Friends and Feast

When it came time to pull together a menu for a dinner with friends centered around Cooking of the British Isles, the answer was easy: Sunday roast lunch. A proper Sunday lunch was my real introduction to British cooking the first time I visited my friends John and Margaret nearly ten years ago—amusingly enough I’d spent the last year eating a variation of the low-carb/high protein diets popular at the time, and so that meal featuring two different preparations of potatoes, Yorkshire puddings, and a sticky toffee pudding for dessert caused such a carbohydrate overload that I ended up napping on a bus later that day.

Roast Vegetables

The book touched on the role of the roast lunch in British food history, and its place as the source of the leftovers that would turn into things like the shepherd’s pie and rumbledethump I made recently. And also looked at how the Sunday lunch has evolved as British society has, particularly the availability of beef to all social classes. But while I love roast beef, lamb is always my first love for a roast—so standing in front of the meat counter at Whole Foods, it was that bone in leg of lamb that came home with me. Honestly, I can’t speak to how the Sunday lunch has changed over the years. For me it’s stayed the same, because of that first dinner in Ipswich with John and Margaret, a Sunday roast lunch will always be about sharing food with friends—not entirely the celebration of gluttony as Cooking of the British Isles describes it.

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Never trust a man from Dorset with blue cheese.

One of the interesting things about actually reading the Foods of the World all the way through rather than skimming around for ideas, context or inspiration is the discovery that there are some terribly amusing (at least to me) stories to be had throughout. Some of them even have morals. In the case of Cooking of the British Isles, I joked on Twitter at some point a few months ago that I’d learned one should never trust a cheese monger from Dorset.

In the chapter devoted to cheese (titled “A Royal Collection of Rural Cheeses”) Adrian Bailey is on the hunt for a rare local blue cheese called “Blue Vinny”. After asking about all over rural Dorset he finally finds someone in a pub willing to procure this rare cheese for him—he takes the cheese to a Cheese Grading Center in Wells and discovers that he’s been duped, they’ve provided him with a common Stilton. For me, the moral of this story was—know your cheese monger. And I’m lucky to have a truly excellent one in my own neighborhood.

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“Is this traditional English trifle with beef or eggplant?”

I hosted a dinner party a few weeks ago in the style of a traditional Sunday roast lunch (watch for more on that later), and for dessert there was trifle. Of course, in the week leading up to the party, whenever I mentioned trifle I kept getting the question of, “You mean like in that one episode of Friends?” There are few people of my generation that didn’t end up watching a lot of Friends in college dorms, and that includes the episode where Rachel got a few pages in her British cookbook stuck together.

Thankfully for my friends, I featured a more traditional version from Cooking of the British Isles. They summarize it as “Cake, Fruit, and Custard Dessert with Whipped Cream”. What they don’t mention is all the sherry and brandy, which really makes this an ideal winter dessert.

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Fish Curry for Breakfast?

“And then there was kedgeree. The English brought the recipe back from India, and adapted to their own taste. In India kedgeree was made of rice, lentils, onions, eggs and spices. The English added smoked fish, usually haddock, and kedgeree became a breakfast dish.”

—Time Life Foods of the World, Cooking of the British Isles

There’s more than one story about the origins of kedgeree. Did it originate in Scotland, then travel to India and back again? Is it based on an Indian dish called Khichṛī that consists of rice and lentils, but no fish? Either way, it became a popular breakfast dish because of the way it can easily turn yesterday’s fish and rice into today’s breakfast—at least in the times before refrigeration—and wouldn’t look out of place next to a plate of kippers.

Kedgeree in a Bowl

This is not Time Life’s kedgeree, but rather a synthesis of theirs, recipes found around the internet, Jamie Oliver’s Naked Chef, and an old “Celtic Cookbook” I bought years and years ago. Some versions call for adding peas (which I often do), some use parsley instead of cilantro, some call for the eggs to be mixed in rather than included more in the style of a garnish, and some even ask for sultanas. All these variations speak to how dishes like this change as people eat and share new foods, and what’s on hand in the kitchen. Mine uses smoked salmon, since haddock is very uncommon on the Pacific coast, and cilantro to add more Indian flavor than parsley.

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Guest Blog: Margaret’s Mother-in-Law’s Leek Pudding

[I first met Margaret online a decade ago, and have been lucky enough to be a guest in her home in Ipswich on the majority of my trips to the UK. On one of those first trips I recall remarking on looking forward to trying Yorkshire Pudding, only to have Margaret point out to me that I’d already had eaten one with my roast lunch. Definitely my first realization that I knew very little about classic British food. – Ellen]

When Ellen first asked me to write a guest post for her blog my instant reaction was “but I don’t cook much British food!”.  But a little bit of thought later, I realised that wasn’t actually true.  Yes, when people come to dinner (particularly when it’s “someone who cooks” or someone I want to impress) I cook something from one of my cookery books. Something Chinese, or Indian, or Thai, or even Mexican.  The British food is family food, not company food, with only the exceptions of a roast dinner for guests on a Sunday or a fry-up for brunch if we have overnight guests. And even then, that’s for closer friends or family, not “proper company”.

