Abandon all hope, ye who enter here

…because once you see this dinner you will have no choice but to run out and make it NOW!

When our flatmates go out for the day, Ben and I have taken to cooking large hunks of meat because no one is here to complain or wrinkle their nose at us. I got a pork roast on sale at the grocery store and it was large enough for us to make two meals. Meal one: taco salad with carnitas and black beans, but that’s another story. This post is about meal two, which was wholly awesome and elicited much praise from my other half. Meal two was barbecue pulled pork ciabattas with creamy slaw and oven friend potatoes. Yes, I made the barbecue sauce. I’ve never made barbecue sauce before so I looked at a bunch of recipes online and decided to go with the simplest one. Bad news: it ended up tasting like mildly seasoned ketchup (to be fair, that’s pretty much what it was). So I threw a bunch more stuff in there, to bring it more in line with some other recipes and ended up with something altogether very tasty. I poured it over the leftover shredded pork and threw it into the oven, half covered, to reheat while I set about toasting the ciabatta rolls and making the creamy slaw. The slaw dressing was basically an adaptation of my favorite potato salad recipe with which Ben and I have become rather obsessed lately. I love it because it uses yogurt in place of some of the mayo, so I can pretend that it’s moderately healthy. As a hint, I never keep buttermilk in my fridge (if I did I’d end up making scones every other day, bad idea!) so instead I use regular ole’ cow juice but add in about a teaspoon of white vinegar which causes it to thicken and sour slightly.

oh baby.

Barbecue Sauce
liberally adapted from Real Simple
1 cup ketchup
1/4 cup cider vinegar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 T Dijon mustard
1 T chili powder
1 T paprika
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp black pepper

Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan and whisk thoroughly. Heat gently and cook until sauce thickens, stirring frequently, about 5-10 minutes. Beware molten hot splashes! Remove from heat and use as needed. I hear this will keep several weeks in a clear jar in the fridge. Makes about 1 1/2 cups

Creamy Slaw
inspired by this dressing
2 T lowfat plain yogurt
2 T mayo
2 T buttermilk or a scant 2 T regular milk plus 1 tsp vinegar
1 tsp honey
1 shallot, minced
large pinch kosher salt
fresh black pepper to taste (I like lots!)
1 1/2 cups Napa or other cabbage, shredded
3/4 cup radishes, shredded
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped

Whisk dressing ingredients together and refrigerate at at least 30 minutes to allow flavors to get acquainted. In a large bowl, pour dressing over veg and toss to combine. Adjust salt and pepper to taste but remember: too much salt will make your slaw wilt and there’s nothing sadder than limp slaw.

Oven Fried Potatoes
This is one of those recipes I can’t really write out because I typically just throw it together without thinking. It goes something like this: wash and dry as many small new potatoes as you think you’ll eat. Cut them into manageable pieces. Toss with enough olive oil to give them a good sheen, then sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake in a hot oven (I crank our up as high as it will go, about 475F) until they are golden brown and delicious. This can be anywhere from 15-40 minutes depending on the size of your pieces. I typically flip them after 15 and check for doneness, then play it by ear. Mmm.

I grant you permission to buy your buns. Not even I go that far when I’m already making three other things!

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I have gotten seriously bored of the usual things I cook, so I’ve been trolling through my recipes bookmarks, looking for something new and exciting. I think I might be getting a bit too snobby though, because lately all the new recipes I’ve tried haven’t lived up to my expectations, despite their reputable sources. First there was the big crumb coffee cake (too much crumb, not enough rhubarb). Then another rhubarb experiment-The Minimalist’s rhubarb crisp (too much cinnamon in the topping, too much sugar overall). I took one bite and instantly knew what I would do differently if I ever made it again. My mom will offer this as final proof that I am picky and particular, I prefer to think I have a sophisticated palate. But I am worried I’ll turn into one of those people who has to do everything themselves because no one else does it well enough. Though I don’t think anyone will ever best my dad on peanut butter toast, he really knows how to cover those corners.

Ben and I have been watching Top Chef Masters and it’s funny to listen to the judges try to nitpick every little thing about the food, which is by all accounts exemplary in every aspect. The competitors are all established award-winning chefs so finding fault with their work should be a difficult task. Then Ben wondered aloud if people whose job it is to pick something apart can ever really just sit back and eat something and enjoy it, and that made me start to worry about my future.

