Enjoy without thinking about it: warming the heart with turmeric milk

tumeric-milk

This winter I’ve had cause to reflect that no amount of meditation, mindfulness apps or aphorisms about living in the now will encourage you to inhabit the present as much as walking down an icy, frosted street will. The council will occasionally scatter a handful of salt onto the roads, but the pavements, untreated, remained glazed with a hard carapace of frost. The slick streets require focus and calm. Your world reduces to only the crunchy grey pavement and each footstep you take in order to avoid a fall. It’s risky to distract yourself even with the extraction of a tissue to blow a wintery nose.

These are days to forego your 10,000 steps and spend as much time as possible snuggled beneath thick fleecy blankets, under a lamp throwing a pool of welcome, warming yellow light, with a stack of cookbooks to leaf through (or maybe Laurie Colwin’s always-soothing ‘Home Cooking’) and the TV on low. Of course you’ll need something warming and filling to drink, because nothing else sends much-needed heat pouring into you in quite the same way. And while I am perennially devoted to tea – truly, madly, deeply in love, always and forever, with a strong and malty Assam – I have more recently been making myself the occasional cup of turmeric milk, usually before bed.

golden-milk

Also known –  in English – as golden milk (and sometimes even referenced as a ‘turmeric latte’ when available to purchase in coffee shops, presumably to push up the price), this drink, a favoured cold remedy of [some] grandmothers of the Indian subcontinent (a friend described it as ‘the kind of thing our granny forces us to drink every time we cough’), has recently become trendy as turmeric secures its status in the global pantheon of superfoods. The co-optation of golden milk and its celebration in Western diets has been noted as potentially problematic, which a thoughtful piece by Tara O’Brady (brought to my attention by my friend Mehrunnisa) outlines, as has its growing symbolism as a representation of an idea of a monolithic, singular ‘Indian’ culture. The parcelling out of one acceptable piece of a traditional culture, divorced from wider acceptance, appreciation or integration of that culture or its people, is an ongoing process and an ongoing, sometimes uncomfortable, conversation which surely finds  echoes whenever a ‘host’ and ‘immigrant’ culture meet. (I don’t think ‘host’ and ‘immigrant’ are quite right here, but it’s difficult to find something equally expressive and concise. During my MA, I studied a unit on migration to London and we discussed there terms such as ‘third generation immigrants’ and their problematic application to people who are by definition not immigrants at all). Whenever I read pieces like this I find myself reflecting on those lines between cultural appropriation, cultural appreciation and, in the case of food, the culinary adventurousness which compels people who love to cook and eat to explore different cultures through mealtimes, picking and choosing without regard for context beyond one’s own taste and dinner table. I’m not quite clear what the answer is. I know that when I drink a cup of turmeric milk, it is indeed “removed from its thousands-of-years-old provenance”, albeit without the promise of anything beyond its delightful taste, just as I certainly don’t eat quinoa as a Peruvian person would do. I am reminded of Nigella Lawson’s oft-repeated phrase “I don’t know if it’s authentic, but it’s authentically good” – and am compelled to wondering if this is really enough, or even if I am the best person to reflect on these complex issues.

I know, however, that I’ve been intermittently drinking warm, spiced milk since I was a university student in an attempt to develop a good sleeping pattern, though the soporific effects of milk are debatable. With regular sleep eluding me and wanting to avoid the caffeine associated with tea straight before bed, I more recently returned to my occasional spiced milk habit in the evenings, albeit with a few twists; one of these is a dusting of bright turmeric. In addition to staining the milk a cheerful butter yellow, I admit it makes me feel good to ingest more of this spice, whose anti-inflammatory properties are increasingly subject to pharmacological scrutiny. I’m always sceptical of the claims that any food can cure dementia, arthritis or any other maladies, but evidence suggests a lot of foods (such as fish) have preventative, even if not curative, effects. And rest assured that I am as happy to drink my spiced turmeric milk for its mood-elevating properties, delivered by its soothing taste and pretty colour, as for any health reason (perhaps an example of ‘just eating’ and enjoying without thinking about and intellectualising the experience).

