Every May 24th weekend one of our local museums hosts their annual Victorian Tea, complete with freshly baked scones, white tablecloths and fine china.
The May 24th holiday weekend in Canada is called the Victoria Day weekend, because May 24 was Queen Victoria’s birthday. Older people may remember the schoolyard rhyme children chanted years ago – “the twenty-fourth of May / Is the Queen’s birthday; / If they don’t give us a holiday / We’ll all run away!” Now many people don’t even know who Queen Victoria was, unless you watch the PBS TV show Victoria, but she was Britain’s longest reining monarch, although Queen Elizabeth surpassed her in 2015. She became Queen at age 18 and reined over the British Empire for 63 years, from 1937 until her death in 1901, a period known as the Victorian era. She married her cousin Albert, had nine children and survived 20 different governments and 11 prime ministers. After her death, her birthday was made a federal holiday, which was eventually was moved to the Monday preceding May 24 because of the weekend. Queen Victoria most likely would have approved as weekends were an invention of the Victoria era. This May 24th marks the 200th anniversary of her birth in 1819.
Note: the Union Jack (Canada did not get it’s own Maple Leaf flag until 1965) and the old fashioned lilac bush (see Lilac Time).
The Victorian cottage is one of many buildings on the museum site, whose mandate is to display our past customs and heritage. Many have been moved to the site, including a one room schoolhouse, a small church and a log cabin from the days of the early settlers, but the cottage was part of the original grounds. It is a small one floor dwelling, built in 1893, which was used by a Detroit woman as a summer home until her death, when it was donated to the museum. She was known as the cookie lady, for her kindness in treating the neighborhood children to sugar cookies on the veranda when they were passing by.
It consists of a good sized dining room, living room and kitchen and two very small bedrooms.
The inside still looks as it did during the time she lived there, floral wallpaper, quilts and all.
The problem with the Victoria Day weekend is that the weather is usually guaranteed to be cold, rainy and miserable, which does not deter the campers, as it is considered the unofficial start to summer. It seldom fails, whereas the following weekend, the US Memorial Day is often quite nice. Still, not one to let a bit of rain (or even forty days of it like this spring), get in the way of a good tea spread, I decided to attend. The last time I was there, it was miraculously a warm and sunny day, with a pleasant breeze coming off the river, and we were able to take our tea outside on the veranda, as opposed to inside huddled beside the stove. It was such a fine day we lingered over a second cup.
Although the day started out warm and sunny, the forecast was rain by 3pm, (I’m quite serious about the forty days of rain), so we set out early and decided to tour the buildings first (my friend had never been there), as we could always sit inside later if it started to pour. On our walk about, I noticed a big patch of rhubarb growing beside the log cabin and took some pictures which I could have used in last week’s Rhubarb Lunar Cake blog. (It’s never too late to edit!)
There’s something so civilized about a tea party and the clink of china tea cups, shades of Downton Abbey. Each small table was laid with white tablecloths, cream and sugar sets, crystal butter dishes, jars of strawberry jam and a colorful mixture of china cups and plates.
The servers, young and old, were dressed in the costume of servants of the day, complete with frilly caps and white aprons. The wind was so strong, their aprons were billowing in the breeze and the tablecloths were threatening to blow away, so we decided to sit inside.
The only occupant of the veranda was a bird nesting high up in the rafters, most likely anticipating left over crumbs.
Even inside, with the veranda doors open, it was so windy that our vase of flowers blew over soaking the tablecloth, which they removed and replaced with one even more exquisitely embroidered. Our server, a charming young girl of about ten, inquired as to our choice of tea and scones – raisin, rhubarb, orange or apple cinnamon.
Such a difficult decision, but my choice is always the rhubarb – it was divine, light and fluffy, and I am still trying to get the recipe, a carefully guarded secret. Unfortunately I forgot to take a picture of it before it was consumed!
They make up to 400 scones for the day, using the cottage’s own wood-fired stove. (Note the mirror at the top – I guess that was to check your appearance after slaving over a hot stove all day?) The cost of the tea was $7.50 with donations to the museum fund, ordinary admission being $5, a bargain for the price.
Exactly at 3 pm as predicted, the skies opened up and rained on our lovely tea party. Oh well, there’s always next year…I’m sure I’ll be back.
Postscript: Easy rhubarb scones, only for truly lazy cooks or those whose kitchens are about to be torn apart. Mix this, with this,
Snow, then ice pellets, then freezing rain, then back to snow again – this has been our weather pattern for the past six weeks. Today is definitely another stay at home day, and for those weary of winter what better thing to do than to bake. Your kitchen will smell lovely and your family is sure to be appreciative. The third Monday in February is Family Day in Canada, as the government felt we needed a long holiday weekend to ward off the winter blues. The idea is to spend the day outdoors with your family enjoying some winter activities, which inspired my mother to paint this picture.
