Sunday, November 11, 2012

It's 1925

Today, we delve slightly into the life of Colette.  Although best known as the writer of Gigi, Cherie and the Claudine novels, she led an interesting and varied life and still carried in her heart the life she'd known as a country girl in Burgundy.  As a child, she shared her first glass of wine with her father ( "reddish-brown Muscat de Frontignan, sent from his natal south of France") and as an adult, made her own.  This is a little variation called Vin d'Orange, and I have been wanting to try it for years.  As winter is fast approaching, I thought the time to make it was perfect, although I do hate the wait and may not be able to resist temptation.

"Into four litres of dry, golden Cavalaire wine, I pour one liter of good, honest Armagnac brandy, and my friends promptly cry out.  'What a massacre!  Such a sterling brandy sacrificed to undrinkable ratafia!'  While they are still howling, I drown four sliced oranges, a freshly picked lemon, a stick of silvery vanilla, and six hundred grams of sugar cane.  All this goes into a potbellied glass jar, corked and sealed, to macerate for fifty days.  Then all I have to do is filter and bottle the result.  Is it good, you ask?  Just come home at the end of a hard, late-winter afternoon lashed with rain and hail.  You are shivering.  You feel your forehead, you wipe your nose, you look at your tongue, and finally whimper, 'I don't know what's the matter with me...'  I know what's the matter.  You need a little glass of Vin d'Oranges."  ... Colette

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

It's 1957

1957 was an amazing year, a time where everything in pop culture was right on the verge of "THE FUTURE".

(Just imagine that phrase yelled dramatically through an echoing megaphone by some Ed Wood-esque announcer.)

This was the year Bobby Soxers stopped mewling at Pat Boone and started screaming at Elvis Presley.    Gunfight at the OK Corral and Old Yeller were still playing at the Bijou, but so were Nights of Cabiria and Wild Strawberries.  The Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, The Cat in the Hat finally found a publisher, and in October, to America's horror, the Soviets launch Sputnik.  The Space Race begins, with the bad guys far, far ahead.

As America scrambles to catch up, the Soviets race at breakneck speed to top their original feat and stay in the lead.  It takes America another three months to get a satellite into orbit.  It took the Soviets one.  And this one was both technically superior and morally experiment that still gets people's blood boiling today.


Laika was a tiny two-year old stray found on the streets of Moscow.  Laika and two other strays were rounded up specifically because of their "stray" status.  Stray dogs would be more hardened to suffering.  Laika and her two comrades were specially trained to stay immobile for days on end (up to 20) in progressively smaller and smaller cages and to eat a special, gel-based dog food.  The dog food had two purposes:  to be able to go up into space without floating all over the capsule, and to easily deliver a final, euthanizing dose of medicine when her oxygen finally gave out, because Laika was never coming back.  The rushed show of Soviet power was a Khrushchev-mandated launch that would commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.  In the less than 30 days deadline given, there was no possible way to invent and perfect  a retrieval system that could bring her back alive, and everyone knew it.  Laika, who "won" the contest on account of her calm and friendly personality, was given a special treat just before the launch.  One of the scientists in her charge brought her home for an afternoon of play with his children.  Later, he would sadly give his reason why:  "I wanted to do something nice for her.  She had so little time left to live."

Hunkered down in her tiny capsule, heart racing, Laika became the first animal to orbit the Earth on November 3rd, 1957.  Several orbits later, she also became the first to die there when her capsule overheated.  While she had several days worth of food, and had even eaten the first serving while in space, the humanely planned final meal was never needed.

Laikas body and her rocket disintegrated upon reentry several months later.

Back in America, reports of the space dog were met with a mix of humor and revulsion.  Reporters joked about "Muttnik", but people were infuriated that the heartless commies had deliberately let a little dog suffer and die in space, a feeling that still resonates today as new people discover the story of her sacrifice.  America wouldn't get a satellite in space for another 2 months, and wouldn't be able to launch an animal at all until December of 1958, more than a year after Laika's historic launch.

In 1964, Laika was immortalized in the massive Soviet memorial, The Conquerors Of Space, where her perky little face looks bravely forward to the future.

