Friday, April 2, 2010

As seen in American in Britain: Food! Glorious Food!

I don’t know whether I call myself a cook who likes to write or a writer who likes to cook. You see I really have two passions in life. My first passion (in no particular order) is writing. I love to write about everything and there’s really not much that’s off limits. In addition to writing for American in Britain, I also write a blog where you can find out everything you would ever like to know about me, my husband, my children, my sister, my dog and my friends, much to their chagrin. In addition to throwing my family and friends “under the bus,” on occasion, I attach a related (or a kinda sorta, semi related) recipe to the end of each story much like I do here. This brings me to my second passion, food. I love cooking and writing about food because it has always been such a big part of my life. One of my first memories is dragging a chair up to my grandmother’s leaky gas stove, putting a large knob of butter in the bottom, frying a piece of sandwich bread in it and calling it French Toast. I must have been no more than three or four years old. Good grief, where were my parents? The possibilities of calamity were endless. Thank goodness this article isn’t about how I burned my grandmother’s house down when I was three or four. The subject of this article is food, the good, the bad and the ugly.

When we first moved to England, I hate to admit that I spent far too much time looking for American snacks and ingredients. I was actually delighted when I ran upon American food that I would have rarely purchased at home. Take corn chips for example. Before our big move, having a couple of these with a chili dog once a year was pretty much good enough, but then, running across a bag at the odd petrol station or delicatessen in the UK, was like hitting the lottery. This love affair endured until I was watching a survivalist show and the host used a corn chip as a candle because of the high fat content. I broke up with corn chips immediately and we have never reconciled.

Shortly thereafter, I was thrilled to discover my favorite processed cheese loaf was being stocked at my local supermarket. Preferring to live in a state of fat and calorie denial after the difficult corn chip break-up, I dreamed of all of the American treats I could make, super easy mac and cheese, Mexican queso, and smooth and creamy broccoli and rice casserole to name a few. I even hear that it has been used to make fudge. What a wonderfully versatile ingredient! How did the UK do without it for so long? I happily dropped a box in my shopping trolley and headed home for what would certainly be the first in many chili con queso covered nights to come. I tore the packaging open and, instead of the neon orange/yellow rubbery blob I expected, I saw a white rubbery blob looking back at me. In a leap of faith, I took one of my precious imported cans of tomatoes with green chillies and combined it with my loaf of cheese in my favorite non-stick pan over medium high heat. My children and I danced around the bubbling pot chanting, “Cheese dip, cheese dip,” in what can only be described as a mock pagan pageant. Much to our dismay, after 20 minutes or so, the only thing in the pot was tomatoes and juice with small white cheese curds that couldn’t have been blended with an atom smasher. No amount of whisking, heating, dancing or chanting could emulsify the macabre mixture stewing in my non-stick pot. No wonder the UK had gotten along without this product for so long, it was a substandard imposter.

Fresh off the imitation cheese loaf disaster I turned to discovering the beauty of English food and ingredients. I don’t know why English food has such a bad reputation in the culinary world. It must be perpetuated by someone who spent only 24 hours in the country and ate only bad airport pub food and never came back. Maybe it’s because visitors to England have preconceived notions about the food. They all seem to expect to find just fish and chips and steak and kidney pie. Little do they expect to find some of the world’s freshest and best fish, pork (ahhh, the bacon), poultry and produce. Not to mention, in my opinion, the best selection of dairy products in the civilized world. What’s not to love about clotted, single, double and extra thick double creams? In what I believe to be an act of revenge, someone (a former ex-pat no doubt) brought preserved jars of Cornish Clotted Cream and placed them in the deli section of many American supermarkets just to torture the homesick English who no doubt were heartbroken when they tasted it. Please trust me when I tell you it is the equivalent of the aforementioned cheese loaf, an imposter and should be made illegal. I think this makes us even.

Even though I am taking a stand in defense of English food, the one thing that is indefensible is English salad dressing or lack thereof. Oh, I will say that the shelves are stocked much better today than they used to be, but it still leaves a lot to be desired. Out of sheer desperation, I actually became inspired to make my own dressing by mixing up condiment sachets in restaurants. A bit of ketchup mixed in with a tablespoon of salad cream and voila, creamy thousand island. Oil, malt vinegar and mustard equal a pretty tasty French vinaigrette. I guess it’s true that necessity is the mother of invention. Oh sure, it can’t hold a candle to the three tub salad dressing caddy that was served at most restaurants when I was a child. Next to the delicious four tub baked potato caddy, it was my favorite part of any dinner out. Those were the days. I blame the salad bar on its demise. In celebration of our differences I have included a couple of my favorite salad dressing recipes. It takes more than a couple of sachets to make them but, I hope you’ll agree, that they are well worth the effort.

Clockwise from left: Lime Chilli and Ginger Vinaigrette, Herb and Buttermilk Bleu Cheese Dressing and Herb and Buttermilk Dressing

Herb and Buttermilk Salad Dressing

Since it is still winter, I have called for dried herbs but if you have fresh herbs on hand, please by all means use them, but keep in mind that you may need to increase the amounts called for because dried herbs tend to be a bit stronger than fresh.

1/4 teaspoon salt
1 garlic clove, crushed
1 heaping teaspoon finely minced shallot
1 cream cracker, finely crushed
1 cup (250ml) mayonnaise
1/4 cup (62ml) buttermilk
1/4 cup (62ml) double cream
1 teaspoon chopped parsley
1/8 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon dried dill
1/8 teaspoon ground sage
1/8 teaspoon ground savory
1/8 teaspoon dried thyme
1 pinch cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon chives or spring onion top, thinly sliced across

Place all ingredients in a medium size bowl and mix to a smooth consistency; cover and refrigerate for one hour or preferably overnight.

Makes approximately 1-1/2 cups (375ml).

This is a wonderful base for many great dressings. To change it up a bit add to taste, mashed avocado, crispy crumbled bacon, chopped chillies, tomato salsa or my personal favorite bleu cheese crumbles.

Lime Chilli and Ginger Vinaigrette

4 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
1 heaping tablespoon chopped fresh coriander
1 medium size Serrano or jalapeno pepper (remove seeds for a milder flavor)
1 tablespoon finely minced shallot
1 heaping teaspoon chopped fresh gingerroot
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1/3 cup (80ml) honey
2/3 cup (160ml) light olive oil or any favorite mild tasting oil
1/4 cup (62ml) white or red wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

Place all of the ingredients into the bowl of a blender or food processor; blend for approximately 15 seconds to emulsify ingredients.

Makes approximately 1-1/2 cups (375ml).

This dressing is delicious drizzled over salad greens, shredded cabbage, grilled prawns or chicken, or served with crudités.


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