Without easy access to a good fromagerie, one may still buy young cheese at a grocery store and ripen it at home in hopes of making it a bit more interesting. Large grocery stores will sometimes carry decent cheese that is young (and hence has shelf-life) but will be more flavourful closer to it’s best-before date. Along the lines of last year’s cheese post, we’ve stocked up for Christmas in mid-November at our local superstore (anyone from the UK will recognize these generic labels). By wrapping our cheese in greaseproof paper and hiding it in the lettuce crisper of the fridge for weeks, we hope to improve the hand we’ve been dealt. Most of these cheeses have some sort of official seal, such as DOP, AOC or PDO, which guarantee that they come from a particular region and are made in a particular way. It does not guarantee that they are good, or that we will like them, but in our experience a regional protection symbol greatly increases the odds.
I’m presently ripening the four whole cheeses in the front row of the photograph, and they all just happen to be French. Take note of the word ‘whole’: in my experience home-aging works most effectively for small whole, soft cheeses. I’ve had no luck at all ripening cheese that has been cut (is that possible? impossible?). So, starting from left to right in the front row, epoisses is an unpasteurized cow’s milk cheese from Burgundy, full fat with a rind washed in a spirits, and when ready it will smell like a horse’s arse. The pont l’eveque is a beefy-tasting brine-rubbed cheese from Normandy, politely sold in demi size. The vignotte is a pasteurized triple-cream from Champagne with no name-control; in other words it’s what passes for brie in many countries. The chaource is also from Champagne, and also similar to brie with a bloomy rind, but expected to march past the vignotte by virtue of being unpasteurized. Are these specimens going to be any good?: only time will tell. Are my cheeses from great ‘farmhouse’ producers? I doubt it, but I won’t be jetting off to Paris this December, so Tesco Finest™ will have to do. (Speaking of Tesco, the Ardenne Pate shown is gluten-free (and a £1!).) All these cheese will be improved by their native beverages: white burgundy, good apple cider, and of course champagne, repsectively.
Otherwise-pictured treats are a DOP pecorino tuscano, the aforementioned pork pate, an AOC gruyere, a PDO greek feta, an AOC issau-oraty, and finally a PDO british blue stilton from the Long Clawson Dairy, which is brilliant, and inexpensive domestically. Admittedly, not all these things will see December. Besides ripening some softer cheeses, another tip is that if you live far from cheese production is to consider harder cheeses that are designed to travel better, and are often raw-milk cheeses (once a cheese is aged long enough the FDA doesn’t care about the original milk). I’m enjoying a Swiss Sbrinz this week, a nutty two year-old, something like grano padano only creamier with and a hint of butterscotch. If Heidi can safely carry it up the mountain, an exporter can safely carry it to my cheese aisle.
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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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Posted in Central America, Sweets, tagged calaveras, Catrinas, Dia de los Muertos, egg-free, gluten-free, gluten-free gingerbread, Guadalupe Posada, Mexico, peanut-free on 2 November 2008|
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These are my fallen angles. For a Day of the Dead gathering with Mexican friends I made two things: a traditional calabaza en tacha (candied pumpkin) and these creatures, my Catrinas. The classic calavera, or sugar skull, is an icon of Día de los Muertos celebrations in Mexico, but, no surprise, that they are impossible to find where we live in the UK. I could not find chocolate skulls either, nor any three-dimensional moulds to make any sort of calavera. I couldn’t find even two-dimensional skull or skeleton forms, despite Halloween. But I did have a Christmas angel cookie-cutter, and if you look closely…
I should be clear: I do not claim these as ‘authentic.’ I’ve no research to suggest that anyone in Mexico left anything like this on an altar this weekend. But they are inspired by a famous icon that has become associated with Día de los Muertos in Mexico, the Catrinas of José Guadalupe Posada. These are my far-inferior version of his wonderful etchings, albeit in gingerbread form. It really is meant as an homage. Had I more talent, my cookies would have had hats and handbags.
