My second Easter Sunday in London

Easter is a big deal in Polish Catholic homes – more important than Christmas, even. As a kid, my grandmother took the Easter season very seriously. On Palm Sunday, we decorated our palms with extravagant tackiness (mine always turned out looking like something from a mini-challenge on RuPaul’s Drag Race), and the Easter baskets were also key to the celebration. Unlike the American Easter baskets – of which I was very covetous – the Polish Catholic Easter baskets were all about feeding the poor and honouring Jesus Christ who has risen from the dead. We didn’t have cute bunny rabbits, cartoon characters, or toys, wrapped in colourful cellophane. I remember my baskets would have jars of horseradish, smoked sausage, butter carved into the shape of a lamb, and a sweet Easter bun (which wasn’t really all that sweet) At the end of mass, we were expected to leave something behind on the alter, which would later be – I hope – donated to the poor.

Once I stopped being Catholic, the holiday was never that big a deal for me, and it was just an excuse for me to go out with my friends to brunch. Easter usually fell sometime in latet April, early May, so the weather started to turn, and it felt very city to get dressed in light linen and go to a trendy restaurant to eat eggs and drink mimosas (this was before I became a teetotaller)

A year and a half ago, I moved to London. Easter is a huge deal here, and we get lots of time off around the holiday. My mother is in town, visiting, and so I decided instead of going out for Easter brunch we’d have dinner at home. I also invited my dear friend Sheila (who’s from Australia), and Cara, a fellow Yank-turned-Londoner (she even grew up in Chicago, so we traded Chicago trivia like neighbourhoods and city haunts)

This year was interesting because I wanted to combine the traditions of my partner, who’s American, my Polish mother’s traditions, but I also wanted to be sensitive to Cara, who’s a vegan. This brunch would be an interesting challenge.

Before I go on, I would like to say that when I write cooking vegan food is a “challenge” I don’t mean it in a “ugh, what a burden – vegan food is so weird, what am I gonna do?” way. It’s not…Vegan food is great and accessible, and vegans should be given more options for their dinner than lettuce leaves and chickpeas.

That being said, I never cooked vegan food before, so I thought it would be fun to see what I can do. I decided that I wouldn’t go the fake meat route and make some kind of fake ham (Sham?) or tofu lamb chops. Instead, I looked to beans and veg for my menu. I looked at different bean stews, and settled on a Mexican-style bean stew. I didn’t go by a recipe, and instead worked with the kinds of vegetables I thought would work well with Mexican style stew.

That means I bought cans of black beans, red kidney beans, chickpeas, pinto beans, corn. I also got tinned tomatoes. I love cooking with beans – I do meatless Mondays and beans are a go-to for me when cooking vegetarian dishes. I chopped an onion and sautéed it in a large pan with some corn oil (olive oil is too distinct and peppery), and once the onion got translucent , I sprinkled in some taco seasoning (I know, I know – I live in London and so my access to the right herbs is severely limited, so I have to sometimes rely on El Paso). I chopped some red pepper and chili pepper and threw that it – I also rubbed my nose and started to scream and rinse my nose out. Be very careful when chopping chili peppers – wear gloves if you can. After throwing in the peppers and letting them sweat for a bit, I poured some vegetable broth and threw in the tinned veg with their waters (except for the chickpea water – I reserved that for vegan latkes) I cooked over high heat until it was reduced, thick and soupy – like a Mexican-spiced ratatouille. I transferred most of the stew into a Pyrex baking dish, and reduced the remaining stew further until it took on a dark, chocolate colour and poured that on stew and baked in a moderately hot oven for about an hour.

I also made vegan latkes – Mayim Bialik from The Big Bang Theory (is it weird that I don’t reference Blossom anymore?) has a YouTube video in which she makes vegan latkes from a mix. I’m not sure what the benefit is of making it from a box, because I used fresh ingredients, and all was okay. I grated onion and potato and used the water from a tin of chickpeas. I added matzoh meal and created a batter. I seasoned with salt, pepper, and some dried dill (use a light hand when using dried herbs) I fried in batches in hot oil and drained on paper towels. I noticed that not using real egg made the latkes cook longer and the texture was slightly different – softer, maybe? But they still came out crispy and good. I served the latkes with cranberry sauce.

As a side, I also made curry chickpeas, since I opened a tin. This recipe is too easy – I almost don’t need to write it. Fry the chickpea over a high heat, stirring constantly, and add some chopped broccoli and stir fry. Add some curry powder and let it bloom. I then added some frozen peas, frozen garlic, and frozen ginger (I like frozen veg) and stirred cooking until the veg took on some browning (the pan got a bit dry at certain points, so I added a bit of water at a time to deglaze the pan)

The final veg dish was also very simple – pan fry some asparagus and pouring balsamic vinegar and spinning, stir frying constantly, letting the vinegar reduce and get sticky and sweet.

