Officially picnic weather

It's officially picnic weather. When it's warm and the air is filled with the sweet smell of fresh cut grass, it's time to take to your favorite picnic spot. Here in Chicago, there are plenty of grassy spots near the beach to roll out an old blanket and avoid sand in your food. In London, we spent a lot of time hanging out, and occasionally picnicking, in the expansive parks and gardens dotted around the city. Locally, Clissold Park was a daily occurrence for dog walks and a general soaking-in of good weather.

Hampstead Heath was probably my favorite in all seasons. Whether we were walking the dog on an early Saturday morning, biking up arduous hills, or stomping through the snow on a crisp New Year's morning, it never ceased to amaze me how quickly I forgot I was in the middle of London.

I am hugely fond of a picnic that involves wine and a full spread, but I've found packable desserts to be a challenge and tend to go for some simple fresh fruit.

This loaf cake is perfect for a picnic and would go nicely with some fresh strawberries or other seasonal fruit. The combination of pineapple and thyme make for a refreshing change in a otherwise simple loaf cake recipe. If you're English, this is screaming out for a thermos of tea to finish off a lovely picnic.

Pineapple and Thyme Loaf Cake
Adapted from Sunny Days & Easy Living by Lindy Wildsmith

10 tbsp unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3 beaten free range eggs
1/2 cup self-raising flour
1/2 cup semolina
2 tsp baking powder
8 oz can pineapple chunks, chopped in a food processor
1 tbsp finely chopped fresh thyme (lemon thyme would be nice too)
1 tbsp vanilla extract
confectioners' sugar to dust on the top
loaf pan, lined with wax paper

Preheat the oven to 375 F. Combine the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl and beat until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one a a time and beat well after each. Fold in the remaining flour, semolina, baking powder, pineapple, thyme and vanilla extract.

Bake for 30 minutes or until well risen and golden. Let it cool until you can handle it and turn it out onto a rack to let it cool thoroughly. Dust it with confectioners' sugar. Don't worry if it falls slightly in the middle. Pack it in aluminum foil or an appropriately sized tin for a fantastic picnic!


New Mom rescue sack

Earlier this week, I spent the evening with my friend, Karyn, who is in the midst of moving. "Ohhh, moving is stressful!" I hear you say. It sure is. My move from London nearly killed me. In fact, I can count the wrinkles on my face that were added by that move. The paperwork, the thought of all our "stuff" on a boat just waiting to sink to the bottom of the Atlantic, and the fact that I lived in an empty house with only camping chairs was enough to age me.

All of this seems like an over-reaction considering my friend also has an 8 week old baby. Baby Davis is a tiny super-cute munchkin who goo-goo'd and ga-ga'd me until my heart melted. Karyn is an uber-cool new Mom and she seemed perfectly relaxed and unfazed by the fact that very little seemed to be packed with only two weeks to go. That, in a nut-shell, is why I love this chick.

Yes- those are "Vans" socks he's wearing.

I decided a dinner delivery was in order. Who has time to mess around with food in that situation?? I arrived to the smell of sweet fig candles and a perfectly clean kitchen complete with a fully loaded baby bottle tree. Loaded in my "New Mom rescue sack" was a big tub of Orzo, fresh Caprese focaccia from the local market, and most importantly: wine.

I just started working a block from the French Market here in Chicago and I love it for many reasons. Saigon Sisters is certainly tops, but I adore the Pappardelle's Pasta stand with its flavorful handcrafted gourmet pastas. Other flavored pasta I've tried in the past have come out of the boiling water with the taste left behind. Gladly, this is not the case with Pappardelle's.

You can easily make this with plain Orzo found in any super-market. I like adding some simple flavor layers along the way, careful not to over power the pasta, but enough to add interest. Pappardelle's Pasta has a website with recipes to try, and there are plenty ideas for inspiration. You can add veggies that happen to be in season, which is why I never end up making the same way twice.

You can also add roasted chicken or shrimp for a heartier meal. For the tomatoes, you can use chopped fresh tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes or oven-roasted (also known as sun-blushed tomatoes in the UK.) I prefer fresh or oven-roasted/sun-blushed instead of sun-dried. I find them too bitter and strong.

