Thursday, 28 February 2013

Pow Pow your Dinner

As a vegetarian, I have to admit that all the outrage over horse meat being found where only beef should be leaves me a bit baffled as to what the fuss is all about.

In Italy and France, horse meat is a speciality item and the shops who sell it in France are called Boucheries Chevalines. In a weird, ironic twist, the UK's Guardian newspaper reports that they've been doing a booming business recently since the horse meat scandal broke.

I agree that if you're told you're getting beef and you get horse meat instead, you're the victim of deception and fraud but it seems to me that both horses and cows would be equally fine to eat.

I've been a vegetarian for 36 years so the idea of eating animals seems a bit odd to me in the first place, especially when there are so many other good things to eat.  One thing's for sure, If I were to eat meat these days, I'd want to be sure of where it came from.  I think I'd either hunt it, raise it myself, or drive out to a farm and point out to the farmer which animal I'd like to buy. 

I find the large scale killing of animals in commercial slaughterhouses undeniably disturbing as I think even most meat eaters would, but I'm quite OK with the killing of animals for food when it's done on a small scale and in a humane and traditional way.

I have two stories to tell you about that...

Years ago, Hubby and I rented a beautiful villa in Tuscany in a tiny town called Cotto.  The population swelled to 11 when we arrived but the number of ginger coloured cats remained at 5 for the duration of our stay.

It was Easter weekend and over the Easter holiday, Italians traditionally eat lamb.

Early one morning, I think it was Saturday, we heard a big commotion outside our dining room window.  Curious about what all the fuss was about, we pushed opened the shutters to see that a small crowd had  gathered below along with a few of Cotto's village cats.

It seems that our side yard was the village's abattoir.  Instead of recoiling, I watched for a while as the butcher skilfully and quickly gutted and skinned the lamb while it was dangling from a sturdy pole made from a branch.

After some time had passed, the small crowd dispersed along with the cats, but I continued to watch the butcher at work with an odd mixture of distaste and fascination.  I imagined that every Easter, the same scene has been taking place on the same spot for generations.  The serene setting, the presence of the villagers and the gentle but skilful way the butcher was dealing with the lamb all seemed quite natural to me.  Perhaps more importantly, it seemed to be done with respect.  I doubt much of that lamb was wasted.

Fast forward from Spring in Tuscany to Fall in Imperia, where we were hiking with friends in the rolling hills east and inland from Monaco.

After our hike to the top of the mountain, we made our way back to the village and  halfway down, we came across a hunter standing by the side of the road with a huge, dead, wild boar.  He'd just shot it in the forest and dragged it to the roadside where he was waiting for friends to arrive to help him haul the beast back to the village in the valley below.

When I pulled out my camera and asked to take a photo, he smiled and proudly lifted the boar's head so that they could both be in the picture.
When we got back in the village, it was evidently a good day for hunting wild boar.

A group of hunters had arrived before us and had started to gut the wild boar while the villagers and a few dogs had gathered to watch the gory action.

While we watched, I got the feeling that much like the abattoir in Cotto, hunting wild boar and gutting them in the village was a tradition that had been taking place for centuries.  I imagine the meat was destined for the dinner table that night and what was left was headed for grateful friends and the freezer.

Both of these encounters were by chance and both times I struggled with what I was seeing as anyone would, I think, carnivore or not.

But in both cases it was a simple, timeless, communal process and ultimately, traceable.

I don't know about you but I'm quite OK with that.

Video of the hunters discussing their hunt (in Italian)

Monday, 25 February 2013

Cornmeal Madeleine with Lemon and Olive Oil

Menton's 80th Annual Fête du Citron or Lemon Festival is in full swing but it's been unusually rainy and cold outside so instead of taking part in the lemony fun, I'm cocooning inside and this requires good quality carbs like Madeleine.

I've flavoured these Madeleine with the fruity olive oil from Menton's own Huilerie St Michel and lemon zest, two flavours that are emblematic of Menton.

And the cornmeal?  Menton is on the border with Italy where polenta is popular and also I happen to love cornmeal.

To prepare these Madeleine you'll use the sponge method similar to making a genoiseDon't panic!  It's easy to do so don't let that prevent you from making them.  Trust me, it'll be worth the extra effort.  The sponge method and a long chill in the fridge will produce a tender, light, delicious Madeline with a high hump on one side which all the best Madeleine should have. 

Cornmeal Madeleine with Lemon and Olive Oil

Makes 12 large or 24 mini Madeleine 

375°F (190°c) 
11 Minutes for large Madeleine
7  Minutes for mini Madeleine

Madeline pan with 12 large indents OR 2 Madeleine pans with 12 small indents each
Hand held or stand mixer
Pastry brush
Bain Marie or double boiler
Pastry bag or plastic freezer bag

2        large eggs
72g    (1/3 cup) granulated sugar

40g    (1/4 cup) medium-grind cornmeal (not instant polenta)
140g  (1 cup) sifted all purpose flour
8g      (2 teaspoons) baking powder
1/4     teaspoon salt

Zest of one lemon

35g    (35ml) 2% milk
50g    (50ml) olive oil

1 tablespoon each of softened butter and flour for greasing the Madeleine pan

1.  Mix together the cornmeal, flour, baking powder and salt.  Set aside.

2.  Prepare the sponge.  Combine the eggs and sugar in a large bowl or the bowl of your KitchenAid if you have one.  Set the bowl over a saucepan of simmering water and stir the mixture until the sugar melts and it feels just warm to the touch.  Remove the bowl from the saucepan and whip the mixture on high until it triples in volume and is pale yellow and very thick.

