Children of the (creamed) corn: scary stories from small-town diners

In honour of Halloween, I watched one of my favourite scary movies, one that influenced me during my formative years growing up in small-town America: Stephen King’s ‘Children of the Corn’.

Children of the Corn

Horror classic 'Children of the Corn'

Afterwards, I sat pondering how to make it fit the remit of my food blog.

Food connection 1: obviously, it’s about corn, which is a food, or at least used to be before Monsanto and friends got hold of it. Now it is the root of all evil, a subject covered in another corn-related horror film: Robert Kenner’s ‘Food, Inc.

‘Children of the Corn’ is about an ambitious bunch of fundamentalist kids worshipping the devil in a cornfield. ‘Food, Inc.’, on the other hand, is the true story of a bunch of ambitious corporate billionaires worshipping corn and getting tax breaks for it. Way scarier!

Diner scene from 'Children of the Corn'

Isaac, the creepy devil-worshipping 'Corn' kid, peering in through the diner window

Food connection 2: the big murder scene in ‘Children of the Corn’ takes place in a small-town diner. This is where, on a Sunday after church, the creepy kids kill all the grown-ups by poisoning the coffee. (Not the coffee!)

But it was food connection 3 which hit a chord: three years after the murders in the diner, two big-city grown-ups show up to discover the kids making ritual sacrifices in the name of corn. One of these grown-ups was none other than my Hollywood doppelgänger: Linda Hamilton, a.k.a. Sarah Connor, a.k.a. That girl from the ‘Terminator’.

It just so happens that, during one of my short-lived stints as a diner waitress,  a customer said, “Hey, it’s the Terminator Girl!” Apparently, I looked a bit like Sarah Connor when I was about 18. In fact, I didn’t just look like her – in the first ‘Terminator’ film she was also a waitress in a diner. Coincidence?

Sarah Connor in 'Terminator'


Sarah Connor in 'Terminator'

Sarah Connor in 'Terminator', played by my doppelgänger Linda Hamilton

According to an online Terminator fansite, here’s her profile:

NAME: Sarah Connor
GENDER: Female (check!)
AGE: 19 (I was 18)
HEIGHT: 5’6 (okay, not quite)
EYE COLOUR: Brown-Light (well, mine are green)
OCCUPATION: Waitress, Fugitive (like it!)
STATUS:  Targeted for Termination (awesome)

Diner of the damned

Sarah worked for meagre tips at a place called Big Jeff’s Restaurant. I’ve decided not to tell you the name of the place I worked, out of respect … and fear of lawsuits. To its credit, though, it’s been in business for about 60 years, which suggests it has serious staying power (much like the food it serves, which has staying power in your arteries). While it’s often true that nostalgia is rose-tinted, a quick internet search suggests that my recollections of my former place of employment are accurate.

According to an online review:

“It’s 3 A.M. on Sunday morning. You’ve been home from the bar long enough to realize that you only have cigarettes, pickle juice and ketchup in your apartment. … head to [diner I’m not going to name]. … Their breakfast portions are so crazy big that you’re glad they’re right across from the hospital, because you might just need an emergency angioplasty after wolfing down a stupendous plate of stuffed crepes.”

From another review:

“The only positive thing to say … is it is across the street from a hospital, so a family member keeping a death vigil in the ICU can walk across the road at 2am and get a cup of stale coffee and maybe a greaseburger. Being open 24 hrs it also attracts the drunks and bums on the street late at night.”

Yep, that’s the place. I remember it well. And on this, the eve of Halloween, I’m reminiscing about a scary experience I had at that diner …

Waitressing in the Twilight Zone

Chicken-fried steak

Chicken-fried steak, also known as country-fried steak - a diner classic

It is an ordinary day in northwest Ohio. I’m a young Linda Hamilton lookalike (from Terminator 1, not Terminator 2 when she gets all buff), wearing the required uniform of a pale blue blouse and long denim tube skirt (the ankle-length kind, designed to make it hard to run away). As a new waitress, I’m working the undesirable 3-11pm shift. This means I miss out on the lucrative tips from the breakfast and lunch trades, and also the late-night crowd of drunk people, who often leave big tips due to their loss of math faculties.

