Tuesday, December 21

The Best Lunch Ever!

It has been very cold in North Carolina. It's been between 18F and 35F since Thanksgiving and us warm blooded folks are not used to it. It is meant to get this cold for a couple of weeks in February! Not so soon! As a consequence, we have all been inflicted with one form of respiratory illness or another, and this past Sunday required a heart-warming chicken stew of some sort. Moroccan Chicken Tajine was my answer.

I was very excited to use my lovely new green tajine I had recently purchased at Marshalls. It was made in Italy and a piece of art. Really worth the $20! I found a good recipe on the FoodNetwork, my favorite resource for recipes. These chefs who end up on TV kinda know what they're doing, and the reviews often supplement ingredients and methods well. I found a great recipe by Rachel Ray. To be honest, I find her slightly annoying (don't know why, maybe the scratchy voice?), but she really has some of the best recipes which are also pretty easy.

Here is her recipe which I have copied/pasted from the FoodNetwork directly. All credit goes to them:

"Chicken Tajine


2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, 2 turns of the pan

4 cloves garlic, smashed beneath the flat of your knife with the heel of your hand, discard skins

1 1/2 to 1 3/4 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into large bite-size pieces

1 1/2 teaspoons grill seasoning blend (recommended: Montreal Seasoning by McCormick) or coarse salt and coarse pepper

2 medium or 1 large yellow skinned onion, quartered and sliced

10 pitted prunes, coarsely chopped

1-ounce box or 1/4 cup golden raisins

2 cups good quality, low sodium chicken stock, available in paper containers on soup aisle

Spice blend:

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 1/2 teaspoons sweet paprika, eyeball it

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander, eyeball it

1/2 teaspoon tumeric, eyeball it

1/8 teaspoon cinnamon, a couple pinches


1 1/2 cups chicken stock

1 1/2 cups couscous

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, eyeball it

2 scallions, finely chopped


Chopped cilantro leaves or flat-leaf parsley

Finely chopped scallions

Mango chutney, any variety and brand -- available on the condiment or International food aisles


Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium high heat. Add extra-virgin olive oil, 2 turns of the pan, in a slow stream, and add smashed garlic. Season the chicken with seasoning blend. Scatter chicken around the pan in an even layer. Cook chicken pieces 2 minutes on each side to brown, then add the onions, prunes, raisins and stock. Mix spices in a small dish and scatter over the pot. Cover and reduce to moderate heat. Cook 7 or 8 minutes, remove the lid and stir.

To prepare the couscous, bring chicken stock to a boil. Add couscous, extra-virgin olive oil and scallions and remove the couscous from the stove immediately. Cover and let stand 5 minutes. Fluff the couscous with a fork.

Uncover chicken and cook another 2 to 3 minutes to thicken slightly. Adjust the seasoning, to taste, and serve chicken on a bed of couscous. Garnish with chopped cilantro and scallions. Serve with chutney."

Now, I didn't have all the ingredients. Instead of prunes, I used a couple of tablespoons of Morello Cherry jam. I threw in half a jar of green olives that were hanging out in the refrigerator. What's Moroccan food without olives?I also used a basic poultry seasoning that I had which worked really well. It is important to dry the chicken with a paper towel before putting the seasoning on it. It browns better that way. I ignored the paragraph on condiments (didn't have any of those ingredients) and cooked it for 25 minutes on low heat and not the 8 minutes as suggested.

I thought 2 cups of chicken stock was too much as it was too liquidy. Thankfully, I had a big bottle of Wondra Quick-Mixing Flour that we had purchased for the Thanksgiving gravy. My brother-in-law, Dr. Thanksgiving, super-chef extraordinaire (oncologist by day) swears by it, and now I will too. I shook a tablespoon worth over the pot and all that liquid magically turned into a luxurious and creamy stew. Thank you, Dr. Thanksgiving!

Here are the comments from my family:

5-year old Chocolate: This looks gross but it tastes very good! This is the best lunch ever!

8-year old Vanilla: This is the best lunch YOU ever made! (I nodded and smiled knowingly, not wanting to press the issue. He read my recent post on Dorothy and is still reeling from the fact that I wrote that she was not a very good cook).

Prince Charming: Oh my god! This is amazing! Cinnamon, how did you do it? This really is fantastic!

I think I should get over that scratchy voice and watch more Rachel Ray shows on the FoodNetwork. Right?