3.  Prepare the batter.  Sprinkle one third of the flour mixture on top of the sponge and gently fold together until it's almost completely incorporated.  Stir in half of the milk, and mix in the remaining flour mixture in two additions.  Stir in the lemon zest.   When the mixture is smooth and all of the flour is incorporated, gently stir in the olive oil until it's fully incorporated.

4.  Chill the batter.  Cover the bowl with plastic film and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes for up to 3 hours. In the meantime, prepare your pan(s).
5. Brush the indentations with the tablespoon of softened butter, sprinkle with flour to coat thoroughly and tap out the excess.

6.  Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°c).

7.  Scoop the mixture into a piping bag or a plastic freezer storage bag and snip the tip to a little wider than width of your thumb.

8.  Pipe the batter into each of the indentations.  Starting with the tip at the wide end of the indentation squeeze the batter evenly until you reach the small end of the indentation.  When you reach the small end, stop squeezing the bag and pull it up and away from you, back towards the wide end of the indentation.  It's OK to leave a little tip sticking up.

9.  Bake the Madeleine.  Ideally, they should be no darker than light brown.
10.  To remove the Madeleine, tap the pan, Madeleine side down, over a tea towel.  The
Madeleine should fall out easily.  Allow them to cool on the towel with the hump side facing up.

-A fruity olive oil is best in this recipe.  Fructus by Ardoino is one that would work well.

-You can use any grind of cornmeal in this recipe but medium will give you the best texture.  Just don't use instant polenta or your Madeleine will be heavy and dense.
-If you don't have a piping bag you can use a large plastic freezer bag instead.  Just spoon the batter into the bag, cut a hole the same width as your thumb in one corner and squeeze away.

-Be careful not to overheat the egg mixture when you're warming it or you'll get scrambled eggs!

-If you prefer, you can replace the olive oil with a more traditional beurre noisetteYou'll need about 80g of butter to make 56g (2.5 ounces) of beurre noisette.

 -Don't over mix the batter. Treat it gently as though you were making muffins.

-Keep your eye on the Madeleine for the last few minutes of baking.  Remove them before they start to brown.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Ugly is Beautiful. The Organic Farmers' Market at Mei Foo

Of all the Farmers' Markets I've visited around the globe, and there have been many, the setting for the Mei Foo Farm Fest in Hong Kong has to be the ugliest.

The neighbourhood of Mei Foo was built during the mid '60's to late '70's on reclaimed land that was formerly petroleum storage for Exxon Mobil so already we're in trouble.

The market is beside an inter-city bus station, under a noisy, concrete highway overpass, surrounded by chain link fence and hemmed in by 99 water- streaked high rise towers, most of them a lifeless grey. To top it all off, the day we visited, the air was thick with pollution making it a bit difficult to take a deep breath.

And yet, of the three organic farmers' markets I've visited in Hong Kong, Mei Foo was the largest with the widest variety of fresh fruit and veg, dry goods and cosmetics. 

The interesting thing was that once we started to wander through the market, engaging with the vendors and seeing all the lovely things they had on offer, the ugliness of the surroundings disappeared.  Even though only two or three of the 25 or so vendors spoke English, everyone was generous with samples and happy to let me take photos. 
Eggfruit.  Something strange and new

We tasted eggfruit or pouteria for the first time.  Its outer flesh was yellow but inside was an orange-coloured interior with a pasty texture that tasted like cooked pumpkin even though it was raw.

If I'd had a kitchen available, I'd have stuffed my bags with fruit and veg, all of which were fresh, robust looking and quite cheap.

Instead, we settled for some sweet, fresh strawberries, a few star fruit with a deep and complex taste that I've never experienced from star fruit before, some freeze dried strawberries that I intend to grind to a powder and sprinkle on vanilla ice cream and of course a few of the strange eggfruit.

I learned something from my visit to Mei Foo that day.  Even surrounded by ugliness you can find beauty.  

If you do go, and I think you should if you have the chance, it's easy to get to.  Take the MTR's Tsuen Wan Line to Mei Foo and take Exit B.  

When you reach daylight, go west and follow the Lai Chi Kok Road that runs parallel to the Kwai Chung overpass that will be on your right.  

A few minutes along the Lai Chi Kok Road, under the overpass you'll find the market and you'll see the vendors' tables draped in green.

For further adventures, continue on the Lai Chi Kok Road and you'll reach the Mei Foo wet market that's worth a look too.