What did my Mexican friends think? That there must be something heretical about turning angels into skeletons. There probably is. But my Catrinas were warmly accepted in the spirit of the afternoon regardless, next to the pollo recado rojo in tortilla and the pan de muertos. They know I mean well, stumbling through life with enthusiasm, if not clarity.
PS: For those in need, I used the gluten-free gingerbread men recipe from the Sainsbury’s site, with real butter instead of dairy-free spread, and making sure to have xanthum gum onboard. They were stealthily good, and are well worth repeating at Christmas…with a different glazing pattern.
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A little cawl cymreig for Halloween howlers, and any other poor soul out in the chilly evenings. Cawl is a traditional farmhouse stew from Wales, very meaty and root-vegetable sweet. This is a great stew for cold weather, and it’s nippy here this week. Coming home tonight I saw a Guy flopped over stiffly on it’s box, at first glance totally abandoned. But no, its ten-year old patrons were indeed sitting behind it…and behind glass, inside the cafe with mugs of hot chocolate and an eye on their coins. Apparently they had decided that the risk of having the box snatched was less than the risk of hypothermia. Canny and sensible, or lazy and undeserving? I gave them 20p, even though everyone knows you shouldn’t give a penny for the Guy: they’ll just spend it on hot drink.
Back to the cawl. I swiftly browned pieces of lamb leg (and the bones from which the meat had been removed) in a little smoking sunflower oil, brought to boil, skimmed the foam, threw in some chopped onion and buckets of water, and left it to simmer all afternoon. It was getting toward suppertime when I fished out the bones, then added chopped swede (that’s the turnipy-rutabagaish creature), then parsnip, then carrot, then potato, then leek. There is a bit of judgment required in order to cook the vegetables appropriately – not too much, not too little, not to soon or lately added. Generations of farmhouse wisdom are behind such choreography; another forty years and I’ll have stew-perfection, as well as arthritis. For tonight, salt and lots of pepper to finish, and chopped parsley, if that’s not too fancy for the coal mines.
I’ll leave you with a few photos I took this past summer of Conwy Castle in north Wales, which I’m sure is quite spooky after dark. In medieval times the English (who were still a bit French at the time, truth be told) felt compelled to sit heavily upon the Welsh, who were so uppity as to think that the English should go home (preferably back to Normandy, but England would do) . The legacy for us today is a collection of very impressive fortifications liberally dotted along the green countryside. The very best castles are in the north of Wales, handy to Liverpool but a bloody long drive from everywhere else. Conwy is one of four famous castles in the area, and I saw a few other more modest ones on the sides of cliffs that no one seemed to know a thing about. Too many castles up here, who can keep track?
Conwy Castle and town.
Conwy Castle and Snowdonia beyond.
Conwy Castle and the traffic circle it guards.
The secure interior of Conwy Castle.
The medieval town walls of Conwy (with parking).
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Poitrine d’ agneau farci? My french is many years unused, and thus crap. But I do know that to cook an unfamiliar and odd-ball bit of meat, turn to the French. Breast of lamb sounds much more exclusive than brisket, but it’s just brisket, and it’s one of the cheapest lamb cuts, available at £1.50 for 500g ($2.75/lb). I think that it’s a sign of the lean economic times that lamb breast is appearing in the high street grocery stores, where I hadn’t seen it before, and it sent me off to research. Breast of lamb is a succulent if somewhat fatty cut, and very tasty. Once cooked, the meat is easy to remove from the fat, if you like, peeling like sheets of phyllo, and those fatty layers preserve a lot of flavour and keep the meat in a delicate and juicy state. But it’s hardly heart-friendly.
As for the French sources, Larousse Gastronomic and Cordon Blue agreed that slow and low was the way to go. I sauteed in olive oil onion, garlic, a great deal of rosemary and (gluten-free, egg-free) bread crumbs for the stuffing, and rolled it up in the meat to tie. I seared the joint over smoking sunflower oil, then removed it so that quarters of onion and carrot could be coloured, too. I returned the meat to the pot, blessed it with half a bottle of white wine, covered and roasted it for one-hour forty-five minutes at 160C (325F). During it’s well-deserved rest afterward, I strained the remainder and thought about making a gravy, but decided to take my own rest, finish the bottle of wine instead and just serve the defatted juices. Maybe I fell down on the frenchness at the end there: I was supposed to make a proper sauce, but I just drank instead. Oh, well: au jus! Voila!
