Sugar and Spice and All Things Nice

Like most kids, I was always excited about my birthday, but unlike most kids I was also excited about the rest of the family’s birthdays because Nana would not only send down a present for the person celebrating the birthday, but would also include a poke of sweets (a bag) for each of the other members of the family.  Nana used to go to Mr McDonald’s shop, and I remember visiting it.  There were glass jars upon glass jars of different sweets waiting to be weighed out (usually in 1/4 lbs) and I could never decide what I wanted.  Sadly Mr McDonald moved on a long time ago, and the shop is now a launderette.  Times change, as do tastes.

When we discovered Annie’s Sweet Shop in Letchworth, I was delighted.  There were so many sweets from my childhood and I was that child in a candy shop.  I used to enjoy taking you in there partly because of the memories that seeing those sweets evoked, but the tastes didn’t seem the same.  I tried several of my childhood favourites – sherbet lemons, iced caramels (Grandma’s favourites too), sugar bon bons (classic, lemon and strawberry), dolly mixtures, midget gems – and all fell short of my memories.  The iced caramels were a particular disappointment – I really didn’t remember them as being so sweet.  I persevered though.  I still enjoyed looking at the jars, and each time I hoped that the taste would be as good as I remembered, but it never was.  Until one day when Annie had Scottish tablet on sale.  Tablet, that hard hard Scottish fudge, was never easily available in England, and so whenever I went to Scotland I would buy a bar.  Maybe I never lost the taste for it.  Even when it set my adult fillings on edge, it still tasted of heaven to me.  Annie’s tablet was perfect.

Annie had never heard of my other Scottish favourite – the macaroon bar.  Again it was never easy to find south of the border and so it remained a holiday treat.  I was surprised when Auntie Aileen told me that they were made with mashed potato.  In fact, I didn’t believe her – I thought it was a plot to spoil my enjoyment somehow.  Years later with the advent of the internet, I found out that there was no plot, macaroon bars are in fact made with mashed potato.  Luckily this didn’t spoil my enjoyment of them!  Commercially made macaroon bars aren’t made with potato, by the way, because the shelf life would be too short.

Earlier this year, I heard about Irish Potatos, a Philadelphia sweet made, unsurprisingly, to celebrate St Patrick’s Day.  I learned that they too are based on mashed potato, and I was eager to taste them.  I was thrilled when Jimmy from Philly’s wife, Lisa, made some for us and brought them to NYC.  They were really scrumptious, and Lisa made some more for me this week.  This time I took a photograph before I inhaled them, so that I could share Lisa’s recipe and keep my promise to George of including photographic evidence.  I am told that they are really easy to make – I know that they taste good – so here is Lisa’s recipe for

Irish Potatoes

Ingredients

  • 1 medium potato, peeled
  • 1 tsp butter
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla essence
  • 1 lb / 450 g icing sugar
  • 3 cups / 280 g shredded coconut
  • Ground cinnamon as needed

 

Method

Cook potato, drain and mash.  Measure 1/2 cup (105 g) into a bowl.  Stir in butter and vanilla essence.  Gradually add in icing sugar.  Mix until smooth and stir in coconut.  Roll into walnut-sized balls, and roll in cinnamon.

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Enjoy!

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!

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!

Pigging Out

As I said in my previous post, I spent about five weeks in Fitou this summer.  I enjoyed myself so much that for a couple of weeks I managed to convince myself that I should stay there, not return to New York and somehow stay married.  Clearly I came back but it was tough!  The decision to buy a house in France wasn’t greeted with universal approval by you boys.  There were several comments about how boring it would be spending all our holidays there in the future, but you clearly got over it, and the time that we spend there together, for me, is very special, and this summer was no exception.  Whether we were actively seeking culture in Narbonne on the petit train or visiting the Chateau de Salses, or whether we were flooping by the pool, it was a lot of fun.

We also ate out quite a bit, at local restaurants and we even travelled a bit further afield to Leucate and to Fontjoncouse.  Eating out, for me, has always been a treat and I try to choose restaurants with dishes that I either can’t or don’t cook at home.  I appreciate that occasionally sending out for pizza or an Indian is lovely simply because you don’t have to cook, but I’ve never wanted that to be a regular part of my life.  It wasn’t the norm when I was growing up to go out for meals for anything other than special occasions, and such visits really were a big treat.  Even getting fish and chips was hugely exciting.  The first restaurant I remember visiting was a Chinese restaurant.  In those days, Chinese restaurants always had an English food section, and sad to say I remember ordering from this because I had no idea what the Chinese dishes were.  Grandma once told me that Chinese restaurants were Alastair’s favourite because, although he always ordered fish and chips followed by ice cream, it was the overwhelming excitement of seeing a Chinese person.  Yorkshire, and in fact the UK, wasn’t anything like as racially diverse as it is now.

