September 29, 2006
Grandma Kehoe's Plum Coffeecake

plumcake.jpgI've mentioned many times the fact that we had five Italian prune plum trees in our back yard when I was growing up. As a result, I'm pretty nostalgic around this time of the year when they come into season. I buy them by the kilo, to the bemusement of the vendor at our market. What she doesn't know is that neither the Boy nor the Critic really help out eating them, unless I do something special with them. I generally get at least halfway through the week's kilo before I start considering that option.

And so last weekend, I indulged my nostalgic urges to the limit by baking a coffeecake that I fondly remember my grandmother making when I was younger, a thin round or square cake, richly studded with juicy purple fruit. It's juicy and tart and sweet all at once, with a pillowy soft interior and a crunchy sugar top. I loved it then and I love it now.

Although I will be eternally grateful to my mother and my cousin for bringing my grandmother's recipes into a bound home-published book (future generations of our family will fight over the limited edition copies) I have noticed one small flaw. Well, two, actually. The first is that there is no table of contents, making it difficult to go to, say, the dessert section. The other is that for the most part they simply copied the recipes word for word, warts and all. Occasionally this leads to charming little side comments like "KEEP YOUR KIDS OUT OF THIS -- YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE!!!" (on a particularly good peach cocktail recipe). But it has also led to my jotting down notes in the margins where vital information is missing. In the case of this recipe, there was no indication of what size or shape pan to use. I thought I remembered it was a flattish round or square cake, but when I came to make the batter it seemed far too little for the pan. I put it in a smaller rectangular pan with higher sides and although the result was tasty, the proportions were somehow not quite right and the cake didn't hold together as it should. The second time I made the cake, I trusted my memory instead of my instincts (sometimes that is wiser!) and the result was exactly as I remembered. Delicious.

Grandma Kehoe's Plum Coffeecake

I love two things about this coffeecake: it's relatively quick to make (and so perfect for a weekend brunch) and it relies - in season - on ingredients I tend to have in my kitchen every day. The original recipe calls for fresh peach slices instead of plum, but that's not how I remember it. So for me, the plum is the original and the peach is the variation.

1 egg
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
1/4 cup milk
3 Tbs melted butter
1 teaspoon lemon juice (or 1/4 tsp lemon extract)
1/4 tsp vanilla
2 cups plums or peaches, washed, stoned and cut in thin wedges (12-15 plums or 2-3 ripe peaches)
1/4 cup sugar

Preheat the oven to 350F/180C. Butter and flour a classic sized round layer cake pan (mine measures 22 1/2 cm). Beat the egg, add the sugar and beat well until thick and creamy. Add milk, butter and flavorings. Add dry ingredients and mix. Pour into the cake pan. It will not look like much, only a little over a centimeter high. Press the fruit into the batter, keeping the fruit very close together. You want them close enough to touch, but with just enough space for batter to ooze between them and hold the cake together.


Once all - or as much as possible - of the fruit has been added, sprinkle the remaining quarter cup of sugar over the cake. Bake for 40 minutes and allow to cool for 5-10 minutes before slicing. Eaten warm, it is absolutely heavenly for breakfast. Eaten cold, it's still pretty darn delicious. The plums retain that wonderful sweet and tart balance and the sweet cake serves as the perfect background. Although it's called a coffeecake, it's also extremely good with tea. Or a tall glass of cold milk.

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 12:09 PM | Comments (9)
September 27, 2006
Stuffed eggplant, take two


This is a "take two" for two reasons, funnily enough. It's the second time I've tried to make a stuffed eggplant. And it's the second time we've posted a stuffed eggplant recipe on this site. Barrett's version sounds (and looks) delicious, but I think mine might win out in a healthiness competition, with fresh tomatoes and spinach entering the fray. Oh yeah, and cheese. But just a little, enough to bind and bring together the flavours. I jotted down the recipe while watching Gino D'Acampo on the UK television program "Sunday Lunch Live". It had my mouth watering just watching him prepare it and as a result I strayed - for me - very little from the original recipe.

I loved two things about this recipe. Firstly, it called for ingredients that I already had in my kitchen. Secondly (and not surprisingly, givien reason number one) it called for ingredients that I love. I recently mentioned to my doctor that I love spinach and lentils and she replied with a quizzical look "Did I know you are a vegetarian?" "No, I just love spinach and lentils!" I replied. And so I do. And I love eggplant and I love the gorgeous juicy red tomatoes that are in season at the moment. And I just happened to have a ball of fresh mozzarella in the bottom of the cheese drawer needing to be used up before it went out of date. So this was pretty much the perfect dish in my opinion.

