30 January, 2012

Operation Domestic Goddess : Supper Onion Pie

Just out of the oven
I love onions and I love pie, but never had it occurred to me to make an onion pie.  I was flipping through How to Be a Domestic Goddess the other day, hoping to find some inspiration for the coming week's meals.  I don't know if it was because the weather has turned decidedly cold and we just want comfort food, or because there was a very lonely pile of onions in our cupboard, but  the "Supper Onion Pie" recipe jumped out at me and I decided to give it a try. 

It's very easy to make and, while the ingredients are simple, the flavor combinations are wonderfully savory and satisfying.  I loved the idea of baking sharp cheddar cheese and strong English mustard into the crust -- but I actually would include even more if I were to make it again, because the specified amount wasn't very easily detected in the finished product. 

Bon Appetit!
This is a great idea for a vegetarian entree, but would also make a great side dish with a hearty carnivore's dinner.  I also think it might be tasty with a fried egg at breakfast...hmmm, leftovers ideas...

Nigella Lawson's Supper Onion Pie
For the filling/topping:
4 medium red onions
1 T. olive oil
1 T. butter
3-4 sprigs of thyme, de-stalked, or 1/2 t. dried thyme
150g strong Cheddar cheese or Gruyere, grated

For the scone dough:
250g plain flour
1 scant t. baking powder
1 t. salt
100 ml milk
40g butter, melted
1 scant t. English mustard
1 large egg, beaten

cast-iron skillt or pie dish, buttered

     Preheat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6.  Peel the onions, halve them, then cut each half into 4 segments.   Heat the oil and butter in the pan, then add the onions and cook over a medium heat, stirring regularly, for about 30 minutes; they should be soft and tinged with color.  Season with salt and pepper, and add the thyme.  Turn into a pie dish, and scatter 50g of the cheese over the waiting onions.  Leave while you get on with the dough topping.
     Put the flour, baking powder and salt together in a bowl with the remaining cheese.  Pour the milk into a measuring jug, add the melted butter, mustard and egg, mix well and then pour onto the flour mixture in the bowl.  Mix to a dough using a fork, a wooden spoon or your hands; it should be quite sticky.  Then tip it out onto a work surface and press into a circle about the size of the pie dish.  Transfer it to the dish, pressing it to seal the edges.
     Put it in the oven for 15 minutes, then turn down to 180C/gas mark 4 and give it another 10 minutes, by which time the dough should be golden and crisp on top.  Let it stand for a couple of minutes, then cover with a large plate and turn upside-down so the plate's beneath and the pie dish on top.  Place on a flat surface and remove the dish. 

26 January, 2012

Order Amidst the Chaos

I had spent all morning, as well as the previous day, job searching.  I was feeling tired, overwhelmed, small.  As I sat down to lunch I received news that tragedy had struck some dear friends.  My heart, already weary, broke.  And my immediate, instinctive response was an all-consuming need to...bake.

So I spent the entire afternoon in the kitchen baking things...making.  I didn't really care about eating what I made; I just hungered after the joy to be found in the process, the restoration and revival found through bringing some order out of chaos.  Perhaps the tangible result was only a couple dozen cookies...but those 24 ginger spiced rounds were my small way to just push back some of the sadness -- just a bit -- by creating something good in the way I knew how.  Cutting, measuring, melting things that don't seem to belong together, and transforming them, renaming them. 

This is why I love making food.  Every meal presents me with an opportunity to undertake my own small acts of creation, of bringing delicious order out of the chaos of disparate ingredients.  As I do so, I draw upon techniques and flavor combinations - elements of culinary order - that were worked out by others long ago.  Some other person with a vestige of the Creator-God in his heart and hands worked out the best way to fashion steel into a knife blade; or what amounts of flour, water, and air would produce the best bread; or how long to let a wine mature before it was ready to be most fully enjoyed.  Someone else learned all these things, and now I get to build upon their knowledge, applying it to the resources available to me in ways that nourish and delight.  Sometimes I open the cupboard and have no idea if there is any way the ingredients at hand will come together into something coherent...but facing the challenge makes me feel so alive.  My heart and hands grasp the chance to exercise the creative instinct nested in me from birth.

