Oven Roasted Tomato Basil Pasta

Years before I moved to London or knew who Nigel Slater was, I was cooking one of his recipes on the regular whilst living with friends and listening to Louis Prima most days in West Los Angeles.

One summer, my friend’s mother who had taken up part-time residence in England brought back the most beautiful cookbook.  It had matte pages and gorgeous photos and excellent writing.  Though I’d never heard of Nigel Slater, I loved The Kitchen Diaries.

Many of the recipes are delicious, but one in particular quickly became my favorite.    It was a simple pasta dish with oven roasted tomatoes, garlic, basil, and cream.  I am ashamed to say that I don’t own a copy of the book myself, but I have been making this for years by memory.  Each time it always satisfies.

Ingredients:

500g cherry tomatoes

2 cloves of garlic, minced

a bunch of basil, ripped

double cream

olive oil

salt/pepper

short pasta

pecorino and parmesan cheese

 

Method:

While the water for you pasta boils, pre-heat your grill.  Place the tomatoes on a large baking tray and cover them with some olive oil and salt.  Once your pasta is cooking, put the baking tray under the grill.  Cook the tomatoes until parts of them are black.  Pull them out, add the garlic, give it all a stir and put back under the grill for another minute.  Drain your pasta.  In a large bowl, combine the roasted garlic and tomatoes with salt, pepper, and a bit of the cream.  As it’s not my place to tell you how creamy your sauce should be, add it tablespoon by tablespoon until you get the texture and flavor you desire.  Lastly, add the basil leaves.  Pour this sauce into a large pot.  Add the cooked noodles and stir to coat.  Serve with cheese.

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Blueberry Crumble Bars

Corn.  Cattle.  Pella Windows.  Dutch letters.  Red covered bridges of Madison County (somewhere my initials are carved into one).  Elk Horn’s Danish windmill.  Butter sculptures at the the state fair.  Moths as big as birds.  Fishing in my aunt and uncle’s backyard.  The Hawkeyes.  The best writers’ workshop in America.  Glenn Miller, John Wayne, Johnny Carson, Donna Reed.  Electrical storms in summer.  Fireflies.  Farm life. These are a few of the things that come to mind when I think of Iowa.

Well, that and bars.  By which I mean bar shaped baked goods–the treats that make the Midwest go round.  Iowans love them.  I love them.  And as a woman with strong family roots there, I felt it my duty to finally post about them.  Most tend to be of the chocolate variety, but mine are blueberry.

This morning at the greengrocer’s my four year old chided me.  “Blueberries aren’t in season, mommy.”  I trained her too well.  “That’s right, darling.  In England they’re not, but lucky for us they are in . . . (I picked up a carton and read the label) Spain.”  “Morocco too.”  I needed a few more cartons and the Spanish ones ran out.

Below is my blueberry bar recipe.  It’s a crumbly one with notes of almond and fresh lemon.  As the sky was so blue today and the sun so warm, it felt like the most appropriate bar recipe to bake.  I love it as much as my Grandpa Jim loved the Hawkeyes.  My hope is you do too.

where corn is king

ISF-butter-moneybags

Butter sculpture

Me at my Grandmother's

Me at my Grandmother’s

moth

Great-Grandma Evelyn and Great-Grandpa Herman Warren

Great-Grandma Evelyn and Great-Grandpa Herman Warren

The Sorensens

The Sorensens

My grandfather is the boy in the sailor suit.

My grandfather is the boy in the sailor suit.

My aunt and uncle's backyard

My aunt and uncle’s backyard

mama in iowa

at coco's downtown harlan

james warren

Grandpa Jim

 

Ingredients:

For crumble:

1/2 cup caster sugar

1/4 cup light brown sugar

1 cup flour

3/4 cup oatmeal

1/2 cup ground almonds

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

pinch of salt

125 grams unsalted butter

1 egg

 

For filling:

4 cups blueberries

1/2 cup caster sugar

juice and zest of 1 lemon

1 tablespoon cornflour

 

Method:

Preheat oven to Gas 4/ 350F/ 180C.

Lightly butter a small ceramic dish and set aside.  The measurements of mine were 8×12 inches.  If you like lots of crumble, use a smaller dish.  8″ x 8″ would be perfect.

Mix all the ingredients for the crumble, except for the egg, in a large bowl with your fingertips.  Combine until it resembles a fine meal.  Then incorporate the egg.

Place 2/3 of the crumble in the bottom of your dish.  I use my knuckles to push it into place.

Then in another bowl mix the lemon juice, zest, sugar, and cornflour.  Gently stir in the blueberries and coat.

Pour the berry mixture on top of the crumble layer.  Sprinkle the remaining 1/3 of the crumble on top.

