browns evenly.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool a bit before serving. Leftovers (if you have any!) can be stored in the fridge for about twenty-four hours.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Baking With Friends - The 21st Century Housewife's© Chocolate Chip Cookies

My friend visited us with her sons this weekend. Her youngest, Daniel, is a keen baker, so I took the opportunity to teach him how to make my chocolate chip cookie recipe. The recipe is one I have been using since I was a kid. My Mom gave it to me, handwritten on a card, when I was about ten. I've pretty much stuck to it over the years, although I've made a few tiny changes here and there.

I really do recommend using proper butter for this recipe as it makes a huge difference to the result. I like to use Nestle Toll House chocolate chips, but any chocolate chips will do. You can even use a combination of white and milk chocolate chips if you like. It is a great recipe to make with beginning bakers as it nearly always turns out well, and the recipe makes 6 to 7 dozen so there are lots of cookies to share. You can use an electric mixer for this recipe or if you like, you can mix them by hand. Just make sure you are feeling energetic - the creamier you can get the butter and sugars, the better the recipe turns out!

1 and 1/3 cups soft unsalted butter
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup brown sugar
2 eggs, beaten
2 teaspoons vanilla
3 cups all purpose (plain) flour
1 teaspoon baking soda (bicarbonate of soda)
1 teaspoon salt
2 packages (about 2 cups) chocolate chips
You’ll need two or three baking sheets (depending on how many racks you have in your oven), either lightly greased with butter or lined with some greaseproof paper.  Heat the oven to 350ºF or 170ºC (160ºC fan oven). 
Put the butter and both kinds of sugar in a mixing bowl. Cream together until really light and fluffy. Then the butter add the egg and vanilla and stir in. 

Sift the flour, baking soda and salt together into a separate bowl.  Add to the butter mixture and mix together. Gently fold in the chocolate chips. 
I like to use a mini ice cream scoop with a release button to drop the cookies on to the prepared baking sheets, but you can also drop the mixture by teaspoons.  (You will need to bake the cookies in more than one batch.)  Leave some space between the cookies as they really do spread out. Bake for 10 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.  After five minutes, carefully remove the cookies from the baking sheets and place on wire racks to cool. 
You can serve the cookies after they have cooled for a few moments on the wire racks.  Do be careful if you do this, and be sure to allow the cookies to cool for at least five minutes as straight from the oven the chocolate chips will be molten hot. Be warned though, they are dangerously addictive when served warm!  You can store cooled cookies in a sealed container at room temperature for about 2 days.  You can also freeze them, but I would do this on the day of baking. Make sure they are totally cooled down first. Thaw overnight in the fridge before eating. Thawed cookies taste especially good gently warmed in a low oven for about three to five minutes and eaten warm.

And as you can see, Daniel's first attempt at cookie baking was a very successful one!

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

An Oldie, But A Goodie - The 21st Century Housewife's© Bran Muffins

I have always loved bran muffins. It’s a family thing – we were all crazy about them when I was growing up. I especially liked the ones with raisins. Even today, I still love them.

I’ve been making bran muffins since the ripe old age of eight. The recipe I originally used came from a restaurant called “The Knotty Pine” in Preston, Ontario, Canada (back in the day when it was still called Preston, before the tri-cities were re-named Cambridge in the early 1970’s). My Dad used to go into the lunch counter there for a coffee and a muffin. He liked their bran muffins so much he managed to persuade one of the waitresses to share the recipe with him. Back then I followed it to the letter, but over the years it, like me, has evolved. Today it is much more my own recipe than the one my Dad brought home all those years ago. It first appeared on my website, as one of the first Recipes of the Week on 23rd July 2007.

These muffins make a super breakfast or snack. You can freeze them once they have cooled, so I usually double the recipe. If you take a packed lunch, try tucking a frozen muffin in it. It will help keep your lunch nice and cold, and by lunchtime, it will be thawed and ready to enjoy. This is a great recipe for tough economic times as all the ingredients are readily available and none are that expensive.

