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Left: Boiled Topside Corned Beef, Right: Roasted Loin of Fermanagh Bacon

This is the second post in a two-part round-up of this year’s Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery which took place from July 9-11, 2010 at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford. This year’s theme was Cured, Fermented, and Smoked Foods. You can find Part I here.

Saturday night’s dinner celebrated the rich cornucopia that is the modern cuisine of Ireland and was cooked for us by Padraic Og Gallagher of Gallagher’s Boxty House in Dublin. Before we ate we were shown a lovely video in which the chef (and his brother the videographer) traveled around Ireland and introduced us to some of the artisanal producers of the ingredients which made up the meal we were about to taste. Here’s the extensive menu, with links to producers where possible:

Cold Starters

Wrights of Howth Organic Smoked Salmon, drizzled with Connemara Peated Single Malt Whiskey
Sally Barnes’ Smoked Mackerel
Ummera Smoked Silver Eel
Fingal Ferguson’s Venison Salami and Irish Chroizo
McCarthy’s of Kanturk Guinness & Cider Spiced Beef
McGeough’s Air-dried Lamb

all served with Treacle & Soda bread, Horseradish cream & Ballymaloe Relish

Warm Starter

Gallaghers Boxty House Boxty Potato Dumplings in a Crozier Blue Cheese Cream Sauce.

It's not an Irish feast without New Potatoes.

Main Course

Roasted Loin of Fermanagh Bacon
Boiled Topside Corned Beef both from Kettyle Irish Foods
Kishes of New Potatoes from the gardens of Lissadell House

served with Cuinneog Irish Butter, Sauteed York Cabbage, Champ Potato, Parsley Sauce, and a Cider & Wholegrain Mustard Sauce.

To Finish

A selection of Irish Cheese with Ditty’s Home Bakery Traditional Oatcake Biscuits and Foods of Athenry Porter Cake.

Cashel Blue Cheese
Knockdrinna Goat’s Cheese
Gubbeen Cheese
Coolea Cheese

All of this abundance was accompanied by the following beverages:

White Bordeaux – Pessac Leognan – l’Abelle de Fieuzal, 2003
Red Bordeaux – Château Bahans Haut-Brion 1999
Red Bordeaux – Clarendelle Rouge 2004, Clarence Dillon

Porterhouse Oyster Stout
Porterhouse Red Ale

and finally the pièce de resistance:

Irish Coffee made with Kilbeggan Finest Irish Whiskey.

Proper Irish Coffee, with fresh cream poured over the back of a spoon

If you think that was a banquet (and it was!) wait until you hear what we had for lunch on Sunday for the final meal of the symposium. Several members of different Slow Food Convivia in Norway conspired to bring us a traditional (and sustainable!) Norwegian Lunchbord. The ingredients arrived via sailing ship from Bergen via Cardiff and were then prepared, under the direction of Pål Drønen and Margareth Tislevoll.

The groaning boards of our Norwegian Lunch

If you wanted to demonstrate to someone the meaning of the phrase “groaning boards” when referring to a great feast, this lunch would do the job. There were long tables full of carefully labeled delicacies, some rarely found outside of Norway. It was impossible to try everything, but what I sampled was amazing. It really demonstrated to us that the scandinavians are the kings of cured, fermented and smoked foods, getting the most out of their short growing season. I think a trip to Norway is in my future. Here’s the menu, with producers where possible:

Cold Fish Dishes

Sølvisild, sullsid, and hardrøykt sild – silver herring, gold herring, and hard cured herring from Jnardar AS, Leinøy, Norway.

Kryddersild – marinated herring from H.J. Kyvik AS, Haugesund, Norway

Rakørret – fermented trout from Skarvheimen Fjellfisk, Ål, Norway

Røkelaks “Lærdalslaks” – smoked salmon from Sognefjord Gourmet, Årdal, Norway.

Røykt gjeddepølse, varmrøykt gjedde, and raket gjeddekaviar – smoked sausage of pike, hot smoked pike, and fermented caviar of pike Esox lucus
Gravet sik, varmrøykt sik, and raket sikrogn – cured whitefish, hot smoked whitefish, and fermented caviar of whitefish Coregonus lavaretus
all from Villfisken AS, Hallingby, Norway.

Hot Fish Dishes

Klipfisk – salt cod from Olga Godø,Godøy, Norway

Tørrfisk – stockfish from Lofotskrei, Ballstad, Norway.

Rødsei – red saithe or old salted saith Pollachius virens from Seløy fisk, Herøy, Norway.

Cured Leg of Lamb

Cold Meats

Speket viltpølse – cured game sausage from reindeer, red deer, and lard from Li gardstun, Aurland, Norway.