The weather cooperated last night with an unexpected six inch snowfall which made everything clean and white for tobogganing, skiing or skating. It’s pretty, but I would much prefer to see some greenery in my backyard and if there are any snowdrops beneath the neighbour’s tree they must be smothered by now.
There’s finally some warmth to the sun and the air has that mild feeling that tells you winter is winding down, but it’s still cold enough to make a nice warm dessert appealing. I stole this recipe for sticky toffee pudding from a local coffee shop which specializes in homemade deserts – well they graciously emailed it to me after I told them theirs was the best ever. Surprisingly, it wasn’t a big seller for them, but sticky toffee pudding is not that well known in Canada, although becoming more popular. Often thought of as a classic British dessert, it’s origins are actually Canadian, as (Wikipedia) legend has it that two Canadian WW2 officers gave the recipe to a British restaurant owner who put it in a cookbook. So I guess you could say it’s circled back across the pond. It’s really more of a cake, but as pudding is an interchangeable term for dessert in Britain, it’s best served with tea (and you can pretend you’re at Downton Abbey).
I used a big muffin pan instead of an eight inch square dish, as it makes perfect portions, and that’s how the coffee shop served it.
But I scooped the rest of the leftover batter into a small red loaf pan from Christmas because it looked more festive. Watch the baking time closely, as I took them out a bit before thirty minutes and they were still well done, (and my oven normally cooks slow).
The caramel sauce is sweet but not too sweet. I find those cans of 2% evaporated milk (NOT sweetened condensed), always have a peculiar smell and taste, but you don’t notice it when it’s boiled together with the sugar and butter. Some recipes say you can use cream if you wish, and I may try that sometime but I didn’t have any and the grocery store was closed because of the holiday. Of course cream will up the saturated fat content. Our (President’s Choice) grocery store sold an excellent microwavable freezer brand of this desert, and I was horrified to see they clocked in at 550 calories and over 60% of the days saturated fat quota. We have extensive food labeling here, which probably discouraged people from buying them as the product was discontinued. (Note the calories can be cancelled out by volunteering to shovel the driveway). While many restaurant versions of this desert (and I’ve sampled a few), have a moister darker cake, sometimes with spices, this one is lighter in color and more like a muffin texture. Store the sauce in the refrigerator if not using right away and reheat. If you like lots of warm sauce (and who doesn’t as it makes the cake), there was enough evaporated milk in the 300ml can to double the batch. It’s a rich decadent desert, so you might even want to split one with someone, and of course don’t forget the tea!
If you want a simple but delicious desert to take to a holiday buffet or help ring in the New Year, then a Bacardi rum cake is a great choice. This cake is really something to celebrate, but for any non-drinkers you can burn off most of the alcohol in the glaze if you wish. The recipe originated in the 1970’s but I saw a revised version in one of The Pioneer Woman cookbooks, which inspired me to try it out last year. Although I remember it as a popular magazine advertisement from the Bacardi Rum Company years ago, I did not cook or even bake back then. My only experience with a booze-laden dessert was during a late-night visit to a high school friend’s house over Christmas break. She was of Italian descent and served us some kind of soggy boozy cake which was an Italian tradition. After an evening of bar-hopping that was probably the last thing we needed, but we had strong espresso with it, as we sat around their ornate dining room table at 1 am laughing and catching up and trying not to wake her sleeping parents. (I don’t remember parents staying up worrying back then when their kids went out, certainly mine never did, but those were more innocent times when bad things didn’t seem to happen as often as they do now. My parents never even locked their doors in the country and I often had to step over the sleeping dog when I got home). I’m not sure what kind of fancy liquor was in that cake but it was very strong, so the memory has stayed with me…..plus the fact that I occasionally drive past her house, but they have long since moved and I lost touch. This recipe is not as strong, or as soggy but has just the right amount of rum flavor. It keeps well too, although I stored mine in the fridge in a covered container. It was just as moist a week later when there were only one or two pieces left and the New Year’s resolutions had kicked in.
1 cup walnuts or pecans, coarsely chopped
1 package yellow cake mix with pudding in the mix
4 large eggs
½ cup cold water
½ cup vegetable oil
½ cup light or dark rum
½ cup unsalted butter
¼ cup water
1 cup granulated sugar
½ cup light or dark rum
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Prepare one 9 or 10 inch fluted tube pan; generously grease the pan with shortening and dust with flour.
Sprinkle the nuts over the bottom of the prepared pan.
In a large bowl with an electric mixer, combine cake mix, eggs, water, vegetable oil, and rum; beat until thoroughly mixed. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula so the mixture blends evenly. Spoon the batter over the nuts and smooth the surface with the back of a large spoon.
Bake: Bake 1 hour or until a long toothpick, wooden skewer, or cake tester inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Remove from oven and place pan on a wire cooling rack to cool for 10 or 15 minutes. Poke holes in the bottom of the cake and spoon the glaze over it. Be generous. Let it sit for 10-15 minutes to soak in. Remove the cake from the pan and place the cake on the wire cooling rack to finish cooling. Drizzle the rest of the glaze over the top.
