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It would be easy to walk right past The Lion, John Delucie's new American (in the vein of a gastropub) restaurant in New York City's West Village. Delucie's subtle style fits right in here — no fuss on the outside, allure on the inside. Farther into the dining room, wooden chandeliers, large, old photos on the wall, and leather banquettes reflect a glam-tavern feel.
The crowd itself becomes part of the décor — the crush of patrons waiting to be seated, chatting at the bar and oh-so-casually scoping out the crowd of beautiful people, sets the scene in a much more dramatic way. The attitude that every staff person gives is that you're lucky to be at The Lion — waiting and being pushed around next to the bar is just part of the game. And it's not a bad game to play if you're in the mood for an experience, rather than focused on a delicious meal.
John Delucie first mastered this concept with The Waverly Inn and he's done it again here. While sitting in The Lion you might be cramped, but you'll have a good time people-watching — no matter whether you feel like a part of the in crowd or not. And if you're a tourist it will be a chance to go inside the type of place that is typified in the only-in-the-movies glamorous New York.
Unfortunately, the missing element among all the trendiness is consistent food that keeps up with the prices. While there are some definite highs on the menus, the food was very hit or miss
We started with the plateau royal de mer, a great way to taste a bit of the raw bar, with oysters, mussels, clams, and a delicious and large portion of king crab legs. Also included was the tuna tartare and a hamachi crudo — a true example of how the menu alternately shines and then falls flat. The tuna was made with mint, mâche, and lemon, although it was hard to taste anything other than the tuna and the whole dish lacked seasoning. What could have easily been a highlight became forgettable. Alternately, the crudo was simple perfection. Pickled red onion added a distinct zing along with a lime-horseradish vinaigrette. It was fresh, delicious, and beautifully executed.
Our mains also contained some highs and lows. The least interesting dish was the steamed bouchot mussels with piperade, grilled crostini, and fennel. They personified the motto of "nothing to write home about." They were serviceable and cooked well, but they lacked anything original. The black truffle gnocchi was better — it was a simple dish cooked with butter that allowed the truffles and soft, pillowy gnocchi to sing. But again, it wasn't the best version I'd ever had and its $45 price tag made me think that it should have stood out more.
The true highlight of the evening was the 28-day aged côte de boeuf for two, with roasted garlic and olive oil. It made the whole dining experience worth the trip, and I suppose for $125 it should have. The simplicity in the rub made the meat the star and it was a perfectly cooked, impeccably seasoned piece of beef. My dining companions were competing to clean the meat off the bone.
The Lion is not a place for everyone or every ocassion. It is at its best in the décor and the attitude, if that's something you like. I wouldn't recommend The Lion to an astute food lover nor would I want to come back on a weeknight when I wasn't looking for a big night out. But it's the perfect place for out-of-towners who want to experience the "scene" and take part in a night of New York glitz and glitter. It just might be best on an expense account.
Dangerously Easy 3-Ingredient Desserts
If you think dessert is the best part of the day, it's safe to say that you're probably not alone. But the problem is, dessert usually comes at the very end. And how often have you gotten home after a long day, and just been too tired to think of something fun to put the finishing touches on a meal, or on the evening?
Cakes, pies, cookies. if you're making them yourself, they all require a serious time investment. There's nothing wrong with fancy indulgent desserts, but with everything going on in your busy life, who has time — or energy — for that?
Have no fear! We have some great ideas for some desserts that have it all going for them. These desserts are easy, so it's not going to take too much effort on your part, and they're all just three ingredients (we promise). There's no wondering if you have everything you need, and there's no sifting through ingredient list upon ingredient list, trying to find something you can make without running to the store. Even better, a lot of these are incredibly flexible, so you can change it up with what you have. Total win, right?
Silicone baby food molds make this easier. I wasn’t sure which ones to buy so I actually bought two versions: one with 4 compartments and one with 7 compartments. I wanted to try and fit two molds into one cooking process. While Instant Pot egg bites are are easy to make, they take longer than I expected.
Use the right silicone mold
I bought two versions that both fit the Instant Pot Mini, as part of this experiment. And to keep this easy, I made sure the lids of each are also silicone so that I don’t need to track down extra tin foil to cover the molds.
The first one has 4 compartments each, of about 2 ounces. The second has 7 compartments about about 1 ounce each. The 4 compartment model, barely fits my 3 quart instant pot and with puffing of the eggs, it was a little tricky to open the lid once the pressure is released.
For my first try, I sprayed the molds with a little canola spray. For the second I forgot the spray. Both came out easily, at least using these molds.
Don’t overfill the molds
You’ll likely have a little leftover egg mixture, but avoid the temptation to completely fill the molds. Leave room for egg expansion. They’ll collapse as the cool
The mold can be difficult to get out of the liner without a sling. Try using two tongs.
If you stack two mold, the first one will be tricky but somewhat easier to remove from the pot. The one of the bottom is difficult to get out using tongs. My next plan is to track down butcher string to use as a handle instead of aluminum foil.
