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Archive for March, 2011

The Huntington's tea room stands amid hundreds of roses, all in bloom at this time of year.

By Mel

I read Alice in Wonderland for the first time when I was in the fourth grade, but before I met Laurie, I had attended only one tea party, Dangerous Vision’s mad tribute to Lewis Carroll’s birthday. We did drink tea at our house when I was a kid, but only when we were sick; inevitably it was Lipton that my mother fortified with honey and lemon.

(On one memorable occasion I awoke in the middle of the night with asthma, a first for me, and I was terrified. I got both my parents up, and for what seemed like hours we all sat in the kitchen drinking tea and looking for the jokes in Mom’s women’s magazines while I wheezed like an old engine. I suppose it was sort of a tea party. I felt closer to my parents that night than at almost any other time in my life.)

Of course I’d seen movies and TV shows in which old ladies in pastel summer dresses and big-brimmed hats sometimes drank tea while they sat around gossiping about people who weren’t there. It didn’t seem like the sort of thing a real guy would do voluntarily.

But Laurie’s idea of tea was what I learned the Brits called afternoon tea, which was less an opportunity to drink cups of tea with your pinky raised than it is a chance to fill up on little sandwiches. As far as I am concerned, the tea is just an excuse.

Since being introduced to the classic British tea party, I have experienced it at many tea rooms, restaurants, and hotels. Most of them offer a variety of teas served along with a limited number of savory sandwiches and sweet pastries in a silver tray with three or four levels. But my favorite tea is the one at the Huntington Library — a place that includes acres of grass, trees, and flowers, as well as art galleries and the library itself.

The Huntington grounds include a small, charming building they call the tea room. One needs to make a reservation some weeks in advance, but it is worth the trouble. For, in addition to the tea — which is, after all, just tea — there is a large buffet that contains not only the standard sandwiches like cucumber and egg salad but many I’ve never seen before. The carrot and ginger sandwiches, which sound kind of unlikely, hooked me immediately.

I also have a weakness for the little cream-filled éclairs and the brownies. Even though I have eaten very good versions of both at home, eating them at the Huntington gives them a special aura. One might expect the Mad Hatter or the March Hare to show up at any moment.

The important part of all this is that you can return to the buffet as many times as you want to. One dare not be on a diet. This tea is no place for self-control.

Next Saturday Hazel is throwing her yearly Wisteria Tea. I won’t be going, mainly because it is a ladies only event. But I hope and expect that Laurie will bring home leftovers. I don’t have to attend a tea in order to appreciate those little sandwiches.

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Want perfect round tea sandwiches without crusts or waste? Bake the bread in a can.

Hazel hosts her Wisteria Tea every spring, celebrating the spectacular wisteria vine that swathes her pergola in fragrant lavender blossoms. This event is coming right up, and we’re thinking about our menu. I’ve been poring over my older cookbooks, and I found this comment in the 1975 Joy of Cooking, on the subject of tea breads: “Nut and fruit breads are attractive baked in six-oz. metal juice cans so that they slice prettily for tea.”

I filled this can too full, so it was messy--but good!

This set us off on an exploration of baking breads in cans. Not juice cans. I can see the charm in tiny rounds of bread but I can’t imagine what I’d do with the contents of the innumerable six-ounce cans I’d need. (Can you tell I don’t drink bloody Marys?)

I started with what used to be known as one-pound cans (now generally 14.5 ounces) and a recipe from the 1972 Farm Journal’s Country Cookbook for carrot bread. I discovered two things: Filling a can three-fourths full so it can rise, per the directions in Joy of Cooking, does not give the batter room enough. (Maybe it works with six-ounce cans?) I opened the oven just in time to see the batter rise over the top and slide slowly down the side and plop onto the bottom of the oven. Discovery number two: The resulting bread is a bit too sweet for sandwiches. Delicious, yes, and the crumb is lovely and delicate, but a cup of brown sugar is too much for my taste.

Version number two: I reduced the amount of sugar and filled the cans a little less than two-thirds. Oh, and this time I remembered to add the nuts.

Here’s the recipe, as modified. I think it’s going to be great with egg salad and watercress, but I plan to experiment with sandwich toppings also.

