Wednesday’s Food

October 26, 2010 § 4 Comments

You know that game where you come up with your ideal dinner party? The one where people always choose Ghandi or the Kennedys or Emily Pankhurst? Well I am really really bad at it, paralyzed by indecision and the worry of getting stuck making chit chat with Nietzsche and it being my own fault. But if you were to ask me who I would want to cater such a dinner I can tell you without a shred of hesitation. Not such culinary luminaries as Rene Redzepi (prodigious and attractive though he may be) or Heston Blumenthal (ditto) or Ferran Adria. I would beg Nigel Slater to cook for us and I’d be confident that even the fussiest former statesman would have a blast. I should explain. I’m not claiming that the food would trump that of many chefs – this is food from a cook and gourmand rather than a chef – but it would be perfectly judged, unobtrusive and nurturing. The kind of food that sits back and lets the conversation flow. The kind that doesn’t beg for commentary and analysis throughout. The kind that makes you feel all warm and squidgy inside by the end of the evening.

I make no secret of how much I favour Nigel and his recipes and as the scrumptious Tender Volume 2 is my current bedtime reading you will no doubt be hearing more about him here soon enough. Nigel’s food is food for friends and that is the biggest compliment I can pay him. It’s also perfect mid-week eating, typically involving minimal fuss for maximum taste. And so with the nights drawing in and the air turning crisp and cool I wanted to share a recipe for one of my all time favourite weeknight suppers. This is a dish that oozes warmth and comfort, marrying the mild heat of sausage and mustard with the richness of cream and pasta. It’s amazingly quick to make, has an eminently manageable ingredients list, and will soothe away all the aches and pains and stresses of the day (I recommend it particularly for a wet Wednesday). It’s a big fat hug in a bowl. Eat it tucked up on the sofa wearing your favourite sweater and watching a marathon of your current TV obsession (i.e. in our household The Wire – we are soooo late to that party). Or, as you like, dole it out to friends and let the good times happen.

Sausage, Mustard and Basil Pasta
Adapted from Nigel Slater’s Real Food

For 2 hungry people

4 spicy Italian sausages
olive oil
Approximately 250g/9oz orecchiette*
a glass of white wine or vermouth
a pinch or two of dried red chile flakes
a small handful of chopped fresh basil
a tbsp Dijon mustard
200ml heavy/double cream

*I love this dish with orecchiette but you can substitute other pasta shapes like penne or conchiglie. Simply reduce the cooking time for the pasta to the recommended al-dente time for the pasta shape you are using (probably 9-10 minutes instead of the 18-20 for the orecchiette)

Put a large pan of water to boil for the pasta. In the meantime, warm a tablespoon or so of oil in a frying pan or casserole, split open the sausage skins and crumble the meat into the hot pan. Fry until the meat is sizzling and cooked through and starting to stick to the bottom of the pan, about 5 minutes. Towards the end of this stage, salt the water and add the pasta.
Pour the wine or vermouth into the sausage meat and scrape at the bottom of the pan to deglaze. Stir in the chile flakes and chopped basil. Add the merest touch of salt and the Dijon mustard, pour in the cream and very gradually bring to a gentle simmer. Stir from time to time while the pasta finishes cooking, keeping the heat low to prevent the cream from over-boiling.
When the pasta is just cooked, about 18 minutes after coming to the boil if using orecchiette, drain and add to the creamy sauce, stirring to coat well. Serve piping hot, garnished with some basil leaves.


On Eating Out

October 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

A mere 8 days remain until the third anniversary of our arrival in San Francisco. On that Tuesday 155 weeks ago, we dragged our over-packed bags out of the airport into a crisp, starry evening and took a yellow cab to our new home. The celebratory airplane champagne and anticipation of the unfamiliar proved a heady combination. We beamed stupidly at each other as the cab flew high in the air over the 280 ramp, making its way towards the twinkling high-rises of the metropolis stretched out before us. I remember it as wildly futuristic, like a scene from Blade Runner and although we’ve repeated the journey many times now, day and night, I can’t ever imagine tiring of that skyline welcoming you home. The cab dropped us on the corner of a street with a number for a name and we pushed through revolving doors into the lobby of an apartment building where a 15 foot garland of pumpkins and gourds stood in proud welcome. We took the elevator to the 17th floor and collapsed into a bed that was a fairytale height from the floor and where we could stretch wide without finding one another. We slept well.

