Chicken

Once in the 80s, my mom went on a trendy diet that (as far as I can remember) involved eating boneless skinless chicken breasts marinated in yogurt and grilled.  I think we ate this every day for what seemed like an eternity.  I have really never come back around on chicken again (making an occasional exception for a roast chicken, which transcends all other chicken).

Well, we have had so much chicken this term that my entire family is kind of off chicken now.  The kids launched a full blown strike about 2 weeks before the end of the term.  I can’t blame them:  between class and practicing at home, I have probably been through 12 chickens and one turkey over 9 weeks.  I really like buying a whole chicken, breaking it down into its parts, pan frying the parts until they are perfect, and using the carcass for stock.  This makes better stock.  It saves money.  It tastes good.  You’ll forgive me if I hand you random chicken pieces next time I see you.  My fridge is full of ’em. Read More →

I know my people from home are checking my blog hoping to hear about culinary school, and so far they have been sorely disappointed.  The thing is it is really intense and busy, and I just haven’t been able to say anything intelligent about it yet.  I probably still can’t say anything intelligent, but hopefully you’ll settle for coherent.  Also, we aren’t really supposed to take pictures in the kitchen, so I only have the occasional iPhone snap.  I expect you’ll forgive me.

Profiteroles Cooling in the Window

Profiteroles Cooling in the Window. Not the prettiest ever, but they did taste nice. The two on the left were left unfilled so they could be used to test the doneness of the pastry.

Read More →

I adore the smell of mulled wine.  It smells like Christmas and happiness and fireplaces and love.  I hadn’t thought about mulled wine in ages until a visit to Borough Market with my sister last fall.  The market is amazing on it own.  It was only enhanced by the beautiful smell of oranges and star anise simmering away in huge pots of red wine.  Holding it between two cold hands and sipping while shopping for amazing food is one of the best ways to spend a chilly afternoon in this great grey city.

Read More →

I spent Thursday at school.  People kept telling me “Happy Thanksgiving” as if it was my own personal holiday.  It was nice.  But melancholy.  Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.  We cook, we hang out, we watch football.  No gifts, no guilt, no drama.  Just cooking and relaxing.  And the cooking isn’t perfectionist or ambitious.  It is nurturing, nostalgic, emotional, symbolic.  Everyone seems to need their dish that “makes” it Thanksgiving.  This leads to an incoherent menu with too much food and too many dishes.  But isn’t it generous?  To me the abundant Thanksgiving buffet includes a little bit of all of the guests, an influence from different regions, and it’s sum is greater than its component parts.

But cooking back home after a day in the kitchen at school was thoroughly unappealing.  So we delayed Thanksgiving to today (Sunday) and downgraded it significantly.  Even with only 4 mouths to feed and a simplified menu, I still spent all day cooking.  I knew it was worth it when my husband smiled at the end of the meal and announced that it was a smashing success. Read More →


I am a city girl.  Raised in Washington, D.C. A bit Northern, a bit Southern.  But definitely a city girl.  My mother was my first cooking teacher.  She knows nearly everything there is to know.  Seriously.  She grew up in New Orleans, and this culinary perspective permeated our home meals and has dramatically influenced my taste in food.  Mom is also a city girl, but was very close to her many many relatives who live in the rural (read: swampy) areas beyond Orleans Parish.  My mom is adventurous.  She is old-fashioned and cutting-edge, classical and alterntive, traditional and iconoclastic.  She is one of the most interesting people I know.  She also enjoys my reports of exotic, innovative, historic, divine or awful food discoveries more than anyone.  She is also my resource of first resort for cooking questions.

What follows is a recent email exchange with mom.  I really love the hell out of her.

*     *     *     *     *

From: ME

To: MOM

This morning at the farmers market they had live prawns!  Live wiggly little shrimp!  They were so freaky.  I saw them selling the last ones.  Next week I will get there EARLY!

*     *     *     *     *

From: MOM

To: ME

“Prawns”  Bless your little “British” Heart.  When we used to catch shrimp, we would eat them as is.  Raw.  Cajun sashimi?  Amazing taste of the sea.  Try one if you manage to catch some at the market next week.

*     *     *     *     *

From: ME

To: MOM

Did you just pop them in your mouth?  YIKES!