In a small heavy saucepan over low heat, melt the butter. Stir in water and sugar; bring to a boil and boil for 5 minutes stirring constantly so mixture does not burn. Remove from heat. Stir in the rum.
Use a long toothpick or skewer to poke multiple small holes in the bottom of the cake. Spoon the still warm glaze over the cake and allow to soak in. Remove the cake from the pan and repeat the process on the top part (which will have the nuts), until all the glaze is used up.
It can be impossible to find a cake mix with pudding anymore, so newer versions of this recipe call for using one 3 oz package of vanilla pudding mix and a regular yellow cake mix.
Although the original recipe does not call for drizzling the glaze over both the top and bottom of the cake, I did both, as I wanted it nice and flavorful. You do want it to soak in well so make lots of holes and let it sit for awhile before you remove it from the pan and repeat with the top.
I used a long two pronged fork to make the holes. I could not find my Bundt cake pan (did I still own a Bundt pan?) so I just used a plain round Angel Food cake tin. I also used butter instead of oil, a personal preference, and half brown sugar and half regular sugar for the glaze. (Someday I may learn to follow a recipe exactly!) The Pioneer Woman recipe called for 1/2 cup brown sugar mixed with 1/2 cup chopped nuts and sprinkled in the bottom of the pan, so I tried that this year and prefer the plain nuts version as it was too sweet and made the topping hard so that when I tried to poke holes in it with a nut pick, it started to crack, so I ended up just drizzling the remainder of the glaze over the top. Live and learn….a domestic goddess, I am not.
I added the rum while it was still boiling to burn off most of the alcohol. Of course you don’t have to use Bacardi brand rum…..any rum will do, but I do think a dark rum makes a nicer sauce. When I went out for a walk and came back in, the kitchen still smelled rummy. The batter tasted pretty rummy too, if you are the daring type who likes to taste raw batter. I stored the cake in a covered container in the fridge and it kept well. If it gets a bit dried out, microwaving it for about 15 seconds, makes it even better. In fact, served warm with coffee, it’s a nice way to ring in the New Year with family and friends.
If you have ever dreamed of packing in city life and moving to the country then this book is for you. Canadian author, Brent Preston turned fantasy into reality in this account of starting an organic vegetable farm and ten years of trial and error and back breaking labor before finally achieving a profitable outcome.
A must read manual for city dwellers and lovers of the organic food movement about a family who chose to leave the rat race and follow their dream of running a profitable organic vegetable farm. Dust off those fantaseeds and learn the gritty reality of where your food comes from.
Although he might have started out with a simple plan in mind, by the end of the ten years he had mechanized his operations, hired agricultural co-op students for summer labor, perfected a delivery service and marketing campaign, and ended up specializing in just three crops, one of which was lettuce. One of the things he did initially was to participate in the local farmer’s market every Saturday morning, but after a few years of this he packed it in. If you think about it, never a weekend off for you or your kids, up at 4 am to load up the truck and then later in the day unloading the unsold produce. Plus, while he said while he enjoyed the social aspect with the regular customers and the other vendors, there just wasn’t enough profit in it to continue. Better to cater to the fancy restaurants who would pay premium for anything fresh and organic.
There is no doubt we are what we eat and organic food is in – food in it’s natural state. Ask a person who has been lucky enough to live to be over ninety and chances are they grew up on a farm. So farmers markets are booming because organic food is so popular, but are the farmers doing well? I grew up on a farm, 100 acres, so I know how hard it is to make a living on one and how much work is involved. We had a dairy farm with Holsteins when I was a child and my dad had a small herd, three milking machines and a cream contract. He got up at 4:30 am every day to milk the cows, then he would come in, shave and have breakfast (bacon and eggs and perked coffee), as we were getting up for school, by 7:30 he would have left for his other job, home at 4:30, early supper, then milk the cows again, and he would be in bed by ten or falling asleep while reading the paper. On the weekends there were all the other chores to do. Even back then you couldn’t quite make a living on a farm without a second job, and with a growing family, he finally switched to beef cattle instead and cash cropped corn, soybeans and wheat, and while that was a lot of work too, we were finally able to take a family vacation without being tied to the milking schedule. Now farming is big business, a thousand acres or bust. There was an article in the local paper recently about the International Plowing Match which listed a combine as worth $500,000, and a tractor with GPS the same. My dad’s first tractor in 1948 cost $1000 and had a side seat upon which we kids would ride – heaven forbid, no one would let kids do that now. My elderly grandfather who died in 1951, was against the new-fangled modern machinery, as they had to sell his beloved Clydesdale horses in order to buy it. The last tractor my dad bought came equipped with air conditioning and a few years after he died, they had CD players, now they are steering themselves. While farming may be mostly mechanized now, organic vegetable farming is still labor intensive, especially during the harvest. It’s not a job many people want to do, and often the farmers must hire seasonal workers from Mexico or Jamaica to help out.