Stuffed Eggplants (or, according to Gino, Melanzane Farcite)

1 medium eggplant
2 small juicy tomatoes, chopped
1 handful of spinach, rinsed and wilted in the water clinging to the leaves
1 mozzarella ball, drained and sliced
60g grated Parmesan
80g toasted pine nuts
3 tbsp flat-leaf parsley, chopped
4 tbsp fruity olive oil
salt and pepper, to taste

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F. Cut the eggplants in half, place them on a baking tray and bake them in the oven for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and leave to cool. Using a large soup spoon, scoop out the flesh of the aubergines to make a hollow cavity, keeping the skin intact.

Chop up the flesh of the eggplant and roughly chop the spinach. Mix these two with the pine nuts, Parmesan, tomatoes and parsley in a bowl. Season generously with salt and pepper, sprinkle with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and mix well.

Stuff the eggplant halves with the mixture and place them on a baking tray. Lay the mozzarella slices on top, drizzle with the remaining oil and bake in the oven for about 35 minutes until they are golden and the cheese has melted. You should smell the nutty aroma of cooked eggplant before you remove them from the oven. If the eggplant doesn't seem done and the cheese has melted and browned, you can cover them with tin foil or brown paper and continue until the eggplant is cooked through. It will depend on the size of your eggplant and how chunky your eggplant pieces are.

Serve hot with a bit of toasted bread to soak up the juices that will run out as you eat it. I think Gino used this as a starter, but it's a pretty substantial one. For me, it made a lovely, healthy main dish one evening when my vegetable-averse Critic was out at a business function.

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 3:00 PM | Comments (4)
September 26, 2006
Bertha's Mussels

When I was growing up in the 70's, Midwesterners who ventured to the Wisconsin Dells often came back with a few things - a memory of a great time, some cherry wine, and a bumper sticker on their car from the Tommy Bartlett Watershow. Tommy Bartlett's Watershow was an extravaganza featuring lots of daring waterskiing stunts. It was a great show to see, but the drawback was that while in the show, the Tommy Bartlett staff would be out in the parking lot plastering your bumpers with "Tommy Bartlett" bumper stickers. There were various legends about how to get or not get a bumper sticker, usually involving putting your car antenna up or down, and eventually, Tommy Bartlett's was forced to stop the obnoxious practice, but you couldn't drive around the upper Midwest in the 70's and early 80's without seeing one of their bumper stickers.

In Baltimore, I've seen one bumper sticker as ubiquitous as the Tommy Bartlett ones used to be in Chicago and that would be the simple green bumper sticker that proclaims in white lettering - "EAT BERTHA'S MUSSELS". The bumper stickers are voluntary in this case, and you'll be given a few with your check at the end of a satisfying meal of mollusks at this Fell's Point institution.

Bertha's has character. The small dark bar on the corner feels like its been there for eons. The people are friendly, the good but limited choice of beers is well selected, and the atmosphere is funky but comfortable.

If you choose to bypass the bar and go in through the restaurant, you'll find yourself in a friendly, dingy place that looks a lot cleaner than it smells. The smell fades quickly. You'll start with a basket of thickly sliced dry bread and butter. Although the menu offers oyster chowder, escargot, burgers, veggie burgers, and fresh fish of the day, the real attraction at Bertha's is the mussels.

There's even a folk song about Bertha's Mussels

They will cure your diarrhea, cure your constipation, too.
Just swallow a box for the chicken pox, the measles or the flu.
Now, if you fancy a healthy life, get your daily doses straight
A plate a day of Bertha's mussels, and you'll live 'til you're 98.

I wasn't feeling ill at all, but I started with a minestrone-like mussel chowder that was more tomatoes, vegetables, and mussels than broth. I'd never had a mussel soup before, and was pleased with the execution of this warming homey chowder.

Bertha's serves mussels in meal-sized bowls with one of eight sauces on the side. My dining companion tried the mussels with melted garlic basil butter and a wedge of lemon, and I squeezed lemon into my little cup of butter, anchovy, tomato and garlic sauce. We pried open the black and perlescent shelled mussels which had a nice orange cast to their meat and were often surprisingly large.

A few of the mussels were slightly overcooked, but on the whole, Bertha's mussels are delicious in either of the two sauces we tried or, I suspect in any of the eight total sauces you can order with them. Service was attentive and the mussels paired well with a Hoegaarten beer with a slice of lemon.

