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pork-and-apple pie

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Next up on my British (kitchen) invasion: The meat pie. It’s a dish that, when prepared well, altogether dismisses the region’s poor reputation for cooking.

I’ve had two meat pies—shepherd’s pie (made with lamb) and cottage pie (made with beef)—and love them quite dearly. But both are topped with mashed potatoes, and I’ve always wanted to try a meat pie enveloped in crust. This desire became more pressing after seeing a gorgeous one that Nigella posted last week on Facebook. It doesn’t take much with me.

It’s Super Bowl Sunday here in the States, and while I don’t share my countrymen’s enthusiasm for watching chilly gentlemen chasing a ball, I do share their fondness for extravagant treats. This year I would not have a veggie burger or some such nonsense for dinner. I would have my meat pie.*

I went to my trusty The Cooking of the British Isles (Time-Life Books, 1969) and opened up to a recipe that has had me mooning like a lovesick groupie since acquiring the book some eight years ago: pork-and-apple pie, with chunks of seasoned meat, apples, and onions baked under potatoes. I tweaked the recipe, baking the mixture under a short crust instead.

The Cooking of the British Isles was my go-to for the ingredients and the pork, apple, and onion proportions (I halved them). And I layered them per the recipe (the British charmingly like to layer things). But after that, I winged everything.

First, I cut a yellow onion into thick slices and tossed the slices in salt and dried sage. I cut up two pounds of lean pork into chunks, sauteed them, transferred them to a bowl, and stirred in a good amount of ground black pepper, salt, and more sage. Then I peeled and sliced a couple of apples into thick chunks.

I really wanted this pie to be high and mighty, and one of my Easter bread spring form pans served very well. I rolled out 2/3 of the pie dough for the bottom crust, layered in pork, then onions, then apples, and made a second layer.

Then I rolled out the 1/3 pie dough remaining and plopped it on top. My crimping skills are less than spectacular. (The result is above. Let’s call it a rustic look.) And because I read that way, way back in the day, bakers distinguished savory pies from sweet pies by decorating the top crust, I pulled a little bit of extra dough off one side of the pie and made a sticky little apple for the center. Then I slashed the top crust a few times to let steam escape. Last of all, I brushed on an egg wash—one egg with a little water added—to help it brown up in the oven.**

It smelled delectable. It tasted delectable as well, save one issue: the pork was a bit overcooked. Me being chicken, I was worried that if I only half-cooked it, it might not cook all the way through in the oven. Nope—for 30-45 minutes in a 400F-degree oven, it would have been fine.

I’m having a slice for breakfast tomorrow. Laugh all you like, but I’m following in the grand and ancient British tradition of a meaty breakfast. My favorite quote from the cookbook is courtesy of an English army general before taking breakfast at a London eatery.

‘Will you start with porridge, sir?’ the waiter asked. ‘Or would you prefer cornflakes?’

‘Cornflakes!’ roared the General. ‘Cornflakes be damned! Bring me a plate of cold, underdone roast beef and a tankard of ale!’

You have to admire the guy.

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*I actually woke up excited that today was the day I got to make this. Simple pleasures.

**You can use milk instead of water for the egg wash, or even cream if your cholesterol is dangerously low.

search and rescue

 

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A few years ago I compiled a list of ways to counter the inevitable individual crises that pop up from time to time. When I was hit by a car in 2011, after I got my bearings (literally and figuratively), I very gingerly worked backstage*. When Hurricane Sandy hit, after we got power back and I could put gas in my car and drive, I went to the big, quiet antiques store near me and just tiptoed around and wrapped myself up in the comforts of years past. You find what works for you.

And after this past hairy week that featured no hair but a burst water pipe in my bedroom ceiling and a blizzard…I got into the kitchen as soon as I could. The kitchen is pretty much a no-fail as far as countering crises. There is something profoundly reassuring to be in the midst of a debacle and have the means to calm yourself, and be rewarded with something lovely. If you have ingredients, a working oven, and a decent recipe, you’re good.

This was my decent recipe: Maple Bundt Cake. It’s a Martha. It’s almost maple season, and I couldn’t wait. It calls for a half-cup of maple syrup and I used Grade B, that gorgeous dark elixir that I could, and have, drunk straight from the bottle. No Grade A fancy for this girl, especially after the week I’ve had. The cake is pillowy and buttery and soothing. While it bakes, the house smells so good that you forget you’re surrounded by debacle debris.

Here’s the cake about an hour after it come out of the oven, when it’s still a little warm. Found my calm.