Speket Geitepølse – cured goat sausage from Sturle Ryum, Gudmedalen Fellsfjøs, Aurland, Norway.

Fenalår, and speket lammepølse – cured leg of lamb, and lamb sausage from Ekta Skåramat, Granvin, Norway.

Spekeskinke – cured ham from Ekta Skåramat, Granvin, Norway.

Hot Meat Dishes

Saltet og røykt lammebog – salted and smoked shoulder of lamb from Holo gard, Flåm, Norway.

Røykt lammepølse – smoked lamb sausage from Ekta Skåramat, Granvin, Norway.

Norwegian Cheeses

Norwegian Cheeses and Dairy Products (all made from unpasteurised milk)

Pultost – a crumbly sour-milk cheese from Helen Dave, Vesterhaugen Gårdsysteri, Våler, Norway and Tore Skarpnord, Høgda Gardsmeieri, Brumunddal, Norway.

Gamalost – a cooked sour-milk cheese from Maria Ballhaus, Sogn Jord-og Hagebruksskule, Aurland, Norway.

Jærost – semi-hard cows’ milk cheese (10 months old) from Voll ysteri, Voll, Norway.

Kvit Undredalsost – semi-hard goats milk cheese (3-6 months old, and 2 years old)
Undredal Stølsysteri, Undredal, Norway.

Brimost – brown goats’ milk why cheese (fresh) from Rallarrosa Stølsysteri, Flåm, Norway.

Tjukkmjølk – “thick milk,” organic cultured milk from Rørosmeieriet, Røros, Norway.

Rømme and smør – organic sour cream, and butter from Rørosmeieriet, Røros, Norway.

Flat Breads

Lefser – soft flat bread from Leveld lefsebakeri, Ål, Norway.

Flatbrød – crisp flat bread from Veitastrond flatbrødbakeri, Veitastrond, Norway. and Gardsbutikken, Øystese, Norway.

Desserts

Molter – cloudberries Rubus chamaemorus

Hermetiske moreller and “Mallard” plommer – preserved sweet cherries and “Mallard” plums from Nøring ANS, Øystese, Norway.

Hermetiske epler and pærer – preserved apples and pears from Syse gard, Ulvik, Norway.

Sirupstynnkake – syrup wafers from Brynhild Levang, Rendalen, Norway.

Ale and Aquavite

Nøgna Ø India Pale Ale and Nøgna Ø Imperial Brown Ale from Nøgna Ø, Grimstad, Norway.

Lysholm Linie aquavit from Arcus, Oslo, Norway.

Next year, the theme at the Oxford Symposium will be “Celebrations.” After this, I can’t imagine what they will come up with.

A Selection of Irish Cheeses

This is the first of a two-part round-up of this year’s Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery which took place from July 9-11, 2010 at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford.

The weather was unseasonably warm and I was glad the College Bar — why don’t American colleges have official bars? It’s so civilized — opened at 6PM on Friday evening providing a refreshing Gin and Tonic. Not long after, our first meal began with a glass of German Sekt and some Prosciutto di Parma in the garden as Chef Raymond Blanc announced the winners of this year’s Young Chef’s Grant who got to help prepare Friday evening’s dinner along side Chef Jeremy Lee of London’s Blue Print Cafe. Congratulations to winners Max Barber, Elaine Mahon and Daniel Penn.

Baked, Salted, Middle White Pork

To kick off the weekend Mr. Lee conceived a Feast of Cockaigne, the imaginary land of Medieval legend, where there is always plenty of food and drink and no one has to work very hard.

In keeping with the theme most of the courses contained foods which had been preserved. Here’s the menu:

Salt cod, vegetables, and aioli

Baked salted Middle White Pork from Huntsham Court Farm, Herefordshire, UK
with abraised green beans with a green sauce.

Almond meringue with berries and whipped cream, sometimes also called Eaton Mess.

The meal was accompanied by the following Spanish red wines:
Ribera del Duero Crianza 2006
Ribera del Duero Reserva 2005

On Saturday afternoon after fascinating plenary talks by food scientist Harold McGee and anthropologist Sidney Mintz and some papers about ancient Roman fish sauce. I was ready for lunch.

Bang Bang Chicken

Lucky for me, it was provided by renowned Chinese food expert Fuchsia Dunlop and the chefs from London’s Barshu Restaurant where she is a menu consultant.

The Chinese are known for their prodigious use of fermentation (thousand year eggs anyone?) and lunch did not disappoint:

First Course

Bang Bang Chicken
Sweet and Sour Spare Ribs
Spicy Cucumber Salad
Refreshing Green Soybeans.

Second Course

Gong Bao Chicken with Peanuts
Bear’s Paw Beancurd
Choy Sam with Fragrant Oil
Steamed Rice

The wine was a 2008 Riesling Trocken “Kraut wine,” weingut tesch from the Nahe wine region in Germany.

