Friday, June 17, 2011

The Blessings and Comfort of a Cup of Tea

It's true. I have become a wee bit obsessed with taking farm fresh produce, adding sugar and storing it away in pretty glass jars for gloomy winter mornings. Or a June-gloom morning in Los Angeles. Jam is my new favorite pass time. My kitchen is always a little bit sticky, and the jars of golden peach and ruby tomato jam (yes - tomato. It's delicious!) are piling up faster than I can give them away. But in the morning, before the preserving madness begins, I like to have a cup of tea. I used to drink coffee, but following a nasty cold, I realized that a cup of tea was a slightly less aggressive way for me to start the day, and have been enjoying a nice "cuppa" for a few months now.

I have heard more than once from Anglo-philes and the English themselves the hilarious assumption that a cup of tea can cure a broken leg. While I'm not convinced, I knew that Mrs. Black would have some strong views on tea. Indeed.

"Much has been said and written regarding the uses of tea. And without presuming to discuss its effects upon the system, we may remark that it is certainly possible to abuse the use of tea as many other blessings are abused. Many men and women, however, tired in brain or body, have gratefully acknowledge the blessings and comfort of "a cup of tea." Tea contains a volatile oil, which has a peculiar effect upon the nerves, reviving the body, and driving away drowsiness, while at the same time it has a soothing effect on the heart and circulation, and is thus beneficial in removing nervous headaches. It also contains a peculiar substance called theine, which Leibig says "plays a part in the nourishment of the body." It causes perspiration, and weak tea is useful on that account to persons suffering from cold. Tea is nearly always acceptable to invalids, to whom it is extremely refreshing. It can also be used as a means of conveying nourishment when necessary, such as a well-beaten egg in addition to milk or instead of it."

A quick check of Wikipedia reveals that "theine" was later identified as being the same thing as caffeine (winning that scientist - Hermann Emil Fischer -  a Nobel Prize in 1902). And as we all gratefully acknowledge the blessings of caffeine, we may also cringe at the idea of adding a well-beaten egg to our tea.

Everyone who drinks tea has their own little rituals. I add the sugar first, along with a tea bag, fill the cup with boiling water and let it steep for as long as it takes me to put away dishes from the dish rack or some other menial kitchen task better done while half asleep. A little milk, and I'm ready to go. My parents, who instilled a love of tea in me at an early age, actually set the timer for one minute, fifteen seconds, or some other very specific amount of time before removing their tea bags. Others prefer loose tea, as my mother in law did until she too realized the convenience of tea bags, despite the unsightly appearance  of a soggy tea bag on a saucer. (Quickly whisked away)  She preferred lemon in her tea, generally preferring Earl Grey to English Breakfast. The hint of bergamont going much better with citrus than milk any day of the week.

There is something about these rituals that are, in themselves, calming. And the never ending supply of tea accessories appeals to the consumer in us all. The subject of tea is as vast as the oceans that bring tea leaves to us from around the globe, but as drowsiness has now been driven from my body by a nice strong cup of PG Tips, I'm off for the day. The jam jars are sending out their siren call...

Monday, June 13, 2011

Rhubarb Jam and A Porcelain-Lined Goblet

I love rhubarb. I love the tart, red stalks that scream out to be pared with sugar and strawberries and put in a pie. When I was a kid growing up in Central Michigan, rhubarb practically grew wild. It was so plentiful that I sometimes just sucked on a stalk of rhubarb like a stalk of sugar cane, but face-puckeringly tart. 

Rhubarb doesn't seem to grow like that in Southern California, and I thought I had missed the season all together when I spotted a pile of stalks at the Farmer's Market last week and brought home a little over a pound with no particular plans. Then, I remembered that Mrs. Black has posited a rhubarb jam recipe for her young housekeeper readers, and we were off! Apparently, rhubarb appeared in the Glasgow area in April back in the 1880s. Check out this site for more information on the history of rhubarb in Great Britain (including instructions for how to turn rhubarb into organic insecticide!). 

Let us hear from Mrs. Black: "At this particular season many people have nearly finished their last year's jam, and the usual jam fruit has not come in. There is no denying that it is much cheaper to make jam at home than to buy it, and it is very easy indeed to make. Get three sweet oranges, and peel them much as you would peel apples, and cut the peel up into chips, but not very finely. Take all the white part off and cut the orange into thin slices, taking the seeds out as you go along. Put all this into a clean pot or stew pan, with 2 lbs. of sugar and let it melt, which it will in a few minutes, then was thoroughly, and cut off in very short pieces 2 lbs. rhubarb, which add to the sugar and oranges in the pan. When it boils up again, let it boil smartly for half-an-hour, then put it in jelly-cans for use. This is not very fine jam, but it is very good indeed, and particularly good to eat with boiled rice or corn-flour. A common pot or pan does quite well for boiling the rhubarb jam, but it is almost absolutely necessary that it be thoroughly scoured and washed with warm water and soap afterwards well dried. A porcelain-lined goblet is as good as any jelly-pan."

