28 July 2010

HAW! Animal Wednesday with a Prince

Happy Animal Wednesday! Joining us today is Rupert Boniface Kit-Cat-Mew, known to some of you as Prince Mubert. It's rare to get a picture of this guy because he is at least half wild (not sure about the tameness of the other half, either), and still doesn't like camera noises after four years among the farmlet folk. Go figure!! I mean, doesn't everyone like having their picture taken?

Dustin is crafting a very odd-looking tea blend today, and I want to learn how he does this, so I'm going to peek over his shoulder, wishing you a lovely Animal Wednesday,
xo, Trixie

27 July 2010

Tea on Tuesday: Dustin's Midsummer Blend

One drinks cold tea in the Summer, that's all there is to it... The coastal fog melted away sometime during the afternoon, leaving us a mottled sky and a few warming rays under which to imbibe the pictured concoction -- my today-only blend of Kusmi St. Petersburg (one-third) and Harney & Sons Decaf Ceylon (two-thirds). Nice citrus overtones from the Ceylon, no lemon required (no sugar neither).

Berries from the garden, too! My, my.

Nearly three weeks to go on Trixie's Summer10 discount promotion at TheTeaDrinker.com -- thanks for sharing it with your friends. And if you have any questions about tea -- any at all -- ask me, and if I don't know the answer myself, I'll find you someone who does. Promise.

Happy tea-ing!
xo, Dustin

26 July 2010

Iron-Age Cooking Tool (or, Machine Monday)

From time to time we are asked What Is That Thing Called an Aga and Why Should I Care? Trixie and I go on and ON about this archaic lump of Midlands metal, so I'm going to tell you a little bit about it (not sure how to address the issue of Caring, but I'll leave that to you).

A traditional Aga is a cast-iron radiant cooking stove, that comes in one's choice of more than a dozen beautiful enamel colors {a glimpse of our dark blue one can be seen above}, with several cooking chambers (ovens) accessed from the front and a pair of covered hot plates on top. Classic Aga models have 2, 3, or 4 ovens (see some pix here), all proportionally controlled by a single knob, so if you raise the heat, all chambers and plates will get hotter, and if you lower the heat, they all get cooler, but will stay in the same relative temperature to one another. The stove is on continuously, adding a cheery glow to your kitchen, and the different plates and chambers are calibrated for different tasks (evocative names for each have evolved which give a pretty clear indication of the intended use, therefore the heat level): descending in heat, the Roasting Oven is hottest, then the Baking Oven, then the Simmering Oven, then the Warming Oven... the Boiling Plate is hotter than the Simmering Plate, and the Warming Plate is cooler than either of those.

With only one temperature control for multiple ovens and hot plates, how do you cook? The way I like to explain it is: you don't move the flame, you move the food. Rather than adjust a flame under a frying pan as on a standard gas stove, for instance, you might begin sautéing on the Simmering Plate to get the pan warm, move your pan to the Boiling Plate to really cook things fast, then ease off with another few minutes on the Simmering Plate again. It sounds complex only because it's unfamiliar -- if you cooked on an Aga for a while and suddenly had to pay attention to the height of your under-pan flame and adjust a control knob repeatedly during cooking, that would seem equally strange.

It's a step backward -- this ain't no Turbo Chef -- but if this sort of thing calls out to you (as it did to us), it's simpler and better and more reliable than any other stove, and we think it's also really pretty (much more photogenic than we are!).

What does the Aga do best? Casseroles. Braising. Slow-cooking. Cooking in the ovens is more efficient than doing things on top of the stove (partly because the closed ovens retain heat better than uncovered hot plates), although you can do everything from pancake-making to kettle-boiling to wok-searing on an Aga cooktop. In the ovens, you adjust cooking intensity by moving your dish from oven to oven, or raising/lowering within one oven -- we often begin a casserole in the Baking Oven (first hour or three), then move it to the Simmering Oven for holding until dinner-time, or for slow overnight simmering. We used to cook rice on the stovetop, but no more: it's in-the-oven rice all the time now (and if you want risotto, it's the same darn thing made with arborio rice so look in your recipe files for "baked risotto" and there you are).