The best part was that a full meal of mussels for two, two beers, and one cup of chowder cost us only $32 and, as I mentioned above, came with three bumper stickers. Not too bad for a filling, delicious meal.

Bertha's is not a top of the line haute cuisine eatery. It's a good food and beer "joint" and matches the character of the city it's in - blue collar, quirky, practical, and satisfying. If you want good bar food and great mussels, just read the bumper of the car in front of you and head down to Broadway at the inner harbor to Eat Bertha's Mussels.

Bertha's Resturant & Bar
734 S. Broadway, Fells Point
Baltimore, Maryland 21231
P. 410.327.5795

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 7:50 AM | Comments (6)
September 21, 2006
Molasses Cookies

My new office in Baltimore is right next to one of the city's long-time landmarks. Every day as I drive in to work, I am treated to the rich smell of cooking sugar at the Domino Sugar plant next door.

At first, I found the fact that my formerly industrial office complex (it was used to make Tide, Palmolive, and Ivory soaps back in the day) smelled like brown sugar cookies to be quite amusing. After a while though I found that a need was building up in me to make something that smelled as good as the sugar refinery next door. Then I noticed that on the other side of our building were several two-three story high tanks.

I figured they were filled with some horrible petrochemical, but was informed by one of the native SoBo's (South Baltimorean) that the tanks contained molasses. Molasses! and thousands of gallons of it!

Well that did it for me, and the result is this fine batch of cookies you see above.

The deep rich flavor of molasses is offset by the spice of ginger, cinnamon, cloves and just a little white pepper. You can use black pepper in yours, if you wish. I think the white pepper grinds more finely.

The recipe as written below is not subtle, but I like my molasses cookies to be bold. If you want yours to be more subtle, back down the spice a little and use half white and half brown sugar instead of the all brown sugar mix I use.

Molasses Cookies

Dry bowl:
4 Cups AP flour
2 1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tablespoon fresh grated ginger
2 teaspoons ground cloves
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon finely ground white pepper

1 cup (2 sticks) butter
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
1/2 cup molasses
2 eggs, beaten
small bowl of granulated sugar for rolling

Preheat the oven to 350 F and put a piece of parchment paper on a cookie sheet.

Mix all the dry ingredients together (and yes, I know ginger isn't really dry, but pretend for now and mix it in the same bowl). Makes sure the spices, soda, and salt are well distributed in the flour.

In a mixer, cream the sugar and butter together, stopping occasionally to scrape down the sides. With the mixer running, slowly add the eggs and then slowly add the molasses. Mix until well combined, stopping occasionally to scrape down the sides of the bowl.

Slowly add the contents of the dry bowl to the wet mix and mix until throughly incorporated. You should be left with a slightly sticky dough.

Roll balls of dough 1.5" - 2" diameter in between your palms. Roll the ball of dough in the bowl of granulated sugar and place it on the cookie sheet, 2" apart. You can use a coarser brown or raw sugar for this purpose, but the white sugar adds just a touch of sweetness needed to finish the cookies.

Bake in the 350 F oven for 12-14 minutes. Remove to a cooling rack and let sit for five minutes or more before eating. Repeat with rest of dough.

For presentation, sprinkle powdered sugar over cookies before serving.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 7:26 AM | Comments (6)
September 20, 2006
Plum chutney

plumchutney.jpgI don't know if it's a Midwestern thing or just my family, but we have always been enthusiastic canners. I remember the wonderful plum jam my mother used to make from the trees in our back yard. My brother and cousins keep me well stocked in home made jam to this day. And my grandmother, I remember, went through an exotic period dotted with hot pepper or onion jelly, apricot chutney, chili sauce. So thanks to her, when I think of making a chutney I generally dismiss the idea because I don't have time for steaming jars.

This is very stupid, I admit. And I proved it last week when I looked at the wonderful almost-too-ripe plums sitting in my fruit bowl and thought to combine them with the ginger left over from my ginger ale experiment. Rich and fruity, with just a hint of a bite. Why don't I think of combining fruit and meat more often? Why am I so stupid? Well, rather than launch into a long and involved discussion of nature and nurture let's just move on...

Although this recipe is (very) vaguely Chinese, I don't claim any authenticity for it. It is very tasty, though, and would be fantastic with a slice of duck or a lean pork chop. I served it with a chicken breast, marinated in soy sauce, pepper oil and lemon juice and it was delicious. But I think it would be even better with duck.


