Thoughts

Hopefully this blog will upload automatically on Saturday when Dad and I will be driving from Philly to Chevy Chase, to spend the second part of the weekend with our friends from Denver.  I thought Chevy Chase was a person until we received that invitation, so with that thought in mind I will let you enjoy these signs that I found on various wanderings in this fair country, and which amused me.

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Seen in Tribeca

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I thought the character in this looked the cartoon Spy vs. Spy from Mad magazine

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Could not believe this restaurant in Las Vegas

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Las Vegas

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Las Vegas

Enjoy!

‘You Can Choose Your Friends’

I grew up watching 1940s US films in black and white, and I knew that on Thanksgiving people sat around the dining table, some wearing Pilgrim costumes, and re-enacted the story of that first Thanksgiving when the Native Americans and the settlers joined together to give thanks for the harvest.  Imagine my disappointment that this no longer happens – if indeed it ever did.  Even as I walked through the door last year in Philadelphia, a tiny bit of me was still hoping that one of the kids would be wearing a 17th century hat.  Tomorrow is Thanksgiving and it’s also Dad’s birthday.  He’s jolly happy that the office is going to be closed, and even happier that it won’t re-open until Monday.  It’s a first (and probably last) for him to have a national holiday on his birthday, and a chance to recover the next day.

Pilgrim re-enactments and latent disappointment aside, I have been thinking a lot about the meaning of Thanksgiving.  I was sure that this was a truly American holiday so I was disappointed to learn that in fact Thanksgiving travelled to the USA from the UK with those first settlers.  Days of Fasting and Thanksgiving had been created by the Protestants/Puritans to replace the Catholic saints and feast days.  Thanksgiving Days were declared after times of national joy or crisis – according to wikipedia, 5th November was declared a day of Thanksgiving after the failure of the Gunpowder Plot.  Given how that celebration has evolved over the years, I suppose I can’t be upset that the US Thanksgiving doesn’t include any re-enactments any more!   The tradition of fasting and thanksgiving was brought over to New England, and the original Thanksgiving is usually dated to 1621 as thanks for a good harvest.  Nowadays Thanksgiving centers around a meal with family and friends.   We arrived in NYC in October 2011 and we didn’t think we would know anyone in time to score an invite, and so we made plans to go to Montreal for the long holiday.  Ten days before the holiday, I received a text from Jimmy in Philly asking if we had plans.  As many of you know, Jimmy and I met online on a Springsteen forum where we then talked about everything but Springsteen.  In November 2011, I hadn’t yet met Jimmy in person, and his invite made me cry – I thought and still think it was extraordinarily kind of him to ask us to join his family for this celebration.

Everyone who knows me knows that I am hyper-organised about Christmas and probably know who will be with us by the middle of August, so when Jimmy hadn’t asked us by August 2012, we made plans to go to Niagara Falls.  Again Jimmy asked us to join his family and again it was too late.  Definitely mea culpa.  In January 2013, I asked Jimmy if we could join him for Thanksgiving later that year, and that’s the end of that story!  So for me, with no family here, Thanksgiving has become about friendship and that very generous invite from Jimmy in 2011.  My father often said that you can choose your friends but that you can’t choose your relatives, and he was right.   True friends are rare and should be treasured.   ‘Friend’ for me is not one of 200 Facebook people I interact with semi-regularly, but someone who knows me, likes me despite knowing me, and will be there if I need them.

Despite my Facebook comment, the internet redefined friendship for me.  In 2001, George had become very interested in Springsteen and asked me questions about him, most of which I couldn’t answer.  You see, although I liked his music I really was a very casual fan!  In searching for the answers I found a forum where a lady in Morpeth made me laugh when I needed to laugh.  I had found that board at a very difficult time in my life – Grandma was dying and then died, and Dad was working on one of the most demanding jobs of his life and was rarely home.  I felt isolated and alone and I searched the internet.  I joined the forum and virtually met many people discussing Springsteen and his music, and then, with some of those people, I shared details of my life, and my interests apart from Springsteen.  From that large board, smaller groups developed but without it there would have been no Matt living with us; no Cindy here in NYC introducing us to her friends; no Jewels taking us on a road trip around Arizona; no Lori in Florida; not to mention Jimmy in Philly – I could go on but I won’t.  When you add this disparate group to the friends I met in more conventional ways, I am blessed.