In 2008, Laika got her very own monument, a beautiful three-dimensional statue of her, curly tail and all, sitting atop her rocket, as if just waiting for a petting.  A picture of the new monument, as well as a doggie space suit like the one she wore, can be found here.  But that's not all...

Laika's story is a sad one, and a well-known one, one that can't be changed.  But in 2011, artist Nick Abadzis created several happy alternative endings to the story.  Nick had previously created the 2007 graphic novel, Laika, which introduced the historic dog to a new audience before breaking their hearts.  No one likes the way Laika's story ended, least of all Nick, so he created better ones. My favorite is ending number one, where Laika is ejected from her rocket and gently parachutes down where her adoring trainer is tearfully waiting for her, at coordinates secretly given to her by a Soviet official.

Further reading:

The micro site for Nick Abadis graphic novel, Laika, can be found here.  In it, you can find stories about his inspiration, artwork and interviews.  An of course, you can always buy it from Amazon.

And just to go out on a happy note, here are Laika's alternative endings again.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

It's 1776! And it's time for your supper, Master Washington.

Still on the Colonial kick!

I've found several books on cooking and recipes from Colonial times but they all seem...mmm, well...a bit Wolfgang Pucked. I'm not looking for modern interpretations of original recipes, I'm looking for what great-great-great grandmother cooked for her husband on Saturday, or what they had at the middle-class taverns I would have been able to afford had I been there. I guess I just don't want to be too fancy.

One of the best recipe sites for what I wanted was for the Claude Moore Colonial Farm , which touts itself as "The world of an 18th century family living on a small, low-income farm just prior to the Revolutionary War." Sounds like my kind of place.

Their list of recipes sounds delicious and unusual. They have a recipe for Onion Pie, which I've never ever heard of, adapted from Recipes from the Raleigh Tavern Bake Shop, so even though the recipe is still a reflection of an original, I thought I'd start there. Doubtless the colonists had no access to Crisco for their pie crusts, but since Lard is sold like porn now - the grocer keeps it hidden behind a counter, you have to ask for it with a great deal of guilt and shame, and you feel everyone staring at you as you purchase it - I thought it best to just use what I have on hand.

Onion Pie

The Crust
3 cups flour
1 tsp salt
1 Cup shortening (can include up to 1/4 cup butter)
1 egg
1/2 cup ice water

Mix flour and salt. Cut in the shortening with knives or pastry cutter until it's mealy. Add the beaten egg and 1/4 cup ice water. Add remaining water to make a soft pasty. Chill well, divinde in half, then roll each half out on a floured surface to no more than 1/8"

(I certainly made it thicker than that, it was so crumbly there was no way it would hold that thin a roll.)

The Filling
1/2 pound apple
1/2 pound potato
1/2 pound onion
6 eggs (I used two and it came out fine)
1/2 pound butter (again, I used only one stick and it was fine)
1/4 tsp each: Nutmeg, Pepper, Salt, Mace.

Cut the apple, onion and potato into very thin slices (This makes it cook faster). Lay half the pastry in the pan and cover with half the butter, sliced into pats. beat the eggs. Combine separately the nutmeg, salt, pepper and mace. Add layers of apple, onion and potatoes to pie shell, putting beaten egg and spices between each layer, until pie is filled. Spread the left-over butter on top and cover with remaining crust. Cut slits in the top to allow for steam, then bake at 350 for 1 to 1 1/2 hours until golden brown. Let cool and serve.

The only part I had trouble with was the crust. I just couldn't roll it out thin enough without destroying it, since it's so very crumbly. Eventually I made it double thick, but it still wouldn't roll off the pin and onto the pie pan. It cracked in half and I had to sort of mash it together to make the top crust. You can sort of see the Frankenstein scar as I pop it in the oven, but it baked up well and like most pies, the crust was probably the best part. And don't be worried about those 1/2 pound measurements. That equated to one apple, one onion, and one potato, hardly a killer at the store.

This was a VERY filled pie. A word about the slicing: slice everything thin. Make small pieces so it all cooks together and you wind up with a soft, savory filling rather than a crunchy one. You won't have any trouble with the apples or the onions at any size, but what fun it is to bite down into a hot, raw potato. You don't want a while pie made of that. I sliced everything thin and what a dream it was.