"Some days I feel like all I'm doing is holding back chaos."  This was my friend Kristen's weary description of her job many months ago, but I've thought often that her words hit on the opportunity presented to us in every human endeavor, whether "just" a hobby or "just" a menial job.  A plate of cookies can't keep all the chaos of the world at bay.  But these kitchen afternoons that apply an overwhelmed heart to the business of ordering remind me that while life is hard, God is yet good.  Good to show us the delight as well as the difficult; good to gift us the buoy -- no, more than a buoy; the countering current -- of creation.

What is the creating, ordering activity in your life?

Operation Domestic Goddess : [Boozy] Banana Bread

I'm beginning to wonder if we should even say that we're cooking through Nigella's book, because we seem to have firmly established a routine of deviating from her recipes.  This week was no exception; when we saw "sultanas" listed as the first ingredient we immediately agreed that this element was pointless and would not be included in our bread.  As much as we love Britain and the Brits, we really can't understand this propensity to clutter everything up with raisins.  Shudder!  Can any of my British readers help me understand?

We did, however, think the rum was a good idea...(What? It is!) so we included it, as well as the 100g of dark chocolate Nigella suggests.  The bread certainly comes together really easily and is a fantastic way to use up bananas, which seem to go incredibly ripe before we can finish them.  I love the subtle kick from the rum, and the texture and depth added by nuts and chocolate chunks.  Our one critique is that it could stand to be just a bit sweeter.  In her book, Nigella says that this is the recipe for someone who is hesitant to try their hand at baking.  I don't know if I would go that far -- I might suggest something like this or this -- but it is a yummy twist on a classic! Here is the recipe as I made it, with converted amounts for my fellow Americans :-).  If you make it, do check it after an hour; I find that Nigella's recommended baking times can be a bit wacky.

Nigella Lawson's Banana Bread
75ml (4 T.) bourbon or dark rum
175g (1 1/4 cup) plain flour
2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. baking soda
1/2 t. salt
125g (8 T.)unsalted butter, melted and cooled
150g (2/3 cup) sugar
2 large eggs
4 small, very ripe bananas, mashed
60g (about 1/2 cup) chopped walnuts
100g (about 2/3 cup) dark chocolate, chopped small
1 t. vanilla extract
loaf tin, buttered and floured or with a paper liner

Preheat oven to 170C/340 F.  In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.  In a large bowl, mix the melted butter and sugar and beat until blended.  Beat in the eggs one at a time, then the mashed bananas.  Then, stir in the walnuts, vanilla extract, bourbon or rum, and chocolate.  Add the flour mixture, a third at a time, stirring well after each addition.  Scarpe into the loaf tin and bake in the middle of the oven for 1-1 1/4 hours, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.  Leave in the tin on a rack to cool.  Makes 8-10 slices.

22 January, 2012

1 Week, 2 Friends, 3 Cities

Last week my dear friend Betsy came to visit!  We hadn't seen each other since she moved to Nashville last spring.  It was so exciting to show her some of my London favorites and discover new things with her!

Kew Gardens (= heaven)
On Monday we went to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.  I had forgotten about Kew Gardens amongst the endless list of sights and experiences London offers -- but it sounded like a good non-hectic way to kick off the week.  We were unexpectedly, entirely bowled over!  It's no exaggeration to say that we spent the afternoon wandering in a wide-eyed, open-jawed, dreamy daze, repeatedly asking each other if we'd stumbled into Alice's Wonderland or found the backdoor to heaven!  It was an expansive haven swimming in that otherworldly golden afternoon light that seems reserved for winter days...  I was struck by the realization that as Kew Gardens was established and developed over the 18th and 19th centuries, travel (or at least long-distance travel to faraway lands) wasn't yet accessible to a great many people.  For many Londoners, coming to Kew Gardens was their opportunity to "travel" and experience another part of the world by seeing its flora.  They could walk through a reconstructed tropical forest, see how coffee beans grow, or stroll through a Mediterranean garden.  Kew Gardens brought the world to people who couldn't go see it. 

On Tuesday we visited Bath, takingthe train there through countryside thinly veiled by frost.  This is just what I dreamed of as a young girl brought up on things like "Wind in the Willows": the rolling fields loosely divided by hedges; the distant hill with one lone tree left to stand atop it like a sentinel; the tiny sudden clusters of brick houses and centuries-old churches to watch over them.  Bath itself was lovely -- not the amusement park-y tourist trap that I expected, but a regal, rambling old town.  The Roman baths reminded me that people have been dwelling in these streets much, much longer than my country has even existed!  No Captain Wentworth sightings to report, sadly, but we still had a great day.

