Tag Archives: comfort food

Beef Stew and Irish Soda Bread!

Tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day, and last week I went searching through my city’s public library catalogue of Irish cookbooks in order to find something special to cook as celebration of the day. I had to plan ahead in order to put together an Irish-inspired supper since Tuesdays are extremely busy for me in terms of scheduled classes and homework workloads. I figured I wouldn’t really have the time on Tuesday evening to put together a special supper, so I had better make my attempt at making a St. Patrick’s Day meal on the weekend rather than on the day itself.

I was actually fairly surprised by the sheer number of Ireland-related cookbooks that are available through the public library. For some reason I’ve never really thought of the public library as a resource for cookbooks—although now that I stop to think about it, I can’t imagine why it wouldn’t be. I spent a good couple of hours searching through the online lists and catalogue of books about Irish cuisine and cookery before settling on requesting a copy of Cathal Armstrong’s 2014 book, My Irish Table. And it’s probably a good thing that I went hunting for such a comprehensive and contemporary Irish cookbook a few days in advance of March 17, because as of this blog post going live, all seven copies of this particular cookbook have been checked out from the library’s catalogue.

In My Irish Table, author and four-star chef Cathal Armstrong records his culinary path from Dublin, Ireland to the United States, where he currently owns and operates seven well-respected restaurants. It’s clear in Armstrong’s writing that this book is all about his love of his homeland and Irish food. Originally I was going to try to produce Armstrong’s recipe for Irish stew, but my parents vetoed the idea on account of their distaste for lamb. That’s a shame, because according to Armstrong, “Real Irish stew is not made with beef. At all. Traditionally it is made with lamb neck or shinbones (known as gigot)” (60). Although it’s worthy to add that Armstrong continues by adding that he usually makes this stew using lamb shoulder chops instead of neck or gigot as they “are meatier and you can get a good sear on them, which adds flavour” (60). And that’s a helpful addition of detail, because as much as I would have liked to cook with lamb in pursuit of authenticity, I’m not sure I’m on board with the idea of cooking lamb neck just yet.

stew 012

If you don’t plan on quartering small potatoes for your stew, why not serve it over a fluffy mound of mashed potatoes? From what I’ve been able to learn from online food writing sources, this is another traditional way of serving beef stew, and the creaminess of the mashed potatoes really has a delicious effect on a bowl of hot stew.

Instead, I settled for Armstrong’s recipe for beef stew as found on page 72 of the book. Back on page 60 in his explanation of what constitutes a real Irish stew, Armstrong suggests that carrots shouldn’t really be added to an Irish stew, but that he likes incorporating them due to their sweetness. Perhaps as a result of this carrots are plentiful in Armstrong’s recipe for beef stew, as are eight cloves of garlic, and an entire serrano chili—something that I wouldn’t have ordinarily associated with a typical Irish-based beef stew. (Although on further consideration, why shouldn’t it be added? Chilies and spicy peppers always seem to work well with beef, almost regardless of culinary context.)

Armstrong explains what is actually happening in the pot during the stewing process by telling readers that “when you apply heat to food, you’re actually applying pressure” (73). He further delves into culinary science by explaining that stewing meat is forced to contract due to the application of heat (and its pressure), and that this forces the flavourful liquids from the meat, into the surrounding mire-poix of the stew’s vegetable and aromatic components: the carrots, celery, onion, garlic, and fresh rosemary, thyme, and bay leaf (73). Armstrong says that the reason that a stew’s flavour intensifies over the days following the day the stew was originally made is because as the stew cools and the meat cools, it begins to relax and (re)absorb the surrounding liquid—liquid that was created by the meat and the vegetables cooking in the first place (73).

While Armstrong recommends that beef stew be served over mashed potatoes, I thought I would make a couple loaves of Irish soda bread to help sop up the stew’s resulting gravy-like liquid. Armstrong helpfully includes a recipe for Irish soda bread on page 191. The popularity of soda bread (and of a lot of other unleavened breads) is due to the yeast’s historic costliness. Armstrong says that baking soda was introduced in Ireland during the mid-nineteenth century (191) and this coincides with a historic record of the country’s economic climate which would indicate why this bread became as popular and prevalent through Ireland at this time.