All in all, the recipe is pretty flexible. You can use either light or dark brown sugar, whatever you have to hand. Obviously the lighter the sugar the lighter in color the muffin will be, but it really does not affect the flavor very much at all. Lots of people love cinnamon, but some people really don’t like it at all. I’m one of the former, so my recipe calls for lots of this pungent spice. If you are one of the latter, feel free to reduce the amount or omit it entirely. As a cinnamon lover I wouldn’t like it, but honestly, I’ll never know, so do feel free!

It is wonderful when something that tastes delicious is actually good for you. Bran itself is very nutritious and is also a good source of fiber. If you use raisins you are getting a great iron boost as well. Yes, bran muffins do have sugar in them, but don’t feel you have to use the whole cup the recipe calls for. You can leave a couple of tablespoons out if it makes you feel better and it won’t affect the finished product much at all. I do use white flour in my recipe, having tried whole-wheat flour but finding it made for a much heavier muffin. However if you feel strongly about it, whole-wheat flour does work as well, so by all means use it instead.

My method in this recipe is very different than most muffin recipes that discourage any excessive mixing. This recipe benefits from adding the last ingredients alternately and from the stirring that requires. It is quite a heavy mixture, and the stirring helps to incorporate more air. Don’t worry; it won’t cause tunnels as it does in lighter muffins, but be sure not to beat the mixture. That won’t do it any good at all.

Unlike many muffins, these taste good for two to three days after you bake them. Do keep them in an airtight container though, in the fridge if it is very warm. This recipe makes about twelve muffins and is easily doubled if you like to freeze them as I do. Just make sure they are fully cooled first!

The 21st Century Housewife’s© Bran and Raisin Muffins

1 cup brown sugar, very loosely packed
2 large eggs
½ cup olive oil
(You can use Sunflower or Rapeseed (Canola) oil if you prefer.)
1 cup buttermilk
(You can use ordinary milk if you do not have buttermilk. Skim milk will work if you are watching your weight but the muffins will not taste as rich.)
1 cup plain (all purpose) flour
2 cups wheat bran
(available in the cereal aisle in most grocery stores – you want bags of real bran, not bran flakes)
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
½ teaspoon cream of tartar
½ teaspoon salt
(or less if you are on a salt restricted diet)
2 teaspoons cinnamon (optional)
1 cup raisins, sultanas or dried mixed fruit

Preheat oven to 150 C (fan) or 170 C (conventional) or 375 F (North America). Line muffin tins with paper liners or grease and flour them. I recommend large “American muffin” size tins for these. You can use the smaller ones, but they will cook more quickly so you’ll need to keep an eye on them.

Beat eggs. Add brown sugar and oil; mix well. Add bran and cinnamon. Mix and let stand 10 minutes. Meanwhile, sift together flour, bicarbonate of soda, cream of tartar and salt in a separate bowl.

Add flour mixture to the bran mixture alternately with the milk, stirring well between each addition. Gently fold in raisins.

Divide the mixture between the muffin tins. Fill about half full. Be careful not to overfill. I find an ice cream scoop with a release button a really good tool for this process.

Bake for about 15 to 20 minutes, until a piece of raw spaghetti inserted in the middle of a muffin comes out without any batter clinging to it. Remove from pans and cool on wire rack.

Serve warm or at room temperature. These are delicious with butter and / or jam. If muffins have cooled to room temperature, you can reheat them in the microwave for about 10 to 15 seconds on high.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

The 21st Century Housewife's© Beef & Black Bean Stir Fry

Whenever I have an authentic beef and black bean stir fry in a Chinese restaurant, it always seems to be served with green peppers. Now while sweet green peppers can be lovely, and no one can argue that the green of the peppers juxtaposes beautifully with the inky blackness of the bean sauce, I like a larger variety of vegetables with my stir fry. So recently I decided to experiment with a good black bean sauce, a nice piece of steak, and some of my favorite stir fry vegetables.