Key tools for making the best of an Aga are enameled cast-iron casseroles such as Le Creuset, Staub, and the like. Worth it!! (Oval cassereoles are easier to get in and out of the ovens, by the way)

The stove is silent, and it's ready to go all the time -- one advantage is not having to wait for an oven to preheat before baking, so when the mood strikes, you are ready to begin. When not cooking (or even when you are!) your Aga can be useful warming the room (in Summer this may not sound very nice, but in the colder months it is Heaven) , drying laundry or dishes, keeping dishtowels from perpetual sogginess, and so on. Household critters seem to gravitate toward the thing, and a pet bed often ends up right in front (mind the pooch when opening the oven door!).

In the UK you can still get one of these with a "boiler" -- water heater cistern -- inside, which is sometimes a small country cottage's best hot-water source; in the USA you can only get a multi-oven "cooker."

Americans invariably ask: What About My Thanksgiving Turkey? Aga loves to respond that you can "do" a 14-pounder with ease in the Roasting/Baking Ovens, and I'm sure they know what they're talking about... when you first peek inside the Roasting Oven, however, you may be alarmed by the size of it -- it's not quite a foot wide, but it is more than a foot and a half deep; and because it's a radiant oven you can put food very close to the sides and they won't get all crusty and burned, because all surfaces of the oven are giving off heat (nearly) equally, unlike a standard electric or gas oven that shoots in hot air from the side or bottom (an electric convection oven sends the heat in from one side, but has a fan to circulate the hot air, acting more like a radiant oven than a non-convection one). I say that if your turkey is too big for an Aga, it's probably not an organically-raised one and therefore full of icky hormones, so give it up and get one that has been raised nicely thank you.

Switching recipes from "standard" to Aga-style isn't difficult at all, except that bakers would do well to take notes (which oven, what rack level, how many minutes. if you raised, lowered, or turned the pan and how many minutes after that, etc)... sticky notes become your dear friends... and if you think it's a pain to have to do this you won't think so when all of your friends tell you how GREAT your baking is (maybe they only say this because you're giving them free cake? Naw).

There are plenty of Aga cookbooks on the market -- Mary Berry is our favorite Aga Authority -- but beyond the basic how-to the recipes in all of them are, well, just recipes! No reason why you can't make your own favorites, which is exactly what we do.

About Summer: if the ambient temperature rises higher than that of the stove, it's not going to "exchange" heat into the air -- for example, when it hots up to more than about 85 degrees F outside, it's actually cooler in the kitchen, right by the warm stove. Four years of California Summers and counting...

Do the Aga people pay me to blather on like this? Oh, if only... I forgot to mention, the very best thing I do on the thing is Tea & Toast! Which, now that I mention it, I crave, so it's off to the kitchen for a breakfast-like evening snack,
xo, Dustin

24 July 2010

Stoke-on-Trent Saturday Number One: Minton Kent

Greetings, ceramics lovers! In honor of Stoke-on-Trent, England dubbing itself the World Capital of Ceramics last year, we begin an occasional series of Saturday posts which highlight some of the potteries that made Stoke famous. For our first Stoke-on-Trent Saturday feature we present one of the original Stoke potteries, Minton (or Mintons), and our photogenic example is of a mid-20th-century edition of a pattern called KENT.

Minton(s) was founded in the late 18thC by Thomas Minton, and was sometimes a stand-alone pottery and sometimes part of a partnership with the neighboring Poulson pottery; continuing through successive generations of the family, with only occasional interruptions, until Minton (sans final S) became part of the Royal Doulton family in the 1990s.

Beautiful Mintons (with S) designs that collectors seek today include Mintons Rose (worthy of its own feature, due to the variety of shapes, styles, and colors in which it was produced), Cockatrice, Denmark, Helena, Ivanhoe, oh gosh so many! Nothing like these hand-decorated designs is produced on such a scale anymore, and one must resort to collectors' services, or wander the wonderland of eBay, to find these dishes nowadays (and if neither of those options sounds appealing to you you can ask me, because I love to go hunting for pretty dishes).

Kent has hand-painted accents in teal (the flowers) and green (the leaves, handle accent, and rims of cup and saucer) on a light brown transfer; the saucer shape gently curves toward the rim, and the cup has a wide, open bowl, with the design on the inside, and a decidedly "deco" handle -- this shape was used in the early 20thC but works so well alongside Midcentury coupe designs (I'm sure that's why they chose this shape for Kent). Tea cools down very quickly in an open bowl like this, but darling, it's all about style, isn't it?... and these really have style.