I retrieve my meagre tip from the counter, which was left by a kind trucker who has since hit the open road, his stomach full of chicken-fried steak, cream gravy, and a bottomless cup of joe. As I wipe down the counter with a bleach-soaked cloth, I sense silent footsteps behind me. High-top sneakers, unlaced as per the fashion of the day, are padding towards me.

A voice says, “You know I date all the waitresses here, right?” This comes from the skinny, mullet-topped cook (his doppelgänger is the lead singer of Journey, circa 1982). Apparently this young gentleman had spent some time in juvie (i.e., a juvenile detention center), which explains his lack of good pickup lines.

“In your dreams, “ I say, and proceed to straighten up the ketchup and mustard bottles on the counter.

At this point, mullet boy grabs my wrist and twists my arm behind my back in an armlock. A bit freaked out (but not nearly as freaked out as I should have been, with hindsight), I channel the spirit of Sarah Connor (from Terminator 2, when she’s a buff warrior and mother of the rebel leader of the human race).

In a calm, steady voice, I say, “If you don’t let me go right now … I WILL kill you.”

He let go. And he never did ask me on a date. (Bummer.)

Food service warriors, unite!

Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor

My role model in food service: Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in Terminator 2

It turns out, working in the food service industry prepared me in unexpected ways for life’s challenges, in much the same way that Sarah’s experiences in Terminator 1 prepared her for kicking ass in the sequel. I started out unsure of myself, lacking in confidence, much like Sarah, who says at the beginning of the first film:

“Come on. Do I look like the mother of the future? I mean, am I tough, organized? I can’t even balance my check book!”

What did I learn?  For starters, I learned what an armlock felt like, so it wouldn’t be shocking the next time a co-worker performed one on me. I also learned never to take a job that required restrictive clothing, in case a cyborg (or Monsanto) came after me and I had to escape.

I even had my own sequel: the following summer I got a job waitressing at a family restaurant in Northwood, Ohio. However, I only lasted a month before being felled by chicken pox. They asked me to take some time off  — apparently plagues are bad for business (see earlier post about Chi Chi’s Restaurant and hepatitis).

I never returned to food service after that, but I learned enough to last a lifetime. And I’m confident those lessons will serve me well when the machines, the corn-worshipping fundamentalists, or Monsanto try to take over the world.

Actually, Monsanto has already taken over the world. I’m forming an army. Let me know if you’d like to enlist.


If you like piña coladas, gettin’ caught in the rain…

Grandmas cocktail cabinet

Grandma's beloved cocktail cabinet

When the English weather gets me down, I head to the 1950s cocktail cabinet we inherited from J’s grandmother. The front pulls open and the top flips up to reveal mirrors, a light fixture and a contraption holding plastic cocktail sticks. If we were more technically savvy we’d make it play Barry White tunes, but for now it opens only to reveal our motley booze collection. This includes a few things we bought, and lots of things left here by friends who moved overseas. Our house was the last resort for items they hadn’t yet disposed of, and, lucky for us, the local charity shop doesn’t take donations of half-drunk Barbados rum.

Poor woman's piña colada

The poor-woman's piña colada I managed to whip up from things I found in the cupboard

Rum is the perfect elixir to turn a blustery English day into a carnival! Or at least a tipsy approximation of one. A few weeks ago, the ‘coldest summer since 1993’ pushed me to breaking point. I remembered seeing a box of coconut-pineapple juice in the back of our cupboard – another kind gift left by friends who moved back to the States … over two years ago, as I discovered upon reading the sell-by date. I persuaded myself to pour it away. Fortunately there was a (slightly less old) carton of similar juice in the fridge, which I whirred up with the Barbados rum, coconut cream and crushed ice.

The result was enough to take the edge off my doldrums, but I still felt the many miles between me and a sunny Caribbean beach. So when I walked past Café Tarifa last Saturday, I couldn’t resist the reggae music drifting from inside. I headed in for a Jamaican ginger beer (and some olives, which have nothing to do with the Caribbean, but they were good). I soaked up the vibe for a while but couldn’t linger long, because I was due at a harvest festival at the Barrack’s Lane Community Garden. I was supposed to drop off some jars of damson (sour plum) jam, which my better-half has been whipping up by the vat-full using fruit from our heavily-laden trees. I can’t think of anything less exotic and Caribbean than homemade English plum jam … Yet, to my surprise, when I showed up at the festival there were two Jamaicans giving a cooking class.