This dish is great at room temperature or cold, which is why it's perfect for a picnic or when you're doing dinner delivery.

Orzo with Seasonal Vegetables, Feta and Arugula
Serves 4

1 lb Orzo
3/4 cup oven-roasted tomatoes
2 tbsp oil from the tomatoes or use regular extra-virgin olive oil
2 tbsp fresh oregano, finely chopped
juice of 1 lemon
1 tsp lemon zest
1/2 cup pitted Kalamata olives
1 bunch of asparagus, grilled or roasted and cut into bite size pieces
4 oz feta cheese, crumbled
1 large handful of arugula (known as rocket in the UK) keeping some aside for garnish
salt and freshly ground black pepper
dash of balsamic vinegar to finish

Grill the asparagus in a grill pan until cooked through. Set aside and chop into bite size pieces. Cook the pasta in rapidly boiling salted water until al dente (about 8-10 minutes).

Meanwhile, combine the tomatoes, oregano, olives, salt, pepper, oil from the tomatoes, lemon juice, lemon zest, asparagus and toss (everything but arugula).

Drain the pasta and to the mix and toss again. At this point, if you're going to be taking the pasta with you, put it in an air-tight container and wait to add the feta and the arugula until you're ready to serve.

To serve, toss the pasta with the crumbled feta and the arugula. Check the seasoning.

Spoon onto plates, garnish with extra arugula and a dash of balsamic vinegar.

Serve with some nice bread and a glass of wine.


Cinco de Tostada

As I rode past one of my favorite Mexican restaurants on Cinco de Mayo, I noticed the patio was heaving, and intoxicating smells were wafting towards me. With no reservations, my chances of getting even a few chips and salsa were slim. Luckily, my friend Jen, who had just been to Chicago for dinner a couple of weeks back, had sent me her favorite spicy Mexican shredded pork (Tinga) recipe from Cook's Illustrated. As a huge fan of Rick Bayless (you can try his recipe as well), she swears by it and claimed it's similar to Rick's.

Any time I use a recipe from Cook's Illustrated, apart from the fact that my cousin Becky is a chef on America's Test Kitchen, I know the recipes and ingredients are tried and true. For example, when making tostadas, you can either fry them or bake them, but they urge you to buy a corn tortilla with no preservatives with ingredients made up only of corn, lime and salt.

I did use the traditional method of frying the tostadas, but a few splatters of hot oil burns on my arm will probably lead me to the baking method in the future (and the fact that it means less oil used).

I do wish that I had this recipe when I was living in London. The lack of authentic Mexican food seriously depressed me. Good jarred salsa was difficult to come by. I learned to make a good roasted chile salsa, a lovely chicken tortilla soup, and a mean batch of guacamole, but these tostadas would have seriously pepped me up.

The chipotle powder can be substituted with a 2 minced canned chipotles, but Cook's Illustrated swears by the powder. I used pasilla chile powder from Dean & Deluca (which you can order) as it was part of a Mexican spice set I had in my pantry. It also included Mexican oregano, which I used here, so keep that in mind as well.

I made enough pork for 4-6 people so that the two of us had some leftovers. You can use them in burritos or tacos, or serve it re-heated, like I did, with some Mexican rice and a cold beer.

Spicy Mexican Shredded Pork (Tinga) Tostadas
Adapted from Cook's Illustrated
Serves 4-6

2 lbs of boneless pork butt, cut into 1 inch cubes (trimmed of fat, it should be 1 1/2 lbs)
2 medium onions, one quartered, one chopped fine
5 medium garlic cloves, three peeled and smashed and two minced
4 sprigs fresh thyme
2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 oregano
1 x 14.5 oz can tomato sauce (plain - I used passata)
1 tbsp chipotle powder
2 fresh bay leaves

For the tostadas:
12 x 6 inch corn tortillas
3/4 cup of vegetable oil (if using the frying method)
4 tbsp of vegetable oil (if baking)

For garnish:
diced avocado
lime wedges
queso fresco or feta cheese, crumbled
sour cream
diced tomatoes and onions

Bring the pork, the quartered onion, 6 cups of water, smashed garlic cloves, thyme and 1 tsp of salt to a rapid simmer and then turn down to a low- simmer. Cook for 75-90 minutes until the pork is tender, skimming off any foam that rises to the surface.

