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.


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.)


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?

Summer’s Greatest Hits

The temperatures are finally heading up, up, up! And while I will no doubt complain about the heat once the novelty has worn off, I’m reveling in it at the moment.

Once it does get warmly tedious however, I offer these summer time treats, cool ideas and useful seasonal information. A round up of classic summer posts from the Fabulous Foodie archives. Just re-reading some of these can make me feel cooler.

Raisins D’Etre

I remember the day well.

oat_raisinI was nine years old, we were living in Lagos Nigeria, and my mother was baking oatmeal raisin cookies for a school bake sale or somesuch. I imagine she’d chosen those cookies because snickerdoodles or chocolate chip cookies wouldn’t be safe around us kids, and these cookies were certainly not for us. But nine-year olds can be greedy, and I was hanging around the kitchen hoping I’d be able to snaffle at least one cookie as they cooled. My mother, however, was vigilant. Even the slightly scorched cookies were going to a better cause. At last, as my mother was pulling the final baking sheet out of the oven, I spotted my chance. There, in the corner of the sheet was a stray raisin.

Surely I could at least have that? As my mother’s head was turned, I plucked it off the baking sheet and into my mouth.

Something was instantly very wrong. As I pulled little crispy legs out of my mouth I realized that this was no raisin. This was a bug that had somehow flown into the oven and met a hellish end. So my little nine-year old self promptly spat the rest out and screamed the house down.

I have been deeply suspicious of raisins ever since.

I don’t think I’d really felt one way or the other about raisins before that. I hadn’t grown up with those little boxes of Sun Maid raisins that little kids take to school for snacks, and I was certainly too young to appreciate the joys of a mince pie, though I do recall having been briefly fond of Raisin Bran cereal. But the Insect Immolation Incident  of 1976 put paid to that.

In certain contexts, I don’t feel one way or the other about raisins now. They’re certainly an integral ingredient

  • in mince pies, which I adore;
  • in rugelach, which I quite like;
  • and in that traditionally Southern US carrot and raisin salad, which I traditionally avoid. (Raisins in mayonnaise? I ask you…)

The point is that in those dishes and delicacies I’ve just mentioned, the raisin is front and center. There’s a reason for the raisin. You expect to find raisins in a mince pie just as you would in an oatmeal-raisin cookie (assuming that it is a raisin), or in a bowl of Raisin Bran. In fact, against the tree-bark dryness of the bran flakes, the squishy sweetness of the raisin is something of a blessed relief. If you didn’t find raisins in your rum-raisin ice cream, you might be disappointed. Well, you might. I’d be more likely to pass on the raisins and the ice cream and head straight for the rum. But with all of these comestibles, you know in advance that the raisin is there. The clue is in the title, so you can make an informed decision as to whether or not you want to go there, raisin-wise.

black-raisins-13024817Because raisins are not for everyone. In a recent survey held on a statistically sophisticated internet site (otherwise known as Facebook), I found that people are fairly evenly split on the subject of raisins. Although roughly half the surveyed respondents (aka my friends and relatives) professed great enthusiasm for those diddy dessicated grapes, pretty much an equal number shared an equal level of loathing. And it’s not difficult to see why.

Raisins are intensely sweet (up to 72% sugar by weight, just fyi), have an odd chewy-yet-squishy texture, (spend 45 minutes in a mindfulness meditation class contemplating a raisin and you’ll be intimately familiar with both) and can frequently be mistaken (not just by me) for something else. Show me a man who will eat a raisin off the floor and I’ll show you a man who has never kept a rabbit as an indoor pet.

The problem is that raisins – like winged tropical insects- turn up in the most unlikely places. In salads, in stuffings, in Jewish-Italian pasta dishes and in Moroccan tagines. Okay, I’ll give the Venetian Jews and the Moroccans a pass. Tradition is tradition, and these are hot countries. High summer, ya forget to put ya grapes in the shade, and ten minutes later ya got raisins. So needs must. But when people add raisins to stuffings and salads and the like, I get confused. I don’t see the point. The raisin always feels to me like that extra and unnecessary ingredient that’s been thrown in to fancy the dish up a little. Sort of like that Dorothy Parker quote: “This wasn’t just plain terrible, this was fancy terrible. This was terrible with raisins in it.”

Now I’m all for a note of sweetness amongst the savory. In fact as I’ve matured as a cook (and eater) I’ve realized its absolute necessity. But it’s more of a textural issue for me. That uniquely peculiar texture of a raisin can come as quite an unpleasant shock if you’re not expecting it. And there’s the rub. As a dear friend of mine put it, raisins lurk.

No foodstuff should ever lurk. But raisins do. They have an odd ability to remain indiscernible until they’re already on your fork-or worse- in your mouth. And raisins lurk in two principle ways:

1. They lurk under different names. You think that currant is a variant of those little red or black berries of which the British are so peculiarly fond? Nope. It’s a raisin. Did you think that a sultana was perhaps an exotic fruit from the spice-scented subcontinent? Nope. It’s a raisin. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but a raisin by any other name is still as shriveled.

2.  They bring out a streak of dishonesty in those who put them in strange culinary places. It’s true. In this age where chefs and foodies alike list an entree by naming every possible ingredient, up to and including the stretch of coast from whence they sourced the sea salt (I’m as guilty of this particular bout of gastronomic pretension as, well, the next gastronome), somehow the inclusion of raisins is all too often left un-mentioned. Perhaps to avoid the following putative burst of conversation:

“I’m serving poached Whitstable oysters in a Provencal tarragon butter with smoked Orkney sea salt and raisins.”

“It has raisins in it?”

“Why, yes!”


It’s as though those who like to use raisins in their food have a niggling feeling that just maybe there are people out there who don’t. So they just don’t tell you. They sneak (yes SNEAK) them into the aforementioned stuffings and salads without giving you a word of warning. Even worse, there are those of a sufficiently psychotic bent to sneak them into a brownie, which is an affront to all that is good and proper in a brownie. So the diner is left to manfully struggle through eating that raisin-redolent dish while attempting manfully to mask their repeated shock at encountering what to them is an unpleasant and unexpected additional texture (if not possibly a winged tropical insect). I personally believe that raisins, like gluten and nuts, should be vociferously announced before consumption of same shall occur.

So please, people. Let’s be reasonable about raisins. Whether by tradition or taste and texture, let there be a rational reason for the raisin.  If there are raisins in a dish you’re serving to anyone other than yourself, let your diners know. The raisin should be respected. Raisins are delicious in the right culinary context, and raisins are a great way to preserve grapes. (Although there’s a far greater way to preserve grapes. It’s called wine.) So we should be kind to raisins. After all, as that great line from the movie “Benny And Joon” puts it: “Raisins… they’re just humiliated grapes.

