Thursday, September 29, 2011

Creamed Spinach

I love creamed spinach.  It's such a good thing to have any time of year and it goes with so many dishes.  Normally, I tend to make creamed spinach with a small 10oz. block of frozen spinach, because it's so convenient and quite honestly a very good product.  Treat yourself the next time you want a side to My Favorite Roast Chicken or the leaner version of it called Favorite Roast Chicken II.  Creamed spinach is classically paired with a great big steak & surely you can make it to accompany one if you wish.  If you're a vegetarian, this will pair nicely with a generous helping of lentils, chickpeas or any other legume.  Forgo the frozen "creamed spinach" packages at your supermarket & make it from scratch.  I think your entire family is going love this side dish. 

Don't you just want to make this?  Let's begin!

The Ingredients
  • 10oz. chopped frozen spinach, cooked according to package directions, drained well, reserving about 1/2 cup cooking liquid.
  • 1 small shallot finely chopped
  • 1 garlic clove finely minced
  • 1 tablespoon flour (I use Wondra)
  • 2/3 cup whole milk (light cream or heavy cream can be used)
  • salt & pepper
Note: the cooked spinach is draining in a sieve set over a bowl.  I save the cooking water to thin out the dish at the end of cooking. 

Yield: 4 generous servings.

In a saucier or 10" frying pan, heat 2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil (you can use butter if you want to make it richer ~ it's up to you!) over medium heat.  Add your chopped shallot & cook until it's fragrant & becomes translucent.  About 3 minutes.  Add a dash of salt & pepper.

Add the minced garlic & stir in well.  Let this cook for about 30 seconds, on medium flame.  Don't let your shallots & garlic burn or brown excessively.  Regulate your heat if you have to.

Now add the flour.  I love using Wondra flour (found in a blue cylindrical container in the baking aisle of any supermarket) because it is a very fine flour that makes smooth sauces.  Look for it the next time your shopping at the market.

You should switch to a whisk.  Whisk the flour mixture constantly, reaching all around the pan.  This shouldn't take on any color, but it should be cooked for at least 30 seconds before proceeding to the next step.  Your heat should be on medium at this point.

Begin pouring the milk in a slow steady stream with one hand & whisking vigorously with the other.  You don't want the milk mixture to clump.

I'm whisking all around the saucier without stopping until the entire mixture thickens well.  Raise your heat if you have to, but don't let it burn.  In less than one minute this will reach the desired consistency.  Salt & pepper the mixture to taste.

This is what you want to see.  A thickened sauce that is smooth and rich.  No lumps!

Add your drained spinach & switch back to your wooden spoon.  Stir this well.  By the way, your heat should still be on medium.  I let the creamed spinach return to a simmer.  Cook for another minute more.

If your mixture is too thick, thin it out with the reserved cooking water, one tablespoon at a time, until it's a good consistency (you will NOT use the entire cooking liquid).  I do this instead of adding more milk.  It does cut down on calories, but not on flavor.  A very good thing.

A generous helping served in a small bowl.  The consistency is just right. 

I'm almost certain that if you present your family with a bit of my creamed spinach, there won't be a speck left when you're done with dinner.  Even those that claim to dislike spinach will ask for seconds.  If, by chance, you prefer to make this with fresh spinach, be my guest.  If you do, rinse the spinach leaves well & don't drain.  Simply saute the leaves in a dry skillet and let the spinach bunch cook until done.  Remove the leaves and finely chop.  I do recommend reserving the cooking water.  You can then proceed with the recipe.  Now that you know how easy it is to make creamed spinach, why not make it tonight?  Enjoy! 

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Wedgwood Bicentennial Plates

These beautiful Wedgwood Commemorative Plates that were created for our country's bicentennial are such nice pieces of transferware.  Set on Queen's Plain earthenware, the black copperplate engravings provide a glimpse into the birth of this nation.  The 13 colonies that were seeking independence from British rule in the 18th century are depicted in the 9" plates, with a momentous scene from this historic time.  Go through these plates and read about Caesar Rodney's historic gallop toward the Continental Congress and the drafting of the Declaration of Independence.  I hope you enjoy them.