No blender? No problem. Do you have a stick blender?
All the recipes suggest blending the egg and cheese mixture. One finally mentioned a stick blender as a backup otherwise pull out your favorite whisk. You’re really trying to get to a fully creamy mixture. This was finally an excuse to take my stick blender out of the box and it worked like a charm!
Make your egg mixture in a pourable bowl
Make your life easier and make your egg mixture in something you can pour from. If you’re already using a blender then you are all set. Since I was using a stick blender, I used my Pyrex 4 cup measuring cup. It was large enough to hold everything and I wasn’t worried about the stick blender marking up one of my vintage mixing bowls.
Old School Skillet Fried Okra
Periodically, I jump back to old recipes and update them with new photos and sometimes add a few extra tips for perfecting the dish. This post brought back such sweet memories of taking Jack to his first day at a new preschool. It’s hard to believe he’s about to start the 6th grade now! Get ready for a blast from the past. queue time warp sound effect Those of you who have been following Southern Bite for a little while know what a big ol’ softie I am – especially when it comes to my little boy. Well, last week he started a new preschool and to say the least, it was traumatic. But things are getting better and today was the first day that they got to go swimming at the new place. We decked him out in his Elmo swimming trunks and swim shirt this morning (they go swimming first thing in the morning) and we be-bopped our way to school. As we’re walking in, there wasn’t the usual “Daddy, I want to hold you.” He just walked right in without any thought, walked into his classroom, turned to me and said, “Bye, Dad!” Y’all I just about lost it. Bye, Dad. I quickly turned and walked out. Part of me wanted to snatch that little thing up and firmly instruct him that my name was not “Dad” but “Daddy.” I’m pretty sure I’m not ready for this. This weekend he was taking his first trip down a slip n’ slide and eating his first homemade grape popsicle, next thing he’ll be wanting to borrow the car. I keep telling myself that he’s only two, but he seems to be growing up so fast. Everyday brings a new word, a new sentence, a new question. Some afternoons he even looks different from when I dropped him off that morning. The way time is flying, I’m afraid I’ll blink and he’ll be graduating from high school. I’ll make it. Y’all will just have to have patience with me while I whine. Just get comfortable, I’m sure there’s more whining to come. When folks talk about Fried Okra here in the South, there are really two ways of preparing it. One is the method where each piece of okra is individually coated in a seasoned flour/cornmeal mixture and deep fried to golden perfection. This is the version you see most often in restaurants. The other method is the skillet method where the okra is stir fried and you end up with more of a hash-like texture. This is probably the version you remember from your mom or grandma’s kitchen. And it’s the one we’re making today. When choosing fresh okra, opt for smaller pods that are bright green without tons of dark spots. The smaller pods are more tender. The bigger they get, the more tough and fibrous they become. Dark spots appear on okra that’s older, so avoid that if you can. Yes, you can use frozen, thawed cut okra for this as well. It’s not my favorite, but it works just fine during the winter months when you can’t get fresh. Cast iron holds heat well and it can be easy to burn this okra so be sure to adjust the heat as necessary. There’s no real need to do this, but I often mash mine up a bit as it finishes cooking to produce more of a hash-like texture. It’s just a matter of personal preference. The more ripe your bananas are, the better! I usually let mine get pretty dark-almost black. The banana in the photo below is pretty good, but I usually like mine even a bit darker! The darker the banana is, the better they will smash! (A few lumps are ok but you want your bananas smashed as smooth as possible!). I use 2 medium sized bananas for this recipe. This gives me about 1 cup. This recipe makes about 24 cookies (2 dozen). These cookies are so easy! Just throw all the ingredients in your mixer, mix it up and then place them on a baking sheet. I use a half sheet pan for baking lined with parchment paper. The dough will not be like a chocolate chip cookie dough. It is slightly sticky, but don’t worry- this is what you want! I use a smaller scoop to scoop the cookie dough. The size of my cookie dough balls is about 2 tablespoon, or a rounded tablespoon scoop.
A few things to keep in mind…
MAKING THE COOKIES/TIPS
queue time warp sound effect
Those of you who have been following Southern Bite for a little while know what a big ol’ softie I am – especially when it comes to my little boy. Well, last week he started a new preschool and to say the least, it was traumatic. But things are getting better and today was the first day that they got to go swimming at the new place.
We decked him out in his Elmo swimming trunks and swim shirt this morning (they go swimming first thing in the morning) and we be-bopped our way to school. As we’re walking in, there wasn’t the usual “Daddy, I want to hold you.” He just walked right in without any thought, walked into his classroom, turned to me and said, “Bye, Dad!” Y’all I just about lost it. Bye, Dad. I quickly turned and walked out.
Part of me wanted to snatch that little thing up and firmly instruct him that my name was not “Dad” but “Daddy.” I’m pretty sure I’m not ready for this.
