Monthly Archives: December 2004

Happy New Year!

The past year has been a bad one all around – for me and for the planet as a whole. I am going to choose to believe that out of adversity grows greater strength, out of muck, beauty.

There are plenty of possibilities to look forward to. The publishing company and book will finally get off the ground in January. I will find some work of some kind. Jan will get HER book taken on by someone. There has to be a vacation somewhere in the year!

And for my resolution. To look outward, not inward. To do things for other people more often, to support other people more often.

I could go on but I think I’m better off focusing on one thing and trying to do that rather than the usual ten and failing at them all.

Fog rolls over Pacific hills.

The North wind sends Alaskan chills.

Rain falls soft, then drumrolls on the roof.

Grey dark nets the sky with plaits.

Water gathers and waits

For the parched, reluctant earth to accept its proof

That, along with all the gloom

Comes the potential for another bloom

And for life to reassert its truth.

The hills that at sunset were brown and gray

And dry and baked and clay

Wake up to sunrise, green to meet the day.

Happy New Year to all of you and may all your recipes for food and life come out the way you’d like.

Paper Chef #2

Time to get started on the second installment of the Paper Chef! The January 2005 version will start on January 7, 2005 at Noon PST. The mandatory ingredient list will be announced slightly before that time right here and at Is My Blog Burning.

You will then have until the following Monday, January 10, 2005 at Noon PST to cook something using the four mandatory ingredients and post an entry about it with the recipe.

You can see results from last month here.

So far, the ingredient list nominated is: anchovies, cinnamon, savoy cabbage, smoked paprika, oranges and wheat flour. You are all free to nominate more ingredients – one only per person please – and three of the final four ingredients will be picked at random from this list with a fourth seasonal or specialty ingredient added for good measure.

Post nominations in comments here, or in the forums at Is My Blog Burning. Or you can email me at the address above.

Tsunami Relief

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Murder, Mystery, and dinner!

Well, we had the murder mystery party. Being the kind of masochist that I am, I decided that I could write one of these things in under a week – no problem. Ha!

It’s a good thing Jan is as understanding as she is – or we’d never have pulled it off. As it was her understanding only went so far and she yanked me up short the day of hte party after I had vanished to write for three hours and pointed out that we had to clean the house and cook.

Somehow we got it all done.

20 guests plus the four of us. We even managed parts for the kids.

I was most impressed that EVERYBODY dressed up and played their part. It was set in 1939 and we had hats and ruffles and dresses and suits and dinner jackets and tranchcoats and so on.

Dinner was more basic than it might have been – it is hard to produce dinner for 24 as the butler without the full cast of understairs help. We had drinks (gin and tonic, whiskey and soda, sparkling apple juice) and olives and nuts. Then more drinks with cheese straws and baked brie en croute as an appetizer. The main course was five (!) roast chickens with three pans of baked potatoes, one pan of baked butternut squash and onions, beets and yams cooked on the stovetop. I ended up cooking the chickens for two and a half hours because even our enormous two-oven range couldn’t cope. They were washed with orange juice, stuffed with orange halves and coated with salt, pepper and mixed herbs. After tha mina course came a salad course followed by dessert (blackberry trifle with sherry for adults and with spiced apple cider for kids). We also made mulled red wine and mulled cider to drink. Finally a cheese course.

I doubt I’ll do it again – it was too much work. But it was a lot of fun.

Here’s the background that all the guests got before they arrived. They also got an individual character sheet with details about their charcater and objectives and motivations.

Death at Welfleet

It is 1938. Europe is on the brink of cataclysm and all the major European powers are jockeying for knowledge, prestige, power and position. Scientific breakthroughs are closely guarded secrets. Hitler’s rise to power worries the rest of the world, but they don’t yet know what it really means – what he is really capable of.

Meanwhile, ordinary citizens are abandoning themselves to reckless gaiety. Parties abound as people desperately seek the last few hours of enjoyment and entertainment before the long nightfall of war descends.

It is to one of these parties – at the large manor in Welfleet, Suffolk in South Eastern England – that we now travel. Sir Richard Ponsonby and his wife, Lady Ellen Ponsonby are throwing a special dinner party to celebrate Christmas 1938, to look back on the past year and to avoid looking forward at the year to come.