Plum Chutney (not to preserve but to serve immediately on two servings of meat of your choice, but I recommend duck)

10-12 small Italian prune plums, preferably juicy and ripe
10 grams (a knob about the size of a smallish thumb) ginger, peeled and finely chopped
1 large shallot, sliced in thin strips
1/4 cup port or other sweet wine
2 Tbs dark soy sauce
1 star anise
1 tsp sesame seeds

Toss all the ingredients in a small sauce pan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and allow to simmer for 15-20 minutes, until it gets glossy and thick and smells wonderful. Be sure to cool the spoon thoroughly before tasting as thick hot sauces tend to retain heat extremely well.

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 3:24 PM | Comments (3)
September 19, 2006
Fried Haloumi with basil

Haloumi is a magical cheese. It grills and fries, but doesn't melt like, well, almost every other cheese out there. I'm sure you could melt haloumi cheese if you really really tried and added some moisture, but its non-melting attributes make it a perfect choice for a fried cheese recipe.

I'm a big fan of good cheeses paired with herbs and I chose to accompany this fried cheese with a little fried basil. Hey, thank god it's fried day here on Too Many Chefs. OK, it's Tuesday, and maybe I should have held that joke for a few more days so it actually worked with the day of the week, but I couldn't. It was bursting to come out, but was having trouble since it was so weak.

This would be a great dish as a starter for a dinner party. It can be made in front of the guests who inevitably congregate in the kitchen, and doesn't take any time at all to put together. I haven't tried it, but I'm sure you could keep the fried cheese warm in an oven as you finished off another batch.

I won't put a formal recipe together here. Start with about three tablespoons of olive oil and about 25 basil leaves for a four ounce cube of haloumi. Slice the haloumi into broad flat slices of 1/4" thick. I get 5-6 slices per block.

Heat the oil in a large frying pan over high heat. When the oil is hot, but not smoking, toss in the basil and stir lightly, making sure the leaves get coated with oil on both sides (and thus, fried on both sides). After about 60 seconds, remove the leaves from the pan with a fork, leaving as much oil behind as possible.

Lay the cheese slabs into the skillet carefully. Fry on one side until flecked with golden brown, about 2-4 minutes. Flip carefully and fry on the other side until the other side is also flecked with golden brown spots. Remove from the pan, do not blot, and serve with the basil leaves distributed over the top. Serves 2-5 as an appetizer.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 8:03 AM | Comments (8)
September 18, 2006
Thai green curry: a rant and a recipe

tgc.jpgOne of the perks of spending a week and a half on holiday in the UK is that there is a good chance the timing will be right for me to pick up an Observer Food Monthly. I'm a big fan of the Observer food editor, Nigel Slater, and the magazine (like the paper) tends to be aimed at people just like me: wealthy enough to make food a hobby instead of just a necessity, liberal and eco-conscious. Unfortunately, my love affair with the Observer has started to pall over the years. The blind anti-Americanism gets on my nerves. (Politically, I agree with them but they go far beyond the political pages.) Over the years I've noticed that the writers and editors are in a real self-promoting circle, continually reviewing (very positively) each others' work. And the food section has, in my opinion, become extremely slipshod. A few months ago I was delighted to see the food issue was to be devoted to secret Paris restaurant finds: it turned out to be an excerpt from an Observer columnist's new book on Paris restaurants and covered all the well-known places in the same kind of depth as a Fodor's. And this last time? Well, see for yourself: in a section on "the world's best curries", a recipe for Thai Green Curry. Good, I tend to agree that TGC is a wonderful sauce and am forever indebted to my sister for bringing its wonder to my attention. However, this isn't - to my mind - a recipe. It's a How To Jazz Up The Jar Of Curry Paste From The Back Of The Cupboard.

Don't get me wrong: we are not about fussy food here at Too Many Chefs. I don't think we are snobs. But we don't tell you how to cook with curry pastes. Or if we do, we at least hold a taste test so we can tell you which ones we liked best. The oddest thing about this recipe is the fact that it tells you how to fiddle around with turning dessicated coconut flakes into coconut cream, although coconut cream and coconut milk tend to be available in the same stores that sell the flakes. Sigh. Maybe I AM a food snob. All I know is that my former-favourite magazine is failing to thrill me like it used to do, leaving a real void.

The irony, of course, is that Nigel Slater has his own recipe on the BBC site. And so I was able to turn to Nigel for inspiration, despite the sloppy state of the Observer Food Monthly. Below is my take, largely true to the original except for the exclusion of cumin, which made no sense to my mind. I wonder if he meant coriander? Hard to say but I didn't miss it.

