Great Stuff: Old School English Food, New School English Musical

The food: traditional English food, updated

The story:

While in England recently, I struggled to find simple, satisfying food experiences until, that is, I thought to go back to the basics.

For instance, I could eat a good savoury oat biscuit (my preferred brand at the moment being Rick Stein’s) with a chunk of mature cheddar and some spicy, fruity jelly (like Nuala’s Fiery Irish Gold from the Wychwood Barns Saturday market), all day long. Such a delicious combination.

Also classically English are pies, tarts and (French!) soufflés made with eggs and bitter greens. So when I flipped open an English food magazine and came across a recipe for a watercress and Gruyère soufflé from chef/author/TV personality Valentine Warner, I ripped it out and tried it at home, British measurements notwithstanding (my food scale came in handy). I used arugula AND watercress, to give it extra zing; did not make a paper collar as instructed; and managed to fold in the egg whites, though folding is not my strong suit.

The nicely puffed result was creamy comfort food that paired well with roasted root vegetables for a light supper.

Finally, while in Stratford-on-Avon, I encountered a new-to-me kind of crisp sugar cookie called a Shrewsbury Biscuit, made from a centuries-old recipe. After reading that dried fruit (i.e. raisins or currants) are sometimes added to the very simple cookie dough, I added dried blueberries and chopped roasted almonds in mine, to give them a fruit and nut feel that goes quite well with, yes, a cup of tea.

Blueberry Almond Shrewsbury Biscuits

Here’s the recipe:

Shrewsbury Biscuits (adapted from


100 g (4 oz) butter
150 g (5 oz) caster sugar
2 egg yolks
225 g (8 oz) plain flour
finely grated rind of 1 lemon
1/2 c. dried blueberries
1/2 c. chopped roasted almonds

1. Cream the butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy. Add the egg yolks and beat in well. Stir in the flour and lemon rind and mix to a fairly firm dough. Mix in blueberries and chopped almonds until evenly distributed.

2. Knead lightly on a lightly floured surface and roll out until about 0.5 cm (1/4 inch) thick. Cut out 6.5 cm (2 1/2 inch) rounds with a fluted cutter, and put on greased baking sheets.

3. Bake at 180°C (350°F) mark 4 for about 15 minutes, until lightly browned and firm to the touch. Transfer to wire racks to cool. Store in an airtight container.

A little food styling humour

Also nutty, sweet and altogether wonderful was the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Roald Dahl’s Matilda, The Musical that I saw in London’s West End in November. The show is inventively staged, beautifully performed, features some lovely music and wonderful dancing, and is not at all meant only for children. I can’t wait for someone (I’m talking to you, Mirvish Productions) to bring it across the Atlantic to wow audiences here.

48 Hour Eating, Theatre-Going and Rainy New York Visit Inspires Epic – okay, longish – Blog Post

The food: 5 meals in 48 hours

The story:

My husband E and I touched down in New York last week for a 48 hour rain-soaked visit, and immediately started eating. Our first meal was a late lunch at Chinatown Brasserie which I’d heard had excellent dim sum. That doesn’t explain why I ordered a prix fixe lunch that was not dim-sum-centric (I’ll blame the stresses of travel and the relentless rain for my faulty decision-making) but look at the pretty appetizer selection of dim sum that I did get, one each of a Curry Black Bass Avocado Tart (especially good), a Vegetable Spring Roll, a Shrimp, Corn & Chinese Chive Dumpling and a Shrimp & Snow Pea Leaf Dumpling.

While we waited – and waited – for our rather blah and P.F. Chang-ish main courses, E engaged the waiter in conversation about the Curb Your Enthusiasm episode (#78 – Car Periscope) filmed at Chinatown Brasserie that had recently aired (not the reason we went there). The waiter said he’d missed the Curb filming day but hey, Meg Ryan had just left the restaurant a few minutes before we arrived.