September is the best time of year to visit a farmer’s market as it is bursting with the last of the summer produce and the early fall harvest. While the peaches and berries may be almost done, the plums, pears, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, new potatoes and onions are coming in.
Our local market is open Wednesdays in the summer and Saturdays year round. Even in the winter, the inside of the old building is full of root vegetables and cheese and butcher shops, but in the nice weather the outside stalls see the most action. They really need more space, but it’s been in the same place for eighty plus years and you don’t mess with tradition. Located in an older residential part of town, there is one small parking lot and you have to drive round and round waiting for someone else to leave. With about 50 spaces for 200 people it’s kind of like musical chairs for grownups. Luckily, no one lingers long. While you can get a pour over coffee with freshly roasted beans, there is no cafe to sit in or cooked food available. We don’t see a lot of homeless people here but one day a woman with her cart piled high with all her worldly possessions asked me for some money, and with my hands full I shook my head no, but then after putting my produce in the car, I went to find her, and gave her ten dollars, which I suspected might go to drugs but who knows? A friend of mine keeps Tim Horton’s coffee shop gift cards to hand out for this reason, but there is something so very sad about begging in front of a place with so much plenty.
Even in the winter I will visit about once a month, because there is still cheese, and apples and oranges to buy, but I’ve often wondered why they open at 6 am. All the vendors are yawning by noon, or closing up early as they have been up since four loading their trucks. Wouldn’t 8-2 be more civilized hours? If they are supplying restaurants do they need to buy that early? If I don’t get there by 11:30 (or I’m still playing musical chairs), I may miss my favorite cheese stall or they might be out of Gouda.
The cheese wars can be fierce. There are two cheese vendors, right across from each other, and the Battle of The Gouda got so bad last year, they both decided not to post their prices. They will glare across the aisle if they think you have abandoned camp, but if they have run out, what is the alternative? My grandmother was Dutch, so I grew up on Gouda, the mild form, not the spicy seeded variety she bought from The European Shop.
The market cheese is better than at the grocery store and they will give you a sample if you are undecided. Even if you know you will like it, a sample will often tied you over if you got up early and missed breakfast. Buying cheese at the market is also much cheaper than in the grocery store so I usually stock up on aged cheddar as well as the Gouda. The one cheese vendor has recently retired and been bought out by the egg lady beside them, who I don’t think has gotten the hang of the weigh scale yet as she is very generous with her pounds, or kgs. I don’t buy eggs from her though as I can’t stomach those brown eggs with the bright yellow yolks. It reminds me of the eggs growing up on the farm, but I know free range chickens are all the rage and I am sure they are full of omega-3’s.
I like to look at the flowers, the glads are out now, but I seldom buy as I have lots of flowers at home.
I have my own semi-successful potager, so I don’t feel the need to buy tomatoes, cucumbers or lettuce, but one whiff of the dill brings back memories of my mother canning dill pickles. You can get a free bunch of dill with every large purchase.
The early apples are starting to come in, which will soon mean spies and pies. I can smell the cinnamon now.
My favorite time of year is when the summer fruits are available, the strawberries and peaches. You can get a bushel of overripe fruit for ten dollars and make a whole batch of jam for what you might pay for two jars. There is a jam vendor also, for when you run out, who also sells homemade fruit pies. So definitely there is a cost savings, and the food is so much fresher and better tasting, not to mention not loaded with tons of preservatives and artificial ingredients.
Not everything is better at the market though. Sadly, it is home to the world’s worst bakery which sells the most tasteless bread ever baked, not to mention tarts with uncooked dough and a scant quarter inch of fruit filling. The next time I walk pass, the owner asks if I want something so I venture a tactful complaint – I figure if no one tells him he can’t fix it. He tells me he hired a new baker so I bought butter tarts this time. Same thing. I gave up. There must be an art to making play-doh like that? Butter tarts are a national institution in Canada but I have a fine recipe inherited from my mother. We have much better bakeries in town but I suppose once a vendor has tenure in the building, it’s for life, and so many people don’t know what good pastry tastes like. But the bread – there’s simply no excuse. Bread is the staff of life, but so is good nutritious food. If you ate today, thank a farmer!
The farmer’s markets are full of peaches right now, a little past their prime which is perfect for jam-making. Last Saturday I bought a big box of peaches for $16 and made 3 batches of jam on Sunday as they had ripened so fast as to be almost spoiling – two of freezer jam and one the old-fashioned boiled on the stove way.
Unlike last year, where I experimented with different types of pectin, I just used the Bernardin No Sugar Needed brand as I don’t like jam to be too sweet, although I did add 2/3 of a cup of sugar as the package insert suggested. I like to be able to taste the peaches. Of course there is nothing so lovely as a big bowl of peaches peeled and sliced on their own, or mixed with some vanilla yogurt.
