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Wednesday
May042005

Ode to a Salad

salad-web.jpg


A few years ago, Manuel and I had a harebrained idea.

It was the tail end of a never-ending winter in Germany, and we were desperate for some sun. We were also broke, which didn't leave us many options. We needed a way to travel south on as little money as possible, and the brilliant (or so I thought at the time) solution I came up with was to take a working holiday.

Nowadays, in my infinitely greater wisdom and experience, I would never dream of placing those two words side by side in the same sentence. You either work, or you take a holiday, but you never attempt to roll them into one plan, because what you get is the worst of all worlds: your holiday is ruined because you have to work, and your work is miserable because you know it's supposed to be your holiday. It's a lose-lose situation.

Anyhow, we were young and foolish, and besides, I had friends who had recommended a particular scheme to me, called 'Willing Workers on Organic Farms', or for short, WWOOF (and pronounced just as it looks). Two of my friends had traveled to Ireland on this scheme and raved about it. "It's just these new-age family farmers," one of them gushed to me, "and they're as interested in getting to know you as they are getting help with their farm. Besides, you learn so much! I know enough now to start my own organic farm!"

Being a city girl myself, and having always had the dream of the disenchanted urbanite to 'get back to my roots' and 'learn something about the land', all the right conscience buttons were pressed and I fell for the idea, hook, line and sinker. Manuel wasn't convinced, not quite understanding why he should take a holiday from work to work some more, but unfortunately for him it was too late because I had already sent away money for the memberships and the little WWOOFing book of farm descriptions in France.

We settled on two criteria that our farm must have: the owners must be French (laid back about work, plenty of good food), and the property had to be south (sun, sun and more sun). According to the farm guide there were a surprising number of foreign-owned farms in this part of France, owned by people with names like Vanderdoof and Bjørnsen, and also a surprising number that were looking for help with things unrelated to farming at all, such as reconstructing old barns. After much searching we finally settled on one that sounded nearly perfect: the owners' names were clearly French, the property lay "among chestnut woods, beside a small river" in the Aveyron, a region in the southwest we had never visited, and the setup was described as "smallscale fruit and vegetable farm; goats and organic cheesemaking". And to top it off, the owners claimed to speak fluent English and German. Wow, what more could we ask for? We sent off a letter begging to be taken on for a few weeks, and within days had our acceptance.

Day 1 - We arrive late at night, exhausted from a 15-hour drive, and meet our hosts. 'Alan*' is not the weatherbeaten chain-smoking French farmer we expect, but an ex-hippy jazz musician from Portland, Oregon. 'Marie*' is at least fifteen years older than her husband, has pink hair, long skirts and a permanently exasperated expression, and comes from southern England. They usher us to our sleeping quarters, a 1950's era caravan parked about a kilometer out in their fields. "Please don't come inside during the night to use the toilet," Marie instructs, "just use the field." It rains torrentially all night long. Our caravan leaks.

Day 2 - Goats are the order of the day here. Before we've even met the little beasties, we're served goat milk with our tea (no coffee) and goat yogurt with canned fruit for breakfast. Having been awake most of the night trying to plug leaks, we're famished.

Marie gives us crusty old overalls and boots and leads us out to the goat patch to begin our work. There are four crotchety female goats, leering at us from the end of their tethers. Manuel is put to work shoveling goat droppings from the floor of their shed. I'm instructed to collect branch cuttings that litter the field from a recent pruning effort.

Lunch is goat cheese, and a salad. The salad is crunchy, peppery, and surprisingly good, but the goat cheese is rubbery and bitter. "I made it this morning," Marie proclaims, "just curdled the milk and pressed the curds into balls." Dessert is more goat yogurt.

