Friday, August 17, 2012

Apple Glaze

This recipe is an unintended consequence of furnishing the kitchen with a very small refrigerator.

Friends recently gave us a huge jar of home-pressed cider. Cox’s Orange Pippin was in the mix of fruit. The jar was taxing the capacity of the shelf on the refrigerator door, so I decided to try reducing the juice, as I sometimes reduce stock to a glaze that keeps well.

Reducing a volume of liquid is one of the messiest procedures in a kitchen, since it generates masses of steam over a long period of time. Residue ends up on the ceiling, walls, and, usually, inside the cupboards, even if the fan is running. As it happens, there’s a table on the back porch that’s a convenient place to use small appliances when I want to keep the kitchen clean without using electricity for the fan.

I set up the electronic pressure cooker outside, poured in the cider, and set the cooker, sans lid, on saute’. Long minutes later when the liquid was an inch deep, I set the cooker on much lower heat and went back to what I’d been doing. When the glaze was less than a quarter of an inch deep, I set the pot on warm, found a convenient time to deal with the hot residue, and decanted it into a glass storage dish.

Usually, reducing a liquid takes a long time and requires constant attention. The cooker didn’t work any faster, but the process was nearly automatic. It could have been completely automatic, but I didn’t bother to think the timing mechanism through. I could safely ignore the pot while I puttered with housekeeping.

The glaze turned out to be thrillingly tart and intense. My first thought was that the reduction would be nearly as good with frozen apple concentrate, perhaps even with other juices. We cook without salt, and I think the glaze will be a nifty substitute or supplement for the vinegar that keeps the palate amused in the absence of sodium.

Piecrust avoidance has led me along the path of ever-simpler apple desserts. From crisp to stewed fruit is a simple step, and last night we had stewed apples seasoned with the usual plus cayenne pepper and a wee spoon of the glaze. They were sensational, and a cinch to prepare. I served them with Swedish gingersnaps and a dollop of sour cream.

The old dishes of the open hearth, the really archaic recipes in obscure chapters of early twentieth century cookbooks, are simple to prepare and require little tending. With good ingredients and some sly work with seasonings, they’re as satisfying as aggressive commercial food but much less expensive and considerably healthier.

-30- More after the jump.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Sleep Tight

Photo courtesy Flickr

The in-house road warrior strolled around the neighborhood and came home with the news that a van-mounted crew with a long large-caliber translucent dryer vent was “applying heat” to unwelcome six-legged airline hitchhikers. They had invaded adjoining units in an apartment building.

In 1973, a neighbor/mentor sold me a vintage cast-iron bed fresh from a North Dakota barn. I called my grandmother to find out how such a bed had originally been used. She said cast iron was developed for reasons of health: it did not harbor bugs and was usually painted white to communicate sanitation. At the moment I am grateful that the mattress is encased in a mite-proof cover, and that it is supported on two lengths of display industry coated steel grid wall.

I’ve been looking around the house wondering how I would cope with an infestation of such critters. I don’t even want to think about what heat would do to the wood finishes here. The concern is another good argument for simplicity, though, simplicity at the Shaker level.

The reasoning behind traditional housekeeping practice can disappear with the problems that produced it. Clearly, it’s time to climb on line and research one of the basics. In the meantime, I can be relieved that much of the inventory lives on modular coated wire storage shelves in flap-lid plastic bins.

When the news arrived, I’d already put one of the last three pieces of upholstered furniture in my cross-hairs, and I’m now thinking hard about the wisdom of living with anything that complicates pest control. Family health improved when travelers began to take a shower the minute they got home: that’s taking the mud room to a microscopic level. I suppose an insect shakedown is now as much in order for high tech travel as it is for field ticks.

-30-  More after the jump.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Quality Control

Photo courtesy Flickr
Home furnishings have their own lane in the race to the bottom. When the Japanese were, as was said, eating our lunch in the late Seventies, a local paper mentioned that their industrial powerhouse was fueled by the frugality of women who were keeping house. They were willing to accumulate postal savings at one percent interest, perhaps less, and to generate those savings by, for example, washing clothes by hand. No doubt both the culture and living memories of the Second World War motivated the housekeepers’ care and conservation. Hand washed clothes last a very long time.

A couple of years later economist Paul Hawken published The Next Economy, which lays out fundamentals of value in product design. Hawken argues that the amount of what he calls intelligence in a thing determines whether it’s worthwhile or not. Japanese women were recognized as a powerful force in the design economy, because they were demanding and unforgiving about quality.

Hawken and his partner Smith imported a load of shovels from the Dogged tool company in England and then had to figure out a way to sell the things. I learned about Paul Hawken from copy in the modest black and white mail order catalogue that arrived in a 1979 mail slot. I had responded to a tiny print ad somewhere. All by snail mail. Hawken had a deep appreciation of the craft tradition behind the tools, and the several things I bought from S&H in their strong early period still surprise with unexpected value and function. Writing this, I realize that Pomme products are the ultimate expression of intelligent artifacts. Their chief designer is a son of the English craft tradition that produced Dogged tools.

The design rubber meets the road on the shelves of the local shop. In the Fifties, there was not the quality control in consumer goods that we took for granted in later decades. Clothing often shrank out of fit when it was washed the first time, yardage could be weighted with heavy metal to counterfeit a luxurious hand, and poisonous glazes were common in cheap tableware. The highest quality fabrics and table ware were powers of ten more expensive than the cheap stuff, and they performed even more generously.

To shop safely these days, educate yourself about two factors: sleaziness in fabric and body quality in ceramics. Sleazy is an eloquent technical term that describes a piece of woven goods that does not hold a true right angle between the warp and the weft. There must be an equivalent term for knits. Sometimes sleazy is OK-in gauze for example, but in shirts and bed linen, it’s bad value. The opposite of sleaze is boardy, like canvas. Alexander the Great’s long conquering march across the known world halted in India because the gauzy local cotton fabrics did not adequately pad the armor of his troops. Their woolen clothing had worn out. 