I wonder if rhubarb was even more sour back then, or if my Scottish husband's sweet tooth is a cultural thing. Two pounds of rhubarb, two pounds of sugar. And a very happy dentist! I loved the idea of rhubarb and orange, given that strawberry/rhubarb is the more common combination these days. I had a few tangerines in the house, so I peeled and chopped them, leaving out the rind. I peeled the rhubarb a little to get the stringy-est strings off and chopped that up as well. Rather than a pound of sugar for my pound of rhubarb, I added about 1 1/2 cups of sugar. And since I was feeling adventurous, I tied up about 5 sprigs of thyme and threw that in for a little savoury. I was also going for more of a "compote" to use as an ice cream topping, so I added a cup of water to thin it out a bit. It did "boil smartly" for about a half hour, and I had about a pint of sauce for my troubles. 

It isn't a "very fine jam," in the velvety smooth sense. The color is also a little weird. A lot of the red rhubarb color seems to cook out, leaving you with a weirdly green/orange color. I'll admit that I'm not the best photographer, but the color you see here is pretty close to the real color. The rhubarb fibers that hung on through the cooking process give a little extra texture to the sauce, the thyme adds a nice hint of freshness, and the orange adds a nice brightness to the whole dish. And when you pour it over premium vanilla ice cream, the resulting melty mass is supremely, lick the bowl delicious. I'm not sure if I'm willing to try it over rice, but I'm sure it would absolutely make corn-flour taste better!

And remember - it is almost absolutely necessary that your pan be thoroughly scoured and washed with warm water and soap. Almost. And a porcelain-lined goblet is as good as any jelly-pan. 

Friday, May 27, 2011

How to Cover Preserves or "A Jam-ity Calamity!"

I love making jam. Fruit, water, sugar, and maybe a little lemon thyme or rosemary to pique the taste-buds while they savour a little toast and jam brekkie. Since I tend to have a problem with restraint at the farmer's market, bringing home four pounds of apricots when one would have done just nicely for after dinner treats and lunches, a love of jam making is a good thing.  I made the first batch of the season yesterday, in fact, using David Lebovitz's easy to follow instructions.   It's not hard to make jam, you just need to keep an eye on it so it doesn't burn, and you can't get impatient and take it off the heat to early or it won't gel.

What I am not a fan of is canning. This is the process of making sure that all the air and micro-organisms are out of the jars so that you can put the jars on a shelf in your pantry and not be afraid of contracting botulism with your breakfast 6 months down the road. It isn't hard, it's just hot and sweaty work, involving giant vats of boiling water and a hyper aware, operating room level of cleanliness (boiling and sterilizing all tools, etc). The good news is that sugar is a great preservative, and if you are able to give your jam real estate in the refrigerator, you can keep it there for at least six months (if it lasts that long!).

But what about back in Mrs. Black's day, when your average house keeper didn't have a fridge? She is an ardent believer in the ability of sugar to block spoilage, but still recommends putting a lid on it - albiet one of paper...

"As this is the season for making preserves, it may be useful to young housekeepers to tell them what I consider the best way of covering jelly. First of all make a little common paste, then have the papers cut the size necessary, and the names written upon them. Proceed to put the paste over the inside of the paper near the edge. Do all this while the preserve is boiling; then fill a can and instantly put the paper on, sticking it securely all round, and so on till all are finished. With a damp cloth wipe the outside of the cans, and they are ready for storing in a dry place. Unless you put the paper on the very moment the jam is put into the jar you must allow it to get quite cold. This will be found an effectual plan to prevent mouldiness, if the preserves are properly boiled with enough sugar."

I am assuming that "common paste" is just a little flour and water combination mixed together based on the recipes I found here. So, a little paper label glued in with some flour paste to keep out the flies and "mouldiness." Blurg. I suppose it did an admirable job, but I'm just happy we've worked out better ways of keeping bacteria at bay.