golden-milk-with-spices

My spice mixture was always loosely based on the spices used in masala chai, albeit one brewed without tea leaves: I used cinnamon, black pepper, piney cloves, fragrant star anise and ginger (either the dried version, dusty and warm, or the spikey fresh root), maybe cardamom if I had it – but as a student my funds didn’t always stretch to all of these and sometimes it was just a short, sharp mixture of pepper, tooth-tingling cloves and cinnamon, which I tended to have in greater abundance. Over the Christmas break, I read a feature in Belgian (well, Flemish, anyway) newspaper De Standaard called ‘The favourite winter recipe of 25 foodies’ (‘het favoriete winterrecept van 25 foodies’), which did what it said on the tin and, in terms of combining food and personal stories, was pretty much my platonic ideal of a foodie magazine feature. It made for an incredibly absorbing and comforting reading on the Eurostar trip back home to London. A recipe from Dorien Knockaert – who is described as ‘without a doubt one of the most interesting culinary voices in Flanders’ – for masala chai was included and something about her voice caught my attention. I tried her recipe out and some elements from that crept into my own recipe. (I am fully aware – given the contours of the debate about cultural appropriation of food which I’ve tried to point to, albeit necessarily incompletely, above – of the many ironies of one white Belgian woman’s interpretation of a traditional drink from the Indian subcontinent inspiring another white Belgian woman’s interpretation of a traditional drink from the Indian subcontinent). Regardless of the politics of this cross-cultural exchange, the chief inheritance is the addition of a good sprinkle of fennel seeds; to me, the faint aniseed scent of fennel truly elevates the drink, and I now wouldn’t be without it.

Continue reading “Enjoy without thinking about it: warming the heart with turmeric milk”

Chorizo and tomato scrambled eggs: comfort food for broken bones

chorizo-scrambled-eggs

 

Bones are funny things. A few years ago, my father broke his hip; he didn’t skid over an icy street or fall down the stairs. Instead, he stumbled slightly on his way to the kitchen, and that was enough. Our bodies can be strong and resilient so often, but there are times when we are physically fragile, even if otherwise healthy, and we remember how vulnerable and delicate our bones and joints really are. The other day, my boyfriend fell during a taekwondo class and landed with most of his body weight on his hand. What was thought to be a torn ligament turned out to be, in fact, two broken fingers, and he had to be fitted with a cast to keep them in place. He works at a hospital, which is the only convenient part of this story.

It’s been painful and uncomfortable, and we’ve also realised how many things we take for granted when going about our daily lives that we wouldn’t otherwise have given a second thought. Buttoning a coat, squeezing out toothpaste, eating a meal, tying shoelaces – all activities made much more difficult, and sometimes impossible, with only one hand. He’s been in to see a hand specialist (and it would be remiss here if I didn’t reference the excellence of the NHS; the competence and kindness of its patient, hard-working staff; and our great fortune in being able to access this excellent healthcare freely), but he won’t be able to have the cast off until at least next week.

Scrambled eggs with chorizo and tomatoes

To cheer him up over the weekend I made him chorizo and tomato scrambled eggs, a re-run of a recipe I threw together in the days between Christmas and New Year to use up the bits and pieces in our fridge before going away. David loved it and suggested I blog the recipe; I demurred because it seemed such an instinctive, easy, obvious way to prepare eggs if you have chorizo hanging about the house. However, I leafed through a copy of Dan Doherty’s comfort-food book ‘Toast Roast Hash Mash’ at a friend’s house and it’s just filled with these very simple, comforting recipes – and if he can justify selling a book with food as simple as this (think dishes like fried potatoes with black pudding), I’m sure I can justify posting this.

I splashed out on eggs from Burford Brown hens here and I do think the excellence of the eggs is important when they are the stars. The yolks are so deeply orange that they glow – it’s clear why Italians sometimes call yolks rosso d’uovo, the red of the egg (they also say giallo dell’uovo, the yellow of the egg, as in English). It is not just the paprika-hued chorizo oil which has given the plateful of eggs their sunset-orange colour. But the choice of egg is not merely cosmetic, it is also for their deeper, richer flavour, and it’s nothing to do with expense as such – the finest eggs I eat are those given to me by my grandfather from his backyard chickens.

Glowing orange egg yolks
The red of the egg
You can use whatever tomatoes you want and have to hand. When I first made it, I used around six quite small round winter tomatoes, coring them and removing the damp, seedy pulp before cutting them up finely. For the second round, I used bright Vittoria cherry tomatoes because they were the ripest looking in the supermarket (well, it is February) and were also grown in the UK (thanks to LED lighting and, presumably, polytunnel). I loved their sweet, bursting flavour and the texture. However, I’m sure that, if you really don’t want to use fresh tomatoes, you could drain and chop tinned plum tomatoes. Personally I don’t like the taste of tinned tomatoes unless they’ve been cooked down for a long time, as in a pasta sauce, so wouldn’t do this – but I know people who happily eat tinned plum tomatoes on toast, so tastes clearly vary in this respect.

I like to finish off these scrambled eggs with a flourish of finely-grated Parmesan cheese – it’s an optional step, but delicious. You could also use Cheddar or a hard goat’s cheese if you’d prefer that flavour profile.

 

Chorizo scrambled eggs

 

Remember, when making this, that eggs cook quickly and go cold even faster. I don’t usually go in for fol-de-rol like warming plates but I would recommend it for this – and make sure you have everything else you need for breakfast (tea, toast, plates and cutlery) ready to go once the eggs hit the pan.