This weekend he was taking his first trip down a slip n’ slide and eating his first homemade grape popsicle, next thing he’ll be wanting to borrow the car. I keep telling myself that he’s only two, but he seems to be growing up so fast. Everyday brings a new word, a new sentence, a new question. Some afternoons he even looks different from when I dropped him off that morning. The way time is flying, I’m afraid I’ll blink and he’ll be graduating from high school.
I’ll make it. Y’all will just have to have patience with me while I whine. Just get comfortable, I’m sure there’s more whining to come.
When folks talk about Fried Okra here in the South, there are really two ways of preparing it.
One is the method where each piece of okra is individually coated in a seasoned flour/cornmeal mixture and deep fried to golden perfection. This is the version you see most often in restaurants. The other method is the skillet method where the okra is stir fried and you end up with more of a hash-like texture. This is probably the version you remember from your mom or grandma’s kitchen. And it’s the one we’re making today.
When choosing fresh okra, opt for smaller pods that are bright green without tons of dark spots. The smaller pods are more tender. The bigger they get, the more tough and fibrous they become. Dark spots appear on okra that’s older, so avoid that if you can.
Yes, you can use frozen, thawed cut okra for this as well. It’s not my favorite, but it works just fine during the winter months when you can’t get fresh.
Cast iron holds heat well and it can be easy to burn this okra so be sure to adjust the heat as necessary.
There’s no real need to do this, but I often mash mine up a bit as it finishes cooking to produce more of a hash-like texture. It’s just a matter of personal preference.
The more ripe your bananas are, the better! I usually let mine get pretty dark-almost black. The banana in the photo below is pretty good, but I usually like mine even a bit darker!
The darker the banana is, the better they will smash! (A few lumps are ok but you want your bananas smashed as smooth as possible!). I use 2 medium sized bananas for this recipe. This gives me about 1 cup.
This recipe makes about 24 cookies (2 dozen). These cookies are so easy!
Just throw all the ingredients in your mixer, mix it up and then place them on a baking sheet. I use a half sheet pan for baking lined with parchment paper.
The dough will not be like a chocolate chip cookie dough. It is slightly sticky, but don’t worry- this is what you want!
I use a smaller scoop to scoop the cookie dough. The size of my cookie dough balls is about 2 tablespoon, or a rounded tablespoon scoop.
The cookies only need 8-10 minutes to bake. It can be hard to tell when they are done, because they won’t brown on the edges or tops (if they do then you know you have overcooked them!).
Check the bottom, and the bottom should be slightly browned, and the cookies will be set (they won’t squish too much when pushed on the sides).
Mine cook for the full 10 minutes in my oven, but check them at the 8 minute mark to avoid overcooking.
What do we have this time around?
It’s another outing with Bald Charlie. You remember him, the imaginary ghost of a lawyer and politician of the past, Carlos Calvo, with whom I get together and have steaks along the street named in his honor. There aren’t a whole lot more places to go. Among them, El Molino, at Carlos Calvo 3000, San Cristobal, stood out for recommendations as one of the better spots to get cheap, cheerful, and plentiful food. Charlie probably would have hated it, but his ghost sat quietly while I, and two friends, snagged a table for lunch on Argentina’s Independence Day, July 9th.
The place is festooned with handwritten signs that not only duplicate all the dishes on the menu, but add more to them – each announcing “Today, we have ____, only Roaring with Life, but Not Quite Enough Bite - Recipes,[nobr][H1toH2]
Baked BBQ Cauliflower Bites
There is nothing quite like a quick and easy dinner, that does not require a lot of thinking, but that does satisfy your hunger like a fancy meal. This recipe is just that, but oh so much more:
- easily done in about 30 minutes
- has loads of flavor without a lot of fuss
- only 8 ingredients, including salt
- everyone can build their own bowl
- easy clean up
- covers all the basics: protein, veggies, carbs, healthy fat
The great thing about this is that you can always customize it to fit what you like. If you prefer lettuce over cabbage, go for it. Maybe you want rice and no quinoa? You can even add other veggies to the mix!
Each part can easily be swapped to make this an easy dinner that adapts to your personal tastes.
Is homemade BBQ sauce better than store bought?
I like to make my own BBQ sauce because my sauce happens to taste amazing. And it literally only takes a few minutes to mix up. But there are other great reasons to make your own.
Store bought BBQ sauce tends to have added sugar. In my recipe, I use maple syrup and molasses to get that hint of sweet. A healthier option for sure.
The stuff you buy at the store also is filled with preservatives so it lasts longer. While it’s nice to have something you can use for a while, my sauce does freeze very well so you can easily store it for future use.
Another great thing about making your own homemade BBQ sauce is that you can adjust to ingredients to get the perfect flavor you love. BBQ sauce tends to be personal in preference of flavor, and it’s easy to add a little more tang or sweet when making it yourself.
How do you make this meal in 30 minutes?
