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Archive for the ‘North America’ Category

brusselsprouts

Setting a healthy leafy green vegetable swimming in cholesterol is a mainstay of American Thanksgiving, which they must be having soon back there. I lived in the States for five Thanksgivings, and it’s a big, big deal for them: people fly all over fly-over for it. By contrast, Canadian Thanksgiving is a tepid excuse for a long-weekend, perhaps because five months of deep snow is a heavy thought that does not permit as much celebration. Here in the climatically-temperate UK there is no thanksgiving holiday, which I find begrudgingly charming, begrudgingly. But we eat stalks and stalks of brussels sprouts the two months both sides of Christmas, that’s the season. So, for Maninas’s Eating with the Seasons (December), my creamy-nutmeggy brussels sprouts:

Set a large pot of salted water to boil. Lop your sprouts off at the ankles and peel away their dirty little jackets. Now slice each in two, vertically and with little compassion. At the roll of the boil, dump them in and set your kitchen timer to six minutes. Do not let them boil a seventh minute, for the sprouts’ own acids would use that extra minute to strip the last atoms of magnesium out of the remaining chlorophyll-a, the macro-effect being to turn your bright green spouts a sad greeny-grey. So when the beep sounds drain the sprouts like a madman, stir in a bit of cream, grate a little nutmeg over them and toss in a pinch of sea salt. Bring to table, admonishing one and all to eat their brussels sprouts.

What am I thankful for this year? Um, a deceleration in food-price inflation. It’s the silver lining of an economy going down the toilet with a foul smell, not unlike the smell of overcooked brassica. Six minutes, people, six minutes.

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This is not late-breaking news. I saw my first Tim Hortons™ advert in a Spar™ (that’s a 7-11-type convenience store) just off Trafalgar Square back in May, but only recently parted with my pence for a coffee and donut. When one thinks about it, unless they are going to open a window in every grandmother’s living room, Tim’s will have to go abroad for growth, to keep the investors happy (happy investors: what a quaint idea).  Any more shops domestically and Canada will have more Tim’s outlets than voting citizens. I’m sure they already outnumber beavers and caribou put together. While it’s never great coffee, Tim Hortons™ is the comfort food that most Canadian adults can recognize and agree on, and whenever homesick I could sure go for one. So I gave it a go this week: the results were mixed.

In my local Spar™ the Tim Hortons™ coffee is dispatched by push button from a machine. Not surprisingly, it tastes like any other pod-dispensed coffee, and nothing like the real McCoy. Not even close. No resemblance whatsoever. If you want a timmies in the UK, grind a medium-quality mocha java and drip it at home. But the donut (neither gluten- nor egg-free; I can eat what I like when on the street) was much more authentic. Chemically-speaking, it was the same boston cream donut one would be served in or Coquitlam, or Flin Flon, or Gander. If it disappointed, it was because it was clearly puffed-up in an oven off-site, and shipped to the store. In Canada, the donut is puffed-up in the oven on-site, and so is one step fresher. But the boston cream was essentially correct (although I’m more of a honey cruller girl, myself; I’d stop into a Spar™ for that).

Happy thanksgiving, Canada! Congratulations on all those solvent banks! And don’t worry: minority governments look great on you, really!

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Thinking of you, US of A,

with your Freddie Mac, and your Fanny Mae.

I’m no Du Fu. But seriously, since food-inflation has neared 10% in the UK, our household has only been eating meat every second night. We also eat a lot of cured pork, which is cheap because it goes farther in smaller quantities. I estimate that we save about £15/week ($25USD), or about £750 in 2008, this way. In other words, my inborn meanness is partly responsible for all the lentils ’round here.

So in the face of the many Louisianan jambalaya recipes calling for chicken and shrimp and pork and alligator and all sorts of protein extravagances, this is a solely-sausage jambalaya, with gluten-free free-range pork chipolatas on offer (on sale) this week. Chipolatas are a thin sausage, and browning them also cooks them through, so out of the pot they came as soon as they looked good. I sauteed onion, celery, and garlic, and flavoured with oregano, thyme, paprika, and some dried chipolte innards. In went red pepper, the rice, and a can of sieved tomatoes. Now, Emeril would probably disapprove (and I’m okay with that), but I keep the lid off the pot while the rice cooks. This is because with the lid on I can’t see what’s going on inside, and what’s going on is usually burning. So I stir and I monitor and I add broth as needed until the business is done. I sliced my browned sausages the size of shrimp, chucked them in, and, um, well, bam (lower case ‘bam’, very meek and sideways-glancing).

