Thursday, October 12, 2006

 

Housewarming Party!




The Madeleines Project is finally settled in its new home.

The boxes have been unpacked (even the 'odd' ones with bits and bobs that did not belong anywhere else), the curtains have been hung and the kettle is on for some tea. If you would like to join us, please ring the bell, wipe your feet and come on in.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

 

Madeleines in Progress

I am currently working on a new design for this blog, as well as some new Madeleines. I have not abandonned the project mid-course (although I never did define an end, either). So please keep coming back!

For those of you who have not left comments yet, if you leave me an email address (write 'dot' and 'at' instead of '.' and '@' to avoid getting spam), I'll make sure to let you know when the new Madeleines New Look is up and running.

Meanwhile, thanks for your support so far!

Monday, July 03, 2006

 

Madeleine # 8: The Holy Trinity of the Maur

Sand, Sun and Stars.
Camel, Dates & Lamb.

You would think that the Bedouin already had 2 holy trinities for surviving the Sahara. But within the first few hours you spend in these men's company, you discover that the holiest of holies, is the Mint Tea. And that teas come in three's, just like the 3 ages of life. The first one is weak in taste, but very sweet, like a childhood without worries and concerns. The second one is balanced in strength and sweetness, like a full grown man who knows that both maketh the man. And the third is strong and yet tempered by a memory of the sweetness that was, like old age full of the wisdom of many years.

Mohammed, our resident watchman in Nouakchott, was definitely a third glass of tea. To my 13 years, he was even a fourth or fifth. But having experienced the first and the second, he could recognise sweetness and strength, cruelty and weakness, when he saw them. And that may be how he one day saved our lives, for all we know. But more of that later.

Some of you may have tasted Moroccan mint tea, which to me tastes like somewhere between a 1st and a 2nd glass. But very few of you may know that the Mauritanians have a tea ceremony, maybe not as complex as the Japanese, but just as important. At all times of the day, wherever you are and no matter for how short or long, you will be offered - and expected to accept - the 3 glasses of mint tea. At sunset in the capital, Nouakchott, one can see small groups of men, lying around in the sand, chatting and drinking mint tea. It's the physicla embodiment of happiness.

I have to rely on observation and memory for the recipe, as neither my parents nor I ever learned the true ritual, so bear with me.

Green gunpowder tea
Fresh mint leaves (I have no idea how they manage to get that in the middle of the Sahara, but they do)

Sugar cone
Sugar 'axe' or 'hammer'
Teapot with small spout
Small tea glasses
Ability to squat on your haunches

Pour 2 tbsp of the green tea into the teapot, add a handful of mint leaves, and some sugar freshly hacked off the cone. Add boiling water. Stir with a spoon.

Now for the tricky part. A good mint tea is frothy. And the froth is obtained by pouring the scalding liquid from a great height into a small glass, then pouring the content of the glass back into the teapot and repeating. Over and over again.

There must be a magical formula which guarantees that all present get the right 1st, 2nd and 3rd glass experience, all with froth, but sadly, I do not know it. If anybody out there has it, please leave it as a comment. You will be rewarded with gazillions of happy orange Madeleine vibrations from me to you. And let's face it, you can NEVER have too many of those.

I have recently started drinking mint tea again, in the morning but also at work. We have a small stainless steel tea pot at the office and my co-workers think me slightly bonkers for pouring the sugar directly into it (and for all the other things I do in that kitchen). But you don't get the '3 life stages experience' if you don't have the sugar. And when I take that first, fragrant sip of each of the 3 stages - sorry glasses - I smile into the distance, sigh a wellbeing sigh and think of Mohammed. Sometimes I also think of the day he may very well have saved our lives.

It was in April 1989 and border skirmishes between Senegal and Mauritania escalated into full blown riots, where Mauritanians were killing anybody vaguely resembling a Senegalese (i.e. black) and the Senegalese were doing the same to anyone Bedouin-looking. Harrowing times which are best not described in all their horror here (I have been considering for a few weeks how to describe them and have decided not to), but best remembered by the acts of courage they also engendered.

The biggest act of courage was my Dad's. As UN Representative, he unilaterally decided to organise an air-bridge between Nouakchott and Dakar to evacuate the refugees from both sides. Meanwhile, the UN office was transformed into a make-shift refugee camp, where people who had lost everything waited to be the next to be sent to a country which was not even their own. But not before the Mauritanian authorities had stripped them of their papers and few remaining belongings, thus also stripping them of their identity at arrival.