In the meantime, I'll be enjoying my mould free apricot jam on toast!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Savoury Rice

Hint number 27 from Mrs. Black is for the sensible people. Really. Unlike all of her other completely frivolous dishes calling for boiled ox liver. I kid. In fact, I continue to be impressed by Mrs. Black's modern philosophy of food (Organic, local ingredients, etc. Everything old is new again, etc. Luckily, we now have modern refrigeration, which helps considerably.)  Among other things, Mrs. Black doesn't believe you need to eat gobs of meat in order to survive, which is good for both your heart and your pocketbook.  Without further ado...No. 27. - Savoury Rice.

"I am going to give you a recipe for a dish or two suitable for those very sensible people who use little or no butcher meat, hoping that it will induce all my friends at least to diminish the quantity of butcher meat used, and supply its place with an increased vegetable diet.

"Chop up a good-sized onion, pour boiling water over it, and let it stand for about ten minutes, after that drain it dry. Put into a pot one teacupful of well-washed rice, a good dessert-spoonful of butter (or sweet dripping, which does quite well), a pinch of salt and a little pepper, the chopped onion, and two breakfast-cupfuls of water; let it boil slowly for nearly half an hour without touching it, and with the lid quite close. Then mix in 1 small table-spoonful of corn-flour, or common flour, 1 teacupful of milk, and one egg beaten up, add enough pepper and salt to season it, and stir it over the fire for a minute or two, turn it out on a dish, and brown the top either in the oven or front of the fire. For a change, two table-spoonfuls of grated cheese may be added to this, along with the other things at the last, or two table-spoonfuls of any kinds of cooked meat or ham chopped up. The dish will be found excellent either way, and most suitable for a summer diet."

I thought I'd actually try this one out since I was curious about what the final texture would be. Instead of boiling the onion, I sauteed it in a little olive oil, just like I would for a risotto. I used jasmine rice, which does cook in 30 minutes, otherwise I would have ignored the timing instruction and simply cooked the rice till al dente. After cooking the rice, I turned the heat up to high and added the other ingredients, stirring constantly. The flour, milk and egg bound the rice up very nicely. If I had added cheese, it would have been just like a macaroni and cheese texture, but with rice. It wasn't as creamy as I had hoped. Maybe a little more milk would have helped. It was very comfort food-y, though, and a great conduit for butter and salt. I oiled a casserole, put in the mixture and stuck it under the broiler to get it a little crunchy on top. I had some beautiful leeks and fava beans in the house, so sauteed them up and added a little proscuitto to add a little "butcher meat." Very tasty, comfort food dinner. Nothing fancy, but filling and a great use for leftovers. Perfect for a new housekeeper looking to feed a family on a budget.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Good Dish of Cabbage?

credit: La Grande Farmers' Market
I love cabbage. I will never turn down a new cole slaw recipe. Sauerkraut is delicious. So is kim chi. Cabbage is very tasty with sausages and/or mashed potato, and also provides a satisfying crunch to a fish taco. It is low in calories, and high in fiber, which makes it a dieter's dream! It's also full of antioxidants and vitamins! Delicious. Unless you boil it too long, allowing all those vitamins to go up in steam, and noxious fumes to fill your kitchen.  Mrs. Black was mostly concerned with easy digestion though, so I'm sure this recipe would not bother the eater with any "wind" related issues.

"Take a good firm cabbage and wash it thoroughly, removing any decayed leaves from the outside: cut it across the stalk twice, about two inches deep, to let the water penetrate to the thick part. Let it soak in salt and water for about half-an-hour. Then put it on in plenty of boiling water with some salt in it, and a small pinch of carbonate of soda, and let it boil with the lid off for ten minutes. Then pour all the water away and fill it up again with boiling water from the kettle, add a little salt and let it boil for a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes longer till it is cooked. Take it up on a strainer and squeeze all the water from it with a spoon or saucer, when it may be turned out on a plate or dish for use. Or chop it up finely, put it in a basin and mix with it a good large teaspoonful of butter, a little pepper and salt, 2 large table-spoonfuls of milk and egg well beaten, stir it all with a fork and put it in a pudding-dish, sprinkle a few bread-crumbs over the top, and put it in the oven or before the fire to become firm and brown the top. This is a delightful way to use cabbage. Very digestible and nourishing."