Soda bread is not difficult to make. Consisting of mainly four ingredients (flour, baking soda, butter, and milk—oh, and let’s say salt too for seasoning), it’s a quick bread that requires little working and kneading of the dough, and no time required for resting the dough (since there’s no yeast in it). However I’ve had mixed results when making soda bread in the past. It was a bit of a surprise then that Armstrong’s recipe for the stuff worked out beautifully. (Honestly, my bread baking efforts have a 50-50 chance of success or failure.) As it was, the bread looked and smelled lovely when I removed it from the oven, and it tasted wonderful with the beef stew.

stew 017

Sure stews are even better the day after making them, but I think this was a pretty successful “pre-St. Patrick’s Day” St. Patrick’s Day supper!

I’d like to include the recipes for beef stew and Irish soda bread from Armstrong’s book to this blog post, but due to copyright issues, I will instead direct you to check out your local booksellers to find a copy. In lieu of making a purchase, I’d encourage you to browse your public library’s catalogue in search of it. Who knows, your public library might have seven copies of it—although I wouldn’t bet on being able to find a single copy available the day before St. Patrick’s Day!

Tagged , ,

Braised Beef with Garlic and Tomatoes!

Last month, I read Michael Pollan’s recent book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. Michael Pollan is a journalist and professor associated with UC Berkeley and The New York Times. As a food activist, Pollan writes engaging books aimed and general audiences about food production and consumption in the United States, modern agribusiness, and the cultural ethics related to the broad subject of food.

I don’t always choose non-fiction and investigative writing when I’m picking out leisure reading, but I’ve always appreciated Pollan’s writing style and I like that he can write about some very complex topics without getting too bogged down in their intricacies. His writing offers a clear and well-considered introduction to a variety of subject matter, and often his books will include a directed reading list should any of his topics interest readers enough to want to find more information on their own after they’ve finished his book.

Cooked is arranged into four sections that align with the classical elements of fire, water, air, and earth. These sections correspond with different methods of food production: cooking with heat and an open flame, braising and stewing, baking and bread making, and fermentation. Pollan’s writing made me think about my own cooking habits and relationship with food, and inspired me to attempt some of the cooking methods he discusses in Cooked. But since it’s still the depths of winter here in the city (despite recently flipping the calendar to match the month of March), attempting barbecue (fire) was a little out of the question, and both baking bread and pickling were rather complex processes that require an amount of time that I simply haven’t got to spare these days between competing deadlines for college assignments and projects.

So I settled on trying out braising—a cooking technique that I was somewhat familiar with, and which looked, on the page, like an easy enough undertaking. Braising is essentially a two-step process. Meat is first seared at a high temperature and then finishes the cooking process in a covered pot or roasting dish at a lower temperature surrounded by an amount of liquid (which usually adds flavour to the cooking meat, too).

See? Sounds simple enough. Regardless of the simplicity of the action of braising though, Michael Pollan suggests (by way of internationally recognized anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss) that braising meat is a method of rendering the animalistic (literally animal flesh) into something that is (figuratively) human. And that is quite the complicated statement.

braise 125

Beef braised in a flavourful garlic and tomato sauce that comes together with minimal fussing. I don’t think we even needed the egg noodles, the meat and sauteed greens were pretty much supper enough.

According to Pollan, cooking meat thoroughly in a braise “achieves a more complete transcendence of the animal, and perhaps the animal in us, than does grilling over a fire, which leaves its object partly or entirely intact, and often leaves a trace of blood—a visible reminder … that this is a formerly living creature we’re feasting on” (54). Pollan supports this idea by further suggesting that “the braise or stew—and particularly the braise or stew of meat that’s been cut into geometric cubes and rendered tender by long hours in the pot—represents a deeper sublimation, or forgetting, of the brutal reality of this particular transaction among species” (54). The “transaction” that Pollan is talking about here is the consumption of one animal by another, and furthermore, the consumption of the animal after (parts of) its physical form is altered by a cooking process.

And you’ve got to agree, that’s some pretty deep thinking caused by contemplating a hunk of meat slowly cooking in a shallow pool of liquid. Because of that, I set out to get the simplest braise recipe that I could find online. Thankfully the folks running epicurious.com had a three-ingredient braised beef recipe that (at the time of this blog post) boasts a 3.5/4 star rating by recipe reviewers, and 82% of cooks saying they would make it again. Now granted this braised beef recipe doesn’t require cooks to chop up a roast into “geometric cubes” (or to even brown it in the roasting pan prior to adding the liquid ingredients), but after the braising is finished doing its work on the collagen and connective tissue of the meat, the roast will be so fork-tender it is almost completely and unrecognizably transformed from the bodily tissue of an animal into a comforting, and delicious main course.

braise 111

Three ingredients makes for a cut of meat that’s fork-tender and delicious. And as with all stews and braises, the flavour’s even better on the second day! (So try to make sure there’s some leftovers for you tomorrow!)