 

Chorizo and tomato scrambled eggs
This recipe served two, but I honestly don’t know if that’s an obscenely huge portion. We didn’t eat it with bread – it will likely go further if you do.

  • 130g chorizo sausage (the dried, cured kind which is usually sold in loops, not the salami-like slices or fresh chorizo-style sausages)
  • 6 eggs
  • 150g cherry tomatoes
  • Salt and pepper (optional)
  • Parmesan, for grating at the end (optional)
  1. Cut the chorizo into thickish coins and cut each coin into quarters.
  2. Cut the cherry tomatoes into quarters.
  3. Crack the 6 eggs into a bowl or jug. If you wish, add some salt and pepper to them now. Remember, the chorizo will be salty already, and if you add Parmesan there will be a bit more saltiness, so be careful about how you season the eggs. I used pepper only but thought that the dish could have done with a touch of salt – but only the tiniest extra whisper of it.
  4. Take a medium saucepan – I like my good black cast-iron pan, which also fries chorizo perfectly – and heat for a few minutes over a medium heat. Once hot, add the chorizo.
  5. Cook the chorizo, stirring, until it has yielded its oil and is ever-so-slightly crisping up at the edges – about 5-6 minutes. If the edges are getting crispy too quickly, turn the heat down. If you cook the chorizo long enough it will yield up enough oil and you won’t have to add any other.
  6. If you haven’t already lowered the heat, turn it down to as low as possible – for truly delicate eggs you may even want to move it to a lower-heat burner. Pour in the eggs and, using a wooden spoon or, even better, a wooden spoon with a flat bottom, cut through the egg mixture regularly, pulling them from the outside in, to form curds.
  7. When the eggs are setting but are still quite wet – this is often the work of minutes – add in the quartered tomatoes and stir them through the eggs and chorizo evenly. Cook for a few minutes more, until the eggs are set but still soft and slightly runny.
  8. Decant immediately onto warm plates. If liked, grate over some Parmesan using a fine grater.

Resolution roundup: January 2017

I set myself some resolutions this year which are – I think – achievable, and am going to see if I can write up my progress regularly in the name of accountability and to see when and where things go wrong. So here we go for January.

Fabrique Bakery's vanilla bun
The lovely, loopy vanilla bun at Fabrique Bakery, and a flat white. January, and breakfast, joy

1) Eat fish at least once a week, preferably twice a week

Notwithstanding my hand-wringing over the ethics of fish consumption, this was an easy resolution to keep because I really like fish and seafood (I realise that my resolution to ‘eat fish’ really means ‘eat seafood’ because I did count prawns as a ‘fish’ at one point). Admittedly I sometimes only managed to achieve this by eating sushi for lunch, but I am in a big, big sushi phase at the moment. The avocado and salmon rolls at Itsu are currently everything I want and more (but I limit my intake because they are not cheap).

Sesame salmon

Highlights include salmon with avocado remoulade, although I baked the fish rather than frying it and used garlic instead of shallots in the avocado (so it was like gaucamole, really), and this ginger roasted salmon (I halved the recipe), which was lightly sweet in a way that complemented the sweetish taste of salmon itself, and delicious served with wilted kale doused in black bean sauce and sushi rice. I really loved these maple and sesame-slathered fillets of salmon, too. Steamed fish with chilli, garlic and lime had some delicious flavours but I struggled to steam it as directed – baking it in a foil or baking paper parcel might be easier. I enjoyed these fish tacos but my boyfriend was less sure that fish and tortillas belong together. I made pork tacos the next day to use up the tortillas before they went stale and he liked that a lot more.

2) Bring a packed lunch to work at least three times a week

Frosted leaves
January : cold days, colder nights, and crunchy, frost-edged leaves on the way to work

On the second week of January I only managed to make my lunch for two days – including a day where I was working from home (I made a very delicious toasted mozzarella and aubergine sandwich) – but other than that I have hit this one on the head in January, usually managing to take things in for the full working week.

The lowest-effort way for me to bring things to work is to make a big batch of something for dinner for one night and tehn package of the leftovers for work – this Georgian red bean and walnut soup and this black bean soup (I left out the ham hock and added lots of smoked paprika) made absolute vats and reheated easily in the microwave.

Harder work and more cleaning up, but offering satisfying variety, I made a range of dips to eat with flatbreads and vegetable sticks. This carrot puree was nice enough but too sweet for my tastes – it needed more chilli and less honey. I made muhammara, but as delicious as roasted red peppers always will be, Diana Henry’s recipe is much better – this one was too breadcrumby. This avocado hummus was a big hit, however, because it was very creamy and light and added that smoothness often lacking from homemade hummus (in my opinion, anyway).