PS. Anybody else remember that annoying chain restaurant in Edmonton years ago that made all the staff yell “Jambalaya!” whenever it was ordered? What am I saying?: it was a chain: it probably embarrassed people from Vancouver to Winnipeg.

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Instead of a globe-trotting recipe this week, I had wanted to write a simple guide to buying and serving good cheese. Cheese is a simple and powerful link with the past. Rich and poor alike, Europeans ate cheese for hundreds, even thousands of years. But cheese, like wine, is a very complicated matter that requires time, study, and lots of good samples; frankly, anything meaningful is beyond the scope of a short article. So, because I believe that in complicated circumstances simple examples can be best, I’m just going to describe the cheeses that I’m serving over the holidays, with some pairings. I’ll follow that with a few thoughts on buying and serving cheese. If that’s interesting to you, terrific. If that’s not, well then Merry Christmas and see you next year!

My Cheese Selection for the Holidays

By category and with pairings, here’s what I’ve got:

A Blue-veined: English stilton is a semi-firm, full-flavoured, crumbly blue, typically not as salty as Danish nor as creamy as young gorgonzola. Unlike French roquefort, there is no rye bread involved in the production of stilton, so it’s safe for coeliacs. Like most blues, it works well with rice cakes (yes, those big dry disks), dried dates (stone-in are more moist and flavourful than the pitted kind), and a big fruity tannic red wine wine, or fortified wines like sherry or port. Seasonally-speaking, it’s nice against cranberry jelly.

A Crowd-pleaser: Aged Dutch gouda (as opposed to the young, semi-firm cheese) is a hard cheese that’s sweet and caramel-like in flavour and everybody loves it. I like it with fig compote and any kind of toasted bread or cracker. I think it’s meant for beer, but if you don’t have any, try a dry apple cider.

A Soft and Downy: I do have a disk of camembert fait en Normandie ripening in my fridge, although it is neither name-controlled nor made from raw-milk (more on that below, if you’re interested). I buy what I can find, and even though it’s a factory cheese, as a whole plump wheel ripened to within a few days of its shelf-life it is not half-bad: garlicky and mushroomy. Soft downy cheeses with high cream content are great with sparkling wine and fresh fruit.

Two Firm and Rich: I have both an aged Swiss gruyere, which I find to be beefy and salty, and an aged English cheddar, which is sharp and toffee-like. Swiss-made cheeses are good bets: the Swiss, and this will surprise no one who’s visited their country, hold their cheesesmakers to very high standards, and they mostly make hard, hardy cheeses, the sort that travel well. The same can be said for two-year-old cheddars, although mine came from just up the road. I think that well-aged cheddar is nice with corn cakes (yes, those big dry disks) and lightly smoked Polish sausage. I like Swiss gruyere with cured meat, too, but the dry-cured kind like bundnerfleisch. Both cheeses can stand up to big whites or reds.

A Curiosity: I blindly picked-up an AOC ossau-iraty from the French Pyrenees, because you can learn something new every day. It’s a hard sheep’s milk cheese, supposedly a Basque recipe thousands of years old. It looks promising, and I think I’ll serve it with olives, serrano ham and a rioja.

But the Little Stinker: is thus far an unrequited love, as I am still trying to find a barn-yardy, washed rind cheese for this critical category. Sadly, all the reblochon in town is fake, the epoisse dried and sunken, and the Alsatian muenster oozing and slimy. In the UK this category is the toughest to fulfill (while under the USDA’s pasteurization laws it is nigh-impossible). But I still have a few days…

General Notes on Cheese

Thumbnail sketches are necessarily incomplete with such a complicated subject, but I do shop for, store, and serve cheese with a few broad biases:

  • Raw milk cheese is usually more flavourful than cheese made with pasteurized milk. The USDA bans European imports of raw-milk cheeses aged less than sixty days to the US.
  • Aged cheese is usually more flavourful than young cheese.
  • Soft, washed-rind cheeses (the rind looks moist and there is no fuzziness) are usually the most aromatic.
  • Soft cheeses should look plump in their cases. If they are whole, I can ripen them up until near their best-before dates for maximum flavour.
  • Name-controlled European cheese (AOC, DOC, DO, or PDO are the abbreviations you will see) is usually a best bet, though not always. The control is for region, milk, and production, but does not guarantee an interesting cheese, or proper handling. But the French, Swiss, Spanish and Italians do feel they having something worth protecting, and they are right.
  • At home, I keep cheese loosely wrapped in a closed (but not perfectly sealed box) in the refrigerator. Cheese needs to breathe without drying out.
  • I present cheeses in big pieces that have come to room temperature in their wrappers for the hour before serving.
  • Each cheese should get its own knife, and ideally have some room.
  • I pair cheeses with crackers, olives, dried fruit, nuts, fresh fruit, chutneys, and compotes. If I had good bread I’d certainly use it.
  • I pair cheeses with reds, whites, ports, sherries, sparklers, and ciders. If I had good beer I’d certainly use it.
  • A safe way to pair is to match cheese to the foods and beverages that are produced nearby (eg. brie with champagne, parmigiano with chianti, queso de zuheros with almonds).

