Cheese for Dinner

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It’s the season for Vacherin du Haut-Doubs, a gooey, buttery round of cheese from the Jura region of France. It’s made in the winter months when the cows come down from the high mountain pastures and don’t produce as much milk. During the spring and summer the milk is used to make Comte cheese but with the decrease in production volume in winter, the unpasteurised milk goes into the delicious washed rind wonder Vacherin.

I was introduced to this cheese by Jared Wybrow at the London Cheesemongers, where it was sitting in the midst of a table laden with cheeses for a progressive tasting. It looked intriguing – all wrinkly and white in it’s wooden box. The box is made from thin strips of spruce, which contributes a subtle piney flavor to the cheese, by the way.

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The exterior is squidgy and, when barely pushed with a spoon, reveals a lovely, golden paste that is fondue-like in texture. My first taste at London Cheesemongers was so luscious and captivating that I had to buy one to bring home.

IMG_3532It made for an indulgent dinner when paired with green salad, bread, crackers and a variety of dried and fresh fruit. That is how I enjoyed mine and I highly recommend it to you. I heated it briefly in the oven in it’s box, which made the inside even more delightfully runny.

IMG_3535Vacherin Mont D’or is the perfect cheese for autumnal and holiday celebrations. It partners wonderfully with sparkling and red wine, cider and seasonal craft beer and would be a worthy addition to a cheese board for Thanksgiving or the December holidays.

So put it down on your shopping list. If you are in London, by all means go visit Jared at London Cheesemongers for the cream of the crop of Vacherin. The season for this heavenly cheese runs all the way through spring so you have some time to get your hands on a lovely round of it.

 

 

 

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Remembering

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My mother was a force to be reckoned with. She would be up at the crack of dawn, bustling around the house ticking things off her “to do” list and living the Protestant work ethic she was raised on. She didn’t mind telling you, when you dragged yourself downstairs after a night out on the town, all that she had already accomplished while you were lazily counting sheep. Then she would vroom off to work leaving a cloud of dust and mixed feelings behind.

Among the positives that came from her driven nature was the gift of cooking. She had the chuzpah to host a dinner party for eight and cook a meal of recipes she had never tried before. She went to local farms and picked berries then made jars of jam, crafted pickles from homegrown cucumbers and put together chutneys with local tree fruit. She loved cookies and became, especially in her later years, a biscuit maven extraordinaire.

My mother created a cookie walk as a fundraiser for the adult day care center in her hometown of Basking Ridge, New Jersey. She had experiened this old fashioned event during stays in New England and loved the idea: volunteers donate platters of different kinds of cookies then customers come with their boxes, walk around the laden tables and fill them with the sweet bounty.  A cost per pound was charged at the end.

To get ready for the holiday rush she would begin in October baking tin upon tin of  different types of decorated and delicious cookies then tuck them into the big chest freezer in the cellar. In December, she and an army of volunteers would set up the local church hall with Christmas greenery and holiday clothed tables to hold all the pfefferneuse, Santa cut outs, Kris Kringles and other donated cookies. The event was even written up in one of the local magazines after gaining notoriety within the community.

 

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Mom getting ready for the Cookie Walk in Basking Ridge, New Jersey

She fueled my love for cooking by giving me cookbooks starting at age 7, teaching me baking to begin with then more involved recipes later and fulfilling her own passion for cooking in front of me with every meal she created.

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Mom gave me this very beat up copy of “Joy of Cooking” years ago. We always made the classic Butterscotch Brownie recipe on page 587, a Beeb Jackson stand by because they were quick and easy to make and delicious to eat.

Rest in peace Mom. I will always think of you every time I put my apron on and head into the kitchen.

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BUTTERSCOTCH BROWNIES

This recipe is very versatile and forgiving. You can add chocolate chips, dried fruit (golden raisins and finely diced apricots are a nice combo), any variety of chopped nuts, shredded coconut or a combination of any of these totalling 1/2 cup. It doubles easily in case you are baking for a cookie walk of your own.