And then we did what we had fantasized about during the manic and stressful weeks of organization and admin leading up to that day. We got up, we walked, and we went for brunch. The brunch dish in question was one suited for those with the kind of rabid hunger accompanying adrenalin and jet-lag: the playfully named French Toast Orgy. Chunky slices of sourdough soaked in eggy custard and caramelized in the pan before being topped with a mountain of fruit and granola, themselves capped by thick, creamy yoghurt and honey. We ordered one each and licked the plates clean, a feat never yet to be repeated. But to get to the real point: the particular restaurant and dish were unimportant. What mattered to us was that we could get up, survey the day, and choose between a plethora of restaurants. On our previous trip to the city, when the prospect of our actually living there was still more in the realm of fantasy than reality, I had remarked excitedly that you could eat out in a different restaurant every night and never get bored. It was the comment of someone who had spent most of the previous 10 years frustrated by a small college town but it is still an excitement that resurfaces today from time to time. And we proceeded to spend our first few months trying to do just that, until we moved to our permanent apartment and had a kitchen with a gas hob and had adjusted to the real meaning of the silly numbers and monopoly money.

The pleasure of food lies squarely in ritual and relationships, for me at least, and eating out provides its very own version of that, whether it be standing in a noisy line with a group of friends for a late night burrito, or a spontaneous dinner for two, just because it’s Tuesday and you can. I don’t want to write routinely about restaurants on this site, mostly because the nuances of San Francisco pizzas might be endlessly fascinating to a small group of us, but clearly not to all (although I will at some point add a fixed page of SF restaurant suggestions because I do (surprise surprise) have opinions). But where cakesnail and my eating-out-life intersect are those happy points at which I discover a new dish at a restaurant and it inspires me in the kitchen and thus, dear reader, we arrive at the delight that is the dish of ful medames.

The discovery came on a recent trip to the Pacific Northwest. The food in Seattle was inspirational across the board, with the rightly famed seafood of the region highlighted at every point, and in the form of simple yet innovative dishes. Indeed, my favourite meal of the trip, at Anchovies and Olives, would be highly difficult to repeat outside of the Pacific Northwest, and that was precisely why I adored it. The Ful discovery came at a place I was particularly excited to try: Sitka and Spruce which is in the beautiful Melrose Market at the lower end of Capitol Hill. It’s exactly the kind of restaurant I love: a small, thoughtful menu changing frequently with the seasons to make the most of local produce, a busy open plan kitchen to ogle from the long communal table, and a casual modern rustic décor that invites lingering with a coffee or glass of wine long after you’ve polished off the food.

Ful Medames is a traditional Middle Eastern breakfast dish consisting of dried fava beans which are gently simmered until soft and creamy and then coarsely pureed with garlic and spices before being topped with a variety of good things. At Sitka and Spruce this included a soft-boiled egg, pistachios and dill. Other traditional options could involve yoghurt, olives or cucumber and tomato salad. For my version at home I stuck with the dill and pistachios and swapped out the egg for some crumbled Bulgarian sheep’s feta which I needed to use up. The feta and dill complimented each other perfectly but you should feel free to play around with combinations: the beans provide a mild enough base that they will stand up to experimentation. And although we had this for dinner it would be a fun dish to serve up to friends for brunch: you could put a variety of toppings in the middle of the table and let each person choose his or her own combination. I would consider serving it for our anniversary brunch next week, but I expect we’ll be eating out.

Ful Medames
Adapted from Sitka and Spruce and Claudia Roden

Yield: 4 servings

2 cups (approx. 350g) dried fava beans
½ cup (a handful!) pistachios
1 tbsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp za’atar (optional)*
1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
3 tbsp dill, chopped
feta, to taste (approx 50g per serving)

*Za’atar is a Middle Eastern spice mix, usually consisting of thyme, salt and sesame seeds, sometimes with other additions like sumac. It’s readily available in Middle Eastern grocery stores. I have approximately 1lb in my cupboard (Ottolenghi uses it frequently) so I use it liberally but you could skip it without ill effect.

Soak the fava beans overnight, or for at least 8 hours. Drain the soaking water and place in a large pan. Cover with fresh water so that it covers the beans by an inch or two. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook the beans for 2-2 ½ hours, until soft.
If there is a lot of water left at this point, reduce it and smash the beans to a coarse puree.
In a skillet, toast the pistachios over medium high heat then leave to one side. Toast the cumin seeds in the same pan until fragrant, add to a pestle and mortar and grind (you can use ground cumin if you like but the flavours are fresher and more pungent if you take this extra step). Stir in the za’atar if using and leave to one side.
Add 1 tbsp oil to the same skillet, add the chopped onion and cook over medium high heat for 4 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the chopped garlic to the onion and continue cooking for a further 2-3 minutes. Add the cumin and za’atar to the pan and stir into the onion and garlic. Cook, stirring, for a further minute, allowing the mix to become fragrant, and then add the fava beans. Stir to combine and re-heat the beans, and then taste for seasoning (bearing in mind that if you are going to use feta it will be very salty so sightly under-season at this point).
Serve topped with the dill, pistachios and crumbled feta, or with the toppings of your choice.