They key to quick meals is ordering what you do so that you are maximizing your time. This is truly done in 30 minutes if you follow the directions and are prepared. Here are some tips so that all goes smoothly:
- Start cooking the quinoa first.
- As soon as you put the quinoa on the stove, get the cauliflower in the oven.
- While both of those are cooking, make the slaw then clean up.
- By the time you are done with that, all will just about be ready!
Can you prep BBQ cauliflower bites ahead of time?
This is a huge plus about this dinner, prepping ahead so it’s even easier. Here are my tips for setting yourself up for meal prep success:
- Make the BBQ sauce the day before, you can even make it a few days before since it keeps great for about a week.
- Cook your quinoa (or rice) and store in the fridge.
- Cut the cauliflower into pieces. You could also toss with the BBQ sauce and allow it to marinate for a few days if you want.
- Chop the cabbage if you aren’t buying prechopped.
On the day you want to make this, all you need to do is bake the cauliflower and toss the cabbage slaw! Boom. Easy.
15 Healthy Vegan Chocolate Dessert Recipes
I am both a devout vegan and a devout chocolate lover. These things are not contradictions. In fact, because there is a higher power, dark chocolate (aka the only kind worth eating if you're serious about your love for chocolate) is completely vegan. Because I also love baking, I spend way, way too much time browsing Pinterest for healthy vegan chocolate dessert recipes — and man, are there a lot of good ones to choose from.
One of the best things about vegan baking is that it's often also (though not always, of course) healthier. Several of the recipes I've tried out here incorporate everything from banana to avocado to tofu to black beans — and you'd never know it. Seriously, I've had non-vegan friends polish several of these off, only to find out later that they were vegan, or made with coconut oil instead of butter. You can always modify these recipes with more or less sugar, but the great thing about dark chocolate cocoa powder is that it can pack a real punch without any added sweetness getting in the way of its flavor.
In my opinion, the best dessert is one that tastes super-chocolaty, isn't so sweet that it overpowers the cocoa flavor, and is both dense and light enough to make a satisfying snack, anytime of the day. Not all of the options on this list meet that criteria perfectly, but several of them are healthy enough (or can be modified) so that you could safely eat them for breakfast without feeling gross after. Here are my picks for the best "healthy" vegan chocolate dessert recipes I've found — so far.
1. Fudgy Gluten Free Chocolate Cake
God, this cake is so good. I made this Minimalist Baker recipe (without gluten free flour, which also works) for a group of friends, and they polished it off in five minutes flat. I made it a tiny bit less sweet because that's how I like it, but the recipe is pretty healthy as it is — it uses avocado and banana to get that fudginess, and plenty of coconut oil and cocoa powder to make the chocolatey richness come through. What I love about this cake is that it's light enough to have a few pieces without feeling sick in the slightest — yet it tastes super rich and fudgy and chocolatey. Seriously, trust me. Make this, and don't feel bad about eating the whole thing.
2. No Churn Raw Vegan Chocolate Ice Cream
As soon as the weather is warm enough, I fully plan to try making this decadent, chocolatey coconut milk ice cream by Connoisseurus Veg that also uses banana and avocado for that added creaminess.
3. Flourless Black Bean Chocolate Brownies
It sounds crazy, I know — but like many vegan and healthy baking recipes, it's genius. This is one of Cookie Covered Katie's most popular recipes, and for good reason — you could eat half the batch and consider it lunch, in an emergency. Black beans and dark chocolate, FTW.
4. Peanut Butter Balls
What's better than chocolate and peanut butter? Nothing, that's what. I want these raw balls from Oh She Glows in my mouth, stat. (And yes, I know how that sounds, and I'm OK with it.)
5. Chocolate Cake With Almond-Pumpkin Buttercream
I'm always deterred by having to add a layer to a cake, but this Half Baked Harvest recipe looks doable and worth it. Plus, you know, almond butter has protein, so this is practically a power bar.
6. Overnight Chia Chocolate Pudding
Chia pudding is easy to make — if you can wait overnight for the results, that is. Make this Minimalist Baker recipe the next time you have some leftover almond milk, and enjoy your day's worth of fiber in chocolate-form.
7. Gooey Pumpkin Spice Latte Pudding Cake
I almost made this Oh She Glows beast for Thanksgiving (and opted for an awesome vegan pumpkin pie instead) but I still want to try this. It looks like caramel — but it's pumpkin, which in my opinion, is way better.
8. 2-Ingredient Dark Chocolate Truffles
The Minimalist Baker lives up to her name with this simple recipe using just dark chocolate and coconut milk. You had me at "two ingredients". (Though you can also add vanilla extract and cocoa powder if you're feeling ambitious.)
9. Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Freezer Fudge
Because let's be real: sometimes you just want to eat the cookie dough. And since it's vegan, you won't even have to worry about this Oh She Glows recipe giving you salmonella poisoning! This recipe also uses bananas and almonds, so you'll be eating some real food too. See? Healthy.