Pollan continues the line of thinking introduced by Lévi-Strauss that boiled and braised foods represent “a further remove from uncivilized nature than does roasted food” (156) as boiled or braised food requires the cultural artifact of the cooking pot—something that is carefully crafted and then cared for after its use, two things that require specialization of labour (pottery-making) and culture to support. Pollan directly addresses this line of thinking by posing the idea that “if all cooking is a process of transforming the stuff of nature into culture, boiling [and braising] achieves a more complete transformation of the animal being eaten” (156). He addresses the cultural inclusion of food prepared in a cooking pot more directly when Pollan states, “To eat from the same pot is to share more than a meal … In the same way that the stew pot [or the braising dish] blends a great many different ingredients together, … it brings the family together as well” (158).

Another important fact about this particular recipe, is that it calls for an entire head of garlic. In Cooked, Michael Pollan looked into the role that onions and garlic play in global cooking trends. He found that the addition of garlic and onions to meat dishes greatly increases the general safety of eating these foods. According to Pollan (and other food researchers), “like many of the most commonly used spices, onions (garlic, too) contain powerful microbial compounds that survive cooking” (144) and that “microbiologists believe that onions, garlic, and spices protect us from the growth of dangerous bacteria on meat” (144-45). It then stands to reason that through years of trial and error, people discovered that cooking meat with particular aromatic vegetables (onions and garlic) resulted in meals that were less likely to make people sick afterwards. This was all discovered prior to the invention of refrigeration of course, but it might explain why garlic and onions (which are “one of the most potent of all antimicrobial food plants” [145]) are so commonly used in cooking.

I am unsure of the specific history of this dish, but braising is a cooking method with history, and braised dishes are made all over the world in many different cultures. Braising meat involves both dry and moist heat, as part of the meat that is braised cooks outside of the braising liquid. But it is this liquid (likely laden with antimicrobial ingredients like onions and garlic) that also helps to ensure the safety of the dish. The temperature of the liquid reaches the boiling point and holds steady at this temperature while the meat cooks, killing potentially illness-causing microbial elements in the ingredients.

It is also this cooking liquid that helps to form a harmony of flavours within the braising dish as well as helping detoxify ingredients, blending flavours, and breaking down tough plant and animal fibres and rendering them into digestible food. According to Pollan, “given enough heat and time, [a braising liquid] softens, blends, balances, harmonizes, and marries” (163) different aspects, ingredients, and elements of the braised dish. I think what Michael Pollan was trying to get at was that the cooked meal can be viewed as a metaphor for the coming together of a family unit (or community) in sharing a meal. And through this, cultural beliefs are built and reinforced when nature is brought into the home and transformed into a something nutritionally and socially sustaining.

Hopefully you will try this three-ingredient braised beef supper (it’s super easy!) and will enjoy it with a plateful of sautéed greens and noodles among your family or close, loved ones. After all, according to Pollan, a braised beef supper is downright designed for bringing a family together to harmonize over.

Tagged , ,

Yorkshire Puddings!

yorkshire puddings 027

A Sunday supper of bright vegetables, tender roast beef, and savoury homemade gravy deserves a fresh Yorkshire pudding. And let’s get real: the Yorkshire pudding is going to be the part of the meal that you look forward to all week!

Yorkshire puddings are a Sunday night supper specialty in my house. We don’t make them too often, only now and then, but they are always a favourite at the dinner table (and to be sure, usually a couple are sneakily eaten even before dinner is plated and served at the table).

According to authors Glenn Rinsky and Laura Halpin Rinsky of The Pastry Chef’s Companion (2009), Yorkshire puddings are a sort of savoury popover named for the Yorkshire region of England, from which the dish originates. Author Alan Davidson tells readers that typically Yorkshire pudding is made of a thin batter in a single pan and often accompanies a roast beef supper (The Oxford Companion to Food, 1999). Davidson says that traditionally, as part of the Sunday supper, “the pudding, cut in squares, should be served with gravy before the meat, to take the edge off the appetite”. He does acknowledge however that as cooking practices shifted over time to reflect the advent of more modern kitchen ranges, appliances, and ovens, that Yorkshire puddings are often made in smaller, round tins instead of in one large pan as is traditional. He also notes that due to these technological shifts, enclosed oven ranges don’t allow for Yorkshire pudding to be cooked exactly as they traditionally were—baking in the steady heat of a roasting oven several inches below an exposed haunch of meat.

