Friday, December 23, 2011

Brunswick Stew

We are pulling Christmas together here in Ohio. Everyone's pitched in wherever they can, and the house is finally starting to look holiday-ish. We're winding garlands around the banisters and laying boxwood across the mantle.

We keep asking each other, "What are we forgetting?" "Are we in good shape this year?" Because usually Christmas Eve feels rather frantic.

And aside from some last-minute wrapping, we are in good shape. There was time enough for baking cookies this morning, and throwing together a quick cranberry-banana bread yesterday afternoon. I even managed to make Brunswick stew, our Christmas Eve staple. Never mind the fact that we're having Christmas Eve dinner at my aunt and uncle's house; it's tradition, so we have to make it. You know how it is.*

I'm not sure where this tradition of serving Brunswick stew came from, since it supposedly originated in the South. And our family is solidly New England/mid-Western. Opposing sources claim that the stew originated in Germany, which might make a little more sense, given my mother's German ancestors. Whatever the source, it's been a family staple since my mother was little.

It's a rustic sort of dish, full of meat that's falling apart and potatoes that melt in your mouth. If you're being really true to the colonial Williamsburg recipe, you'd make it with "two Squirrels," but I decided to grant them a reprieve and use up the last of the Thanksgiving turkey.**

You simmer the turkey, a half pound of ham, and a sliced onion in about three quarts of water for a time, until the water has turned to a  fragrant broth. Since I used pre-cooked turkey and ham, I didn't have to wait the couple hours that it would take for the meat to cook through.

Then you add lima beans, corn, four diced "Irish Potatoes" (I used Idaho, since I'm not quite sure what Irish potatoes are), and tomatoes. I'll be honest: I really cheated here. We had frozen lima beans and corn, as well as canned tomatoes, so the only fresh item I stirred in was the potatoes. But sometimes, during the holiday season, you have to cheat a little so it all gets done.

I tossed in a few dried herbs that might have been floating around a colonial kitchen--rosemary, tarragon, parsley--then simmered the stew for about an hour. It was finished just in time for a quick meal with crusty cracked-wheat bread, another family staple that we make whenever we have the chance.

The stew was just the thing for a chilly winter's night. Warm, hearty, filling; it tasted like Christmas. Funny how you associate holidays with special foods.

If you're celebrating Christmas tonight and tomorrow, I wish you the best of the season, full of your favorite traditional foods (and maybe some new ones, too). And if you're not partaking in the holiday, I hope you have a few good meals set aside for this chilly weekend. Try the Brunswick stew! Just spare the squirrels, okay?

* The stew served as our Christmas Eve-Eve meal last night, which was just as good.
** Which was frozen, don't worry. And it was a Williamsburg turkey, so we were being extra historically accurate!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A Sallad of Anchovies

Yesterday was a cobbled-together sort of night. Chores like cleaning the hamster's cage. Piano practice. A dinner of leftovers and random bits and bobs. Some schoolwork. The 1959 version of The Shaggy Dog (I don't care how silly it is, it was one of my favorite movies when I was little). Mulled wine before bed.

Overall, a very nice night.

Let me tell you about this anchovy salad. I'm one of those weird people who loves anchovies. LOVES. In a Caesar salad, on pizza (much to Josh's dismay), in pasta, mixed in with tuna salad....they are salty and deliciously fishy. I tend to keep a can or two in my pantry in case of emergencies.

Yes. I am one of those weird people who considers anchovies to be lifesaving in case of food emergencies.

(very modern anchovies)

Luckily, anchovies seem to have been quite the thing in colonial Williamsburg. The very first entry in the "Garden Stuff & Salads" section is this Sallad of Anchovies. It's quite simple: you rinse the anchovies until the water (or wine, whatever your rinsing preference)* runs clear. Then you trim the tails and fins and "flip them from the Bones," which I skipped because I was using scandalously modern canned anchovies. I also cobbled together the salad part; you're supposed to garnish the anchovies with onion, parsley, lemon, and beetroot, but I only had onions and carrots. (I didn't think Williamsburg would mind.) The final touch is a dressing of "sweet Oil with Lemonjuice." According to the internet, that font of wisdom, sweet oil was the archaic term for olive oil. Apparently it was thought of as sweet! Who knew. Anyway, arrange your salad nicely on a small plate, and drizzle the dressing over the salad.