We discover why we were asked to not use the toilet at night. The house, "at least 400 years old" I'm informed, is in the early stages of a reconstruction effort. Most of it lies in ruins, but there is one room that has been made habitable, which has been given a couple of sofas and a makeshift kitchen in one corner. Off this room are two partially finished bedrooms, one for Marie and Alan, and one for their two young daughters. Neither have doors. Placed smack in between the two bedrooms, and opening into the main part of the living room, is the bathroom. It doesn't have a door either, just a thin curtain hanging down to knee level. "How long have you lived here?" I ask Marie. "Seven years."

Day 3 - Still raining and we're back in the goat shed. We've been asked to move an old mattress from one corner of the shed to a truck outside. The goats, apparently not having been told mattresses are for sleeping on, have been using it as a toilet for the past seven years. It's not a pretty sight.

We discover that Alan actually has nothing to do with the farm part of things, which explains why Marie has been the one doling out work. He has a music studio set up in an outbuilding, where he disappears for most of the day and night, the only sign of life being the occasional jazz riff carried over from the barn on the breeze. We also discover that there's not actually much of a farm, in the true sense of the word; a scraggly and not-currently-producing vegetable patch lies to one side of the house, a few fruit trees adorn the other, and the aforementioned goats squabble with a small contingent of chickens in the animal pen. I'm proudly told that they're 'almost self-sufficient' here.

Day 4. While nothing here is currently being grown to sell, Marie and Alan have other plans. What is currently lacking in the markets of southwest France, they've noticed, is hot chile peppers. They take us to their makeshift greenhouse, where hundreds of little baby serrano and scotch bonnet pepper plants are struggling to escape their containers. "Do French people eat these spicy chiles?" I ask dubiously. "Of course not, because they're not available here yet!" Somehow I have my doubts.

We're discovering what the harsh reality of 'self-sufficiency' is all about. Goat-flavored delicacies are coming out of our ears at breakfast, lunch and dinner, with the balance being made up of things they were able to can and bottle last time their garden produced something. It's been days since we've had coffee, chocolate, sugar, meat... I'm still impressed by Marie's salads, though.

It turns out Marie and Alan don't even speak basic French, despite the fact that they've lived here for seven years (and the German listed on their info sheet? Don't even ask.). They rely on their two daughters to translate everything for them, the girls having picked up fluent French at school. My fondness for the two girls grows inordinately when I realize they taunt their parents by gossiping in French behind their back.

Day 5. Still raining. Finally having complained about our leaky caravan, we've moved to the loft of the old barn. We have to climb a dangerously rickety wooden ladder through a hole in the ceiling, but it's pretty atmospheric in a rotten 17th-century kind of way, and it doesn't leak. Everything seems to be on the up-and-up, until we discover that we share our loft with a colony of night-active rats, who don't seem particularly plussed about the company. Luckily we're not rat-ophobes, so we grin and bear it.

I'm getting a bit distressed about the food situation and imagine I can already feel my pants getting looser. Although I informed Marie about the fact that I have to avoid wheat at the moment and she assured me it would be no problem, I understand that it's actually going to be no problem for her, but it is going to be a problem for me. Dinner the night before consisted of kidney beans and spaghetti, and Marie surprised everyone by baking a goat-milk and plum clafouti for dessert. All I could do was sit there with my plate of kidney beans, fighting back an onslaught of tears.

Day 6. Two things happen today. I can't take the deprivation any longer, and as soon as we finish work, Manuel and I jump into the car and drive the thirty miles or so to the nearest town in order to find a supermarket. We buy bagfuls of chocolate, runny cheeses, sliced saucisson and pates, and we sit in the car shoveling it in like we have just escaped a famine.

Secondly, Marie announces that she has to make an unexpected three-day trip to Toulouse, so we're on our own for the rest of the week. "I'll have to ask you to take over the cooking duties," she solemnly informs me. I can hardly contain my glee. Before she leaves, she takes me out back and shows me the secret of her marvelous salads: everything is hand-foraged, not from the vegetable patch, but from wild nooks and crannies all over the property. She shows me how to identify wild lamb's lettuce, chives, tiny arugula shoots, and dandelion greens. She shows me how she carefully cleans each stalk, with meditative-like focus, and lightly dresses them with walnut oil and a tiny splash of red wine vinegar. In all, from field to table it's less than forty minutes, and the peppery greens are so fresh I can almost feel them come alive again in my mouth.