3) Eat at least three vegetarian meals a week

Easily met if you count my work meals, but I still achieved this even if you discount breakfast and food at work. I made vegetarian chili (nice but not a ‘forever’ recipe), then another one, pasta spiked with herbs (I added lots of chilli flakes and lemon zest to counteract the blandness so many reviewers commented on, and reduced the breadcrumb amounts, for what it’s worth), this very delicious aubergine parmigiana which I recommend highly, and a cauliflower risotto, which had a very creamy blandness which made me think of my favoured childhood meal of steamed cauliflower with bechamel. It was comforting, but also…mild.

4) Clear my archive of bookmarked recipes

Granola and rhubarb and blood orange jam
Homemade granola with homemade blood orange and rhubarb jam and organic vanilla yoghurt

Yes! Most of the recipes I made were from the bookmarks, as can be seen from the links. I also made a couple of granolas – skipping the cranberries in these – and this simple but extremely practical and very delicious granola; the second recipe is from, of all places, Tesco’s food magazine and is one I have made before. It’s very good, very flexible, which is so important with granola, to avoid having 12,000 half-empty packets of nuts and seeds in the cupboards. I made these lean turkey meatballs but I didn’t love the flavour, although my boyfriend liked them a lot. Maybe he just likes meatballs? I prefer a veal and pork mix myself.

5) Celebrate my heritage more

Hmm. I neglected to celebrate Verloren Maandag because I got home too late and just needed to cook something quick and simple. On the other hand, we’ve been eating regularly a very Belgian dish on Sundays of chicken, chips and applesauce. It’s classic kid/comfort food. Belgian households make chips properly – in the deep-fat fryer – but I don’t own one and don’t really have the inclination to deep fry on such a regular basis. I make my chips in the oven. My grandmother uses Jonagold apples – Jonagolds are most popular in Belgium – but here in the UK I use the good old Bramley, whose tartness means I don’t need to add any lemon juice, as my grandmother does. I’ll call it even.

6) Develop a good bedtime/sleeping routine

No chance. I’m a very fretful, fitful person and I’ve been struggling to fall asleep and shooting awake most of this month. I’m hoping that, having finished off two big financial planning projects, I’ll get some closure and some rest.

Mind you, I did fall asleep on the Tube this very evening, only waking up at my stop. Can’t sleep in my nice, soft, warm bed. Can sleep on the rush-hour Northern line.

7) Visit at least two (new) places in the UK outside of London

Not on the cards this month.

8) Read at least one book a month

Yes, including a couple of re-reads. I read ‘Blood, Bones and Butter‘ by Gabrielle Hamilton, then J Ryan Stradal’s ‘Kitchens of the Great Midwest’, both for the second time. I also read Ruth Ware’s ‘In a Dark, Dark Wood, which was disappointing – I’d figured out the plot twist and ending very, very early on. Unfortunately, I have read a fair amount of thrillers in the past year and [spoiler] quite a few of them have used the trope of a woman’s dark, desperate secret being a teenage pregnancy, so I put the allusions together fairly rapidly, after which I was just marking time to the end. The novel is well-paced and that pacing makes you think it hangs together well, but after I finished it and thought about it for a bit, I realised quite a lot of it did not make sense. A shame, but still an enjoyable read while I was actually reading it – the commute flew by.

 

 

In praise of the properly cooked vegetable: cavolo nero pasta for one

bucatini-with-cavolo-nero

I have come to develop strong views on greens. On kales and cabbages (and kings), and green beans and asparagus, and even Brussels sprouts.

Greens! No one likes an overcooked green thing, resigned to a grey and mushy existence following overenthusiastic acquaintance with a pan of hard-boiling water. But I think the growing middle-class dread of serving up a disintegrating plate of veg is resulting in the opposite problem, with vegetables far too often being served undercooked.

A green bean, say, tender and with a hint of crunch as your teeth break through the snappy skin, is a fine thing, perfectly balancing crispness with a soft, yielding interior. All too often, though, cooking instructions suggest as little as two minutes of cooking, resulting in hot beans with a suggestion of softness at the edges, a resolutely crisp interior, and, most unforgivably, hard, cold, mean little seeds at the centre. At that rate, you may as well give in and just served them cool, sweet and raw, so they retain that milky, sappy freshness.

Kale, too, is so often served barely cooked or raw, when its frilly edges are still spiny and throat-catching. Savoy cabbage is rarely shown to the heat long enough to allow its pebbled texture to become nubbled silk. As with vegetables, so too with pasta. Overcooked pasta is an unappestising, floppy mess, often pooled with water so thick with starch it is almost gelatinous. But undercooked pasta is crunchy and chalky and no good for winding round the fork or mopping up the sauce. Balance is essential.

cavolo-nero-pasta

Which leads me to this: cavolo nero pasta for one, in which the leaves of this deep dark Italian kale are cooked down in wine and butter and oil until delicate and submissive. Intertwined with some good bucatini – you can use spaghetti if that’s what you have – it makes a satisfying, iron-rich supper for those nights when, say, your partner in dining is trooping around the great garrison towns of Yorkshire.

