Rachel Bennett

Archive for January, 2011|Monthly archive page

Eating Crisps in Class

In Food on January 30, 2011 at 10:45

I was trying to eat lunch. It was during the food forum, the only opportunity for us to refuel on fridays.Yet I always find it an incongruous setting for a pack lunch, with a guest lecturer expounding on viticulture or famine relief as I scatter crumbs of a cheese and chutney sandwich and attempt to remain dignified.

Today, in addition to my sandwich I’d brought a bag of crisps*—delicious, honey golden crisps, the kind with soft matt packaging and a charming air of artisanal irregularity. Tired and weak in my resistance to this cunning marketing, I gleefully opened the packet. This was the first mistake as it rent the air with a loud, irreverent crackle. I withdrew my hands in a hurry, relinquishing ownership of the crisps. But they caught my eye again—despite my sincere interest in the social stratification between land owners and wine growers in Burgundy—an elegant curve of crisp peeping out of the bag, wafting the mingled scent of salt and vinegar my way. It was too much.

I reached for a crisp and put it in my mouth. And that was the second mistake because this crisp was crisper than all the rest; it might have crisped for England. I froze and glanced guiltily about.

“. . . and wiz zis terroir we av a shift from ze geological to ze cultural conception. Yes, ze idea of terrrrroirrr as a long istory . . .”

The crisp turned soggy on my tongue. It was not the most pleasant experience but a fortunate solution to the crunchy predicament; at least I could swallow it and get back to the complexities of terroir.

Alas the bag kept calling, its beach-brown wafers spilling out the side all warm and beckoning, salty and tangy. And so I spent the class in a state of frustration, waiting innocently for a while, then giving in to the crispy allure, popping one in my mouth, and realising my error. Then I had to sit glum and jaw-motionless, feeling the torturous crackle sag on my tongue, the crisp flop, and the flavour linger briefly before fading into nothing.

I will never eat crisps in class again.

* Chips to my fellow Americans. I’ve chosen to use ‘crisps’ as I think that on this rare occasion the English have it right. Crisps far better describes the way they scrunch and shatter in the mouth, the whole sound and feel of these divine morsels.

Vicious Greens

In Food on January 25, 2011 at 21:31

It was another January day, the air crisp with an unfamiliar sun shedding light on my milky winter skin. I walked through the woods inhaling deeply; tomorrow I would fly back to London, back into the unbreakable rhythm of city life. So today my sole mission was to absorb this wild place through my pores, store up the scent of pine and heavy earth until I could return.

Beneath the canopy of evergreens, the forest is bare this time of year with a shrivelled and sunken undergrowth lying low to the ground. Soon the green would return, timidly at first, then brash, and finally swarming, threatening to suffocate any wanderer who walks this way. The blackberries, salmon berries, and huckleberries, ferns and nettles . . . . nettles? Was it possible?

Last year I discovered that nettles arrive early, one of the first Spring greens to brave the frost and burst sprawling upwards from the forest floor. But that was early February, surely mid January would be too soon. But I was curious. Veering from the path I stooped under a tall cedar, the site of my most abundant nettle harvest last year. But the ground was covered here, as elsewhere, with a mishmash of   dead stalks and and twigs. Pushing these aside I bent down further, scrutinizing the ground. And yes, here and there I could pick out little furled shoots peeping out of the soil. Nettles? Not sure I picked one and brought it very close to my nose, sniffing for that unmistakable, soporific scent.

Ouch! My head jerked involuntarily back and I rubbed the end of my nose, annoyed and gleeful. That was nettle alright. And the more I searched and pushed back the dead leaves the more of them I found, tiny ones, no more than an inch or two high, but vicious as any full grown plant.

Half an hour later I was back in the woods, this time equipped with the essentials for nettle collecting: a pair of pink rubber gloves, scissors, and a bag. It took quite a while, given how small and inconspicuous the nettles were, but eventually I managed to collect a a good amount, enough for my purpose. For although there are many wonderful ways to use nettles in the kitchen, the one I love best, and salivate at the thought of, is nettle pesto. Like basil, nettle is a strident, spicy green, powerful enough to hold its own when pummeled into a paste with garlic, olive oil, parmesan, and nuts. In fact, I think nettles make a far more subtle and lively pesto.

