Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Canning: Apple butter

We're safe and sound here in Providence. The hurricane swept through yesterday and we stayed snug in the apartment, catching up on schoolwork and relaxing. There were several hours of Diablo III (Josh) and of baking cheesy pull-apart bread (me). There was an evening of catching up on our favorite shows and watching The Adventures of Tin-Tin. And today the weather's clear and sunny, but we're still off from school while Rhode Island pulls itself back together.

Just like last year when Irene stopped by, we were extremely lucky not to lose power or face flooding. These two days off from school have been more like surprise snow days (minus the snow) than anything scary, and I'm thankful for that.

If you're still battening down the hatches to weather out the rest of the storm, or if you're just hankering for a comforting, homey taste of fall, might I suggest some apple butter? Freshly made over the weekend, this apple butter spiced up my morning oatmeal and kept me warm long into the day while the wind screamed outside. It's just what I needed to get ready for the colder months ahead.

I adapted this recipe from Liana Krissoff's excellent Canning for a New Generation, so it's not technically a historical recipe. Krissoff helps you bypass the labor-intensive parts of making apple butter the traditional way, allowing you to slow-cook the butter in the oven instead of stirring it constantly on the stove. Still, the hours spent in the oven imbue this apple butter with a spicy, old-fashioned goodness. Once the apple butter was thick and dark, Nina came over to help pack it up in half-pint jars. (This canning thing is becoming a habit of ours.) We also put up some applesauce she'd made the day before, and we ended up with a pretty decent haul. If we don't hoard our cans all winter long (trust me, it's tempting), we're thinking they'll make excellent gifts come the holidays.

Stay safe, friends, and help yourself to some apple butter.

Do you have any tips for making it through storms and snow days? I'd love to hear.

Apple Butter
(adapted from Canning for a New Generation by Liana Krissoff)
makes between 6 and 10 half-pint jars

6 lbs apples, peeled and cored and chopped into small pieces (I used a combination of Macintosh and Granny Smith)
2 cups apple cider
roughly 1 1/2 cups brown sugar
1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp ground allspice

Put the apples in a large saucepan, together with the cider and 4 cups of water. Boil over high heat, stirring occasionally, until the apples are mostly mushy and broken down, about 40 minutes. Puree the mixture in batches in a blender until smooth, and measure before pouring it into a medium Dutch oven. Preheat the oven to 300 F.

Into the apple mixture, stir in 2 tbsp brown sugar per cup of puree (this is why you measured it earlier). Stir in the spices. When the oven is hot, bake the apple mixture for about 2 hours, stirring occasionally, until it's thick and dark and the kitchen smells of spice.

If you'd like to can the apple butter (this recipe makes a lot), set a canning pot full of water to boil on the stove. Wash the jars and lids you'll be using, and set the jars in the canning pot to keep them hot. Put the lids in a heatproof bowl and ladle some of the hot water from the canning pot into the bowl to cover the lids.

Remove the apple butter from the oven and set on the stove over medium heat until it's boiling. Once the canning pot is boiling, remove the jars from the pot with a jar lifter and place them upright on a towel. Remove the jar lids from the bowl and set on a plate.

Working quickly, pour the apple butter into the jars, leaving about 1/2 inch headspace in each jar. Place a lid on top of each jar and lightly screw on the ring, so it holds but is still loose. Use the jar lifter to return the jars to the canning pot, making sure they're upright and covered by at least 1 inch of water. Bring the canning pot to a boil and process for 10 minutes. Remove the jars and place on a towel. Check the lids to make sure they've sealed after 1 hour (when you press the center of the lid, it shouldn't push down or pop back up). If any haven't sealed, refrigerate immediately. Don't move the sealed jars for 12 hours. When they've finally cooled, label and store.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

History 101: Downton Abbey

While Downton Abbey is purely fiction (in all its soap operatic glory), it's based largely on fact. Julian Fellowes, the creator of the show, is known for writing well-researched films set in earlier days of the British Empire (like Gosford Park, one of my sister's favorite movies). Downton Abbey is no different. That intrigue and scandal is all layered on top of historical fact.

Time Period

The show begins with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and proceeds through the end of World War I, and season 3 will take us into the 1920s. These decades held loads of change for Britain. Until 1900, Britain was the undisputed leader of the Western world, with Queen Victoria at the helm and colonies scattered around the globe. "The sun never sets on the British empire" and all that. Yes, there was a huge gap between rich and poor in England itself, and the aristocracy was struggling to maintain its position at the top of the social ladder, but few Victorians thought things would change in the 20th century.

