Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Making food for the winter

I've been thinking a lot about the differences between food culture in Britain and food culture in Canada lately. For all that people make fun of "British food", there are some really positive things about it, especially with the recent emphasis on eating locally. A similar movement exists in Canada, but it doesn't have the same place in the mainstream as it does in Britain. Canadians don't have a Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall extolling the virtues of growing your own vegetables, or a Gordon Ramsay raising animals in his own backyard. Is eating locally a trend? Perhaps, but it's a worthwhile one, in my opinion.

Of course, eating locally in Canada--especially in Quebec--can be extremely difficult. While the variety of vegetables available during the winter is rather limited in Britain (leek and potato soup, anyone?), it is at least possible to grow veg during the winter. Not so in Quebec when the earth is frozen and is covered in feet of snow. And yet, people have survived here for a long time and managed to make due during the winters. I want to learn more about this and try to see if and how it is possible to make it through an Eastern Canadian winter without relying on imported food. I imagine that this involves a lot of preserved food and meat.

In any case, I was at the local market with Anna today and I snubbed her decision to buy pears because they were imported from the US. She then told me that I wanted to eat locally, but she didn't see me making preserves. That's not such a bad challenge, and so I bought a half-bushel of Quebec Spartan apples.

Apple sauce is one of the easiest ways to preserve large quantities of apples, and if you store it correctly, it will keep for a long time.

The recipe:


Peel, core, and cut the apples into chunks. Put them into a large pot, add a bit of water and allow the apples to stew until they break down and make a nice, thick sauce. It will look somewhat like this:

When the sauce is about finished, add sugar and cinnamon to taste.

If you're going to preserve the apple sauce, sterilise mason jars by boiling them right side up in a large pot for ten minutes. Scoop the sauce into the sterilised jars ad seal them tightly. I don't know how long the apple sauce will keep like this, but it should be for at least a few months.

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Pasta with a Cherry Tomato Sauce

What can you do when you're saddled with more garden-grown tomatoes than you can really eat? A lot of things, probably, but I'm wasn't all that creative today (and I made a tomato salad last night for dinner), so I made a tomato sauce with them. It's simple, it's tasty, and it uses a lot of tomatoes.

The recipe:

Cherry tomatoes
Regular tomatoes
Tomato paste
Various herbs and spices (I used oregano, basil, and chili flakes)

First, open the beer and begin drinking it. Chop the onion and garlic and brown them in a pan. Coarsely chop up the regular tomato and add it to the pan. Add in the tomato paste and some water, allow to simmer for a while. Add herbs and season to taste. Once the sauce has thickened, transfer it to a blender or food processor and blend it until it's sort of smooth. Transfer this into a saucepan and add the cherry tomatoes. Allow this to simmer for a while. The cherry tomatoes will soften and burst. Serve with parmesan over pasta. We used a fresh vegetable pasta from a local fruiterie and it was delicious, but any pasta will do.

What is healthy about this recipe: Pretty much everything.

What is seasonal about this recipe: Again, pretty much everything.

What I learned from this recipe: The beer ingredient is pretty much key in all recipes.

What I will change next time: Anna and I debated over whether or not the tomato paste was necessary (she makes it without the paste) or whether or not it's worth blending the sauce. She's probably right in that it makes the recipe a little bit more complicated, but it's worth the extra few seconds effort if you prefer your sauce smoother.

Starting the sauce.

The sauce is almost ready.

Thursday, 23 August 2007

Apologies for the lack of posting on this blog for the past couple of months. We've moved back to Montreal and so things have been hectic and haven't allowed for much cooking together. We will be in our new place soon enough though, so expect some proper updates in the next week or two.

Sunday, 17 June 2007

BBQ on my mind

Ah, England. Land of rainshowers that come out of nowhere, and random hailstorms. Land of thinking that summer has come, only to discover that you put away your coat to quickly when all of a sudden you are faced with three straight days of cold downpours. Sunshine is not anything to take for granted around here, so make the most of it when we can.

A yard as big as ours is also a hot commodity, and lately this has meant BBQing as often as we can. Last weekend we got together to have what Graeme dubbed an "adult" BBQ, i.e. our attempt to actually make lovely things to eat and not just grill store-bought burgers and hotdogs. (This is no diss on store-bought burgers and hotdogs, as plopped on a grill, they are indeed a joyous thing to behold. We were just in the mood to be creative.)

Now, before I move on to our feast, let me issue a warning to any of our UK readers who may be planning their own BBQs--DO NOT, under any circumstances, PURCHASE CHARCOAL FROM TESCO. The coal is fake, and doesn't actually...burn! It goes from black to white, without any red in between, and thus makes BBQ-ing a stressful attempt to cook things at an abysmally low level of heat. We learned this the hard way, and will now always read the fine print on any charcoal that we purchase. Because otherwise, you spend several barbeques wondering if you're crazy and incompetent, and why can't you just get the damn thing to light? It has been an ordeal, I tell you.

That caveat aside, we ate well. Lots of produce from the market, chicken from the hallal butchers, and other bits and pieces that we picked up in our BBQ fervour. The menu was as follows:

Smoked mackerel dip (Graeme really needs to post the recipe for this, it's amazing)
Whole wheat beer bread
Mozzarella, tomato and basil salad
Chorizo, pork and apple, and vegetarian sausages (we didn't make any of these!)
Tuna and prawn skewers
Goan spiced chicken
Rhubarb and strawberry pie.
Iced tea
White sangria
Red sangria

Behold all the STUFF that went into our efforts:

I've only got a few photos and recipes on hand, so I'll only post about the skewers and the pie. Both of which were delicious (and cooking tuna was inspired as it was the only thing that made sense to cook on such a freaking NOT HOT bbq--no worries that it didn't cook through, unlike with the chicken!)

First, behold the beauty of the salad. I'm sure y'all don't need a recipe for it. I had been craving tomato/mozzarella/basil salad like mad for a couple of weeks. No reason why, but it sure is delicious.

And here are our delicious tuna and prawn creations:

The Recipe:


Two nice meaty tuna steaks, cut into chunky cubes
Pack of large prawns
Package cherry tomatoes
1 bell pepper
About 10 shallots, chopped in half
Lemon juice
Olive oil

First things first, put together some lemon juice (about 1 lemon's worth), olive oil (a couple of tblsp), and seasoning, to make a marinade. Throw in your tuna and prawns, make sure they're well-coated, and let them sit in the marinade for as long as you can (I think ours soaked up the lemon juice for a couple of hours).

When you're ready to put the guys together, then take out the marinaded seafood, and rotate skewering veg and pieces of prawn and tuna until you've got lovely colourful sticks of food. Grill--this should be quick! That's it!

Here is a bonus photo of Graeme lovingly crafting his skewers of tastiness:

Up next, Rhubarb and strawberry pie. I love making pies in the summer because they're so simple and rarely require a real "recipe". Just throw together some shortcrust pastry, chop up some fruit and mix it with some sugar and something to keep it from getting too liquidy, and VOILA! Simple simple simple, as summer foods should be. Here's how I made mine:

The Recipe:

(Please note that it's a bit of a funny shape because I don't have a pie dish, and so I use a springform cake pan!)


1 batch of shortcrust pastry lovingly thrown together by one's shortcrust genius boyfriend (I believe he used 250g flour, 1/2 cup chilled butter, and 2-3 tblsp ice water. Combine the flour and cut up butter well enough that it has the texture of breadcrumbs, and then slowly incorporate the water until it form a solid dough. Do not OVERwater.)

2 cups rhubarb, chopped
1 cup strawberries, chopped
1/3 cup sugar
2 tblsp butter
1/3 cup flour

Preheat your oven to 200C. Roll out half the shortcrust and spread it out across the bottom and sides of your pie dish. Throw together the fruit, flour, and sugar, and mix until they're well combined. Pour this mixture into your pie dish, and spread it out evenly. Cut sliver out of your butter, and place them strategically on top of various bits of the pie. Roll out your remaining shortcrust and cover the pie with it, crimping the edges, and getting your genius boyfriend to make a cute strawberry shape to put on top. Bake in a hot over for 40 minutes or so, until the pie is nice and golden brown. Eat large slices with your hands.