Fabulous Finds for Your Favourite Foodie

It’s holiday time and once again we wrack our brains trying to come up with gifts that will be both appropriate and appreciated (and let’s be honest, not too expensive). For the foodie in your life, this usually comes in the shape of a cookbook or some culinary gadget. But how many whisks does one kitchen need (even whisks with egg heads or handles in the shape of pigs). So here’s a few ideas that might push the envelope a bit without breaking the bank.

normal_haribo-starmix-sweet-tree-square-vaseBBC Good Food has a gift guide – having gone out and collected links to products they like. You can search by category (baking, gadgets, kids, etc) or price range (and with 81 products under £15, it’s worth a look)

Not the High Street as quite a nice gifts for foodies selection that runs from £3 milk chocolate letters to a £170 monthly wine club membership. There’s a ton of reasonably priced goodies in between so even if you don’t find something for someone else, you might find a little something to treat yourself. Go on, you deserve it.

It’s sale season so it’s worth checking out the Gifts For Foodies at Lakeland. I admit that sometimes the prices here give me pause but during the holiday sale season, something a bit special is a bit more within reach.

fairy-tale-feasts-a-literary-cookbook-3451-p[ekm]250x250[ekm]Literary Gift Company has some unusual and fun cookbooks that you can almost guarantee your foodie won’t have:

I confess that my favourite thing at that particular site isn’t food-related at all. It’s the Grammar Grumble Mugs. I want ALL of them.

Some later additions I found on other food blogs and are TOTALLY worth checking out

Naturally the newspapers, magazines and food websites have their round-ups as well but they seem, in the case of newspapers anyway, to be going for the goofy gadget angle or just see how pricey a list they can compile. But every now and again, there is something that sparks an idea.

Obviously this is just the tip of the holiday gift iceberg. I’ll be putting together other lists *(Cookbooks, Gadgets, Food Writing, etc) over the next couple of weeks. All out of the goodness of my heart, of course. And not because I just love online browsing. Not at all 🙂

Investing In Home Made Stocks

Making a good stock may be all about reduction,
but it has nothing to do with “trickle down”.

Every few months I invest in a day of contemplation in the kitchen. And that day usually starts with opening the freezer door and contemplating the fact that I’ve got enough carcasses in there to give the Donner Party a run for their money.

Now before you go thinking that this blog is getting too dark for your tastes, let me assure you that I speak of chicken carcasses. Whenever I roast a chicken, I wrap the remnants in clingfilm and stuff them in my freezer, ready for when I need to make chicken stock. So every few months, when my current supply is about to run out, I invest a day in making a fresh batch.

I’ve been making my own chicken stock for a few years now, and of all the foodie habits I’ve picked up, it’s possibly the most useful and rewarding. Useful, because not only has it taught me about the patience necessary in learning to respect the processes of cooking well, but it’s also taught me to make use of the bits I might otherwise throw away. It’s also useful because it gives me that time, when I can’t stray too far from the kitchen or for too long, to indulge myself in fabulously foodie contemplations. As for the rewards, they’re perhaps like dividends; not so obviously immediate, but all the more rewarding when they do come home to roost.

Investing the Time

Now I use the term “invest” advisedly, because making a good chicken stock (or any stock, really) does take about a full day from start to finish. It’s not that making stock is difficult, or even that you have to pay it close attention throughout, but it does take a very long time to cook- about seven hours- and you do have to be around to skim from time to time, and then to sieve, and then to skim again, and finally to pour into suitable containers and freeze. Making stock is a bit like a day spent doing laundry; most of the time you’re not actually needed, but you do occasionally need to fluff and fold.

So why do I do it? Why do I give over a whole day to cooking something I’m not even going to eat that night, or the next night, or might not even use for weeks to come?

Well like I said, it’s an investment. That day will probably yield about 12 cups worth of chicken stock, which may not seem much. But those 12 cups will more than cover gravies for Thanksgiving and Christmas (not to mention any other roast chicken dinners in between), perhaps a risotto or even two, or , maybe an emergency chicken soup for a sick flatmate or friend,and most certainly a fabulous poaching liquid for chicken breasts. A poaching liquid that is not only recycle-able, but that even improves with every use. Excellent dividends indeed.

Which leads me to an excellent example of investing in stock. When I was but a college junior, before I could even call myself a foodie, I spent a summer working at an upmarket deli in Washington DC named Food & Co. One of my allotted tasks there was to poach chicken breasts. That process involved taking huge amounts of amber jelly from a tub in the fridge, bringing it up to heat,and then poaching the chicken breasts for about 10 minutes. The first time I completed the task I was about to pour the liquid down the drain when the owner (a wonderful woman named Elisabeth Siber) shrieked in horror and threw herself between me and the sink.

“I’ve been working on that stock for YEARS!”, she cried. “Do you have ANY idea what that stock is WORTH?”

It turned out she had been nurturing that stock, and using it time and again to poach more and more chicken breasts, which not only gave that bland avian white meat incredible flavor, but also served to deepen the flavor of the stock itself. Which would, in turn, yield yet more flavorsome breasts. Talk about protecting your capital. And it’s worth noting that she was by no means the only culinary professional to follow this practice. In fact the opposite is true. Probably the single most highly valued foodstuff in any decent restaurant kitchen is the stock. It ain’t there on sale or return, nor is it a high-end seasonal ingredient. But it’s the base of any good sauce, or soup, or risotto. It’s in fact the flavor backbone of such a wide variety of dishes that it is  a good stock on which most chefs depend. And so they husband their stocks with extreme care. After all, a professional stock can take five days to prepare.

Creating Culinary Value

So compared to five, what is one day? Especially when just that one day turns your culinary liabilities- that leftover chicken carcass, that last onion, those straggly bits of parsley, and that aging carrot that have been cluttering up your fridge- into fabulous liquid assets.  The only real financial outlay I ever encounter when making stock is having to buy celery, which although unpleasant, is certainly not expensive. If, unlike me, you can actually abide celery in any other context, then you probably already have some anyway! And the process of making the stock- simmering that huge pot gently for five hours or so, and then sieving it and simmering it again for another hour at a higher heat to reduce it- may leave you with less than you started out with, but if the quantity of your stock has diminished, it has actually intensified greatly in flavor. It has far greater value than when you started. We’re talking going from culinary penny to epicurean blue chip here.

veggiestockAnd you can diversify. I usually only make chicken stock because it’s it’s such a great all-rounder. But you can make vegetable stock with any leftover legumes you’ve got hanging around. Try mushroom stock! You can make beef, lamb, pork, or even ham stock from any meat you cook that still  has bones. All you need is water, heat,  those veg and herbs and seasoning and patience, and you can make culinary capital out of almost any gastronomic investment you’ve already ( made.

