Comfort food

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! If you’re looking for a savoury alternative to turkey to make for the vegetarian in your life, and want to steer clear of the standard dried out nut roast, read on.

Spoiler

It is the time of year for battening down the hatches, burrowing under the covers a bit longer when the alarm goes off, and taking your blankets with you as you walk around your home. It is cold and dark.

First off, my friend Ems has been blogging fabulous veggie soups for the past month — check out her blog and try the Thai pumpkin if you’re looking for something a bit exotic and in keeping with the season.

A good old school New York Italian vegetarian recipe when you’re looking for comfort food is eggplant parmigiana. This was introduced to me through my former university roommate and best friend Mary, whose mother learned it from her former university roommate. The recipe is just too good not to pass on. Three secrets:

1. Pick your aubergine carefully – make sure the flesh is not dented or squishy
2. As you fry the aubergine slices – make sure to drain them well and replace the kitchen paper if it becomes saturated with oil
3. When in doubt, add more cheese

This time I made it with panko breadcrumbs to try something new, which were lovely and light, though traditional breadcrumbs provide a more even level of breading cover for the slices. I also cheated and got pre-seasoned sauce instead of just tomato plus adding my own herbs. I used Napolina basil & tomato sauce, which I found too sugary, though not enough so to ruin the dish.

 

Eggplant parmigiana (serves 6) 1 hour prep, 20 min baking time

Ingredients

8″ by 11″ pan and frying pan and saucepan

2 large aubergines

1 container of breadcrumbs (approximately 2.5 cups/70g)

2 eggs

400g corn oil for frying (approximately 2 cups)

2 cans/jars passata/tomato sauce

1 Tbsp oregano plus a pinch of any other Italian herbs you like and salt and pepper to taste

250g grated mozzarella cheese (3 cups) for layering

Nutrition estimate for 1/6 = 513 cal, 17g fat, 1.3g salt, 58g carb

 

Chop ends

1. Start by chopping off the ends of the aubergines and peeling. I find it’s easier to peel starting from the ends, since the skin is tough and the ends are skinless now.

2. Fill your frying pan with oil to a depth of a little less than a centimetre or half inch – so when the slices go in, the oil won’t quite cover them. You can always add more oil later (if you add new oil later, do it slowly from the side of the pan and turn the heat up for a minute to compensate). Turn the burner up to medium/medium-high.

Slice

3. Chop the peeled aubergines in 1.5cm / 0.75 inch slices. Don’t worry if your slices aren’t perfectly uniform — this is a forgiving dish.

Assembly line

4. Set out your assembly line for frying:  a fork, two small bowls — fill one with breadcrumbs, crack an egg into the other and whisk a little with your fork until yolk and white are combined (if this gets low later, do it again) — , your frying pan (which will be heating up at this point), a spatula, and a plate for the finished aubergine with two pieces of kitchen paper/paper towel on it to soak up any excess oil.

5. Check your oil is hot enough by dropping a bit of egg into it — if it bubbles up to the top in a second or two, it’s ready. You don’t want it bubbling furiously so if that happens turn the heat down and/or add a little fresh oil to modulate the temperature.

6. Set up your saucepan with the sauce in it and toss in herbs.

Frying

7. Assembly line: pick up first aubergine with a fork, dip in egg, flip with fork to coat, dip into breadcrumbs, flip to coat, set into oil gently. Keep doing this until you have around 5-6 slices in the pan. Then start flipping the oldest slices so they brown on both sides. Now you will be taking out the old slices and setting them on the plate at an angle to drain the oil, turning the remaining slices around in the pan, just like an assembly line, so you know where the oldest slices are, and adding new slices.

Slices

8. As you reach the last new slice, turn on the sauce to cook for the next 4-5 minutes (it doesn’t need to cook really, just be suitably warm). Also set out the cheese and the 8″ by 11″ pan. Also turn the oven on at 200C or 400F to warm up.

Assembly

Layer 1

Layer 2

Layer 3

And again

Voila

9. Your slices and the sauce should finish around the same time. Then it’s time to play aubergine tetris. Start with the oldest slices first as they’ll be the coolest. Make a layer of aubergine in the bottom of the pan. You can cut them in half if you need to fill gaps. Then a layer of sauce, then a layer of cheese. Do it again and you’re ready to bake.