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*My physical therapist said, ‘Why did you wait six weeks to have the surgery?’ I fudged an excuse because she wouldn’t have been keen on the truth: that in those six weeks I crewed two shows. I needed to in order to feel normal again. Few people know this. If you ever run into a tiny woman from South Africa named Sheila, be a lamb and keep this to yourself.

poirot’s challenge

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Agatha Christie’s Detective Poirot famously said, ‘The English do not have a cuisine; they have food. Overcooked meat, boiled vegetables, inedible cheese. And the day they invent English wine, I am retreating to the Continent.’ *

I should emphasize I’ve only been to Scotland, sadly missing England, Ireland, and Wales, not that it’s forever. I’m going. But despite one meal in Scotland, strictly average fajitas eaten at the sole restaurant at the edge of Rannoch Moor, everything we ate was incredible.** The trick, always and forever, is to eat where the locals eat, and to eat what’s locally sourced. In the space of one week we put 800 miles on our little rental car, driving across the central part of the country. Coast to coast, from Oban to St. Andrews, we feasted.

From a remote farm we bought bags of wonderful homemade granola with bright orange marigold petals in it. At the Gateway to the Isles at the western coast we ate tiny succulent mussels, harvested at a nearby island, and no bigger than the tip of your finger. At the opposite coast in Anstruther (pronounced ‘Enster’), at the recommendation of a portly policeman, we had crisp, tender fish and chips with malt vinegar. All week we ate a proper English breakfast with eggs, rashers, and bangers prepared by the house manager, a small, wiry English expat (our host called him Wee Jim). And of course we tried haggis, although made unconventionally: tater tot-sized, fried, and served with a creamy garlic dipping sauce. Conventional or not, it was rich and satisfying. And everywhere there were local brews of beer and whisky.

But travel aside, I’ve loved the British dishes I’ve prepared at home, and there have been quite a few. This year I’m going to tackle more of them. The poor reputation is getting pushed aside. I want to try out classic dishes; I want to learn about this region’s great tradition of simple, comforting foods; and I want to talk about it.

My Cooking of the British Isles (Time-Life, 1969) will be my chief guide. I’ve already made Scotch Woodcock, Traditional English Christmas Cake, and Irish Christmas Cake. I tried Spiced Beef in Christmas 2014 and failed because the recipe didn’t emphasize that I needed to season every inch of the meat. But that’s on the editors of the book, not on the whole of the British Empire. I’ll try it again sometime.

For now, I started with Eve’s Pudding, a recipe from James Dunlinson, an Englishman who was the design director for Martha Stewart Living. Yesterday I was cooped up inside for most of the day while the outside was blizzarding. Today I put butter in a bowl to soften, shoveled out my car for an hour and a half, then came back inside and made this lovely thing.

It’s basically a cobbler, full of cinnamon and apples (would Eve have it any other way?). Warm out of the oven, with my extremities still red from cold, it was was a profoundly comforting experience. The British know from cold and raw; they built up a tradition of cooking to counter it. And it’s worked for a few years.

Poirot can stay a little smug; I always giggle at his statement. But not too smug.

*For best effect, say ‘food’ with a nasal French accent, the way he did. And it’s worth noting that Christie herself was an Englishwoman. Whether the statement was a sly personal editorial on the food of her homeland or her best guess of a Belgian’s opinion of it, we don’t know.

**Who in the name of all that is holy eats fajitas in the West Highlands? Well…I hadn’t had a vegetable in a week. It’s hard to find them in pubs in Scotland. When you see ‘salad’ on the menu chalkboard, they mean tuna salad or ham salad. Nothing green. As we were eating, an elderly Englishman approached our table gingerly about what he called ‘the fajitas,’ pronouncing the ‘j’. ‘Are they nice?’ he asked. If you need vegetables, and you probably do, then yeah.

surprises

Ice cream, Lycee Agricole, Moorea

Three glorious scoops, rapidly melting in the South Seas shade.

I’ve turned a lot of corners and had my eyes pop at what I saw, I’ve felt meh about going somewhere only to get knocked out, never saw that coming, I’ll always remember this. These are some of my most exciting food discoveries. A brief chronicle, presented in the hopes that 2016 has plenty more…for the both of us.