It is traditional to cook Yorkshire puddings using the juices and drippings from roast meat (and in particular those from roast beef), but nowadays people often use other cooking oils to start their puddings such as canola and vegetable oils. Important to achieving the lightness and crispness of a proper Yorkshire pudding is “introducing the [Yorkshire pudding] batter into a pan containing fat which is smoking hot, thus starting to form a crust underneath straight away; as the pudding continues to cook, the air incorporated into the batter during mixing expands, making it rise, and the fierce heat dies out the top of the pudding leaving it crunchy” (Davidson, 1999).

yorkshire puddings 009

There’s that crispy exterior that’s all-important to a proper Yorkshire pudding! When the batter is poured into the heated pan and its sizzling hot oil, it immediately begins to cook. The oil helps to cook the thin batter thoroughly and provide the perfect crispy crust to the pudding.

My mother’s recipe is a bit of a hodge-podge, yet it remains simple and straight-forward enough to qualify as a decent Yorkshire pudding recipe. It was somewhat cobbled together from several (ever changing, and disappointingly unreliable) re-tellings of a ‘secret family recipe’ from my dad’s side of the family, and from a recipe that was published a number of years ago in the city newspaper following an interview with a chef from a popular local English/Irish pub. The recipe we use does not call for the drippings and juices from roast beef (as we usually use those to make the gravy), but nevertheless yields a delicious Yorkshire pudding that has a perfect balance of airiness and crispiness. In fact, due to this airy crispiness, these puddings tower in the pan, as proper Yorkshire puddings should. Should there be any left over after supper (not as frequent a situation as you might think), they serve well the next day paired with reheated leftovers, savoury spreads like spicy mustards, or sweet homemade jams.

The one bit of caution that I would advise anyone of when making Yorkshire puddings (besides the ever present warning of: careful, the oil will be very hot!) is to designate a separate baking tin as the tin that will forevermore be specifically used for Yorkshire puddings. The hot oil needed for cooking the puddings can discolour a baking tin to the point of being nearly unrecognizable after the first few times of making Yorkshire puddings.

But it’s a small price to pay—an ugly, discoloured tin—for the deliciousness of fresh Yorkshire puddings during a Sunday supper.

yorkshire puddings 013

Trust me, there’s some kind of unwritten rule that the best Yorkshire puddings come from the gnarliest looking pans! (Seriously though, you may want to designate and set aside a pan specifically for making Yorkshire puddings and Yorkshire puddings alone–discolouration that will happen to that thing.)

Continue reading

Tagged ,

Rice Pudding!

You know what’s a good word? Transubstantiation. Sure, there’s a religious connotation to the word, but have you thought about it in regards to cooking? The definition of transubstantiation is (according to the Oxford English Dictionary), “the changing of one substance into another”. The process of cooking gets pretty darn close to the definition of transubstantiation, even if cooking is a process that combines different individual parts to produce a finished final product (which exists as the sum of its parts).

But when it comes to making your favourite, most simple dishes, I think transubstantiation could be an excellent word to apply to the process. Take for instance, one of my favourite (and simple!) desserts: the humble rice pudding. It’s essentially three main ingredients, heavy cream, long grain rice, and a good kick of sugar. Simple ingredients that through the process of cooking ‘low and slow’ on the stovetop will transubstantiate into one of the most comforting treats someone can indulge in on cold wintry evenings. There’s almost a magical and mystical element to making such a comforting food from scratch in your own kitchen from such simple and unassuming ingredients. (Especially after thinking about such a rhetorically loaded and heady word as transubstantiation.) But it’s also the same kind of feeling that also harkens back to our collective experiences and shared human history of being a species that cooks—the only animal on the planet that takes simple ingredients and transforming them into something entirely different, and delicious, and nutritious via cooking.

rice pudding 060

Creamy, sweet, and fragrant, rice pudding is one of my favourite comforting treats on a cold winter afternoon.

