Time for tea

I’ve just got back from this week’s sailing adventure and it was a very pleasant evening. Not only was the weather fine (after a generally miserable day, meteorologically speaking) and the crew large enough and experienced enough to make for a smoother sail than we often have, but we even had time for a quick cup of tea on board before we started.

This was particularly welcome since, as so often happens when I have to go out for things (usually sailing or a band practice) shortly after getting home from work, I didn’t have time to finish the cup of tea I started before I went out.

In recent months, when I’m in the situation of wanting a cup of tea but not really having enough time to make and properly enjoy one, I have tended to go for Russian tea, but I’m beginning to get a bit tired of that pun and it recently occurred to me that green tea has several natural advantages for an occasion such as this. For the sake of this discussion, I’ll restrict myself to considering only green and black tea, rather than other types such as oolong or white tea, or non-tea-based infusions; I’ll also consider them generically rather than thinking about the specific details of particular types or blends.

The first benefit of green tea is that it is optimally brewed with slightly cooler water (around 75 degrees, instead of 100 degrees for black tea), which means both that the kettle reaches the desired temperature quicker and that the tea cools to a drinkable temperature quicker. Allied to this is the fact that green tea often requires only a relatively short brewing time (say around 2 minutes, instead of 3 or 4 for black). All that adds up to a beverage that is ready to drink somewhat sooner than black tea – very handy when time is limited.

The second benefit is that green tea leaves can usually be successfully brewed at least two or three times, and often in fact they reach their best on the second or third brew. This contrasts with black tea leaves, which are generally best the first time round. Hence, if you do run out of time and have to abandon half of your first cup, you can reuse the leaves later on when you have a bit more time to spare. This is obviously less wasteful than having to chuck them away. The cold tea left over from the first cup can be used to good effect for watering houseplants, and I’m not sure that it makes too much difference for this whether green or black tea is used.

Anyway, I’ve just finished my second cup of green tea (and I’m sure my spider plant enjoyed the latter half of the first cup I brewed before I went sailing), so it’s time to draw this musing to a close.

Cold Comfort

For the second week running, I found myself unable to go sailing last night. This time, however, it wasn’t the weather that kept me ashore but the fairly heavy cold I’m currently nursing.

This sprang up from nowhere on Monday morning and steadily got worse as the week progressed, reaching its zenith (I hope) yesterday and rendering me unfit to go sailing. At least, I would have given it a go if the crew had been short-handed but there were enough other people available and I was feeling sufficiently rough to consider that it would be better all round if I stayed at home.

I think I feel marginally better today, but it’s still at a fairly yucky stage (I’m sure you’ve experienced enough colds to be able to imagine the gory details without me spelling them out) and I’m also missing tonight’s band practice, though I hope to be well enough to go to tomorrow night’s.

While I’ve been sitting at home, reading the fictional exploits of Horatio Hornblower and dreaming of a life on the ocean wave, I have been soothing my throat with a concoction that my boss (officially “line manager”, but that sounds too corporate for my liking) told me about this afternoon while I was manfully struggling on with my work and looking forward to the moment I could knock off and head home to hit my rocking chair. (Incidentally, in case my boss or any prospective future employer is reading this, I should emphasise that when I’m at work I don’t usually just sit there looking forward to going home – only when I’m feeling ill but can muster just enough strength to drag myself to the office in the first place.)

The concoction in question is actually a decoction (I think that’s the correct technical term) of ginger, black peppercorns and cloves in water. As such, it bears a certain similarity to the honey, lemon and ginger decoction that I usually make up when I have a cold. It also reminded me somewhat of masala chai, which is perhaps not surprising given that my boss is Indian and is therefore steeped in the same culinary/medicinal tradition from which that fine beverage comes.

