February 3, 2010
Brussels Sprouts Braised in Red Wine with Bacon and Lentils

The Observer Food Monthly recently ran a series of articles addressing the somewhat frivolous question of what do celebrity food writers or chefs eat when they are cooking only for themselves? What is special about solitary meals? It is, after all, the dead season of food writing: not many sexy vegetables are in season, they've finished telling us what wonderful dishes we can make for the holidays and what frugal healthy ones we can prepare to make up for the holidays. And it IS interesting in voyeuristic kind of way. You can get a holier-than-thou feeling when you realize that three-star Michelin chefs sometimes eat standing over the kitchen sink too. In the end, most of the confessions fell into two categories: simple snack food that wouldn't usually be considered a proper meal, and experimental dishes.

And so I thought of the article earlier this week when I was making my solitary meal. Like the others, my meals on my own tend to be snack-like (a big bowl of buttery salted popcorn, cheese and crackers, smoked oysters on Triscuits, heaven help me) or else they involve experimenting with some ingredient from my CSA vegetable box that I know the rest of the family won't eat. Like Brussels sprouts. (When I first met the Critic, he insisted that we make Brussels sprouts at Christmas, though he refused to eat more than one. Since then, he has dropped that senseless idealism and we get by with only four vegetables on the Christmas table.)

Usually, these solitary dinners made of unpopular vegetables are tasty enough, but nothing to write home about - nothing worth writing about here. And then, every once in a while, I stumble upon something rather good. As I did this week. If you like Brussels sprouts, I think you'll love it. If you don't, you might just change your mind. It's a meal in a bowl: healthy, hearty and just plain good. Looking back after I finished it, I toyed with the idea of adding a few herbs (thyme, for example) to improve it. But in the end, I am not sure it needs it. Really good bacon is essential - the slices I had were thick and had been cured a good long time to give a nice dry texture. And don't cook the sprouts too long or they will smell unappetizing, get soggy and put you off forever. As soon as they turn bright green you should test one for tenderness and think about removing them from the heat.

I would suggest you use this dish to convince sprout-haters that they can be delicious. But then it would no longer be the perfect solitary dinner. And it was so good that I'm hoping the sprouts will still be in season when my next box arrives!

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Posted by Meg in Sussex at 3:34 PM | Comments (192)
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December 14, 2009
Menu for Hope 6

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'Tis the season for giving! And while we are all busy running around finding the perfect gift for our families and friends, Pim has again been busy preparing the sixth annual Menu for Hope. What is Menu for Hope, you ask? Well, clearly you've been living under a rock, because last year Menu for hope raised a whopping $92,000 for the United Nations World Programme's Purchase for Progress program, which assists low-income farmers to raise crops and support their local economies. The idea is very simple and I've pinched the explanation directly from Pim:

Each December, food bloggers from all over the world join the campaign by offering a delectable array of food-related prizes for the Menu for Hope raffle. Anyone – and that means you too - can buy raffle tickets to bid on these prizes. For every $10 donated, you earn one virtual raffle ticket to bid on a prize of their choice. At the end of the two-week campaign, the raffle tickets are drawn and the results announced on Chez Pim.

And to that end, Too Many Chefs is delighted contribute in a small way with a basket of goods you can bid to win. We are offering a Taste of Sussex in the form of jams, pickles and honey. The winner of our bid item will receive: a jar of apple butter and a jar of pear butter (recipes courtesy of Elise's Simply Recipes), a jar of spiced apple sauce, a large jar of spicy pickled onions and a large jar of vegetarian mincemeat, a jar of spicy salsa, marinated roasted red peppers (again recipe courtesy of Elise), a small jar of unpasteurized, unfiltered and utterly delicious honey from a local farm and a jar of ginger and rhubarb jam, also from a Sussex farm. To top it off, we are throwing in a tea towel illustrated with the cultural sites of Plumpton, East Sussex. Well, actually it shows every building that isn't a house or a school, really. But it's classy nonetheless.

To make a donation and buy a raffle ticket for this basket of goodies, just go to the Menu for Hope 6 Donation page and enter the code EU20. The more tickets you buy, the better your chances of winning - and the more hungry families you will help! I will ship this anywhere in the world, so all bids are welcome!

