Friday, July 27, 2012

London is Well Fit: or British Love and Olympic Nosh

If there's anything I love more than the Olympics, it's the British - the film, the literature, the music, the humor, the boys, the curses, the accent, the tradition and history of the country.  My family has always had a great appreciation for all things English.  I was raised on The Clash and Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe and Van Morrison and The Black Adder and Mr. Bean and The Goods and Eddie Izzard and Monty Python and James Bond and Four Weddings and A Funeral and Pimm's Cups.  My love of British literature really blossomed in college, where I took not one, but three British Lit courses - I honestly could not get enough, especially contemporary authors like Nick Hornby and Neil Gaiman.
Me and the Big Guy - ignore the face, I hadn't slept.

My family are such Anglophiles that our first international vacation was to London and Wales to visit family.  Last year, my parents sent me on my first solo-vacation back to London for my birthday to visit a few friends who were studying abroad there.  I was thrilled to be heading to my favorite country (yeah, I said it), but I was worried about how I'd take to London - I'm not a big city girl, New York sends me into panic attacks.  However, I immediately fell in love.  Especially with the Underground.  One of my favorite memories of that trip was sitting on the train on my way to New Cross listening to The Clash on my iPod.  As I recall, I was smiling like an idiot, and might have scared some of the commuters sitting around me.

Part of what drew me to London and made me so at ease there was the fact that it doesn't seem like a city. New York is too big - the buildings are too tall and shiny, there too many people around me, there's too much going on, too much stimulus.  I find New York extremely overwhelming and  anxiety inducing.  London, on the other hand, is like a giant small town.  There are no skyscrapers, the buildings are all old and historic and beautiful.  The English respect and preservation of their past and history is so endearing and wonderful - as Eddie Izzard so perfectly puts it, "I come from Europe, where the history comes from.  You tear your history down, man.  Thirty years old let's smash it to the ground and put a car park here!"  Within London you have these little neighborhoods that feel so much like country villages that you forget you're in the city.  Cobblestone streets with shops and merchants that could have magically walked out of a Dicken's novel.  My favorite nook in the city was Borough Market.

Borough Market, located under London Bridge, is the city's oldest fruit and veg market with roots that date back to 1014.  Now a days, they have far more than fruit and veg - meat pies, pastries, cheeses, breads, meats, curries, ciders, mulled wine, basically everything and anything you could possibly want.  It's tiny, but there is a definite community and culture attached to the market.  The vendors are loud and boisterous, calling you over to try their goods.  The locals come to gossip over a big bowls of green Thai curry or to grab some fresh rabbit for dinner on their way home from work.  I went just to wander and to take everything in - the sounds, the smells, the colors.  Oh, and don't forget the tastes.  Rabot Estate chocolate shop was my go-to, mainly because of their chocolate enhanced menu.  A smoked salmon sandwich with chocolate creme fresh and nibs - I mean, does it get any better?  Though I have to say the banana, salted caramel, and cocoa nibs on toasted brioche was my favorite.  I may or may not have had a few dreams about that sandwich.

But I digress.  Moral of this long, rambling tirade is that I love the British and London and was terribly excited about the opening ceremonies of the Olympics tonight.  I decided that I wanted a celebrate with a London inspired meal.  I thought about the classic British fare - bangers and mash, meat pie, beans on toast, fish and chips - but wanted to find something a bit more traditional.  So, I do what us Confoy's do best: research.  In no time at all, I found two dishes that jumped out at me - ploughman's lunch and potted shrimp. The ploughman's lunch is a pub food that usually consists of bread, cheddar cheese, sliced ham, pickles, and apples laid out that are then assembled into sandwich form.  I took this idea and as per usual, put my own spin on it.  I kept the bread, cheese, and apples, but substituted the ham for smoked salmon and added some roasted garlic for good measure.  Potted shrimp was definitely the highlight of tonight's Olympic nosh - not only was it quick and easy, but it was ridiculously delicious.  It was a great addition to the spread we had, and most importantly, it was the perfect pair to my tall, cold Pimm's Cup.