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I rarely adapt bread recipes to gluten-free, because the results are so often disappointing compared to the real thing, but gluten-free steamed puddings are an exception. A traditional steamed pudding is essentially a quick-bread cooked in a very gentle and moist environment, and it never relies much on gluten for its success. Steamed pudding is also made of completely crumbled bread and is highly spiced, and so cleanly deals with two shortcomings of most gluten-free loaves. In Newfoundland, our “figgy pudding” is called figgy duff, and it is an old, old recipe. It is made with the kinds of sweeteners and spices brought to Newfoundland from the Caribbean by ships that were picking up salted cod on their way back to Europe. The recipe makes economical use of bread crumbs, and employs ingredients that do not require refrigeration, including cinnamon and raisins, which retard mold growth. It is very moist, chewy, dark, sweetened but not terribly sweet, and full of the wintery spices.

The traditional figgy duff recipe measures moistened bread crumbs that have been squeezed dry and rubbed loose again. That wasn’t feasible using my everyday store-bought gluten-free loaf: the squeezed crumbs remained too compact and a lot of water-soluble components dissolved and washed away. Gentler was wetting the crumbs, letting them drain in a sieve, and adjusting the batter consistency at the end with a little gluten-free flour. The inexactness of this wetter method doesn’t seem to matter: the batter is filled with thirsty raisins and hygroscopic brown sugar, and it is all cooked in a very wet environment. Likewise, I doubt it matters much which kind of bread or flour you use (I used a rice-potato-tapioca blend with a touch of xanthum gum in it); steamed puddings are very forgiving creatures. You may notice a great deal of baking soda in this recipe, but it is needed in such a dense and unbeaten batter, and the acid in the molasses finishes it off easily.

After having used a messy pudding bag in past years, buying a proper English pudding basin this season has been quite a revelation. If you haven’t seen one, a pudding basin is a ceramic bowl with thin sides, a grooved outer base that allows water to circulate beneath, and a thick outer lip that allows a paper top to be tied to it. Mine cost £3 and it turns out perfectly shaped, evenly cooked figgy duff. The recipe below could be poured into a pudding bag, but it would be less shapely. Probably, you could use any ceramic bowl put to rest over an inverted saucer (to keep it off direct heat) and covered with foil, but I haven’t tried that myself. gfhbe3.jpgI might recall metal pudding tins with lids in my mother’s panty, but perhaps I’m confused by a memory of jelly moulds and bundt pans. Perhaps your grandmother had yet another contraption for this cause. At any rate, as steaming is the closest I’ll come to baking this season, this post is for the Gluten-free Holiday Baking Event, as instigated by Kate of Gluten-free Gobsmacked, and hosted these few weeks by Sally of Aprovechar.

The traditional accompaniment to figgy duff is a molasses syrup called a coady, but I find molasses-on-molasses a bit cloying. For some contrast, whip cream to soft peaks, then whip in a little confectioner’s sugar, and finally a splash of chilled rum. Either coffee or tea are lovely with the spice-island flavours here.

2 hours, including 90 minutes steam; serves 6

Newfoundland (Gluten-free) Figgy Pudding (Figgy Duff)

4 cups fine (gluten-free) bread crumbs (about half a loaf)
butter for greasing
1 cup raisins (do not plump)
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tsp ground allspice
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/4 cup melted butter
3 Tbsp molasses
1 tsp baking soda
gluten-free flour blend (eg. rice-potato-tapioca blend)