Alice's gate & the Cheshire Cat's tree - Photo by Betsy Walker
Friday was Oxford day!  We explored Christ Church College, St John's College, and Lincoln College, as well as the Ashmolean Museum and just generally rambling and enjoying the "dreaming spires."  We had lunch with my dear friend Per at the Turf Tavern, and an evening drink at the Eagle and Child pub of Inklings fame.  Another highlight came from hitting it off with the docent at Christ Church Cathedral; after a couple minutes of pleasant chatter and corny jokes, I guess he decided we were alright, because he pulled us aside to a door labeled "PRIVATE."  The door opened onto a walled church garden.  There is a green door in the wall through which Alice Liddell would run to go to church services; this was the inspiration for the gate whose keyhole Alice peeks through in "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and sees the beautiful garden she wants to find.  On the other side of the wall stands a tall tree on which Carroll based the cheshire cat's perch.  Carroll's office windows look directly onto the garden, and he clearly found a lot of inspiration in it! 

Me & Bets
Other highlights of the week included touring Westminster Abbey together and exploring Greenwich and Borough Market....but most of all, it was just wonderful to be in the same place with Betsy again -- that always means laughter, stories, good advice, and encouragement!  I think a trip to Nashville will be in order once I'm back Stateside...

21 January, 2012

Insomnia + Sweet Potatoes

Today's theme is sweet potatoes.  And insomnia.  But mostly sweet potatoes.

Last week I was a jetlagged zombie.  So was Athena, and so was Jess.  So we did what any other self-respecting jetlagged zombie expats would do to kick off a new year in London: we sat in our pajamas making crafts and watching reruns of "Modern Family."  I didn't have the energy to go anywhere, nor was I able to sleep so I was raiding the pantry in the wee hours of the night...all in all, a bad business.  I wanted some kind of munchie that I could make easily, enjoy quickly, and not feel too guilty about!  We had some sweet potatoes in the pantry so I decided to make oven-baked sweet potato chips (American chips...British crisps).

I peeled and sliced the sweet potatoes as thinly as I could without the help of a mandolin, then tossed the slices with olive oil, sea salt, and black pepper.  These went in the oven at 400 F for about thirty minutes, flipping once halfway through.  While they baked, I improvised a sort of dip...  We didn't have mayonnaise (and we never do, because it's completely unnecessary.  Oh did I say that out loud?) but we did have Greek yogurt, so I mixed that with some sweet chilli sauce and zest and juice from one lime.  I think I may have ground in some black pepper too, but I didn't think to write down what I did...or to take a picture of the final snack.  I blame the insomnia.

After a busy week this week, I barely slept last night, and today had hardly any brain energy for planning dinner.  I began the conversation I have with myself most weekends:

"What are we going to have for dinner tonight?"
"I don't know; what's in the kitchen?"
"Baking ingredients; cheese; rosemary; onions; oh, hey, there are still some sweet potatoes..."
"Mmmm, those flavors are all really good together..."
"Like, on a pizza?"
"YEAH!  I'm gonna make pizza."
"That's such a great idea.  I'm so glad we had this talk."

Sweet Potato Rosemary Pizza
I made this very quick and easy dough recipe, then started Googling to see how people have used these ingredients together on pizza.  I used this recipe as my basis, but didn't follow it entirely.  It called for red sauce but I thought that would be too acidic, almost bitter.  So instead I made a quick white sauce.  I didn't have any provolone, so used Parmesan with a bit of sharp white cheddar.  The finished pizza was utterly delicious and comforting! It looked beautiful, too, though you wouldn't know it from the mediocre cell-phone photo; golden caramelized onions, bright orange sweet potatoes, and flecks of green rosemary.  I have some unbaked dough left so I may make this pizza again but include thin slices of tart apple -- something light and sweet to balance the savory. 

