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Monthly Archives: September 2011

 

 

I took this picture from the Vauxhall Bridge almost a year ago to the day. At that point, I was in London on a brief research trip: my first experience discussing my project with people outside my department. I hadn’t applied for grants, seen any objects and had only a minimal idea of what I would even be doing over the next year. Last night I found myself walking across the same bridge, and seeing this same view brought back memories of that moment. I realized both how far the project has come since then, and how many of the same fears I still have embarking on the next leg of my journey to Berlin.

Sure, this time I’m better prepared. I’ve photographed and catalogued 742 objects this summer and submitted a draft of my first dissertation chapter. I have some “field experience,” so to speak. That’s a major thing, but it’s only the beginning. Over the last few months I’ve also written 30 blog posts (this one makes 31), and that’s something that I certainly didn’t expect to have done.

In two weeks I’ll be in Berlin- for a good long time -and in addition to my dissertation-related goals, I hope to increase the number of blog posts I write per month and the recipes and markets I try each week. Because somehow I think it’s been an important part of this whole experience- a really important part. So, on that note, goodbye to London (for now) and you’ll hear from me soon in Berlin.

 

 

 

Yesterday was a milestone for me. I sent off the first draft of a dissertation chapter, and although this is just the very beginning of a long project, the relief of having something cohesive on paper is a thrill. As I left the Warburg Institute library for the last time yesterday afternoon, I actually felt the urge to wave goodbye to some fellow art-historians sitting and typing at their carrels, undoubtedly busy crafting close visual analyses of artifacts. And so I did, even though we had never spoken, and probably never will.

I’ve been too busy to cook anything elaborate this week but I have been making some easy and delicious dinners with the produce that looks good at my local supermarket. Lately, there’s been an offer on what Waitrose calls “capitano beans,” basically a yellow wax bean. These are long and flat, and can be eaten whole. Wax beans are also a late-summer vegetable so now’s the best time to find them.

Parsleyed Wax Beans

Ingredients (as a side-dish for two)

1/2 pound (250 g) yellow wax beans

10-12 leafy stems of parsley

1 tbs high-quality butter

2 cloves garlic

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

Wash the beans and remove any stems. Boil the beans in salty water until soft- about 10-15 minutes.

Meanwhile, remove the leaves from the parsley and toss the stems. Chop the leaves very finely. Mince the garlic and put this in a bowl with the parsley.

When the beans are done, strain them and chop them into bite-sized pieces. Heat butter in a frying pan (be careful not to burn it) and sauté the beans for a couple of minutes over medium heat until they are coated in butter and very slightly browned. Then add the garlic and parsley, turn the heat down and cook over low heat for another 5 minutes until the parsley and garlic become fragrant. Season with salt and plenty of black pepper, stir and serve immediately.

I had this alongside kale with a bit of crushed red chili in vinegar mixed in (this is becoming one of my new favorite ways to eat kale), and it made a great dinner.

This is my last full week in London, and I’m definitely feeling the pressure of a few deadlines hovering over my head. Namely, a first draft of the first chapter of my dissertation (!) is due at the end of this week. I haven’t worked on a piece of writing this intensely since I was still taking classes 2.5 years ago, and it’s definitely bringing back memories of those final weeks of the quarter.

To fit the mood of this week, I have a very easy, very quick recipe that is also delicious.

This was inspired by a trip to an Indian grocery store down the street. I go there to buy chilies because they’re always good and always cheap. This time there happened to be a box of daikon sitting next to the chilies, and I guess I had to have it.

I don’t usually cook with daikon so I looked up a few recipes in my copy of The San Francisco Chronicle Cookbook (edited by Bauer and Irwin, 1997), which has wonderful ideas for vegetables. A recipe for a salad called “white lightning” with daikon, jicama and turnips in a chili-based sauce caught my eye, but since there’s little chance of finding jicama in London I substituted fennel (it’s sort of sweet) and also added shredded savoy cabbage because the flavor seemed right. The hard-cooked eggs add some substance to the dish and the carrots add color. Finally, the great thing about this salad is that you can keep the base of vegetables but change the dressing to suit your main course- daikon and fennel turn out to embrace several different flavor profiles. I’m suggesting two here.

