Rachel Bennett

Archive for February, 2011|Monthly archive page

Portugal and Pastéis

In Food on February 26, 2011 at 23:12

Siga em frente!” The woman scowled, the fissures of her face deepening as she gesticulated up the cobbled hill. “Em frente!” Again she waved into the rain and then turned, shook a pool of water from her umbrella and shuffled down the rain-soaked street, shoulders hunched, unhelpful.

I swore silently and adjusted my backpack, scowling too now. The rain was descending heavier than before, a leaden sheet splitting onto the street and tearing into pieces. Little fragments were finding their way through my clothing, trickling, swerving down my neck, matting the cloth of my shirt so that it clung to my skin, damp and clammy. I looked down at the bit of drooping paper in hand, the ink beginning to run. This is not my fucking idea of spring break, I thought, turning bitterly towards the cobbled hill.

It was my sophomore year of college and I was studying in Madrid. As spring break neared, my classmates began to concoct plans. “Come with us to Morocco,” Melissa urged. But I had other ideas. I was restless and existentially moody. I wanted a challenge and suddenly realized that I had never wandered alone. I’d traveled alone, but always with structure – to Granada for a flamenco course or to Paris to meet up with friends. I had never simply booked a ticket to a foreign place, picked up my pack, and left. I was getting excited; but where to go?

Nestled in the airplane heading west over the arid swath of central Spain, I had envisioned sun-baked streets and browned skin, and myself wandering into the city. I would find a convenient cafe with tables on the plaza and drape my sun-starved body out to air. I’d people watch and read novels, and when bored of my own company, I’d bump into a group of lively Australians and party the night away. It was going to be an adventure – a blissful and carefree escape.

That is how I found myself standing on a sodden street in Porto, shivering in the cold and rain. I had only been in the country for an hour but already I was regretting my stubbornness. Having decided that to book a hostel would be ‘cheating,’ and categorically against the spirit of adventure, I’d simply scribbled the name and address of a nice-looking place with the vague notion that I would see what happened when I got there.

So it was with a great sinking of the heart – and fond thoughts of Morocco – that I trudged in the direction the woman had pointed, the rain unceasing and the faint light fading into the gloom of a death-grey dusk.

When I finally arrived, the hostel was equally uninspiring. Almost empty, the only other occupants were a couple of earnest girls from Maine with formidable backpacks and plans to go off camping the following day. There was no hint of raucous, cheeky-eyed Australians. Beyond this disappointment, I was totally unprepared for the weather and by now thoroughly soaked. The rain had become torrential, and I was shivering violently, so I ate a soggy sandwich and went to bed.

In the morning the wholesome girls were gone and I awoke alone in the hostel. It was still grey but no longer raining so I put on some dry clothes sallied forth into the city, grimly resolved to enjoy myself. At first it was difficult. I walked along dull streets with half the buildings abandoned, many of them apparently burned and long derelict. The people too seemed weary and somewhat dispirited after the vigor and pulse of Madrid. And I didn’t speak Portuguese. Slowly, I felt my heart retracting again into despondency.

But I was hungry. Ducking into the first cafe I found, the world pivoted instantly from dull to decadent. Everything was glossy – the tables and chairs gleamed, the espresso machine shone and the pastry case positively twinkled. I ordered an espresso, in my hapless Portuguese, and pointed to a custard tart.

I took a bite, tissue like leaves of puff pastry shattering and sighing on my tongue, giving way to a rich, lemon-scented custard cream. Then I took a sip of espresso the colour and depth of ebony. It tore through the soft cream, cutting it into lush relief – dark fire against egg-rich round. I took another bite, and another sip.

Perhaps Portugal wouldn’t be so bad after all, I thought, brushing crumbs from my jeans and settling back with a book.

*     *     *

Some friends of mine recently returned from a trip to Portugal laden with wine, cheese and plans for a Portuguese themed potluck. So I’ve been mulling over what to make and I simply can’t keep those custard tarts out of my mind. So today, after flicking through various recipes, I gave it a go.

It was my first attempt at pastéis de nata. While certainly toothsome and lush, they weren’t quite, quite there. I will post a recipe once I’ve coaxed a perfect batch!

Yes, ehem, they are supposed to have scorch spots.

