Surf vs. turf

I can understand why Chicagoans eat a lot of meat. My brother-in-law is known for it because, of course, he is from Chicago. His freezer is rarely without a rack of ribs and I don't know how my sister ever gets him to eat any greens. If I want to treat him to something special, I go straight to Paulina Meat Market and pick up some of their lovely thinly sliced garlic beef summer sausage or hot Italian sausages for the grill.

At my fancy English Christmas dinner with all the trimmings, Andy showed up with a platter of mini weiners- pigs n' blankets. Admittedly, they went down a storm.

I know we're not particularly close to any ocean whatsoever, but the fish we get up in Michigan is phenomenal. I hear you say that Chicago is also on Lake Michigan, but we are a city of tough men who like their meat.

England has spoiled me. I long for the time when I could call my local fishmonger, Steve Hatt, and order some monkfish, john dory or dover sole... all of which are delicious with any delicate sauce. Steve is an imposing figure who barks orders at his young staff, all wearing white wellington boots and plastic aprons. The tiny storefront in Islington has it's own smokehouse and they sell smoked kippers, mackerel, trout and haddock.

Steve has been outspoken about "ethical" fishing and I knew anything I bought there was sustainable. Cod, in particular, many a Brit's favorite fish, is extremely over-fished and is now mostly imported from Norway or Iceland to the UK. Unfortunately, they come from big trawlers with large nets and are not sustainable.

I have found a good fish shop here in Chicago, Dirk's Fish & Gourmet Shop, and of course there's always Costco. This week, I wanted a piece of fish to cook over hot coals. After receiving a set of wood planks for the barbecue a few years back, I've cooked a quite a few successful pieces of fish that, without the plank, would have been either burnt or completely dry.

Upon a recent visit to Costco, I was overjoyed when I saw that their fresh fish stand had expanded for the summer months. Crab claws, whole red snapper, clams and mussels were all tempting until I saw bright coral whole filets of sockeye salmon. Salmon, for me, is not my favorite fish, but if I can get it where it's in the whole filet, then I love to grill it.

It's best if you have a cedar plank for this- you can get them almost anywhere these days and I've seen them in London and back here in the US. You'll need to soak the plank in water, with something on top of it to weigh it down, between 1 and 24 hours. Longer soaking means reduced smoking when you put it on the grill.

If you can't get a plank, then make a foil tray from two layers of aluminum foil, pinching them around the edges to make a platter.

Sockeye Salmon with a Mustard Herb Crust
Adapted from The Plank Grilling Cookbook by Michelle Lowrey

Serves 2 greedy people

One large sockeye salmon fillet
1/2 cup of mayonnaise
1/2 small lemon, juiced
1/4 cup chopped fresh dill
1/4 cup whole-grain mustard
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 cup of unseasoned panko breadcrumbs
lemon wedges for garnish.

To make the mustard crust, combine mayo, lemon juice, dill, mustard, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Mix well. Spread mustard mixture evenly over the filet.

Sprinkle liberally with panko breadcrumbs to form a thick, even coating. Lightly press the crumbs into the salmon so they stick.

Light your coals in the barbecue and get them white hot.

Place the filet on the plank skin side down and place the plank on the grill. Close the lid and grill until crispy on the surface but still moist and opaque in the center- about 15-20 minutes depending on thickness of the fish. If you're like me, I prefer a thinner filet, so mine took 15 minutes. Garnish with lemon wedges.

I like to serve this with grilled veggies, some garlicky rice and sliced fresh tomatoes. Don't forget a glass of chilled crisp white wine.
I'm up in Michigan next week for the fourth of July and a big family reunion. I'm looking foward to cooking with my sister (in between snuggling my niece and nephew), my two Aunts, Patty and Michelle, and my cousins, Christine and Lauren. I've come up with a menu that I hope everyone will love when we get together on the 4th!


Fiesta forever

I'm hoping this post inspires a weekend of cooking outdoors with a bucket of cold beers close by. I realize, after reading previous posts, that I am somewhat obsessed with weather, but it directly affects what we eat and how we want to cook. If it's rainy and chilly, only a warm soothing soup will do. For what feel like an eternity of waiting for summer to arrive, I dream of barbecues and ice cream. After the wettest spring in over 100 years, all I want is two consecutive days without rain and a weekend of sunshine.