Surely you know this, but it bears repeating: *never* put hand-painted ceramics (those with enamel hand-painted on top of the underglaze) in the dishwasher -- modern detergents take off the enamel paints, and anyway you don't want to risk breakage if something shifts during the cycle and smashes your rare wares to smithereens. Besides, it's good for you to get up close and personal with your antique teaware by hand-washing them... enhances your delight at having found them in the first place.

Info about visiting the English midlands and Stoke potteries can be found here... here... and here.

Sending sympathetic cool waves to our sweltering friends on the Atlantic coast, and blowing a tea-stained kiss to you all,
xo, Dustin

20 July 2010

Jumping the animalian gun, plus tea

HAW! Yeah I know it's not quite W, I mean Wednesday (HAW, for the uninitiated, means Happy Animal Wednesday -- don't feel badly, when we didn't know we thought all these Wednesday bloggers were just laughing at us, saying HAW HAW HAW), but some weeks we have to plan ahead because maybe, just maybe, tomorrow we are going to be SO BUSY that we won't be able to sit down at the old computer to send you our animal best. Thanks for your understanding, and here's this week's lovely picture:

Bumblebees! On the blackberry brambles! Busy doing their thing so that we can smear ourselves with blackberry juice all Summer long (we have already begun). These gals are Bombus vosnesenskii, West Coast native bumblies who are the best of the best, big and fluffy and very mild-mannered. I know, because at various times in my life I have held them in my hands, had them crawl across my face, cling for hours behind my ears, and root around in my coif. Too true. You just won't find a better bee. On top of all that, they pollinate like the dickens, and if it weren't for them we would certainly starve out here in the country (every country...). Thank you, vosnies!! We totally love you.

Distinguishing physical traits are the yellow head and single stripe "low on the hips" (except it's not actually their hips, is it? but you know what I mean), and their rotund bodies. The queens are tremendous, and most often seen in the Spring -- during the Summer they are pretty much stuck at home making more baby bumblies.

When you stroll through your West Coast gardens, looking for vosnies, what tea shall you carry with you? Well that's a fine question, and today we say: Tsarevna. Take a "princess" to go looking for queens... and I can put in one more reminder that you have time left to use Trixie's Summer10 discount code at TheTeaDrinker.com -- the only place in the world where you can find Tsarevna Blend, because Trixie herself blends it. For you.

As we dine on the fruit that the bumblebees helped make, glass of cold-infused Tsarevna in hand, I bid you an excellent day,
xo, Dustin

15 July 2010

Warm day, cool tea

Boy, am I thirsty! The temps are rising, and out come the Mason jars for more rounds of cold infusion, goody. Today we shall dip into a jar of Birthday Blend, mixed specially to honor ***, who reached another decade marker last week.

You can make Birthday Blend at home, all by yourself, and here's how: stir together equal parts of Harney & Sons Earl Grey Supreme + Harney & Sons Citrus Blend; put a couple of big pinches of this blend into your infuser or infusion pouch; place in the jar, add really nice clean cold water; cover, put into your 'fridge and leave it alone until later (4 hours, or even tomorrow). When it's time to drink some, pour over ice (maybe even dilute with some additional water), and DRINK.

No need to thank me... you did it all on your own (be proud). More delish teas for this process include Edwards Premium Tea organic Pinnacle Blend, organic Yunnan Superb, organic Jasmine Dragon Phoenix Pearls, Makaibari Estate Darjeeling 2nd Flush, V-Tea Spider Leg and V-Tea Long-Leaf, Harney & Sons Paris Blend and Black Jasmine, or Kusmi Bouquet de Fleurs and St. Petersburg. Caffeine-free choices include Kusmi Decaf Earl Grey, Harney & Sons Decaf Ceylon, and Harney Decaf Vanilla Comoro. Prefer herbs? Edwards Premium Tea Dreamland is particularly nice as a cold infusion.