Pretty simple, right? I'm marginally interested in trying the cabbage "gratin" recipe. Did you notice that she is cooking the cabbage whole? Modern instruction generally encourages you to cut out the hard core and cut up the cabbage - slices, shreds or wedges, before attempting to cook. If cut up, contemporary recipes for boiled cabbage recommend 8-10 minutes cooking tops. Though I recommend braising it - saute some garlic and onion in olive oil with salt and pepper. When soft, add sliced cabbage and a cup of wine (or beer - a nice choice if you are serving with sausages). Pop the lid on your pan and let it cook on medium low heat till soft. About 8-10 minutes. You can add some caraway seeds to the mix if you want to tart it up a little. Serve with sausages or corned beef. Yum!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Nice Way of Cooking Fish

Some of us fear cooking fish. I know that I do. I get all hung up on finding the right fish. I'm always wondering about freshness - the local mega mart fish counter scares me a little, and the prices at the fancy mega mart make me anxious. If I screw it up by over cooking or by letting all the skin stick to the pan I'll be bummed considering the price per pound. Now, Glasgow is a major port town, and the River Clyde is still full of salmon and trout, so I can only imagine how abundant and economical fish was in the 1880s. Not that any self respecting house keeper would want to mess up dinner back then either. But, with Mrs. Black's help, you can't fail, right?

In her words: "Get about 1 1/2 lbs. of fish, either three small ones or a large one that can be cut in three pieces. Scrape and wash them very carefully, cutting off the fins and taking out the eyes and dry them in a cloth. Place them in a pie-dish. Mix in a bowl 1 dessert-spoonful of flour, 1 teaspoonful of butter melted, 1 egg well beaten, 1 teacupful of milk, a little pepper and salt; pour all this over the fish in the pie-dish, and put it in the oven for half an hour, or on a toaster in front of the fire for the same length of time. Both the fish and the custard will be found delightful."

Clearly, the Glaswegian housewife of the 1880s had bigger problems than whether or not her fish was sustainably harvested. She was too busy taking out eyes and cutting off fins! And while fish and milk together isn't a dish you see regularly on the menu, how often have you had lox and cream cheese without batting an eye? Or seen jars of herring in cream sauce at Ikea? I'm curious about the low volume of poaching liquid. A nice thick custard solidifying around the fishies. Yummy... Perhaps a little dill, parsley, or lemon? With these additions, I am sure it could be quite delightful. Unusual, yes, but delightful under the right circumstances perhaps. I may have to spring this on on the husband someday soon, using a 350F degree oven instead of an open fire (some instructions are meant to be updated). I'll let you know how that goes.

Friday, April 1, 2011

A Simple Pudding

This is a pudding in the Scottish sense. Dense, dry and chewy. Mistake it for a sweet dessert at your own risk. Bill Cosby would not recognize this as even a distant cousin of his beloved Jello pudding, and I know for a fact it would make a terrible pudding pop. That said, notwithstanding the cup of chopped suet, this is a very healthy addition to any Glaswegian table from the 1880s.

In Mrs. Black's words: "I am going to give you directions for making a simple pudding, which I hope you will like: 1 full teacupful of flour, 1 thick slice of bread grated (there should be a breakfast-cupful), 1 teacupful of chopped suet, 1 table-spoonful of sugar, 1/4 b. of currants, 1/4 lb. of raisins, 1 table-spoonful of either golden syrup or jam, 1 breakfast-cupful of milk, 1/2 teaspoonful of carbonate of soda, 1 teaspoonful of ground cinnamon. Wash and dry the currants, pick the raisins, and mix them and all the dry things together, afterwards add the syrup and the milk, and give the whole a good mixing. Butter a pretty large bowl inside, put in the pudding, cover it over with a piece of paper rubbed with a little dripping, and put it into a pot with a very little boiling water in it, to steam for at least one hour and a half.

"This pudding is much improved by having a warm sauce like this served with it. Mix in a little pan 1 teaspoonful of butter, 2 teaspoonfuls of flour, 1 table-spoonful of sugar, and 1 1/2 teacupsful of water--stir it all over the fire till it boils, then pour it over or round the pudding. A doctor writes about the use of suet in some such form as in this pudding -- "That the use of fat would diminish the victims of consumption by nine-tenths, and that the whole secret of the use of Cod Liver Oil is to take the place of fat meats."

Tasty, no? Certainly the cup of suet is the first clue that this is of another era, but if you are honest with yourself, you know you have made desserts with a cup of butter from time to time. Suet is just a bit more, well, savory. The raisins and currents sound yummy, if you are into dried fruit, as I am. It's the scant 2 tablespoons of sweetness (sugar and "golden syrup") that throws me. Though, with all those raisins, it might not be necessary. The sauce sounds pretty dreadful though. As an alternative, might I suggest what is the tradition at our house - douse the whole thing in Bacardi 151, light a match and flame the sucker. Serve with sweetened whipped cream, or Devonshire cream. Much better, yes? Especially knowing that you are staving off the possibility of coming down with consumption through the use of all that suet. It's a win, win!