Well tonight I tackled another Minimalist recipe, this one for arepas, which are a kind of Venezuelan corn cake or corn fritter. Think latkes but with cornmeal, corn kernels and green onions. I planned to fry these up and top them with black beans, roasted red peppers, pico and yogurt (sour cream’s low-cal cousin) but there were a couple bumps along the way. Mainly, although I followed the recipe to a T, the batter it produced was unworkably wet. Which is hilarious because in the accompanying video Mark Bittman stresses that the important thing is the liquid to cornmeal ratio, which I had presumed he’d already worked out for my benefit in the recipe. Sadly, the recipe as it is written does not work. I stared at the mess in the bowl for 30 seconds, like it was that disappointing 5th grade lab experiment where my sugar crystals never grew. The batter I ended up with was more akin to corn chowder than pliable dough, and though I added a bit more than 1/4 cup of extra cornmeal I still didn’t get the desired texture. I decided not to add any more for fear of ruining the flavor of the arepas and opted to risk disfiguring burns by dolloping the batter into the pan rather than try and mold it into patties. Maybe it’s me and I’m using some crazy weird European cornmeal, but since the package says ingredients: stone-ground corn I’m going to guess the problem lies not with myself. So I would suggest starting out with 1/2 cup milk and then adding more if needed, depending on your particular cornmeal. Despite looking unweildly in the bowl, the batter actually cooked up really well. All in all this was a delicious meal, with the corn and roasted peppers adding wonderful sweet bits to the earthy beans and fresh pico. Next time I might try a sharper cheddar (what’s known as mature here) to get some real punch in there for contrast. The arepas are easy-if you can make a pancake you can make arepas-and a one-bowl affair (easy clean-up, you’re welcome Mom!). They would also be great topped with grilled veggies or meat instead of the beans.

Arepas with Corn and Cheddar
adapted from Mark Bittman at the NYTimes
1 cup yellow cornmeal, finely ground
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup grated Cheddar cheese
1/2 cup sweet corn kernels (I used frozen ones and thawed them first)
1/4 cup chopped scallions
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 small serrano or jalapeño chili, seeded and minced, optional
1/2 cup milk
1 tablespoon butter
corn, canola, grapeseed or other neutral oil for frying the arepas

Combine cornmeal, salt, cheese, corn kernels, scallions, cilantro and chili in a bowl. Melt the butter in the milk (I did this in the microwave) and add to the dry ingredients, stirring to combine. Add a bit more milk, if necessary, until your batter is a bit like wet bread dough. Allow to sit 5-10 minutes during which time it should firm up a bit and resemble a corn version of meatloaf mix, if that makes sense. Scoop out batter and form into patties about 1/2 inch thick. Add a few tablespoons of oil to a hot skillet and cook patties over medium-high heat until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Flip and cook an additional 3 minutes. Makes eight arepas.

Black Beans
my own recipe
1 cup dried black beans
1 cup onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 T vegetable oil
1 tsp salt
1 tsp dried mexican oregano or whole cumin or both

Pick over black beans and remove any stray pebbles, twigs and broken beans. Place in a large-ish container and cover with at least twice the volume of water. Allow to soak 4-6 hours. Place medium saucepan over medium heat and add oil, onion and garlic. Cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add salt and spices, then beans and their liquid. Add enough hot water to cover the beans by about 1/2 inch. Cover the pot and bring to a boil, then reduce heat so that they simmer gently. Do not leave the heat to high or they will taste nasty! Check beans every 20 minutes or so, topping off with hot water when necessary. Cook about 1 1/2 hours if you want beans that still maintain their integrity, 2 hours if you want loose and saucy beans. (and who wouldn’t want those?) Makes about three cups.

I think I’m going to start posting some recipes as I’m making them, and tell you the adjustments I try and see how that goes. Maybe you readers who like to cook can try them out and tell me what you think of them, too?

UP NEXT: Barbecue pulled pork ciabattas with creamy slaw and oven fried potatoes.