And rice pudding is a dessert that definitely has roots that reach far into our collective past as a food-preparing species. According to Solomon H. Katz, the editor in chief for the Scribner’s Encyclopedia of Food and Culture (2003), and Alan Davidson, author of the Oxford Companion to Food (1999), rice puddings wouldn’t have been unfamiliar to the ancient Romans. Davidson even suggests that the ancient Romans who were wealthy enough to afford the imported grain necessary to make the dish likely ate it as a remedy for upset stomachs. (Which is interesting since rice pudding is still considered an easy-to-digest and stomach-settling, comforting treat for people these days, too.)

According to Davidson, in the 17th century, recorded recipes for baked rice puddings began to appear in cookbooks and recipe collections. (I’ve never made a baked rice pudding—my mother always made it in a sturdy pot on the stovetop, and that’s how I made it this past weekend, too.) Often these 17th century recipes called for an egg to be added to the ingredients, which is now uncommon, but the addition of spices like cinnamon and nutmeg are a holdover from these earlier recipes and which still persists in rice pudding’s modern incarnations.

Rice pudding is a type of food that is not at all exclusive to the Western world. It has shown up in different cultures around the world, in various forms. It’s generally believed that rice originally started as a cultivated grain in China, India, and Southeast Asia. Author Kenneth F. Kipple of A Moveable Feast: Ten Millennia of Food Globalization (2007), asserts that as a domesticated crop, rice’s cultivation process began in these regions as early as 10,000 years ago. Subsequently, there are rice pudding dishes from a number of different cultures that are from these regions—each with their own specific differences, yet persistent similarities which can be used to connect these dishes as being varieties of a general rice pudding category. Davidson describes kheer (the Indian name for sweet milk puddings made with rice or very fine noodles) and sheer birinj (a Persian variety of kheer) as similar dishes that are related to rice pudding. These dishes can have added ingredients for flavouring like cardamom, cinnamon, almonds and pistachios, all of which would work well in a typical, modern Western-style rice pudding, too. Western-style rice puddings often feature flavourings such as raisins, currants, vanilla or almond extracts, and cinnamon and nutmeg which possess comparable flavour profiles when added to sweetened rice porridges and desserts.

The recipe my family uses when we make rice pudding is not from the 17th century, but it is very likely quite close to the recipes found in Europe at the time. (Or at least, it’s fairly evident that the recipe we use was generally derived from these recipes.) The actual recipe itself consists of notes hastily scrawled on a notecard that is beginning to show its age with curling corners, creases from accidental folding, and even a bit of vanilla extract smudged on one of its edges. Mum’s had this recipe card for seemingly forever—or at least from before I was born, and the ingredient measurements make for a large pot of rice pudding. The number of servings that can come from this recipe is fairly nebulous, and entirely dependent on how much you and your dinner guests enjoy old-fashioned rice pudding.

As has been described, a rice pudding recipe can be altered to suit your tastes. You can add currants, raisins, and other dried fruits if you like (personally, I don’t like raisins in my rice pudding), and you can reduce or increase the amount of spices added to the pot as you see fit (or even add different spices to the mix, and turn your rice pudding into something more savoury than sweet). It is entirely up to you how you want to prepare and personalise your rice pudding, but I think as long as you follow a basic recipe that primarily consists of rich cream, long grain rice, and a bit of sugar for sweetness, you’re on the right track to a delicious treat. The trick to a good stovetop rice pudding (of nearly any variant and variety) is to cook it for a long time on a low heat, stirring regularly to keep the pudding from adhering to the bottom of your pot. It’s that ‘low and slow’ cooking process that turns (or transubstantiates) simple ingredients into something comforting and delicious.

rice pudding 061

Sure, it might not be the most visually exciting dessert, but rice pudding is a delicious treat that stands the test of time as a homey favourite.

Continue reading

Tagged , ,

‘On the Mend’ Chicken Soup!

chicken soup 011

There’s nothing as comforting as a bowl of chicken soup when you’re feeling under the weather.

This past week I got sick with one of the worst colds I’ve had in a couple of years. I wasn’t feeling great at the start of the week, and began feeling worse and worse as the week progressed, but it wasn’t until the weekend when my cold got really bad. I spent both this Saturday and Sunday on the chesterfield, alternating between napping and watching daytime television programming. I think at some point I was watching something about ice road truckers or tow-truck drivers in British Columbia, and then there were a couple solid hours of No Reservations (that travel show with Anthony Bourdain) on one of the travel channels, and admittedly, that wasn’t half bad.

