British Coffee Culture and a Confession

Occasionally, I enjoy the odd cup of decaffinated coffee.

I have a confession: sometimes (often) I drink decaf coffee. Not only that, but it’s usually instant decaffinated coffee. Yes, I know, it really is the worst case scenario, but I just love coffee so much that I want to be able to enjoy it in the afternoons and evenings without staying up into the wee hours of the morning.

Coffee culture in Britain, when compared to that in America, is still a relatively new fangled thing. In my experience, the average person in Britian still drinks instant coffee at home instead of filtered, or press-pot coffee. It makes sense, really. Electric kettles are a staple in the British home because they can boil water very quickly (no one has the patience to wait for thier afternoon cuppa). If you’ve already got a kettle taking up precious real estate in your kitchen, you probably don’t want to fuss with a coffee maker, too. Or, if you’re like me, you despise oily, gritty press-pot coffee. Whatever the reason, the go-to coffee in this country still seems to be instant.

Taylor Street Baristas serve up the best lattes in Richmond.

So I begrudgingly went along with this for the first two years I lived here. Coffee makers aren’t particularly cheap, and there weren’t too many places selling decent coffee beans. Then I discovered a little slice of coffee heaven in Richmond: Taylor Street Baristas. Taylor Street are a small, independent chain of coffee shops with only a handful of locations in London; how we managed to get one in Richmond is beyond me, but I’m so glad it’s here. These guys know espresso, and they know coffee. You can safely walk into Taylor Street and order anything off their coffee menu, and it is guaranteed to be delicious. Taylor Street played a massive role saving me from instant coffee drudgery.

I started thinking about how I could enjoy better coffee at home. I discovered a local shop that roasted coffee in store and sold coffee making accessories. I stopped in and stocked up on supplies: a pour-over cone (think of this as the bare-bones part where you put your filter in a coffee maker), filters, a hand grinder, and some coffee beans. My love of good coffee was instantly restored. When I was in that neighborhood, I’d stop by to replenish my stock of beans, otherwise, I relied on the grocery stores in Richmond.

There was a problem with my rekindled passion for coffee, however: I craved more coffee, more of the time. Drinking copious amounts of caffeine into the later hours of the day isn’t a wise decision for anyone wishing to get sleep, and I most definitely need all the sleep I can get. So I browsed and browsed the selection of coffees at the grocery stores, but was unable to find a non-instant decaffinated alternative. So there I was, looking at all the coffees in the aisle, and the one I finally settled on was instant; I came full-circle in my British coffee drinking experience.

Do you have any coffee horror stories from travels abroad? Where have you had the best cup of coffee? Tell me in the comments!

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It’s Pancake Tuesday!


Today is Pancake Day in Britian (also known as Shrove Tuesday, Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras in other parts of the world). Even though I am not at all religious, this is one religious day I can get on board with–even if it is only to stuff my face with pancake goodness.

According to Wikipedia’s entry on Shrove Tuesday:

Pancakes are associated with the day preceding Lent because they were a way to use up rich foods such as eggs, milk, and sugar, before the fasting season of the 40 days of Lent. The liturgical fasting emphasized eating plainer food and refraining from food that would give pleasure: in many cultures, this means no meat, dairy, or eggs.

Pancake Day is a big deal. It’s the only time of year pancake mixes on prominent display, and the various pancake toppings seem to be available. And in Britain, there is surprisingly a lot of choice!

First, American or British-style? If American style, are you doing buttermilk, fruity, or pancakes with bits of bacon? How are you topping them? With maple syrup, honey, or fruit? If choosing British-style, do you go with the traditional lemon juice and sugar, Nutella, golden syrup or something savory?

In my household, we’re going American-style buttermilk pancakes with maple syrup (which is Canadian–how multicultural of us, right?), and completely from scratch–the Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book has an easy and tasty recipe.

Tell me, how do you like your pancakes?

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Coffee Crisis 2012

It’s like the Exxon Valdez… a coffee spill in my kitchen.

After living in the UK for nearly three years, I’ve finally managed to re-establish my hardcore coffee addiction.

In Britain, coffee usually comes in instant form, and as one might imagine, it’s not the tastiest. Because tea is a much more popular hot beverage in Britain, most people don’t have coffee makers, instead opting for electric kettles. As such, kettles are considerably less expensive and easier to find than coffee makers, so that is what I went for when I moved here. It was difficult enough getting my flat set up without a car, and I really had to pinch pennies after the move, so I was not prepared to hunt for a coffee maker.

