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Today was one of those days when I wish I had an extensive electronic music library. Five hours were spent photographing objects at the British Museum. More specifically, I took 244 photos of architectural tiles from a ninth-century palace in Iraq. Click, type, click, type, from 10 AM to 4 PM with a one-hour lunch break. That means a lot of time with nothing but your own thoughts.

I was also almost out of food today and wasn’t particularly inspired to cook.

I left the museum feeling a bit glazed over (tile-pun intended). On my walk home, though, I found that I was in the mood for beets. Maybe it’s because it’s the end of August and, here in London, the air is definitely getting more fall-like. Or maybe I’ve been using too much kale lately and am in the mood for something more rooty and less leafy. Either way, I ended up going home with a bunch of beets determined to make a meal out of it.

I almost always have some thyme and bay leaf around, and it struck me that these might pair very well with beets. I googled beets + bay leaf. A few soups came up. It’s not a soup night for me though. I decided to try simply roasting the beets with the bay leaves mixed in. The outcome was subtle: more of a hint than a full-fledged flavor imparted to the beets, but it’s worth it, and the wonderful earthy smell of the kitchen after this dish is done is a major plus. I had this with store-bought St.Marcellin  style cheese and toasted bread. It was a cheap, easy and an all-together satisfying experience.

Notes: I like to keep the skin on beets when I cook them- the same with potatoes and carrots. This is a preference and you can peel the beets if you wish. I soaked the bay-leaves in water before using them so they’d be moist and wouldn’t shrivel up. If anyone has other tips on how to get the most out of roasted bay-leaves, I’d love to know!

Bay-Leaf-Scented Beets

Ingredients (for two)

4-6 beets

10 whole bay leaves

Several stems of thyme or oregano, dry or fresh

Several pinches sea salt

Black pepper to taste

Olive oil

Directions

Soak the bay-leaves in warm water for about 30 minutes to moisten them.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Wash and scrub the beets thoroughly to remove dirt from the skin if you’re keeping it on. Then chop off the top of the bulb and the slender root. Divide the bulbs into two, then each half into thirds (this should give you good, bite-sized pieces).

Put the chopped beets and soaked bay leaves in a roasting pan. Drizzle a liberal amount of olive oil over them and give it a shake so that the oil covers the beets and leaves and they all begin to stick together. Add several pinches of good sea salt and black pepper.

Roast the beets in the oven for between 50 minutes and an hour. I like mine to still be a little crunchy and less sweet, so I go toward the 45-50 minute range with these.

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August has been busier than I thought and as a consequence I’ve left the blog without a post now for three weeks. I promise that I will not be so lax in September! This week I have a very simple, easy and inexpensive recipe to share for those of you with a busy schedule and a shortage of cash.

A few notes: the proportion of pasta is small, and you’ll notice that I put pasta last in the title. This is because I’m definitely a “more sauce than pasta” kind of person. I was lucky enough to have homemade pasta available, thanks to the pasta-making skills of my friend Nik Mastroddi, but if you can’t get that I’d recommend using a brown wheat pasta rather than the super-refined kind. I used spring greens, which have broad, flat, slightly waxy leaves. I’ve only seen in the UK, but you could easily substitute collard greens if you’re in North America, or kale.

Spring Greens and Pasta 

Ingredients (for two people)

1 large bunch spring greens or other leafy greens for cooking

2 large leeks, trimmed of greens and stumps

3-4 rashers of bacon

1 small handfull of pasta per person (if you’re using a long variety, around 10 strands per person

2 eggs, beaten

1-2 cloves garlic

Olive oil

Salt and black pepper to taste

Directions

Prepare the greens by rinsing them well- do not pat them dry as you will need some water for steaming. Next, cut out the fibrous stems at their bases. These won’t hurt you but they aren’t so good in this dish as they clash with the consistency of the pasta. After cutting out the stems, shred the greens finely. If you’re using broad-leafed greens like I did, roll them up like a cigar and then chop finely across to get a good shred. Chop the leeks into fine rings.