We stewed on this info tidbit – would we have wanted to see Meg Ryan? – until E’s Steamed Sea Bass with Broccoli & Black Beans (tasty and fresh-seeming) and my General Tso’s chicken (not so good – the chicken had an alarming artificial texture and shape to it) arrived with laughably small bowls of rice.

Our next stop was the TKTS line at the puddle-strewn South Street Seaport to buy next day matinee tickets for Follies. While waiting, E engaged in conversation with another stranger(!).

That night, we saw The Book of Mormon, which I thought was clever, funny and lively. I liked the religion mocking jokes, squirmed a little at the baby raping and clitoral mutilation jokes (I wish I was kidding), and wished for more unironic dancing. But I liked this song a lot, particularly starting at the 2:03 second mark of the vid:

After the show, we took our sodden selves to the Shake Shack on 8th Avenue, lined up briefly in the rain to get in, sat at a crowded communal table, soothed ourselves with burgers and fries, and talked to no one.

My all-time favorite burger: the Shack Burger from Shake Shack, with awesome SS fries

Day 2: Still raining. We visited the Met in the morning (where the roof was closed due to rain, grr) and saw Nora Ephon getting out of a cab on our way to the subway. E suggested I approach and tell her I’d reviewed her book “I Feel Bad About My Neck” in the Globe & Mail. I made my alarmed not-on-your-life face and pulled him away quickly.

We went to Torrisi Italian Specialties for an early lunch, and the sides on display looked so good we over-ordered: we had corn salad, fresh ricotta with olive oil and thyme, and fried cauliflower with our reliably flavourful eggplant parm and egg and potato sandwiches:

Spotted in the small house when we were there: Chef/owner Rich Torrisi taking a meeting at a corner table. Woo! We did not say hello.

That afternoon, we sat in our very good half-price seats, with a predominantly white-haired crowd, to see the new revival of Follies. Mixed in with what I thought were some rather tiresome scenes depicting marriage-related angst were a slew of wonderfully performed (with unironic dancing!) and often tear-inducing songs (gotta download that score), including the exuberant Who’s That Woman, an excerpt of which can be seen here (with tap dancing, yay):

After the show, we made our way through the incessant rain to Ippudo for a comforting and delectable bowl of ramen with a side of rice (yes, we were carb loading) and fried chicken.

The next morning, the rain began to let up just as we headed downtown to Locanda Verde for more comforting and reliably delicious food: a late breakfast of uova modenese (I can’t get enough of the cotechino hash and tomato hollandaise) for me, and a zucchini frittata for E:

No luminaries were on hand at Locanda Verde during our visit, though Beyonce and Jay-Z ate there three days later. When it wasn’t fucking well raining.

Torrisi and the Tonys

The food: Egg, potato and pepper sandwich

The story:

Before going to Torrisi Italian Specialties in Nolita, I didn’t know pepper (as in sweet green or red) and egg sandwiches were a traditional Italian-American food, especially in Chicago apparently, and especially featured around Easter time.

I had heard that the potato, egg and provolone sandwich (with peppers) served at lunch at Torrisi was a sandwich worth going out of one’s way for while in New York. And that the lunchtime Torrisi, an ultra-casual, busy hangout that serves upscale versions of Italian-American sandwiches and antipasti, morphs at night into a much lauded restaurant that serves a prix-fixe-only, no-reservations, changes-daily menu for dinner.

E and I timed our visit to Torrisi perfectly, and got our order in around 11:45 am, before the lineup extended out the door onto the street, and when we could still grab a table. We ordered potato and egg on a roll for me, eggplant parm on a hero for E, and three small antipasti plates to share: cauliflower with breadcrumbs, rapini with chilies, and asparagus with cheese.

Everything we ate was very good and deserving of the high end descriptor. Of the antipasti, I liked the crisp, cheesy and lemony asparagus best, with the sweet browned cauliflower coming in at a close second. But it was the delicious mixture of flavours in the potato, egg, cheese and peppers sandwich that lingered in my food memory and inspired me to try to recreate it when I came home to Toronto.