I felt truly lucky that a few weekends ago, I was able to have some friends come over for a barbecue and we didn't end up eating inside. With that in mind, I had been reading over one of my favorite cookbooks, The Mexican Mama's Kitchen, by Sofia Larrinua-Craxton.

I took a class with Sofia in London at my favorite haunt, Books for Cooks, and I was felt as if I had finally been let in on some of the secrets that Mexican food has always held from me. Firstly, by the time I had my own kitchen to start experimenting in, I was living in London- the land of people who think Tex-Mex is real Mexican food. I swear that I became so desperate for some authentic Mexican cuisine that I nearly cried when I saw Sofia's class turn up on the summer schedule.

She showed us how to make tortillas from scratch and I ran directly from the class across the street to buy two bags of masa de harina. She also made the tastiest Sopa de Tortilla, Salsa Cruda and Coffee Creme Caramel from evaporated milk that I showered my friends and family with little fiestas for months.

The trick to Sofia's salsa was grilling the onions, tomatoes, chillies and garlic before pounding them into a delicious salsa. The difference in taste was incredible.

Guacamole is a staple at my house. I make different batches at least once every two weeks in the summer. Every time it's different. Along with it, I adapted some of Sofia's recipes and my sister, Stacia's, to come up with a Sunday fiesta lunch for six.

Salsa Cruda
Adapted from Sofia Larrinua-Craxton

1 medium red onion, quartered
1 clove of garlic, skin on
4 large ripe red tomatoes
1 red chilli, left whole with stalk removed (keep the seeds in)
a handful of cilantro, finely chopped
1 tsp sea salt
1 tsp freshly ground pepper
juice of half a lime

Heat a grill pan over high heat. Pierce the skins of your tomatoes and grill with garlic, chilli and red onion until black lines appear on all sides.

Add all of the grilled vegetables to a food processor with the rest of the ingredients and pulse until combined. You can play with the heat of this salsa by adding more chilli or removing the seeds if you'd like it very mild. One chilli makes for a nice level of heat in my opinion, but chilli is really a personal taste!

Salsa Verde
Adapted from The Mexican Mama's Kitchen by Sofia Larrinua-Craxton

1 lb fresh tomatillos
1 green chilli, finely chopped
1tbsp corn or vegetable oil
1 clove of garlic, crushed
1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
2 tbsp fresh cilantro, finely chopped
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp sugar

Remove the husks from the tomatillos and wash thoroughly. Halve each and lay on a baking sheet skin side up. Place under a hot broiler or oven grill for about 10 minutes until the skins start to blister.

You'll see them pop and start to blacken. Remove and cool for a few minutes before adding them to your food processor.

In the mean time, add the oil to a pan and over medium heat, saute the onion for 5 minutes until soft. Add the garlic and saute for a further 2 minutes making sure it doesn't brown. Add the onions and garlic to the food processor along with the rest of the ingredients.

Pulse until combined. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed.


Serves 6 to dip with tortilla chips before dinner and have enough to spread on tortillas during your meal.

4 ripe avocados (I prefer the Hass variety)
1/2 white onion, finely chopped
1 green chilli, de-seeded and finely chopped
1 small tomato, finely chopped
1 bunch of cilantro including stalks, finely chopped
juice of 1-2 limes
1 tbsp sea salt
1 tbsp cumin

I love the earthy flavor of cumin, so I always add it to my guacamole. Peel your avocados and remove the stone. Take a spoon and remove all of the flesh. Combine the avocado and lime juice immediately- I usually use one at the beginning to ensure the avocado doesn't turn brown, and then taste it when it's combined to see if I need any more tangy lime juice.

Again, combine all ingredients with a fork so that the avocado is still chunky, not completely pureed. Test your seasoning at the end.


This is another of my sister, Stacia's, recipe. I had it first when she and her husband, Andy, made it for Cinco de Mayo. I tweaked the rub by using so
me of the Mexican spices I picked up at Dean & Deluca on a trip to NYC. You'll see this is the second flank steak I've posted- it's honestly my favorite meat to grill and you can marinate with practically anything.

Carne Asada
Serves 6

2 x 1-1.5 lb flank steak
1 tbsp each of cumin, sea salt, ancho powder and Mexican oregano (if you don't have the oregano or ancho powder, my sister uses garlic powder and red pepper and it's delicious)
1 beer of choice- I use Modelo or Corona
juice of 1 large orange
juice of 2 limes
2 tbsp grapeseed oil
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced
1 green chili, sliced with seeds

Combine all the spices. Lay the flank steaks flat in a baking dish. Score them diagonally with the tip of a sharp knife. Rub both sides with 1-2 tbsp of the spice mixture. Combine the grapeseed oil, beer, orange and lime juice, garlic and green chili and pour over the steaks. Cover and leave to marinade in the refrigerator 30 minutes - 2 hours.

