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The Washingtonian's resident Brit shares her home-cooking adventures—and proves that there's more to English food than bangers and mash. By Sophie Gilbert

Sophie's inexpensive salad whose simplicity reminds her of home. Photograph by John Wilwol
If I were a businessman (and it should be immediately apparent from my choice of career that I am not), one of the first things I’d do is import Sainsbury’s to the U.S. The British supermarket chain is probably the thing I miss most from home (hopefully my mom isn’t reading this), and it’s just about impossible to find anything here that even comes close. British pork-belly mini joints with apple-and-shallot stuffing? Done. Broccoli-and-Stilton quiche with a crunch cheddar crumb? Sold. Looking at the Web site now is enough to make my poor, Trader Joe’s-condemned self weep. What I wouldn’t give right now for a Gruyère-topped bap (a soft roll) or six.

The brilliant thing about British supermarket chains is that they put mini stores on almost every street corner, meaning organic arugula and Oyster Bay wine are just steps away no matter where you are. And it also means that pre-made lunch options are a cinch, whether you’re a fan of char-grilled vegetable couscous for £1.59 (about $2.50) or edamame-and-butter-bean salad for a mere £1.99 (about $3.15). Getting a wholesome lunch in England is an inexpensive cinch, even if you’re confronted with Cadbury’s chocolate at every checkout line. Getting lunch in DC? I don’t have a window in my office, but if I did I’d be looking out at a Staples, a Potbelly, and a Corner Bakery, none of which seem to be tempting me with the siren call of whole grains and exotic vegetables. Yes, there’s always my hometown import, Pret A Manger, but my monthly spending there is starting to rival my mortgage, and the staff give me the same kind of judgmental looks that bartenders give alcoholics.

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Posted at 11:02 AM/ET, 07/07/2011 | Permalink | Comments ()
The Washingtonian's resident Brit shares her home-cooking adventures—and proves that there's more to English food than bangers and mash. By Sophie Gilbert

Photograph by John Wilwol

One of the best perks about working at a magazine is the sheer number of diet books that get sent our way (one of the not-so-great perks is having to get rid of all the five-pound political biographies). I'm absolutely fascinated with them; not because I'm any good at going on a diet, but because I find the disparity of advice absolutely hysterical, and there's usually at least one reliable recipe if you ignore calls for non-fat cooking spray, Splenda, and soy products. Here's what I've gleaned from the diet books I've read over the last year: If you cut out carbs, fat, meat, dairy, animal products, fruit, and sugar, and exist on a high-fat, non-fat, vegan, meat-based, exercise-heavy diet of vegetables, you'll manage to not only lose weight but also keep it off. Astonishing.

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Posted at 03:03 PM/ET, 06/02/2011 | Permalink | Comments ()
The Washingtonian’s resident Brit shares her home-cooking adventures—and proves that there’s more to English food than bangers and mash By Sophie Gilbert

Sophie's quiche, made with fond memories of a months-long stint in Paris. Photograph by John Wilwol
There comes a time in almost every soon-to-be-college-grad’s life when impending unemployment and months of subsisting on Red Bull and Subway sandwiches (gotta love finals) commingle to produce some very creative ideas on how to escape adulthood. Some quarter-life-crisis sufferers go on to grad school; some suck it up and get real jobs; some—like me—take drastic steps to avoid the crushing banality of a 9-to-5. In my case, I persuaded my dad that my language skills could use some improvement, enrolled at summer school at the Sorbonne, and moved to Paris.

I think mon pauvre père rapidly realized that this Paris ruse was less a way to refine my grasp of le subjonctif and more a way to spend a few months in a wine-and-macarons-based stupor, but he went along with it pretty decently (I think it was as good an excuse as any for him to spend a few weekends propping up the bar in Les Deux Magots himself).

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Posted at 01:45 PM/ET, 05/19/2011 | Permalink | Comments ()
The Washingtonian's resident Brit shares her home-cooking adventures—and proves that there's more to English food than bangers and mash. By Sophie Gilbert
After going 22 years without Mexican food, Sophie makes these fajitas roughly once a week. Photograph by John Wilwol.

