Monday, May 18, 2009

Pub Grub: the good, the bad, the ugly

I miss the wonderful things about England; the beautiful rolling meadows outlined by ancient stone walls, the perfectly sculpted colorful gardens and well prepared English food. I also miss the not so wonderful things about England too; the urine soaked car park lifts, the Barbie and Ken size refrigerators, the lack of ice, the rationing of ketchup, and poorly prepared English food.

England has always had a bad reputation when it comes to its food and I don't really know why. My theory is that the reviewers must have been visiting the country’s more commercial, high profile pubs than the more quaint establishments where the really good English fare is served. The Peacock at Redmile, Stapleford Park, Langar Hall and Martin’s Arms (I could go on and on), are, in my opinion, the places that serve the best of the best. Oh, my heart aches for these most beloved of establishments. Thanks be to G*d and my husband’s fat expense account, I was able to try them all, several times over.

When we lived in Nottingham, our American guests were always eager to get to a pub to try Steak and Kidney pie followed up by a comical serving of Spotted Dick. We always obliged them since this usually occupied the number one spot on their “to do” list. The first couple of visitors to arrive on our doorstep were given our advice to pass on The Goose at Gamston and wait for our Saturday night booking at The Cottage, or my absolute favorite, Laguna Tandoori. Most listened, some didn't, so we finally gave up giving advice and just went with them.

Many people are shocked to discover that curry, not Spotted Dick, is the most popular food in England. I guess that must be their version of Tex-Mex. In fact, when I first started making the occasional curry, I found it an easy jump from my beloved Mexican recipes because many of the ingredients were already in my pantry. Cumin, coriander, chili powder and garlic are the bases for many recipes from both countries. Just add a bit of fresh ginger, garam masala or fenugreek, and voila, you've got a trip Mumbai without ever boarding a plane.

What brought this all to mind was a visit last week from my friends from Nottingham, Susan and Adrian. We had such a blast with them. We dragged them around our part of the world to see the Garden of the Gods, Manitou Springs and the most historic of all the sights, the casinos at Blackhawk. The latter is where we all made a small donation to the betterment of the owners’ deep pockets and hit the road back home swearing that was the last time we’d ever do that. Yeah, we've all said that before.

I did a lot of cooking when they were here. Susan, ever the healthy eater, was a real sport. Even though we started out healthily enough with Margarita Grilled Salmon and Texas Caviar, our diet took a gradual downhill slide and soon deteriorated to Chicken Fried Steak with gravy on their last night. Well, Adrian had never tasted this state food of Texas and I looked upon that as my call to duty. Susan’s just lucky that they were leaving the next morning or we would have had his other never eaten recipe, fried chicken, the next night. She got out just in time.

Since I have already offered up recipes for chicken fried steak and fried chicken, I’m going to feature my favorite recipe for my favorite curry, Chicken Korma. If you’ve never tasted or prepared this delicious dish, pull out the spices and cook something new and different. As I stated earlier, if you cook Mexican, you may have to pick a few things up at the grocery but not that many. Believe me, it will be worth the trip.

Creamy Chicken Korma

I have cooked this recipe so many times that I could make it in my sleep; that's how much we love it. I recommend making the garlic paste in your blender if you have one because it blends much smoother than a food processor or mini processor which makes for a very creamy finished dish. Try to remove as many of the bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, cardamon pods and cloves as possible before serving as this will save your diners from any unpleasant surprises.

5 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
1 - 1" (2.5cm) piece of fresh gingerroot, coarsely chopped
2 ounces (50g) sliced almonds
5 tablespoons light olive or vegetable oil
2 small bay leaves
6 - 8 cardamon pods
4 cloves
2 - 1" (2.5cm) pieces of cinnamon stick
1 medium size onion, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon (1ml) cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon (15ml) tomato paste (puree)
4 -5 medium size chicken breasts, cut into 2" cubes
1 to 1-1/2 (5ml - 7.5ml) teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons (45ml) cream
1/2 tablespoon (7.5ml) garam masala
1 teaspoon (5ml) fenugreek (optional, but I love the butterscotch like flavor that this spice adds to this dish)

1 cup (250ml) water

1 small bunch fresh coriander, stems removed and coarsely chopped

Place the garlic, ginger, almonds and 6 tablespoons of water into a blender and blend into a smooth paste; set aside.

Put the oil in a large non-stick frying pan and set over a medium high heat. When the oil is hot, add the bay leaves, cardamon pods, cloves and cinnamon; saute for 15 seconds or so before adding the onion and sauteing until soft and transparent.

Reduce the heat to medium and add the paste from the blender, the cumin, coriander and cayenne. Cook, stirring constantly for 2 - 3 minutes. Add the tomato paste and stir for a minute or so or until it is completely combined.

Add the chicken pieces, salt, cream, garam masala, fenugreek and water; cook, stirring frequently for approximately 2 minutes or until the mixture is simmering. Cover with a tight fitting lid, reduce the heat to low. Simmer gently for approximately 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the chicken is cooked through. Serve with rice and a sprinkling of the chopped, fresh coriander.

Serves 6

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Dewberries and Copperheads: Berry Cobbler

When I was a girl growing up in South Texas, it was good and hot by the beginning of May. Back then, women were governed by the old “no white shoes until after the end of May” rule. As a little girl, I felt immune to silly fashion rules. Easter rang in my summer season and brought with it flowing dresses, white patent leather shoes and hair bows as big as a birds' nests carefully clipped to the hair on the back of my head that was closely cropped into a never fashionable “Pixie” cut. Ugh, I hated that hairstyle and I bet that the pixies did too.