When I first made this, the whole thing was a bit bland and didn’t come together until I added lemon juice and zest in at the end – remembering Diana Henry’s advice “when there seems to be something missing, the answer is lemon.” Also, if you have bacon or lardons or pancetta to hand, fry a handful of the cubes or strips off for a few minutes in the melted butter and oil before adding the garlic.

I’m also sure this will sound like, look like, a lot of cavolo nero to start. And it is, enough to make this a hearty meal and give it plenty of body, because green things will happily cook down to nothing if you let them.

You’ll notice I said ‘good bucatini’. I’m no stranger to value packs of spaghetti from Lidl and would not turn my nose up at these ever, but given the relatively sparse ingredients in this dish, a good-quality pasta will make a difference to the final dish. Bucatini, incidentally, is like a slightly thicker spaghetti with a hollow running down the centre and is a little chewier and more resilient than spaghetti; I enjoy its robustness and it stands up well to the assertive kale. If your budget can stretch to it, I’d buy it here.

Cavolo nero with bucatini, for one

  • 90g bucatini or spaghetti
  • 300g pack of cavolo nero
  • 1 tablespoon butter, plus extra to serve (optional)
  • 1 TBS olive oil
  • 4 fat cloves of garlic, smashed and roughly chopped
  • Big pinch of chilli flakes
  • a good glug of white wine – 60ml, if you want to measure
  • The zest and juice of half a lemon
  • Lots and lots of Parmesan – I like mine very finely grated on a Microplane so that it resembles cheese dust
  1. Put a big pan of water for the pasta on the hob, bring to the boil, and salt it generously.
  2. Strip the leaves of the cavolo nero from the stalks. I do this just by pinching the base of the stem between my index finger and thumb and pulling down the length of the stalk – they come away just as efficiently as if you’d used one of those plasticky kale strippersplasticky kale strippers. If you have any smaller leaves attached to slimmer, softer stems, these can just be chopped up without stripping them. Remove any yellowy bits of the kale because these will do you no favours.
  3. Tear or roughly chop the large leaves into bite-sized pieces.
  4. Add your pasta to the pan of water and bring back to the boil. Set your timer for eight minutes.
  5. Heat the butter and oil together in a frying pan over a high heat. Add the garlic and fry until fragrant and just tinged with gold – up to thirty seconds, but as little as 10-15.
  6. Add the chilli flakes and stir them around the pan for a bit, maybe 20 seconds, until you can smell their spicy fragrance.
  7. Throw in the great pile of cavolo nero leaves and stir-fry in the pan for about two minutes. Add a pinch of salt here. Pour in the wine and let it bubble for thirty seconds. Turn the heat down to medium (or medium-low if things seem to be cooking fast) and continue to cook, pushing the leaves around the pan, until they wilt down. Throw in the odd splash of water if things are getting too dry and lower the hear once the cavolo nero is wilted down. Continue stirring.
  8. When the timer for the pasta goes off, give it a test. It might need two more minutes.
  9. Once ready, drain the pasta, not too thoroughly (you want a little of the clinging water). Stir the pasta through the cavolo nero in the frying pan and stir them around together for about thirty seconds to amalgamate. Remove the pan from the heat.
  10. Zest and juice the lemon into the pan. Stir around and taste. Add some salt and pepper if you like and taste again. If you want, zest in more of the lemon and squeeze in more juice and add more salt and pepper. And, also if you want, melt in another pat of butter so the pasta become slick and glossy and the leaves tender and rich.
  11. Pour the panful of pasta and vegetables into your bowl or plate of choice and dust with lots of Parmesan. Then grate over some more Parmesan, because you only live once.

How to candy a quince

Candied quince, three ways

Over Christmas, I finally got to grips with the taut-skinned yellow quince sitting in the fruit bowl, for which I had trekked all the way to Morden to buy. Some of them were turned into a classic crimson quince paste – often known as membrillo – which is thick and set and traditionally served, in Spain at least, with cheese. It goes particularly well with manchego, unsurprisingly.

There were other beautiful ideas for what to do with quince in my sizeable cookbook collection – lots of poaching and baking – but instead I went off-piste and played around with candying them. I used a different technique with each quince to see which worked best. Since I was just experimenting/playing at this point, I don’t have exact measurements and haven’t converted them to metric – most of the recipes I used were American and used volume rather than weight measures. However, having found my favourite candying method, I will be using this in the future and will provide clearer instructions and measurements then.

Candied quince trio

Candied quince 

I made this three ways and funnily enough the first, and simplest, was most successful.

