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Posts Tagged ‘Nigella Lawson’

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I’m on a lemon kick, I suppose. Did you ever have a craving just clobber you upside the head? This morning I happened upon a Nigella recipe for lemon yogurt cake and that was it: I got dressed, drove to the store, and bought a lemon.

This should have been a simple cake to make—there are few ingredients, they’re all recognizable, etc.–but it wasn’t written well. The measurements she gives are fine, but the process was frustrating; she kept instructing us to use a pot of this and a pot of that instead of the very measurements she calls for above. Grateful that I’ve spent most of my life in the kitchen and knowing I could grope my way out of this, I just stopped for a second, decided this was a basic cake—wet stuff added to dry stuff, combine and bake—and ignored everything in the middle of the recipe.

While stirring this up it occurred to me that I rarely go by the letter when I cook. Instead, I edit before I start. No, this doesn’t need two cups of sugar; good Lord almighty, one teaspoon is not going to be enough for something entitled a vanilla cake. And so on. I don’t do vegetable oil, so I substituted olive oil for this cake, and it was successful. Butter would have been good, too, obviously. And it called for the zest of half a lemon, but I know myself, and I like lemon desserts to taste quite powerfully of lemon. Delicately lemony cake, cookies, bars—not for me. So I zested the whole fruit.

Took a little bite when it was cool, and the inside is lovely and tender, almost creamy, like a really good pound cake. But even that whole lemon’s zest wasn’t enough for me. I’ll add the juice to the batter next time. Maybe I’ll end up squeezing it over the whole thing tomorrow like a filet of Dover sole.

One more thing: Nigella calls for the cake to go in a tube pan, but the only one I have is a Bundt. The cake’s a tad short in stature, as you can see. I’m going to try to eat it all before I learn if it has a Napoleonic complex.

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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.

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Most tales that include cold-cured marinated brisket evoke joy and good will. Not so this.

I mean I made sure the story wrapped up on a good note, but there was the cost which whirled away down the potty, don’t think that didn’t hurt, and the time I’d spent each night giving the meat its massage of spices and salt. If I knew what I did wrong I’d just kick myself and learn and be done with it, but I don’t know what I did wrong. And what really got me bummed was missing out on the flavor that Laurie swooned over.

I know, I always get ahead of myself.

Let’s make like Julie Andrews and start at the very beginning: years ago I became enthralled by a recipe for Spiced Beef, a traditional Christmastime treat in the UK, in More Home Cooking. The book was written by Laurie Colwin, who passed away suddenly some 20 years ago, who I’ve never met, and yet miss like a best bud. We’re cut from the same cloth, as two of the 11 people on Planet Earth who champion English recipes. Hers was Elizabeth David’s version. I saw a recipe for Spiced Beef again in a vintage collection of UK recipes I bought at a used book sale. And there was a version of it on Nigella’s site, and another on boston.com. This looked Promising.

Laurie’s recipe made too much (it feeds 8-10), so I went with the recipe in my vintage cookbook instead. Whole Foods kindly sold me 3 lbs. of lean brisket, and I snatched up black peppercorns (1 tablespoon), whole allspice (1 tablespoon), dried juniper berries (1/4 cup), dark brown sugar (1/4 cup), and coarse salt (1/4 cup). It was a combo I had never tasted, and it sounded wild. Laurie called it magnificent. Game on.

The recipe said I was to coat the meat with the brown sugar, place it in a casserole dish, cover it, and let it sit in the fridge for two days. Then I was to crush the spices and salt, then scatter and press a tablespoon of it into the meat every day for 12 days. This dry rub would act as a preservative to seal in freshness*.

I followed the recipe to the letter. I’m a good listener. Okay, one thing—I finished in 11 days and not 12 because the rub ran out. But I coddled that meat like a flat pink newborn. I also took three more precautions:

1) To be sure it would keep four weeks after cooking, as it said it would, I called a butcher for a professional opinion. Went straight to the top—Lobel’s, NYC, five generations. Evan Lobel, who I saw a few years ago on television talking beef with Martha Stewart, picked up. I read the recipe to him and he disagreed with the longevity, thinking it would keep 10 days, tops. I found another opinion online that said 4-5 days. Fine, we’ll polish it off in a week.

2) I had a feeling my oven thermometer was slowly going on the fritz, so I replaced it.** I was right.

3) I set the pan on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator, all the way in the back where it’s coldest.

Yesterday was cooking day. You take some or all of the spices off, drain off the liquid in the casserole dish, put the meat back in, add 3/4 cup of cold water to the dish, and cover it. Then you cook it on the middle rack of the oven for 3.5 hours at 275 degrees F. This is how it looked just before cooking time. I swear I sang little songs to it.

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Can you tell anything’s wrong? Me neither.

After a half hour, I could smell it. That’s when I started to worry, and that’s when it started and ended—right there with my nose. It wasn’t horrible, just…off. I went through all of the question marks in my head.

Will it smell better once it’s finished cooking? Does it smell this way because it’s coated with sugar and a mix of spices I’ve never cooked before? Should I taste it?*** Do I lose my mind now, or wait until I have the meat nicely settling on a cooking rack?

I didn’t even throw it away immediately. Almost went through the last steps of weighing the meat under a board and letting it press down overnight. With as much as I pampered this brisket, it felt like it should be interred, maybe with chanting and a few carefully chosen words, not just tossed away. I put it in a Hefty freezer bag first, which isn’t the same as interment after a soak in myrrh, but decent.

Reliving this has been less than enjoyable. For you, too, right? Let’s bring on the holiday cheer.

