Home Sweet Home

What is home? Is it a place or a person, a feeling or an emotion, a smell or a taste? Sometimes living this expat life it can be hard to determine what is home. Even though I have one here in London I get homesick for the people, places, smells, tastes and comforts of California.

After a recent visit there, I returned to London feeling decidedly homesick. The trip had been lovely in every way: wonderful weather, visits with friends and family and gorgeous scenery, making my return to this gray, chilly city even more difficult.

Around this time I had a chance meeting with a perpetual traveller – someone who roams the world as a professional pet sitter trying on different countries as home for brief periods before moving on to the next doggie in another town. I asked him how he made a place feel like home when the bed, the street and the city weren’t his. He mentioned that the smell of a chicken roasting often created the ambience of home and I could immediately relate: the aroma, taste and process of creating a favorite food can evoke the feeling of a cozy nest.

I remembered that one of the best things during my California trip was visiting the Meyer lemon tree in the garden of our house in San Rafael. As usual, it was bursting with sweet blossoms and laden with golden fruits ready for any cooking task.  I went on a hunt for lemons to cook some California sunshine with and found gorgeous beauties from the bright coast of Italy. They were plump and juicy with big green leaves still attached, perfect for a microwave version of lemon curd that I had cut out of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

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This is an intriguing recipe that caught my attention because it uses olive oil as the fat and honey as the sweetener.

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The method is way easier than the usual curd recipe, which involves lots of whisking in a double boiler set- up and fretting about the egg getting scrambled! Was it all too good to be true?

I simply whisked the juice and zest of those tart and tangy Sorrento lemons with the honey, olive oil and an egg then popped it in the microwave for short bursts at 50% power. After each burst of 30 seconds or so, I stirred and then took the temperature of the mixture until it reached 170F/77C and coated a spoon.

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The process was fun and easy and the result was very good. I used the curd for a dynamite lemon cheesecake and for petite lemon tarts to go with afternoon tea, and still have some left for toast.

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If a simple custard like this can bring me back to California, at least in my mouth and mind, then I’ll keep making it – at least until I can get comfortable with where my feet are planted right now.

Meyer Lemon Olive Oil Curd
Adapted from a recipe by Maria Speck from the Santa Rosa Press Democrat

2-3 lemons (any type will do), about 250 grams

2 tablespoons plus 1 1/2 tablespoons mild honey, 50 grams

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, 40 grams

1 large egg at room temperature

Finely grate the yellow part of the lemon skin until you have 1 tablespoon plus 1 1/2 teaspoons of zest. Juice the fruits, straining the seeds, until you have 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon juice. Whisk together the honey and oil in a medium microwave-safe bowl then whisk in the egg, zest, juice and a pinch of salt until smooth. Don’t worry if the honey hasn’t completely dissolved at this point. Set your microwave at 50% power. Heat the mixture for 1 minute, then stop to whisk and scrape around the sides of the bowl. Repeat, then continue heating and checking every 30 seconds, whisking and scraping in between; the mixture will foam and gradually thicken. The custard is done once it coats the back of a spoon and a path remains when you slide your finger across. This should take about 3 minutes total, depending on the power of your microwave. The temperature of the custard should register at least 170 degrees F on an instant read thermometer. Let cool in the bowl for about 15 minutes, whisking a few times. Strain the zest out if you wish for a silkier texture or leave as is if you like the golden bits of skin. Spoon the curd into an 8 oz. glass jar. Chill until completely cool then seal with the lid.

 

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A Flower by Any Other Name

My current produce obsession is with sprout flowers, a.k.a. kalettes or kale sprouts. This hybrid of Brussels sprouts and kale was introduced to England in 2010; each adorable flower is the size of a sprout with ruffly leaves surrounding a tightly closed bud.

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They grow on stalks like Brussels sprouts but the ruffles give them a completely different appearance, kind of like an exotic tulip. They have a mild, nutty taste that is similar but less strong than kale or sprouts.

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My favorite way to cook them is roasting in a hot oven so they get as crisp as a potato chip with slightly burned edges. They are terrific to eat just like this but also make a great addition to salads, entrees or even as a topper for a creamy soup.