*     *     *     *     *

From: MOM

To: ME

We used to peel the raw shrimp if they were big. Sometimes we caught tiny ones and just decapitated them before popping them into our mouths.  Tiny, tiny river shrimp were so sweet and the shells were so soft as to be almost non-existent.

Fifty or sixty years ago, shrimp were so plentiful in Lake Pontchartrain that we would catch them with throw nets from the seawall on Lakeshore Drive only a mile or two from your grandparents house.  We’d go out with their friends Josie and Adolph in the evening, set lanterns on the seawall to attract the shrimp, and catch buckets of them. Mama would pack a picnic supper and we’d have a grand time. The breeze off the Lake kept the Mosquitos from eating us alive – and of course they were still spraying with DDT.

*     *     *     *     *

Last Saturday, my in-laws were in town.  My mother-in-law and I got up early and got to the Notting Hill Farmers Market at 8:30.  None of the stalls are allowed to do any business until 9am but we were already the 4th people in the queue at the Christchurch Fish stall.  By the time the market manager rang the bell, there were another 15 people behind us.  There weren’t many prawns that day, and my heart broke a little as each person ahead of me took some home.  But they lasted just long enough, and we bought the last half kilo.  Unsure of my mother’s “cooking” instructions, I asked the fisherman how to prepare them. “I put them in a pan with a little oil and just fry them up.”  As simple as that.

When lunchtime rolled around, we pulled the shrimp (and cockles and mussels) out of the fridge for a visit.  In case you have never seen a live shrimp (I hadn’t), here is news: they jump.  They can jump out of a colander.  They can jump out of the sink.  But don’t worry.  If your dog is anything like mine, you won’t have to chase them around the kitchen.  She’ll just gobble them up.  And really enjoy it.  Yes, my house is a circus.

Trusting the fishmonger over my mother this time, the shrimp went in a skillet of hot butter (and a lid, just in case they were still jumpy) until they were red and firm.  I finished them with salt and smoked paprika.  We all gathered round the table and ate them with baguette (for sopping up the butter) and loads of napkins.  London meets New Orleans for a beautiful family lunch.

My mom is coming to London for Christmas.  I really hope Christchurch has prawns that weekend.  They were good, but not quite the same without her.

A bonus photo of the stowaways that were tangled up in the mussel beards.  They were live, but too small to eat.

 

Last spring we visited New Barns Farm. Our tent came with our own hen. Here she is exploring the perimeter.

I was surprised last week when one of the teachers made a sarcastic comment about American cuisine and used chicken and bananas as an example.  I whispered to the person next to me “what is she talking about?”  “Maryland Chicken,” he answered, his tone indicating that this should have been obvious.  I grew up in DC, a couple miles from the Maryland border.  Maryland is knows for crab cakes, not bananas and poultry.

During a lecture on wine pairings, another teacher was discussing the difficulty of pairing wine with certain foods.   There it was again: her example was strange American foods like Maryland Chicken.  I asked someone else this time, thinking maybe I had just not understood the first time.  Again, “chicken and bananas” was the explanation I got.

I turned to Google and was surprised that the top hits were in fact about this absurd dish being linked to my neighbor state.  Had I been living under a rock?  But then I got suspicious.  The top hits were all UK websites: BBC, Jamie Oliver and British fast-food chain named Maryland Chicken.  I realized that Google was telling me what it thought I wanted to hear — but Google thinks I am British!  To get around the filter bubble, I called my sister in DC and asked her to run the same Google search.  She got none of these sites.  If she searched for chicken and bananas, she got curry recipes as opposed to the “American” recipes I was getting in the UK.  An informal (and statistically meaningless) survey of my facebook friends from Maryland confirmed what I suspected: none of them had ever heard of this dish.

A 2001 Washington City Paper article on the Maryland chicken industry gave some context.  To the extent that there is something known as Maryland Chicken in Maryland, it seems to be really good buttermilk fried chicken made with local birds.  Usually accompanied by gravy.  No mention of bananas.  There was also a rather successful fried chicken chain called Maryland Fried Chicken.  It was at its peak in the 60s and 70s — in Florida.  They specialized in “broasted” chicken, which is awesome and, as you might have guessed, does not involve bananas.