My method of preparation was to roughly chop a bit of fresh ginger, crush a few cloves and peppercorns in a pestle & mortar and then simmer the whole lot for a few minutes in a small saucepan of boiling water before straining into a cup. I drank a little bit of it neat but used the bulk of it, while the water was still nice and hot, to brew a cup of coffee (as suggested by my boss).

I can’t speak for the medicinal properties but it was certainly pleasant and soothing to drink (with or without the coffee – I’m sure it would also work as a masala chai mix with a bit of black tea thrown in, without the coffee of course!) and will be a useful addition to my repertoire of brews to make myself feel better (if not actually get better any sooner) when I have a cold.

The Magic of Mushrooms

Normally, grocery shopping is not a highlight of my week. Occasionally, however, I stumble upon a bargain that makes it altogether more pleasurable. Today I found some button mushrooms going for about a third of their usual price, as they were approaching there sell-by date (but still looked in pretty good condition). Needless to say, these came home with me and were cooked up for my tea with garlic, olive oil, butter and a bit of salt and pepper. Very tasty and a great way to show I can write short blog posts if I put my mind to it. 🙂

When life gives you apples…

Over the last few years I’ve been greatly blessed to have a more or less regular annual bulk supply of apples.

At first, it was because I lived in a house with two apple trees in the garden.  The landlords were very happy for my housemates and I to avail ourselves of the crops and since I seemed to be the only one to do so I had more than enough apples for my culinary needs each autumn.

I moved out of that house quite a few years ago now (about 8, I think) but since then I’ve had a couple of friends with apple trees and each year one or both of them give me a nice lot of apples to use.

Originally I mostly used these apples for cider but in more recent years I’ve tended to use more of them for cooking than brewing.  In the past this has usually amounted to lots of apple crumbles supplemented by occasional batches of stewed apple (and in one case when I was feeling adventurous, apple butter) or zapped apples (a microwaved treat that is both deliciously simple and simply delicious), with one or two apples lobbed into stews now and then.

A few days ago I received this year’s (or technically last year’s) batch of apples from one of my friends and I’ve decided to expand my repertoire a bit.  Doubtless there will be a few apple crumbles and zapped apples to come (not to mention apples in stews, and perhaps a batch of cider) but I want to do a few other things as well.

As it happens, I’ve just been getting into another bout of slavophilia, prompted by finally getting round to listening to the CD of Eugene Onegin that I bought several months ago and aided by the fact that the Russian lessons on Duolingo have finally gone live, which gives me a good chance to revive my rather rusty Russian language skills. One result of this is that I’ve had my Russian cookery books out (the one by Kira Petrovskaya that I blogged about shortly after getting it several years ago and one called The Food and Cooking of Russia by Lesley Chamberlain that I got shortly afterwards. Both of these contain several recipes involving apples quite prominently.

This evening I have been trying my first couple of Russian apple recipes, one from each book.

Chamberlain supplied an intriguing recipe for Carrot and apple vzvar. She didn’t seem to explain what a vzvar (or взвар as it would appear in Cyrillic) is, but this one amounted to gently simmering carrots and apple in a minimal amount of water (after lightly sautéeing them in butter). Interestingly, all the Google hits I’ve been able to find for vzvar seem to indicate a kind of beverage, which is certainly not how this recipe turned out or, as far as I can see, how it was intended. Perhaps because of the limited amount of water used, I accidentally burned the carrots a bit but it actually gave quite a nice caramelised effect; there was no mention of this in the recipe, so I assume it’s not how it’s supposed to turn out but it certainly wasn’t the major culinary disaster I first feared.

Petrovskaya’s book furnished a recipe for an apple soup. The idea of cold fruit soups is not new to me, as I came across them on a visit to Hungary and I’m sure I’ve previously seen this recipe (and an equally delicious looking one for cherry soup – all I need now is a friend with a cherry tree) on reading this book, but I’ve never tried to make one. Again, it’s a pretty simple recipe. Basically you chop up a load of apples, simmer them with a bit of sugar and a few cloves in plenty of water until they are nice and soft, then mix in a bit of vanilla extract, leave to go cold and serve. At the moment I’m still waiting for it to go cold, but the taste I’ve had of the still-warm soup is promising.