According to a new tool released by the USDA, 4.4 percent of Americans live in a “food desert.” I have no official statistics to back up the purely imaginary claim I’m about to make, but I’d estimate that 99 percent of Brits live in a Mexican-food desert, without so much as a Chipotle or a California Tortilla to call their own—one of the tragedies of England being 5,000 miles from Mexico (the other is the complete absence of mariachi bands and piñatas from the British cultural lexicon). Before I was 22, I’d never enjoyed an enchilada, scarfed down quesadillas, or patronized a taco truck at 2 AM.

After almost four years in the States, however, and one summer traveling around the South with my Georgia roommate, MacKenzie, I’m now madly in love with Mexican food and particularly grateful that there’s an entire holiday here dedicated to freedom and tequila-based drinks. At home, we make the following recipe roughly once a week, so it has evolved from an early attempt at authenticity to a full-blown homage to jalapeños. I made it for English Mummy last night, thinking it might dramatically alter her world view, but it turns out she spent a summer traveling around Mexico in the 1970s, so she merely said, “No refried beans?” before diving in with gusto.

Happy Cinco de Mayo! If you’re considering making margaritas, try shaking one part tequila, one part Triple Sec or Cointreau, and the juice of ½ lime over ice instead of using margarita mix: infinitely better-tasting and better for you.

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Posted at 12:17 PM/ET, 05/05/2011 | Permalink | Comments ()
The Washingtonian's resident Brit shares her home-cooking adventures—and proves that there's more to English food than bangers and mash. By Sophie Gilbert

Sophie's version of Prince William's favorite childhood dessert. Photograph by John Wilwol.
It seems absurd for a British-themed blog not to acknowledge that a significant event is happening across the pond next week. However, I’ll let you in on a little secret: I’m not really that excited about Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding. They seem like a lovely, grounded couple, but after eight months of dress speculation and Dukan Diet stories and absurd marketing ploys, I’m feeling more than a few pangs of tedium. English Mummy doesn’t share my feelings, however: She has taken next Friday off work in preparation, and we had an unbelievably long discussion yesterday about whether Kate is unhealthy-anorexic skinny (my view) or just bride-to-be skinny (Mummy’s). I lost after it was decided that Kate probably didn’t care what I thought anyway.

There is, however, one element of the royal wedding of which I thoroughly approve, and that’s the groom’s choice of cake. In addition to having a traditional English fruitcake at the reception, Prince William has requested a chocolate biscuit cake, which is apparently a favorite of his from childhood. Bear in mind that “biscuit” is British English for “cookie,” which I hope will make this sound a lot more appealing than a floury cake made from fried-chicken side orders. Chocolate biscuit cake is a nursery favorite, combining cookies, chocolate, syrup, butter, and raisins in a refrigerated slab of sugary goodness; the final product is dark and fudgy, with crunch from the cookies and chewiness from the fruit. You can also add brandy if desired, but because it’s uncooked, be careful whom you serve it to. (There’s nothing tackier than drunk toddlers at a formal event, and this isn’t the Olive Garden.)

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Posted at 04:41 PM/ET, 04/20/2011 | Permalink | Comments ()
The Washingtonian's resident Brit shares her home-cooking adventures—and proves that there's more to English food than bangers and mash. By Sophie Gilbert

Photograph by Sophie Gilbert.
If ever there was an institution as profoundly unappreciated as English food, it’s the English mummy (that’s British for “mom,” by the way). Blessed with a wardrobe of colorful separates, a razor-sharp tongue, and an endless ability both to bolster and to bash her offspring, the mummy should rightly be a global cultural icon, up there with the Queen and Cadbury’s chocolate. I spend half an hour on the phone each weekend with mine, and she tells me stories about her friend Alison (who’s apparently “thin-lipped and mean”) and debates the nuances of American foreign policy (she likes Barack Obama, although she got very cross with him for criticizing BP, and she thinks Sarah Palin is “just ghastly”).