 

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Farmers, Fishmongers, and Frites

In Food on February 20, 2011 at 21:14

My week of feverous cooking ended with a feast. On Saturday morning I braved the dense drizzle and took a trip to Notting Hill Farmers Market. As it is February I didn’t think to find more than a couple of stalwart farmers offering grubby potatoes and frozen meat. And so my spirits rose on arrival. There were delicate jewel-like shoots and spicy salad greens; cheeses of every description, local honey and preserves. There was a man from Hurdlebrook Farm selling raw Guernsey milk, cream thick as custard, and cylinders of golden butter; I bought all three.

I also bought a kilo of soil robed potatoes for french fries and new season rhubarb for compote. Then I marched out. Not be trusted at farmers markets, I tend to start quivering, lose all sense of proportion and find myself staggering home under the weight of weird offal, stinking cheese, and enough beets to sink a battleship.

For dinner I had my heart set on moules frites, hence the potatoes, and so after leaving the market I went in search of a fishmonger. As luck would have it I stumbled across one within moments. Situated yards from Notting Hill Gate tube station, James Knight is a diminutive shop that looks as though it has been spit out by a retreating tide—wet, dark, and redolent of the sea.

The mussels, ancient and gleaming in their barnacle studded shells, were on display in a big tub. I asked for half a kilo, and as the woman weighed them out, we talked recipes. A chef friend, she explained, liked to cook mussels with smoked haddock. It sounded intriguing but I was hankering for something simpler. A sprinkle of shallots and garlic fried delicately in butter, a splash of white wine, pinch of saffron, toss on the mussels and steam until done. Swirl in a dollop of cream and devour. I was salivating already.

“Nice rhubarb, where did you find it?” asked the man behind the counter, counting out my change. “Goes well with mackerel you know,” he continued, “here, I’ll print off a recipe for you.”

Would they sell me fish heads? I asked for future reference, thinking of bouillabaisse.

“We’ll give them to you. Just call up the day before and we’ll keep them aside. Fish heads, bones for stock, whatever.”

I departed James Knight happy, the mussels and saffron nudging the rhubarb in my shopping bag and the recipe tucked into my purse. In addition to scrupulous sourcing, with 80% of the catch drawn from British shores and a strong commitment to sustainable fishing, this is a shop where the staff are knowledgeable, clearly passionate about fish, and even hand out recipe suggestions! I was sold and vowed to return soon.

In confirmation of my experience, I learned later that James Knight has earned other, more coveted seals of approval: By appointment to H.R.H. The Price of Wales and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, fishmonger.

What can I say. Great palates think alike.

Love, Bread, and Cheese

In Food on February 15, 2011 at 23:46

One gets attached to a sourdough starter; it is only natural. After coaxing it into life, feeding and watering it daily, this putrid and soupy mixture becomes like an ugly, endearing mongrel. Yet when your flatmate accuses you of sleeping with the starter, you know it has become an obsession. It has become embarrassing.

I fully admit to a sourdough obsession (although I have not gone so far as to cuddle it in bed). So today, partly in celebration of my decision to write my dissertation on artisan breads and also because, more prosaically, I’d run out of toast, I baked great fat whale of a loaf. In fact this was the entire extent of my culinary achievements today. It was made with a rye starter, Bacheldre Watermill‘s oak smoked stoneground malted wheat flour, and a mixture of sesame, sunflower, and flaxseeds. The result was dark and chewy with a good crust and a wonderfully sweet, smoky scent.

For dinner I made a cranking grilled cheese. I sawed off a couple slices, topped one with a generous hunk of vacherin, a scant few morsels of sun-dried tomato, spinach, and finely chopped spring onions, and squashed the whole together. Coated lightly in oil and pressed in a cast iron pan over a medium heat  (weighed down unconventionally with a gallon jar) it emerged crisp on the outside, gooey in the middle and deliriously good.

Benedict, Muffins, and Marys

In Food on February 14, 2011 at 21:55

Poached eggs, hollandaise sauce, canadian bacon, and spinach on freshly baked, if marginally scorched, whole grain English muffins.

 

Marginally scorched and slightly dense whole grain English muffins.

 

Bloody lovely.

Dancing with Dionysus

In Food on February 14, 2011 at 19:49

This morning I awoke with a mission: a whole week off and I plan to cook myself silly.