And if you'd like to see some of the other fantastic items on offer, you can browse by region at the following sites:

Europe (hosted by David Lebovitz)
Asia Pacific (hosted by Ed of Tomatom)
USA: East Coast (hosted by Helen of Tartelette)
USA: West Coast (hosted by Shauna of Gluten Free Girl)
Canada (hosted by Tara of Seven Spoons)
Wine items (hosted by Vinography)

For more details on the event, do visit Pim's site and feel free to post any questions on our item in the comments below. Happy giving everyone!

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 4:09 AM | Comments (22)
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December 7, 2009
My Waldorf Salad: a new twist on an old classic

waldorfsalad.jpgCeleriac is a problematic vegetable. It's not very pretty. And although it has a subtle celery flavor, it is easily overpowered by other flavors. Despite many recipes floating around for mashed celeriac, its texture really doesn't lend itself well to mashing. And subtle can easily fade into "dull" if you aren't careful. The classic French treatment is a remoulade, i.e. a kind of a celariac coleslaw. It's not unpleasant, but it lacks the crunchiness of a good coleslaw and rarely has enough pepper for my taste. So what do you do when it turns up in your CSA box with irritating frequency? I have mashed it. I have made a gratin. I have paired it with beans for a hearty soup. But I still felt I was missing the poor vegetable's potential somehow.

And then I had a bit of an epiphany. Lunching with a friend recently, I tasted the Waldorf salad that she'd bought. Until then, my knowledge of the great Waldorf Salad was confined to laughing at the Waldorf Salad episode of Fawlty Towers and paging through the 1938 edition of The American Woman's Cookbook, which I inherited from my grandmother. I thought the idea of mixing mayonnaise and apple was faintly disgusting and best avoided. And yet...when I finally tasted the supermarket generic salad that she'd bought, I found I liked it. The flavor combinations worked just as well as you would expect in a recipe that has stood the test of 110 years' time. And so I thought of my humble celeriac, waiting in my veg box at home. Celeriac Waldorf Salad. Perfect.

And it is. Crunchy and savory and just a bit sweet, it's a very satisfying and reasonably healthy lunch. I have to admit, though, that I'm not as much of a genius as I thought I was when I first came up with the idea of using celeriac instead of actual celery in a Waldorf Salad. A quick web search revealed that I was not the first to come up with the idea by far. But that does not make it a bad idea - far from it! So here is my version, coming in at a bare 2 WeightWatchers points per serving.

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Posted by Meg in Sussex at 5:54 AM | Comments (51)
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November 26, 2009
Cracking the Cranberry Roll Code

cranberryroll.jpgAs I write this, cooks in the U.S. are waking up and facing a full day of Thanksgiving fun: baking and cooking and gossiping with family and friends, looking forward to a feast. Living outside the US, I don't think I've cooked a Thanksgiving feast on the actual day in, well, 17 or 18 years. This year was no exception: we had our bird last Friday, before the Critic flew off for meetings in Tobago. (It's a hard life he leads.) We enjoyed a lovely bird from a local farm, with cornbread stuffing (each year the recipe is getting closer to perfect), bags of gravy and creamed corn. And cranberry rolls. There are always cranberry rolls. However, I have to say that in the interest of saving time, I committed sacrilege. I used a bread machine. And the really scary part? It worked better than when I've made the dough by hand. Yes, this is no compliment to me as a baker. But yes, I will be doing it again. And I will also now know that when I am making the dough by hand, I should go easy on the flour. Because this is the crux of the matter: in the past I have always used much more flour than the original recipe called for. When you are kneading the dough by hand, it tends to stick to your hands and so you reach for the flour bin. When it's in a non-stick machine, you don't. The recipe calls for 4-5 cups of flour; I put in precisely 4 1/2 cups. And when I turned it out to punch it down and form the rolls, I kneaded in no more than half a cup more. The rolls were light and pillowy and just plain heaven with a dollop of cranberry sauce. So if you are in a hurry this Thanksgiving morning but happen to have a bread machine, I highly recommend you give this recipe a spin. Your taste buds will thank you, as will your friends and family. I just took a couple dozen to my youngest son's nursery and introduced the children and staff there to them and came away with far fewer than I expected. Actually, the best compliment is this: of the children who were willing to try the rolls (toddlers are extremely suspicious of unknown food) only one left any roll on her plate. And oddly enough, it was the cranberry filling - and her mother snatched it up and ate it for her!

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! We have much to be thankful for this year including (but not limited to by any means): good health, good friends, good food, a President and first family we can look up to and be proud of, money in the bank and people who still come back and read this blog, however slow I am to post theses days. Thank you all!