And so it was back to the intellectually stimulating portion of the program. During the afternoon I attended presentations about a fermented bread from Transylvania which is purposely cooked in such a hot oven that the outside layer turns to charcoal; the history of eastern European Jewish pickled foods in Canada; and Ken Albala’s inspiring talk on the “Missing Terroir Factor in Historic Cookery.” His new book is right at the top of my to-buy list.

Part Two of this summary of Oxford 2010 will go up next week. See you then.

Photo by MPerel

When you visit Oxford you are surrounded by history of all types. Some of the colleges were founded in the 13th Century, and their famous alumni are too numerous to count, stretching across all imaginable professions including historians, chemists, writers, explorers, politicians and more. One quite pleasurable way to make a connection with some of these denizens of the past is to visit their old stomping grounds for a pint or two.

There are quite a number of very old pubs in Oxford, some dating from the 15th Century. With the resurgence of Real Ale, the selection of drink at most pubs has greatly improved over the last 20 years or so. Look for the hand pumped taps to try some local specialties.

When I come to Oxford for the Symposium on Food and Cookery, I always try to visit a couple of pubs I haven’t been to before. This year I tried out the Eagle and Child which is in a building built in the 16th Century and became a pub in approximately 1650.

Notably, the Eagle and Child is associated with several writers who studied and/or taught at Oxford, including J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis. They were part of a group called the Inklings which met from about 1933-1963 at Lewis’s rooms at Magdalen College to read aloud unfinished works. The group also had a standing lunch date on Tuesday afternoons at the Eagle and Child (or the Bird and Baby as they liked to call it). They would sit in the then back room (the pub has since been extended in the rear), known as the Rabbit Room.

The name of the pub is supposedly derived from the eagle and child on the coat of arms of the Earl of Derby. However, the Earl’s lands are in Lancashire and there is also a pub called the Eagle and Child there which used to lie on the Earl’s estate, so who knows?

Legend has it that one of the Earls of Derby back in the 14th Century had not succeeded in fathering a male heir (he and his wife had one daughter). Trying to ensure the continuation of his line, he had a dalliance with a noblewoman whom he kept in style nearby. This liaison resulted in the birth of a bastard son. The Earl then arranged to have his son “found” in an eagle’s nest dressed in clothing appropriate to a noble child. The story of a child found in an eagle’s nest is common to several mythologies of ancient Europe including Norway and France, so perhaps this is where the Earl got the idea. In any case, his wife agreed to adopt the child and raise it as their son and heir.

While sipping my pint, I got to wondering if Mr. Tolkien created the giant eagle that rescues Galdalf from Sarumon’s tower in The Lord of The Rings on a Tuesday afternoon while drinking at the Eagle and Child.

Photo by Erik Forsberg

Just a quick note from the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. As this year’s theme was Cured, Fermented and Smoked Foods, I got to try lots of unusual preparations from around the world, the most striking of which was Swedish surströmming.

Food science maven Harold McGee spoke about it in his Plenary presentation titled “A Chemical Introduction to Cured, Fermented and Smoked Foods.” Surströmming is made from herring that is caught in the spring, the heads are chopped off, but the guts are left in. The fish are then packed in a barrel with salt which is put in the sun for several months. It is then re-packed into unsterilized cans and aged for six months to a year. Fermentation continues in the cans and sometimes they bulge.

To those of us (including me) whose mothers taught us never to buy a bulging can from the supermarket, this all sounded rather terrifying. However, it is important to note there are many types of bacteria, some of which are helpful to us humans allowing us to make cheeses, pickles, sauerkraut, and other cherished foods . In many fermentation processes, the “good” bacteria create an acidic environment where “bad” bacteria (like botulism) cannot survive. A Japanese laboratory analyzed some of the cans used for making surströmming and found and important (non-harmful) bacteria on their surfaces which contributes to the fermentation process. In other words, if the cans had been sterilized, the process may not have worked properly.

In concluding his presentation on the science of fermentation, Mr. McGee quoted Alan Davidson, one of the founders of the Oxford Symposium, who had actually gone to Sweden to observe the opening of the surströmming barrels and the transfer of the partially fermented fish into cans:

As the smell billowed upwards, birds began to drop dead from the sky.

During Saturday’s tea break we all got a chance to try some of this pungent concoction served with pieces of soft Swedish tunnbröd. The can was opened outdoors due to the odiferous nature of this traditional food. Considering that they only opened one small can and you could smell it about half a block away, I’d say this was a good decision.