I woke up with a sore right shoulder (probably from carrying the box), so I recruited my mother to help peel the peaches, which she enjoyed very much as it reminded her of all the canning she did on the farm. My nostalgia for homemade jam was one of the memories which lead to the creation of the homeplace blog (see Out in The Country).
For more canning memories, you can check out last fall’s unpublished blogs, Jamfest and Lavender and Pears, (although it is not quite pear season yet).
Peach jam is best served in January during a blizzard while looking out the window at two feet of snow and dreaming of summer….
(200 words – almost makes up for the last weeks 4000)
Strawberry fields forever. It sounds like a strawberry lover’s dream, but fortunately the science of greenhouse genetics has come up with a new strain of strawberry plant which bears fruit for four months – June, July, August and September. Last year I planted two of these ever-bearing varieties which produced enough berries all summer to garnish a salad,
Mandarin salad with raspberry vinaigrette
and provide the odd nibble, both for me and the birds.
I think the birds feasted, whereas I was more like Emma of Jane Austen fame, the pleasure was in the anticipation. (see literary postscript below)
Although the farmers markets are now full of gorgeous red berries, there is a certain satisfaction to be had in growing your own or in visiting a farm to pick your own fruit, plus it is certainly cheaper. The farm outside town sells quarts for $6 versus $2.50 to pick your own, a significant savings if you are buying enough to make jam or freeze.
I remember going strawberry picking when I was a teenager, (long past the age when helping out was fun), and then spending a couple of hours at the kitchen table hulling the stems before my mother would place them in freezer bags. We always had a long freezer at one end of the farmhouse kitchen, a freezer so vast and deep that if you tried to get to the bottom of it to find the last roast or bag of corn you might topple in. Every summer those berries would go in the freezer and the next summer they would get thrown away. I remember my mother making a strawberry shortcake in the winter exactly once and nobody liked it because the berries were soggy, but there is a vast difference between fresh and frozen soggy.
Our farmhouse strawberry shortcake was not like any of those anemic-looking store-bought cakes or biscuits garnished with a few berries. My mother would start with a golden cake mix, (never white), baked in a long glass pan, and then crush a big bowl of berries (leaving some whole) with a bit of water using a potato masher, adding sugar to taste.
When it was served you would cut your own size of cake, crumble it up, and then the bowl was passed around with a big spoon and you would ladle on a generous portion, certainly enough to make the cake soggy and wet with berries and juice. Whipped cream was optional. I still make my strawberry shortcake this way. Guests who were not used to this old-fashioned version might find it a bit odd but in retrospect it was more like a trifle.
I had a wonderful homemade strawberry trifle last week at a church dinner and nothing beats homemade, but if you want a quick alternative just layer the leftover cake and berries with store-bought vanilla pudding cups (instead of custard) and garnish with whipped cream (from a can but scratch would be divine). It makes a nice easy desert plus it gives me an excuse to use my Downton Abbey thrift shop crystal goblets.
I made a non-alcoholic and an alcoholic version, adding some brandy to the bottom layer of cake to make it soggy, and it was very good indeed.
Last summer I made strawberry freezer jam for the first time (as part of my Jamfest frenzy), and into the freezer it went, where it still resides and will soon be thrown out……it must be genetic!
I am trying to be more conscious of food wastage, as studies show we throw out a quarter of the food we buy, but a fresh strawberry is such a wonderful thing and the season so short I think we can be forgiven for being extravagant in our stock-piling. Is there really any comparison between a fresh picked berry and those berries the grocery stores pass off as the real thing the rest of the year – tart, tasteless and hard and pulpy inside to withstand shipping.
Still on the rare occasion I need jam for scones I can easily buy a good brand of strawberry-rhubarb jam from my friend’s shop.
I did however make a fresh stewed strawberry-rhubarb preserve this year,
equal cups of strawberries and rhubarb, with a tiny bit of water plus sugar to taste, cooked down to a soft texture on medium heat, which I keep in the fridge and mix with vanilla Greek yogurt, because with all the varieties of yogurt available why don’t they make a strawberry-rhubarb flavor.
Literary postscript: Jane Austen’s Emma wherein Mr. Knightley has issued an invitation to Donwell Abbey, “Come and eat my strawberries: they are ripening fast.”…..”Mrs. Elton, in all her apparatus of happiness, her large bonnet and her basket, was very ready to lead the way in gathering, accepting, or talking — strawberries, and only strawberries, could now be thought or spoken of. — “The best fruit in England — every body’s favourite — always wholesome. These the finest beds and finest sorts. — Delightful to gather for one’s self — the only way of really enjoying them. Morning decidedly the best time — never tired — every sort good — hautboy infinitely superior — no comparison — the others hardly eatable — hautboys very scarce — Chili preferred — white wood finest flavour of all — price of strawberries in London — abundance about Bristol — Maple Grove — cultivation — beds when to be renewed — gardeners thinking exactly different — no general rule — gardeners never to be put out of their way — delicious fruit — only too rich to be eaten much of — inferior to cherries — currants more refreshing — only objection to gathering strawberries the stooping — glaring sun — tired to death — could bear it no longer — must go and sit in the shade.”