There was a beautiful sirloin steak in the freezer, so I let it thaw just a bit before slicing it in ribbons. It’s so much easier to cut meat when it is a little bit frozen, and this in turn helps it to thaw more quickly. When I’m making a beef stir fry I cook the beef separately at the last minute and then add it to the vegetables afterwards. I find that in the case of beef stir fries, the vegetables need a bit more cooking than the beef, which is best if it is served when it is still a little bit pink.

I always like to choose my stir fry vegetables based on their colors as this makes the finished dish look so much prettier. This time I chose carrots, snow peas and red and yellow peppers, deciding to dispense entirely with the green ones. I like the look and taste of onion with black bean sauce so used both slices of red onion and spring onions (scallions). The layers of flavor this created were very successful.

It’s integral you start with a good black bean sauce. Although I appreciate it would be more authentic to make my own, life is just too short! Sharwoods and Amoy make good ones, as does my favorite UK supermarket, Waitrose. I used their own-brand black bean sauce for this recipe.

Stir fry is very often served with rice, but I usually serve it with noodles, mainly because we love them. I like to choose the dried ones you have to boil or soak. I find the “ready for wok” noodles often taste a bit slimy, and to be honest the only effort involved in making noodles from dried is boiling a pot of water.

Here is the recipe I developed last week. It might not be totally authentic, but it sure is delicious!

This recipe served three of us very generously and would easily have stretched to four.

3 to 4 ‘nests’ of dried Chinese noodles
1 tablespoon plus one teaspoon sesame oil
half a medium red onion, finely sliced
3 carrots, peeled and thinly sliced on the diagonal, or cut in thin matchsticks (if you have the time!)
1 red pepper, de-seeded and thinly sliced
1 yellow pepper, de-seeded and thinly sliced
1 good handful of snow peas
1 bunch of spring onions (scallions), thinly sliced
8 ounces good steak, very thinly sliced
1/2 to 3/4 cup good ready made black bean sauce

Heat one tablespoon of sesame oil in a large non-stick frying pan or wok. Add the red onion, carrots and peppers and stir fry for two to three minutes. Now add the snow peas and scallions.

Meanwhile, prepare the noodles according to package directions. Heat one teaspoon of sesame oil in a smaller non-stick frying pan. Lightly fry the slices of steak for about two minutes. Remember to keep stirring the vegetables in the other pan!

When the noodles are done, drain them in a sieve and divide between three to four plates. Add the cooked steak to the vegetables and add enough black bean sauce to just coat the ingredients. Stir and warm through.

Divide the stir fry between the plates, serving it over the noodles. Although this is a beef dish, I served it with a medium dry Sauvignon Blanc, which I recommend if you are drinking wine with this dish as it really complemented the flavor of the sauce. It can of course be served with a more traditional red, or try a nice Reisling, which is almost always a great choice with Chinese food.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

A Very Un-Stuffy British Institution

Dining at the Criterion is more than just having dinner; it is an experience. The restaurant does not look that remarkable from the outside, especially in the face of the bright lights of Piccadilly Circus, but when you walk through the revolving doors you cannot help but be struck by the décor.

The Criterion Restaurant is stunningly beautiful, a showcase of marble and mosaic. It’s exotic and elegant in the same breath, with rich fabrics hanging at the windows, mirrored walls, and a gold mosaic ceiling you cannot help but stare at open-mouthed. It’s said that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first imagined the meeting between Dr Watson and Sherlock Holmes while having a drink at the Criterion Long Bar and it is a scene that is not at all hard to picture. In fact, if you changed the dress worn by patrons today to that of another era, it would be easy to believe you had stepped back in time. In the past, the Criterion has witnessed diners as illustrious as Winston Churchill, G K Chesterton and H G Wells. The suffragettes met there, as did many other groups including the Royal College of Science. It has also been used for films; most recently scenes from ‘The Dark Night’ and ‘A Good Year’ were shot there.

The Criterion Restaurant is located in Piccadilly Circus, right in the heart of the theatre district. In fact, it is adjacent to a theatre of the same name. Since the 1870’s, both theatre and restaurant have been a huge part of life in the West End.