Delaware: The First State
  • Rodney's Historic Gallop: July 1, 1776 - The Continental Congress sat in deadlock in Philadelphia.  Delaware, with only two of its three delegates present, was divided over Independence, and their most staunch patriot, Caesar Rodney, was away fighting Tories.  An urgent message saw him make an 80 mile gallop across country, through driving rain, to swing Delaware into Independence.  On July 2nd, the vote was unanimous - "that the good people of these States... reject & renounce all allegiance to Kings of Great Britain."

The underside (I provided this sole picture as an example of what all 13 plates look like underneath).

Pennsylvania: The Second State
  • Drafting the Declaration: Philadelphia home of one of the most dazzling figures of the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin, was both the cultural and commercial center of North America in 1776.  It was there that the Philosopher of Liberty, Thomas Jefferson, guided by Franklin and John Adams, drafted the momentous Declaration of Independence...most perfectly, representing the ideals and beliefs of the Americans, who on July 2, 1776, voted for it, and were prepared, if necessary, to die for it.

New Jersey: The Third State
  • Nassau Hall at Princeton: America almost certainly won the Revolution in New Jersey between Christmas night 1776 and the opening days of the New Year.  Their stirring victories at Trenton and Princeton were turning points in the war, and even England's minister Lord George Germain admitted "All our hopes were blasted by that unhappy affair."  Remaining British troops took refuge in the University's Nassau Hall, but surrendered instantly when American artillery fired a cannon ball through a window, symbolically removing King George II's head on a portrait.

Georgia: The Fourth State
  • A Heroine at War: A unique aspect of Georgia's Revolutionary history is that the state's most renowned freedom fighter was a woman - Nancy Hart, after whom is named the present Hart County.  Miss Hart's deeds of bravery included capturing three British regulars and shooting two others dead when they raided her cabin.  The enemy knew her well; and were somewhat in fear of her.  

Connecticut: The Fifth State
  • The Great Drive South: Connecticut was "The Storehouse of the Revolution."  Its rich farmland, ironworks, and vast timber forests provided General Washington's Army with food, heavy artillery, and muskets throughout the war.  The Connecticut supply-line played a crucial part in saving the freezing half-starved troops at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania in the winter of 1777.  Connecticut farmers drove several herds of cattle overland south to the terrible encampment just in time. 

Massachusetts: The Sixth State
  • The Battle of Bunker's Hill:  On July 17th 1775, came the first formal confrontation between the British and the Americans.  The entrenched Colonists, faced with the full majesty of the scarlet-clad British Army, repelled two charges with brilliantly-timed fire.  The third British assault succeeded, but the Americans managed an orderly retreat leaving behind 1,054 Redcoats killed or wounded.

Maryland: The Seventh State
  • The Great Fleet Sails: Marylanders experienced particular pride when admiral De Grasse sailed the powerful French Ships of the Line, out of Baltimore bound for Chesapeake Bay in 1781.  Victory over the British by this time was inevitable - and the Maryland troops, drawn from the wealthy families of Baltimore and Annapolis, had heroically proved themselves the crack Regiment of the War, despite dreadful casualties. 

South Carolina: The Eighth State
  • Triumph in the Swamps: the great Southern Campaign of the American Revolution took place between May 1780 and September 1781, with terrible damage inflicted upon King George III's Redcoats.  From out of the treacherous swamplands rode the best American guerrilla fighter of the war, General Francis Marion, who swooped and destroyed almost every British Post in the Carolinas.  He earned his title - "The Swamp Fox."

New Hampshire: The Ninth State
  • An Army Crossing:  British General John Burgoyne wrote to the English Parliament in October 1777, "The Hampshire Grants now abound in the most active and rebellious race on the Continent, and hangs like a gathering storm on my left."  Brigadier General John Stark was the chief cause of Burgoyne's dismay.  His Hampshire militia had just stormed across the Connecticut river from their Charleston, New Hampshire garrison, and routed 1,400 of Burgoyne's crack Hessian troops at the Battle of Bennington.