Yes, you can buy pre-made chicken stock (although that famous canned low sodium chicken broth that American tv cooks sing praises to is not readily available here in the UK, where the Oxo cube still reigns supreme). But why spend instead of investing? Your freezer may be small (mine is, and I share it with two others), but isn’t it better to stuff it with what you’ve made rather than what you’ve bought? After all, as a frozen asset home made stock thaws beautifully. So you can share.

Because that stock in which I’ve invested a day is all about shares. Yes, I cook for myself, and yes, I make stock for myself because I love that I can . But I know full well that when I’m glorifying in my little pots of gold at the end of the stock-making process, I will be sharing them with people I love. They will become the gravies at Thanksgiving and Christmas as well as sauces at dinners in between. Or it may become soup to share or give away. Making a good stock may be all about reduction,but it has nothing to do with “trickle down”.

So I am more than happy to invest a day, every few months, in making stock. And that day – when I have to be nearby to skim from time to time, to watch the vociferousness of the bubble and maybe turn the burner up or down a tad under the pot – that day gives me that day of contemplation I first mentioned. That day we all need from time to time, when you contemplate what you’ve got, and what you’ll make of it.

And shouldn’t we all invest a day, now and then, in taking-if not making- stock?


My Daily Grind

I’m just not a gadget-oriented person. I’m not against them, by any means. But they just don’t seem to work for me. I’m not smart enough for my smart phone, the complexities of your average in-home coffee or latte making machine defeat me, and not once in my life have I got a food processor or blender to process or blend successfully on the first go.

gadgetsSo I’m usually stumped when people ask me “What is your favorite kitchen gadget?” My natural clumsiness (alongside what I’ve long suspected is a paranormal ability to short-circuit any electrical device within fifty feet of me) has kept me steering well clear of  most modern kitchen inventions throughout my cooking life. An electric carving knife? Streets would run with blood. The George Foreman Grill? A hospital would name a burns unit after me. That said, I did manage to keep one of my two (don’t ask) ice-cream makers working until it went to a home with more freezer space, and I am also in possession of a fully operational coffee grinder, largely due to the fact that I almost never grind coffee beans unless it’s for the tail-end of a dinner party, and even then I usually get a willing guest to do it.

But the question remains; what is my favorite kitchen gadget? Answering this question honestly meant, for me, re-thinking the word “gadget”, and instead opting for the earlier (and less power grid-reliant) term “tool.”

And suddenly the answer was crystal clear. It wasn’t my knives, which I indeed have in hand pretty much every day and keep very well sharpened, and it wasn’t the oven thermometer, which is an incredibly useful tool  to keep to hand for ferreting out the true nature of any given oven. Nor was it my mandolin, which I use often, but only when wearing Kevlar mitts on both hands.

mandpMy favorite kitchen tool is something far more basic and simple. But it’s also the very tool that makes me feel the most like a real grown-up cook in the kitchen.

Without a doubt my favorite kitchen tool is that vessel with the pestle.

I’m talking about that most humble-yet venerated across the globe- kitchen tool, the mortar and pestle. That tough little bowl (that would be the mortar,by the way) in which you grind all kinds of ingredients with an equally tough little club (and there’s the pestle) and create all kinds of flavor and texture.

I am forever using my mortar and pestle. I use it to grind garlic into a paste just about every night. A pinch of salt thrown into the mortar with the garlic cloves not only breaks the garlic down, but also kills that acrid edge that can make raw garlic too aggressive. Plus there’s no fiddling about with your garlic crusher and scraping out the un-crushed bits of clove that are, frankly, a waste of allium heaven. Whenever I use dried herbs, which I do more often than I use fresh herbs (cooking most often for one as I do pretty much precludes the use of fresh herbs on a daily basis unless you are green of thumb, which I alas am not), I give them a good grind with my mortar and pestle first.  This releases the remnants of oil in those dessicated woody shreds, and in so doing releases bagloads of flavor. In fact I often throw some dried oregano or thyme or rosemary (and lemon rind!) in with the garlic I’m grinding on a basically daily basis, and all I then need is a slug of olive oil for either an instant marinade for pork, chicken, lamb, or fish, or a light dressing for pasta or veg. And the difference between using pre-ground spices like coriander or cumin or cinnamon, and then toasting and grinding the whole spices yourself is frankly like culinary night and day.

There truly is an exponential difference in aroma and flavor when you’re grinding whole spices, and the really great thing about that (aside from your delicious end result of a dish) is that you can feel and smell it as you’re grinding away. As those nubbly seeds or bits of bark break down under your relentless punishment you can feel the texture change to powder, and the air around you becomes positively miasmic with their scent. Like dough that you’re kneading with your hands into that perfect consistency for pastry, or arborio rice that you’re patiently stirring into a risotto, you can quite literally sense it coming to life.

And that’s what I really love about my mortar and pestle. I love that bit of human effort that really connects me with the food I’m preparing. It’s basic, and elemental. Now I’m not quite so pretentious as to claim this brings me a kinship to the peasant women who have been grinding grains for their porridge since the dawn of time (the day you find out I’m now grinding my own corn is the day you find out I’m now doing time on a prison farm in Tegucigalpa), but I do love that very personal involvement. Yes, you have to put your back into a bit, and yes, it may take a tad longer, but it’s far more satisfying than just dumping things into some device and then hitting a button. That personal commitment to the physical effort of getting all possible flavor out of any ingredient is what makes me feel like a true grown-up cook.

Besides, it’s also an excellent way to grind out those irritations of my day. I picture someone’s face, I start to grind…

And yes, pretentious sense of kinship or no, I do appreciate that this most basic of kitchen implements has been used in different forms since before we had kitchens, and has always been an intrinsic part of every human culture in the world, from the culinary to the medicinal and the downright spooky. After all, apothecaries used mortars and pestles to grind medicines, and we all know the tales of witches grinding together potions and notions. Most infamous of these is that terrifying witch of Eastern European folklore, Baba Yaga, who according to legend flew through the skies in a mortar, using the pestle as her rudder.