Reserving 1 cup of cooking liquid, drain the pork and discard the onion, garlic and thyme. Return to the pan and using a potato masher, mash until shredded into 1/2 inch pieces.

Heat the olive oil in a non-stick skillet and heat until shimmering. Add the pork, chopped onion and oregano. Turn often and cook for about 7- 10 minutes until the pork is well browned.

Make a well in the middle of the mixture and add the minced garlic for about 30 seconds and then add the tomato sauce, chipotle powder, reserved cooking liquid and bay leaves.

Leave to simmer until most of the liquid disappears, about 5-7 minutes. Remove and discard the bay leaves and season with salt to taste.

Prepare your tostadas by either frying them (traditional method) or baking (better for you method.) Both have a similar outcome, so I would recommend baking.

Frying: Heat vegetable oil in frying pan until 350 degrees. Poke each of your tortillas in the center with a fork 3-4 times to prevent puffing and to allow them to cook evenly on both sides.

Add the tortillas (one at a time) to the oil and use the potato masher to hold them down. They should take about 45-40 seconds each (no need for turning) and then you can drain them on a plate with paper towels. Repeat until all are cooked.

Baking: Preheat your oven to 450F. Place each tortilla in a single layer on two rimmed baking sheets. Brush both sides with a little vegetable oil and place a wire rack up-side down on top of the tortillas to keep them flat.

Bake for 15-18 minutes on the upper and lower-middle racks of your oven, switching them half way through the baking process. Tortillas should be golden brown and crisp, ready to top with your tinga and garnishes.


Berry delicious

Baking only ever occurs in my house on the weekends unless a cake must be baked for a special occasion. This morning, I found myself with a surplus of blackberries. I had bought a ton of them for a smoothie-making marathon that occurred this week in celebration of a new blender. For those of you who have read in the past, you'll know that many of my appliances are still lurking in the shadows of my pantry with English plugs. The red kitchen-aid blender remains useless.

I finally broke down and bought a blender so that healthy glasses of yogurt and berries can be drunk. After returning from dinner one night this week with colleagues, I found Martin had made a smoothie for dinner. He decided his dinner-smoothie needed a little extra "something" and added Jack Daniels. Needless to say, this is not what I had in mind for our health kick.

If blackberries were made for anything, then this coconut blackberry slice is it. Serve it as you would cookies- for an afternoon snack with milk or coffee. If you've never checked out any of Bill Granger's recipes, I urge you to do so. They are each filled with Australian sunshine and goodness.

You can adapt this to any number of fruit combinations depending on the season.

Coconut Blackberry Slice
Adapted from Bills Food by Bill Granger
Makes 20

For the base:
4 1/2 oz unsalted butter at room temperature
1/4 cup caster sugar
1 free-range egg
1 tsp vanilla extract (the good stuff)
1 1/2 cups plain, all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 cup of milk

For the filling:
1/2 cup blackberry jam
1 cup blackberries

For the topping:
3 1/2 oz unsalted butter
5 tbs caster sugar
2 free-range eggs
2 1/2 cups desiccated coconut
1/2 cup plain, all-purpose flour

Preheat your oven to 180C or 350F. Grease and line with parchment paper a 12x8 inch baking tin.

To make the base, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add egg and vanilla extract and stir to combine. Sift the flour and baking powder together and add to the mixture with the milk. Flour your hands and press this into the tin. Top evenly with the jam and then the blackberries.

For the topping, cream the flour and sugar together until fluffy, add the eggs and beat until combined. Stir in the coconut and 1 tbsp of the sifted flour and stir to combine, then stir in the remaining sifted flour. Spread the topping over the blackberries.

Bake for 30 minutes until golden. Cover with foil and cook another 5 minutes. Let it cool for 10 minutes and then cut into rectangles. Makes about 20.