Easter Eggs

IMG_20160328_102501Happy Easter Monday, to those of you who celebrate it (Germans, Canadians, Brits, Down-Under-ites?). Here’s Steve, being the Easter Bear, to add his good wishes.

Yes, we still have Easter eggs at our house, even though the Offspring are a few years past the Easter egg hunting stage. Much like I can’t imagine Christmas without cookies, I can’t have Easter without eggs. When we were kids, we always got some in our Easter baskets, or rather, we hunted for them in the garden. (One year, one got missed, and a friend of my brother’s found it months later in the juniper bushes beside the garage. I vaguely recall someone cracking it open; it wasn’t a pretty sight.)

Eggs were somewhat of a luxury item around our house; you got one boiled for breakfast maybe once or twice a week – one, mind you. And sometimes when you had a picnic lunch for a trip, there’d be a hard-boiled egg in it, which was always a treat. But on Easter, you got something like four or five of them, all to yourself. So very awesome.

Of course, there were chocolate and tiny sugar eggs and chocolate bunnies, too, and my grandmother sometimes got us these really elaborate caramel creations – like the hollow chocolate bunnies or lambs you can get, but made out of hard caramel (like Werther’s candies), with very intricate detailing. I recall one large Easter bunny, upright with a basket full of eggs on his back. In my memory, he’s really big, something like 8″ high, but he probably wasn’t – I was quite a bit smaller then myself, and you know how back then everything was so much bigger than it is now.

IMG_20160326_142855So yes, there was plenty of sugar to be had for my childhood Easter celebrations, but the real Easter eggs were still something special that I treasured. And so I still want Easter eggs to celebrate with, as well as chocolate and other sugar, so I always make a dozen or so. I also bake a sweet bread bunny each year now. That’s not something from my childhood, but a tradition I started when the Offspring were little. Maybe it’ll become part of their childhood memory – can’t have Easter without a baked Easter bunny?

Life, the Universe, and Easter Eggs. Have a Happy Eastertide!

Marmalade

marmalade (4)
A Paddington Bear notebook my daughter got for me at Paddington Station

So I promised you a post on marmalade, didn’t I? Well, now’s the time. We went and saw the Paddington movie last night, and when can you write about marmalade if not fresh from a viewing of a film starring The Bear With a Worrying Marmalade Habit? (The latter bit is a quote from Mr Brown, the movie version. The one in the book doesn’t seem to be worried about it at all.)

(In case you’re wondering, Steve didn’t come to the movie; they don’t have bears as a category at the ticket counter. Seniors, Children, and Generals, but no Privates, Corporals, or Bears. Also, even though I would have smuggled him in in my purse, he’s a little leery of watching things on a big screen. If you’re six inches high, even a large-screen television can be a little overwhelming.)

marmalade (1)So. Marmalade. Oh, the movie was quite good. However, I have to inform you that it presents a quite serious factual inaccuracy: they’re using the wrong kind of oranges for their marmalade. Yup. The movie shows Paddington and his Aunt Lucy making marmalade out of ordinary sweet oranges, the ones you get year-round in the grocery store – you know, navel oranges. How do I know that’s the ones? Because they chop them open, and they’re way too juicy on the inside. No, no, no. Just wrong. Marmalade is made from Seville or bitter oranges, which are a different thing; their flesh is quite dry.

Now, the funny thing is that nobody in my family actually eats marmalade except for me; and I only have it occasionally with a bacon-and-egg breakfast (the bitter taste offsets the grease something wonderful). It’s one of those acquired tastes, and I’ve acquired it in order to be able to feel more British. Well, yeah. It allows me to say “Pass the squish!” like Lord Peter Wimsey, and reminds me of the line in Gosford Park where Mrs Wilson, the housekeeper, asks Mary if her employer couldn’t have strawberry jam for her breakfast: “Only, we’ve run out of marmalade. Dorothy [the stillroom maid] didn’t make enough last January.” And then Lady Trentham (played by Maggie Smith at her most snobbish), the next morning on lifting the cover off her breakfast tray: “Boughten marmalade! I call that feeble.”

marmalade (2)Marmalade oranges are only available for a couple of weeks in January – hence the fictional Dorothy’s failings in producing enough for the household; if you don’t make it in January, you’ve missed the boat for the year. And I think that might be one of the reasons I like making marmalade: it’s the one preserve that you make in the dead of winter. The canning jars and rings and lids, the funnel and tongs, all the paraphernalia of canning season, which live in the kitchen all summer long, are put away in the storage room in the basement from October to June. But this one short stint of once again stirring the fragrant amber bubbling away in the big pot, of whirling around the kitchen to get the steaming hot jars out of the dishwasher and ladling the sticky-soft sweetness into the glass, clapping on the lids and then listening for that satisfying little snap when they seal – it’s an unmistakable reminder that even though the snow flies outside, summer’s warmth and harvest will be back.

I don’t have a worrying marmalade habit myself – although I might have a marmalade-cooking habit. And I have friends who are quite happy to support me in that habit by taking the product of my hands – or they say they are, anyway. Maybe they’re just being polite, being English and all? Paddington is a very polite bear – it’s the English way.

Life, the Universe, and Marmalade. Pass the squish.marmalade (3)

PS: Here’s the recipe, the short version: 2 lbs marmalade oranges, 8 cups water, 4 lbs sugar. Cut up oranges, take out pips. Chop whole oranges in food processor, boil with water for 1 1/2 hrs together with the pips tied in a little bag. When the orange peels are soft, take out the bag of pips, add the sugar, and boil for about 15 minutes, proceeding like for any other jam. Makes about 8 half-pints of marmalade. (Pardon the imperial measurements – I got the recipe from an older pre-metric English cookbook. Seems kind of suitable.)