Witches and apothecaries aside, don’t forget that the mortar and pestle is sexy. Just like that kneading of dough, and also the tossing of a salad with your hands, it’s tactile, and it makes you look sexy. Who doesn’t look sexy while grinding? Your biceps pump up, the look on your face is intense, and all the while you’re creating magical aromas and flavors. And that mortar and pestle even looks sexy on its own. There are no clumsy trailing wires, and it’s usually small enough to sit proudly on your kitchen counter. It doesn’t need to be packed away into an an already crowded cupboard when not in use. I’d even go so far as to say that having a mortar and pestle on display in your kitchen makes you look like a better cook than you actually may be. It makes you look like you mean business in the kitchen.

So if you don’t own a mortar and pestle, please do go and avail yourself of one now. Pick one that’s the right size for the size of meals you usually cook (bearing in mind, of course, Julia Child’s sage advice to always start with a larger bowl than you think you’ll need), and preferably one made of rough porcelain or stoneware. Wooden mortars tend to absorb oils, and therefore stain and keep hold of flavors. Pick one that feels almost that bit too heavy for you to cart about. It’ll stay in place while you’re grinding away with that pestle. And while it’s staying in place, it’ll set you free to use whole spices, and control textures of garlic and ginger, and let you loose on a whole new way of cooking. It’s a true culinary vehicle.


In short, using a mortar and pestle can really take you places. If you don’t believe me, just ask Baba Yaga.

Pairing Whines With Food

In every blogger’s life there comes a time when your positive approach to your chosen subject matter just runs out of steam; when every time you sit down at your battered old typewriter (who am I kidding? your battered old pc), the joy and inspiration you’re supposed to feel just isn’t there. It’s not necessarily that you having nothing to say, but really just that you have nothing nice, or at least positive  or constructive to say.

So sometimes you wait until that feeling- or lack thereof- passes. But if you’re not paying attention, that feeling can last for much longer than you might think, and you eventually find that you haven’t written anything for months, all because you felt you had to sugar whatever pill you were going to serve up. Of course that not good for either a blogger or a blog.

Sometimes you just have to accept that you’ll be writing in the negative – with squid ink, so to speak. At least that will get any food-related grizzles and gristle off your chest, and who knows? You might find that there’s a world of people out there who agree with you. So in that spirit of complaint and ventilation, I am now going to whine about this foodie’s current pet peeves in the culinary world:


Of course “foodies” can be “snobs”, and of course “foodies” are meant to be “knowledgeable” about “food”. But we ain’t all  “It’s farmer’s market organic bio-dynamically grown or you can stick it in the bin and that’s the wrong wine for that course” meanies. Personally, I take the term “foodie” to mean “someone who has an enthusiastic interest in food as a hobby”.

I make no claims to high-flown tastes (I loathe caviar, and even if I didn’t, the tub of Strawberry Nesquik in my cupboard would give the lie to that) but I am just fascinated by food, from taste and texture to origin and history and just why we eat and like what we do. But most importantly for me, IT’S FUN.

Of course like most foodies I believe in certain rules, such as “If you want your steak well done, cook something else.” But I completely accept that many of these rules are actually personal, such as “If you want to serve me fish pie and then have sex, serve something else.”


beetroot1This wouldn’t have made my current pet peeve list if it weren’t “The Vegetable That Will Not Die”. It seems like a decade ago that I first wrote about the current British cheffy obsession with the beet, but unlike goat’s cheese and rocket, both of which have settled into a less pervasive culinary sphere, this taproot is stubbornly sticking – like  a blood stain – to British TV and restaurant kitchens.

Its “vibrant colour” and “earthy flavour” are still being touted to this day, and contestants on shows like “Masterchef” are still presenting  dishes called “Roast venison with textures of beetroot.” I don’t want beetroot one way, let alone five. And that whole “sneak beetroot into chocolate cakes and brownies so kids won’t know they’re eating a vegetable” thing? I can only refer you back to that “earthy flavour”. I’m not personally a big fan of chocolate, but I’m even less a fan of chocolate that tastes like mud.


There is no current cheffy restaurant trend that annoys me more than “four ways to serve you a side of onions”. I adore onions. I like most vegetables (aside from broccoli and the one listed above), but I don’t want endless variations on one vegetable theme on my plate.  It’s even found its annoying way into desserts. Just imagine “Clotted Cream With Textures Of Strawberry”. And anyway, the very term “textures of” is distastefully reminiscent of sifting through carpet samples.


Things just ain’t good this year in the British TV Kitchen. Yes, of course there’s the annual “Great British Bake-Off” treat, but even that show just ain’t rising to its previous fluffy heights for me. Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc remain fabulous hosts, and Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry judge as astutely as ever, so it’s probably just that I’m not really warming to any of the contestants this year- with the possible exception of Martha The Scary Teen, who has a rather fetching habit of staring at her competitors’ bakes like she’s working on her  Stephen King style “Carrie” skills.

But other shows are faring much worse for this foodie’s palate. The UK version of “The Taste“, whilst being much better than its US predecessor, still fundamentally failed to connect with either the contestants or- more importantly- the food. Tom Kerridge’s “Proper Pub Food” may improve with a second series as he’s an affable presenter (though not yet comfortable with lifting scripted bits off the page), but  proper pub food is something for which people go to a proper pub, not something they want to cook at home.

There’s that gap of basic accessibility at play there, much as there is with Rachel Khoo’s  “My Pretentious Paris Kitchen”, or the new-found BBC oeuvre of “Former Models Cook For You” – Sophie Dahl? Lorraine Pascale? Though Ms Pascale certainly makes for a more convincing cook. It’s just that she has no viewpoint other than “My cooking is slightly less bland than me.” Over on Channel 4, the indefatigable Ms Perkins does her level best to liven up “Cook’s Questions“, but not even Perkins Power can  make charmless professional chefs teaching overwrought recipes to a roomful of “foodies” who look like they’re waiting for jury duty down at the municipal court feel at all inclusive for your average  (or even true “foodie”) viewer.

S_MFor my money, the only British cookery show of real note in the last year or so has been “The Incredible Spice Men” on BBC2, which took fantastic chefs Cyrus Todiwala and Tony Singh, and set them on a journey across Britain, bringing Asian techniques, spices and flavours to traditional British food. It was funny, it was inspiring, and most of all, it had personality and a true point of view. It tackled this country’s traditional attitudes to  foods, and therefore said a lot about this country. Yes, it was “Two Fat Ladies” recast with two Asian gentlemen, but that in itself is a genius idea, and it remains the only cookery show of recent years that has made me want to buy the book, and cook from that book.