Potted Shrimp
½ stick of butter
1 large scallion, whites and a little green thinly sliced
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp nutmeg
½ lb wild-caught shrimp, roughly chopped
salt and pepper to taste

+ In a medium skillet, melt 2 tablespoons butter over medium-high heat.  Once the butter is hot, add the scallions, cayenne and nutmeg.  Saute for a few moments until scallions are soft.
+ Add another tablespoon or two of butter and melt.  Add shrimp and saute, stirring occasionally.  Right before the shrimp are cooked, add the rest of the butter and cook until melted.  

+ Place shrimp and butter into a ramekin and refrigerate for two hours, or until solidified.  Serve cold on bread or toasts, preferably with a Pimm's Cup.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Food-Talk, Friends, and Ramekins

I love food and I'm not afraid to say it.  But it's not about eating food...well, not entirely.  My love is of the possibilities, the creation, the idea that every experience can be a new one with the addition of a little spice.  I get excited to try new techniques or mixing ingredients together just to see what happens, and it's an incredible feeling when it works and everything balances and tastes delicious.  My meals bring me great pride which make me want to share them...maybe too much.  I mean, my friends and family definitely aren't complaining about having to partake in the products of my culinary obsession.  However, I think that I have begun to wear away at their patients and interest when it comes to talking about food.  My food-talk is non-stop - a new recipe I saw online; Mark Bittman's ingredient of the week; the ground cherries I found at Gravity Hill and what I could possibly do with them; the daily question that grates at my family: "What should we have for dinner?"  When I go on a tirade about how I prepared the cabbage I made for dinner last night or an idea I had for zucchini oatmeal, my loved ones usually give me a patronizing smile and blankly nod until I've exhausted myself.  I have apologized to them, but I can't help it - food just gets me really excited, passionate, and apparently very talkative.  However, I think that I have found my savior, the solution to my gab problem, and her name is Chelsea.
Fresh farm veg on a cutting board is happiness.
Chelsea works with me at Main Street, moonlights as a chef at a New Orleans style restaurant, and is just as much of a foodie as I am.  She's a friend that I can talk to about the zucchini flowers I found at the farmer's market but don't know what to do with, and instead of having her eyes glaze over, her excitement rises to meet mine as she gives me her grandmother's fried zucchini flower recipe (which I made and was unbelievable).  What I appreciate most is that when we talk it's not one-sided, it's a conversation - we bounce ideas off one another, share advice, recipes, techniques.  I feel like I've learned so much just from talking to her over the past couple of months, but last week I went over her house for dinner and learned even more from watching her cook.  She made a simple pasta dish with roasted vegetables, except it was a completely innovative meal for me.  After she mixed the roasted vegetables into the pasta, she finished it off by sauteing some garlic in olive oil and pouring it on top.  Then - the most exciting part - the toasted bread crumbs.  On the table was a little ramekin filled with bread crumbs (for those who don't know, a ramekin is a little ceramic bowl that can withstand high temperature, which makes them the perfect vessel for cooking and serving dishes, and holding bread crumbs).  I didn't quite understand what they were for, until Chelsea sprinkled some on top of her bowl of pasta.  I was hesitant at first, but it was amazing.  It added crunch, a surprising texture, to the pasta that is usually lacking. Toasted bread crumbs!  On Pasta!  Who would've thought?!  Apparently Chelsea and her family, since they've been doing it for years.  For dessert, we had mini-blueberry peach pies also served in ramekins, which happen to be the perfect individual serving size.  Everything was wonderfully delicious, and she gave me so many ideas for things to do in my own cooking...which I put to good use this past weekend.
Fried Zucchini Blossoms thanks to Chelsea's Grandmother
My college friend Kit came for dinner, and Chelsea had a huge impact on the meal I made him.  Not only did she give me inspiration, but she gave me my very own set of ramekins since I couldn't stop talking about them, and I cannot express my thanks to her enough.  For Kit, I made tri-colored penne with roasted tomatoes.  Usually my pasta dishes come out pretty much the same, since I always use the same ingredients, ratio of seasonings, and techniques.  But for this meal, I stole Chelsea's method of pouring the garlic and olive oil over the dish at the end and finishing it off with bread crumbs - it turned a simple pasta into something new and different and fabulously delicious.  For dessert, I also made individual ramekin pies - I made a vegan chocolate cream pie since that's Kit's favorite and topped it with some honey glazed fruit, another Chelsea inspiration (except don't tell Kit it was vegan, he wasn't supposed to find out...oops).  Kit ate two mini-pies and finished mine that night, and then had two more the next day.  My brother, who is highly critical of my cooking and tired of my healthy meals, was impressed and said that I might actually be able to do this whole cooking thing for real - thanks, Des.  And I have to say, I even impressed myself with these little pies.