The nod to my Polish culture came with the white borscht soup. It’s also known as żurek, a white sour soup made with sourdough starter. Last year I made this soup and made my own sourdough starter (the yeasty stuff that gives sourdough its name), but this year, I was like, “bump that noise,” and instead got some żurek packet soup and used that as a starter, instead. I sautéed some onion, parsnip, turnip, onion until the veg softened a bit. I then added chicken stock and threw in chopped sausage. I used some smoked Polish kielbasa (a variety made of chicken)

Interesting side story: normally, one would use a white sausage, similar to a brat, that’s sold fresh. I went to the local Polish deli in my neighbourhood the other day. I walked in to store to see a low-hum of contained chaos. There was a large crowd of people getting in their last-minute Easter shopping, and so lots of baskets crammed with food. I went to the meat counter and saw a crowd forming. An angry crowd. As I took my place in the queue, I overheard a lady ahead of me ordering some ham and the girl behind the counter announced to us that there was a power outage and so the digital scale wasn’t working, so we couldn’t buy anything that needed to be weighed. This caused a great amount of consternation among the crowd full of Polish aunties and grandmas who were aghast at this news. “How long is this going to last?” One woman asked. The girl shrugged and said she couldn’t answer. Another woman suggested that the girl eyeball how much she was selling, and the young girl shot back with, “Madame, how could I guess how much meat I’d be selling?” There were more shouts from these women and my partner and I got a bit worried that there’d be a riot dotted with looting, so we skidaddled out of there before it stuff got ugly and just went to a regular supermarket.

So because of that, we used the “wrong” kind of sausage for the soup – which was okay, because it turned out well, anyways…I threw in the
żurek mix and cooked for about an hour, adding a spoonful of horseradish, mustard, dried dill and cooked over a low heat, simmering.

To round out the meal, we served it with pierogi and my friend brought some vegan bread. For dessert, I made a quick smoothie by crushing frozen summer fruits (strawberries, red currants, blueberries) and mixing it with vegan yoghurt (made with soy and almond – yum) My Aussie friend also brought dessert – millionaire’s shortbread – and I served some liquor (I drank Pepsi)

We served the food buffet-style, and I was thrilled to be done with my cooking. I planned on serving gooseberry gelatine with peaches, but the gelatine never gelled – I even set it near a window to be cooled – but it stayed as gloppy, lime green slop.

At the end of the evening, I looked at the kitchen and was startled at how destroyed it looked – like a kitchen kabloom took place. I was startled at how secular all this was, though. Like Christmas, Easter is more cultural now – I mean Cadbury eggs? What’s that gotta do with Jesus?

Our party continued as we finished up our food – there weren’t a whole lot of leftovers – I gave some to my friends, and I have to figure out what to do with the leftovers we do have. I’m thinking of baking the leftovers with elbow pasta, not sure…We also have some bread, so maybe a panzanella?

Anyways, Happy Easter!

Cooking with Peg Bracken

One of the best cookbook writers is a woman who hated cooking. In fact, the title of her most famous cookbook is The I Hate to Cook Book, which was published in 1960. It recently enjoyed a re-printing with an introduction from Bracken’s daughter, Johanna. The I Hate to Cook Book speaks to housewives and working moms (a growing demographic in 1960) who are burdened with the task of feeding families – often on budget – even if they hate cooking. The genesis of The I Hate to Cook Book is a klatch of women who share the recipes that saved a weeknight dinner.

I read The I Hate to Cook Book like a novel, because recipes, for the most part, are uncookable now. All the recipes have midcentury ingredients that I’d be hard-pressed to find now – like, for example, a surprisingly large number of recipes in Bracken’s book call for canned or frozen cream of shrimp soup. My local Co-Op has cream of mushroom, cream of chicken, and maybe cream of tomato, but I’ve never even heard of cream of shrimp. I had to look enough, and sure enough, I did find that Campbell’s does do a cream of shrimp soup, but I’ve yet to run across it (or taste it – to be honest, it sounds kind of disgusting)

The recipes in Bracken’s book reminds me of Sandra Lee, the woman who revolutionized home cooking with her semi-homemade ethos (70% prefab ingredients, 30% fresh….yum…) A lot of Bracken’s suggestions include a can of this or a tin of that. Lots of the veg she suggests to include are tinned. Interestingly enough, for a dish that calls for mushrooms, she writes about using fresh mushrooms as a treat or extravagance, which leads me to believe that not only were tinned veg a convenience but also an economy, too.

