Friday, March 29, 2013

Spring cleaning

It's getting to that point where things just feel blah. It's officially spring but not quite warm, the kids are either bonkers or asleep at school, and the crust for my first-ever tart puffs up like a balloon.

Even food is less than inspiring. Josh made a big pot of white bean, kale, and sausage soup at the beginning of the week, and although last time we declared it a delicious keeper, this time something went wrong. The dried beans didn't fully reconstitute, so we had to crunch our way through soup all week. By Wednesday, when I'd eaten soup for two dinners and a lunch, I could barely stand to look at the leftovers.

(I have a tried-and-true abhorrence of leftovers served for more than two nights in a row.)

All of this makes me think that

I've written about spring cleaning the apartment before, but today I'm thinking more about getting my taste buds ready for spring. Time to retire heavy stews and rich food for a while--I'm going to embrace fresh vegetables and fruit, with plenty of salads and light meats and fish. Of course, I'll still save space for indulgences like apple charlotte (coming soon) and homemade ice cream, but there's something exciting about freshening up the kitchen pantry for spring. And I can only hope that making fresh changes in one corner of my life will help lend inspiration to other corners, too. (Middle school children, I'm looking at you.)

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The wearing of the green

Almost all the seeds I planted a few weeks ago have sprouted, and my seed tray is now a veritable wonderland of tiny green sprouts and tendrils.

While I love all the phases of the growing season (except perhaps pest control--haven't figured out a green way of combating aphids yet), this is definitely my favorite. I kneel down in front of the seed tray at least once a day, murmuring sweet nothings into the seedlings' unfurling ears. Maybe this makes me crazy...but that's fine.

Looking at the moss-like cover of the tiny lobelia sprouts puts me in mind of lush gardens and winding paths leading to secret hideaways. It's my someday dream to build a Secret Garden, as magical as the one at the end of Frances Hodgson Burnett's novel, and meanwhile I have to be content with filing away inspiration and images for later. The website Gardenista has been particularly fun to pore over--it's full of beautiful gardens from around the world, as well as advice on how to create your own.

Tell me, do you save ideas for someday gardens or someday houses? And is Pinterest good for this sort of thing? I'm tempted, but so many kinds of social media make me wary.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Dining at Downton: Kedgeree

Kedgeree is the very first dish served on Downton Abbey. Mrs. Patmore sends a steaming bowl up for breakfast, and with that we're immersed in the sumptuous world of Edwardian cuisine. Brits still eat kedgeree today, and it's one of those dishes that carries a few hundred years of British history along with it. Plus, the name is fascinating, since it directly reflects British colonialism.

Kedgeree originated as khichri, an Indian meal of rice and lentils, often served with chopped, hard-boiled egg. During British occupation of India, the English adapted the dish to their own tastes and eventually brought it back to the home country, where it caught on as a breakfast food. Kedgeree, as it became known (note the Anglicization), featured rice, fish, and egg, with a variety of spices and garnishes depending on the recipe. It was a great way for cooks to use up leftovers in the days before refrigeration, and it was seen as a rather "adventurous" dish. By the time Mrs. Patmore served it at Downton, kedgeree was entrenched in the British breakfast menu.

To make my own, I turned to Mrs. Beeton, that domestic goddess of the Victorian era. Surely, if anyone knew how to make kedgeree, it would be she. But after following her recipe to the letter, I did some comparison research and discovered that she is basically the only person who made it this way.

Beeton calls for leftover rice, "any cold fish," and two soft-boiled eggs, along with assorted seasonings and mustard. Every other recipe I've found, historic and modern, calls for smoked fish and hard-boiled eggs, with mustard seeds (or none at all). These are subtle but noticeable differences, friends. I can't help wondering if this is one of those old recipes where you really had to know what the writer meant in order for the dish to turn out remotely well. Like, did Mrs. Beeton mean "mustard seeds" when she called for mustard? Did "soft-boiled eggs" back in the Victorian day actually mean "hard-boiled"? In other words, is this recipe just code for a completely different recipe?

We'll just have to keep on wondering.

I've set down my version of Beeton's recipe below, and it's not bad. I used cod, which has a pleasant, mildly fishy flavor, and the seasonings and egg actually blend nicely. But it bears little resemblance to anything that originated in India.

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

1/2 lb cod fillet
1 1/3 cup brown rice, cooked
2 tsp mustard
2 eggs
1 tsp butter, cubed
salt and cayenne pepper, to taste

To make the fish:
Set the fish in a pot and cover with cold water. Set the pot over a high flame and bring to a boil. Immediately remove from the heat and let sit for ten minutes. Remove the fish and let cool.