Edwardian England and World War I

Enter King Edward VII, who came to the throne upon the death of Queen Victoria in January 1901. Here are a few important facts about Edward:

  • he enjoyed spending weekends with the landed aristocracy at their country houses (like Downton)
  • he enjoyed lavish parties at these country houses
  • his nickname was Tum Tum (not really important, but I couldn't resist sharing)

Sure, he was a perfectly fine ruler. But mostly people focused on his love of parties. The aristocracy thought of these years before WWI as a "golden summer" because they modeled their lives after Edward's, spending weekends at shooting parties and eating elaborate 10-course meals. They didn't think much about the working class, who were often so poor and so nutritionally-deprived that they couldn't be drafted into the army. The fact that the working class was beginning to take power in Parliament, through the formation of the Labour Party, escaped the wealthy.

Edward VII at Balmoral
The one thing the gentry did notice was the fact that their power and wealth no longer rested on their land and estates, as it had for centuries. Now they had to pay high taxes on their land, and their tenants could purchase pieces of the estates. Some families became so broke that they had to sell to the nouveau riche or find wealthy American heiresses for their sons (like Cora). A major social shift was on the horizon.

Of course, WWI changed everything even more. Suddenly all of Britain's able-bodied men were sent to the front in France or the Mediterranean, and few came back unscathed. The war years even influenced those left at home, like Lady Sibyl, who decides that she'd prefer working as a nurse and running away with the chauffeur to remaining at Downton. By the end of WWI, the social order was completely upended.

How it All Relates to Cooking

Since much of the show is set at a country house, most of the food we'll discuss is pretty high-class. The aristocracy ate elaborately and well, and the servants ate their leftovers or simpler meals. However, the servants were much better fed than most of the working class in the Edwardian era--they could rely upon having at least something to eat at every meal.

the Crawleys at a garden party
The landed class particularly enjoyed modeling their dining habits after those culinary geniuses, the French. Edward made it fashionable to eat 10-course meals, so that's what the landed class did, dining on French-inspired food cooked by trained French chefs. While I can't see Mrs. Patmore, the cook at Downton, training in a French kitchen, she certainly would have cooked French food for the family. For more traditional English recipes, she would have turned to Mrs Beeton's classic cookbook. Finally, ingredients before the war would have been the very best, and often the vegetables came from the estate's farm. Talk about eating local!

However, even the gentry had to give up their rich foods when WWI broke out. Britain depended on imports for 60% of its food supply, so the war at sea made acquiring food incredibly difficult. Prices for sugar, butter, and cheese skyrocketed when war was declared, and the government had to ration food early on. This forced cooks to be much more creative, but it also made for some truly distasteful dishes. For now, I'm going to focus on food before the war.

In a future post I'll talk about the cookbooks I'm using for this project, but for now, be prepared for lots of fancy French food with fancy French names, as well as some classic Victorian dishes.

Downton lovers, what's your favorite thing about this time period? I'm fascinated by Edward VII's nickname...

Works cited: Taste: The Story of Britain through its Cooking by Kate Colquhoun. Life in Edwardian England by Robert Cecil. Images: 1. Ye Olde History Tavern. 2. TV with Thinus.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Pumpkin pie

This time of year, Led Zeppelin's "Ramble On" always seems to be stuck in my head. Yes, I did play it in class because it connected to our Lord of the Rings discussion, but it's also just so seasonally appropriate. "Leaves are falling all around....time I was on my way." It's the perfect thing to sing while crunching through the gold and red leaves on the sidewalk.

Erin of Reading My Tea Leaves made the funny, and true, observation that bloggers are totally obsessed with the seasons. These days, blogs are all about spiced apples and warm cider and crisp fall days. I'm guilty of this, too. But it seems appropriate that blogs about food and simple living--the ones I read--are focused on the seasons and their changing, because in many ways we're still closely tied to the land and the weather. Maybe we aren't farmers, but many of us purchase food from farmers' markets, and our meals therefore depend on what's in season. Our outdoor activities, the shapes of our days, our clothing--all determined by the seasons. It's a lot easier to run down the block for a morning coffee when the weather's still crisp and cool, not yet biting. And I always find myself heading outside more often in every season but winter. For some reason, bundling up in scarves and puffy coats makes venturing outside for a walk just a bit more difficult.

With that in mind, I've been trying to enjoy these last days of beautiful autumn. We've been lucky in Providence, with golden days and warm temperatures and just a few cold snaps in between. It's perfect weather for picking apples and going for long walks and sitting on the porch with hot mulled cider (see? I can't get away from it!).