Scarlet Runner Beans

scarlet runner beansDid you know that the magic beans from “Jack and the Beanstalk” were scarlet runner beans? It’s true, Andrew Lang says so in The Red Fairy Book:

When [Jack] brought [the beans] home to his mother instead of the money she expected for her nice cow, she was very vexed and shed many tears, scolding Jack for his folly. He was very sorry, and mother and son went to bed very sadly that night; their last hope seemed gone.
At daybreak Jack rose and went out into the garden.
‘At least,’ he thought, ‘I will sow the wonderful beans. Mother says that they are just common scarlet-runners, and nothing else; but I may as well sow them.’

scarlet runner beans (1)Of course, you know the rest of the deal: massive beanstalk, Jack climbing, doing a spot of breaking and entering and theft, Fi-Fi-Fo-Fum, giant dropping off beanstalk, happily ever after. Incidentally, the Lang version has Jack helping himself to the giant’s stuff quite rightfully, because he’s really not a peasant at all, but the son of the knight who used to own the castle and was killed by the giant along with all of Jack’s older siblings. Fortunately, the knight’s wife was on a visit to her old nurse in the village, along with Baby Jack. When she got the news about the massacre she just stayed put and pretended to be a peasant until her son was old enough to take revenge on the giant and get the castle back, meanwhile earning their living with her spinning wheel and the produce of the little cow she’d bought. Enter the plot of the story as we know it.

I’m sorry, Mr Lang, that elaborate backstory just doesn’t work for me; part of the fun of “Jack and the Beanstalk” is precisely that Jack is a peasant boy, and not a very bright one at that. Stop making excuses for his B&E and robbery-with-violence; this is a story of a poor little guy defeating a big rich one and making it against all the odds, winning his fortune not because it’s his by law, but because of sheer dumb luck and gutsy opportunism.

However, that’s not really what I was going to talk about – my point today was Scarlet Runner Beans. I love those things, and I’ve planted some every year. I like eating them as green beans, but the problem I have with that is that I hardly ever get around to picking them when they’re still green and tender – I can’t find them in the tangle of leaves, and quite frankly, I’m too lazy to search for them. So I’ve been growing them pretty much as ornamentals. I figure if people grow climbing vines like clematis for their flowers, I can grow beans for the same purpose. And they really are pretty, with their bright red flowers.

scarlet runner beans (2)And then usually, at the end of the season when the vines die off, I find all these plump, dry pods with those funky black-and-purple-spotted beans inside. I’ve been collecting them just to have more to plant the next year, but then this year I got to wondering if you could just eat them as dried beans, like kidney beans or something, and sure enough, according to the Internet you can. I haven’t tried it yet, but I plan to – I got a small bowl full of beans off the four or five bean plants I had, it should be enough for a meal.scarlet runner beans (3)

So, climbing foliage, pretty flowers, tasty fresh green beans, lovely speckled beans, and beans to save for eating in winter. What a great plant. Never mind giants’ castles at the top, there’s enough here to make them worthwhile just like that.

Life, the Universe, and Scarlet Runner Beans. I’ll be sure to save a few for planting next year.

Bear Tales and Business

Steve at computerSteve’s been giving me a hard time for neglecting my blog. I tried to tell him that I’ve had a lot of business lately, so he said he’d write a post himself. “Fine,” I says, “be my guest!” So here he is, trying his hand at blogging. But he kept fussing around with it, and couldn’t figure out the interface on WordPress, so I finally got fed up and said I’d take over again. He looked rather relieved at that, and has gone back to discussing poetry with Horatio.

grape juice (2)So, yes, there’s been a lot of business lately. That’s business as in busy-ness, not biz-ness, you know, with dollars and cents. Figuring out this blog interface thing wasn’t the only issue, although that took a fair amount of time on its own. There’s also been the ongoing harvest – still food to process, dontcha know. I made 18 litres of grape juice from the Coronation grape vine climbing our balcony (32 kg grapes!), and if you’ve never made grape juice, you have no idea of the mess it generates. In fact, I’d never made it in these quantities before, either, and was quite astonished at the resulting blood bath (grape blood, that is). See? grape juice (3)And then, of course, afterwards I had to clean it up, too. Grape juice is incredibly staining – one drop on my light beige kitchen counter, and I’d have a bluish spot forever. I did, in fact, have stains all over that counter for years – not just grape juice and other food substances, but rust rings from where someone left a damp cast iron pan sitting on it for far too long. But then sometime this spring I discovered the secret to rejuvenating kitchen counters: BS.

grape juice (4)No, not that kind of BS. I’m talking about baking soda. Now, that stuff has been my go-to scouring powder for years, but scrubbing the stains on the counter with it had never seemed to do much. Until I discovered the magic trick: time. You make a paste of baking soda and water, smear it all over the stain, and let it sit for an hour or more. Then you can take a sponge or rag, and with the application of a bit of elbow grease the stains quite simply vanish. Voil√†, kitchen counters good as new! Which had me quite excited, back there in spring, because the stains were so bad I had already priced out what it would cost to replace the counters. Several thousand dollars, actually. Yes, ouch. Not really in the budget. But then, with a buck or two (if even) of BS, lovely clean counters.grape juice (1)

So there¬† you have it. Grape juice. Blogging interfaces. Apple butter (thereby hangs another tale – I’d never made that before, it’s yummy!). Dried plums, apples and pears. Grape jelly without commercial pectin. Lots of BS to clean up after it. And that’s just the half of it. So, yes, Steve, I’ve been busy. Hope you’re enjoying your poetry discussions; you’ll have to share them with me sometime.

Life, the Universe, and Business. Nothing a little BS won’t take care of.