I shouldn’t have been so surprised. While Mexican food may be hard to come by here (see previous post, desperately seeking salsa), it’s easy to forget how Britain’s colonial past is reflected in its culinary landscape. During the 1950s tens of thousands of people from the West Indies came to live and work in Britain, and many of them are still here. London’s Notting Hill Carnival is a testament to this, as are Caribbean eateries like east Oxford’s Hi-Lo Jamaican Eating House, which has been a fixture for the past 30 years.

Home-grown chillies

Home-grown chillies

Cooking Caribbean-ish

I decided to stick around to see what I could learn about Jamaican cooking. The two chefs were using local, seasonal vegetables grown by Sandy Lane Farm, and a Caribbean leafy green called callaloo, which is grown locally by OxGrow community garden. Suitably inspired, I returned home to plan my own Caribbean-themed feast.

Admittedly, my knowledge of the region’s cuisine is limited: I’ve never actually been to Jamaica, and have only had a few holidays on other Caribbean islands (but I’ve seen loads of movies about islands, which is pretty much the same thing, right?). Despite this, I managed to make a tasty meal that hinted at something remotely Caribbean-ish. It was a pilaf of coconut rice and black-eyed-peas, and Colombo de Giromon, which I think is a fancy name for ‘vegetable curry’: in this case, a mix of squash, sweet potato and greens in a spicy coconut sauce. I adapted these from recipes found in my trusty old copy of Sundays at Moosewood, using produce from our weekly vegetable bag, some chillies grown in our greenhouse, and fresh coriander seeds I “grew” (i.e., accidentally let the cilantro go to seed).

Well-loved Sundays at Moosewood cookbook

My well-loved Sundays at Moosewood cookbook

Chopped veg and Colombo spice mix

I chopped all the veg beforehand, then mashed garlic, cayenne, turmeric, coriander and mustard seeds and water with primal passion in my mortal and pestle

The pilaf recipe is here, but I changed it somewhat: I didn’t use tempeh (because I didn’t have any, but I do recommend it — a soybean product, nice as a meat subtitute); I used white rice instead of brown; and I added shredded carrot to the onion and garlic. The other dish can be found here on another blog. I didn’t use butternut squash, but a mystery squash (which I traded some plum jam for at the harvest fest). I also used a sweet potato, no peppers, and added kale at the end of the cooking time.

The best bit of this recipe was making the Colombo seasoning: I love mashing up fragrant spices with a mortar and pestle. It’s so … primal. Even better was the fact that the recipe called for rum, so having raided the cocktail cabinet and poured a bit in the pot of simmering veg, I took a bit for myself. Surely that’s how it’s done in the Caribbean.

Later this week I’m planning to stop off at the East Oxford Community Centre to taste the Afro-Caribbean lunches made by people from ACKHI (African & African Caribbean Kultural Heritage Initiative), and may also dip into their Afro-Caribbean cake-baking class on Friday.

Caribbean-ish meal

Coconut black-eyed peas and rice, and Colombo de Giromon (curried vegetables)

Meanwhile, I’ve finished off the coconut black-eyed beans and rice, and at the same time Mother Nature has responded to my desperate plea for a taste of the tropics: she sent winds as high as 80 miles per hour to batter Britain. These were the remnants of Hurricane Katia, which swept across the Atlantic last week. After all, nothing says ‘tropical paradise’ like a hurricane.

I fell in love with my husband because he made me mac & cheese

I left a very nice life in Austin, Texas – friends, sun, big blue sky, soothing music drifting out of every cafe, bar and taco joint. I sold most of my things and relocated to Belgium.

Boxes of mac and cheese

This image is from a collection by a man named Ian Golder, who collects boxes of mac and cheese, the food of the Gods! Click the image to indulge, and don't miss his Mac FAQs

There was the exciting prospect of living in Europe, and the romantic idea of moving to be with the Englishman I’d met at a bus stop in New Zealand just over a year before.

A few months after moving, I landed a job and was settling in well. That’s when I got a hankering for my number one comfort food: macaroni and cheese.

I’m not talking about the fancy Kraft Deluxe or Velveeta Shells and Cheese kind, which cost a few dollars and contain a can of so-called ‘cheese sauce’. My comfort came from the food of my university days: in a little box, with a white packet of shockingly orange powder. I would boil the tiny little macaronis, then mix in the powder with twice the butter the instructions called for, and milk or, if I was feeling saucy, a bit of sour cream. I’d eat it with a side of tomatoes from a can (I don’t know why – something about the acid-y red tomatoes and orange-y mac and cheese just seemed right).