1. Put the bread crumbs in a large bowl. Fill it with water to the level of the crumbs. Turn the sodden crumbs into a sieve and let drain for twenty minutes.
2. Grease your pudding basin. Choose a pot with a tight-fitting lid, fill it with enough water to come half-way up the basin (a few inches, usually), and set it to boil.
3. In another large bowl mix the raisins, brown sugar, allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. Mix in the drained bread (you should have about two cups in the sieve).
4. Stir in the butter and molasses. Wait for the water in the pot to boil. Dissolve the baking soda into 1 Tbsp of room temperature water, and mix this into the batter.
5. Mix 1/2 cup of gluten-free flour into the batter and judge its thickness. You want a consistency like that of a medium cake batter – not runny, but not stiff. If it isn’t there yet, stir in another 1/4 cup and judge again. This is probably enough.
6. Turn the pudding batter into the basin.
7. Prepare the barrier that will keep condensation out of your pudding while allowing it to rise. Take a piece of parchment paper (or double two sheets of greaseproof paper) that is a few inches larger than the basin, and make a one-inch pleat in it. Centre the pleat over the basin and mold the paper down over the sides. Tie this little paper hat onto the basin by running a piece of twine under the lip. Trim the excess.
8. Lower the basin into the pot and steam for 90 minutes, checking every 30 minutes that your pot hasn’t gone dry.
9. Remove the greaseproof paper. Cover the top with a pretty plate and invert the basin. One good quick shake downward should release your pudding.

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It seems the right time of year for this sentimental series, but here in the UK I am at a loss for the island’s most distinctive proteins. I know that I am not going to find seal meat, just forget it. Faux-moose stew made with beef is really just beef stew; ditto caribou. I have eaten farm-raised rabbit before, and it bears not a lick of resemblance to the wild version at home. In a restaurant in Italy last year, a waiter brought me rabbit and I tried to send it back because I thought he had mistakenly brought me chicken. But even though my fishmonger has no fresh cod tongue today, any immigrant grocer catering to ex-pats from the West Indies, northern Spain or coastal India will carry salted cod fillet on his shelf. The salting of North-Atlantic cod was a major occupation for generations of Newfoundlanders, up until electricity and thereby refrigeration became commonplace on land and at sea, and many traditional dishes use salted cod, often with ingredients like potatoes and pork fat.

This is the kind of simple recipe one employs to make away with leftovers. I love mashed-potato-bound cakes fried in hot oil because they achieve a browned-crispiness on their faces while retaining the creaminess of mashed potato inside. For these cod cakes I used last night’s mashed potatoes straight out of the refrigerator without even warming them up, and although I had to be gentle, the cakes held together admirably. When I mash potatoes, I use a medium- or high-starch variety, mashing them while still hot, first with butter and then with whole milk, which does make them smoother and stickier. Suprisingly, these salt-cod cakes are not particularly salty after soaking the fillets overnight. The most delicate issue when dealing with salt cod is the odour: it stinks, particularly during the initial boiling (once cooked and bound with potato the smell all but disappears). In summertime, open the window. In winter, simmer a splash of vanilla essence in a small saucepan of water. A Belarusian visitor who stopped by recently to look at my babka and reminisce about his childhood got me thinking about scruncheons, the crisped skin of a pork belly (you may know them as cracklins or scratchings) and salt-cod. I have some pink-veined pig skin here right now (having removed it from the riblets that I am presently salt-curing in the hopes of a Jiggs’ Dinner on Christmas Day), so I made my salt-cod cakes with rendered pork fat and garnished them with crispy scruncheons. (Disclaimer: scruncheons are very bad for you and you shouldn’t be eating them).

I think your choice of beverage depends upon your accompaniments here. If you go creamy, like a (gluten-free) parsely bechamel, then an un-oaked chardonnay would be nice, but with lemon squeezes a Loire muscadet would be better. Or go Basque with a manzanilla sherry and a mayonnaise-based sauce. Of course, if the salt-cod cakes are for breakfast, you’ll already be having a cup of sweet tea made milky with a tin of Carnation, won’t you?

Newfoundland Salt-cod Cakes

40 minutes after an overnight soak, including 20 minutes boiling; serves 4.

1 lb salted cod fillets
4 cups left-over mashed potato (medium- to high-starch variety, like Yukon Gold, Maris Piper, or Russet)
2 Tbsp pork fat rendered from scruncheons (or sunflower oil or corn oil)

1. Cover the salt cod in an excess of fresh water and let it soak overnight on the counter.
2. Remove the cod and immerse it in fresh water in a saucepan. Boil for twenty minutes.
3. Drain the cod, skin it, and remove any bones. Flake your fish.
4. Mix the cod with the potato. No need for salt. Shape into twelve balls and then flatten into cakes about 3/4″ thick.
5. In a heavy frying pan (cast-iron is excellent) over medium heat gently fry your handful of scrucheons until crisp, then remove them. Alternatively, heat your vegetable oil to near smoking.
6. Over medium heat fry the cakes, in batches if necessary, to crisp them on the outside and heat them through. Perhaps six minutes on the first side, then flipped gingerly for four minutes on the second, depending on your pan and heat source. Serve hot.

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