1/4 cup butter plus more for the pan

1 cup brown sugar

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 cup AP flour

1 teaspoon  baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350F. Butter an 8X8 baking pan, line with waxed paper or parchment and butter the paper. Melt the butter over medium heat then stir in the brown sugar until it is dissolved. Cool slightly then beat in the egg and vanilla. Add the dry ingredients and stir just until incorporated then fold in any of the extras. Transfer the dough to the prepared pan and bake for 30 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Yield: 32 bars

 

 

Slow Cooker Vegan

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We got a slow cooker for Christmas in our London kitchen and I pulled out one of my favorite cookbooks for inspiration: Slow Cooker Italian by Michele Scicolone. I had used my US slow cooker to make sumptuous pots of beans based on a recipe in Michele’s book and decided to give it a go here using black turtle beans. The recipe is simple: 1 cup of beans to 6 cups of water, seasonings or herbs if you want (I used a whole jalapeño and some sprigs of fresh oregano) then cook on low for 8 hours.

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I love the versatility of having a pot of beans handy; they can go into bowls with rice, greens, veggies, and any leftover proteins that are hanging around or can be made into a pot of soup or blended into a dip or sandwich/quesadilla filling or added to a wintry mix salad. I chose to make tostadas with some mole sauce I had stashed in the freezer and enhanced those flavors with grated raw beets, juicy ripe avocado and a few baby lettuce leaves.

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If you want to get creative you could make the corn tortillas – they are dead easy but just take a little technique – I like this tutorial from Kitchn. You can get masa harina – the cornmeal mixture you’ll need – at Cool Chile Company online or at their stand in Borough Market.

And if you have some time on your hands and the inclination to do some cooking, try making your own mole sauce. My favorite recipe (this link is to a blog with the recipe and handy photos of the steps that go into making this ancient sauce) is the one from Cafe Pasquale, a fantastic restaurant in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It has a long list of ingredients, including a few different types of dried chiles which you can also get at Cool Chile or at Mestizo Mexican Market on Hampstead in Kings Cross, London. The mole sauce is very concentrated and rich – a little goes a long way – and you will have enough to furnish your freezer with 8 to 10 1-cup containers which would garnish the tostadas of a very large party.

One final note – this recipe idea is vegan and gluten free, a welcome thought after all the holiday feasting.

 

Christmas Pudding Reboot

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The view from the farm kitchen window

Last Sunday, November 26, was “Stir Up Sunday” in Britain, a time for family and friends to gather and make the Christmas pudding for the upcoming holiday. I traveled up to Nethergill Farm to cook up puddings with my sister-in-law, Fiona. We were using the recipe of Dorothy Clark, our late mother-in-law, and added a few twists to make it our own.

Dorothy’s recipe used glace cherries and candied citrus peel but we updated these flavors by adding dried cranberries, blueberries and apricots and dried cherries that were soaked in apple juice to keep them plump and moist. We used eggs from Fi’s laying hen ladies; she checks each for freshness by putting it in a cup of water – if they float they are no good.

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The fat traditionally used in Christmas Pudding is beef suet. We opted for the vegetable version but, after reading the ingredients (palm oil) , we still used it this year but decided we would try butter next time.

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The recipe is dead easy to put together, simply measure all ingredients and put in a large bowl then stir until incorporated.

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The mixture gets packed into pudding bowls then greaseproof paper is tied down over the top.

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Followed by foil then a sturdy folded ribbon of foil is added to make “handles”.

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Then it steams for 6 hours, which is a mighty long time.

Now our cooked puddings, with coverings still in place, are stored until Christmas Day when they will get another further steaming.

We can’t find out how they will taste for another month or so but it was a lot of fun reawakening a tradition and making extra puddings to give to family that won’t be with us on the holiday.