My sentiments exactly. 34 C today or 40 with the Humidex….
Several months ago, I was gifted an Instant-Pot Pressure Cooker. I would never have been brave enough to buy one myself. Anything that boasts about it’s ten safety mechanisms on the box makes me extremely nervous.
10 safety mechanisms
Of course, I realize the marketing team felt it necessary to reassure those who remember their mothers or grandmothers pressure cookers blowing up on top of the stove and coating the ceiling with the meal du jour.
Museum display of old pressure cookers
And then there was the Boston Marathon tragedy, all those lives lost and missing limbs. I remember a co-worker telling me several years ago that her husband had bought a pressure cooker from Amazon and staring at her quite puzzled as to why someone would want such a thing, in fact I even reminded her that the government was monitoring online purchases of such possible terrorist devices. I was blissfully unaware of the cult of the Instant-Pot, which can cook food two to six times faster, but her newly-retired-now-in-charge-of-supper husband was not, and anything that could promise to whip up a meal in thirty minutes might also conserve precious couch sitting time. If you check out Amazon, the reviews tend to be favorable, lots of “life-changing” comments, a few mentions that it stopped working after a few months, some complaints about older models, and recently there was a company recall on the Gem 8 in 1 model which overheated and caused a meltdown. I am probably already making watchers of the American TV show This is Us very nervous, (the main character dies after a crock-pot catches fire and burns the house down but this was in the seventies when crock-pots were new).
The Gifter was a millennial, and aware of my technological ineptitude, but also aware that I, the Giftee, would persist, with gritted teeth, until I figured it out. Like many of my generation, I lack the technology gene, the devil-may-care, let’s-try-this-and-see-what-happens attitude of younger people, who don’t remember when “it should work” usually required four hours of trying to restore it to it’s previous state. When I bought my first computer back in 1986, a glowing orange DOSdinosaur currently awaiting museum status in the basement, it did not even come with an instruction manual and there was no internet back then to google solutions. I still have PTSD from my first laptop in 2000 when I recall spending a whole afternoon reinstalling Windows the very first day. Now laptops have become so efficient nothing ever seems to go wrong with them, and on the rare occasion it does, they fix and upgrade themselves. I may hate it, but I must admit technology can be a wonderful thing.
Still, it was several weeks before I took it out of the box, but finally I read through the Instruction Manual and checked out all the menu buttons.
The Hissing Monster
It didn’t seem too bad until I read the troubleshooting guide – “Intermittent beeping after the cooker starts for awhile could indicate overheating due to starch deposits on the bottom – Stop the cooker and inspect the bottom of the pot.” Stop the cooker? How? There is no stop button. Hit cancel? Pull out the plug? Do a Quick Release before or after? After that, I was not brave enough to try the initial steam test. My mother was having eye surgery soon, and I had visions of burning my hands or face and not being able to drive the several hours to the clinic. I putit back in the box and it sat there in a corner of the dining room glaring at me while I did my best to ignore it, although once in a while I would stare at it and sigh.
Several weeks post-op, the Gifter (waves at Gifter), emailed me asking how the pressure cooking was going. The Gifter had also previously sent me an email recall of Insta-Pots melting down, but a quick model number check reassured me mine was not one of them. Nevertheless, I was starting to feel under pressure.
So feeling guilty for having ignored the gift for so long and with some trepidation, I did the recommended steam test first, which involved adding 3 cups of water and hitting the steam button for 2 minutes. This is to ensure your machine is not defective, and horror, might have to be returned. The steam shot out like a mini volcano then stopped. It didn’t seem too bad, but if you have small children or dogs be forewarned they might find the hissing part scary. (Lock up the cat too, it might hiss back). I know I did, and donned safety glasses just in case. I can’t quite figure out the mechanism of the steam release, as it does thiswhen the proper pressure is reached before it starts the cook countdown, and then after when it is done, it either releases naturally or you can do a quick release, but I am sure there is a sound scientific theory behind it.