Families on the other hand are complicated.  Shared blood doesn’t always mean shared love or even liking one another very much.  In many homes, lack of communication, over familiarity, jealousy and straightforward stupidity inject unnecessary emotions into every day life.  The best thing I have learned as I have grown up is that just as it is okay for me not to like someone, I am absolutely comfortable with not being liked.  It’s awkward when that person is related to you, but sometimes relationships need to be kept at arm’s length for you to be content.  And that’s absolutely fine.

Well, what an odd turn this has taken!  From Thanksgiving to Friendship to Downright Depressing!  Today’s recipe is something I made last week and continues the orange theme of Thanksgiving.  It is cold here, and of course my brain turned to thoughts of soup.  This is easy, tasty and filling which is great as a starter or as a lunch or as dinner with some splendid croutons.  It is

Roast Butternut Squash Soup

Ingredients

  • One butternut squash, cut in half, and then each half cut into eight slices – all seeds removed
  • Olive oil
  • Fresh thyme – at least 16 sprigs
  • Half an onion
  • One clove garlic, peeled, crushed and chopped
  • Stock – I used vegetable from a stock cube
  • 3 tbsp fresh coriander / cilantro

Method

Preheat the oven to 190 C / 375 F.

Put the squash in a roasting pan and drizzle with olive oil.  Sprinkle the thyme over – try to get it on the squash if possible.   Put in the oven and roast.  Before last week, I would have told you not to let it get too brown, but I wasn’t concentrating and this is what happened to my squash

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Do not despair, it was even better charred.  The flavour was a rich caramel.  If you don’t believe me, cook yours until it is as brown as you are comfortable, remove from the oven and allow to cool.

Soften the garlic in some olive oil and then add the onion.  While this is cooking over a low heat, remove the skin from the squash and chop.  When onion is opaque, add the squash and cook for about a minute.

Add water.  I added about a liter / 34 fl oz, but remember you can always add more if it’s too thick at the end.  Add your stock cubes, and cook for about 25 mins.  When cooked, add the chopped coriander.

Allow to cool.  Liquidise, check for seasoning and serve.  I ground black pepper on top because I thought it would look pretty.

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It did!  Enjoy!

The True American Holiday

Thursday is Thanksgiving, the only holiday which seems to be celebrated by all Americans and which is truly and originally American.  We will be in Philadelphia with friends and their wider families, and very excited about it we are too.  As the autumnal decorations merged into Thanksgiving, I seem to have been surrounded by orange and pumpkins for a long time.   Pumpkin foods abound, from the obvious – cakes, cookies and cheesecakes – to the less obvious (to me, at least), like beer.  I have a lager-based pumpkin beer in the fridge, and Matt tried a pumpkin porter when we were in Amarillo.  Both are very pleasant, but despite having lived in Belgium and having drunk their fruit beers, like Kriek and Lambic, I was still surprised to find pumpkin being an ingredient of beer.

I have never liked cooking pumpkins much from fresh.  I find them very hard to cut, and on one occasion my very sharp Chinese chopper got stuck as I tried to halve one.  I do like the taste though, and was thrilled when I did a baking course during the summer, and was told that no-one, not even the top chefs, make pumpkin puree from scratch.  Everyone buys it ready made.  Hurrah!  Guilt gone out the window!  But before I carry on, did you know that tinned pumpkin is in fact tinned squash?  It seems even the manufacturers find squash easier to deal with than pumpkin, and the USDA is rather unclear with its description saying, “The canned product prepared from clean, sound, properly matured, golden fleshed, firm shelled, sweet varieties of either pumpkins and squashes by washing, stemming, cutting, steaming and reducing to a pulp.”  Hah!

I had three pastry cases in the freezer and I knew they had to be used up soon, so I decided to try my hand at a US classic recipe, Pumpkin Pie.  I searched the innerwebs but found that many of the recipes seemed to be too sweet.  So, shock, horror, I made up my own using bits and bobs of several recipes that I read, and then incorporated a suggestion made by an American friend.   I thought the result was great so here is Caroline’s Pumpkin Pie.