I skipped into the kitchen, brewed a big French press and scurried back to bed, cook books scattered over the covers, laptop at the ready, coffee steaming on the bedside table. It was time for some serious planning.

This week I crave cooking. I want to bake something monumental and frivolous, something girly as hell with satiny frosting and colours and sprinkles and glitter. I want to buy half a dozen types of fish and brew a bouillabaisse that makes me weep as if I were an exiled Marseillaise. I want to make a thousand things I’ve never made before: donuts and croissants, sushi and tortellini, apple strudel, tamales, gravlax, and pieds et paquets. Doubtless I’m being over ambitious but hey, to hell with the details I’ll give it a whirl.

First on the list is eggs benedict which I have been craving in a deep, persistent way. It reminds me of America, of desheavelled, bleary eyed breakfasts with my friends after three hours of sleep. It reminds me of Seattle, of queuing up at Glo’s for hours, then waiting contentedly for another age until the hippies behind the stove serve up drool-worthy benedicts and hash browns in their own sweet, weed-warped time. I’ve made this brunch classic before, but in a thoroughly half-hearted way and it was far from perfect. This time I’m going the whole hog and making my own English muffins. So this evening, if all goes well, I’m going to have a stellar meal: eggs benedict enthroned on a freshly-baked muffin and guzzled down with a kicker bloody mary. Well it’s brunch time somewhere in the world, surely.

Right now my muffins are proving and I’m about to get started on the hollandaise. But first, a bloody mary is in order. So it’s back to the kitchen helm with a full report to follow.

Marmalade Manifesto

In Food on February 13, 2011 at 19:24

The reports from 2010 are unequivocal; marmalade sales are dropping dramatically as Britons betray their national heritage and slather peanut butter, Nutella, and jams onto their breakfast toast. The news is sending shock waves through cooks, foodies, and bloggers the country-wide, as they raise their collective hands in horror, proliferating eulogies on marmalade and casting about for some plausible explanation for this mass betrayal. Perhaps, in the do-it-yourself spirit of our times, they suggest, everyone was making marmalade at home?

Of course those in the know have always made marmalade at home. It is one of the products our industrialized food system has failed to replicate successfully, producing lackluster pots of neon orange devoid of any real body or soul. No doubt there are posh pots you can buy for £5 a pop in Whole Foods or Harrods, but it is impossible to find a satisfactory, reasonably priced product. And so I find myself joining the ranks of cooks and writers on a mission to persuade you, dear readers, of the benefits of homemade. Here, then, is my marmalade manifesto:

The character of commercial marmalade is abominable: the colour is an awful, lurid shade of orange; there is no textural variation, with uniform, machine-cut peel floating in bland orange syrup; and most importantly, the taste is one-dimensional and overly sweet. This is the miserable state of affairs.

In contrast, proper homemade marmalade is a treasure—literal pots of gold—beyond price. It has complexity, variation, and nuance. It is dark and gleaming like an ancient stained glass window, and the taste is a beautiful balance of sweet citrus shot through with a bitter and elegant Seville blade. Even when inexpertly made, as my marmalade inevitably is, the result is almost always lovely.

Beyond gastronomic benefits, the process of making marmalade itself is immensely satisfying. Admittedly laborious, it is nonetheless a perfect way to decompress after a stressful week. Boiling, chopping, stirring, and then letting the concoction bubble away on the stove, it soothes the spirit and perfumes your house with oranges, so that in the bleakness of a northern February you become infused with a succulent Mediterranean sun.

And there is also the smugness factor. For myself at least, there is something decidedly satisfying about clambering up to the top of the kitchen cupboards months after making marmalade, rooting around in the depths, and dragging out a dusty, amber pot. Even choosing which one to open next is quietly gratifying, as I store marmalade in a mismatched collection of old mustard, honey, and olive jars. So depending on what takes my fancy, I can pick an elegant cylinder that once contained sun-dried tomatoes and feta in oil, or a short, tubby ex-honey pot. In fact, from boiling the oranges to slathering the golden contents onto a slice of toast, homemade marmalade a study in deliciously smug indulgence.

There are some foods which merit a little snobbery. Not because they are expensive or particularly difficult to make, but because they are the real thing. They stand proudly, sneering down a the masquerading masses, the flashy yet vacuous impostors with their dirty secret flavorings and additives, their synthetic preservatives and packaged pretensions. Marmalade is one such food.