Torrisi Italian Specialties on Urbanspoon

After some trial and error – and substitution of an aged white cheddar for the too bland Provolone I used the first time I tried making this – I came up with a recipe for the sandwich that tastes almost as good as the Torrisi original.

Egg, Potato, Pepper and Cheese Sandwiches, Hungry Novelist style

4 large eggs, beaten with a splash of milk
2 good-sized Yukon Gold potatoes, cut in 1/2 inch cubes and parboiled until tender but not falling apart
2 roasted red peppers, seeded and cut in strips
1/4 to 1/2 cup grated aged white cheddar
Chalah rolls or slices of chalah bread
Butter for bread
Extra virgin olive oil for frying potatoes

1. Fry parboiled cubed potatoes in large skillet over medium high heat in 1-2 Tbsp. olive oil until browned on all sides. Remove to side plate.
2. Put bread in toaster or split rolls and toast in toaster oven or under broiler.
3. Pour egg mixture into skillet and cook over medium heat, stirring gently to scramble eggs, but keeping the curds large and soft. Just before cooking is complete, stir in peppers, potatoes and grated cheese. Season with salt and pepper.
4. Turn off stove element and allow residual heat in skillet to finish cooking the eggs and melt the cheese while you butter the toast. Pile egg mixture onto hot buttered toast and consume immediately.

Makes 3 sandwiches.

Also worth going out of one’s way for in New York are the current crop of musicals on Broadway that have been nominated for the Tony Awards, which will be given out this Sunday, June 12. Here’s a taste of Catch Me If You Can, a show that I quite enjoyed for its newness, Rat Pack era sensibility, tuneful score, real live Broadway dancers doing lots of actual Broadway style dancing, the cute and talented Aaron Tveit, and especially for this show-stopping number featuring Broadway live wire and Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz:

Think pink

The food: cupcakes

The story:

I was, ahem, in the pink this week, because I got to attend the opening night performance of the touring production of Legally Blonde, the Musical, currently playing at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto.

I saw the original cast on Broadway, including standout Laura Bell Bundy as Elle Woods, and very much enjoyed the show – it had great production values, high energy, and songs that were both tuneful and funny, thanks to the clever, self-parodic lyrics. And the touring production, which features several original cast members, is definitely of Broadway calibre, my only quibble being that the charmingly spunky Becky Gulsvig, who plays Elle, and sings in a voice pleasantly reminiscent of Kristin Chenoweth’s, is not as accomplished a dancer as Bundy is.

The book retains the movie’s more dubious plot points (I could do without everything about the “bend and snap”) but you gotta love a show that opens with the catchy and nuttily but entertainingly long number “Omigod you guys” – a song sequence that introduces half the cast, sets the story in high-speed motion, and includes a talking dog.

Best of all, the show features dancing, lots of it, wittily choreographed (check the different styles of dance the male chorines pull off – with grace, charm and comedic chops – including ersatz reggae and hip-hop, ballet, cheerleading and fitness class routines) and performed by great dancers with killer bodies.

In the spirit of Elle Woods, I wore something pink to the opening (as did many others in the audience) and felt compelled to buy pink food the next day, specifically a Pretty N’ Pink cupcake (made of chocolate cake with raspberry buttercream) from The Cupcake Shoppe, pictured above, and a Strawberries N’ Cream one (vanilla cake with vanilla and strawberry swirled buttercream), shown below.

I like my cupcakes chilled, cut into bite-sized pieces, and eaten with a fork. And I like my musical comedies a lot like Legally Blonde, The Musical – funny, dancey, featuring catchy music and clever lyrics, and performed by a large, talented cast on a big stage with nifty sets and pretty costumes.

Mirvish Productions presents Legally Blonde, the Musical, until August 8, 2010, at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto.

You can dance if you want to

The food: upside down nectarine pecan cake

The story:

Lately, I’ve been listening to the Glee version of the Men Without Hats tune Safety Dance, and wanting to be part of a dance flash mob like the one that danced to the song on Glee.

