Zen and the Art of Making Meatballs

Zen Shrooms

Zen Shrooms

You see, I had this whole breathy post written full of New Year re-evaluations and re-assessing and it was all about no waste and saving money, and wittering about coming back to my original proposition and blah, blah.  That piece didn’t get posted up due to general technical incompetence on my part, which is just as well because then I started making meatballs.  And I found something a lot more inspiring right there, in a humble white mushroom (no, not that type of mushroom, it was from Tesco, purleeze!)  I found what I think might be called “zen”. Or something not far off.

Weird huh?  I started watching myself slicing the mushroom, slowed down my chopping and focussed on what I was doing.  The way the knife moved in a subtle arc, the bounce of light from the window on the blade, the slight resistance of the ‘shroom, the texture of the blade against the scrunchy whiteness.  And then I started being mindful about every movement that was required in the dish that I was making.  And I subtly changed things, I minced the onion more finely, I made much smaller, daintier meatballs.  I looked more closely at the quantities and balance of seasoning and herbs and flavours.  I reached up to cupboards with thoughtfulness and deliberation and, dare I suggest, some grace in my movements? In the end, I used only half of the beef mince I had intended or would normally use and my sauce had a few more vegetables than normal.  None of this took longer than usual, nor was it more fiddly.  Somehow, though, it was more satisfying for me.  Oh, it did taste better too.

Maybe what I found was that if you are going to cook something, even if it is a boring weekly regular like bog-standard Bolognese, you might as well get into it rather than trying to do it on auto-pilot or throw it together in the big mad rush of “I know what I’m doing now get out of my way you pesky items in the fridge that are concealing the cheese I know is in there and thwarting me, you deliberate fridge conspiracy, in getting on with dinner“.  I’m exaggerating but I guess you all know what I am talking about–the sheer “grrr” of it all sometimes.

I don’t meant to suggest that my life or my blog now embraces banal domesticity, or that I willingly cede to a yoke I have spent much of my adult years avoiding, but for 2012, I want much less of that grrr and much more zen in my meatballs.  Happy New Year!

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Food Blogger Voices

I follow the Cooking Frog’s Blog, authored by a French woman in Vancouver, and was laughing out loud recently at her amusing piece on having to fly all the way back to Aix-en-Provence to find a rabbit to cook her favourite roast rabbit with Dijon mustard.  Canadians surely must have been grateful for rabbit meat at some point in the development of their nation, though  apparently now they are appalled at the very idea of eating Bugs Bunny.  And her stuck-up Canadian butcher kind of scoffed at her when she asked if they stocked such a thing.

What I like about her blog–other than the particular slant of her humour–is that she talks/writes her way through making a dish, often with no lists of ingredients, no precise measurements and scant methodology–such a simple and confident way to present what you are cooking in your life.  She blogs about normal family French cooking, the food of her.  And the pix are what please her, a skinned rabbit on a plate for example.

It pleases me too. We need no more than she offers to be engaged and feel that we could easily replicate her food.  I admire too her quiet authority and the sense of a deep history of good cooking.

Ah, there could be a Canadian theme developing.  Chocolate & Ginger’s owner in Alberta, for example, has quite a different take.  She is a highly energetic marathon runner/all round sporty person and designer (e.g. not in the least like me).  Her recipes are well illustrated, typically with a quartet of foodie nouns strung together to describe them: –Honey Rosemary Cornbread Muffins–Mango Almond Coconut Quinoa–Apple Cheddar Rosemary Scones…

I defy you to wonder about those and not click on….and then to wonder at finding Chocolate and Ginger’s cheddar is (deliberately) 6 years old, her freezer contains ground elk meat, she picks up Jamie Oliver spices in London and invites her pals to Paris.  Her meals are healthy too for Gawd’s sake.  Is it the lifestyle wrapper I like?  Am I so shallow?  I do like too that she takes other people’s recipes, acknowledges, fiddles, healthies them up, names them better and bends her life around it all in a blog where she is just off skiing shortly (fyi) but rustled up this fab sounding dish even though there was no food in the cupboard ‘cos she is just off skiing and had cancelled the grocery delivery. I kind of only half believe it, and then slap myself for being cynical.  And then I chill and enjoy.