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Brighton Festival

Brighton is much-touted as being a hotbed of four things: gay culture, nightlife, independent thinking and art. I can’t speak for the first or second much–I’m guessing I don’t know where the action is, no pun intended. And the third I can only infer from the number of “Vote Green” signs I saw in windows in the month leading up to last week’s disappointing election. But the fourth is indisputable. Anyone in town in May can’t help but notice there’s a very, very big festival going on. The Brighton Festival is an annual arts event that, along with its black-sheep step-brother the Brighton Fringe, practically take over the city. Whereas the Brighton Festival hosts more mainstream presentations like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and various classical trios, the Brighton Fringe (which seems to actually be much larger) has The Lady Boys of Bangkok and stand-up comedy. The Lady Boys are very popular and I hear it’s a really good show, but I am too broke to bear the £26 price tag. Honestly, looking at the Brighton Festival line-up (known around these parts as “what’s on”) it seems like a bore. An overpriced bore at that. The only thing they really have going for them is the fact that this year’s guest artistic director is Brian Eno, the man who practically invented the genre of ambient music. Which is a great thing to listen to if you’ve perhaps imbibed a bit too much and are feeling antsy, not that I would know. Last night Ben and I went to one of Brian Eno’s big installations, a remix of a show from 2007 called 77 MIllion Paintings. It’s set up in what used to the be main chapel of a church-cum-gallery. Six couches and several bean bag chairs are scattered in the room and up in front in place of an altar are 13 large monitors(?) arranged in a pinwheel formation, which display a dizzying electronic array of colors and patterns. Think 11 year old makes collage with technicolor magazine clippings. And so you go and sit down and stare at these huge screens, and listen to the spacey music softly droning away in the background, and stare and try to discern if anything is actually changing. For the first full minute I couldn’t even really tell if anything was happening, and then all of a sudden I realized that what had been pink was now purple, that empty space was now filled with a lacy pattern. My eyes which had nearly glazed over snapped into focus, like when you stare at a Magic Eye poster forever and finally get it. I’m sure the drink I had at Northern Lights Pub didn’t hurt. Let’s just say between the music and the bean bags I was pretty convinced Brian Eno must have been smoking something when he made this. I almost hesitate to give you this link to a previous show in another city because it just doesn’t do it justice, but hopefully it will give you an idea of the scope of the installation. Intoxicated or not, this show was AWESOME and Ben and I sat there nearly a half hour-until they closed-and just stared, ooohing and ahhing and critiquing the patterns and color combinations. I don’t know how long the whole series actually is but I’m sure you could sit there for hours, and I just might.

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A walk in the park

I’ve been in a bit of a funk the last week or so, getting sad about the thought of coming home (no offense) because it means Ben and I won’t see each other for more than three months, and I know when I get back it’ll be the middle of allergy season which means I’m going to feel like crap. The weather here has been so much colder than it was last month, in the low 50s, and raining off and on. Haven’t been sleeping well. You know, all that stuff. So today I decided I was going to go on a really, really long walk. Like, wear yourself out walk. Get some distance between me and this tiny flat and hope I gain a little perspective. Brighton sits on the edge of an area called the South Downs, a ridge of chalky hills that runs through the southeastern part of the country. It basically looks exactly how I imagined the English countryside would look: rolling grassy hills punctuated by hedges and peppered with sheep. Apparently there are lots of popular walking trails crisscrossing the area but because we don’t have a car it’s basically impossible to get out to it. There’s an area just outside town called Stanmer, which is a nature park that runs up the side of the hill. Stanmer used to be a separate village but it was incorporated into Brighton & Hove in the 1920s. There’s a redundant (def: no longer in use, retired, discontinued) church, a manor house which is now licensed as a wedding venue, a plant nursery and a tea house. There are still a few houses clustered along the sole street but you have to walk 1 1/2 km from the main road to get to them. Needless to say, it’s a very quiet community. The park is a popular public outdoor space, with broad fields, woods and trails. Looking on Google Maps satellite I saw that there’s a road running along the north side of the park. It doesn’t show up on the “map” setting which means it’s closed to traffic but since being here I’ve learned that there are lots of paved roads that you can walk on that are closed to cars. So I decided I would make a big loop (about 9 miles) through the park and out the other side, then back into town. It’s nice being out and away. It’s nice being somewhere you’ve never been. I saw horses, chickens, rabbits and tons of birds. Couldn’t get a picture of the bunnies, though-they were too quick.