I could get a box of mac and cheese in Brussels somewhere, but it was expensive, and part of the beauty of my favorite comfort food was that it cost less than a dollar a box. Thrift has a flavour all its own.

Stirring the white sauce

Here's my man, makin' me mac and cheese

I wallowed in mac-and-cheese nostalgia for a few days, sharing my woes with my Englishman, who was very patient. His memorable meals from university were of the pot noodle variety – a bit like ramen noodles, which were even cheaper than a box of mac and cheese and probably packed with just as much sodium-filled goodness, but with the added health benefits of MSG. (His other fond food memory from uni was Greasy Joe’s grease burgers. I surmised that these were cooked up by an entrepreneurial heart surgeon, just biding his time before the class of 1988 needed their first bypass operations.)

My man said, “Why don’t we just make mac and cheese?” I guffawed, gave him a ‘yeah right’, and an ‘as if!’. “You can’t just MAKE mac and cheese with ordinary household ingredients. There’s a magic to what’s in that little box. You shouldn’t tinker with magic!”

Of course, I knew it was possible to make macaroni and cheese from scratch. (Unlike pancakes which, when we started university, my good friend D and I were certain could only be made with Bisquick baking mix. Fortunately, we both learned a lot at university.). But I think I was kind of enjoying my melancholy a bit and romanticizing the things I’d left behind in the States, including mac and cheese. So I was resistant.

Spilling is optional

Here's my man spilling white sauce on the stove

This was when I discovered some of my man’s most wonderful qualities: his mix of practicality and possibility, combined with endless creativity. He can look in a dumpster (in the UK, known as a skip) and see the makings of a nice shelving unit in which to store our cookbooks (when I came home last week from a day in London, he was hammering this very thing together, which now sits snugly next to our fridge). And he can look at a bag of pasta and some milk and cheese and envision my ultimate comfort food. He explained that, at university, the mother of one of his friends insisted on teaching them to make a white sauce, which she claimed would be a most useful culinary tool for the boys as they made their way through life. She didn’t mention that it could also be the way to a girl’s heart.

In less than 30 minutes he’d whipped up a beautiful dish of pasta and cheese, topped with bread crumbs baked to a golden brown. I was enchanted. It was nothing like the mac and cheese I loved from the States. For one, it wasn’t fluorescent orange. But it was very tasty. And though I was deep in my melancholy over the things I’d left behind, this dish was really good and supremely comforting.

Baked mac and cheese

Baked mac and cheese (with kale and cauliflower)

Eight years have passed and homemade mac and cheese is now a staple in our weekly menu, usually embellished with a seasonal vegetable from our veg bag. In honour of my man and the love that was forged from semolina and a basic white sauce, I’d like to share with you our recipe for Leeky Mac & Cheese.

Desperately seeking salsa

I’ve just made plans to meet a colleague for Mexican food at a fantastic place in London called Wahaca. While no big thing for those of you in the USA, there are precious few restaurants serving good Mexican food or even Tex-Mex here in the UK, and those that do are pricey.

We watched re-runs of Happy Days while eating tacos

Affordable Tex-Mex was so ubiquitous where I grew up (Ohio) that I never imagined I would miss it. As a child, tacos were a particular joy. Mom or dad would brown ground beef sprinkled with a packet of Old El Paso™ taco spice mix (a blend of things most people have in their cupboard, combined with some things I don’t recognize as actual food). We’d fill a few thick, hard, taco-shaped corn shells with the beef, then pile on spoonfuls of rainbow-coloured fillings: bright-orange shredded cheese, chopped red tomatoes, pale-green iceberg lettuce, chopped black olives from a can, and snowy-white sour cream. We ate while balancing our plates on our laps in front of the television, enjoying sensational dancing on ‘Solid Gold!‘ or reruns of Happy Days. Bliss.

You call that a tortilla?