Daikon-Fennel Salad

Ingredients for the salad (as a side for 2 or a main for 1)

1/2 large daikon

1/2 medium-sized fennel bulb

3-4 of the greenest outer leaves of a head of savoy cabbage

2 carrots

2 hard-cooked eggs

Version I: with creamy chili dressing

2 tbs minced cilantro

1 tbs crushed red chilies in vinegar (or slightly less Chinese-style chili-paste)

1 tbs mayonnaise

Juice of 1 lime

Salt to taste

Version II: with lemon-mustard dressing

2 tbs minced parsley

1 tbs grain mustard

1 tbs olive oil

Juice of 1/2 a lemon

Salt to taste

Directions

Peel and julienne the carrots and daikon. Shred the cabbage leaves and fennel. Chop up one egg and halve the other, setting the halved egg aside. Add the chopped ingredients to a bowl, add salt to taste and either the cilantro (version I) or parsley (version II) and toss.

Mix whichever dressing you are using in a small bowl.

To serve, toss the salad with the dressing of your choice and then garnish with the reserved halves of the hard-cooked egg.

It’s hard to believe that my time in London is coming quickly to a close. Two weeks from today, I will be back in Chicago (all too briefly) and then moving to Berlin for the academic year. If London was a trial version of what art-historians call “fieldwork,” then Berlin is going to be the real deal.

It’s been an amazing summer. There have been some frustrating days, of course, but I’m surprised at how pleasant it’s actually been. For the first time in my life, I kept regular working hours. Because I’ve been dependent on the schedules of collections (and because it’s easy to go crazy working on the same dissertation every day) I’ve gotten used to writing, reading and taking notes during the day and keeping the rest of my time sacred- something that I used to have trouble doing when there were less restrictions on when and where I could work. I’ve learned, for example, that if I write in three-hour stretches, then stop and switch to something completely different like data-entry for the rest of the work-day, I avoid that “what did I do today” feeling that so many of my lot complain about.

I’m going to miss London, and I hope I’ll be back soon. I’m especially going to miss my weekend grocery shopping at London’s outdoor markets, which became part of my usual Saturday-morning routine. I think when all this is over, the memories of these excursions will be just as valuable as the photographs and translations I have on my hard drive. Maybe writing, research and cooking are all closely linked, feeding off one another and ensuring the flow of ideas and prevention of boredom.

On my last trip to Broadway Market, I decided to stop moping about the less-than-exciting fresh vegetable selection (am I looking at the wrong places? or is London just more of a bread-and-cheese kind of city?) and to go for what really always looks good: the selection of cheeses. I came home with a slice of Cornish Yarg from Lynher Dairies of Cornwall: a semi-sharp, firm cow’s milk cheese. This cheese stand alone and there’s no need to do anything with it but eat it. But since I had just also bought a book of recipes using English cheeses I wanted to try one out, so I used the Yarg to supplement and enrich a dish using mostly the cheaper, more dispensable Red Leicester from my local supermarket.

This dish is especially good if you have stale bread you don’t want to throw away. I used some poppy-seed rolls I had that were just over a day old, but you can go older than that. You can also add other things to this dish if you want something more complex: asparagus, ham, peas, onions all come to mind.

Savory Bread Pudding* 

Ingredients

1/2 cup  sharp, white cheese, such as Cornish Yarg or white Cheddar

1 cup milder orange cheese, such as red Leicester

5-6 pieces of crusty bread (if it’s slightly stale, that’s great)

2 eggs

1 cup milk

1 tbs grainy mustard

2 dashes Worcestershire sauce

1 tsp white pepper

1 tsp black pepper

1 tsp cayenne pepper

Directions

Preheat the oven to 300 F (150 C).

Tear the bread into bite-sized chunks and grate the cheeses. Put the bread into a small, oven-proof dish and set the grated cheese aside. Beat the eggs and add the worcestershire sauce, mustard and peppers to the bowl.

Heat the milk in a saucepan, stirring, until just scalded. Take the milk off the heat and add the egg and spices. Stir thoroughly and pour this over the bread pieces. Finally add the cheese so that it covers the surface of the mixture.

Bake this in the oven until firm and golden colored, about 45 minutes. This dish is excellent as a side with dinner, or for brunch.

                  

* Recipe adapted from Samantha Hardingham, A Recipe Book of English Cheeses (London, 1984).

I have to begin this post with an apology. I generally try to avoid ingredients that are hard to find or are out of season, and this time the main subject is both not necessarily easy to get (if you’re in the U.S.) and is at the tail end of its season. From the title of the post you might have guessed that I’m talking about samphire, also known as glasswort or pickleweed: a scaly green herb that grows in and around salt marshes.