Thursday, December 16

Hook, Line and Sinker

Ok guys, you're going to hear from me more often than usual this week. That's because next week I'm going to be at a wedding. (It's an Indian wedding too, so there's going to be a lot of food involved!) Before that, I'd like to share with you a few more discoveries from Madeira.

Bolo de Caco

First, introducing the fabulous bolo de caco. This is a flour and sweet potato bread that's served with a healthy lashing of garlic butter and herbs. It usually comes to your table before a meal (like bread rolls), but it can also feature in a prego, which is steak or veal sandwiched between slices of bolo de caco. Simple and delicious. The edges are crunchy (from having been cooked on a hot plate), but the sweet potato makes for a very soft, stretchy and yielding bread.

Next, take a look at this dish, from Villa Cipriani's pasta menu: a gorgonzola tortelloni in a pumpkin sauce, with shavings of crisped parma ham. (Excuse the picture quality, romantic candlelight doesn't make for excellent photography...)

Gorgonzola Tortelloni

This dish was incredible. It's inspired me to try (in the New Year) roasting chunks of pumpkin with a bit of pancetta and thyme, and serving it with some gorgonzola crumbled on top. Perhaps a nice accompaniment to a simple fillet steak?

Finally, this one's a warning. If you see the word 'pudding' (or 'pudín' or 'pudim') in a dessert menu in the Iberian peninsula, don't imagine (like I did) a nice, warm, comforting bread and butter pudding-type thing. What you'll get is a cold, heavy-set custard.

Not a Pudding

It wasn't bad, but I just felt so cheated! There was a happy ending for the pudding, though. My husband ate it.



Wednesday, December 15

Looking after Number One

We’re back from our holiday in Madeira, and I have to say it’s quite a shock to the system. We’ve dropped more than 15 degrees Celsius, we spent a rainy afternoon today negotiating jammed Oxford and Regent Streets buying gifts, and we returned home with damp feet to find that the heating had given up. So you won’t be surprised to hear that I’m not feeling at all present, and that I’ve been transported to our afternoon tea on the terrace of the Reid’s Palace hotel in Madeira.

Afternoon tea is an English institution, and the English seem to have taken it with them wherever they went. In Madeira, I read that some people returning from sweltering in the colonies spent a few months on that island (to acclimatise) before heading back home. With all those long afternoons in a kind of limbo, it seems quite sensible and civilised to fill your time with tea, refreshing sandwiches, little sweet things and scones.

Almost as famous as afternoon tea itself are all the rules of etiquette and ritual that go with it. Some say that to pour the tea before the milk signals a quality porcelain cup (because a cheap cup will crack), while others say pouring the milk first prevents it from being scalded. The Devonshire school of cream tea applies cream onto the scone before the jam, whereas the Cornish school applies jam first (I can’t remember which school Foodie Doctor follows, but she did tell me when we went for afternoon tea in London). The pinkie question – out or in? The Reid’s book on tea insists that it should be kept firmly with the other fingers, because “it is not an antenna trying to receive the BBC World Service”. The sandwiches should all be eaten before any of the cakes are touched. A used napkin should not be placed on the table if you step away (because it’s the hostess’ prerogative to do so to signal the end of tea).

With all of this to keep in mind, it’s a wonder that afternoon tea is relaxing at all. But it genuinely is. With a view of the Atlantic, a mild temperature, and a charming Victorian terrace, I realised that I was finally learning how to holiday à l’Européenne.

Indian holidays are by and large, in contrast, nowhere near as relaxing. They usually involve having your schedule dictated to you by someone else, enduring plenty of obligation visits and errands, constant power struggles between competing (and often hidden) agendas that reach above and beyond just that one trip, and everyone piling in (invited or not) into debating every decision. I’ve had my fair share of these. I was pretty relieved to hear, though (when I mentioned this to my European husband), that he’d had his fair share of Indian holidays too. And then I watched that Thanksgiving episode of Dharma and Greg. If what I’m talking about doesn’t ring a bell, then watch that episode – they were definitely having an Indian holiday. I think I’m going to agree with the most powerful man on Earth here: “what binds us together is greater than what drives us apart”.



Monday, December 13

Letter to Madeira

Dear Truffle,

I was thrilled to read about your Madeira tasting at the hotel. I really learned much from your post (see earlier post by Truffle). Even though I left work later than usual today, I stopped at Total Wine to get a bottle for myself. I was thrilled to find, not just any bottle of Blandy's, but it's the Malmsey grape and has been aged 10 years in oak casks! It was a little more expensive than I expected, but worth the $40.