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Posted by Meg in Sussex at 8:56 AM | Comments (39)
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October 17, 2009
Spicy Tomato Salsa

salsa2.jpgHave you heard of the "canvolution"? Judging by some of my favorite blogs, it seems to be sweeping the food world at the moment, at least in the U.S. For some of us, it's an indulgence in the latest new fun-thing-to-do-with-food. For some, it hearkens back to memories of how our parents or grandparents lived. For some, it's an environmental decisions: buying food at its prime and preserving it means less need to ship it from far away climes or force it out of season in energy-guzzling greenhouses. And for me, it's all these things. When I first read Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I had a real epiphany: I could preserve food in small quantities, and for the most part with equipment I already owned. Yes, I would need to buy some canning jars and freezer bags. But by judiciously choosing which vegetables to preserve and how, I could do a great deal to reduce my carbon footprint. Initially, this just meant flipping through my cookbooks and consulting with the organic farmer who supplies my vegetable box each week. We had a very symbiotic relationship this summer, with me offering to take off her hands any vegetables for which supply was overtaking demand. She threw in a lot of vegetables for free, too, as a perk. As a result, I have canned apricot jam, tomato sauce, tomato paste, chopped tomatoes, marinated peppers and pickled onions. In the freezer, I have bags of zucchini, shelled broad beans, runner beans, French beans, caramelized tomatoes, corn and grilled eggplant slices. However, one thing you may notice in this list is that, with the exception of the pickled onions, nearly everything is simply the preservation of a one-ingredient item. And then I suddenly had another realization: instead of buying mediocre Old El Paso salsa for my Tex-Mex cravings, I could make and can my own salsa. Surely the acidity of the tomatoes, combined with a dose of citrus juice, would overcome the need for pressure canning, even if I did use non acidic ingredients such as garlic, onions and peppers? And a little web research revealed it would. All I needed to do was pick my recipe.

In the end, I decided to work with a recipe from the New Mexico State University website. I don't know why so many universities seem to publish books and online recipes for canning, perhaps the combination of young energetic people and scientists? In any case, this page has a half dozen fantastic recipes. A word of caution: whenever I find a recipe - in a book or on the web - I have a tendency to tweak it to my taste. This is a dangerous practice if you are canning, because a slight decrease in the acidity of the contents of the jar can have serious, sometimes fatal, repercussions. The most I am willing to depart from a recipe of this sort is to add an extra clove of garlic, and even then I compensate by adding a few tablespoons of lime juice. It is much, much better to be safe than sorry. If you really want to go wild and make changes, I suggest you invest in a pressure cooker and can the serious way.

For myself, I much prefer recipes that only require boiling in the £.50 gargantuan iron pot I picked up at a jumble sale a few weeks ago. That has got to be one of the best investments in my cooking life. (Though I really do need a round cooling rack of 22-23 cm to put in the bottom of it to fully utilize its surface area. Anyone have a suggestion?)

The recipe I chose made a wonderful versatile sauce. How hot it will turn out will of course depend on the peppers you use, but mine came out just hot enough to be interesting but not so hot that you reach for a cold beer before you've swallowed. I will be cracking open a jar to enjoy with tortilla chips, adding a jar to beans to kick-start a chili con carne and even using it for a quick and tasty last minute dinner. Last night, I set some brown rice boiling, sautéed a chopped onion in a little olive oil, added chopped chicken breast and about 150 g frozen zucchini, covered it with a jar of salsa and simmered until the rice was done. With a grating of low-fat cheddar and a spoonful of low-fat sour cream, it made a hearty, delicious dinner at only 8 WeightWatchers points.

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Posted by Meg in Sussex at 4:47 AM | Comments (21)
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October 10, 2009
Salade des Landes Anglaises

