Category Archives: Food

BBQ

How about a blood sausage?

How about a blood sausage?

Over the summer (yes, that was a long time ago) I was invited to a few barbecues at friends’ places. It brought me back to the barbecues I used to have growing up in Connecticut: slap a few homemade hamburgers and packaged Oscar Meyer beef franks on the grill, top it off with some ketchup, yellow mustard, and relish, and voilà. A simple affair. The barbecues I was invited to this year were similar, grilling up only the basic hot dogs and hamburgers, and serving the usual chips and dip on the side.

I only realized after going abroad that this is a very American version of BBQ. Or rather, a very northeastern American version of BBQ – I’m sure the Texans and southerners and mid-westerners are up to something altogether different. What I, as a New Englander, had always known as a “barbecue” was in fact a pale imitation of what I saw other people putting on elsewhere…

In Britain, it was all about the juicy sausages and shish kebabs; in New Zealand, I ate grilled shrimp for Christmas dinner; the Australian “barbie” featured lamb and steak and prawns; in Tanzania, I devoured mishkaki (“Swahili shish kebabs”) from roadside vendors; and the South Africans – probably the world masters of the braai – left no meat group unrepresented on the grill, the crowning joy being the saliva-inducing spiral of boerewors (sausage).

Somehow the hot dog and hamburger barbecues of my childhood are no longer so exciting. I think I need to dedicate some time to exploring all the American styles of barbecue… any recommendations on where to start?

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Instant comfort

Gratification in five minutes.

Gratification in five minutes.

Every country and culture has its own comfort food. I’ve blogged about many of my favorite American comfort foods (to the point that I think Home Strange Home could legitimately be mistaken for a food blog).

Well when I want comfort, and I want it now. And I love that many American favorites are instantly available. While some people may find instant just-add-hot-water mashed potato flakes unacceptable, I personally find them secretly soothing. (Then again, I do also enjoy reconstituted refried beans from Taco Hell, so perhaps my judgment is questionable.)

There is something just so satisfying about following a simple, three-step process on the back of a box to create a warm, buttery, creamy, carby proxy to all sorts of otherwise labor-intensive goodness. I feel the same way about instant mac and cheese, which has its own distinct charm apart from real macaroni and cheese. And not only because I didn’t have to wait for it.

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Bagels

I'll have one of each, please.

I’ll have one of each, please.

Bagels are one of my favorite foods in the world. I could eat a bagel for breakfast, lunch, and dinner in one day. Indeed, I have.

To me, the bagel is a typically American food, something that I grew up with. I regularly ate toasted bagels for breakfast and bagel sandwiches for lunch during my childhood in Connecticut, only miles away from the bagel mecca that is New York City. Bagel-eating is one of those things that Americans are often teased about by the French, it being viewed as a silly American dietary habit like peanut butter or cinnamon (God knows what the French would make of our green bagels, or the Irish for that matter).

So I was surprised to learn that bagels are actually… Polish. Yes, the bajgiel originates from Krakow, and was brought to New York City by Polish Jews (which probably explains why NYC remains prime bagel territory today). Indeed, it turns out bagels are consumed in various forms throughout Eastern Europe, not to mention their cousins the pretzels which live in Germany.

I learned from my personal experience living in the UK and Canada that London and Montréal are also known for their bagels. These bagels were different than the ones I was used to noshing back home, but among the best I ate abroad.

In London, Brick Lane is known for its bagels, which are smaller and chewier than the American variety, and are often satisfyingly consumed in the middle of the night after some heavy drinking in East London. Bagels can also be found in a few north London neighborhoods with Jewish communities. Beyond those select areas, I found most of the “bagels” available in the UK to be disappointing. They were not the real deal – baked (not boiled-and-baked) and soft (not chewy) bread in the shape of a bagel – a bagel impostor, if you will. Let’s put it this way: if your jaw isn’t tired after chewing the bagel, it probably wasn’t the real thing.

The Montréal-style bagel is also a thing. I used to make special trips to the other side of Mont-Royal to visit the famous Montréal bagel factories of Saint Viateur Bagel and Fairmount Bagel. The Montréal bagel is a breed of its own: denser, sweeter, and much thinner with a larger hole, it is baked in a wood-fired oven. It is delicious, but if you’re used to eating a hefty New York style bagel – doughy mass of “carbohydrates” that it is – then you’ll probably need to eat two Montréal-style bagels to be satisfied. Which is why I often ate them in pairs.