Margaret's Beef Hotpot

It’s also generally not food I get from recipe books.  I once mentioned in passing to a friend while we were out for a pub Sunday lunch that this was my second roast dinner of the weekend, and was startled when he started quizzing me about whose recipe I’d used for my roast chicken!  Whose recipe? I put it in the oven and roasted it, what else would I do?  Some meals are just “the way they are” like a roast, some have recipes my mother-in-law gave me and I have one cookery book that covers almost everything else I might want to know (the third edition of “The Penguin Cookery Book” by Bee Nilson, from the 1970s).

So as I skim-read through part of the Time Life book on British cooking, to think of something to write I found myself nodding in agreement a lot more than I expected given the age of the book.  British food, to me is comfort food and good hearty, plain meals.  I tend to cook less of it in the summer but when it’s cold, wet and dark outside there’s nothing better than a leek pudding for dinner.  Or maybe a beef hotpot to use up the last of the roast beef and warm you up in the evening.  It may not be fancy, it may not be celebrity chef-endorsed, but it’ll be tasty and filling which I think is more important!

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I received a haggis in the mail last week.

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the puddin-race!

-from Address to a Haggis, Robert Burns

Frankly, haggis is Scottish meatloaf. In the last week, following Burns Night, I had enough leftovers that we’ve seen haggis sandwiches, sliced and pan friend haggis with eggs for breakfast and finally haggis with mashed potatoes and roast carrots and parsnips. I’m sure there’s someone out there regularly dousing haggis leftovers in ketchup.

Leftover haggis with mashed potatoes and roast carrots

Due to USDA regulations, the majority of haggis available for sale in the United States are canned varieties, often imported, and in a now more common synthetic casing. However, a bit of Internet sleuthing led me to Oatmeal Savage just down the road in Roseburg, Oregon—who offer a variety of haggis and related products. Shipped frozen and packed in insulated foam, the haggis arrived to my office and prompted a variety of reactions from coworkers—largely ending in the squeamishness that characterizes most American reactions to any foodstuffs that involves offal.

Haggis from Oatmeal Savage in Roseburg, Oregon

Thankfully, my friend Jennifer’s partner Adam is a butcher—and thus was quite excited at the prospect of haggis and also brought along a copy of a Time Life book from his collection to share: Variety Meats from The Good Cook Techniques & Recipes Series from 1982 (which featured both a recipe and pictures of haggis assembly). We pulled together a menu of clapshot, an excellent cream whisky sauce for the haggis, the amusingly named rumbledethumps (see recipe below), oatcakes, and cranachan for dessert. Per tradition, the haggis was skirled in with bagpipe music and Address to a Haggis was read (via a recording by Gordon Kennedy). And while we couldn’t convince Jen to try the haggis, we managed to finish off half.

Living in the Northwest, with a fairly good-sized Scottish population, the local Caledonian Society holds a Burns Night each year—and I know similar events are held in various cities in North America. Most of the Scots I know today are proud of their heritage, but bemused by our obsession of identifying with the culture of our grand and great-grandparents. To the north in Vancouver there’s a combination Chinese New Year / Burns Night celebration known as Gung Haggis Fat Choy that I think, one day, I must drag one of my Scottish friends along—to see what they make of this very North American new tradition of cultural fusion.

I think one of the larger things I’m going to end up taking away from each of this books will be how universal food is in various cultures—we’ve all historically faced similar issues of food preservation, making efficient use of the resources we have, and in this modern era—retaining our connection to our culinary roots. We should always be looking for opportunities to celebrate our culinary history. What older food tradition can you adopt?

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Save a sheep from itself, eat lamb today.

A favorite of mine in British cuisine are meat pies. Beyond those unfortunate chicken-pot-pies in the frozen section at the grocery store, it’s not something I see very often in the wild. But this time of year, when half my days are rainy and gray and the other half are freezing cold—I want something warm from the oven. So I was surprised to discover that in spite of a number of steak pies, eel and fish pies, and others featuring game and fowl—there wasn’t a classic shepherd’s pie to be found.

And so it was Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall to the rescue. My friend Gordon had sent me The River Cottage Year cookbook a few years ago for Christmas—and it’s a great guide to thinking about seasonality in modern Britain. Of course, it didn’t contain a recipe for shepherd’s pie either. But poking around online led me to his mum’s recipe posted on the River Cottage series website. Did Hugh lead me astray? As my friend Elaine noted when eating it, “More things should be cooked in wine.” I did modify it slightly to be cooked in individual portion-sized ramekins.

This first post also gave me insight into one of the things I didn’t think about when starting Tine Life—the trouble of food photography. I’m a graphic designer, I’ve been art directing photo shoots and taking pictures on my vacations (and cats) for years. And I’ve been reading the usual food blog suspects for an equally long time. Sure, for the time being I’m limited by what I can do with natural light in my Pacific Northwest winter kitchen window and a Sony point and shoot camera—but how hard can it be?