Cook over hot coals for 4-5 minutes each side for medium rare. Rest 5 minutes under foil and cut diagonally. Serve with salsas, guacamole, peppers, scallions and some sour cream.

Grilled Peppers and Scallions

This isn't really a recipe, more of a method.

The peppers can be done before the fiesta begins. Take 4 peppers- yellow, orange, red or green. Place directly over hot coals and rotate until each side is black and blistered. I've done this many times on my stove top right over the gas flame. It works just as well, but it takes a little longer and has slightly more potential to catch fire. As soon as all sides are charred, put peppers in a bowl and cover immediately with cling film.  The steam allows the skins to peel off easily.

I usually leave these about 15-30 minutes so they cool enough for me to be able to handle them. Then I peel off the blackened skins and tear them up lengthwise. They are extremely tasty in the tortilla along with the Carne Asada and grilled scallions.

The scallions can be popped on the grill when the meat is cooking so they're served warm. Turn them over the coals until they are marked with blackened lines on all sides.

For a refreshing dessert after a spicy meal, try both of these recipes.

Stacia's Citrus Salad with Honey & Mint
Serves 6

2 large pink grapefruits
2 large navel oranges
2 tbsp honey
3 tbsp mint, chopped

Peel the citrus fruits and remove all of the white pith. Slice into large circles and lay on a platter. Drizzle with honey and sprinkle over the chopped mint.

Maguie's Lime Ice Cream
Adapted from The Mexican Mama's Kitchen, by Sofia Larrinua-Craxton

340g canned evaporated milk
( I used the equivalent of 1% milk and it worked well)
1 1/4 cups of sugar
juice of 3 limes
2 large eggs separated
3 drops of green food coloring
1 drop of yellow food coloring

Put the milk in a large Tupperware bowl, put the lid on and freeze for 1 hour or more until ice crystals form on the surface.

Remove the milk and beat with a hand-held blender until it doubles in size. Add half the sugar and the lime juice and mix together.

In another bowl, beat the egg yolks with half of the remaining sugar until pale in color. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites with the remaining sugar until stiff peaks form. With a metal spoon, add the milk, sugar and lime mixture and the beaten egg yolks together. Fold in the egg whites carefully. Add the food coloring and gently mix together.

Transfer to a shallow dish and cover. Freeze for 4-5 hours, until set. I like to do this over night just to make sure I don't serve lime soup.

I like this recipe because it doesn't call for an ice cream maker, something I haven't invested in yet!


Hands of gold

Last night I had dessert for dinner. For someone with a savory persuasion, last night's Dessert Night at Beans and Bagels was surprisingly exactly what I needed. For most of Saturday, the rain that has plagued our spring still hung in the air, and I wondered if it would ever stop. As the sun came out later in the day, our friends Alethea and Philippe called with an invitation to sample some of a their friend's sweet treats. Jean Yves is a pastry chef who's been making his famous croissants at several different establishments around Chicago for several years. Philippe says he has "hands of gold", and when he says it in his French accent, you can only think of these perfectly formed croissants.

Photo by Jean Yves Martin

As we sat down, cappuccinos in mismatched mugs arrived while we ordered one of everything on the menu.

It was a sugar overload, but we managed to scrape every plate clean. My personal favorite was the Nutella and banana crepe. There is something about the combination that can't be beat. Nutella and I have had a long love affair that began many years ago, and I was relieved to find that I can buy it here in the US. Someone at our table confessed, in a low hushed voice, that they have been known to peel a banana and cover it with the hazelnut spread before devouring. That's what I call breakfast.

The creme brulee was lovely and crisp on the outside while the custard center was smooth and deliciously creamy.

For the purists in our group, the flourless chocolate cake fit the bill perfectly.

We took a tour of the kitchen where Jean Yves arrives at the crack of dawn daily to bake a variety of croissants. I have to admit that I was tempted to wheel out the huge Hobart mixer and make some space for it at home.

The night was a success. As the last of the guests left the small cafe, all that was left in the kitchen were shards of caramelized sugar.

As if we hadn't had enough already, we couldn't help but sneak a few handfuls before we headed out into the night.