Sipping this lovely wine brings to mind a number of memories. But, before that, I am sure you already know that a number of Mediterranean countries produce some sort of fortified wine. The Spanish produce Sherry (as you have already mentioned), the Italians Marsala (which has unfortunately been permanently relegated to the kitchen like the barefoot pregnant), and the Portuguese Port, my favorite. What do the French produce? Cognac? Hmmm, not certain if that is considered a fortified wine. It is made from grape... I suppose the French always want to be different. Interestingly, they are all named after the regions/cities they come from. Although the city Sherry is from is Jerez in Spanish.

The Madeira is much sweeter than I expected. Prince Charming and I both tasted it with Parmesan cheese (would have preferred Stilton but Parmesan was all I had) and he thought it was quite similar to a white port we had a few years ago. It is more of a sweet Sherry or a sweeter version of Tawny than the more traditional Ruby Port.

This really reminded me of my six months in Lisbon, more than a decade ago. When I was wandering around a local grocery store looking for Sherry, known as Xerez in Portugal to complete a chicken dish. In my youth, I followed recipes doggedly. Now, I would have poured in a slosh of cognac or even whisky. Hey, even old red wine. Anyway, the grocer snorted as I asked for Xerez and he waved me away to a long row of many varieties of Port, at the end of which stood one single bottle of Xerez. That was my first lesson in the Portuguese-Spanish rivalry. Well, this bottle of Madeira, produced in the Portuguese colony of the same name, reminds me of their rival wine.

Saude, my dear sister! Relax and enjoy yourself with your husband. I look forward to your next post from the sunny Isle of Madeira.


Madeira Wine

The bolo de mel made another appearance today, at the Madeira Wine Tasting we signed up for at the hotel. I know a bit about port, but not much about madeira. And so, I was hoping to learn all about the different varieties and the production processes, but sadly the event was more of a quick sales pitch to the gathered OAPs (and us) that ended in a reminder that there is a madeira wine shop at the airport, so that you can buy more than a hundred mls of the stuff...

Nevertheless, we did learn a little something. We tasted one medium dry wine (on the right in the photo above) and a medium sweet (pictured on the left). The medium dry was very traditional and pretty indistinguishable from most medium dry sherrys I've tried before (it even came in a bottle that looked like it belonged in one of those unventilated liquor cabinets). The medium sweet, on the other hand, came in a young, slim bottle, and it tasted modern and smooth - to make this Alvada, they broke the madeira wine-making rule of not using more than one grape variety and blended Bual and Malmsey grapes.

A few other interesting facts:

* Age - If the bottle indicates a number of years (e.g., 5 years), that's not actually the age of the wine in the bottle. Madeira wines are typically blends of wines of different ages (but of one grape variety), and the age on the bottle is actually an average of the ages of the different components that have been blended to make that particular wine. If, however, the bottle states a particular year, that means the wine in the bottle is not a blend, and the year on the bottle is the year of harvest and bottling.

* Ageing - Madeira wine is aged in American oak barrels, not in the bottle. Port wine, in contrast, is bottled within about 2 years of harvesting and aged in the bottle. (So are all these madeira wine producers sitting on a bunch of unsold stock?!) The youngest is Harvest (5 to 10 years), followed by Colheita (10 to 18 years), followed by Vintage (the oldest Vintage is apparently 115 years old).

* Origins - All those days ago, wine was transported from Madeira to the West Indies by ship, and they realised that the wine had a special bouquet and flavour by the end of the journey. Initially, they put it down to the sea air, but it was discovered that it was the higher temperatures during transit that were responsible for imparting that special something. As a result, the best wines (which will go on to become Vintages) are stored in the producers' attics, not the cellars.

* Types - Madeira wines come dry, medium dry, medium sweet and sweet. We were told that, despite the reputation of madeira wine as a fuddy duddy dessert wine, the dry varieties can actually be had with sushi and salad. If anyone dares to try this, please tell us how it is!

* Production - Much like port, madeira wine is made by fermenting grapes and stopping the fermentation process at a certain point by adding an alcohol which kills off the yeast. Now, grape alcohol is used, but in the past, they used to use a rum made from sugar cane (a variety of aguardente). Sugar cane was widely cultivated in Madeira after it was introduced to the island by Henry the Navigator.

