Wednesday, July 21, 2010

In Praise of a Rainy Day

I can't be the only person out there who really loves a rainy day. These run the range of those grey, mizzly days, the torrential downpour ones, and even (or maybe especially) the stormy, windy, rain lashing against the window ones. Perhaps this stems from my deep rooted laziness; I mean, what could possibly be better than sitting in a squishy chair reading or watching a movie with the rain pouring down outside? It's practically an excuse to loll around and do nothing, and that is a-ok with me. My favourite things to watch on rainy days are usually old tv boxsets, which are practically the only dvds I own; favourites include Sherlock Holmes with Jeremy Brett (my personal favourite Holmes), and, major guilty pleasure territory, Sharpe, with Sean Bean. I lately managed to watch the entire Pride and Prejudice series (you know, the one with Colin Firth and the wet tunic Jennifer Ehle) in one sitting, and it runs into 6 hours. So clearly, I've got the laziness aspect down.

But there are so many other things I love about a rain soaked day; pottering about the kitchen, maybe braising something, maybe baking something, enjoying the aromas of home and comfort. Reading some classic literature or a mystery novel, or currently a mixture of the two, in the shape of Bleak House. Turning my attention to a task which a sunny day is likely to distract me from, like finally sorting through years of photos, or reading all of the newspaper supplements I didn't get around to on Sunday. And, should you find yourself absolutely in need of venturing out into the elements, try to see the (proverbial) sunny side. Donning a raincoat and walking in the rain can be a pleasure in itself; the pelting sensation on your umbrella, a sprinkling of rain on your face, and then the coming into a warm, dry indoors, shaking off and having a restorative cup of tea, making it all worthwhile. One of my most memorable holiday moments was walking along the Seine from Notre Dame Cathedral to the Musee d'Orsay in Paris in the middle of an electrical storm with a torrential downpour; watching the rain make angry, muscular splashes in the wide, elegant river, taking shelter under the red awning of a streetside cafe, admiring the great works of Lautrec and Degas accompanied by a sense of taking shelter from the elements - so romantic! So Paris!

Closer to the everyday, my favourite time to be on a beach is with rain coming down, the sea restless and turbulent, wind whipping around. It's the perfect cure for the cotton wool feeling of an overtaxed brain, for blowing away mental cobwebs, and it is wonderfully uplifting the morning after a few too many glasses of wine. And there is something so wonderful about the landscape after a rainstorm; the grass seems lusher and greener, the sun seems to shine brighter, there is a feeling that the world has been washed and is clean and fresh again.

I don't know if my precipitation love is a self-protective measure arising from the almost perpetually wet and damp Irish climate, or just a strange perversion which I can’t explain, but I do encourage you to treat yourself to a proper lazy rainy afternoon at the next opportunity. Being a particularly lashy, windy, day here today I made a batch of chocolate chip cookies and watched several episodes of The Good Life, appreciating both that, without really realising it, my life is starting to look an awful lot like that of the Good’s, and also that I am utterly defenceless against Felicity Kendal’s charms. And if you happen to be somewhere dry and sunny but still want to indulge, why then, you can always fake it.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Rock Lobster: Further Adventures in Free Food

Although there are lots of things I miss about living in a city; like access to bars and cinemas and live music, second hand bookstores, great bakeries and coffee houses, and places to get brunch, among others, I can’t say that I ever look out my window or step outside and don’t love being in the country. There may be less brunching, but there are wonderful things too, like seeing the buttery orb of a full moon against the inky night sky, without the rude interruption of streetlights, the undiluted sounds of rustling leaves and birdsong, and even something so simple as growing your own food. It’s just another way of living, with its own quirks and appeals.

One of these quirks which I am getting used to again is the countryside barter system. For instance, a friend of my family’s grows a lot of rhubarb in her garden, so this Spring she gave us bags of it, which I used to make lots of cakes and jam, some of which I send her way. Another keeps chickens and is always in need of egg cartons, so we stack ours up and keep them for her, and then every so often she brings us a dozen of lovely fresh free range eggs; with their bright orange yolks and still bearing the traces of the farmyard, they’re a million miles away from the uniform white eggs of intensive rearing.

There are also lots of great exchanges to be had when a member of your family is involved in rural sports. My father happens to be an angler, and lately the gift of a few trout to a neighbour brought a really unique exchange: two fresh lobsters. I have seen lobster crawling around in tanks in restaurants before, but this was the first time I have ever seen them up close, and fresh from the sea. They scuttled around on the draining board as I tried to find a suitably gigantic pot, and then get lots of heavily salted water up to a lukewarm temperature. Then it was time to, carefully and avoiding contact with pincers, lower little Lenny and Louis into the water and pop on the lid. I was very aware of the scene from Julie and Julia, where the lobster makes an escape attempt from the cooking pot, but my guys were clearly less spirited as they stayed put.

I gave them about 25 minutes boiling time as they were about 2lb each, but in any case you can tell that they’re cooked when the shells are completely bright red with no hint of blue. Once they were cool enough to handle, and with the occasional aid of a hammer, we extracted all of the meat from the body and claws.

I’m afraid that when it came time to eat everyone was too excited, and it all disappeared so fast, that I neglected to take any photos. In any case, I tossed the lobster meat in lots of melted butter on a frying pan, with a little fresh thyme and some lemon juice, and then piled it up on brown toast. It was absolutely delicious, and free to boot. Now, to find some friends who are truffle hunters..

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Recipe time!: Elderflower Champagne

A little while ago I mentioned that elderflowers were in bloom all over the hedgerows here at the moment; their little star like flowers grow in cheerful profusion, and they smell beautifully sweet and floral. Inspired by Darina Allen’s wonderful Forgotten Skills of Cooking, I decided to give my own elderflower fizz a go. Theoretically this blend of water, sugar, lemon juice, vinegar, and elderflowers will transform into a sweet and bubbly champagne-ish drink after fermenting in well sealed, sterilised bottles for about two weeks. I tried mine exactly two weeks later, and it was feeling a little lively, but still somewhat flat. I’ll give it another week and see if that improves matters.

It’s pretty much the end of the elderflower season now, but if there’s a tree near you which still has lovely big blooms, which smell sweet and don’t lose petals when gently shaken, give it a go for yourself.

This recipe is from Darina Allen's weekly letter of June 26 2010, available in it's original here

Elderflower Champagne

This magical recipe transforms perfectly ordinary ingredients into a delicious sparkling drink. The children make it religiously every year and then share the bubbly with their friends.

2 heads of elderflowers
560g (11/4lb) sugar
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
4.5L (8pints) water
1 lemon
Remove the peel from the lemon with a swivel top peeler. Pick the elderflowers in full bloom. Put into a bowl with the lemon peel, lemon juice, sugar, vinegar and cold water. Leave for 24 hours, and then strain into strong screw top bottles. Lay them on their sides in a cool place. After 2 weeks it should be sparkling and ready to drink. Despite the sparkle this drink is non-alcoholic.
The bottles need to be strong and well sealed; otherwise the Elderflower champagne will pop its cork.