Author Archive for LaurieB

Modern Cookery and Flavored Vinegars

Modern Cookery and Flavored Vinegars

I return to the world of Victorian cooking fresh from a February vacation with two children in the grip of cabin fever and a roof that decided to relocate, in part, to my front lawn.  It’s good to be back in the land of butter and sheep’s head!

In the rare free moments I’ve had over the past two weeks I cheated on Beeton and spent time exploring Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families.  Acton was a poet-turned-cookery author whose Modern Cookery predated Mrs. Beeton’s book by about 16 years.  Beeton actually jacked over one hundred recipes from Modern Cookery for her own book; what a naughty little devil she was.  In any case, you can read Eliza’s book online here, or read the great bio of her (including a poem) here.  Her poetry, by the way… not too bad.  Don’t expect it to bleed into the cook book in any significant way, although she does get lyrical on occasion (to boil lobsters, “throw them into plenty of fast-boiling salt and water, that life may be destroyed in an instant.”  Poor, lifeless, tasty lobsters.)  It’s not that it’s a poorly written book – it’s not – but it’s hardly a lyrical masterpiece.  Instead, it’s collection of simply described recipes, written out with amounts and specifics not often included in books of this kind prior to its publication.  I would say that Mrs. Beeton takes things a step further in terms of standardizing measurements, and she also gives some more suggestions on how to use certain sauces and other dishes than Acton does.  But all in all, I’ve really enjoyed reading Modern Cookery, and I’ve only just scratched the surface.

I choose to try out three of her recipes for flavored vinegars.  Mrs. Beeton uses them with some variations in her book, but since these are not complicated recipes, nor are they earth-shatteringly new ideas on how to flavor vinegar, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they were stolen.  I tried Acton’s Green Mint Vinegar, Celery Vinegar, and Cucumber Vinegar.  They each involve, very simply, pouring vinegar over the main ingredient, adding salt and pepper (and in the case of the celery, cayenne pepper – really), keeping it closed for about one to two months, then straining and using it.  In Mrs. Beeton’s book she suggests using these types of vinegars for salads, and Acton mentions using them in any sauce which requires an acid.

I had a hard time remembering not to jam the jars full, since I was not pickling the ingredients, but rather flavoring the vinegar with them.  I’m curious how they will taste, especially the mint and celery, and I plan on using the mint for something when I’m done with it, as Acton mentions can be done.  So…  at the end of April perhaps I’ll try these with the first greens of the season!  Any other ideas on what to use them for are quite welcome and encouraged.

Hard Labor with Costume Changes (and Preserving Pineapple)

Hard Labor with Costume Changes (and Preserving Pineapple)

It’s been a busy couple of weeks, and I was feeling a little sorry for myself until I started flipping through Inside the Victorian Home by Judith Flanders.  I’m a working mom with a long commute, so I am, legitimately, an overworked and often tired person.  Compared to a Victorian-era maid-of-all-work, however, I’m a huge slacker who sits around with her feet up all day.  All I need is some bon bons to complete the picture.  Judith Flanders creates some pretty vivid descriptions of the kind of life these women led and the hard labor (complete with costume changes!) they put into every day.  Here’s just a quick peek:

“… She folded up the hearth rug for shaking outside and laid a coarse cloth over the carpet so that she could put down the blacklead box, the cinder sifter, and the fire irons.  Cleaning the grate, fire irons, and the fender – which had to be done daily – was supposed to take twenty minutes but often took longer.  The fire was then lit to warm the room before the family came downstairs for breakfast.  Then she cleaned and rubbed the furniture, washed the mantelpiece and any ledges, dusted the ornaments.  She strewed damp, used tea leaves, rinsed the day before, over the carpet to help collect the dust, then swept them up again…  This was the last of the early-morning dirty work, and now the maid was expected to change into a clean cotton dress, apron, and cap.”

And this was just a very small piece of what she did after getting up, cleaning the kitchen, lighting the range, cleaning the boots, and making breakfast.  The family, presumably, is not even awake at this point in the day.  For me, loading the dishwasher after sitting at a desk all day suddenly seems like a breeze.