Fast forward to today. I’ve recently gotten into Twitter, and after following my local council, I discovered a coffee place called Astrora Coffee in nearby Teddington. At first, I thought they may be another coffee shop flogging coffee beverages, but it turns out that they don’t sell coffee beverages at all–they only sell coffee beans and coffee making accessories. Not wanting to completely waste my trip (and miss out on delicious coffee at home), I decided to buy a pour-over coffee funnel, paper filters and some coffee beans. I excitedly took my new purchases home, and instantly rekindled my love for black coffee.

Pour-over coffee really isn’t that much different from a drip-coffee maker one may have in their kitchen in America. Instead of relying on the coffee maker to do all the work, I have to boil the water separately and subsequently pour it over the ground which I have set up in the funnel. The beauty of this process is that it can be done quite easily for a single cup, and it’s quick. The downside, as the picture shows, is that it’s possible for the coffee to overflow if your cup is smaller than expected. I realise a french press would eliminate this issue, but I really don’t like the oiliness of the coffee associated with the method.

After much success with my first 250 grams of ground coffee, I went back to the shop and bought a hand coffee grinder, another 250 grams of whole bean Tanzania, and 125 grams of decaf Guatemala. The hand grinder has turned out to be quite a bit of work, but totally worth it. I’m so happy to be reunited with my favouritest beverage ever.

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The delicious result of the Hepburn brownie recipe from Outsider Tart’s Baked in America.

Since I’ve been back home, my boyfriend and I have been doing a fair amount of baking. In the first two weeks, he made a batch of chocolate chip cookies each weekend. Then the weekend before last, we stopped at my favourite bakery, Outsider Tart, for some delicious baked treats (and amazing coffee). The guys that run the shop recently released a bakery book, Baked in America, which has all sorts of delicious recipes for some of the items they sell in their shop, including, but not limited to, brownies and bars, cookies, muffins and whoopie pies.

I let my boyfriend choose the first recipe as they all looked delicious to me, and I accidentally ate most of the chocolate chip cookies when he made them. He chose the recipe for the Hepburns. There was no picture for this recipe, only an introduction and the recipe itself, so I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. It turns out that these so-called Hepburns are the best tasting brownies I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating. Seriously. We managed to bake them just to the point where the knife came out clean when the brownies were tested, which left us with a perfectly gooey brownie.

Baked in America has turned out to be a great purchase. In addition to the Hepburns, I’ve made some delicious ginger muffins (though I’m not convinced they turned out quite right) and chocolate snickerdoodles. What makes this bakery book great, however, isn’t just the amazing recipes, but the fact that it is accessible to any would-be baker, not just American bakers, nor British bakers. In America, we tend to measure things by volume: one cup, two cups, etc. Whereas in most the rest of the world, things are measured by weight (grams, kilograms, etc.). This bakery book includes measurements in both traditional American measurements as well as weight (including both imperial and metric measurements).

I’ve been trying the weight-method of baking since I’ve gotten this book. This is mostly because British butter is not sold in easy-to-use sticks as it is in America, so I’m often left to measure that by weight anyway. Even though I’m most familiar with the American way of baking, I’m actually finding baking by weight enjoyable. The best part is that I can tare the scale after the addition of each ingredient, and am actually getting fewer things dirty as a result.

With all the baked goods that have been made in the past week, it’s no surprise that I’ve managed to gain another three pounds in 10 days. The weight gain seems to have slowed down a bit, but I think that’s a result of a combination of getting out more and getting closer to my target weight. I’ve only got another 4.5 kilograms to get back to 50 kilograms, but I’d be happy just to reach 105 pounds again–that tends to be the lower range of my normal weight, and probably the weight I was when I was reasonably healthy here in London.

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Home Sweet Home

I’ve been out of hospital for a bit over a week now, and I have to say I’m enjoying my new-found freedom. It has a been bit surreal sleeping in my own bed, enjoying my own shower and reacquainting myself with every nook and cranny of the place my boyfriend and I lovingly refer to as “tiny flat.”

Last Monday I got the all clear from the surgeons who said I could leave that day. The only loose ends I needed to tie up were getting the Hickman line removed and getting a few week’s worth of prescriptions to hold me over until I had a chance to get an appointment with a GP at my local surgery. Both went relatively smoothly, though removing the Hickman line was a bit interesting.