The result is just what you want a Thai Green Curry to be: hot and salty and sour with a rich creamy base. It made enough for two dinners for 2-3 people.

Thai Green Curry Paste

6 lemongrass stalks, tougher outer leaves discarded
3 tsp hot green chili paste (would have used fresh, but I couldn't find them)
3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
125 g ginger, peeled and chopped
3 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
1 cup chopped coriander
zest from half a lime
1 1/2 tbsp nam pla (Thai fish sauce)
a good grounding of black peppercorns

Put all the ingredients in a blender or food processor and zap well. Add a little water if necessary to get a smooth paste.

To use the Thai green curry with chicken, you'll need:

2 large free-range boneless chicken breasts
3 tbsp oil
8 mushrooms, quartered
300 ml coconut milk
8 lime leaves (optional - I couldn't find any and so added some more lime zest)
1 tbsp nam pla (Thai fish sauce)
1 tsp bottled green peppercorns, drained
Small handful of leaves from a large bunch Thai basil, shredded
Medium handful of coriander (leaves and stalks,) roughly chopped

Cut the chicken in thin strips and cook it quickly in the oil. Add half the Thai Green Curry paste and stir around a bit for three to four minutes. Stir in the coconut milk, lime zest or leaves, nam pla, peppercorns and half the herbs. Simmer for 15 minutes (while you prepare the rice, for example) and add the remaining herbs two minutes before serving. Yum.

It's really not that much work to make the paste; once you find yourself sourcing the ingredients for the rest of the recipe (fresh coriander, llime leaves, coconut milk) you'll probably be in the right place to get the lemongrass stalks and ginger too. And, honestly, once you have the ingredients assembled it takes about five minutes to prep and three minutes to zap. Not only does it taste a thousand times fresher and zingier than a jar of store-bought paste, but over time you can fine tune it to your tastes: a little more ginger or lime, perhaps more nam pla to up the salt. It's all up to you!

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 12:58 PM | Comments (8)
September 14, 2006
Hummus with a heck of a lot of garlic

I was inspired by a very appetizing photo by former TMC contributor Paul Goyette - this one - to make hummus the other day. The idea of smooth lemony garlicy hummus on pita bread just overwhelmed me after seeing Paul's photo.

I didn't exactly recreate the hummus in his photo (mine's a bit lumpier for one thing), but I did make a garlic bomb that's delicious if you can stand the stink. The key is fresh garlic. Only fresh garlic has enough stink power to really get into your pores the way this stuff does. Make sure that if you serve this at a social event that everyone has some or the odd man out will be unhappy in close conversation.

You will need tahini for this recipe, a thin oily paste made from sesame seeds. It's good to have around not just for hummus but for baba ghanoush and even salad dressing. If you can't find tahini in the ethnic aisle or Mediterranean/Middle Eastern aisle of your local megamart, don't go back there. It's pretty mainstream these days.

One thing I really like about this recipe is that all you need to make it is a knife and a blender. It makes plenty to feed 8 as a side/appetizer and 4 as a main dish with other mezze dishes to accompany. If you like your hummos milder, reduce the garlic or roast it first until it's sweet and brown before chopping and adding to the blender.

You can also use more water to lighten the dip in the blender, but I like it full strength.

Hummus with a heck of a lot of garlic

1 28 oz can boiled chickpeas (or 2 14 oz cans), drained
2/3 cup tahini
1/2 cup lemon juice, plus 2 tablespoons
4 cloves fresh garlic, chopped fine, or roasted and then chopped fine.
1/4 cup water
1/2 cup olive oil (use the pretty good stuff, but not the best stuff)
1/4 cup olive oil (the best stuff)
pinch of salt (to taste)
pinch of sumac (the dried sour red spice, not the poison tree)
parsley for garnish
pitas, cut into 8 wedges per pita for dipping

Put the chickpeas, 1/2 cup of lemon juice, tahini, salt, garlic and water in a blender. Pulse and scrape down until all the chickpeas are blended. While pulsing drizzle in the olive oil. You may need to stir the hummos in the blender to fully integrate the oil.

Make a ring of hummos on a plate. In a cup, mix the 1/4 cup of good olive oil and the two tablespoons of lemon together. Pour into the center of the ring. Dust spots on the edge of the ring with sumac and parsley.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 9:36 AM | Comments (5)
September 12, 2006
Old-fashioned Ginger Ale

gingersyrup.jpgAs regular readers of this site will have gathered, I'm more of a cocktail girl than a soda jerk. We have an ever increasing stock of Coca Cola cans in the back of our cupboard because the local Indian restaurant keeps offering them for free with deliveries and I'm too shy to tell them we don't like it. But there are exceptions to my soda-aversion and one of them is ginger ale. I like Canada dry, I like Vernons, I like just about every ginger ale I've ever tried. Ginger ale is not sold in France.

