Wednesday, 15 August 2007

A taste of the past

My favourite NYC museum, The Lower East Side Tenement Museum, is expanding. Well, that's not really it, because the space already exists. Renovating? No. Degrading? Sort of.

According to this Grub Street post, the museum plans to expand to show more of the experience of tenement dwellers between 1863 and 1935. They will recreate a privy behind the building and restore (that's the word) the Bavarian saloon that was in the basement of 97 Orchard Street, in addition to the five apartments that are already open to the public. Apparently the Bavarian saloon of the 19th Century LES was a family affair, with wives and kids welcome. Food and drink will be in keeping with the time, as is the rest of the building. I wonder what will be on offer?

After sampling the saloon offerings it might be worth heading to Lorely, the German biergarten-style bar on Rivington near Bowery, to sample traditional German beer and food in a more contemporary setting. It serves the same purpose the saloon did in its time for current German ex-pats in NYC; it offers a taste of home. Kartoffelsuppe, Spaetzle and Weissbier abound. But it's not really a place for kids.

Kaesespaetzle mit Speck

Wednesday, 8 August 2007


Oh, the irony. I just came back from my local gourmet food store where I was browsing for dinner ideas. I decided, while in the vegetable aisle, to make some guacamole and have it with black beans and rice. I gathered ingredients then headed over to the bountiful cheese section to find something to go on top of the beans. I wanted to use a Mexican cheese - preferably Cotija, the salty, crumbly one, but Oaxaca cheese, the melty one, would do.

Of the hundreds of cheeses on offer, not one was Mexican. This in a store where the vast majority of staff are Hispanic, some from Mexico, and in a city with a growing Mexican population. The bias is towards European cheese, as it usually is, but there are hardly any American cheeses on offer either. In the end I had to buy Ricotta Salata to stand in for Cotija.

I know the reasons behind this - there is not much demand for Mexican ingredients at gourmet food stores in downtown Manhattan, there are probably hundreds of other stores in the city that sell it - but there are some anomalies. They sell fresh corn tortillas, why not Mexican cheese? Frozen burritos, enchiladas and quesadillas, but no cheese to make them. Sad.

Friday, 3 August 2007

Competition Entry

Back in March I entered the Waitrose Food Illustrated search for a new food writer. No, I didn't win, but the winning entry has been published in the August Issue of WFI and you can read it here. It's very good. And if you feel so inclined you can read my entry here:

Beast of Baking

“Off-limits” was something I experienced very little as a child. The medicine cabinet was definitely a no-go, and I wasn’t particularly welcome in my brother’s room either, but otherwise there were few barriers to my explorations at home. This made it even more frustrating that opening the deep, wide cupboard on the side of the kitchen island was prohibited. I knew what was in there, but I wanted more than a glimpse or a touch. I wanted to use it; to plug it in, to attach things and to be in control of the large, white contraption that was so powerful and enigmatic.

The electric mixer was mysterious and magical in both its physical characteristics and its abilities. It seemed to me like the heaviest thing on earth. Occasionally I would open the cupboard and try as hard I could to make the thing budge, but it wouldn’t move an inch. Lying on its side on its special pivoted shelf that rose up and locked at countertop level, it seemed like a sleeping monster in its den. The movable parts that connected to the front and underside of its hinged torso were weird and wonderful limbs with fascinating functions. It was the equivalent of a bizarre, beastly Mr. Potato Head. Its electrical umbilical cord placed it firmly on the grown-up side of the toy world and made sure that it was only for use with adult supervision.

The most fantastic part of the mixer was watching it work and imagining the outcome. On occasion I would come home to the dull, undulating whirr of the machine, and I would walk straight into the kitchen excited to see it high on its pedestal. I soon developed a hierarchy of mixer attachments: the lowest on the ladder was the dough hook, as its use meant that a thick, heavy, wholegrain bread was on the way; the middle rung was occupied by the meat grinder, which ground steak into mince for burgers or Bolognese, two of my dinnertime favourites; and finally the whisk attachment which I wanted to see most, used mainly for the magical creaming of butter and sugar that was the base of so many cakes and cookies of my dreams. I would watch in awe as ingredients were either ground, kneaded or mixed to create something new and awesome.

I wanted more than anything to be in control of the machine, to play at making a magic potion. My mother was not cruel; when she was using it I was allowed to be the kitchen helper. During those encounters I learnt that sometimes, especially when baking, it is important to be precise in the kitchen. In fact, I still think of measures in terms of the yellow cups and spoons we used. On the other hand I learnt that through practice it is possible to be creative and experiment with both quantities and ingredients. Recipes came not only from books, but also from scraps of paper on which notes were scribbled down in someone else’s kitchen. Sometimes they came straight from my mother’s head.

My sensory memories of my early baking experiences are the strongest. They start with the textures of the ingredients: cold, silky butter slipping out of my hot little fingers and clouds of super-fine flour settling in my hair and on my apron. I would dip into the mixing bowl at every chance, even when the butter and sugar were hardly combined and the grains of sugar crunched loudly between my teeth. However the finished batter was always the best, and therefore I detested my mother’s rubber spatula which robbed me of some of the last of the batter that clung to the bowl (I already had enough competition from my brother). After retrieving the bowl from the grip of the machine, I would retreat to the kitchen table and use the rubber spatula to get as much of the batter as I could into my mouth. Inevitably it would coat my face and clothing too. Just as I was finishing the bowl the sweet smell escaping from the oven would announce the impending arrival of the finished treat. There was never a dull moment.