That last picture I took on my way home. I decided to take what I thought was a shortcut through a golf course (hey it said “public path”) and got a little lost, wandering around on a hill above one of the neighborhoods down the street. I cut through a thicket and made my way down another hill through a field and saw this at the bottom. It’s literally 100 feet from a neighborhood but there’s no road access. Judging from the ground which is still completely scorched, I’d say it burned very recently. Weird, right?

All in all, a good walk, and very tiring. I’m sure to sleep well tonight. Nature always makes me feel better. Well, except when it makes me sneeze. But I think I’m holding out on that until Portland.

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some new words

UK word: candyfloss
US translation: cotton candy

UK word: lead
US translation: a leash (like for your dog) but also apparently a portable battery charger, who knew?

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The chicken…

stirfry was delicious.

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A little grim, but I’m still going to eat it

Whole chickens are on sale again, which I love, because I can buy a couple and break them down into individual meal portions and stash them in the freezer for much less than it would cost to buy them already cut-up. I got super spoiled with all the cheap chicken at Win-Co back home. Actually, Americans spend less of their disposable income on food than any other industrialized country, and we spend less now than we did in the past. The average American spent about 10% of their income on food in 2006, compared to 25% in 1933. Yes, thanks to Agrobusiness, we eat very cheap food. I won’t go into all the theories on how this negatively affects our health. My point is, after 8 months I still suffer from sticker shock every time I go to the grocery store, and I’ve promised myself I will do everything in my power to stretch our Pound. So if I can buy a chicken for $1.57 per pound, I will do it. And I will spend 30 minutes hacking skillfully carving it into smaller pieces, boiling the bones for stock and freezing what we can’t eat right now.

au natural

The one weird thing about chickens here is they don’t cut the legs in the same place as they do in America. In the US, the feet are removed at the knee joint, as seen in this photo right below the woman’s hand. Doing this removes the “inedible” feet and all the scaly skin with it. Well here they don’t bother with precision like that. They actually cut though the bone instead, leaving about 1-1 1/2 inches of scaly foot (ankle?) on the bird. Which is kinda gross. If you’ve never before touched scaly chicken foot-skin, don’t. If I plan on roasting it later I don’t bother removing this section, I just cook the whole thing and then toss it afterwards. But I just read somewhere that chicken feet supposedly make the tastiest stock, and since I’m being thrifty that means I must do certain things. So today I took my trusty kitchen shears and set about removing this unsightly bit of bones. I wrapped my hand around the scaly skin. I cut strategically. About halfway through the process I snipped a tight tendon to get the bones apart, and I immediately had the realization that I had essentially just cut the chicken version of the ACL. One of my roommates in Boston snapped her ACL playing frisbee while I was there, and it was awful. I felt bad for the chicken. But then I remembered he was dead. We’re eating him tomorrow.

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My parents are the best. They sent me a big stack of crossword puzzles from the newspaper. And I am very very excited.

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Fingerpocaylpse 2010

Well hello. Sorry I haven’t posted in a while but I can’t really type. I’m getting pretty good at doing a lot of other things with 9 fingers, but typing is a challenge. Someday I might have all 10 digits operational again, but until then I’m picking away at a slow gait. Just how is that finger, you might ask? Well it’s doing ok. It doesn’t really hurt much anymore, which is awesome. For a few days I couldn’t even bend it and even the slightest touch was excruciating. We’re talking the second most painful thing I’ve ever done to myself. (Eh, maybe third, I’ve had a couple blistering sunburns in my lifetime *shudder*) But now things are going along alright. I will include a pic at the end for those of you who are wondering. In the interest of decorum, I’m going to put it last, because first I want to talk about food, and I realize that making you look at pictures of deliciousness after looking at pictures of yuckiness would just be mean and counterproductive. So, food! I love it! I love cooking it, I love eating it! But lately I’ve been feeling like I’m in a food rut. The weather has been all wonky lately, which caused me to eat hot potato soup on a warm day and cold spring rolls (shout-out: Maya!) on a chilly, rainy day. I hate it when that happens. Frankly I don’t know what I want lately. As soon as the weather starts warming up all I can think about is grilling something. What is it about nice weather that makes me want to throw animal flesh over hot coals? (apologies to the vegetarian readers, all two of you) I just keep thinking teriyaki chicken sandwiches, cheeseburgers, cedar plank salmon…But alas, no grill here. We have a little Foreman but cleaning it is almost more trouble than it’s worth, especially since our veg flatmates like to use it too, which means it must be spotless. And any real cook knows a Foreman is no substitute for actual fire. So instead I combed my recipe bookmarks, looking for something different, maybe a little “ethnic,” maybe a little flashy. And oh yeah, gotta finish up that mint in the fridge. Oh and those tomatoes…and the cuc. Oops. Ah ha! Recipe pay-dirt!