Samphire – more properly marsh samphire as there are several edible varieties – grows abundantly on England’s coasts, especially in marshy areas like Norfolk and Essex. If you’re in London or other cities in the U.K., you might have noticed it making a comeback in restaurants lately, where it costs a pretty penny. I’ve seen it at Borough Market for around 20 pounds per kilo (imported from Isreal!), but it’s not that difficult to find for yourself if you head out of town to places like this:

That picture was taken at the front end of Mersea Island on the Essex coast. Mersea is an oyster-shaped island that is also famous for its oysters (Mersea Rocks). It’s located in the estuaries of the rivers Blackwater and Colne and is home to many salt marshes and, as I found out, wild samphire.

I am really not one to wade through marshes- I don’t have the gear -so I didn’t expect to come across any, but at the end of the day I spotted some growing along the banks of the salt-water channel that separates Mersea Island from the mainland for about an hour a day when the tides completely cover the mud flats. The tide was in so I could just make out the scaly tips of the plant poking out of the water.

I decided to go for it though and was able to snip off a few of the bushy stems and pack them in a make-shift bundle made out of my map of the island. (A note on this: the plants are easily uprooted and a sustainable forager will take care to not pull them out by the root. Take a pair of scissors or shears with you so that you can trim the green tops off, as you would any herb that you want to keep growing).

Samphire tastes of the sea: it’s briny, salty and crisp. To prepare it, you don’t need to do much more than wash and cook in unsalted butter. Since I only took a few stems though, I wanted to stretch it, so I cooked it with shrimp and rice (a London version of my Mom’s shrimp and grits) and it really added a dimension to the dish. If you don’t have samphire, you could use tender-stem broccolini or asparagus instead, but think of this as a recipe to come back to next summer.

Ingredients (for two people)

12 large shrimp (you want around 5-6 pieces per person)

4 pieces of bacon

1 cup of long-grain rice

2 cups chicken or seafood broth

2 stalks of celery with leaves

1 medium sweet onion

2 cloves of garlic

2 bay leaves

200 g / .5 lb of samphire

2 tbs butter

1 tbs olive oil

Black pepper to taste

Directions

First prepare the rice by soaking it in warm water for 15 minutes, then rinsing it in cold water in a strainer until the water runs clear.

Dice the onion and celery finely, removing the celery leaves and dicing them separately. Put the diced onion and celery stem in one bowl and the minced celery leaf in another. Next mince the garlic and set aside with the bay leaves.

Heat the olive oil in a small pot. Fry the diced onion and celery stalk until they turn translucent. Add the garlic and bay leaves and fry until fragrant. Then add the rice and fry over high heat, stirring all the while, until the rice crisps. Add 1.5 cups of the beef stock and give the mixture a final stir so that any rice sticking to the bottom of the pot comes loose. Bring this to a boil and let boil until most of the liquid evaporates and you can see little holes forming in the top of the rice due to escaping steam.

At this point, cover the rice tightly (I use a paper towel and plate) and cook on medium heat for 5 minutes. Then turn off the heat and let the rice steam, covered, for 25 minutes.

Prepare the samphire by washing it thoroughly if you picked it yourself to remove sand, grit and any other plants that are clinging to it (I had bits of kelp in mine since I picked it at the edge of an estuary). Remove any tough, woody bits – kitchen scissors worked very well here. The bits you don’t want will be brown or yellow-green, and if you uprooted the plant rather than trimming it, you will have quite a bit of inedible stalk. Cut the larger stems in half so that each piece is bite-sized. When you’re done, set these aside for the moment.

Begin the shrimp about 10 minutes before you eat. First, fry the bacon in a pan until it crisps. Remove, drain, and chop into bite-sized pieces. Then, heat 1 tbs of the butter in the same pan and fry the remainder of the celery stalk and onion with the chopped bacon pieces until translucent. Then add the celery leaves and fry until fragrant. Add the shrimp and remaining half cup of stock and cook until the shrimp are done (around 3 minutes).  Keep this covered and warm but not on the heat so the shrimp doesn’t over-cook.

Finally, heat the other tbs of butter in another pan and saute the samphire until it’s warmed through but not browned.

Serve immediately: the shrimp-mixture and rice go together, and the samphire should be a compliment to this. If you want it to look neat, you can spoon the hot rice into a teacup, packing it tightly, then turn the cup over onto a plate so that it makes a mold. Then arrange the samphire around the edge of the rice and spoon heaps of the shrimp at intervals, or on top of the rice. Spoon any buttery broth from the shrimp pan over the rice and samphire.