Carrot Sandwich Bread
1 cup finely grated carrots
2/3 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 cup boiling water
2 eggs
½ teaspoon salt
1 ½ cups unbleached white flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup chopped pecans

Combine the carrots, sugar, vegetable oil and soda in a large bowl; boil the boiling water over all and stir to mix. Let cool.
Beat the eggs with a fork and add to the cooled carrot mixture. Combine the dry ingredients and stir in quickly, just until the batter comes together. Mix in the pecans. Pour into the greased cans—leaving about one third of the can for head room–and let stand for a few minutes.
Bake at 350 degrees for about 50 minutes. Cool thoroughly before attempting to remove from the cans. I found that it came right out when I left enough room for the bread to rise. It’s easier to slice if you chill in the fridge overnight.

–Laurie

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A few weeks ago I wrote about my new pasta maker and my unfortunate first effort at making pasta. I had a few family members over for a small dinner party that night, and they were very tolerant of the results. My honey would not be that tolerant. He claims to hate Italian food – that’s because if I say Italian food, he’s hears “spaghetti.” And then he says, “It’s just ketchup and noodles; why bother.”

Apparently someone in his distant past was a really bad cook. I try fairly often to douse the memory of that bad cooking, but he continues making snippy remarks whenever I suggest Italian food for dinner. (At this point I think he does it only to annoy me.) So who deserves to experience my experiments in pasta making more than he? I can’t possibly disappoint him, right?

Many readers of the blog suggested recipes. I started with one from Laurie’s favorite Pasta Fresca by Viana La Place and Evan Kleiman. When I made angel hair from their recipe, I got exactly what I was hoping for when I bought that pasta maker: tender, delicate, delicious fresh pasta. Home-made Angel Hair Pasta
While the pasta dough was resting, I slivered some onions and garlic and tossed them into a pan with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and sautéed them for two minutes over medium heat. I then added 1 cup of chardonnay (of course, because it was Toasted Head, I poured myself a glass too) and let it reduce while I filled a pan with water and brought to a boil.

That freed me to uncover the grill and light the sear burner. While it was heating up, I made a very simple salad of baby romaine and Cambazola with a dressing of olive oil, my favorite Hop Kiln Zinfandel orange mustard and some white balsamic vinegar.

I gave my honey the job of blackening the salmon while I added half a cup of heavy cream to the wine reduction and brought it up to a bubble. I finished it by zesting a lemon over it, then cut the lemon in half and squeezed in the juice too. Serve the lemon sauce over the pasta and top with the blackened salmon. That’s it; we’re done already. Sometimes there’s nothing nicer than an intimate dinner party for two.

I plan to try the many recipe suggestions I’ve received from readers, although this one was so good, I’m not sure I’ll find a better–or even an equal! And as much as my sweetie claims to not like pasta, he took seconds. Then he took leftovers home for his lunch the next day.

Maybe it’s because I forgot to put any ketchup in the sauce?

Hazel

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Since it looks like rain is heading our way for the weekend–figures! it’s perfect all week and wet all weekend– I will offer you another pressure cooker recipe that is super simple and rivals the best stew you’ve ever had.

Costco sells stew meat, as do most markets. It’s called stew meat because, in theory, you let it stew until it becomes tender and flavorful, usually several hours on the stovetop or all day in your Crock Pot. The sad part is that sometimes (okay, often), no matter how long it simmers, stew meat never becomes tender.

Bring on the pressure cooker! It makes a mockery of tough hunks of meat. I always make lots so I can have leftovers, and here’s how I do it.

Hazel’s Easy Beef Stew
1 pound (or so) of stew meat
4 large potatoes
6 carrots
1 onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 cup each frozen corn and peas
3 cans of Campbell’s consommé
3 cans Campbell’s French onion soup (I told you I like leftovers–plus I always send some home with my honey for his workday lunch)
1/4 cup catsup
Flour
Salt and pepper

Peel the carrots and potatoes and cut into large chunks and put in a pan large enough to hold them. Pour in a couple cans of the onion soup (just enough to cover the vegetables) and bring to boil, leaving uncovered. This will cook while your beef is under pressure. If you cook them with the beef, the vegetables will become mush in a very short time.

Dredge the chunks of beef in flour seasoned with salt and pepper (I usually add about a tablespoon of salt to the flour mixture; you can also add a couple teaspoons of paprika) and set aside. Pour a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in your pressure cooker and heat it until the oil shimmers. Place a layer of the floured beef in the hot oil, sear on all sides and remove. Repeat until your beef is all seared, then toss it all back into the pan with the juices. Add the onions, the consommé and one can French onion soup. There should be plenty of liquid, but don’t worry, you’ll lose about half of it through the steam. Add the catsup, give it a stir and cover with your pressure cooker lid and tighten.