Bake for 45 minutes or until golden brown.  Allow the bake to cool completely before cutting into it.  This will give you a better set bar than just a lot of crumble.

baked crumble

blueberry crumble bar

Honey Marmalade Cake

My in-laws were recently in France sorting my husband’s late Auntie Marianne’s affairs. While there they made two discoveries.  One: Auntie M. took it upon herself to edit the books she read.  Incorrect spellings and dropped punctuation were fixed with her red pen. Two: She had vats of local honey sitting in the cellar.  Honey as thick and rich as creme fraiche caramels and flecked with bits of the forest from which it came.  Everyone got a kilo upon their return.

Honey is a staple in my home.  I love it.  Runny, set, manuka, clover, English wildflower, Scottish heather–I’ve got it all.  But this new honey, Auntie Marianne’s garrigue honey, really is the bee’s knees.  Other than enjoying it in my tea, I wanted to bake something special with it.

Last year, a dear friend of mine gave me an old cookbook called  More Honey in the Kitchen.  It was written by Joyce White who was a cookery demonstrator and lecturer in beekeeping.  The book was illustrated by her grandchildren and published in 1991.  It could not be any more charming if it tried.

Today I baked a honey marmalade cake from it and it was perfection.  Below is the recipe.  I’d like to think Ms. White would have been proud and Auntie M. would have approved.

honey close up of honey Scawby Hall beebook recipe marmalade cooling cake sugar cake sliced cake

 

My Mother-in-Law’s Coffee Cake

chicken cake

This recipe is what my mother-in-law calls a 4-4-4-2 cake.  That’s because it consists of 4 ounces of flour, 4 ounces of sugar, 4 ounces of butter, and 2 eggs.  When she attended the Domestic Science College in Aberdeen (or what she refers to as Do School) this was the ratio she learned for a basic sponge.  So the next time you hear someone complain about math and how none of what they learned in class is applicable to life . . . just ask them if they like cake.  If they say yes, point out that ratios are responsible for making that deliciousness happen.

 

Ingredients for the cake:

4 oz. all purpose flour

4 oz. caster sugar

4 oz. unsalted butter, room temperature

1 level tsp baking powder

2 eggs

4 tsp instant coffee dissolved in 2 tbsp boiling water

 

Method:

Preheat oven to 180C/350F/Gas4.

Grease, flour, and line 2 8″ cake tins.

Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy.

Mix in the coffee mixture then add the eggs one at a time.

Combine the flour and baking soda in a bowl then gradually add this to the mix.

Divide the batter between the pans.

Bake for approximately 25 minutes or until a knife comes out clean.

Cool.

 

Ingredients for the coffee icing:

6 oz. unsalted butter, room temperature

3 to 5 oz. powdered sugar

4 tsp instant coffee dissolved in 2 tbsp boiling water

 

Method:

Beat the butter with half the powdered sugar to start.

Mix in half the coffee mixture to taste.  Add more if you like it stronger.

Same with the sugar.

 

To assemble the cake:

Put the first layer of sponge on a plate.  Spread it evenly with icing.  Top this with the second layer of sponge.  Ice that and decorate as you wish.

 

*Feel free to use strong coffee in lieu of instant coffee.  Stove top espresso is my preference, but I have written the recipe as my mother-in-law makes it.

 

 

Watercolor Wisdom

“As for me, I am watercolor. I wash off.”

This last line of an Anne Sexton poem sucker-punched me one evening in the tenth grade. Until then I was filled with a child’s ego and content in the knowledge confirmed by my parents that I was a forever-burning star. Years later, I look at this passage and see the line of demarcation between my childish fantasy and adult reality.

Imagine the shock. My life was a temporal treat to the universe offered up to the gods as a situation comedy—mildly amusing, minorly offensive and over before your clothes in the dryer are done. I welcomed this revelation as one would the stuffy air of one’s own coffin. Could it be that I wasn’t remarkable? Was the watercolor painting I called my life so easily washed away like someone spraying a hose over sidewalk chalk drawings? I needed to investigate.

I came to my own defense citing the positive relationships in my life. Surely those would last forever—like my kindergarten friendship with Olive who would later develop schizophrenia. I remained a true friend when everyone else had long abandoned her. That was honest and altruistic of me. Surely that situation was worthy of a hearty oil based paint, was it not? Then a heat began to burn in my neck and my face flushed. I couldn’t remember her last name. It had been erased from my memory like old voice mail. So much for relationships that last forever.

One hundred years from now,all the funny stories of my life will be accredited to other people and with me long dead I will never have the chance to correct them. My talents, hopes, dreams, and desires will be given to newborn children whose parents will convince them, like mine once did, that theirs too is a special place in the universe. And this will make me smile from beyond because I get the joke.