It’s pretty lousy being taken out of things with a bad head cold. I spent most of the weekend in a weird half-awake state, with migraines and sinus pressure, sneezing and coughing and just feeling awful. What was especially bad was that weird, zero-energy and fuzzy-headed feeling that goes along with a really bad cold. (If you’ve ever had a nasty cold, you probably know exactly what I’m talking about.) Complex thoughts were beyond me, and quietly vegetating on the couch was exactly my speed this weekend. I mostly lived off cups of tea (with honey and lemon) to soothe my throat, although I think I remember having some soup on Friday evening.

Today was the first day when I started to feel a little more like myself. (I’m still too unwell to venture out of the house and rejoin my classes at the college, but I’m sure I’ll be there for Tuesday, and if not feeling ‘right as rain’, then at least ‘no worse for wear’.) And since my appetite and clear-headed thinking has returned, I thought making a small pot of soup would be a good step to feeling well and back to normal.

chicken soup 004

Using leftover roast chicken helps reduce cook time for this soup, making for a quickly made, comforting soup.

To be honest, I never used to like soup when I was younger. I always associated it with feeling under the weather, since that’s usually when I’d eat it. But it’s true that there’s something almost inherently soothing and comforting about a pot of homemade chicken soup that can make a person feel like they’re on the mend and recovering well. I didn’t really use any specific recipe when making this soup (mostly I fell back on general cooking experience) and cobbled together a quick pot of chicken noodle soup from what was available in the pantry, spice rack, and fridge. Leftover roast chicken breast, diced carrots, onion, and celery, and a bit of lemon juice and aromatic herbs turned the soup into a quick, satisfying, and comforting supper for someone getting over a bad cold.

Next time you’re feeling under the weather, take time to rest and recover, and when you’re feeling well enough, try making yourself a small pot of chicken soup. The hot broth will soothe your sore throat, its steamy goodness can help with congestion, and getting protein and fresh vegetables into your system will do wonders for your energy levels. It’s just the right thing to kick start your system into recovery mode.

Continue reading

Tagged , ,

Baking Powder Biscuits and Tea!

This Sunday morning I was awake long before the rest of my family. Usually I take full advantage of the weekend and sleep in late, but for whatever reason I couldn’t sleep past seven o’clock. I was just kind of knocking around the house for a while on my own, working on homework, and running a load of laundry before anyone else got up. I thought about shoveling the snow from the walkway, and while the weather’s been a lot milder than it has been earlier in the month, I still chickened out from venturing out into the snow, and stayed inside where it was warm and dry.

Lately the city’s caught something of a break from frigid temperatures that were hanging down around -40 (with the ever-present wind chill taken into consideration, of course). And to be honest, aversion to snow-shoveling chores or not, since about midweek last week, the weather’s been downright bearable outside. Watching the birds visiting the feeder just outside the kitchen window, I thought I’d make something special for Sunday’s breakfast. Maybe I could use the ‘but I made breakfast!’ as an excuse to shirk shoveling the walk. To better my odds, I decided that I would make one of my family’s favourite things to have on snowy winter mornings: baking powder biscuits.

tea 2015 068

A cup of hot tea and flaky, soft biscuits with butter and raspberry jam is as good a start to a Sunday as anything!

The recipe my family uses to make these biscuits is pretty basic, and can be doctored in all sorts of ways. You can add in a bit of sugar, dried currants, and swap the skim milk for rich cream and make the biscuits closer to the sort served during elegant afternoon teas. Or the biscuits could be turned into a more savoury variety with diced chives and grated sharp cheddar cheese incorporated into the dough and baked to be served alongside a hearty soup or stew full of tender beef, caramelized onions, and thick rounds of sliced carrots and parsnips.

Still, I think my favourite way to make them is without any fancying up. Simple and plain baking powder biscuits served hot with a cup of tea, and with a small pat of butter and raspberry jam dabbed in the middle of each biscuit is my favourite. You can set your kettle to boil and steep any kind of tea you like to have with your biscuits, but I like a nice black tea like Irish Breakfast with my biscuits and jam. Tempered with milk and sugar, the bitterness of the black tea is lessened, but it still has strong flavour and suits the biscuits nicely.

tea 2015 060

You know you haven’t overworked the dough if the biscuits pull apart nicely into halves.

