Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Ship - Food Bloggers Christmas Lunch

I had a phenomenal lunch today. I arrived at The Ship in Wandsworth shortly after noon. We had drinks. Then we had more drinks. Then I had an embarassing number of half drinks lined up beside me. Then food started to come. And it was delicious.

I met lovely people. People whose blogs I have been reading and people who don't write but love food and we had fun. Strangers who I have befriended on twitter and who I hope to eat with again. This was a lovely way to spend an afternoon. And an evening. Because lunch stretched into the evening and we left the pub at 7:00. A few brave souls went on to Turkish for dinner. It is nearly 11:00 pm and I am still full. I may never eat again. Well, I say that but I'm already excited about coooking with my new Staub La Cocotte (it's blue) and am fooddreaming of the braising roasting that will happen in the coming weeks.

There will probably be any number of blog posts about what we ate today. I was lucky that the people on my table were generous and I had mutliple bites of the foie gras, the duck and the venison. They were all delicious. But these are the photos that I took of my meal.

Black Treacle Smoked Salmon

Close up

Chestnut and mushroom gnocchi with sage crisps

Cheese. And then more cheese.
Sticky Toffee Pudding

The afternoon was so lovely. The people at The Ship were great, the food was great, the company was great.

Friday, December 17, 2010

How To Eat Like An Atheist

I can’t remember which holiday it was. I think it may have been diwali. At any rate I was annoyed because whatever religious moment it was for whichever religious group, it sounded delicious. And I was jealous.

I’m not a practicing anything. I’m an atheist. So while I eat a nice dinner at Christmas and Easter, I don’t actually celebrate anything besides birthdays the rest of the year and so I miss out on all sorts of opportunities for deliciousness and celebrations. And it’s not just the food. I like that religious celebrations take a moment to pause and appreciate something important, to gather loved ones near and to celebrate a day or a moment or a memory that has a greater meaning that just yeah good food. And so I decided that it wasn’t fair that religious people got all the fun and that I would start celebrating the food and community side of various religious feasts. But not religiously, since I’m not, and so How To Eat Like An Atheist was born as a fun little sabbatical project in my head.

But this has been full of traps. Traps that lead deep into the internet. How do you pick which days to celebrate?

First I picked a handful of countries and decided I would see which religious days they celebrated and what they ate. Surely Christmas in India is different from Christmas in Mexico. But I needed a representative sample of countries worldwide and by the time I got to the end of compiling my list I had 40 countries. I may be on sabbatical but I do not have time to look up the religious holidays of 40 countries. Then I found this list on wikipedia that outlines public holidays by country and I thought awesome - someone has done the work for me. But I fell into a wikihole of epic proportions. Did you know that Albania celebrates Mother Theresa Day? Or that Bhutan has a Blessed Rainy Day? Or that Haiti was discovered on my birthday? Or how complicated lunar holidays get? Neither did I and each country’s listing got me further into the internet and farther away from choosing a celebration for January.

So I abandoned that. Besides, I want religious holidays. Not just public holidays. I shall look at it from the religion perspective. So I started to put together a list of the major religions. I looked at religions based on the number of people who practice them worldwide. But when do you stop? Christianity divides into the Catholics and the Protestants who then unhelpfully divide into a bazillion groups again. There are different types of Judaism. Sunnis and Shiites. Then does Taoism count as a religion or more a philosophy attached to Confucianism? What about newish religions that have popped up in the past hundred years? What about the different religions in India? And I haven’t even BEGUN to touch on the indigenous beliefs in South America, or even blinked at Africa.

Too much! Stop! this is supposed to be fun! And so, after all that, and weeks of falling into wonderlandesque wikiholes. I found this website that holds an interfaith religious calendar. It may not be perfect. It may miss out on some of the more obscure holidays, but this is what I am going to use as my main calendar for the project.

So, the plan is thus. Pick two religious celebrations a month. they may be based on a convenient date (points for falling on a Saturday or Sunday), general interest in the holiday itself (how does one celebrate the circumcision of Christ?), and deliciousness. Since this is an exercise in cooking and eating the food will of course be the most important factor. I am also reserving the right to combine celebrations. There are certain dates that are important to more than one religion and I think it will be fun to combine them and see what food we end up with.

The last piece of the puzzle is the community. Celebrations are a time for family and friends to get together and be with each other over something special. Connecting with loved ones is such an important part of being happy and as an atheist I don’t get as many excuses as others. So this is an open invitation - come hang out with us and eat and be merry.

The game begins January 1, 2011.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Making Food

It's December and I'm taking part in #reverb10. It's a daily prompt for the month of December that invites you to reflect on the past year and think about the year to come. I like that kind of thing at this time of the year and it's helping me complete another side project which is 750 words a day. I've completed every one, but haven't been posting my responses anywhere - the internet does not need a complete record of my personal neuroses. I'm just not that big a sharer.

