Monthly Archives: December 2009

Saucy!

Christmas always brings a bit of a conundrum for those of us non-meat eaters. At least according to the American traditions with which I was raised, Turkey and mashed potatoes is Thanksgiving fare only, while Christmas Eve was meatballs and gravy with mashed potatoes and Christmas Day was baked ham with mashed potatoes and gravy. (My maternal grandmother, it has to be said, had a particular skill in that she could make ham gravy: not a trivial thing. Required an uncooked ham with a ham bone and probably some secrets and a lot of practice. And it tasted fantastic, almost a little sweet thanks to the pineapple rings on the ham.) Sense a theme here? Mashed potatoes and gravy. As both of my grandmothers know/knew, my absolute favorite food. And a bit tricky when the non-meat-eating thing came up with me, almost 15 years ago. These days, there are options: you can get Tofurky gravy, you can get other sorts of vegetarian gravies in packets. But they’re not truly great. Fortunately there is a secret: onions or shallots, mushrooms, and fortified wine, such as tawny port or Marsala wine. With this killer combination you can make not only gravy but also things like stroganoff, another old family favorite. I have been trying to perfect some of these recipes with all of the holiday events, and I’m happy to say that I’ve got it about down. The stroganoff is trickier due to the delicate nature of milk based sauces, so I’m not quite ready with that one yet, but should you ever have a vegetarian around for a mashed potato themed meal, I can just about guarantee this one.

Cook an onion and a few shallots in olive oil plus a tablespoon or two of butter over medium heat until golden. Add salt and pepper generously at this stage. Add a few handfuls of mushrooms, roughly chopped, I like criminis but sometimes do a mix. Cook until the mushrooms have rendered down in size and are starting to stick to the pan. Deglaze with 1/2-1 cup of fortified wine and cook that down. Add a few tablespoons of flour and mix well, cook the roux-like paste for a few more minutes before adding any liquid. Add 1.5-2 cups of vegetable broth or stock, and a few squirts of either veggie Worcestershire sauce (made without anchovies) or soy sauce to taste. Cook over medium-low heat stirring constantly until thickened.

If my instructions are too hand-waving, find a copy of this book “New Vegetarian,” which is the best veggie cookbook I’ve ever seen and which has a gravy recipe in it (although I dispute her method, the ingredients are similar and the quantities should help for those who like to measure things).

It is because of recipes like this that I will continue to be furious at the French chef who caters dinners that I attend regularly, and who thinks (like many non-vegetarians) that meat should be replaced by starch and tomato sauce should go on anything. I’ve made this gravy twice in the last two weeks, first served with vegetarian Quorn meatballs (Quorn is the only common brand of veggie meat-substitute products easily available in the UK; there is no Boca or Morningstar, sadly!) and mashed potatoes, and the second time with whole portobello mushroom caps with polenta and blue cheese crumbles. Excellent both times, so something for everyone–those who love and loathe the meat substitute products. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve really got to master that Stroganoff recipe.

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On travel

If you are an expat, you travel internationally by definition. I get back to the US a few times a year, both for work and for play, and I also go to other interesting places (Australia, Singapore last year and China in a few short months) again for a combination of work and play. So nothing makes my heart drop into my gut like a new round of “increased security measures” for international air travel, especially to the US. There has been plenty written on the subject, both before and since the most recent triggering event. Most of what happens in reality is nothing more than “security theater” and manages to punish innocent travelers without catching the bad guys. On my last trip into the US I was selected for random screening of the sort that they are now doing for everyone leaving the UK for the US–pat down, shoes removed a second time, carry-on bag hand-searched. At the time, I muttered an off-hand comment about how this was worse than in the US, where I have never had to remove and replace my shoes twice in two different locations prior to boarding a plane. The defensive BA employee noted that it was the “US requiring these random searches” and of course that is the case currently. Of course, I’ve had particularly bad timing in the past and been right in the midst of strange new rules. Back in the aftermath of the 2006 liquid bomb plot, when I was returning to the US after my UK job interview I almost lost my shoes: as in, the airline nearly confiscated them. They were sandals with heavy bottoms (I can’t recall if they were Doc Martens or Chacos but it was one of the two) and the airline employee kept lifting them a foot off the ground and then dropping them, over and over. To this day I don’t know what she thought, but my barefoot self learned an important lesson standing there, and I have never again flown in sandals. On that same trip I had to check my DSLR camera and laptop, which was an altogether uncomfortable experience as well.