Caroline’s Pumpkin Pie

(Makes 2 x 9-inch pies)

Ingredients

  • 2 whole eggs
  • 65 g sugar – I used golden caster, but would like to try it with a darker sugar
  • 3 tbsp maple syrup
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 tin, 15 oz / 425 g pumpkin puree
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ginger
  • 1/4 tsp fresh ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp mixed spice
  • 1/4 tsp ground black pepper – my friend’s recommendation but can be omitted if Big Andrew is eating with you
  • 80 ml half and half cream – this what I used here, I think single cream would be the best in the UK

Method

Beat together all the ingredients until smooth.  (I made double the recipe because I had three six-inch pie crusts, but I filled them all, and had some mixture left over.  So I greased a glass pie dish with butter and put the balance in there as a pumpkin pudding.)   Fill the pie crusts and put into an oven which has been pre-warmed to 190 C / 375 F.  Cook for 45 mins and then check.  You don’t want the filling to be too solid because it carries on cooking after removal from the oven.  Mine took about 55 mins for the pies and 25 mins for the pudding.  My pies were much deeper than your average pumpkin pie.

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On reflection, I should have smoothed the tops, but they tasted really really good and I will make them again.  The pudding was a particular success.

Enjoy!

King of the Road

If you are related to me, in the past few days you will have been bombarded by images and updates on Facebook and Instagram of a trip I took with Matt, our semi-adopted Australian son.  Matt’s real mother celebrated an auspicious birthday on 15th November, and we were invited to join her in Las Vegas, a city we hadn’t visited before.  For reasons which only Matt remembers now, it was decided that Matt and I would drive to Vegas from New York City, and after an overnight visit to friends in Philadelphia, we set off on Sunday, 9th November.  We drove through 13 states in total, drove 2,816 miles (roughly 4,500 km), three time zones, several temperature changes, and arrived at the airport on the appointed day, at the appointed time!  It was a tremendous adventure and one I am thrilled to have had.   Tom told me that I am no longer allowed to discuss this trip and so I will simply post some previously unseen highlights and memories, and keep my mouth tightly closed – maybe.

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Birds flocking in western Tennessee as they start their migration

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Windmill in the panhandle of Texas

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Crossing the Mighty Mississippi into Arkansas

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The Grand Canyon

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Looking down from the Hoover Dam at the Colorado River

At the risk of upsetting Tom, let me just say that I will never forget the autumn colours of Virginia and Tennessee; the utter flatness of Arkansas between West Memphis and Little Rock; the dead untouched pig on the highway somewhere in Tennessee; the flat mesas of New Mexico; the drive from Flagstaff to Las Vegas; and the utter superficiality of Las Vegas.

I’m back in New York City now and it took a while but I’m finally back on the same time zone as everyone else.  Matt has gone back to London, and life is back to normal for all of four days until Thanksgiving.   When we got back here, I only wanted to eat at home.  I was very tired of eating out, but Matt of course was still on holiday.  So I decided to spoil him.  I had bought some blue corn flour in New Mexico and so made pancakes for him two (2) [TWO] mornings running.  It won’t happen again.  It required a degree of organisation that doesn’t come naturally to me first thing in the morning.  On the second morning, I even made the batter before I went to gym – seriously, that cannot happen every morning without a breakdown.   I don’t think that blue corn flour is easily available in the UK, but apart from the colour it was the nuttiness of the pancakes which was so appealing.  I think, therefore, that corn meal would work just as well.  Anyway, I followed a recipe on the first day, but it didn’t work the way I wanted because the batter was too thick.  The second day, I changed the recipe and the pancakes were much much nicer.   I used a US recipe and so was using cups.  I don’t like using volumetric measures because I find them too imprecise.  I have therefore converted the recipe to grams, but have left the cup measurements as well.  These are of course imperial cups.

Blue Corn Pancakes

(Makes 6 large pancakes)

Ingredients

  • 1.1/4 cups / 160 g plain flour
  • 1 cup / 130 g blue corn flour (or whatever other flour you like.  Italian polenta is cornmeal)
  • 2 tbsp / 30 g sugar
  • 1 tsp / 5 g salt
  • 2 tbsp / 30 g baking powder
  • 1 cup / 240 ml milk
  • 1.1/2 cups / 360 ml buttermilk
  • 8 oz / 250 g butter, melted
  • 2 large eggs

Method

Mix together the dry ingredients.

Mix together the wet ingredients.

Combine the two mixes but don’t over beat.  The batter should be slightly lumpy.  Leave for half an hour.  It will rise a surprising amount so make sure that your bowl is large.