“As for me, I am watercolor. I wash off.” I temporarily color my world and stain the hands of those that I have touched. I feel my colors strong and deep and I watch my steamy bath dilute them every night. So there I soak, a small freckly me, dreaming of a safe place behind complimentary matting and a cool protective shield of glass where the watercolor of my life can live forever.

Perhaps this is why fleeting pleasures are my favorite. There is something magical about the blossom that lasts for only a day or the cup of tea that provides perfection for a mere few minutes.  Let it brew too long and the magic disappears.  Don’t steep it long enough and there will be no evidence of magic at all.  My favorite at the moment is Bouddha Bleu by Mariage Frères which is a delicate green tea with cornflower petals. Its bouquet is heavenly, a delicate balance of fruit and flowers. If I could distill the scent, I’d wear nothing else.  Unlike black tea which can leave you with too frenetic of a buzz, Bouddha Bleu imparts a feeling of clarity and acuity I find invigorating.  Even if or especially because the magic washes off as quickly as watercolor.

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Secrets (an apple plum sauce recipe)

Not many people know but once I tried being a vegetarian.  All I can say is I was young and impressionable and that it was during my competitive figure skating years.  Lots of the girls I skated with hid their anorexia behind their vegetarianism, but that’s not why I did it.  I did it because Alicia Silverstone, the star of “Clueless,” was a vegetarian.  I tried in earnest but after a few months of eating nothing but edamame and baked potatoes with salsa, I caved.  One Saturday after ballet and running Mulholland, I downed a quart of milk then asked my mother to make me a steak.

Since then I have employed an equal opportunities approach to eating.  I love eating. Everything.  Which is why if you asked me which food I could live without–Spanish peaches, French cherries, Hungarian peppers, Sicilian tuna, Black Angus beef, Maine lobster, or Cromer crab–I wouldn’t be able to answer you.  To me, they’re all necessary and if I could never have one of them again I would mourn the fact.

CUT TO: ME IN MOURNING

I’ve been taking anticoagulants for over a month now and going in for blood work most every week.  If you saw the bruises on my arms you’d think I was an extra on Vinyl. Friday I was told that on top of whatever pulmonary problems I have, I also have high cholesterol.  Not yet high enough to be put on statins, but high enough to be categorized as high.  Anyone who reads Chagrinnamon Toast knows I’m a woman who loves a piece of pie, but I’m also a woman who soaks her own beans, makes her own stock, and eats lots of vegetable dishes.  I have to admit, this news came as a shock and the fact that I’ve been advised to cut out animal products in an effort to lower my cholesterol has me disheartened.

I feel like I have to learn to cook again.  The thing is I do have several plant based cookbooks on my shelf though I seldom use them.  Not because I don’t like the way the recipes taste, but because there is too much prep work involved.  If a recipe requires me to grind spices and chop herbs for more than an hour, I’m not going to make it.  Part of why I love roast chicken so much (or roast of any kind) is that it’s easy to prepare.  I can walk away from it as the alchemy happens in the oven.  I have yet to experience the same freedom or satisfaction when cooking vegetables.  I’ll even admit that my ratatouille recipe I love is sometimes so tedious I can’t bother.

As for vegetables masquerading as meat. . . I don’t get it.  It’s like some sort of kitchen cosplay where seitan pretends to be sausage and tofu turns into counterfeit crab.  To each their own, but personally no thank you.  In December, I went to one of Los Angeles’ best vegan restaurants.  The signature dish I was told to try was the chicken and waffles. It was alright considering it was meat free but no one at Roscoe’s, not even if blind drunk, would have mistaken it for the real thing.

But enough of feeling sorry for myself.  The fact remains, I have high cholesterol and need to adjust my diet accordingly.  So if you have any recipe recommendations that don’t require tons of prep work or pretend soy is steak, then please share them.  I’m only one week in and already bored of the meals I’ve been making.  It’s not that they aren’t nice, it’s just that they smack of medieval asceticism.  I would love bring them into the modern age.

Below is a recipe for spiced apple plum sauce.  This weekend I ate it with steel cut oats and almonds.  Today my daughter had it with yoghurt and honey as an after school snack. Until I learn how to bake without butter or coconut oil, this will remain my treat of choice.

Ingredients:

6 apples

3 plums

1/2 inch of grated ginger

2 pieces cinnamon bark

1 clove

1 star anise

1 tsp agave syrup

 

Method:

Peel and dice your fruit.  Then place it in a saucepan with the spices and syrup.  Cook over medium heat until the mixture begins to bubble.  Simmer until thick.  Pot in a sterilized jar and process for about 25 minutes in a water bath if you want to preserve it.  If not, put it in a container in the fridge to chill and eat it within the week.