My Mexican food education expanded considerably when I spent four months living with a family in Mérida, Mexico. I learned that those hard taco-like things we ate were sad substitutes for the real thing. I went walking early one morning and found steam pouring from the chimney of a tiny, low-ceilinged adobe building, from which short, round women with long braids – Mayan women – emerged carrying towel-wrapped bundles of warm tortillas. We ate the tortillas at our big mid-day meal, with simple roast chicken tinted with red anatto (a natural food coloring derived from the achiote tree), topped with lettuce and sliced onions in fresh lime juice and salt. After lunch, as the rest of us napped in hammocks, our hard-working cook, who was one of the Mayan women I’d seen that morning, fried the uneaten tortillas in oil for our dinner or a snack.

Years later I moved to Austin, Texas, and the variety of Mexican foodie delights are too abundant to list. A favorite was Saturday mornings at Magnolia with my pal V, for gingerbread pancakes (click for the recipe) and a T. Rex omelet (shredded smoked turkey, cheese, avocado and pico de gallo salsa), or El Sol y la Luna for chilaquiles (bits of corn tortilla fried, then simmered with salsa and mixed with scrambled eggs, topped with cheese). It was also a treat to drive into a dusty parking lot for a couple of breakfast tacos (favorites were potato and bean or cheese and egg) from one of the little trailers that set up shop in the mornings.

Viva Mexico … pero No Viva Chi Chi’s

After the flood of incredible Mexican and Tex-Mex in Austin, came the drought: I moved to Belgium. Early on I spotted a Chi-Chi’s Mexican Restaurant in Brussels. It brought back memories of birthdays spent at the Chi-Chi’s in Toledo, where staff would plop a giant sombrero on your head and sing happy birthday, as you sweated over a candle stuck in a bowl of cinnamon-fried ice cream. While lame in the realm of culinary snobbery, the fried ice cream tasted awesome. Once I asked our waitress how it was made and was told the ice cream is rolled in cinnamon and crushed cornflakes, then quickly fried. I tried it at home but, as expected, the ice cream melted. Oh Chi-Chi’s … how DO you do it?

In a sad epilogue, Chi Chi’s stopped doing it soon after I moved to Brussels. They were blamed for a deadly outbreak of Hepatitis A, which apparently originated at their location in a mall in Pennsylvania.

Brussels terrace

The view from our terrace in Brussels, where we feasted on contraband Mexican goodies

Far from the Hep A catastrophe, things were looking up in Brussels: I got a hot tip from an expatriate Texan about a Mexican woman living in a suburb-of-a-suburb of Brussels, who sells Mexican food supplies out of her garage. We called this mysterious woman and were told to stop by her place that evening. Cookie-cutter houses lined the street, which was pin-drop quiet on that cool autumn evening. We skeptically rang the doorbell, worried that our request for Mexican food would be met with the same sort of incredulity and disdain I got every time I tried to speak French at a shop in Brussels. After what seemed an eternity, the garage door opened. Inside were metal shelves stacked with cans of black beans, massive bags of dried chilies, sacks of masa harina, cast-iron tortilla presses, bottles of tequila and jars of salsa. The woman was middle-aged, married to a German, and she missed Mexican food. We weren’t clear on the legality of this business venture, but didn’t care as we filled the back of our Toyota with the makings of many fine Mexican meals. With the complement of fresh avocados and other vegetables from Brussels’s biggest weekly market, the Marché du Midi, the drought was over.

Mole, mole, mole

We moved to England in 2005, where I managed to grow two huge tomatillo (husk tomato) plants: these produce small, green tomatoes in husks which are whisked up with chillies, cilantro (fresh coriander) and other ingredients to make salsa verde (green salsa). I’d actually given up on the tomatillos since we were (and still are) having such dreadfully wet, cool summers. And when I visited my forlorn vegetable patch in October that year I was shocked to see the tomatillos had survived and were ready to pick (the lesson seems to be that when I ignore the plants, they grow). For all the space the plants take up (they grew to about 3 feet wide and 4 feet tall), they made only one luscious, much-appreciated bowl of salsa verde, which we still remember fondly. (Here’s a recipe from Another Freaking Cooking Blog.)

Oaxaca, Mexico

The view from our friend's place in Oaxaca, Mexico

A few years later we visited friends living in Oaxaca, Mexico. They took us to the one and only market stall from which they would buy mole poblano, the rich sauce made of dozens of ingredients, most popularly chocolate, which is often served with chicken (or in the case of my vegan friend, black beans). I have a faint memory of eating chicken with mole poblano for the first time in Chiapas in 1991, when I was a student. I had been served a hot tea-like beverage with a shot of some sort of alcohol, and I was told to pour the shot into the tea. I did so, drank it, and don’t remember much about the evening or the mole after that. So it was years later that I really gained an appreciation for mole poblano.