Method One: Classic candied pieces

candied-quince

This method was the simplest and produced quince pieces which were truly candied, as citrus fruit peel might be: gummy-textured all the way through, chewy and fragrant, with the bold, blood-red shade which is the hallmark of quince cooked with sugar, while still capturing their evocative, perfumed-apple flavour. It is also a true preserve, as sufficient moisture is driven off to enable the pieces to keep for some time, lightly dusted in granulated sugar and tucked away in a sealed box.

This was very simple: I peeled the quince and sliced it into eighths, removed the core from each segment, and sliced the quince crossways to make smallish, fairly evenly sized pieces. I then followed the Bon Appetit recipe for candied grapefruit peel (which is very successful for its original purpose, too!) but skipped the blanching stages (which remove some of the peel’s bitterness, which doesn’t apply in the case of quince) and simply put them straight in the syrup. I had to simmer a bit longer for the quince than for the grapefruit peel (25-28 minutes) and to top up some extra sugar and water, so perhaps start with 1.5 cups of sugar and 3/4 cup of water if you want to try this. I also simmered it quite gently to ensure the pieces didn’t get mushy and lose their shape. Once finished, I drained the pieces with a wire-mesh sieve and placed them on a drying rack lined with baking paper to dry out for eight hours. Once dry, they were tossed in granulated sugar and packed in a sealed, airtight box.

Method Two: parboiling and candying

Golden candied quince

For this method, I peeled, cut and cored the quince pieces as above and sliced them into small cubes, but simmered them in plain water for 5 minutes prior to cooking in syrup – a lot of candied quince recipes called for this stage so I wanted to see the effects. These fell apart much more easily and did not go that deep purple-red colour, only achieving an elegant amber shade. Once drained and dried, they were still very damp and need to be stored in the fridge. They are tender and almost melting.

Method Three: parboiling and candying larger pieces

For this method, I peeled, cut and cored the quince pieces as above but sliced them into large chunks. I parboiled them for 5 minutes as above before cooking in syrup. The larger pieces did not candy well; already spongey from the parboiling, it took too long for the syrup to penetrate the pieces and make them translucent, resulting in the syrup boiling to caramel and producing slightly soggy – though bright red – chunks of quince within a crunchy caramel shell. Not what I was after.

Candied quince slices

Candied quince slices

To make the syrupy candied quince slices, I followed this recipe on the Dervish Rosary blog, but scaled down the quantities significantly! I peeled and cut the quince into eigths as above and removed their hard little cores and parboiled the slices for 7 minutes as directed by the recipe. I then used 2 cups of sugar and 4 cups of water to make a syrup, brought this to simmering point, and added the slices. I cooked them until red, glossy and slightly translucent, about 30-40 minutes, on a low simmer (continuously). The low simmer is essential to keep them intact and stop them going mushy. I would start checking after 20 minutes and keep the heat low, topping up with water and sugar as necessary. Once cooked, I gently removed them with a slotted spoon. These need to be preserved in their syrup and I think it’s best to keep in the fridge.

 

On resolving – resolutions for 2017

fireworks
HAPPY NEW YEAR

Resolutions are often fraught things, aren’t they? They are so tangled together with promises about the year ahead and visions of our ideal lives and selves, not to mention the comedown after a season of parties and feasting and socialising which could have lasted a few days but for some people lasts a month or more. No wonder we feel like we need a reboot come January.

I found it difficult to make a list of resolutions ahead of time and spent the first day of 2017 mulling them over. I am lucky that I receive the days between Christmas and New Year off, a perk of the sector I work in. Removal of this privilege would doubtless result in a revolt to put the poll tax riots to shame. Few of us will ever become truly wealthy in this game, so give us our holiday, is the general sentiment. Because of this the New Year slipped into frame quietly; as I was travelling home on the 31st, and didn’t go out to celebrate, there was little sense of transition, the clean slate.

When I read other peoples’ resolutions they are often quite inspirational – ‘be braver’, ‘write my novel’, ‘travel every month’. Mine are much more…homespun? More like good ideas than visionary aspiration. Still, here we go. I’ve started with food ones, but there are a couple of non-food related resolutions towards the end.

1) Eat fish at least once a week, preferably twice a week

amieux-freres_fay
Image via Wikimedia Commons

I honestly feel quite conflicted about this one. On the one hand, I know it will probably be very beneficial for me personally – the health benefits of eating fish and the Omega 3 fatty acids they contain are myriad and seem to cover a new vital function a week, from heart health to brain function to overall emotional wellbeing to management of aggression. I have been catching up on BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme over the winter break and listened to a fascinating podcast on Diet and Dementia; it was noted that eating fish twice a week is strongly correlated to a lower risk of developing dementia (eating berries also seems to be correlated to a lower risk, but berries are seasonal and perishable and so I don’t think I can commit to eating them regularly in winter). I’m not yet thirty, but I fear dementia like I fear Type II diabetes: it’s slightly irrational, but both are diseases correlated with age and with significant lowering of our quality of life if developed. I am an academically-minded person and the idea of losing my brain, which is to say my essential self, is very, very scary. So if I can do something which will have a long-term protective and preventative impact for my health, especially when it is as easy as eating more fish, which I love anyway, it seems obvious to do it.