10. Bake it for 20 minutes, or until everything has come together into a delicious gooey cheesy whole.

11. It’s easy to cut with a spatula, like bars. Also, you can save any leftovers in the fridge and they reheat well for up to five days. If there are any leftovers….

One more time

Enjoy!

Pumpkin time

Autumn is in the air, and it is finally pumpkin time.

Americans love pumpkins in the autumn. Starbucks finally introduced pumpkin spice lattes to London this year, and the barista at Camden Town Starbucks told me they are really popular, and that all the expats are buying them.

I have been known to plan a trip to the US around availability of key seasonal drinks (shamrock shake anyone?) so am very pleased to have pumpkin spice lattes here too.

So, what can one do with pumpkins? Well, firstly, carve them into awesomeness.

This year’s creepy spider pumpkin

When you scoop out the pumpkin guts, separate the seeds from the stringy bits and you can make roasted pumpkin seeds. No need to remove the shells as you won’t notice them once they’ve been roasted. This year I tried lime and garlic seeds. The lime was a bit overpowering, so I think next year I’ll try a variation with Japanese flavours. A touch of wasabi could be really tasty.

This is how to extricate fresh pumpkin guts into baking and cooking-ready pumpkin.

If you use the standard American tinned pumpkin (Libby’s is a popular brand that you can get at Budgens), your pumpkin puree will already be ready to go.

I had one tin of Libby’s to work from. At the beginning of the week I used half in Hummingbird bakery recipe pumpkin cupcakes with cream cheese frosting, and put cling film over the rest til the end of the week, which I used in pumpkin gnocchi with sage butter. It kept well. (P.S. you can actually make your own pumpkin spice lattes with the same tinned pumpkin)

Pumpkin gnocchi swimming in sage butter, garnished with fresh sage and freshly grated parmesan

I was surprised that pumpkin gnocchi was so easy to make. I used 00 flour, the kind normally recommended for pizzas, instead of the half white, half wheat mixture in the recipe. It gave it a lovely texture. And it was devoured quickly.

Happy Hallowe’en everyone!

Tater tot hotdish

This is a follow up to my fried green potatoes post.

Morrison’s potato crunchies took some effort to get — the first trip to the store, they were sold out.

First Morrison’s trip: no potato crunchies

However my second attempt succeeded. I am pleased to report they are indeed very close to American tater tots, and not at all like croquettes, which are made of fine mash.

Tonight I gave them the real tater tot test; I made a version of tater tot hotdish. You can make it too. The recipe was the award-winning “Sen. Klobuchar’s (Winning) Taconite Tater Tot Hot Dish”, from the tater tot cook-off hosted by Sen. Al Franken last year for prominent Minnesota politicians.

I varied it a bit to make it more UK friendly and made it half the size to feed four people (while keeping the garlic the same because I am a garlic fiend):

- Lean ground beef (250g)
- Heinz cream of chicken & mushroom soup (1 can)
- Onions (1 very small)
- Garlic (couple cloves)
- Salt
- Pepper
- Mexican cheese, chopped coarsely (200g)
- Morrison’s potato crunchies (1 package)

Preparation

Step 1: browning the beef while I chop things

1. Brown ground beef, drain off fat. Sautee onions and garlic.

Step 2: mix it all together

Step 2 continued: layering the cheese

2. Mix beef, onions, garlic, soup, salt and pepper and spread into a 6×9″ baking dish. Cover with half of the shredded cheese.

Step 3: arrange the potato crunchies

3. Place tater tots in one layer over the entire pan.

Mmmmmmmmm….

4. Bake at 220 for 30 minutes, or until tater tots are crisp. Cover with remaining cheese and bake until cheese melts (about 5 min).

 

This went down a treat, perfect for a chilly autumn day. Most importantly, potato crunchies are authentic tater tots.

And best of all, there were two of us eating, so there are leftovers tomorrow!

New theme

Brick approves.

This is a quick shout out to my other half, Rory. Thanks for making my new theme more like Arkanoid.

