The Bread Baby

Does anyone remember that craze back in the 90’s, where people gave each other little pocket sized computer thingies that you had to ” feed” and “bathe”, or they pinged in an annoyingly loud manner? Or that episode in “Frasier” where Niles attempted to simulate fatherhood by looking after an eight pound sack of flour for a week? No?

I had forgotten them too – but they all came rushing back to me in the early hours of the morning about a month ago, when I found myself under the glare of my kitchen lights, giving it the full Colin Clive and screaming, “It’s alive! IT’S ALIVE!!

itsalive
That’s Dr. Frankenstein to you, thank you very much.

I was making my own sourdough bread.

Moreover, I was learning – all too painfully – that making your own sourdough bread is not about the baking the bread, but rather about making the “starter.” And making a sourdough starter is uncomfortably like looking after a small baby for an extended period of time. There’s a lot of feeding and changing, quite a bit of gas, the regular disposal of beige goop, some malodorous smells, and far too much fretting and crying.

How did I get to that darkly cinematic moment in my kitchen in those wee small hours? Not naturally or easily actually. I have always considered myself more of a “cook” than a “baker” but my confidence in baking had truly grown in the last few years.

  • I had routinely produced a bourbon pecan pie that simply could not be bettered,
  • poured wine during the baking of a glorious holiday challah bread,
  • nodded sagely at Paul Hollywood’s tips and criticisms on “The Great British Bake Off,”
  • even casually observed to former friends that they were dealing with puff pastry somewhat incorrectly. (“No, dear. Your butter must be cold. As cold as your shallow little heart.“)

So it was with a snoutful of self- confidence that I approached baking bread. Continue reading “The Bread Baby”

Spatchcock Psycho

It started a few weeks, back, under the cover of night.  I’d been aching to try it for a while, but it seemed so difficult and dangerous that I was nervous about an actual attempt. I’d read about it of course, and even seen a few videos on one of those specialty YouTube channels. They made it look so easy, but still I was afraid I’d wind up with a mangled corpse and a kitchen saturated with blood.

A Decision Made

Finally I plucked up the courage to try my hand.

I waited until I knew there would be no witnesses to catch me should I fail. I brought my victim home, put on my apron and sharpened my largest, heaviest knife. Then, with a drink to steady my nerves, I sneaked up behind my victim, and set to work.

The relief and pride as the job was done were immense. And later, as   I gazed down at my victim lying spread-eagled before me and sampled the juicy morsels of tender flesh, I knew I would do it again. And again and again. This was not some dark adventure to try only when the moon was full or when I could hold out no longer against my dark desires. This would happen regularly, perhaps once a week if I was lucky and could find people to share my new compulsion – and if my freezer could hold the rising tide of body parts. I had become a man obsessed.

cleaver

Yes. Spatchcocking chicken had changed me forever.

You may have heard of Spatchocking as “butterflying,” but that’s far too pretty a term for what this process involves.

Spatchcocking – not to be confused with Spatchcock, which is a culled immature rooster, or Spitchcock, which has to do with eels- is when  the backbone of a chicken is removed and the chicken is flattened out, ready for grilling or roasting. The term  is apparently an Irish word, which is another culinary reason to thank them, along with flavored potato chips and chocolate milk.  It’s been around since at least the 18th century, though it’s such a brilliant way to prepare a chicken for cooking that I’d be surprised if nobody had thought of it sooner. Spatchcocking has regained popularity for a while now, mostly because it’s perfect for the barbecue.

Flattening  a whole chicken like that allows you to grill it in one piece, like it’s one big piece of meat. And who doesn’t go berserk for a big piece of meat?

Now that’s all well and good, but why lose my mind over it? Continue reading “Spatchcock Psycho”

Pickled And Baked

It’s not what you think.

I’m not wallowing in wine or whacked out on weed. (At least not right now.) I do, however, have homemade bread baking in the oven, and I’ve just put up a bunch of pickles.

Again, it’s not what you may think. I haven’t joined a commune in Vermont, delved too far into the world of Laura Ingalls Wilder, or taken up extreme right-wing ideologies and moved into a nuclear bunker in Tennessee. I’m just trying to stay hip. And for once, I’ve found I haven’t already aged out of the latest trends.

Both baking and pickling are tres chic here in the UK. That runaway smash tv show The Great British Bakeoff has taken the nation by storm over the last few years.

mary-berry

What was once the province of the WI has now become a national craze. Artisan bakeries are opening across the land, companies are holding their own employee cake contests, and near strangers are getting friendly jabbering about their Genoese sponges.

In the restaurant and television cookery worlds, pickling is equally de rigeur. TV shows like Masterchef: The Professionals are giving us weekly bites of the latest fine dining trends, and along with pistachios, apricots, cauliflower and cured mackerel, pickled vegetables adorn pretty much every plate. In fact, sometimes they’re all on the same plate, which strikes me as a digestive challenge.

