Sunday 31 July 2011


Just a short walk from my house, in Kinsmen Park on Alderlea Street, are the Cowichan Green Community gardens.  They are allotment gardens, intended to provide those who live without access to garden space a place to grow vegetables and flowers. 

At the very back corner of the community gardens is a circular plot.  At first glance it appears to have been left to go wild, and to have become choked with weeds.  A closer look tells a different tale.  The garden contains ancient foods, indigenous wild plants that fed hunter gatherers for thousands of years.    

The garden is designed to illustrate the Ayruvedic belief that foods have six distinct tastes—bitter, pungent, astringent, salty, sour, and sweet—and that each of these foods has a purpose in maintaining good health.  The plants within each section of the garden are individually labeled with their names and a more specific description of their attributes

Ayurveda is the traditional medicine of India.  Its principles are based upon the concept of tridosha, or the system of three doshas.  The doshas--Vatta, Pitta , and Kapha—are dynamic forces with distinct characteristics that shape all things in the universe.

In humans, the doshas control all mental, emotional, and physical functions and responses, and also determine the state of the soul. Each person is born with a unique harmony or balance between the doshas that is necessary for that person to experience perfect health.

In the Ayurvedic view, an imbalance between the doshas produces a condition called vikriti, a Sanskrit word that means "deviated from nature." Such an imbalance will eventually lead to the development of disease, obesity and/or mental disorders. As a result, to prevent disease, each individual must maintain the doshas in, or restore them to, their proper balance.[1]  Diet is an important tool in this process and foods are chosen with this purpose in mind.

I'm not a practitioner of Ayurveda but the lessons taught by this garden are worth learning.  It’s a sensory tool, teaching the viewer to recognize and identify edible wild plants by sight.  It provides not only written information about each plant’s flavour, but also the opportunity to taste the plant itself, thus promoting an understanding about how these plants can be reintroduced into our diet.

I’m touched by the enthusiasm and care that went into building the wild foods garden and by the gardener’s faith in our ability to understand and share the joy of nature’s bounty.


Friday 29 July 2011

Carrot Zucchini Muffins

I enjoy a muffin for breakfast, particularly if it is home baked and still warm from the oven.  I've found that when I have house guests they enjoy them too, so over the years I've tucked away quite a few recipes.  They're all hand written, on various scraps of paper, and tucked higgledy-piggledy into a dog-eared cardboard folder.  You can tell which are my favourites--the ones I revisit again and again--because they're covered with scribbled notes and spattered with batter.

I had reason to add  yet another scribbled note to my zucchini muffin recipe today.  When I went to bake  them this morning, I noticed that I had quite a number of carrots.  Since I knew the carrots would add both flavour and colour to my muffins, I adapted my recipe to include them.

Here's how I made them:

I started by covering a cup of golden raisins with boiling water.  I let them sit until the raisins had plumped and softened, and the water had cooled to room temperature.  The raisins absorbed enough water to increase in volume by half.  I drained them and left them sitting in the sieve, over a bowl, to be sure that all of the excess water was gone.

I grated a cup each of carrot and zucchini on the coarse side of my box grater.  I've noticed that my food processor shreds things more coarsely than a box grater might.  If I were to use a food processor to prepare the vegetables for this recipe, I would use the fine shredding blade.  I pack the grated vegetables firmly into a dry measure when portioning them.

I added
  • 4 beaten eggs
  • 2/3 c. canola oil*
  • 1-1/2 cups of lightly packed brown sugar
  • 1/2 c. buttermilk
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
to the carrot and zucchini and stirred until they were well combined.

In another bowl, I whisked together
  • 2-1/2 c. all purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg
I added the drained raisins and--using my hands--tossed them gently until each raisin was coated with the dry mixture.  (This helps to keep them suspended in the batter, preventing them from sinking to the bottom of the pan.)

I added the wet mixture to the dry ingredients and stirred, just until they were combined.  Muffin batter should be lumpy and may have bits of unincorporated flour in it.  Over-mixing the batter yields a tough muffin.

I spooned the batter into buttered muffin pans, filling each cup completely, to make 18 muffins.  I baked them at 350 degrees for 25 minutes.