Bring a pot of water to the boil for the pasta. While the pasta water is getting ready, cook the bacon in a wide frying pan. Add a bit of olive oil to keep it from sticking. When the bacon crisps, remove it and set it on paper towels to remove the grease. Leave about a tablespoon of grease in the pan to cook the greens. Chop the bacon into bite-sized pieces.

Add the garlic and leeks to the hot pan and fry, stirring constantly, until the leeks become translucent. Then add the greens and bacon. Stir this around, season with salt to taste, and reduce the heat to medium and then cover the pan, steaming the greens for around 10 minutes.

By now, the water should be ready for the pasta. When the pasta is done, drain it, rinse and then add it to the pan of vegetables. Reduce the heat to low and add the beaten eggs, stirring constantly so that they begin to cook but don’t stick to the bottom of the pan. When the eggs have cooked through, remove from the heat, season with black pepper, and serve immediately.

I’ve always meant to make my own pickles, vinegars and relishes because I really do love a good pickle. The problem has been that I’m frankly scared to do it. The sterilizing and processing seem too labor intensive and technical for me: I tend to look at recipes as suggestions, and rarely measure- this is why I’m not a baker. And the warnings that if I don’t do it right that I run the risk of poisoning myself and my friends with spoiled vegetables has kept me from trying my hand at what must be a subtle and refined art.

But the alternative, to buy these all-important sundries in the store, is almost just as bad if you look at the ingredient list on the label. I can understand the need for a bit of sugar (although I hate the thought of it), but the list of polysyllabic chemical-sounding ingredients that inevitably comes next is a real turn-off.

So I’ve decided to take matters into my own hands and start experimenting with pickles, and since I’m in England and the squashes and tomatoes looked really great at Islington Farmer’s Market last weekend, I began with piccalilli- an English pickle if there ever was one.

Piccalilli is essentially a mix of crunchy vegetables – often including cauliflower, long beans and carrots- processed in a brine that is flavored with several spices, most importantly mustard and turmeric, which are responsible for its unmistakeable yellow-brown color.   The word’s etymology is uncertain, but I suspect it has something to do with sounding similar to “pickle.”

I reviewed a lot of recipes for piccalilli and decided to use brown sugar sparingly for the brine and squash, beans, green tomatoes, onions and chilis for the vegetables. The great thing about it is that you can use whatever you have available, as long as you choose crunchy things.

I also chose to make it for immediate use rather than canning it. This is important because it will only last around a month this way, and so it isn’t true piccalilli, which should be processed and canned, and rest at least a month before use.

The result was, well, underwhelming. My piccalilli was definitely edible, but it had a slight potpourri taste that I personally don’t like in food. I imagine that the fault lies in the pickling-spice mixture I bought from the store. I wouldn’t usually advocate using pre-made spice mix, but since I’m only in London for the summer, it seemed like a waste to accumulate bottles of mustard seed, celery seed, turmeric, cumin seed etc. just for a dish or two. So much for frugality and ease.

I’m including the recipe as a suggestion, but I’d urge you to experiment with your own spice mixtures and to read up on other recipes as well. I liked what Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall had to say on the subject, and also point you to a list of recipes on the website for BBC Food. A site published by University of Georgia offers advice on preserving and pickling in general.

 

Quick Piccalilli

Ingredients

Around 1 pound of fresh summer vegetables in very good shape (unripe tomatoes, squash, pole-beans, carrots etc.)

5-6 hot chili peppers

1 small onion

2 cups of white or cider vinegar

About 1/3 cup fine sea salt

2 tbs of brown sugar

2 tbs of mustard powder

1 tbs of turmeric

1 tbs mixed pickling spices (use whole spices for this, e.g. cumin seed, celery seed, coriander seed)

1 tbs flour

 

Directions

Prepare the vegetables by chopping them coarsely into bite-sized chunks, including the onion and chili. Then place them in a non-reactive bowl and dust them with the salt, stirring the mixture so that all gets salted. Cover this and let it sit for 24 hours so that the water drains from the vegetables and they will remain crunchy during the cooking process.

