Tuesday, November 29, 2011

#317 Skuets

This is an old recipe made up of sweetbreads, bacon and mushrooms grilled on skewers. Indeed, the work skuet is a corruption of the word skewer. The recipe first pops up in the literature in The Compleat Housewife by E Smith (a Lady) first published in 1729. Here’s her recipe from the 1753 edition:
Take fine, long, and slender skewers; then cut veal sweet-breads into pieces like dice, and some fine bacon into thin square bits; so season them with forc’d-meat, and then spit them on the skewers, a bit of sweet-bread, and a bit of bacon, till all is on; roast them, and lay them round a fricasy of sheep’s-tongues.

Chef to kings: Antoine Carême

Forced meat is simply meat mixed with other ingredients to ‘force’ it to go further. I made forcemeat balls a while back (click here for the post). The recipe given here is a jazzed-up version from French chef Antoine Carême’s 1833 book L’art de la cuisine franҫaise au dix-neuvième siècle. According to Grigson, he praises it as an excellent English dish. Jane suspects he found out about it when he lived and worked in London as the Prince Regent’s chef. The changes he made were simple: lose the forcemeat, add some nice mushrooms and serve with bread sauce (see here for recipe) as well as some crunchy browned breadcrumbs.

Sweetbreads are not the easiest of cuts to get hold of these days: I remember speaking to a butcher in Houston who said he came by them sometimes, but if I wanted some, I would have to buy a whole ten pound tray. I was tempted but declined. What if I didn’t like them? Well I am glad I didn’t because I spotted a pack of frozen calves’ sweetbreads in Whole Foods whilst buying some other bits and bobs. I do love that shop.

For those that are not aware, sweetbreads are a type of offal and come from the thyroid gland, situated around the throat, of either calves or lambs. The thyroid, or thymus, gland produces the hormone thyroxin which is involved in the proper regulation of metabolism. Hyperthyroidism is a common disease where the sufferer produces too much, causing very high metabolism and, as a consequence, is rather skinny. I had a cat with it once. Other glandular organs are also sold as sweetbreads such as the pancreas, the sublingual glands of the tongue, the parotid gland of the cheek and also the testicles, though ‘throat’ sweetbreads are by far the commonest. Why are they called sweetbreads? Well, they are sweet because they taste richer and sweeter compared to meat, and they are bread because the old English word for flesh is bræd. I assume the bread that we get in loaves carries the name it does because Jesus said bread was his flesh during the Last Supper (I’m surprised he didn’t put anyone off).

Diagram showing the position of the thyroid, or thymus, glands

Sweetbreads were once very, very popular, but have now died a death. Though, like many of the old forgotten cuts of meat, there is a slight resurgence. I had never eaten them, but certainly wasn’t nervous about eating a big gland; I just always worry that the reason people don’t choose to eat them anymore is because they taste bad.

This recipe makes enough for four people:

Begin by preparing a pound of veal or lamb sweetbreads. To do this, dissolve a tablespoon of salt in some water and soak them for around an hour. Rinse them, place in a saucepan and cover with chicken or veal stock and mix in a couple of teaspoons of either lemon juice or wine vinegar. Bring to a boil and allow them to simmer until they go from pale pink to a whitish opaqueness.

In the case of veal sweetbreads, this took about 15 minutes. Remove the sweetbreads and allow to cool a little before removing any membranes or gristly bits. You must be careful here – Jane makes a point of mentioning this and she was right – don’t let too much of the sweetbread come away with the membranes. If using lamb sweetbreads, be extra careful, as you’ll end up with nothing! Press the sweetbreads by pressing a plate on them until they cool.

Turn the grill on to a medium heat. Whilst it warms up you can construct your skuets: cut the sweetbreads into chunks – 12 good sized cubes is best – cut around 8 rashers of streaky bacon to square shapes and brush any dirt from 16 medium-sized mushrooms. Take a skewer and add a mushroom, some bacon, a piece of sweetbread, a bit of bacon, a mushroom etc. I used four mushrooms and three pieces of sweetbread per skewer each separated with some bacon. Make four skuets in all.

Brush them with melted butter and grill them, turning occasionally for about 15 minutes. Whilst they are cooking, fry some breadcrumbs in butter until brown and crisp.

Serve with some of the browned crumbs and bread sauce as well as some nice vegetables.