When I ventured outside to see what was going on, I was struck by a very strong earthy, loamy odor which reminded me of durian. Surprisingly, it did not smell fishy. I got up my courage and tried some. The flavor was not fishy either, it was very ammoniated like a cheese that has been allowed to ripen too long. One of my fellow tasters commented that if there was such a thing as fish cheese, it would taste like surströmming.

I don’t know that I’ll be rushing out to buy some, but it was not nearly has bad as I thought it would be. In another part of his presentation, Harold McGee told us that scientists have recently discovered that the brain can differentiate between smells that enter only through the nose and those that go from the mouth to the nose. The brain treats these differently, so sometimes something that smells revolting can taste pretty good.

Perhaps the moral of the story is that your parents were right to say that you should at least try everything.

Fermented Salted Eggs in Hong Kong / Photo by Flickr user Tracy Hunter

The highlight of my food history year is coming up this weekend. I’ll be attending the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery in the UK. This annual gathering of food historians includes both professionals and enthusiastic amateurs and focuses on a specific theme. This year we’ll be exploring cured, fermented, and smoked foods. These are some of the most ancient techniques for preserving food and are used all over the world. Some of the papers to be given at the symposium include: “Sausages of the Classical World” by historian Joan Alcock, “Rotten vegetable stalks, stinking beancurd and other Shaoxing delicacies” by Chinese food expert Fuchsia Dunlop, and “Smoke and Mirrors? Montreal smoked meat and the creation of a tradition” by Alan Nash who specializes in the geography of food.

Aside from all of this intellectual stimulation, as you might expect, there is lots of good food. On Friday evening we will be treated to a Feast of Cockaigne by chef Jeremy Lee of the Blueprint Cafe in London. For this menu, Mr. Lee imagines the kinds of food which might be served in the mythical land of Cockaigne where no one has to work very hard, and luxurious food is just an arms-length away (think Big Rock Candy Mountain).

Saturday’s lunch is a Sichuan meal brought to us by the chefs at London’s Barshu Restaurant where the aforementioned Fuchsia Dunlop is a consultant. Having cooked several dishes from her superb cookbooks, I’m really looking forward to this one.

On Saturday night Pádraic Óg Gallagher of Gallagher’s Boxty House in Dublin will ply us with traditional Irish foods using first class artisanal ingredients.

Finally, our lunch on Sunday will be particularly historic as the ingredients will reach us by sailing ship! A Dutch company has decided to go back to the old ways and is providing sustainable transport using sail power to ship goods around the world. The Brigantine “Tres Hombres” is one of their ships and it will be used to send traditional Norwegian foods to the symposium, which will then be transformed into a buffet for us by Ove and Svein Fossa from the Norwegian branch of the Slow Food Movement.

After the symposium, I’ll be spending a little time in Oxford, trying out some local Real Ale and poking about in libraries. Then it’s off to London for some research on another project. I’ll be posting short notes from the road when I have Internet access, and I’ll do a more detailed round up of the Oxford Symposium when I get home.

Pound cake is the workhorse of the tea cart, able to withstand drowning in fruit syrups and whipped cream, or it can be easily tarted up with a citrus glaze. It’s the perfect thing to toss in the oven when you find out the new vicar is coming to tea in a couple of hours.

Back in the mists of time, the closest most people had to a cookbook was a kitchen notebook in which they would keep track of things they had made in the past, in order to be able to make them again. But of course, that assumes the person in question could read and write, which most people couldn’t until the industrial revolution made paper and books affordable. Before there were cookbooks, recipes were passed on orally from mother to daughter or auntie to niece. Pound cake is a perennial favorite because the recipe is so easy to remember. Even if you’re not the kind of person who likes to cook without a recipe (sort of like tightrope walking without a net), you can manage this one.

It’s called pound cake because it uses one pound each of the four main ingredients, butter, sugar, eggs, and flour. It originated in northern Europe where ingredients for cooking were (and still are) measured by weight. The French have a similar cake called quatre quarts or Tôt-fait which means “four quarters” or “soon made.” The “four quarters” refers to the 250 grams of each ingredient which adds up to one kilo.

Being an old recipe, this pound cake contains no chemical leaveners, relying only on eggs to help it rise. Consequently, you must cream your butter and sugar very well, and beat in the eggs one at a time. This is still a pretty dense cake, but all that beating will help prevent you from ending up with a doorstop. If you’re not convinced about using a scale to measure your ingredients, read this article from the Los Angeles Times by one of my favorite food writers, Michael Ruhlman.

Pound cake is plain but quite rich, and easily dressed up with a bit of stewed rhubarb, homemade preserves, or for something really special, soak it in a bit of Grand Marnier and drizzle some chocolate sauce over it. Next time you need to impress someone with last minute baked goods, don’t reach for a cookbook, just grab the kitchen scale and get to work.