The pie was savory and quite yummy but I couldn't help feeling that it was a little bland by itself. What did it need? More salt? Perhaps a bit of gravy ladeled over the top, like mashed potatoes? That probably would have been what the Colonials used but eventually I figured out that a little Goulden's Spicy Brown mustard, added as a dipping sauce, improved the flavor greatly. So much so that next time I think I will try to add the mustard to the egg/spice mixture and see how that goes.

The crust, as I said, came out perfect, even though it was rolled too think. That may even be a good thing: there was more yummy crust to eat. The filling was subtle. You'd think an apple added to the mix would really throw it off but the flavors blended well.

The pie lasted a few days because it was REALLY filling. I think I liked it better hot, but a cold slice with mustard was an equally delicious lunch.

Now, on to breakfast the next morning!

Johnnycakes! Wow, nothing could be simpler than Johnnycakes, that new-world pancake made with cornmeal. I remember reading about George Washington when I was a child, maybe 9 or 10, and how he ate Johnnycakes with butter for breakfast just about every morning. I wanted to know what they were like and made a recipe to find out. I guess I've been doing this even longer than I thought I had! Again, many thanks to the Claude Moore Colonial Farm for the recipe, but it's so simple I can do it from memory.

1 cup corn meal
1/2 cup hot water
pinch of salt.

Ooooh, tough, huh? The colonials probably had a constant pot of water going, but I just put a half a cup of water in the microwave for a minute and then dumped in the cornmeal and salt. Mix it, mix it, mix it, til it forms a bit of a ball, then leave it alone for about a half hour. You can do this right before you make your morning coffee, and it will be done setting by the time you finish your first cup. Form it into patties like sausage, I prefer mine a bit thin to retain crispiness, and fry in butter on both sides, about 2 or 3 minutes, on medium heat. Serve warm with butter and honey. And ooooh, are they ever heaven! This is everything you need in a breakfast. It's filling, not much fat, a good shot of protein, tasty, and it's fun in the mouth. I've tried adding an egg to the mix to make it more pancake-like but I really do prefer these slightly crunchy griddlecakes to the soft variety. Plus, oddly enough, the egg-spiked batter seems to take LONGER to cook. Go figure.

So, let's grind up some coffee, fry up some Johnnycakes, and start our Saturday with a Shot Heard 'Round The World!

Further Reading:

Did I mention the Claude Moore Colonial Farm? Well I'm mentioning it AGAIN so there! The links above take you straight to the recipes, but this one here will take you to the home page so you can see what other things they're doing, like the tobacco harvest and a Colonial Wedding that I would just love to see. Their recipes look very simple as well, perfect for beginners. They have a recipe for rock candy I'm just dying to try. A lot of people made it as kids, but not me. I'm not even sure I've ever TASTED any, so as soon as the weather cools down enough I'm going to try it. had a great article on Colonial Cooking, including some cookie recipes that you just know are going to show up here. How can you go wrong with brown sugar and vanilla? Again, as soon as it's cool, Colonial Soup will make an appearance.

Moving up the ladder in fussiness is Colonial Williamsburg, but they ARE the authority so it's best to listen to what they have to say. Their recipes are also authentic and delicious, but a bit too fancy for me. For right now that is. Their cookbook, The Colonial Williamsburg Tavern Cookbook is just divine.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

It's 1776!

(An Aside: This is fun. I never took stock in painted portraits of people, because I never thought they looked like ANYONE. The features or the proportions or even the clothing just looks so wrong that even if the living subject was standing right in front of me, I wouldn't know who it was. Until I saw this portrait. This is George Washington's Mother. See the resemblance?)

Last week I attended Old Fort MacArthur Days at San Pedro. I've never even heard of it before, but I was promised WWII and Spanish American War re-creators, so I was determined to go. I've been trying to get good information off the internet about my grandfather's company during the Span-Am War with no luck, so I thought I could hit up the guys who live it, figuring they would have some good knowledge that I haven't seen yet. And of course, you know how I am about to 40s, so I just had to go say hello to "the boys".

Well right off the bat, Morgan's Riflemen just blew everyone else away.