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Mo’orea, a tiny island off the coast of Tahiti, was one such corner and one such pop. We’d read about the Lycee Agricole, the farm school, on the island. The students there make homemade ice cream and sorbet from local produce. One day we turned off the main road to a low little cluster of buildings and pulled over. The soursop and the citron sorbets were gorgeous. But the above picture…I wish it could do justice to the quality of the ice cream. Three scoops: banana, vanilla…and gardenia. Locally grown. Or wild, for all I know. It was one of the most exquisite experiences of my life. At the end of a narrow, dusty road on a sandy rock in the middle of the Pacific, I ate flowers.

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Farther north, on Kauai and Maui, I ate lots of mahi and ice cream* and enjoyed every bite. But it’s practically a given, stamped on your plane ticket and all, that you’ll come across great mahi and ice cream (along with sea turtles and a luau every Tuesday night at your hotel). What you don’t expect to come across are pastures filled with cows. We learned Maui of all places has a thriving cattle ranch industry: All of that juicy green grass gets transformed into, I’m told, absolutely righteous steaks and hamburgers. I was in shock; if you blinked, you’d think you were in Wyoming.

Turtle, Kauai

I can’t find my cow pictures and we didn’t do a luau, so here’s a sea turtle.

I grew up slurping nectar from honeysuckle blossoms every spring at the ball field with my sister and our neighbors. A couple of years ago I wondered if I could make something edible with the nectar, as the Lycee students on Mo’orea did with gardenias. Found a recipe for honeysuckle simple syrup, and it was like what Tim Leary said acid was like. Not the flipping-out part, but the opening-your-brain-to-an-entirely-new-universe part. I mixed the syrup into vodka, I sold some to a local bartender, I drenched warm homemade pound cake in it. And soon I’m going to try it out in homemade marshmallows. Why not? And while I’m at it, why not flavor them with the other things I pick: quince, beach plum (they’ll be lavender!), wild mint, persimmons? Tim would be so proud.

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Honeysuckle and its progeny.

I have a cookbook, nearly 50 years old, of English recipes. It’s commonplace to roll one’s eyes at British Isle food, but I’ve never been able to because it tastes as good as it does. Traditional English Christmas cake, Irish fruitcake, Toad-in-the-Hole, and many more recipes later, I found Scotch Woodcock. It sounded pretty good. I was wrong. Anchovies and paste, very softly scrambled eggs, and buttered toast—so simple yet so out-of-the-bloody-park luxurious that I actually started laughing at the first bite. Recommended when you’re a little deprived and disheartened. Winter can do that to you.

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Open face and open mouth.

For my birthday in 2012 my brother and sister-in-law took me to Ben’s Best in Queens, NY, for real Jewish delicatessen. I ordered chicken noodle soup. The big surprise here was the nonchalant way they brought me a bowl that was clearly intended for a full-grown bull mastiff. I brought home leftovers and ate them for lunch for four days.

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For last: this is something I dream of eating all year. They’re so good I almost dream of eating them while I’m in fact eating them. I don’t even have a proper picture of them because I eat them too quickly to grab my camera first. Fried squash blossoms. I made them on a whim in 2013 and was almost overcome by how lovely and delicate they were. Never expected quite that level of good. Stuffed or unstuffed, half burned or delicately browned, that’s enough, I have to stop thinking about them because it’s only January.

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*Lappert’s. Holy cow, go. It’s only sold on the islands, and believe me, I tried to get them to ship it here to the states. Coconut cream. That’s the one!

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Pyrex bowl from the late ’60s-early ’70s. Bought it from a vintage Pyrex vendor (both were vintage) under a very crowded 8×8 booth in Ocean Grove, NJ.

Title flagrantly swiped from food writer Laurie Colwin, God rest her salt- and butter-loving soul. She and I, kitchen sisters, subscribe to the doctrine of secondhand utensils. Think of it this way: They’ve lasted this long. How many neon-green kitchen toys at Bed, Bath & Beyond can go up against a Pyrex pan from the fifties?

Everything below is practical, long-lasting, and has a story to boot. I need as much resilience and soul as I can get in my kitchen.

Here, thus, is a family album of the kitchen equipment that I bought used, was given used, or just plain found. I will always cook this way.

First: Copper pans bought for $10 (total!)* from a parking lot tag sale in Asbury Park in 2011. The seller said she bought them in France, which may or may not be true. But they have never failed me, so the French can be proud either way.

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One of many German aluminum springform pans that I inherited when I took over making Easter bread. They are at least 45 years old, probably older, and live above my refrigerator with my Christmas china.

