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.