I was a bit nervous about having the Hickman Line removed for one reason or another. I mostly was worried it was going to feel really weird when it was moving out of the vein in my neck and under the skin on my chest. The first thing the lady did was feel around on my chest for where the cuff held the line in place. She needed to find this so she could inject some anaesthetic and make an incision to remove the line. Unfortunately, the anaesthetic stings like hell, and she didn’t find the right place the first time. Not only that, but she didn’t realise it was the wrong place until she had done a considerable amount of digging which I could feel against my sternum. It wasn’t that it hurt, but it felt incredibly weird.

Eventually she found the cuff was actually located very closely to the exit site for the line, and once she numbed that area up, and made the incision, it was only a matter of seconds before the line was out. And because I had been injected with an incredible amount of anaesthetic, I didn’t feel any part of it coming out–in fact, I hadn’t realised it had been removed until she said all was over and showed me the line. She then proceeded to stitch me up, and told me to keep lying down for at least 30 minutes to minimise bleeding.

Once I got wheeled back to the bay, I noticed the dietitian had kindly dropped off a box of supplement drinks. I was a bit worried at first because the side of the box said strawberry, and I already have something like 72 bottles of strawberry flavoured Fortisip Compacts at home. Luckily, it was only that the box said strawberry on the side, and she had provided me with a variety of different Fortisip and Fortijuce flavours which I’ve been trying out over the past week. It turns out these drinks are much more palatable when I’m not feeling completely rubbish, and I’ve been managing three a day–an extra 900 calories total–quite easily.

Since I’ve been home, I’ve been keeping relatively busy. My dad has been here to help me carry things. Since I have an 8-inch incision running vertically down my abdomen, I am not really supposed to be lifting anything more than 10 pounds, or partaking in strenuous activities. This means that food shopping by myself is out, and I can’t do too much housework. I have been managing to get out for walks around Richmond and the local area, and participating in “light” tourist activities such as a boat ride down the Thames from here to Hampton Court. I’ve also been cooking again, which has been really nice.

In the past week, we’ve enjoyed a number of delicious, home-cooked meals:
Tuesday – Spaghetti Pie and Garlic Cheese Bread
Wednesday – African Drumsticks (a Nigella recipe) and Long Grain Rice
Thursday – Yellow Curry Chicken and Jasmine Rice
Friday – Orange Glazed Pork Chops with Baked Sweet Potatoes
Saturday – Meat Loaf with Creamed Peas and Potatoes
Sunday – Meat Loaf sandwiches with Chips and Onion Rings

Not only that, but I’ve been able to enjoy meals out again, which has been really nice. Today, my boyfriend and I had what I’m going to call “America Day” where we went to an American deli for sandwiches followed by a trip to an American bakery. The deli–the Pickle and Rye in East Sheen–has a brilliant sandwich menu. I went for the BBQ pulled pork sandwich, and my partner opted for The Toronto. Both sandwiches were impressively large (how American of them!) and were served with a proper dill pickle spear on the side. I love dill pickles, and was quite pleased to finally have two proper dill spears (my boyfriend kindly gave me his–apparently he has not caught onto the brilliance of these things). The BBQ sandwich was also good–really good. The meat was incredibly tender, perfectly sauced and piled nicely on a soft roll with some lettuce and home made coleslaw. I was a bit sceptical about the coleslaw at first, but it offered a nice peppery flavour to the sandwich which paired well with the BBQ pork.

The American bakery–Outsider Tart in Chiswick–is a favourite place to visit on Bank Holiday Mondays. They offer a great variety of baked items one typically finds in America (whoopie pies, loads of cookies, certain kinds of cakes, etc.), and they make amazing coffee drinks. Seriously, trekking to Outsider Tart for the coffee alone is worth it. I’ve not had a latte with milk so smooth since I worked at Ancora Coffee Roasters my last year of university. But, if you’re going to trek to Chiswick for coffee, you may as well enjoy some delicious American baked goods as well. Today we picked up two chocolate cupcakes with vanilla frosting, a lime curd bar (similar to a lemon bar but with lime) and some sort of apple crunch cake. Obviously my hunger is getting the better of me since I picked two items for myself, but we also got something for my dad, hence the four in total.

So my recovery is going remarkably well in all. I’ve not really used any pain relievers over the past week, and if I have it’s only been paracetamol. I have a follow-up with the GP Friday to get my prescriptions sorted out, and another appointment the following Friday to have my staples removed. In the meantime I’m waiting for a follow-up with my gastro consultant and the dietitians in Kingston to see how I manage my disease going forward, and optimise my diet so I can get back to a healthy 50 kilos or so before too long.