Vintage springform study

Two of several glass votives and a baking pan I bought at an estate sale in nearby Oakhurst, NJ, in 2010. I went into the living room, decorated straight out of The Dick Van Dyke Show, and found four long folding tables covered with vintage glass—regular, ornately cut, and Pyrex. The pan is several decades old but has no scarring. The votives I use for occasional imbibing and frequent desserting.

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Clockwise: What look like milk glass bowls, bought from a house sale in Bradley Beach, NJ. Wildly useful as prep bowls, mini snack bowls for chocolate buttons or grapes, or for a quick sip of milk. The lauan box I found at my aunt’s next door neighbor’s yard sale, in the town where I grew up. It nicely corrals my measuring cups, spoons, and a tiny spatula. The aluminum spatula has a very slim blade, and slips ever so cleanly under s’mores and brownies. I bought it in Oakhurst, at my realtor’s yard sale.

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Both from sales in my hometown. The white dish, one of two, I use as often for food styling as I do for sandwiches. If you’ve seen one of my photos of something tasty on a white dish, you’ve already met. The top dish, also one of two, is not much bigger than a saucer. It is my teatime dish—just the right size for a cookie or muffin. It belonged to my favorite aunt and her family. When I went to their garage sale, my cousins just started handing me things. This dish reminds me of the ’70s—a really good time growing up with them. One of my cousins laughed and said his mom probably bought the set from Foodtown for $1.95. And he’s probably right, but I don’t care.

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Farberware hand mixer, I think from the ’80s, that I bought circa 2006. Still going strong. From Oakhurst again (wow…that’s really the spot, isn’t it?), at my ex-boyfriend’s sister’s garage sale, $5.

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Can’t remember the yard sale for the box grater, but I like it because it’s a little smaller than typical. The salad bowls (which I use for everything) I got from my hometown as well. They’re teak and were made in Thailand. The muffin tins are from Wanamassa, NJ, and are an ideal example of something you can always find for sale on someone’s lawn. They last forever, are nearly indestructible, and thus are downright silly to buy new. I think I paid $.50 for four 6-cuppers.

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Some of my wooden-handled corn holders, purchased for something like $1.00 for a handful wrapped in a rubber band. One I accidentally rinsed down the sink—another sound argument against spending too much. The wooden bowl I bought from a yard sale in Allenhurst, NJ. The seller told me she bought it in Vermont many years ago and it was handmade, so she wouldn’t let me haggle down for the split in the side. It’s my foraging and bread-rising bowl.

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Rolling pin, which very likely has seen more decades than I. Pulled it out of a bin filled with cookie cutters at the Red Bank Antique Center.

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Massive hand carved wooden spoon, a recent hand-me-down from a friend. Still have to use it. I put a penny next to it for scale. Look at the size of it! For stirring soup, stuffing, or anything with eye of newt.

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‘Special Gelatin 50% Strength’ three-paneled vintage wooden box from the antiques store downtown. I load it with potatoes, onions, and garlic. The cashier asked what I was going to use it for and got a bang out of the answer.

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And lastly: a brick I nicked from the property of an abandoned 17th-century farmhouse near me. I think the original homeowners would be proud to hear it’s my low-tech panini maker.

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time machine

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Sour cream coffee cake that looks like pie because I cut back the sugar by half. I’ve since gotten smart: kept the sugar halved, but doubled the overall recipe to give it the height I remember. I can MacGyver quite a bit when it comes to food. Cinnamony and tender. Christmas 2011.

The holiday season is winding down—just three more days until Twelfth Night. This time of year is famously nostalgic for the sights and sounds, but especially smells and tastes, of times gone by.

All of the photos here evoke a place that feels peaceful, safe, and magical—however briefly. Think about it: we willingly do this to ourselves every year, and it’s not always fun getting to the finish line. Shopping, wrapping, gift hiding, card writing, cooking, cleaning, decorating, tree hunting, driving, spending, fretting, sweating. There’s something we’re getting out of it, or we’d never bother. And I don’t think we do it just for the kids’ sake, or just for religion’s sake. This agnostic doesn’t have kids, but she bakes and decorates every year. I have a friend, also child-free, who’s atheist, and currently has a live 10-foot tree in his foyer.

I believe we do it for the feeling, for that fleeting sense of calm and magic we remember. We grab it every year with both hands, despite the hassle, despite the cost, because it feeds something inside us that’s hungry. The smells of pine and cinnamon and peppermint make everything okay again. The magic soothes us like a hot chocolate bath.

Christmastime has the unique ability to take us back to a place we need to go…and nourish us when we get there.

