Monday, December 11, 2017

Tamale rehearsal and a new house project

I realized that despite the insanity of Christmas, December would be unbearable without it. Imagine how unspeakably dreary it would be, with all this darkness and no frantic busyness or holiday lights to mitigate it. You could argue that it only delays the dreariness until January, but by then, the light is perceptibly creeping back.

Anyway, I made a strong start with my Christmas shopping, validated by my shocking credit card balance. Also, I'm sick to death of the traditional Christmas dinner of roast meat and sides. This year, I'm making tamales for Christmas dinner. I have never made them before, but I made a practice attempt last weekend. It was a disaster, but I think I learned enough from the dry run to achieve decent tamales for Christmas. And anyway, the disaster tamales were delicious. They just looked terrible. Tip: if the recipe calls for stone ground masa, don't substitute instant. (In my defense, instant was the only form available in our local stores.) I'm going to invest in a tamale steamer. They cost $18 at our local Mexican market, and it will double as a canning pot. The dry run involved a Bon Appetit magazine hack that had you prop the tamales on a giant wad of tin foil, which worked, but is too precarious for an undertaking as important as Christmas dinner.

In other news, I've started a new house project. I'm going to take the weedy mess pictured below and turn it into a brick path. This is the side of our house. It's really supposed to be a dirt path to the back yard, bordered on either side by flowers, but it is an endless task to keep the path weeded. Also, we have a huge pile of leftover bricks from when we built the front patio. I haven't made much progress, what with rain and cold weather and a broken wheelbarrow. I hope I'll be able to amuse you with my foray into DIY masonry and ditch digging.

It's back-breaking work. The soil itself is dense, red clay. If I had a kiln, I could just make my own bricks. Not even being facetious. So stay tuned, but don't hold your breath.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

O. Douglas

I had the good fortune to obtain and read several books by the Scottish author O. Douglas, so I thought I'd do a little profile of her novels. She writes in the vein of the great female British writers of comfort lit. Douglas' novels are less farcical than, say Angela Thirkell's, have less substance than Barbara Pym, and are not as edgy as Margery Sharp's, but are enjoyable in their own right.

O. Douglas is the pen name of Scottish writer Anna Buchan (1877 - 1948). Her brother was John Buchan, author of The Thirty-Nine Steps and also governor of Canada.  (I had no idea.) I recently read four of her novels and each one was delightful. One thing common to all her novels is attention to the houses of her characters and how they are decorated. And they all have such lovely houses. She must have had an interest in interior design.

This is the edition I bought on Amazon. The original dust jacket pictured below.

First up, Olivia in India, which is a very short novel about an young English woman spending the cold season in India, which was apparently a thing that wealthy young ladies did in the early 20th century. It's written as letters home to Olivia's fiance in England and is a lighthearted and funny account of a pleasant time in India. There's hardly any conflict to speak of, other than everyday annoyances, a welcome respite from real life problems.

My copy didn't have its dust jacket, but here's a picture of it.

Pink Sugar is about Kirsty Gilmour, a young woman who has been living under the thumb of a querulous stepmother. When the stepmother dies, Kirsty is finally free to do what she wants, which is to move to Scotland and rent a beautiful house in the country where she impulsively decides to shelter a family of young children whose mother has just died. Kirsty is lovely and rich and perennially cheerful, and so incurs resentment from some of the people in her new town. It's that edge, the resentment, the difficult lives of Kirsty's new neighbors that keep Pink Sugar from being a Pollyanna. It's a light, entertaining, comfortable read. 

The Proper Place is about the aristocratic Rutherford family - Lady Jane, her daughter Nicole and niece Barbara who find themselves in financial difficulties after the death of Lady Jane's husband and must sell the family estate and move to a small fishing village in Scotland. The Rutherford estate is purchased by a Mr. and Mrs. Jackson, a mere Glasgow merchant and his wife, who feel it's time they were in possession of a country house. Here's where snobbery could take over, but it doesn't. Angela Thirkell would have mocked the Jacksons, but O. Douglas portrays them as likable and sensible (though Mrs. Jackson has regrettable taste in furnishings and paint colors). Meanwhile, Lady Jane, Nicole, and Barbara become involved with the people of their new community. Like Pink Sugar, The Proper Place has just enough seriousness to save it from being a Pollyanna, indeed, there's a heartbreaking occurrence at the end.

