Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Busy Weekend!

I am so sorry that I didn't update my blog yesterday. I had a bit of a crazy weekend with the Hartlepool United vs. West Ham game on Saturday and my niece Abbie's dance competition on Sunday. Jason and I are getting ready to head out to the lake district for the rest of the week. I am going to be really lazy and instead of giving you an explanation I will give you a link to the Wikipedia entry for the lake district so you can read more about it. I will be sure to take a lot of photos and fill you in on everything next week.

This was kind of a last minute opportunity so we have been busy getting things straightened out so we can leave for the week.

Also, remember to read my column on Anglotopia tomorrow!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Someone's in the Kitchen

Today I am going to tell you a little about cooking in England, it has been a huge challenge for me to catch my stride in shopping and getting around the kitchen here so there is a lot to tell. First, let me direct you to the left column, you will see a link for "Anglotopia> Dispatches from the North". This is a new column I am writing for a website called Anglotopia which is a site dedicated to British culture. I am really excited for the opportunity to write for Anglotopia. If you check out the site you will notice that as expected there is a lot to do with London on the site, so I am really excited to offer a Northern perspective. Maybe the North East Tourism Board will thank me for relaying the message to Anglophiles that the North is definitely worth a visit! I will be updating my column on Anglotopia on Wednesdays, and my posts will show up at the left so if you would like you can feel free to check it out. I won't be writing about all the same things since it is a different audience so it shouldn't be too monotonous if you want to read both.

Now, back to the subject of this blog! Those of you who know me well know that I love cooking. I was so excited when I moved here and realized I would have my own kitchen, not a kitchen I shared with two vegetarian roommates, a kitchen that I could work in every day at my leisure. In my first couple months I wrote a lot about my frustrations navigating the UK supermarkets. Now that I have sorted my courgettes from my aubergines and have figured out that ham is bacon and bacon is ham, I am left with another dilemma altogether. 

For Christmas Jason bought me Jamie Oliver's new cookbook "Jamie's Ministry of Food" which I believe is only available in the UK, so sadly you can't go out and buy it because its a fantastic cookbook. Jamie Oliver was one of my favorite chefs to watch on the Food Network and I love his rustic no-fuss style of cooking so I love this cookbook. Up until I received this cookbook, I had been working from American recipes. The big difference is that in the UK recipes are composed of weight instead of volume. For example, instead of a recipe calling for 2 cups of flour it might call for 500 grams of flour, and I just pulled those numbers out of my head and don't have a clue if those two are anywhere near equal. 

That is my problem, I can eyeball a cup but I have no idea what 500 grams looks like. I think it will be difficult for me to learn to judge amounts the way I do with American style cooking, because a cup of sugar and a cup of nuts are going to appear exactly the same but 500 grams of sugar and 500 grams of nuts will probably appear completely different. I purchased a digital scale to aid in measuring my ingredients but often when I am in the kitchen I like to substitute ingredients or add a half cup more of something if I really like it, so making recipes my own is a bit of challenge with metric cooking. 

The other sad thing about this is that it makes it difficult for me to share my favorite recipes with my American friends. I suppose I could go to the trouble of measuring out ingredients and transferring them to a measuring cup to convert it for my friends it is just an awful lot of trouble to go through and too many added steps when I am trying to prepare dinner.

Another inconvenience is that the kitchen equipment itself is much different. The ovens here are roughly half the size of ovens in the US, which is really disappointing for me when I am used to a nice cavernous oven. Below is a photo of a typical English cooker (yes, they call it a cooker here).

At the very top is what is called a grill here, it is really more like a broiler, the flame comes down from above and the food you want to "grill" (or if you are American, broil) is placed on the tray below that slides out. The stovetop is called the "hob" and is pretty much the same as an American stovetop with 4 burners but it just goes by a different name. Finally at the bottom is the tiny oven. 