The 4th of July had just passed and it had caught my attention. Like so many other people, I had caught the Cliff Notes version of the war in school and look at it (as most do, I suppose) as something so categorically WON as to be an inevitability. Well of COURSE we were going to win, right? But this time I started getting curious as to WHY we went to war. It couldn't be just because "a bunch of rich landowners didn't want to pay taxes anymore', as an acquaintance so annoyingly put it. So I started looking into it and was disagreeably surprised at how little I knew. For instance, call me part of the TV generation, but I always thought Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett were contemporaries. Maybe it was because they both had such a strong resemblance to Fess Parker.

So, I wandered over to the Revolutionary-looking guys and hung around for a while. The British Fusiliers were busy filming something, so none of them were even remotely interested in talking to me, although I did watch two men making bullets, and that was pretty nifty.

But ooohhh, then I saw Morgan's Riflemen. Talk about a great period in history, these were the first sharpshooters who came out of the hills and joined up right at the beginning of the war. Just about everyone fought with the Brown Bess but the Riflemen had the much more accurate Rifle and could pick off the enemy with astonishing skill. They also have a very distinctive look with their fringed shirts and leather leggings. I went up and started talking to them and didn't stop for several hours. They were SOOO friendly and answered all my questions with excellent information, but most impressive of all was how deeply they got into it! They were an amazingly self-sufficient unit, each man carrying his own sleeping, cooking and shooting gear with an efficiency that I can only aspire to. The tall fellow I spoke to the most, Mike, said he takes his gear (including his period gun) on his hunting and camping excursions so he can really live the lifestyle. Apparently a lot of them do. I got handlw a couple of rifles, a Brown Bess and a blunderbuss. I'm sure they could tell by the way I held them so gingerly that I was a beginner, but thank heavens they didn't laugh at me. They showed me their cast iron pans and how to field clean them, showed me how to chop a perpendicular notch in a hill so you don't roll off in your sleep. The womenfolk of the camp showed me how they cooked all their food over a small fire in dutch ovens, and how they used just about every piece. Scraps from last night's roasted chicken were today's chicken soup. They get so into it that I'm not even sure they used the porta-potties set up nearby to do their business. I fell so in love with the company that I came back the next day and spoke to them for another chunk of the afternoon. Unfortunately I was so entranced that I didn't realize until I was driving home that I hadn't taken a single picture.


They'll be setting up camp again in October, so I'll have to stop by and say hello and take pictures then.

I can't describe how amazed I was at how self-contained the riflemen were. I would love to be that secure with my skills, especially in economic times where it seems inevitable that people thrown out of their houses and running out of unemployment checks will probably have to move onto the street. To be able to shoot your own food and travel freely with such a small pack seems impossible to my stove/oven/microwave mindset. I really think the Riflemen should take tenderfoots out on sort of an Historical Survivalist Boot Camp. You know, in their spare time. To fund their corp. Of course.

Further reading:

Ever since I got home I've been consuming literature about the revolution, the most important of which is The Declaration of Independence. Of course everybody knows about it, but when was the last time you read it? If nothing else, just read the list of grievances. It delineates all the reasons the Americans felt like the red headed stepchildren of England, and why it felt like the King was happy to take our money and the fruits of our labor, and in return, give us troops to stay in our houses, eat our food, and murder us with impunity if we protested. On the other hand, if any of us killed a soldier and the ensuing trial found us not guilty, the king would try us again until he got the outcome he wanted.

1776 is the modern definitive tome about the war, and it comes in an illustrated version as well, which is good for me because I can only take so many wordy descriptions before they all bleed together. Having portraits of the main players and diagrams of the weapons they used (unless you know off hand how to tell a musket from a rifle) is VERY helpful. The only thing that I'm not crazy about is that it starts you right at the day England declared war against the colonies, but doesn't touch so much on the issues that actually caused the war. It assumes you already know about The Boston Tea party and the French and Indian War. (Yeah yeah, I'm sure you know about the Boston Tea party, but tell me, who led it and why was this the straw that broke the camel's back? And who fought in the French and Indian War? If you guessed it was the French against the Indians, you're wrong.)

The Revolutionary Soldier: 1775 - 1783 , though technically a juvenile book, is an EXCELLENT resource for beginners as it it a completely illustrated book so you can SEE what the clothes and equipment were like. See all the things the soldiers made out of bullets in their down time, like fishing weights and buttons. Seeing it makes you appreciate how ingenious they were with what they had.