My mummy is coming to stay next month, meaning I’m already making preparations: purchasing Earl Grey tea and marmalade, cleaning, and preparing an invisible, Teflon-esque coat of armor, which I’ll use to repel any maternal criticism. (On a recent visit she complimented me on my weight gain and told me I was getting bunions.) I’m joking, mostly. My mummy is lovely, and her visits are usually complicated by only one thing: she’s lactose-intolerant. This is a giant problem in our house, where a quarter of our grocery budget is routinely spent on cheese, and my loyalty to dairy is matched only by my loyalty to my husband, who’s much nicer and more patient with my family than I am.

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Posted at 12:18 PM/ET, 04/07/2011 | Permalink | Comments ()
The Washingtonian's resident Brit shares her home-cooking adventures—and proves that there's more to English food than bangers and mash. By Sophie Gilbert
Macaroni and cheese with spinach and tomatoes. The addition of vegetables adds a freshness to the dish—and makes it maybe a little bit healthy? Photograph by John Wilwol.

Macaroni and cheese with spinach and tomatoes. Does the addition of vegetables make it at least a little bit healthy? Photograph by Sophie Gilbert.
I thought it was fitting, for my second blog post about British cooking, that I ignore British food completely and instead turn to something more quintessentially American than a cowboy draped in the American flag eating a KFC Double-Down: macaroni and cheese. Fitting, that is, until I did some thorough journalistic research (i.e., looked it up on Wikipedia) and found out that mac and cheese is actually English. Well, kind of. It’s apparently been popular in England for the last hundred years or so, but its American heritage wins out because Thomas Jefferson reportedly enjoyed it at the White House in 1802. There you go, Yanks, getting everything good before we do.

I vaguely remember eating “macaroni cheese” as a child along with all the other bland, casserole-type things we were fed—tuna bake, fish pie, cottage pie—but it wasn’t until my early twenties that I began to appreciate it. When I was out in London’s Soho one night about five years ago, I stumbled into the Boheme Kitchen & Bar, where I drunkenly scarfed the better part of an entire plate of mac and cheese and discovered that it was really, really good. Admittedly, almost anything is really, really good when you’re drunk, which is pretty much the only reason that Jumbo Slice in Adams Morgan is still in business. But this particular macaroni-and-cheese combination had an interesting addition: spinach. And because it gave a nice texture to the dish, as well as the illusion of healthfulness, I’ve been adding it to my own rendition ever since.

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Posted at 09:08 AM/ET, 03/24/2011 | Permalink | Comments ()
The Washingtonian's resident Brit shares her home-cooking adventures—and proves that there's more to English food than bangers and mash. By Sophie Gilbert

When I was asked to start this blog, I was given a rather complex task. “We want you to prove,” said my editors, “that British food isn’t as disgusting as people think it is. And you should also talk about cooking. And be funny. Definitely be funny.”

Sounds easy, no? Here are my credentials in terms of cooking: I have none. I’ve never taken so much as a basic knife-skills class, and I ate a radish for the first time in 2008. But I’m British, so that takes care of at least a part of the equation. And I grew up in a very food-oriented house—my stepmom, a former caterer, was trained at Cordon Bleu; my mom and stepfather are organic beef farmers; and my dad was a hardcore gastronome, who once gave me a glass of Château Margaux when I was doing my French homework at age 13 (I like to think it distinctly improved my work). So I grew up cooking and eating a lot, in London, which contrary to popular opinion has some of the best restaurants in the world and where it isn’t always raining.

I also worked as a waitress for six years, which gave me three important skills: (1) I can fan out an avocado prettily on a plate, (2) I know how to unblock a toilet, and (3) I can open a bottle of wine in less than five seconds. Curiously enough, it wasn’t until I gave up being a waitress and became a journalist that I started cooking properly.

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Posted at 10:35 AM/ET, 03/03/2011 | Permalink | Comments ()