Divide a crowd

I know this isn't much of a recipe, but I absolutely want to profess my love for smoked oysters.  I'm also aware some of you may stop reading right now, but I think we know each other well enough by now not to let this come between us.  

Oysters, fresh or smoked, tend to divide a crowd pretty quickly.  I love all smoked seafood, even the stuff in little tins that need to be peeled open and forked out of olive oil.  Although not smoked, sardines are a constant favorite of mine, especially those with hot red chillies laying side by side to the tiny fish.  Spread on multi-grain toast, it's a real breakfast treat.  Dorie Greenspan led me to this fantastic Lemony Sardine Spread that has tempted me to do something other than eat them straight out of the tin.

To be honest, I did very little cooking over the weekend.  I was looking after my poor husband who came down with the stomach flu Thursday night.  If there's anything to stop a weekend of delicious meal planning, it's the stomach flu.

Here's where I confess further that while Martin was shivering under the duvet on Friday evening, I was out in the sun enjoying my oysters and a cold glass of beer.  I took 10 of my favorite magazines, my iPod and the dog to the top deck to take advantage of the last rays of the day.  Taking out a single plate, I assembled a tray ready to indulge on my own.  I must also confess that I do not mind eating on my own.  Apart from a rather unfortunate experience in Zurich where I ate at the Laughing Cow twice in one day because of fear of the unknown, I have grown adventurous when asking for a table for one.

Smoked oysters are one of my Dad's favorite and I had to give him a call as I popped the last of the meaty morsels into my mouth.  Every year for Christmas, he finds them with a smile at the bottom of his stocking.  He puts them straight in the pantry and waits for the right time to pull them out and eat them with plain Saltine crackers.  If there's one thing my Dad is great at, it's putting together a great snack to be enjoyed in front of a ball game.  I remember him always pouring his beer in a small glass and sharing a sip with me.  It made me feel like one of the guys and it's probably the beer I have to thank for my love of watching most sports on TV.  

So there I was, breaking open the tin and peering in to see the oysters nestled nicely together.  I decided to pair mine with a lovely ale, Dogfish Head Raison D'Etre, which was perfectly chilled.  Each sip made me so completely happy that I could have been sipping Champagne out of crystal.

If you fancy a mouthful of happiness, you know what to do:

Smoked Oysters and Crackers  

1 tin of smoked oysters
1 pack of Saltine crackers or any plain crackers (biscuits in the UK)
1 small glass of your favorite beer, chilled
Sunshine or ball game- your choice


The best bits

A mid-week salad is always looked on favorably during the summer months at my house. It's easy to throw together, but doesn't have to be any less flavorful than a more time consuming meal. I've been meaning to find something to do with the speck I picked up at the store recently. Speck is slightly thicker than proscuitto, but the cured Italian meat is flavored nicely and has a slightly smokier and spicy taste. Jamie Oliver's recipe for a salad with speck, strawberries and halloumi caught my eye, but alas, I could not find halloumi. This Cypriot cheese is readily available in London, and it melts beautifully when grilled.

Maybe this was a good thing, as I decided to throw together my own ingredients with a balsamic vinaigrette. Most importantly, I concluded that strawberry season isn't quite upon us, but I found some plump apricots at the market, as well as some dried Bing cherries in my pantry that inspired me to take this in a different direction.

On the surface, my husband, Martin, loves the idea of a salad. He likes to eat healthily as long as it doesn't include green stuff. If he read all the ingredients below, he'd smile upon each one, until he reached the greens. "Easy on the arugula for me, luv" is normally what he says as I'm piling each salad plate high with a bed of baby greens. He proceeds to eat only "the best bits" as he calls them. Never mind.

Apricot and Speck Salad with Dried Bing Cherries & Pistachios
Serves 2

2 apricots, quartered
1 ball of buffalo mozzarella cheese, torn into eight pieces
6 slices of speck
1/4 cup of dried Bing cherries
1/4 cup of raw pistachios, unsalted
2 handfuls of arugula (or rocket in the UK)
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Pile plates high with salad leaves and roughly arrange ingredients on top to cover the greens. Combine the extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper. Shake well. Drizzle dressing and serve. I like to serve this on it's own with some crusty bread, especially if I've indulged in too much bread and cheese over a glass of wine before dinner time. It also works as a side dish to accompany pasta with a vegetarian or creamy sauce for a larger crowd. In that case, I take a large platter and serve it in the middle so everyone can help themselves.