Simply toss the kalettes with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. If some are very large, halve them from stem to top. Roast in a 400F/220C oven for about 15-20 minutes until they are browned all over and the edges are crunchy.

For a hearty winter salad, toss the kalettes with the same portion of peeled, cubed sweet potatoes, olive oil to coat, a pinch of chopped rosemary and salt and pepper. Roast at 400F/220C for 15-20 minutes. The last 7 minutes add halved cherry tomatoes to the baking pan and turn the sweet potatoes and sprout flowers. Remove from the oven when the tomatoes are jammy, the sweet potatoes are tender and golden and the kalettes are crisp and browned. Allow to cool slightly then toss with a garlicky balsamic dressing, a handful of torn fresh basil leaves and some toasted hazelnuts.

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For brunch or light supper, render the fat from some chopped cooking chorizo in a medium saute pan over medium low heat. Add layers of finely sliced potatoes and season well with salt and pepper. Allow the potatoes to cook without moving until they get crusty and golden then turn them over and repeat on the other side. Meanwhile, roast the sprout flowers as per the main recipe above. Once the potatoes are nicely browned and tender, make a couple indentations in the layers and crack in eggs (1 per person). Cook to desired doneness then put ample portions of potatoes on each plate along with the crispy kalettes and top it all with an egg.

For a sprout flower salad with an Italian accent, blanch cauliflower florets, trimmed green beans and slices of carrot until tender. Cool to room temperature. Make a creamy dressing with garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, top-quality mayonnaise and chopped fresh basil. Toss the cooked vegetables with roasted kale flowers, thinly sliced radicchio and enough dressing to just coat all the ingredients.

Sprout flowers aren’t readily available at typical supermarkets. I get mine from a vendor at the local farmers market here in my neighborhood; ask your green grocer or farmers market if they have them. Their season ends in April so try and get your hands on some before it’s too late.

 

Barley Risotto and Mushrooms form a perfect marriage

Strolling through Borough Market recently, the unmistakable aroma of mushrooms sizzling over heat wafted tantalizingly through the air. Turnips, the gorgeous vegetable stall, has been showcasing it’s amazing variety of mushrooms

by cooking them in a risotto-like dish using spelt instead of rice. The massive paella-style pan attracts a crowd of hungry diners as the mixture cooks, decorated with sprigs of fresh herbs and wild raw mushrooms.  Plenty of shredded Parmesan and chives, parsley and rosemary melts the flavors together.

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I was inspired to try my hand at this recipe at home, using barley instead of spelt as the base along with chanterelles and chestnut mushrooms. The key to its success is building the flavors at each stage of prep and cooking. Cooking the mushrooms first, then setting them to the side, while you cook the barley, will guarantee they won’t get mushy or overdone.

Dried portobellos steeped in stock add depth, sautéed leeks and garlic start the cooking process then the barley is toasted for a few minutes before adding wine and then hot stock.

The stock is added gradually to enhance the the texture of the grain.

Finally, remember to season generously with salt and freshly ground pepper at each stage. Finish with generous lashings of Parmesan and chopped parsley as well as a drizzle of really good olive oil.

