Tag Archive for 'Victorian cuisine'

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.

Introduction and Christmas 2009

Introduction and Christmas 2009

My goal for 2010 is to explore Victorian cookery though the recipes in a classic of the era, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, henceforth referred to as “Beeton’s” or “Mrs. Beeton’s.” I am using an out-of-print, unabridged 1969 facsimile of the first edition. I am going to prepare a meal from this book weekly as an informal but sumptuous family-style supper, and will crank up the fanciness for special occasions like parties or holidays.

My goal is not to kill myself always making everything from scratch. I know the Victorians jumped at shortcuts and conveniences when they could (like a staff of eight, ho ho), and I will too, when it seems necessary. When I want to go crazy and make stock and candy my own orange peel and basically do the work of a staff of servants all by myself, I will. I am going to make some food that is uncommon on our tables now–I will make aspics, will attempt to source less-common game, and will explore the world of organ meats, something I’ve avoided in the past. I think this will fulfill one of my primary goals, which is to amuse myself.

I did a three-course Victorian-style meal for Christmas, based on two different December menus that are presented in Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management. If you have an interest in cookery and were raised eating Western European-style cuisine, Victorian cooking is not going to be that out there.

There are a few things I’ve noticed about the December menu, and the recipes in general. It sounds extremely obvious, but I am used to doing whatever I want, whenever I want, with any food I want. Your typical modern general cookbook is going to have variations on dishes from all over the world, or will combine cuisines.

If I felt like making a fresh strawberry dessert yesterday, I certainly could have, though the results would probably not be as delicious as the same dessert in June. I understand the Victorians were fond of hot houses and greenhouses and even had access to exotic foods like pineapple if they were wealthy enough and were interested in pursuing in cultivating tropical fruit. Beeton’s is directed at a more general audience and seems to have been affordable to the masses, so the recipes and menus have a seasonal focus. There are even asides in the recipes, such as “when parsley is not available.”

In a nutshell, what this means is that a December menu is going to focus heavily on game, onions, and other root vegetables. Here is the menu for my dinner:

Christmas Menu '09

I served five people and cherrypicked from menus 2116 and 2118, but ultimately decided to roast a stuffed duck, because they are delicious and I hadn’t made one in yonks. Most recipes were scaled WAY back because originally I planned to serve two people and a preschooler, but lo, my sister and her husband did not have plans and so they came to dinner. Of course with a full-sized duck and pudding in the offing, there were little tastes of something, and loads of others.

A Whole Stuffed Duck

I asked everyone to be very honest and restaurant-critic-y, because I was more interested in the true take on recipes rather than fluffing my ego because I’d worked for hours preparing dinner. Hits were the béchamel, which, as I mentioned in a Christmas Day blog post, was different than what you see now, with stock, arrowroot (I used cornstarch), and cream as a base, rather than flour, butter and milk. Same principle (fat, thickener, dairy), but remixed. The sole in cream sauce and fruit-ices (one part cream to one part mashed/pureed fruit, sugar to taste) was also declared a success, making creamy dairy the winner of the day.

The meal was very heavy on “breadcrumb,” which meant croquette coating, duck stuffing, and pudding component. I decided not to go all medieval on dinner and bought a couple loaves of “pain paysan,” a loaf made by a local company that seemed French-bready–no bells and whistles, just a nice chewy white bread that would probably hold up to being coating and stuffing. I could not bear to stuff a duck with crumbs (ugh, the resultant sog) so I chopped them into small cubes.

Plum Pudding-Now with 100% Fewer Plums

The most interesting part of this for anyone who is into this level of napkin-gazing was the unexpected. I have never prepared rabbit, and I was shocked at how little I was advised to actually eat off it–back legs and saddle. As I write this, the rest of the once-raw carcass is becoming stock along with the cooked duck leavings.

That is one sexy MF Rabbit

The rabbit led to the other big surprise for me–the mulligatawny soup. I did not expect it to be half as tasty as it was. It called for “pounded almonds” to be added at the end, I reckon as thickener, and I did the best I could with some almonds and the food processor. I served it over rice, as Beeton’s suggests. Since that was my favorite, I will reproduce it here with my notes, and I will list the rest of what I made with the paragraph numbers [n.b. Link to be added to forthcoming menu page], which is how Beeton’s is organized.

Mulligatawny Soup

2 tablespoons of curry powder
6 onions (I used 3; 6 would not be too many)
1 clove of garlic (I used 6)
1 oz. pounded almonds
a little lemon-pickle, or mango-juice, to taste
1 fowl [smaller] or rabbit
4 slices lean bacon
2 quarts medium stock (this refers to quality, I used Pacific Brand chicken broth)

Slice and fry onions of a nice color; line the stewpan with the bacon [I chopped the bacon and fried everything else in the subsequent drippings, dropping the bacon into the stewpot I used]; cut the rabbit or fowl into small joints and slightly brown them [I tossed the rabbit in flour and lightly fricassed the chunks]; put in the fried onions, the garlic [I minced and gave it a quick panfry as well] and simmer gently till the meat is tender; skim very carefully, and when the meat is done, rub the curry powder to a smooth batter [I added the curry powder with the stock]; add it to the soup with the almonds, which must first be pounded with a little of the stock [it was fine just stirred in]. Put in seasoning or lemon-pickle or mango-juice to taste [I topped with a dollop of homemade curried green tomato pickle], and serve boiled rice with it.

Time–two hours. [This is about how long I stewed it.]

Related Links:

Complete Searchable Mrs. Beeton’s (Whole chapters posted, so you have to kind of know what you are looking for.)

How to Joint and Prepare a Rabbit for Cooking
Part One
| Part Two

History of Mulligatawny Soup

My Complete Christmas Set (with family mixed in with food)