These muffins are best served warm.  If you're not serving them as soon as they're baked, reheat them in the oven, not the microwave. 

If you're not concerned about the extra fat and calories you can also heat and serve these muffins diner style:  Cut the muffins in half vertically, butter the cut sides, and place the muffins buttered side down on a griddle over medium high heat.  Serve them when the buttered side has toasted.  You'll be a breakfast-time hero.

*If you wish to reduce the amount of fat in these muffins, you can substitute unsweetened applesauce for some, or all, of the oil.  It does change the texture though:  A muffin made with applesauce instead of fat will be moist, but less tender.)

Thursday 28 July 2011

Giant Zucchini

I have, sitting on my counter right now, a zucchini that is the same approximate size and shape as the Graff Zeppelin.  I got it yesterday, at Alderlea Farm, when I went to pick up my CSA box.  There was a bin of them there, with a sign saying “Help Yourself.”  I did.

As I was carrying my vegetables to the car, a woman about my age caught sight of the giant zucchini and asked “What on earth would you DO with one of those?!”  I was surprised. I can’t imagine not knowing how to cook large zucchini. 

Surely everyone who has ever had a home vegetable garden, or known someone who has a home vegetable garden has, cooked a large zucchini at one time or another.  In the cool, grey days of spring, when we want to see something—anything—growing in our gardens, many of us plant far more zucchini than we will ever need.  The resulting bounty spurs us to ever greater heights of kitchen creativity.  Everyone I know has at least one signature zucchini recipe, and most home cooks are happy to share them.

Our annual bounty of zucchini brings with it some health benefits.  As an excellent source of manganese and vitamin C, a very good source of beta-carotene, and a good source of zinc, zucchini provides us with a great combination of conventional antioxidant nutrients. It also contains an unusual amount of lutein and zeaxanthin. These antioxidants are especially helpful in antioxidant protection of the eye, including protection against age-related macular degeneration and cataracts.[1]

Zucchini not only provides a very good amount of dietary fiber (a mainstay of dietary protection from Type 2 Diabetes) at 2.5 grams per cup, but it also provides polysaccharide fibers like pectin that have special benefits for blood sugar regulation.[2]

Because I like its taste of zucchini and enjoy its health benefits, I buy it year round but summer zucchini—fresh from the garden or from a local farm—is zucchini at its best.  It has a fresher flavour and is richer in nutrients than zucchini that has been transported for days and then kept in cold storage. 

I always serve zucchini with the skin on.  Many of the nutrients in a summer squash are in the skin itself.

 In the hope and belief that there are more giant zucchini in my future this summer, I’ve decided not to make pickles or relish from the one I have now.  I’m going to slice a couple of rounds off of it, scoop out the seeds, and stuff them like I would do bell peppers.  They’ll be our supper tonight.  The rest of the zucchini will get seeded, grated and bagged in one cup portions.  I’ll set some aside for tomorrow’s breakfast muffins and then freeze the rest.  Shredded zucchini is the home baker’s secret to moist baked goods.  I’ll be glad to have it come winter.

I’ll be sharing my zucchini muffin recipe in tomorrow’s blog.  Do you have a favourite zucchini recipe?  A funny zucchini story?  I’d love to hear them.

Monday 25 July 2011

Soylent Green Jello

A couple of weeks ago, I read an article about scientists in China making human gelatin.  My first reaction was “EEEWWW!”   My second was “WHY?!”

Apparently this human gelatin is not quite Soylent Green, nor is it in fact called “human gelatin.”   Recombinant gelatin is the correct term.  To make it, human gelatin genes are injected into a variety of yeast.  The yeast then produces recombinant gelatin with controllable features.[1]

One argument for using this recombinant gelatin process is that the animal gelatins we currently use can carry infectious diseases, such as BSE (Mad Cow Disease).  Animal gelatins also vary in consistency from batch to batch, posing challenges for manufacturers.[2]

If you are interested finding out more about the arguments in favour of using recombinant gelatin, some are presented at

Even having read the arguments in favour of making and using recombinant gelatin, I find myself conjuring nightmare images from old science fiction movies.  You know: frightening tales like “Species” about the perils of crossing humankind with other species, even on a single cell level. 