I don't know why the combo of rhubarb and strawberries is so perfect, but it really is. So tangy, and so sweet, at the same time. People loved this pie.

Sunday, 10 June 2007

Ode to the Sandwich, Part 2

Previously in this blog, Anna posted about a sandwich she'd made. We've been planning on making sandwiches a regular feature of this blog, as they're a food that doesn't get a lot of credit, yet, there are few things that are more satisfying than them when they're done well. Quality ingredients are crucial to most foods, but they're perhaps even more important in sandwiches because the ingredients really have to stand on their own. Good bread is absolutely critical and will make the difference between a mediocre sandwich and a good one.

The above sandwich was made last Saturday after our trip to the farmers' market. The sandwich is basically a BLT with fresh wholegrain bread, streaky bacon from the local butcher fried until crispy, some organic lettuce and tomato, mayonnaise, and some pickles from the Polish shop that just opened up down the street.

We washed it down with glasses of cherry juice.

Saturday, 9 June 2007

The fourth and final adventure at the East Oxford Farmers' Market

Waking up at a quarter to seven on a Saturday morning can only mean one thing to us: market day. As we're moving back to Montreal soon, this was our last time running a stall at the East Oxford Farmers' Market and so we had mixed feelings about it. On one hand, it's been a great experience and we've met some really great people and we've really enjoyed actively participating in the community. At the same time, while we haven't been doing this for the money, we've been only just breaking even, and it's frustrating to spend hours working hard in the kitchen (never mind the time spent working on recipes and sourcing ingredients and so on and so forth) for little reward. Yeah, yeah, the sense of satisfaction and all that, but it would be nice to be able to go out for a nice dinner with the proceeds of the market. The difficulty we came across was trying to balance using quality local and organic ingredients as much as possible while still keeping prices reasonable. For instance, 250g of organic butter produced at a local dairy costs £1.50, while Tesco's organic butter is around half the price. We could cut corners and use the Tesco butter (or flour, or milk, or meat, or whatever), but it's important to us--and is keeping in line with the general ethos of the Farmers' Market--to source ingredients as locally as possible. At the end of the day, I'd rather just break even and use good ingredients, but it would be even better to make a little bit of extra money using the same ones. Anyway, enough of this for now, on to the baking!

We already had pierogi and pies from past markets in the freezer, and there were no takers for Anna's pita bread last time (a shame, since it was excellent and a far cry better than the bland cardboardy stuff you get at the supermarkets), so we stuck to making bagels, cornbread, and scones (both plain and cheese) in the morning. Anna's been making the bagels, but I helped out with the dough this time. Here's Anna sprinkling sesame seeds over the bagels before baking them:

Anna looking not very impressed at me for taking her photo while she's checking if the bagels are done.

Finally, the bagels on the cooling rack. To my mind, these are the finest bagels available in the whole of the UK, at least outside of Golders Green. I don't know if you can actually get good bagels in Golders Green, but bagels anywhere else in this country are atrocious and a disgrace to bageldom.

Here's an action shot of me putting a batch of scones into the oven.

The cheese scones just baked and ready to be taken out of the oven.

Finally, putting the scones on a cooling rack before boxing them up to take them to the market.

As we schlepped our wares to the market on a hot, humid, and overcast morning, grumpy from having to wake up early and having heavy bags of fresh baked goods digging into our shoulders, we vowed to sell as much as we humanly could just so that we didn't have to lug all the stuff back again.

The weather forecast was middling, but the marquees were up on the grounds of the Asian Cultural Centre and we set up our table near a blooming elderberry bush.

Here's a close up of one of the pies and a bag of pierogi. We kept the rest of them in a freezer bag packed with ice packs under the table.

The market was busy, with people milling about and enjoying the day and the market. People were enthusiastic about our stall and, little by little, we started selling out of things. First the cornbread went. Since Anna started making it in muffins instead of slices, we haven't been able to carry enough of it. Then the plain scones sold out--this was a first, since the plain scones tended not to sell that well in previous weeks. It was a relief too, since I had forgotten to add baking powder into the first batch of them and had to fold some in just before I pinned the dough out. They fortunately ended up looking okay, and the punters seemed to really like them. The bagels also sold really well. One of the farmers bought a dozen the last time we did the stall--this time she bought about sixteen of them! This was really flattering because we look up to these farmers and it feels really good knowing that they not only like our cooking, but that they like it enough to buy such large amounts of it. We also noticed that a lot of the people buying from us had bought from us before. Prior to this, we seemed to have about half returning customers and half people trying out our things for the first time. Doing this as amateurs, there's always the question about whether or not the food is good enough to sell. We're good cooks, and don't have such a lack of confidence when having people over for dinner, but it's different when people are paying for your food. You feel that you are being compared to people who do this for a living and there are doubts about whether or the food is worth the money people are spending on it. As we ended up selling all but two pies and a couple of bags of pierogi, apparently it is good enough. We ended up going home with a much lighter load.

It was nice to finish our time at the East Oxford Farmers' Market on such a high. One of the things that we really like about this market is that it feels that it is actually a part of the community and that it avoids a lot of the class pitfalls that too often come along with farmers' markets and food culture generally. The market has been running for nearly a year and it is becoming increasingly diverse, with more and more of the community represented each week. When we first started going to the market, we felt it strange that even though the market was hosted at the Asian Cultural Centre, that there was little overlap with the people who use that centre on a daily basis. The same can't be said anymore. There was even a mango lassi stall this week for the first time--a welcome addition, especially as the temperature rose.

Anna overheard one of the stallholders, a farmer who sells eggs, milk, and meat, talking about how she rarely makes much money at this market, but unlike other markets in the area, she loves to come to this one because of the sense of community it engenders. She described it as the only one that was full of people who were happy to mill about and chat and not just middle class people in a rush. That's what we feel that the market has been about to us.

We want to be involved in a similar project in Montreal, or if we can't find one already existing, we'd like to start something. Montreal's food culture is very different than the one here, with the Jean Talon and Atwater markets running daily and a general availability of good food. However, the sense of community we got from the market is something that we'd like to bring to Montreal. Watch this space to see what we come up with.

Friday, 8 June 2007

The Foodie Blogroll

One of the things I enjoy about food blogging is that it's an almost entirely positive phenomenon. Anna and I also have a socially and politically oriented blog, and while it doesn't really have the readership required for eye-gougingly tedious debates, it does inhabit that part of the blogosphere that is less concerned with fostering debate and a sense of community than it is with creating an echo-chamber for people who are convinced that they're always right. That's not an entirely bad thing, of course, but it is a marked contrast to the food blogging world, where there is a genuine and constructive exchange of recipes, tips, ideas, and so on and so forth. It actually does resemble a community.

And so we've signed up to the Foodie Blog Roll after seeing it on a friend's blog. There looks to be some really good sites on it, and this will surely lead to even more delicious exhanges of recipes and ideas.

Friday, 1 June 2007

Espresso, Banana, and Raspberry Muffins

I have never been that into muffins--I generally feel like if I'm going to eat something junky and cakey, I'd rather eat cake. Or a cupcake, or whatever. Muffins just aren't tasty enough to merit living the lie that they are good for you.

However, every blogger's favourite new cookbook, Heidi Swanson's Super Natural Cooking has undone many of my muffin prejudices. The first time I flipped through this lovely book, one of the first recipes I stopped on, and read greedily, was her "Espresso Banana Muffins". They were so beautiful, and healthy, even! And they have coffee in them, which is the number one way to my heart!

When a couple of bananas went bad recently, I immediately knew I wanted to try this recipe. Unfortunately, I didn't have enough mushy bananas, so I improvised by throwing in some raspberries as well. The banana/raspberry/espresso combo was killer--a little bit sweet, a little bit tangy, a little bit rich. (Seriously, this business of adding coffee to batter is genius, as it just adds that much richeness to it. I had to stop myself from gorging myself on the batter like a coffee addicted maniac.)