Just in case you are wondering, what we would consider a grill is only called a barbecue. You don't say you are grilling out, you would say you are barbecuing even if there is no barbecue sauce involved. This has been the most challenging for me because when I think of a grill I think of a grate that is heated from underneath and here it is basically the exact opposite. Also, although toasters are available, most people make toast in their grills. It turns out that although I am a fantastic cook the one thing I can't ever seem to get right is toast. I almost always get distracted and leave one side in for just a little too long and it doesn't take more than a few seconds to go from perfectly browned to charred and black. The grill's heat source is an open gas flame, so I supposed it is kind of like trying to make toast with a giant blow torch and I can't get the hang of it.

Finally, while I am on the subject of kitchens, I know in my Thanksgiving post I briefly mentioned what a typical Sunday dinner is here. Although it might be common in America for families to sit down to a family meal, as with most things here the definition of "Sunday dinner" is much more finite. Ever Sunday, British mothers cook a roast of some kind, usually beef, pork, chicken or lamb and this is served with roasted vegetables like carrots and parsnips, sometimes Brussels sprouts and stuffing balls (which are exactly what they sound like, its like a meatball but made with stuffing), and always brown gravy and Yorkshire puddings. The meal is usually served in the mid-afternoon between 2 and 4 o'clock. 

There is never any change to this formula, and like clockwork every Sunday every house in the UK smells like roasting meat and veggies. There is an option for those who can't cook or those who are hungover from Saturday night. Most restaurants and hotels have a carvery ever Sunday. It is a buffet style dinner with a carving station at the front with beef, pork, chicken and lamb and then all of the other Sunday dinner staples. It is a common topic of conversation here to discuss which place has the best Sunday carvery. 

I have recently started adhering to this custom and the past two weeks I have made a proper Sunday dinner before Jason has to drive back to Scotland for work. Last week I made a roast leg of lamb and yesterday I made a roast pork loin. I of course still add my own flavor to it by seasoning my roasts with lots of herbs and garlic, but I think I will soon become an expert at preparing roasts.

I hope you enjoyed my post this week, thanks for reading!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Whitby and the Hartlepool Headland

This weekend Jason and I decided to take a drive out to Whitby. I had never been there before but it was definitely worth seeing. Everything about the trip was not quite what I expected. I didn't realize quite how close we were to the North Yorkshire Moors which is a national park area of what here is known as "hills" but I think by American standards they could be called low mountains. The term moor does not actually refer to elevation but rather to the vegetation. The moors are covered in a spongy acidic earth that is layer of peat covered over by a dark bushy moss. 

Sadly we chose a cold and windy day to go make the trip and didn't wear our warmest clothes since it turned out to be colder than forecasted. At the top of the moors everything was covered in a beautiful layer of frost and snow.

Whitby itself was not quite what I expected. I expected a small village but it was actually a good sized town and it reminded me a lot of Durham except it was on a beautiful harbor. The highlight of Whitby is the headland where the ruined remains of Whitby Abbey are hauntingly perched.

Whitby Abbey was founded by the Abbess of Hartlepool, St. Hilda in 657 AD. The first Abbey fell to viking attack in 876 and was later resurrected in 1078 by William de Percy. During the Dissolution in 1540 the Abbey was destroyed by Henry VIII leaving the ruins that stand today. Bram Stoker was a frequent visitor to Whitby Abbey and it is believed that Whitby Abbey was his inspiration for his legendary novel Dracula.  It is no mystery why this site inspired Stoker to write Dracula. 

Had the weather been a bit warmer we probably would have explored inside a bit more but we will probably do this in April when my parents come to visit and the weather is nice. 

Keeping with the theme of headlands and St Hilda, Jason took me up to the Hartlepool headland yesterday afternoon to take some photos of St. Hilda's. The original monastery of St. Hilda was founded in 640, but the church that stands on the headland today was built in the late twelfth century. 

The weather yesterday was beautiful (51 degrees and sunny) so Jason and I had a nice walk around the headland. The town wall surrounding the headland was built by the famous Bruce family (also know by their Norman name "de Brus"). The most famous descendent of the Harltepool Bruces was Robert the Bruce who was considered one of the greatest kings of Scotland. 