Now, if you're ever tempted to give straight anchovies a try, this would be the recipe to use. The dressing dampens the intensity of the anchovies, while the carrots and onion slices complemented the flavor. This salad was definitely the best of my cobbled-together dinner.

But I can't be the only one over here enjoying the anchovies. Come on and join me! They're great!


*I used water, but really, I'd love to live in the kind of world where wine is an appropriate rinse.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Book Two: The Williamsburg Art of Cookery

Apparently an interest in historical cooking runs in the family.

I stole our new book, The Williamsburg Art of Cookery, from my parents' house last time I was in Ohio. I think they bought it on their honeymoon in Colonial Williamsburg. Otherwise they acquired it during a family trip to Williamsburg over Thanksgiving, back when I was in middle school. Secretly, I like the honeymoon story better--it's such the perfect trip for my parents, who loved antiquing when they were first married. I can imagine my mom slipping a copy of this cookbook into her stack of history books to buy at a Williamsburg bookstore.

Either way, my parents set a precedent for this project.

This book is a lot like The Little House Cookbook in that it's a compilation of recipes from historical sources. First published by The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in 1938, it brings together recipes from "cookery Books" that would have been found in 18th-century Virginia households, as well as those written on "Scraps of Paper" found among the ephemera of Virginia housewives. Helen Bullock, the author, assures us that many of the recipes have been tested in the taverns of Colonial Williamsburg. So rather than the personal labor of love that was Little House, this cookbook seems deliberately created to serve those devotees of living history.

The best part about the book is Bullock's attempt to recreate the flavor of those 18th-century recipes. Tongue in cheek, she reminds us that "Heaven sends good Meat, but the Devil sends Cooks." The book also replicates the creative spelling and capitalization of the 18th century. (It's fun to decipher those old-fashioned s's that look like f's.) I feel that slowly but surely, I'm working my way towards those original recipes.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Roast Turkey

Happy post-Thanksgiving, all! I hope your homes were full of the people you love and your tables laden with delicious food.

We had a relatively simple Thanksgiving out in Ohio, where my family lives. After the requisite morning of cleaning (we maybe have a problem with piles of mail at our house), we settled down to the most important task: cooking. We mixed, baked, sauteed, and roasted.

One thing I love about this holiday (besides the excuse for massive cooking, of course) is how much tradition comes into play. My dad prepares weeks beforehand by testing out his mother's recipe for pumpkin pie until it's perfect (much to my mom's dismay). We always take an afternoon walk in the park while the turkey cooks. And my sister always makes mashed potatoes and brownies. For someone who has a hard time accepting change, it's the perfect holiday.

And yet, there's always something different. Our traditions, to which I cling so fiercely, are actually fairly new, adapted since we've lost family members. So Thanksgiving is much different from the holiday I remember growing up. And sometimes it's just a small change, a new recipe to try.

Like this roast turkey recipe from The Williamsburg Art of Cookery. The book is another modern compilation of recipes, but taken directly from 18th-century cookbooks and manuscripts from old Virginia. I'll tell you more about the book in a few days.

Meanwhile, the turkey! We prepared it along the lines of 18th-century birds, rubbed only in butter, and stuffed it with a basic Williamsburg dressing. To quote:

"Put the Gizzard, Heart and Liver in cold Water and boil till tender. When done, chop fine and add stale Bread, grated, Salt and Pepper, Sweetherbs, two Eggs well beaten."

(boiled giblets)
You'll notice the lack of specific measurements, as well as clarification on the exact types of "Sweetherbs." But this was typical in the 18th century, where most women learned to cook at their mothers' sides and could estimate the proper amounts of ingredients. So I tossed in some fresh parsley, along with dried marjoram, basil, thyme, and tarragon, imagining that those might have grown in a housewife's kitchen garden. Then I added the chopped giblets (smelling richly of turkey) and bread crumbs, and mixed it all together with the eggs. My dad and I "Fill[ed] the Turkey with this Dressing" and set it to roast.

Now, technically the stuffing was the only truly historical food in this recipe. My dad closed the openings with little metal skewers instead of sewing them shut, and he covered the bird in aluminum foil to keep in the moisture. It was pretty funny to see the finished bird with all sorts of metal and temperature contraptions sticking out of it.

But oh, the taste. The giblets added a complex richness to the stuffing, and the herbs complemented them nicely. We used to do all sorts of complicated things to the turkey, like brining it and rubbing it in spices, but I must say, Williamsburg (and aluminum foil) got it right. This is one new recipe I don't mind adding to our traditions.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Fried Parsnips

I have always been wary of parsnips.

