Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Proper High Tea & the Recipe for My Granny's Scones

A quick break from the Mediterranean. My series on British food is being featured all week on PixiesDidIt! Below are my memories of my first ever high tea, not to mention the recipe for my grandmother's scones:

High tea, so named because it is eaten at a dining table rather than in a living room at a tea or coffee table, is a term much bandied about in the States. Visions of sterling, doily draped serving trays and raised pinkies poised over porcelain tea cups come to mind at the first mention of the phrase. But be wary, high tea is no light, lady-like pause for refreshment. The meal, for that is what it is, is a far cry from the lighter afternoon or low tea we tend to replicate on this side of the pond. High tea takes fortitude and self-possession. It is a commitment, a mission you accept, and you should come apprised of what you are entering into. Sound daunting? Press on. High tea is, at its best, one of the world’s great feasts.

My favorite high tea was quite possibly my first - or the first I was old enough to remember. It was an impromptu meal I enjoyed one damp, chilly summer as a child when my family stopped in the very late afternoon to break up a long, increasingly ravenous drive back down from the far reaches of the Highlands. We pulled up short at the chalkboard standing at the side of the road. “High Tea” it simply read.

The place was stately, an old stone grange set right on the narrow, twisting road. It resonated with the details and bustle of another life and another era. There were worn tartan carpets everywhere in faded blue and beige, and heavy velvet drapes trimmed in brocade. The menu was as succinct as the sign outside had been:

Lamb chops

The rest was up to the good judgment and experience of the house.

We sat in a small front room with ceilings high enough to ensure one could never be warm. Several needlepoint stools were drawn up to a gas heater. My sister and I perched there to warm our fingers until the first course came, brought by a kindly matron with a low bun, thick, muscular legs and a sensible gait that held out her tweed walking skirt as she shooed us back to our chairs with an arched brow.

She brought tea sandwiches, which was to be expected. Ham, cucumber, and smoked salmon. We tasted each, especially enjoying the combination of Scottish salmon, fresh butter, and brown country bread, and settled back to wait for our lamb chops, but they were nowhere in sight. Shallow bowls of cock-a-leekie soup came next, rich broth, tender strips of chicken, silken rounds of leek, and a scattering of pleasantly chewy barley. Now we were warm, and I believe my mother may have made some comment about how soup and a sandwich makes such a nice, cozy supper.

The next thing I recall clearly is an intriguing waft of garlic in the air. Moments later
deep crocks of tiny shrimp in garlic butter came sizzling to the table along with more country bread for dipping. The shrimp were plump, sweet, and scaldingly hot, and there was a bowl of lemon halves for showering into their buttery juices.

I’ll admit we were broadsided by the vast platter of sausages and chips. The sausages burnished deep brown and crisp, their interiors juicy and fragrant, and the chips thick, crisp, sandy with salt, and fragrant with malt vinegar.

When 3 plates piled high with lamb chops and roast potatoes reached the table, along with a thick gammon steak crowned with pineapple and a maraschino cherry for my father, my parents collapsed into fits of hysterical laughter, weeping with the weakness that comes from having eaten heroic amounts only to realize that the end is nowhere in sight.

Back and forth between our little room and the grange kitchens trod our sturdy host’s moor-weathered shoes. She was stony-faced, relentless, and utterly inured to our frenzied giggles and groans of pain. Next, incomprehensibly, came scones with strawberry jam and clotted cream. Oh yes, this was still “tea” we were having after all. There were no raisins in the scones – something I heartily approve of to this day. I think I took one bite. My little sister lay down on the floor under the table, sensing that no one had the strength to reprimand her for it. But she picked her flushed cheek off the rough woolen carpeting at the sight of an entire Victoria Sponge, filled with cream and jam and blanketed with icing sugar.

Halfway through the trowel-sized wedge on my plate, I flopped my head to the side and gave a small sob at the injustice of not being physically capable of eating cake when it was on offer. I did however finish an entire chocolate éclair, bursting with freshly whipped cream, a salver of which was brought as the final flourish. One doesn’t quibble with éclairs.

Though the sky stayed light until what must have been 10 – as it does in Scotland at midsummer - the drive home was silent. The road signs grew gradually more familiar: Fort William, Killin, Perth, as we settled back, smiling at the occasional remnant burst of laughter from my parents in the front seat, and waited for home.

If you want to create your own high tea experience, be assured that the meal has no set menu or number of courses. Countless versions include steak and kidney pie, shepherd’s pie, poached salmon, even kippers. Trifle can be served for a particularly celebratory finish.

In the meantime, here are my grandmother’s magnificent scones. That’s pronounced, “skonn.” It rhymes with John. If you mean business, cool the tips of your fingers in ice water and dry thoroughly before starting.

Granny’s Scones

8 oz (227g) self-raising flour
1 tbsp sugar
pinch of salt
2 oz (57g) unsalted butter
whole milk

Preheat the oven to 425 F (218 C, gas mark 7)

Using only your fingertips, rub the butter into flour/sugar/salt mixture until it forms light crumbs. Mix with cold water, a tablespoon at a time, until it holds together. Turn onto a floured board and knead gently until just smooth. Do not overwork.