The frustrating thing is that this latest event should have looked suspicious and been queried for reasons that had nothing to do with the new “security measures”–buying a plane ticket with cash for a two week trip abroad with no luggage? Seriously, people, that didn’t raise any red flags at all? Scary. Of course, having just passed through the Orlando, Florida airport I spotted all sorts of amazing and crazy things, mostly in the form of excessive and bulky carry-on luggage, shopping bags, and people who clearly never travel and had no idea how to comply with current security requirements. The Orlando airport did not have the new expert traveler lines working due to overcrowding, but eventually that might help those of us who know the drill and never travel with more than one carry-on and one suitcase, no matter what the trip.

I did not travel internationally prior to 9/11, so I don’t know how different it was back in the golden age before security theater increased in prominence. And my good friend Kat posted a scary premonition of where we might end up. It does feel that way–oddly naked in public, when you are stumbling through the magnetometer stocking footed, with no jacket or sweater and holding up your trousers because the belt is on the x-ray line. I try to roll my eyes and get on with it, accepting this as just another pain in the arse that comes with the many positive adventures of a life spent far from the place of my birth. And I am fully aware of the overall risks of air travel, and how they compare to other modes of transport. And I do willingly take on those risks by flying much more than the average person. But it is entirely true that when I have a bad day, and I’m drawing up my list of pros and cons of living in the UK, you can bet the security theater of flying from Heathrow back to the US ranks fairly high on the list of cons. And it just got a whole lot worse this week.

Dear So-and-so, Christmas edition

Dear blog and other internet/computer friends,

Sorry I’ve been largely away from the internet for the last 10 days or so. Sometimes life is like that, and I actually get the chance to hang out with live humans. I was at a conference that was like a family reunion, and admittedly in that case the people in computer suffer from a lack of my attentions. Being sick while away also did not help, as sleeping to try and recover decreased what little free time I had. But don’t worry, I’m back!

I still love you all, NFAH


Dear Americans in Florida,

Wow, I truly had no idea morbid obesity was so popular. Most of the time when I’m in America I only ever see normal-sized people who can shop in typical mall stores. Now I see where a random visitor from Europe might get a strange idea of what Americans look like.

Feeling skinny after that experience, NFAH


Dear Howard,

I saw lots of American tourists in Florida. None of them were dressed the way you said in your previous comment. There were two clear themes though, especially for the females: enormous and unflattering mom jeans, and velour track suits. Neither a particularly good look.

Fashionably yours, NFAH


Dear “I’ll be Home for Christmas” people,

This–current travel chaos in the East, West and most of Europe with the Midwest about to go down–is why I think travel for “fun” at Christmas is not so fun. There’s the Norman Rockwell dreams and the stranded in airport reality. And for me, the reality is just a little too real.

Practically yours, NFAH


Dear readers,

Happiest of holidays to you and yours, wherever you are. I plan on cooking up a storm and perhaps sharing any cooking adventures, and I’ll look forward to reading about all of your holiday exploits as well.

Peace and joy, NFAH


Dear so-and-so, procrastination edition

Dear Self,

You have had a serious procrastination problem this week. All rage will thusly be directed inwards.

I’m only trying to help, NFAH


Dear Self,

Stop going to bed so late. You know you’re not going to want to get up. The internet is really not that interesting, not compared with sleep.

It’s like I’m a naughty 13 year old again, NFAH


Dear Self,

You set your self a goal to get to the gym 8 times in a certain period. You made it 5 times. Better than 0, but not as good as 8.

Things still need to improve, NFAH


Dear Self,

I know some of the work that needs to be done is remarkably boring. That goes for housework too. But you still have to do it, just buckle down and get it over with. These little bursts of energy and inspiration to do things at 10 pm are nice, but are contributing to the “not wanting to go to bed problem”… just work normal hours like a normal person and go to sleep on time.

Tired of the “living alone means there are no rules” syndrome, NFAH


Dear Self,

I know you just found out that your ex-husband got re-married, but really stop writing about him. That was a long time ago, and you don’t actually miss him or feel nostalgic.

(Shaking head at self in disgust), NFAH


Dear Self,

You do realize you have to be in a car on the way to a plane in just under 12 hours and you’re not packed. Stop writing Dear So-and-So letters and go to bed!

You’ll thank me in the morning, NFAH


Ahh winter

There was a massive winter storm in Minnesota this week, and people are just starting to dig out. Funny that, it makes me nostalgic. I don’t miss the realities of Minnesota winters, but I do miss the romance! I lived most of my pre-England life in really snowy places (Minnesota and Michigan) and when the Christmas songs start playing, I start dreaming of a white Christmas. Even though I am almost never in a white Christmas kind of place these days. Last year in Australia I was definitely not in that place, and I quite enjoyed the cognitive dissonance of being in a sunny clime over the holidays. And seeing a gigantic Christmas Pelican with presents in its beak. And eating Christmas dinner outside by the pool, with freshly grilled fish as the centerpiece.