But most of all, the Criterion is a wonderful place to eat. It is not just the décor that harks back to another era; the service does too. It is unfailing polite, efficient and discreet all at the same time. Although you will be offered bottled water, no one sniffs if you ask for tap water; in fact it will be presented to you in a decorative glass bottle (and no, there is no charge).

If you fancy something with a bit more kick, the Long Bar serves up just about any cocktail you can dream of, and there is a wonderful selection of wines at all price points – by the bottle and the glass.

I know from pleasant experience that the menu changes regularly, but it always offers a fine selection of dishes. Their seafood is outstanding and all sustainably sourced. They also offer a pre or post theatre set menu that is available Monday to Saturday lunchtime and evening. It was this menu my husband and I dined from on Saturday evening before going to watch our son perform at Her Majesty’s Theatre in The Haymarket. Offering a selection of five choices within each course, it is one of the most varied set menus I have yet to come across.

I started with the Charentais Melon and Parma Ham. The serving was incredibly generous and it was absolutely delicious. My husband had their Smoked Salmon with Horseradish Cream and pronounced it the best smoked salmon he had ever eaten. He can speak with some authority on this, having eaten quite a lot of smoked salmon in his time.

For main course, I chose pan-fried line caught Cornish Pollock with White Cabbage and Red Grapes. The dish was beautifully presented and absolutely delicious. It came accompanied by crushed new potatoes. I was pleased to be eating a fish that had been sustainably sourced and impressed that the menu emphasized this. My husband chose Braised British ‘Rose’ Veal, with Horseradish and a Celeriac Remoulade. ‘Rose’ veal is the only veal available in Britain, and is raised without the cruelty of veal crates, so this dish was politically correct as well as being very tasty indeed.

We had not intended to have dessert, but the choices proved far too tempting. I was particularly impressed, as some restaurants do not put their best desserts on a set menu, in the hopes of tempting you off it, but The Criterion’s set menu offered a selection of four tempting treats and some very yummy sounding cheese. In the end, I chose the Pecan Pie with Orange Syllabub and my husband had the Coffee Tiramisu. Both were divine. I’m sorry, but there is no other word for them.

The West End is notorious for expensive restaurants that are less than generous, but The Criterion is not one of these. Our meal cost about £40 (about US$65) per head, including two glasses of wine and a bottle of beer. This also included the tip. For the location, this is positively reasonable, and very good value indeed.

I highly recommend The Criterion. It’s quintessentially British with a touch of the Continent, and an experience you will not soon forget.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

A Romantic Dinner for Two

Ah, the romantic dinner for two. It’s just what we need in these trying times, but with the credit crunch going on, it can be difficult to go out for a romantic dinner very often. Before you even start you probably have to consider the cost of a babysitter and even if that is not an issue, restaurant meals can be very expensive. But staying in often means that one partner ends up working really hard to pamper the other - so one person’s romantic dinner becomes another’s nervous breakdown in the kitchen. However it is possible to have a wonderful (dare I say easy?) dinner à deux that lets both partners enjoy themselves, without breaking the bank.

You may find, as my husband and I do, that it can be nice to prepare the meal together. This means all the pressure does not fall on one person, and also that you can enjoy time together before the meal as well as during and after! However, if you are trying to impress, this is definitely a very manageable meal to cook on your own - no nervous breakdown required.

(If you can, arrange for the kids to go to a friend or relative’s house overnight, or do a babysitting swap with a friend. Failing that, take the children out for the day and let them wear themselves out playing in the park or at the beach, and then put them to bed a bit early just this once!! If your children are older, arrange this dinner for a night when they are out with their friends or away. After all, this is supposed to be dinner for two - without interruptions.)

The rest of this is less a proper recipe and more hints and tips for how to take some very simple ingredients and make something very special indeed. So here goes:-

Unless you are vegetarian, I can think of no better dish for a romantic dinner than steak. It needs few accompaniments, and it is filling enough that you really do not need a starter, or even a dessert for that matter. (However, a few chocolate dipped strawberries with a cup of coffee never hurt anyone!)