Bring the heat up to steam using the 10-pound designation on your pressure regulator. Cook for about 20 minutes, turn off the heat and remove the lid. Take a tenderness test of the beef – it should be perfect but once in a while it needs to go a bit longer. If so, repeat for another 10 minutes before adding your veggies.
When tender, add the potatoes and carrots, liquid and all, to the cooked beef. Bring back to a bubble and add the peas and corn. Cook just til they’re hot through. You really shouldn’t have to add any other spices. You will have a perfect (every time) beef stew. That’s it, nothing else. If you’re feeling the need of the perfect bread, I usually throw four frozen Pillsbury Grand biscuits in the oven for 12 minutes and time them to come out just after I’ve dished up our stew. I’m making myself hungry – enjoy!

Hazel

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By Mel
I’ve written before about my mother’s cooking — and will again, I’d wager — but this time I want to talk about my own cooking. Laurie is such a confident and wonderful cook that these days I rarely have the nerve or the need to do my own cooking. But when I was a kid, I enjoyed cooking for myself, generally making weekend breakfasts and lunches. Mom was there to encourage and guide me if I needed encouragement and guidance, but mostly I just put together what sounded good.

If I’ve given you the idea that I was some sort of child genius, a Mozart of the kitchen, I have badly misled you. Most of my ingredients were canned or frozen. And it never entered my mind that I would feed the resulting dishes to anybody else.

Some Saturdays I would start by scrambling a few eggs and then add whatever meat and vegetables I could find in the fridge. Meat ran to bacon, cold cuts and leftover hamburger; when I say vegetables, I mean onions — green, white, red, whatever.

But the really good part of this nutritious breakfast was the Van de Kamp’s enchilada. Your first response might well be to ask what a company called Van de Kamp knew about Mexican food and you would be right to ask. The enchiladas that company made were nowhere near authentic, but they were full of cheese and

These days Van de Kamp's makes frozen fish sticks. Bah! They just don't know what's good!

onions and black olives and I loved them for themselves, not because they reminded me of actual food from Mexico. Each came frozen in an aluminum tray — this was before microwave ovens — and after about 20 minutes in the oven, it was swimming in a delicious sauce that was also really good on the scrambled eggs.

Lunch was generally something called chip steak. I don’t know what it really was, but it looked like very thinly sliced bits of meat (beef? Who knows?) that I would fry up and slap on a piece of toast along with more catsup than a human should eat at one sitting. The sandwich was always cut from corner to corner, so that I had four triangles. Serve with olives of any color and/or pickles.

Both of these gourmet dishes were delish. Or they were when I was in high school. I haven’t actually eaten anything like chip steak or Van de Kamp’s enchiladas in many years. I think about it sometimes, but the salt and fat content slows me down. Plus the fact that I haven’t been able to find either one of these prepared foods in my local supermarkets despite desperate searching.

So I guess I’m just stuck with the food that Laurie prepares. Sigh. Some guys have it tough.

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My grandmother was a 1950s cook: She loved convenience foods. Canned, frozen, dried, jarred–she liked them all. I look at a lot of recipes from the 1950s and ’60s–the era of Lipton’s Famous California Dip, as Lipton now describes it–and I see that so many of them use packaged foods. It’s not a trend that has faded, either, as the Pillsbury Bake-off and the success of the Cake Doctor book demonstrate. Heck, these days you can buy bags of mashed potatoes at the supermarket.

I draw the line at that, but I use my share of convenience foods. There’s nothing like coming home from a long day and opening a jar of marinara sauce rather than spending two days (because it should cool overnight) making my own. Mine might be better, but Trader Joe’s is a whole lot faster.

The variety of ways in which you can add flavor without hours of work is astonishing.

For instance, last night I had a call from a friend about Passover. She intends to host a Passover seder–but most of her guests will, as it happens, be gentiles. She remembers lo-o-ong, tedious seders from her childhood, during which she often fell asleep at the table somewhere around 3:00 a.m., still waiting for the main course to be served. She wants her seder to be fun.

Irresistible shortcut for the cook in a hurry.

She’s talking about making wine charms of the 10 plagues (yeah, right–do I want a charm on my wine glass of lice? Fleas? Blood? um…no!). She’s looking for ideas. She consulted her friends the party know-it-alls. So today I went on a search, and I found this.