Sir Richard and Lady Ponsonby are ably aided in putting on the party by their enigmatic and rather Jeeves-like butler Simpson. Attending the dinner party are two scientists from the nearby Huffa’s Ridge British Military Research Station, Dr Ivor Black and Dr Natalie deGuillemot. They are known to be world experts in radio wave propogation studies. Also in attendance are an attache to the French Embassy in London, Anne-Marie Galtier, and a sub-consul from the Netherlands, Rikard Hullet. They both got to know Lady Ponsonby during some theatrical productions she was involved in while the Ponsonbys were staying at their Sloane Square residence in London. Anne-Marie has brought along a young ballerina from the Royal Dutch Ballet, Fleur Montparnasse. Finally, the maid is Sarah Adler, newly-hired after the mysterious disappearance of the previous maid, and fortunately able to start work just the past week.

Just that afternoon two young German men staggered to the door of the manor, drenched in sea water and blue with cold. They said that they were Helmut Dreisler and Oscar Nagle, two young businessmen and the only survivors of a small boat they had chartered from Oostend to Harwich. They asked for food and a bed for the night and promised to be gone the next day on to London. The local police constable, George Briggs, had been summoned, had taken their particulars, examined their passports, and was to see that they were escorted to the Foreign Office in London the next morning to make sure that their papers were in order. In the meantime, Sir Richard and Lady Ellen gladly added them to the party. George Briggs will stay over and eat in the kitchen just to make sure an eye is kept on them.

The Ponsonby’s nearest neighbours, Arnold and Beatrice Mallon were also invited and, as it was the holidays, they would be joined by their two daughters, Neave and Alice. Neave is a student at nearby Cambridge and very interested in Physics. Alice, quite the opposite, is an actress who wants to be in movies and who has recently done some work with avant-garde filmmakers in Berlin. Betty Johnson is visiting from America with Teddy Trenton (see later). She is a jazz singer, rather eccentric and loud but no dummy at all.

Young Martha Simpson is Simpson’s niece [Mike Simpson, nephew, if a boy] is staying with Simpson for the holidays. Nobody except Simpson is quite sure how or why she is there and nobody dares ask. For all Simpson’s formality and politeness, there is something rather formidable about him. Edward Tatburn is the local Anglican minister at St Stephen’s. He is happy to attend any gathering where he is fed and there is port to be drunk. Arthur Merrick is a taciturn scientist from the military research station who attached himself to the other two and came along anyway. He seems a little too bureaucratic and watchful to really be a scientist. Sir Ponsonby’s second cousin, Agatha Calderon, an eccentric widow who is always following the latest fads, has shown up uninvited and seems rather put out that there is a dinner party going on. She brings an even stranger companion, the very arch and over-the-top fashion designer from Vienna, Lottie Spiegel. An American man, Teddy Trenton, who says he is in finance struck up an acquaintance with Sir Richard in London last week when he was down in town and somehow extracted an invitation for the Christmas Eve Party.

Just before dinner, a quiet Scandinavian woman with a strong accent, Bridgit Eklund, shows up and says she was invited by Rikard Hullet but she seems to draw unusual enmity from Anne-Marie. The Ponsonby’s also have a young cousin, whose parents have had to go to South Africa for two weeks, staying with them. Mary O’Hara (or Darren if a boy) is still in school and rather glad to have the young Simpson around. Finally, at the last minute a gate-crasher shows up – Clarissa Compton – who claims she just HAD to meet Betty Johnson and Fleur Montparnasse and this was the ONLY way.

The Place: Ponsonby Manor, Welfleet, Suffolk

Welfleet gets its name from the sixteenth century smugglers that operated from the three coves that are just sheltered by low hills and cliffs from the regular howling gales that speed across the North Sea from Holland and Denmark. Gin from Holland, spirits, gold, luxuries from Russia via Denmark. The locals did very ‘wel’ indeed out of their small fleet of ‘fishing’ boats.

The main part of the village is only half a mile from shore and most of the small local houses are built between the village square and the sea. The square itself has a small inn, the parish church, St Stephen’s, a post office, police station and a small store. The manor and the other wealthier homes are all further West, on the side of the village away from the sea and closer to London.

But Welfleet is pretty isolated. Ipswich, the nearest large town is sixty miles away and London is ninety miles.

Just North of the village, about three miles, the last of the small hills in the Southern part of Suffolk fade away and the endless fens and flatlands of most of Suffolk begin. Close to the shore are miles of sand dunes and it is just behind these, in row after row of low concrete blockhouses, that the Huffa’s Ridge Military Research Station is located. The Ridge itself refers to the last line of hills separating the station from Welfleet. It was there that rampaging Saxon raider Huffa was thrown back in 353 AD by a desperate group of local farmers. It is rumored that Huffa is buried with full Saxon regalia and honors somewhere in those low hills.