I’ll probably be returning to Chamberlain’s book this weekend to try a dish of stewed cabbage and apples and there are plenty more apple-based recipes in both books to check out.

Of course, I’m not restricting my Russian cookery explorations to things involving apples (any more than I’m intending to restrict my apple cookery to recipes from Russia). Indeed, one of the other things I’ve been doing in the kitchen this evening is to get another batch of перцовка (pertsovka – (chilli) pepper vodka) going. In case you’re wondering what that’s all about, I wrote about pertsovka in my previous post about Petrovskaya’s book (linked above), although she doesn’t mention it (Chamberlain does, but I didn’t get her book until after that). I wrote that post shortly after my first and, up to now, only previous – and rather successful, if I say so myself – attempt to make pertsovka and I look forward in a few days time to finding out whether my second batch is as good as the first.

Perhaps I should next have a go at making apple vodka!

Two sweet finds

Last Saturday I found myself at the other end of town from my usual stomping grounds.  This gave me a chance to nip into Aldi and pick up some of their pesto sauce, which I think is rather better than the one sold by my regular supermarket.

It was fairly crowded in the shop and I was in a bit of a hurry so I just dived in, grabbed 3 jars of red pesto (noticing that they didn’t seem to have any green in stock – not a problem as I prefer the red anyway) and made for the checkout.

Only later, when I got home and went to stow my purchases, did I realise that I hadn’t actually bought pesto after all.  Instead I’d picked up jars of a “Creamy and Smooth Tomato and Mascarpone Stir-In Pasta Sauce”, which happened to be in very similar looking jars (from the same manufacturer) as the pesto ones, and in the place I’d usually expect to find them.  In fact, outwardly, there was little apart from the writing on the label (which, admittedly, does fairly clearly say “Tomato and Mascarpone Sauce” rather than “Pesto Rosso”) to distinguish the two.

This is probably not something I would normally have bought unless it was on a particularly good special offer (actually it may have been, since it cost me about 50p less than I was expecting for 3 jars of pesto) but I decided that, since I’d got it, I might as well use it.  Like pesto, it appears to be the sort of thing that you can just stir into some freshly cooked pasta, though I’m sure you could do fancier stuff with it as well (I recently discovered that pesto works well in bubble and squeak, but I digress).  That’s what I like about pesto, incidentally, the fact that it’s very versatile and particularly useful for being able to put together a tasty (and reasonably nutritious) dish very easily when you’re in a hurry or feeling tired.

I opened the first jar for lunch yesterday and was very impressed by the lovely, creamy taste.  On that occasion I also threw in some sweetcorn that I had left over from the previous night’s dinner (tuna pasta – yes, I do eat quite a lot of pasta).  This evening I used up the remainder of the sauce jar just with pasta and it was still very delicious.

I found an old pesto jar waiting in my recycling box, so I was able to compare the labels.  To my surprise, the tomato and mascarpone sauce actually contains fewer calories (and also less fat, sugar and protein, though marginally more salt) than the pesto.  I guess that’s probably due to the fact that nuts (well known to be a good source of fat, sugar, protein and energy) are a staple ingredient of the latter.

Now that I’ve discovered this sauce, I’ll probably continue to get it from time to time, though I hope that Aldi hasn’t stopped stocking their pesto sauce since it’s a very useful addition to my food cupboard.

I made another exciting culinary discovery recently too.  I’d been given a little pot of cream cheese (something I don’t usually buy, though I quite enjoy eating it from time to time) by somebody who couldn’t use it and I randomly thought to try it on bread with honey.  It was very tasty and is definitely another one I’ll try to remember for future use.

 

Holy Cheese

There are some questions I don’t recall ever asking myself but when I hear an answer for them I get the feeling that the question has always been floating around somewhere in the back of my subconscious.