When I was little, our dinner vegetables tended toward the traditional: peas, green beans, corn, carrots, salad. For a long time I didn't know what parsnips were. Based on the name I thought they were something like turnips, which I knew all about from reading the Molly McIntire series of American Girl books. Remember those? In the first book, Molly refuses to eat her plate of mashed turnips. They're pale, mushy, and definitely gross. But the housekeeper tells Molly she can't leave the table until she's eaten her entire dinner, and by the time Mrs. McIntire returns from her WWII factory job (late at night, it's implied), Molly still hasn't left the table. I remember this chapter vividly: how cold and unappetizing the turnips looked by then. I assumed that parsnips, with their similar name, must be the same.

(Never mind that Mrs. McIntire proceeds to reheat the turnips with brown sugar, making them surprisingly delicious.)

But this blog is all about adventure, so last week I decided to end my accidental life-long boycott of parsnips.

To cook parsnips prairie-style, you trim the ends and boil the parsnips until a fork can pierce them easily. Once they're cool, you shave off the skin with a table knife. It's a tricky maneuver that can make you extremely grateful for the invention of vegetable peelers. Once peeled, you slice the parsnips into thin strips, dredge the strips in flour, and fry them up in a few tablespoons of butter.

The verdict? Well, parsnips taste kind of....bland. Like carrots that have lost their color and flavor. Of course, frying them in butter adds a rich dimension to the taste, but I'm not sure I'd like them cooked in another way. Also, I'm growing tired of this prairie method of frying all vegetables in some kind of fat.

But perhaps the prairie method is the problem. Anyone have suggestions for making parsnips tasty? Otherwise I'm likely to keep my misconception of them as the equivalent of Molly McIntire's turnips.

Saturday, November 5, 2011


Last weekend, Josh and I drove to visit his family in Connecticut. We headed down on Saturday morning, planning to celebrate his birthday with pizza and card games.

Except we hadn't reckoned on a snowstorm.

It was October, all right? It doesn't snow in October. Especially not when the trees are still full of red and gold leaves and Halloween hasn't even happened yet.

The snow started to fall in thick, heavy flakes around lunchtime. By mid-afternoon we had a few inches on the ground, and tree branches began to bend under the weight of the accumulated snow. As it turns out, those beautiful red and gold leaves also serve as an excellent support system for wet, heavy snow. Then, around evening, the branches began to crack from the weight. We stood outside and listened to the branches fall in quiet, resonating thumps.

We lost power around 5:30 that evening. We stayed in and ate cereal for dinner instead of that promised pizza. We played Dominion for four hours by the fire while we moved flashlights and candles around for optimum lighting. It was actually kind of an adventure.

The next morning, we realized that it was maybe less of a good adventure than we'd assumed. The house had no heat, and branches had covered the driveway and the street. It looked like Josh and I weren't going to make it back to Rhode Island that afternoon.

That's when my hearth cooking instinct kicked in. I built a fire (and briefly smoked out the place when I forgot to open the damper), and we set about making the best of things. Around mid-morning, we toasted a passel of English muffins over the fire while Josh's dad fried up peppery eggs on the grill.

Then I set a kettle of water on a bed of coals to heat (as both Josh's mom and I were dying for a cup of coffee at that point). It wasn't quite the nifty set-up we had at the living history museum, but it would do. Meanwhile, I got the coffee ready. As Josh's family only had Keurig coffeemakers, we had to get a bit creative. I punctured a few of the K-cups with the machine, then peeled off the foil coverings and set the cups in a coffee filter.When the water was hot, I simply poured it through the small K-cups to brew a cup of coffee. It was kind of like an awkward double-filtering system, but it worked!

Things got better and better throughout the day. By mid-afternoon, the boys had cleared the driveway and the street was relatively open. Josh and I made it back to Rhode Island in time to prepare for school the next day. As of today, his family is still without power, and I'm hoping they'll get it back soon.

But isn't it good to know that pretending to live in the past and cook old-fashioned food is actually worthwhile?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Fried Potatoes

I'm starting to notice something about this project. Are you?

There's not a lot of color in prairie food. It's mostly shades of brown. Which could go to a gross place, but I'd rather think of it as a commentary on the limited availability of food and storage out on the prairie. It seems that once fall rolled around, people had to hunker down for the winter with a tasty selection of root vegetables and salt pork that would keep in the cellar.

And hey, I'm not against salt pork! Or root vegetables. I had some last night.