So here is Heidi's recipe, recopied lovingly but without permission, and with my own adjustments described above. Check out the book for the original one.

The Recipe:

2 cups flour (Heidi advises white wholewheat flour, but I can't find that in this town, so I used normal white flour--I think I might just try it with plain old wholewheat next time, though!)
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups chopped toasted walnuts (I was too lazy to toast mine)
1 tblsp fine espresso powder
6 tblsp unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup natural cane sugar
2 large eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup plain yogurt
1 1/2 cups mashed overripe bananas
1/2 cup fresh raspberries

Preheat your oven to 190C. Line a muffin tin with paper liners, or alternately, grease it well.

Combine the flour, baking powder, salt, 3/4 cup walnuts, and espresso in a bowl, and whisk to combine it.

In a large separate bowl, cream the butter until it's light and fluffy. Beat in the sugar, and then the eggs, one at a time. Stir in the vanilla, yogurt, mashed bananas, and raspberries. Then gently mix in the dry ingredients, mixing only enough to combine everything properly. Not too much!

Spoon into the muffin tins about 2/3 full, and top with the rest of the walnuts! Bake for 25 minutes or so, until golden. Leave in tin for 5 min or so, and then cool on a wire rack.

What is healthy about this recipe: An awful lot! This is way healthier than any muffin you're like to buy out there in the world. I like the yogurt as a liquid.

What is seasonal about this recipe: Raspberries are just starting to come out in this part of the world--I could not be more excited!

What I learned from this recipe: Coffee makes everything better. Seriously, I am going to try putting a little bit into lots of cakes/muffins/bread/cupcakes in the future. So lovely.

What I will change next time: I'll just mess around with it more--banana and strawberry? Blueberry? Rhubarb? So many options. I'm pleased to have found a muffin recipe that is relatively light, and that turns out insanely moist, perfect little morsels. This one is a keeper.

Sunday, 27 May 2007

Adventures at the Farmers' Market, Episode #3:

Yesterday morning, on yet another cloudy Saturday in this rainy town, Graeme and I awoke at the crack of 7am (which for us, seems impossibly early, but which, when I write it down, is hilariously not so bad, especially as Graeme actually rolled over and slept for another hour while I got started), to do yet another lot of baking for our favourite community farmers' market. This time, we mixed it up with two new additions to our repertoire. I made the pita bread that I posted about this week, which sadly did not turn out as beautifully as it did earlier this week, and, consequently, which did not end up selling at all. Graeme had somewhat more success with baking up a batch of cheese scones, which had been requested by a cheese scone loving lady at the last market we attended. (She apparently went around to all the stalls requesting said scones. We were happy to oblige, and Graeme pointed out while baking that this was "democracy at work." Ah, the utopian idealism of the farmers' market.)

Due to the rain, the market was held indoors again, under the church-turned-Asian-cultural-centre roof that makes for a cozy atmosphere. Graeme and I had a cute corner table in between the farmers who sell produce (and who had the most gorgeous flat beans, that I mistook for broad beans because I am ignorant, in the world yesterday), and the farmer who sells eggs, milk, meat, and other goodies. I should mention that we've been buying her milk lately, in its lovely tall glass bottles, and it is the first time IN MY LIFE that I have been excited about milk. It is thick and creamy and just...full of taste, and I have no patience for supermarket milk anymore. She has spoiled me (no pun intended!) for other milks.

Here is a shot of our neighbours, the produce farmers:
I should mention that these folks are generally the nicest people ever, but they were particular in our good books yesterday, as the female farmer bounded up to us at the beginning of the market telling us that she'd bought a few of our bagels last time, and that they were incredible. so this time she bought A DOZEN BAGELS, saying she would freeze them to hold her over for a couple of weeks. This is the most bagels anyone has ever bought from us, and we were so flattered! And if I do say so myself, I make an awesome fucking bagel.

Here is a shot of the tables directly across from us:
Pictured here you'll see Hayley, who makes the best dips and pestos I have yet to taste in this town. We bought two pestos from her (one with pumpkin seeds, one with almond and parsley), and one tin of feta and broccoli dip. Hayley is in our good books because the last time we sold at the market, it started pissing down rain as soon as we all meant to leave, and she gave us a lift back to my house. Also she's really nice. Next to her, you can see Carla's cakes and other baked goods--we ate a couple of samosas from her for lunch yesterday, and they were killer. She also had the world's most beautiful strawberry cheesecake. Our friendly egg/milk/meat farmers are pictured there, buying from her.

Other warm and fuzzy moments at the market yesterday included a customer who came up to us and asked straight away for some pierogi. This is a rarity at the market, as we tend to find that folks are only adventurous to a degree-they'll try something a little bit new, but something as completely new to them as pierogi (which the British have yet to really discover), is just too scary. We never tend to sell too many bags of pierogi. This particular customer explained that she'd bought some to try last time, and just loved them, and so was excited to buy some more. I am easily flattered and this made my day.

The bagels and scones sold nicely. The cheese scones were much appreciated, and the woman who had originally requested them honed in on them immediately and bought a bunch of them. Pictured here is Graeme with our scones and bagels, and a sleepy smile:
Our most popular item, it seems, are my cornbread muffins. This is a mystery to both me and Graeme, as cornbread is the easiest to make, and likely the least impressive of our wares. But this is the second time in a row that we've sold out of them, and I made a third more muffins than I did last time. People love them, and some allergic folk appreciate that they're gluten free. So in contradiction to what I said about people's lack of adventurousness above, these appear to be something that most people had never had before (cornbread is, again, largely unknown to the British), but that have been a huge hit. Up with cornbread.

One more thing that we should mention about the market, and how much we love selling there--it is packed with awesome, cute, funny, sweet, kids. There is one little girl who must be about three years old, who is a little chatterbox and loves to run up to us and talk about cakes--ones she's eaten, and ones she will eat. Yesterday she and her dad seemed fairly efficient in their shopping so we didn't get to hang out with her much, but we still got a little smile and a wave. We were not lacking for children, though. From the moment we started setting up, the daughter of the lovely couple who have a fair trade products stall at the market (and who love our cornbread), ran up to us and decided that our stall was her favourite, and insisted on hanging with us for most of the market, donning our plastic gloves, and being our little helper. You can see eight-year-old Bella pictured here with me, as long as you ignore my very strange facial expression:
Bella thought our bagels were our tastiest treat, and helped me pack customers' purchases into our big paper bags. She also made up stories about witches and clowns by messing with her plastic gloves. Cutest kid.

Talking about it afterwards, Graeme and I decided that farmers' market kids are the best kids ever--our little helper, for example, was chatty and energetic, but also so incredibly well behaved--she always followed our hygiene rules while helping me sell stuff, she never messed around with anything, she was patient when we were dealing with customers (and always piped in to make her own recommendations!), and was just... perfect. We've noticed this with all of our interactions with the market kids, who usually befriend each other quick and run around the market playing games while their parents buy them treats. It's ridiculously idyllic.

Which can be said of the market itself. June 9th will be the last time Graeme and I sell at it, as we'll soon be leaving Oxford. This has us feeling rather wistful. The market has been a lovely community to us, and this is where it succeeds the most--it is not only a place to purchase high quality, healthy, affordable foods, but it is also a gathering place, where people sit, chat, play, laugh, and befriend one another. We love the ethos of the place--it is small enough to welcome even amateurs like us, and we love the mix of professional farmers, and amateur cooks, all of whom come together for a delicious weekly event. We love how kind everyone is, how excited people get about their food, and how laid back the whole event is. We've been reading lately about a lot of the accusations of pretension about organic food culture, and while we both participate in said culture, we agree that a lot of the class issues inherent in it make us pretty uncomfortable. But our lovely Saturday market is just a bunch of folks, young and old, yuppy and hippie, farmer and amateur, family and student, light-skinned and dark-skinned, of a variety of incomes, getting together to eat happily and ethically. We hope that we'll find something like this back in Canada, but we're not sure--this market is amazing entirely for its ad hoc, bottom up nature. We love it.