I’ve just scratched the surface of  Inside the Victorian Home, but I’m enjoying it so far.  I’ve been struggling to put Mrs. Beeton’s book in an accurate context, and this book is helping me move from the Victorian England I know from movies and half-remembered History classes towards something a bit more fact-based.  I’ll put together a review when I’ve had time to get through the whole thing.  Maybe after I shake out the hearth rug and put on a clean dress.

So what I’ve managed to squeeze in between being super busy and reading about women who were even busier is Preserved Pineapple, for Present Use  [1579].  Notice the contradiction in the title?  This isn’t the recipe for Preserving Pineapple [1578] which keeps for some unspecified amount of time; this recipe is for pineapple that’s preserved but that doesn’t keep (Beeton’s recipe actually advices, “It must be eaten soon, as it will keep but a very short time.”).  So this doesn’t fall under the “preserved foods” section of my Beeton adventures; it’s actually closer to comfort food.

The recipe is quite simple – you boil the peel and core of a pineapple for 15 minutes, strain it, boil the pineapple in the same liquid for 10 minutes, add as much sugar as you want (“to sweeten the whole nicely”), boil it again for 15 minutes, and then you’re done.

Doesn't look like such a great idea, does it?

This recipe actually fits best under the category “things you boil the hell out of” and I expected it would taste like most things that undergo that sort of treatment – bland, flat, just generally unappealing.  But Beeton surprises as only she can.  Boiling a pineapple for an ungodly amount of time  actually improves its consistency – it’s not at all stringy or tough, as it can sometimes be when it’s fresh, but it’s also not mushy.  It held its shape but came apart easily with the back of a spoon.  And it had a full, almost smoky flavor that I wasn’t expecting.  I might actually try using this in a savory recipe if I make it again.  The addition of a cinnamon stick would have make it pretty interesting, too.  I added just over a cup of sugar and the finished product was fairly sweet, but it’s easy enough to adjust the sweetness up or down, depending on your preference.  So overall it was a good experience – not a lot of effort for a surprisingly pleasant outcome.

Still doesn't look like much, but the taste is good.

Still, it’s more work than I’m generally inclined to do for what is essentially canned pineapple in light syrup, and it would be a criminal use of really good, fresh fruit.  Plus, my eight year-old said it tastes like, “Halloween candy, like, five days after Halloween,” so it might not be to all tastes.  But if you’ve got a less-than-perfect pineapple on hand give it a try.  It makes the house smell great and gives a bit of a different take on a familiar fruit.

The Citrus Saga Continues

The Citrus Saga Continues

This past week was spent babysitting lemons as a part of my lemon pickling experiment.  I periodically turned over a salted lemon without a peel and regularly stirred two brining lemons with peels, looking for signs of some magic alchemy taking place.  Sadly, none was immediately evident, which was not surprising but was disappointing, nonetheless.  Still, I put my faith in Beeton and dutifully tended my citrus for six days.

As soon as I had free time this weekend I sprang the lemons from their respective brines.  There was little obvious change, but I did notice that the lemons with the peels on were slightly heavier than they had been before brining, and their peels were slightly smoother.  The one without the peel on had shrunk a bit, as if it knew what awaited it.  And (spoiler alert!) what awaited it was not good.  I tackled this one first, following Mrs. Beeton’s instructions to heat the lemon to dry the salt.  Not having a fire in the same way I imagine she’s describing, I put the lemon in a heavy lidded pot over a very low flame on my gas stove.  Since the idea is, as I mentioned, to dry the salt – for what reason I’m not exactly sure, as the next step has you pouring boiling vinegar over it all – I think it would have been wiser to do this in a low oven.  But I’m apparently more of a trial and error cook and in this case that was pretty much exactly as it turned out – I tried it and it was an error.  Insert rim shot here.   The problem was that, even on a super low flame the salt on the outside burned before the rest of the salt was even remotely dry.  Eventually, the entire business got brown and stuck to the pan, and when I tried to get it up the lemon pulled apart and it all went to hell.

poor, sad lemon

I didn’t bother continuing with the process, because there was so little left to keep and it really needed to be put out of its misery.  RIP, pickled lemon without the peel.