But if I'd been eating variations on potatoes, carrots, and salt pork all winter long, I might not have been so enthusiastic about that meal.

Potatoes are a kind of comfort food for me. Maybe it's my Irish background,* but potatoes taste darn good any way you cook them. Baked, boiled, mashed (my sister's favorite), fried, deep-fried....yum.

These are pretty straightforward. Boil whole, unpeeled potatoes until just tender, then peel with a knife while still hot. (The skin comes right off.) Slice into 1/4 - 1/8 inch rounds, and fry until brown in leftover drippings. Eaten with carrots and grilled pork chops, they taste of crisp fall days spent crunching through leaves.

*Nerd note: Did you know that if Columbus had never arrived at the New World and initiated the Columbian Exchange, the Irish potato famine might never have occurred? The potato was introduced to the Old World following Columbus' exploration, and it quickly became so central to the Irish diet that it was only a matter of a few centuries before a potato blight devastated the population in the 19th century. I just (re)learned that for the course I'm teaching this year.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Johnny Cake

Back when I was a youthful graduate student, my roommates and I decided to explore the best of Rhode Island. We made it to the Hope Street farmer's market and a harvest festival before papers, reading, and student teaching took over. Then, in May, we emerged from the cave of school. We realized that we only had a few weeks left to explore the best of Rhode Island before graduation.

My roommate had been talking about jonnycake since we read about them in Edible Rhody that past fall. Jonnycakes are a signature Rhode Island dish. They're like pancakes that had a steamy affair with cornbread: you fry a cornbread batter on a griddle, then serve the cakes with maple syrup. Yum. So together with my roommate's science cohort, we arranged a trip to quaint Little Compton, solely so we could try jonnycake at a local restaurant. (But we did visit a lovely beach afterwards.)

The jonnycakes were delicious, and we came away satisfied. It turns out that there's a bit of controversy surrounding how to cook jonnycake, depending on where you live in the Ocean State. But generally, you want a small, pancake-like patty that will travel well (indeed, the name might have come from "journeycake").

The Ingalls family, on the other hand, would beg to differ.

Prairie jonnycake, or johnny cake, as they spelled it, is baked in a flat sheet that you cut into squares. It crumbles easily, so it probably wouldn't travel well. About the only things it has in common with Rhode Island jonnycake are the ingredients: cornmeal, baking soda, some fat and sweetener.

But it does serve as a tasty vehicle for maple syrup! I drizzled my prized syrup on top of several squares of johnny cake, and they were gone in no time. While this prairie version doesn't have quite as many fond memories attached to it as the Rhode Island variety, it serves as an easy weekend breakfast in the fall.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Stewed Jack Rabbit and Dumplings

Up to this point, I've been playing it safe. The recipes I've chosen have at least mildly resembled something I've eaten in the past. But that all changes today.

That's right. I cooked a bunny.

I understand that this post may lose me some readers.* That's okay. The nineteenth-century prairie wasn't all dry cornbread and apple turnovers. Pa Ingalls went out hunting, and he brought back turkeys and blackbirds and deer and rabbits. It's about time I investigated some of the squishier aspects of prairie meals.

Now, The Joy of Cooking informed me that while rabbit stew may seen like a foreign concept, many people still enjoy rabbit today. This unfortunately led me to believe that I could procure a dressed rabbit at my local Whole Foods. Not so, friends. I had to call around to a few specialty butchers before I found Central Meat Market, which offers beef, poultry, rabbit, goose, quail, whole pigs, and even partial cows (with a special order). Having never ventured into a specialty butcher shop before, I was a little nervous. But the butcher was quite friendly, and he even chopped up the rabbit for me.

Then I proceeded to psych myself up for this recipe. Josh and I went to the Coggeshall Farm Harvest Festival a few hours before I started to cook, which proved inspiring

We visited a hearth cooking site (manned by a well-dressed young fop), where a whole turkey was stewing over the fire. We heard all about heritage breed chickens. We strolled past a pony ride and tried our hand at checkers. Then we stopped by a crafts tent and petted the angora rabbits on display. They were so, so soft and sweet.

That's when the guilt set in. It's hard to think about cooking an animal for dinner when you're petting its relative at a festival.

Nevertheless, I had to soldier on. So that evening I tried to forget the cute bunnies and focus on the meal at hand.