Under the ‘read more’ cut is the recipe that my family uses when we make baking powder biscuits. I’m not sure where this recipe originally came from my mums collection of handwritten recipes we keep in the kitchen. Possibly it’s an adaptation from another recipe, or maybe it’s a recipe Mum copied down while talking to one of her sisters on the phone. Either way, I hope that you’ll try making them this weekend—it’s pretty difficult to botch them up (even if your oven has a tendency to bake things unevenly like ours). Breaking each biscuit open with your hands and watching a curl of steam escape from the flaky, soft, snowy dough is a pretty lovely and comforting thing—and especially when you’ve made the biscuits yourself.

Continue reading

Tagged , , ,

Thug Kitchen, Obscenity, Hoppin’ John, and Sweet Potato Loaf!

Despite being a full time student at college with plenty of reading assignments filling up my evenings, I still try my best to find some time throughout the week for leisure reading. I’m currently working my way through Melissa Mohr’s book, Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, and I’m absolutely loving it. Mohr’s book is about the interconnected cultural and social history of obscenity in the English language, and it directly connects to my interest in popular history writing, and communication and media studies. There’s also plenty of accessible information to feed my curiosity about linguistics and the ways that language develops. Goodreads tells me that I’m currently only 32% of the way through this 316 page book, but I am enjoying it immensely, and have learned a few things already about why we use swear words and obscene language the way we do in English. Mohr writes with wit and provides clear and considerate explanations of where our notions of obscene language originate, and how contributing factors have effected it, and influenced our communication practices throughout various periods of history.

Hoppin John and Sweet Potato Loaf 007

Look at all the colours on that plate! Who doesn’t love a colourful, flavourful supper?

I remember learning in university that languages are constantly evolving and changing, and that they shift to reflect changing culture, beliefs and values, and systems of communication. Swearing then, as a component of the English language, and as a tool used to impart emotional emphasis in speech and writing, reflects these cultural and communication changes as well. Mohr explains that words which are deemed inappropriate, vulgar, or obscene are deemed so in reflection of a communication community’s idea of propriety and morality. Mohr also reminds us that where cultural and behavioural norms are established and accepted as commonplace behaviour, there is also the opportunity and potential to alter these rules and confines in order to suit different purposes. There’s the potential for interaction and subversion of these rules, thus changing systems of power and convention on multiple social and cultural levels.

sweet potato loaf 004

Thug Kitchen is right–when this Sweet Potato Loaf is in the oven, its aroma beats the hell out of burning a fall-themed, baking-scented candle hands down.

This sounds a bit wordy and ostentatious, sure, but it directly connects to one of my favourite food blogs running right now: the very cheeky, popular, and potty-mouthed Thug Kitchen. The vegan-oriented (though not exclusively so!) website released a cook book this month, and just like the website from which it originates, the cookbook filled with the same straight-up foul language that made its parent website so striking, entertaining, and interesting to visit. Thug Kitchen wields vulgarity to fantastic effect—effect that Mohr would agree harks back to what the term ‘vulgar’ originally meant.

Early on in her book, Mohr explains there is a connection between vulgar language and class distinction, and that there persists the (increasingly out-of-date) idea that “it is that spoken by ordinary, uneducated folk. It has become a synonym for swearing because “the common people” have through the centuries been thought to be more likely than others to employ profane or obscene language” (11).

Mohr immediately goes on to explain to her readers that this assumption about the education level of the ordinary, swear-happy general public throughout different time periods is rather untrue—that the upper classes (those who were supposedly educated enough to eschew vulgar language) swore like all get out throughout history. (She also describes how swearing and the use of vulgar language doesn’t necessarily disappear as the general level of education within a community increases, either.) On page 55 of her book, Mohr explains that in ancient Rome there were basically two different types of Latin language being used, essentially split along levels of discourse—Latin for the exclusive class of the educated, literary elite (which remained largely unchanged over centuries), and a “vulgar” (common) language that the lower classes (made up of multiple intermingling cultures) used in their daily activities, and which would eventually evolve into the Romance vernaculars.

And indeed Thug Kitchen maintains that its intentional use of obscenity and vulgarity (as common language) isn’t meant to offend or turn people off of their website or its content, but rather it’s meant to find common ground with average blog readers who are looking for recipes and food writing that’s not foodie-elitist or “dull or pretentious as hell” (as Thug Kitchen’s cookbook’s item description on Amazon.ca describes). Thug Kitchen understands that there’s a relatively standardized mode of writing for food blogs (and cookbooks), one that it views as too exclusionary to the common person who’s simply looking to make a healthy, budget-friendly meal. Thug Kitchen labels this certain kind of polite language style that these blogs often use as “dull or pretentious as hell” and implies that it reads as insincere in its enthusiasm, or worse, is elitist in its writing style and content (ex: super expensive, super trendy food styles that are usually only accessible to a privileged, or wealthy portion of the public).