On the plus side, the lemons with the peel on fared much better.  I boiled them, as instructed, and can recommend this as an air freshener, too.  The lovely, lemony smell almost covered the boiling vinegar smell that preceded it.  After boiling, the lemons were even heavier and smoother than before.  Who knew how much liquid a lemon could absorb?  Once they were cool I popped them in sterilized jars (Mrs. B doesn’t specify that you must sterilize the jars but the USDA canning site has scared me so deeply that I fear I will soon be sterilizing our silverware and plates and anything, basically, that comes into contact with our mouths) and watched the cloves and other spices swirl around.  It was kind of dazzling, to be honest, even if it’s not the most amazing culinary feat ever attempted.  I have just been kind of skittish about canning in any way (picking, fermenting, whatever) because of the aforementioned site o’ horrors.  It’s a great site, really, a deeply informative site, but the underlying message I pick up is that if I don’t do everything just right I will die.  The minute the jar is opened, instant death.  So you can see how spending a week with a couple of lemons and finally wrangling them into what I assume is a fairly disease-free environment for what I hope is about a year or so might bring a measure of satisfaction.

Lemons pickled (or, pickling), I decided to end the Beeton-related activities for the weekend.  I’ve got my eye on some more comfort food recipes for this week, though (bread and butter fritters, for example?), and the sawdust quest from my first post continues.   And – prepare for another rim shot – the picture I grabbed of my pickled lemon includes, I kid you not, my favorite uninvited guest…  Eggs, anyone?

Hello, my little friend in the background.

Kidnapping chickens and pickling lemons

Kidnapping chickens and pickling lemons

Week two, for me, of all things Beeton and the going is best described as… slow.  Both in terms of what I wanted to have done by now and in terms of what I’m actually tackling this time around.

First off, the egg experiment promised in my last post has come to a stand still.  The first problem is that it requires really fresh eggs, and every time I acquire really fresh eggs I eat most of them immediately.  It’s like eating a different food altogether when you compare them to grocery store eggs.  People rave about the incredible yolks of fresh eggs and I get it, but for me the biggest difference is in the whites.  They set up better, they taste better, they look better… The whole thing is just a big improvement on mass marketed eggs.  My neighbor keeps chickens but uses all the eggs for his family (or perhaps they have them packed away in sawdust).  I have been showing some restraint and getting them from a lovely woman at work instead of sneaking over and raiding the neighbor’s coop.  Their chickens, however, keep getting into my yard.  I may start holding them ransom, and offer them back in exchange for a dozen eggs per bird.  Or maybe two dozen… We’ll see.

Returned without a ransom note. This time.

That’s not really the biggest issue, though; I’ve been known to not eat delicious things I shouldn’t eat.  No, the biggest problem is the sawdust.  I live in a fairly urban area, admittedly, but I’m surrounded by vast stretches of deeply rural land.  Like, unincorporated,  no local government, rural-type country.  And yet sawdust seems to be a rare commodity.  I enlisted a little help from someone who is married to a carpenter for heaven’s sake, and the best he could do for me was wood chips.  Wood chips?  Not the best thing, I imagine, in which to preserve an egg.  So I’m going to go begging at a lumber yard, I think.  Or I might just do a little scavenging behind a big box hardware store.  We’ll see.  I’ve found that a lot of people are interested in how this thing is going to work – and so am I – so I’ll find a way to put this together soon.

In the meantime, I’m tackling a much slower project – pickling lemons.  Mrs. Beeton offers two recipes (numbers 455 and 456); one with the peel on and one without.  I’m trying both.  The one with the peel on takes about a year or “rather sooner” (what a tease); the one without the peel takes about nine months.  I know, there are many recipes out there, in books and online, that are much quicker (including this one for an Indian pickled lemon I might also try – it only takes two months and looks really flavorful), but I am throwing in my lot with this Victorian-inspired ultra-slow food madness.  And I’m looking forward to it, honestly.  I like the idea of some lemons pickling over here, eggs in saw dust over there, and so on.  Sure, my kitchen is best described as microscopic, but it will be nice to have some long-term food-related projects going, especially during these months when the garden is on hold.