So when I passed some nice-looking nectarines today, on my way into a grocery store to buy some candy fruit slices, I decided on the spot – perhaps influenced by the “You can dance if you want to” exhortation playing on repeat in my head – to make an upside down nectarine cake. Because I wanted to.

The nice-looking nectarines:

And the fruit slice candies: (What? I bought them, too.)

The recipe I used for the cake – a favorite of my husband E – was adapted from a recipe for Cherry-Nectarine Upside-Down Cake that appeared in Cooking Light magazine in 1998 and has been reproduced all over the internets since. The ground pecans give the cake a nutty texture that complements the creaminess of the buttermilk and the sweetness of the fruit, and imparts a European flavour and sensibility, besides.

The original recipe calls for arranging the nectarine slices spoke-like in the bottom of the cake pan, but I couldn’t be bothered to do that when a haphazard scattering of the slices looks just as tasty to my eye:

And I figure if I can dance if I want to, I can place nectarine slices any way I please, too.

Nectarine-Pecan Upside-Down Cake (adapted from Cooking Light magazine, 1998)

2 cups thinly sliced nectarines (from 2 medium sized nectarines)
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons pecans OR almonds, toasted and ground
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
pinch salt
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 large egg
2/3 cup low-fat buttermilk

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Cut a circle of parchment paper to fit bottom of 9 inch round cake pan and place inside pan. Spray paper and sides of pan with cooking spray.
3. Spread nectarine slices over paper in a single layer, some overlaps permitted.
4. Combine flour, ground nuts, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a bowl. Stir to mix.
5. Cream butter in electric mixer, add sugar, mix until combined, then add egg and vanilla, beat well.
6. Add flour mixture to creamed mixture alternately with buttermilk, ending with flour mixture. Beat well after each addition.
7. Pour batter over fruit.
8. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until a fork inserted in center comes out clean. Cool on rack.
9. Invert onto plate, peel off parchment paper and admire abstract design of nectarines.
10. Serve with plain yogurt sweetened with maple syrup or honey, or with vanilla yogurt.

Buttery Cheese Straws

The food: Darina’s cheese straws

The story:

Before I became a writer, I worked for several years in a corporate type office. One of my friends and coworkers there was a woman named Darina, who had emigrated to Canada from the then-named Czechoslovakia at an early age, and brought with her family customs and recipes for special and ordinary occasions. Committed as I was and am to discovering other people’s precious (and sometimes secret) family food delicacies, I encouraged her to bring into work for sharing anything she thought I might like to eat.

She came through with the delicious, rich and addictive cheese straws that she made every year around Christmastime. She brought me some every December for years, and recited the deceptively simple recipe for them from memory when I asked for it. 19 years have passed since I left the corporate life, but I still make Darina’s cheese straws regularly, often after E expresses a craving for a batch, and I still use the scribbled notes I took down the day she gave me the recipe. I use low fat pressed cottage cheese to make them, so the high butter content must be what makes them so rich – maybe they should be called Cheesy Butter Straws instead.

Cheesy Buttery Caraway Cheese Straws (thanks to Darina Phillips)

1/2 lb/250 gr. sweet butter, preferably European style cultured butter, softened
1/2 lb./250 gr. pressed cottage cheese (I used .5% butterfat) such as from Western Creamery in Ontario
1 egg, beaten
2 c. unbleached flour
coarse kosher salt, about 2 T.
paprika for sprinkling
caraway seeds, about 4 T.

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Lay parchment paper on cookie sheet(s).
2. Combine butter, cream cheese, egg and flour in large food processor. Pulse just until a large ball of soft dough forms.
2. Cut dough in half. On floured board, roll out half of dough to a 1/4 inch thickness. (Rolled out dough should be about 11 inches square). Sprinkle rolled dough with half of kosher salt, paprika and caraway seeds and press salt and seeds into dough with hands.
3. Cut into 1/2 inch by 5-6 inch strips, and roll each strip with hands to make cylindrical straws rather than flat ones. Place straws on parchment paper covered cookie sheet, about a 1/2 inch apart.