But the reason for reading Bracken’s book is because of her writing. She is the voice of every woman who’s just over it. Bracken cooks because she wants to feed her family and in 1960, moms were expected to feed their families (it was in the job description), but she wasn’t a June Cleaver-type who lived for her domestic duties. She wasn’t a fan of cooking and she realized that a lot of women felt the same way. This isn’t Julia Child who finds joy bursting out of every cherry tomato.

Of cooking, Bracken writes, “some activities become no less painful through repetition: childbearing, paying taxes, cooking.” All of her recipes include shortcuts so that the reader doesn’t have to spend one extra second in front of the stove. Sometimes her recipes sound like outtakes from Mad Men as she suggests “you may now put your feed up and have a highball” while making a rather far-fetched Indonesian curry.

Speaking of curry, another charming thing about this book is that because it’s written in 1960, its reach for multicultural recipes is hilarious and also disgusting. For example, one of the dishes she includes in the book is something called a tuna-rice curry: a questionable concoction that includes canned cream sauce, a can of tuna fish, leftover rice, hardboiled eggs, and curry powder. It’s like someone tried to give her the recipe for kedgerre, but forgot some of the ingredients, so Bracken improvised the rest.

Another tuna-related recipe that Bracken has sourced from the East, calls for chow mein noodles to be cooked with cream of mushroom soup and a can of tune – you’re supposed to bake this mess at 177°C – and voila – it’s like you’re in Beijing!

Even though Bracken hates to cook and has made it her schtick, it’s clear that this isn’t just some jokey book to entertain her readers. Yes, that’s a major part of it, and burnt-out housewives who are wasting their journalism degrees while tending to a raggedy litter of kids probably found Bracken to be a kindred spirit, but Bracken does try to impart actual advice and skill to her readers. The recipes aren’t spoofs and are a perfect snapshot of midcentury cooking and entertaining, when women started to look around their Formica surroundings and ask themselves, “Is this it????”

Chicken and broccoli casserole

This recipe came out of me wanting to make a healthier version of mac n’ cheese. Macaroni and cheese is one of my favourite dishes, and as I did research on the Internet, I looked for healthier options that called for whole wheat pasta and less cheese. I thought about the kind of mac n’ cheese I like – Pret a Manger has a really good mac n’ cheese with cauliflower, and I thought about adding some kind of vegetable to my version. I liked the cauliflower of the Pret, but I prefer broccoli to cauliflower, so I chose that instead. I also had half a red bell pepper, so I chopped that up to include in the recipe.

One time I had something really amazing called lobster mac n’ cheese, and oh my god it was good. I don’t really like lobster on its own, but in a mac n’ cheese it was insane: the delicate meat nestled in the velvety sauce.

Oh, I forgot to mention how much I love that thick, gooey, silky sauce. That kind of viscous consistency can only be achieved by using Velveeta which is magic cheese food product that emulsifies beautifully. I live in the UK now, so Velveeta isn’t a thing here. They like cheese – mostly cheddar, in various degrees of sharpness, but I can’t find that familiar orange, yellow box with the familiar red letters.

So, back to the lobster thing. Since I’m not a billionaire, I opted out of boiling lobsters. Besides, cooking something alive would worry me to no end: I don’t want to re-live the scene from Annie Hall, as charming as that film is, so I decided to use chicken breasts which I poached.

The other thing is, now my kitchen is clean and the sink is empty of dishes. I wanted to do a one-pot recipe, or as close to one-pot as possible. That means I used the same sauce pan to boil the veg, the pasta, and poach the chicken. To amp up the flavour, I boiled the chopped bell pepper and broccoli until tender (but still al dente), then the chicken to create a stock, and finally the pasta, so that the pasta can absorb any of the flavours in the cooking liquid.

At the end of cooking my meal, it looked less like mac n’ cheese and more like a casserole, instead (which is what mac n’ cheese is, anyways) Mac n’ cheese has a white sauce, which adds cholesterol and fat, so I did away with that. I also used low fat cheese, and a little bit of it. As a result, the casserole was pretty good, but not the thick, luxurious mac n’ cheese I was aiming for, but that’s okay, it still worked.