But our story all happens at the manor of Sir Richard Ponsonby, the last of the Ponsonbys. He and his wife, Lady Ellen, have no children. The manor was built in 1711, probably mostly from the proceeds of the smuggling trade. It is a large, two-winged, three story brick manor house with fifteen bedrooms, a large sweeping gravel driveway, innumerable hedges, and all the accoutrements of an English Country Home in the 1930s. It is set on 300 acres of rich Suffolk farmland that is dotted with coppices and little woodlands.

Oatcakes

I love oatcakes. I always have and I always will. They are better than mere crackers in every way. They taste better, they are better for you and they are more interesting. I have made them before but only once and it took me a LONG time to track down the recipe that I had used in the past. It was from a BBC Good Food magazine from about two years ago and it was for thyme-flavored oatcakes. I made rosemary flavored and plain last time and this time I went for rosemary, sage-and-pepper, and honey-and-lemon.

You do know what an oatcake is? It is a cracker like flatbread thing that is made essentially just from whole oats (not the rolled kind that are in Quaker oatmeal which is the only kind of oat most people have ever seen). It is about an eighth of an inch thick and crunchy and chewy at the same time with a strong nutty and oaty taste. They are superb for eating with cheese – just absolutely the best thing ever.

I also looked through all my many cookbook for a recipe to compare – no luck. Apparently the oatcake is too much of a specialty item.

So here’s the recipe for Rosemary Oatcakes.

Rosemary Oatcakes

You need to use steel-cut or pinhead oatmeal. This is where the whole oat grain is chopped by a blade into smaller chunks of oat. They are about the size of a pinhead – hence the name. The commonest kind available is McCann’s Irish steel-cut oatmeal. While these will work, experience tells me that they make a very coarse oatcake. I prefer a kind I can get at Trader Joe’s that is a little smaller and softer.

2 cups steel-cut oatmeal

1 stalk of rosemary (about 2 tbsps whole leaves)

2 tbsps olive oil

1/3 tsp salt

3 tbsps boiling water

A small amount of flour

Heat the oven to 400 degrees and grease a baking sheet. Put the oats, salt and rosemary into a food processor and whizz together until they are well blended, the rosemary is finely chopped and the oats have been chopped a little. Now add the olive oil and whizz again until completely blended. While the food processor is running, carefully pour in the water. You do not need to add it all. Stop when you have a dough that is not yet too gummy.

Put the dough on floured surface and roll it out with a rolling pin using flour as needed to prevent sticking. This is a very sticky dough that is hard to work with. Do your best to keep it together and not let it crumble. Once it is rolled to about an eighth of an inch, you can cut it – in circles with a cutter or in triangles or rectangles with a knife. While circles are nice, they are hard to achieve with such a crumbly dough. I usually do rough rectangles, not all the same size. Carefully lift the cut oatcakes onto the baking sheet with a spatula. They will really try to fall apart. Bake for about twelve to fifteen minutes until browning on the edges and let dry on a rack to crisp up. Oatcakes keep pretty well in a sealed box.

Chez Panisse

Jan and I have been wanting to eat at Chez Panisse for about fifteen years. We’ve eaten at the upstairs cafe many times and each occasion has been especially memorable in one way or another, but we have never eaten at the restaurant — until now!

The cafe has always done us proud – not completely consistent in terms of food, but consistent in terms of experience. The first meal we ate there — well over ten years ago — was one of the best meals we have ever eaten. All I really remember are the veal shank and polenta and the rich, rich deep brown sauce. Then later meals included the first time our oldest daughter wrote something – on the menu, of course — it was the word ‘mama’. The next time we went was three years later and it too was the first time our younger daughter ever wrote something – also on the menu – also the word ‘mama’. We kept the menus, of course. Other meals were not quite as memorable but I suppose there have been about six in all.

In the past when I have tried for reservations at the restaurant I have always waited until too late and they have had none. This time I called a little earlier and was a little less fussy. I got a table for last Monday for our 15th anniversary. We had a HUGE fight after I had made the reservation and Jan didn’t want to go but on hearing it was Chez Panisse she relented and by the time we went things were much better and we had a wonderful time.

I’m not going to do pictures. We were greeted with olives and bread and consulted with our waiter on half a bottle of wine. Jan and I are neither of us big drinkers any more. We settled on a Graves from 1999 that turned out to be absolutely perfect. The appetizer was grilled mackerel with bagna cauda on a bed of green chicory flecked with red. Beautiful and absolutely delicious. It was a perfect combination and perfectly cooked.

