Saturday, April 16, 2011

M is for Moroccan Cuisine

Probably my favorite of all cuisines if I had to choose just one for the rest of my life is Moroccan. Moroccan foodways have been refined over millennia from occupation and integration of the Berbers, the Moors, and Arabic culture. When you think of Moroccan cuisine, think olives, mint, lemons, seafood and lamb- all things that grow with great abandon in this tiny African country.

One of Morocco's most famous flavors comes from its preserved lemons, which are salted and brined like olives. You can easily make your own preserved lemons. For detailed instructions, check this article out: Make Your Own Moroccan Preserved Lemons

You can recreate a traditional Moroccan feast for eight for less than $20. See the detailed menu and recipes here: A Moroccan Feast for Eight for $20  

Friday, April 8, 2011

C is for Cold-Oven Method

In my last post on bread-making, I promised to devote a whole blog post on the cold-oven method. And here it is.

I have made bread many different ways over the years: with a bread maker, by hand with my grandma's traditional warm rise method, and with the sexy new artisan bread let-it-rise-overnight method. My biggest problems with letting bread rise is that the oven was the only place in my kitchen that I knew it could rise quietly in peace without being licked by cats or poked at by children. In order to pre-heat the oven for the actual baking, however, I would have to take out the rising bread and leave it on the counter. This almost always resulted in the bread sagging and being unhappy.

And, then, I learned about the cold-oven method. I am in love. It is both a traditional and brand-new method at the same time. It is coming back into favor because of its simplicity, which makes it easier for busy families. It makes my bread rise perfectly every time without disturbing its magical chemistry and makes beautiful loaves.

The cold-oven method simply means that you will start the bread in a cold oven rather than pre-heating. Part of the bread's final rise happens as the oven begins to warm up. It makes the rise more pronounced and produces a lovely crumbed texture. You simply allow the bread to rise for at least half an hour in the oven and then turn it on. Some people use a lower temperature to begin with and then turn it up, but for everyday sandwich bread, I keep it at 400 for about 35 minutes.

I like to couple the cold-oven method with some other artisinal techniques, such as placing a pan of water in the oven while baking to steam the bread, and allowing the first dough rise to happen in the refrigerator overnight. This makes the perfect blend of flavors and textures.

If you're a little nervous of making bread for the first time, take your favorite recipe and use the cold oven method rather than pre-heating. It will save you time and stress and will produce a beautiful loaf. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

B is for Bread

There's something about making bread that soothes my soul. It brings out some kind of retro-gene in me that enjoys kneading and forming and watching something grow from the most basic of ingredients.

These days, I cheat more days than not and make my dough in my two (yes, two) breadmakers. Then I knead, let rise and use the cold-oven method (we'll talk about that in the next blog post) to bake our daily bread. On the weekends, however, you'll find me making pitas, naan bread, crackers, French loaves and all manner of rolls and buns. If I didn't think that it would kill my love of bread, I would consider opening a bakery.

If you've never made your own bread, you have no idea what you're missing. There's something comforting and safe in the smell of bread baking in the oven. The danger, of course, is that you may never go back to eating the pasty, cardboardy substance they call bread in the store.

The trick to making great bread is simply practice. After a while, you will get a feel for the dough. You can take exactly the same ingredients and make bread on two different days, and it will come out differently. Temperature, humidity, flour settling and a host of other variables all come to the dance to create the chemical and biological process of creating bread from scratch. Knowing how the dough should feel will help you adjust it as you go until it is perfect.

You can knead bread by hand or pick up a breadmaker at a yard sale for $5. You can make the entire loaf in the breadmaker but it will never come out the same as a hand-shaped oven-baked loaf. There are a few other tricks I've picked up along the way:

  1. Don't rush bread. Let it rise luxuriously out of breezes or other environmental shocks. The longer the rise, the better (and lighter) the bread. 
  2. Keep your whole wheat flour and your yeast in the freezer. This will stop the flour from going rancid and keep the yeast strong. Take out what you need for each session and allow to come to room temperature. 
  3. Use the cold-oven method for baking bread (see the next blog entry). I wish I had learned this method years ago. Makes a perfect loaf every time. 
  4. Cut the first slice while the bread is still warm and slather it with butter. Enjoy it and revel in your new kitchen skills!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A is for Absinthe

This month, I will be blogging a topic starting with every letter of the alphabet. Today's topic is absinthe.