In the period drama Gosford Park there is a scene that sums up my attitude towards marmalade. Maggie Smith is at her vintage best playing the haughty, tightly held Lady Constance Trentham, who, upon being served bought marmalade at breakfast is unimpressed, looking down her nose at it in that belittling way that Maggie Smith executes so well:

“Oh, dear.” She comments, eyeing the pot with prim revulsion. “Bought marmalade. Dear me, I call that very feeble.”

Here is my favourite Seville orange marmalade, adapted from a recipe by my aunt Joanna—queen among marmalade makers. And using this basic method, you can then improvise with abandon: Give it a zesty kick by adding root ginger; ring the changes with a batch of three fruit marmalade including lemon, orange, and grapefruit; or go wild with Mayer lemons. Below however is the timeless classic.

Seville Orange Marmalade

Note: Seville oranges are only available in winter, from about January through early March. In the US it may take some work to hunt them down. But don’t despair, ginger orange or three fruit marmalade is perfectly delicious made with plain old oranges.

Ingredients:

3 pounds Seville oranges
2 lemons
2 tablespoons treacle/dark molasses
5 pounds castor/granulated sugar
a large pot
a piece of muslin

Method:

1. Scrub the fruit and place in large saucepan. Cover with water and boil until the fruit is nice and soft. Remove and leave to cool.

2. Cut the fruit in half and using a spoon scoop all the insides (pips and flesh) into a muslin cloth placed in a medium size mixing bowl. Tie up the muslin and place in a sieve above the mixing bowl to catch all the juice.

3. Measure out the water left in the saucepan plus the juice in the bowl to make six pints. If you fall short just add water. Put the muslin bag into the water and boil until it has reduced by about half. Turn off the water and strain the muslin bag in sieve over a bowl to catch all the juice, then pour all the juice back into the saucepan.

4. Slice the peel to the size you like, wafer thin strips for fine-cut or hefty chunks for a more rustic thick-cut version. Add the rind to the boiled water.

5. Next (and this can be done the next day if necessary) add the sugar and black treacle to the pot and bring slowly to the boil so that the sugar can dissolve properly. Boil until set. To test for setting, dribble a small spoonful of marmalade onto a saucer and pop into the freezer for a couple of minutes. Remove and then run your finger through the marmalade. If it leaves a clear path, its ready.

6. Let the marmalade sit for a bit before you jar; if your pot too soon all the rind floats to the top. Also, if there is froth on the top, swirl in a small knob of butter and it will clear.

7. Sterilize your jars: This can be done by running them through a cycle in the dishwasher or simply pouring boiling water into them before use. Ladle the marmalade into the hot, clean jars. Screw lids on while the marmalade is still warm as this will help create a seal.

Marmalade is delicious on buttered toast but it has many other uses. Spiked with pepper and cloves it makes a lovely glaze for ham or pork loin, and a couple tablespoons makes a luscious addition to a ginger cake.

 

 

The following is a poem by my mum in which she distills the particular pleasure and of making marmalade:

 

Making Marmalade
By Judith Adams

 

In the back of the cupboard
is the sedentary pot
whose alchemical occupation

I call on when the season
comes loaded with oranges
dark against the morning that never

quite comes lit in winter.
I switch to a good interview on the radio,
something inspirational, because the

world is at odds and I have existential dread.
I heave its weight out for the ritual,
cut oranges and lemons,

scrape the fat fingers and knuckles of ginger,
cutting them into hairy chunks,
and cover with water the crescent wheels of fruit.

The pubescent acidity seeps into the curtains,
bedding, and back door flower bed.
After heaving for hours begins to turn over

to amber glass that rises and switches,
peel upon sticky peel of golden
resin coating the wooden spoon.

I have become an expert of the peak moment,
the rising that holds preservation.
Convincing proof of this art

labeled, lined up on the windowsill
so a passing man or stray angel might wish for
one delicious, flaxen, sacramental taste.

 

Winter Ale Whiteout

In Food on February 6, 2011 at 23:17

It all began with research. My friend Catherine is writing her dissertation on beer and, as a diligent anthropology student, she feels strongly about the value of participant observation, both in production and consumption. So she has begun this field work, as it might be called, hanging out with brewers and exercising her arm muscles with pint weights of quality British brews.