One such question is why Swiss cheese has holes.  I’m fairly sure it’s not a subject I’ve ever particularly thought about until today when I came across an article on the BBC news website about some research that gives an answer to that very question.

In case the link to that article should become invalid within the lifetime of this post, I’ll repeat the answer here.  A group of Swiss scientists believe that the holes are caused by microscopic particles of hay that get into the milk during the milking process.

Only some Swiss cheeses, such as Emmenthal (one of my favourite cheeses, incidentally), are affected by this phenomenon and apparently such cheeses have been coming out with fewer holes over the past few years, which is believed to be due to changes in milking techniques that lead to less hay contamination in the milk.  The research was done by adding small amounts of hay dust to milk before turning it into cheese, so I suppose that if a traditional hole-filled cheese was wanted without reverting to traditional milking techniques they could probably add some hay dust to their milk for production purposes.

(Another interesting point from the article is that the cheese industry refers to holes in cheese as “eyes” and calls cheese without holes “blind”.)

The article noted that this research has not been peer reviewed, which indicates that it’s not yet quite ready to be considered a scientific fact.

As quite often happens, the answer to one question brings forth several new questions.  The ones that immediately spring to my mind are whether the same explanation would hold for non-Swiss cheeses with holes (such as Jarlsberg – another of my favourite cheeses, this one from Norway), why only relatively few varieties of cheese seem to experience this phenomenon given that hay contamination of milk must presumably be fairly common with traditional milking techniques (presumably there’s something about the cheese recipes that make them more or less susceptible to it) and whether you could get some interesting results by introducing hay particles (or other things) to other cheeses.  Also, the research indicated that the holes are caused by hay particles but didn’t seem to offer an explanation for the mechanism by which this works; this would seem to be an obvious follow-up question.

 

Reduce me to a muzak fate

I love Christmas.

As well as the day itself, with all its traditions and trimmings, I mostly enjoy the build-up over the weeks beforehand, including several opportunities to freeze various appendages off while playing carols with the Menai Bridge Brass Band outside supermarkets (especially fun as a tuba player because you get to hug a large amount of very cold metal, which also happens to be a very effective collecting device for rain and snow).

One thing I don’t enjoy so much is the festive muzak they insist on playing inside the supermarkets at least a month in advance.

Actually, today (which is only one month until Christmas Eve) was the first day I noticed and was irritated by the sonic backdrop to my shopping, which seems a bit later than usual.  Only one more month to put up with it…

Fortunately, I happened to pass the beer aisle and noticed a festive brew called “Bah Humbug” (an offering from the Wychwood Brewery, whose beers I generally enjoy greatly) on special offer, so I decided that a bottle of this would provide suitable compensation for having to endure the annoying tunes.  (NB in case you were wondering, I did actually buy the beer – it didn’t even cross my mind to do otherwise and I don’t think I’d have been able to convince the store detective that they owed me a bottle in return for subjecting me to such musical torture!)

I suppose, ironically, this means that the muzak was effective, if only minimally so, in encouraging me to purchase Christmas-related products (which, presumably, is the reason they choose to inflict it on us – I hope they are not just sadists).  I’d probably better not buy a bottle of beer every time I go shopping over the next month, as it wouldn’t be good for my wallet, my waistline or my liver.  As a one-off, though, I thought it was a pretty good excuse. 🙂

Thinking about all this reminded me of a line from a Queen song, which I remembered as “reduce me to a muzak fate” and thought came from the song Death on two legs (on the Night at the Opera album).  Checking up by listening to a handful of tracks from my collection of early Queen albums, backed up with a swift bit of googling for the lyrics, I discovered that it’s actually from Flick of the Wrist (on Sheer Heart Attack, so I was only out by one album) and the line is actually “reduce you to a muzak fake machine”.  Still, I decided to keep my slightly mangled version of the line as the title for this post.