I put a small amount of coconut oil in a small frying pan, added a ladle of mixture and cooked the pancakes.  I used coconut oil because the only other oil I had was olive oil and I knew that wouldn’t work, but the coconut oil worked so well that I’ll definitely use it in the future.  The pan was on a medium heat.

Sprinkle with icing sugar and serve with maple syrup.

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 Bubbles start to form as the base cooks – when there are bubbles all over the surface, turn the pancake

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These are my day one pancakes – the mixture was far too thick.

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These are my day two pancakes – much better consistency, but too much icing sugar!

Enjoy!

Miracles*

The weather here is very strange at the moment.  From Monday to Thursday last week, I walked on average 20,000 steps per day as I wandered around the city with a friend visiting from London.  Jumpers had to be tied round our waists, and we were in t-shirts, wearing sunglasses, and, indeed, on Thursday afternoon we sat outside, having a glass of wine and enjoying the sun.  All changed on Friday with heavy rain; Saturday, more rain and a distinct drop in temperature; yesterday (Sunday), the temperature was 3 deg as we went to bed and Dad even put the heating on for a while.  The temperature is currently 4 deg, the sun is shining and I see that we will be back up to 18 deg tomorrow.  It’s November and so I am not complaining, I am just trying to show you how confused my brain has been with regard to what to cook.  We have a guest coming for dinner tonight, and since it was so cold yesterday I made a pot of Spicy Tomato Soup (https://chinupdeepbreaths.com/2013/11/27/grow-old-along-with-me-the-best-is-yet-to-come/).  I’m not sure it will be necessary today to warm our toes, but it tastes great even though I say it myself, and it is the most glorious deep red.  I used Belazu Rose Harissa Paste and I think it has added an extra something.   We have a friend arriving tomorrow who will be with us for a few days and, as I shopped yesterday, I was almost cross-eyed trying to work out what would be suitable in these unstable temperatures.  I came to a decision and as I was walking home I was able to appreciate this sign.

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I sometimes think that I am a strange cook – on the one hand, I am avidly interested in trying new recipes; on the other, I have favourite recipes to which I am ridiculously loyal.  One of my absolute favourites foods (as mentioned here – https://chinupdeepbreaths.com/2013/04/18/one-recipe-two-outcomes/) is the meatball, and the recipe on that page is my absolute go to.  Yesterday though, I decided to do something different, and jolly pleased I am too with the outcome.  I haven’t thought of a snappy name so here is the recipe for Different Meatballs

Different Meatballs

Ingredients

  • 2 cloved garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 450 g/1 lb minced veal
  • 450 g/1 b minced beef – I used 5% fat
  • 8 rashers of smoked streaky bacon
  • 50 g/2 oz breadcrumbs – I used Panko ready bought
  • 2 large eggs
  • 4 tbsp chopped fresh parsley – I used flat leaf
  • Ground black pepper
  • 1 tsp salt
  • Olive oil

Method

  • Soften the garlic and the onion in a small amount of olive oil – don’t burn.
  • Finely chop the bacon.  If I’d been in London, I’d have used the meat mincer, but US bacon is very fatty and I think it was better to chop it.  Mix together the three meats.
  • Add the breadcrumbs, parsley, onion, garlic and eggs – season.  I am not very good at seasoning meatballs and so I tend to make a little one and cook it to check that I haven’t under salted.   (That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it).
  • Cover mixture and put in the fridge.  My mixture was left overnight.  It is much easier to shape the mixture when it’s cold.  If you have to shape when it’s warmer, wet your hands.
  • I made the meatballs about the size of a golf ball – I got 32 (excluding the extra couple I made to check for seasoning).  Fry in olive oil – browning on all sides.  The danger with meatballs is that the outside is brown and the inside still raw.  Put the meatballs into oil over a medium-high heat  Don’t overload the frying pan.  When browned on all sides, turn down the heat so that the inside can cook.
  • I am planning to serve these with tzatziki and salad, but you could put them in an oven-proof dish, cover with the contents of a tin of chopped tomatoes and bake in the oven.  Bacon fat will flavour the tomato sauce so I don’t think I’d add anything else.

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* The title came from Lemony Snicket, The Carnivorous Carnival – “Miracles are like meatballs, because nobody can exactly agree on what they are made of, where they come from, or how often they should appear.”

Enjoy!