13 January, 2012

Postcards from the Past

Today I went for a ramble through Greenwich.  I hadn't set out to buy anything, but the market was so unusually calm that I stopped to sift through the old ceramics and coronation memorabilia and worn maps and carved pipe heads.  So many stories intersect in an antiques market, intersect right beneath my fingertips.  I stopped at an expansive crate of old postcards, organized by the countries from which they were sent.  I eavesdropped on the vacations of Brits who are long gone by now, learning that Marjorie and Dad had a terrible crossing to Sweden but were enjoying Gothenburg, and that Maria found it horrific to have to pay 3 marks to send post back to England from Germany.

One postcard caught my attention and wouldn't let go.  It was from Berlin in 1911 and was covered in the most amazing script.  I bought it for a pound really just so that I could keep looking at the stunning handwriting!  I can decipher barely a single word of the message, but the script has a beautiful, buoyant rhythm and the ink has gone purple with age.

I am holding a hundred-year-old memory.  One hundred years ago "Miss Dora Watson, Greestone Mount, Lincoln, England!" received this chance to experience 3x5 black and white inches of Berlin.  She saved it, and someone after her saved it, and someone after that person...so now today I am aware of 1911 Berlin, Miss Dora Watson, and the traveling friend who linked them.

I wonder what will become of my memories.  Will my journal, or my digital photos, or any of the rambling words I deposit onto this page on the world wide web, last a hundred years?  Will any of it remain -- tangibly -- to tell someone about London in 2012, or that I existed, and existed here?  I like to hope that something might.

08 January, 2012

Susan or Lucy

When my siblings and I were growing up we were devoted fans of a BBC production of "The Chronicles of Narnia."  We would often "play Narnia," each kid assuming one of the characters.  Now, in this particular miniseries, the actress who played older sister Susan was beautiful; rosy-cheeked, blond-haired, slim and elegant.  The actress who played Lucy was short, rather on the heavier side and had two prominent buck-teeth.

I always had to play Lucy.

"Nooooooo, Em!!!" I would protest.  "Why can't I be Susan?  She's the pretty one..."

"Don't worry, Gin," my older sister would assure me with a very patient air, "Lucy gets pretty when she gets older."

Well that just wasn't good enough for me.  The Pevensies were only grown up for, like, the last three minutes of the movie!  But as I was the younger sister and "confrontation avoidance" was my middle name, I resigned myself to always being the chubby buck-toothed one.

Fast-forward roughly 16 years.  I met with my pastor last week.  We were discussing big decisions and how to weigh two good options when you're not sure that God is "telling" you one thing over another.  It's taken me about five days to begin to unpack and really let sink in what he said:

"If He isn't making one thing abundantly clear to you over the other, then this may be an instance in which He's given you the gift of a choice."

He said it with such a smile on his face, delighting in the very fact that it's possible, this gift of a choice.  I've struggled to rejoice in it or see it as a gift.  Too often I am paralyzed with indecision, wishing that someone else would clearly tell me what to do, or assure me beyond any doubt that one course is right and the other is wrong.  That's the "easy" way, the "painless" way, the way in which I am not responsible for the consequences.  Furthermore, if I choose wrongly here, I'm going to completely screw up the rest of my life.  It'll all be plan B, second-best; I'll always be the chubby, buck-toothed Christian instead of the pretty one.

It suddenly and completely flooded over me yesterday as I was walking to the Tube, having a dialogue in my head rationalizing each option in turn.  Neither option is clearly wrong or lesser, so far as I can judge.  For a month I've been asking for signs, for assurances, for clear audible instructions; it finally came upon me in a delightful, peace-giving way that God may be doing something so very generous and parental in not giving me those things.  Perhaps He is extending both options to me and saying, "Choose.  I know My plans for you, but I want you to learn to choose without constant hand-holding.  I will be with you on either path; I will bless either effort; I will use either one to make you more like Christ."

We crave signs or super-Christian justifications for every decision ("God told me xyz...") but sometimes all we get is the gift of grey.  A gift that we want to refuse because it's not the black and white that we asked for.  But it is in fact the better gift because it forces us to make decisions independent of the crutches of fear or others' approval, and to learn by experience that God is generous and patient and delighted by us.  While there are instances in which He must correct open disobedience, I think that if we make the best decision we can, motivated by a desire to honor Him, we won't be relegated to "plan B," to always getting second-best, to always being the chubby buck-toothed Christian.  There is no plan B; it is only, always plan A.  Only, always best.