Never mind that the very name on paper reads like the kind of physical infection that affect one’s personal bits and cause an unpleasant discharge (“I see you have a nasty case of Clafoutis”), there’s something neither here nor there about the Clafoutis. To me it’s not quite a pastry and not quite a pie and not quite a quiche. It may be that I’ve never sampled one that was cooked correctly, but I’ve always found it to be either soggy or a flan with the texture (there’s that word again) of flannel. And that name! I refer you to the Wikipedia article on the subject, in which one sentence reads: “Clafoutis apparently spread throughout France during the 19th century.”


chickenbreastsI am not referring here to the mammarian state of British womanhood, but rather the near quixotic-ness of going to a British supermarket in the hopes of purchasing a chicken breast that still retains either its skin or its bone or both. It truly is seemingly impossible. You can buy thighs, drumsticks, and even the full legs with all their flavor-giving skin and bones intact, but Julia Child help you if you’re looking for the same in breasts.

Personally, I blame it on the advent of the “skinless chicken breast as a way to get low calorie though almost certainly flavourless protein into your diet because you’d only eat this if you were trying to lose weight” school of dietary propaganda. One can blame supermarkets and food halls all one likes, but the depressing fact is that market forces prevail.  White chicken meat is so separated from dark in the current UK  culinary world that you either have to adapt a recipe to such extents that it no longer resembles ( or tastes like) what you wanted to achieve in the first place, or you have to make the extra effort to find an actual butcher who sells actual bone-in skin-on chicken breasts.  For which you will pay a hefty premium. Does this same problem exist in the US?

So those are my current foodie whines. Agree? Disagree? What’s been getting your culinary goat lately?  Other than the cheese, please. That is so eight years ago. NB. I whine about the UK  in foodie terms only because I live, shop, cook, watch tv and eat here. Were I to live in the US,  I would no doubt have other (or possibly the same) gripes. Possibly in larger portions.

The Magna Cater

I was attending a christening celebration recently, when a great realization struck me. There I was, stood before an abundant buffet of tasty finger foods and tiny sandwiches, and yet something seemed wrong, jarring, out of balance. The smoked salmon sandwiches looked too corally bright next to the somber umber of the glazed chicken wings. The miniature vegetable spring rolls seemed pallid and listless placed right by the breaded fish goujons and the platter of chips. And at the center of the table stood a lonely little pot of English mustard, purposeless and  obsolete. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was wrong, but this bountiful buffet was clearly adrift in some essential manner.

sauasgerollsIt was only as a waitress nudged me aside so that she could place the final platter on the buffet that I realized what had been missing. For that platter was piled high with little golden bite-sized sausage rolls.

And suddenly, that buffet was complete, at least for me. Not only because I happen to adore sausage rolls, but really because I don’t think I’ve ever attended a major social event in Britain at which sausage rolls have not been served. There seems to be some unwritten law here that any birth, marriage, death, or in fact any gathering of more than four people, must be accompanied by a healthy portion of these tasty savoury morsels of flaky pastry rolled around ground meat.

Well this got me to thinking: what are the other unwritten laws of British Cookery? What are the quirks and traditions so ingrained in the British culinary character that they have become canonical in the kitchen?  Across classes and generations, what are the laws that still hold true in the British larder? If it were inscribed and notarized, what would the Magna Carta of British Cookery be?

Having pondered, and sampled, and asked around, and pondered some more, here’s what I imagine what I like to call the “Magna Cater” might be:

1. Thou Shalt Serve Sausage Rolls

The British, when faced with any major life event that requires celebration or commiseration, immediately whip up (seemingly from out of nowhere) a tray of sausage rolls. They are the biggest seller during the holiday season party-supplying spree, and are the only standard hors d’oeuvre that remain on food hall shelves throughout even the hottest of summers. Ideally served warm from the oven, they remain satisfying at room temperature, and even in the scrag end of a party or a wake, even though the grease from the sausage has long since deflated the flakiness of the pastry. That said, they are usually the first consumable to be consumed. They are not- in Britain- to be confused with “pigs in blankets”, which here refer to cocktail sausages wrapped in bacon, or just well tended pigs.

2. On The Seventh Day, Thou Shalt Roast

The Sunday Roast is perhaps the great bastion of British culinary tradition. Whether you spend your Sunday cooking it at home, or instead venture out to your local pub, no weekend in Britain is truly complete without a roast dinner (by which they really mean a late lunch) on the Sunday. And not only the meat must be roasted. Be it a chicken, a turkey, a leg of lamb or a rib of beef, said roast simply must be accompanied by roast potatoes. Other side dishes may vary, but those roast potatoes are non-negotiable. In fact, your average British cook is more likely to be judged by the crunchiness of the outside and the fluffiness of the center of their potatoes than by the quality of the roasted meat. Other rules also apply, such as Yorkshire Pudding only being served with beef. And say what you like about this nation’s culinary capabilities, nobody in the world roasts beef as well as the British.

3. Be It Not Buttered, ‘Tis Not A Sandwich

‘Tis true. The British, when faced with a slice of bread, are constitutionally incapable of not slathering it with butter. In this matter the actual sandwich filling is irrelevant. It could be a chicken tikka masala sandwich, or a Mexican three-bean wrap, still the bread involved would be buttered first. They would butter a BLT. At sandwich bars I have had to physically prevent the server from buttering my roast beef, lettuce and avocado sandwich. I’ve even known Brits who would  butter a peanut butter sandwich.

4. Deem It A Pie, And It Shall Suffice

The British love pies. They will put anything- sweet or savoury- into a pastry case.  This has been true of the British since time immemorial, or at least since eggs and butter were introduced to the hard pastry cases that were first used simply to contain the actual meal. From steak and kidney to cheese, leeks, eels, pilchards and oysters, the pie as a meal is another great British tradition. And beyond that, they love calling things pies. Outside of these sceptered isles, one might think a pie necessarily involved at least a pastry lid.Within these sceptered isles, that narrow delineation is utter tosh. Neither shepherd’s, cottage, nor the dreaded (to me at least) fish pie- or in fact any dish covered with a topping of mashed potato- are in any rational sense a pie. Except to the British.

5. Thy Condiments Shalt Be Caustic

It’s often be said of British cookery that it’s bland, and lacking in heat and spice. That’s a misunderstanding of the British culinary character. In fact the British adore hot and spicy flavours. It’s just that- their burgeoning love for fiery Asian and South American cuisines aside- they prefer them in condiment form. That famous British Sunday roast is pretty much always accompanied by some sort of hot and/or pungent condiment, from the vinegar-sharp mint sauce for lamb (none of that mimsy American mint jelly for the Brits), to the sinus-clearing heat of horseradish for beef, and the hottest mustard in Europe for, well, anything. A good sharp and hot pickle to accompany a ploughman’s lunch of bread and cheese is another British pub staple. And the traditional American cranberry sauce for turkey is a descendant of that great British sauce for game, Cumberland Sauce, in which red currants and orange zest are enlivened by a healthy dose of searing hot mustard powder.