As could be expected, my Dad was hardly flavour of the month and my teenage self stupidly resented not being able to have the freedom I had enjoyed until then, as I had to be accompanied everywhere, for fear of retribution. For several months we lived according to the UN Warning System, where Warning 3 meant ‘Stay at Home’ and were considering what we would pack into the single suitcase we knew we could take with us if the order was given to evacuate. We all 3 agreed that instead of a suitcase, we would save our beloved dog, Balder instead.

At the height of the riots, my Dad had to leave my Mum and me alone, to go and make sure that all his UN staff were safe. Before leaving, he taught me how to fire a gun - a Magnum I think - so that at the age of 16 I could defend both of us. I remember standing on the first floor of our inner court, being shown how to load it and unlatch the safety mechanism, take aim. At the legs/feet, nothing more! We are peace-loving people. Perhaps it was my Dad's way to boost our sense of safety. Perhaps it was to make himself more confident that we could defend ourselves. Or perhaps he genuinely believed that I could do it.

In the end, Mohammed saved me from knowing if I have what it takes to fire a gun pointed at another human being. When rioters started amassing in front of our house one night, Mohammed climbed onto the gate and told them in no uncertain terms that the people living there were good people and to leave them alone. Or that's what he told us he had told them. Whatever he told them, it worked. And we are forever grateful for it. A month or so later, my Dad's contract was up and we left, virtually persona non grata.

Looking back at that period, that’s probably when I took my first steps from the 1st glass of mint tea towards the 2nd.

Monday, June 19, 2006

 

Madeleine # 7: In-Laws & The Food of Love

Picture this: 2 days after we started 'dating', Husband-to-Be (H2B) thought it was 'safe' to bring me back to his place, which at the time was also his parents' home (he had just started work after finishing his studies), to pick up some things. I was not overly keen (read "Dead against") on meeting the family this early on, but he assured me that his parents were away all day and only his younger brother would be home.

H2B had warned me that they were very different, but it still gobsmacked me when I met him. Husband is taller than me (1,90 m), blonde, blue eyes - a true viking. Brother-in-Law to Be (BiL2B) is my height (1,75 m), and as dark as Husband is fair. It also gobsmacked me that he had a girl perched on his back, like a little monkey. Not a little girl, no, a fully grown one, who - I suspect - had fallen victim to his Seduction Dish.

BiL2B was understandably curious to see the Giraffe (aka ME), and we started chatting. One thing led to another and suddenly... the parents came through the door. To say that I was NOT ready for that would have been a contender for the understatement of the month.

Deep breath. And that was that. H2B's mum smelled like my own mum: Ysatis by Givenchy, and no-one could resist the infectious enthusiasm of his dad. My in-laws and I never looked back, and neither - fortunately- did Husband and I (otherwise, he probably wouldn't be Husband today, would he?). My mother-in-law-to-be (MiL2B) being as fabulously hospitable as my own mum, started putting on a lavish feast of 'just a few nibbles'. Now, THAT was the winner of "understatement of the month". I quickly learnt that in their home, that meant: smoked salmon, mortadella with home-dried tomatoes in olive oil, homemade liver paté, various saucissons, maybe a few herrings, some melon and prosciutto, lots and lots of cheeses and the infamous Mussel Salad. BiL2B proudly told me that the latter was his Food of Love. As in 'I prepare this, and the girl gets weak at the knees'.

The thing is, the dish looks as dull as dishwater, even when presented in my MiL2B's beautiful ceramics (which, by the way, are what each and every Madeleine is presented in on this blog, except for the Kim Chee, which is pictured in the bowl made with my own 2 clumsy hands). The ingredients list reads like a very uninspired shopping list, but the whole things just works. I’m not sure why BiL2B elected this as his Signature Luurve Dish, but I suspect it has something to do with: 1) you can always have the ingredients at hand, in your larder, in case of a Seduction Emergency and 2) it’s very easy and quick to make.