Here’s my recipe:

Nettle Pesto

4 cups fresh nettles, packed (use gloves when handling fresh nettles!)
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan
1/2 cup pecans, walnuts, or pine nuts
1 clove garlic, minced
6 cloves garlic, whole and unpeeled
a little lemon juice
sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Blanch the nettles briefly in boiling water (30 seconds or so) and leave to drain. Heat the unpeeled garlic cloves in a skillet until aromatic.  Remove, allow to cool, and then peel. Heat the nuts in the same skillet until lightly toasted. Let them cool and then roughly chop. Throw the nettles, minced and whole garlic, and nuts into a food processor and pulse until combined. Add the oil and process well. Stir in the parmesan and season to taste with lemon juice, salt, and pepper.

The Worst Meal I’ve Ever Had

In Food on January 15, 2011 at 20:39

My brother is working in Utah this winter. It is a desolate place for a medic, patrolling the endless wilderness, awaiting a misplaced foot, one of the workers tumbling down that sheer, merciless mountainside. The nature of his work is a bit like trench warfare with monotonous stretches of boredom pierced now and then by adrenaline fueled action. And so he has ample time to call the family.

When we talk, his favoured topic of conversation is the miserable state of food in Utah. Surrounded by nothing but Dominoes pizza and big Macs, he can’t even drown his sorrows with a proper pint of beer; owing to the Mormon influence it is illegal for bars to serve beer with more than 3.2% alcohol. And this religious fervor extends to coffee, a Satanic drink whose unpopularity with the inhabitants discourages even the zealous missionaries at Starbucks from setting up shop. So between the monopoly of fast food, dishwater beer, and shitty coffee, I deeply sympathize with my bother’s dismal gastronomic surroundings.

At certain times, a truly awful meal can make you feel more depressed and empty than any other of life’s little disappointments. The miserable food becomes the last straw, breaking you down, snapping your ability to endure. Reflecting on the worst meals I’ve had—and here I mean worst in the broadest sense in which the food becomes emblematic of everything else in your unhappy heart—one particular instance comes to mind.

*     *     *

I was about nineteen and driving from Santa Fe, New Mexico to Seattle with my parents and my aunt Joanna. My family invariably has an allergic reaction to being crammed together in a tight space, so by the time we reached the darkest, loneliest depths of rural Idaho our conversation had devolved into open warfare. My father was driving like a man possessed, my mother upbraiding him and panicking about the snow-clad roads, and my aunt Joanna clutching to her seat white-knuckled and wondering why she’d consented to spend Christmas with this mad branch of her family. As for myself, I was dividing the time between arguing vociferously with either Mum or Dad and sulking, regressing further into my childhood with every mile we covered.

The sky was heavy across this unhappy scene and hunger adding to our irritability. Eventually Dad pulled off the highway at one of the few scattered towns and we went in search of dinner. Perhaps in penance for our behavior we had chanced upon one of the more unloved of Idaho’s many orphan towns. The spread of buildings—housing developments, fast food joints, and strip malls—had, like all the worst American towns, no defined center, no heart. It was as if some great being in the sky had scattered them aimlessly across this patch of sea-like wilderness, so that they floated unmoored on the unfeeling soil. And looming over the buildings to the north was a great wall of rock, heaving out of the earth, stolid and forbidding, as if scrutinizing your every move.

I wondered accusingly who were the first people who happened upon this place and said to themselves, “let us settle here, it looks a fine place to make a home.” The terrain was rough and had no rivers or other vital links to recommend it. I can only surmise that those misguided homesteaders were of the more self-flagellatory type of puritan, or that they had succumbed to madness induced by the brutal nature of their journey. Or maybe they were simply too tired to continue and gave themselves up to the dark rock and the mean earth.

We drove around for a while and then opted for an establishment calling itself a ‘family restaurant.’ It was the only place that was not a fast food franchise. My spirits rose perceptibly. After a day and a half of grease-ridden food all I wanted was something fresh. I would have a big green salad and maybe a cup of soup I thought, following the others inside. The interior was wildly colourful as if to make up for the underlying air of desolation and we were ushered to a booth and issued menus by a smiling spotty young man.

I was hungry in a deep way, only half of which was physical. I needed to taste food, to reassure myself that this place and my dark spirits couldn’t alienate me from the ruddy pleasure of existence. Scanning the menu I chose the only salad on offer and a cup of tomato soup. There. I would be warmed by the soup and invigorated by the salad. Thinking about this I managed to smile across at my parents. They weren’t so irritating after all.