How could I resist this slogan? “Everything Should Taste Like Bacon.” On a site about celebrating Passover? Bacon-flavored salt. Every vegetarian I know says wistfully that the one thing he or she really misses is bacon. (That and, perhaps, blue cheese.)

I think this product combines the best features of convenience (no spattering grease) and virtue (no affront to one’s vegetarian tenets). Plus there’s something even more outrageous about serving a bacon-flavored appetizer at a Passover seder than there is about a centerpiece of Moses parting the Red Sea. I think we’ll have both.

Laurie

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A Plain, old-fashioned pressure cooker
Talk about old-fashioned cooking: My sweetie gave me a pressure cooker a few months ago. I know what you’re thinking. “Hmmm, pressure cookers: kitchen explosions, food spattered all over the ceiling, emergency room…I don’t think so.”

And I must admit, I approached my first experiment in pressure cooking with trepidation. I envisioned shambles worthy of Ma Kettle, Laurel and Hardy and Lucy combined. Somehow, despite my honey’s promises of no kitchen eruptions, I just knew one was waiting in the wings.

Still, I gave it a try. Guess what? No explosions. And while I haven’t mastered pressure cooking by any means, I have mastered a few select meals. One of which, just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, is corned beef and cabbage.

How? Easy. Here’s what you do. Purchase a package of corned beef (you know, with the bag of seasonings–all those seeds and stuff), grab a couple bottles (or cans) of Guinness stout, or Murphy’s or your favorite yummy Irish dark beer. Stick with dark beer–porter, oatmeal stout, something of that ilk–because it adds flavor.

I usually heat a little olive oil in my pressure cooker, sear the meat on both sides, then quarter an onion and toss it in the pan on top of the beef. Pour the beer over it all–you need it to fill the pan about halfway. This is important! Pressure cooking works because of the steam; if you run out of liquid, you run out of steam.

Cover the pan with the seal and the pressure cooker lid and twist till the lid locks in place. It won’t be all the way tight, but you’ll know quickly if it’s not quite tight enough because steam will escape from the pan lid. If it does, make sure the handles line up, so the steam stops coming out the sides and goes up through the pressure regulator (the little round thingy). The pressure regulator on mine has three holes in it with different pounds of pressure; I use 15 for this recipe.
Mine is round with 4 holes but these come as actual gauges too

It will whistle and rattle as the steam vibrates the little round regulator. This will go on for 20 to 25 minutes. Then just turn off the heat under the pan and let the pressure drop. I usually take off the rattler/regulator with my kitchen tongs, because that lets the steam out faster. Once it’s cooled enough to open (don’t be afraid: It won’t open until the steam has dissipated, so you really need have no fear of burning your arm off with the steam).
I have occasionally had an extra-tough hunk o’ meat that needed to cook under pressure for a little longer than the average piece of meat, so slice a bit off for a taste test before adding your potatoes. If it’s still on the tough side, steam another 15 minutes and test again. Then make sure there’s still plenty of liquid in the pan and add peeled and quartered potatoes and carrots and chunks of cabbage, re-cover and bring back up to steam. Steam for another six minutes.

Release the pressure just like you did before, and it’s ready to serve. Corned beef that used to take hours of simmering to get even half tender (if I was lucky) is now perfection in 25 minutes under pressure. Every time, guaranteed.

Now, I should tell you I don’t actually add cabbage to mine. I make my mom’s creamed cabbage. Here’s the recipe; it’s one of my favorites.

Mom’s Creamed Cabbage
1 head cabbage, cored and sliced into 1/2 inch slivers
3 strips bacon, cut into chunks (1/2 inch)
1 medium onion, cut in half and then sliced thin
2 tbls butter
¼ cup flour
1 ¼ cup milk
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tbls heavy cream

Steam sliced cabbage 5 minutes, drain and set aside. Fry bacon 2 minutes (not crispy), then add the butter. Add the onions to the fat and saute until they are soft and translucent, about 4 minutes. Add the flour to the fat and cook 1 minute. Add the milk and stir until smooth. Simmer until thickened and bubbly. Add cabbage and simmer on low 3 minutes. Just before serving, stir in the cream and the salt and pepper to taste. There are two schools of thought to this recipe: Laurie cooks the bacon crisp and drains it on a paper towel, then crumbles it over the top as a finish. I generally cook it with the onions and cabbage. Both versions are delish!

How simple is that? It’s fabulous with corned beef (or anything else).

Hazel

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