30 June 2010

A very English summer

I have figured out a few things in the past couple of days:

1) The official start of seasons always seemed off to me, living in the southern US, but this year it all makes perfect sense. As if on cue, the weather has changed in the UK to accommodate the official calendar start of seasons. It doesn't always happen this way, but this year we are experiencing all four (!) seasons in London. Right now, we are on summer and actually have the heat and sunshine to prove it! I'm not a huge fan of hot weather, though I appreciate actually having the seasonal weather to match the time of year.

2) I like tennis. We went to the Wimbledon tournament this past weekend and saw some great athletes. Though the day was long, I really got into the tennis. Previously, Wimbledon would be something I would flick past on a Saturday afternoon and watch for a little while if it was an exciting game, nothing more. Now, I might pay more attention to the sport, or at least during Wimbledon.

3) We indulged in two of the the three things that are the epitome of an English summer: Pimm's and lemonade and strawberries and cream. (The other is barbecues.) Ok, the strawberries and cream might be specific to Wimbledon, though strawberries have been flooding the grocery stores for the past month and continue to do so throughout summer.

As there have been so many strawberries around, I have wanted to do something with them. But they never seem to last long around me. I (almost) literally wolf them down with a drenching of cream, or dip them in powdered sugar.

I sincerely love strawberries and eating them with cream just seems to make me think of the carefree days of summer during childhood, a light summer breeze and dappled sunshine, tea parties and sun dresses. Maybe it is that strawberries and cream is so pure and good without needing anything else save a splash of sugar that throws me back to a playful and younger state, days when the sunshine meant playtime.

This is most definitely my dessert of choice for the English summer.

20 June 2010

Stuffed peppers

My family had the most internationally influenced food of anyone I knew growing up, second only maybe to those who had emigrated from another country. We would have stir fry, black beans and rice, meat and potatoes, schnitzel, lasagne, fondue, and stuffed peppers among other things. I never knew that these dishes all had different food heritage and this was all very normal to me. Once I started to make my own food and tried to find recipes to recreate some of these dinner staples in my household, I learned how worldly the selection was. OK, not everything was authentic and maybe the recipes were tweaked to suit our tastes, but still, for a family from the Midwest that grew up on (red) meat and potatoes, we were the pioneers of cultural expansion through food in my eyes.

Two examples spring to mind that are somewhat relevant. One Thanksgiving, a traditional time of eating very American foods like turkey, potatoes and apple pie, my mom had some of her Chinese students and friends from graduate school over as they had no where to go for the day. In return for the hospitality, they showed us how to make authentic Chinese eggrolls from scratch. It's a really fun memory for a four year old to have of carefully rolling the wraps and sealing with egg, then hearing the eggrolls cook in hot oil.

The other memory is from high school. We had three acres of land at the time and we grew a lot of vegetables. My dad always planted tomatoes and we would can and freeze most of them to eat throughout the year, as we did with the beans, peppers, peas, squash and apples that were the main staples of the garden. Taking the garden produce as a cue, I decided to have a party. A usual pizza and music party like other 17 year olds? No, I had an Italian food themed party, including caprese salad, a frittata, pasta with fresh vegetables and lots of tomatoes, complete with a table outside on the porch to give the party an Italian summer feel.

The other day, I decided the I wanted to make stuffed peppers, one of my favorite dishes growing up and one I would request to have made on my birthday (that, and lasagne). I told my fiance what we were having for dinner and he perked up, thinking I was making the Greek stuffed peppers dish. What? I had no idea this was a Greek dish too! I looked up the recipe in the Greek cookbook I have and the funny thing is that the recipes are very similar to a point. The Greek recipes calls for the seminal ingredients of any good Greek dish, tomatoes and cinnamon, while mine does not. Still, I think it is interesting that we have been eating almost the same dish thousands of miles apart for so many years. Maybe, if everyone had access to all the food ingredients out there, we would all come up with generally the same dishes, like when pre-historic humans all created art at the same time across the world. Maybe all people do crave similar textures and tastes in food.

Below is what I did for my recipe of stuffed peppers, but at the end I will also include the Greek variations.