Even though I have a load of appointments to follow-up on, at least it’s been a nice change to be out of hospital and getting on with a semi-normal life.

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Things are Progressing

I realise that it’s been awhile since I last updated. Well, to be honest, not much has been happening in the past week; that is, until today.

Last week the various teams of doctors around here had conflicting opinions on how they wanted to treat me. I couldn’t even tell who was actually in charge of my care. There was a gastro consultant who had come round who confirmed the point that I needed surgery, and there was a gastro registrar who seemed to be working more closely with the dietitians who wasn’t necessarily convinced that surgery was the only option, and wanted to at least do some more testing, which involved another MRI. The MRI showed that nothing had changed since the last one in April.

Yesterday, when the gastro registrar made his ward round, he said he was ready to send me on my way. I was a bit confused by this as I have barely stabilised my weight since I’ve been at St. George’s, let alone actually gained. Not only that, but I would have been reliant on maintaining my weight by oral intake alone because the home PN program takes six to eight weeks to set up, and I’ve only been here for a little under two weeks. Luckily(?), I was a bit sick over the weekend, and the registrar no longer thought it was a good idea to send me home.

That meant I got to be here for ward rounds today, which were very exciting. First, the gastro consultant and his team came round. They informed me that the surgeon was back from his holidays and would be around to see me this afternoon. They also informed me that I could be having surgery as soon as tomorrow. I was a bit overwhelmed by this news, but also a bit excited. The consultant said I should prepare all my questions for the  visit with the surgeon in the afternoon.

Turns out I didn’t really have that much time to prepare for the visit with the surgeon, but to be honest, I’ve had two small bowel resections, one with a right hemicolectomy (meaning the right side of my large intestine is gone), done in the past and I have a rough idea what to expect. It was kind of funny when the surgeon stopped by, I was on Skype over the phone with my dad, and he got to eavesdrop on the entire conversation. He’s actually gotten to listen in on a few random conversations I’ve had with staff here because no one realises I’m on the phone when they stop by.

My main question for the surgeon was whether he thought I was fit enough for surgery. He said given my current health situation, I probably won’t get much healthier, and could in fact lose ground if I decided to wait. Of course, there are risks associated with surgery, as there are with any surgery. These include bleeding, infection and the possibility of a reversible ileostomy (i.e. a poo bag that would be attached to my stomach), that would require further surgery to reverse. Knowing these risks, I’m still ready to have the surgery, and hopefully get back to a normal life soon, and since I’m having this done now, I may actually be well enough to go home for Thanksgiving! I can’t tell you how disappointed I was at first when I thought I’d be stuck here for the holiday (as previous posts have pointed out, I love stuffing my face at every opportunity, and Thanksgiving really is the perfect holiday for this).

Otherwise, my stay at St. George’s has been uneventful. There were a lot of discharges on the ward yesterday, and half the people in my bay are new. Two of them are also sufferers of IBDs, one with Crohn’s the other colitis.

Yesterday I was served the most “interesting” pudding. It was supposed to be butterscotch rice pudding, but I think it looked more like sick. And it really didn’t taste of anything. What do you think: pudding or sick?

Pudding or sick? You decide.


Things I Look Forward to Eating

In the weeks leading up to trips back to America, I always make a mental list of the different places I want to go out to eat, and various food products that I want to pick up that I cannot get easily (or cheaply) here in the UK. This most recent trip home, I wanted to visit a few restaurants (in order of preference):

