Scenes from an Austin Burns Supper

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This weekend we were fortunate to be invited to the home of our friends Kevin and Mary to celebrate Burns Night in high style. Not only is Kevin an accomplished piper, but he and his lovely wife have a deep love of British food and culture, as well as an impressive collection of single malt scotch whiskies. We celebrated the birth of Scotland’s national poet with an abbreviated form of the traditional order, followed by much poetry reading, feasting, and merry-making. It was a lovely evening. Here are some of our photographs–and a bonus video of the piping in of the haggis!

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Our sacred text.

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Starters.

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The haggis. It’s actually quite tasty.

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A selection of some of the delicacies on offer: baked salmon (before going into the oven), pork pies, and bangers.

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Our host surveys his Scottish spread.

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The haggis, festively decorated.

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Just a few of the fine selection of whiskies we gratefully and enthustically sampled (I plan to purchase a bottle of Scapa as soon as possible).

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The dinner (clockwise, from top): pork pie, baked salmon, bangers, baked beans, haggis with whisky sauce, and neeps and tatties.

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Eric and I (notice the haggis is in focus–priorities). Eric’s enjoying some Belhaven ale.

And, finally, the promised footage:

If you’d like to book Kevin for your next event, let me know, and I’ll get you connected.

The Great British Food Series: Part Two, York

Second in the Great British Food Series. Read Part One, London and Brighton or Part Three, Edinburgh.

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York Minster, the heart of the medieval city, historic capital of Northern England, and final destination of this post.

But first…

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Eric at King’s Cross.

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On day four, we rode the train from London to Doncaster, where we stopped to see friends, then on to York (my favorite place in the UK, and where I was lucky enough to go to graduate school). The onslaught of English comfort food was amazing. And the cool weather didn’t hurt, either.

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Our stop in Doncaster included a private tour of the Mansion House, which was fascinating. Since the Doncaster City Council built a new chamber in the aughties, the Mansion House has become a historical property and event venue. They keep the rooms set up for banquets, to give you an idea of what it would be like to host your wedding or party there.

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Our next stop: York Brewery. (That’s Eric. And he’s not wearing a Yorkshire costume; he always wears that hat!)

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Operational since 1996, this local brewery produces a fine line of real ales.  We went on an afternoon tour—and tried them all in their cozy tap room!

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Yorkshire maltsters!

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My hands smelled like hops for two days.

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Our favorite was the Centurion’s Ghost Ale.  Mmm.  I loved this little half pint glass, too.

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After the tour, we saved a few quid by popping into the nearby Wetherspoons pub (a chain) for a quick afternoon “dinner.”  I had the £7.00 bangers and mash; though this dish is no doubt from frozen, it still tasted prettttty good.  I have to admit here, I’m a sucker for potatoes-from-a-box.  Don’t get me wrong, I prefer freshly-mashed, homemade potatoes with real butter and cream; but I do love me some instant potatoes.

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In York, we stayed at the Acer Guest House, just south of the city wall, a lovely, five-minute stroll from Mickelgate Bar. I highly recommend it.  Not only was our host, Karen, extremely helpful and gracious, but the place is immaculately clean and beautifully decorated, as well as quiet and relaxing.  Plus, the breakfast was excellent.  I could’ve stayed here for weeks.

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Requisite half-timbering photo.  Stonegate.

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Shop window in Stonegate.  Look at all those Yorkshire ales!  Pretty much heaven.

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Next stop: the Guy Fawkes Inn.  And this isn’t just a gimmick, folks.  It’s where the notorious Catholic plotter was born!  A stone’s throw from York Minster, his house is now an inn and tavern.  It’s super atmospheric, and the beer selection is great.  The food is good, too, though we didn’t eat here on this trip.

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This busker is leaning up against St. Michael le Belfrey Church, where Guy Fawkes was baptised!

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One Yorkshire Blonde; one Dark Force Treason.

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Our corner table at Guy Fawkes’ house.

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Another view of the Minster, just down the street from Guy Fawkes’ house.

We had a trip-highlight of a lunch at the Black Swan, one of York’s must-see pubs.  Built in 1417 (you read that right), this historic spot has authentic half-timbering, fireplaces of medieval brick, wood-paneled walls, portraits of stern Tudors peering at you as you eat your meal, and very, very good food.