Pickling

Now I don’t, as it happens, have much of a sweet tooth. I’m not a big fan of cakes or pastries. And I’ve never before felt a particular need to knead. Nor do I, living on the third floor of an apartment block as I do, own acres of farmland replete with legumes that need preserving before they rot.

But still, a boy can get to feeling left out.

So what to do about it? Continue reading “Pickled And Baked”

Spaghetti: Dressed For Dinner

We recently celebrated Spaghetti Day here at Fabulous Foodie. Deborah’s fabulous post about the various forms of- and sauces for- spaghetti got me to thinking about what a large part spaghetti has played in my culinary life.

I remember being a child watching my dad make his spaghetti Bolognese sauce, and how – though it’s certainly my own sauce now – mine is based on his. Yes, I know that sauce is actually called a ragu, and that in Italy it’s never served with spaghetti (except perhaps resignedly to tourists) because spaghetti is the wrong shape and texture to properly hold the sauce, but like everyone who didn’t grow up in Italy, that’s the way I first ate it. And it’s still how I prefer to eat it to this day.

bolognese-sauce

As a teen, I learned how to eat spaghetti properly, instead of cutting it into childishly spoon-able lengths; how you gather a few strands on the tines of your fork, and twirl the fork against the side of the bowl or a spoon until they’re neatly twined around your fork. And how it’s actually okay to slurp a bit , just to get those few recalcitrant straggly ends into your mouth. (At least it is in my house.)

Then I remember how I learned to cook spaghetti (and all pasta) properly:

Continue reading “Spaghetti: Dressed For Dinner”

Kitchen Disasters R Us

It occurred to me the other night – as I frantically scoured out one of my favorite saucepans while flapping at the smoke alarm with a tea towel – that things in the kitchen don’t always go to plan.

burningkitchen
Please note – no kitchens were harmed in the making of this stock photo.

What had gone wrong? Well, I had been making mashed potatoes for myself in my new favorite manner, which is to simmer them in a bit of milk, and then use that milk for the mashing liquid. It takes a bit longer for the potatoes to cook but you lose none of the potato flavor to water, and you’ve already got hot potato-rich milk for the mashing.  Add butter, and it’s a great no-draining method for mash just so long as you don’t get distracted by the TV as they’re simmering.

Which, of course, I did.

Continue reading “Kitchen Disasters R Us”

Thyme And Thyme Again

“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows…”

So begins one of the loveliest and headiest passages of poetry William Shakespeare ever wrote.  It hails, of course, from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, and is spoken by Oberon, King of the Fairies.

thyme_pestle

It’s absolutely right and proper that such an intoxicating speech should begin with a reference to thyme. This evergreen herb has almost magical properties in the kitchen, and a fair number of medicinal uses as well.

Used as an essential oil, it has powerful antiseptic properties. A tea brewed from thyme and honey is a fantastic natural remedy for sore throats, and thyme has also long been believed to be an excellent aid for a good night’s sleep. Indeed in the Middle Ages, people slept with sprigs of thyme under their pillows to ensure sweet dreams.  Long before the Romans brought thyme with them on their march through Europe, the Ancient Greeks were burning it as incense in their temples, believing it to be a source of courage.

So why does it seem like nobody since Oberon has been bigging up thyme? Why don’t we hear more about it? After all, it crops up just about everywhere in European, Mediterranean and Arab cuisine.

  • It’s an essential component of a bouquet garni (in fact you can’t really make a decent stock without thyme)
  • It is central to the classic “herbes de Provence”
  • It is found in that delicious Arab blend of herbs and spices, Za’atar.

Perhaps it’s precisely because thyme blends so well- and so frequently- that we don’t give it the full-on attention it deserves. It almost hides in plain sight, as it were. It’s as assertive a flavor in its own right as its Mediterranean cousins oregano and mint, but unlike those equally heady herbs, it blends well with other herbs. It adds a base herbal note that both softens and deepens the flavor of sage, and does the same for rosemary. And it blends equally well with spices as culturally diverse as saffron, cinnamon and paprika. In so many dishes from so many different cuisines, you might not notice the thyme is there, but the dish wouldn’t taste right if it wasn’t. Perhaps thyme is the Zelig of herbs.

Well I say enough of that. I say it’s time for thyme.

If vanilla is my favorite spice, then thyme is absolutely my favorite herb. It’s the herb I use most frequently, and for good reasons.