After 24 hours has passed, drain the vegetables in a strainer and rinse them in cold water to remove some of the salt. Taste a piece or two and adjust accordingly by rinsing again or adding another pinch if too much of the salt has washed away. You want it to be salty because no more salt will be added after this, but not too salty.

Next, heat the vinegar, sugar and whole spices (e.g. cumin seeds and the like) in a non-reactive saucepan. Stir to dissolve the sugar and bring the mix to a boil. Meanwhile, mix a bit of the hot brine with the powdered spices (turmeric and mustard powder) and flower until it forms a smooth paste.

When boiling, add the vegetables to the brine and cook for around 10 minutes. Then remove the pot from the heat, add the paste and return the pot to a boil and cook for an additional 10 or so minutes. The result should be a chutney-like consistency.

If you intend to preserve the piccalilli for more than 2 weeks, at this point you need to process it in sterilized jars. Otherwise, the pickles will last for around 2 weeks in the fridge.

 

 

 

Mid-summer is high time to buy fresh girolles: a much-loved variety of yellow-orange mushrooms that grow wild in Europe and the U.K., as well as in North America. They begin to appear in late spring, but are continually available through the summer. The ones I picked up at Borough Market last weekend were from Scotland, which is apparently known for producing especially good mushrooms, and these certainly didn’t disappoint.

Girolles (also known as chanterelles) are both beautiful to look at and tasty. They have a meaty taste and the more fragrant ones are characterized by strong hints of pepper (hence their German name, Pfefferlingen). They pair incredibly well with other savory ingredients like bacon, thyme, onions and garlic. Girolles can be costly, but you don’t need all that many if you’re making a side dish like this one, which is a sort of a pilaf done in a southern-coastal-US style (e.g. flavored with pork, onions, celery and bay leaf).

Ingredients

3/4 cup long grain rice

1 1/2 cups chicken stock

5 pieces of back bacon, cubed

2 celery stalks, finely chopped

1 large shallot, finely chopped

3 medium-sized cloves of garlic, minced

10 stems of thyme, at least (do not skimp, and use fresh leaves rather than dried)

10 stems of flat-leaf parsley

1 bay leaf

2 handfulls of girolles (chanterelles), about 100 grams

1 knob of butter

Olive oil

Sea salt to taste

Directions

First prepare the rice: submerge it in warm water for 15 minutes. Then strain and rinse well in cold water until the water runs clear (this is a pain but will prevent the rice from being mushy- which I hate).

Second, heat about 1 tbs of olive oil in a pan, add the cubed bacon until it crisps. Remove half the bacon and place in a bowl. Add the celery and shallots and fry with the remaining bacon until the shallots turn translucent. Then, add the garlic and half the time and parsley, and the bay leaf, and fry until fragrant (about 1 minute). Finally, add the rice and fry over high heat until it begins to turn translucent, stirring constantly to avoid burning (4 min- again a measure against mushiness).

Then, add beef stock and bring the mixture to a boil. Let it boil until most of the water has evaporated and you can see holes forming on the surface of the rice. At this point, seal the pot with a lid plus a paper towel or kitchen cloth  for 5 minutes on medium heat. Turn the heat off completely but do not remove the lid, letting the rice steam for another 20 minutes.

Five minutes before the rice is ready, heat your butter in a pan. Add the girolles along with the reserved bacon and remaining half of the chopped herbs. Fry on medium heat until the girolles shrivel slightly and become fragrant. Remove off the heat immediately and add salt to taste (don’t add salt before, because the mushrooms to stew themselves).

To serve, take a large spoonful of hot rice and top with a large spoonful of the mushrooms and bacon.