#317 Skuets. What a revelation these turned out to be. A really good meal and the sweetbreads were by no means gross. They were very tender and sweet, and tasted faintly of oysters. I put this down to the fact there must be a lot of iodine in sweetbreads as it is required for them to function properly. The salty bacon and the juicy grilled mushrooms complemented it very well. The crumbs lent a nice bit of crunch and bread sauce is always welcome in my book. All-in-all a very good meal. 8.5/10

Thursday, November 24, 2011

#316 Oyster or Mussel Soup

There is no introduction to this recipe by Grigson in English Food. I am never sure whether Jane did this because she didn’t want to, or whether she thought she didn’t need to. It turns out the recipe goes back quite a bit with a huge amount of similar recipes cropping up during the nineteenth century, including examples from stalwarts such as Eliza Acton (1845), Alexis Soyer (1850) and Elizabeth Raffald (1769). Recipes also crop up in their droves in American cook books of the nineteenth century.

Oysters were hugely popular in British cuisine up until the early nineteenth century, and were at one point considered poor-man’s food, until the seas of Britain became polluted from the Industrial Revolution. These days, they are rather more expensive, though dropping in price now that our seas are much cleaner than they used to be. Farming helps keep the price of the oyster down and there are several successful farms around the UK now. The oyster farm is by no means a recent invention – the Gauls in the 7th century BC farmed them and sold them as far afield as Rome. It went a bit tits-up however when they were completely trounced by the Barbarians.

I chose to use oysters here, but you can use mussels for this recipe instead. There are several pluses to using them: if you are on a budget, they are good and cheap; and also it is easy to get the meat from them. If I were in England, I would probably go for mussels simply for the reason that shucking oysters is one major pain in the arse. However, here in America where seafood is very popular and you can walk into your local supermarket and buy pre-shucked fresh oysters in their own liquor from the fish section. Now that I know this, expect to see a lot more recipes that use oysters in the blog. Mussel farming, like oyster farming, is a main contributor to the reason they are cheap; they can be grown quickly and in great numbers on ‘parks’ made by hanging ropes down into the sea.

Eating seafood such as like oysters and mussels before starting this project would have filled me with dread – our family never ate things like this – but now they fill me with joy. I just love the little beasties.

This recipe is for 6 people (or 4 greedy ones).

Start off with your appropriate seafood: according to the book you’ll need either 2 dozen oysters or 2 pounds of mussels. The number of oysters you need will actually depend on the species of oyster available – 2 dozen if native oysters, or one dozen if the large Pacific or Atlantic species. Shuck the oysters, or alternatively leave them flat-side up in the freezer for a while until they open up for you. Either way, make sure you keep any oyster liquor. If you are using one of the large species, cut each one into two or three pieces.

If the mussel is your bivalve of choice, then give them a good scrub and pull out their beards should they have any. Tap each one: if the shells close, your mussel be alive and well, if it remains open, your mussel be dead, so discard it. Chuck them in a large pan, cover, and place over a high heat. After a few minutes, give them a shake and see if the mussels have opened. If they have they are cooked. Remove the meat from them and place them in sieve over a bowl to collect the juices. Don’t forget to keep any juices from the bottom of the cooking pan too.

Now the shellfish is prepared, you can get on with making the soup. Finely chop 4 shallots and soften them in 2 ounces of butter. Once golden, stir in two tablespoons of flour and let it cook for a minute or two. Find yourself a whisk and mix in the reserved juices and then 1 ¼ pints of light beef stock or veal stock. Season with sea salt, black pepper, Cayenne pepper and nutmeg. Cover, and simmer for 20 minutes or so. When you are ready to serve, add the oysters or mussels plus ¼ pint of double cream and some chopped parsley. Bring it up to a boil, turn off the heat and add a squeeze of lemon juice. Serve immediately.

#316 Oyster or Mussel Soup. This was a fantastic soup! The combination of rich creamy stock and fresh iodine-scented oysters was magic. One of the best soups I’ve done – and really easy too. If you’re doing a dinner party and you want to impress without breaking your back, I would definitely have a go at this. I shall try it again soon but with mussels and see if they are as good as the oysters. 9/10.

Monday, November 21, 2011

#315 Cornel Cherry, Rowanberry, Bilberry or Cranberry Jelly

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, I thought I would have a stab at this jelly so we could have the traditional accompaniment to our Thanksgiving dinner. Even if it wasn’t Thanksgiving, it would have been the cranberry jelly I chose from the four possibilities; the other three not being available in the USA. It isn’t strange that the cranberry is on the list of fruits here: we Brits have been eating cranberry jelly with our turkey on Christmas Day for ages now – since the end of the nineteenth century. Prior to that, people either had goose (for Southerners) or beef (for Northerners), but they still may have had the jelly.