So, here is (perhaps) what I am ruminating. Today, we could be admiring *ownership* and *identity*.  The confidence or smarts to own the food that is in your life and to give it an identity, such that it ends up in someone’s/anyone else’s purview, in a blogosphere whose collective stomach must be groaning…well, that’s something of note.

Cupcakes are the “My Little Pony” of Baking…

First Cupcake

My First Cupcake

…Or so says my husband.  He thinks cupcakes are an utterly twee and girly obsession, much like the My Little Pony phenomena, and while I don’t bake, I had bought a tray of some very nice cupcakes a couple of weeks ago which the man and boy were sort of fighting over after dinner.  Tweeness not necessarily an obstruction to scoffing then…

So, baking in all probability would be rather well received round our house, and above is my very first home-baked cupcake.  But, more of the provenance of my lovely cake (and BTW my very first attempt at piping frosting) later since in all probability this is likely to be the pinnacle of my achievements in this competitive field.  There are much better blog sources to go to for cupcake inspiration/porn/sheer wonder.  And there sure are some weird and wacky innovations in the cupcake world; what women can achieve in their own domestic environments amazes me…and slightly horrifies at the same time.  All that creative energy poured into paper cake cases and sprinkled on butter cream icing.

Or, indeed, delicately spooned into actual egg shells.  Easter cupcakes baked inside a hollowed out egg shell?  Check out this amazing feat in not just one blog but two: Cupcake Project and Delicious Days.

Cupcake flowers are very popular. Heaven is a Cupcake have some stunning examples of bouquet baskets, and claim to have originated the concept.  Cupcake wedding cake tiers to me are a bit “yesterday” but an actual cupcake wedding bouquet?  See this super example over at Souperior.

Cupcakes can celebrate every life stage, from baby showers to birthdays, marriages, divorces and remarkably, cupcakes can even mark the final event.  Sympathy cupcake bouquets (wreaths?) are being made and blogged about, e.g.over at Cakecentral.com.  The baker used “devil’s food cake mix” for the sponge and I am not entirely sure the irony was intended.  If it was, then that is bloody hilarious. I am thinking about putting in an advance order for a couple of folks I know who are unfortunately still with us.

Celebrations aside, cupcakes can also accompany you through life’s traumas.  We could all do worse than check into Cupcakes on Bedrest with a few words of encouragement for the blogger recovering from serious illness and distracting herself with cupcake making.  Don’t mention though the site http://www.cupcaketherapy.com.au, a commercial venture with the incredible tagline: “They taste so good you won’t want to be cured“.  Only in Oz.  And for experiments in pink champagne cupcakes (now that’s my kind of therapy) checkout a WordPress blog also called Cupcake Therapy.  Yet another therapy site–www.cupcaketherapy.biz of Baltimore–could send you a carton of their rather frankly named “piglets” or perhaps half a dozen “southern comforts”.  Eat, drink and be merry…all in a cupcake.

An amazing resource and a great place for generally surfing the world of cupcakes is the self-proclaimed #1 Blog about cupcakes, “Cupcakes Take the Cake“.  Their blogroll is truly awesome, hundreds of sites listed either dedicated to or that include the art of making pretty wee sponges.  Random browsing through their roll, I love/hate the vegan blog “Post Punk Kitchen” and can’t decide whether it is too sickly to be postmodern, or the epitome of post-postmodernism.  All I can say is that I won’t be making a punk rock cookie jar.  Or buying one of their naff aprons.  But, enough folks must like such kit(sch) or they wouldn’t have an online shop. (I should say in fairness that if they did oven gloves I might be tempted into a purchase myself.)

