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Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’

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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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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Kisiel (or kissel) is a pan-Slavic dessert, served either warm or chilled, the texture of which typically falls between a soup and a pudding. A traditional kisiel is made of a sour fruit, and Belarusians have a well-developed appreciation for the sour (eg. rye bread, soured cream, saurkraut). For the holidays, here is the simplest cranberry pudding, quick and easily made the day before if you like. The balanced sweet-sourness of a kisiel is a refreshing change from all those creamy holiday desserts, as it concentrates on the tart flavour of cranberries, the quintessential holiday berry. That said, this kisiel would love some sour cream or creme fraiche stirred into it, and perhaps a pinch of powdered cinammon dusted over, too.

There is very little to say about this pudding, technically. As it cools the percieved sweetness will change, so if it seems too sweet when warm rest assured that this will dull with chilling. Conversly, if you’d like to serve your kisiel warm you might like to reduce the sugar, too. What will change much less with cooling is its thickness. A classical kisiel has a rather fluid set, more fluid than western-European puddings, and I suspect that the incredible pectin level of the cranberries does as much of the setting as the potato starch (it is also true that available pectin levels change as fruits ripen, so any particular batch may give results that are a little more or less firm). But on any occasion what you see hot in the saucepan is essentially what you’ll get: the kisiel will thicken some more as it cools, but not much. If you would like it thicker, heat it back to a simmer add another 1/2 Tbsp of starch slurry in water, and see if you like that better. This recipe is for a simple naked cranberry pudding, so use the best ones you can find. To jazz-it-up, the aforementioned creams and cinammon would be nice, and a contribution from an orange would be lovely, too.

Belarusian Cranberry Pudding (Kisiel)

20 Minutes; serves four

hot water
3/4 lb fresh cranberries
3/4 cup cup sugar
1 Tbsp potato starch (may substitute 1 1/2 Tbsp corn or tapioca starch)
1 tsp sugar

1. Put the kettle on the boil. Don an apron; cranberry stains are stubborn.
2. Pick through your cranberries for rotten ones and give the cleaned bunch a rinse. Place them in a small saucepan with 3/4 cup water, bring to the boil, and simmer for ten minutes to pop them all open.
3. Mash the cranberries with a potato masher in the saucepan. Strain through a sieve, pushing the pulp around with a spoon. When it has mostly drained, rinse the pulp with 1/2 cup of hot water. Repeat. Scrape off the underside of the sieve.
4. Return the strained juice to the saucepan and heat to dissolve 3/4 cup of sugar in it. Stir as you heat to a simmer.
5. Make a slurry of the potato starch with 1 Tbsp room-temperature water. Stir the slurry into the cranberries and keep stirring as you heat to thicken.
6. Grind the 1 teaspoon of sugar in a mortar. Pour your pudding into serving vessels (via a funnel, perhaps) and sprinkle the sugar lightly on top to foil its attempt to skin-over. Chill and serve.

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Traditional Belarusian cookery makes much of buckwheat, a plant that grows better than wheat (no relation) under Belarus’ climatic and soil conditions. This example of a buckwheat pilaf is made with hulled wholegrain buckwheat seeds, whole seeds not yet cracked into the groats used for kasha. The seasonings are classic Belarus: bay leaf and black pepper to “beef-up” the vegetable stock (or enhance a meat stock), and finely-diced mushroom for an earthy flavour top complement the nuttiness of buckwheat. In Belarus a buckwheat pilaf might be eaten on its own, or with a sour cream garnish, or placed inside a roasting dusk or goose, a coincidentally gluten-free stuffing for your Holidays. Without the bird, this moist and flavourful pilaf would be a great substitute for holiday stuffing, served as a garnish beside your goose or turkey but without all the saturated fat. Serve or stuff, it’s up to you.

The single most important thing when making this pilaf is to purchase hulled wholegrain buckwheat seeds in their curvy-pyramidal entirety, not the cracked or ground version of same. The wholegrain seed will hold its shape better while remaining more distinct in the pilaf; cracked kasha, which is the Slavic term for porridge, tends to become just that. The instructions on my bag of grains, plain-old Tesco house brand, read to boil for half an hour, a cooking time that presumably would have given me porridge. Pilaf tenderness was arrived at in ten minutes. Many buckwheat pilaf recipes toast egg-smeared groats or seeds in order to keep them distinct, but this is not strictly necessary with uncracked seeds. Whole hulled grains that are well-toasted alone, simmered gently and not overcooked hold their shape well. It is important that the pilaf be reasonably dry at the end if it is to be fluffy, so it’s a good idea to knock it around a little on a large plate to let it steam-off. The onion and mushrooms are chopped very finely for uniformity, and the mushrooms are added late so that they retain their moisture. The amount made here should stuff a chicken easily, but to stuff a big turkey (or an astoundingly hollow goose) you would obviously need to make more. At worst, have some left over for a healthy side, or to use in the next day’s soup.

hotm150.jpgBy reading Dianne’s and Ilva’s blogs, I learned about the Heart of the Matter (HotM) Event Number 9: Holiday Food, which draws attention to heart-healthy eating and is coordinated this month by The Accidental Scientist. In my home I cook for multiple food allergies, some transient and some permanent, and I have a great deal of sympathy for anyone struggling to accomodate yet one more dietary need. So, in my first-ever entry into anything of the kind, I’m submitting this post to the HotM9 Event, as a gluten-free heart-healthy holiday food. In particular, I would like to dedicate this recipe to Dianne’s husband, and wish him a steady recovery from heart attack.

By my back-of-the-napkin calculations, I believe that each serving of pilaf (made with a low sodium vegetable broth, knowing nothing of that roast, and with no additional salt) contains: 275 kcal; 5g total fat; 1g saturated fat; 0g trans fat; 0mg cholesterol; 75mg sodium; 50g total carbohydrate; 3g fibre; 5g sugar; 9g protien. Pardon my sig digs.

Belarusian Buckwheat Mushroom Pilaf (or Stuffing)

Twenty minutes; serves four

2 cups vegetable broth (may substitute chicken or beef broth)
1 bay leaf
1/2 tsp cracked black pepper
1 cup wholegrain hulled buckwheat
1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 onion, finely diced almost as small as the dry buckwheat
4 oz mushrooms, finely diced almost as small as the dry buckwheat
cracked black pepper
salt, as you wish

1. In a medium saucepan heat the broth to a boil with the bay leaf and black pepper.
2. In a large, heavy-bottomed skillet dry-toast the buckwheat over medium-low heat. Keep stirring and shaking and moving them around for a few minutes as they lose their green tint and turn a nut-brown.
3. Add the buckwheat to the broth, cover, and keep over the lowest heat until just tender, about ten minutes.
4. Heat the olive oil in the skillet and sautee the onion until golden, about eight minutes. Add the mushrooms and stir them around to heat and coat. In about a minute when they will start to lose their moisture take them off heat. Season with black pepper.
5. When the buckwheat is tender, turn it onto a large plate and gently fluff the grains with a fork to separate them and remove some excess moisture. Fold in the mushroom and onion, and season with salt to taste.

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