I only found two relevant mentions of bananas with fried chicken.  Wikipedia says that “The dish known in the UK as Chicken Maryland, popular in the 1960s, consisted of fried chicken (often in breadcrumbs) served with sweetcorn fritters and fried bananas.”  An About.com article on French food mentions that Chicken à la Maryland (a classic buttermilk fried chicken) was popular in the early 1900s served with bananas, a major import into Baltimore Harbor.  Assuming this is accurate, it does seem that over time the Americans were happy to leave the bananas where they belonged — off the chicken.  Only in the UK is anyone still making “American”-style chicken with bananas.  It probably says more about UK cuisine than American.  If you are dying to revive this back home, you’ll probably have to try Jamie Oliver.

I guess this mysterious food misnomer shouldn’t be a total surprise.  I think it’s pretty common that foods get attributed to certain locations by historical accident.  My husband, a native of St. Louis, swears that no one in St. Louis knows what St. Louis style ribs are, even though restaurants across America serve them proudly.  As my cousin aptly pointed out, Americans love their French Fries, but they likely came from Belgium.

Fun fact that I can’t leave behind:  Chicken a la Maryland was served for lunch the day before the Titanic sank.  No confirmation on whether this version included bananas, but I would note that the Titanic was a British, not an American vessel.

In addition to learning about food and becoming a better cook, I am trying very hard to help my kids become adventurous eaters.  That has actually been a goal of mine for as long as they’ve been eating solid foods.  And yes, I did make homemade baby food  … it’s just cooked vegetables and a hand blender, I mean, come on … but I digress.  In our family, everyone has to try some of everything on their plate at each meal, and if you want dessert you have to eat most of your meal.  So, one might think that developing adventurous eating habit is mainly about making exotic, yet appealing food.  (See the previous post about cockles…)  That’s only part of the story.  As my husband proved this evening, adventurous eating some times requires plain old adventure.  In an attempt to get “The Fours” to eat their dinner tonight (beef stew with mashed potatoes and barley, brought home from today’s practical session), he pulled out the Lego C-3PO as our supper inspector.  C-3PO popped up every few minutes to check their progress.  “I see you have eaten 32% of your dinner.  The chances of you getting dessert are 756 to 1.”   I’m not sure my 4 year-olds got the math, but it definitely got big laughs, and empty plates.  Well done, Dad.

For many years I have day dreamed about what else I might be doing if I was doing something else.  Not that I didn’t love lawyering.  Believe it or not, I really really loved lawyering.  More than I ever thought I would.  But there are more things that I would like to do in this life than I have time for.  So I spent a fair amount of time rolling those plans and goals around in my head, sorting ideas that might fit into my life from the ones that really fit only into my imagination.  (I can now admit that I am unlikely to be appointed co-Goodwill Ambassador with Angelina Jolie.  I am at peace with this.  More or less.)

During the intense times, I’d dabble in daydreams of alternate paths.  Actually, that’s not true.  The intense times made me the happiest.  It was the inevitable return to work-a-day lawyering that stoked the daydreams of spending my day doing something else. The recurring dream?  Culinary school.  Cooking.  Growing food.  Understanding the food chain.  I read all of the books and blogs that one is meant to read to be well-versed in our perverse food economy.  That wasn’t enough.  I didn’t want to be a lawyer who could talk food.  I wanted to really understand it.

So, here I find myself at a natural pause in my legal career.  Living in London.  After several months away from my old world, my mind began to open a little to the possibilities ahead of me.  And then I discovered that Leith’s School of Food and Wine is a 10-minute bus ride from our flat.  I think I may have manufactured some should-I-or-shouldn’t-I drama because this seemed like the type of life (and financial) decision that should generate some angst.  But in fact, the decision was made the day I found out we were staying in London another year.

So what if the school isn’t well known in the States? (We are eventually returning, after all).  So what if I will learn to make more “English food” than I ever imagined?  (We start our Christmas Puddings this week).  It is all worth it if I can learn to flip an omelette straight out of the pan.  (Check!).  Learn to make profiteroles and eclairs!  (Last week).  Joint a chicken and deal with wild game?  Really excited.  I am three weeks in and every day I have thought ‘I can’t believe that I *get* to do this today.’  Not once has that sentenced passed through my mind with the phrase ‘I *have* to.’ I keep pinching myself.  And we haven’t even started wine lectures yet.

So here I am.  Happy.  Grateful.  Even a little embarrassed over my amazing good fortune to be right here.  In the right place.  At the right time.  Right where I need to be.

Textbooks. Much more fun than Civil Procedure.