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Fish & Quips: Cooking of the British Isles

Originally, the plan was to kick off Tine Life with American Cooking: The Northwest. Living in Seattle and having grown up in Oregon, it seemed a logical beginning. But, as someone more sensible than I pointed out, January and February is a terrible time of year to feature my home region. The Northwest truly shines in the summer or fall.

So what cuisine do you feature in the winter? Scandinavia and Russia were briefly considered before I settled on Cooking of the British Isles. Over the last ten years I’ve visited friends and traveled in the United Kingdom more than any other country, save Canada. Even in those ten years I’ve seen dramatic changes in the quality and availability of fresh and interesting food in Britain.

I’m not pointing out anything new when I say that, historically, British food has had a terrible reputation. What most people don’t think about, is that like in every other food culture, they were constrained by climate, geography and the limited native flora and fauna. British food culture is a reflection of a harsh climate, subsistence-level farming and industry, making do with what you have, and creative ways of preserving food. On the flip side, it’s also a dramatic product of colonial influences, from tea to potatoes to Indian spices. The fingerprints of the far-flung British Empire are everywhere—and so many iconic British foods would not exist if not for centuries of colonial influence.

From my own experience, in the west we’ve forgotten so much in the last fifty years with regard to the fragility of our food supply, our expectations of seasonality and availability, and focusing on simple foods that rely on thoughtful use and reuse of ingredients. I’ve tried to keep those ideas in mind when selecting the recipes to share from Cooking of the British Isles, contrasting them with the recipes of the modern British chef, and asking my British and expat friends to share their ideas and thoughts on modern British cuisine.

What does the month have in store? Thanks to the birthday of Robert Burns falling in January I was able to feature haggis, shepherd’s pie and rumbledethumps are excellent examples of dishes born of repurposing leftovers, and how can you think of Britain without featuring both tea and their excellent cheeses?

And all seriousness aside, the editors of Time Life Foods of the World had some really crazy ideas about what made good food photography. I’m sure this will not be the last book to feature a variety of unique ideas for staging food attractively—and I can’t wait to show you some of that insanity.

This is not a book report.

I’m not a writer. I’m not a researcher or historian. I’m barely even a foodie (some might disagree—I’d use the words “opportunistic eater”).  But I did grow up in a family that encouraged me to try new foods, appreciate flavor, embrace my family food history and, most important to this endeavor, we owned a full set of Time Life’s Foods of the World series.

At various times in the last 10 years I’ve tried to come up with a concept for talking about  food, both eating and creating it, and kept coming against a wall. Whatever I used as my framework needed to be personal as well as broad enough to engage people who weren’t my friends and family—and it needed to incorporate my love for travel and exploration. I’ve shelved dozens of ideas over the years that weren’t the right combination of interesting and flexible, yet focused.

In September my mother asked if I’d like to take her copy of the Foods of the World series off her hands. I spent an evening leafing through the books thinking, “Someone should really do a blog based on this,” but not really realizing that person should be me.  It took a conversation with my friend Suezie a few months later to realize that the books were the answer I’d been missing all these years.

Our trouble begins there.

Sadly, between September and my epiphany, Mom had donated half the set to a local library book sale. Yes, including the spiral recipe books. This has meant, in the intervening time, I’ve been scouring eBay, used booksellers and various places on the internet to rebuild the portion of the collection I’m now lacking—spending far more time doing so than seems sensible.

Tine Life is more than simply cooking my way through a series of books, there are many who have already done that concept well. Some have even become movies starring Meryl Streep. This is not one of those blogs. I hope to use the Time Life Foods of the World series to examine changes to our food systems in the last fifty years, to connect with discussion on food and its place in our lives, learn more about ingredients, and most importantly: to eat with friends. Hopefully I’ll be cooking and sharing a lot of food I’ve not worked with before—and you can count on there being a lot of baking.

Today I sit here with a nearly complete set of books, a cadre of potential guest bloggers, and a head full of ideas on how to talk about food. I hope you’ll all stick around.

Cooking of the British Isles (Time Life “Foods of the World”)—Adrian Bailey et al.

Yes, another one for Tine Life. After feedback from potential contributors—the Northwest is moving to the summer, when things here are actually in season.

Things we have learned from this Time Life book? That they’re apparently fond of haggis on the Isle of Man as well as in Scotland, you should never trust cheesemongers in Dorset, and we should all be eating frumenty for breakfast. This weekend I’m visiting my neighborhood butcher and cheesemonger to see about a couple of ideas I had for related posts. Fingers crossed it works out. The first couple of general housekeeping posts should go up in the next few weeks. Eek!

If any of my UK friends would like to volunteer to guest blog about food and related issues, I’m happy to send you a PDF copy of the book. (Yes, I scanned the entire book. With the way the Royal Mail is behaving at the moment, it was necessary.)