The first steps for both are fairly simple.  The lemons with the peel just have to be brined for about a week; the lemons without the peel have to be packed in salt for about the same length of time.

The peeled lemon in salt.

After that (and you’ll get pictures of this next week), it’s the pretty standard process of packing them in a jar and adding vinegar and assorted spices.  Then the waiting… If it works and I can resist I’ll crack open the peeled lemons in the fall, and the unpeeled ones around Christmas.  In the meantime, I’ll keep you updated periodically and will pick a slightly less long term project for next week.

Scotch Woodcock

Scotch Woodcock

I’ve mentioned this new blog to a few people and they almost invariably ask, “Why?”  It looks to me like the reasons people are writing here are as varied at they themselves are, but for me it’s part of a trend of doing for myself.  It’s very simply that the idea of going back to some of the old ways of doing things around the house to find out what’s been forgotten appeals to me.

So what has been forgotten?  Something inherently missing in today’s world?  Absolutely not.  I am infuriated by “the good old days” syndrome in which the past is fine and wonderful and today is somehow weaker and wrong.  And believe me when I say that Mrs. Beeton and I have some fundamental differences of opinion.  For example, she says of the tomato plant that it “has a most disagreeable odor” whereas I’ve been known to stick my face in one and swoon.  And I won’t be taking up her suggestion of beef tea when I’m ill (the whole “Invalid Cookery” section really kills).  But there are things we have forgotten how to do that are described here; ways of preserving food and ways of working with vegetables we don’t find in the grocery store or at the nearest chain restaurant are two that interest me most.  That’s primarily what I’ll be talking about in my posts, in addition to exploring whatever random Victorian-era comfort food tickles my fancy.  And gravy, good lord, Mrs. Beeton’s world is all about gravy, and I am right behind her on that.

The first thing I was planning to do here was chronicle my attempts to keep eggs without refrigeration.  Mrs. Beeton offers several suggestions, and I’d figured that by now I’d have been able to get my hands on a big box of saw dust and some extremely fresh local eggs.  It is, however, harder to find saw dust than you might think.  Still, the call has gone out and by this time next week I should have something to show you.  In the meantime, let me introduce you to my friend, Scotch Woodcock.  This falls under the “random comfort food” category.  I was thinking about doing Welsh Rare-bit but was, honestly, seduced by the name “Scotch Woodcock.”  The recipe is quick, so I include a slightly abbreviated version below.

Scotch Woodcock

1653. Ingredients – A few slices of hot buttered toast; allow 1 anchovy to each slice.  For the sauce – ¼ pint of cream, the yolks of 3 eggs.

Mode. – Separate the yolks from the whites of the eggs; beat the former, stir to them the cream, and bring the sauce to the boiling point, but do not allow it to boil, or it will curdle.  Have ready some hot buttered toast, spread with anchovies pounded to a paste; pour a little of the hot sauce on the top, and server it very hot and very quickly.

Ok, so, I first went out to get some good bread with a little heft.  This is the only part of the recipe that worked for me.

Damn fine bread.

The recipe appears super simple, but it’s that “to the boiling point, but do not allow it to boil” part that killed me.  I curdled the damn sauce every time.  This is partly due to my being a generally impatient person, and partly due to the difficulty of not boiling such a small amount of cream mixed with egg yolks.  Eventually I put some sauce on the bread, even though it was essentially like really runny scrambled eggs.  It tasted fine, but looked frightening.  Feel free to turn away.

Scotch Woodcock FAIL.

Would I make it again?  Possibly, but I would skip the anchovies and tart the whole thing up with some fresh dill or maybe even curry powder.  Other ideas?  I’d love to hear them.