We bought several kilos of black and red mole from my friend’s favorite stallholder in Oaxaca, brought it back to the UK and stored it in the freezer. For a year, each meal we made with it was a ritual of indulgence. We barely spoke during those meals, so busy were we devouring the oily, dark mole and chicken, scooping it up with freshly made tortillas, washed down with beer, and then licking our fingers of greasy goodness.

While mole is an indulgence, fresh tortillas are a staple. The heavy flour ‘wraps’ from the supermarket and thick yellow shells of my youth simply won’t do. Masa harina for making tortillas is six times the price in the UK compared to Ohio, so when we pack for a trip to the USA we leave a four-kilo space in our suitcases for masa. Occasionally, a sympathetic friend brings over a bag of it when they visit (thanks to T from Texas for our most recent bag). In one case, a friend from the UK was returning from Florida and got cold feet at the last minute: couriering a kilo of white powder from Miami was just a bit too unsettling.

We’re dangerously short of masa now, with no plans for a trip back to the USA to replenish. And we’ve scoured the many food shops selling all manner of corn products aimed at South Asians and Africans, but none works for making Mexican tortillas. It’s a shame, but then it makes those past meals so much sweeter, whether watching re-runs while crunching mass-produced Tex-Mex in Toledo, snacking on leftover deep-fried tortillas in Merida, or savouring our own version of burritos with ingredients from the garage-cum-Mexican-tienda outside Leuven, Belgium. Viva Mexico, wherever you may be.

Waterfront dining

Nothing says 'a day off ' like paging through a fun magazine in the bath

I took today off work, sort of. I started my computer and checked email, then browsed Facebook and the latest celebrity gossip (the nice kind, not the Grazia-esque or phone-tapping variety). This is how I assuage my life-long guilt of taking days off work – by pretending I’m working, as if being at a computer is tantamount to doing something useful.

After about an hour I snapped myself out of this and left my office. I tore the plastic wrapping off my just-bought copy of Red magazine and examined the ‘free-with-this-month’s-issue’ tube of rose-scented bath and shower gel. I went to the bathroom and ran a warm bath.

Before entering the bath, I visited the kitchen. I resisted the three Belgian chocolates left over from dinner with friends last night. Instead, I went for a sweet-salty combo: I poured a glass of orange squash (for Americans, this is like a cheap cordial, which you mix with water); and I grabbed one nearly-empty and one unopened bag of “mature cheddar and pickled onion flavour” Tyrrell’s potato chips (apparently now called ‘crisps’, in ‘proper’ British fashion, according to Tyrrell’s website and the many comments from Brits who don’t seem very happy about the way we Americans refer to fried potatoes).

Posh crisps (chips!) and cheap squash

As I undressed, I felt the giddy pleasure – but also slight ‘ick’ factor – of eating in my bathroom. It brought to mind an episode of Seinfeld, when Kramer realized he enjoyed being in the shower so much that he installed a food waste disposal in the drain and did all his cooking and dishwashing in the shower. (To my friends who came over for dinner last night, I assure you all the food was prepared in the kitchen. Though judging by the state of the kitchen I’m not sure that’s much consolation.)

I slipped into the bath, then realized I’d left the nearly-empty bag of chips on the other side of the room, while the unopened bag was close to hand. Just last night my husband spluttered when I opened the second box of Belgian chocolates because one chocolate still remained in the first box. It was as if he didn’t think I would finish the first box and move on to the second – these were BELGIAN chocolates. Clearly he’s deranged.

So as the warm bathwater soothed my muscles, I realized it would be counter-productive to hoist myself, drippingly, up and out of the bath to get the already-opened bag of crisps on the other side of the bathroom. I ripped open the new bag – which was filled with big, perfect, unbroken chips, rather than the shards and crumbs the other bag had to offer.

Holding the magazine at eye level without getting bathwater or cheddar-and-pickled-onion-fingerprints on the pages proved difficult, especially since I insisted on reading without breaking my chip-munching stride. Add to this the occasional effort to take a sip of squash while lying half-prone, and you start to get the picture. Eventually I found that eating a chip, cleaning my fingers by dipping them in the bathwater then drying them on a nearby towel enabled me to safely turn the pages of the magazine without undue damage.