“What do you mean you don’t have popcorn? But I want popcorn? How hard can it be?” The man’s voice was both aggressive and whiny. He was sitting in a booth behind us, a large wobbly man with a pale waxy face that was rapidly flushing violent red. The spotty waiter took a step back, trying valiantly to maintain his smile. “I’m s-sorry sir, we just don’t have popcorn. I’ve already asked the kitchen. . . . Is there anything else I can get for you today?”

The fat man glowered and slapped a pudgy hand onto the table. “Give me a chance to check out the menu, okay?” His tone was simmering with fury and I felt sorry for the spotty lad who smiled weakly once more and hurried towards the kitchen.

He returned in a minute bearing our food. “Who has the soup and salad, he chirped? And placed it in front of me with a flourish. I gulped, waiting for him to leave and staring unbelievingly at my food. The plate held a layer of anemic iceberg lettuce, but this was as far as the resemblance to salad went. The lettuce was obscured by great chunks of ham, rubbery strands of cheese, a torrent of bacon bits and finally suffocated in a lava flow of pale, gelatinous dressing. The soup was a strange pink-red and the consistency of pudding. Tomato pudding.

“Pepper?” The youth reappeared, a large pepper mill in hand. I nodded silently, not trusting my voice. “There you are” he finished and continued to hover, desperately avoiding the angry popcorn man. “Anything else for you folks today?” Mum shook her head apologetically.

Numbly I took up my fork as behind us the fat man began interrogating the waiter again. Prodding the salad I lifted a forkful to my mouth and took a bite. Suddenly it was too much: the fat angry man  and the poor spotty waiter, the dreadful diner and the hard grey cliff bearing down, the strip of frothy empty shops and billboards and that foul soulless food inside my mouth. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t stand it any longer. My fork clattered onto the table as I grabbed my napkin to cover the tears pouring down my face and got up, ran outside onto a little patch of grass between the restaurant and the parking lot. I was shaking with emptiness. To my right the wall of rock rising blacker and larger than before, to my left the street a rush with cars and beyond it the Walmarts and multiplex cinemas and McDonalds—the sprawling shadow of America’s myth.

I was no longer hungry, my appetite shrivelled and crushed.  Now I felt exhausted and wanted only to leave, to run from this place that mocked humanity and turned spotty boys into angry men, flesh-padded against their swarming, ugly world and the wilderness in which it sat.

Italian Physique

In Food on January 6, 2011 at 18:05

I made the panettone yesterday. After all the fuss it was a straightforward process. Or would have been but for my impaired condition. Last week I got an infection in my finger, which then proceeded to swell up like a puff pastry and require lancing and draining by the doctor. The procedure was as foul as it sounds and has left me with a bulbous gauze dressing on my right ring finger, inhibiting culinary dexterity. So I had to knead the dough one handed, swearing prodigiously. It took twice the time it would have, but I was determined to make a panettone, gimpy or not.

The other obstacle to my endeavor was the absence of a panettone mold. These pastries are usually identifiable from a distance, voluptuous cylinders decorated with a colorful, ribboned belt, rising to a generous domed top.  Seen from a shop window, they could be nothing other than this stylish Milanese delicacy.

However, the recipe I used warns that panettone molds are hard to come by outside Italy. Instead it suggests that you construct a makeshift mold by extending the height of a six-inch round, spring-form cake tin using a double layer of heavy duty foil lined with parchment paper. Not only did I lack a six-inch round spring form cake tin, the whole process seemed laborious and I didn’t feel dedicated enough to achieving the Italian shape. So I chose to roll my dough into a rope, join the ends, and place this large doughnut into a nine-inch chiffon cake tin. (Note: a chiffon cake tin, also called a tube tin, is a flat bottomed tin with removable base and a tube up the center, creating an “o” shaped cake after baking.)

I have to admit the result was not as aesthetically pleasing as the classic panettone, but in all other resects my pastry was equally delectable. It was soft, delicately sweet, and egg-rich, fragrant with sultry candied peel and dotted with plump golden raisins. After all, one mustn’t succumb to superficiality and judge a panettone by its shape. It is one of the injustices of life that we cannot all be blessed with that congenitally alluring Italian physique.

Candied Kings and Panettone

In Food on January 4, 2011 at 00:08

Once Christmas and New Year have passed, I find myself blinking bemusedly into the expanse of January, feeling as bleak as the winter sunlight. The festivities are over, trees stripped of their twinkling lights, and everyone turns grimly to New Year resolutions, those puritanical punishments for the sins of excess.

