Thursday, 28 February 2013

A Peek Inside Le Cordon Bleu

Have you ever daydreamed about throwing in your day job and running away to Paris to study at Le Cordon Bleu? I know I have, but I've always known it was just that: a daydream, not a plan to follow through with. After all, French cooking is hardly known for being friendly to vegetarians!

Kathleen Flinn, however, has no such dietary restrictions holding her back. When she loses her job, her new boyfriend pushes her to follow her heart - and the ultimate foodie dream - to Paris. Since I'm never going to have the Cordon Bleu experience for myself, reading her account is as close as I'm likely to get to a glimpse behind the scenes of this mythical world.

The first thing I note is that Cordon Bleu cookery really is as meaty and un-vegetarian as I've always suspected. Kathleen reports that even amongst her meat-eating colleagues, some stomachs turn at the idea of taking meat all the way from corpse to plate. It's part of the learning experience, though, and for the most part they steel their nerves and get on with it - with gruesome description.

The gore makes up only a small part of the narrative, though. The chef-instructors are perfectionists, mostly drawn from the school of teaching which believes harsh words are the quickest route to improvement. Kathleen struggles, cries, and wants to give up - but part of Le Cordon Bleu's essential training is to provide chefs who can survive the high-pressured, high-performance environment of a professional kitchen (another reason I don't think it would suit me - baking in a small cafe was perfect for me, but the speed and pressure of a restaurant kitchen just wouldn't fit my temperament). Out of the kitchen, there are trips to markets and top Parisian restaurants, to extend the students' learning.

There are several recipes in the book, though I haven't had chance to try them. Although it's a selection of family recipes more than Cordon Bleu cuisine, many are as non-vegetarian as the course material - but the chocolate orange souffle stood out as something I'd certainly enjoy making.

All in all, this was an enjoyable look at a very different world. I read it in no time, and would recommend it to anyone who's curious about the realities of Cordon Bleu training - and certainly if you're seriously considering it as a career path.

This book is February's selection for the Kitchen Reader. If you're interested in joining our foodie book club, you'd be more than welcome.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Steampunk Clock in Vancouver's Gastown


When I saw "steam clock" marked on the map of Vancouver, just a couple of blocks away from our hotel, it's perhaps unsurprising that I steered our first walk in Vancouver to take us along Water St. I didn't really know what to expect, but I was very taken with this clock. Steam continuously billows from the top, and every quarter hour the steam is also diverted through a whistle to sound out its chimes.

Returning at night to the streets of the Gastown district, it feels like stepping into the pages of a steampunk novel - although the steam clock actually only dates back to the 1970s.




Gastown clock at night

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Passage to India, Harrisburg


It started, bizarrely enough, with an advert for an Amish restaurant's Sunday brunch offering. But they were in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and we were going to be in Harrisburg. Cue a lengthy internet quest for veggie-friendly Sunday brunch options in Harrisburg. The best I found wasn't really brunch, but a lunch buffet... an Indian one, at that. Quite a long way from my original goal, but it had a good reputation for tasty food, a good price, and labelled its many vegetarian dishes clearly.

Passage to India is housed in a nondescript concrete building, with only a fancy door with skeletal pagoda to tell you there's a restaurant there. We were encouraged by the number of Indian families enjoying their lunch here, from grandmothers to young children. My attention was particularly caught by a girl of perhaps seven years old who sat with her father at the next table, nose firmly in her book for the entire meal, while he tried occasionally to coax a little conversation from her.

There was a good selection of authentic dishes, with flavourful spices - though not much chilli, making for a milder meal than most  I've eaten. I particularly liked the crispy pakora starters, and the creamy tomato sauce of the muttar paneer. The rice was rather nondescript, but the naan bread was soft and baked to perfection, ideal for soaking up the sauces.


Monday, 18 February 2013

Roasted Vegetables with Creamy Zhoug Sauce

Roast Vegetables with Zhoug

Sometimes known as green harissa, zhoug is a traditional middle eastern blend of fresh green chilli, coriander, garlic, spices, and olive oil. I'm sure I've tasted something similar before, but I'd certainly never heard the name before Terra Rossa kindly sent me a jar to try for myself. Have you ever come across it?