The Most Hipster State

To round up my posts on the Midwest/MN, something bizarre happened last year. Minnesota got voted the most hipster state in the US. Given that the stereotypical Minnesotan dresses in sweatshirts and jeans two sizes too big for them, this made no sense.

There is a flu-like phenomenon, in which US fashion gets “caught” from Europe or Asia, develops on the coasts, and drifts in towards the Midwest. I’ve noticed this for years, when I went to Europe and came back, I was months ahead on some trends.

Example: royal blue was the bridesmaid dress colour for the Minnesotan wedding I was in this summer. There were royal blue dresses in all the shops there. I hunted up and down Regent Street and Oxford Street to no avail, only to have a Selfridges shop assistant confirm royal blue was last year’s colour.

So you can imagine my surprise to hear Minnesota was a nexus of hipsterdom, which implies being semi-fashionable. I came across the words “lumberjack-chic” in one article on the phenomenon.

The hipster state phenomenon was however confirmed by St. Paul friends, who never go to Uptown anymore. Full of independent coffee shops in big old houses with living room furniture, posh eclectic fusion restaurants, indie cinemas, and brunch spots, it is overrun with hipsters now and rammed at the weekends. Parking is an out and out war.

Given I used to hang out in Uptown as a teenager when I could only afford a cup of coffee to go out, that could imply hipster roots of which to be embarrassed. That or living in Camden and starting up a food blog.

Oh yes, food blog. Apologies for the detour, kind reader. Let’s talk about corn.

Baby corn FTW

Sweet corn is something to look forward to every late summer in Minnesota. People sell it on the roadside and at farmers’ markets, much like white asparagus in spring in Germany. Minnesota is the US’s largest producer of sweet corn.

There is nothing quite like corn on the cob, slathered in butter, on a hot summer day at a barbecue. This would be accompanied by some form of meat, or veggie burgers/veggie shish kebabs (I was vegetarian for half my life, will blog on that some other day), potato salad or coleslaw, and dessert.

In Europe, corn is more likely to be considered animal feed. Sometimes, people put it on pizza. Baby corn is used in stir fries. Corn fritters have got popular in the UK as a brunch treat, sandwiched between avocado and chutney-like substances and sometimes bacon, introduced by the Aussie/Kiwi brunch restauranteurs. Popcorn is ubiquitous but corn syrup is hard to find. Corn in its own right is just not that popular.

Apparently this is because European temperatures and terrain are not conducive to producing good quality corn. I bought some ears of corn at the supermarket (Sainsbury’s) this week in order to test whether the hypothesis that European corn is lower quality is true, so I will try them out and report back.

100 Years of Nut Goodie

Back to the theme of the Midwest, another foodstuff which I often crave but is hyper-expensive in Europe (like liquid gold) is maple syrup. True, the majority of it is produced in Canada, but a good business still goes on in Minnesota/Wisconsin with local maple syrup producers.

Maple flavour goes incredibly well with bacon. This is a common brunch item in London – maple syrup, bacon, and American-style fluffy pancakes. I was recently in San Francisco on the waterfront at Pier 39 and found maple and bacon flavoured saltwater taffy. It was remarkably good.

If you like maple flavour, it’s quite good in baking, similar to substituting honey for sugar in a recipe but stronger flavoured. They make these maple-flavoured sandwich cookies in the Midwest that are shaped like little maple leaves, which are to die for. Maple extract is easier to use (and cheaper) than maple syrup and you can find it on Amazon.

Which brings us to Pearson’s Candy company and the Minnesotan Nut Goodie.  This is a disc of maple nougat, covered in salted peanuts, covered in chocolate.

Not quite as popular as the Pearson’s Nut Roll, which is simply a log of plain nougat entirely covered in salted peanuts — a restorative mix of salty and sweet and nicely portable for a sunny hike (nothing to melt) as long as it doesn’t get squished.

The Nut Goodie has a cousin, the Maple Bun, which you can try at Cybercandy in the UK. They also make vanilla and caramel variants. I recently saw the Maple Bun for the first time at Cybercandy and wondered if the Nut Goodie had been rebranded, as they are the same size and composition, but apparently with a slightly different recipe. It was sufficiently Nut Goodie-like.

