Don’t taunt the vacation planner!

So I’m kind of going nuts.

My trip to Chicago is in less than two months, and due to the flooding in North Dakota a portion of track (that goes out every time there are issues with the Missouri River in that area) has been flooded and in need of repair. Trains are theoretically running again later this week, but it seems like there’s a reasonable chance of the track washing out again in the next month.

As someone who finds half the fun of my vacation in the up-front planning, this means it’s time for trying to find Plan B. I’d really been looking forward to seeing that part of the country, so we may end up with some kind of hybrid flying/driving option. I’m kind of not interested in a Greyhound bus across the back of beyond Montana.

Savory Buttermilk Biscuits

The bakery up the street from my house makes a pretty mean biscuit filled with cheddar, pepper and onions that they call a “savory biscuit” and which I pick up whenever I happen to be walking by in the morning (if I’m not in a rush for the bus). When I was pondering making a bread of some variety for Easter dinner last weekend, these biscuits came to mind. So I’ve made my own version with what I had on hand.

Since I didn’t make them round, you might call these a scone. But you would be wrong.

Makes about 8

3/4 cup chilled buttermilk
3/4 cup thinly sliced green onions
1 3/4 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground black pepper, divided
3/4 cup grated manchego cheese (because it’s what I had)
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 large egg, beaten to blend (for glaze)

Preheat oven to 425°F. Mix buttermilk and onions in small bowl. Mix flour, baking powder, salt, and 1 tsp pepper in stand mixer. Add chilled butter to mixer and cut in butter until fine meal forms. Add cheese and mix until just incorporated. Add buttermilk mixture and mix on low until dough forms. Turn dough out onto lightly floured work surface and press out to six inch square, about 1/2 inch thick. With a sharp knife, cut the dough in half, then in quarters, then cutting those quarters diagonally to make triangles. Transfer triangles to baking sheet. Brush biscuit tops with some of egg glaze. Grind pepper over top of the biscuits. Bake biscuits until golden brown, about 20 minutes. Cool on rack. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature.

All Clear—Connie Willis

It’s nearly May and I’ve only read six books this year? I think we can safely say that I need to get a lot more reading done SOON. That said, there are a few books I read at the end of February that I neglected to write up. So this will all be out of order. I suppose I’m the only person that matters to.

I read Willis’ Blackout last year (time travel, WWII, I’m not going to get into the finer points here), and like many people was forced to turn off my brain for vast portions of it that contained obviously terrible research (stupid things like the Jubilee line existing in 1941). A friend and I were recently talking about authors that write books about places that they’re not native to and the details that end up being “wrong” as a result, but some of those pieces just went beyond that—especially for a book in which the details are theoretically terribly important. Continue reading

What should I have said, for example, to a bottom dweller who recently belittled my existence?

I have a love/hate relationship with my hair. As a child I always wished it were stick straight and dark brown. Only in the last few years have I come to embrace the fact that I’m a mousey-strawberry-brown curly-haired person. Only it’s not quite curly, it’s more this wavy and frizzy mess that I mostly keep under control through patronizing an expensive stylist and the judicious application of shampoos, conditioners and styling products that promise to tame my frizz while leaving my hair soft and manageable. This has meant embracing a styling regimen that means while my hair gets wet every day, it only sees shampoo on the weekends.

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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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