London Calling: British Fare Inspires an American Cook

Earlier this week, a survey from Animal Welfare Approved and the Center for Sustainable Tourism landed in my in box. It was designed to gauge how far people are willing to travel for food, particularly cruelty-free fare. If you love food, all your travel plans–whether they’re around the world or to the next county–likely start with researching what to eat and drink.

The survey was timely, since I’ve just returned from a week in England, which is a wonderful destination for compassionate foodies. It’s been awhile since my last trip across the pond, but I’ve certainly been aware of the rise of British cuisine. Still, there was a time–not that long ago–when great food was the last thing you’d expect from a trip to Britain. Aside from high tea, of course, and old-school pub grub (not to be confused with the swankier gastro-pub fare that has washed up on our shores).

We all know how much that’s changed. British chefs are all over American media these days–Jamie with his Food Revolution, Gordon with his potty-mouthed antics, Nigella with her Earth Mother food porn. Their approaches may be different, but they all share a passion for fare made from high-quality, seasonal ingredients. I saw evidence of that everywhere I went, from the heart of London to the ‘burbs.

London’s vast Borough Market may well be ground zero of the British food celebration, with a heavy emphasis on the organic and sustainable. Three days a week, merchants sell the country’s best produce, cheese, meat, poultry and seafood–along with plenty of offerings from elsewhere in the European Union. This is where Londoners can stock up on free-range eggs from the Lake District, wild boar sausage from Cumberland, scallops harvested from local waters and other treasures.

Of course, there are many well-known restaurants showcasing great British food–St. John Bread & Wine, to name just one–as well as top local ingredients used in other cuisines. But I found care for quality and origin is a common theme. Hungry commuters passing though London’s busy rail stations can swing into Camden Food Co. outlets to pick up organic, fair-trade grab-and-go food in recyclable packaging. Then there’s Loch Fyne, a nationwide chain that specializes in sustainable wild-caught and farmed seafood from British waters. (Think Red Lobster, but more upscale, with a conscience and much better food.)

I brought a bit of this inspiration home, in the form of Nigel Slater’s cookbook, Tender, Volume I: A Cook and His Vegetable Patch (Fourth Estate). If you’ve signed up for a CSA and need ideas to use up all that bounty, order a copy of Slater’s book forthwith (along with the followup volume on fruit). You’ll be seduced by Slater’s approach to cooking–usually just a handful of well-chosen ingredients made even better with simple techniques that I think typifies British chefs’ no-nonsense style and love of homey comfort. That’s coupled with the opinionated charm with which he writes about his subject. Slater on Brussels sprouts: “The petit chou has never been a star and we do the best we can to make them palatable.” But he does much more than simply make them palatable. His half-dozen sprout recipes render the much-maligned veggie mouthwatering.

Rule Britannia.

Warm Brussels Sprouts Slaw with Bacon

This recipe is inspired by British chef Nigel Slater’s book, Tender, Volume I, A Cook and His Vegetable Patch. Slater calls for blanching the whole Brussels sprouts before sauteing them in the bacon fat. Shredding the Brussels sprouts allows you to skip that step and yields a slaw-like side dish that’s great with roast beef, pork or fish. Juniper berries have an astringent quality that’s a nice counterpoint to the earthy sprouts and smoky bacon. If you don’t have them on hand, substitute a splash of gin (which is made from juniper berries) or, in a pinch, a squeeze of lemon. I like to season this dish with flaky Maldon salt, which comes from the town of Maldon, not far from where my husband’s family live in Essex.


Brussels Sprouts Carbonara with Whole Wheat Fusilli

Whole wheat fusilli and other pasta is a quick-cooking whole grain that pairs well with hearty ingredients like bold-flavored Brussels sprouts and a creamy dressing for a wintry weeknight dish. The liaison of egg yolks and a touch of cream lends the sauce a silky richness so it clings to the pasta. As winter gives way to spring, experiment with other vegetables, such as English peas in place of the Brussels sprouts. If you don’t happen to have pancetta on hand, substitute 2-3 slices of bacon. It’ll be just as delicious, albeit with smokier flavor. (Use the leftover egg whites from this recipe to make a batch of Saffron Cardamom Coconut Macaroons.)


Wok-Tossed Brussels Sprouts with Sweet Chile Sauce

I was wary about the combination of Brussels sprouts and chile sauce when I saw this on the menu at Le Colonial in San Francisco, but it ended up being the hit of the evening. And with my find of Dragunara Sweet Chile Sauce the next day at the Fancy Food Show, I knew I’d be running home to try and re-create it. To make a meal out of it, add some sliced sausage or shredded chicken, and serve over brown rice. In fact, you could stick with the whole Fancy Food theme and use Field Roast Vegetarian Sausages and Village Harvest Frozen Brown Rice Medley.

brussels-sprouts-chile-recipe1-1/2 pounds Brussels sprouts, outside leaves removed and stem trimmed, halved lengthwise (if super-small, leave whole; if super-large, quarter)
3 tablespoons peanut oil, divided
1/2 pound shiitake mushrooms, cleaned, stemmed and sliced
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1/2 cup thinly sliced shallot
1/4 cup sweet chile sauce
1 tablespoon fish sauce
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro
Sriracha hot sauce (optional, for added heat)

Fill a wok with salted water and bring to a boil. Boil Brussels sprouts for 2 minutes, pour into a colander, rinse with cold water and drain well (don’t worry if some of the leaves fall off—they’ll be lovely). Dump sprouts onto a kitchen towel, lay another one on top and blot dry. Let them sit while the mushrooms cook. Wipe out wok.

Heat wok over high heat (note: keep the heat really high during all of the stir-frying) for 1 minute and swirl in 1 tablespoon oil. Add mushrooms and garlic, and stir-fry for 3-4 minutes, until browned and fragrant. Scoop into a bowl.

Heat remaining 2 tablespoons oil and swirl around wok. Add shallots and cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly, until golden brown. Add Brussels sprouts to pan with a pinch of salt and pepper and cook, tossing constantly, for 5-7 minutes, until they’re charred and tender but not yet mushy.

Reduce heat to medium and stir the mushroom mixture back in. Pour in chile sauce and fish sauce. Toss to coat vegetables, sprinkle with cilantro and additional salt and pepper if desired, and serve with Sriracha (if using).

Serves 4