The first reason is of course its flavor. I love the headiness of thyme, how it is- for me- almost the definition of an “herbal” flavor. But it’s never overpowering. You don’t have to be as careful with thyme as you are with so many other herbs. Sage can be downright thuggish if not used sparingly, oregano can take herbal spiciness too far, and rosemary can be so stridently piney as to make a dish taste like floor cleaner. Thyme, however, has a more rounded taste; one that allows you to not only build it into the stock at the base of a risotto, but also to sprinkle the raw leaves through the dish to finish it off.

thyme_closeThe other reason is its texture. Although thyme is a “woody” herb, its leaves are themselves so tiny and soft that you barely need to chop them. They aren’t furry like sage or hard and sharp like rosemary, so mouth-feel is never an issue. And the fact that thyme is a “woody” herb means it’s also an oily herb. It’s those oils in the leaves and stems that allow thyme to stand up so well against the test of, well, time. It’s one of the few herbs that is actually as effective dried as fresh, though I’d spend that little bit extra on a good source rather than your supermarket variety-or just dry it yourself if such is your nature. And best of all, if bought fresh it lasts for absolute ages in the fridge. If like me, you lack the garden/window ledge/botanical ability to grow and keep fresh herbs (seriously, I could probably kill kudzu) then thyme is the herb for you. There are so many fresh herbs I regretfully buy for use in one meal, knowing full well that market forces (by which I mean the volume in which one is forced to purchase) mean that I’ll  wind up throwing a lot of it away.  Not so with thyme. I can  make a stock, add it to a stew, sprinkle it over scrambled eggs, lay a few sprigs under a piece of chicken I’m baking, scatter it over a salad or a piece of grilled meat or fish (thyme goes with just about all flesh),  or make that little decoction for a sore throat. That couple weeks rather than days that a bunch of thyme lasts in my fridge crisper drawer allows me to do whatever I want, and ensures that I’ll use just about every last little leaf.

One of my favorites uses for my favorite herb is in my favorite kitchen implement, the  pestle and mortar. Those tender thyme little leaves- even dried- break down so easily under a good grind, and marry beautifully with thyme’s natural partners garlic and salt, as to make a quick marinade or rub-or even a no-sauce pasta dish- incredibly quick and delicious. So here, to showcase how easy thyme is to use, and how it goes with everything, are three uses for thyme that I use, well, all the thyme.

Middle Eastern(ish) Rub for Lamb, Chicken or Fish

prime-rib-roast-with-garlic-and-thyme-recipe-3

You will need:

  • 1 huge or two smaller cloves of garlic, peeled
  • a generous pinch of sea salt
  • the leaves from a few sprigs of thyme, enough for about 2 teaspoons
  • 2 heaped tablespoons sumac
  • a good grind of pepper
  • olive oil

What you do:

  • As above grind the garlic, salt and thyme together until you have a green paste, then add in the sumac and grind again.
  • Add enough olive oil and that good grind of pepper, teaspoon by teaspoon, until you have a loose- but by no means liquid- paste.
  • Then just rub all over your chosen piece of flesh and leave to marinate in a sealed container at room temperature for 1/2 hour.
  • After that grill your lamb or fish, or bake your chicken!

Spiced Steak Marinade

You will need:

  • 1 huge or two smaller cloves of garlic, peeled
  • a generous pinch of sea salt
  • the leaves from a few sprigs of thyme, enough for about 2 teaspoons
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • olive oil
  • red wine

What you do:

  • Throw the garlic clove , the sea salt, and the thyme into your pestle and mortar and give it a good grind.
  • Once the garlic has broken down and it’s starting to look like a green paste, add in the paprika and and cinnamon and grind again, until you have a sticky sludge.
  • Add enough olive oil to just loosen and moisten the paste, then the red wine, a teaspoon at a time, until you achieve a syrupy consistency.
  • Place your steak in a container, brush or spoon over half the marinade, then flip the same and pour the remaining marinade over he top.
  • Cover the container and leave to marinate at room temperature for 1/2 hour.
  • Then grill to your desired done-ness!

Spaghetti With Mushrooms, Garlic And Thyme

thyme_pasta

(Serves 1. Simply double up the amounts of pasta, mushrooms and butter to make this a speedy supper for two)

You will need:

  • 80g of dried spaghetti
  • 2-3 large brown mushrooms, thinly sliced
  • olive oil
  • 3 large knobs of butter
  • 1 huge or two smaller cloves of garlic, peeled
  • a generous pinch of sea salt
  • the leaves from a few sprigs of thyme, enough for about 2 teaspoons
    pepper
  • 1 wine glass white wine (optional)

What you do:

  • While the water for the spaghetti is coming to the boil do your thing in the pestle and mortar with the garlic, sea salt and thyme, and bring a medium-sized frying pan up to a medium heat.
  • Once the water’s boiling, throw in the spaghetti and add the olive oil and 1 knob of butter to the frying pan. Once the butter starts to foam, throw in the mushrooms. Keep stirring and flipping the mushroom slices; you want them to cook evenly and not too quickly.  And don’t get worried. Mushrooms are very spongey, so the minute they hit the hot oil and butter they’ll absorb it. Your pan will look very dry for a few minutes but don’t worry. As the mushrooms themselves cook, they’ll start to release liquid back into the pan.
  • Once the mushrooms are starting to look meaty and cooked, add the rest of the butter into the frying pan, along with the garlic and thyme paste from the pestle and mortar, and stir well for a couple of minutes. After a minute you could also- should you have any to hand- chuck in a glass of white wine, and let that bubble and reduce in the buttery,  garlicky, thymey mushrooms mixture.
  • By now your spaghetti should be just al dente, so after checking that this is in fact the cse, drain your pasta (but not too thoroughly, and add it to the frying pan.  Using two big forks, stir and toss the pasta through the contents of the pan until the spaghetti strands are glistening and the mushrooms slices are well distributed.
  • Then simply decant into a large bowl and devour!