The Day of Small Things is a sequel to The Proper Place. I was glad to get my hands on it, because after the sad ending of The Proper Place, I wanted to know what happened next. The story continues in the same vein, with the doings of the Jacksons and the Rutherfords, although their circumstances have changed somewhat and Barbara turns out to be not very likable - a fact freely admitted by the narrator and the book's characters. 

Also, back in 2014, I read The House that is Our Own by O. Douglas and you can read my review here. I didn't enjoy it as much as these others. There are still quite a few O. Douglas books that I haven't read yet, and I'm going to continue to seek them out. Have any of you read any O. Douglas? If you did, let me know your thoughts.

One note, O. Douglas' books aren't easy to find in the US. None were at my local library and I had to buy them from Amazon UK, which has very reasonable prices and shipping rates. (Actually, Olivia in India came from a seller in the US, but it's one of those dreadful editions that's like a xerox of the original. 

Monday, November 27, 2017

Thanksgiving Menu

I hope everyone had a lovely Thanksgiving. Brigid flew in from New Orleans, Seamus and Grace came home from Richmond, and Ian was here for dinner, although he had to work earlier in the day. We had no other guests and I was happy to have a quiet family Thanksgiving although Jon and I went to a tiny drinks party in the afternoon while Seamus babysat the turkey.

I'm really happy with how the food turned out. Last year, I was so giddy with having the whole day off on the day before Thanksgiving that I went overboard with a spatchcocked turkey. This year, I still had the day off, but I went with a traditional brined turkey instead. Less effort, but delicious results. I also used a new-to-me turkey roasting technique that I'm going to use from now on. Previously, I would pop the turkey into a very hot oven for a short time to sear it all over and then roast at a low temp until done. This new technique is the reverse: cover tightly with foil and roast at a low temperature first, then remove the foil and roast at a higher (but not super high) temp until done. The result was a perfectly browned turkey, very juicy and delicious from the brine, with hints of orange and rosemary flavors.

I made Wegman's Cajun cornbread stuffing and the flavors were delicious, but it was way too wet. I'd make this again, but with half the liquid. Also on the side, Wegman's recipe sweet-potato gratin with gruyere cheese, which was very good but I think I prefer the New York Times' scalloped yams with chipotle cream. The Wegman's recipe however, has a much less fussy technique. Next year, I think I'll use the New York Times' recipe but with Wegman's technique.  We also had homemade potato/buttermilk rolls and Wegman's recipe roasted Brussels sprouts with carrot puree and pecans. This was hands-down the best green veg side I've ever made. The thing with Wegman's recipes though is that they call for Wegman's products, such as the carrot puree, but most of these are things you could make yourself or find elsewhere, if you don't have a Wegman's. Like a dummy, I didn't photograph anything. Or rather, I posted photos to Instagram stories and didn't save them, so they're gone now. You will have to take my word for it that the turkey was beautifully browned. We ended up with three desserts, but Grace's boyfriend and his brother came over after dinner and helped us eat them.

Here's the full menu with links to recipes, if available

Turkey Brine from The Pioneer Woman

Roasted using The Pioneer Woman's method

Cranberry Chutney - Mel's Kitchen Cafe

Cornbread & Andouille Stuffing - Wegmans

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Carrot Puree - Wegmans

Yam Gratin with Gruyere - Wegmans

Buttermilk - Potato Rolls - Mels Kitchen Cafe

Pumpkin Pie - old family recipe

One Bowl Chocolate Almond Cake (for gluten-free daughter) from the Beekman 1802 Heirloom Dessert Cookbook

After School Applesauce Cake, which is more of a weekday cake but Seamus made it because it's his favorite. It does have a superb butterscotch frosting. Recipe from the Applehood and Mother Pie - Junior League of Rochester, NY cookbook