Buy the best steaks you can afford, preferably from a butcher. Not only will they be less expensive, but they will taste better and the butcher will trim them up for you so there is just the right amount of fat on them. I like sirloin steak as I find it much nicer than rump, but without the eye watering price tag that is always attached to fillet steak. However, whichever cut you prefer / is on special offer is fine. My favorite way to cook steak is to barbeque it - and as my husband is incredibly good at this task, provided the weather is warm and co-operative, I leave the cooking to him.

I like to bring the steaks out of the fridge a good ten to twenty minutes before we are going to cook them as it means the meat has a chance to warm up a little. It can toughen a steak if you bring it straight out of the fridge and start to cook it. You can cook steaks on a barbeque or indoors under the grill (broiler) or in a frying pan. Whether you are cooking the steak indoors or out, and whichever method you are using, you want it to be quite hot when you start. I brush both sides of the steak with the tiniest amount of olive oil mixed with a bit of steak seasoning. (I like McCormick’s Montreal Steak Seasoning, but any will do - as will a bit of salt and pepper.) If we are using the barbeque my husband preheats it while the steak is coming up to room temperature and then as soon as he puts the steak in he turns it back a little so it can cook nicely. I do something similar if using the frying pan or grill, heating them right up, but then as soon as I have put the steak on, I turn things back a bit so the steak can cook through without burning on the outside.

Although gourmets will protest that cooking it to more than medium is an insult to a good steak, it really is a matter of taste how well you like your steak done - and you should have it exactly how you like it! Steaks vary so wildly in thickness it is hard to say exactly how long they should be cooked on each side, but I find for a steak that is about a centimeter thick, rare would be two minutes each side, medium three to four minutes each side and well done five minutes each side. It’s definitely a trial and error process. Just go slowly - you can always cook something a little more, but once it’s over done there is no way to “un-cook” it! Also, try to only turn the steak once. Meat does not like to be flipped over and over. Another really important thing is to remove the steak from the heat once it is done and set it aside for a few minutes. Cover it with foil if you are worried about it getting cold. This allows the juices to settle back into the meat, and gives you a much more tender steak.

In terms of accompaniments, you really only need three things - fluffy baked potatoes, a crisp salad and a very good bottle of red wine.

The baked potatoes can either be baked in the oven (just wash and dry the potatoes, wrap in aluminum foil and cook in a medium oven for about an hour and a half) or you can microwave them (unwrapped!) for about five to seven minutes to start things off, wrap them in foil and pop them in the barbeque or oven to finish off. I like my potatoes pretty plain, with just a bit of butter, salt and pepper, but feel free to garnish them with sour cream and/or chives - or whatever makes you and your loved one happy.

It’s easy to jazz up a bagged salad. Choose mixed leaves and garnish with thin slices of red onion and halved cherry tomatoes. If red and yellow cherry tomatoes are available it looks even prettier, but just use the red ones if that is all you can get. You can dress the salad with a mixture of 2 tablespoons olive oil, 2 tablespoons Balsamic vinegar, 1 teaspoon of Dijon mustard and 1 teaspoon white sugar shaken together. It’s economical and tastes lovely.

I don’t mean to be bossy (only helpful!), but in terms of scheduling, here is how it works best for us:-

Half an hour before dinner
Remove the steak from the fridge.
Wash and dry the potatoes and pop in the microwave for five to seven minutes.
Open the wine.
Set the table.
Pre-heat the barbeque (if using).

Twenty minutes before dinner
Wrap the potatoes carefully in foil (they will be hot!) and pop in the oven or barbeque to round out.
Pre-heat the frying pan, broiler or grill (if using).
Prepare and dress the salad.

Fifteen minutes before dinner
Brush steaks with olive oil and seasoning.
Begin to cook steaks to desired doneness.

Ten to five minutes before dinner
When steaks are cooked to desired doneness, remove from heat and cover with foil. Set aside to “rest”.
Plate up the potatoes and salad.
Light the candles and pour the wine.