It is a rude transition, this movement from merriment to austerity, celebration to regimen. And so I try to ease the shift, wind down the feasting with one final toast to the baby Jesus, one last excuse for a party. Conveniently, Epiphany, that much ignored feast of the three kings on January 6th, provides the perfect justification for a last culinary flourish. It also happens to be my half birthday, and although it is generally considered excessive to celebrate such a dubious occasion beyond the age of about eight, I don’t care.

This year I decided to bake a King’s cake to commemorate the occasion. Traditional versions are found in many places, from France to New Orleans to Mexico and back across the Atlantic to Spain. There is the Gallic gâteau des rois, a flaky pastry filled with thick almond paste, or the round Spanish brioche-like roscón de reyes decorated with candied fruit, or the frankly garish Louisiana king’s cake, heavy with colorful and sickly icing.

Not tempted by any of these, I decided to substitute a sweet I’ve long wished to make, that towering, regal Milanese pastry known as panaton, or panettone. The basic requirements for an Epiphany cake are simple: it must be round, in homage to a king’s crown, and it must contain a bean, or coin, or figurine—something inedible and symbolic of the baby Jesus. Traditions vary, but generally the one who finds the trinket in his or her portion of cake becomes king or queen for the day, with the bossing rights this implies. Panettone, in all its corpulent, fruit-flecked glory, seems ideal for the occasion. It is ample, fragrant, and flashy—an exceedingly Italian confection and in my opinion an auspicious way to begin the new year.

In preparation for the panettone, I first needed to make candied lemon and orange peel. It is possible to buy this, but I was curious about the process and, since many bakers loudly despise store-bought peel, I wanted to see if the homemade stuff is worth the effort.

The verdict? Homemade peel not only contains a depth and intensity of flavor far superior to the commercial product, it is also easy and lusciously beautiful to prepare.

For a couple cups of finished candied peel you will need:

about 2 lemons and 2 oranges (or 2 lemons, 1orange, and 1 grapefruit)
4 cups sugar
4 cups water

Wash and dry the fruit. Using a sharp paring knife, cut through the skin (but not the flesh) and around the fruit, marking it  into six evenly sized sections. Carefully pull the sections of peel off the flesh and save the latter for something else. Use your paring knife to cut away the soft, excess pith from the skin.

Submerge the skin in a pot of cold water, bring to the boil and then drain. Repeat twice. Heat 4 cups of water with 4 cups of sugar in a large, heavy-based saucepan and boil until sugar has dissolved. Add the peel, reduce to a simmer, and cook for about an hour, until the peel is bright and translucent.

Turn off heat and allow peel to cool a little. Then, using tongs or a slotted spoon, remove the peel from the syrup and lay on a wire rack to cool completely. Finally, roll the peel in sugar and store in a jar for later use.

Candied peel is essential for many Christmas or other wintry sweets including mince pies, fruit cake, German stollen and of course panettone. It can also be used to enliven fruit buns, to decorate cakes, or dipped in chocolate and eaten on its own as a luxurious treat.

Daughter of Dionysus

In Food on January 2, 2011 at 05:07

It is rare to experience an occasion encompassing the breadth of Dionysian expression—from cradling tenderness to brash abandon, from the god’s role as protector of fertility and the cultivation of the earth, to his character as revelrous rabble rouser. My niece’s blessing, however, was one of these moments. Fiona Rose Adams was born last May, and by the waning of December—a seven month old bundle of smiles, sparkling eyes, and delicious rolls of fat—she was ready to be officially and publicly welcomed to this world.

It was quite a production. My mother, Fiona’s paternal grandmother, managed to entreat not only the family, but unsuspecting neighbors, friends, friends’ children and children’s friends to take part in the great event. There was to be a short ceremony followed by a large and lavish tea.

For some reason, Mother, a seasoned organizer of such events, became overwrought about the tea. For at least three months beforehand, she’d been continuously reminding me of my promise to help with the cooking, fretting over how much food to prepare, and amassing provisions in the freezer. By the time I returned home for Christmas break, she had baked so many scones and miniature mince pies that it was impossible to open the bulging freezer drawers.

