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.