At serving time
Plate up the steaks.
Serve and enjoy.

Speaking of wine, if you can, do try to treat yourselves to a really good bottle of something yummy. You can buy a wonderful of wine in the shops for much less than it would cost in a restaurant. The night we took this photograph we treated ourselves to a beautiful bottle of 2007 Pommard. However wine does not have to be expensive to taste good. Merlot (Concha y Toro Sunrise or Echo Falls Merlot are delicious, inexpensive choices) and Shiraz (try Jacob’s Creek) are great choices with steak. It can also stand up to a good Cabernet Sauvignon (Gallo Family Vineyards make a nice one) or a blend like Torres vineyards famous Sangre de Torro.

And there you have it, a romantic dinner for two in around thirty minutes. It’s a virtually stress-free plan, especially considering it should cost less than half what you would pay in a restaurant. A little romance in troubled times - just what we all need!

Friday, 7 August 2009

The 21st Century Housewife's© Chicken, Walnut and Strawberry Salad with Honey Balsamic Dressing

This tastes as delicious as it looks, and is a lovely light supper for a summer’s night. If you want to make it a bit more substantial, serve it with crusty rolls.

2 chicken breasts
juice of one lemon
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons honey
1 handful walnut halves
2 small or one large bag of mixed salad leaves
1 cup sliced strawberries

Mix the lemon juice with half of the balsamic vinegar and half of the extra virgin olive oil. Pour over the chicken breasts and marinate for a minimum of ten minutes. (If marinating for more than ten minutes, be sure to keep the chicken in the fridge while it marinates. Remove it about ten minutes before putting it in the oven.)

Drain the marinade off the chicken and discard. Place the marinated chicken breasts in a baking dish and cook in a hot oven (about 180℃ or 375℉) for thirty to thirty-five minutes, turning once, until cooked through. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool a bit. (You don’t want the chicken to be piping hot when you put it on the salad; it will wilt the salad leaves!)

To make the honey balsamic dressing, shake the remaining 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil and the honey together in a clean jam jar with the lid on. Set aside.

To assemble the salad, divide the salad leaves between the bowls. Sprinkle with the strawberries and walnuts (reserving some for garnish). Toss with the salad dressing, reserving one tablespoon to drizzle over the chicken.

Slice each chicken breast and place one on top of each salad. Garnish with the remaining strawberry slices and walnuts and drizzle with the reserved honey balsamic dressing.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Special Store Cupboard Spaghetti Sauce

This is a great dish for when you have had a really busy day (or have just gotten home from holiday!). It tastes like spaghetti sauce made from scratch, but takes very little time. I always keep a pound of frozen ground beef “just in case”. To make this dish extra nutritious, serve it over whole wheat spaghetti. The recipe will serve four to six people and leftovers freeze well.

1 lb ground beef
1 tablespoon dehydrated onion
1 large (750 gram) jar or bottle of your favourite ready made spaghetti sauce
2 tablespoons basil pesto
2 tablespoons light sour cream or half fat crème fraîche
1 teaspoon dried oregano (optional)
1/8 teaspoon black pepper (optional)

Brown the ground beef in a large, deep frying pan. Add the onion part way through browning the meat.

Once the meat is fully cooked (no pink showing), pour the spaghetti sauce over the meat and add the pesto. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about twenty minutes.

Just before serving, add the sour cream or crème fraîche and the oregano and pepper (if using). Stir and warm through.

Serve over cooked spaghetti.

Monday, 3 August 2009

The Tavern on the Green

I have always wanted to dine at the iconic Tavern on the Green on the West side of Central Park. Since it first opened in 1934, Tavern on the Green has been an integral part of the social history of New York City. It closed briefly in the 1970’s, only to re-open in 1976, transformed into a glittering palace of glass and mirrors. Since then it has been at the heart of New York social life, and has hosted many celebrity guests as well as Broadway and film premiere parties.