An Accidental Muffin

October 14, 2010 § Leave a comment

As someone who has chosen a career working with books and who adores cooking, it’s hardly surprising that I have something of a penchant for cookbooks. And although I will admit (sheepishly and under duress) that I will add to my collection whether there be good cause or not, I did genuinely need to invest in a few new staples when we first moved over from the UK. Sure, this is partly because of the ubiquitousness of ingredients like self-raising flour or ground almonds in UK-authored recipes that are a pain to find here, and the reliance on sticks and cups and other previously alien measuring forms in their US counterparts, but it’s also more subtle than that. One of the things I love most about cookbooks and, indeed, food in general, is the window they provide on cultural practices and the everyday. I was pretty sure I couldn’t assimilate to life in America without a good pecan pie recipe under my belt or being able to drop the word snickerdoodle into conversation when needed. And not only did Dorie Greenspan’s acclaimed tome Baking: From My Home to Yours come to the rescue in those awkward early days, it turned out to be so helpful, accurate and reliable that it quickly became the most-used book I owned. The creamiest tartest lemon tart, dense and chewy brownies, dimpled plum cake, and the frankly sublime world peace cookies emerged one after other from the oven and were devoured. And while I didn’t quite make every recipe in the book (although there are many who have!) I felt like I had come pretty close to exhausting it.

Indeed, this recipe for allspice muffins might have been condemned to languish unnoticed in the book had I not been about to leave town and, keen to use up some eggs lest they go to waste but without time to pick up ingredients other than those already in the house, scoured my books looking for something that met my constraints. The only exotic ingredient this recipe demands is allspice and I knew I had some berries left over from a pickling spree I had been on earlier in the year. If you are in a similar pinch you could substitute a smaller amount of ground cloves, or maybe a dash of nutmeg, but I do recommend the allspice if possible. It lends a subtle warmth to the muffins without being in any way overpowering. But the allspice is really the supporting actor to the star turn played by the streusel topping. It tops off a light, open-textured bun and is simultaneously moist and crunchy. It’s downright addictive.

A concluding word on the Muffin. The pattern in which I bake these buns reflects that of the proverbial omnibus. They are absent from our kitchen for months in favour of sexier bundt cakes or chic tarts but once the drought breaks I will make batches one after the other. The reason: muffin baking is easy! No need for the stand mixer, no need for fancy ingredients or excessive washing up of multiple pots and pans. Just mix up your dry ingredients, mix up your wet ones separately, combine as lumpily as possible and bake. I even use silicone muffin cups which cuts out yet another stage as they don’t require greasing. If you are going to follow my lead with this trend, make the freezer your friend. I will leave out two or three of each batch for immediate consumption and freeze the rest, wrapped tightly in plastic film. You can defrost them overnight for instant breakfast happiness, or indulge sweet cravings by sticking them in a hot oven or microwave for a minute or so. Which I am off to do right now.

Allspice Crumb Muffins
Adapted from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: From My Home to Yours

Yield: 12 Muffins

For the Streusel:
½ cup/60g all purpose/plain flour
½ cup (packed)/85g light brown sugar
½ tsp ground allspice
5 tablespoons/70g cold unsalted butter, cut into bits

For the Muffin Batter:

2 cups/220g all purpose/plain flour
½ cup/85g sugar
1 tbsp baking powder
½ tsp ground allspice
¼ tsp salt
¼ cup (packed)/40g light brown sugar
1 stick/110g unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 large eggs
¾ cup/180ml whole milk
¼ tsp pure vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 375 F/190 C. Grease your muffin pan and place it on a baking sheet or, alternatively, use silicone muffin cups and place them on the baking sheet.
If you haven’t already done so, melt the butter for the batter now so it can be cooling while you make the streusel.
To make the streusel you should combine the flour, brown sugar and allspice in a small bowl and use your fingers or a whisk to sift and blend them together. Add the bits of cold butter and toss them in the flour mixture to coat, then use your fingers to rub the butter into the dry ingredients until they resemble large breadcrumbs of irregular size. You want to try and prevent the butter from melting too much: a good trick is to use only the tips of your fingers and to crumble a little above the bowl so the mix aerates as it drops back down. Set the streusel aside in the refrigerator while you assemble the batter.
To make the batter, you should begin by taking a large bowl and whisking together the flour, sugar, baking powder, allspice and salt. Stir in the brown sugar, making sure there are no lumps. In a separate bowl, whisk the melted butter, eggs, milk and vanilla extract together until well-combined. Pour the wet ingredients over the dry ones and use the whisk to bring the batter together. You want to avoid overmixing so only stir until the dry ingredients are incorporated. The batter will and should be lumpy.
Divide the batter evenly between the muffin cups. Take the streusel from the refrigerator and sprinkle some over each muffin, pressing lightly so it is slightly submerged in the batter.
Bake for around 20 minutes, until the tops of the muffins are golden and a thin knife or wooden skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Leave to cool in the pans for 5 minutes then turn out onto a rack and leave until fully cool.

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