  1. The Log Cabin: true to Midwest living, these guys serve up oversized portions of delicious Midwest comfort foods (things like roast turkey with the trimmings, open-faced sandwiches, traditional breakfasts, etc.). This is one of my favourite restaurants back home, and I was really disappointed that I wasn’t feeling quite well enough to make it during my most recent visit.
  2. Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream: two words: blue moon. A mysteriously bright blue ice cream that has no discernible flavour other than delicious. Chocolate Shoppe serves up some incredibly rich, creamy ice cream made of only the best local dairy ingredients. It’s a perfect treat any time you find yourself wandering State Street in Madison, Wisconsin.
  3. Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry: burgers are better in America. Period. And some of the best burgers I’ve ever had were served up at Dotty’s. Favourite burgers here include the Runnelstone, California Burger and the Heart Throb. Again, this was another restaurant I didn’t manage to visit during my most recent trip, and during my Thanksgiving trip when I did make it, I wasn’t feeling well enough to enjoy one of their delicious burgers (but I can say the corn dogs are pretty good!).
  4. Pizza Hut: OK, this may seem like a strange one since Pizza Hut actually exists in the UK. But, there is a difference between American Pizza Huts and UK Pizza Huts. Actually, there is even a difference between Pizza Huts in different states, as I learned when I lived in California. Wisconsin is lucky enough to have Pizza Huts with all-you-can-eat (how gluttonously American of them) lunch buffets. I remember telling my partner only days before the trip about these, and my dad actually suggested visiting one after the three of us did some touristy stuff one day. While I did make it to a Pizza Hut buffet, I wasn’t feeling up to actually eating too much, which was highly disappointing. It’s hard to pass-up all-you-can-eat pizza, pasta and bread sticks!
  5. Library Mall Food Carts: these are a bit difficult to explain unless you’ve actually spent time on the UW-Madison campus. Essentially, there are a number of food-truck type carts that set up shop outside Memorial Library from spring to autumn serving a variety of different foods including African, Jamaican, Mexican, Thai, etc. My favourite while I was in uni was the Cuban food cart called Guantanamera. Unfortunately, he seems to have gone out of business since, and my partner and I went to the Buraka cart during out most recent visit instead. I’ve never been disappointed by Buraka’s take on African food, and really enjoyed the coconut chicken curry I had on my most recent visit. An added bonus of the food carts is that you can take your lunch and enjoy it at the Memorial Union Terrace when the weather is good.
  6. The Eagle Inn: I always enjoyed the hot beef sandwich here, but their breakfasts are really good too. Oh, and the pies, those are fantastic. This was one of the restaurants I did manage to visit, and I had an awesome short stack and sausages here, and the food is such great value-for-money!
  7. Original Pancake House: I’ve not been here for years, but damn, I have dreams of their bacon pancakes. If you’re and American who’s been in Britain on Pancake Tuesday (Shrove Tuesday a.k.a. Fat Tuesday), you know that British pancakes are not the same as American pancakes. And if there is one breakfast food I desperately miss, it’s a nice stack of pancakes (which used to be one of my standby dinners when I was too lazy to make anything else).
  8. Lao Laan-Xang: I first tried this place recommendation of a co-worker at the coffee shop I worked at during my last year of uni. The curry squash here is absolutely phenomenal, and it’s one of those dishes that’s made to the level of spiciness you prefer. With two locations, one on Willy Street and another just down the road on Atwood Avenue in Madison, you have some choice in where you can enjoy your delicious dinner (though you’re more likely to get a table at the Atwood location).
  9. Culver’s: a home-state fast food chain that delivers some deliciously unhealthy burgers, and equally unhealthy frozen custard. I managed to get one of their turtle sundaes in just before I left on my recent trip. This is a sundae consisting of frozen custard, hot fudge and caramel sauce, topped off with some salty pecans and a cherry. Ooh, that combination of salty-sweetness is making my mouth water at the thought. The burgers are really good too, with the Wisconsin Swiss Melt being my favourite because it is most like a patty melt (and I have a weakness for patty melts).
  10. The Old Feed Mill: I worked here for five years from high-school through uni. I wanted to go here more or less to see how much has changed since I stopped working there seven years ago, but I was also interested in showing my boyfriend where I spent my younger days working. Even though this is one of the only restaurants actually in my home town, we’ve never actually made it there for lunch or dinner. Perhaps on our next trip we will.

In addition to visiting local restaurants, there are always a variety of foods that I either ask my parents to pick up, I pick up myself at some point during my trip, or we make at home. These include (in order of preference):