Friday, July 16, 2010

It's 1950!

It's been about 100 degrees here the past few days, and it doesn't cool down enough to cook until late at night. Even then, we're talking about the high 80s inside the house (my a/c is on the fritz, just in time for the heatwave). So, I haven't really been in the mood to get all hot and sweaty and blast the house with even more hot air just as it's cooling down. Still, my friend Martha of Gram's Recipe Box posted this old recipe for Chicken Paprika, and it just sounded so good I had to have it!

It SOUNDS like a wartime variation of a peacetime recipe, because of the call for "fat" instead of something more specific like lard, butter or oil, and because of the scant amount of sour cream used. Sour cream was fairly easy to get, just leave your cream out by mistake, it'll happen. Waste not, want not. In other recipes I've seen for sour cream based sauces, you use a cup or more. So, even though Martha says the recipe is from around 1950, I suspect it's actually a bit older and it just took a while for anyone to write it down.

It also sounds Hungarian. I can just see Cuddles Sakall cooking it up for a dinner party and shaking his jowls in glee.

I don't have a whole chicken, and there's only one of me tonight (no family), so I halved the recipe and made one huge chicken breast as an audition for my recipe book.

I started out by frying the onions in a small amount of bacon fat, maybe a 1/2 teaspoon, then browning the chicken as directed. I must say here, you can't get a better smell in your kitchen that onions and bacon, it's just heavenly. I thought about adding more oil to the pan for the chicken, but apparently it didn't need any more. The chicken browned up quickly and didn't stick to the pan at all.

When I flipped over the chicken, I noticed some of the onions were starting to burn. I checked the recipe and it says that after you brown the chicken, you cover it, put the flame on low and let it cook for 40 minutes. I was afraid my onions wouldn't be able to survive that long, so I took them out of the pan. I added them again toward the end of the cooking.

The original notations claim that this would be good served over noodles or rice, but I don't know if it makes that much "gravy". The gravy was very thick and there was just enough to spoon onto the chicken, but certainly not enough to get noodles or rice wet. Maybe if you stretch it with a bit of broth, it will make a nice, soupy gravy, but not this time.

The chicken was moist and savory and, oddly enough, sweet. I can't imagine why it should taste sweet, I didn't put any sugar in it. Maybe it was the paprika? Does paprika turn sweet when you warm it up? Maybe the onions caramelized just so? I don't know, but the taste was delicious. The paprika and the bacon fat were so aromatic together that the onions seemed almost like an afterthought. After the first swallow, though, it's the sweet/onion flavor that lingers in the mouth.

I also had my first ripe tomato of the year for a garnish. It ripened up just in time, so I plucked it from the vine and sacrificed it to my dinner plate, and it made a lovely accompaniment, echoing the slight sweetness in the sauce. Ahhhh!


Thank you, Martha, for the recipe!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

It's 1915! And strawberry season.

I had visitors over the weekend, and introduced one of them to the magic that is a Farmer's Market. She'd never been to one before and was slow to taste-test the samples. I think because she saw me eating them while the vendor was busy helping someone else, she assumed I was "stealing" them the way you have to do at the supermarket when you're not sure the grapes are ripe. I let her know that yes, not only is it okay for you to help yourself to samples, the vendors WANT you to. Help yourself to as many varieties as you like, then buy the best ones. They're all convinced they have the best, and they want you to know it, hence the samples. By the end of the morning, many free samples later, she was a convert.

Among the samples we tried were some REALLY beautiful, dark, sweet strawberries. They were the best at the market so I bought three trays of them, with visions of our little girls eating strawberries and cream for breakfast the next day.

Well, tough luck for me they decided to beat traffic on the way home by leaving that evening and driving through the night, so now I have all these wonderful strawberries and no family to cook for. I can't eat three trays of strawberries all by myself! Hmmm, what to do, what to do...

I've got it! That recipe for Strawberry Bavarian Cream has been rattling around in my head for a while. I am forever in search of fancy jello molds at Goodwill and antique stores, and while I haven't yet found a fluted jello mold like the one in the picture, I do have an old panna cotta mold that will do in a pinch! I've certainly got the strawberries for it! Really, the only thing I had to go out and buy was the cream. I don't keep it on hand because I'd drink it out of the carton like milk and look like the Michelin Man by now.