10. Chocolate Mousse
OK, this is really practically a health food because it's made with silken tofu, the secret weapon of vegan bakers. Get the easy recipe at Connoisseurus Veg.
11. Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cookies
Whenever you make a recipe that calls for canned pumpkin, there always seems to be a little bit leftover — the perfect excuse to bake something. These chocolate chip pumpkin cookies from Chocolate Covered Katie are great for those of us who could never choose between our love for chocolate and all things pumpkin.
12. Almond Butter Mocha Chocolate Chip Brownie Bites
Not quite fudge, not quite a brownie, not quite cookie dough, this delicious-looking hybrid from Ari's Menu is just a hit of chocolate goodness for your mouth, packed with almond butter and almond meal for protein.
13. Mint Chocolate Fudge Pie
Chocolate Covered Katie promises that this is for serious fudge lovers only, and it looks just dense enough to pass the chocolate-addict test to me. (It's also made with tofu.)
14. No Bake Oatmeal Cookies
Easy and super healthy, these chocolate-craving satisfiers from Oh She Glows are pretty much a breakfast cookie, if you want them to be.
15. Dark Chocolate Sweet Potato Crisps
Because sometimes, you want your sweet potato chips to be covered in dark chocolate. This is why the Minimalist Baker is my favorite. (I also recommend putting popcorn on your ice cream sometime. Just sayin'.)
My life in a single bite
I am writing this from a place called the Island of the Deer. Many people know this island from afar, from its three almost-conical mountains, the Paps of Jura, but not that many set foot on it. In spite of its considerable size, Jura is practically empty. There are barely 180 people here, which means that the population is greatly outnumbered by the ubiquitous red deer, and by the sheep, and the cattle too. In fact, by everything.
From where we are staying, in the Distillery Lodge, we can look out over Craighouse Bay to a small strip of islets that stand between Jura and the Scottish mainland . One of these islands bears the Gaelic name of Eilean Diomhain, which translates as Useless Island. It is rather beautiful, as everything is here, but then when you are struggling for a living, fishing or collecting kelp, or surviving the depredations of clan warfare, your naming of places may be grimly functional.
The Distillery Lodge is attached to the island's only distillery. The more fertile island of Islay, which lies just a narrow channel away, boasts a roll call of distilleries, but Jura only has one, and a small one at that. Islay whisky is regarded as a classic island product, some of it so peaty, so aromatic, that it reminds one of the medicines of childhood. Cough syrup. The iodine mixture dabbed on the cuts and scrapes of the playground. Yes, say its enthusiasts, that's exactly it. And we love it.
Jura whisky is a different matter. Their main single malt is smooth and easy on the palate, rather akin to a Speyside, and evokes a whole range of non-medicinal associations. I sampled a dram from a cask in the distillery that had notes of banana rum in it. And mint and pepper too. One can, in fact, find all sorts of things in the nosing of this magnificent Jura single malt.
Together with my wife and one of my daughters, I am being looked after by Lizzie Fletcher, the younger daughter of the laird of Ardlussa, a remote estate further up the island. When we arrived, tired from the trip from Edinburgh, she was already in the kitchen, clad in a blue apron that inspired immediate confidence. There is something about the way a good cook stands they are always relaxed, surveying what is going on, flicking a wrist to chop something here, deftly turning the heat down there. You can tell that they know what they are doing, and that they love it. Auden wrote something about that, about how one could tell from the look on a person's face that they loved their job. With cooks, it's the posture that reveals everything.
Lizzie had prepared a meal for us. There are scallops with fried pancetta to start with. These scallops are straight out of the sea, harvested by a man in the village who dives for seafood in good places that he discovers along this empty coast. Then we move on to langoustines that are again barely out of the water. The important thing about such people is that they are brought up with the produce they use. Lizzie's father's estate is one of the great deer-stalking estates of Scotland and Lizzie knows how to deal with venison. And if you know the fishermen too, and have been brought up with them, then you have a real feeling for the ingredients you use to work your magic.
Food reminds us of something we tend to forget: we rely on people who work the land, whether it's land on our doorstep or land far away. In urban Scotland, the memory of the land is not altogether lost. A surprising number of people in Scotland have a link with a farm somewhere that was severed only a generation or two ago. In my own case, the link was broken with my grandfather. His father had been a Highland sheep farmer, but my grandfather, and his brother, went off to Edinburgh to study medicine. I am not sure whether they took with them supplies of oatmeal, which is what students used to do when they left the farm to study in places like Glasgow or Aberdeen. The Scottish universities used to have a special holiday called Meal Monday, which was meant to allow students to return to the farm to replenish their sack of oatmeal. That holiday was still celebrated some 30 years ago, when I was a student, although nobody used it to fetch oatmeal.