Thug Kitchen wants to avoid that kind of distinctly cultivated and maintained elitist authorial ethos. It wants its blog, writing, recipes, and practical food sensibilities to reflect and connect with the average visitor. We could assume that Thug Kitchen believes this person to be someone who is hungry, is on a budget, and doesn’t know what healthy meal to make for supper tonight. Thug Kitchen also knows that to stand out in stark contrast to the elitist foodie personas and in the blogosphere, they need to consider carefully how they are going to operate within the general conventions of food blogging and food writing, and how they are going to subvert its norms at the same time. Their idea is that in order to reach the average person, they need to use the kind of communication practices and common vernacular that everyone likely uses. Thug Kitchen knows they need to use the same words and familiar kind of language that people generally use in our day-to-day living. And that includes routinely and liberally using all the four-letter salty talk they can cram into their sentences.

There’s been a couple of dishes that I’ve wanted to make from Thug Kitchen’s backlog of recipes for some time. One of them is their vegetarian take on a traditional New Year’s dish from the Southern United States, Hoppin’ John. According to the information I was able to scrounge up from a quick Google search, the dish is supposed to welcome a new year full of prosperity (financially and otherwise) for those that partake in the meal at the start of a new year. The black-eyed peas (or field beans, as they’re sometimes called) represent coinage, while the cooked greens (collard greens, Swiss chard, kale, or other cooking greens) are supposed to represent bank notes. Sometimes Hoppin’ John is made with a coin added to the pot as it simmers, and other times is served with a coin set beneath each diner’s plate (a much more sanitary choice, I would think).

Hoppin John and Sweet Potato Loaf 018

I know November 2 isn’t New Year’s Day, but it was daylight savings today! And that’s got to count for something, right? I mean, it’s kind of like starting a new section of the year, isn’t it? Anyway, I wonder if making and eating Hoppin’ John means my luck will improve for the remainder of the year…

Whether or not you believe in luck-bringing superstitions isn’t too important, since this bean-and-rice meal is flavourful and budget-friendly (definite criteria for its inclusion in Thug Kitchen’s recipes!) and that’s its main selling feature. When I was putting it together for supper tonight, I tailored the amount of spiciness to my family’s tastes, and added in extra peppers in adobo to the mix. The result was perfectly spicy, and no post-dishing up addition of Tabasco sauce was necessary. I served the beans with simple minute rice, and with a single bunch of Swiss chard that I washed and trimmed then sautéed in a bit of olive oil with garlic, and the juice and peel of an orange. The citrus brightened the greens’ appearance and flavour, and added a clean acidity that cut through the worst of the heat from the beans and rice.

sweet potato loaf 008

Sugary on the top and nutty on the inside! I even made a double-sized recipe so I could make two loaves–one to eat, and one to give away to our neighbour!

The other recipe I tried out today is a more recent addition to Thug Kitchen’s collection. At the beginning of this month, Thug Kitchen published a recipe online for Sweet Potato Loaf—citing it as something somewhere between pumpkin pie and carrot cake. Studded with a generous portion of chopped walnuts, and fragrantly spiced with ground ginger and cinnamon, this loaf made me briefly reconsider my hard line “no thank you” stance on carrot cake. (I say briefly, because while I understand the similarities between it and carrot cake, I still think I’d prefer dense and moist sweet potato loaf with its lightly sweetened, nutty, spiced flavour to that terrible cream-cheese frosted, boringest-of-the-boring-root-vegetables, majorly-over-sugared-in-order-to-make-you-forget-there-are-super-boring-carrots-in-it monstrosity of a dessert.) As for the Sweet Potato Loaf’s pumpkin pie similarities—you know, I wasn’t really feeling it. Beyond the similar spices used in both dishes, and the wonderful aroma and flavours of each, I still feel like the two desserts are pretty distinctly separate from one another. Both make for fantastic fall season baking though!

I think all in all, I’d recommend Thug Kitchen as an engaging and relatably foul-mouthed food blog, its recipes for Hoppin’ John and Sweet Potato Loaf, and Melissa Mohr’s fascinating book on English’s obscene language, too.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,