I am a stage tech in my down time, and we learn to be problem solvers. If we don’t, we can at the very least foul up the show; and at the very most, get hurt or hurt someone else.**** And yesterday, after it hit me that the meat was gone, I was in a state: I’d eaten half a 72% blueberry-chocolate bar to drown my sorrows, so I was hopping. Plus I have a very big problem, in general, with failing *entirely*; if I fail at something, I want either to fix it or to wring the best out of it, and that’s on me to make happen. So I thought about it.

Replacing the brisket and starting over entirely without the benefit of knowing what went wrong—obviously that was out. I knew I wanted to taste what I should have tasted, that strange primitive combination of flavors with meat. THAT I could do, in a different way.

Night had fallen and it was still raining—had been all day. I put on my coat and turned my collar to the cold and damp. Then I went to the store and bought fresh ground turkey.

When I got home, I formed three patties and into them pressed 1 tablespoon brown sugar. Then I covered the pan and set it on the cold shelf of the fridge to soak overnight.

This morning with my mortar and pestle I crushed 1 teaspoon each of juniper berries, whole allspice, black peppercorns, and salt, pressed it into the patties, and set them back in the fridge for an hour. I sliced a wedge of seeded semolina bread for a roll, which is about as English as baklava, but so what, and I tossed some potatoes from the organic farm with some fresh horseradish from my friend Peggy, who grows it for Passover and always ends up with a yard full. Nigella said the beef goes well with horseradish potatoes.

Then I cooked everything, and then I ate everything, and it was freaking spectacular. I’m not even BSing you to make up for the lurid saga above. I got to taste those flavors. Serious happiness. And tomorrow’s and Tuesday’s burgers will probably be even better because they’ll have had a chance to marinate in the spices more.

Yes, I am going to try Spiced Beef again sometime. And if any readers out there have made it and have pinpointed where I screwed up, speak right up and help a girl out.

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*I sound like a Gladware commercial.

**My oven’s 25 degrees off. The joy of cooking, indeed.

***This was the toughest to resist. You will be glad to hear I did not taste it.

****Or God forbid, hurt the set.

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I cook. this being unusual, when people find out I cook, you would think they’d give me droolworthy accounts of their bubbe’s brisket or of aunt gabriella’s lasagna that she serves pre-turkey every thanksgiving (kinda wish they would). no. instead, they inevitably ask what I think of the smattering of celebrity cooks on TV. have you ever seen that dude with the hair? what’s his name? the hyper one? and when they see my marzipan figures, they ask me about the cake boss. hmmph. (a mini editorial right there.)

so today I give my review of those who stick out in my mind, for good or ill, in no particular order. and I’m not including the dude with the hair (guy fieri, although I like him). grades are included. like they’re all a’shakin’, rattling around the 5 figures they keep in their wallets on any given thursday.

paula deen–A.
she gets an A, and I don’t cook everyday meals with a heifer’s worth of butter, either. but she’s adorable, she came back from broke and raised two sons at the same time, she’s admits she’s a messy cook, and she cares a lot more about the way it tastes than about the way it looks. she’d have to google  ‘pretentious’ to learn its meaning. a broad in the best sense of the word.

nigella lawson–A+.
serious win. another broad. she’s addicted to true flavors, she’s about being in the moment as she cooks, and she has a scathing sense of humor. I met her at a local book signing a few years ago. told her I love her cooking, but even more, I love her philosophy: she encourages audacity. on one show she carved a piece of lamb, and then looked at the camera and confided: ‘if you weren’t here watching, I’d be licking this cutting board.’ and all in the queen’s english. rock ON.

giada de laurentiis–B-.
she’s cool enough, but I liked her old show better. with the new one, you can make a pretty strong argument that it’s less about her cooking than about the setting. here’s the dreamy, white, eat-off-the-floor kitchen, here’s the azure pacific through the windows, here’s the pool tucked in among rustling palm trees. oh, yeah—and here’s a bowl of something. in the theatre world, we call this ‘pulling focus’, as in the setting pulls focus from the food. what did she cook? I don’t know—something with cilantro. where’s the remote?

rick bayless–A.
if the man wasn’t already 100% passionate about mexican ingredients, technique and flavors, watching him make guacamole with his daughter will warm you up better than any serrano pepper. he, like giada, cooks in his house, and has an enviable array of toys, like a blender the size of the sears tower and a cooking fireplace in his living room. but in this case—I don’t know why—it works for me. mexican families come to his chicago restaurant when they want to celebrate something special. tells you a lot.

cake boss–C.
he does have a certain carmine-ragusa charm, and my hat is off to him for taking on unusual challenges (I’m going to bring this one up, and you knew I was going to bring it up: a toilet cake….that flushes.) can I pose a teeny, tiny, seemingly irrelevant question? what do his cakes taste like? does anybody care? in order to keep them from collapsing, he builds cakes with more foundation than the sydney opera house. I will admit I have never tried a cake boss cake. a friend of mine did, though. it was designed to look like a scene from the movie the nightmare before christmas. verdict: looked fabulous, was nearly inedible. the cakes are sculpture. sometimes they’re great sculpture. but it’s not the same thing as food. you must factor in flavor and texture. if it doesn’t taste good, it’s no good.

so who do you all like? or despise? I know someone who loves ina garten b/c she’s soothing. that’s nice, I guess, but so’s yanni. the real question is, who makes you want to cook, to try new stuff (hmm…lime pickle?) old stuff (your great aunt’s lemon squares)? who makes you want to taste their cooking, visit their favorite places? my brother and sister-in-law and I have started a trend: visiting bobby flay throwdown locales. nothing but YUM so far. stay tuned.

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