Days 7-9. We're on our own and the transformation is astounding. We spend our afternoons leisurely hanging out with Alan and the kids, listening to his latest jazz creations and discovering each others' witty and disarming sides. Plundering the food stores, I cook goat cheese and pumpkin soufflé, beans with garlic-sauteed wild arugula and plum chutney. Everyone raves, announcing they've never tasted food so good. Manuel has forsaken the goats and spent his days planting potatoes, which infuses him with euphoria. The sun even peeks out from time to time, which makes my daily salad picking a sublime pleasure. As I kneel down in the weeds I breathe deeply and feel an unexpected gratefulness toward the wet earth.

Day 10. Marie is back, along with the rain, and before she can send us back out to the goat shed, we announce we are leaving. "But we had a contract!" she sputters. "I'm sorry, but the weather has just been so bad, and it's our only holiday..." I answer feebly, too ashamed to tell her that the realities of 'farm' life, and the abysmal state of her cooking, have gotten the better of me. We bid a reluctant adieu to Alan and the girls, who have gone back into hiding, throw our belongings in the car and head off, giddy with relief at having escaped our capture. If this were a movie, you would have seen us driving off into the sunset, singing along to some upbeat French music on the radio, and looking at the endless possibilities on the map. In reality, we had a tent and a little money and another week of holiday, and miraculously, I seem to recall that as we rounded the first bend on the road towards the south, the clouds blew away, the sun came out like a warm blanket, and the stench of goat turds began to fade from our memories.

Epilogue: We did find the sun we were after, deeper into Provence, and somehow we arrived back home feeling tanned and refreshed, the memory of the previous weeks already fading into the past. I must say that the farm stint was an experience I'm not inclined to repeat any time soon, but it wasn't a total loss. I do feel I have a more realistic view of living off the land now - it's definitely not the romantic ideal many of us city-folk hold. On the other hand, I'm still a little miffed that despite all we labored, we didn't learn very much at all about farming. There was one very valuable thing I left with, however: learning how to gather my own wild salad was one of the greatest culinary epiphanies of my life, and I will be eternally grateful to Marie for showing me there is such a simple way to gain sustenance from the earth. I now believe more than ever that when you have the freshest, highest-quality ingredients to start with, less is definitely more, and the most honorable way to pay your respect to this bounty from the soil is to leave it as nature provided it - simple, healthy, unadorned, perfect.

Salad, simply

a bowlful of the freshest organic green things you can lay your hands on, preferably from a farmer's market (or a farm!)
1 clove garlic, cut in half
walnut or extra-virgin olive oil
red wine vinegar
sea salt, pepper

Begin by washing the salad very carefully by submerging it in water and gently massaging it. Drain and dry it well.

Take a large salad bowl, and begin by rubbing the inside of the bowl with the cut side of the garlic until it feels tacky and smells wonderful. Throw away the garlic, or use it for something else. Now, add the salad leaves and sprinkle on a pinch of salt. Pour some olive or walnut oil on your hands (make sure they're clean!), and slowly start tossing the salad with your hands, gently coating each leaf with oil. Pour more oil on your hands and repeat, until all the leaves are coated with a fine sheen. Taste a leaf, and sprinkle on more salt if if the salad needs it. Dribble a little bit of vinegar in the bowl, toss one last time, and grind on some black pepper. The sooner you eat this, the better it will be.

*names have been changed to protect their identities!

Monday
May022005

Rationalizations of a Chocoholic

choccake-web.jpg

Note to self.