In addition to the changes in fashion, late spring and early summer also brought with it dewberry season. For those of you who are unfamiliar with these berries, they are, for all intents and purposes, wild blackberries. The women of my mother’s family would walk the fences of my aunt and uncle’s small farm or along the sides of endless country roads identifying future harvesting points. The berries would start out as little white blossoms perched atop deceivingly vicious tiny thorny rope like vines. Within a few short weeks, they would turn out to be plump aubergine colored berries bursting with juicy sweetness.

Personally, I preferred berry picking with my rather "round" great aunt, June. This hard working woman married my great uncle after meeting him at some stateside activity during WWII. She left behind her own family and her beloved Tennessee and moved with her new husband to south Texas. Like my own father, since she married into the family she was an outcast from the start. Also like my father, she seemed totally unaffected by the snubbing that she received from her family-in-law. She knew who she was, and she was definitely “all that.” I loved this confidence and was drawn to her because of it.

When it was announced that the berries had reached their peak of perfection, we would carefully assemble all of the equipment needed to perform this task safely and efficiently. First and foremost, the proper receptacle was a must. The younger of us were issued some sort of bucket or a saucepan with a handle or, in a tight spot a waxed paper lined Easter basket could be used. It never failed that if the inexperienced picker used the much more advanced wash pan or bowl, major spillage could occur and hours of berry picking could be wasted; not to mention having to withstand the chorus of humiliating groans from your fellow workers.

On the way to our chosen berry patch, my sister, my cousins and I were all given the same warnings year after year:

1. Thrash the vines with the tips of your tennis shoe covered toes and watch where you put your hands because copperheads (snakes) love the berries as much as we do.

2. If that wasn't enough to rain on our parade, we also had to watch looping our feet under the previously mentioned vines. If they happened to secretly drape across your ankles, not only could you sustain a skinned knee, you would certainly snag your lace trimmed polyester socks and have to nurse tentacle looking scratches for days to come.

3. Go to the loo before leaving the house. Relieving yourself by the side of the road was a disruption of epic proportions to the adults in attendance because they had to stop their picking and fend off the snakes (or pretend to) that were certainly hiding in wait to bite our tender little bums.

Once at our chosen destination, the picking could commence in earnest. We picked, laughed and teased each other until we either filled our containers (and our bellies) or were completely overcome by the hot Texas sun. Without fail, one or all of us children would surely trip on a vine, skin our knees, tear our socks, scratch our ankles and have to go to the toilet roadside. I have it on good authority that the pain of wee soaked nylon socks touching vine scratches is truly excruciating. Finally after hours of this fun, we would head back home.

Back at my aunt’s house, while all of us children played in the garden hose outside, the berries would be piled high on the counter top in the kitchen and the rinsing, draining and sorting would commence. During this process, my aunt June would be mixing lard (yep, you read right, lard; its a miracle we're not all dead) with flour, salt and water to make a dough so tender, that even her sisters-in-law had to concede defeat.

She would then lay a huge sheet of this dough into the bottom of a small turkey roaster, allowing it to drape around the corners to facilitate the proper post baking gooeyness. Next she would pour a dish pan full of the fresh berries that had been mixed with a bit of sugar and flour, into the dough. All of this would then be covered with a final sheet of dough, sprinkled with a mixture of cinnamon and sugar and dotted with a few pats of butter. Before sliding this into the oven she would poke several star shapes into the dough to vent. Beautiful.

I wish I could describe to you the smell that would fill her kitchen. Once you were able to cut through the faint scent of her leaky propane stove, the smell of the pastry mixed with the cinnamon and the fruity goodness of the fresh berries can only be described as heavenly. No wonder my uncle married her and stole her away from Tennessee. She must have baked him a cobbler.

I have never since tasted a berry pie of any description that could even come close to her masterpieces. Her cobbler baking days are over now but what a great tribute to her culinary talents to have a child remember your creations so vividly. This one's for you Aunt June.

Quick and Simple Buttery Berry Cobbler

This is a super simple, lazy girl version of Aunt June's fresh berry cobbler. If you don't live in south Texas and don't have access to dewberry vines, you can use fresh or frozen blackberries, tinned peaches or cherries. This is really a versatile dessert so feel free to make it you own. I have taken this to countless dinner parties with rave reviews. I have shown it here topped with cold heavy cream (my personal favorite) but vanilla ice cream is delicious too.

4 ounces (113g) butter, melted (this amount can be reduced up to 1/2 but no more as the recipe dries out if reduced more than that)
1 cup (150g) plain flour, sifted, with 1 tablespoon (15ml) reserved if using fresh berries
1 cup (220g) granulated sugar, plus an additional ¼ cup (60g), with one tablespoon (15ml) reserved if using fresh berries
1 ¼ (6ml) teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon (2.5ml) salt
¾ cup (185ml) milk
1 teaspoon (5ml) vanilla extract
2 cups fresh dewberries or blackberries
½ teaspoon (2.5ml) ground cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350 F, 180 C, Gas Mark 4.

Melt the butter and pour it in the bottom of a 9” square pan. Set aside.

Sift the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt into a medium size bowl. Add milk and vanilla. Mix well. Pour over the melted butter in the pan. Do not stir.

If your berries aren’t sweet enough, pour them in a bowl and toss with a tablespoon of sugar and a tablespoon of flour before spooning over the batter. Do not stir.

In a small cup, combine the remaining sugar and cinnamon. Sprinkle evenly over the top of the cobbler.

Bake in the preheated oven for approximately 40 minutes or until cobbler is golden brown on top and set in the middle. If top begins to brown too much, cover with foil but it will lose some of its crispiness.

Serve warm with vanilla ice cream or heavy cream.

Serves 6 - 8