Papa introduced me to Indian food at the Taj restaurant in York (still there incidentally).  I remember that we shared a keema pilau although I don’t remember what main course I had with it.  I know that Papa started with mulligatawny soup which was a perennial favourite of his.  The joy of sitting in that restaurant with its baroque flocked wallpaper, discussing food with Papa, and having him all to myself is still with me.  When I was about 15, we started eating out once a month at Romanby Court Restaurant (where I later worked), and this was the first time that I remember eating ‘finer’ food.  I felt so grown up, working out what my starter would be, and then asking Grandma or Papa about the main dishes.  Romanby Court always served minestrone soup as well, and this was probably when I finally ate most vegetables.  I learned how I liked to eat steak there (medium rare), and the dessert trolley was to die for with profiteroles and chocolate sauce, millefeuille and crème caramel (one of Grandma’s favourites).

There was no stopping me now!  I moved to Leeds and tasted authentic Chinese food for the first time (also the first time I ate with chopsticks).  I learned that Sweet and Sour Pork wasn’t usually served with the sauce in a polystyrene cup on the side, and I realised what a world of difference there was between the Chinese restaurants with English menus and the real stuff which I adored.  With the move to Brussels, I ate moules et frites (very successful), oysters (less successful but years later I tried them again with a great deal of success), and also my first Greek food (which I know I have mentioned before).

With the move to London and meeting Dad, we started eating out more regularly when budgets allowed, either going out on our own or joining groups of friends.  Suzy and I were living together and we took Andrew for his first Indian food, and to an Italian place in Wimbledon the name of which escapes me, but where Andrew always ordered paglia e fieno, simply because he liked getting two different colours of pasta!  There I tasted my first spaghetti alla carbonara, bought a cookery book so I could recreate it, and you know the rest!  I could continue advancing through my life citing new firsts but I suspect it would get boring, but suffice to say, the joy of trying new foods has never left me, and the excitement of choosing dishes in a restaurant never goes even at my advancing age.  I hope I never become complacent about this, and I am enormously grateful to have been able to live abroad and to travel as much as I have.  Greed has always been a motivating factor for me, though I prefer to think of it now as ‘gastronomic curiosity’.

So I do have a recipe for today, and there is a picture, George, even though you’ve seen it before.  Today’s recipe is Roast Pork Loin with Roast Vegetables and is one of the dishes I cooked in Fitou.  I almost always roast vegetables when the oven is on.  Having frugal parents, I know that you should make good use of your energy.  My favourite roast vegetables are potatoes, cooked in goose fat, but I very much enjoy the taste and colours of roasted aubergines, onions, peppers, courgette and I always add garlic.  These take about 40 mins to cook, and only need to be sprinkled with oil and put into a hot oven; if you’re roasting root vegetables, then you need more oil.

 

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I used a 3 lb rolled boneless pork loin.  I put in on a piece of foil, large enough to wrap round it completely and to fasten tightly.  I salted it well – I didn’t add pepper because Big Andrew was with us, but usually would have done so.  I washed a handful of fresh rosemary and removed the leaves from the stalk, chopped them finely and mixed with about two tablespoons of dried herbes de Provence which were in the kitchen cupboard.  These herbs were sprinkled over the meat, making sure that they were on all sides.

I then wrapped the pork in the foil – it doesn’t have to be snug to the meat, but it does have to be properly closed so that the juices won’t escape – and put it into an oven that was been pre-heated to 180 C/400 F and cooked for about 40 mins.  I then checked that the middle of the meat was cooked, and served.

I put the meat onto an ashet and sliced;  poured the juices from the foil over the top;  surrounded with the roast vegetables and served.

Enjoy!

Summer Dreaming

I am still here.  I lost my motivation for blogging during the summer.  My typing wasn’t helped by having my left arm in plaster, but much travelling on my part, plus visitors for a few weeks, meant that life was pretty exciting and to be honest I didn’t think about my blog.  When eventually I did, it was the eternal ‘good grief, it’s been ages, how will I start again?’ but now George has just texted me to say that I need to start again and I need pictures.  So here I go.

Since I wrote my last blog, I have

IMG_0002been to Fitou where Daisy was delighted to find that her favourite dessert of chocolat moelleux was still on the menu at Le Moulin de Fitou.  She was less happy when she returned a couple of weeks later and they’d taken it off the menu…..