These ingredients are some of my favourite things, so this may just be my ideal condiment. Of course I had to create a recipe, and I wanted something simple to start with, to highlight the traditional palate of flavours. Roasted vegetables felt right for a chill afternoon, and we'd just got in from a brisk walk across the fields, so we needed a bit of spice to warm ourselves.

Straight from the jar, this is an incredibly fiery concoction. I wasn't sure how well my mouth would hold up to a whole meal this hot, so I added a couple of spoons full of cream. You can still taste the chilli, but the other flavours come out more, and it doesn't burn in quite the same way. (If you like a hotter dish, you could easily skip the cream.)

I bought some giant couscous for the first time a couple of weeks ago (having eaten it in a restaurant and loved the texture) so, since it's from the same sort of region, I served that as an accompaniment.

Roast Vegetables with Zhoug

Roasted Vegetables with Creamy Zhoug Sauce
Serves 4

olive oil
1 large courgette (zucchini)
1 medium aubergine (eggplant)
1 red pointed pepper
10 chestnut mushrooms
1 large red onion
4 large potatoes
2tbsp double cream
6tbsp zhoug
200g giant couscous
1tsp each dried sage & thyme

  1. Chop the vegetables into bite-sized pieces.
  2. Steam or boil the potatoes and set aside (a firm variety will work best for this dish).
  3. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large frying pan and add the aubergine and courgette. If the aubergine starts to dry, drizzle with a little extra oil.
  4. After five minutes, add the peppers, onions, and mushrooms. Fry until all vegetables are soft, then turn the heat down.
  5. In a separate pan, fry the potatoes in a little oil until brown.
  6. Cook the giant couscous according to the packet instructions (mine took 15 minutes), adding the dried herbs at the same time as the water.
  7. Combine the cream and zhoug, and stir through the vegetables just before serving. Serve with couscous on the side.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Snapshots from Vilnius

Vilnius, Lithuania

Lithuania's charming capital Vilnius has a fine mixture of winding  medieval streets, tree-lined squares and boulevards, and imposing Soviet architecture. We visited in summer, and clear blue skies combined with stunning buildings and pretty flowers to keep my finger constantly floating back to the camera shutter. If you've never visited, I hope these few glimpses may whet your appetite.

Vilnius, Lithuania

Vilnius, Lithuania

Vilnius, Lithuania

Vilnius, Lithuania

Vilnius, Lithuania

Vilnius, Lithuania

Vilnius, Lithuania

Vilnius, Lithuania

Vilnius, Lithuania

Vilnius, Lithuania

Vilnius, Lithuania

Vilnius, Lithuania

Vilnius, Lithuania

Vilnius, Lithuania

Vilnius, Lithuania

Vilnius, Lithuania

Vilnius, Lithuania

Vilnius, Lithuania

Monday, 11 February 2013

High Velocity Pumpkins: Punkin Chunkin in Delaware


It was only by chance that we heard about Punkin Chunkin, when I mentioned to a friend that we were considering a drive over to the Delaware coast.

"You should look up when the pumpkin thing is on," he said. "But you might already have missed it."

This was before I'd grown accustomed to America's pumpkin obsession, and I wondered what kind of pumpkin-related spectacle there could possibly be. Even when he explained that the goal was to fire pumpkins across a field, I certainly couldn't have imagined the industrial scale of Punkin Chunkin. This is no idle hobby. These air cannons, which shoot their pumpkin ammunition to crash down over a mile away, are the length of an articulated lorry and must cost a fortune to build and maintain. Spectators are kept back from the whirling centrifuges and vast trebuchets by nets as well as a fence-line.

We knew we had to go if we could - and thankfully, we hadn't missed it.