My admittedly emotional response to this subject is not eased by my disquiet at the location of the research.  It’s being done in China; home of massive industrial pollution, and a conscience-free user of agricultural chemicals.  Many foods produced and packaged in China have been found to contain carcinogens and chemicals banned for use here in North America. I mean—really—we’re talking about a place were melons explode in the field due to excessive application of growth hormone![3]

If there are concerns about carrying infectious diseases in animal gelatin, why not look for a substitute in the plant world?  There are any number of them out there: pectin, agar-agar, and carrageenan to name but three.

Manufacturers of animal gelatin have been producing a consistent product by means of batch testing for decades now.  This process of testing and adjustment has been sufficient to yield gelatin of consistent enough quality for widespread use throughout the food and pharmaceutical industries.  When scientists say that they are striving to improve consistency through controllable gelatin, I take that to mean that they are striving to reduce costs to the manufacturer, not to improve the quality of gelatin itself.

We don’t have to worry about recombinant gelatin showing up in products on our grocery shelves in the immediate future:  There is still research to be done and it will take some time to scale up for commercial production.  If you, like me, have concerns about consuming it in the future, start writing letters now to ensure that product labeling will list it specifically, as different from animal gelatin.

I think I’m going to dig out my Victorian cookbooks to see what I can find out about making gelled desserts from pectin.


Sunday 24 July 2011

My Go-To Dinner

I had a great day yesterday.  I drove down island to pick up my step-mom, who had come across on the ferry from Tswassen.  We spent several pleasant hours in Sidney, window shopping, walking in the park, and enjoying the sunshine.

On my drive home I took back roads instead of the main road, and successfully avoided the highway for most of my journey.  I drove through the villages of Deep Bay and Brentwood Bay, the farmland of west Saanich, and then over Mt. Finlayson to Goldstream Park, stopping to take pictures along the way.  It was scenic, relaxing and altogether lovely.

Pleasant as my day was, by the time I got home I was exhausted.  In my enthusiasm to see friends and family this week, I’d forgotten (or ignored) the fact that I’m recovering from an illness.  I ran myself until my tank was completely empty.

Tired or not I needed to eat, but fatigue and hunger had caused such a tremor in my hands that preparing a complex meal was out of the question. I turned to my quick supper standby: an omelette and salad.  I always have the ingredients for this dinner in my fridge and can put it together very quickly.

In North America we tend to think of omelette as a breakfast or brunch dish, and we tend to make them big and robust, with lots of fillings.  In Europe an omelette is an evening meal and, in Britain, France and Belgium, they make them less robust—more delicate—with at most one or two fillings.  This less robust dish is the kind of omelette I make when assembling my fall-back dinner.

Omelettes are at once both simple and difficult to make.  They cannot be overcooked and they should always be assembled in a pan of the right size and shape.  Omelettes should be cooked very quickly, so fillings must be prepared ahead of time.  It’s best not to double a batch. Cook separate omelettes, one a time, for each person you are serving.

For a two or three egg omelette, an 8-inch non-stick pan with sloping sides is best.  A larger pan will spread the egg too thin and cause it to burn or dry out.  A pan with straight sides will make it difficult to turn the omelette once it is cooked. 

Preheat your pan over medium high heat.

Prepare the eggs in a bowl while your omelette pan is heating.  Add 1 Tbsp. of water for every egg you are using.  Whisk the water and eggs together until well combined.  There should be no separation of white and yolk when you’re done.  Don’t use milk: The water will form tiny droplets within the whisked eggs.  These droplets turn to steam when the egg is poured into the hot pan, giving the omelette a lighter texture.

Melt 1 Tbsp. of butter in your preheated pan but do not let it brown.  Swirl the pan to distribute the melted butter over the bottom and then turn in the prepared eggs.  The bottom of the egg mixture should set almost immediately.  Gently lift the cooked edges while tilting the pan, allowing the uncooked egg to run underneath.  Continue this lifting and tilting process until the top of the omelette is set but still moist. Immediately add the toppings.  (I used a little bit of Hilary’s St. Clair cheese and some chopped herbs.)