6. Thou Shalt Douse, Ergo Thou Shalt Douse With Cream

If the British can’t face a sandwich without butter, neither can they face a dessert without cream. Cream is poured over every possible dessert dish aside from trifles, only because trifles are topped with cream. Cakes, pies, bread puddings, even jellies; almost no “sweet” is served without at least the offer of cream. The British will pour cream directly onto an acidly sharp fruit salad, which is testament to their digestive fortitude. In fact when Heinz developed a savoury salad dressing specifically for the British market in 1914, they had the sense to call it “Salad Cream.” They knew what the British like to pour.

7. Be It A Dish, There Shalt Be Chips

Fish and chips, steak and chips, gammon and chips, egg and chips, pie and chips, lasagne and chips, chips and chips. Liberally salted and soused with malt vinegar for the true purists, the British love for the deep-fried potato is a bottomless well. As with roast beef, find a good traditional British chippie and you’ll never countenance McDonald’s or the like again.

8. At The End Of Days There Shalt Be Tea.

Ah yes, tea. Though tea as a meal has moved and morphed from the traditional 4 o’clock repast to just what the British call dinner (excluding, of course, those amazing “High” teas still served at Fortnum and Mason’s, glamorous hotels, and Cornish tea houses), tea as a drink remains the blood that runs through British veins. In fact, if you accidentally opened a vein, the first thing a Brit would do would be to offer you a cup of tea. Given how many cups of tea they drink a day, it’s something of a wonder that the British don’t behave in a more overtly caffeinated manner. It is still possible to differentiate generations in Britain by whether or not they have succumbed to teabags, and the question of whether or not one adds the milk to the cup before or after the tea remains a matter of class-related debate. A historical note: contrary to popular belief, the British aren’t actually bitter about the United States winning the war of Independence. They do, however, resent the waste of all that good tea.

9. The Scepter And The Orbs, They Shall Be Verdant And Rule Over All

The British have a reputation for mistrusting green vegetables. Again, this is a common misconception. The British are highly enamoured of at least three: the asparagus spear, the Brussels sprout, and the garden pea. The arrival of fresh asparagus marks the true start of the British summer, and many Brits are so loyal to that tradition that they forsake the (admittedly vastly inferior) asparagus from Peru that is now available in UK supermarkets all year round. And if summer isn’t summer without the Asparagus spear, then Christmas isn’t Xmas without that tight little green ball of gassy goodness, the Brussels sprout. Even those who claim to detest this little brassica don’t feel their holiday meal is complete without having to ingest at least one. British children may loathe the taste, but they are highly amused by the methane-related results.  And the garden pea is served all year round, with almost any dinner. And that’s not just because the pea is such a freezer success story and cooks so quickly. Generations of Brits (and even half-Brits such as I) have  very fond memories of shelling peas in their grandmother’s kitchen.

10. The Fruit, It Shall Be Abundant. Dried, But Abundant

Given the frequent inclemency of British weather, they quite understandably have a long tradition of drying and candying fruit rather than relying upon its freshness. And they put that dried fruit into almost every dessert, biscuit or cake imaginable. There are many regional variations across the land, but the great British Sweet Christmas staples are the mincemeat pie (originally- and intriguingly- made with actual meat as well as the fruit), the Christmas pudding, and the fruit cake. All are filled with a variety of dried fruits and nuts. The fruit cake is also the traditional British wedding cake. A time-consuming labor of love to prepare- and almost as arduous to eat- the fruit cake is famous for its density and its exceedingly long shelf life. There’s a British tradition that if a bridesmaid takes a piece of the cake home and sleeps with it under her pillow, she will be married within the year. Regardless of any vermin infestations or neck aches  that may incur, she would also be provided with a handy blunt weapon should she be faced with an unwelcome intruder. If the fruit cake is now falling out of favor as a wedding cake, that’s only because in this day and age the cake seems to outlast the actual marriage.

11. Thou Shalt Not Trifle With The Trifle

Around since at least the 17th Century in its current form, the trifle is the most singular expression of the uniquely British love for sweet food that is also easy to chew. As such, it is also a catalytic ingredient in the admittedly bleak British dental history. The layers of sponge soaked in sweet booze, jam, or jelly, or jam AND jelly, custard and whipped cream create a dessert course centerpiece that can vary from the garish to the, well, garish. Traditionally, enough sweet sherry is used to render entire families incoherent, but in this modern age other sweet fruity liqueurs are equally acceptable. Before you scoff at the trifle, do bear in mind that the globally popular Italian dessert Tiramisu is in fact a direct take on trifle, which just goes to show that Italians can, on occasion, willingly accept outside culinary inspirations.

12. The Day Is Begun: Gird Thine Arteries

The last tenet of the British Magna Cater is the one that starts the day. The dreaded European “Continental” breakfast is entirely at odds with the British national character, as is the traditional American carbohydrate fiesta. Every day, in home kitchens and greasy caffs across the land, the day begins with what is known as a “fry up.” This repast generally consists of fried eggs (scrambled or otherwise), fried sausages, fried bacon, and fried mushrooms. As a nod to other culinary processes, grilled tomatoes and baked beans may also be present on the plate. This breakfast is of course served with tea, and bread, which is also often fried. Whilst contemplating the  arterial sclerosis-inducing properties of such a start to the day, take into account that there is no greater salve for a hangover on this earth. In fact, if one stays up late enough to end a boozy night with such a meal, the hangover may never even occur. Whether or not that would be due to a cataclysmic pulmonary event in one’s subsequent sleep is neither here nor there.

So this is what I imagine the British Magna Cater to be. Had I a scroll to hand, or indeed the calligraphic ability, I would nail it to the doors of town halls and kitchens across the land. Except I really wouldn’t need to. Those laws are already in place.  But what do you think? Have I neglected one? Are there more British culinary traditions so entrenched that they belong in the Magna Cater? Answers on a postcard please.

Waste Not .. and Enjoy!

I’ve been thinking a lot about leftovers recently. This isn’t new. I’ve written before about the love we have for leftovers here at TransAtlantic Kitchen. But I’ve been thinking again about them – this time in a much broader sense and not just as a shortcut when I don’t want to cook.

leftovers2There are really two reasons for this – first, I’m trying to be better about bringing my lunch to work and leftovers are very often a part of that and second I’ve been doing research for work about various ways to use up leftovers.