The bath was hardly rose-scented by the end, what with all the mature-cheddar-and-pickled-onion I’d added, but maybe there was an idea there for an eclectic dinner: rose-water scented cheese-and-onion potato pasties?

When my delightful cheese-and-onion bath was done, I guiltily remembered the nearly-empty bag of crisps that I couldn’t reach. For the sake of my marriage, I poured the shards and crumbs into the now-half-eaten newer bag … as if none of this had ever happened.

Chronic pain (& white bean soup)

To follow up my last post about my excursion into making (sourdough) pain de campagne, I’m happy to report that it worked … well enough.

Pain de campagne -- imperfect but tasty

By that I mean that my loaf was not big or impressive, but it tasted great, with a crunchy exterior and a slightly sour flavour. I was on my own for lunch the day I baked it, but I wanted to celebrate. So I set the table for one, with a clean(!) table cloth and matching (!) napkin, a bit of wine, and an Italian white bean soup.

The bread was still warm, and it was wonderful spread with soft, salted butter and dipped in the soup. The next day, me and my significant other (henceforth known as J) also found it fantastic as toast – nice and crispy on the outside, and spread with his mom’s homemade orange marmalade.

White bean soup on a rainy summer's day

After letting the dough rise for that first loaf, I cut off a bit to save for the next batch. That brings me to the title of this post, as today I’m making the second loaf with my saved levain, which has been in the fridge for three days.

I took it out of the fridge and left it uncovered on the kitchen counter, in hopes it would ferment a bit more and get a bit more sour, but also, maybe, to capture some of that yeast I’d heard is floating about. (If the yeast thing is a myth, please someone enlighten me so I can stop leaving my food to “ferment” on the kitchen counters.) After about 12 hours I measured out the amount of starter called for in a recipe I found online and left it overnight.

The next morning I mixed in the first “refreshment” of water and flour and put the starter in the airing cupboard (for US readers, that’s the closet where the hot-water heater and bath towels live), covered with an oiled piece of plastic. The following morning the starter had at least doubled in bulk and was looking bubbly and alive. I mixed it with lukewarm water, and three kinds of flour: white, wheat and Cotswold crunch (all from Matthews, a local flour mill, est. 1912). I added salt, kneaded it and put it in the cupboard again to rise. After about eight hours I punched it down (take that!) and put it in the cupboard for its final rise. In fact, I went wild (!) and left it to rise overnight, just to see if I could actually get a nice, fluffy loaf.

I couldn’t.

Once again, it tasted great and had a nice texture, though was a bit over-baked so rather tough to cut with a knife (fortunately, I find tearing the bread is fun and relieves stress). J said it tasted more sour than before, which I like but isn’t to everyone’s taste. I attribute that to leaving it sitting out for a long time with the lid off (or what some people might call “poor health and safety measures”). However, I’m happy with the result. Sure, a small part of me would like to have the patience, follow-through and skill to make a really spectacular loaf of pain de campagne, but that’s the same part of me that wants to have ripped abs and a couple of novels to my name.

I won’t be baring my midriff or going on a book tour any time soon, but I can make a passable White Bean Soup. Check out the recipe here.


Welcome to the first official post at ethical relish, where each week I aim to write about my explorations into food, ethical eating and shopping, food cultures, healthy (or less healthy) cravings, travel and more.

Sweet, juicy fruit in Essaouira, Morocco, 2011

I might share a bit about what’s in season and how I’ve cooked it (sometimes well … sometimes not so well). I may also talk about the daily pleasures and struggles of trying to eat ethically, locally and healthily in my adopted country (England), while satisfying cravings for comfort foods from home (the USA). And I’ll blog about my efforts to strike a balance between eating by my values … and giving myself a break.

I’ll pepper my posts with experiences from past meals at home and abroad, and if I’m reading a good book or have heard some news related to food or food issues, I might tell you a bit about it. This could be about the sensual delights of a certain cuisine, policy changes that affect where and how our food is produced, or something multinational food corporations are doing that ticks me off (let me count the ways…).

So I hope you’ll stop by each week for a tasty bit of conversation and even leave a comment when the spirit moves you. For starters, check out this morning’s food escapade: making French pain de campagne at 5am.