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Oh, and did I mention that the best thing about the Black Swan is that they serve Theakston’s?  Meaning I could have a big, imperial pint of Old Peculier (one of my top five favorite beers; probably top two) with my giant Yorkshire pudding.

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Seriously, this thing was nine by thirteen inches!  And so delicious.  I can’t even explain.  Well—I’ll try.

It’s a giant Yorkshire pudding, made in a casserole dish (often they are round, just a larger version of a regular pudding; but this one, as you can see, was rectangular!).  Then it’s filled with a Sunday lunch: roast beef, onions, carrots, peas, and beef gravy.  You eat it with a knife and fork, sopping up the leaking gravy with pieces of pudding.  It is so good.

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Eric’s BLT and pint of Old Peculier.  Also freaking delicious.

Read the history of the Black Swan here.

Next on our pub crawl was the first of two stops at the King’s Arms, conveniently located on the east quayside of the River Ouse, nestled right next to the Ouse Bridge.  This is a Samuel Smith’s pub (makers of the other of my top-two favorite beers, Taddy Porter), so there’s really nothing not to like.  Situated as it is right on the Ouse, it floods every year—sometimes more than once—and there’s a handy flood chart on the wall right inside the door.

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Unfortunately, due to said flooding, the conditions in the cellars are quite unpredictable, and, therefore, the King’s Arms is unable to serve real ale (from casks).  They do, however, have an impressive selection of the aforementioned Samuel Smith’s served up from kegs.  When we were there, we counted no less than 12 brews available.  As Samuel Smith’s fans, this was amazing.  And there are other pubs in York, several of which we visited, that do serve cask Samuel Smith’s.  Here’s a map of all the Samuel Smith’s pubs in the UK.  Wowza.

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The King’s Arms has lovely outdoor seating right on the River Ouse, but we chose to stay inside and soak up the atmosphere while writing postcards.

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The campus lake at the University of York.  If you’re not already following the Duck of the Day because of me, YOU ARE NOW!

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Because HA HA HA.

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Another pint, another pub.  I don’t even remember which one this was, though it was inside the historic medieval center.  We went to about ten pubs in York over two days.  And there are still several I want to take Eric back to visit!

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Also highly recommended is the Lamb and Lion Inn (above right), a 17th century building tucked right next to Bootham Bar and in the shadow of the Minster.  They also have great food.

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Late night Sainsbury’s run.  (We didn’t buy this.  We were there for the cheese and onion sandwiches.)

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The Minster Inn is a neighborhood Marston’s pub in an Edwardian building on Marygate, just outside the city wall, where we enjoyed a couple of pints in a tiny, secluded back garden.  This is a great choice to get away from the throngs of tourists, and they serve real ale, to boot.  I had the Marston’s Oyster Stout.  Mmm.  Ale.

So, maybe we spent more time sampling local ales than eating food while in York…  Priorities.

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Me and e. on the River Ouse at sunset. ❤

Those are just the food and beer pics.  To see how beautiful York really is, check out my Flickr set.

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Sunset on the River Ouse.

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This is the second post in the Great British Food Series.  Read Part One, London and Brighton.

The Great British Food Series: Part One, London and Brighton

I finally finished editing all the photographs from our recent trip to the United Kingdom (2,000 photos!), so here’s that belated UK food post I’ve been promising. I’m going to split it up into a few posts, because there are just too many pictures!

Our tour was June 22 through July 7, and included London, Brighton, Doncaster, York, Edinburgh, Bamburgh, Lindisfarne, Liverpool, and Chelmsford. I’ll explain why we went to each of these places as we explore their foods. I lived in England from September 2001 until June 2005, and only came back against my will. It’s a long story involving a terrible relationship, youthful stupidity, and lots of heartache; but my four years there were also filled with adventure, atmosphere, learning, and joy. I love the UK—especially England, and particularly York—and going back for the first time in eight years, after an abrupt departure, proved to be both a blast for me and Eric as tourists, and some much-needed (if expensive) closure for my 25-year-old self. Someday I’ll write more about that.

But right now, let’s talk about some mouth-watering British food!

People are wrong about British food. I already wrote a post about that a couple of years ago. British food is delicious, healthy, diverse, and filled with history. Did you know, for instance, that fish and chips originated with 17th-century Sephardic Jewish immigrants? Or, check out the history of kedgeree. Or, consider the many historic and delectable varieties of British cheese. I could go on.