Last weekend, filled with the spirit of fall, Josh and I headed out to Seekonk to pick pumpkins. The pumpkin picking itself was majorly disappointing; picture a field dotted with pumpkins already plucked from the vine, so little kids didn't have to work too hard. But we had fun walking around the farm, getting lost in the corn maze, and talking to goats. (Josh hates goats, by the way--the shape of their pupils makes them look evil or something.) Then we loaded up on carving pumpkins, decorative gourds, and a sugar pumpkin for baking.

Back at home, we carved some impressive jack-o-lanterns, which proceeded to mold within one week (damn this warm weather!). The sugar pumpkin I cut into pieces and baked in the oven, until it felt soft under the touch of a fork. (I made sure not to follow my dad's example, where he stuck an entire, whole pumpkin in the oven to roast. He realized that something was wrong when he heard a bang and found the entire kitchen covered in pumpkin guts.)

Baked pumpkin looks a little yellower than the canned stuff, but it tastes just as good. Fresher, even, though that may be my imagination. Pureed, it goes nicely in an old-fashioned pie. I returned to Little House on the Prairie for this one, because there's just something about fall and harvest time that makes me long for the Ingalls family. And Ma Ingalls did not disappoint. This is a simpler pie than pumpkin pies we make today--fewer eggs, less milk. Prairie housewives wouldn't have much spice on hand, so I used just a dash of cinnamon, cloves, and ginger.

The best thing about it? Instead of covering up the squashy taste with sugar and intense spice, the flavorings only enhance the pumpkin, so the pie tastes like...well, a pumpkin pie. But not the sweet custard kind. The kind where the pumpkin is the starring ingredient.

Tell me, what are your favorite things about fall? What foods do you find yourself making this season?

Pumpkin Pie
(adapted from The Little House Cookbook)

for the pie shell:
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the work surface
1/2 tsp salt
6 tbsp butter, cubed
3 tbsp ice water

for the filling:
2 cups pumpkin puree (homemade or canned)
2 eggs
2/3 cup brown sugar
1 1/4 cup rich milk or half-and-half
pinch of salt
1 tsp maple syrup
pinch of spices (I used cinnamon, cloves, and ginger)

Make the pie shell:
Sift the flour and salt together, and with the tips of your fingers, work the butter into the flour until it feels like coarse meal. Add the ice water 1 tbsp at a time until the dough comes together when you work it with your hand. Turn out onto a floured surface and roll into a flat circle. Transfer to a 9-inch pie pan and even out the sides. Let sit while you make the filling.

Make the filling:
Preheat the oven to 425 F. Beat the eggs in a large bowl, then add the brown sugar, maple syrup, milk, salt, and pumpkin until well blended. Pour into the pie shell.

Bake the pie in the center of the oven at 425 F for 10 minutes. Then reduce the heat to 350 F and bake until a toothpick inserted into the filling comes out clean. NOTE: the baking time will vary depending on the fat content of the milk you use. I used 1%, which took about an hour and a half to bake total. With half-and-half, the baking time should be about 40 minutes.

Cool pie before serving.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Dining at Downton: Afternoon tea

When I graduated from college, I moved to New York City to work at a children's literary agency. I knew almost no one and quickly discovered that I am really not cut out for big city living. While I quietly raged against the masses of people crowding the sidewalks of Manhattan, I tried to carve out a space for myself in this city of millions. I reconnected with a few high school friends, and together we explored restaurants and museums and out-of-the-way shops. Still, there were days when homesickness for small-town Ohio would overwhelm me, and I'd need an afternoon pick-me-up.

That's how I discovered Tea & Sympathy, an adorable British tea shop in the heart of the West Village. On the recommendation of my mom's British colleague, I visited the shop one lonely August afternoon and snagged a tiny round table for myself. Wedged in between a table of chatting women and the front window, I ordered a pot of Earl Grey and a plate of scones with clotted cream and jam. The tea arrived steaming hot, accompanied by milk, sugar, and a little tea strainer. (This is where I learned how to pour tea that's been brewed with loose-leaf.) Balancing my book on my lap, I sipped tea and nibbled on light-as-air scones long into the afternoon. When I re-emerged into the heat of the city, I felt lighter, relieved of some of that loneliness.

Afternoon tea, it turns out, is good for what ails you.

The British knew this well. Once the concept of tea as a meal was firmly established in the late 19th century, it took on different meanings depending on your social class. The working class took tea as their final meal of the day, since they often couldn't afford a full meal with meat and vegetables. On the other hand, the extremely wealthy (like the Crawleys) took tea as an afternoon snack, dining on fancy cakes and dainties while they gossiped. As those of you who watch Downton Abbey know, this is the time for scheming, when the Crawley ladies plot out what suitors to cultivate and how to manipulate issues of inheritance in their favor. It's also the time for nursing broken hearts and talking discreetly about intense emotions. As I've discovered, there's nothing like a bracing cup of tea and delicate treats to make you feel better.