  1. Hostess orange cupcakes: my boyfriend will tell you I am absolutely crazy for these things. When we were in Wisconsin over Thanksgiving last year, we literally would drive to every convenience store within a five-to-ten-mile radius to see if they had these delicious morsels. Luckily, I found one could buy an entire box of eight at Wal-Mart, which saved us many unnecessary trips during our most recent visit.
  2. Waffles/pancakes: as I mentioned above, I absolutely LOVE pancakes, and waffles are a close second, if not tied. My family usually has what we call a “big breakfast” during each visit home where we all gather and have pancakes, waffles, eggs, bacon, sausage, etc., but because my stomach was not cooperating, we never had a chance to do this during my last visit.
  3. Pumpkin bars: my mom makes some amazing pumpkin bars. I tried making these myself when I lived in California, but they never tasted quite as good as my mom’s. Unfortunately, I’ll have to wait until Thanksgiving to have some of these, unless I am prepared to spend an arm and a leg buying canned pumpkin here, and face the frustration of trying to use British ingredients.
  4. Reese’s Pieces: similar to M&Ms, but filled with sweet peanut butter rather than chocolate. I would have actually put down Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, but I’m lucky enough that the local Waitrose now stocks these at only 60p for a package of three cups.
  5. Cream of fruit instant oatmeal: I do not care whether I get the Quaker brand, or some generic store brand, but I absolutely love eating this stuff for breakfast.
  6. Bagels and flavoured cream cheese: in the UK, it seems one can only get two flavours of bagels: 1) plain; 2) cinnamon and raisin. Where I grew up, there is a place called the Bagels Forever and they had a great selection including my favourites bluebarry (that’s how they spell it), cranbarry oat, hole wheat and standby cinnamon and raisin. Not only that, but you could get some really nice flavoured cream cheeses including strawberry and blueberry. While I did not make it to Bagels Forever, I did pick up some delicious blueberry bagels and blueberry cream cheese (blueberry overload? I think not; it was delicious).
  7. Corn dogs: how could anyone not love a hot dog dipped and coated in cornmeal then deep fried to a light, golden brown? I’ve not really found a place in my family’s area that serves up really good corn dogs (like Hot Dog on a Stick on the West Coast), but I have been known to buy the frozen ones at the supermarket and eat them at home. Sure, they’re not the same, but they’re still all right.
  8. Home-made cookies: yes, you can make cookies in the UK, but I’ve not bothered trying after some other disasters I’ve had with British ingredients (let’s just say British flour–even the plain stuff–isn’t the same as American flour). Not only that, but the concept of chocolate chips does not seem to exist! As it turns out, my partner is really good at baking cookies. We used to spend crappy afternoons baking cookies when we lived in the Bay Area, and on our most recent visit home, he made a really nice batch of chocolate chip cookies; even my parents had a hard time resisting them.
  9. American cereals: these includes ones like Lucky Charms, Fruity Pebbles, and Froot Loops. Choosing one of these cereals is always a tough decision because I only ever have a week or two back home at a time, and I usually prefer to eat the oatmeal mentioned above for breakfast. Since I thought the oatmeal was causing me a bit of intestinal distress this last time, I opted for Fruity Pebbles, and I even had enough to bring back and enjoy in the UK for a few days. Interestingly, I learned last summer that one can purchase Froot Loops on the Continent. However, they lack the unnatural colour of the American cereal, and don’t quite taste right (i.e. not as sweet).
  10. Hamburger Helper: minced (ground) beef mixed with pasta in a cheesy sauce, how could one not love it? I managed to smuggle two boxes back to the UK with me, and learned that British beef isn’t quite as tasty as American beef. Regardless, I look forward to enjoying my last box of Hamburger Helper once I’m able to eat solid food again.

So there you have it. A list of places and foods I like that show how truly American (i.e. gluttonous and unhealthy) I am. I’m certain if it wasn’t for my Crohn’s, I would be the size of a house.

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Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Attempt 1

Last night marked my first attempt at making something from Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck. One of the things I love about this book is that there’s generally a master recipe, a description, vegetable suggestions and wine suggestions which makes menu planning much easier. So for last night’s meal, it was mostly a matter of choosing a master recipe (several are also followed by variations), and which of the suggested veg I wanted along with it. The wine suggested was of course French. I wouldn’t say I ignored the suggestion, but since my local Whole Foods didn’t have an astounding selection of French wines, and I already had a bottle of pinot noir at home, I just went with my that to replace the suggested Bordeaux-Médoc or rosé.

So here’s the menu:
  • Poulet Rôti (Roast Chicken)
  • Gratin Dauphinois (Scalloped Potatoes with Milk, Cheese and a Pinch of Garlic)
  • Frozen Peas (prepared according to a recipe in the book)
  • Curvare Four Clone 2006 Pinot Noir

This was only the second time I attempted to roast a chicken. The first was two years ago and amounted to somewhat a disaster. The chicken wasn’t cleanly plucked (nasty), and I lived in an apartment with extremely sensitive and loud smoke detectors which I set off at least four times in one hour. Luckily, this attempt went off without a hitch, and yielded much better results.