You could sprinkle some Parmesan over this, or even spike it up with chili flakes and lemon rind alongside the garlic and thyme (in which case I’d omit the butter and use more olive oil )- and indeed both the thyme and mushrooms go well with chili and lemon. But on an autumnal evening like this, when it’s not Midsummer,  I like it just the way it is.

Feeding Your Feelings In The Lonely Kitchen

Okay, so my name is Patrick and I’m a single foodie. By which I don’t mean I’m one single foodie among thousands (or millions if we’re talking about social media – I’m looking at you, Instagrammers), but rather that I’m a foodie and single.

And most of the time that’s a delicious way to live.

I can eat what I like when I like in whatever combination or volume strikes my fancy. I don’t have to watch my weight for some theoretical partner because their opinions about my weight or shape are also purely theoretical. As the old song goes, I don’t have to share a pair of pork chops when I crave champagne and cheese.

And I never, ever, have to cook broccoli.

Broccoli

But sometimes, just sometimes, life as a “singleton” can leave me feeling like they ran out of even the leftovers before it came to my serving.

That time is usually the weekend. When you’re single, weekends can be  the absolute worst. Your paired-up friends are all busy doing paired-up things; your other single friends are out on dates;  your hoped-for date has fallen through – all of which threatens to leave you two nights and days of free time suddenly opening like a black abyss, blacker than the work week to follow.

In short, weekends can be lonely.

It’s on those weekends that I get very tempted to “eat my feelings”, or-worse- drink them. It’s all too easy to erase “empty” time by diving into a magnum of cheap Prosecco or a catering-sized jar of peanut butter. And Lord knows I have. But that magnum of Prosecco will just leave me with a hangover with magnitude, and repeatedly eating my body weight in peanut butter is playing a numbers game that will ultimately severely affect either a) my colon, or b) the global peanut crop.

peanut-butter

So instead of eating my feelings, I’ve learned to feed them.

Saturday

I get generous with myself on those weekends. I cook and I think only of myself as I do so. The weekend that I’m feeling bereft and alone is the weekend that I spend my Saturday nursing a batch of ragu generous enough to feed me eight times in the weeks to come. That ragu eats time, and in the best way. You have to be around to stir them onions and garlic and oregano while they’re sauteeing, and then the ground beef needs its share of attention. You must stay engaged so you don’t miss the right time to add milk, then wine, followed by the tomatoes and passata at their appointed moment, before you can let it just simmer away for hours. None of that means you’re hiding from being alone. Quite the opposite. You are concentrating on being alone – on creating something for you alone and concentrating on making it delicious!

I won’t be eating that ragu on that Saturday and I won’t need to. Because that Saturday is also the day I’ll have taken some of the money I might have spent on a date and spent it on myself, buying a really good cut of steak and a small bottle of better wine for my dinner.

I’m not only generous with my time when cooking for myself but I’m generous with my time when shopping for myself as well. I’ll write myself a shopping list, but I won’t set myself a shopping deadline. The day is mine. I ignore the weekend crowds and their jostling and focus only on what I want. I basically take myself out on a food shopping date. And with only me to please, the odds are that I’ll get it right.

Once I’m home and the ragu is underway, it’s popcorn made in a big old pot — not a microwave, so it’s just as buttery and salty as I like — then it’s just me, the sofa and an old movie until it’s time for that steak dinner.

The dinner will also be done just how I like it. With some onions maybe, and on a bed of spinach that cooks under the steak when I lay that seared black (but totally blue on the inside) steak on top. Because that’s how I like it.

And, just before bed, ladling my cooled-down ragu into little single-serving containers and popping them happily into the freezer.

Sunday

My “Feed My Feelings” Sunday is all about scrambled eggs with mushrooms on toast for brunch, and again, it’s not like it’s a stressful thing to cook. There’s no self-imposed  pressure of trying to perfect an omelet. There’s just me throwing a few sliced mushrooms into a frying pan with butter and then, once they’ve browned and are giving up their juices again, adding in a couple of beaten eggs and some chives and stirring for the couple of minutes it takes them to cook. Slap the result on a couple of pieces of buttered toast and my mood is instantly gregarious, and set for the day.

On that evening, once the laundry and other Sunday chores that we all have, single or not, are done, I could go for a  helping of that delicious ragu. A big bowl of pasta in front of Sunday night tv never goes amiss. But on those weekends that have, as a dear friend put it, “become a ME weekend”, I have a better plan.

Crab linguine with lemon, fennel, garlic and chili.