On final review, Mom’s frenetic productions included the regiment of scones, mince pies with brandy butter, a black and ominous plum pudding, a pile of crab and avocado sandwiches, a platter of smoked salmon on brown bread, and a battalion of sausages. My own contribution was limited, mostly out of laziness, to a large Victoria sponge cake filled with homemade strawberry jam and whipped cream and dusted with icing sugar, as well as two dozen lemon souffle tartlets. However, this was by no means the last of the food, for mom had also enlisted the help of Jane, Fiona’s maternal step-grandmother. This miraculous woman produced, in the space of three hours, a quantity of food it would have taken me several days to prepare: two pecan pies, three or four quiches, an enormous poppyseed cake. . . . and probably a handful of other dishes that the recent catatonic surfeit of food and drink has caused me to forget. And so, by the time the big day finally arrived, the tea table was in danger of collapsing under the weight of festive food.

The blessing began magically, as we we wandered through the Maxwelton valley woods to a little, low-slung glade in which nestled a round, one-room structure. Inside it was quiet and soft, beautifully decorated with roses and a flock of candles at one end. Fiona was regal in a long ivory-pale christening dress and cap to match. She smiled and giggled her way through the ceremony, sitting on her mother’s lap, apparently delighted with everything in sight. There were sweet songs, poems, blessings, and a candle lighting ceremony at this non-Christian christening . . . a witchcraft ceremony according to Fiona’s slightly bemused father. Everyone was smiling and making wishes for this new, bubbly little being, and I had that odd, dizzy feeling I get, that visceral sense of the earth spinning fast, beautiful, and merciless beneath me.

Then it was over and everyone piled back to the house for tea. In shocking disregard for the name, no one touched that temperate drink but turned to the mulled wine instead. Bottles were uncorked and the wine warmed with orange peel, sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg, and spiked with brandy. More bottled were emptied and the food attacked. The room became warmer and the guests more loquacious as the evening closed around the house and her inhabitants.

Fiona was carried home by her parents and the guests began trickling away. Fancying a change of scene, a couple friends and I bundled ourselves out into the cold in search of a beer and a girlie gossip. I was tired by all the cooking and blessing and boozing, and it wasn’t more than an hour or so before I said goodnight and returned home. I was expecting to find my parents alone, dealing with the debris of the party, and so was doubly surprised at the sight that greeted my eyes. Walking into the sitting room, I found a gaggle of remaining guests. Chris was sprawled across the sofa, a glass of wine balanced on his chest. The others, including my parents, were established on further sofas and chairs and all obviously settled in for the evening and several in a decidedly impaired state.

(Note: names have been changed, for obvious reasons.)

“Rachie,” exclaimed Laurie, as I took in the scene. “Rachie, Rachie, come sit by me.” She was flushed and beaming broadly, a glass of scotch crooked between her fingers and her slight body gently swaying as she spread out her arms in a bonhomous welcome.

Next moment Ron ambled through the doorway, a bong nonchalantly clasped in one hand, a lighter in the other.

“I want to try it . . . . no no I’ve never smoked before,” chimed the little old woman in the corner, peering blearily through her bangs which had fallen in front of her eyes. “Rebecca says it will help me sleep.”

Across the room, I found myself wedged between Laurie and Sandra, both of whom were attempting, with grim tenacity, to extract all juicy details from my love life.

“All I’m saying is you mustn’t compromise,” declared Laurie, clutching my arm for emphasis. “What yon need,” she continued, tightening her grip and swaying more vigorously, “what you need is a hero; you must have a hero.”

“But are you having fun?,” Sandra asked. “I mean LONDON, you must be having fun, right?”

“But no Englishmen, forget them,” Laurie chimed in, her face serious and glassy now.

I gulped at my glass of whiskey, torn between distress and amusement. Struggling between the two I let amusement win. I was no longer a girl, that would be Fiona’s place in a couple years. Instead I was here, drinking with the elders. How wonderful, that on the day of her christening, Fiona’s grandparents and their friends solemnly blessed her. And then they let rip, let loose, imbibed, poured generous libations upon the ground and down their throats—to Fiona, to the gods, to Dionysus in his lawless vigorous veracity.

May your journey be a great celebration. . . The words of my mother’s blessing swam through my mind.

With a strong heart and solid foothold
may you turn your face into the wind. . .
May you have liberation for silliness,
for silliness is sacred
May you get up each morning
with robust enthusiasm, find what moves you
and follow that star.
May you live a long and vigorous life.
love wildly, deeply, and sensibly.
And may you at the end of your life
fall confidently into that final embrace
of unspeakable countenance. (Judith Adams)