So here goes, Seduction Dish à la BiL2B:

1 can of drained mussels in brine
1 handful of garden peas (frozen, if you want the salad to cool
quickly, but definitely not canned – too mushy)

1 small onion, finely chopped
1/2 tsp curry powder (optional)
salt & lots of pepper
2 tbsp mayonnaise

Mix the 5 first ingredients well, before adding the mayonnaise. Leave to cool (or for the peas to defrost) and enjoy on a slice of nice crusty bread. You'll have
to trust BiL2B on this one, as I have never needed to seduce anyone since I met
Husband... Cheesy!


I made this last night for the 1st time. Normally Husband always prepares it.

Memories of countless meals at my parents-in-law flooded my senses. Meals and happy times. Meals and not-so-happy times. The Food of Love, indeed. When Husband had to work in Norway for 2 years and I was unemployed, my parents 'entrusted' me to their new friends, my in-laws. And I really needed their support to get me through those years. When my father-in-law so suddenly passed away, it was my turn to be there for my new family. My MiL2B and I supported each other through many months, spent in her ceramist workshop, where she taught me the rudiments of her craft and we enjoyed a few moments away from our darker thoughts, lost in the magic of creation, learning, coaching and friendship. I miss that today, as we live far away in London now, but I want both MiL and BiL to know that I am still always there if they need me.





Friday, June 09, 2006

 

Madeleine # 6: Meatballs & Angels

Just the thought of certain smells and tastes make my mouth water. Literally. Garlic and onion frying. Ripped basil leaves. Ripe melon. Freshly baked bread. Rosemary. Coriander. Lime. So imagine the amount of drewling which goes on when I think about, prepare, smell and eat (in that order) something which incorporates fried onion & garlic, coriander and lime... These meatballs are a variation on a recurring theme. Recurring, because it seems I encounter them in different guises throughout my life.

In Kenya, my mum bought a local cookbook with recipes from the little Swahili Island of Lamu. I don't know if she ever tried any of the other recipes, but the one I am about to describe is definitely the one which became a household fixture, and has stayed with me ever since. There was a terribly traumatic period when the cookbook went AWOL and both my mum and I had to improvise the dish. It was still good, but definitely not as SCHLURP as the real McCoy. Finally it was found, behind a cupboard, half eaten by something (best not imagine what), but THE recipe was intact and was duly copied by yours truly (notice the stains).


For the meatballs
500g mince meat (beef or lamb)
2 onions, finely chopped
1 garlic clove
1 tbsp fresh
ginger

4-6 fresh limes
salt & pepper

Pound garlic, ginger & pepper into a smooth paste w. the lime juice (ideally with pestle & mortar). Add salt. Mix paste with meat & onions. Shape into small balls (not TOO small), cover and leave in fridge to chill and to avoid that they disintegrate while cooking.

For the sauce
3 onions, sliced
2 cans of chopped tomatoes
tomato puree
cooking oil
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tbsp fresh ginger, grated or finely chopped
1 chilli, finely chopped
1 tbsp fresh cardamom pods
1tbsp cumin seeds
big bunch of
fresh coriander (ideally with roots)

3-4 limes
salt & pepper

Fry cardamom and cumin to release flavour, then put to one side. Fry onions in oil. When nearly
cooked, add garlic & ginger. Fry for a minute, then add fried spices. Add chilli and chopped coriander roots. Add tomatoes and tomato puree. Cook slowly, while stirring on gentle heat. Add a little water if sauce is too thick.


Drop the meatballs in the sauce one at a time anf let it simmer (covered) over very low heat until ready (cooking time depends on the size of the meatballs). When ready, add juice from limes and lots of chopped coriander. Cover again and cook for 5 minutes, before serving with rice.



This is a guaranteed winner for any informal dinner. Even with people who are sick and tired of you.

When I lived in Geneva with my then boyfriend, his friends offered to help us move, before they realised that there was no lift and only very narrow and steep stairs up to our new home. The sofa-bed almost didn't make it, and our friendship was on decidely rocky ground, until - as promised - they tasted the meatballs my mum had so generously offered to cook to thank them for their hard work. Well, they are still friends with my ex-boyfriend, I believe...