So why are you reading this now? Because the prompt for today was this: Make. What was the last thing you made? What materials did you use? Is there something you want to make, but you need to clear some time for it?

It got me thinking about cooking, specifically making fresh pasta. Fresh pasta on Saturday night was the last thing I made. I took two cooking classes last week. French Classics Cooking (so much butter! so much double cream!) and Fresh Pasta making. I've been making pasta for years but I've never been particularly good at it and I figured I had a voucher, why not use it to learn and improve a skill and actually use the equipment I own. A few tricks, a bit of chefly guidance and I'm feeling pretty confident about my pasta making abilities.

So I made some for dinner on Saturday night before we went out to the Soho Theatre to see Asher Treleaven. So funny.

While I was mixing the flour and eggs, kneading pulling punching pushing, I was thinking about craft and the art of making things by hand. Later, as I rolled it through the machine (so much easier now!) and cut the tagliatelle, hung it up on my makeshift drying racks and carefully separated the individual noodles, I felt like I was doing something. Like I was participating in a craft that had ancient roots and a tradition and history that I was part of by making my dinner. There's something really powerful in building something with your very own hands.

I think often about the process of cooking and baking. There's a great quote about how when you cook, you never cook alone because you take into the kitchen with you generations of cooks whose experience and trials and love is passed down and through every time you make something. You eat every day so you forget how special cooking actually is. Not just from the love that hopefully goes into your food but also the knowledge behind it. How long did it take to perfect the process that makes snails not only edible but a delicious delicacy? How many upset stomaches were there from eating the wrong mushroom? Or broken teeth from biting into a raw quince?

When I make something like pasta is feels like I'm doing something. I like dishes that require care and constant stirring supervision. Or complicated breads and baking that I can delve into and lose myself in. It feels creative and like a craft.

The last question of today's prompt asks if there is something you want to make, but need to clear time for. I look over at my cookbook shelf, with the post-its and bits of paper sticking out and there are at least a hundred things I want to make. Some will be quick after work dinners, others will require a full day immersed in the kitchen. I'm fortunate that the things I love to make are usually useful delicious things that bring something to others and form an important part of my daily world.

Are there particular dishes or meals that make you feel like you've accomplished something important? Something you make often? Or an occasional burst of kitchen creativity and energy?

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Secret recipes

When I was a kid my mom made the most bestest popcorn cake. It had jujubes in it, and was simply popcorn and jujubes held together with marshmallow - like a rice crispy square only more exciting. It was her signature children's party dish. She made it for all sorts of events - bake sales, potlucks, sleepovers. She never shared the recipe. I'm pretty sure even I don't have the recipe.

Off the top of my head I can think of two secret recipes that I guard vigilantly and that I consider family secrets and potential heirloom knowledge. The truth is, they are neither.

One recipe is a slight rift on one I took from the internet a couple of years ago. It is a huge hit and a bit like crack - you think you don't want anymore but your hand keeps grabbing it and stuffing it in your mouth. The thing is, I know, KNOW, that if this recipe were to get out it would be EVERYWHERE. You'd go to parties and there it would be. It would be gifted to people at funerals and christenings. It would lose it's distinctive crack like addiction because it would
reach saturation point. And so I've only ever given the recipe to a few family members, on the express understanding that they are absolutely NOT to share it outside our blood ties.

The other recipe is taken directly from a cookbook I got out of the library years ago and that I follow meticulously every time I make it because to veer from its perfection would be a folly. It's a crowd pleaser. I make it often and every time I make it people swoon. How can something so commonplace, such a traditional dish be so delicious? So tasty and exciting?

People ask for the recipe. I have to say no. It's a secret. For two reasons. First, if I gave you the recipe, you'd make it. Then the magic of the meal that I placed before you on that magical dinner party night would be tarnished and you'd probably think less of me. It's silly. Probably a little self absorbed. But it's true. You can't tell me that by making something yourself you don't demystify it and take a bit of the magic out of it. It's not true for everything of course. But for this particular dish it is true...

The second reason is shame. If I place on the table an epic meal, of herculean proportions, taste sensations of awesomeness in something so humble, you will want to believe in it. You will want to believe in the magic of it - the alchemy of the best ingredients, lovingly prepared and carefully seasoned. There is definitely that element to it. It was made with love. It was made with the best ingredients. But it also contains a Secret Shameful Ingredient. If I told you what it was you wouldn't enjoy it as much and you'd think less of me as a cook and indeed as a person.

I can't let that happen. And so please understand why I can't share certain recipes with you. I'd be delighted to have you come over for dinner but I'll have everything in the oven before you arrive, dishes cleaned. I'll be sipping a glass of something bubbly when you walk in
the door, laughing at the delightful thing our friend just said, and you will never discover my secrets.