Reasons to eat chocolate:

Chocolate...
is one of the most delicious things ever invented.
is good for my heart.
has antioxidants to help keep me looking spry and youthful.
has been used since Aztec times as an (ahem) aphrodisiac.
can help combat high blood pressure and diabetes.
is the subject of a prodigious amount of literature.
can be used in both sweet and savory dishes.
causes production of serotonin and dopamine in the brain, which are nature's antidepressants.
is grown in sunny tropical places, which is where I'd be right now if I had my choice.
is nature's way of making up for all the bad things we have to endure in life.
is one of the four basic food groups. (yes, that's right, we're talking about my world here...)

Reasons to not eat chocolate:

Chocolate...
is addictive. Hey, I can quit whenever I want!

Who am I kidding? I'd eat the stuff even if it caused me to grow foot-long pustules from my neck.

(Almost) Instant-'fix' Chocolate Heroin Cake

This is a slightly tarted-up version of your basic flourless chocolate gâteau, and can be ready within an hour if you have all the ingredients on hand (note to self: always have ingredients on hand). To fully appreciate this cake, underbake it just a little, so that the center is still slightly gooey. This cake has an interesting characteristic: if you leave it at room temperature, it will be soft and tender with a moist 'crumb', however once you chill it, it gains a completely different texture, kind of like a firm ganache truffle-center. Either way, it's sinfully good.

300g (10 oz) bittersweet chocolate (at least 70% cocoa solids)
200g (1 cup) sugar
6 large eggs, at room temperature, separated
125g (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder, or high quality instant coffee
1/4 teaspoon salt
100g (3.5 oz) nuts (such as walnuts, hazelnuts, or almonds), lightly toasted & finely ground (optional - don't let a lack of nuts hold you back...)
a couple glugs of your favorite booze (such as whiskey, brandy, rum or liqueur - also optional)

for topping:
1 cup whipping cream
1 teaspoon vanilla OR
2-3 tablespoons liqueur (the same as you used in the cake or Marsala, Cointreau, Kahlua...)
sugar to sweeten


Butter and flour a 9-inch (23cm) springform pan. Preheat oven to 350F/180C. Melt chocolate, instant coffee and butter together in microwave. Stir in the vanilla. Beat half the sugar and the egg yolks together until pale and thick. Beat in warm chocolate mixture, ground toasted nuts and booze, if using. (This mixture often separates on me, but all will be well again once you start folding in the egg whites.) Beat egg whites and salt and the remaining sugar with clean beaters until stiff but not dry (soft peak stage). Stir one-quarter into the chocolate to lighten it, then gently fold in the remainder just until no white streaks remain. Bake for 30-40 minutes, or until slightly puffed in the center and no longer jiggly. I start checking after 25 minutes, and take it out when there is just a bit of batter clinging to the toothpick in the center. Remove from oven, cool completely in the pan, and serve chilled or at room temperature with the cream, which you should softly whip with the sugar and your choice of flavors.

Another thing I love to serve with this cake (which I like even better than whipped cream), is slightly sweetened Greek yogurt. The slight tartness and freshness of the yogurt is a perfect complement to the dark, intense chocolate.

Keep in mind that chocolate, unlike people, improves as it ages, so let this cake sit for several hours or even a full day before you dig in (if you can!).

Friday
Apr292005

Haggis Hunting

clap-shot-haggis.jpg
Photo copyright © 2004, Scribe Weekly, Scotland

 

Q: What is a haggis?

A: An endangered Highland animal, according to one-third of the respondents to a survey conducted among 1000 U.S. visitors to Scotland. A full twenty-three percent said they had come to Scotland under the belief they could hunt and catch a haggis. One American tourist said he read that haggis is a birdlike creature that only comes out at night. Another claimed that the haggis is a fox-like mammal that sometimes ventures into cities.

Ask a Scotsman what a haggis is and chances are you'll get anything but a straight answer. Far be it from me to rain on anyone's parade, but the time has come to set the record straight.