There is probably no other alcoholic beverage with more mystique and cloak-and-dagger coolness than absinthe. This over-proof spirit was traditionally made from grande wormwood, fennel, and anise and distilled into a 100-proof state that came into favor in the late 1800s and early 1900s in the arts and literary communities. Vincent Van Gogh was a fan as was Ernest Hemmingway. The spirit was said to be hallucinogenic due to a compound found in wormword. This just increased its coolness factor.

However, not everyone was impressed. In the early 1900s, absinthe was embattled on all sides. Prohibition proponents, wine companies, and doctors were all calling for a ban on the beautiful green drink. Legal cases were held up as proof of its evil nature, including murders, rapes, and deaths. Today, we know that wormwood- and therefore, absinthe- has no hallucinogenic properties but it has been a long struggle to reinstate it in many countries around the world.

What is absinthe? Unfortunately, in most countries, there is no legal definition so many flavored and colored alcohols are allowed to use the name. Traditional absinthe included maceration of wormwood, fennel, and anise in a distillation process. The green color derives from the chlorophyll in the herbs. Although absinthe has a high alcohol content, it is most often diluted with water before drinking (unless you are Ernest Hemmingway, and then it is diluted with champagne).

Absinthe has once again become legal in the United States since 2007 and there are several imports and domestically-distilled products on the market. There are now several small micro-distillers producing traditional absinthe, such as St. George Absinthe Verte.

When purchasing absinthe, always do your homework first. Know the brand you are buying and how it was made. Purchasing what is essentially vodka with fennel flavoring is in no way the same experience as traditionally-distilled absinthe. If you buy absinthe in a bar or restaurant, try out several brands until you find the one you like best.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Making Devonshire Cream from Raw Milk

One of my favorite rituals when I go to England is to have tea. "Tea" in England means an entire spread of cakes, sandwiches and other assorted goodies to go along with the tea. Devon cream spread on scones is one of the most sinful and scrumptious parts of high tea.

Traditional English High Tea Staple Can Be Made at Home

If you have ever had High Tea (or cream tea) in England, you have experienced the amazing abundance of scones, fresh jams and jellies, and other treats. One item that is never left out at teatime is Devon cream, also called- less appetizingly- clotted cream.

Devonshire cream is a thick, simmered cream that ends up thicker than whipping cream and with a naturally sweeter taste. It often tops scones and baps along with berry jam.


Saturday, July 31, 2010

Hounslow-Style Indian Butter Chicken (Murg Makhani)

Many of the recipes we think of as being traditional Indian were really developed by Indian immigrants in Britain, especially in west London. If you go to India and ask for a "curry", they will look at you with either bewilderment or with disdain. This recipe for Butter Chicken is adapted from the Hounslow area restaurants I frequented when I lived in London. It's a great Indian-style recipe for children or for guests when you aren't sure how much "ethnic" food they enjoy. The curry is soft and warm and the tomato sauce is a recognizable and comforting element.


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

What Traditional Ethnic Foods Do You Love?

My background is English- VERY English. My grandmother was the cook in our family. She made the foods that her mother and grandmother taught her to make. My grandmother never thought of them as "traditional" or "ethnic". She didn't know that the bread pudding she made was distinctly from the south of England or that her Yorkshire puddings came from a very authentic recipe. She never once questioned why we eat potatoes and squash at Thanksgiving (because that was all of the fresh food available to early North American settlers) or that our family always ate ham at Easter because that was when the curing process was completed.

I think about these things frequently. Each of us has our own traditional foodways that may be buried deeply under two generations of convenience food and drive-throughs but are still there, waiting to be shared with our children and grandchildren.

What do you know about your family's food history? Do you have recipes scribbled down by your grandmother that are in danger of being lost? Was there something special about the way your mother formed pirogies or layered baklava? Be sure to write these snippets of history down so that they are not lost forever. The more we understand and embrace our food history, the less likely it will be that our children eat nothing but frozen pizzas and McDonald's.