We decided to go for lunch last Friday afternoon. I was excited to see the distinctive red awning when we arrived, having seen it so many times on television. Its simplicity belies this restaurant’s lavish interior. As you enter the restaurant, you walk through halls lined with hundreds of tiny mirrors into the beautiful dining room. The walls here are painted with pastel murals depicting birds and flowers. Crystal chandeliers sparkle overhead. The chairs are upholstered in lavish floral fabric, and the crisp tablecloths and napkins are perfect. It isn’t just the interior that is beautiful either. Through the glass walls of the conservatory, you look out on to gardens filled with flowers and topiary. Fabric lanterns hang in the trees and on wires over the courtyard. It’s easy to see why the elite of New York and Hollywood hold celebrations and premieres here.

The menu is incredibly diverse and offers plenty of choice and price points. There was a set lunch of three courses at around twenty-five dollars in honor of New York Restaurant Week and another at thirty-nine dollars, in addition to an excellent a la carte menu. The wine list also had selections at every price point, from the very reasonable Rose Row house wines priced at thirty-six dollars a bottle through to mid priced wines and of course, the extremely expensive. It’s the most accessible iconic restaurant I have ever visited.

We tasted all ends of the menu - my son ordered from the twenty-five dollar set menu, my husband from the thirty-nine dollar set menu and I ordered from the a la carte selection. We chose a Merlot from the Rose Row selection to accompany our meal. I like to try a restaurant’s house wine as I believe it is integral for every restaurant to have good, reasonably priced red and white wine on their wine list. It’s easy to choose a good expensive wine, but not necessarily as easy to choose one that suits most pockets. In my opinion it’s a mark of the skill of the Sommelier and the respect a restaurant holds for all its clients if they offer good wine that does not cost the earth. It’s worth pointing out here that Tavern on the Green actually offered a choice of not one, but two house reds (Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon) and two house whites (Chardonnay and Voignier).

We all enjoyed our lunches. My husband and I both started with a delightful lobster bisque which was beautifully presented and full of good size pieces of lobster. My son had the iceberg lettuce wedge which he found unremarkable, but frankly there is not much you can do with a wedge of lettuce so it is hard to fault them for that! For main course, I had a tender and delicious grilled filet mignon flat iron steak served with a basil balsamic chimichurri. It was accompanied by tempting garlic butter French fries and a light salad of cucumber, tomato and Bermuda onion. It all tasted just as good as it sounds! Both my husband and son had Porterhouse burgers served with bacon and cheese, and both said they were wonderful. The Rose Row Merlot tasted delicious with our beef dishes, and was quite a remarkable wine for its very reasonable price.

There were lots of tempting desserts on offer (although I had more choice as I had ordered a la carte). Once again, my husband and son chose the same thing - crème brulée served with an almond tuile. I was allowed to taste - in fact my husband gave me his whole almond tuile - and both the biscuit and the crème brulée were utterly scrumptious. I had chosen Strawberry Shortcake, which I also shared, and which was equally delicious. Fresh strawberries were nestled into a feather-light shortcake and topped with whipped cream. It was the perfect dessert for a summer day.

I was really impressed by Tavern on the Green. Although our meal was expensive for lunch at about seventy-five dollars a head, this included drinks and tips. Also we had worked our way right through the menu and we had wine (not something I normally order with lunch). You could potentially have chosen from the set menus at twenty-five to forty dollars a head and just had the free ice water to drink with your meal. Plenty of people did and no one sniffed at them. Afternoon tea is priced at around thirty-five dollars, as is their Sunday Brunch, which sounds amazing. The dress code is business casual, but most folks were pretty casual. There were no ties on the gentlemen, and very few were wearing blazers. In fact, a lady sitting at the table next to us was wearing shorts and no one batted an eyelid, although I must confess I would never dream of wearing shorts to a restaurant like this!

So, for an icon, Tavern on the Green really is very accessible. Although it was definitely busy and full, we never felt crowded. The service was impeccable, discreet yet very friendly, and both the food and the atmosphere are second to none. I highly recommend a visit to this glamorous venue.