Freedom food

Huzzah! Last month’s issue of Scan Magazine featured my very first restaurant review – a Russian in Helsinki – which I’m quietly very pleased about!

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It’s that time of year again: work emails from the across the pond tail off, UK broadsheet readers salivate as food writers publish their pumpkin pie riffs and deep-fried turkey recipes, and homesick expats raid the supermarkets for marshmallows, Libby’s packed pumpkin and pumped up turkeys.

Whilst this household doesn’t tend to observe said ‘holiday’ with any kind of piety (was that a pun in there??), it has, instead, experienced a trend for dabbling in the production of pumpkin pie to varying degrees of success.  So naturally, this month’s New Yorker elicited a 100 watt smile from me with its gustatory cover image and an index overflowing with food-related reportage. Yum!

Adam Gopnik’s commentary, ‘The First Served’ delighted me with his ode to the symbolic turkey, advocating for its honourable conduct in the farmyard to elevate it to the ranks of the bald eagle. Indeed, the turkey would be a most worthy usurper of the ‘bad moral character…[who] does not get his living honestly’ of the bald eagle when it comes to a national emblem.

With Thanksgiving turkeys becoming ever more seasonal and local in the more svelte shape of ‘heritage’ varieties and CSA produce, and in spite of all one’s misgivings about the trashy, junk food versions of turkey and pie, and all the other foodstuffs that give Thanksgiving food a bad name, perhaps this kind of Thanksgiving table ought to be a sort of ‘anthro-socio-cultural’ emblem that should be celebrated for all that it represents of the myths and rituals invoked by the giving of thanks?  As Gopnik deftly puts it, “You are what you eat, and if we eat our heritage perhaps we can return to it.”

Happy Thanksgiving y’all!

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Kindling a cookbook revolution

Today’s unveiling of the new Kindle Fire and its little sister, Kindle Touch, heralded another step forward for tablet and e-reader devices. So far, so good: Amazon’s stocks will go up and Father Christmas will again have to outsource delivery of all those slim packages.

All the while, the book’s – and indeed, the bookseller’s – perceived existential crisis debate drags on as the competition for the e-reader market stiffens. Kooks, Nobos and Spindles offer the modern reader a sufficient array of reading porn. But still none intended solely for the kitchen.

In my dreams, for months I’ve been beavering away in my workshop, tinkering with circuit boards, LCDs and casing to produce the world’s very first cookery book reader. Perhaps in some parallel universe; whilst I would dearly love to be the bringer of good things to the contemporary home cook, my plans for market domination are far off.

However, there is of course no shortage to culinary apps for iPhone/iPad, as a recent piece in the New York Times demonstrates.  Even the darling of exported French cookery, Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking is being warped into the twenty-first century in time for its big-five-oh anniversary by Knopf-Doubleday next month.  Yet there are still obstacles to be overcome in attaining a pleasing medium for reading and navigating through the recipes whilst in the field – I mean, kitchen.

All this gets me thinking that I can’t be the only one itching to have something that is not a laptop (I have been known to dart from kitchen to computer to double-check that measurement or cooking time, mucking up the keyboard with doughy mitts), which is intelligent and offers you handy conversions  (I’ve cocked up a recipe because maths wasn’t my forte), nuggets of culinary wisdom and integrated video tutorials on how to master that tricky souffle or genoise mixture. Urgh, sounds so horribly commercial and slick, but, based on personal experience, I really might be more daring with complicated, classic recipes, i.e. pretty much anything in Larousse.

This is no polemic, however.  Without being too gauche, I love books and especially cookery books.  I have ones given to me by my grand-mères; ones with broken spines and pages varnished with albumen; ones I have never used; ones I’m embarrassed to even own.  Some are reliquaries of age-old wisdom, whilst others are vanity works, but I suppose one must know the know the chaff to identify the wheat.  This is the balance I hope to see when the object of my techno-cookery daydreaming manifests itself.  First, I think its time to take Tried Favourites off the back-burner…

The Boozehound

I thought it might perhaps be insulting Finnishness – and monumentally boring as well – to never, ever actually write about booze or vodka drinking, so here’s [sic] my thoughts for your penny.