This really was new to me, breast of lamb; incredibly I’d never heard of it before. When I looked it up on the butchery diagram, it was of course the part of the lamb where another lamb would suckle if the lamb in question ever became a ewe (which would make the agneau an agnelle, I think). The beef equivalent is, as I said, brisket, and the pork, belly. But the best known breasts in grocery store are of course on the poultry. I’d never considered this before: I suppose I can understand the name as intuitive in a way, but I grew up with chickens in my backyard, and not in eighteen years did I see one breastfeed. Just a thought.
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This charmingly candid photograph shows the chiles en nogada that I made for a backyard pot-luck last month. Chiles en nogada are in essence peppers stuffed with pork and fruit, covered in a walnut cream sauce and pomegranate seeds. The recipe is said to be almost 200 years old, comes from an area just southeast of Mexico City called Puebla, and is traditionally served around Mexican Independance Day, in a tribute to the red, white and green of the flag. The particular occasion for us was a luncheon wishing some Parisien friends au revoir, but as it was the weekend before Mexican Independence Day and the party’s hosts were Mexican, I decided to give this dish a go, thousands of kilometres from its natural home.
The distance matters: the chiles of chiles en nogada are meant to be poblano peppers, and these are impossible to find in the UK, at least out here in not-London. So I substituted grilled and peeled green bell peppers instead, and incorporated a few small diced green chilies into the filling to try to recreate the slightly picante flavour of the poblano, if not the shape. The filling is a saute of diced cooked pork, onion, garlic, cloves, cinnamon, almonds, apple, and diced dried apricot (again, faking the candied innards of a cactus that I couldn’t find locally). The walnut sauce is not a bechamel, but a no-cook mixture of creme fraiche, quark, sour cream and sugar (a crazy combination to mimic the proper queso fresca), ground walnuts, and (gluten-free) bread crumbs. Pomegranate and cilantro to finish, for the patriotic flourish.
So my Mexican friends very graciously ate this version of chiles en nogada, which was more improvised than authentic, and proclaimed it accurate. ¡Such good manners! For a study in contrasts, behold the bowl of mole sauce in the upper left corner of the photo: it’s makings were transported by suitcase to the UK from a market in Mexico City. Now that’s impressive dedication to the real thing.
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For all I know, it’s ‘palak pakora.’ Pakora was suggested by the letter home to parents as a buffet food for the school Eid party. This surprised me, as I think of parkora as Hindu, but the chick pea fritter extends throughout the subcontinent, and I believe that everyone eats them. Ashamedly, I have no idea what ingredients might make a pakora more typical of Bangladesh or of Pakistan rather than Tamil-Nadu, so I made them as I always do. I expect that vegetarian pakora was suggested by the school because it neatly skips the issue of halal, which might vex the non-Muslim parents, and thereafter by extension the Muslim parents, too.
Pakoras are very quick and simple. For these I sifted besan (gram, chick pea) flour with a little ground cumin and cardamon, pinches of salt at bicarbonate of soda (baking soda). I then made a paste with water, and stirred in chopped spinach, cilantro, diced red onion and green chili (not much, these were for the kiddies). I promptly deep-fried them by the tablespoon-full in sunflower oil and drained them on towel. My son dips them in yogurt. I like them with lime pickle in oil.
Otherwise, I’ve been absorbed in the markets these past weeks, watching the Fall of the Empire. I buy the FT every morning and it’s out-of-date by lunch. I hang on Robert Peston’s every word, and am consequently tickled to anticipate every calamity by twelve hours. Months ago I found rights issues fascinating (for all the good it did those banks…), but they look ho-hum these days, with half the high street evaporating and Iceland slipping beneath the North Atlantic in a hiss of leverage. I wonder if I’m too old to learn Mandarin…
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