The food that came out of the mixer was not always perfect, but I learnt to appreciate the process as well as the result. Although I preferred, at that age, a delivery pizza to my mother’s whole-wheat deep pan, I began to value the fact that that bread rose out of the flour, water and yeast we had mixed together. This culinary romanticism is something I have carried through to adulthood. Food with a story just tastes better. When enjoying baked goods made with care for the village fete, imported mountain cheese made of milk from a small herd in Switzerland or homemade tomato soup, the knowledge of where the food came from and how it was made is almost as important to me as the ingredients themselves.

Before I was old enough to use the mixer independently we moved abroad and had to leave it behind. Sadly, we didn’t replace it, so when I recently invested in one of my own I knew immediately which recipe I wanted to try first. Chocolate chip cookies are heaven to adults and children alike. I like to make these with my niece, and though I now understand the concern about small fingers near mixers, sharing in her anticipation makes the baking all the more enjoyable.

Dried cherries give these a more adult flavour, but you could leave them out or split the batch. Although it is easier to make these in an electric mixer with a whisk attachment, a handheld electric whisk also works well. You can use a large bowl and wooden spoon instead, but call in the reinforcements as you’ll need a lot of elbow grease to thoroughly cream the butter and sugar together.

Cherry Chocolate Chip Cookies

Makes approximately 3 dozen cookies

225 g unsalted butter (at room temperature)
200g light muscovado sugar
100g golden caster sugar
2 eggs
2 tsp vanilla
225 g plain flour
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
½ tsp salt
250 g rolled oats
170g chocolate chips or chopped dark chocolate
100g dried cherries

Preheat the oven to 165 C (Gas mark 3). Put the top shelf about two-thirds of the way up the oven. Grease a baking tray. I like to use leftover butter wrappers for this as they have the perfect amount of butter and I can feel a little greener for it.

Whip the butter until it becomes pale. Cream the sugars into the butter about 50 grams at a time. At the end most of the sugar will have dissolved and you should have a pale and fluffy mound with just a few grains of sugar creating crunch when you taste it (which you should).

Add one egg to the mixture at a time, beating gently until incorporated. Don’t forget to use that trusty rubber spatula to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Mix in the vanilla.

In a small mixing bowl combine the flour, bicarbonate of soda and salt. Slowly add the flour mixture to the butter, sugar and eggs by the heaping spoonful, being careful not to beat the mixture too furiously as this will toughen the dough.

Stir in the oats. If all of the dough is sticking to your whisk you may need to abandon the gadgets at this point and start mixing with a spoon. Fold in the cherries and the chocolate chips. Try to distribute them evenly in the dough that there is at least a taste of chocolate and cherry in each cookie.

Using two spoons, measure generous tablespoonfuls of dough onto your baking sheet about two inches apart. Flatten the dough out with the back of a fork and place the tray in the oven. Avoid the temptation to multitask at this stage, as the cookies need a keen eye. I enjoy watching through the oven door as the dough spreads out and marks its territory on the sheet.

When you see the cookies start to brown at the edges they’re close to done. This should take 8-10 minutes depending on the thickness of your baking tray. For chewy cookies, take them out when they are golden but still glistening. If you prefer a crunch, leave the cookies to develop a rich brown border. Let the cookies cool on the sheet for a few minutes before removing them to a wire rack.

I love these warm out of the oven. If you manage to restrain yourself, they will keep for a day or two in an airtight container. If not, tuck in and indulge your inner child!

My Kitchen Garden: Volume 4

That was close. We were both supposed to be away for the past couple of weeks, and the herbs would have had a premature death due to dehydration. Luckily for them (but not for him), Jan had to stay at home while I was away, so the plants get to live! For now.

The basil is very upright, the parsley is a little bit wonky and the coriander is all topsy turvy. But there are real, recognisable little leaves on all of them now, the largest of which are about 15mm long. Which means it might soon be time for a microgreens salad.

Two weeks of mourning

Foods can carry strong associations with people, time, seasons, weather, moods and places. Over years of coming up to Ontario’s cottage country for a lakeside break over the summer, my family has begun to associate the cottage with grilling, and meat in particular. We’re not always a meat-centric bunch, but something about this place (might have something to do with the oven being broken) leads us to cook outside on the barbecue daily. And this means trying to source some good meat in the Haliburton Highlands, a land of mid-sized grocery stores stocking the basics and little more.

The Butcher Block & Deli in Haliburton, Ontario, used to be our saving grace. It stocked excellent quality meats including homemade sausages and a wide range of fish. The products were not organic, or particularly local, but there was an excellent range and there were definitely people who cared behind the counter. A young man owned the store and took care to stock good cuts of high quality meat and other fine foods – it was the only place for 50 km that sold wholegrain Dijon.

The first thing on the to do list at the cottage is always a trip to the Butcher Block, so you can imagine the shock we felt when we found that our beloved shop had been replaced with a women’s clothing store. The young guy who ran it couldn’t keep it up anymore and has gone into the construction business, which is booming in the area. We might as well have worn black for the remainder of our visit, we were so upset. Our moods and insulin levels were temporarily heightened by the fantastic butter tarts at Ingoldsby Junction Buttertarts (Lower Level 177 Highland St, Haliburton, ON K0M 1S0), but the sadness returned.

In the end we ended up ferrying up meat from Toronto, from Fresh From The Farm (great sausages!) and Cumbrae's (just fantastic). We even had some Ontario lamb from the local IGA in Minden (not bad either). But it's just not the same.

Butcher Block & Deli