Thursday, January 28, 2010

The inevitable gruel post

Michael Gambon as Mr. Woodhouse in the most recent adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma.

So last night I was making wheat flour by milling up wheat berries in a coffee grinder (like ya do) . I had about a quarter cup of wheat pieces that the grinder just couldn't tackle and they were too coarse to go in my pie crust. I was about to throw it out for the birds when I thought to myself, "Gruel!" So I put those wheat bits in about a cup of boiling water for twenty minutes and they developed into a small Emma-sized token portion of water gruel.

You're not going to believe this but I'm totally a gruel fan, now. It had a nice, nutty flavor that tasted just fine without sugar, as opposed to oatmeal which I can't choke down without lots of additional flavoring. I can see myself making gruel for breakfast or as a snack when I get home from work. Mr. Woodhouse would be pleased.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Hungry Planet

This has nothing to do with Jane Austen but over the week-end we went to the Bell Museum at the University of Minnesota and checked out a photography exhibit called "Hungry Planet." Photographer Peter Menzel and journalist Faith D'Alusio put together a photo essay of visits to 30 families in 24 countries for 600 meals. The pictures expose what we eat in a profound way. Of the photos in the exhibit, only two had no processed food in the picture: the families in Mali and Ecuador. Of course with a life expectancy of only 54, Mali is not exactly to be envied or held up as any kind of model. Many families, such as the Ecuadorian shepherds ate no meat. And yet, to my shock they were the healthiest looking people in the exhibit. On the other hand families in Egypt and Australia looked like they might be following the Jane Austen diet until you noticed the stacks of soda in the back ground. And weight was definitely an issue with these families. I think that probably vegans would have a field day with this until you look at the family from India who were vegetarians but had some processed foods and weren't looking as healthy.

What I took away was a profound sense that processed food has really taken over the planet in a diabolical way. Processed vegetable oil is the staple fat for most of the world. The diets we look to as ideal--the French, the Eskimos, the Japanese-- all were inundated with Coca Cola, Ritz Crackers and sugar-laden yogurt snacks. (Those darn French women still looked fantastic despite downing buckets of Yoplait. Grrrrrr. I hates the French!) Of course Americans, who spend more on food than any nation on Earth, had the most processed food of any family in the exhibit. One photo shows a tiny pile of fresh vegetables and meat in a sea of boxes, packages and plastic bottles.

One of the messages that the photographers took away from their project was that Americans simply eat too much. Of course this goes against everything I stand for at the Jane Austen diet, where large quantities of healing, whole foods are the key to health. Not eating enough calories from healthy foods has destroyed the American metabolism. We are fat and starving from a nutrient point of view and that isn't something that the books authors managed to figure out. Apart from this misguided conclusion, I think the book is a very insightful, honest and balanced look at the way the planet eats.

Check out more photos from Hungry Planet.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

On the twelth day of Christmas....a butcher!

I had planned to do a big Thanksgiving Jane Austen feast and make a whole bill of fare from The Complete Housewife. I settled for doing the turkey with oyster stuffing. Pretty much everything else on the table was traditional American Thanksgiving food, and one classic from my mom: sweet potatoes in orange halves with melted marshmellow topping. I did make a huge venison pie the week before Thanksgiving which I made in my dry run prep for Turkey Day. It was kind of like a fancy meatloaf inside a huge, thick pastry shell. It was good, but a little weird.

To make the Turkey with oyster stuffing, I'd had to go to two stores. To make the venison pie, I'd had to go to three stores. The day after Thanksgiving I decided to get serious about finding myself a butcher. A friend of mine had recommended a place not too far from my house, that is more of a meat specialty store. They cut their own meat, but for some reason they don't have a lot in the way of offal (organs and such) available, even for special order. I'll probably never be able to make a true Regency feast until I can get a line on more exotic meat like rabbit or calves brains. Still, the honeymoon with my butcher is really in full swing. I've done two standing rib roasts and a couple of hams in the last month and all the fixings. Christmas was all about roast: beef, potatoes, brussel sprouts and Yorkshire Pudding. We bought a mail order plum pudding, which was excellent but not quite up to the standard of home made. I made my own four years ago when I was pregnant with Robert and without those nesting instincts, I don't know if I'll ever manage the stamina to do it again. The largest pudding had to steam for nine hours! This is not a cuisine for wusses.

I've discovered the secret to a good standing rib roast is to get friendly with your butcher and get some extra fat. (They will usually give this to you for free, since most of the time they just toss out the trimmed fat from roasts). I rolled the roast in a mixture of flour, salt, pepper and mustard and fried it on all sides in beef dripping (or tallow, or melted suet) and then cooked it in a "slow" oven (325 degrees) for 20 minutes per pound. It was a little underdone near the bones, but that was fine because I reheated that part the next day for the best hot roast beef sandwiches I've ever had. I suppose if you haven't bought way more roast than you need than your roast will need more time, but really, I would worry about the outer part of the meat drying out. I also used the extra fat my butcher gave me to roast the sprouts, potatoes and the Yorkshire. In the old days, they would roast the joint on a spit and put the potatoes in a pan below, letting the fat drip down and baste the veggies. While this sounds great in theory, there is no way I'd want to try something like that in my oven. I settled for rending the fat out of the suet and putting it in separate roasters from the beef.

Another important key to the success of this roasted meal was pulling the roast out to rest for fifteen minutes before carving. During this time, I cranked up the oven to 425, browned the potatoes, sprouts and cooked the Yorkshire Pudding. Of course during Jane's time, "cranking up the oven" was a more difficult than just turning a knob. The fire needed to be stoked and the walls of the oven needed time to come up to temperature.

Christmas dinner was probably the most satisfying and successful Jane Austen experiment to date. The food was a hit, there were barely any leftovers and two picky four year old diners actually ate a great deal. I suppose the fact that I'm familiar with the meal from my childhood helped. The extra fat was really the way to go here. Modern recipe books call for you to trim the "cap fat" from the roast, but I followed the old school method of leaving it on to help baste the meat. Frying it to seal it in the beginning was a tip I learned from Floyd on Britain, my favorite British cookbook. I looked in my food science book and it said that this type of sealing of meats only dates back to the mid nineteenth century, so it's old school, but not quite old school enough. To be fair, I found this fact out AFTER, I'd tried it and decided it was too delicious to give up in the name of historical accuracy.

As I enter 2010, I have big plans for my Jane Austen cookery. I just read about a local restaurant that does its own butchering for charcuterie. Maybe I can buy some offal from them, or at least find out a supplier in the area. I'll do a post soon on stock making, since that has been a key component of this adventure. Lately, I'm feeling a little beefed out, so I expect that lamb, chicken and fish will be on the menu soon. My husband got me a very fancy new food processor for my birthday. It's French! And it has the word "robot" in the name. If I can't have two or three French cooks, at least I have a French robot to help in the kitchen. The little cookbook that came with it is hilarious as it has a recipe for rabbit and rice baby food! They must have butcher shops in France, still, I guess.