Pound Cake

Adapted from Fannie Merritt Farmer

This makes a rather large cake. If you like, halve the recipe and bake it in a 9 x 5 x 3 inch loaf pan.

1 pound unsalted butter, softened
1 pound sugar
1 pound eggs by weight without their shells (9-10 large eggs), room temperature
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1 pound all purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt

Pre-heat oven to 325 F.

Grease and flour a 10-inch tube pan.

In a mixing bowl use a fork to stir the flour and salt together.

Put the butter in a large mixing bowl and use either a stand mixer or a portable hand mixer to beat the butter starting at a low speed and slowly increasing to a higher speed. Stop when the butter is the consistency of mayonnaise (about 30 seconds with a stand mixer or 1 minute with a portable hand mixer).

Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Add the sugar and beat for 2 minutes at medium with a stand mixer or 3 minutes at medium with a portable hand mixer. The mixture will be soft and whitish, but still granular looking.

Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each one. Stir in the vanilla.

While beating at medium speed gradually add the mixture of flour and salt, scraping down the bowl as necessary. Continue to beat until the batter is smooth and homogenous. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and even out the top with a rubber spatula.

Bake in the center of the oven for 1 – 1¼ hours, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Put the cake pan on a wire cooling rack and allow it to cool for about 5 minutes. Then remove the cake from the pan and allow to cool on the rack completely before serving.

Variations: Add the grated zest of one lemon, or 4 ounces of raisins soaked in rum, or ¼ teaspoon of ground mace.

Photo by Wikipedia user Grcampbell

In the past, I have expressed my withering disdain for single-use kitchen gadgets like garlic presses, shrimp de-veiners, and pineapple slicers. Today I’m adding another one to the list, the Raclette Machine. I’m bowled over that people are willing to pay hundreds of dollars for an appliance that makes a dish created by Swiss livestock herders who had nothing but a campfire, some cheese and a chunk of bread. I guess the idea is that doing the cooking at the table preserves the fantasy that we’re all sitting in front of a fireplace in our Swiss chalet? Come on.

My love of history leads me to do my best to make dishes the way they were (or are) traditionally made by the people who first thought them up. Consequently, I think I’ll take some Raclette along on my next camping trip. Meanwhile, I’ll enumerate below several ways it can be made easily at home without fancy, expensive equipment

Raclette is the name of the finished dish and the name of the cheese which is the main ingredient. The semi-firm cheese is partially melted in front of a fire and then scraped (“racler” means “to scrape” in French) onto a plate filled with freshly boiled new potatoes, cornichons, pickled pearl onions, and crusty bread. Other popular accompaniments include thinly sliced cured meat such as the Swiss air-dried beef called Bündnerfleisch. To drink there is usually beer, tea or kirsch, although a nice dry Swiss white wine won’t go amiss either.

But before we start cooking let’s talk about the most important component of this dish, the cheese. There are lots of cheeses out there labeled “Raclette” and they are certainly not equal. If you have access to a good cheesemonger who will discuss the cheeses and allow you to taste samples before cutting a piece the size you desire, go have a chat with them about Raclette. If you’re stuck buying pre-cut cheese from the case in an anonymous supermarket, learn to read labels. Good Raclette is a raw milk (au lait cru), semi-firm, cow’s milk cheese made in Switzerland or France and aged for three to six months.

The Swiss Canton of Valais is particularly known for the high quality of its Raclette. So much so that the Swiss Department of Agriculture registered “Raclette du Valais” as an AOC (controlled designation of origin) product. If you have a chance to look at the whole or half rounds of the cheese, you might see the name of the village where it was made imprinted on them. Names to look for include Bagnes, Conches, Gomser, or Orsières. Raclette made in other parts of Switzerland might be labeled “Raclette Suisse.” These are not necessarily bad, but beware of industrially produced cheese made from pasteurized milk, it won’t be as good.

Because Switzerland is not in the European Union, the AOC status for Raclette only applies within its own borders. That means that anyone from outside the country may make a cheese and call it Raclette. For example they have been making Raclette in the eastern part of France which borders on Switzerland (Savoie and Franche-Comté) for a very long time. It is done in a slightly different style which makes it softer and milder than its Swiss cousin. I’ve also had very nice Raclette from Puy de Dôme in the Auvergne region of France. Try a few and see which you like best.

This gooey comfort food does cry out for a chilly autumn night in front of the fire with friends, but new potatoes are in the farmers’ markets of the Northeast right now, so I couldn’t resist making it in Summer. I used a milder French Raclette which was warm and cuddly, sliding like a lava flow over my plate of potatoes and pickles.

Raclette with a Fireplace or Oven

Adapted from James Peterson

This is a fun dish to serve to a large group. Everyone can take turns heating up the cheese and scraping it onto their plates.