But we did eat porridge, which I suspect today's students do not. I was brought up to have porridge for breakfast by my father, who had been raised on it in Scotland, but who went out to Africa in the early 1930s and never gave up on porridge. We lived in what was then Southern Rhodesia, and our diet was a typical British colonial one, stodgy and dull. As children we never had anything fancy to eat, apart from the home-baked cakes and biscuits which emerged from the kitchen in large trays: coconut ice (in pink and white layers), gingerbread, crunchie biscuits. It was a recipe for the ruining of teeth, especially in pre-fluoride days. And it resulted in painful visits to the dentist, when the holes in the teeth would be filled with large fillings. I remember being taken to a dentist who had a pedal drill the bit was driven by an elaborate system of pulleys powered by the dentist's pedalling on something like a treadle sewing machine. It should have cured a sweet tooth, but it did not.
But it was not all sugary and unhealthy. Our main meals at home were reasonably balanced, even if they did not vary a great deal. Lunch and dinner both had three courses, to which families sat down. My family consisted of my parents, my three sisters, and me. We all lived in a house on the edge of Bulawayo, the country's second city, where my father was a public prosecutor in the courts. It was not a very exciting life, although I suppose the setting was fairly exotic by most standards. It was a bit like living in Perth, Australia, or colonial Singapore, but not quite as sophisticated.
At dinner Brown Windsor soup would be followed by something like tripe and onions (which the very mention of today disgusts most people to the point of revulsion, but which I would still enjoy, if I ever saw it). There was a lot of boiled pumpkin and gem squash. Salads, if served, were very unimaginative, and usually just lettuce and tomato, undressed. We never saw olive oil indeed I first tasted an olive in my very late teens. That, I expect, was the experience of many who grew up in the Fifties and early Sixties, out there and elsewhere. There was not very much dietary exotica, and because of the divided nature of the society we never really ate African food. We were fairly ignorant, I'm afraid, of how most people had to live.
As children we yearned for ketchup, a great treat being a tomato sauce sandwich. As a boy I used to eat raw bacon covered with this tomato sauce. I thought that wonderful. I also ate sugar sandwiches, which were very easy to make, consisting of two slices of white bread spread with butter, on which sugar would be sprinkled. Tomato sauce, though, was to be eaten in moderation, we were told. The reason for this was my mother's belief that consumption of this sauce by children led to what she called juvenile delinquency.
Although my father did not cook, he was in charge of breakfasts in the bush. When we lived in Bulawayo in my young teenage years we used to go out to a range of hills to the south, the Matopos, and have Sunday breakfast made on a wood fire at the bottom of one of the curious granite outcrops that make up that achingly beautiful bit of the world. Breakfast was eggs and bacon, of course, with tomatoes and fried bread for good measure. What is it about wood smoke that adds to the deliciousness of otherwise ordinary fare? The slightly sharp taste, presumably, that stimulates the smoky bit of the palate (if there is such a part).
Those breakfasts are my idea of celestial food, the menu served in heaven. I still come across it from time to time. Last year we breakfasted on the beach in a tucked-away bit of Kirkcudbrightshire, in south-west Scotland. A fire was made of driftwood and we had not only eggs and bacon but that most tempting morsel that my wife was taught to make as a GirlGuide all those years ago - fried Marmite sandwiches. These are delicious at the best of times, but infinitely more so when cooked on a wood fire.
I did not learn to cook as a boy. There may have been a boy scout badge in those days for competence in the kitchen, but neither I nor my friends would deign to do that one. I wish that we had. I also wish that some of the things available to modern boys had been available to boys in those days. Sewing, for example. Typing. Feelings. As a result of this lack, many males of my generation were quite useless in the kitchen, and had to learn how to look after themselves only when they first embarked on their bachelor existence.
I spent my entire childhood in Africa. The rest of my life, or most of it, has been spent in Scotland, although I have lived for short periods elsewhere. I spent a year in Northern Ireland, where I had my first job as a university lecturer at Queen's University. I returned to Scotland and led a bachelor existence for the next eight years or so. Towards the end of that period in my life, I went to live for six months in Swaziland, where I lectured in law at the university. It was a return to Africa and the beginning of my life as a writer. My first book, a children's book called The White Hippo, had just been published. It was while I was in Swaziland that I saw my first review, in the Times Literary Supplement. The reviewer said: 'There are some inept attempts here at fine writing.' That was me put in my place, but I nonetheless sat in my house at Kwaluseni by night and wrote my next children's book, The Perfect Hamburger. I don't like hamburgers, and never have, but I know that children do, and the book is still in print after25 years. Over the next 15 years I wrote quite a number of children's books which have a food motif - The Ice-Cream Bicycle, The Popcorn Pirates, The Spaghetti Tangle. I have discovered that children like nothing better than to read about things they can put into their mouths and eat. Young readers are very oral. In fact, now that I come to think of it, middle-aged readers are very oral too. During those student and bachelor years in Edinburgh, I learned the basics of cookery through trial and error. It was at this time that there occurred that extraordinary sea change in British eating habits that made enthusiastic Mediterranean chefs of so many previously unskilled young men.