So often life is binary when we don't want it to be -- 1 or 0, black or white -- and not binary when we desperately wish it was.  But if we're going to really believe in a God who gives, we need to be willing to step outside that safe framework.  What is the very nature of a gift?  When something is given as a gift, the giver doesn't tell you what to do with it.  You're free to take it and decide how to use it.  I truly believe that my God knows every hair on my head and has charted the entire course of my life, from conception into eternity, so I can't make a decision He has no control over or is unprepared for.  But  -- while I still don't entirely understand it -- I must also believe that He wants me to learn to exercise my decision-making abilities; to learn how to gather good counsel and weigh options; and ultimately, to kick off the training wheels, entrust my decisions to Him and thereby learn that He loves me, whether I "fail" or "succeed" or make a seeming mistake and have to retrace my steps.  No decision I can make is capable of separating me from the love of Christ. 

And anyway, Em was right.  Awkward Lucy did grow up to be beautiful.

06 January, 2012

Hungry with a Chance of Meatballs

One entire week ago, Deb over at Smitten Kitchen posted her recipe for scallion meatballs with a soy-ginger glaze.  For one entire week since I have been thinking about it.  I thought about it while packing to return to London.  I thought about it while waiting in the airport.  I thought about it while eating "chicken" on the airplane.  I thought about it when my entertainment console went kaput and I couldn't fall asleep during the flight.  And as I downed a pick-me-up coffee and parfait after landing, I was wondering how many hours still lay between me and dinner.  My sole objective for this day (aside from making it back to the flat in one piece and with all my luggage) was to make, and consume with relish, those meatballs.


Post-assembly, ready to fry.
I write from the other side of dinner and can report that the meatballs were everything I'd hoped for, and the perfect lean-yet-savory dinner with which to kick off my final few months here in London.  The title suggests that the scallions are the star, but I really loved the surprise bursts of cilantro in every few bites.

I'm not sure if I can really call these meatballs because they didn't exactly hold their round shape...but I guess the main point is flavor.  I might try my friend Jacqueline's technique of broiling meatballs next time to see how the results differ.

I took Deb's recommendation to reduce the glaze even longer than the recipe instructs; I found that it took about 40 minutes to reach a consistency I was happy with.  While I liked the sauce, I found myself wanting something a little acidic/citrusy to counter its sweetness.  I squeezed some lime juice over the whole dish, and it made me happy.

I'll definitely make these again -- It would be handy to have a bunch in the freezer, ready to go on a weeknight!  They'd also make great party finger-foods. 

Grab a toothpick and dig in!

02 January, 2012

Buckle Your Seatbelts

When I was getting ready to come back to the States for the holidays last month, one of the things I was most excited about was being reunited with my trusty, much-loved car, Felix the Passat.  Felix is so named partly because that was the first name that came to mind when I thought, "What should I name my car?", but also because he (yeah, he) is dark, swift, and can brake quickly...like a cat...Or so I told myself.  Just work with me!

Anyway.  I was looking forward to once again having access to a car and the mobility it provides, especially since my family and friends are a bit scattered across the DC area and not always Metro-accessible.  I arrived at my sister's house -- she had kindly been "babysitting" Felix for me -- and could hardly contain my excitement when the keys were placed in my hands.  I hopped inside, hit the road -- and promptly sat in traffic on the Beltway for an hour and a quarter.  Coming home means coming home to everything, even the traffic.

I've been noticing that just in the last four months some stretches of the highways have been completely re-paved and in some cases slightly re-routed.  Some of my frequently-traveled routes used to be fraught with potholes, roller-coaster curves, and other potential hazards to my vehicle (not to mention my life); but now they are smooth, straight, and safe(r).  I remember the summer months during which these improvements were being made; none of us were really thinking that much about how much better it would eventually be.  We were really just supremely annoyed by the immediate inconveniences of nightly lane closures and the length of time it took to travel two miles while roadwork was underway.  Now I hardly notice the miles pass on such smooth roads.

Things had to briefly get worse before they got better...but they got better, and so much better that I hardly remember the former potholes and traffic jams.  Doesn't that principle ring true in much of life?  Traffic patterns, messy garages, hurting relationships...In order to fix any of it, things have to get just a little messier for a little while, but it gets better.  It does.

That is my profound Monday morning thought.  Now I'm going to go eat pancakes with my roommates.