It’s a fantastic dish I normally reserve for when I want to impress an impromptu date who’s wound up back at mine and hungry. But why wait? I am at mine and I am hungry — and taking this from recipe from dinner for two to dinner for one needs only one gloriously self-serving alteration. So why not just make it for myself? My belief in this plan was affirmed when a dear friend of mine did exactly the same thing.

Feeding my feelings is different than eating my feelings. When I’m feeding my feelings, I’m feeding the feeling that I am worth not just feeding, but feeding well. I’m feeding the feeling that I am worth a sexy delicious dinner, regardless of whether I have company or not. It’s about quality, not quantity. It’s the steak I spent money on rather than a round of drinks at the bar. If somebody else cares to join me, that’s great. But I’m having this either way.

crab-chilli-linguine

As for the crab linguini – it’s an extremely quick dish to make that serves very well as a sexy precursor to goings-on with a date but is equally fantastic as me-time dish for you, the sofa, and maybe some ever-so-slightly dirty tv. Because single or not, it does one good to round off a weekend.

CRAB LINGUINE WITH LEMON, FENNEL, GARLIC AND CHILI

You will need:

  • 80g dried linguine
  • three generous glugs of olive oil, or enough to generously coat the base of a small frying pan
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely minced.
  • 1/2-1 teaspoon dried chili flakes, depending on how hot you like it
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
  • the grated rind of a lemon
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 120g of cooked white crab meat
  • a small handful of parsley, loosely chopped.

What you do:

  • In your pasta pot, get your linguine cooking in plenty of salted boiling water. Once the linguine is in, add the olive oil, garlic, and lemon rind into a medium frying pan and set on a low heat.
  • Keep stirring the pasta as it cooks (because you should) and keep an eye on the garlic, chili and lemon rind as they come up to heat and start to sizzle in the pan.
  • Once they’re fragrant, and when you think the garlic is about to actually turn brown, add the lemon juice to the pan, give it a good whisk, and turn off the heat. Basically, you’ve just made a fabulous warm vinaigrette.
  • Once the pasta is just al dente, drain it, then, if your frying pan is big enough, add the linguine to the frying pan, or tip it back into the pasta pot and tip the warm vinaigrette over it. This is where you throw in the cooked crab meat and the parsley. Toss thoroughly, then decant it into a bowl, take the bowl to the sofa, and turn on your favorite Sunday night tv.

The recipe alteration? That crab is enough for double that amount of pasta, but who cares? It’s for YOU!

When you are feeding your feelings, you aren’t indulging your loneliness. You are affirming your taste buds and what you want out of life, as opposed to what you’re getting. It’s not about drowning yourself in bowl of food, but rather celebrating that you can provide, that you can satisfy. It is about the process of being you. It’s about, in the kitchen at least, showing your appreciation for YOU. And that’s more than good enough.

That’s probably damn tasty.

Summer Time Is Sexy Food Time

Summer has well and truly arrived here in London. The temperatures have soared into the 90s (Fahrenheit)  then not backing down much and the humidity levels have been keeping pace. It’s that hot and sweaty time of year when you know who’s wearing deodorant and who isn’t, and when the commute to work can become a battle for breath.

sumemr_coupleBut it’s also PLAY time.  Sex is everywhere in the summer.

It’s right on front of you when couples are canoodling in the park. It reveals itself in the flash of sexy white skin that denotes a hot summer tan line. It confronts you in the stifling, airless night when you desperately need something, something, to completely exhaust and deplete you and bring sleep.

And finally – let me tell you, food is also at its sexiest in summer.

Summer food is lighter, fresher, and much more playful.

summer_grill Three-course dinner parties become informal barbeques; sit-down meals are replaced with street food on the go; and the flavours? Well they’re suddenly all about freshness and smoke, salt and tang and heat. All of which set you up nicely for Summertime Sexy Time.

Now there are a great many summer foods one can might think of as being sexy:

  • There’s ice cream, of which I am not personally a fan (I don’t like claggy creamy things in summer, although there’s certainly something to be said for licking that little puddle of good vanilla ice cream from the hollow at the base of your lover’s throat).
  • Or there are peaches and nectarines in their full juicy yielding tangy sweetness in the height of summer.
  • Or there’s a good steak, flame-grilled for mere moments until it’s as black and blue as I’d hope to be after a good summer night session.

But sexy as they are, none of the above are the foods that really equate- or inspire- summer sex for me. So here, in ascending order, are my favourite Summertime Sexy foods:

Number 5: Asparagus

asparagusIs there a more obvious summer sex food than asparagus? Probably not, but there’s a damn good reason for that. Loaded as it is with iron and other sexy nutrients, asparagus would be damn sexy already. But it’s also blessed with that fabulously phallic form.  And this positively priapic pillar of veg has its glorious season in the British summer.  You can boil it (if you must), but get steamy and steam it instead, or just grill it, with a brushing of olive oil and chilies. Or saute in butter, or have a foaming Hollandaise on hand to take the imagery even further.