Now I’m heading for Florida, and I’m guessing there will not be a white Christmas there. I don’t miss the realities of it all, and I quite like that my window is open to air out my flat here in England where it’s been quite temperate. But Christmas really is the season of nostalgia, isn’t it? Dreaming of idyllic childhood holidays and happy times. Bing Crosby dreams and all of that. For this, I think the most appropriate thing I could say is in the lyrics of the Tori Amos song ‘Winter’ which was also my ex-husband’s favorite song of this season. He loved the part about putting hands into the father’s glove. I love this part:

When you gonna make up your mind

When you gonna love you as much as I do

When you gonna make up your mind

Cause things are gonna change so fast

Things do change, so fast. When I was with the ex whose song this was, I had never been to Europe. I’ve now been living in the UK for nearly 10% of my life, which is a scary thing to contemplate. And I’m relatively settled, I have plans for the future and they don’t involve much but continuing on with my current plans and existence. I will have to deal with an application for residency in the next 1.5 years, and I will have to continue to work hard and live up to my foreigner status as a net contributor to the UK economy.

But I’m sure I’ll always feel nostalgic for snow at this time of year, even when I know that a storm such as the one that hit Minnesota would bring my life here to a standstill. I don’t miss owning a house in Minnesota. I don’t miss shoveling the driveway. I don’t miss worrying about parking when Snow Emergencies are declared. What I do miss is the beauty of the snow, the break in time that takes place when things shut down because the weather really is that bad. So I guess I have to learn here in the UK to take a break and enjoy life, Christmas, and the whole thing.

Dear so-and-so, random rage edition

Ooh twice in one week, I’m on fire!


Dear Bicyclists who ride straight at me when I’m walking to the gym,

It seems so easy to me. The pavement is split in half with a white line and even a ridge down the middle. There is a picture of a pedestrian painted every few meters on one side of the line, and a picture of a bicyclist painted next to it every few meters on the other side. So why the £%&(^%$ do I keep having to jump out of your way when I’m walking on the pedestrian side?

Thinking if you can’t figure this out maybe you shouldn’t be riding a bike in public, NFAH


Dear hopeless French chef,

I know you disagree with the concept of being a vegetarian or pescetarian, but do you even try the food you prepare for us? I’m guessing not, because tomato and basil sauce on roasted parsnips really did set a new low.

Unapologetically not about to start eating game and thus destined to leave dinner hungry, NFAH


Dear Brits around me who have lived abroad,

You continue to amaze and amuse me with your comments about Britain and the British, which often voice things that I dare not utter myself.

Increasingly serious that living abroad should be a requirement for a University degree, NFAH


Dear recently unfollowed Twitter peeps,

You can’t say you weren’t warned. (See previous Dear so-and-so for details)

Apparently more snarky than ever, NFAH


Dear ladies with science PhDs who are some of my favorite people in the world,

I am SO looking forward to seeing you at the conference next week in an undisclosed sunny location. I suspect that you can tell from all of this rage that I could really use a break from my current surroundings.

In anticipation, NFAH


This year’s party effort

Following up on the success of last year’s Christmas party for my group from work, I did it again. A few things were different. First, the gauntlet had been laid down over the bake-off, so as you saw earlier this week I made Krumkake. Let’s just say they were a hit. I have 9 cookies remaining, after having made literally dozens. Given the fact that there were 10 people at this little soiree, and I did not have any once I started seeing how popular they were, I think the team averaged 4-5 eaten cookies each! Second, I also cooked something hot in addition to providing cheese and crackers (all American ones, Triscuits, Club and Saltines, from my cracker bounty!) and nibblies. When I was in the US last summer with one of my colleagues, she had remarked after several different hot dips at restaurants that she loved them and did not remember having seen them on British menus nearly as often as they appeared in American restaurants. So I made (what I thought was) an enormous vat of crab and artichoke dip (think three packages of cream cheese and four containers of crab meat to get the scope of the scale of this thing) and I swear they left nothing behind, the entire thing went–and quickly! Finally, in addition to my contribution to the bake-off, one of the temporary visitors to the group offered to make and bring a Tiramisu. We nearly polished that off too. (I swear, I am am not a slave driver and I have no idea why they were all so hungry!) The best, though, was when people discovered that the hollow centers of the Krumkake were the perfect place to put the Tiramisu. Like me, my team is largely made up of expats and so clearly this sort of fusion had broad appeal!

Photos of the before and after:

(The dip was not out of the oven, nor had the Tiramisu arrived yet).

The Christmas miracle was that I ended up with more and better wine than I started with. Aside from a few generous creatures bringing a bottle each, one of the gang found an import wine merchant that had oaky Californian Chardonnay and brought me 6 bottles! Enjoying a lovely glass now… Happy Friday Night!