Part of my dilemma, when researching the literally thousands of recipes online, is that I have the Mini-Duo 3-quart pot, and all the recipes are for the regular 6-quartsize, (there is also an 8-quart size). The Mini is designed for 2-4 portions, and people who don’t want leftovers – it’s ideal for singles, college students or empty nesters. I found it made four regular but not man-sized portions, but then I was careful not to overfill it past the 2/3 fill line, due to fear of clogging the release mechanism. I wasted several days trying to find out if I needed to reduce the cooking time as well as cut the recipes in half, but theInstant-Pot support person told me to use the regular cooking time in the recipe, (as in the oven temperature is set the same for one piece of chicken or ten), but then she said it depended on the thickness of the meat/food. It was all very vague. She finally came out and said there was no official cookbook for the Mini, although there are lots of regular recipes on the Instant Pot website. There is also an official Facebook page listed in the instruction manual, one forbeginner’s (and those who are scared) and one for cult members, (lots of gushing and pretty pictures). There is also a small recipe book in the box, with things like coconut fish curry, Moroccan lamb tajine, purple yam barley porridge and turnip cake (and no I am not making this up.) The only recipe I found appealing in the booklet was for roast beef, so I started with that.
I had bought a small sirloin tip roast but had to cut the end off to get it to fit in the pot. I stuck the rest in the oven with some baked potatoes. My dilemma then was whether to set the roast on top of the trivet thing, or to rest it on the bottom in the 2 cups of chicken broth. I posted the question on the Facebook support page and when I checked back later, two women were having a fight – one said resting it on the trivet would result in steamed meat and the only way to get any flavor was to let it soak, the other said it would be soggy and boiled if I set it in the liquid. Having spent the better part of the afternoon researching recipes online I was exhausted so I posted that I was going to take a nap and left them duking it out. I seared the meat on saute, plopped it on the trivet/steam rack (as it was also recommended by the tech support people and majority rules), added the broth, and set the timer for 40 minutes (the Instant-Pot recipe booklet said 50-60 min for roast, but I cut it back as mine wasn’t as thick), and went to take a catnap. I woke up feeling much better, and after doing a quick release, the meat was perfectly done and perfectly tasteless – it tasted boiled, to me anyway, but the recipient of the meal seemed pleased.
Blame it on the Facebook lady, who when I reported back on my lack of success, suggested I feed it to the dog, and since I do not own a dog the neighbor’s would have to suffice. This picture is taken through the fence, as the dog has the strange habit of peeing on my shoes in some strange form of enthusiastic greeting, and I am rather protective of my shoes, size 5 being hard to find. I did get the owner’s permission of course, (as some dogs only dine on dried dog food), but the dog was so happy, he will probably pee twice as much the next time he sees me. I know he doesn’t look happy but that breed looks perpetually sad.
Luckily, the end piece of roast I had put in the oven was tender, and the baked potatoes were nice and fluffy. With some salt and lots of butter, a baked potato is a perfectly fine meal, (it must be my Irish Roots). The Instant-Pot went back in the box…..and might have stayed there had the weather not turned cold again, and I turned into the Soup-Chef. I am a soup lover, and we were still having winter here. What is more warming than a hearty bowl of soup. Since then I have made Loaded Potato Soup (the potatoes cooked in 8 min, but I would have nixed the cream cheese), Potato and Leek Soup (again 8 min potatoes but I cheated and used a Knorr Cream of Leek dried soup mix to flavor the broth because I didn’t have any leeks, next time ½ package as it was too onioney),
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Potato and Leek Soup
Split Pea and Ham soup (using the leftover ham from Easter, too thick, too many peas), Cheesy Cauliflower Soup (the best so far, but maybe less onion), and Beef Stew (with cheaper stewing meat, but it was too watery, had to remove some broth before I thickened it, and with recommended cooking times ranging from 12 min to 45, I chose 20, and although the beef was very tender, the potatoes had turned to mush. Next time I will cook the beef for 15 min and add the veggies for 5 min). After the countdown is done, the keep warm function will come on, so you can add the milk, cheese or other ingredients to thicken the soup. I also made macaroni and cheese (perfect pasta in 4 minutes), but when I vented it a thick white liquid (instead of just steam), came spewing out all over the kitchen cupboard (which since my cupboards need replacing didn’t bother me too much other than I had to wipe up the mess). Page three of the instruction booklet warns that certain foods such as macaroni, noodles, spaghetti, oatmeal, split peas, cranberries etc may foam, froth, sputter and clog the release mechanism, “these foods should not be cooked under the pressurecooker settings unless directed in Instant-Pot recipes.” I was aware not to overfill it with foods which could expand, but were they suggesting that frothing and foaming like a rabid animal is normal – proceed at your own risk if you have nice kitchen cupboards? A puzzling, rather ambiguous statement considering the sheer volume of recipes available containing these ingredients.
The saute feature is also useful for searing the meat first in the pot, as it saves dirtying an extra pan on the stove. When using Saute of course you must keep the lid off. There is also a slow cooker function on the pot which I have not used, you have to have the lid in the venting position for that, or you can buy a special glass lid. There is also a yogurt maker function, which some people raved about. While browsing recipes someone had made sourdough bread in his, and I wondered about baking as deserts are my thing. I noticed there is a recipe for Crème Brulee in the small recipe book.