To make the eggs:
Boil a small pot of water over high heat. As soon as the water boils, turn the heat down to a simmer. Crack the eggs in a small bowl and slip into the hot water, using the side of the pot to guide the eggs into the water so they don't break. Cook for 5 minutes and remove from water.

To make the kedgeree:
Flake the cooked fish into small pieces. Mix with the brown rice, mustard, eggs, and butter. Add salt and cayenne pepper to taste. Serve hot.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Starting seeds

Earlier this week, it was finally starting to feel like spring. The air lost some of its chill, birds chirped in the tree outside our dining room window, and the first crocuses poked up from neighborhood yards. Of course, this morning it's snowing, so we need a good dose of cheer to pick up our spirits. Let's talk about this season's garden.

I ordered seeds from Fedco and Vesey's, two small-batch, cold-weather plant vendors recommended by Henry Homeyer. Both are great because their plants are bred to withstand northerly climates, and Fedco sends a limited number of seeds. This way I don't feel guilty for wasting seeds. In the end, I may have gone (slightly) overboard for my modest container garden, but they all looked so good! Two small packages arrived with the seeds a week later, and I looked through them longingly as I waited for the right planting day.

The last frost for Rhode Island lands somewhere between March 30 and April 30 (specific, I know). I decided to start the earliest seeds (4-6 weeks before the last frost) over the weekend, and I spent a lovely few hours setting up my grow light and arranging pots and growing material.

This year I'm trying out Cow Pots, these super-environmental seed starter pots made of composted cow manure. Once the seeds are ready to transplant, you simply put them in the planting medium, pot and all, and the pots gradually degrade while giving your plants a jolt of natural fertilizer. They sounded awesome, and they (barely) smell at all. Josh was wary, but so far he hasn't complained.

Here's what I planted:
  • sweet peppers
  • hot peppers
  • spinach
  • lavender
  • cosmos
  • sugar snap peas
  • tomatoes
  • lobelia

My sown seeds are now sitting patiently under the grow light, and I may or may not be excitedly checking them at least twice a day for progress. No signs of life yet, but it's early days. If you're planting a garden this year, have you started seeds yet? What are you growing?

Monday, March 4, 2013

Dining at Downton: Flying Scotchman Cocktail

I don't know about you, but I'm still recovering from the season 3 finale of Downton Abbey. To be fair, I'd had some warning; my sister told me of Dan Stevens' plans to leave the show long before that last episode. Josh and I spent the whole season discussing when and how the writers would bump him off. (Which was part of the fun: "There will be a shooting accident! No, he'll have to go abroad to get the inheritance! No, a car crash!")

In the end, the writers get us right in the gut, just as Matthew is reveling in his new fatherhood. You'd think that no one would ever have children on this show, if only because of the high rate of new parents dying off. Oh, Sybil, I still miss you!

While I wasn't as devastated by Matthew's death as by Sybil's, I'm still getting my sea legs back after that punch of a finale. So I thought we could focus on happier times: namely, intrigue at the family retreat in Scotland. (Who else loves the fact that the Crawleys have a family member named Shrimpy?)

Drama abounds in Scotland, from cousin Rose's scandalous attire to Shrimpy's failing marriage to Anna's attempts to learn the reel. And then there's Molesley, drunken belle of the ball. A competitive lady's maid tries to trick O'Brien into getting drunk at the big ball, all to get back at her for knowing just how to do Her Ladyship's hair. But the trick goes awry and Molesley downs the cocktail, which sends him whirling gleefully around the dance floor. It's one of my favorite parts of the episode.

While the suspect drink was most likely punch spiked with whiskey, the guests might as well have been sipping the Flying Scotchman Cocktail. Made with Scotch and vermouth, this cocktail is just one of the many drinks written up in The Savoy Cocktail Book, a 1930s collection of recipes from The Savoy hotel. Back in the 1920s and 1930s, it was all the rage to have a drink at The Savoy when one was in London--just ask Fred Astaire, George Gershwin, and Noel Coward.

I like this cocktail on the sweeter side, but you can adjust the amount of sugar syrup to your liking. Just make sure to drink a toast to poor, hapless Molesley when you try it.

Flying Scotchman Cocktail
(from The Savoy Cocktail Book, as featured in Savoy Stomp)

serves 2

2 oz vermouth
3 oz Scotch whiskey
3-4 dashes Angostura bitters
1 tbsp sugar syrup (2 parts sugar to 1 part water)

Shake vermouth, Scotch, bitters, and 1 tsp of the sugar syrup in a cocktail shaker with ice. Strain into 2 cocktail glass. Add sugar syrup to taste.