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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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.

 

GREEN CHILE SAUCE

In September and October in New Mexico, the scent of roasting green chile perfumes the air, from one end of the state to the other. New Mexicans eat green chile every day, sneaking it into eggs, burgers, sandwiches, sauces, pasta, even apple pie. It’s been years since I called the Land of Enchantment home but I carry around a little piece of it in my heart, always….and I also carry around a big craving for real green chile.

To satisfy my craving, I’ve tried growing NM green chiles in the garden, with dismal results. Foggy northern California is pretty far from the hot, dry desert climate that chiles need to flourish. Then I ran across a seedling for Numex Big Jim peppers at the nursery in May and planted it in a sunny spot.

It grew

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and grew

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and grew

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Finally it was harvest time. I got about 2 dozen healthy, long chiles off this one plant, which got my taste buds going. The first batch I roasted, peeled and put in the freezer for the year ahead. With the rest, I decided to make verde sauce, using tomatillos that came up as volunteers next to some of the tomato plants.

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The hardest part of this recipe is roasting and peeling the chiles. I like to roast the them, along with the tomatillos, on a hot grill. I use a grill wok lined with foil for the tomatillos, to catch the juices as they roast. I added 2 peeled cloves of garlic to the wok. If you don’t have a grill wok, use a sheet tray lined with foil and broil the tomatillos and garlic. Grill the chiles directly over the flames, turning frequently, until their skins are blackened.

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Put them in a paper bag and close the top tightly, set aside for 10 minutes.
Cook the tomatillos, turning often, until they have softened and are beginning to color

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Remove the chiles from the bag, peel, stem and remove the seeds. Now you’re ready to make green chile salsa verde.

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NUMEX GREEN CHILE SALSA VERDE

Anaheim chiles are a good substitute if you can’t find NM green chiles. Use salsa verde as a dip for tortilla chips, a sauce for chicken or cheese enchiladas or as a stew with pork and potatoes.

1 1/2 lbs green chiles, about 12 good size ones

2 large garlic cloves, peeled

1 lb. tomatillos, husked and rinsed, large ones cut in half

1/4 cup onion, chopped

1/2 cup cilantro, roughly chopped

1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt, to taste

Roast the chiles directly over a hot flame on a grill until the skin is blackened. Seal in a paper bag for 10 minutes. Roast tomatillos and garlic in a grill wok lined with foil over a hot flame on a grill. Alternatively broil in the oven using a foil lined sheet tray. Cook tomatillos until they are softened, evenly colored and have released their juices. Take the chiles from the bag, peel and remove the seeds. Place chiles, tomatillos and their juices, garlic and the rest of the ingredients in a food processor and process in bursts until a chunky puree forms. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt. Add water to desired consistency if necessary. Freezes well for up to 3 months.

Yield: 2 cups