Monday, January 28, 2013

Planning the garden

Today I taught my first session with a new group of students: little guys (to me, anyway), 4th - 6th graders. We talked about reading and books and the program we'll be starting tomorrow. The kids were fun, energetic, and so genuine. I always maintained that I could never teach anyone younger than 7th grade, and yet...I'm looking forward to this semester.

I don't want to get all cheesy on you guys and talk about new beginnings and whatnot, but with January being so gloomy, it's hard not to dream about a fresh start. And since I'm in the middle of a crash-course fresh start at school, I've been thinking about beginnings in other areas of life, too. Lately of the green variety: the garden.

Last summer I tried out container gardening for the first time, ambitiously calling it my "kitchen garden." There were tomatoes, spinach, snap peas and lettuce. The squirrels probably enjoyed more of its bounty than I did. And yet there was something so satisfying about growing a tiny garden from start to finish. I watched my little seedlings obsessively, bending down to check on them every morning, and when they moved to bigger containers I stuck my finger in the soil every few days to make sure they had enough water. My dad and I traded tips on growing the best tomatoes. When autumn arrived and it came time to clean out the pots for next season, my heart ached a little bit.

But! Now it's time to plan for this coming season. I've hunkered down in the dining room with library books and an organic gardening text recommended by a friend. I'm taking notes on what plants to grow together and what seeds to order from catalogs. And over the weekend I fell for a few pots of herbs at the farmers' market, because who wouldn't? They now sit on my great-grandmother's plant stand in the living room.

So here's my tentative plan, in containers once again:
  • snap peas
  • peppers
  • kale and spinach
  • carrots
  • herbs: parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme (try growing those together without breaking into song); lavender, oregano, cilantro, and dill
  • flowers, just because

Ambitious? Yes. Doable? Uncertain. But planning the garden makes January a little less gloomy, and there's something to be said for that.

Are you planning a garden? What will you plant?

"Field Notes" notebook: Column & Stripe.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Short cake, with blueberry topping

Over the long weekend, my sister Lissa came to visit, and one afternoon we drove down to New Haven, CT, to visit our old college. We toured the British Art Gallery and I found time to wander around Yale's campus with my camera, snapping photos of old haunts and sun-drenched architecture.

I don't know how many of you feel this way about your college, but I can never visit Yale without being flooded with memories. There's the window of the suite I lived in freshman year, where my suitemates and I sang songs and threw water balloons. Here's the cathedral-like library, where I huddled away in the stacks and breathed in the smell of old books. This is the route I walked once or twice a week to the literary magazine where I worked for three years. Those are the carillon bells that rang out across campus at 5 each twilight afternoon when my friends and I walked to the dining hall for an early dinner. This is one of countless booths my friends and I colonized during Saturday night pizza outings.

There's a lot of sadness wrapped up in this place for me, because of all the hard things I had to learn in college. And because my friends are now scattered across the country, and we get together once a year (at most) for weddings. People say that college can be some of the best years of your life, but they don't tell you that once it's over, you might need several years to get over the crushing blow of graduation.

But I'm grateful, too, for everything I learned here, both in history lectures and in the echoing corridors of my residential college. In some ways I feel like I'm still a college student, figuring things out for the first time on my own, and in some ways I feel so much older. In a good way, like I'm finally starting to settle into my place.

Lissa and I talked about how in some ways, the student body hadn't changed at all since we were there. We ran into teams decked out in sports apparel, the fashionable girls in skinny jeans and boots, the international students wearing pea coats and college scarves. A lot of other things had stayed the same, too, from the architecture to the restaurants we loved. But we could see changes, too--a frozen yogurt place had taken over an old bookstore, a Shake Shack replaced a restaurant I didn't remember. This place is changing and adapting, and we were, too, though we may not have even realized it at the time.

And I think it's time to make a change around this little blog, too. In the months to come, I'll be expanding the blog to encompass other aspects of building a simple life inspired by history. I'll still chronicle my cooking adventures, but I'll also explore other topics that have been on my mind. In that spirit, here's a biscuit recipe pulled from The "Settlement" Cook Book, with a topping inspired by a much more recent cookbook, All Cakes Considered. Sometimes, a fusion of foods both past and present can be just the flavor you need.