Roll out to a thickness of ½ inch and cut into 2 inch rounds. (Note: Reader Toffeeapple kindly reminded me to say to be sure to press your scone cutter straight down into the dough and pull it straight back out - no twisting). Place on a lightly floured baking sheet. Brush the tops with a little milk and bake towards the top of the oven for 12 – 15 minutes. Cool on a rack for at least 10 minutes before serving.

Serve with good fresh butter and jam, and for a treat with clotted cream as well.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Braised Lamb Shoulder with Herbs & Flageolets with White Balsamic & Mint

The first time I had pasture-raised Mediterranean lamb, I was in Provence, near Carpentras. The restaurant, nestled at the foot of Mont Ventoux, had left the lamb blissfully unadorned, simply rubbing the meat with garlic, olive oil and sea salt and then braising it in a little white wine. The result was aromatic, perfect, burnished a rich brown. But the flavor was surprisingly complex. When I asked which herbs had been used, the answer was "Pas un." Not one. Why then could I taste so many? Thyme and rosemary were particularly perceptible. “Of course,” came the reply. “C'est que l'agneau a mangé.” That's what the lamb ate.

Since then I’ve had lamb prepared just as simply all along the northern Mediterranean, and I’m unfailingly delighted by the variation in flavor from region to region, sometimes even from town to town. What might have been redolent with wild fennel in Andalusia, has been musky and floral with oregano and marjoram in the Greek islands, or peppery with young garlic and chives in Piemonte. It’s something I can’t help but try to replicate at home. Though I get beautiful lamb at the greenmarket, the natural infusion of indigenous wild herbs is tough to come by.

This dish is inspired by that first experience in Provence, and it comes pretty close to the mark actually. The classic pairing for braised lamb, particularly in France, is earthily creamy flageolets beans. They’re rare in the States, but navy beans make a fine substitute. With lamb I like my beans flecked with mint and gently dressed in white balsamic vinegar, a welcome twang against the richness of the meat. And don't forget to serve the wine-sweet garlic cloves in their paper alongside the lamb too.

When Easter falls late, as it has this year, I pounce on the chance to have this with the season’s first asparagus, roasted in olive oil and showered with lemon juice and good sea salt. Expect to be ravenous by the time it all finishes cooking - the aroma from the oven is particularly tempting.

Joyeuses Pâques!

Serves 4

1 4lb (1.8 kg) bone in lamb shoulder
extra virgin olive oil
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
2 – 3 stalks fresh rosemary
small handful fresh thyme sprigs
4 cloves of garlic, plus one head of garlic
2 bay leaves, fresh if possible
½ bottle white wine
1 lb (½ kg) dried flageolets beans (navy beans or any other very small white bean are fine)
3 – 4 shallots, peeled and sliced into half moons
hot chicken or vegetable stock
small handful fresh mint leaves
white balsamic vinegar

Preheat the oven to 325 F (170 C, gas mark 3)

Rinse and pat dry your lamb. Use a small pairing knife to pierce holes here and there. Rub the lamb all over with olive oil and then season generously with salt and pepper, being sure to work the seasoning into the holes. Next push stalks of rosemary and thyme into the holes. Crush and peel the 4 extra garlic cloves and work pieces of those in too. Place the lamb in a heavy, ovenproof pot. Separate the cloves from the full head of garlic, but do not peel. Put them in the pot in their paper with the bay leaves and the wine. Cover and bake in the center of the oven for 4 hours, checking occasionally to be sure the pot isn’t dry. You may top up with more wine if necessary.

Meanwhile pour your beans onto a baking sheet or table and rake through to pick out any stones or discolored beans. Place the beans in a colander and rinse thoroughly under cold, running water. Place the beans in a very large, heavy-bottomed casserole and cover with lots of cold water. Place over medium heat and bring to a boil, stirring often and skimming off any foam with a large spoon. Boil for 2 minutes and then drain, rinsing the beans again thoroughly under cold, running water. Give the large casserole a quick rinse too. Pour the beans back into the pot and cover with cold water. Soak off the heat for 1 hour, then drain and rinse the beans.

Heat the pot over medium heat and add some olive oil. Brown your shallots gently, turning occasionally. Add the beans and cover generously with hot stock. Bring to a boil, reduce to a very gentle simmer, and cook partially covered for 1 hour or until tender but not falling apart, skimming off any foam or scum that rises to the surface and topping up with boiling water or stock whenever necessary to keep the beans well covered.