yes please

Kafta Kebabs with pita. Oh pita, how I love you. Of course, mine never quite puffs properly. But no matter, it makes tasty flatbread, too. So, in my handicapped state I set out to make both pita and meatballs. Mmm kafta. AKA kefta. AKA kofta, depending on the country of origin. Those of you who have been to Nicholas Restaurant with me (on my PDX To-do When I Return List) will note my affinity for this meaty, garlicky concoction. It is freakin’ good. And easy to make! Meat, onion, spices, parsley. Roll into balls (a one-handed challenge!), grill or fry. Consume ravenously. Really, it’s easy. Ever made meatloaf? Same thing, only delicious. Plus, it’s an excuse to eat yogurt sauce, which is my new favorite condiment. (Sorry, salsa.) I seriously urge you to make these asap. If you have a grill, stick ’em on skewers. If not, flatten them just a bit and fry ’em up in a skillet. You’ll thank me, I promise. And if you’re feeling frisky, make the pita too.
Gross stuff next

less blood, still gross

Okay, now on to the yucky thing. Here’s my finger, not really sure what’s going on with it. The skin on my fingertip is dying and peeling, like when you have a cast on for a while. Maybe some dead neutrophils in there? Maybe a scab developing? You know how your mom always told you not to pick at your scabs? Well I was never very good at that. I know they’re God’s Band-Aids and all that, but I just hate the way they feel. But I told myself I would not touch my finger. I won’t, I won’t I won’t. I’m just gonna sit here and marvel at the body’s regenerative powers. Yep. Pretty neat. Practically miraculous. Absolutely awesome. Very cool. And gross. Gross gross gross.

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Mack the Knife

Those of you who are faint of heart might want to skip to the second half of this post. Please scroll down until you see the line of asterisks*******

Are they gone? Okay good.

Mack the Knife: this is how I’m going to refer my chef’s knife from now on. For those of you not familiar with this popular Bobby Darin song, it details a murder spree by the eponymous Mack the Knife. Yes, my knife appears to be a soulless killer. You may remember Ben’s recent injury. He had just finished healing and then two days ago I was slicing cucumber (for a delicious and refreshing Asian noodle salad with grilled pork) when I slipped and cut a chunk out of my left pointer finger. And I mean a chunk. It bled for about two hours. I laid on the bed with my arm over my head, grimacing, while Ben attempted to distract me with funny stories about his favorite foods and childhood. Eventually the other fingers on my left hand went numb, but still my pointer finger bled. When I finally managed to peel the gauze away Ben paled. Now he knows how I felt two weeks ago when he was the injured one. It was gross. I took off about half my fingernail, exposing the nail bed. If you’ve ever gotten a splinter etc under your fingernail (or been tortured by the Saeed character in Lost) you know how excruciating nail bed trauma is. If you’re morbidly curious (like me), here’s pictures:

that’s never a good sign

Those black dots on my finger are hematomas (blood clots). But that green stuff in the background is my cilantro, which happens to be growing nicely! The bad news is I can’t wash dishes, cooking is painfully slow and typing is nigh impossible. I imagine it’s going to be a month before the nail actually grows back and my finger is fully functional. In the meanwhile, I will probably have to teach Ben to cook all the recipes I like that involve mixing with your hands (scones, bread, pizza dough, meat dumplings…)

Those avoiding the cooking carnage may resume reading here

On a happier note, here are a bunch of pictures of the awesome weather we’ve been having. The only other cool thing is I went into London with Rosie to see her sister run the marathon, and I saw Richard Branson, the chairman of Virgin Group, running with crazy rainbow fairy wings on! (Virgin is the major sponsor of the London Marathon.) So that was awesome! The marathon raises money for charities and many of the runners showed up in fancy dress (costumes) including Sonic the Hedgehog, a banana, a caveman in a loin cloth, and Branson, seen in this video at 1:39.

Brighton Pier
steps lead down the hill by our house
one of the hills nearby
elevated train rails run behind houses in the Preston Circus neighborhood
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