Short Cake with Blueberry Topping
(adapted from The "Settlement" Cook Book)

for the short cake:
2 cups all-purpose flour
3 tsp baking powder
2 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 cup unsalted butter, cubed
3/4 cup milk

for the blueberry topping:
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup water
1 cup blueberries

to make the short cake:
Preheat the oven to 425 F. Sift the flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt in a medium bowl. With your fingers, rub the butter into the flour mixture until combined and the mixture resembles the texture of cornmeal. Add the milk and stir until just combined. Turn out onto a floured board and roll to 1/4 inch thickness. Cut into rounds with a biscuit cutter or measuring cup. Layer one round on top of another to create a 2-layered biscuit, and place each biscuit in a buttered pan. Bake for 12-15 minutes or until golden brown.

to make the blueberry topping:
Meanwhile, mix the brown sugar and water in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. When the sugar is completely dissolved, pour the blueberries into the pan and mix well to cover with sugar syrup. Bring to a boil and then lower the heat to simmer the mixture, stirring occasionally, for 15-20 minutes. Take the mixture off the heat when most of the blueberries have broken down.

Split each biscuit in two and drizzle blueberry topping on one round, placing the plain round on top. Drizzle more blueberry sauce on top, or sprinkle with sugar.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Old-fashioned remedies for everyday illnesses

For the past week I've been battling a stubborn cold, drinking gallons of tea and piling up the tissues like Typhoid Mary.* Apparently it's impossible to avoid being sick when you work with middle school children, and all the more impossible when those students like to hang out with the toddlers on their snack break. Yes, the toddlers are cute, but they don't know how to wash their hands! Then again, neither do middle schoolers.

Anyway, last week my mind turned to medical treatments more...traditional than taking a dose of Tylenol Cold every 4 to 6 hours. What would those early settlers do when downed by illness? (You knew this was coming.) So I flipped through the handy American Frugal Housewife (1833) to find out the answers. Curl up in a blanket with your hot water bottle and honeyed tea and read on.

For the common cold:
  • "A syrup made of horseradish-root and sugar is excellent."
  • "Water-gruel" with onions, butter, pepper and salt, consumed just before bedtime.
  • A tea to cure "inveterate coughs" can be made with colt's-foot and flax seed (if you can get past the texture).
  • Drink a mixture of sugar and brandy to cure a sore throat.

For headaches:
  • Mix half a spoonful of citric acid, "which may always be bought of the apothecaries," with half a glass of water.

For digestive complaints:
  • A complicated concoction of saffron, myrrh, aloes, and rum. It sounds like it would take longer to make the cure than to wait out the digestive troubles.
  • A variety of teas made from "succory" (chicory) or "elder-blow" (the elder plant).

For dysentery:
  • Wine whey, a mixture of milk curdled with wine. Please note that you can make it "palatable with loaf sugar and nutmeg, if the patient can bear it." Perhaps the cure is worse than the disease?
  • Milk porridge, made with boiled milk and flour. Again, nutmeg can help the medicine go down.
  • A combination of table-salt and vinegar, dissolved in boiling water.
  • Burnt cork, crushed and mixed with brandy, sugar, and nutmeg.

While these are just a few of the many, many complaints and treatments addressed in The American Frugal Housewife, I was struck by the fact that most of the remedies tried to cure dysentery. And that's not a common illness in 21st-century America. It takes me back to the days of playing "Oregon Trail" more than anything else: the dreaded screen reading "You have died of dysentery." But there's a reason so many players died of dysentery in "Oregon Trail:" it could be a life-threatening illness in the days of early settlers, as the Frugal Housewife suggests.

So I'm going to count my blessings that I have nothing more than a common cold. And that I don't have to drink burnt cork.

*Credit: Lissa.


Monday, January 7, 2013

Dining at Downton: Fried oysters

How many of you watched the Season 3 premiere of Downton Abbey last night? We did, after some technical difficulties, and it was every bit as lavish and funny and swoony as we'd hoped. While a certain someone (cough Josh cough) kept inserting comments about one character's rumored departure from the show, I was on tenterhooks every time it seemed like things were finally going right for the Crawleys. This show, I tell you! Every time you think it's going to end happily, someone dies or loses their reputation.