If you are using vegetables or meat fillings that will make your omelette bulky, a North American style single fold will be easiest to make.  Place your toppings on one half of the omelette and then fold the other half over top before sliding the omelette out of the pan. 

If you are serving a French style omelette, place your fillings down the center third of the cooked egg, fold one outside third over the filling, then roll the filled and folded portion of the omelette over the remaining third, so that the folds are on the bottom.

I almost always serve my supper omelettes with a crisp green salad of some sort.  It makes a pleasant contrasting texture to the soft eggs.  A couple of slices of good bread make this meal complete.

Friday 22 July 2011


Anyone who knows me will tell you I have a sweet tooth.  I love to make pastries, pies, and cookies.  Ice cream and chocolate make me smile.

I also have Graves disease, an autoimmune disorder that causes the thyroid to produce so much hormone that it becomes toxic to the body. 

There is no cure for Graves disease but, like almost 70% of Graves disease patients in North America, I chose to have my illness treated with radioactive iodine.[1] This should cause most of its symptoms to abate. 

Knowing that my Graves disease will remain even after its symptoms are gone has spurred me to take action to strengthen my immune system.  With my immune system in mind, I’ve chosen to start limiting the amount of processed sugar in my diet. 

We eat a lot more sugar on a day-to-day basis than our parents did.  In the past 20 years, per capita sugar consumption in the US has risen from 26 pounds per year to a whopping 135 pounds per year.[2]  (I couldn’t find stats for Canada but I would imagine they are similar.) 

Our increased consumption of processed sugar is bad news for our immune systems.  White cells need a high concentration of Vitamin C in order to work effectively.  Sugar (in the form of glucose) and Vitamin C are absorbed by white cells in the exact same way. When we consume processed sugar, glucose rather than Vitamin C finds its way into our white cells, leaving the vitamin roaming about without a home and impairing our immune system’s ability to do its job.[3]

Excess consumption of processed sugar also causes the body to produce extra cortisol, a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal gland.[4]  When our blood glucose levels rise, cortisol springs into action to regulate them by signaling our pancreas to release insulin.  While doing so, it also suppresses our immune system.  High levels of cortisol can result in lowered immunity and inflammatory responses in the body, and in slower wound healing.  Prolonged high levels of cortisol can lead to blood sugar imbalances including hypoglycemia and diabetes.[5]

Does this mean I’m going to abstain from sweets altogether?  Probably not.  I doubt I’d have the willpower to do that.  I will, however, make my choices more carefully.  I’ll read labels and avoid foods that have sugar, glucose, or fructose high on their list of ingredients.  I’ll opt for complex carbohydrates in the form of whole grains instead of eating simple sugars.  I’ll eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.  They help me metabolize their sugars by serving them up with fiber.  I’ll save sweets for a special treat and, when I do eat them, I’ll enjoy them all the more.

[4] I’ve written about cortisol before, in my blog “Stressed.”


Sunday 10 July 2011

Aguas Frescas

I’m taking break from tea time today to discuss another beverage:  Agua Fresca. 

Tidy rows of huge barrel-shaped jars filled with Aguas Frescas color street stalls and markets in Mexico.  These “fresh waters” are infused with fruits, flowers, grains or seeds.  They are becoming popular here, too, not only for their fresh taste but also because they are a healthy alternative to sodas.

Here, aguas frescas are most often made from fruit.  We’re having a very good strawberry season, so strawberry agua fresca holds pride of place in my refrigerator right now. 

Here’s how to make it:

Combine 3 cups of strawberries, hulled and halved, 2 c. cold water and 2 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lime juice in your blender carafe.  Blend until the mixture is very smooth and then strain it through a fine mesh sieve into a pitcher or glass jar.  Discard the solids.  Stir 2 Tbsp. of honey into the strained mixture.  Serve over ice. Couldn't be easier.

Have fun with this drink.  Pick up your favourite seasonal fruit from the farmers’ market or pick some berries as they ripen on the vine.  Try different combinations of flavours.  If you like to eat fruit, you’ll enjoy drinking it too.