Eat it with your hands. Asparagus shouldn’t be surgically attacked with a knife and fork (unless you have issues). It should be picked up, and inserted lovingly-head first-into your mouth. Then nibble or suck as lovingly as you please. One final note? Don’t go for those fiddly little strands of “fine asparagus” that will wilt away to stringy nothingness the minute they hit heat. Go for the full-size meaty heads, and let them cook just long enough to lose crunch but retain a meaty bite. When it comes to asparagus, it’s more than okay to be a size queen.

Number 4: Noodles

You might think there’d be no place for something as carb-heavy as pasta on this sexy list, but you’d be wrong. You’re gonna need some carbs to keep you going for the hot sweaty session that awaits…

Noodles are sexy; anything you slurp into your mouth is sexy. And who says noodles must be hot, or covered in a thick, claggy sauce. Cold Udon or Soba noodles with a chili-sharp sesame dressing, manipulated with a pair of sexily skinny chopsticks? Hot in mood but not temperature – perfect to share on a hot summer night.  Or a simple spaghetti aglio olio et pepperoncino shared in bed – a pleasurable break from more strenuous pleasurable activities. Or  that Italian classic; linguine with crab and chili – oil-slicked , fresh and fiery, slithering down your throat.

Just keep the portions light. Otherwise sleep may come a BIT too soon.

Number 3: Strawberries

You might think strawberries are as innocent as an an Eton Mess. If so, you probably have no idea of what goes on at Eton. The very act of eating a strawberry correctly  -holding it by the stem and caressing its puckered nether end with your lips, is just like that first exploratory kiss that’s about to turn into a full-on snog. Or, better, it’s like starting a pleasingly nasty round of mouth-on-nipple play.

But like those lips – or that nipple- that strawberry must be warm from the sun. Do not, for the love of all that is fruity, allow your strawberries to get anywhere near a refrigerator. Like tomatoes, they are hot weather fruits, and only give out their full treasures under the heat of a summer sun. Think of an afternoon in the park on a blanket with your lover, with cold white wine, and warm strawberries, and a conveniently close thicket for some impromptu entanglements…

Number 2: Shellfish

Ya gotta have some protein, right? And shellfish is the way to go in the hot summer months. Light, fresh with an ocean-side ozone tang, what’s sexier than that?  And the pure animal pleasure of tearing those hard shells off a lobster claw, or a crab leg, or the just ripping of  the entire carapace off a juicily plump shrimp or crayfish? Especially when it’s already been blackened with hot and spicy seasoning, or when there’s a sexy pot of drawn butter near by? Or both?  It’s the smoky salty hit of a night on a summer beach.

And anything you eat with your hands and makes you lick your fingers is damn sexy.

Or better yet, oysters that you hit with a dash of mignonette, or a squeeze of lemon, or a spike of chili ( if you hit them with anything at all- going nude for oysters is more than okay by me), and then just allow to make their briny way down your gullet with a caress from your tongue as they go.

Number 1: Chilies

chilies_summerChilies? Did I say chilies? You bet I did. Because when that big old summer sun is turning your world into a furnace – baby, it’s time to fight fire with fire. Now, I’m not talking “blow your head off” chili heat here. For my money, food should never be, regardless of season, some macho endurance contest. And you certainly don’t want to spend the next morning mournfully humming the tune to “Ring Of Fire.” But spiking your food with just enough chili to tingle your mouth and plump your lips, to wake up your senses and get your blood pumping, is the best dietary path to a summer full of sexy awareness.

Did you ever wonder why the people who live in the hottest climates eat the hottest food? Because it does two great things. First, it actually cools you down. Sure, eating chili-spiced food will initially make your head sweat. It’s a phenomenon called “gustatory facial sweating,” (which is quite a mouthful, especially if your mouth is already full). It means your body is is heating up to match the outside temperature, which will actually make you feel cooler as you sweat.  Second, and best for our topic today, sweating ups pheromone excretion and that’s something – knowingly or unknowingly – we all react to. And  in the heat of summer – we react with blazing abandon.

There are lots of many ways to add a little chili heat to your food and your life.

  • Sprinkle some Tabasco sauce on your morning eggs (which I actually do throughout the year)
  • add a pinch of chili flakes to any bbq marinade
  • eat your dang chocolate with chili!

After all, it’s Summer!  we’re all going to sweat so we might as well have fun while we’re doing it. And we should all be doing it.

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What American Food Means To Me

Earlier today, on the eve of that Birthday of the United States of America, the 4th of July, Deborah posed a real, well, poser of a question:   “What is American food?”