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My first-ever candy snowmen, sitting on a sugared landscape. Whenever I make them now I remember seeing one of the kids at this party smooshing a snowman with his fist. I wasn’t mad; I thought it was hilarious. Almonds all the way. Something like Christmas 2006.

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Shepherd’s pie, made with lamb, naturally. I made this just after New Year’s Day, 2013. Nothing comes close to the real thing. Rich, nutmeggy, and creamy.

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Half-eaten traditional English Christmas cake, made from a recipe gifted to me by my elderly English neighbor. I had so much fun making this and enjoying it in ‘fingers,’ little slivers, as they do across the pond. Intensely flavored with cloves, cinnamon, and lots of dried fruit. Christmas 2013.

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Another first-ever: stollen. I shot this right out of the oven, just before I pulled its fluffy insides apart with my fingers. Full of fragrant, juicy dried fruit and orange peel. Christmas 2010.

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My room, with guest appearances by Douglas fir, white pine, juniper, and weeping willow. It smells woodsy and wintergreeny. The shot might be a current one, but the smells remind me of Christmases past.

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My Raggedy Ann, about 40 years old, in her worn calico dress. She sits under my tree every year.

 

 

mother

I’m writing this five days after the winter solstice, windows open on a 63-degree F night, and waiting for proper winter to arrive. I can’t wait for the aqua-blue evening light, the perfectly still air, the sheets of glassy ice at the curb. And yet…the light brightens just a little more every day. That’s an ancient promise we can count on.

I’ve talked a lot here about communing with the earth. It’s probably my favorite topic. Cooking, foraging, digging around in the ground—all are like butter on a burn to me, and I suspect they always will be.

But the backstory, the one I haven’t yet told, is this: I don’t cook and forage and dig because they’re a pleasant way to spend a Thursday, or because they’re trendy (perish that last thought along with skinny jeans). I do it because the earth is home. She’s blood. She’s safe. Always has been. The earth, the outdoors, consistently gave me what I couldn’t get indoors. And harvesting and eating what comes from her today is natural, if you’ll forgive the pun. It’s one of the dozens of ways I can keep reaching out and grabbing her hand.

The earth and I go way back. One of my earliest memories is when I was a toddler, pulling a long weed from the side yard, and being genuinely surprised that there wasn’t a carrot at the other end of it. We kids spent an inordinate amount of time outside. I learned the best ways to traverse hedges between yards, and it didn’t fail. I waited for certain flowers to bloom every year, and they always did. Spring rain water felt differently in my fingers than fall rain water. (It feels thicker. Maybe it is.) I can still remember the scent of the little white flowers that grew on a hedge at the end of our block, as well as in my uncle’s backyard around the corner. I still have the scent of May in my nose. It smells green. Of course.

(And today, right now, my bedroom is green: On Christmas Eve I hung juniper and white pine branches on the wall above my bed, and willow branches are literally hanging from my ceiling. It was a trick, considering I’m 5’3″, the ceiling is 9.5′, and I only have a dinky stepladder. [Don’t ask. I made it work.] I’ve always wanted to feel as though I was falling asleep in a magic glade, and with the shadows and tiny white lights on my tree, also in my room…it is. And I can have the windows open, no less.)

My earth experiences growing up weren’t all great; I remember the hurricanes at the end of summer, the ice storms and mud and heat waves. Getting pricked by wild-rose thorns and getting poison ivy blisters. But I never felt afraid when I was outside. I always felt protected. Cradled. I knew where to go when I needed cradling, and I was never left wanting.

And that sense of safety remains to this day. There’s a powerful serenity in knowing when I have a crap day that the ocean will be there for me. Always. There’s a serenity in knowing that the underside of a magnolia leaf will be brown and fuzzy, and that the blackberries beneath the canes will be sweetest. The wild lilies-of-the-valley down by the lake will be palest pink, the wild crocuses will be lavender. When the sun comes back, I get to visit them again. I wrap this knowledge around me, and it is profound comfort.

The earth can be messy and unpredictable, that’s for sure. There’s always been mud, and storms, and heat waves. There always will be. I still get pricked by wild-rose thorns, and I get poison ivy blisters on my hands every year like clockwork.

But here’s the important thing, the biggest reason why I take it all in stride: the heat waves always pass. I can count on that like I can count on the crocuses. There will always be beauty at the end of the block. Old friends will poke their noses up from the ground, and new ones will, too. I will get surprises every day, of every year. I laugh when I see them half the time because I never saw them coming.

The earth never fails me. No matter what befalls, good or mud. She always gives the sun back.

Spring always comes.

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