Story of my life.

So today I had a hankering for a tall bubbly glass of ginger ale and had to do what our American forefathers did when the shipment from England didn't arrive on time: improvise with local ingredients. Unlike them, I also had the infinite wisdom of the web at my fingertips, which also helped. So, based on a number of recipes and my own common sense here is my simple recipe for a refreshing glass of ginger ale:

For the syrup
150 grams of ginger, peeled and chopped
150 grams sugar
1 cup water

Combine these three ingredients in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a just barely bubbling boil and leave for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally. (That's not actually necessary, but sometimes I'm a fiddly cook.)

In a clean wide jar that will hold at least a cup, squeeze the juice of one lime and one small lemon. Fish out the seeds if necessary.

Once the ginger syrup is getting a bit thick and syrupy, pour it into a strainer over the jar. Let it cool, if you have the leisure, before putting the lid on and shaking. (If you are in a hurry, do not put the lid on right away, but stir with a spoon. If you put a lid on a jar of hot liquid, as the liquid cools it will create a vaccuum and make it very difficult for you to open the jar. And messy.)

To assemble: fill a glass halfway with ice. Pour in ginger syrup and Perrier or some other fizzy mineral water at a proportion of 1:6, leaving a bit of space at the top of the glass so that you can add more water if it's too strong. Gingery, a little spicy and a little sweet and sharp with the lemon flavour, it's the perfect drink for a hot Indian summer afternoon. And if you happen to be on a boat prone with seasickness or in the throes of morning sickness it will alleviate your symptoms in a very nice way.

If you think that this method of using commercially produced fizzy water is for wimps, you might want to check out Barrett's version of ginger ale which is, well, alive.

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 2:00 PM | Comments (11)
September 7, 2006
Welcome to Ricksteinville

rickstein.jpgIf you don't have access to UK TV, you may not know who Rick Stein is. The conscious, TV-watching part of Great Britain would find this amazing, because he's been ever present on the foodie channels for over a decade, haranguing them - in a most affable way - about their lack of awareness of their own food treasures. He's an unlikely celebrity chef, lacking the brassiness of an Anthony Bourdain or the Mockney charm of a Jamie Oliver (not to mention certain assets gracing some of the female chefs on US TV). He simpers and he is rather coy with his little white dog, Chalkie. But I tend to agree with him when he goes off on a rant about the fact that the UK exports tons and tons of delicious fresh sardines every year, while Brits call them pilchards and refuse to buy them at a dozen a penny. So I knew a little about the man when I came across his name in our Rough Guide to Cornwall this summer. In the entry for a little seaside town named Padstow, there was a recommendation to try the casual Rick Stein Café. As we were on holiday, with no access to familiar babysitters, this sounded perfect: a gourmet outing that might just accept the messiness that is a Toddler at the Table. I called and confirmed that they accept children (and had high chairs - thank heavens!) and made a reservation for six the next evening.

When we arrived at the main parking lot of Padstow near the harbour, we had our first inkling what kind of a phenomenon we had stumbled upon. "Hmmm...Stein's Fish & Chips...wonder if it's anything to do with Rick Stein?" I mused aloud as we passed a long line of punters waiting for their batter fried takeaway dinners. Then we passed Stein's Deli, which also seemed a bit of a coincidence.

As we started down the road to the center of town, we saw Rick's Seafood Restaurant, a very elegant not-neccessarily-toddler-friendly place.


The trend continued in town as we noted the presence of Stein's Patisserie...


...and, next to our destination, Stein's Shop, selling jewelry and decorative household items. We were starting to feel like we had wandered onto a TV set for one of Mr. Stein's shows: charming cobbled seaside streets and his name on every corner.


When we arrived at the café, we noticed that according to the menu the restaurant only opened at seven p.m. However, we were reassured by the number of people loitering outside the door (mostly, like us, with a small child in tow) and indeed at six promptly the doors opened and the staff started sorting out who had which reservation.


Inside, the café is simply but beautifully decorated: soft pine tables, blue fabric furnishings and painted white boards. I was particularly impressed, when we arrived at our table, to discover that the high chair was the Rolls Royce of the toddler world, a Stokke Tripp Trapp. (I considered getting one for the boy but was put off by the 170 euro - on sale - price tag.)