Tuesday, 22 May 2007


Back when I lived up in Glasgow and Anna was down here in Oxford, Anna came up with the idea of "food challenges", basically making food that we didn't previously know how to make that seemed a little bit out of our cooking comfort zone. Anna's first challenge for me was paella. I'd eaten paella before but hadn't really thought of making it because it seemed really difficult. I found a reasonable looking recipe somewhere on the internet, followed it, and the results were pretty good. I've played around with the recipe since, and often made the rice on its own, as it's a fantastic fragrant and spicy accompaniment to a lot of meals.

Anyway, I was going through my cupboards today and found some saffron that I'd bought to use in a shakshuka and had since forgotten about. My repertoire of recipes involving saffron includes only two recipes, so I decided to make some paella.

Since saffron is really expensive, it's tempting to use a substitute such as turmeric to give the paella rice that rich yellow colour (Anna tested such a recipe for the BBC's Good Food magazine) but while the results are decent, it isn't a match for saffron. It's worth keeping in mind that despite the cost, saffron is used rather sparingly in most dishes and so a little bit goes a long way.

Paella is a reasonably quick recipe, and it didn't take much longer than half an hour to make tonight. That includes allowing the rice to cook, so it's not all labouring over a hot stove either.

We had the paella with a 2005 Ribera Del Duero by Altos de Tamaron. I don't know much about wines but it seemed fitting to eat this with a Spanish wine and this one won a silver award from Decanter magazine and was reasonably priced.

Two large paellas I made for the family on Christmas Eve 2005.

The Recipe:

Short grain rice
Enough chicken or vegetable stock for the amount of rice you're using
Onion, chopped
Garlic, chopped
A pinch of saffron
Crushed chili flakes (I suppose fresh chilis would also work)
The zest of one lemon
Chopped parsley
A bay leaf
Salt and pepper

Skinless and boneless chicken breasts
Whatever seafood you can get your hands on

An authentically Spanish paella recipe will call for a paella pan--basically a large and somewhat shallow pan, but I've found that a large saucepan or even a wok works well.

Brown the onions and garlic and add the rice. Fry the rice until it's a little bit translucent and then add in the stock. Add a bay leaf, the crushed chilis, the lemon zest, and the saffron, stirring occasionally. When the liquid is almost gone, stir in the chopped parsley and season to taste. I added some chopped tomatoes and some green peppers into the rice tonight, but those aren't necessary.

While the rice is cooking, chop the chicken into bite-sized pieces and coat these with paprika. Fry up the chicken and chorizo. How you do the seafood is up to you. Tonight I used one of those precooked seafood mixes from Tesco and threw it in the pan when the meat was done just to warm it up. I used really good seafood in those two large paellas and I steamed it with white wine. In any case, when both the rice and the meat and seafood are finished, arrange the meat and seafood on top of the rice and serve.

What is healthy about this recipe: The glass of red wine accompanying it.

What is seasonal about this recipe: It's mostly rice so this doesn't really apply.

What I learned from this recipe: Saffron is great and I should learn more than two recipes that involve it.

What I will change next time: I'll check my cupboards and plan things better next time. For example, I thought that I had much more short grain rice than I actually had and so the paella was a mixture of short and long grain rices. I likewise didn't have a lemon on hand for the zest until Anna got back from work with one and so I added the zest right at the end. Planning things really isn't my strong suit.

Whole wheat pita bread

I am always, always disappointed in supermarket pita bread. Even if you bite into your pita the moment you pick it up off the shelf at the store, it already tastes a couple of days old (and likely is!). I spotted a recipe for pita bread a couple of months ago, tried to make it, and was disappointed when it came out dense and sort of gross and heavy. But I am not one to quit, and today I tried again. And it was glorious.

In the same way that I always talk about how cool it is to watch bagels poof up when you boil them just before baking them, making pita bread is awesome because it is so cool to watch it balloon up like a bag of popcorn in the oven. I have no idea that the "pockets" in pitas are not man made, they occur entirely of their own volition. It is truly magical to watch the blow up like they do! And it is even more magical to rip them up when they're hot right out of the oven, and dip them straight into some hummus and devour them.

These pitas came out so light and lovely that Graeme and I could not stop eating them. I made them almost entirely out of whole wheat flour, so I was very pleased to see that they came out so light, and I'm excited to add a whole wheat bread recipe to my repertoire. I wouldn't see any advantage to making this with white flour.

I'll be baking up a couple of batches for the farmers' market this weekend, so I look forward to watching them go crazy in the over again!

The Recipe:

3/4 cup white flour
2.5-3 cups wholewheat flour
1 (7g) packet of instant dry active yeast
1 tblsp honey
1 tsp salt
1.5 tblsp oil
1.5 cups warm-hot water (should be warm enough that it'll stay warm for a little while, but not so hot that you can't rest your fingers comfortably in it)

Pour the water into a bowl, and mix in the honey until it disolves. Sprinkle in the yeast, stir a bit, and let it sit there for 10 minutes or so. The yeast should poof up and rise a bit--this means its been properly activated and that it will work.

Add in the salt, and mix in the flour, 1 cup or so at a time. I always prefer to mix with my hands, so that the transition from mixing, when everything is still liquidy, to kneeding, once the dough gets firmer, is effortless. Add in the oil as well, and once you've got a dough, turn it out onto a flat, floured surface, and kneed for 10 minutes. It should feel elastically, you should feel like your arms are tired.

Oil up a bowl, place the dough in it, and cover it with a damp, warm, wash cloth. Put the bowl somewhere warm and let it rise until its doubled in size, about a "Jewish hour" (ie a bit longer than an hour, go by your intuition not by these goyishe things known as "clocks"). Once your dough has risen all beautifully and you feel like a proud parent, remove the dough from the bowl, place it back down on the floured surface, and punch it down. Divide it in 8-10 pieces (depends on how big you want your pitas to be--I made 8 pieces, and they were huge!), make each piece into a nice little ball, and then cover with your damp washcloth and let them rise for another 20 minutes or so. Preheat your oven to 400F/205C, and stick your baking tray in there to heat up as well.

Once they've poofed up again, roll each ball out into a circle, or an oval, depending on which shape you prefer for a pita. They should be around 1/4-1/8" thick. Again, go by how thick or thin you like your pita!

Take out your baking tray and place the pitas on it and bake for approximately 4-5 minutes! Marvel at the poofiness, and devour while hot.

What is healthy about this recipe: What isn't? I'm so pleased to have been able to make such a delicious whole wheat pita bread--once you try this, you will never go back to the white variety!

What is seasonal about this recipe: Not really applicable.

What I learned from this recipe: That pita bread is awesome and the easiest ever bread to make and not to be feared.

What I will change next time: The bread came out so nice and fluffy, that I think I don't really need my crutch of adding a bit of white flour in there, to keep it from being heavy. I think I may try doing this 100% whole wheat.

Friday, 18 May 2007

Bulghar Wheat Smorgasborg Salad

It's been a long and sometimes difficult few months, which means I've been eating lots of comfort food. So sometimes, every once in a while, I get a moment where I crave a fully healthy, wholesome meal. Lately, I turn to bulghar wheat and a whole crapload of vegetables.

I used to be sort of meh about bulghar wheat, I think I found it too, well, wheaty, but I've come to love it. I treat it as a slightly more chewy, nutty, couscous, and I crave meals with it! My usual trick is to chop out a whole lots of tasty wholesome stuff and mix it together with the wheat, and scarf it down until I can wheat no more. This post illustrates one such example, and perhaps my most extreme one yet. I practically emptied my fridge in this salad attempt. Obviously, this is hardly a recipe that needs to be followed to a T--you can throw just about whatever you want together.