Photo agua fresca bar:
Photo strawberry agua fresca:

Friday 8 July 2011

Tea Sandwiches

When Victorian ladies attended "At Home" teas they could expect that the menu would include a plate of dainty sandwiches.  These were always cut into small enough portions that a woman could eat them without requiring utensils or soiling her gloves.  This custom continues into the present day.  Most formal teas still include in their service a sandwich plate.

Tea sandwiches are, by custom, small servings.  They contain less filling than a luncheon sandwich might, and they are always served with the bread crusts removed.

Traditional tea sandwich fillings do not include onions or garlic but in this, as in all aspects of a formal tea, you should consider your guests when preparing the menu.  Onions and garlic should always be omitted if your guest list includes elderly people, new acquaintances, or if you are serving a work meeting of any sort.  If you're among friends and know that they will enjoy the more robust flavours that garlic and onions impart, by all means include them in your sandwich fillings.

It's always good policy to include a liberal garnish of parsley on your sandwich plate.  Parsley contains chlorophyll, affording your guests the opportunity to freshen their breath after they have eaten.

Aside from those already mentioned, there are few rules about what can go into a tea sandwich.  As you can see from my photos, presentation is important but perfection is not required.  

Here are a few traditional tea sandwiches, and a couple that are less traditional.  I'm sure that you'll improvise to include your own favourites, and to use the ingredients you have on hand.

Nothing could be more tea-time traditional than a cucumber sandwich but a soggy sandwich filled with slippery slices is not at all desirable.  To prepare a cucumber sandwich, start by slicing the cucumber as thinly as you can and then layering it in a sieve or colander, salting each layer as you go.  Allow the cucumber slices to sit in the sieve or colander for about two hours so that some of their moisture can drain off.  Once the cucumbers have been prepared, make your sandwiches from thinly sliced brown bread.  Butter each slice with sweet butter, layer in the cucumbers and then season each sandwich with pepper.  No more salt need be added.

Tomato sandwiches are another tea-time staple, especially in the late summer months.

I use basil butter in my tomato sandwiches.  It's easily made:  Just chop some fresh basil and mix it into room temperature butter.

To make tomato sandwiches for tea, you will first need to peel the tomatoes.  Cut a small X in the bottom of each of your tomatoes and blanch them for about 30 seconds in boiling water before transferring them to a bowl of very cold water.  The skins should come off easily.  Slice the peeled tomatoes into quarters or eighths, depending upon the size of the tomato, and then remove the core and the seeds.  The remaining petal-shaped pieces should be blotted dry with paper towel and then laid flat to make the filling for your sandwiches.  Season the sandwiches with salt and pepper.

When I had tea with my grandma salmon sandwiches were an absolute requirement.  If you have fresh salmon that you can poach to make the filling for your sandwiches, that's great.  If not, canned sockeye salmon is perfectly acceptable, provided you remove the skin and bones.

The salmon filling shown here was made with canned sockeye salmon, finely diced celery, finely chopped bread and butter pickles, homemade mayonnaise, salt and pepper. 

These chicken liver pâté sandwiches are not the prettiest girls at the dance but if you have any men attending your tea, they'll thank you for them. 

The pâté is an exception to the "no onion" rule. To make it, place 1 lb. of chicken livers in a saucepan and add a sliced onion.  Add water, just enough to cover the ingredients, and simmer the chicken livers for about 20 minutes.  Drain the livers and remove the onion.  Allow the chicken livers to cool completely and then transfer them to your food processor.  Add 4 Tbsp. grated onion, 1 tsp. dry mustard, 2 Tbsp. dry sherry, 1/2 c. room temperature butter, and a pinch of mace.  Pulse the food processor until the ingredients are well combined but there is still some texture left.  (When you turn the mixture out of the processor, you may have to fold it together a little more to ensure that the ingredients are evenly distributed throughout the pâté.)  Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper as required.

I used pumpernickel bread for these sandwiches, and a good quality grainy mustard.  I cut the sandwiches out with a biscuit cutter.  They're topped with a slice of dill pickle and a sprig of parsley.

Cheese and chutney sandwiches are a working class tradition, not usually included on a tea sandwich plate, but I love them and often serve them.  I used brown bread, sweet butter, homemade peach chutney, and sharp cheddar cheese to make these.  If you don't have homemade chutney, store bought mango chutney or Major Grey's chutney will work perfectly well.