And so to the provenance of my own (and in light of all of the above, rather pathetically feeble) efforts.  My blog is about making family cooking easier, not harder.  Et Voila 😉

Spanish Restaurateurs–Take Back Your Terraces, We Beg You

No recipes on this post–there is a story that needs telling.  We holidayed this year in one of the “white villages” that spill out like tipped-over sugar cubes down the mountainsides of Andalusia.  And a very nice time we and friends had too. Our villa was rambling and full of character, the boys spent hours splashing about in the pool, we were adopted by the most loving little black cat who joined us for pre-dinner drinks on the villa terrace every evening, the donkeys brayed their lungs out and the hunting dogs started off the general dawn cacophony at 5 am.  Marvelous. 

Natch, none of us were that keen on cooking in the heat, so every evening it was the old “where shall we go for dinner” routine: umming and ahing over Trip Advisor apps on our phones, guide books, the villa’s info folder and so on.  Every single time we were a tad too disorganised to book anywhere and ended up in Spanish tapas bars, we had great food and a jolly good time of it without breaking the bank.  When we did get our acts together to book somewhere that sounded nice, we ended up in largely English-run restaurants on terraces with great views but spending an awful lot of money for poor quality food and a poverty of menu choices.

One particular restaurant stands out for its sheer bizarreness.  Our hostess was a large, loud and possibly Irish-American lady (no slight intended to my US readers, just telling it like it was) with a raging ego who confused patronising theatricality with friendly service.  She intruded on people’s conversations, asked stupid questions–she asked a little girl in earshot of the entire terrace if the restaurant’s carbonara was better than back home, the little girl was nearly in tears because she had to say no, it was not–and generally annoyed her guests.  Our menu arrived along with the cheap, shop-bought bread sticks.  And how disappointed were we by the lack of choice and imagination? For main’s it was — I kid you not — “Indian Curry”, steak and chips, spaghetti carbonara or poached salmon and chips.  Oh, and the chips were frozen ones, along with frozen peas, sliced carrots that had curled and dried up sitting in water for hours and some flaccid, transparently sliced but admittedly fresh courgette. This, from a restaurant whose recent comments on Trip Advisor included glowing reviews like “a vegetarian’s dream” when in reality there was not a single veggie dish on the menu and some other stellar comment that it should be Michelin starred when it serves tough rump steaks and rubbish chips at a third or more than a chain pub in the UK. Trip Advisor has received my complaint and we await the outcome of that with interest. I will report back on what they say.

If this was not enough already, there was more to come.  When our food arrived, so did the English “chef” in his stained overalls.  He acted like he expected a round of applause as he dipped from table to table to announce his presence and tell us all about his “secret” ingredients.  For steak and chips, this was parsley butter.  For “Indian Curry” it was fenugreek.  Would you get that behaviour in a Harvester?  It was excruciating. 

It got worse.  We book terraces because it is hot, some of our group smoke and this is Spain we are talking about–smoking is practically compulsory.  My friend and I lit up after dinner and our hostess went totally bonkers, raised her voice at us while flapping and projecting to every other diner about her non-smoking policy when the wind was in the wrong direction.  There were no signs on the terrace, none on the menu and none on the one-page website I checked later that said anything about smoking, wind-mediated or otherwise.  She could not have made us more uncomfortable or embarrassed if she had tried.  We asked for an ashtray to stub out, and when that was brought she came back for round two.  And to be quite candid and fair, after she noised us up yet again asking very loudly if she had been offensive in any way to us, I did say that we were leaving to have desserts and another bottle of wine and possibly some liqueurs elsewhere. That led to her shouting out that I was “snide” and how dare I say such a thing to her, while attempting to DRAG ME OUT OF MY SEAT to try to show me a tiny notice allegedly hidden at the bottom of the stairs.  She did not succeed and we left. It was an awful experience, simply horrendous and not something I have experienced in a restaurant in all my years travelling round the world.  My husband got badgered again when he was paying up the bill (over 200 Euros) and he ended up telling her the food was no more than “OK” and not to expect us back.