While we Americans often think of afternoon tea in conjunction with sweets, the Edwardians also took tea with savory treats like tiny sandwiches. French food was in vogue, so hors d'oeuvres like canapes were on the rise. This brings us to today's snack: canapes de maquereau.

Why yes, we are throwing around a lot of French today.

It's a simple recipe: thinly slice a piece of smoked mackerel, and bake in a dish greased with cayenne pepper and butter. Top little rounds of toast with the baked fish. It's a salty, spicy dish (perhaps spicier than the Crawleys might like), one that will make you drink gallons of tea. But after all, when you have matters of the heart to discuss, nothing else will do.

Canapes de Maquereau
(adapted from Escoffier: Le Guide Culinaire)

4 oz piece of smoked mackerel
1 tbsp butter
1/8 - 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
4 - 5 slices light bread

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Combine the butter and cayenne pepper and grease the bottom of a baking dish with the mixture. Slice the mackerel into thin pieces and lay on the greased baking dish. Bake at 350 F for 10 minutes, or until the butter melts and the fish is warmed.

Meanwhile, toast the bread. Top immediately with the fish mixture once you remove it from the oven; be sure to sop up any leftover butter with the fish. Serve with tea.

Monday, October 8, 2012

This meal brought to you by Christopher Columbus

Ah, Columbus Day. I'm not sure there's any other secular holiday more filled with angst and mixed feelings than this one.

When I was little, we learned the basics of Columbus Day. We sang that catchy song, the one that goes, "In Fourteen Hundred and Ninety-Two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue..." and read picture books about the brave Spanish navigator who discovered the Americas. To me, Columbus Day always brought to mind the classic image of a stuffy European man, dressed circa the Renaissance, talking pleasantly with smiling natives who are wearing almost nothing. That's how it was taught in elementary school, at any rate.

Turns out the story went a little differently. It wasn't until middle school that I heard the first rumblings of discontent. We read Joy Hakim's entertaining histories, A History of Us, and she hinted that Christopher Columbus was not the hero he was made out to be. And in high school, I learned the full truth. Columbus treated his crew harshly, lied about who saw land first and what they found there, and kidnapped natives to lead him to gold. Later European explorers carried on his legacy by enslaving the native populations of the Americas, killing those who didn't cooperate, and laying the groundwork for future colonization.

Yet other changes were not as obvious. In the spirit of cultural exchange, European explorers took examples of American food, animals, goods, and people back to their kings and queens. In return, they brought European crops, animals, and goods to their new colonies, hoping to replicate European life on foreign soil. There's a fascinating book about how British colonists in Virginia and New England permanently changed the American landscape, simply by using European farming techniques and importing cows and pigs who dug up the soil. Old World crops and animals mixed with New World in both hemispheres. But perhaps the most devastating change was completely invisible: the syphilis, smallpox, and other Old World diseases that spread silently through the Americas. Without built-in immunity to these diseases, the native populations were decimated. Europeans could conquer the land simply by setting foot on it.

This massive exchange of culture, crops, animals, people, and disease was termed the Columbian Exchange by historian Alfred W. Crosby in the 1970s. Not only did it permanently change the newly-"discovered" lands of the Americas, it changed the Old World, too. Today we grow food and raise animals in lands where they didn't originate. It's been such a long time, and they've adapted so well, that most of the time we don't even notice.

So, because I can't leave well enough alone, I decided to cook a Columbian Exchange dinner. What kind of meal could I make using ingredients found mostly at my farmers' market? What would that tell me about the extent of the Exchange?

Quite a lot, as it turns out.

After collecting our goods at the farmers' market and rounding out the ingredients at our local grocery, Josh and I made:

  • Roasted squash and shallot salad
  • Pork chops with roasted apples and onions
  • German chocolate hazelnut cake

Granted, a little fancier than our normal weekend dinners, but none of the ingredients were particularly exotic. But let's look at how those three dishes break down. Where did their ingredients originate?

While our dishes were certainly heavy on the Old World influence, it's telling that some of the main ingredients originated in the New World. There's thought that chickens might have originated in both the New World and the Old World (or, really, developed before the Americas were cut off from Eurasia).