It’s one of those days again: you’re sleep-deficient, have a house-full of packing to do and News of the World is rapidly disappearing down the swanney [joking about the latter, though this recipe might be a hit with some news editors right about now]…so there’s only one thing for it. Hit the bottle. In my case, the dust-cloaked vessels silently sitting on my kitchen floor in some sort of stasis year in year out as you shun them for pomegranate juice or whatever.

Now, the ‘joy’ of moving house is that you inevitably set yourself the boring task of eating to the bottom or back of your store cupboard – read: fusilli, penne and egg noodles all together in order to polish off the dregs of all those almost-empty pasta packets and throwing anchovies on anything and everything with gay abandon. Then I start to wonder how to shift those awkward jars of sambal, cranberry sauce and brandy butter by some inspired means.

I digress. Feeling too weary and hungry to write anything cerebral nor to shuffle to the trusty corner shop for a bottle of Schhhweppes for the obvious alcohol + tonic water pairing, I hit upon the idea of using up those unloved leftover spirits for a little corpse-reviving fillip that would be just the ticket. Despite my boozehound glory days being well behind me as I dusted off the shaker and located my trusty jigger, the old bartender twinkle returned to my eyes and the prospect of a drop of vodka revived the spirits! My trusty 20-cup Bialetti rendered a slosh of two-days-old, viscous black stuff and, together with a tot of respectably dilapidated Absolut Mandrin, I fixed me an improv espresso-stroke-chocolate-orange martini as follows below…

tools of the trade

Espresso martini in the making

For 1 lady-sized serving:

  • 50ml vodka (Absolut Mandrin or other)
  • 50ml strong espresso, cooled
  • 1 tsp dark muscovado sugar, dissolved in a drop of hot water (in lieu of sugar syprup)
  • a handful of ice divvied between the shaker and drinking receptacle (I used retro Danish glassware for want of a cocktail glass)

Add all ingredients to shaker, give it a rustle (not too violent, mind so’s not to overly dilute things); remove ice from chilled glass and pour, which should leave you with a nice ‘crema’ on the top.

Drink.

[Apologies for the shambolic photograph - my pro camera has moved house ahead of me]

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If you’re feeling more inspired to bake, here’s a riff on the chocolate-orange theme from a dear friend, Signe Johansen.  Signe’s beautiful first solo book, ‘Secrets of Scandinavian Cooking…Scandilicious’ is out now and I strongly recommend you invest in a copy for yourself or a food-loving friend – or both!  The Finnish ‘mustikkapiirakka‘ blueberry tart recipe comes well recommended [*cough] alongside a whole host of other tasty Scandi/Nordic-inspired recipes.

Zibibbo & Wild Fennel

Without stating the obvious, islands make for interesting places in terms of their own culture, language, traditions, usually lots of sea…and…local food.

Pantelleria is no different.  Trying to understand the quirky little words peppering the charming signora’s advice to us, I realised I was in for a treat.  Having few preconceptions of the little rock between the toe of Italy and er, Ra’s Mustafa, Tunisia except that the local varietal was called, zibibbo and the squat little stone huts, dammusi, I soon realised how much I had to try and see.

The information I gleaned on the way of life for the 8,000-odd inhabitants depicted a predominantly agrarian – not fishing – economy.  To the Boyfriend’s bemusement it wasn’t too soon before I was rattling off photographs of the passing landscapes as we motored (the heavier his foot, the faster the shutter speed) along the network of roads and tracks across the island.  The road-encroaching wild flowers and fennel bushes were not lost on us in their beauty, nor was the chocolate-like volcanic soil – so good you could eat it!

Pantescan agriculture, I have read, is loosely based around communitarian principles of sharing the terraced parcels of land across the island.  Probably operating on a sort of usufruct principle, Pantescan farmers produce the ubiquitous zibibbo grapes and capers.  I observed the clever method they use to protect their crops and citrus trees/bushes by dry stone walling them into shallow pits.  This serves to shield the plants from the salt and sand which blow in off the sea with the scirocco wind and also attract scarce rainwater in the pit. I can attest that the stone walls will also obstruct determined poachers of Sicilian lemons for ones drinks *ahem.  Everything is generally quite small and low and well thought out in Pantelleria to fend off the fierce elements and capture as much rainwater as possible.