Layered sandwiches like these are always very popular.  They look pretty on the plate and guests find them intriguing.  The fillings in this sandwich are seeded, finely diced tomato with cream cheese (in the top layer), and finely diced celery with cream cheese (in the bottom layer). Both fillings were seasoned generously with freshly cracked black pepper.

There are lots of visually appealing fillings, suitable for layered sandwiches.  Do experiment to find your own favourite combinations. 

This last sandwich is more thé moderne than traditional tea, but it will appeal to guests who have a more adventurous palette.  The filling is smoked chicken breast seasoned with a hot pepper rub.  It's served on brown bread with sweet butter and pepper jam.

A variety of interesting cold cuts can add a lot to a sandwich plate.  A word of caution though:  Health Canada does not recommend serving deli meats to elderly people or to people with weakened immune systems.  If your guest list includes someone to whom this warning applies, save the deli meats for another time.

Thursday 7 July 2011

Brown Bread and Butter

Brown bread and butter have been the backbone of afternoon tea ever since the custom of taking tea in the afternoon began.  We think bread and butter commonplace but back then—in the late 18th century—it was a pretty big deal.  Molasses had to be brought by ship from the West Indies and, although it might be purchased from the village brewer or cultured in various ways, yeast for bread baking was not easy to come by either.   Even ovens to bake the bread in were few and far between.  Great houses had ovens in order to provide for their large households, but for common folk there might be only one available oven in the whole area: that of the village baker.  

Even as commonplace as brown bread and butter are now, they have a place at almost every afternoon tea either on their own, or as a component of tea sandwiches.

If you aren’t an afternoon tea kind of person, it’s still worthwhile to learn to bake a good brown bread if for no other reason than to make toast in the morning.  While it’s in the toaster, your brown bread will scent the room with a heavenly aroma that’s bound to get your day off to a good start.

There are lots of great brown bread recipes out there.  Nothing I’m offering here is new, but this is an easy recipe—good for beginning bakers—and it has good flavour.  

Here's how I make brown bread:

Pour 2-1/4 c. lukewarm water into the bowl of your mixer (or if you are not using a mixer, into a large, wide mixing bowl).  Add 2 Tbsp. molasses and mix the two together until the molasses has dissolved completely.

Sprinkle 4-1/2 tsp. active dry yeast over the top of the water.  Don’t just dump the whole measure in. It will clump, and not dissolve properly.  Let the yeast work for 10 minutes or so, until it has risen back to the surface of the water and begun to expand.

Once the yeast has begun to work add 1/2 c. canola oil (or other light tasting vegetable oil), 3 c. white flour, 3-1/2 c. whole wheat flour, and 2 tsp. salt.  Add the salt last, being sure to place it on top of the flour.  Salt kills yeast and the flour will help to insulate the yeast from the salt while you are mixing the dough.

Using the dough hook on your mixer, mix the dough at a fairly low speed until it has formed a solid mass and pulls away from the sides of the bowl—about 5 minutes. 

If you are mixing the dough by hand, use a wooden spoon to stir it until the ingredients are combined and then finish working it with your hands.  I don’t like to add extra flour to this dough so I don’t turn it out on the board to knead it.  Knead the dough in the bowl until it has formed an elastic-feeling ball that springs back when you poke it lightly with your finger (about 10 minutes).

Form the dough into two loaves of approximately equal size and place them in loaf pans that have been buttered or sprayed with non-stick cooking spray.  Let the loaves rise until they look like bread loaves should (about 2-1/2 times their original size). 

Place the loaves in a pre-heated 375 degree oven for 40 – 45 minutes.  Rotate them about half way through their cooking time.  If at any time you find the tops are getting too brown, cover the loaves with foil.

Turn the loaves out of their pans and test them for doneness by tapping lightly on the bottom of each loaf.  They should sound hollow. 

It’s purely optional, but I brush the tops of the loaves with melted butter as soon as I’ve turned them out of their pans.  Doing so helps ensure a tender crust, that won’t shatter when you slice it.

Let the loaves cool completely before slicing them.