The Mei Foo (美孚) Farm Fest
Sundays from 11am to 5pm

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

IKEA Hong Kong

Throughout the 1990s, dear friend Barb and I had a pinky swear arrangement about IKEA and it went something like this:  if either of us were planning to go, we had to phone the other in case the other wanted to tag along.

It was a pleasant arrangement and even if neither of us really needed anything, it was fun to yack in the car en route and have some girl time.

Last week during our annual jaunt to Hong Kong, Hubby and I happened to be in a semi-industrial neighbourhood called Kowloon Bay.  I was there to take a pottery class and while Hubby was navigating our way to the class, high up on the side of a big bright red building l spotted a giant IKEA sign, shimmering in the distance.  I could barely concentrate on the class, thinking about going over there after the class and imagining what sorts of interesting goodies I'd find there.

I've been to IKEA in Genoa, Italy, (disorganized and dirty) Toulon, France, (poorly lit with indifferent staff) and Ottawa, Canada, (tidy with polite staff) so I just had to know how the Hong Kong IKEA was different from others. 

Out front, three jacketed staff were directing traffic and serving as crossing guards, keeping the huge Saturday crowds and endless parade of taxis under control. Every few minutes, full sized buses with IKEA logos and painted in IKEA colours picked up passengers who were queued neatly in long lines just outside the entrance.

Like other IKEAs I'd been to, it was enormous but this IKEA was even bigger, housed on two floors of a massive shopping and entertainment complex called Mega Box.  In the Mega Box were super-sized stores selling everything for the home and some typical mall shops thrown in for good measure. For entertainment, there was a massive skating rink, an IMAX theatre, a 747 jet flight simulation centre and numerous restaurants. They even had a baby weighing service!

Once inside, I headed straight for the cafeteria or at least I tried to. Like other IKEAs, this one was like a rat maze and I couldn't just go directly where I wanted to.  This is something I've never liked about IKEA.  It's one of my retail pet peeves along with escalators that don't line up.

I went with the flow, literally, and wound through all the departments that were well staffed and neatly stacked with merchandise that was the same as all other IKEAs. 

Other than tea cups, place mats, some product descriptions in both Chinese and English and all the Chinese customers, you'd never have known you were in an IKEA in Hong Kong.  

When I finally got to the cafeteria, it was huge, packed, and the food was incredibly cheap. It was also crazy busy. The most popular item? Ten Swedish Meatballs with either noodles or potatoes that cost about €2 or $2.60 CDN.  Every second or third person's tray had a plate of that. I was expecting to see everyone using chopsticks but I was surprised to see everyone using a knife and fork.

I joined the cafeteria line that moved very quickly and being veg, I bought some "low sugar" soy milk that was both delicious and cheap.  Afterwards, I fought my way back to the entrance.

I'm glad I popped in and even though it wasn't as different as I was hoping, it was still part of the grand adventure that is Hong Kong.

I wonder what the IKEA Tokyo is like?  Hmm...

Apologies to Barb.  I forgot to call you! 

The Menu.  Prices are in Hong Kong Dollars.  Ten dollars is about €1 or $1.30 CDN

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Goodbye Dragon, Hello Snake

Having just returned from Hong Kong, you'd never have guessed the year of the snake was on its way unless you were really looking for snakes.

Last year was the year of the dragon, and we saw dragons everywhere:  posters,  displays, cakes, cookies, jewellery, t-shirts.  This year, nothing.  Aside from a few posters and a few retail window displays here and there, you'd never know the lunar new year was a week away.  

Some of the shopping malls created huge, elaborate panda displays that were always crowded with people jostling to have their photos taken with the pandas.  I'm told that having your photo taken with a panda brings one peace and good fortune in the coming year.

Lucky mayhem at the panda display
I asked a Chinese friend of mine where all the snakes were and she didn't really have an explanation other than it was still rather early to start the festivities.  I noticed she had shifty eyes when she said this.  Hmm.  I sensed a snake denial conspiracy.  During the week, Hubby and I heard the same songs over and over again piped in to some of the shops, probably the Chinese equivalent to Frosty the Snowman, a sure sign that the season was in full swing.
Found them!  The menu at Spring Moon, the reptile and amphibian section
As it turns out, the Year of the Snake has not had a good rap in the past.  The 9/11 attacks in the United States in 2001, The Great Depression (1929) and in 1989, the Tiananmen Square horror all took place in the year of the Snake.

Luckily 2013 is a water snake year and the others were not.  

According to my handy Chinese Astrology book for 2013, water snake years are supposed to be good for "occupying one's self with physical appearances, mending faulty communications and beginning hot, new romances."  Sounds quite promising! 

If you're a rooster, dog, or an ox, you're in for a good year.  If you're a horse, monkey, rat, rabbit, or dragon, your year will be an average one.  If you're a pig, goat, tiger, or a snake, you're in for a rough year. Here's a link to figure out which sign you are.  Since I'm a pig, I'm preparing for the worst.  Luckily, Hubby is a dog.

Personally, I enjoy celebrating the Lunar New Year no matter what the symbolism.  

It gives me a chance to revise all of those resolutions from January 1st.

Happy new year everyone!

Is it 2014 yet?
Gold snakes