Leftovers in both cases being either extra from previous meals or the bits and bobs we all end up with in the fridge when we have half a pack of this and only a slice of that.

I found a few things I already knew – leftover bread is excellent for breadcrumbs and french toast, for example. But I also found some facts and figures I found really shocking about consumer food waste.

  • 40% of the food purchased in the US is thrown away. Now, some of that is the “scraping the plates off at the end of dinner” type of waste but a lot of it is not
  • Bread is the most wasted food in both the UK and the US. We also place a fairly low value on grains so rice and pasta get tossed in vast quantities
  • The single most wasted vegetable is potatoes – which, in the context of what people buy, sounded quite likely but what I didn’t know was that 47% of the potatoes that are wasted in the UK (thrown away either after cooking or before) are thrown away having never come out of the packaging. 47%!
  • 40% of the apples purchased in the UK are thrown away untouched.

There are lots of other numbers I could toss out telling us that bread is wasted in gargantuan amounts. So are apples, milk, and packaged salad. But I have decided that the more productive thing to do is collect tips and tricks to address the issue and hopefully help us all make the more from the money we apparently throwing away.

A few ideas to get started (and to give me time to organize what I plan to be a series of posts n- broken down by specific food stuff):

bread_frenchBREAD:  bread puddings, french toast, eggy breads, strata, panzanella, croutons and of course, breadcrumbs.

Now, I know what you’re saying. You’re saying, “Yes, Deborah – we are well aware that we can make breadcrumbs. All well and good but for crying out loud – we can only USE so many breadcrumbs. What do you expect us to do with all of them?”

And to that I say – a) they freeze well and b) you can use them as toppings on casseroles, meatballs, meatloaf, and plant food. Yes, I said plant food! Some suggest that 1 part breadcrumbs or cubed bread, 1 part water and a tablespoon of plant food thrown into a mixer and voila, more plants get extra enriched food. Don’t fancy using plant food in your mixer? Can’t say I blame you and frankly the idea of having an extra one out in the garden seems silly. So I suggest this – swap used coffee grinds for the plant food. Coffee grinds are like plant growing magic. Your plants will thank you.

HERBS: as is often this case this time of year, TransAtlantic Towers is full of basil – Italian basil and Greek. It makes the kitchen smell divine but it does create rather a challenge. How to use it all. Now, obviously we don’t HAVE to use it all but it seems a shame to waste it just because basil does better when regularly harvested. So in addition to @dungeekin using the basil in a lot of the Big Weekend Cook standards, we make pesto, freeze it in a bit of cooking oil (we have quite a few handy dandy ice cube trays full of fresh herbs for using all winter) and since we’re eating more salads these days, we’ll throw it into store bought greens.

LEMONS: I’ve already put together a few thoughts on using up lemons, in the kitchen and throughout the house

CHEESE: I have saved the best for last. Iam a cheese fan. Many of you are cheese fans. Do you know of fromage fort? If yes, then you never have cheese going to waste in your fridge. If you do not know of it – behold.




  • 1 pound of cheese – any bits and pieces in any combination
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine – any white wine works here except (in my opinion) very sweet wines
  • 3 tbsps unsalted butter, softened – unsalted is key especially if there is Parmesan going into this mix
  • 1 small clove garlic – or if you’re me, a bit more garlic
  • Herbs to taste. Start with parsley or chives. Or parsley and chives.


  • Remove rinds from hard cheeses and grate them.
  • Cut the softer cheese cubes – 1/2 inch ought to do it.
  • Place cheese, wine, butter, herbs, and garlic in a food processor and blend until smooth, approximately 2 minutes.
  • Serve immediately with crackers or bread of choice (the crustier the bread the better, if you ask me) or refrigerate for an hour if you like a firmer feel. Stores well covered in the fridge for up to 1 week.

A few notes for fromage fort:

  • If you don’t have a pound worth of cheese, adjust the rest of the ingredients to proportionally what you do have.
  • The herbs you use are very much a matter of taste and whatever cheese you’re using
  • This will almost never be the same twice because the cheeses will be different. Exciting, no?

Anyway – this is just my way of saying that I’m working on a larger effort – both in life and on this blog – to be aware or and better use the leftovers in the kitchen. I hope, at the same time, to find useful ideas to share and hear some of your ideas as well.


The Mango And Me

madeleinesEach of us has our Madeleine. It can be Proust’s sweet little cake, or a handful of tart-sweet blackberries, a slice of warm apple pie, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a spoonful fiery hot curry, a bowl of chicken noodle soup, or a big plateful of meaty lasagne, but we all have one.

I’m talking of course about Memory Food, the mouthful that goes beyond comfort food of the moment and takes us back to our childhoods, that nourishes us as much with memories as it does with physical nutrients. We all probably have more than one. But if pressed, if we had to name just one foodstuff that represents our childhood, what would it be?

mangosMy Madeleine is a mango, eaten perhaps a day before the fruit could fully ripen, when the flesh is a toothsome buttercup yellow, and the sugars within haven’t yet taken control of all the flavour the fruit has to offer. Now it may seem odd, but I eat my mango seasoned with a light sprinkling of salt. One bite into this, and I have a direct connection to myself as a little boy, and to heat, and thunderstorms, and blue sky through palm trees.  Because that was the happiest part of my childhood. Because that’s how, as a little boy, I was taught to eat a mango.

When I was five years old, my family moved from La Paz, high on the dusty and arid Bolivian Altiplano, to San Jose, capital of balmy and lush Costa Rica.  Although I had been born in Kenya, the only memories I had then (and now) were of the snowy blasts of a Polish winter before we moved to Bolivia, and in La Paz then the thin air that kept an oxygen canister by my father’s side, and the acrid chill coming off the Andes. Seemingly having spent my scant five years in a least a bulky sweater, I remember to this day how the air in Costa Rica seemed to brush my skin all the time, how the humidity would constrict and then explode into shocking cloudbursts almost every afternoon (or so it seemed), cloudbursts that you could outrun if you were fast enough.