Serves 6-8 people

1½ – 2 pounds Raclette cheese in a half-round or wedge shape.
3 pounds new potatoes
sea salt or fine Kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 jar good quality French cornichons
1 jar of pickled pearl onions
2 good quality French baguettes

Method for a fireplace or campfire (see below for several other methods including using the oven):

Build a good fire. Use a butter knife to scrape the brown rind from the cheese. If it is too thick, cut it off with a sharp knife. Put the cheese on an oven proof plate or a stone. Put the plate or stone right next to the fire with the cut face of the cheese (not the part where the rind was) facing the heat.

Scrub the potatoes and put them in a sauce pan with salted water which covers them by 2 inches. Bring them to a boil and then turn the heat down and simmer them for 15-25 minutes, or until tender (time will vary with potato size). Drain the potatoes, allow them to cool a bit, and remove their peels. Keep the potatoes warm by putting them near the fire or in a 200 F. oven.

When the potatoes are ready and the cut face of the Raclette is soft and gooey, put a few potatoes on a serving plate, carefully pick up the cheese (use oven mitts if necessary) and use a spatula or the back of a knife to scrape along the cut face, pushing melted cheese onto the serving plate. Add salt and pepper to taste and serve with crusty bread, cornichons, and pickled onions.

Put the cheese back in front of the fire so it will be soft for the next round. Any leftover cheese can be wrapped and chilled to be used another time.

Method for Oven:

Preheat the oven to 400 F.

Scrub the potatoes and put them in a sauce pan of salted water which covers them by 2 inches. Bring them to a boil and then turn the heat down and simmer them for 15-25 minutes, or until tender (time will vary with potato size). Drain the potatoes, allow them to cool a bit and remove their peels.

Use a butter knife to scrape the brown rind off of the cheese. If it is too thick, use a sharp knife to cut it off. Slice the Raclette into ¾-inch thick slices.

Place the potatoes in a baking dish and arrange the sliced Raclette on top of them. Bake until the cheese is totally melted and covering the potatoes (about 10-15 minutes). Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Spoon some potatoes and cheese onto serving plates and serve with crusty bread, cornichons, and pickled onions.

Other alternative methods:

As above, for either of these methods you first must scrape or cut the rind from the cheese. Then prepare your potatoes.

If you have a gas stove, you can remove the grate and put your cheese on a fireproof plate or stone with the cut face as close to the flame as you can. I tried this, and it works pretty well. Make sure it is good and hot before you start scraping because it cools rather quickly.

I haven’t tried this last suggestion but I think it would work. If you decide to give it a shot let me know how it turned out in the comments. Put nonstick pan over high heat on your stove top and put the cut face of the cheese facing down in the pan. When the cut face becomes soft and gooey, carefully remove the cheese from the pan (using gloves if necessary) and use a spatula or the back of a knife to scrape it over your serving dishes as above. Repeat as necessary when guests request further helpings of cheese.

It has happened to all of us. You buy a bunch of parsley so you can chop up about a tablespoon of it to use for garnish, and the rest languishes forgotten in the fridge, where it eventually turns to sludge. Well, dear reader, it doesn’t have to be that way anymore. The gauchos of Argentina have come galloping to the rescue with a savory sauce that will fill your kitchen with the aroma of wild green places: Chimichurri.

As usual around here, I went looking into the history of this traditional Argentine condiment and found some surprising things. Food historians do think it originated with Argentine cowboys. By 1580 when Buenos Aires became a permanent settlement, there were already vast herds of wild horses roaming the endless prairies of Argentina. The Spanish settlers brought cattle (a breed which would eventually contribute to the development of the Texas Longhorn) and the beef-centered cuisine of Argentina began. The gauchos lived as nomads, roaming the wild land, slaughtering feral cattle, cooking the meat in the open, and eating it with their trusty facónes. Due to this minimalist existence, when these men wanted a sauce for that hunk of steer roasting over an open fire, it isn’t likely they had garden-fresh parsley on hand. The original Chimichurri sauce probably consisted of dried parsley and oregano, along with garlic, vinegar, oil, and salt and pepper. It may have been more akin to English mint sauce (which is also vinegar-based), than the fancy, fresh Chimichurris of today.

And how about the name? There is a folk etymology that attributes the sauce to an English or Irish soldier named Jimmy who joined in the fight for Argentine independence. His sauce was Jimmy’s curry, which was difficult for the Argentineans to pronounce and so it became Chimichurri. A more intriguing possibility is suggested in Steven Raichlen’s new book Planet Barbecue!. There is a word in the Basque language, “tximitxurri,” which can be interpreted to mean, “a mixture of several things in no particular order.” There is a Basque presence in Argentina, and they are well known as expert animal herders. I’m putting my money on tximitxurri, besides, I think every language needs a word for “a mixture of several things in no particular order,” don’t you?