Minnesotans are quite proud of the Nut Goodie and it is currently celebrating its centenary. Not only is the St. Paul ice cream shop which has made top ten lists of best ice cream in the US, Izzi, competing with other local ice cream shops this summer to create the best Nut Goodie-inspired ice cream in its honour, Pearson’s have also pioneered a new caramel sea salt flavour Nut Goodie this year. Can’t wait to try it.

Happy birthday, Nut Goodie!

Fried Green Potatoes

I come from a land between the US coasts – the Onion did a great piece about it a few years back.  I’m not sure if most Americans realise that Europeans usually only know the location of about four states: New York, California, Florida and Texas. I usually explain Minnesota as “in the middle, next to Canada”.

So as The Onion says, “these simple people were rather friendly, offering us quaint native fare such as ‘hotdish’ and ‘casserole.’” Minnesotan food tends to be bland and cooked to death. Hotdish is actually a type of casserole that incorporates soup (Campbell’s cream soups are the standard).

The most famous hotdish is the tater tot hotdish, tater tots being those tiny oily cylindrical hashbrowns also served in Midwestern school lunches. I’ve had croquettes and these are crispier, oilier, more textured inside, and more squat than croquettes. According to Wikipedia,  you can get them in the UK at Morrison’s under the name “potato crunchies” — I plan to try this in the near future and will report back as to their authenticity.

Food of the godsAnother comfort food from the Midwest is fried cheese curds. This is basically deep fried cheese. It is not good for you. I love it, in all its deep fried goodness, but I know people who don’t like the squeakiness of the cheese as you eat it (like halloumi).

If anyone knows where to get cheese curds in the UK, let me know — it seems like here you would need to make them yourself, which is complicated.  In the US you can get them in some high end grocery stores, except in the Midwest where they’re available at regular supermarkets.

With all this greasy food, I feel inspired to link to this is why you’re fat.

Typical

A safe generalisation: every place and culture in the world has food (some more than others). People need to eat. Some similarities exist between most food cultures, like having a main carbohydrate source such as bread or rice, or having set mealtimes in the day.

There are particular quirks however, which stand out in the food of one group versus others. I’m talking about so-called “typical” foods, which are perfectly normal to the people who eat them regularly, but which can be a bit strange and wonderful, or off-putting to those who didn’t grow up with them.

An example of this is root beer. To me, this tastes like delicious, but I grew up with it in the US, drinking it as a soda during long summers and sometimes with ice cream as a float (and the bubbles in the resulting foam wouldn’t break, which was curious).

Root beer is made with imitation sassafras as well as other herbal ingredients (since regular sassafras contains carcinogenic compounds). To my European friends, who grew up with this flavour which is used in medicine and toothpaste in Europe instead of fizzy drinks, it tastes awful (and somewhat of wintergreen). Apparently this is also true of Quark in DS9.

As I’ve explored the world, and the culinary world, I’ve noticed some typical foods that I enjoy and I think are worth sharing. So I’m relaunching my blog with a focus on food.

Expect a bit on travel, lots about the food that I think is cool and why, and some on how to make or where to find my strange and exotic discoveries in cities like London (I live there now) and NYC (lived there four years ago).

When looking for root beer, you can find it in most Asian supermarkets in London (due to root beer being popular in Malaysia), and you can find multiple varieties at Cybercandy, which also has more obscure American sodas like Dublin Dr. Pepper (from Dublin, TX and made with cane sugar). Cybercandy has bricks-and-mortar shops in Angel and Covent Garden.

If I’m going to a film at Leicester Square (probably at the excellent Prince Charles Cinema to a double bill of something like Aliens and Predator, instead of the poorly maintained, overpriced Odeon cinemas there), I tend to pop into Nippon & Korea Centre on Wardour Street just north of the entrance to Leicester Square from Piccadilly, and get my A&W root beer there.

A fresh start

After two years of letting my blog lay fallow, I have wiped the slate clean and am starting afresh.

Crème fraîche!

Via GeeJo on Wikipedia

Via GeeJo on Wikipedia