On the surface, this was a very easy question to answer. “Hamburgers!” “Hot dogs!” “Apple pie!” “Chop suey!” “Barbeque!” “Pizza!” were amongst the most vociferously voiced suggestions. And despite the fact that each of those originated in another continent (if not country), I completely agree.

americanfood

But as an amateur food historian, I could counter those with “Popcorn!””Peanut butter!” “Turkey!” “Cranberries!” as each of those foods are actually native to the USA. Well, … Okay, so peanuts are actually native to South America, and the peanut butter we eat today was possibly loosely based on a Cuban culinary practice-but it became peanut butter in the USA. And no, it was not invented by George Washington Carver, but I’ve covered that story here.)

peanutbutter

And anyway, I started to think about the question in a different, more personal, way. I thought about:

  • how I’m half American and have a deeply British side;
  • how-visits aside- I’ve only lived 4 of my 48 years in the USA; how I drink tea rather than coffee;
  • how I have a deeply emotional connection to Marmite and find the idea of mint or cranberry jelly rather than sauce unspeakable;
  • how I can be a tad snooty about the difference between Italian and Italian-American cuisine;
  • and how the only apple pie I’ve ever actually liked is made by my fully Irish aunt.

But then I thought about:

  • how whenever I move to a new neighborhood in London my first field trip is all about locating the nearest source of American peanut butter (the British version is at best tolerable);
  • how, about every three months, I have to have a Big Mac, or at least a good burger (it really doesn’t matter which);
  • how both sodas and beers to me are somewhat depressing unless they are ice cold;
  • how, for all their ingenuity in finding new flavors for crisps (potato chips, natch), the British have yet match the so-wrong-it’s-right deliciousness of the Cool Ranch Dorito;
  • and how I firmly believe that no party is complete without California Dip.

So what what then is American food to me? Is it just burgers and chips rather than crisps?

The more I thought about it, the more I realized  that for me American food is not just about examples of given foodstuffs, but rather about context. It’s about the experience; how eating (or drinking-what’s a better example of epicurean Americana than root beer?) makes me feel American when I’m not there, or makes me absolutely certain I’m in the right place when I am. It’s about combinations of food and drink, and most certainly all about the situations too.

Because culturally (and personally) all food is more than the sum of its ingredients. It becomes cultural because of when we eat it, when we share it, and who we share it with. Food becomes cultural because of how we feel about it.

So, with that realization in mind,  let me dish up some examples of what American food means to me:

  • It means sharing a big tub of over-buttered popcorn  for a Hollywood blockbuster, but nursing an iced coffee for an arthouse film.
  • It means a plain beef burger cooked at a friend’s backyard barbeque, with my choice of toppings.
  • It means being asked to bring a potato salad for that barbeque.
  • It means turkey at Thanksgiving, not Christmas.
  • It means eating cold Chinese food- with chopsticks- out of a cardboard takeout carton the morning after a heavy night.

  • It also means cold pizza the morning after a heavy night.
  • It means peanuts and popcorn on the bar to keep me thirsty, that heavy night before.
  • It means pumpkin, not apple, pie, damn it.
  • It means ordering a starter as a main course, because the portions are too big for me.
  • It means having a big old baked potato and sour cream with my steak, instead of “frites”.
  • It means pancakes with maple syrup, not sugar and lemon.
  • It means having those pancakes with maple syrup at a diner at 3am.
  • It means a near stranger telling me to sit down and stay for dinner when I’m one more than they had cooked for.
  • It means them Cool Ranch Doritos and a big glass of Hawaiian Punch over ice while I spend an afternoon watching American soaps.
  • It means donuts doused in powdered sugar.
  • It means at least two bowls of Apple Jacks while I’m watching old Looney Tunes cartoons.
  • It means the big smile on a host’s face when I ask for second helpings.
  • It means tearing corn off the cob with my teeth and not caring how much butter drips down my chin, or how many niblets are wedged in my gums.
  • It means arguing vehemently about what makes the perfect tuna salad sandwich and tt means having that tuna salad sandwich with a chocolate milkshake.
  • It means hot dogs that taste best outside on a chilly night, and bought on the street from some guy with a cart.
  • It means that singular chilly smell when you step into an American supermarket on a hot summer’s day.
  • It means iced tea on a hot summer afternoon and Long Island Iced Tea on a hot summer night.
  • It means piling all the junk food I can manage into the car when I’m off on a road trip with friends.
  • It means stopping off on that road trip for a roast beef sandwich with extra onions at the first Roy Rogers Restaurant I see.
  • It means lemonade so sour my stomach puckers.
  • It means tearing a lobster apart at a beach side shack while I’m wearing a plastic bib.
  • It means egg nog at Christmas parties.
  • It means having too much when I’m there and missing too much when I’m not.

I’m feeling quite American homesick now. But that’s okay. Because American food does on occasion still manage to be a moveable feast even outside its borders. I may not be spending the 4th of July eating junk food on a road trip to a shack where I can get lobster. And I won’t be having iced tea of either variety. But though I am here in the UK, I am going to an American barbeque, so that burger- just the way I want it, with my choice of toppings- is in my future. And yes, I’m bringing a potato salad.

Happy 4th of July folks! And if you’ve got a minute between mouthfuls, what does American food mean to you?

Make Mine Marinara

As I’ve stated many times before, I’m a big believer in “Big Batch Cooking”. Few things in life comfort me as much as the knowledge that-come what may, I have a big batch of my ragu, or my mother’s Poor Man’s Stroganoff, or just chicken stock, filling up my freezer, just waiting to be either heated and eaten, or turned into something else to be heated and eaten.