The main course I already suspected would be less stellar. It was a pork loin scallopine with salsa verde and roasted root vegetables and cavolo nero with wild chanterelles. I would gladly have eaten a plate of the kale and mushrooms and skipped the rest. They weren’t bad – it is just that breaded, fried, pounded pork isn’t top of my list. The pork was excellent – soft and moist. The salsa verde was excellent. But all in all it was a bit plain apart from the kale and mushrooms that somehow were more than the sum of their parts.

The wine went beautifully with both courses by the way.

Dessert was back to the sublime. Buttermilk panna cotta with wild huckleberry sauce doesn’t even begin to describe it. It was light, fluffy, creamy, rich, smooth, gently sweet with a little bite of buttermilk. The slightly sour huckleberry sauce was a perfect contrast. We also got a cookie thing – one of those italian light and chewy almond cookies that had been formed in the shape of a snake.

We had a wonderful conversation and restored much order to our lives.

Death at Welfleet

So the murder mystery is under construction. We are at Ponsonby Manor in Welfleet, Suffolk. It is December 24th 1938. Half of Europe is preparing for the long dark nights of war and the other half is partying like there is no tomorrow. We have secret research stations and spies and ancient Saxon treasures and old family secrets and feuds and guests from America, France, Holland, Germany, Denmark and South Africa. We have a butler with a criminal past. All the ingredients are there…

Bouncing Back

Well – that was a bad week! First, I come as close as anything to getting offered a job finally after seven months only to have it snatched away again at the last minute as a company-wide hiring freeze is implemented the same day they decide to hire me! So no vacation over the holidays, no travel. Instead we get to buckle down even more on keeping expenditures under control.

So food got really uninteresting for a while there. But then I got back into it and made in rapid succession a delicious Capellini Putanesca with oodles of olives and capers and garlic and anchovies and chilli. Then I made a lovely small pork loin stuffed with goat cheese and apples, surrounded by little rounds of butternut squash. Then we had an extravaganza at a friend’s house. Another attendee is a real chef and he made a lovely five hour cooked brisket mounded with caramelised onions. So I made the sides. Soft, creamy polenta with pecorino romano to go underneath. Baked beets, squash, yams, carrots and onions for the side. And greens – twelve different kinds if you count the alliums (beet tops, turnip tops, red chard, white chard, collards, mustard, kale, green cabbage, red cabbage, leek tops, spinach and yellow onion) all sauteed in bacon grease with lemon juice and soy sauce added at the end and then topped with half a pound of crumbled bacon.

And next up is the winter gift project. This year it is oatcakes. Rosemary and Sage oatcakes baked thin and crisp for munching and eating with cheese. They will also be a course in the big upcoming dinner project. We are going to host a murder mystery party – Death at Welfleet. I am busy writing the characters, plot, scenes, etc. Dinner will be very straightforward and very British. But with lots of courses. Drinks, then appetizers, then main meal, then salad, then dessert, then cheese.

I bow to the egg champion

It has been brought to my attention that not everyone was happy with my comments about EotMEotE. Apparently some thought my remarks in questionable taste (see comments for previous entry). But what can they have meant? Of COURSE my tongue is in my cheek! Where else would it be?

BUT – I will not be taking part in EoMEoTE. Instead I relinquish the role to my ten year old daughter who established her supreme credentials at the age of seven when we staggered out of bed one Saturday morning to find her in the kitchen in the middle of frying an egg. But not just ANY egg. No. This was her SEVENTH fried egg of the morning. She had never before fried anything (and technically speaking wasn’t allowed to be using the stove)

So we bought her a frying pan of her own for her next present.

She may not choose to write about her eggsperience, however. After all the egg itself is what is important – much more so than the toast. There is after all only one possible answer to that ancient question, “which came first, the toast or the egg?”

Food Blog Power!

Wow! Not content with hosting real live events that draw our community together (IMBB (the first and still foremost), SHF, WBW, Paper Chef, even the tongue-firmly-in-cheek EoMEoTE) we now have also taken action (well – we in this case is Kate from the Accidental Hedonist) to start the first (hopefully annual) food blog awards. Way to go food blogging community! If you don’t know about any of these events please go check them out and be sure to vote in the food blog awards!

This is NOT a plug for me – my blog was intended for and still really is intended as a way for me to keep some kind of track of my free-wheeling, free-form cooking style where I never measure or keep track of ingredients or bother very much with recipes except for concepts and ideas. I cannot promise to ever recreate a dish exactly ever again – even WITH the record in the blog!

I am especially excited about all this since the first book from my nascent publishing company is going to be a compilation of the best food blog writing I could get together from between Summer 2003 and 2004. It will be called Digital Dish and is coming out from Press For Change Publishing sometime in January. So, the more interest and excitement within the food blog community the better as far as I am concerned.

Time for me to go vote…