The next night, she and her chef put out the lights on their empty terrace at 10 pm and leaned over to watch us munching lovely tapas in the rocking bar in the square below.  The boys all thought this was utterly hilarious and vastly entertaining.  Me, I am still mad as hell about that experience, this was OUR HOLIDAY we are talking about.

My view is the Spanish should take back their terraces (forcibly if need be) and start running nice establishments with moderately sane hosts, a semblance of Spanish food and locally sourced ingredients. I can see that down the Costa del Sol it’s all Brits and fish n’ chips, but up in the hills in ancient villages where people are hiring private villas, this is a totally different type of customer.  We all know elBulli lost money, but we would not want such a high fallutin’ experience.  Surely there has to be another market for interesting local menus with decent food priced accordingly, or is that too much to expect?  I would not be surprised to hear there are such places, but perhaps not in numbers and concentrations to make it worth staying around a particular village area for any length of time.  It is unlikely that my friends and ourselves would book a summer holiday like that in Andalusia again because of these food issues–there is only so much calamari and meatballs tapas you can eat in a fortnight–and that is a real shame.  Any similar Spanish experiences/disappointments anyone?  Or were we just spectacularly unlucky?

1 Year Anniversary: Food Blogging, Where are We Going?

Well, this is a whole year of Hampshirecook’s Blog.  I have learned so much about blogging and promoting and tweeting and commenting and rankings and spammers…and taking (or not taking) reasonable photos of food in the middle of winter!  I have found some really nice people, helpful and caring bloggers so willing to share their knowledge, and I have developed a rather different perspective on the power of t’internet and what we academics call “communities of practice”. 

There have been real developments in food and cookery publishing in the last 12 months, with some horrible recipe conglomerate sites falling way down the google page rankings, and other, better sites emerging as more dominant.  When I research in food blogs, recipes too seem to be becoming more “professional”  in terms of writing and presentation, with less long, long diary introductions to wade through before you reach the bit you were really interested in…and lots of very high quality food porn photography.  There is also more commercial sponsorship of blogs and posts and I see the community really struggling to balance its conscience and independence with its desire to “monetize”.

With comments, I am also seeing “jumping on the bandwagon” one-line, six-word comments (Great dish!  Will definitely try this!) on popular food blogs, where dozens of other bloggers pitch in on every new post to get the links back to their own sites.  I do wonder if publishers realise we can be a community who feeds off itself, and that if a blogger has hundreds/thousands of visitors, there are no guarantees that any one of them would go out and buy a hard-copy cookbook by the same blogger.  Hampshirecook could have more comments in terms of numbers (see below) but I get annoyed and have deleted some obvious link chasers when they get on my nerves.  My view can be either leave a real comment that shows me you have actually engaged, or don’t bother.  Too harsh, or too old fashioned maybe?

I am also finding less informed opinion & interesting posts to read.

Are people scared of their own views?   It feels like there are many food bloggers chasing the dream of a book deal, but very few with a unique voice and the courage of their convictions that might hook and land such a prize.  Are these would-be Delia’s and Julia’s and Nigel’s self-censoring to appear publishable perhaps?  Will a range of good themed recipes (regional, family, cupcakes?) and nice pix be picked up by publishers and more importantly, make anyone significant amounts of money? My view is probably not, something more than this is required, though of course there are some visually lovely new cupcake books out there. And books on macaroons. And soup is the new soup, etc…but if I ever want to look at lovely cupcakes, I don’t need to spend any money at all to do that.