chickenliverlunch.jpgOne of the many benefits of living in a "socialist" (horror!) country like France is that workers are genuinely well looked after. Admittedly, this is less of a bonus from an employer's point of view, especially when coupled with that nasty tendency to strike and the near impossibility of firing an incompetent employee. However, if you are an employee - competent or not - the benefits are obvious. A minimum of five weeks of holiday every year, in addition to a slew of public holidays. Great unemployment benefits should the impossible occur and you find yourself out of work. A government agency whose sole purpose is to help you find a job, for free. And in addition, companies are obliged to either provide a cafeteria which supplies cheap, healthy food or give their employees tickets restos, lunch vouchers that can be exchanged for food in nearly every restaurant in the city and many supermarkets too. Who says there's no such thing as a free lunch? I was woefully unaware of this issue for the first ten years I lived in Paris for the simple reason that the international organisation where I worked had a snack bar, a cafeteria and a restaurant on site. When I went to work for a French law firm near the Champs-Elysées, I was surprised and delighted to find that in addition to my salary, I would benefit from just under nine euros for lunch every day, rain or shine. Admittedly, food around the Champs is not cheap and several of my colleagues complained that it simply wasn't enough for a "proper" meal. But for an American who was happy with a nice salad or sandwich, it was plenty. I generally ended up with a dozen or more of them left at the end of the year, which I happily distributed to the homeless population of Paris. They were happy to have such a generous donation; I was happy knowing that they would have to use it to buy food. Win-Win.

I spent the first few weeks exploring the neighborhood around my office, scoping out the cafés with the best service and cheapest good food. And I found my local - complete with a nice grumpy waiter who looked out for regulars like a trouper - on the avenue FDR. I won't bother giving the address here, because the last time I was there it had changed beyond recognition and my favorite grumpy waiter was gone. But for the two years I worked in the neighborhood, I was there at least a couple of times a week. And at least once a week - until I got pregnant* - I had the World's Best Salad: la Salade des Landes. Seriously, my mouth is watering just thinking about it. Imagine a mixture of tender lettuce leaves tenderly dressed with a tangy, very mustardy vinaigrette. Add sweet tomatoes. Then add meaty gésiers confits (preserved gizzards - trust me, they are heaven on a plate and not at all gamey) and magret de canard (smoked duck breast). Then add two thick slabs of foie gras and hot toast. All for just under nine euros. Is it any wonder I loved that place? I don't miss Paris often, but I do feel a pang when I remember those tranquil (one hour) lunches with no children pulling on my sleeve or running wild, just a good book and a delicious salad for company. Sigh. Not that I don't love my harum-scarum boys, mind you, but I'd love a tranquil lunch break sometimes.

And on that note, this lovely salad was consumed to the sound of Tom and Jerry on the computer, two year old shrieks and mayhem. But it was still delicious. No foie gras, mind you, but then again I'm on a diet nowadays. Weight watchers points: 2. Win-win.

*A note for any pregnant visitors to France: French people, including restaurant workers, have what many Americans would consider a somewhat cavalier attitude about food safety issues. Eggs are not refrigerated in supermarkets and salads are - frequently - cut with the same knife that just finished filleting a chicken breast. On the same unwashed chopping board. For this reason, doctors in France advise pregnant women not to eat salads in restaurants, for fear of toxoplasmosis or salmonella. At home, you can ensure that the lettuce is well washed and my doctor even advised soaking it for 15 minutes in a water to which a tablespoon of vinegar had been added.

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Posted by Meg in Sussex at 10:09 AM | Comments (32)
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October 2, 2009
An English Salade Niçoise

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I've written a bit lately (okay, droned on) about the problems posed by a prolific zucchini plant. However, here in England, there is a larger problem. Runner beans. My understanding is that these lovely plants were originally cultivated by the British for their pretty red flowers. Then one day someone discovered the beans were just about edible. Fast forward a couple hundred years and you have the most popular vegetable for English amateur gardeners. It's easy to see why: like the zucchini, it is almost impossible to mess up. I bought a half dozen plants myself earlier this year and planted them uncomfortably close in pots. I gave them minimal sunshine (because we are renting, I have placed my container garden on the side of the house that has a bit of pavement, to save the grass) and supports that were about three feet too short. And I had so many beans that I ended up freezing quite a few bags. And they are still arriving each week in my box from the local organic farm. I like beans. But even I am struggling a bit to use them all up before the next lot arrives.

So today's lunch was my way of finishing up the runner beans from last week's box before my delivery arrives this afternoon - no doubt with another portion of runner beans. It was filling, surprisingly tasty and a great use for runner beans, a bit like a pared down salad niçoise. And unlike a true salade niçoise, this one came in at 1.5 WeightWatchers point per satisfying savory serving. Which, given the fact that I had friends over for drinks last night and went way over my WW limit on wine, cheese and chips, is a very good thing.

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Posted by Meg in Sussex at 8:29 AM | Comments (64)
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