Glass of wine and a sunset

I'm headed to Michigan this weekend for our annual 4th of July escape. Last year, we made a feast for a family reunion, and if something on a larger scale is on your agenda, I suggest you check out some of the recipes from that previous post. This year, our schedule is a lot less hectic, and although we'll be getting together with family while we're up there, I'm keenly interested in making some low-key foods that pair well with a chilled glass of wine and a sunset.

I always visit John Cross Fisheries on day one of our trip. I pick up some fresh whitefish and a few smoked fillets that they smoke in the tiny shed next to the dock. I can't help myself from buying enough to eat some straight from the bone, and some more to make some home-made smoked-fish spread.
I should mention that John Cross makes some amazing whitefish spread, but here are two versions to try at home. One is more of a smooth pate, while the other is a chunkier spread that is equally delicious on toast points or bagels the following morning.

You can use a variety of smoked fish in these recipes. Smoked mackerel is one of my particular favorites, but I'll never stray from whitefish when I'm up north. Both of these recipes are really simple to pull together and add an extra elegance to a pre-dinner nibble. We've been known to forget about dinner after a few glasses of wine, so don't forget to serve it with a nice dry white or rose.

Smoked-Fish and Horseradish Pate
Adapted 101 Simple Suppers by the BBC

8oz smoked fish fillets, such as whitefish or mackerel, skinned and boned
3 tbsp freshly grated horseradish (or freshly prepared from a jar)
4 oz ricotta cheese
juice of one lemon
1 tsp fennel seeds, crushed
2 tbsp melted butter
fresh bay leaves and pink or green peppercorns to garnish
cornichon pickles, pickled onions, and toast- rye or white, to serve

In a food processor, combine all of the ingredients until smooth. Taste and add more lemon juice if necessary.

Spoon into a bowl and drizzle over the butter. You can refrigerate in order to allow the butter to harden or dig right in.

Garnish with bay leaves and peppercorns. Serve with cornichon pickles, pickled onions and toast.

Smoked-Fish Spread
Adapted from Gourmet Magazine

1 lb smoked fish such as trout, mackerel or whitefish fillets, skin and bones removed
1 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, softened
1/3 cup finely chopped shallot
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh dill
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1/2 tsp hot sauce
1/4 tsp freshly cracked black pepper
1 cup cold water

Flake the fish and transfer 2 cups of it to a food processor. Reserve remaining fish. Blend with butter, shallot, dill, lemon juice, hot sauce and pepper until smooth.

With the motor running, add water to the trout puree in a slow stream until it's absorbed- about 1 minute. Transfer to a bowl and fold in the rest of the fish.

Pack the mixture into a 4 cup glass or ceramic mold or bowl. Cover the surface with wax paper and then tightly with plastic wrap. Chill for about 6 hours to allow the flavors to develop. Bring it back to room temperature to serve.

Serve with toast points or whole wheat crackers.


Mr. Pickles

Last weekend, on a visit to Chicago's very own Lit Fest with my cousin, Lauren, I managed to pick up a first edition of The Complete Book of Pickles & Relishes, circa 1965. Leonard Louis Levinson dedicates the book to his mother and "the memory of our spice-scented kitchen at pickling time."

Needless to say, this is an extremely comprehensive book that covers everything from the history of pickling, 324 pages of pickles (or gherkins) relishes, and chutneys from all over the world, advice on how to show your pickles (for blue ribbons of course) and how to preserve a husband. I was particularly interested in the latter and have learned from our dear author that "even the poorest varieties can be made sweet, tender and good by garnishing them with patience, spicing them with smiles and flavoring them with kisses." Good advice to keep in mind!

I must admit that I have a serious soft spot for pickles, relishes and chutneys of all kinds. It may seem old-fashioned, but gifting something in a glass jar has never been cooler. A nice homemade chutney is the perfect gift at the holidays. I simply couldn't live without Branston pickle in the UK, served on granary bread and sharp, mature cheddar. Pickles themselves, in every variety of vegetable, are a weakness of mine. I prefer not to eat a sandwich without a crunchy and tangy pickle by its side.

There is something about the word pickle that conjures up a smile. I have a Christmas ornament in the shape of a pickle and it's my favorite to unwrap every December. Many years ago, I met a dog at a pub in London called Mr. Pickles. He was fabulous. As a small Jack Russell, he had the look of a distinguished gentleman, but his name made me giggle every time I saw him.

This recipe is certainly more of a relish or chutney than a pickle, but I think it's a perfect summer accompaniment to any grilled fish, meat or poultry. If you make enough, you'll have enough for several meals, like I did. I made these aromatic pork burgers and the spicy ginger and chili was perfect with them. I've got some local white fish in the refrigerator for tomorrow night and I'll serve them simply grilled with a dollop of the chutney on the side and some steamed asparagus. Whenever I make grilled cheese sandwiches, whether it's a fancy Gruyere and sauerkraut on dark rye or a Kraft singles version, a side of spicy chutney is a must.

This is adapted from a more modern cook book, but I would suggest before you start doing any pickling, you buy a book like the one above to ensure you understand how to sterilize jars and ultimately avoid a"pickling failure", as the author puts it. No one would want that.