* Storage - Where port needs to be stored sideways, madeira wine should be stored upright. If you have a vintage, the cork should be replaced every 20 years or so. Once opened, it can be kept for 18 months.

The most well-known producer of madeira wine bears the most uninspiring name of Blandy's. Blandy's is now getting a leg up in the export world with the help of the Symingtons, who own famous port names such as Dow and Warre.

There you have it. If you feel like trying some madeira wine, grab a bottle of Blandy's Alvada and have it with a sweet molasses cake. If your taste is more for dry, try a Verdelho with some cheese.




Friday, December 10

Island Treats

Hi everyone. I'm sorry to have been missing for a while - I've come to Portugal for a family visit.

After spending some time in the Algarve, we arrived in Madeira this afternoon, for some pre-Christmas R&R. Madeira is an island paradise in the Atlantic. It belongs to Portugal, but being off the coast of Morocco, it feels more like the beginning of Africa than the end of Europe. The volcanic earth has yielded all manner of colourful and plentiful flora: gigantic cactus plants, towering palms, shrubs bursting with bright red flowers and broad, stiff leaves - it's almost prehistoric.

In the taxi from the airport, we were being told all about the local food. Names like 'espada' and 'espadete' whizzed past me as I tried to take down notes in my iPhone (one index finger can only go so fast...). We have three days to explore the food (and the island), but until then, I wanted to share with you the welcome treats in our hotel room: some Typical Madeira cakes. I particularly liked the queijadinha, which was like a light sweet-savoury cheese puff atop a light but firm pastry base. The bolo de mel was good too, and very Christmassy, with its spicy sweetness.

I'm typing this in the hotel's business centre and it's just past 10.30. After two flights to get here and an Italian dinner, I think it's time for bed...



Sunday, December 5


Dorothy was not a very good cook but she put her heart and soul into cooking. She would conscientiously cut the vegetables, mix the sauces, clean the meat and make a well balanced meal. But, the meat was always too dry and there was never enough sauce. Her forte was Chinese food and she also tried out many Italian dishes and a few Thai recipes. My children were well fed and I was thankful to come home to a healthy and hot meal every day.

Dorothy was our Filipina nanny whom we brought with us from Hong Kong five years ago and a year ago today, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. We had been taking her to various back specialists for a couple of weeks thinking that she had a pinched nerve and she had even had steroids injected into her back as the doctors thought the same thing. Then, this day last year, I took her to urgent care when she told me about her breast hurting when I was helping her get into bed and that is when the unravelling began. We watched helplessly as she was rushed into emergency spinal surgery as the cancer had metastasized down her spinal cord paralyzing her waist down. The doctors managed to reverse the paralysis but the cancer had grown through the bones in her back and had shattered a few vertebrae. She was in hospital for almost three months in a back brace after that, and she shrank to a third of her former self. The doctors thought that she would not be able to fly back and an air ambulance would be the only option, an option that was not within our means. Thankfully, CMC Rehab worked a small miracle and we had a small window of opportunity to fly her back as she was able to take a few steps with a zimmerframe. A Filipina nurse in the hospital kindly volunteered to fly back with her and we managed to send her back to the Philippines to spend her last 10 weeks at home with her family. We will always be thankful to the Charlotte Medical Center and their staff for their tireless work and caring hearts.

My children miss her terribly and every time I cook Chinese food, they get very quiet and sad and tell me how much they miss her. Even today, as five-year old Chocolate was taking a bath, she suddenly said, "Mamma, a hundred Dorothies......., I miss." It is going to take a long time.

Dorothy and I exchanged many thoughts and feelings those final months. I told her how thankful I was that she came with us to the U.S. to help us. I was especially thankful to be able to leave my children at home with her so that I could go back to work. Without her at home, I don't think I would have had the courage and the will to have left them at a day-care or hire a local nanny at that point. She told me that she too was thankful as the wages she earned here had enabled her to send both children to college and her son was graduating from police school. "And I got to see Americaaaaa!" I also felt guilty as I felt responsible for having kept her from her family for four years. Given her work visa, she would not have been able to return to the States if she had left and so she had stayed here for four years at a stretch. She shushed me and said that she talked to them every day anyway and in fact, in her mind, Vanilla and Chocolate were her children and that was how she treated them. She was here with family.

So, no, Dorothy was not a very good cook, but she was a wonderful caregiver to my children and we will never forget her. May she rest in peace.



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