4. Bake in 325 degree oven for 12 minutes. Remove straws from oven, turn – they should be lightly browned on the bottom – and return to oven for 2-3 minutes more.

5. Remove from oven, and let cool on cookie sheet. Repeat steps with second half of dough or refrigerate dough in plastic wrap for a day and do the rolling, sprinkling, cutting, hand-rolling and baking then.

6. Straws are best eaten warm, and can be reheated for 5 minutes in a toaster oven or regular oven. They can also be frozen for later defrosting and reheating.

Yield: 50

Also cheesy and good is the song The Best of Times, from the musical La Cage Aux Folles. I missed the original Broadway production of the show in the 1980’s, but when I caught the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre revival of it in London’s West End last fall, featuring a golden-throated John Barrowman, I fell in love with the charming score. The show is being transferred (back?) to Broadway this spring, with Kelsey Grammer and Douglas Hodge in the lead roles. To whet your appetite for it, here is The Best of Times, sung winningly by John Barrowman and Broadway stars Faith Prince and Marin Mazzie at a tribute to composer Jerry Herman.

Beautiful Vegetables, Roof-Raising Sisters

The food: Fresh takes on vegetables


During my recent trip to England, I ate at two London restaurants that featured Mediterranean style salads and vegetable-centric dishes, sold by weight, that make for a colourful and delicious meal in combination on a plate. This style of eating struck me as fresh, modern, and representative of contemporary London.

The first such place I tried was Fait Maison, on Stratford Street in Kensington, a café that makes lovely food from organic ingredients. E and I chose our selections at the front of the shop, where enticing platters of food were displayed, and then walked through to the smallish back room, where, a few minutes later, a server brought out our food, plated and where applicable, heated.

I had the salads shown above: one with eggplant and pomegranate seeds, another with tomato and a soft white cheese that was not mozzarella, and a third made with green beans, snow peas, and black and white sesame seeds. E had the potato torte and a delicious concoction of squash, chickpeas and onions (both shown below) that was so good he has tried to replicate it at home since, twice.


Another day, we ventured to the Notting Hill location of Ottolenghi, a buzzed about mini-chain of food shops that also features beautiful Mediterranean-style salads and dishes, artfully displayed.

The seating here consisted of one communal table (no washroom on premises) so we chose a selection of items to take away, which we ate in nearby Hyde Park, an hour later. A pleasant server patiently explained how the shop’s system works re: pricing and packaging, and told us what the various platters of food contained, though a bitchy supervisor admonished me when I pulled out my camera and said I was not allowed to take pictures inside. (Which was ridiculous as photos of the food are widely available online and in print.)

Though tempting looking dishes of seared tuna, rare beef, chicken and shrimp were available, we once again chose an all-vegetable selection – roasted eggplant with yogurt, mint and pine nuts; a herbed rice and nut pilaf; and some baby carrots with peas and parsley, all of which we enjoyed on our bench overlooking the Albert Memorial.


Salads to takeaway from Ottolenghi

That same week, I visited another appealing attraction of contemporary London: Sister Act, the musical, currently playing at London’s Palladium Theatre, a venue I was thrilled to enter because it was the location of a key scene in the 1935 Hitchcock film The 39 Steps.

Sister Act the musical is based on the 1992 movie (starring Whoopi Goldberg); its period has been reset to the 1970’s; it features nuns, church and talk of God (the kind of content I had trouble with when I saw Altar Boyz); and its disco-tinged (this is a good thing, IMO) score is written by Disney stalwart Alan Menken (The Little Mermaid), but I very much enjoyed the show ANYWAY.

It’s a roof-raising, crowd-pleasing, catchy-tune-packed, get up on your feet and dance kind of show, a la Mamma Mia and Hairspray (no sneering, please, I liked both those shows); I’m pissed that I can’t order the Sister Act soundtrack from itunes in Canada; and I hope it comes soon to Broadway so I can see it again.

Check out this version of one of its big numbers, performed by star Patina Miller and the London Palladium cast:

Ottolenghi on Urbanspoon
Fait Maison on Urbanspoon