First, the recipe calls for buttering the inside cavity of the chicken and sprinkling it with salt and pepper. Then you’re supposed to truss the chicken. Essentially, trussing is a way of tying the chicken up for roasting. However, the method in the book calls for something called a trussing needle–an eight-inch-long needle that can pierce the chicken carcass. I decided to pass, and ala a tip on The Julie/Julia Project blog, I trussed my chicken using the non-needle method outlined in the Joy of Cooking. Tying the chicken up wasn’t particularly difficult, but the method is different to that I used when I last roasted a turkey for Thanksgiving 2007. Needless to say, I wasn’t convinced I did it correctly.

Once the chicken is buttered and tied up, the outside is rubbed with butter, set in the pan, surround with sliced onion and carrot, and put it in the 425ºF oven to begin browning the skin. This requires a little bit of babysitting as you need to turn and baste the chicken every five minutes. I also learned an important tip at this stage: use a pan that’s just large enough to hold the chicken (in my case an 11×7-inch pan) so that the chicken won’t roll over when you turn it on it’s side. After the chicken has been turned from it’s breast side, to the left and finally to the right (and, of course, basted each time), you leave the chicken to roast on it’s right side for about half the remaining estimated roasting time, turn the oven down to 350ºF and continue to baste it every 8 to 10 minutes. After half the roasting time has passed, flip the chicken to it’s other side and continue basting at regular intervals. Finally, when there are 15 minutes left in the estimated roasting time, you flip the chicken breast-side-up, basting regularly as before.

Meanwhile, I assembled the Gratin Dauphinois. I highly suggested slicing the potatoes well in advance of beginning any cooking–or at least when you’re making a quick-cooking roast like chicken. I had to adjust the timing of the this recipe as a bit because when I planned the meal, I only noticed the initial 425ºF temperature for the chicken, not 350ºF final roasting temperature. Also, I didn’t have a flame-proof gratin dish, so I used a standard stoneware dish, and just increased the baking time. In the end, the Gratin Dauphnois cooked at 350ºF for about one hour. It still came out delicious and delicately browned on top.

Lastly, the frozen pea preparation was easy. It required bringing some chicken broth, a tablespoon of butter and a tablespoon of shallots to a boil. The the peas are added, boiled slowly for 5 to 6 minutes and finally boiled rapidly, uncovered until any remaining liquid has evaporated. This was easy enough to do while making the sauce for the chicken.

In all, I have to say this first meal from Mastering the Art of French Cooking was quite delicious. Everything was rich and butter. The chicken was very tender and juicy (probably some of the best I’ve every made, frankly), and I look forward to reusing the leftovers for the next few days to come.

Ooh, and the wine…the wine was fantastic. I was a little skeptical at first because my initial sniff test deemed the wine a little off. However, the taste was a million times better than the smell. The Curvare Four Clone pinot noir is a medium bodied, smooth wine. It picked up and melded great with the butter flavor of the chicken, potatoes and peas, and was great to sip on it’s own. For $20 a bottle at Costco (by the way, I picked this up per the suggestion of an employee at Costco), I say it’s probably one of the best bargain pinot noirs I’ve ever had.

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Pork Chop with Cider Gravy, Sautéed Apples and Onions

Pork Chop with Cider Gravy, Sauteed Apples and Onions

I picked up a copy of Rachael Ray’s Big Orange Book late last year after learning it had a section dedicated to meals for one. I reluctantly became a fan of Ray after her daytime TV debuted a few years ago and I learned that several of her 30 minute meal recipes are, indeed, delicious, and usually easy to prepare.

The Pork Chop with Cider Gravy, Sautéed Apples and Onions recipe was no exception to the quick and easy meal formula. The ingredient list is relatively short, and if you have a well-stocked pantry, you most likely have most of the ingredients on hand (things like EVOO, salt and pepper, chicken stock, flour).

And the method is simple. Brown pork chop on both sides (6 to 8 minutes total) and set aside to rest. Sauté apples and onions in the same pan until tender (5 to 6 minutes), and move to plate with pork chop. Finally, make the cider gravy (about 3 to 4 minutes total). If your confident and quick with your knife-wielding skills, you can slice the veg while you’re browning the chop, and realistically get this meal ready in 20 minutes start-to-finish.

One thing to keep in mind, however, is that it can be difficult to find pork chops that are really close to 1-inch thick. I often find that I end up getting some closer to 1-1/2 inches thick. If this happens to you, I’d suggest preheating your oven to 350 degrees at the same time you’re heating the pan for the pork chop. Once the chop is browned, transfer it to an oven-safe dish, cover it with foil, and let it hang out until the veg is ready. Pull it out, transfer it to your dinner plate and tent the plate with foil until the gravy is ready.