For me, the seminal experience was a spell as a postgraduate student in Italy, in Siena. Pizzas had arrived by that time in Britain, but nothing like the thin-crust pizzas which were cooked in a small hole-in-the-wall pizzeria close to the student house in which I lived. I used to go there for breakfast on those already hot mornings and buy a square of pizza which a hirstute, sweating baker cut from vast freshly baked sheets of it. He used secateurs to do this, and the pizza was then slid skilfully on to a piece of greaseproof paper and served with a small glass of raw Tuscan wine. After the initial shock of seeing people drinking wine for breakfast, I adapted, and subsequently made further forays into other, more adventurous forms of Italian cuisine.
That was in 1974. I fell in love with Italy then - it is a common enough love affair, and for many from our pallid northern cultures it is a love affair that lasts a lifetime. To begin with, though, I was not a very successful Italian cook. When I had people round for dinner, I tended to make the same thing, and not very well. Risotto was the standby, but not, I confess, made with proper Arborio rice. The results, I think, were not terribly good, and indeed they led on one occasion to an actual letter of complaint from a friend. He did not write in jest he was serious. 'I notice that you served only two courses,' he wrote. 'Rice and then chocolate biscuits. There is no excuse for that, which is mean, even by your standards.'
This letter was much admired by other friends, and for a brief period it spawned a number of tongue-in-cheek imitations. Alan Watson, then professor of Roman law in Edinburgh, wrote after he and his wife had been for dinner in my flat: 'We notice that you served only one sort of wine, and Italian at that. We suppose you think that goes with Italian food.' And then another friend wrote to the great Ken Mason, then professor of forensic medicine and famous not only for his pioneering work on the pathology of aircraft accidents but also for his lethal champagne cocktails: 'I enjoyed your champagne cocktails, but I feel that I must complain about their strength. After the party I had barely travelled 20 feet before I fell off my bicycle, an occurrence for which I must hold you responsible.'
Today my cuisine of choice is Italian, and the diet we eat at home would not be out of place in a typical Italian household. Over the years I have made many Italian friends, and one in particular, an engaging professor of criminal law, Alberto Cadoppi, introduced me to the finer points of Parmesan cheese. The cardboard-like grated cheese which one buys in supermarkets has very little to do with the superb, slightly crumbly cheese which comes from the region around Parma and Reggio Emilia. Whenever we visit Alberto he takes us to one of the factories in the rich Emilian countryside. I buy it in large segments and carry back to Scotland sufficient quantities to last six months. A few favoured friends get a piece each, the rest is rationed out to last until the next trip.
Being a novelist does not mean that one has any special insights into life. But writing does at least make one think about the various associations that make up the texture of our personal world. Food associations, like associations of place, evoke memories of moods, of people, of moments of personal significance. Lin Yutang expressed this famously in his observation that patriotism is nothing but the love of the things one ate in one's childhood - an unduly reductionist sentiment, certainly, but one which contains a grain of truth.
I introduce food into the story of the lives of my fictional characters for several reasons. What the characters feel about food can tell one a lot about them - about their past, about their personality, about their aspirations. But, in a more prosaic way, the sharing of food provides such a useful backdrop against which things can happen. Mma Ramotswe, the heroine of my No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, is described as a lady of traditional build. This means that she is large, and her comfortable figurecomes from the fact that she enjoys her food. In the most recent novel in the series, Blue Shoes and Happiness, she embarks on a diet, but fails, as we know she will, right from the beginning. The final temptation that gets her off the diet is a slice of Mma Potokwani's rich fruit cake, the same cake which that formidable matron uses to manipulate Mr JLB Matekoni.
On the subject of fruit cake, I have discovered, to my surprise, that a large segment of the American public does not like it. Many of my American readers have asked me why the characters in the books eat fruit cake when there are so many more attractive alternatives available. They then explain that they can stand neither the sight nor smell of such cake which they clearly consider to be a vaguely un-American thing to eat not quite as bad as Marmite, in their eyes, but almost. The British, of course, know better, as do the people of Botswana. The woman on whom I based the character of Mma Potokwani, a splendid lady - also of traditional build - was in real life a great baker of fine fruit cake which she offered visitors to the orphanage of which she was the matron. That matrons should be of generous figure and also the bakers of heavy cakes seems to me to be entirely appropriate.
The people of Botswana - the Batswana - have a taste for meat, as most people do in that part of southern Africa. They love their cattle, and the surest sign of wealth is the ownership of a good herd. Meat is usually roasted or grilled and served with sorghum or with whatever vegetables are available, sometimes the ground melons that grow so well in the dry land on the edge of the Kalahari. But some of them also keep ostriches. There have been cases of ostrich rustling in the south, which have now cropped up in the books. There is something irresistible about the idea of ostrich rustlers.