In America, of course, cranberries and turkey were two of the foods eaten at the first Thanksgiving dinner and they have become traditional and necessary fayre. They were not the only foods eaten on that day though; the feast also consisted of cod, eels, bass, clams, lobster, mussels, ducks, geese, swans and venison. I wonder why the turkey endured but the others did not. I’d quite happily tuck into some nice roast swan.

The four fruits that can be used in this recipe all have one thing in common: they are very tart and therefore great to go with fatty foods like roast turkey, goose, ham and the like.

Cornel cherries are not cherries at all but the fruit of a dogwood tree. They are only really used to make jellies in Britain, though other countries use them to flavour spirits. You can buy dried ones in health food shops these days as a super-food, but are unlikely to find them fresh in shops. They are native to Europe so you might just find some growing wild. I am no botanist, but I will keep a look-out for them on my return to Britain. These seem to be Jane Grigson’s favourite out of the four as it’s the only one she actually mentions in her little introduction to the recipe.

Rowanberries – the fruit of the rowan tree – on the other hand are very familiar. Rowans must be one of the most common trees in Britain; equally likely to be found in forests, parks and gardens alike. I envisioned making this jelly using rowanberries, who’d have thunk I’d end up in America? Rowanberry jelly is traditionally eaten with venison or lamb. It seems crazy with so much of it just growing wild everywhere it isn’t put it to good use. Next Autumn I will make some.

Bilberries are more common in Scotland and Ireland than England and Wales, though some are found in the northern climes. They are similar to the American blueberry, but they are much darker and have a very dark blue flesh. If you can’t find any bilberry bushes, you might be lucky to find the fruit at farmers’ markets, but they’ll probably cost you an arm and a leg; they spoil easily and the plant cannot be cultivated with much success. The bilberry is the only fruit of the four that can be eaten unsweetened.

It might surprise you to learn that the cranberry is not a New World fruit (it surprised me!). There are several species of them around the globe. When we think of cranberries we think of the large plump ones from America, but two species are found in the UK and are smaller, paler and more tart that their American cousins; one is found across the whole of the country, and the other is just found in Northern Scotland. If you buy cranberries at a supermarket, however, they will be the American species.

Whichever fruit you choose make sure you give them a good wash and pick out any bits of twigs and leaves. Weigh them and then cut up the same weight of apples – don’t peel or core them though, just chop them up. Use a tart apple; Bramley or Cox if you are in Britain, Macintosh if in the USA. Put all the fruit in a large pot and cover with water.

Bring it up to the boil and simmer until the whole thing has become a nice mushy pulp. Whilst it is cooking, set up a jelly bag over a bowl. If you don’t have a jelly bag and stand, use a large piece of muslin or even a pillowcase. Ladle the mush into the muslin and let the clear juice drip through.

It is best to hang it on a cupboard door if you don’t have a stand. Be patient now: if you add any pressure to the pulp it will make your jelly cloudy. On the other hand, it will make it more flavourful, so it is a trade-off. Grigson goes for the squeeze. I did not, for these cranberries were not precious, but bilberries for examples are, so I would want as much flavour as possible.

When the juice has dripped through, measure the amount of juice you have, return it to a cleaned pan and add a pound of sugar for every pint of juice. Bring to a boil and then to ‘setting-point’. Setting point is when the natural pectin in the apples and berries forms a gel. To achieve this, you need to get the temperature to 104C (221F) and keep it there for a few minutes. If there was a lot of water in the juice, it will take a while to reach the correct temperature. If you don’t have a thermometer you can use a cold metal spoon – dip it in the boiling jelly and push with your finger, if it wrinkles, the juice is now a jelly. If you turn the heat down under the pan, you’ll also notice the surface trying to gel over. Skim off any scum that the jelly produced and pot into sterilised jars. To sterilise jars, put them and their lids on a tray in a cool oven for 35 minutes. Soak any rubber seals in boiling water.

#315 Cornel Cherry, Rowanberry, Bilberry or Cranberry Jelly. This was a very good jelly – nice and tart and not overly-sweet like some of the bought ones are. It is a shame that I didn’t pick any from the wild, but never mind. It’ll be good with turkey for Thanksgiving and all the other meats and cheeses I’ll be eating on the lead up to it. There’s something very satisfying about making jams and jellies, I think it is because there are just three ingredients – fruit, sugar and water – and they magically become transformed into delicious, clear rubies shining away in their little jars. Pretty and delicious. 8/10

Monday, November 14, 2011

#314 Boiled Turkey with Celery Sauce

"Eat up brave warrior, for tomorrow we're burning down your village"

Thanksgiving Day is just around the corner here in the USA so I thought the next two posts will have a Thanksgiving theme. I knew that there would be little chance of replacing the turkey on the day, but I wondered if cooking it in a different way might be possible. Plus if anyone reads this near Christmas, they might want to give it a go.