Yet the personal benefits to me must be balanced against the wider, indeed environmental, consequences of increased consumption of fish in the context of the global decline of fish stocks. Our oceans are not well-managed, and even consuming farmed seafood may put pressure on wild fish stocks, as farmed fish are frequently fed fishmeal made from their wild cousins. When farmed fish is fed on grains, as livestock is, they develop Omega 6 rather than Omega 3 fatty acids. It’s very, very easy to eat, and indeed overeat, Omega 6 fatty acids, so in this case the unique health benefits of eating fish may also be significantly reduced.

On balance, I’ve decided to keep this resolution (obviously) because I’m quite careful about how I buy fish, only buying those caught using more sustainable methods. I avoid all trawler-caught fish, seek out alternative fish species to very popular, possibly overfished, types, and almost always buy fish which has been certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council.

2) Bring a packed lunch to work at least three times a week

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Bringing in a lunch prepared at home is almost always more economical and healthier than buying one in the shops, especially as I don’t usually like supermarket ready meals. I also tend to find the meals I bring in more filling than shop-bought ones.

This was also one of my resolutions for 2016. I was often successful but did occasionally fall of the wagon, which I expected – it’s an aim rather than a stick to beat myself with. I tended to slip up more towards the end of the year when my time was running short during the weekends and inspiration was failing me.

I like to aim for three days a week because I don’t then feel guilty if I miss the full five working days, but also because if I aim to prepare three days’ worth of meals I usually actually manage to make a week’s worth anyway.

3) Eat at least three vegetarian meals a week

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This is a goal made with the impact of our eating habits on the environment in mind, and possibly acts as a corrective to my slightly more ethically troubling first resolution. I toyed with making the goal more stringent, with at least three vegetarian days rather than simply meals a week, but have kept it as above in the interests of setting a goal which is manageable.

While I hope that this resolution will also help me to eat more healthily – with respect to such things as my intake of vegetables – vegetarian eating is no shortcut to health. God knows this ex-vegetarian has eaten enough cheesy, butter and cream-saturated vegetables, or those slicked with generous quantities of silky olive oil, to know a vegetarian diet is not necessarily always synonymous with austerity. In the spirit of the environmental ethos which has governed the setting of this resolution, and with a nod to health, I will also aim to choose vegetarian recipes which do not rely heavily on resource-intensive cheese and dairy products to bulk them out and boost flavour.

4) Clear my archive of bookmarked recipes

I used to not only read food blogs avidly (I still do, although less than I used to owing to time constraints) but also bookmark many recipes with aplomb. Many of these recipes remain, bookmarked and uncooked, many years later. While they do not take up physical space, being mere bookmarks, they do seem to occupy a lot of psychological space and, for some reason, weigh on my mind. 2017 is the year to free myself of these mind-forg’d manacles and start cooking the recipes I have so carefully set aside. I have many recipes gleaned from blogs which have become much-loved gems, and it will be fun to see if I have other future classics hidden in my archives.

5) Celebrate my heritage more

Antwerp's Grote Markt
Antwerp’s Grote Markt, with bonus crane

I felt a bit strange about committing to writing this down – especially after a year which many people feel has been characterised by a resurgent and often repugnant strain of nationalism – and wasn’t entirely sure if it was a food or non-food resolution. But I want to mark my Belgian roots more than I currently do, and almost any observation of culinary or other traditions would be an improvement on the current situation. While I am fully, 100%, Belgian (which surprises many people, who assume I have at least one British parent), I have lived outside Belgium most of my life and have rarely felt emotionally connected to Belgium as such in a way which could be considered patriotic or nationalist. However, as members of my family become older, and especially following my father’s death, I have developed something which resembles nostalgia, sentiment, for my heritage, and certainly resembles an appreciation for my own culture which I’m sure wasn’t necessarily there a few years ago. My ‘roots’, as it were, always seemed so permanent and ‘just there’, which I could pick up and go back to whenever I felt like it, not like something that need to be nurtured and preserved. As I get older, and with those changes within my family, these connections seem all the more fragile and strangely important, as if, after all my protests, the intersection of my personal and cultural histories is actually essential. Who would have thought it?