The drawback of visiting in May is that almost all the places of interest to a food maven were closed, so no cantina tastings or tumma sheep’s cheese.  That’s not to say you can’t eat well out of season: there was insalata pantesca, the pizzas, the spaghetti with aubergine cooked off the cuff by the kind hostess, Passito wine and ‘ploughmans’ lunches assembled on the sun-baked rocks and enquiring after the fishy bounty gotten by the frogman’s harpoon gun.

This place had me at hello with its dramatic landscapes and richness of agrarian tradition and I’m continuing exploring it through reading blogs by people who have settled there and, of an evening, by anthropological studies on land holdings and family size on Pantelleria.

The effect of sport on taste

Thursday

Raw palms and aching fingers as I finished a 2-hour bouldering session feeling a little tired but exhilarated. We ignored the tasty looking places on Bermondsey Street and cycled north from London Bridge in search of sustenance and plumped on burritos for a late, nourishing supper.

The next day: I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed eating as much as I did last night. Everything about the burrito was manna-like to my parched palate. The combination of chicken, avocado, black beans and rice with a Brooklyn beer was A-mazing.

This might make me sound like someone who only sporadically breaks a sweat/exercises and is more focused on their food than anything else.  But no.  I reckon I’d worked for my grub but I didn’t quite expect to exclaim out loud to the dearly beloved (DB) how good the food tasted.  It was probably a bit like stumbling out of a desert and scoffing a tasty fruit salad or something with a combination of different flavours and textures.

Later: a quick rustle around came up with a Japanese scientific study of the effect of exercise on taste measured, by a thrilling-sounding, ‘taste hedonic tone’ scale.  OK, this is no rigorous analysis of the particulars of said paper, but in a nutshell they found that the nature and quantity of exercise were determinants of food taste preferences, even if that was what the test rats said.

I’m not sure yet whether this heralds a new era of assembling snacks more delectable than bananas and rice cakes for evoking future post-rowing or -climbing hedonic taste experiences or not – or perhaps I’ll just flog myself harder on the ergo and then see how good a salty rice cake might taste…

Coffee & cake

As you may know, in addition to the various statistics, anecdotes, facts, rumours promulgated about the vodka-drinking habits of Nordic countries (specifically, Finland), they also knock back shitloads of coffee.  Of course you knew that.  To go with all that coffee, those clever Swedes entrenched ‘kanelbulle’ cinnamon buns into a socio-cultural institution with its own name: fika.   That means they take ritual break(s) (fika) in the day to enjoy a good old chinwag over coffee and cake – usually cinnamon buns.  What’s not to like?  This tradition is taken quite seriously across Sweden and Scandinavia to this day and is an interesting phenomenon in a world where taking breaks at work other than for lunch is just not done. So, it’s like elevenses with a work license!

Legend has it the Finns acquired their taste for kanelbulle ca. 1820 from their now rivals in ice hockey across the Baltic and renamed it korvapuusti.  Another kooky Finnish food name which roughly translates as ‘slapped ear’ or – my favourite – ‘cauliflower ear’ due to the appearance of the cross-section.  In my opinion, what clinches the finnish-ness of these is the pinch in the middle, which results in the sides of the cross-section extruding to revealing the buttery cinnamon-y deliciousness inside.

To satisfy the pangs for grub from the Motherland I decided to tackle another recipe which I’d seen – and helped- my mum make in my childhood, remembering the funny pinching method used to make the sides protrude.  You couldn’t beat a warm cinnamon bun washed down with a glass of cold milk back then – nevermind the tummy ache after.  Feeling a bit like the baking queen, Bree from Desperate Housewives, I baked these three times in as many weekends.  The first lot were “yum” (said Dad), the second awful, and the third – with a bit of spelt flour thrown in – were really quite nice.

Dough rolled up and cut into triangles

Egg-washed and waiting for the oven...

Korvapuusti

Korvapuusti

What’s your coffee/tea break ritual?

Do not adjust your set

After procrastinating for too long, I sat down and took the plunge to migrate over to WordPress as I was getting frustrated by Blogger – nice as it is – and was also sick of the old ‘Phyllis Stein’ moniker. So I got me a nice, new blog home.  It still requires a little further tuning, oiling and paintwork but watch this spot and I’ll be back v. soon!

P.S. I’m sorry to announce that the Cheese Nun video has been removed from Youtube :(
P.P.S. Still ironing out the little glitches and anomalous code from the migration, so will be proofing things once over shortly.