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Blood Clots, Codeine, Cookies and Cashmere

If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.  Actually, that statement’s not true but it is how I felt Wednesday afternoon.  Just as John McClane picked a bad day to give up smoking, so was Wednesday the worst possible day to wake up with debilitating chest pain and be coughing blood.  In case you don’t live in Britain and are not aware, Wednesday was the junior doctors’ strike.

People were protesting Jeremy Hunt’s contract outside the hospital entrance as I staggered into A&E.  Inside, people with various ailments were packed like sardines.  Some patients with cannulas held their own IV bags as there weren’t enough stands to go round.  In triage a medic apologized to me for the wait.  She explained that with the strike there was only one surgical doctor in the hospital that day.  It was plain to me that present staff were clearly working overtime.

I was relieved when I finally saw the doctor who had not only the same surname as my mother but also the same comforting kindness.  When I explained to her that I was suffering from crushing chest pain that radiated round my back, she ordered an x-ray and a full blood panel.

Not long after a trip to the radiology department, a nurse named Nadine was giving me an injection in my stomach and telling me I was to be admitted.  She put me in a bed and hooked me up to oxygen as my levels were low.  As I lay there in a bay sectioned off by a paper curtain, I was too distracted by the sounds around me to read.

A woman was being sick in a nearby bin.  Around the corner, Evangelicals prayed at top volume and sang hymns to their afflicted.  The shadows of their waving hands sailed up and down the bit of corridor I could see.  And in the distance, a drunk man named Jim shouted abuse at everyone around him and dared them to call the cops.

This cacophony was drowned out though the moment the doctor pulled back the curtain and said she suspected a blood clot in my lungs.  Suddenly all I heard was Fantine’s voice in my head except it was my own.  Tell Cosette I love her and I’ll see her when I wake.  

My mind began to race.  I thought about how before school that morning I promised my daughter I’d play Candy Land with her when she got home.  I felt terrible for not being able to make good on my word and I felt worse still that I wouldn’t be home to read her a bedtime story that night either.  I wondered if non-British citizens were allowed to be buried in British cemeteries.  I struggled to recall the details of the life insurance policy my husband and I had.  I wondered if he noticed we were out of ham and that Helena would need something else for lunch tomorrow.  Eventually I quieted my thoughts the same way I did when I was a child and couldn’t sleep.  I sang Blue Shadows to myself.

The next day’s CT scan showed I didn’t have a blood clot in my lungs so much as I had multiple blood clots and on both sides of my lungs.  I’m told it’s treatable but that I am at risk of having a stroke.  On one hand it’s nice to understand why I’ve felt so terrible.  On the other, I hate knowing the only reason I lost half a stone in 4 days was because I’m actually quite ill.  My treatment will last about four months during which time I’ll be on anticoagulants to stabilize my clots.  I was warned the drug I’m taking will render me like a haemophiliac so I’m to take extra precaution not to cut myself.  Dihydrocodeine has been prescribed for the pain.

Considering the circumstances of Wednesday, I feel extremely lucky and grateful for the NHS who even on an understaffed strike day made sure I was properly seen to and diagnosed.  If it weren’t for their thoroughness I could have died.  Americans who are scared of socialized health care, don’t be.

My husband, Henry, has been a hero.  He has essentially been a single parent for weeks while the GP has struggled to find out what’s wrong with me.  He has also been a loving partner and the ultimate calm in spite of this storm.  Helena has lavished me with love and comes home every day with little smashed flowers in her pockets that she picks on the walk home from school.  I keep them next to my bedside next to the picture of me holding her when she came down with flu during the Mad Hatter’s tea party we had to celebrate her second birthday.

If you know me you know that most days I wear pearl earrings.  Recently as I was hacking and crying, Helena waited until I caught my breath again and brought them to me.  “Here, mommy.”  I put them on and changed out of my polka dot pajamas.  She was right.  Reinstating this little bit of normalcy did make me feel better.  I think it made us both feel better.  As did the cashmere dress I paired with a fur stole and a flick of black eyeliner.  My mama always said no one should have to look exactly how they feel.  Or as one of my friends has put it, “A little powder, a little paint, makes a woman what she ain’t.”  Some days this isn’t feasible, but on that one it was.

I think you’ll understand when I say I’m going to post here even less than usual.  Believe me, nothing I’m eating these days is worthy of being recorded–a teaspoon of Marigold powder in a cup of boiling water, half a banana, oat cakes, a bit of roast chicken and soft prunes.  I know, try not to be jealous.  Actually that’s not entirely true.  Today, I had some fortifying noodle soup at Tonkotsu and the weekend before I went into hospital, I made Claire Ptak’s egg yolk chocolate chip cookies.  Some of the dough is still in my freezer.  Hopefully just like the peonies of late spring, I’ll be back and full of color soon.

radiology a little powder, a little paint yellowpresents from Helena cookies