I served this with some salmon fillets doused in lemon juice, harissa, and something else that I've forgotten now.

The Recipe:

150g bulghar wheat

1 small aubergine, chopped
1 big courgette, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 small head of broccoli, divided
2 medium carrots, chopped
Small bunch of salad greens
Handful sprouting beans
Half an avocado
1 orange
1 tblsp fresh harissa
1 tblsp stilton
Lemon, for juicing
Olive oil, for frying
Salt and pepper

Boil up some water, pour the bulghar wheat into a large bowl, cover with the water until it covers it and then some. Cover the bowl and let sit for at least 20 minutes.

In the meantime, heat up a frying pan, throw in some olive oil, and fsautee the garlic, broccoli, aubergine, courgette. Add in the harissa, and let the veg sautee until they're nice and soft.

Once the bulghar wheat is ready, throw in both the raw veg, and the cooked veg. Combine, season, and douse it with a little lemon juice, until it's too your liking.

Eat, and feel virtuous.

What is healthy about this recipe: Everything! A good meal for when you are craving something that will fill you up, but not weight you down. And bulghar wheat has a puny glycemic index and lots of fibre. Lucky us.

What is seasonal about this recipe: This was made with seasonal veg I had on hand. And the great thing about these sorts of smorgasborg recipes is that you can use whatever you'[ve got, no matter the season. I'm a big fan of meal ideas that are this versatile.

What I learned from this recipe: I love bulghar wheat!

What I will change next time: I loved the addition of the orange, which was the first time I'd done that, and I'd love to experiment more with citrus in salads. Also, beets! Beets should really be in everything!

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Rice 'n' Beans

Due to our impending relocation back to Canada, Graeme and I have spent a fair bit of time reflecting on the transient nature of Oxford. It can be bittersweet--you live in this place, become accustomed to the faces you see and the places you go, but while the old stone buildings have not changed in centuries, everything else comes and goes very quickly. We've formed our attachments here: workplaces, friends, favourite cafes and our infamous market, and while it's time for us to go, it is certainly difficult to let all of that go.

The good thing about this transience, though, is meeting and befriending people from anywhere and everywhere, and bullying them into cooking you their regional specialties. When those people inevitably leave you and return home, they may at least let you have their recipes. I have gained countless recipes over the past 4 years that I've lived here in that way, and I'm all the more richer for it.

The following instructions for cooking good 'ole Louisianian style rice and beans came from my dear friend Brooks, who I spent a lot of time with in my second year. Brooks would cook up whole pots of this stuff for large groups of friends, ranging from Canadians, Americans, Italians, Greeks, Germans, etc. Brooks is now back in New Orleans doing her thing, but I forced her to teach me how to make this wonderful comfort food dish. I made it a couple of weeks ago when I was craving kidney beans so bad it was unbearable. Yes, I know I'm the only person who craves things like kidney beans.

The Recipe:

Rice and Beans à la Brooks


200g kidney beans (soaked overnight)
1 large onion, chopped up relatively finely
Several cloves of garlic, minced
Several stalks of celery, chopped up relatively finely
Meat (I tend to use bacon), chopped up
Seasoning: I use salt, pepper, bay leaves, Tony Chachere's Cajun Seasoning (this was a gift from Brooks from a recent visit to Oxford!)
200g or so of rice

Put the soaked beans in a large pot, and cover them in about an inch or two of water. Cook this over a low heat, with the pot covered, while you do everything else.

Sautee the meat in a pan until it's well cooked. Add the meat to the beans, but save the drippings in the pan. Use the drippings to fry up the onion, garlic, and celery (and I quote Brooks here, affectionately called 'the holy trinity' by Catholicchefs down in New Orleans"). Add said trinity to the beans as well. Season the beans.

This concoction will have to cook for a while--like making chili, the longer you let it cook, the better. I'd say that at the bare minimum, you want to give it a good 45 min. As the beans get softer, smash some of them up against the wall of the pan while you stir it--this will give the mixture a creamier texture. In the meantime, boil up the rice, and serve rice and beans together, in harmony. Delicious, filling, and comforting.

3 of us ate this with at least a serving and a half to spare. We served it with my housemate's awesome Slovenian stuffed peppers on the side, making a truly Oxford international dinner.

What is healthy about this recipe: Depending on the meats you add, what kind of rice you use, etc, this recipe can be super healthy (wouldn't be hard to make brown rice and vegetarian rice and beans), or not so much (white rice and bacon, like I made it this time). Everything in moderation.

What is seasonal about this recipe: Celery is in right now, but otherwise rice and beans defy all seasons.

What I learned from this recipe: I have only recently finally learned how much better it is to cook with dried beans as opposed to canned beans. So much more texture! Not as scary as it seemed to just need to soak them beforehand! Dehydrated beans forever.

What I will change next time: Someday, when I own a slow cooker, this would be a perfect slow cooker recipe. Just throw your stuff in in the morning, and leave it stewing all day at a low heat, and voila, a gorgeous dinner in the evening. I want a slow cooker.

Monday, 14 May 2007

Farmers' Market Adventures: Installment #2

This past Saturday we trudged out in the crazy rain to sell at the farmers' market once more. Due to the abysmal weather, the market was held indoors. The indoor setting was fine, and allowed for more chatting as we were all crammed closer together, but the Too British even for the Brits showers that were happening outside did mean that things were quieter than usual. And we discovered how unpredictable the public was: while last time the pies and the pierogi were what disappeared quickest (we nearly sold out of both!), this time, we couldn't seem to get rid of those guys. The bagels, cornbread (this time, gluten-free, which pleased the allergic folk), and scones, sold well.

Unfortunately, my camera's batteries died somewhere on the way to the market, so all I have our photos of the cooking process beforehand. Things were much less hectic this time--no cooking disasters like we'd had last time around (pierogi all gluing together, an entire loaf of cornbread not cooking in the middle and getting chucked, not nearly enough shortcrust pastry), everything timed in such a way that we didn't wear ourselves out completely, and even a good 6 hours sleep for each of us the night before. Seriously! I woke up at quarter to 7, and somehow managed to have produced four dozen bagels (and two dozen cornbread muffins) by 10:30am. We ended up having to sit around for a while because we'd finished our cooking so early!

Here are a few choice moments in the process, which unfortunately only feature scones and bagels, and not our other excellent products:

Action shot! Scone master Graeme removes a batch of his tasty scones from the oven.

An army of bagels, waiting to be boiled.

Somehow the neat process of watching bagels poof up when they boil never gets old. I still think it's the coolest.

This is likely the oddest thing that happened during the baking process. Graeme pulled a batch of scones out of the oven and we found one scones, the one on the bottom right in the above picture, in the above state. It seems to have exploded? We could not figure out how exactly it is that a scone can explode.

Bagels and scones, cooling! (It should be noted that, in true DIY fashion, our cooling rack is actually the grill for our bbq.) Don't they look pretty?

Next market date is May 26th! Pray for good weather! Hopefully we'll be more on the ball with our camera then.

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Broccoli, Aubergine, and Pea Tart

We were recently given a couple of bags of whole wheat flour from our flour supplier who encouraged us to experiment with it as he was proud of its mixture of grains. He suggested that it would work well in my shortcrust pastry, but I was skeptical as shortcrust can be a bit finicky to work with. I wasn't sure what to make for dinner tonight, but we received our organic veg box and I had this bag of flour so I decided to make a tart.

Tarts seem difficult to make, but once you know how to make a good shortcrust pastry, they're relatively simple and are extremely versatile. This one was made with vegetables and other ingredients I had on hand, but the tart filling can be virtually anything.

The whole wheat crust worked out really well. It was a little bit more difficult to work with than white flour, and I had to patch up holes in the crust, but it was impossible to tell this in the end. It was also delicious and didn't taste in any way inferior to the white flour version.

Serve with salad, bread, or whatever else strikes your fancy.