We eagerly scanned the short menu, looking for some delicious fish dishes. And there were a couple. But for the menu of a fish-oriented celebrity chef (author of Rick Stein's Complete Seafood, Rick Stein's Seafood, Rick Stein's Fruits of the Sea and Rick Stein's Seafood Odyssey) it was a bit weak. Still, it was his low-end café, geared towards simple dishes you might find in a provincial French café.

The issue that really interested me, though, was how he would treat children's food. Before we embarked on the ship of parenthood, I remember friends of ours lamenting the awful food available in the UK for children. Brigitte (French) and Julian (English) told us how relieved their children were to escape back to France and get away from the endless round of fish fingers, chicken nuggets, pizza, beans and peas. After three days in the UK with the Boy I knew how they felt. The Boy liked peas coming into that holiday but I haven't dared serve them since we got back to France. And Rick's take on a child menu? Fish and chips or sausage and chips, pretty much what you can find on any pub menu in the country. Granted, the fish was crispier and tastier than what you'd find at your local chippy. But. It was still a choice of fish and chips or sausage and chips.

And our dinners? Very tasty and a reasonable cost, to be fair. The Critic had prawns with a kind of Thai influence and I had a lovely piece of cod on a bed of garlicky white beans. The service was impeccable and the waitstaff very patient with a loud, impetuous (albeit very cute) toddler. Next time, though, I think we'll book a sitter and try the Seafood Restaurant, which only had fish and looked well worth the pricier menu.

For more information on Rick Stein, his shows, his publications and the vast array of businesses with which he single-handedly runs the Padstow economy, you can consult his web site:

He even includes a few bed and breakfast establishments in his empire, in case you really don't want to leave Ricksteinville for a single moment. (According to Wikipedia, the locals have dubbed the town "Padstein", but I didn't know this until after I had started this article with my own name. Either will do in a pinch; I'm sure anyone in a 100 mile radius will be able to direct you there.)

[And as an aside, if you are looking for a good place to take your toddler in Cornwall where he or she can eat something tasty, I highly recommend Sam's Other Place in Fowey (pronounced "Foy"). The downstairs is a take-away fish and chip shop but upstairs they have a much more sophisticated menu, including a delicious side dish of steamed seasonal vegetables which is perfect for a healthy toddler. We fed the boy scraps of fish from our own main dishes and nicked the snap peas from his (for some Toddler Obstinacy Reason he refused to taste them, though he likes both peas and beans) and enjoyed a beautiful view over the harbour. Although the place looked elegant enough for a Saturday night date, at six-thirty it was filled with the cheerful chatter of many small children and admonishing parents; obviously we were not the only ones to find it a good compromise for family dining.

Sam's Other Place
41 Fore Street
Tel: 01726-833636]

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 2:09 PM | Comments (2)
September 5, 2006
Three-Mushroom Napoleon in Brandy-Cream sauce

When you get lucky enough to find good fresh mushrooms at a reasonable price, you are duty-bound to purchase them and make something delicious.

At the Lotte Asian market in Ellicott City, MD, I found a beautiful pack of King Oyster mushrooms. King Oysters have a very small trumpet-like cap and a thick stem. Unlike white button mushrooms, the texture of the stem is as pleasant as the texture of the caps and after nipping off the little bit that was in the growing medium, King Oysters can be eaten and cooked, stem and all.

I happened to have a few shiitakes from the organic market and a pack of button mushrooms on hand when I decided to make something special for my hard-working Redhead. She loved this dish, which I served with the heirloom caprese from last week.

One thing I did learn - don't microwave cooked puff pastry. I tried it the next day, and while the outside looked fine, the inside layers were black and smoky. Yuck.

Three Mushroom Napoleon recipe is per serving
6-8 King Oyster mushrooms, trimmed, sliced lengthwise into 1/4" slices
12 or so shiitake mushroom caps only, quartered.
6-8 white button mushrooms, quartered.
2 tablespoons butter, plus one tablespoon melted for brushing pastry
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/3 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon dried tarragon
2 oz. brandy (doesn't have to be good stuff, I used Christian Brothers)
salt and pepper to taste
1/3 sheet frozen puff pastry

Defrost the puff pastry in the refrigerator until it is pliable. Remove the third of a sheet you need and continue to defrost it. Return the rest to the freezer or use for another purpose.