I got fooled by a set of pillow shams. They looked good enough to be OK for my purposes, but the open package revealed a pair of false fronts, good on one side, feeble muslin on the back. Industrial design legend Jo Sinel said, “Most people only see the outsides of things”. It’s important to know the performance of materials ahead of hunting for new ones. At this point, I’m ready to buy all my fabric in the art department of the local academic bookstore. Painter’s linen is designed for the ages.

The body of a dish is its determining factor. I speak only as a shopper with a few specks of information. Clay produces pottery, which is crumbly, brittle, and likely to crack and harbor pathogens. Stoneware is heavy and durable, and bone china is costly, gorgeous, and very strong. These days, pottery is unfamiliar except for imports from Mexico and Turkey. The folk traditions of those countries produce engaging and colorful patterned glazes, but I’d test a piece with a lead swab before eating from it. Stoneware is coffee shop. Bone china you will find on grandmother’s Thanksgiving table. Hunt for dishes that survive machine washing and can be used in the oven and microwave.

Japan produced miracles of affordable fine quality dishes as it recovered from the war. Their china company copied high-end English tableware and undercut prices. When I’m looking for something for the table to supplement my high-end English stoneware, a Japanese import store is the automatic go to, but the last time I looked around, the usual place was offering sad counterfeits of what I’d come to count on. Perhaps the recent natural disaster has affected production. 

Check a dish before you buy it. Tap the rim: pottery thuds. Stoneware tings. Bone china rings. Look for a familiar mark on the back of the piece. I’d just as soon stay with familiar producers as risk a shoddy piece of work, if only because I hate to waste the time and travel that shopping requires. Back in the conventional day, brides hoped for a complete set of dishes in the quality pattern of their choice, serving pieces included. That’s still the most efficient and economical way I know to furnish the table, although the front-end cost is higher. Church-run thrift stores close to prosperous neighborhoods are a good source of quality used dishes. Bring a lead-testing swab. A replacement service will cost more but allow one to fill out an existing set.

One area of hazard has been gone so long, I’d forgotten it was ever of concern, but it’s baaack. The early consumer advocacy of the women’s magazines often focused on painted wooden tool handles that flaked sharp and toxic fragments into dishes of food. The last few years I’ve been playing with imported plastic reproductions of traditional Japanese lacquerware, and the results have been mixed. I just tossed out a set of noodle cups, great little workhorses, because bits of the paint were disappearing, and I didn’t know where they’d gone. They were so beautifully fabricated I didn’t consider paint at all, but there it was. Flaking finish is why affordable stainless steel pots are so welcome: enameled steel will deconstruct after a given number of heat and cold cycles.

Square basics are always a good idea. Check the index under tabletop design for more information and comments.


More after the jump.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Back to School

Photo courtesy Flickr

Saturday brought the first faint whiff of autumn and thoughts about heat conservation over the winter. This was the time of year when my mother would sit me down in front of the sewing machine to put a wool skirt together while she knit the sweater. Now the only place I can find a skirt of that quality fabric is from a place in Britain that will weave the tweed to my specifications. I’m thinking about it. A month’s oil would cover the cost.

Such is the nature of Seattle’s climate that the Great Big Hiking Co-op has been offering wool camisoles in July. The thing is, it won’t get much colder over the winter, just darker and damper. The first fruits of fall fashion will pay for themselves and keep you warm and happy. Look for featherweight quilted jackets, fine wool long underwear sets, and animal fiber sweaters. Fleece is unquestionably useful, but not as durable or versatile.

The market used to offer what were called sheet blankets, light thin lambswool covers that were pleasant to the skin. They disappeared from the retail market when imported oil replaced bedding in the Sixties. Generous family has built up my supply of light wool throws from Oregon Roundup Textiles. I’ve started using them, carefully, as bedding. It’s quite luxurious. Flannel sheets have disappointed, but fleece blankets also work well next to the skin.

The in-house archaeologist has been indulging his love of Roundup blankets. I have let the collection drive incompatible textiles out of the house. The blankets are close to architectural in their function, woven on a stout cotton warp, wind-resistant, and comfortably fuzzy from quality wool. They’re obvious bedding, not so obvious upholstery if one sits on the bed, they pad a mean bench when folded, and they’re my first choice for a workout on the floor. To a European eye, they’re brash. To an eye conditioned to the field, they’re a godsend.

Deft has many posts about heat conservation. Most of them are linked, so check the index and squander your savings on something fun.

-30-  More after the jump.

Monday, August 13, 2012

In the Details

Photo courtesy Flickr

For a few months I’ve been dissatisfied with the state of the floors, to the point of considering new surfaces, but the timing for major home improvement is just wrong. I decided to offer a couple of rarely used chairs to the family and stowed them in a work room.

Suddenly the floors looked better and easier to maintain. I’ve spent the last couple of days vacuuming in great detail with HEPA filtration bags and a HEPA air filter backing up the machines. Incidentally, it’s been hot, and filtered air is less stressful to breathe.

Manipulating the focal points in an interior is a simple way of controlling the sense of a room. With digital communications’ rich content, the screens rightly command attention, and life support details can be kept to an essential minimum. Simply trimming loose fibers from the matting and touching up dings on the structure with a special-purpose marker cleared away dozens of subliminal focal points. The rooms feel twice as large and decades newer.

I cleaned the glass: windows, picture glazing, and light bulbs. I detailed the nickel and brass with biker’s pricey German chrome polish. We’re good to go until the next summer Olympics generates the spare time to do this kind of maintenance.

-30-   More after the jump.