Monday, February 25, 2013

The Upper Crust

During the winter months, I have to mostly content myself with dreaming of Western adventures. Until my next travels towards the sunset, I have been working on a couple of articles about cool frontier stuff like ghost towns and the Oregon Trail. I've dabbled in learning to ride English, and watched a whole lot of Downton Abbey. As a finale for Season 3, I decided to indulge in a Downton Abbey tribute dinner, inspired by Canadian food historian Pamela Foster's totally awesome blog, Downton Abbey Cooks.

For my menu, I kept things simple. I did four courses, and had ambitiously selected a wine pairing for each. From watching another PBS show, I'd learned that German wines were apparently quite the thing in the early 1900s. We dutifully hunted up a Reisling to serve with dessert, since it seemed that Carson would be hanging on to tradition rather than embracing cocktails and modernity. The rest of the menu is as follows:

Oysters a la Russe - paired with a 2011 Paul Thomas Sancerre "Les Comtessese"

Asparagus Salad with Champagne-Saffron Vinaigrette - (we had the sancerre again)

Roast Chicken with Lemons and Root Vegetables - paired with a 2010 Philip Carter Meritage

Apple Charlotte - with the aforementioned Reisling, or the option of boutique, locally sourced coffee

First, I was in love with the names of the dishes alone. Simply saying "oysters a la Russe" aloud sent little shivers down my spine. Explaining that I was making a "champagne-saffron vinaigrette" to my mother, who was duly impressed, made the weekend feel 10 times more elegant, even as I went off to the supermarket that morning in sneakers and sweats to pick up my ingredients.

Secondly, although I had chosen dishes that were relatively simple and didn't require a lot of hands-on time, and although I was only cooking for myself and my husband, doing a multi-course meal is exhausting. I cannot imagine how Mrs. Patmore would have cooked for an entire family, and their guests (and probably a lot of the servants) night after night, without any electric appliances and no modern refrigeration. By the time dinner was actually on the table, I was feeling a bit done in.  I still went upstairs and put on a fancy dress, because at Downton (even make-believe Downton), dressing for dinner is the right thing to do.

As far as the food itself, it turned out far better than I would have imagined. The oysters were a combination of Outer Banks and Chesapeake Bay oysters, and the rich flavors of the tomatoes and pepper made a very savory combination. Although the Sancerre was just a touch sweet, overall it went fairly well with the dish. And since the Loire Valley has been a wine-producing region for ages, we felt it was in the spirit of Downton to go with a French vintage for this course.

We really should have had another wine for the asparagus salad, but we stuck with the Sancerre as there was still plenty in the bottle. The saffron flavor was very subtle, but the color combinations of this dish made it quite pretty to look at. It may also have been the healthiest thing on the menu!

Now, the chicken. Quite simply, this is the best roast chicken recipe I've seen, hands down. The meat came out very moist and flavorful, and perfectly cooked after an hour and 45 minutes. I put herbs and butter AND lemon slices on and inside the chicken, and boy, it did the trick. I realize that serving a red, American vintage was a bit of an unusual choice for poultry, but there was a lot of white wine being served at other points in the meal, and I wanted something a bit earthy. Secondly, the Philip Carter winery is old, like 1762 old. In fact, the wines were awarded a Royal Society medal in the late 1700s. Maybe its a bit of a stretch that the Downton cellars would have included a New World vintage, but not impossible. And if they did, I suppose there are worse options than a Virginia-grown blend of Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot.

The apple charlotte was also a pleasant surprise. This was my first go-round making this dessert, and I decided to fancy up the recipe a bit. Apparently cinnamon was not used widely around the WWI era, but I threw in a few dashes of nutmeg to liven things up.

Amy's Apple Charlotte:

6-7 slices buttered bread
4-5 peeled and thinly sliced Granny Smith Apples
1/2 c. white, granulated sugar
1/2 c. packed brown sugar
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
Heavy whipping cream

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Combine the nutmeg and white sugar in a bowl. Stir the sugar mixture and the apples together. Place a layer of buttered bread in the bottom of a pie plate, buttered side down. You may need to use partial slices of bread to cover the plate completely. Add two layers of apple slices. Sprinkle a portion of the brown sugar on top. Add a layer of buttered bread, and more apple slices, covering the bread completely. Sprinkle again with brown sugar. Bake for 45 minutes. Allow to cool slightly.

Meanwhile, beat the heavy cream until stiff peaks form. Top individual servings of the apple charlotte with freshly whipped cream - and a little nutmeg, if desired. Serve at once.

The end result? I'm not quitting my day job for culinary school anytime soon, but it was a tremendously fun experiment. Maybe I'll kick Season 4 off with a special "downstairs" menu in honor of the folks who really keep Downton going. 

Saturday, February 16, 2013

A Proper Seat, Part 2

This blog has taken an unexpected turn towards England. I'll be back to the West soon enough, but in the meantime, here is the conclusion of my riding adventures this past winter.

Like most things, English-style riding looks easy. In practice, it's not. I'm not sure if I ever looked graceful and elegant in the saddle, but I sure tried.

As I wrote in my earlier post, it was quite an adjustment moving to English tack, and an English saddle.  I found that I was using my legs in a real way, first to give commands to the horse, and later, to try the gait that had always eluded me, trotting.

For me, being able to trot was at about the same level of probability as finding a unicorn. Walking is easy. Cantering is fun. Trotting made me crazy, and I inevitably ended up bouncing like a sack of potatoes. I could not get my motion aligned with the motion of the horse.

I tried to post, rising and falling in the horse's rhythm. But something was off, and I ended up just making my legs tired. The instructor yelled something about diagonals. I had no idea what she was talking about.

Finally, I was told to watch the horse's outside leg, and time my upward motion with that movement. I watched, and I did. It was awkward at first - part of my attention diverted to watching the horse, part of my attention diverted to keeping myself balanced, and part of my attention making sure I was still using the reigns.

There was a moment, though, when thought was suspended, and all the parts snapped into place. It was effortless. I was gliding, moving as easily as a feather in a stream. Gone were the jolts, the bounces, the dissonance that rattled my teeth and left bruises down my thighs. I flew, gently and gracefully.

It wasn't a perfect lesson, and I am by no means a perfect horsewoman. But now I know what perfect feels like.

What's next? Jumping, I should think.