Now to the many guises. During my studies, I did an internship in Rabat, Morocco and rented a flat from a colleague who was on holiday for the whole duration of my stay. The flat came fully furnished. And with Malika. Malika was the cleaner, who also cooked for the colleague who was a die-hard bachelor. But whereas he always wanted roast chicken, steak and fries, I convinced Malika to only cook Moroccan dishes for me. The sheer bliss of coming home every evening to one of her simple but fantastically tasty feasts! One evening I came home to find a traditional tagine on the stove, and when I lifted the lid, there they were, my Lamu meatballs! Granted, no lime, but the Malika magic had worked something else into them (I should have known, since Melika means Little Angel, and
Malaika is a beautiful Swahili love song).

I tried to coax her recipes from her and although she was very willing to share them my Moroccan was just not good enough. It stretched to "hello", "goodbye" and "no, my dad will not sell me for 40 camels". Ok, the last one is a joke, as my Dad has actually never been offered as much as an old crippled camel or goat for my hand, in 10 years of living in Africa. I choose to put it down to the fact that I have dark hair and a dark complexion, which in North Africa helps me to look at least half-indigenous, unlike my blonde friends who could not walk down the street without being propositioned. I chose to be happy about the lack of proposals, instead of feeling like some women who are angry when builders whistle at them, but vexed when they don't!

The most recent encounter with a variation on this theme was during our honeymoon in Tanzania last year, to an island not far from Lamu actually,
Mafia Island (no connection to Don Corleone whatsoever. Although I did try making them an offer they couldn't refuse...). The cooking at the little hotel was Swahili, just like on Lamu, and absolutely scrumptious. The starter for lunch was always a cold soup, and in the evening a warm one. They could have published a book of wonderful soup recipes! Anyway, one lunch, they served a cold tomato soup, seasoned with lots of lime and corianger! My meatballs without the meatballs! As it was in October, I haven't had a chance to make it myself here in London yet, but this week the weather has become very summer-y indeed and who knows if I won't rekindle a bit of our honeymoon spirit by offering Husband a little Madeleine...






Sunday, June 04, 2006

 

Madeleine # 5: Baby Coq au Vin

Blood, Sweat & Tears... Well, almost. Anyway: I DID IT!!!I DID IT!!!I DID IT!!!I DID IT!!! Yes, 4 times, since I managed to poach 4 eggs! I simply couldn't believe it. You want proof? Here you go:




But let's go back to the beginning, where I asked Baronne to ask her mum to supply the recipe for this finger-lickingly scrumptious recipe: Oeufs en Meurette. I have always called it a Baby Coq au Vin, since it is essentially a red wine sauce with bacon pieces. OK, no mushrooms, but I'm not a stickler for details, as you might have realised by now. And the Baby part? Well, an egg is a form of VERY young rooster, isn't it? Or could have been.

Baronne & her mum gladly obliged, and since Tuesday I had been looking (and salivating) at the recipe, as well as dreading the whole egg poaching thing (as you might have realised by now). So Saturday morning came, and the moment of truth. First things first, we were off to buy great eggs. For once, we chose to forego our beloved Borough Market and opted instead for a walk in the nice weather to Marylebone High St and its fabulous Ginger Pig, where we also got some yummy smoked bacon for this Madeleine (and some garlic Toulouse sausages which are on the menu for tonight...)

150g smoked bacon (lardons)

1 chopped onion or large shallot

0,5 l good red wine ("the better the wine, the better the sauce")

1 bouquet garni (thyme from windowsill, bay leaves from Parents, parsley, tied together with string) - I did not have any string, so just threw it in

3 chopped garlic cloves (only 1 if using shallot) - I had no idea there was a shallot/garlic ratio

1 tbsp flour

2 tbsp butter

2 eggs per person

Optional: a large slice of toasted country bread per person

Gently fry the lardons with 1 tbsp butter until golden brown, then keep to one side. In the same pan, fry the onion in the bacon fat / butter until soft, then add the wine, 1 glass of water, the bouquet garni and the garlic. Leave it to simmer for 20 minutes, uncovered

Meanwhile, boil water with 2 tbsp vinegar. When the water boils, add the raw egg. This is where I tried all my previous 'tricks' and it seemed to work (hence the whisk on the photo). Break the egg into a glass, to make it easier to pour into the water. Once the water boils, use the whisk to create a whirlpool in the middle, which will help to coat the yolk in egg white, helping it along
with a spoon.
Pour the egg in. Leave to boil for 2-3 minutes depending on how runny you like the yolk, take it out with a slotted spoon, and transfer to a dish lined with kitchen towel, to absorb the excess water. Cover with a bowl until ready to serve. Repeat as necessary.