There are regular scenes in the books where Mma Ramotswe and her assistant, Mma Makutsi, sit in their office, drink redbush tea, and eat cake. Some people take me to task for this, but I suspect that they do not realise just how many people want to read about precisely these things. And it is not for entirely escapist reasons that people visit and revisit such scenes the small rituals of life - the drinking of tea and the eating of cake - are really big things in disguise. We need to sit down at the table with others while discussing with them the small, and the major, events of our lives. These activities anchor us in our relationships with others and establish patterns in our lives.
I find this in my own life. I live in a Victorian house in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the kitchen, which has an Aga to keep us warm. My wife is a superb cook, which she manages to be in spite of heavy commitments as a general practitioner. We like to have just a few friends for dinner - usually just two - and we like to talk about the small things of the day. That is my greatest pleasure in a life which takes me off all over the world, on more-or-less constant tours, meeting vast numbers of people and living in soulless hotels. For a lot of my time away I find that I am actually somewhat lonely and long to be back, in the kitchen, with just a few friends, listening to the gossip.
My ideal dinner party guest, I think, would be WH Auden. I should specify the early Auden, though, not the late Auden. I had a friend who was fortunate enough to have dinner with Auden a year or so before the great poet died. He said that Auden spent most of the time complaining about the soup. Perhaps he should have saved that for a letter of complaint.
· Love Over Scotland by Alexander Mccall Smith (Polygon, £14.99hb), the third book in the 44 Scotland Street series, is out this month. Friends, Lovers, Chocolate (in The Sunday Philosophy Club series) is now in paperback (Abacus, £6.99)
There was a post that went semi viral on Instagram last week among mothers and care-takers telling back to school kids to talk to the outcast, the child who looks lonely on the school yard, etc.
The sentiment was lovely, of course, like most things you find on Instagram when you’re a mom, but I found it horribly misguided. Like posting that re-gram was going to make a true difference in anyone’s life but your own that day. Like mean girls, boys who bully and generally unkind kids of any age were going to see this re-post on Instagram and take it to heart.
I sighed with frustration with every single re-post that I saw.
You can’t parent by Instagram. You parent in real life.
We were in the car pool lane on the second day of school when a boy named Henry crossed my mind. He has been one of my daughter’s school mates for five years now. We don’t know him very well but he has always been a kind, quiet kid who goes with the flow in his own subtle way. His mom is lovely and always gives me a smile when she sees me, even though we have long forgotten each other’s names from the brief introduction we had several Septembers ago.
“Have you seen Henry a lot this year?” I asked my daughter, as my son was struggling to work his way into his backpack in time to jump out of the car at the school’s bustling car pool curb.
“Henry?” she questioned, pausing for just a split second to look up from her book.
Henry, I reminded her, throwing in a detail or two to clarify who I was referring to. I didn’t even know his last name after all these years because they have never really forged a close friendship, but I knew that he was probably the type of boy who started back at school with a little anxiety in his back pocket. A few extra nerves lingering over his morning. A subtle, quiet boy on the outskirts of the activity just trying to find his way in.
“Oh yeah, I haven’t seen him yet,” she said. “I don’t think we have any classes together, but I am sure he’s there.”
“When you see him, say hi to Henry,” I told her, grabbing her gaze and holding it tight. “Ask him about his summer, tell him which teachers you have.” I paused. “Say hi to Henry.”
She looked at me and nodded.
“Repeat after me,” I nudged. “Say hi to Henry.”
I didn’t have to go much further than that, thankfully. My daughter understands. She has always been excited about going back to school, about seeing her friends, about making new ones. But she knows that isn’t everyone’s reality. We’ve talked about it. She’s witnessed it firsthand. She has seen the impact that her confident kindness can have on other kids.
And she hasn’t learned one bit of that from my Instagram feed.
She learned it through real discussion. Meaningful, poignant moments where I call her or her brother out on behaviors that we observe or witness or hear about. In dinner table conversations about kids with personalities and backgrounds and needs different from theirs. About bullies and mean girls and the teachers who make change and those who simply don’t. We talk about it openly and often. On first days and day 100. And never once on Instagram.
“Say hi to Henry,” I repeated, this time a little louder and with a light-hearted laugh to go along with it, treating it like a command from General Mom. My son, now about to pop out of the backseat to navigate his own second day of school, laughed back. “Got it, mom!” he yelled, half way out the car door, already finding a friend up ahead to catch up to. “Off to find a Henry!” The door slammed behind him.
And with that we pulled away from the curb. My daughter went back to her book as we weaved our way through the kid-lined streets to the middle school. I turned up the radio a little and we drove the rest of the way without chatting. I picked up my phone at a red light, checked in on Instagram and saw the same post that had irked me in the first place. Another influencer mom, sharing a trendy bit of parenting advice in a scripted black and white font that aligned with her feed and her back-to-school content. I gave it a “like” to make her feel good about herself. Like she had made an impact that morning with that post. Silently hoping she had a real-life conversation to go along with it. That she wasn’t just driving in silence, talking to her Instagram audience more than her own kids. That she took the reminder as an opportunity to inspire change off her screen as well. Where it’s really needed.