The town wall, built by the Bruce family

Waves crashing on the sea wall

The lighthouse and a Russian cannon

We had a great weekend, it turned out to be more eventful than I expected it to be. Thanks for reading! More to come next week!

A little update, this news story came out today! Study queries monkey legend roots

Monday, January 5, 2009

Happy 2009!

Jason and I had a fantastic New Year. We went to the Staincliffe Hotel which is just down the road from us here on the sea front. Neither of us had been before but we heard from many people that it was a good night so we had high expectations and we were not disappointed. We didn't know exactly what to expect but we got a nice champagne reception in the bar before the ballroom opened. When we went into the ballroom we were pleased to find we had our own private table, all of the groups that booked had their own table and it was all set up very nice. The only snag was that our name was misspelled on our table! 

The meal was delicious. For an appetizer they served "lobster parcels" which were puff pastry parcels filled with lobster meat and topped with a nice sauce. After our appetizers were served the waitstaff started bringing out the platters of food to the buffet tables on the dance floor and it was a huge spread. The best part was the beautiful seafood platter!

There were fresh mussels, prawns and smoked salmon and a big whole salmon in the middle. It was some of the best seafood I have ever had. There was a DJ and great music and dancing all night, although Jason and I didn't do much dancing ourselves.

The one big disappointment was that at midnight there was supposed to be a bagpiper and he never showed up so we missed out on that. The New Year celebrations in Scotland are so well known that many of the English have adopted some of their traditions, and across the world the Scottish song "Auld Lang Syne" has become the official anthem of New Year's Eve. The festival is called Hogmanay and the party in Edinburgh is considered the best New Year's Eve celebration, rivaling Times Square in New York. One tradition is to eat "haggis, tatties and neeps" at midnight. 

I know tatties and neeps sounds a bit x-rated but it is Scottish slang for mashed potatoes and turnips. Haggis is made from "sheep's pluck" which is the heart, liver and lungs mashed in with onions and spices and traditionally boiled in the sheep's stomach for three hours. I had never tried it before, and had no desire to, but as with black pudding I don't feel right saying I dislike it unless I have actually tried it. So I did...
It wasn't terrible, but it wasn't good enough to make me forget what it was made of. It also had a very unappealing texture, so after this one bite Jason happily finished the rest. 

Overall, it was a great way to ring in the New Year.

Now that 2009 has commenced, that also means the return of the reality show Celebrity Big Brother. Big Brother is HUGE over here, probably the biggest show on TV. Before it started I kind of dismissed it and thought it was going to be a lot like American reality shows which I don't usually follow, but Jason wanted to watch the first show when they entered the house so I watched- and I got hooked. 

There are three American celebrities on the show, La Toya Jackson, Vern Troyer (famous for his role as Mini-Me in the Austin Powers movies) and the rapper Coolio (famous for his 90s hit Gangsta's Paradise). There are 8 other British celebrities on the show, some former pop stars and TV presenters and even a Scottish Socialist politician. 

The thing that sucks you in is that it is on almost all the time. They have recap shows every single night and then after the recap shows they go to live footage of the celebs in the house, I found myself awake at 1:30 AM watching Coolio practicing Tae Kwon Do in his bathrobe out in the back garden of the Big Brother house. 

I think that is what the big difference is from most American reality shows. American reality shows are mostly overproduced and far from real, they squeeze one week of footage into one 30-60 minute show. They splice together video and sound clips to shape the story however they choose. I am sure there is some production for the highlight shows, and they do pick and choose which parts of the house and which conversations they are going to show live on the air, but in the end it is hours on end of live un-edited footage of "celebrities" getting bored in a house with no other stimulus but each other's conversation. I have been totally sucked in.

Hopefully I can pull myself away long enough to get some things done and get some sleep!

I hope everyone had a wonderful New Year! Thanks for reading again this week!