This is a classic: ‘A favourite dish of the Victorians and quite rightly so, because it is delicious – mild without insipidity’, says Jane. In fact, that is all she says on the dish. Boiling turkey was a popular way of cooking fowl, perhaps because it takes little time to cook; two hours maximum for a 15 pound turkey. I hoped it would make it deliciously juicy and tender. I did worry, however, that boiling it would sap what little flavour a turkey has even at the best of times.

The earliest recipe for boiled turkey with celery sauce I could find goes back to 1777 – it appears in a book by Charlotte Mason called The Lady’s Assistant to Regulating and Supplying her Table… (the full title is much longer than this!). More familiar contemporaries, Hannah Glasse and Elizabeth Raffald, also give recipes. Here’s a top-tip from Raffald:
Let your turkey have no meat the day before you kill it. When you are going to kill it give it a spoonful of alegar [malt vinegar], it will make it white and eat tender.”

So there you go.

I didn’t expect the recipe to go back much further as the turkey, being from the New World, would have entered Europe until the late fifteenth century at the earliest. However, I was wrong – it was celery that was the latecomer in England, appearing in the middle of the seventeenth century. Strangely, the earliest recorded mention of the turkey in Europe was in an account book from 1385; Phillippe of Burgundy enjoyed a roast turkey in one of his luxurious banquets. How on earth did it get there, I wonder?

Why we call these birds turkeys has always troubled me – after all they aren’t from Turkey. Nobody is sure, but it seems that the first English turkeys were brought to Britain by travelling merchants that had been given the gift of the birds after eating some whilst on a business trip to Turkey. So somehow the birds came from the New World, via Turkey, all before the New World was even discovered!

So if you fancy having a change from roast turkey, but want to keep to tradition give this recipe go:

The first thing you need to do is to get hold of a pot large enough to fit your turkey breast-side down. You need a turkey that weighs up to 15 pounds. Once your turkey is nestled in its pot, tuck in the following vegetables and aromatics: 4 sliced, medium carrots; a sliced, peeled turnip; a sliced stick of celery; three whole, unpeeled onions, each studded with three cloves; 15 crushed peppercorns; two bay leaves; 4 thyme sprigs; a bunch of parsley stalks; and a heaped tablespoon of salt. Then, add enough cold water to only just cover the legs.

If the turkey is smaller – and therefore younger and more tender – you can use less water. Cover and bring to a boil, then turn the heat down so the pot is only just simmering; a bubble or two every now and again is what you want. The turkey will be ready in up to two hours. Mine was ready in about 90 minutes. You can tell it is ready if the leg can be easily pulled from the body.
The sauce can be made while the bird is cooking, or it can be made ahead. You need to start by making three quarters of a pint of béchamel sauce. Next you need a whole head of celery. Remove and separate all the sticks and string them. This is easy to do: simply peel the backs of them, following the strings.

Cut the celery into strips and simmer them in salted water until they are tender, but still a little under-done. Around ten minutes should do you. Strain them, and return them to their pan with three ounces of butter and stew them a little longer.

Add the béchamel sauce and bring it and the celery to the boil. Next, liquidise it all and stir in a quarter of a pint of double cream. Season with salt and pepper.
The most difficult part of the recipe was to get the turkey out of the pot without putting myself or one of my guests in the nearest burns unit. Griggers suggests using a ham kettle, but I only had a stock pot. I poured as much of the stock out as I could (reserving it of course, for a future recipe). Then, I lay the turkey on its side in its pot and Devin coaxed it out onto its serving dish with some wooden spoons.
"It's a boy!"

It certainly didn’t look like an appetising thing, but hopefully appearances were deceptive…
This was its good side...

...and this was its bad.

#314 Boiled Turkey with Celery Sauce. Well I have to say it was very good: the meat was tender, though the breast still managed to be a little dry. The leg meat was perfect though – in fact it was the best leg meat I have eaten on a turkey. The celery sauce too was good, and Griggers was right when she said it was a ‘mild’ dish. I was good and homely food, perfect from the autumn and winter months, though I have to admit, I did miss the roasted taste and the crispy skin. Still very good though. 7/10.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

#313 Jellied Eel Mousse with Watercress Sauce

This is one of the recipes that when I started this project, really made me shudder. However, as I have cooked a couple of eel recipes, I have discovered that I quite like the slippery critter and it no longer seemed such a challenge. Plus all of the weird recipes thus far have turned out pretty good and I have lost all squeamishness; I have a philosophy that in rich countries people eat things because they taste good, not because they need to simply survive.