Alright, so let’s pull out the kitchen-equivalent of our facónes (gauchos didn’t have food processors), and get to work. Even though I love the idea of trying to reproduce the ur-Chimichurri, I did have fresh parsley to use up so we’ll go with a fresh version. The other thing I discovered in my research is that there are about as many recipes for Chimichurri as there are cattle in Argentina, and many of them don’t just contain parsley, some are even red instead of green. This one is adapted from the first rate web site Asado Argentina, whose webmaster is an American living in Argentina with a mission to bring a love for Argentine cuisine to the world.

There is no real cooking involved in making this sauce, yet it made my kitchen smell wild and exotic. In the end it is a summery, kaleidoscope of flavors, that lingers on the palate, and only gets better with age in the refrigerator. Chimichurri sauce is traditionally served with barbecued meats, primarily offal and sausages, but really, it goes with everything.

Chimichurri Sauce

Adapted from Asado Argentina

Makes about 1½ cups

Contrary to popular belief, the bay leaves used in cooking are not poisonous. We remove them from food because they are very stiff and could easily scratch the throat if swallowed. Here we crumble the leaves into very small pieces before adding them to the sauce, which makes them easier to swallow and allows the flavor of the herb to permeate the sauce.

1 bunch flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped (about ½ cup)
1 medium onion, finely chopped
4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
½ a red bell pepper, seeded and finely chopped
1 tomato, peeled, seeded and finely chopped
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon paprika
4 bay leaves, crumbled into very small pieces
1 tablespoon coarse sea salt or Kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 pinch dried red pepper flakes (or to taste)
¼ cup water
¼ cup red wine vinegar
½ cup olive oil

Put all of the ingredients except for the water, vinegar and oil together in a large bowl and toss well to combine. Let stand for at least 30 minutes.

In a small saucepan bring the water and vinegar to a boil and pour it over the ingredients in the bowl and toss. This blanches the onions and garlic, creating a more mellow flavor. Let stand for at least 30 minutes.

Lastly, add the olive oil and stir. The sauce is ready to serve, but it benefits from a day or two in the fridge, so do consider making it in advance.

Photo by Flickr user ka_tate

You know those recipes you hear about and then tuck away in your mental “must try that” file? Today I’m pulling one out from way back in 2003. At that time I was an avid reader of Julie Powell’s groundbreaking blog, the Julie/Julia Project, in which she cooked all 536 recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a year. Food blogs in those days didn’t have photos (really!), so It was like an old fashioned radio serial — think Flash Gordon — with readers tuning in every day (there was no RSS either) to see what (mis)adventures had befallen our cook-heroine during last night’s dinner preparations.

One of the dishes from the project which always stuck in my mind was Baked Cucumbers with Cream (Concombres a la Crème). The idea of hot cucumbers sounded really odd to me, but Julie gave them a rave review. In fact, her post on the subject is a fine example of her bold style which was sadly lacking in the recent movie-version of events. Here’s a sample:

Cucumbers baked with cream, I got to tell you, are fucking fantastic.  This baking of cucumbers has changed my life, I shall never be the same.  I’ll be one of those moms who puts disgusting looking shit in their kids’ lunchboxes so everyone thinks their freaky little monsters.  But I’ll have baked cucumbers to sustain me.

For all this time I remembered how amazed she was, and I finally got around to trying this recipe. It’s good. I don’t know that I’ll go with “life changing,” but it’s certainly unexpected. The cucumbers are sweet and slightly nutty and all the cream and butter makes for a rich treat. It’s sort of like a warm Tzatziki sauce. It would make a smashing side dish for lamb chops.

Baked Cucumbers with Cream

Adapted from Julia Child

Serves 4

6 cucumbers (each about 8 inches long)
2 tablespoons of white wine vinegar
1½ teaspoons salt and more for seasoning
⅛ teaspoon sugar
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
⅓ cup fresh dill, roughly chopped
4 scallions, minced (white and light green parts only)
⅛ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper and more for seasoning
1 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon fresh chopped parsley

Peel the cucumbers, slice them in half lengthwise, and use a small spoon to scoop out the seeds. Next cut the cucumber halves into strips about ⅜ inch wide and cut each strip into 2-inch pieces. Toss the cucumber pieces with the vinegar, 1½ teaspoons of salt and the sugar and allow them to stand for a minimum of 30 minutes. This draws a lot of the water out of the cucumbers, making them easier to cook.

Drain the cucumber pieces in a strainer and pat them dry with a paper towel.

Preheat your oven to 375 F.