Tuesday 5 July 2011

Afternoon Tea

Afternoon tea has been on my mind a lot lately.  I love assembling the dainty servings and appreciate the ritual of the tea itself.  As I work away preparing tea, I find myself wondering just how the custom evolved.

The tradition of afternoon tea owes its existence to Anna, seventh duchess of Bedford (1783- 1857).  As the length of time between breakfast and dinner increased in the summer months, the duchess found herself unwilling to wait such a long time between repasts.  She took to her boudoir and ordered her servants to bring her bread spread with “good sweet butter,” macaroons, cheese cakes, biscuits, and small cakes, on which she secretly feasted. Her secret was not long kept but instead of castigating her (as might well have happened), her peers adopted the habit as well.

Afternoon tea as we know it, though, is really a product of Victorian England.  The Industrial Revolution brought great wealth to a new stratum of society; the middle class.  Middle class society’s ample money, unoccupied leisure time, and strong desire to show off their newly acquired wealth led to the development of the “At Home.” This highly ritualized arrangement of social calls and hosted events afforded the Victorian hostess an opportunity to show off.   

At Home teas were elaborate displays of food, china, silver, and servants.  The menu might include delicate finger sandwiches, sausage rolls, delicate pastries (fancies), cake for slicing, wine, sherry, and of course several types of tea.  Musical entertainment was often provided.

After the First World War, domestic servants became less common, societal rules became more relaxed, and afternoon tea became a ritual greatly diminished.  Happily, it's enjoying a resurgence now.  Tea is gaining in popularity as a beverage because of its healthful properties, and social teas are once again becoming a means of celebrating weddings, anniversaries, and christenings. 

As a means of hosting a social gathering, a tea has many advantages:  It is a leisurely occasion; a special gift of time to family and friends, and it's less expensive to host than a cocktail party or dinner might be.  The mannerly nature of an afternoon tea helps to ensure that guests will be on their best behaviour, and—because of its structured menu and service—tea has a distinct beginning and end.  This last attribute is greatly prized by hostesses. We are all acquainted with that lingering guest who hangs on long after the rest of the party has gone!

Going out to afternoon tea is a lovely way to spend time with a friend or to gather with a group. It is a splendid means of celebrating life's occasions.  Hosting tea at home can be even more pleasant than going out, and every bit as celebratory.  It does require advance preparation, but the effort is worth it:  You are providing your friends with the gift of an elegant meal, a social gathering, and time to slow down and enjoy the ritual.

Want to host a tea but don’t know where to start?  I’ll be providing recipes and suggestions in coming blogs.  Have any questions or suggestions?  Please let me know.  I’d love to hear from you.

Saturday 2 July 2011

Dinner for Deb

I was thinking of my friend Deb while making this dinner.  She has recently been diagnosed with diabetes and is having to learn to cook and eat in a new way.  This meal would be good for her: it’s relatively low on the glycemic index and, if you omit the cheese from the salad and use a light hand with the dressing, it’s reasonably low in fat too.

Baked eggs in ham cups, with spinach salad and homemade ranch dressing:

To make the baked eggs, start by preparing a muffin pan.  Spray as many of the muffin cups with non-stick spray as you are going to fill with eggs.  Use a couple of pieces of ham or other cold cuts (pepper salami works very well) to line each sprayed muffin cup.  Put the muffin pan in a 350 degree oven and bake the ham until it crisps up a bit, about 15 minutes.  Remove the pan from the oven and crack an egg into each of the lined cups.  Spoon a small amount of low fat evaporated milk on top of each egg (there won’t be room for more than a teaspoon or two) and then season each egg with salt and pepper.  Return the eggs to the oven to bake until the whites are set but the yolks are still soft.

While the eggs are baking, assemble your salad.  I made mine in layers, starting with spinach and then adding sliced celery, thin strips of red pepper, sliced black olives, and shredded cheddar and Monterey Jack cheese.

Make your salad dressing. Whisk together 1 cup buttermilk, 1/2 cup mayonnaise, 1 teaspoon lemon juice, 1/8 teaspoon paprika, 1/4 teaspoon mustard powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/8 teaspoon black pepper, 1 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley,  and 1 teaspoon chopped fresh chives.

When the eggs are cooked, plate them beside the salad and serve the dressing on the side.