Once the eggs are poached (I make it sound so easy, hihi), strain the sauce and pour back into the pan with the fried lardons. Then add the beurre manié (at this point, I had to ask google for help, since I didn't know my roux from my beurre manié - yes, that's also the English term for it). Bring gently to the boil, while stirring so the sauce thickens. Toast the bread, if necessary. Et
voilà: bon appétit!


And there they were. No, not the eggs. The memories, and my two silly teenage friends, Baronne & Loreal. We were 'Best Friends in the Whole Wide World' for one year, when we all lived in Nouakchott, at the tender ages of 15-16. Joined at the hip and terribly giggly, if I remember correctly. Giving each other silly nick-names, of which only "Baronne" seems to still stick. Always at one or the other's house, depending on 1) whether the parents were home and 2) if they were, then what was for dinner.

At Loreal's house, we would raid the cheese cupboard (in Mauritania, that's the equivalent of gold nuggets), at mine I can't remember what our preference was (can you enlighten me, girls?) and at Baronne's it was her mum's Oeufs en Meurette. A revelation to me and to Loreal, I believe, since we still wax lyrical about them today. We would spend hours, even days, chatting, listening to music and chatting some more. About boys, mainly, as is wont at that age... But also about our theatre debut, where we put on Moliere's 'Les Precieuses Ridicules' or Alfred de Musset's 'Une Nuit de Mai', where Loreal would recite and I would mime a wounded pelican behind her. Not my finest hour, I assure you... I remember our instructor telling her to be more like Sarah Bernhard... at 16! Once a week, we would go to the only entertainment available, a documentary at the French Cultural Institute, which was opposite Baronne's house. At the weekend, we would go to the deserted beach (or Desert Beach), since only a large sand dune separated the Sahara desert from the beach.

There were no mobiles, no texts, no PS2, no shopping, no clubbing, no iPods, no DVDs (we did have out-of-date French Top of the Pops, though...), no nail bars or hair designers (no sun screen either...), or whatever teenagers seem to be unable to live without today (do I sound like a Grumpy Old Lady yet?). And yet, we were happy as can be.

And then we lost touch, as often happens when you move to other countries, and you have new concerns (such as exams & studies) and new friends. Boyfriends. Suddenly, 15 years had gone by, and we did not know what had become of the others. We must have been longing for contact (or having an early mid-life crisis, like all other 30-something people), seeing as we all registered on Copains d'Avant (French Friends Re-United). And suddenly, there they were. One was married for the 2nd time with 3 kids, the other has a Partner and 2 kids. WOW! How can all that have happened while my back was turned? So for the past 6 months, we have been busy catching up via email, IM and blogs. And we are planning a reunion in the fall. In London, without husbands or kids. Bring on the giggles!

But this Madeleine does not end here. I had told my mum so much about this dish, that several years later, she finally indulged me. And although she is an amazing cook, her first foray into the world of Meurettes, ended in a GREEN disaster. To this day, we have no idea how that happened, but the 10 people who were the dinner guests that evening had some very funny faces on! It would be many years before any of us ventured as far as making this dish again. Years later I would be reminded of this, while watching Bridget Jones cook Blue Soup...

When I met Husband (who was Boyfriend, back then), and realised he had never been to France and was blissfully ignorant of its traditional culinary delights, I made it my mission to order it for him the 1st time we were in Paris together, in a little restaurant near St Sulpice. He was converted!

So the proof of the pudding, as they say here in Britain, lay in whether my Baby Coq au Vin passed the Husband test. What do you think?


Wednesday, May 31, 2006

 

Great minds think alike...


... and fools never differ!

Apparently, my egg-centric (sic) Madeleine, has spurned interest hitherto unfathomed. Venerable egg-sperts (re-sic) have last week decided that... TA-DAAAA: THE EGG CAME FIRST

However, sorting out philosophical and biological questions is very well, but do they even know how to poach an egg? I rest my case. And I'm glad to say that I am using fewer egg-related puns than CNN journalists.

PS: thanks to Dad who always reads EVERYTHING in the news, for making me aware of this life-altering 'discovery'

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