Since it was Eric’s first trip to the UK, I made sure we hit all the high spots: fish and chips, giant Yorkshire pudding with roast beef, curry take-away, bangers and mash, real ale, hog roast, Mr Whippy… And, despite the fact that we walked six to eight miles per day, and drank mostly half pints, I actually gained six pounds. Oh, well!

A few quick thoughts before the photo essay: British food was as I remembered it, but more diverse and more consciously foodie. The farmers markets I remember from my time in London and York, for instance, now boast stalls selling kielbasa and injera, in addition to sausage rolls and cloudy cider (indeed, the Saturday market at Royal Festival Hall in Southwark was weirdly similar to the Mueller Farmer’s Market here in Austin, with its artisanal salumi and handmade soaps and stall holders with ironic tattoos of anthropomorphic foodstuffs). The Brits seem finally to have caught on to the quasi-religious experience that is Mexican food—there are now burrito chains everywhere, including Chipotle—but good luck finding a corn tortilla. Local breweries are experiencing a welcome resurgence, much like in the United States. We didn’t find the prices to be that ridiculous, which was a surprise. The bulk of the expense was airfare (especially because we could only go at the peak travel time of late June-early July). For me, the highlights of the trip were: Wimbledon (I’ve been watching for 30 years, and had never gone, despite living 20 miles away for three years); Lindisfarne (though we were only allotted one hour by our tour!); and taking Eric on a pub crawl in York. It was also wonderful to see so many old friends, including the fine folks with whom I used to work at Ottakar’s book store in Chelmsford, Essex.

Okay, grab a snack and get comfortable. Here goes.

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Upon arrival: espresso and Pan di Stelle. It should be noted that our hosts, Tess and Alex, lived in Bologna, Italy, for a while in the late 1990s. Lucky us.

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We wandered through the Saturday market at the Southbank Centre, stopping to grab some Polish sausage and sauerkraut sandwiches and beers. You can’t tell from this picture, but this sandwich was huge. Eric and I could barely finish it between the two of us.

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Southbank market pierogi stand. Eric tried one of these and reported favorably on its flavor profile. Ha ha.

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First stop: the Royal Festival Hall’s Queen Elizabeth Roof Garden, where we enjoyed some Curious Brew English lager and a view of the Thames, Westminster, and London Eye.

After that “snack,” we walked across Waterloo Bridge, down the Strand, and into Soho. Guess where we went first? It was kind of an accident. But maybe not really.

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Eric and Tess having some beer at the Dog and Duck Pub, Soho.

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Alex and me, being silly.

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Tess waiting for her tai yaki.

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Cream-filled fried dough in the shape of a fish. Yeah. Ha.

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Tess made us this warm and hearty baked sausage dish, with pork, caramelized onions, tomatoes, and herbs, baked in a tomato sauce. I’ve gotta try this!

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Served with green beans and a buttered jacket (baked) potato. Mmm.

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A proper fish and chip shop on the seafront, Brighton.

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Your friendly local fish and chip seller.

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Eric gets his first (hot) taste of authentic fish and chips. “Dog and Duck is just as good.”

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While in Brighton, we met up with my friend Andrea, whom I used to work with at Ottakar’s, in her native Essex. She moved to Brighton, but she’s still making movies! Bill’s is a small chain, and a pretty hip place. This is their own beer. We liked it.

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I liked this lemon drizzle cake that Alex ordered even better. That’s sour cream on top. If you know me, you know how I love sour cream. Delish!

With some time to kill before our 5:00pm train back to London, we decided to pop into a pub. The corner where we stood provided a view of no less than three pubs, all traditional in appearance.

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“Hey, let’s go to that pub!”

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Since Eric and I are suckers for anything with a whiff of history, we decided to check out the Battle of Trafalgar.

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Turned out, the Battle of Trafalgar was on the CAMRA 2013 Sussex Downs Ale Trail, and had a nice selection of real ales. Jackpot!

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This one was especially good.

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Back in London, I went full Essex and enjoyed a tall Stella, bag of cheese and onion crisps, and a Gavin and Stacey marathon. British television programming is still a thousand times better than ours, despite the infiltration of “reality” programming.