Moral of the story is that I am so happy to have found a fellow culinary enthusiast friend that I can food-talk with and who is just as passionate about it as I am.  I find that knowledge and understanding is best gained through sharing and conversation.  And it's far more enjoyable and much more potent than studying from a book or reading off the internet.  I just can't wait to have Chelsea over my house so I can cook for her.  Only question is...what should we do for dinner?

Roasted Tomato Penne

1 pint cherry tomatoes
10 basil leaves, sliced
¼ cup panko bread crumbs
1 tbs butter
½ lb penne
1 clove garlic, sliced

olive oil
salt and pepper

+ Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
+ Halve most of the tomatoes, keeping a hand-full whole.  Place the tomatoes in a medium bowl and season with salt and pepper.  Allow to sit for about ten minutes so that thee juices can seep out.  Then, add pepper and half the basil.  Drizzle with olive oil and mix so that all the tomatoes are well coated.  Place in a shallow baking dish, bake for 40 minutes, or until tomatoes are shriveled and juicy.
+ While the tomatoes are roasting, heat a splash of oil and butter in a medium pan.  Once hot, add panko.  Stirring occasionally, cook until the bread crumbs are brown and toasted.  Set aside.
+ Cook and drain the pasta.  Set aside.

+ Once the tomatoes are done, heat a few tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat in a small pan.  When the oil is hot, add the garlic.  Saute until the garlic just begins to brown.
+ Toss the tomatoes and remaining basil in with pasta, mix until combined.  Drizzle garlic and oil over pasta.  Serve each bowl sprinkled with bread crumbs.

Boy-Approved Vegan Chocolate Cream Pie

makes 8 mini-pies
10 chocolate graham crackers
⅓ cup butter, melted
1 bag dark chocolate chips
⅓ cup coffee liqueur
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 package silken tofu, drained
3 tbs honey
1 cup fresh blueberries
1 cup fresh strawberries, quartered

+ Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
+ Place graham crackers and butter in a food processor, blend until the crackers are broken down, and the mix resembles bread crumbs.
+ Place about three tablespoons of cracker into the bottom of each ramekin.  Push the cracker into the bottom of the dish, making sure there are no holes in the crust.  Bake for 10 minutes.  Remove and allow to cool.
+ While the crust is baking, bring a medium pot of water to a simmer over medium heat.  Place the chocolate chips, liqueur, and vanilla in a medium metal bowl set over the simmering water.  Stir often to prevent the chocolate from burning.
+ Once the chocolate is completely melted, place the chocolate, tofu and 1 tbs honey in the food processor.  Blend until smooth.  Pour some chocolate mixture into each ramekin, leaving a little room in the top of each.  Refrigerate for 2 hours or until firm.
+ Right before eating, toss berries in 2 tbs of honey, mixing until well coated.  Spoon some berries on top of each pie to serve.