This weekend Catherine wanted help with research. Would I be interested in attending a beer festival in Dover? Anxious to assist the cause of academic excellence, I found myself at St. Pancreas blinking blearily into the unforgiving glare of a Saturday morning, a coffee grasped in one hand, a ticket to Dover in the other.

After an hour’s journey through increasingly misty terrain we arrived at the port town, tumbled out of the train, and wandered off in search of the festival. We didn’t know what to expect: street overflowing with beer stalls or half a dozen old timers in the corner of a pub. So the seven of us headed vaguely for the city center and after a few false turns found our selves inside an ancient church of a building, all heavy stone, stained glass, and dark wood. Against one side of the long room were row upon row of metal barrels, each labeled with the brewery and beer. It was barely midday, yet the room was comfortably full, the true connoisseurs—with serious, determined expressions—already well deep into their pints.

The plan was to explore the famed white cliffs, have lunch, and then return to the festival. But as we were there, why not have a quick beer for the road, a little moral support before facing the wet, blustery skies. We each bought pint glasses and a stack of tokens to last the day, then turned to the wall of ales and the delicious predicament of deciding what to drink first. I went for a local Kent porter; it was lunchtime after all, and I craved its sweet, round-bodied bulk.

Chatting about beer, arguing about the merits of keeping chickens, and sampling everyone drinks, it wasn’t long before I’d finished my second heady half pint and was swaying delicately but persistently in my boots. It was only 1 pm. If I were to survive an afternoon lunch was urgently needed.

So we ducked into a pub down the street, ate a lack luster meal, and then walked down to the sea. My stomach full of food and my head still swimming in ale, the cliffs suddenly looked remote and uninteresting, and I was glad when we decided unanimously to abandon the trek. It was enough to walk along the pier, the wind whipping my hair and the spray hissing below. I was in heaven: away from the grit and scuffle of London, the sea air sweeping through my body leaving me tingling and slightly giddy, the way a strong wind always does.

I was walking very close to the railing along the pier’s edge, glancing now and then down at the heaving sea, when suddenly a particularly enthusiastic wave slammed into the wall flinging a fountain of spray skyward. The white froth soared above the railing, curled over, and slapped me full in the face. I shrieked, the deluge of saltwater cold and hard against my head, drenching my hair and trickling down my neck.  For a moment it felt good, that sharp sobering shower, but then the wind picked up, my head went numb, and I felt I’d seen enough of Dover’s seafront. Another beer was necessary, if only to ward off a cold.

Back in the church we turned in earnest to the task of tasting beer. There were stouts black as a moonless midnight, chocolate brown porters, ruby ales like liquid caramel, and pale ales the colour of sun-browned skin. Being completely clueless about these brews, I chose based on the names. Many of these hinted at excitement or danger with labels like Skull Splitter, Cyclops, Wobbly Bob, Angry Ox, and Monkmans Slaughter.

The afternoon wore on, becoming more enjoyable and fuzzy by the minute. Eventually the beers began to disappear, one after another of the barrels tapped and hauled from their perches. As this happened our drinking became more determined; no one wanted to be left sipping the dregs of the worst barrel. So we drained our glasses hurriedly, refilled and carried on swigging. The room began to empty, the connoisseurs now ruddy faced and slightly rounder, tottering towards the door. In our group, things began to degenerate and by 5 pm Tom was sporting a napkin hat and we were all leaning against tables, walls and each other in an effort to remain standing.

For my part, the world was wonderful, all warm and liquid. I loved my new friends, and Dover, and real British ales. I even felt tolerant towards real British rain. We piled into the train, giggling and slumping deliriously into the seats. Life was good. Then the train began to move and I sunk into the depths.

When I resurfaced the world was different and the story less pretty. I was very aware of the moving train, jolting and fast. My stomach was writhing, my head full of putty, and my eyes unhinged. I tried deep breathing and chatting to Fredrick, but it was difficult to sustain a thought and I ended the evening at the station, mumbling a faint farewell to my friends and shuffling through the underground towards home. It was admittedly an ignominious end to a truly delicious day.

 

Chocolate Research

In Food on February 1, 2011 at 12:13