Chile Tomato Chutney
Adapted from Sunny Days & Easy Living by Lindy Wildsmith
Makes 2 cups

2 dried chillies, seeds and all
2 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
2 garlic cloves
2 shallots, peeled and roughly chopped
1/2 cup white wine vinegar
3 x 14 oz whole plum tomatoes, drained, de-seeded and chopped- reserve liquic
1 cup light brown sugar.

In a food processor, finely chop the chillies, ginger, garlic and shallots. Add the vinegar, tomatoes, and sugar into a large heavy saucepan and add the ginger mixture to it.

Bring it slowly to a boil and then simmer over low heat for about 1 1/2 hours until it's reduced by half. Stir if from time to time and if it should dry out too much, add a little of the reserved tomato liquid. Let it cool a little and then spoon it into a sterilized jar and seal it. I put it straight into the refrigerator and it's gone within a week, but it will keep for much longer if properly sealed.

Serve with grilled fish, meat, poultry or these fantastic aromatic pork burgers:

Aromatic Pork Burgers in Pita Bread
Adapted from Sunny Days & Easy Living by Lindy Wildsmith
Serves 4-6

3 slices of white bread
5 tbsp milk
1 3/4 lb ground pork
2 free range eggs
a handful of fresh parsley, finely chooped
4 garlic cloves, crushed
1 tsp ground cinnamon,small pinch of ground cloves
1 tsp ground turmeric
large pinch of ground red pepper
seeds of 4 cardamom pods, crushed
1 tsp sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
olive oil, for brushing

yogurt dressing:
1 cup plain greek yogurt
seeds of 4 cardamom pods, crushed
large pinch of sea salt

Serve with chile tomato chutney, grilled pita bread and shredded iceberg lettuce

Make the yogurt dressing by combining yogurt, crushed cardamom seeds and salt. Mix well.

Soak the bread in the milk for about 10 minutes until soft, then squeeze the bread with your ands until almost dry. In a bowl, combine the bread, ground pork, eggs, parsley, garlic, spices, salt and plenty of pepper. Mix well, but just until combined so it does not make the meat tough. Let the mix stand for 60 minutes. Shape the mix into 12 patties, cover and refrigerate until you're ready to grill.

Brush each pattie with a little olive oil and preheat a hot grill or barbecue. Grill for 20 minutes, turning from time to time to avoid burning. Make sure the burgers are cooked through, cutting into them and ensuring that they are not pink inside.

When the burgers are finished, top with a spoonful of chutney and serve with grilled pita breads filled with shredded lettuce and yogurt dressing.


Deja vu

I think there's something about living in a climate that is so brutally cold in the winter that makes you appreciate your springs and summers that much more. In Chicago, I never feel spoiled by the warmth, but grateful as soon as that last snow melts. This evening, I turned on the TV for tonight's evening news only to met with a certain deja vu. Randomly, severely clouded map of the UK flashed onto the screen with an ever-so-cheery weather woman droning on about the week's grim outlook. For a moment, I was back in London, thankful to be experiencing highs in the 60F range mid-summer while the rest of the country sank into the 50's range.

I'm not sure which I prefer, but living in Chicago with its extreme shifts in climate at least make for a more predictable barbecue season. I know I've droned on about barbecues in the past, but to me, there are endless possibilities when presented with hot coals.

Homemade barbecue sauce is definitely a great place to start. No matter what anyone tells you, nothing out of a jar can beat a sauce from scratch. I find most sauces from the jar are way to sweet and I like mine with certain kick. Last summer, our upstairs neighbor hand-delivered two different batches of ribs with a very special "secret sauce." The sauce was perfectly tangy and I'm planning on prying the recipe from Larry over a few glasses of wine at our summer party.

Here's a barbecue sauce you can tamper with on two levels. Firstly, choose your meat of choice: free range chicken - spatchcocked or cut into joints, or leg of lamb-on the bone, or pork ribs. Secondly, as with any barbecue sauce, you can play with the spices to get the perfect amount of kick for your taste buds. I added red chillies to mine.

I won't tell you how to barbecue all the above type meats- you can ask your favorite grill master for some tips. Start with this sauce and your more than half way there.

Homemade Barbecue Sauce
Adapted from Jamie at Home by Jamie Oliver

1 heaped tsp cumin seeds
2 tbsp fennel seeds
5 cloves
2 red chillies, seeded and minced,
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
a bunch of fresh thyme, leaves picked and chopped
a bunch of fresh rosemary, leaves picked and chopped, a few sprigs reserved
zest and juice of 1 large orange
1 bulb of garlic, broken into cloves and peeled and finely chopped
4 heaped tsp sweet smoked paprika
3/4 cup tomato ketchup
8 tbsp olive oil
10 bay leaves

Grind the cumin seeds, fennel seeds and cloves in a pestle and mortar with some salt and pepper. Combine the chopped thyme leaves, rosemary leaves, chillies, garlic, orange zest and orange juice. Mix with the spices and add the rest of the ingredients. Stir together and leave over night, if possible, in your refrigerator. Rub your chosen meat all over with the marinade and place in a snug fitting dish. Again, leave it covered, in the refrigerator and overnight if possible.

You can bake your meat first and then finish it off over hot coals. This prevents any issue of asking each other over and over again, "do you think it's done yet??" and any potential food poisoning.

Good luck and get grilling!