In a large skillet, melt the butter and heat the olive oil together over medium heat. Add the King Oyster mushrooms and sautee for about 1 minute. Add the rest of the mushrooms with a scant pinch of salt, and sautee for about three-five minutes or until all the mushrooms are softened.

Add the cream to the skillet and toss with the mushrooms. Once it has reduced significantly, add the brandy and tarragon, and reduce the heat to low to reduce further.

Cut the puff pastry into 3 equal square pieces. Brush with butter and bake until golden brown, puffy, and delicious, about 8-12 minutes.

Once the sauce is thick, place one piece of puff on a plate and top with 1/2 of the mushrooms and sauce. Place a second piece on top of that and top with the other half. Chef gets the last piece of puff for himself. Alternately, you can use thirds and add another layer to the Napoleon. Make sure you end with mushrooms and sauce on top.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 8:13 AM | Comments (8)
September 1, 2006
Beets and Tomatoes (with spinach, goat cheese, and tarragon walnuts)

This is a fairly unattractive photo of a very tasty dinner. I proclaimed the wonders of heiroom tomatoes just yesterday. In this dish, I combine an heirloom tomato salad with a mix of red and gold organic beets and serve the two separate salads on a bed of spinach leaves. Goat cheese and toasted tarragon walnuts top the whole. There were no measurements taken, so consider this a methodology and a suggestion for creativity rather than a recipe.

The idea behind this dish is that the tartness of the tomatoes contrasts with the sweetness of the roasted beets. I keep these two salads separate on the plate so their flavors remain distinct.

For the beet salad, I peeled, diced, and roasted two big golden orange beets and in a separate tray, I peeled, diced and roasted one deep red beet. I roast them separately so the juices don't meld and the colors stay separate as much as possible. Often, recipes will tell you to roast your beets without peeling, and then just rub the skin off. That works great, but it's a mess and the beets take longer to roast. By dicing them ahead of time, we can cut the roasting time way down and you can get dinner on the table sooner. You don't have to be delicate with the peeling, just use a big knife and cut away the sides. Beets are cheap, and time is scarce. Save the waste for a soup or for your compost pile (or wormery, ifl ike Meg you've delved into vermiculture).

Toss the diced beets with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and a pinch of salt before roasting them. The salt will help pull out the moisture, concentrating the flavor. Once the roasted beets are tender (after about 20-30 minutes at 375F), pull them out, get them off the baking tray, and put them in the refrigerator to cool for twenty minutes or so while you prepare the tomato salad.

I found a few heirloom tomatoes in the big batch I bought from our organic store that had good flavor, but that weren't a convenient shape or size. The crenelations were in inconvenient places, some were too small to cut good slices, some were too big for a manageable slice. The answer was to dice the tomatoes and mix them together.

I found a few green and a few red tomatoes and cut them up into a small 1/4"-1/2" dice. I mixed these together and hit them with a drizzle of balsamic and a splash of olive oil. For about a cup and a half of diced tomato, I'd guess I used a teaspoon of oil and about half that much balsamic. These are heirlooms, remember, and they don't require a lot of help in the flavor department. Set them aside and work on the walnuts

Melt a tablespoon and a half of butter in a skillet. Take about a cup of walnut halves and sautee them in the melted butter, tossing to coat. Add a pinch of salt and a scant tablespoon of dried tarragon. Toss or stir to combine and continue to sautee until the walnuts smell delicious and are golden brown. Be careful, they can burn very quickly.

Get your beets out, and combine the red and gold beets together (they should be cooled by now) in a big bowl. add a teaspoon of balsamic and two teaspoons of olive oil and toss lightly. Salt and pepper to taste.

Finally, take two cups of fresh baby spinach and toss it with two tablespoons of olive oil and a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar. Place half the spinach in the center of a plate. On one side of the plate, dish up the beets. On the other side, form a mound of the tomato salad. Sprinkle half the walnuts and crumble about one oz. soft fresh goat cheese over the entire plate. Repeat with a second plate and serve as a dinner salad. If you'd prefer this be a side or appetizer and not the main course, split the mixes into four portions instead of two.

You'll notice I dress each component separately. You could certainly make a dressing of the balsamic and olive oil ahead of time, perhaps adding shallots or other aromatics, and then dressing the whole. When I do that, I find I overdress the salads and the flavors don't come through as well as if I dress each component salad individually.

I'll warn you that you may become addicted to the tarragon walnuts. I'll be trying other dried herbs with them, because this was delicious (and I'm sure the butter played absolutely no part in that...)

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 7:45 AM | Comments (5)
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