I mashed the strawberries one at a time through a sieve with a spoon because I didn't want to go to all the trouble of cleaning out my food processor when I was done. It has a million parts and they all catch little bits of food when I use it. It takes forever to clean it, it's really quite annoying. Well, next time I'll use the food processor. It's worth it. I've found a new way to measure "forever" since that's how long it took to mash all the strawberries into as fine a pulp as I needed.

I followed all the instructions, poured it into my panna cotta pan, and waited til morning...

Ahhhh, the finished product! Isn't it lovely? It cuts like harvest pie, or the lightest key lime you've ever had. I often wish I had a better camera on my phone, but no camera can tell you how it tasted. The texture is fluffy with just a little graininess because of the seeds and pulp. I'm sure if I had strained it all out it would be smooth, like cool whip, but this way is better because you can tell it had fresh ingredients, no one just mixed whipped cream and jello together and poured it in a bowl. It has a marvelous perfume, because I used farmers market strawberries that had just been picked that morning, rather than store bought berries that had been shipped last week. I can't emphasize enough the difference fresh ingredients make. One day I hope to be able to grow alpine berries -the highly perfumed, tiny progenitors of modern strawberries - and use them in this recipe.

Next time I won't bother with adding sliced berries to the mold. You can't see them and they take away from the soft, fluffy texture. It's a little work, to be sure, and you will mess up a few extra dishes, but oh, it's soooo delicious. I just wish I had a few little girls to share it with today. Ah well. I'll just have to eat it all myself. Poor me.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

It's Saturday night, 1944...

Rations, day 2! I have to tell you that these recipes are extremely filling. This is the fourth meal I've had and I really feel like I could go out and do hard, physical labor for several hours without feeling hunger pangs. Try doing that with your Lean Cuisine meatloaf-ette.

Breakfast and lunch were the same as yesterday, no need to repost pictures. I have mixed feelings as to the fate of my lunch filling. I got two servings out of it before my husband decided he really liked it and ate the whole thing with crackers.

Now, on to dinner!

You'll notice that not only does dinner look pretty tasty, the picture is much clearer too. That's because I had someone else take it. Hubby has the iPhone with the much, MUCH better camera, so that's why today's offering looks so good.

Tonight's dinner was Kidney Bean Vegetable Loaf, recipe circa 1944, Health for Victory's Meal Planning Guide, and it wasn't bad at all! In fact it was very good, with lots of good old fashioned onion and tomato taste. If I had a gripe about it, it would be that it didn't set right and came out like hot, thick paste instead of a loaf. Next time I might put in more bread crumbs or let it sit in the oven a little longer. Here's the original recipe:

Kidney Bean Vegetable Loaf

2 c. cooked kidney beans
3/4 c. cooked, diced carrots
2 tbsp. chopped onion
3/4 c. diced celery
3/4 c. canned tomatoes
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 c. dry bread crumbs
3/4 c. kidney bean stock

Chop or mash beans fine. Mix all ingredients thouroughly and pack into a greased loaf pan. Bake. Unmold on a hot platter. Mushroom or tomato sauce may be served over the loaf, if desired. Bake for 45 minutes in preheated 350* oven. Serves 6.

Yes it really does jump around like that, giving two bake orders. It's supposed to be served with Harvard beets, Golden salad made with oranges, raisins and french dressing, oatmeal bread, butter and baked custard for dessert. The Harvard beets would have been delicious with the meat lof but I didn't have beets of any kind, so leftover steamed carrots (the ones that went into the loaf) played stand in. Potatoes stood in for bread. Luckily I didn't make the custard because I'm stuffed. I would have been locked in an all-night staredown with it while I tried to convince myself to pack it down on top of such a big meal.

The tomato sauce is a favorite of mine. You can make it by mixing a half teaspoon of Worcestershire and a dash of hot sauce into a half cup of ketchup. Or of course, you can whip up your own.

Dieters and vegans will be happy to know that the only fat/animal products in this dish were the oil in the pan and the butter on the potatoes. Homefronters will be happy to know that it sucks up very few of your ration points.

See you tomorrow!