Barley Risotto with Mushrooms

Yield: 4 servings

Butter and olive oil

2-3 cups mixed mushrooms, cleaned well and chopped in bite-sized pieces

6 – 8 cups rich chicken or vegetable stock

1/4 cup dried portobellos

1 1/2 cups pearl barley

1/2 medium onion, peeled and chopped

1 large clove garlic, minced

1 cup chopped fresh parsley

1/2 cup grated Parmesan plus more for each serving

Melt 1 tablespoon each of butter and olive oil in a large saucepan. When the fat starts to froth, add the mushrooms and stir to coat. Saute for several minutes until the mushrooms release their juice. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Continue cooking until most of the liquid has evaporated. Dump the mushrooms out on a plate and set aside. In another medium saucepan, bring the stock to a simmer then lower heat.  Put a ladleful in a glass measuring cup. Add the dried portobellos, adding more hot stock to cover if necessary. Allow the dried mushrooms to steep until soft, about 30 minutes. Pick the portobello pieces out and chop into bite-sized pieces, set aside. Strain the broth through a fine mesh sieve and set aside. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil to the saucepan the mushrooms were cooked in and bring to a sizzle over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring often, until aromatics are soft. Season with salt and pepper. Add the barley and stir constantly until the grains smell toasty. Add the mushroom soaking liquid and half the stock, stirring to incorporate. Simmer the mixture over medium low, stirring frequently, until most of the liquid is absorbed. Continue adding the stock by ladlefuls until the grains become swollen and tender. Season well with salt and pepper then stir in the mushrooms, parsley and 1/2 cup Parmesan. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Divide into four portions and top each with more Parmesan and a drizzle of olive oil.

 

 

Sustainable Fish

It all started with a pack of wild Alaskan salmon I bought at my local Waitrose grocery store. My first reaction was shock at seeing sockeye from the U.S. west coast way over here in London. My second reaction was surprise at how cheap the price was – a bargain at 6.99GBP for two portions. In the U.S. I would pay $20/lb and up. There were a lot of unanswered questions in my mind about how the fish got here and whether it was a better choice than farmed salmon, which is omnipresent throughout the UK.

This lead me to a class on sustainable seafood at the Billingsgate Seafood School in Canary Wharf. It started at an eye watering 6 a.m. and was headed up by the bubbly C.J. Jackson, Chief Executive of the school. We started off with a tour of the market, which was bustling at that time in the morning.

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C.J. gave us the lowdown on sustainability and origin of product at every stop. Asian distributors are bringing in more exotic varieties, like these parrot fish.

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Lots of native species were front and center, such as these pretty lobsters.

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A dresser full of live eels gave me the quivers!

Seaweed harvested around the U.K. is becoming more and more popular.

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Gorgeous farmed oysters from the island of Jersey.

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After the tour we reconvened above the market. There are conference rooms, a comfortable dining room and a full-on professional kitchen. Kippers, buttered toast and coffee were served. For those new to kippers, the cook said, “They taste just like bacon” , which they did, if a tad bonier!

Presenters from some of the biggest wholesalers were up next. Direct Seafood, New England Seafood and the head of the Norwegian Seafood Council all gave background and updates on sustainability in the marketplace.

There are several certification organizations and watch dog groups that share information on wild fish as well as oversee farmed seafood. The most noteworthy for the consumer are the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) and the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC). MSC certifies through a third party rating system what wild seafood is sustainable; in 2017 just 12 % of wild caught seafood was certified. Therefore farmed fish and shellfish is important to the future supply of protein to feed the world. The ASC oversees the operation of seafood farms verifying they are environmentally and sustainably managed. The MCS produces “The Good Fish Guide“, a valuable tool that consumers can use to determine which fish are the most sustainable, both farmed and wild caught.

It is ultimately up to the consumer, however, to make sure they are getting a fully sustainable product. If the packaging is labelled with an MSC or ASC sticker then you can be assured you are getting the most sustainable seafood on the market. If there is no label then you need to ask questions. For wild fish, find out where the fish comes from and how it was caught. For farmed seafood, ask where the farm is, what type of food the fish is fed and if any antibiotics are part of the diet. Download the Good Fish Guide app to your phone so you can refer to it.

The listings for what is sustainable are shifting constantly so it’s more imperative than ever to be informed. By voting with your pocketbook you can reduce the negative impact on the environment and contribute to healthy oceans while enjoying wonderful fish and shellfish.

By the way, that wild Alaskan salmon I get from Waitrose, is labelled with the MSC label. The carbon footprint is high for getting it to London from Alaska but it may just be more sustainable than farmed salmon and to my palate, it tastes better.

 

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Garlic and Herb Butter Oysters

1 dozen ASC certified oysters

75 grams salted butter, room temperature

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

2 garlic cloves, minced

Preheat oven to 200C. Shuck the oysters and sit each one in the cup of a muffin tin to keep the liquor in tact. Mash the butter with the garlic and parsley and divide the mixture between the oysters. Roast in the oven until the butter melts and the oysters are just cooked through, about 5 minutes. Serve with fresh lemon for squeezing.

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.

 

 

 

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.