And yes, I totally had a bagel for breakfast this morning.

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Mustard v. yellow sauce

Tastes just like yellow.

Tastes just like yellow.

Having lived abroad for so many years, I have many foreign friends; some of them also live in the US and read my blog and give me suggestions for topics to cover (like double dipping, which a Ukrainian friend told me is an American concept that doesn’t exist in Ukraine).

Another of friend of mine, a Brit, commented on condiments. Specifically, how condiments suck in the US. I had never thought about it before he pointed it out, but I realized it’s true, at least compared to the UK.

Take, for example, mustard. In the UK, English mustard – such as the standard brand Colman’s of Norwich – is a brown, wholegrain, thick, fiery affair, a good deal spicier and stronger than the bright yellow, vinegary-y American-style mustard which appears in an equally school bus yellow plastic squeeze bottle (and is confusingly referred to by its brand name, “French’s Mustard,” even though it is nothing like actual French mustard, such as Dijon mustard). It is also referred to (more appropriately) as simply “yellow mustard.”

But the British love for condiments goes far beyond mustard. I remember when I used to go for a pub lunch, the pubs would always have a carrier basket full of condiments which they would bring to your table for each meal. Aside from the obvious ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise, it would usually also contain malt vinegar, HP sauce (a brown sauce), Branston pickle (and other jarred pickled chutneys), salad cream (an inexplicable mayonnaise-like substance), marmite, picalilli (an Indian-style relish of pickled vegetables and spices), and Worcestershire sauce, just to name a few.

The fact that Wikipedia has a category entitled “British Condiments” which comprises 31 pages shows that the Brits aren’t messing about (the Wikipedia page “American Condiments,” on the other hand, doesn’t exist). Sure, Americans love their ketchup, salsa, and certainly barbecue sauce, but they don’t seem to relish condiments in the same way the British do (yes, pun intended).

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Taco Hell

Tacos so perfect they aren't even tacos anymore.

Tacos so perfect they aren’t even tacos anymore.

I spent most of my teenage years a vegetarian. In the 1990s, fast food restaurants in America weren’t exactly vegetarian friendly. Read: they had no vegetarian options whatsoever (save for french fries, if that counts as a meal). This was long before the days of McDonald’s stocking “healthy” menu items like salad.

One of the few fast food restaurants that did offer vegetarian options was Taco Bell, often mockingly referred to as “Taco Hell.” Sure, most of the tacos contained beef or chicken. But there were also bean-based meals like the 7 Layer Bean Burrito, containing seven layers of mass-produced goodness: beans, rice, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream, and guacamole. Or, the good old “Pintos and Cheese” bowl (refried beans, cheese, and red sauce).

And, back in the day, all of this cost $0.99. You could have a good solid feed at Taco Bell for under $3.

I remember the first time I went to Taco Bell. I wanted to make sure the beans were actually vegetarian since many refried beans contain animal lard (yes, I was one of those vegetarians that checks every label for every ingredient). Perplexed by my question, the cashier opened a cupboard beneath the counter, hauled out a large sack, and flipped it over to examine the label. It looked like a sack of cement. In fact, it was a sack of dehydrated, powdered refried beans that Taco Bell would reconstitute by “just adding water” (like instant mashed potatoes). After carefully reading the ingredients label, the conscientious employee informed me that no, the beans did not contain lard. They may, however, contain cement. But they are definitely vegetarian.

You think that would have scared me off, but I forged ahead and ordered my bean burrito anyway. And there was no looking back. To this day, I love Taco Bell. Go ahead, judge me. Think whatever you like; I’ll keep on eating it. I won’t deny the fact that Taco Bell is a perverse abstraction of Mexican food. Or, the fact that I’m even putting the words “Taco Bell” and “Mexican food” together in one sentence is likely to cause fits of outrage among many of my readers. But please forgive me: I’m from Connecticut, not Texas. I can claim the excuse of not knowing any better.

It’s so artificial and yet so good. And it’s not only the beans that are fake – notoriously, the sour cream, guacamole, and liquid orange cheese all come out of a food gun. Imagine something like a squeeze-handle caulking gun, but with tubes that fit inside it that contain toppings (I hesitate to use the word “food”) so the people rapidly preparing the Tex Mex delights can just shoot some guacamole onto your taco with a quick squeeze of the trigger. Mmm, so good.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Taco Bell has been largely unsuccessful in its attempts to expand its franchise outside of the US. Taco Bell entered the UK market in 1986, but apparently British people didn’t understand the allure of orange cheese and reconstituted beans, and all the locations were shut in the mid-1990s. More recently (in 2010) it has made attempts to re-enter the market. Maybe 21st century Britain will have more appreciation for the culinary art of expediently delivering guacamole with the finesse of a food gun.