There are seven features on my model, (see pic below), but I see from the Website there are now 9 in 1 models which add cake baking and sterilizing functions, a Bluetooth model you can control from a smartphone or tablet, and a new Ultra Deluxe 10 model which can customize pressure and non-pressure cooking for the perfect combination, as well as 16 different functions, including make perfect eggs and probably also set the table, empty the dish washer and put out the garbage. Can kitchen robots be far behind? A pot like that deserves a name – perhaps Louis?
Seven different functions
To sum up, I see this machine as being particularly useful for busy working people who want a nutritious meal on the table fast, especially if you have prepped your ingredients before hand, plus it has the added advantage of fresh ingredients, (perhaps from your Potager), but it is definitely a learning curve and a process of experimentation. While I don’t think I’m a Pot-Head yet, and might never be, I think if we spend a little more time together we could become quite good friends.
Some additional tips:
The Instruction Manual, like most instruction manuals, is simultaneously ambiguous while also making it seem more complicated than it really is. Of course, I have not encountered anything which requires real troubleshooting yet.
To be reassuring, it is impossible to open the pot when it is in the locked position and under pressure. It also makes a cute little chirping R2D2 sound when you lock the lid or remove it. Do not open the pot until the float valve drops down and all the steam is released, either naturally or a quick release. To do a quick pressure release is not difficult, but you do have to be careful of the steam, use tongs or oven mitts to move the valve to venting, and keep your face away. Be careful also when taking the lid off the pot, in case it is steamy. Pay attention to your recipes and follow whichever release is recommended for the food you have in it…..a natural release might result in overcooked food, and vice versa. Some recipes combine the two, calling for a natural release of 15 min, then finishing up with a quick release. After a couple of uses, I was not worried about the pot exploding anymore, as it is quite sturdily built, and you cannot open the pot when it is locked and in the sealing position. I even put the safety glasses away.
The official Instant-Pot website has lots of recipes, a help line, and FAQ’s. I found the Youtube videos helpful also, more for quantities and cooking times, but make sure you look at the finished product as my beef stew recipe did not need 3 cups of water, (and that was one of the few Mini recipes I found). You must have the required minimum of liquid in the pot to achieve pressure, but that was overkill for the Mini. (The tech help line said a minimum of 1 cup for mini, 2 cups for the larger size).
The advantage of the smaller 3 qt Mini is that it takes a shorter time to reach pressure, (less than ten min), so this cuts way down on the meal prep time. I made soup in 30 minutes. Whereas the bigger pots (6 to 8 qts) can take up to 20 minutes to reach cooking pressure before they start the cooking countdown, so factor in the preheat time when deciding which size pot you want to buy, as well as the size of your family, and whether you want leftovers.
I am still skeptical about cooking plain meat, unless you like to add lots of spices, like in a curry or stew. (I tend to be more a plain meat/potato/veg person). As well as pasta, I am sure the pot would be wonderful and fast (4min) for rice dishes, as well as baked potatoes. I cooked my potatoes for the potato soup in 8min, but some recipes said 5min. As for the soups, I don’t think you get the same mingling of flavors as you would if you simmered the soup on the stove for several hours, but the quickness of the cooking might outweigh the difference. For that reason I wonder if the new Ultra Deluxe 10 in 1 model with it’s customized programs might be more beneficial in terms of taste, as you would have the best of both worlds, the flavor of a slow cooker and the speed of the pressure cooker.
I am not sure if Instant-Pot’s are popular elsewhere or if this is a North-American phenomenon? I read somewhere they were invented by a Canadian company. They were certainly one of the most popular Christmas gifts last year, and everyone I run into has a relative who got one for Christmas and loves it and gushes about it (members of the cult), or hasn’t taken it out of the box yet. I had an interesting conversation with a lady in the grocery store aisle when buying dried split peas. I asked if she knew the difference between the yellow and green variety, and she replied that her family wouldn’t eat anything that green unless it was St. Patrick’s Day, a valid point, so I bought the yellow ones. She had been given an Instant-Pot three weeks earlier but hadn’t used it yet, it was a re-gift from her sister who had been afraid to open it at all. Fear seems to be a common theme. One woman posted ecstatically on the Facebook group that she had found one in the original box at a thrift shop for $5. If you don’t want to spend too much, or think it might end up living in the Cupboard of Unused Appliances, you could check out the thrift stores fordonations by those who feared too much, but beware the safety mechanisms have been improved on the newer models, so I would check the age of the model. Also if you see a sale in a flyer, act fast as they sell out quick. So, chose your side – Team Instant-Pot or Team-Stove. For me I think it will be both, the Instant-Pot for quickness and convenience and the stove for a leisurely afternoon and a house filled with the aroma of something goodcooking.
(Disclaimer: I received no remuneration for this review, unless you count the bone the dog greeted me with on my next visit to the neighbors – see you can teach an old dog new tricks).