Virginia: The Tenth State
  • Surrender at Last: after 6 1/2 years, the Revolutionary War ended at Yorktown on October 17th, 1781.  Charging American infantry are depicted tearing down the Union Jack and hauling up the Stars and Stripes.  It was 11 a.m., when the official flag of surrender suddenly appeared through the cannon smoke on the British ramparts, signifying the end of King George III's rule over North America.  More than 7,200 men were given up to General George Washington, the Virginian who commanded the American Army. 

New York: The Eleventh State
  • Defying the King: New Yorkers hauled down a 4,000 lb statue of King George III in July 1776 and converted it into musket balls, "so that the King's men could feel the effect of melted majesty."  Nine weeks later, with New York ablaze, the Army retreating and a British bombardment from the East River, New Yorkers experienced total warfare. 

North Carolina: The Twelfth State
  • The Ladies Speak Out: In 1774 the Ladies of North Carolina signed a pledge to drink no more British tea - which was an act of considerable defiance, since War had not even begun.  When it did, Colonel Richard Caswell's North Carolina militia won the Battle of Moore's Creek in February 1776; and caused the English to abandon their invasion of North Carolina from the sea. 

Rhode Island: The Thirteenth State
  • The Sinking of "Gaspee": Hostile Rhode Islanders were, in effect, at war with the British as early as June 1772.  They boarded, captured and burned the armed British schooner "Gaspee" as it hunted smugglers in Narragansett Bay.  London angrily set up a Commission of enquiry - but, alas, Rhode Islanders suffered a sudden and severe loss of memory, and the investigation collapsed.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Pennsylvania Bank Barn

Bank barns made of stone date back to early Colonial times in the United States.  Abundant and inexpensive land made it easy for early settlers to erect barns that were both functional and practical.  Stone barns in Pennsylvania are quite unique and truly beautiful.  It was the German settlers in the area that began building bank barns and the fact that many stand to this day, is a testament to their well thought out plan & designA bank barn is unique in its approach to the landscape.  Essentially, it is a rectangular structure that is built into a hill or bank.  This ingenious style of architecture gives access to both the ground floor and second floor.  Take a look at the stone barn that dates back to the 1830s here on the grounds of where we live.  It truly is a bit of Americana at its best.  Enjoy!

This is the facade of the stone barn with a porch addition and a large patio.  You can see how the driveway to the barn banks upward as you approach the hill.  The barn has three levels.

This view is from the edge of the meadow.  It shows the annex to the left and the gentle slope of the hill where the barn rests. 

The rear of the barn clearly shows how the structure would have been used in the early part of the 19th century.  Without the annex, there would have been a large door giving access to the second & third floor.  The ground floor has always been accessible from the front and sides. 

This gives you a glimpse of the brick flooring found on the ground level.  Originally it would have been plain dirt mixed with hay.  The ground level was meant to keep livestock such as horses, ox or cattle.  Temperature insulation would have been one of the advantages of building along a bank.  The earth along the back wall would have kept all of the animals cool during the summer and warm during the winter.  The stall doors with a southern exposure were also a bonus.

There are two sets of stairs (all original) that lead to the upper floors.  This is one of them.

Plainly built of pine, the stairs have withstood the test of time.  You can see that the barn walls are about a foot thick.  

I've just climbed those steps and am looking down.  They are pretty steep, but easily accessible.

Now I'm standing at the landing looking at the simple wooden banister, next to a central window.  The original beams have simple & utilitarian light fixtures.

The center "hall" has storage chests & cast iron hooks for barn equipment.  These are all original to the barn.  Large wagons would have entered this floor to unload the day's harvest and drop the necessary hay to the livestock on the ground floor.

The western & eastern sections of the second floor are opened all the way to the top of the vaulted ceiling.  This window shot shows the second & third floor windows of the facade.  I'm standing in the western bay.

Still standing in the same room (the western bay) you can see how well each stone is laid out. 

Looking up, one can see the different architectural components that hold the ceiling in place. 

This is the eastern bay.  The second floor of the barn would have been used to store grain and hay.  Easily accessible from the rear of the barn, the farm's owners would have used this space more than any other. 

The wooden walls & ladders of the third floor.