Last night's episode also provided an inside glimpse at the complicated dining rituals at Downton, courtesy of O'Brien's clumsy nephew. He's been hired as a new footman, but since he trained as a hotel waiter, he bungles the dinner service. Instead of offering a dish and allowing each diner to serve him or herself, he tries to place the vegetable or fish directly onto the diner's plate! Oh, the horror! Who knew that dinner was so fraught with peril?

(Then again, Branson would surely agree with that sentiment.)

For families like the Crawleys, it was fashionable to dine a la russe, or in the Russian style. Rather than serve all courses on the table for diners to help themselves (service a la francaise), staff would bring each course out individually. With the butler supervising, footmen would serve guests from the left, allowing them to take what they wished from the proffered plate.

It seems like a lot of extra work, with too many complicated rules, but that was exactly the point. Dining a la russe allowed hosts and hostesses to show off their wealth--"Look! I can afford this many footmen!"--as well as their social status. The host would give the signal for all guests to eat, stop eating, and for each course to be served. It was the perfect environment for a host accustomed to power.

Not surprisingly, it was also the perfect environment for new footmen to mess up. And though the Crawleys might gloss over the footman's mistake in front of their guests, that kind of difficulty showed the cracks in a family's perfect facade.

Josh and I dined in a more modest environment last night (i.e. the couch and coffee table), but our meal was no less elaborate. I bought a dozen oysters from the Matunuck Oyster Bar stand at the farmers' market, and proceeded to learn quite a lot about how to open oysters without an oyster knife. It's tricky! In the end, I resorted to heating the oysters in the oven for a few minutes, then prying them open with a butter knife. That did the trick, but it also turned me forever against preparing oysters at home.

This recipe, taken from Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management, would have been well-received at the Crawleys' dinner table. It's basic, using only a few ingredients (and who knew the Victorians used ketchup?), but the taste is sublime. Buttery, salty, with a hint of the sea.

And thankfully, Josh and I don't care if one of us bungles the dinner service.

Fried Oysters
(adapted from Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management)

1 dozen oysters, scrubbed
2 tbsp butter
1 tsp ketchup
1 tsp lemon juice

Open the oysters. If you need to do it the MacGyver way, heat the oven to 400 F. Set the scrubbed oysters in a pan in the oven for 5-7 minutes, then dunk them in a bowl of ice water and drain. Hold each oyster in the palm of your hand, deep shell down, and use a butter knife to pry the hinge of the oyster apart. Drain the liquid into a bowl and scrape out the oyster meat into the same bowl.

Heat the oysters and their liquid in a small pot until boiling. Boil one minute. Drain the liquid. Heat the butter in a small frying pan over medium heat until sizzling, then cook the drained oysters for 3-4 minutes. At the end of cooking, stir in the ketchup and lemon juice until oysters are evenly coated. Serve immediately.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Dining at Downton: What to eat while watching Season 3

I'm counting down the days until the premiere of Season 3 of Downton Abbey in the U.S. this Sunday night. I've been steadfast, refusing to watch uploaded episodes from the U.K. or to search down spoilers. And yesterday my excitement reached epic proportions: while I was driving to work, NPR's Morning Edition interviewed the actors who play Lord and Lady Grantham and Carson the butler. When they announced the interview, I shrieked.

Thank goodness for the privacy of my car.

I'm not alone. Lately it seems every newspaper and online journal features articles about the history behind Season 3, gossip about the stars, and, of course, what foods to eat while watching the premiere. (In case you're wondering: Season 3 takes place in the early 1920s. Expect daring fashions and continued rationing.)

I've compiled a collection of articles and blog posts recommending what to serve at a Downton Abbey viewing party (even if your viewing party consists of just yourself). Some are more historical than others, but it's all a matter of taste (heh).

As for me, I'll be serving oysters, based on a recipe from Mrs. Beeton, that Victorian domestic goddess. The Edwardians loved oysters, and for me they're a rare treat. I'll tell you how they turn out next week.

Do you have any special plans for the premiere of Season 3? I'd love to hear!