Monday, November 16, 2009

Halloween, haggis and happy birthdays

I just got back from my annual trip to Nottingham. It started out as a real nail biter and ended as one as well thanks to the unpredictable winter weather in Denver. It is often humbling to realize that Mother Nature, not you, is often in control of your travel plans and if you don’t believe it just try and catch a plane during a snow storm. To make a very long story short, I made my connection in Houston by the skin of my teeth, flew on to Newark and in to Birmingham the next morning. The most surprising aspect of the whole trip was when my 2 bags, loaded with my UK hosts' wish list of American products and my clean underwear, came rolling out on the conveyor. It is times like this that make you appreciate the simple things in life.

Nottingham hasn’t changed much since I first laid my eyes on it. Oh sure there are subtle changes, restaurants that have closed and reopened under new names, a new modern art museum on the edge of the Lace Market and the silencing of the little old man who played the xylophone in the market square by his death a few years ago. The one thing that I find most comforting in life, is knowing that 5,000 miles from my front door, the oldest pub in the world is still open for business in this city’s center with no sign of closing its doors anytime soon. If you haven’t figured it out yet, I love this place and to arrive feels like I’ve slipped on a well worn favorite pair of shoes.

I arrived early on the morning of the 30th of October which gave me a little time to sleep off the jetlag, head to the store and get cooking. Karen’s village has embraced Halloween and I have to say that she is the inspiration behind it; not because she forces the issue but because she has made it so much fun over the years that you can’t help but get swept up in it. I do have to say though that the day takes on a darker tone there than it does in America. Where I have Snow White, Cinderella and Buzz Lightyear ringing my doorbell in Colorado, witches and the masked character from the movie Scream, seemed to be the popular costumes with the children here. One thing is the same however, the delight at having someone drop a handful of candy into your Halloween bag, is a universal thrill. I can’t tell you how lovely this quaint little village is by jack ‘o lantern light. Karen had a house full of guests that seemed to really enjoy the huge pot of Chicken Chili (which we have dubbed the official food of Halloween, find the recipe on www.karensrecipeforsuccess.blogspot.com ), a mild version of Texas Caviar, and hotdog bites in homemade barbeque sauce (recipe found on this blog) that was a particular favorite with the children, and lots of wine; great night all around.

On the 9th of November we left Nottingham for London to attend the Corporate Expatriate Relocation Conference and Exhibition which was put on by the people who are also responsible for publishing the American in Britain magazine. I loved meeting the publisher and finally putting a face to the name. After walking around the exhibition floor, we made our way to Notting Hill and Portobello Road to just shop around and have lunch. Since our train didn’t leave until 21.00, we had plenty of time to shop Oxford Street as well. I love London. It is without a doubt my favorite city in the world.

We had a couple of birthday celebrations for Karen who turned 29 again while I was there. It was at one of these that I was treated to haggis and neeps by Tim and Allie who live next door. I was very tentative because just the idea of sheep’s offal is a little off putting to me. I am here to report that it is actually quite good and the neeps (cooked and chopped potatoes and yellow turnips) that are traditionally served with it were a perfect accompaniment. It is now official, I will eat anything. At both of these celebrations we served salads as I was trying to perfect my favorite bleu cheese dressing recipe. I have to say that there is nothing better than this dressing with beetroot especially when it is grown at the bottom of Karen and Chris’s garden. As a matter of fact, I got to cook with a variety of homegrown produce provided by the village residents. Thanks to Tim for his hard work in providing us with fresh Swiss Chard, beetroot, celery and purple carrots and also thanks to Jane for giving us fresh eggs and freshly frozen raspberries for my first attempt at making a traditional Victoria Sponge which, if I do say so myself, was a culinary triumph. I’m a bit disappointed in myself that while I lived in England I spent too much time looking for American cooking ingredients instead of just enjoying the beauty that traditional English recipes have to offer. Oh well, better late than never. Instead of the run of the mill birthday cakes for Karen’s dinner and luncheon we prepared a lemon cheesecake with raspberry coulis and a Chocolate Lush (recipe found on this blog on my 4th of July '09 entry) both were delicious and huge hits with Karen’s guests.

Before I knew it, my time in Nottingham was over and it was time to fly back into the snow. I missed two weeks of beautiful weather in Colorado only to fly back into a winter storm. I don’t have much time to recuperate from my jetlag on this end of my trip either. As I type this the washer and dryer are humming and we are deep into birthday plans for my son Kevin’s 15th tomorrow. Thank goodness that his tastes are simple. A birthday pie or some churros are usually at the top of his wish list which is ok by me. Little does he know that he will also be getting a day off of school so we can stop by the DMV to get his learner’s permit. Let the wild rumpus begin! Oh well, I need some new stories anyway.

My new blog readers from Nottingham will be happy to know that I am a woman of my word and am attaching the recipe for my Herbed Bleu Cheese Dressing. This dressing is the difference between a good salad and a great salad. It is great poured over simple salad greens or even better drizzled over pear slices with crisp bacon crumbles and some glazed pecans.




Herbed Bleu Cheese Dressing

Not only is this a great salad dressing, it is also a wonderful dip for fruit, vegetables and, of course, chicken wings. I prefer making this the night before so the flavors have a chance to marry but if you don’t have the luxury of time, at least one hour will do. If mixture seems a bit too thick, add a small amount of milk at a time until desired consistency is reached. I usually don't endorse name brands but after making this several times in England using different brands, I have to say the brands noted below produced far superior results in my opinion.

4 ounces (113g) bleu cheese crumbles
1 cup (250ml) mayonnaise (I prefer Hellman's)
1/2 cup (125ml) cups buttermilk (In England, I think Sainsbury's is best)
1/2 cup (125ml) double cream or heavy whipping cream
1/2 teaspoon (5ml) garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon (1ml) dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon (1ml) dried or ½ teaspoon (2.5ml) fresh chopped dill
1/2 teaspoon (2.5ml) dried parsley
1/2 teaspoon (2.5ml) freshly and coarsely milled black pepper
1/2 teaspoon (2.5ml) salt
Pinch of ground paprika or cayenne pepper for color and a spark of flavor (optional)

In a medium size bowl, combine all of the ingredients and gently whisk until the mixture is smooth and creamy but still with lumps of bleu cheese. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour or until ready to use. Store unused dressing in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Dressing may be stored for 7 – 10 days, if it lasts that long.

Yield: Approximately 2 cups (500ml)

Glazed Pecans

1 cup pecan quarters
1 tablespoon (15ml) butter
3 tablespoons packed soft brown sugar
2 tablespoons (30ml) water

Place pecans in a small frying pan that has been set over medium high heat. Stirring frequently, dry toast pecans until they are a golden brown and their aroma is released. Add butter and melt, add sugar and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Add water and stir well; cook for 30 seconds stirring. Remove frying pan from the heat and allow nuts to cool in the pan, stirring occasionally.
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