Granny’s Christmas Pudding

225 g (8oz) each of sultanas, currants, seedless raisins, fresh breadcrumbs, vegetable suet*, demerara sugar and golden syrup

113 g (4oz) each of dried cranberries and dried blueberries

165 g (6oz) dried apricots cut in fine dice

100 g (4oz) dried cherries

100 g (4oz) blanched almonds, chopped

100 g (4oz) ground almonds

2 carrots, peeled and grated

1 cooking apple, peeled, cored and grated

1/2 teaspoon each of mixed spice and cinnamon

Pinch of ground nutmeg

Grated rind and juice of 1 large lemon and 1 orange

4 eggs beaten

4 tablespoons brandy

140 ml (1/4 pint) brown ale

butter for greasing pudding basins

  1. Measure all the ingredients into a large mixing bowl and stir well to mix.
  2. Generously butter the insides of 3-2 pint pudding basins or 6-1 pint pudding basins. The exact yield may vary a bit from these measurements but have the basins ready to go and you can always alter the final number depending on how far the mixture goes.
  3. Fill the basins a tad over 3/4’s full. Cover with greaseproof paper and tie snugly with string then cover with foil and tie down again with string.
  4. Have ready a saucepan for each pudding and put a trivet or upside down saucer in the bottom of each then top with the puddings. Add enough water to come a couple inches up the sides of the basin.
  5. Cover and bring to a boil then reduce heat and simmer for 6 hours, topping up water as needed.
  6. Store in a cool, dry place until ready to eat – I put mine in the fridge.
  7. When ready to serve, reboil again for 2-3 hours until the middle is piping hot.
  8. Turn out onto a serving platter and serve with brandy butter and cream.
  9. For a dazzling finish, ignite the pudding by pouring warmed brandy over the top and lighting it.

*Vegetable suet: Neither of us liked using this product and we later found out that butter is perfectly acceptable and would likely make the puddings taste better so next year that is what we will use. Our mother-in-law always used beef suet.

 

Okra – a Love Hate Relationship

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Okra is one of those black and white vegetables – you either love it or hate it. Just to set the record straight, I’m an okra lover so when I walked by the local halal market and saw a box of these green fingers, I had to buy some.

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I was craving gumbo-style soup on that gray day and okra is a key ingredient. It imparts a wonderful texture as it cooks – some would say a peculiar slime – but in this recipe the viscosity adds body and heartiness to the soup.

It’s easy to make and comes together in about 30 minutes. First, saute the vegetable trinity of New Orleans cuisine: chopped onions, celery and bell pepper. Sweat these vegetables until they release their juices and are tender.

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Slice the okra in 1/2″ pieces then add that to the pot along with garlic and stir briefly until garlic is fragrant.

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Add chicken stock, tomatoes, a bay leaf and some cooked chicken. If I have some in the house, I also add cubed zucchini and fresh corn cut off the cob. Simmer the soup until the vegetables are tender, add cooked rice and serve it up, maybe with a nice slab of cornbread.

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You can take this soup in a lot of different directions. Add Andouille sausage and raw shrimp for a heartier gumbo, make it vegetarian by leaving out all animal proteins or use turkey instead of chicken (thinking ahead here to Thanksgiving leftovers).

In any case, it’s a handy little soup that I often make after a roasted chicken dinner, using the carcass for stock and the leftover meat for the soup. Top with a few squirts of Sriracha sauce and, as they like to say here in London, “Bob’s your uncle”.

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Chicken Gumbo Soup

2 T olive oil

1 cup diced onion

1/2 cup each diced celery and green bell pepper

2 cloves garlic minced

1 1/2  cups okra, sliced in 1/2″ coins

2 cups chicken stock, more if necessary

1 bay leaf

1 1/2 cups fresh tomatoes, chopped or 1-14.5 oz can chopped tomatoes and their juice

1 1/2 cups cooked chicken meat, in bite-sized pieces

1 cup cooked Basmati rice

Heat olive oil in a large saucepan over medium high heat. Add onion, celery and pepper and saute until vegetables are soft, about 7-10 minutes. Add garlic and okra and stir until garlic is fragrant then add the stock, bay leaf and tomatoes. Season well with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil then lower heat to barely simmering, stirring occasionally, until all vegetables are cooked through. Add the chicken and rice and heat through. If needed, thin with additional chicken stock or water. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve with Sriracha sauce or Tabasco if desired.