Arriving in Delaware, we see vast fields full of bright orange pumpkins, and roadside grocers selling more of the same, as well as a variety of other gourds and squashes. Huge signs point us towards the day's events, and in to the muddy car park. As we crunch across a pavement of corn husks, laid down to soak up the remaining dampness left by Hurricane Sandy (which delayed the event's start by one day), the atmosphere is festive. Local musicians play bouncy folk tunes, and later there will be a beauty pageant and a chili cook-off. Food stalls abound, offering mostly deep-fried delicacies: the one vegetarian meal I find is a selection of battered onions, mushrooms, courgette (zucchini), and cauliflower florets.

But there will be time to soak up the carnival later. First we have to see high-velocity pumpkins whooshing through the air. Or, as it turns out, fail to see them, as they fly away from us with such incredible speed. For the air cannon, usually all that I can spot is the puff of smoke which signals a successful firing - followed by the commentator filling in time while men in jeeps and quad bikes hunt around in the field to see how far the pumpkin flew. One unsuccessful attempt, possibly the result of an over-ripe fruit, results in a rather more visible spray of pumpkin innards, and a much-applauded score of zero.

If I'm perfectly honest, one air cannon is much like another. The huge spinning-wheels are more entertaining to watch, whipping their pumpkins round and around before releasing them into the sky. They don't go as far, but at least we might see a flash of orange - or, bizarrely, white - before the missile disappears from view. Distances are announced over the loudspeaker, but without a specific team to cheer for, we care less for the results than for the experience. With pumpkin funnel cake firmly in hand, surrounded by cheerful Americans with pumpkin hats and pumpkin t-shirts, there could hardly be a more entertaining way to celebrate the pumpkin season.









Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Great Sage - Vegan Restaurant in Clarksville, MD

The first time I visited Maryland, a friend took me out to dinner. Knowing I was vegetarian, she picked out the all-vegan Great Sage - and I loved every bite. So when I had the chance to bring Andy here, I was really pleased to return and see if it was still as good as I remembered.

We both ordered soup to start. I went for tomato and lentil, which was thick and hearty, while Andy had an oriental-style mushroom broth with a fantastic savoury flavour.

For main course, I had the "grown-up" mac'n'cheese, and Andy had the autumn chilli with cornbread (photo above). Ordering macaroni cheese in a vegan restaurant isn't the kind of thing I'd usually do, but because I'd been here before I decided to trust them. I wasn't disappointed. Although vegan cheese is never really all that cheesey, after a few weeks in the US I was more than happy to have something a bit lighter. The addition of vegetables to the macaroni was a nice touch, and the gratin topping was perfecty crunchy. Andy's chilli was lightly spiced, packed with beans and full of fresh coriander (cilantro). The cornbread was soft with just a slight crust, and the dish was also accompanied with wilted greens.

It's most unlike us to be too full for dessert, but somehow the Great Sage portions defeated us. It might have had something to do with the helping of sweet potato fries we'd decided to share....




Friday, 1 February 2013

Coffee & Walnut Cake

Coffee & Walnut Cake

I love coffee cake, and lightly toasted walnuts perfectly complement the taste. Traditionally, coffee and walnut cake would be slathered in a rich coffee buttercream, but I wanted something a little less sweet. You could, of course, easily add the frosting if you prefer it that way - just hold back the walnut halves to decorate the top at the end.

Coffee & Walnut Cake
Serves 6-8

4oz/110g walnut pieces (chopped)
1tbsp instant espresso coffee granules
4oz/110g butter
4oz/110g soft brown sugar
2 eggs
4oz/110g self-raising flour
8 walnut halves (to decorate)
  1. Toast the chopped walnuts in a dry frying pan until starting to brown, then set aside to cool.
  2. Dilute the espresso granules in the minimum amount of boiling water (approx. 1-2tsp).
  3. Grease and line a 6in/15cm round cake tin.
  4. Preheat the oven to 140°C/285°F.
  5. Cream the butter and sugar together in a large mixing bowl.
  6. Add the eggs and beat with a spoon until combined, then stir in the coffee.
  7. Fold in the flour and stir through the toasted walnut pieces.
  8. Spoon the cake mix into the tin, smooth the surface, and arrange the walnut halves symmetrically on the top, pushing each one gently into the cake mix.
  9. Bake for about an hour, or until a knife comes out clean.
  10. Turn out onto a wire rack to cool.

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