If I was back in “proper” publishing now (my first degree is in publishing and business) I would be looking for strong voices, unique or singular propositions, utterly trustworthy recipes with no hint of sponsorship to make me suspicious, social media friendliness and lots of visual treats.  When anyone can google and find multiple recipes for any dish that they would ever want to cook, the reasons for buying a hard-copy cookbook become less clear.  Depressingly, the easy-peasy publishing proposition seems to be celebs with (oh, the shock!) an oven: Gwyneth Patrow, Eva Longoria and Sheryl Crow have all launched their own cookbooks latterly, but surely these are just one-shot deals headed ultimately for the remainder bins? Interestingly too, these ladies seem to be relying on very old-style PR and done-to-death propositions with their fame as a somewhat shallow USP. I do wonder if they are making back their advances…though in the weird world of publishing, this is not always the aim.

So, that’s a taste of my 12 months of food blogging experiences and the random thoughts that flit through my head when I am in this blogging world.  To finish, and in the spirit of sharing with the community, some Hampshirecook stats:

  • 60 posts
  • 200 comments
  • 11,500 views
  • 220 views on my “best” day so far (thank you very much Foodpress!)
  • Traffic 50-50 USA and RoW

It took 4-5 months to really get going in terms of driving traffic (though to be fair, I was never really aiming for this) and to my utter astonishment, Hampshirecook was No. 1 in Google for a few search terms and remains on the first page for several more.  That is quite a buzz.

Now for Year 2 — do I really need to develop some commercial aims and ambitions for Hampshirecook, or is that just vanity and a misplaced work ethic, i.e. if you spend time on something, it ought to generate an income?  Is it not enough to have this as a really nice hobby, that gives me a sense of achievement, a place to keep all my recipes together and a voice in the food world about things that might bug me or interest me?  I guess it is “watch this space”.

Balsamic is the New Black [Death], Apparently…

A few months ago, and to our great surprise, we had the “cayenne pepper sprinkled round the rim of the plate as a ridiculous garnish” experience in a deepest West Country restaurant.  I really thought that awful dusty rim thing had died a death about five years ago, but then again, we were in Hicksville, UK, where it was probably still trending.  I explained I was ‘llergic and you know, oh so sorry, had no idea you plated up this way, serious allergy, could kill me, etc.  What came back was the same plate, wiped.  We sent that back and I picked at bread and lettuce, not trusting what might come out of that particular kitchen next time to make me ill/end my life prematurely.

Oh well, never mind, you think, it was a tiny place, far, far away, we will excuse their backwards ways, for they know not what they do, etc.  Last week though, in the big city and in a rather nice, upmarket gourmet style pub we ordered a plate of artisan breads to accompany our starters.  So far so yummy, but what arrived were hunks of really quite nice breads on a long wooden board, both bread and board slathered all over with great stripes and swooshes of balsamic vinegar.  It was as if someone had taken a squeezy bottle of the stuff and squirted it at the board like a kid’s kindergarten painting.  Or maybe chef was just having a Jackson Pollok moment.  Whatever.  Our horror was of course conveyed to the waitress, and we asked for a fresh board sans the sticky tar.  At this point, defensive witch-waitress informed us that this is how they “serve” their artisan breads, and we ought to have “told” her beforehand that we did not require our breads pre-painted with the Black Death.  Could she fathom that we could not have anticipated this because A. the word balsamic appears nowhere on the menu yet sputters and splatters over every side dish and salad like a terminal Texan oil well and B. who does that to bread anyway?  Well, no she could not get her pokey hat and head round this idea at all, and flounced her way back through the double doors in a witchy huff.

Culturally, we had already forgotten anyway that salad vinaigrettes do not need to contain suspended swirls and gobs of black balsamic; I had problems enough eating out already.  Now, it seems bread cannot be ordered without contemplating shuffling off this mortal coil.  What a dining companion I am becoming!  So, I have had enough and if I cannot change the world, at least I can put a meme out there that might.  The essence of my argument against the (mis)use of balsamic vinegar in restaurant contexts is this: balsamic is a condiment and it is not for a chef to remove my condiment choices in such a manner.  It’s like ordering chips that come pre-tommy sauced, when what you really fancied was to delicately dip the ends in mayonnaise.  And I am sorry to see this balsamic bombardment becoming the cayenne catastrophe de nos jours.  I urge speaking out people, we need to re-conquer our condiments, garner back our garnishes.  Let not these chefs shoo us in directions we did not want to go, which in my case could be right off the end of a cliff…

“Can Jaffa Cakes Make Me High”…Er, Wot?