Why not call it "iced tea"? Instead of making hot tea and pouring it over ice to chill, cold infusion is made with cold water, infused in the refrigerator. What advantage does this have (since we admit that it takes longer from start to serve)? Tannins, baby -- cold-infused tea is much lower in tannins -- the pesky, albeit actually beneficial, component in may foods and bevs that makes your mouth feel as if someone just vacuumed it out then rubbed it with sandpaper for good measure -- do you like a lot of aroma and flavor without a big bite? Go for the cold infusion, every time. You'll see, it works!

Contrary to previous information, the SUMMER10 coupon code keeps on being totally, ridiculously, shamelessly valid right on through August 15th. Off to the icebox for my jar of BB now, blowing you a tea-stained kiss,
xo, Dustin
p.s. Dove update: they are flying!! More pix soon, says Trixie.

07 July 2010

New Blog! New Blog! New Blog!

Yikes, as if we didn't have enough to do.
Eat, eat some more, drink (a lot, of everything) and be merry and (better-)read...
it's the Mysterious Confection weblog!!
Go now and see it! Follow and comment! Eat confections!
xo, Dustin

HAW! Progress of Dovelets and a Really Cute Cat, etc

We have egg all over our faces, don't we? Firstly, the unedited version of our previous post, replete with typos (no!), went straight out onto Facebook (hi, Friends!!) for zillions to see and snicker at. Nextly, our friend Jennifer of Basilur Tea says that no, it ain't July that's (get it right) Iced Tea Month, it's *June*... we give up. Main thing is, the Cold Infusion technique was posted correctly, and the picture of Trixie-as-Little-Person was likewise un-wrong. Thank Providence for such mercies...

Progress of the dovelets! You asked, we provide -- see this image of our two tiny flapping and peeping bird-babes in a quiet moment...

... of course, today they look even more white and fluffy but we didn't take the camera to the aviary, dear oh dear.

Master Jerome, a true (catnip) tea drinker and connoisseur of farmlet life, was demonstrating his prowess in the Rural DeCat-a-lon -- faucet drinking, kibble eating, and island napping. Gold medal for Romie!

I hope you take a cue from Jerome and practice your Extreme Tea Sports, including the medal-worthy Cold Infusion. Let us know how you get on, and we LOVE your questions so ask them (twice, if necessary).

HAW! Happy Animal Wednesday to you, and also to those who got us started with the project (you know who you are),
blowing you a tea-stained kiss on this cloudy Summer evening,
xo, Dustin

p.s. Discount code/coupon sill valid at TheTeaDrinker.com!! One more week.

02 July 2010

July is Cold/Iced Tea Month

Happy July! In the USA it's officially Cold/Iced Tea Month, although (tsk, tsk) you won't find info about this important month-long phenomenon on the website of the Tea Association of the USA. So I'm here to let you know that YES it's really Cold/Iced Tea Month, all month, all over the country. Golly!

To celebrate such a momentous thing, I'm going to bend your ear (or eye) a moment to remind you how to make cold-infused tea:
1. Take a clean glass jar, such as a Mason jar, with a tight-fitting lid
2. Put tea into the jar: loose tea on its own, or loose tea in a pouch or infuser, or some teabags (quantity discussed below)
3. Add really lovely water: good tap water, or bottled, or pre-boiled and cooled -- water is so important, and what is tea if not flavored water?
4. Close the jar tightly, place it in the 'fridge for at least 4 hours, or overnight
5. Remove tea leaves from jar (alternately strain tea into another clean jar); dilute your cold tea to taste and serve with or without ice.

Ç'est tout, mes amis. Drink and be happy.

We are frequently asked how much tea to use for cold-infusing, and I hesitate to prescribe exact amounts because your preference may not be the same as mine, and if I tell you "do this" and you hate it, you will hate me. I will encourage you, as I always try to do, to use your fabulous senses to discover how strong or subtle a flavor you like, write down or remember what you do that works, and do the same again next time. That, by the way, is True Tea Independence, and since it's only 2 more days until Independence Day, it's altogether appropriate.

We highly recommend the use of O-Cha Pack infusion pouches, which you can order from Trixie if your local Asian grocery store doesn't have them in stock.

I'm off to fill a couple of Mason jars (yes of COURSE with tea),
sending you all my tea-ish affection,
xo, Dustin
p.s. Cold-infused tea tastes more mild (less tannic) than Sun Tea, and according to the gov't it's also safer.