THE MYTH

haggis3.jpgA haggis is a small four-legged Scottish Highland creature.  Its limbs on one side are shorter than on the other, meaning that it is perfectly adapted to run around the hills at a steady altitude. As the haggis always runs clockwise, he can be caught by running around the hill in the opposite direction, though the task is made easier if you sedate him by playing specific notes on your bagpipe while you run. The young, wild haggis is normally harmless, though when fully grown, he can become quite dangerous during rutting season. His primary evasive strategy is his ability to confuse: being both feathered and furry, the hunter never knows which feature is predominant. When he runs, he runs like a bird, and when he flies, he flies like an animal. At the present time, only kilted Highlanders can obtain official haggis hunting licenses, and haggis can only be hunted in season between November and January. Wild haggis, though originally native to Scotland, have been spotted in Nevada, the offspring of specimens introduced in the 19th century by a couple of Scottish immigrants.


THE REALITY

haggis.jpg Haggis is actually a savoury dish made from the minced internal organs of a sheep, mixed with oatmeal, spices, salt, pepper and boiled in a sheep's stomach (an early prototype for modern 'boil in the bag' meals). Haggis is normally served with mashed neeps (turnip) and mashed tatties (potatoes). Haggis is eaten all year round in Scotland, but has a special place in the Burns supper served on January 25th, when Scotland's beloved poet, Robert Burns, is commemorated. Burns penned the poem Address to a Haggis, which begins "Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face, Great chieftain o' the puddin-race! Aboon them a' ye tak your place...." In Burns' days haggis was a popular dish for the poor, since it made use of parts of a sheep that would otherwise have been wasted. In more recent times, haggis has been found both in the fish and chip shop, deep-fried in batter, and dressed-up in various guises on fancy restaurant plates.

Haggis counts among its many talents a starring role in the sport called Haggis Hurling, which involves throwing a haggis as far as possible.

It is also the lovingly-portrayed subject of entire books.

For people of squeamish dispositions but insatiable curiosity, vegetarian haggis is available - the point of which eludes me - which consists of everything minus the offal. I find it resembles bland falafel.

For those of you who must have the real thing, you can either order it, or better yet, make it yourselves.

RECIPE

Set of sheep's heart, lungs and liver (cleaned by a butcher)
One sheep's stomach
3 cups finely chopped beef suet (kidney leaf fat is preferred)
One cup medium ground oatmeal
Two medium onions, finely chopped
One cup beef stock
One teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
One teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon mace

Trim off any excess fat and sinew from the sheep's intestine and, if present, discard the windpipe. Place in a large pan, cover with water and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for an hour or possibly longer to ensure that they are all tender. Drain and cool.

Finely chop the meat and combine in a large bowl with the suet, oatmeal, finely chopped onions, beef stock, salt, pepper, nutmeg and mace. Make sure the ingredients are mixed well. Stuff the meat and spices mixture into the stomach which should be over half full. Then press out the air and tie the open ends tightly with string. Make sure that you leave room for the mixture to expand or else it may burst while cooking. If it looks as though it may do that, prick with a sharp needle to reduce the pressure.

Place in a pot and cover with water. Bring to the boil and immediately reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for three hours. Avoid boiling vigorously to avoid bursting the skin. Serve hot with "champit tatties and bashit neeps".

 

Places to try a bit of upscale haggis in Edinburgh:
Dubh Prais Restaurant has a pan fried oatmeal-encrusted haggis starter, which is exceptionally tasty.
123b High St
Edinburgh
Tel: 0131 557 5732
Web: www.bencraighouse.co.uk

Stac Polly is famous for their signature dish of phyllo-wrapped haggis parcels in plum and red wine sauce.
29 Dublin Street,
Edinburgh
Tel: 0131 556 2231
Web: www.stacpolly.com

Suruchi Indian Restaurant has the world's only haggis pakoras (sorry, but that's vegetarian haggis...)
14a Nicolson Street
Edinburgh
Tel: 0131 556-6583
Web: www.suruchirestaurant.co.uk