The Recipe:

For the shortcrust pastry:
200g whole wheat flour
100g butter
1 medium sized egg

For the filling:
1 medium sized aubergine
1/2 head of broccoli
1 medium sized onion
about half a cup of frozen peas
small bunch of coarsely chopped flat leaf parsley
soft goat's cheese
parmesan cheese
2 medium sized eggs
1 small container of single cream

To make the shortcrust pastry (this can be done in advance): Chop the butter into cubes and add to the flour. Keeping the ingredients as cold as possible will yield the best results. Work the two ingredients together until the mixture has the consistency of coarse breadcrumbs. Add in an egg and mix together until you have a dough. Put this into a clean plastic bag and either refrigerate it or freeze it, if you are making the pastry well in advance.

When you're ready to make the tart, butter up a tart pan, flour your work surface, and roll out the pastry (if it's frozen, allow it to thaw first) to about an eighth of an inch thick. Place the tart pan on the rolled out pastry and cut a circle about an inch more than the diameter of the pan. Place the circle of dough in the centre of the tart pan and press the outer part of the dough against the walls of the pan. Press the dough into the pan and try to push out any air bubbles. If the dough has cracked anywhere, just patch it up with the excess dough that you will have cut away earlier.

To make the filling, chop up the onions, aubergines, broccoli, and peas. Fry them up with some olive oil and once they're done, transfer them to a bowl. Add in the chopped parsley, the goat's cheese, the egg, and the cream, and mix this all together. Season.

Pour the filling into the tart shell, sprinkle it with parmesan cheese, and put this into an oven preheated to 180 degrees. The tart is finished when the filling is solid--about 30-35 minutes.

What is healthy about this recipe: The usual caveats about butter, eggs, and cheese apply (but they are so delicious), but the whole wheat flour does provide a healthier alternative to a regular shortcrust pastry.

What is seasonal about this recipe: The peas were frozen, but the rest of the veg was seasonal. The nice thing about tarts is that you can vary them to fully take advantage of seasonal produce.

What I learned from this recipe: Flour is an ingredient that we generally take for granted, but we've increasingly been learning that it is an interesting and important ingredient and it's worth paying attention to. The flour we use comes from a local cereals farmer who grows an organic medieval blend of flour that is stoneground (this gentler process keeps more nutrients in the flour than the usual industrial process). I've been seriously impressed with this flour and think that it's worth the extra effort to track down organic and stoneground flour. The results are worth it.

What I will change next time: This is the first time that I've used whole wheat flour to make shortcrust pastry and it needs a little bit of work until I'm ready to use it for my pies, where the visual element is more important. Still, this pastry was promising and I'll be sure to use it again.

Monday, 7 May 2007

Sorrel Sea Bass with Cuttlefish Ink Fusilli


One of the things that I enjoy the most about shopping at farmers' market and the like, and buying foods from the people who grew them, is the opportunity for new discovery. Being able to have conversations with producers about their foods, how they're grown/made, how to cook them, etc, is such a great way to learn. This year I've tasted a number of new fruit and veg I'd never touched before--e.g. purple sprouting broccoli, celeriac, Jerusalem artichokes, to name a few--and I appreciate being broken out of my habits.

The newest addition to the list of new discoveries is sorrel. I spotted its lovely dark green leafs when buying my produce at the market last week, and asked what it was. I learned that it's a sharp tasting leaf that is often pared with fish. I decided to experiment.

(In the interest of transparency, I should mention that I've since figured out that I've actually had sorrel before. There is a traditional green herby cold summer soup in Poland that my family sometimes makes, and they've never known how to translate what goes into it. Last summer my grandmother and father got frustrated trying to explain it to me, and finally settled with, "just eat it and stop asking questions! It's good!" Having read around a bit, and now understanding the taste of sorrel a bit more, I am pretty sure that that's what the mystery ingredient in the soup was.)

I cooked up my lovely bunch of sorrel this past Friday evening in a "it's been a long damn week, let's have a nice dinner" sort of effort. I got a massive wild sea bass for it, as Graeme had been whining about how much he wanted to have some sea bass for a couple of weeks now. And I paired it with another new food--cuttlefish ink fusilli. Graeme and I tried squid ink risotto once in Croatia, and enjoyed it, so when I spotted the sinister looking pasta at our local Italian deli, I could not resist trying it again. The flavour is quite subtle--rich and just a bit fishy, but not overwhelming in any way. The fish and pasta paired wonderfully, and I was particularly pleased with the ad hoc veg-and-cheese preparation of the pasta--it had a perfect saltiness and creaminess to suit its fishy needs.

The Recipe:

For the fish:
1 enormous wild sea bass, cleaned
1 bunch sorrel
1 bunch kale
1 bunch parsley
3-4 slivers of butter
1 lemon (be generous with the lemon as its a natural cohort of sorrel)

For the pasta:
200g or so of cuttlefish (or squid) ink pasta
bunch of mushrooms, chopped.
bunch of peas (in this case they were frozen, so I thawed them)
3 cloves of garlic
50g creamy goats cheese
Olive oil

Chop up the sorrel, kale, and parsley roughly, and combine them so that you have one big leafy mixture. Slice open the fish, and line with your slivers of butter. Then stuff it to the brim with your greens, and douse it in a stupid amount of lemon juice. Wrap in foil and bake in a hot oven for 30-40 min (until the sea bass is cooked!). Serve with additional slices of lemons for more dousing in lemon juice.

While the fish is cooking, boil up the pasta as one boils up pasta. Heat up a frying pan, and throw in a generous amount of olive oil. Fry up the garlic, and then add the veg. Let that cook until the peas are a lovely bright colour and the mushrooms are suitably dark and soft. When the pasta's done and strained, throw it in with the veg, and let everything sautee for a couple of minutes, while seasoning with salt and pepper. At the last minute, add in your creamy goats cheese, and stir just until it melts enough to make the past a bit creamy.

You final product will look something like this:

And it will be a tasty treat, especially with a nice bottle of white wine to accompany it!

What is healthy about this recipe: I don't think I need to extol the usual virtues of fish here, but yeah: fish is great, fish is tasty, let's all eat lots of fish. A tiny bit of butter is the only sinister culprit here, and the super duper health conscious can always find a more heart-friendly option. If I may continue being a spokesperson for sorrel, our bitter friend is an excellent source of vitamin C.

What is seasonal about this recipe: Everything! Sorrel is something to buy now now now! (Especially as current leaves of sorrel being sold are still young, and so not extremely bitter in taste. As summer advances, they'll get stronger tasting, so the stuff for beginners is the stuff that's available now.)

What I learned from this recipe: That I rule at making stuff up off the cuff, and that I love our farmers.

What I will change next time: I am now keen to figure out how to make this sorrel soup. It's apparently also very good raw in salads. And we're going to be eating that inky pasta for a long time to come, it's just lovely.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Not sure what foods are seasonal right now?

The River Cottage website has a handy table showing which foods are seasonal and when. It's broken down by food group--vegetables, fruit, fish, game, and so on--and is cross-linked with recipes on the site. It obviously applies to the UK, but if anyone can find a similar resource for elsewhere, please post it in the comments.


Here's another recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi's 'The New Vegetarian' column in the Guardian's weekend magazine. This is an aromatic North African dish and it seems to be a real 'kitchen sink' type of dish that a lot can be added to--Ottolenghi suggests preserved lemon or feta, but I think that even some meat like lamb, especially if it was tender and falling apart, would go really well with it.

One of the joys of this dish was the scent in the house as I was cooking it. The herbs and saffron filled with air with a mouth-wateringly fragrant scent and it was hard to not pick too much from it while it was cooking.

The Recipe:

(Reproduced without permission from the Guardian's website. The recipe given is for 4, but I halved the quantities when I made it.)