This is, of course, not just a culinary thing – cultural heritage is strongly associated with language and I have become more and more sentimental about the Flemish language and preserving it. I know if I end up having my own children that it will be important to me to pass on Dutch to them and ensure they speak it, which is not something I thought was necessary even a few years ago – indeed I dismissed the learning of Dutch as not worth the effort, as it’s not an internationally important language. (The speaking of Flemish/Dutch and French is a very fraught thing in Belgium; as I’m Flemish and speak Dutch with my family, I don’t have the same sentiment towards French). However, cultural identity is also cemented in the eating of common foods and partaking in common celebrations, and as I like to cook this might as well be my way of observing my heritage.

I suppose in this respect I will be starting with the celebration of ‘Verloren Maandag’ (Lost Monday), a celebration day held on the somewhat awkward date of ‘the first Monday after the first Sunday after Epiphany’. It is not only a very Belgian celebration but one very unique to Antwerp, the city where I was born and involves the eating of sausage bread, putting this resolution directly in conflict with No. 3.

6) Develop a good bedtime/sleeping routine

Must sleep more in 2017. I am terrible at sleep and really need to work on going to bed at the same time every night and falling asleep, rather than staggering into bed at midnight and staring at the ceiling for two hours.

7) Visit at least two (new) places in the UK outside of London

This was also on last year’s list of resolutions and I didn’t manage it, which is a bit shameful, but I hope to manage this year.

8) Read at least one book a month

I am a pretty decent reader, mostly thanks to a long commute, so I’m setting this so I don’t slip out of the habit. I don’t think I’ve properly read a book in months. My boyfriend kindly gave me Ian McEwan’s Nutshell for Christmas so I suppose I will start with that.

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Baking Advent: Apricot and amaretti fruitcake with Marsala and clementine buttercream

Baking Advent: celebrating the festive season with baked goods.

Apricot, amaretti and marsala fruitcake

In my last post I mused about being, becoming, a grown-up; and the changing tastes of adulthood were something I thought of when making, and then eating, this fruitcake.

For some tastes are the ones we grow rather than the ones which come to us instinctively. The liking of certain foods – the bitterness of wine and beer among then – mark the undeniable transition from picky child and wary adolescent. Jay Rayner predictably called it for the oyster, which, in a slightly icky (and, it must be said, heteronormative) 2011 article which I have never really liked (I like a lot of his other writing), he describes as “the truly female tastes of adulthood” (yawn). Then there are olives – salty, briny; blue cheese – pungent, moudly; even the raw, iron, undeniably fleshy taste of rare steak.

Apricot, amaretti and marsala fruitcake with marzipan stars
Marzipan stars on a naked cake for a modern look

Fruitcake, to me, is a grown up food, too. As a child, its dense, sticky richness was something best avoided in favour of, say, a predictable slice of chocolate cake. It sits heavily on the stomach and coats the palate in a thick wave of raisiny sweetness almost as a dessert wine does. A fruitcake is assertive; it is strong; it is not really that sweet and can be nibbled with cheese as much as eaten as pudding after a meal. It requires a bitter drink of some kind – hot black coffee; unsweetened, tannic tea; even ale – to offset the rich taste and texture. After years of remembered aversion and dislike, those same failings have become, in my eyes, the fruitcake’s very virtues. It is filling, it is rich, it is unapologetically traditional in vine-fruited taste and dense, even at times stodgy, texture.

Christmas fruitcake with clementine and cinnamon buttercream
Christmas fruitcake with clementine and cinnamon buttercream

I wasn’t intending to post this recipe, mainly because the photos I took weren’t very good. But this cake is so very delicious; I brought it in to work (a rare enough event) and my colleagues were full of praise – one even said he feared it would put all other Christmas cakes this year in the shade. That’s the kind of thing someone who brings in a homemade cake likes to hear…

The dried apricots in the fruit mix add a lighter, sharper taste and texture than the traditional combination of raisins, currants and mixed peel alone, and the pulverised amaretti biscuits which are included in the batter mix replace the more conventional breadcrumbs: they are dryer and, again, lighter, as well as adding a delicate almond perfume which complements the marzipan shapes the cake is decorated with. A few biscuits are held back to decorate the top of the cake. The sweet Marsala wine which plumps up the fruit and is used to feed the cake at regular intervals naturally imbues it with moisture, but also sweetly echoes the taste of the dried fruit within the cake. The clementine buttercream is of course deeply seasonal and adds a burst of freshness to proceedings. I added a dash of cinnamon to it too.

Apricot and amaretti fruitcake
Action shot – the cake getting dug into at work, in its tin

I went for a ‘naked’ look for this cake, partly because naked cakes are so very fashionable; partly because I don’t really like the royal icing that usually tops fruitcakes; and partly to avoid the awkwardness of buying sufficient quantities of marizipan and carefully rolling it over to drape the cake. I liked the look very much, in the end – though having said that, the original cake, as decorated by BBC Good Food magazine, looked absolutely glorious – with a coating of (edible) gold spray paint, it was fantastically Louis Quatorze.

Recipe below the jump, as ever.

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