The vaulted ceiling shows thick wooden trusses connected to rafters which provide the necessary support to the entire span of the roof. 

This area was particularly useful for barn equipment storage.  It's a well constructed shelf in the eastern bay. 

A closeup of the actual wall.  Stone quarried from the property was the approach to barn construction.  All of the joining compound (much of it mixed with horse hair) is still intact.

This is the winder stairwell which leads to the third floor.  The well worn treads are a bit treacherous to climb & must be done with great care.

I'm standing on the 3rd floor landing looking down the stairwell.  It is a very tight area.  Winders in colonial homes are generally found in the rear of the house; they not only give access to the top floor, they also take up a minimum of space.

The small area of the 3rd floor currently holds some loose odds & ends.  The wooden beam embedded in the wall originally held a door in place.  Used mainly to drop hay, grain or equipment, it was later sectioned off with stone when it was no longer needed.

Although bank barns aren't exclusive to the United States (many can be found in England, France, Italy & Norway), it was certainly the most popular style of barn in Pennsylvania during colonial times.  If you ever find yourself in Pennsylvania and have the opportunity to visit a stone barn, take the time to walk through it and admire the ingenuity with which our forefathers planned and constructed these marvelous buildings.  I hope you learned a thing or two and enjoyed this little tour through time with me.  Cheers! 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Favorite Roast Chicken II

As you may already know, I love a good roast chicken.  It's one of my favorite dishes and I make it several times a month, especially when the weather begins to get cooler.  I've shown you My Favorite Roast Chicken recipe which produces a succulent, flavorful bird that has deliciously crispy skin.  I thought I'd revisit this roast chicken recipe & show you how I make it with extra virgin olive oil instead of butter.  The simple, straightforward technique is the same; a beginner can make this recipe with great success. 

The Ingredients
  • 3 1/2lb. - 4lb. organic, free-range chicken
  • 1 yellow onion, peeled & sliced into 1/2" rounds
  • 1 lemon, well washed
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 sprigs flat leaf parsley
  • salt & pepper

Preheat your oven to 350° F.
Note: I'm using an oven-proof saute pan to roast the chicken.  Any roasting pan will work as long as the chicken fits.

Remove the giblets and rinse the chicken under cold water.  Pat dry and let the bird sit for half an hour at room temperature before proceeding.  Loosen the skin of each breast carefully with your fingers.  This will allow you to add seasoning directly to the meat.

Divide the onion rounds along the base of your pan and season with salt & pepper.  Place your chicken on top & add 1/2 a tablespoon of olive oil under the skin of each chicken breast.  Add salt & pepper under the skin as well.   

Salt & pepper the chicken cavity and tuck in the parsley sprigs.  Pierce the lemon several times all around & place it in the cavity.  Truss your chicken and tuck the wings underneath.  Rub the remaining tablespoon of olive oil all over the chicken, letting the excess drip onto the onions.  Salt & pepper the entire bird.  You can, of course, choose whatever herbs or spices you like.  Make it your own and experiment!

The seasoned chicken can now be placed in the 350°F oven and should be roasted at this temperature for one hour.  Set your timer.  After the hour is up, raise the temperature to 400°F and set your timer for 15 minutes.  The chicken is done when an instant-read thermometer inserted in the deepest part of the thigh registers 180°F.  You may need to add a few more minutes, depending on the size of your chicken.

Note: I strongly advise an oven thermometer to make sure your range is working properly.  Any variations in temperatures can seriously alter the cooking time.

The chicken browns nicely and the onions roast to a sweet, tender perfection.  Always let the chicken sit for 10 minutes before carving it.  The juices need to redistribute throughout the chicken.  Serve the onion rounds as a side.

Now that we're entering the Fall season you really should consider roasting a chicken for dinner.  So many different side dishes go with roast chicken that it's really hard to go wrong.  I love garlic mashed potatoes & steamed peas with it.  Brussels sprouts (when they're in season), sauteed spinach, any rice or barley pilaf also make delicious side dishes.  The next time you come across a good chicken at the supermarket buy it and roast it for dinner.  Your family is going to love it.  By the way, any leftovers make great sandwiches for work the following day.  Enjoy it from my home to yours!