Yield: 4 servings

 

 

 

 

 

A Second Life for that Loaf

Recently friends were visiting and came back from a day playing tourist with a gift of a lovely, large baguette.

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We didn’t use it that night or the next day and when I pulled it out of the bread box it was hard as a rock. I hate wasting food so started thinking up ways to use it up.

First, I cut a third of it into cubes using a sharp serrated knife then fried some of them with garlic and oil to make crispy croutons for salad or to top a steaming bowl of soup.

 

The rest of the cubes became the base for a savory mushroom and asparagus bread pudding inspired by a recipe from Georgeanne Brennan.

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The rest were whizzed into crumbs in the blender.

Breadcrumbs are extremely versatile and can be kept in the freezer for months. You can just pull out the amount you need then return them for future recipes. Crumbs can be used for binding meatloaf and meatballs, crisped and used on pasta dishes or as a crunchy topping for vegetables or coating for oven-fried chicken or fish. I made baked apricots and cherries with amaretto crumbs for dessert last night with great results; the dish would also be good at breakfast topped with yogurt.

So hang onto that stale loaf and give it a second life in recipes for just about every meal of the day.

BAKED STONE FRUIT WITH CRUMBS

Now that stone fruits are coming into season you can try different varieties to suit your taste.

4 apricots, halved

6 cherries, pitted

4 tablespoons breadcrumbs

1 teaspoon Amaretto

2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon butter, melted

Preheat oven to 400 F/200 C. Arrange the apricots and cherries in a single layer in a small baking dish. Combine the remaining ingredients and sprinkle evenly over the surface of the fruit. Bake in a hot oven for 12-15 minutes until fruit is soft and jammy and crumbs are crisp and golden. Serve warm with ice cream or cold with yogurt.

Yield: 2-3 servings

 

Magic from the Isle of Wight

The first time I strolled through our weekly farmers market in Balham, I was immediately drawn to the beautiful stall from Isle of Wight tomatoes.

All through the dreary London winter, the folks from Isle of Wight would show up each week with their bounty of fresh tomatoes in shades of yellow and red as well as a bevy of products from the farm, such as passata, ketchup, slow roasted tomatoes with spices and organic oak roasted tomatoes.

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When I marvelled at finding fresh tomatoes in London in January, they explained that the Isle of Wight is positioned to get more sun then the mainland of England. The farm is located in the Arreton Valley, an area that has produced tomatoes for quite some time in the rich, loamy soil there. The tomatoes are vine-ripened in large greenhouses and nourished with compost produced on-site from all the spent plants and other growing material. Upwards of 200 varieties are grown throughout the year by both organic and conventional methods and Isle of Wight uses biodynamic principles to curb pests, pollinate the plants and promote natural habitats around the farm.

Lately the stall has had padron peppers, those petite, piquant capsicums popular at Spanish tapas restaurants.

They are dead easy to prepare and lip-smacking good to eat. Simply heat a pan and add a generous splash of really good olive oil. When it’s shimmering, toss in the padrons. Stir them frequently in the hot oil until they blister and get browned then turn out on a platter and serve with salt – I used Hawaiian red salt.

Another inspiring product, the oak smoked tomatoes, featured this week in a bastardised Caprese salad for lunch. Smoked and fresh tomatoes were mixed with chunks of ripe avocado and creamy, fresh mozzarella then showered with fresh basil and splashes of Tuscan olive oil; each bite transported me to Florence in the early summer when tomatoes and basil have just returned from winter break. The smoked tomatoes contributed intense bursts of flavor with a haunting backbeat. Tonight I’m thinking of adding them to a cheesy pasta dish with asparagus but they’d also be great with other starchy ingredients like potatoes or rice or in egg dishes.

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Suffice it to say the products at Isle of Wight Tomato Farm really get my creative juices flowing. And I’ve been nourished in health and spirit by a little taste of summer even when a cold rain is falling outside.