I like this meal because of it’s simple preparation and quick cooking time. Not only that, but it’s actually quite delicious, and produces a small number of dirty dishes (a huge bonus for me as I don’t have a dishwasher). The book suggests serving with a store-bough corn muffin to round out the meal.

Oh, and if the portion in the photo looks huge, it is. I actually ate half of the meal last night and I plan on the other half for lunch today.

Overall, I think Ray’s Big Orange Book has a lot of interesting meal ideas for the solo diner, but it may not be worth shelling out the $25 (full-price; it’s probably much cheaper online) if you don’t plan on trying some of the other recipes. I still haven’t tried any of the others, but I definitely find some of the recipes interesting, most notably the Lemon Cream Chicken with Champagne Risotto and Asparagus with Pancetta “New Years Meal for 2.”

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A long overdue update

Maintaining a blog is a little more difficult that you’d expect–or at least that’s what I think.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve actually done very minimal amounts of cooking. Mostly because I was working longer hours and fell back on more convenience foods. But my occasional audience was out of town for a number of days on-and-off throughout the month, and I usually find it more inspiring to cook for at least one other person.

During this time, I did manage to go on a cookbook buying spree and I added the following titles to my already large collection:

  • Joy of Cooking (75th Anniversary edition to replace my 1975 edition) by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker and Ethan Becker
  • Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 1 (40th Anniversary edition) by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck
  • Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 2 by Julia Child and Simone Beck
  • From Mom with Love… by Pushpa Bhargava
  • Quick & Easy Thai by Nancie McDermott

Not knowing much about French cuisine, and after hearing and reading great things about Mastering the Art of French Cooking, I decided to order it from Amazon. Although I have yet to try a recipe, I think it may be one of the best cookbooks I own. The introductory sections are brilliant. There is a section on kitchen equipment that outlines the basic equipment one needs to be successful at French cooking, and it has been updated over time to include modern conveniences like the food processor and electric mixer. There is also a section to define some common French cooking terms, as well as a section on equivalent measures and temperatures, and a section that outlines basic cutting/knife wielding techniques.

But perhaps the best section is that on ingredients. It’s a mere five pages, but it outlines some American equivalents to French ingredients. For instance, French bacon is unsalted and uncured, and that kind of bacon is nearly impossible to find in the States (actually, I’m not sure if that’s still true, or if that was a 1961 truth). But to achieve the effect of French bacon, American bacon can be blanched prior to use to remove the smoky flavor.

In addition to the introductory sections, I’ve read through several of the recipes, and they’re written in a manner that makes even elaborate sounding dishes accessible to the average home cook.

Just reading through this book prompted me to order the second volume. It adds a chapter on baking (breads, croissants, etc.) and charcuterie (sausages, salted pork and goose, pâtés and terrines) and expands volume one’s chapters on soups, meats, chicken, vegetables and desserts (there are tons of new desserts in the second volume–it’s almost shocking).

It took me nearly a week to pick what to make first, but I’ve decided on the following menu for tomorrow’s meal:

  • Poulet Rôti (Roast Chicken)
  • Gratin Dauphinois (Scalloped Potatoes with Milk, Cheese and a Pinch of Garlic)
  • Frozen Peas (but jazzed up as per a recipe in the book)

I’ll be certain to post the results Wednesday.

So while I’m most excited about the Mastering the Art of French Cooking books, I’m also excited about my other additions. After reading reviews of the 2006 edition of the Joy of Cooking, I decided it may be worth a go. I actually only used my 1975 edition once or twice, and didn’t consider the book to live up to it’s hype. However, the changes made to 75th Anniversary edition definitely mark an improvement, and I look forward to reading through the chapters on nutrition, entertaining, wine and beer and knowing my ingredients. Of course, I look forward to trying the recipes as well.

In addition to those classics, I was interesting in giving a go at some of my favorite ethnic cuisines. I’ve already tried a recipe for Red Curry Chicken with Butternut Squash from the Quick & Easy Thai book. While the curry turned out pretty well, I would have preferred much more spice and a thicker curry sauce–nothing that can’t be fixed with a few simple adjustments.

Lastly, I’m thinking about making a few changes to the blog. While cooking and baking are of great interest to me, I also enjoy wine and traveling. Therefore, I plan on expanding my blog to include wine and travel (although I generally see those being tied back to cooking or food in general).

Sorry for the long post. I hope to be back to regular updates soon.

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