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I stayed up late into the night to make a batch of midnight sandwiches for our trip to Wimbledon. We knew we’d have to “queue up” for hours (we didn’t anticipate five and a half hours), and we wanted tasty but cheap food. So Alex bought some fixins, and I made a variety of sandwiches, cut into halves for easy grabbing and sharing: salami and provolone; cheese, onion, and chutney; ham and cheese; turkey and mayo. I made ten sandwiches and we ended up eating every single one! Sadly, we weren’t aware that both The Queue and Wimbledon itself were BYOB. You can take a six-pack or bottle of wine/champagne per person! People around us were popping open bottles of bubbly, and we only had blackcurrant squash and water.

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I made up for this oversight immediately upon entering the venue, by getting a Pimm’s! Believe it or not, I had never had Pimm’s before.

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And, of course, we also had to have strawberries and cream on Henman Hill.

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Well, that covers the foods of days one through three. Check out the second post: York. And then read the third post: Edinburgh.

Cinco de Christos

My sidekick Alex and I decided to host another Greek Easter party this year, then noticed it fell on Cinco de Mayo.  So, in a typical stroke of utter brilliance, we threw a Cinco de Christos party!

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Alex, your host.

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And her amazing tzatziki.

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Eric, the grillmaster.

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Dolmas.

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The setting.

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Greek salad by Karen (Alex’s mom!).

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Melissa, Paola, and Karen.

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Hummus with carrots and pita crisps.

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The amazing Kris and Julie.

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Tsougrisma!

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Chips and queso. With sausage. Oh, yeah.

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The weather was practically Californian.  Not humid, for once!

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Melissa’s moussaka.  Unbelievable!

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Alex’s homemade baklava.  Heavenly.

Until next year!  Zapata anesti!

Butternut Squash and Stout Soup

Butternut Squash Soup with Stout

This past Friday night, Eric and I were lucky enough to be at Billy’s on Burnet for the Austin Beerworks Sputnik Cacao Russian Imperial Oatmeal Stout (whew!) cask tapping, along with our friends Kris and Julie. This stuff was excellent. Smooth, rich, dark, and a tad chocolatey. We regularly buy cans of Austin Beerworks’ wonderful Black Thunder and Peacemaker to drink poolside, so we relished the opportunity to try one of their winter brews, fresh from the cask.

That experience, plus the presence of a giant butternut squash and a few potatoes, inspired this filling, flavorful soup. We’re still getting tons of sage from our allotment garden, and I never tire of frying it in some butter or bacon fat and enjoying it on pasta or as a soup topping. Sage pairs beautifully with this soup, and complements the crunchy bacon perfectly. In fact, I’m having the leftovers for lunch, and I can’t wait!

1 large butternut squash, deseeded, peeled, and roughly cubed
3-4 medium waxy potatoes, washed and/or peeled, and roughly cubed
4 Tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 white onion, finely diced
2 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
~1 quart chicken (or vegetable) broth
salt and pepper, to taste
1/2 pint stout (try Austin Beerworks Sputnik, if you can get it!)
~1/2 cup heavy cream
~1/3 cup bacon, pre-cooked and crumbled
handful fresh sage leaves

1. In a large stock pot, melt butter over medium heat. Add onions and sauté for about five minutes, until fragrant and translucent. Add garlic and stir for another minute or two, then add squash and potatoes. Sauté for another five minutes or so, stirring frequently, then pour in chick broth (enough so that the vegetables are covered), and increase heat to high.

2. Bring broth to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cover and cook for at least thirty minutes, or until the squash are cooked through, soft, and easy breakable. Add more broth, or water, if the soup is too thick.

3. Once the vegetables are soft, pour the soup into a blender or large food processor and mix to desired texture. For this type of soup, I like to blend about 3/4 of the mixture, leaving the rest in the pot, so that the finished dish contains some nice chunky bits of potato and squash. If you want a smooth soup, just blend all of it; you may need to do it in two batches. After blending, return the soup to the pot, over low heat.

4. Add stout, stir, and cook for a further five minutes or so. Meanwhile, in a separate pan, warm bacon over medium heat. Add sage, stir in the resultant bacon grease, and cook until the herbs are slightly crispy. Remove from heat and set aside.

5. Add cream to soup and stir thoroughly. Allow the soup to continue to cook until very warm throughout. If your soup starts to bubble or boil, reduce heat.

6. Ladle soup into serving bowls and top with crumbled bacon and crispy sage. Serve immediately, preferably with additional stout!

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Eric enjoyed his bowl with some leftover homemade bread.

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*Reds or Yukonn golds are good. I left the skins on for this batch, for additional heft, texture, and nutritional value. Feel free to peel them if you prefer.