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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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stilton1.jpg

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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