I found a post in a forum which speculates as to why Taco Bell has been an “utter failure” in many of the international markets it has tried to break into. The writer of the post asks, “Any theories?” And one reader posted in response: “Could it be that Taco Bell in general sucks?” Not. True. I ❤ Taco Bell.

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Pass the carbs

Carbs are my favorite food. Err, I mean my favorite organic compound.

Carbs are my favorite food. Err, I mean my favorite organic compound.

One thing I have noticed since returning to the US is Americans have a very weird relationship with food. I’m not even talking about the all too well known American habit of consuming grotesquely large serving sizes of both food and drink. No, what I’m getting at is the way Americans view food and refer to food.

It seems as though the American mind has abstracted food to its constituent parts, and rather than regarding cooking and eating as one of life’s great pleasures, food is perversely seen as fuel at best and sin at worst. This is reflected in the comments that I hear American people make, which strike me as bizarre – at the dinner table, someone said to me, “Pass the carbs.” I’m thinking, do you mean to say, “Pass me that basket of delicious crusty bread rolls”?

At work one day, I saw a colleague salting and peppering some hard boiled eggs for breakfast. I said “Mmm, that looks tasty” (clearly, I have been living away from African street food for long enough that hard boiled eggs have once again become appetizing to me). She responded by saying, “I need to eat some protein.” I was once on a dinner date and, when we were selecting items from the menu to share, I suggested a salad, to which the guy said, “Yes, let’s get some roughage.” Roughage? What, are we livestock?

I was on a business trip with a colleague and, when she saw me eat a bowl of noodles for dinner, she asked if I had eaten enough. I was taken aback, because I had just watched her eat one Luna Bar – a nutrition bar similar to a PowerBar – for dinner. So I returned the question to her. At which point she said, “Oh, that contains 12 grams of protein.” Wait, is that a meal? Is that even food?

I’m convinced this is part of the reason why so many Americans are overweight. I lived in France and ate plenty of delicious croissants (not carbs) and foie gras  (not fat) and poulet (not protein) and yet I, like most French women, did not get fat (as explained in the book French Women Don’t Get Fat). French people love to eat, and they love food for what it is: food. One of life’s great pleasures. They take time and joy and pleasure in its preparation and consumption, rather than eating on the go while doing something else, American style.

I must go now, because it’s time for me to eat dinner: a delicious, home-cooked Ukrainian meal of borscht, dumplings, and salads. I couldn’t tell you what’s in it, but I know it’s going to be mouth watering.

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Apple picking

You know what I need? Thirty more of these.

You know what I need?  Thirty more of these.

In September I visited a friend in Wellesley, Massachusetts and it made me nostalgic for New England. We went apple picking at an apple orchard in the nearby countryside with her three year-old son. Despite my age being approximately three decades greater than his, I think I was having more fun than him, at least until a man drove by with a bale of hay on a forklift.

It was the first time I had been apple picking in probably 20 years or more. One of my fond childhood memories of growing up in Connecticut is going apple picking with my mother and brother in the autumn. The “pick your own” farms are open to the public and usually the way it works is you prepay for a picking bag of a certain size, for example a bushel or a half-bushel or a peck or a half-peck (yes, these are real apple measurements).

Then you wander around the orchard at your own pace, picking the apples that take your fancy, and making sure to climb a few gnarly apple trees and horse around along the way. You’ll soon be weighed down with apples – a bushel of apples weighs around 48 pounds, and even a peck (four of which make a bushel) weighs 12 pounds.

After hauling them home, you next have to figure out what the hell to do with all those apples. Because it’s more apples than you would otherwise ever buy or consume. In my family, we would usually bake a couple apple pies and my mother would hollow out a few apples and fill them with brown sugar, cinnamon, and raisins to make baked apples.

After doing this, we would still be left with more apples than we would otherwise ever consume. So we would proceed to make an insane quantity of applesauce and freeze some of it. If only we knew how to make candied apples. My friend in Massachusetts opted to make a superbly delicious apple crisp, and then left the rest of the apples uncooked for her husband and three boys gobble up.

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