Drain the beans, return to the pot, and season generously with extra virgin olive oil, salt, and pepper. Just before serving, dress with a good glug of white balsamic vinegar to taste, add more salt or pepper if necessary, and then roll up the mint leaves like a cigar and slice or chiffonade as thinly as possible. Toss the mint into the beans and serve alongside the lamb, which should be tender enough to pull apart rather than carve, and don't forget the garlic cloves in their paper, which make a wonderful accompaniment to the meat.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Grilled Squid & Ramp Salad with Chili & Lemon

The ramps are here. I spied a small but impossibly lush heap of them yesterday morning at the northwest end of the market. I think a small “Oh!” actually escaped my lips at the sight. It’s one of my favorite moments of the year, I’ll confess, and this is one of my most beloved ramp recipes, inspired by my time in the Greek islands. I thought I’d excavate it from the archives for those of you who are new to the blog or who may have missed it the first time around:

When I was last in the Greek islands, most of the restaurants and hotels had already closed for the winter. It was late autumn, and the rhythm of life had finally slowed back to normal.

Strolling the near-deserted streets, it was hard to believe that a few weeks before the beaches had been packed and the nightclubs throbbing. In fact the only evidence of the now absent tourists was the pack of lonely, love-starved dogs that followed us wherever we went – sad cast-offs of travelers gone to sunnier shores.

Eating was a quandary. The focus of life had turned from keeping restaurant inventory stocked to finishing the olive and potato harvests and hunkering down for the often-bitter winter. When we found an open taverna, the proprietor would usually shrug at the sight of us. But perhaps he could rustle us up a plate of spaghetti Bolognese or a couple of cheese sandwiches, drizzled with the ubiquitous (and heavenly) lemon juice and olive oil. In other words, we ate what they ate, which is just one of the reasons I love off-season travel.

One outdoor establishment, situated at the base of a cliff that plunged into the Aegean, told us they had just caught some kalamari, or squid. Someone fired up the grill at the end of the seating area, and the kitchen staff stood by the bar, smoking their cigarettes and shaking their heads at us. It was high tide, and waves driven by the November winds slapped up onto the floor of the taverna, sending small but regular surges of seawater under the plastic tables, one of which occasionally hydroplaned past.

We put our feet up on chairs and stared in amazement as a lone squid, it's body the size of a football, was laid out in front of us. Lightly charred where the grill had seared the flesh, this creature from the deep was substantial and meaty, a completely different prospect from the petite, tender miniatures we buy at home. Eating that exceptionally unadulterated meal was an oddly visceral experience. Delicious, but one hell of a lot of squid.

We doused the plate with fruity olive oil, lemon juice, and sea salt, and I’ve never forgotten the warm, briny sauce that formed as the squid juice mingled with that simple vinaigrette.

Ramps have arrived, thanks to the Bishops at Mountain Sweet Berry Farm. Not just one lone basket, but a whole table piled high at the greenmarket. If you can’t find ramps near you, or if they’re not in season where you live, scallions will make a fine substitute – just grill them a little longer before you start the squid. Or in the States, you can search for potential vendors at Pure Food.

Serves 4 as an appetizer.

1 lb squid, cleaned, patted dry, and slit down one side so they can open out in one flat piece
1 lb fresh ramps or scallions, root end trimmed, rinsed and patted dry
1 fresh red chili, seeded and minced
extra virgin olive oil
juice of 1 or 2 lemons (depending on juiciness)
good sea salt

Heat your grill on high or your grill pan over high heat, and have ready a large bowl. With a sharp knife, score one side of the opened squid in a crosshatch pattern being careful not to cut all the way through. Lay the squid and ramps on the grill. The squid may curl up on their own, or you may need to loosen and flip them. They are ready as soon as they’re lightly browned where the grill has touched them – 1 or 2 minutes at most. The ramps will be ready in the same amount of time – just flip them once during the cooking process. Work in batches if necessary until all the squid and ramps are grilled. Reserve in the bowl.

Sprinkle in the minced chili. Douse the grilled squid and ramps with a good amount of the olive oil, the lemon juice, and a generous pinch of sea salt. Toss and arrange on 4 plates. Sprinkle with a little more sea salt and serve hot.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The April Harvest Calendar

Dogwood. And cherry blossom.

It must be spring.

This is the cool, green calm before the deluge of May.

Not much to eat yet, except for the old standbys. My talented friend Lucy told me this waiting period between the end of winter and the first harvest is known as The Hungry Gap.

You can feel the anticipation in the air though.

"Any rhubarb yet?"

The world seems to be generally unrumpling itself, shrugging off the cold and remembering how to play nicely.

For the most part anyway. I was speaking with a farmer about his burdock crop the other day. We'd never officially met before.

"Are you a food writer?" he asked.

"I'm Amanda," I extended a hand.

"Not Amanda Hesser."

"No, but I'm a big fan of hers."

"No. I was going to say, you aged really fast."

Here John. Here's a shot of your five damned bunches of wintered-over arugula.

Still, it's spring. And it's hard not to like a man that into growing burdock, even on his less charming days.

Mesclun and parsnips should be available within the next couple of weeks, and last year's shell beans, onions, potatoes, and apples are still available from cold storage. While we wait for the first field crops of the season to grow there are still greens from the tents to tide us over.

And so much more besides.

As always, crop information is available in the sidebar harvest calendar over there on the right all month. The information comes from a guide published by the CENYC, which runs the Greenmarket & New Farmer Development Project. To locate markets near you in the US, check the Zip or City Quick Search at Local Harvest.

Happy spring and happy April!

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