½ tsp cumin seeds
190ml light olive oil or vegetable oil
2 large onions, peeled and sliced
2 red and 2 yellow peppers, cored and cut into 2cm strips
4 tsp muscovado sugar
2 bayleaves
6 sprigs thyme, picked and chopped
2 tbsp flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1 bunch fresh coriander, chopped
6 ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped
½ tsp saffron strands
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Salt and pepper
Up to 250ml water
8 free-range eggs

In a large saucepan, dry-roast the cumin on high heat for two minutes. Add the oil and sauté the onions for two minutes. Add the peppers, sugar, bayleaves, thyme, parsley and two tablespoons of coriander, and cook on high heat to get a nice colour. Add the tomatoes, saffron, cayenne, salt and pepper. Cook on low heat for 15 minutes, adding enough water to keep it the consistency of a pasta sauce. Taste and adjust the seasoning. It should be potent and flavoursome. You can prepare this mix in advance.

Place four saucepans on medium heat and divide the mixture between them. Break two eggs into each pan, pouring into gaps in the mixture. Sprinkle with salt, cover and cook very gently for 10-12 minutes, until the egg just sets. Sprinkle with coriander and serve with chunky white bread.

What is healthy about this recipe: Since the recipe is mostly just vegetables, herbs, and spices, it's actually pretty good. The usual caveats about eggs apply, but everything in moderation...

What is seasonal about this recipe: Not that much, to be honest. If you're focused on seasonal eating, it's best to leave this dish to the late summer.

What I learned from this recipe: I'm usually a lot stingier with herbs than I was with this recipe--this one uses handfuls of chopped coriander and parsley--but I think that it's worth trying to use more herbs with other dishes because the results can be spectacular. I should also make an effort to incorporate more saffron into my cooking.

What I will change next time: I'd like to try the same dish but with different vegetables and maybe some meat.

Thursday, 26 April 2007

Beer Bread

A few years ago, I had a friend who was a beer bread factory--every potluck or lunch or whatever we had, she whipped up a loaf. She insisted that it was because it was the easiest delicious bread recipe there is. She was right. However, when she passed the recipe along to me, I tried it, and somehow, the beer did not back out, nothing rose, and I ended up with a loaf of dense flour that tasted of stale beer. I was, understandably, put off.

I had pretty much forgotten about the wonderful phenomenon that is beer bread until it randomly came up in conversation with one of my housemates last Sunday afternoon, and I felt inspired to try again. Graeme thought I was nuts, as we had just spend Friday and Saturday doing nothing but baking until we ached for the farmers' market, and we were both so tired of the kitchen. But in the excitement of the market, I'd forgotten to buy my usual quota of bread for the week, so I wanted something, and I remembered that it took not even 10 minutes to prepare beer bread dough, and that we had leftover Old Hooky in the fridge from Graeme's beef and ale pies.

So I returned to the dreaded kitchen, and got to work. The great thing about beer bread is the basic recipe takes almost no ingredients, and the really fun part is adding in some herbs, or onions, or cheese, or whatever, to go with the beery yeasty flavour. At the market the day before, I'd been enchanted by one of the sellers' potato bread with caraway seeds, so I decided to go in that direction for flavouring. I'll post the recipe I made, but if you're going to try it yourself, I really encourage you experiment--you can throw anything into this!

The Recipe:

Caraway Beer Bread

3 cups white flour
1 tsp raw cane sugar
1 tblsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1.5 tsp caraway seeds
1 tblsp linseeds
12oz/350g of a nice ale
some rock salt

Mix up the dry ingredients. Pour in the beer slowly and stir to combine. It should form a thick and lumpy (in a good "rustic" sort of way, not a "I'm not properly mixed" sort of way) dough/batter. Pour/spoon it into a greased bread tin, and sprinkle rock salt on top to give the crust some texture. Bake at 190C for 45 minutes, until it's risen and looks beautiful and wholesome and golden. Your kitchen will smell like beer.

That's seriously it! Best recipe for a lazy baker. This bread tastes lovely with a strong cheese.

What is healthy about this recipe:
There's nothing too healthy or unhealthy about it, although obviously white flour is not ideal (even though we try to use our nice stoneground stuff when we've got it around). The linseeds made a lovely addition though, and added some texture to the bread, as well as lots of omega-3.

What is seasonal about this recipe: Flour is always in season! Although as it's spring and all the nice herbs are popping out of the soil, this is a great time to experiment with different herbs in this bread. I really want to make some with dill.

What I learned from this recipe: That I am, in fact, capable of making beer bread, and that I have a near-psychotic compulsion to bake.

What I will change next time: I definitely want to try and make a wholewheat version. According to the fantastic blog Farmgirl Fare, all that really takes is a little bit more beer to make up for the denseness of wholewheat flour.

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

McDonald's Jumps on the Ethical Meat Bandwagon

They've got an new campaign focusing on the treatment of animals on their farms, the quality of the cuts of beef they use, and natural rearing methods. It's interesting that even the world's biggest fast food supplier is now concerned with proving its meat ethics.

While I'm of course far too skeptical to be swayed by such a move and think the campaign is likely 100% (free range?) bullshit, I do find it really heartening that even a company as powerful as McDonald's is feeling pressured by an increasing public awareness of the ethical issues surrounding meat. That can only be a good sign for how influential this movement is becoming. Although with popularization there is always the danger of the discussion becoming all about stupid lip service and using the right language to prove your ethical cred, and losing a lot of its meaning. Which such a campaign certainly hints at.

Monday, 23 April 2007

Flour, Flour, Everywhere...

...And not a wink of sleep.

This would be an accurate description of our first foray into the world of farmers' market stalls this weekend. Nevertheless, we're pretty sure we wouldn't trade the experience for the world.

I will now run you through the chronology of this venture, during which we went through a good 10kg of flour or so (and sold most of what that 10kg produced!)

February 2007: After one of our usually Saturday early afternoon spent shopping and lounging at the East Oxford Farmers' Market, I remark that I love the community spirit of the market, and that I would love to be involved in it. The East Oxford Farmers' Market is a small local venture that occurs for three hours every Saturday, that is run by the sheer exuberant willpower of a small number of volunteers, and that is one of the friendliest venues I've encounters during my time in this city. It's less than a year old, and every week there are stalls selling: local organic produce, local breads, local organic meats and eggs, local organic cakes, local jams, fair trade products, lunch catered by an East Oxford organic deli, etc. They encourage normal folks like you and me to get involved, and Graeme and I figure we're pretty good bakers, so we took the bait and proposed a savoury baked goods stand. The good people who run the market were immediately enthusiastic about the prospect, and we emailed back and forth for a bit and settled on April 21st as our grand debut.

March-April 2007: Graeme and I settle on our menu (him: scones, and both meat and vegetarian pies, me: corn bread, bagels, pierogi), and start collecting the bits and pieces to make this happen. Graeme gets food hygiene training (did you know that cross-contamination is a Bad Thing?), I steal cute fabric and bread tins from my mother's house when I take a brief trip to Montreal. We discover that eBay seems to be the only place where we can purchase pie tins in bulk. Graeme finds us a wheat supplier and we marvel at how cool it is to have our own "wheat guy" except that then he goes on vacation and we don't get to use him (yet!). Next time.

April 14th, 2007: The week before our debut at the market, I head to shop there and buy lots of ingredients for us to use for our stall. From our friends the farmers we purchase a whole lot of potatoes, carrots, onions, etc. From another local farm, we purchase a dozen and a half eggs, some gorgeous whole milk (bottled!), and local organic honey. It is all quite heavy to carry home.

April 20th, 2007: We spend the day faffing around at a French market that's come to town. Then, towards the late afternoon, we buckle down and collect the million more ingredients we need. As you can see from the photo, these ingredients include: organic hard white flour, hard whole wheat flour, organic plain flour, organic self-raising flour (which we've since decided we hate), strawberries (for the pierogi), the lovely Oxfordshire-brewed Old Hooky Ale (for the pies!), lots of fair trade raw cane sugar, cottage cheese (for the pierogi), etc.