I sauteed some (about 500 grams) mince meat and half an onion, then threw in chopped mushrooms and courgettes. You can also add any extra peppers or leave all veggies out.

While the meat mixture is cooking, I cut up the peppers for stuffing. This is a very particular way to cut them so that only the top comes off. You start by cutting around the stem but not too deeply or you will have holes in your pepper!

Pull out the stem and clean out any seeds by washing it out with water- much easier than getting seeds one by one.

Pretty hollow peppers.

Add rice and water to the meat mixture. I usually have a 2/3 rice to 1/3 meat ratio, but it depends how meaty you are feeling to how much rice you add.

While the rice/meat mixture is cooking, bring a large pot of water to boil for the peppers. Place all the peppers in the pan, submerged with water, for which I use tongs of some sort that I can find.

After only 7 or so minutes, or until the peppers are tender but not falling apart, drain the water from the pot and each pepper, pull the peppers out and place in an oven-proof dish.

Now that the rice mixture is done, fill the peppers! Don't be shy, fill them to the brim!

When all the peppers are full, place them in a hot oven (maybe 180C, 250 F?) for about 15 minutes, then top with cheddar cheese.

In the Greek version of this dish, you do not add veggies and Worcestershire sauce to the rice mixture and should add cinnamon and chopped tomatoes instead. You can also stuff practically anything- courgette, pepper, tomato, aubergine. If you can hollow it, you can stuff it.

I think this is truly a dish that comes from both the (now) Greek and American food sides of me, without even knowing it all those years.

15 June 2010

Similar beans

Sorry for the brief hiatus, but my mom was in town and lots of recent family functions with lots of food have not left me much time to cook. When I did get back into it last night, I threw together some things I had and ended up with a Tuscan bean casserole of sorts (I changed the recipe I was using as a guide). Perhaps it was the exact type of beans I used, but this supposedly Italian-based dish ended up tasting like a Greek dish my fiance loves, only with some garlic, onion, and herbs de provence added.

That got me thinking about the similarities in foods between cultures. I suppose that with Italy and Greece and Cyprus all being on (in) the Mediterranean it is not a stretch to see the similarities in climate, foodstuffs available and dishes that are made. It is also not surprising to find that traditional America and the Mediterranean have vastly different food styles due to the distance between them, different climates and landscapes and different foodstuffs available. It makes me chuckle when a certain dish is touted as a specialty of an area when it is exactly the same dish as one from the next area over but with an added spice. Granted, adding some spices do change the taste of dishes completely, but when you get down to the basics, a lot of dishes have some very core similarities.

Or as my grandfather puts it, all dishes are made of the same stuff but in different forms.

So this is my Tuscan bean casserole that is very similar to Cypriot fasolia. I was hungry so I did things the fast and easy way.

Brown two prokchops in a little olive oil in a large pot. A blue pot, if you have one, is preferable.

Then add chopped carrots, onion quarters, and canned cannellini beans with juice over the pork.

I added two cloves of roughly chopped garlic. Mmmm, garlic. This may be one of two elements that makes this dish 'Tuscan', so don't be stingy with it.

Sprinkle some herbs de provence on top of it all. You could also use just rosemary, thyme or combination of whatever herbs you would like, but I like them all so herbs de provence it is!

Cover this mixture with water and simmer for about half an hour, and I then added some chopped courgette and a few potatoes to the mixture. At some point, I also added salt and pepper.

Simmer for another 15 or so minutes and then check the pork to make sure it is done and all the veggies are nicely boiled. The water also thickens as it cooks and makes the whole thing like a soup.

The aroma is mouth-watering. And the pork is very tender and juicy.

I think to be inclusive, I wil say this is a great Mediterranean dish and continues my love affair with cannelini beans. I think these have another name in the American lexicon, but I can't remember what they are. Still, they're great and tasty.

I shall leave you with this: Beans of a feather, stick together.

Here's the rough ingredient list:

2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 porkchops
3 chopped carrots
3 small onions (1 large onion), quartered
2 cans cannelini beans
2 cloves chopped garlic
1 chopped courgette
2 handfuls peeled and large cubed potatoes (exact measurements aren't my thing)
2 tbsp herbs de provence, or other herbs and spices you like
water to cover mixture
salt and pepper to taste