I suspect that the Month of Shellfish is about to transition abruptly into the Autumn of Insanely Busy (more on that later). Before that happens, I had to make sure we got one last batch of cockles in.  I am really quite madly in love with these little suckers.  My dad asked me the difference between cockles and clams.  I wasn’t able to find a consistent answer, but it seems that “clams” can be used quite broadly to include all bivalves except for oysters, mussels and scallops.  Cockles are a subset of clams — fair to say that all cockles are clams but not all clams are cockles.  Is it a meaningless distinction?  Not to me.

Cockles are commonly served as a bar snack here in the UK.  I’d say they taste like a marriage of clams and mussels.  They are easy to cook and we’ve been enjoying our weekly pot of bivalves while the Fours have their dinner.  The best of both worlds — dinner with the kids followed by a proper adult meal once they’ve gone to bed.

silver bells and cockle shells
(the wine, La Clochette, was a coincidence I only noticed after the fact)

After a month of experiments, I’ve settled on this treatment for my molluscs.  I start a pot of water to boil with a sliced up lemon, peppercorns, bay leaves, salt.  Depending on what I have around, I may throw in other herbs or seaweed or a slosh of wine.  I simmer this (5-30 minutes) while I do other things.  When I finally remember the simmering liquid, I toss in the cockles (or clams or mussels) and let them boil for 3-4 minutes (or until they are all opened) and drain them.



Yes, there are more sophisticated preparations.  Yes, I made this up and am probably doing something wrong.  But, if this is wrong, I am not sure I need to be right.  My family devours these so quickly that I would be annoyed if they were any harder to make.  The Fours like to use one empty shell to grab the next little cockle.  They also like to make them talk and put on little cockle conversations during dinner.

I intended to take my camera to the market this morning but I woke up with a headache and was panicked that I was going to miss the good selection at the fish stall.  I did remember the dog and my wheeled bag, which earned its keep today.  Apples, cauliflower, broccoli, leeks — all gorgeous.  But most importantly, I was on a quest for more cockles.  When the 4 year-old eaters in the house request cockles (!), I don’t argue.  Sadly, there were no cockles today and I came home with clams and a cuttlefish instead.  The small eaters liked the clams, but declared that they weren’t as good as the cockles.  Better luck next week?  Or am I going to be chasing ghosts all winter?  I forgot to ask whether they were done for the season.

Also, I really like saying cockles.

 

So about that cuttlefish. My trusted fishmonger promised me that I just had to cut it open here, scoop the guts out and that the little sucker would be good to go. I finally got around to pulling our cuttley little friend out of the fridge before dinner, and… let’s just say this was one of the few times when I have had absolutely no idea what to do with the crazy thing I had lugged home.

What are you looking at?

The body was unexpectedly (and confusingly) hard. There was no obvious place to snip as Obi Wan Fish Guy had led me to believe. So, I resorted to Google and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.  These instructions got it done, though I know my food background is somewhat pedestrian when I am humbled by instructions like “the bony ball of mouthparts can be squeezed out in much the same way as you would a squid.” Riiiight. Luckily, it turns out that if one squeezes what appears to be the mouth of a cuttlefish, it does indeed spit out a bony little ball of mouthparts.  Who knew?

Hugh (based on one meeting, I can call him by his first name, right?) notes that “it can be tricky to locate the ink sac among the rest of the messy, soft innards.”  Indeed:

I think I was meant to snip it out cleanly and reserve it for some elegant squid ink stained dish.  Better luck next time.

Now I will admit that the cuttlefish wasn’t a complete lark.  Last week I made a huge batch of chickpeas and had been looking for a seafood pairing for them. I came across a recipe by  Micheal Psilakis for octopus and chickpea confit salad, so the cuttlefish was perfect.

finished chickpea confit

Last night, I made the confit out of my pre-cooked chickpeas.  It was easy and transformed the chickpeas into a rich, buttery base for the cuttlefish.  Better still, I love how make-ahead components simplify assembly of an otherwise complicated dish.  All that was left to do tonight was clean and sear the cuttlefish.  Considering the cleaning was 20x more complicated than I was led to believe, I was so grateful that my chickpeas were done.  And that my husband had brought home a lovely bottle of red wine.  The end result was, thankfully, lovely.  Really, really lovely.  Thanks, fishguy, Hugh, MP… and lots of good handsoap.

Michael Psilakis Chickpea and Octopus (or Cuttlefish) Salad