6p.m. We start cooking. I get started on the pierogi, of which I made two different kinds: Ruskie Pierogi, which are filled with potatoes, fried onions, and cottage cheese, and strawberry pierogi, filled with strawberries and sugar. The latter remind me of my childhood, when all I wanted to eat were fruit-filled pierogi, and when I used to spend afternoons with my bubby, rolling out acres of dough to fill with blueberries. Here I am in action with the Ruskie pierogi. Pierogi are a super-easy dish to prepare; the dough is un-fuck-up-able and always lovely and stretchy, and fillings are easily cooked up. It is just a long, slow process. I bagged up these puppies a dozen to a bag, stuck a label on them with ingredients and cooking instructions (particularly useful because pierogi have yet to really make it in the UK and were unknown to most of our consumers), and froze them. Some of them stuck together, and I had to throw a couple of bags out, which nearly made my cry. But other than that, they were delish.

Graeme, at the same time, made his pies. He made a batch of Beef and ale pies, filled with: beef from our local butcher's, Old Hooky ale, onions, carrots, potatoes, celery, and onion gravy. You can see the lovely filling in the photo to the right. Graeme struggled a bit with his shortcrust pastry--the first batch was slightly overworked, and he messed up calculating how much dough he would need to make (and how much flour, butter, and egg that would entail), forcing him to make an 11p.m. Tesco run. That said, I should let it be known that Graeme is a shortcrust pastry genius, and made perfect shortcrust pastry at his first ever attempt at it. So while he was frustrated by the difficulties he encountered, he still pulled off some gorgeous pies. He filled the veggie pies with the same onion gravy and vegetable base, as well as lots of firm and tasty chickpeas, and seasoned it with bay leaves and some thyme. Both sets of pies were covered in cute shortcrust pastry leaves (and my attempts at making birds and flowers which were not so gorgeous). The veggie pies were also marked with a pastry "v".

Midnight, April 21st, 2007: I am done with my pierogi, and even had time to unwind while watching the always-enlightening WAGS Boutique. Graeme is still hard at work, cursing his pies, and exhausted. I help him out for a bit but my eyes get heavy and I retire to bed. He keeps working until 2a.m when he finally decides to call it a night. This is our Darkest Farmers' Market Hour.

6:30a.m. My alarm goes off. I haul ass out of bed, and Graeme follows in 15 minutes or so. It should be noted that neither of us are morning people. I heat up some water so that I can start the morning's work by proofing the bagel yeast, and at the same time put the espresso pot on the stove because the only way that anything is going to happen is through copious amounts of coffee.

I get the bagels started, while Graeme works on finishing, and baking, the pies. Luckily, my kitchen has two ovens, so while the pies are baking and the bagels are rising (two batches of white bagels, one batch of wholewheat), I whip up a quadrupled bunch of cornbread batter, and put it to bake. This is semi-disastrous as our oven has the tendency to bake stuff really quickly on the outside and leave the inside raw, and one loaf has to be thrown out. I also forget that cornbread is very crumbly, and will be difficult to sell by the loaf, so I decide I'll sell it by the slice. This keeps me from bursting into tears at the cornbread batter trickling down one of the counters, mocking me.

The bagels, in the meantime, rise like precocious bread children showing off. I punch down the dough, form a million bagels, and get ready to boil them. Check out my little army of bagels in the photo to the right. For the most part, the bagel process goes smoothly, with the exception of the fact that my baking sheets are old and on their deathbeds, and half the bagels get stuck to them, no matter how much cornmeal I put down to avoid such a fate, and several get ruined in the process of having to RIP THEM OFF of the sheets. This is unpleasant But over three dozen tasty bagels emerge from the oven tasty and perfect, so life is not so bad.

In the meantime, Graeme bakes up three batches of his signature delicious scones, with which he has wowed many a new friend since he learned how to make them last year. The scones behave themselves, which is good, because Graeme's emotional state is a bit fragile after the pie debacle.

11 a.m. As I rush to boil up some pierogi to serve as samples, Graeme puts out bags together to haul to the market. We have two cooler bags full of pies and pierogi, three plastic bags full of bagels, a shoebox full of scones, and a cardboard box full of cornbread. We also bring some big bags full of: knives, plates for samples, a little tape deck to play appropriately cheerful market music on, table cloths, safety pins, our sign, paper bags, labels, plastic gloves, and some other junk I'm sure I'm forgetting. We walk to the market, which normally seems like it's around the corner, but today feels like a long trek, due to the kilos and kilos of baked goods weighing down our arms.

11:15 a.m. We arrive, and start setting up our table as the kind volunteers put up a gazebo to shade us and our goods from the sun. The day is lovely, and I take off my shoes to enjoy the feel of warm grass under my feet. Graeme tries not to fall asleep. It's a bit windy, so stuff needs to be pinned down a lot, but in less than half an hour we manage to cre
ate our cute stall, which inadvertently looks kind of communist:

12 p.m.-3 p.m. Market time! We discover that our stall is next to the lunch cafe stall, and so the smell of BBQ-ign lamb skewers keeps wafting in our direction and making our mouths water.
I last about an hour before I nip over to grab some lamb, and some focaccia pizza slices for us to chow down on. Customers are enthusiastic and help themselves to the many sample we've laid out. We sell out of vegetarian pies pretty quickly. We also sell out of the Ruskie Pierogi, and the sesame seed bagels. I cannot, for the life of me, seem to sell people on the strawberry pierogi, as the British cannot wrap their heads around eating sweet foods from main c
ourses. It seriously seems to disturb people when I suggest it. Most have also never tasted corn bread, but really get into it, and we sell almost two whole loaves of slices. The meat pies are also a hit, and a little girl almost throws a tantrum over her desire for some scones. In three hours, we manage to sell about 3/4 of our stock. This is good news, because it means that the walk home will be with much lighter loads. We buy some beetroot salsa from the dip lady, who is a market newbie like us, and some radishes (spring vegetables, yes!) and fresh apple juice from the farmers. By the end of the market, we are fairly chipper, despite our exhaustion.

3 p.m. We pack up, come home, put stuff away, and scrub the kitchen. I leave some of the leftover goods out for my housemates, and Graeme brings some to his. We discover that we've made a whole 10 quid profit! This is exciting as we were worried that we'd lose money on the venture, and had only really hoped to break even. As lots of our costs this time are ones we won't have to repeat next time, we figure that we can make up to 50 quid profit the next time we have a stall. We spend the rest of the day being fairly social but pass out by around midnight, tired, but happy.

Lessons learned: Prepare more in advance! While bread stuff needs to be baked the day of, the pie dough can be prepared well in advance and frozen, as can the pierogi. And start earlier the day before so that we can get a good night's sleep. Also, properly calculate ingredient quantities, and start acquiring them further in advance so that we can get more local stuff (hopefully we'll be able to use our wheat guy next time). We also learned a lot about what quantities of particular baked goods we should make, and figure we can maybe sleep in as late as 7:30 a.m. on market day. So next time we hope to be less cranky and tired, and more of a well-organically oiled machine.

New things to attempt next time: Graeme is mulling over a new kind of meat pie to make - perhaps pork and stilton, or lamb and mint? We shall see. He'd also like to try and make a couple of varieties of scones (maybe some with raisins or dried cranberries?) and use normal flour with baking powder, rather than stupid self-raising flour, to make them, as they're likely to rise better that way. I'd like to perfect my pita bread recipe, as I think that'd be a popular item, and I think it would be awesome to make my own pita bread. I'm also going to make my corn bread in muffin form, which should make it less stressful to bake and transport, as well as some mushroom pierogi instead of fruit ones, since the latter clearly did not go over well. (We did manage to sell one bag of it to an open-minded lady!) Also, I'm going to buy some new baking trays.

That's enough for this mammoth entry. Our next market day is May 12th, so we'll let you know how it goes! Graeme is not sure he can bear to see flour again until then, whereas I am apparently psychotic because yesterday afternoon I made some beer bread (which will be posted at some point this week) because I guess I have an insatiable thirst for baking.