IMG_0048drunk wine with Tom at the Fête de Fitou

IMG_0076eaten breakfast with Tom at Lagrasse, a mediaeval town about 40 mins drive from Fitou while Daisy developed chicken pox

IMG_0142cooked roast pork loin with roast vegetables in Fitou for Dad, Suzy, Andrew, Nico, Lucy, Tom and Daisy

IMG_1215paddled with George in the Atlantic at Coney Island

IMG_1260eaten Haitian food with Dad, John, Jackie and Edie at Tap Tap in South Beach, Miami

IMG_1276bought cheese at the greatest cheese shop I have found so far in the USA – Di Bruno Brothers in Philadelphia

IMG_1324been treated to afternoon tea by Daisy at the Chateau Laurier Hotel in Ottawa, while Dad and I renewed our US visas and she was visiting her sister (apologies for the photo, Daisy – it’s the only one I took)

IMG_0178treated Auntie Aileen to her first ever burger at the coffee shop at the Bannockburn Visitors’ Centre – this was the aptly named Bruce Burger

DSCN4559eaten Hula Pie with Katie, Carole and Richard at Duke’s Canoe Shop in Kaua’i, Hawaii

IMG_1393and watched someone searching through the recycling for drinks cans and plastic bottles to get the deposit money back in the torrential rain last night in New York City.

So there’s no recipe today, but plenty of photos that show you what I’ve been doing!

Enjoy!

Happy 4th, a day late

You may have noticed that I haven’t posted for a while.  Basically I needed some time away from the blog.  I had to think about what I really wanted to write about and how I wanted it to look.  I was aided in my break by an operation on my left thumb.  My trapezium bone has been removed and some excess ligament has been put in instead.  Hopefully the pain I was experiencing because of two bones rubbing together will no longer be there and, once my right thumb is sorted as well, I may even be able to play the violin again.  In the meantime, I am very fed up with the cast and have a love-hate relationship with it.  I recognise the necessity for it, but it doesn’t mean that the smelly, dirty thing which can’t get wet is welcome!  Luckily it gets changed on Monday and will be lovely again for a couple of days.  So three months of reflection and I have decided to change nothing!  My main aim with this blog has always been to give family recipes to you boys, and any other readers have just been a bonus.  There you go then – three months of thinking and the only thing that’s changed is WordPress.com.  I see that I can now write blogs in advance and schedule them to upload at a certain point which will be great, but as I write I am not sure how to include photos any more, which is sad because I have take quite a few in anticipation of re-starting my blog.  I have now managed to attach a photo but it isn’t in with the text as it used to be and I only seem to be able to include one photo…..

Yesterday was July 4th, and we had a small party of people over to watch the Macy’s fireworks extravaganza over the Brooklyn Bridge.  They were excellent, the best I’ve seen since we’ve been here in NYC.  The menu included the very traditional – hot dogs, chicken, cole slaw, Junior’s cheesecake, Magnolia Bakery cupcakes and chocolate chip cookies.  It also included our now traditional Buffalo Prawns with Blue Cheese Dressing.  I love chicken, but am not a fan of eating sticky food with my fingers, or pulling meat off bones with my teeth, so the prawns give me the taste but none of the hassle.  My original recipe came from Good Housekeeping magazine but I have changed it.   This is how I made it yesterday.

Hot Buffalo Prawns with celery sticks and blue cheese dip – Ingredients

 (Serves 6)

  • Zest of 1 lemon
  • 2 tbsp cider vinegar
  • 1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 tbsp paprika
  • 2 tsp celery salt
  • 6 tbsp hot sauce – I used Cholula Chili Garlic sauce
  • 4 tbsp clear honey
  • 700g large peeled uncooked prawns
  • Olive oil
  • 1 head of celery, cut into baton

Blue Cheese Dip

  • 150 g sour cream
  • 5 tbsp mayonnaise
  • 170g crumbled blue cheese
  • 2 tsp white wine vinegar
  • 1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce

Method

Mix together the lemon zest, cider vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, paprika, salt, hot sauce and honey.  Pour half of the sauce over the prawns and mix well.  Put the prawns onto skewers.

Mix together all the Blue Cheese Dip ingredients.  Season and mix well.  Put into a serving bowl.  Put the celery sticks nearby.  Put the remaining sauce into a bowl

Grill the prawns for one minute on each side and serve with the dip, sauce and celery.

 

 

Enjoy!