Before I started all this blogging lark, I had no idea that when you land on a blog/website, the search term typed to get you there is visible to the authors/designers of the site.  Most searches are just sensible and to the point, phrases like “giblet gravy” or “roasting a chicken temperature“.  A few do stand out though, sometimes because they are sad/cute/revealing or all three: “Why can’t I make soup?”  Oh, bless.

For a while, I had a rather grand and regular searcher who seems to have given up on my site now, Hampshirecook was not quite posh enough for his or her tastes.  How do I know this?  Well, the personal pronoun “one” was used in every search, so almost daily the list had phrases such as “can one really mix ginger and garlic in one’s soup?”; “if one’s gravy is lumpy, what can one do?” and the like.  I imagined some down at heel Duchess whose servants had all run off with the silver, trying to manage a kitchen for the first time. 

This one today though actually made me spit out my coffee:

“Can Jaffa Cakes Make Me High? ”

Er, not to our knowledge…But, I am so loving trying to work out what is going on in this searcher’s head, assuming they are not actually attending junior school.  And, of course, trying to work out what is in Google’s head/algorithim too that bounced that search to me!  Or, do I just need to get out more?

A New Year Resolution Extraordinaire…

This is not much to do with cooking or recipes, but my sis has set up a new website, Anew52 at http://www.anew52.co.uk/index.html.  She wants to try a brand new activity every week for 52 weeks, combining this with a weight loss challenge too.  She will be blogging about her experiences and so far her new activity suggestions range from learning to unicycle to going to the opera and jointing a chicken…with a lot more fun and challenging ideas on her big To Do list already.

Do visit her site and wish her luck and success, or to offer suggestions of you own.  Way to go Mo!

The BESTEST Christmas!

We are avoiding Crimbo completely this year and going to Egypt instead….so on the 25th we will be floating down the Nile on a boat, hopefully champagne in hand.  I wish all my readers a huge, warm and toasty Season’s Greetings and decided for my Christmas post to signpost a few ideas for ye olde festive fayre:

  • Roasting Potatoes in Goose Fat?  I strongly advise not to do this, as you can ruin your oven. Here is why.  You could use a couple of spoons of goose fat for flavour right at the end of roasting, but IMHO, the best thing to do with goose fat is gently fry your eggs in it on Boxing Day, in a frying pan, with the extractor fan on.
  • Making Gravy with the Turkey Giblets?  Same as making it with Chicken Giblets:  See here for the recipe on how to do this.  You could also use the giblets for stock for turkey soup for Boxing Day–hey, it uses up some leftovers…
  • Want to do something special with Carrots?  Glazed carrot recipe here.
  • Best recipe for Brussels Sprouts?  Stir-fry them Chinese style, click the link for the recipe.  We did this for a couple of huge family Christmases and it was fab, the Chinese flavouring goes surprisingly well with the turkey and all the trimmings.  For other sprout ideas, see this great post on CRUMBS family food blog.
  • Turkey Stuffing Recipes?  The best, best, best, most delicious stuffing that anyone can ever make is Chestnut and Cranberry Stuffing.  This is a great recipe for this, from the BBC Good Food site, good old BBC…or do Delia’s traditional Pork, Sage and Onion.  Delish.

I am not a baker so cannot do the whole mince pies/cake/chocolate log thingy…but if you are looking for an unusual, delicious cake, my sister’s clementine and almond cake, recipe here, might just be the ticket.  Canapes…well, this could possibly be a New Year post…

Have a lovely, lovely Christmas!  Keep warm people.