This recipe is an update of the famous London dish – jellied eels. I have never tried them before and thought it rather a shame that the classic recipe isn’t in the book. Jellied eel is particularly associated with the East End of London though it was eaten throughout the city and appeared sometime in the eighteenth century. At that time, the Thames was crawling with eels and therefore many, many recipes were created. When eel consumption reached a peak during the Victorian era, the Thames had become pretty disgusting with pollution and there were not many eels around, so they had be imported from Ireland. These days, most Irish eels are exported to Holland.

If you wanted to buy jellied eels in London, you would have had to go to an Eel Pie and Mash House. There not many around – they declined in number from over a hundred after the Second World War to just a handful today. The most famous – and London’s oldest – extant Eel and Pie House is Manze’s in Peckham. I have never been to one of these places, but I shall try my best to frequent Manze’s next time I pop down to London. I doubt if they will ever regain popularity, even though eels have now returned to the River Thames.

Inside Menzie's (photo from The Guardian)

This is an ‘updated’ recipe from chef Guy Mouilleron, who apparently thought of an eel slithering through a bank of watercress and thought the two might might together. The recipe is outdated; fish mousses are certainly a thing of the 1970s and 1980s; when English Food was first published.

Eels are quite difficult to get hold of, but the massive Asian supermarket in St Louis has farmed live ones – luckily I didn’t have to do away with them as I had to for the first time I cooked an eel dish. There is one more eel dish to do in the book, so I suppose I shall be trying that one soon.
To make the mousse, you need to prepare your eels. You’ll need around 2 ½ pounds of eel altogether. If you can get the fishmonger to skin and fillet them for you, all’s the better. I didn’t have such a luxury, but found it quite easy now that I have had certain amount of experience with eel preparation. First of all, give them a wash and wipe away any slime that may remain on the skin. To skin an eel, you first need to cut through the skin all around its neck, behind the gills. Next, either nail the head to a wooden chopping board or grasp the head with a tea-towel. Now you need to pull on the cut skin and peel the skin off like a stocking. It is quite difficult to get a purchase, so sprinkle the neck liberally with salt to create some much-needed friction. Once skinned, it is pretty easy going after that; gut it, cutting from the head-end to an inch or so past the vent so that the kidneys as well as the other internal organs can be removed. Filleting was a bit tricky – but really it was just like filleting any fish really. Use a sharp knife and cut from the head end to the tail end, pressing down on the fish with your other hand, which creates pressure and makes the cut much easier to make.

Cut away about a third of the messy parts and use trimmings to make the mousse itself.

To do this, you need to liquidise them in a blender along with three egg whites. You will produce a rather bad-looking blob of grey matter.

Place it in a bowl that is sitting in iced water. Whip ¾ of a pint of double cream until it is thick, but not stiff, and fold it into the eel mixture slowly. Season the purée and the neat eel pieces with salt, pepper and nutmeg.

All is prepared now for the construction of the mousse: you need to use a terrine for this, or failing that, a small loaf tin. If you want to turn out the mousse onto a serving dish, it is best to line it with cling film (don’t worry, it won’t melt). Now spread a third of the mixture over the bottom of the terrine and then add half of the eel fillets, then more mixture and so on, until all is used up.

Cover the terrine or tin with a double-layer of foil and then steam it for 1 ¼ hours. I used a fish kettle for this, but if you don’t have something appropriate, you can pop it in a roasting tin containing boiling water and bake it at 160-180C (325-350F). When cold, put it in the fridge overnight.

The next day, make the sauce. You need a good-sized bunch of watercress. From the bunch, pick and reserve enough leaves to make around a tablespoon when chopped. The rest, liquidise in the blender, using the smallest amount of water possible. Pass the watercress slurry through a sieve and add ¼ pint of double cream and whisk it until it thickens. Season and stir through the reserved, chopped leaves. Serve a slice of the mousse with a generous spoonful of the sauce.

#313 Jellied Eel Mousse with Watercress Sauce. My God, what a sight that one was! It looked like a massive chunk of cat food and the sauce was so garish. The taste of the mousse wasn’t too bad, but the texture seemed so wrong. If it had been eaten warm as a creamy stew, it probably would have been delicious. The mild fish and the grassy watercress did not go together in my opinion. A big shame because was waiting to be surprised by its loveliness. I think I would have been happier with some proper jellied eels. Keep the fish mousse where it belongs: in the past! 2/10