The other interesting thing about this is how many of the above ingredients I was able to get at our farmers' market. Providence is big about buying local, and from the Pat's Pastured pork chops to shallots and onions, from apples to sage, a lot of the "Old World" ingredients are now grown "locally" in Rhode Island. I say "locally" because, yes, they are grown in Rhode Island. At this point, for example, apples are practically a native species. But before the Columbian Exchange, you never would have found them here. And that's a sobering reminder of all the other horrific and massive changes that occurred because of it.

Tell me, is there anything on this list that surprises you? And what do you think of Christopher Columbus?

Works cited: Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared M. Diamond. 1493: Uncovering the World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann. A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn. The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 by Alfred W. Crosby, via National Center for History in the Schools instructional resource Three Worlds Meet: The Columbian Encounter and its Legacy.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Sardine sandwiches

Yep, you read that right.

As you may recall, I'm one of those weird folks who actually enjoy foods deemed disgusting by many Americans: anchovies and sardines, in particular. Anchovies don't just add a unique umami flavor to pasta sauces and Caesar dressing, they make a delicious topping for white pizza, too. Unfortunately, few people in my life agree. So it's always exciting to find someone else who enjoys salty, oily canned fish; it's like a special club made up of friends you'd never expect to know.

Like my freshman suitemate's grandmother.

My living situation freshman year of college was...well, interesting, as is the case with basically all college freshmen. My college arranges students in suites, which are made up of a few bedrooms (single or double) all connecting to a common living room. So instead of getting to know just your roommate really well, you also get to know four other suitemates pretty well, too. And since you don't have much of a say in who these suitemates are, you end up in one of three situations: becoming best friends; hating each other; or being surprised every day with unexpected stories and experiences.

Mine was definitely the latter, courtesy of my suitemate Charysse.

Charysse had a single, and she kept to herself for much of the first month of college. We all did, when we weren't sticking like glue to the few friendly people we found. (My roommate Daena and I pretty much went everywhere together.) But around October, something changed, and Charysse started spending more time with us in the common room, and we got to know each other real fast. Charysse posted her graded chemistry lab reports up on the walls, because she goaded her TA with ridiculous conclusions comparing the study of chemistry to the study of love. The TA responded with outraged comments, which made for excellent posters. Charysse also led us in afternoon singing sessions, which she taped on a little hand-held recorder. We discovered a shared love of Led Zeppelin and rocked out to Kashmir on quiet weeknights. It was one of those friendships that can only develop in college, when you're thrown together with people you wouldn't normally get to know. You discover how much you actually have in common with them.

Jacques Pepin Celebrates! (actual poster from PBS)
One of the most memorable aspects of that freshman year, aside from all of the above, was coming home to discover that Charysse had gotten another package from her grandmother. Her grandmother loved to send her all sorts of random gifts, which, while thoughtful, rarely had anything to do with anything. A typical package might include a creased PBS poster of Jacques Pepin (which went up on the walls, of course) and six can openers (one for each member of the suite). We had a lot of fun trying to decipher what these gifts meant.

But the strangest package was the one with the sardines. Her grandmother sent some big cans of sardines, along with a few other items that I can't recall. And after a long discussion of what this latest gift meant, Charysse opened up the cans and ate the sardines. I don't remember if I joined in--this was early on in my anchovy-sardine career, and I may not have even tried them by that point. But something about those little fishes nestled in their tin packet of oil appealed to my adventurous side. And I mentally added sardines to my list of approved foods.

It's a silly little story, one that makes me smile the way college stories do. But I always think of it whenever I'm dealing with sardines.

Unfortunately, The "Settlement" Cook Book's version is less than stellar. You mash up sardines and hard-boiled eggs into a kind of paste, which you then spread on sandwiches. It's a perfectly serviceable meal, but it lacks flavor. Perhaps the eggs cut the fishy flavor of the sardines. Honestly, when I'm eating sardines, I want the full experience. You're wrinkling your nose, I know, but it's true. Go big or go home, they say, and it's the same with sardines.

Just ask Charysse and her grandmother. They'll tell you.

What about you? Do you have any weird food preferences? I'd love to chat...

Sardine Sandwiches
(adapted from The "Settlement" Cook Book)

1 4.25 oz can of sardines in oil
2 hard-boiled eggs, shelled
1-2 tsp lemon juice
salt and pepper to taste
3-4 tsp olive oil

Rinse the sardines with fresh water and drain. Pick out the spine and other prominent bones from the fish. With a fork or potato masher, mash together the sardines and eggs in a small bowl. Add the lemon juice and salt and pepper, then add just enough olive oil to bring the mixture together into a paste. Serve on toasted bread with fresh greens.