Ingredients (serves 2)

  • 200 g of elbow macaroni (or any other small, tubular pasta)
  • 60 g of sharp cheddar, shredded – I used low-fat
  • 1/4 cup of Parmesan cheese, shredded
  • 300g of chicken breasts, chopped
  • 1/2 red bell pepper, diced
  • 60g of broccoli, diced
  • 1 can of cream of chicken soup
  • 2 tbl of mustard – I like brown mustard
  • 1 tbl of soured cream
  • 1/3 cup of crushed potato crisps – I used slightly salted
  • Olive oil

Preheat your oven to 200 C

So the first thing I did was boil some water in a small saucepan, and threw in the broccoli and red pepper. Cook for about 5 minutes, so that the woody part of the broccoli is tender, but the veg is still vibrantly green. I fished the veg out and put in the chicken and poach until cooked through, 15 minutes. Afterwards, I fished the chicken out and diced into bite-sized pieces, and added the pasta and cook in the broth until the macaroni is tender, but al dente – about 6 minutes. Drain and leave aside.

Take the saucepan, rince it out with cold water and dry out and return the pasta to the pan. Add the veg, the chicken, and the cheese and stir until well-combined. Add the chicken soup, the sour cream and stir – it’ll look like the innards of a pot pie. Spoon in the mustard and mix to blend.

Oil a small-ish casserole with your olive oil (you can use butter – it tasted better with butter, but olive oil is healthier – do want you want, I’m not the police) Pour your gloppy mixture into the casserole and smooth the top with a spoon. Then take the potato crisp and crush and sprinkle over the top of your casserole until you cover the whole surface in a thin layer of potato crisps crumbs. If you have any chips left over, shove them into your maw, while you stand over the sink, looking out the window of your kitchen.

Put your casserole on the middle rack and bake for about 20, 25 minutes. I keep an eye out to make sure the crisps don’t burn – my oven has a glass door so I can keep an eye on it. Once it’s 20, 25 minutes, and the crisps are browned and the sauces is bubbly, pull out and leave it out to rest for about 10 minutes. Then spoon some – not just some, but a lot – really, you’re not meant to be restraint when eating this, you’re supposed to devour this. Oh, and enjoy.

 

Bakes fusilli with roasted vegetables and sausage

Baking pasta is something I don’t do very often, but I’ve been making tray bakes a lot lately. Tray bakes are very popular in England and they’re great to make – it’s essentially a one-pot dinner: you throw everything on a baking tray, throw it into a hot oven, and you’re good to go. I’m able to wash dishes while I’m waiting for the food to cook.

This recipe isn’t a “proper” recipe in that it doesn’t really matter what you put it in. I made a winter veg stew the other day, so I had half a turnip and half a celeriac in my fridge that needed eating. I also had half a red onion from a curry I made earlier in the week and I discovered a courgette that was on the borderline of just going off, so I wanted to use that, as well.

This recipe is very easy to make – the ingredients I’m including aren’t obligatory. You put what you want to.

Ingredients (for serving two people):

  • 175 g of pasta – I used whole wheat fusilli
  • 1/2 courgette, chopped in large chunks
  • 1/2 red onion, sliced
  • 1/2 red bell pepper, chopped
  • 1/2 green bell pepper, chopped
  • 2 jalapeno peppers, chopped
  • 1 chili pepper, chopped
  • 1 can of crushed tomatoes
  • 1/2 turnip, diced
  • 1/2 celaraic, diced
  • 3 links of fresh sausage, casings removed
  • 1/4 cup of grated Parmesan cheese
  • 4 slices of Emmental cheese
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper

So, the first thing I did was take the turnip and celaraic and tossed it with some olive oil and seasoned it with salt and pepper. I poured the root veg onto a baking tray in a single layer and put the tray into an oven, heated at 220 degrees.

While the root veg was baking, I prepared the rest of the vegetables. After 10 minutes, pull the tray out and and add the vegetables and the can of tomatoes, mix and spread on the tray as flat as possible.

I then took the sausage meat and broke it in tiny, bite-size pieces, and place on top of the veg.

Add the tray back into the oven and bake until the meat is cooked, another 15, 20 minutes.

While the tray was cooking, boil water for pasta and cook according to the directions on the package, but shave off about two minutes.

Once the sausage is cooked, carefully pull the tray out and set it on your counter. Add the parmesan and mix – the mixture might get a bit sticky and dray – I added a couple tablespoons of cooking water to loosen it a bit. Flatten the food again.

Once the pasta is done, remove from the heat and drain and add to the tray and mix until it’s all well combined. Place the Emmental cheese slices and bake until the cheese is melted, bubbled, and browned.

Once it’s done, remove from the oven and let it sit for a moment before you cut into it. Serve. Oh and enjoy.