But as the days lengthen and the temperature warms up I generally turn away from slightly heavier fare. I don’t necessarily want a creamy stew, or even a meaty spag bol. I start to crave lighter meals. But I do still want to be prepared; to have something other than that trusty chicken stock on standby for either a quick pasta supper, or maybe just a flavoursome sauce for fish.

And that’s when I feel the urge to make a big batch of marinara sauce.

Marinara sauce, defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “a sauce made from tomatoes, onions, and herbs,” is one of the best possible standbys to have in your fridge or freezer. It is of course your almost basic tomato sauce. Marinara sauces are much lighter and fresher than you might think – at least when made at home and not laden with extra sugar and preservatives etc (no, I don’t believe in a store-bought pasta sauce).

pizza_sauce As such, it’s the perfect sauce for summer. It’s not only brilliant on pasta, but is also the perfect base for topping homemade pizzas, a delicious accompaniment to a grilled piece of chicken, fish, pork, or even steak.  What’s more, since it’s more of a staple of Italian-American rather than Italian cuisine (trust me, there’s a difference), it leaves you a lot more room to experiment since you won’t be hindered by the strictures of tradition.

Marinara is incredibly easy to make, and all from easily obtainable kitchen staples. I don’t use fresh basil in my marinara, for one very simple reason: I like my marinara to be a base, a starting point. From that base sauce, when I’m reheating a portion of it for whatever purpose, I can add that basil (which only works when fresh, and is assertive when used in any sauce), capers, dried chilies or black olives (though I almost never use black olives as I loathe them- no Putta in the kitchen, I), vodka, or cream!

sauce_makingOnce you have this basic sauce as that starting point it will save you loads of time –in the future. A good marinara does take a bit of time to make. Tomatoes, whether you use canned or fresh, take a good couple of hours to cook down properly and lose that potentially sour raw edge.

But a lot of time does not equal a lot of effort and there’s not much actual effort here. Just the odd bit of pot-watching, stirring, and some deeply pleasurable squishing. The squishing may in fact be my favorite stage. If you’ve got kids (with clean hands) this is actually a great sauce to get them to help you with.

So here’s my recipe for a good all-round Marinara (Italian culinary purists, look away now):

Marinara Sauce
(makes 6-8 servings)

You will need:

  • A couple of good glugs of olive oil
  • 1 medium-large onion, finely chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried chili flakes (optional. I like my Marinara to have a little bit of a kick, but then the older I get, the more I get my kicks where I can)
  • 1 20 cl mini bottle (or a big glass) of good dry white wine- you can use red,and in winter that’s what I use- but I like the lightness of white in the summer months
  • 6 400g cans of peeled Italian plum tomatoes in tomato juice
  • 2 tablespoons tomato puree
  • Salt and pepper

What to do:

  • In a large deep, lidded saucepan, heat the olive oil over a medium low flame until it’s fragrant. Then throw in the chopped onions and a good sprinkle of salt (the salt will stop the onions from catching). Let the onions saute until they soften and turn translucent. This will take a good ten minutes.
  • Once the onions are like mushy window panes, toss in the garlic, the oregano, and the chili flakes (if using), stir, and let them cook for just a minute or two. Then raise the heat just slightly, and pour in the white wine. Let the wine simmer until it’s reduced by at least half.
  • While the wine is reducing, it’s time for the fun part! Place a colander (ideally plastic or enamel) over a large bowl, then tip in the six cans of plum tomatoes. Then with absolutely clean hands, start squishing the tomatoes between your hands until they are a messy pulp in the colander. Give them a stir with a wooden spoon to send any juice they’re holding down into the bowl.
  • Once that wine is reduced by half (the onion/garlic/oregano mixture should look like a distinctly wet slurry), tip in the tomatoes from the colander. Give them a stir in the saucepan, then add the juice from the bowl and the tomato puree. Stir vigorously for a minute to mix in the puree then let  it come to a steady low simmer.
  • Season with one more sprinkling of salt and a good grind of pepper then just put the lid almost but not quite entirely over the pot, and let it simmer away for about 2 1/2 hours, giving it the occasional stir and taste.
  • After 2 1/2 hours, the sauce should have reduced by about a third, and have a good, thickish and slightly chunky consistency, as well as a deep cooked tomato flavor spiked with just that note of onions, garlic, wine and herbs.
  • At this point I personally let the sauce cool down a bit, then puree it with an immersion blender. That’s because I find the sauce is more versatile if it’s smooth and velvety (which it so deliciously is). If you like the more “artisan” nature of a slightly chunky sauce, buon gusto!

And as I mentioned above, don’t just think of a Marinara as being a sauce for pasta or pizza; remember that grilled fish! Or that steak Pizziaola! Or go fabulously 80s retro and use it as a dipping sauce for deep-fried mozzarella!

mozz_sticks


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