Put the cucumber pieces in a baking dish with the melted butter, dill, scallions and ⅛ teaspoon of the black pepper, toss to coat. Bake in the center of the oven for 1 hour, stirring 2-3 times during the baking. They will not brown very much at all. When they are done take them out of the oven and keep them warm while you make the sauce.

In a small saucepan, boil the cream until it is reduced to ½ cup. Season to taste with salt and pepper and pour it over the hot baked cucumbers, stirring gently to coat them. Garnish with chopped parsley and serve.

Next month I’ll be attending the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery in the UK. Each year, this conference on food, its culture, and its history focuses on a different theme; this year it’s Cured, Fermented, and Smoked Foods.

Living in a New York City apartment, the temperature and humidity of which is difficult to control at the best of times, it will be a while before my fantasy of making my own Prosciutto is realized. Smoking can be a bit easier. I have a friend who makes tea smoked duck, and homemade smoked sausages using a large wok with a rack and a lid. However, there is that pesky smoke detector to contend with. On the fermenting side, the only thing I’ve tried is homemade yogurt. In preparation for my upcoming trip to Oxford, I thought it high time I explored another aspect of this intriguing method of food preservation.

If I were living about 3000 years ago on the Indian subcontinent, I don’t know that I would have come up with the idea of soaking cucumbers in salty water and spices in order to preserve them, but our Indian friends certainly knew what they were doing. In many English speaking countries the word “pickle” by default means a pickled cucumber, even though we humans have been pickling lots of other fruits, vegetables, and meat for thousands of years. Cucumbers are believed to have arisen in India. From there they spread to Ancient Greece, and the Romans took them all over the empire.

It just so happens that my local farmers’ market currently has piles of Kirby cucumbers of just the right size for making pickles. As a New Yorker, I couldn’t resist trying to make Kosher dills. Technically, since my kitchen is not Kosher, the pickles aren’t either, but the name refers to a particular style of pickle found in New York Jewish delicatessens that is known for containing plenty of garlic.

I was surprised at how easy these are to make. They don’t take nearly as long as some other fermented foods (sauerkraut, for example). The pickling spice I used contains some red pepper flakes which produced a pleasant spicy kick along with all that lovely dill and garlic. Plan ahead and make a couple of jars to bring along to that lucky friend’s house who has a grill.

“Kosher” Dill Pickles

Adapted from Arthur Schwartz

Makes one 1-quart jar of whole pickles

1 quart-sized canning jar with lids
2 quarts water
3 tablespoons kosher salt
10-12 small Kirby cucumbers, scrubbed
3 cloves garlic, unpeeled and lightly crushed
2 teaspoons picking spice (see below for recipe)
2 whole bay leaves
4-6 fronds of fresh dill, washed
cheesecloth
1 rubber band

Sterilize your canning jar by baking it in a 225 F oven for 5 minutes.

In a medium saucepan heat the salt and water until the salt is dissolved. Turn off the heat.

Cut both ends off of each cucumber. The blossom end contains an enzyme which can cause pickles to go mushy, it can be difficult to tell which end that is, so just cut a little off of both ends.

Pack the cucumbers into the jar vertically, as tightly as you can. Distribute the garlic, spices, bay leaves, and dill around and between the cucumbers as you are packing. A clean chopstick can be helpful for pushing the dill and garlic into small spaces. If you quarter each cucumber lengthwise you will be able to pack more into your jar. If you do it that way, buy more cucumbers than listed above, so they will be packed tightly.

When the jar is packed ladle the warm brine into it. Fill the jar so that the tops of the cucumbers are completely covered with brine. You probably won’t use all of the brine, but it’s better to have too much than not enough. Cover the top of the jar with a piece of cheesecloth and secure it with the rubber band.

Put the jar in a cool dark place for 3-6 days to allow the pickles to ferment. After 3 days taste them and see if they are to your liking. If you chose to quarter your cucumbers they will be finished sooner. A longer fermentation time makes for a more sour pickle. When they taste the way you like, remove the cheese cloth, put the lids on the jar and refrigerate your pickles.

Pickling Spice

Adapted from Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn

Makes about ¼ cup

1½ teaspoons whole black peppercorns
1½ teaspoons mustard seeds
1½ teaspoons coriander seeds
1½ hot red pepper flakes
1½ whole allspice berries
½ teaspoon ground mace
½ small cinnamon stick, crushed
1½ teaspoons whole cloves
½ teaspoon ground ginger

Put the peppercorns, mustard seeds, and coriander seeds in a small dry skillet. Toast them over medium heat until fragrant, stirring constantly. Transfer the toasted spices to a mortar and pestle and crush them slightly.

Combine the toasted, crushed spices with the rest of the ingredients, mix well. Store in an airtight, opaque container.