I have so many happy memories of our time in Costa Rica, and many of them involve our housekeeper, a wonderful woman named Balbina. She was a strict but kind woman  who had two great loves that are indelibly marked on my memory. Every night, after my  bath, Balbina would take me into her room and sit me down in front of a photograph of John F Kennedy she had pinned to the wall. There I would  sit while she combed my damp hair to look just like his, all the while telling me what a great man he was and all the wonderful things he had done for Costa Rica. And every afternoon she would take a mango from the tree in the garden, carefully picking one that was not yet quite ripe, and cut it into slices. She would lay the slices of yellow mango out on a plate and sprinkle them with salt and chili powder. If I was home, and she considered me sufficiently well-behaved that day to be worthy of a treat, she would set aside a few slices for me, omitting the chili powder she considered too fiery for my young palate, but retaining that sprinkle of salt that brought out both the sweetness and the profound sourness of the fruit. I may not remember the very first bite I took of that firm yellow flesh, but in a way I remember the flavour of every bite of mango I shared with Balbina,  tangy and salty and just a little bit sweet.

So began my love affair with the mango; a love affair that has lasted all my life. It hasn’t always been an easy love affair to sustain. Although my parent’s peripatetic occupations took us from Costa Rica to Nigeria, where mangoes were also abundant, we eventually traveled to points north, where mangoes were in exceedingly short supply, if available at all. I doubt the Soviets had ever encountered a mango, and the Greeks had fruits of their own.

During this period of my life, I would have to wait for trips to the US to get even a sniff of a mango, so it could be years between one salted mango and another. While you might think this would make the mango love fade from a little boy’s heart, in fact each mango I did get to eat was a bright and shiny treat, so delicious that I would often consume the whole fruit in one sitting, which would often upset my stomach but always enthrall my budding foodie soul.

At other times, more wisely aware that it would be a long while before I would experience such delicious joy again, I would  stretch out my delectation of the mango for as long as I could bear, allowing myself just a few bites or slices each day, until I could convince myself that the rest had to be eaten now, right now, before it was thrown out by somebody else. In between those trips to the US, and those fleeting chances to season my favourite fruit, I was forced to experiment with other fruits in a vain effort to find a suitable substitute.

peachesThe flesh of peaches and nectarines and even plums, caught at that same moment when they were just on the cusp of full ripeness and also sprinkled with salt, was just tangy enough to temporarily sate my yearning for my fruity childhood friend.  Pineapples and oranges also served that purpose from time to time. In fact I experimented with just about any fruit I encountered, but almost always met with disappointment. Salted bananas? Abhorrent. Salted berries? Not so much. And nothing, but nothing, can improve the dreaded apricot.

An eventual move to London in my early twenties brought me back into contact with the occasional mango. Initially disappointing, of course, as the British have never taken to the mango the way they did the pineapple. The mangoes I first encountered here were hard and flavourless, or woefully overripe and cloyingly sweet. But eventually I learned two important facts about the mango, facts that have allowed me a new pathway back to the intensely tangy tropical taste of my youth.

The first fact is that with mangoes, as with avocados, one should- as Nigella Lawson once said- buy early and use late. What she meant was that you should buy your mango at least two days before you intend to eat it. Leave it somewhere as warm and sunny as Britain allows, and let it ripen just that little bit, so that it feels in your hand like a firm, supple, buttock. That warmth magically allows flavour back into the mango, and cupping it in your hand without giving in to the temptation to squeeze, but instead just gently sensing its texture, lets you know when it has reached that optimal point of firm yet tender juiciness. Only then should you consider slicing that mango open.  It doesn’t- for me- take me the whole way back to the taste I remember; the refrigeration on the journey and the artificially chill air in the supermarket will always deny a mango here its full flavour potential. But it takes me just close enough. A spritz of lime juice and a sprinkle of salt and leaving it for a bit before I dive in, and I’m almost there. That first fact applies specifically to mangoes purchase from a large supermarket or food hall.

The second fact is- to me- even more glorious and rewarding. Because although I would have been forgiven for thinking as a child that mangoes came from Costa Rica, or then from Nigeria, I would have been totally wrong. Mangoes are native to India and Southeast Asia. And it has been the influx of people from that part of the world into Britain that has allowed my love affair with the mango to come full circle.

tangychutneyMangoes are an intrinsic ingredient in Indian and Southeast Asian culinary culture, and so they are utilised in a dazzling variety of ways, from being celebrated for their life-affirming sweetness to having that same intensely tangy quality I adore equally celebrated in chutneys, pickles, and fiery and sour salads.

And as Asian communities grow and take root here in Britain, they wisely ensure that the foods they celebrate come with them. And so these communities open their own shops in their own neighborhoods, and import the foodstuffs they need, the ones that can’t really be substituted or faked from vast chains that cater for a largely Anglo Saxon population. A wonderful aspect of eating (and cooking) in Britain these days is that Asian cuisine is becoming more palpably authentic, rather than less, if you know where to shop.

That’s where I’ve learned to shop for my mangoes now. I settle for a supermarket mango if I must, but wherever I move to on my travels in London, I seek out the nearest Southeast Asian neighborhood, and the accompanying unassuming little shops crammed next to each other, selling cigarettes and soft drinks at the front, but offering a treasure trove of whole spices and fragrant herbs and exotic fruits and vegetables once you step further in.

It was in one of these shops on the Kilburn High Road that I discovered tiny green mangoes, maybe a fifth of the size one might expect of a fully grown ripe fruit. They were still attached to bits of stem, and the moment I picked one up and snapped it free of that stem, and instantly caught the uniquely sharp resin scent that only the stem of a mango can give, I knew I had found my own culinary time machine. I knew that once I got that mango home, sliced, salted it, and let it make contact with my tongue I would be transported right back to that table with Balbina, to those delicately sweet and perfumed yet deeply, profoundly sour flavours all happening in my mouth at the same time. To rain smacking down on the tin roof, to the thrilling tremors that shook the house from time to time, to picking a mango from a tree. And I was right.

I am grateful- every time- I have my first bite of one of those little Asian mangoes. Grateful for the taste, of course, and very grateful too for the passport it provides back to that simpler time in my life. But most grateful really, for the world-and the life- that has allowed that bite to happen. Because here I am, having been born on one side of the world, and then being introduced to mangoes on another side of the world, and then finally finding the taste I yearned for on another side of the world, from a mango that came from yet another side of the world, a side thousands upon thousands of miles away from anywhere I’ve ever been, brought here by people very different from me and yet who share a very personal love, even if it’s just for a singular fruit.

And the last wonderful thing about that is that now I can have that mouthful of childhood mind-trip pretty much whenever I want. Which, surprisingly, doesn’t make that mouthful mean any less. Instead, it means that I don’t have to yearn for it, or to eke it out when I get it. I can just appreciate my childhood when I’m in the mood to do so, just like the mango.

As love affairs go, I think that’s a damn happy ending.