I started off with salt pork (as if I'd use anything else). I browned some diced-up pieces of pork in a Dutch oven, then removed the pork for later. The rabbit pieces went into the fat to brown (while I tried to look at the pieces as abstract bits of meat. Rabbit ends up looking disconcertingly like chicken, which I wasn't expecting). Meanwhile, I simmered the giblets (heart, liver, etc.) in a separate saucepan with water, and added the liquid to the Dutch oven to simmer with the rabbit.

At this point I wasn't at all sure I wanted to eat this stew for dinner.

But still, on I went. I toasted some flour to a nice cocoa-brown, then mixed it with the chopped-up giblets and some water to form a dark gravy. Then I prepared some dumpling dough (your basic flour-salt-buttermilk-baking soda mixture) and got ready for the final stretch. When the meat was tender, I mixed the gravy and the salt pork pieces back into the Dutch oven, and dropped the dumpling dough on top. After about 10 minutes, the dumplings had puffed into a nice crust, and the stew was ready.

Was I ready?

I tried the sauce and dumplings before I tested the rabbit. The sauce was incredibly rich and earthy--definitely the giblets' doing. It was a little too much for me. The rabbit, on the other hand, was lightly gamey and a delicious combination of chicken and venison. So tasty.

I definitely wouldn't make this stew again (that sauce), and I'd have to work up the courage to buy another skinned rabbit from the butcher before I ventured near it again. But preparing for this stew was a surprisingly sobering experience. It wasn't until I visited that butcher that I realized just how sanitized our mainstream American experience of food has become. I've been accustomed to seeing only beef, chicken, turkey, and pork in the supermarket, wrapped up nicely in plastic packages. Were it not for this project, I doubt I would have fully considered how limited that meat selection really is.

* But not you, Lyuda. You've eaten rabbits before, right?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Apple Turnovers

These are the two things I've learned so far from this project:

1. Pies and pie-like things haven't changed much since the 19th century.
2. Animal fat is sinfully delicious.

You already know that I'm a salt pork enthusiast. Having only cooked with butter and oil prior to starting this project, the pork was a pleasant surprise. But now I've discovered lard.

Oh, lard.

Now, lard isn't as obscure as salt pork. Bakers still use it to make pie dough (and maybe other things? I'm not sure). But I'd never seen it before, and I wasn't sure how to procure it. Luckily, my friendly neighborhood farmer's market boasts several meat stands, and on my weekly visit, one of them happened to be selling leaf lard. "For Serious Cooks," the sign said.* I bought a package and took it home.

Lard looks, unsurprisingly, like a solid lump of whitish fat. The label read "Pork Suet," making me doubt momentarily that I'd bought the right kind. But I gamely sliced off enough lard to fill a 1/3 measuring cup, separating the fat from stringy parts. Then I rubbed it into the flour and salt just like it was butter, and brought the dough together with some ice water. My hands felt a little greasy, but all seemed well so far.

The rest was relatively simple: I rolled out the dough and sliced it into squares, then put a dollop of apples mixed with cinnamon and brown sugar in the middle of each square. Then I folded the dough over the apples to create triangles, and sealed the edges with a fork. The turnovers baked for half an hour and came out steaming and smelling of spice.

Admittedly, I was a little nervous, what with the pork suet confusion and so on. But, my god, that lard made the flakiest, tenderest crust I've ever tasted. These are little pockets of apple deliciousness, my friends, and it's all due to that animal fat.

Salt pork may get my enthusiasm, but lard gets my everlasting devotion.

*I got really excited by the sign. Apparently this project has elevated me to the level of Serious Cook!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Fried Fish

Every summer my family spends a few weeks on a small island on a lake in Ontario, Canada. It's pretty rustic--apparently my sister and I just missed the outhouse years--but it's my favorite part of the summer. We spend our days reading on the porch, swimming before every meal, and canoeing around the bay, just soaking up the quiet. The inland bay used to be full of fish, too; my parents tell stories about the giant pike my uncle caught off Bongarde's Rock, and about the prehistoric muskie that spent one summer under the island dock. When my sister and I were little, we could go down to the boathouse and fish off the side of the slip with our plastic Mickey Mouse fishing poles. We never caught anything special, just a few baby rockfish, but we loved to watch the fish swim up to our hooks and dare a nibble.

When we were older, our dad took us out to the better fishing spots in the bay (Bongarde's Rock was a regular stop, what with its legendary history). For a few years we caught bass big enough to eat for dinner. My dad showed me how to clean and gut the fish, and we'd throw the innards to the gulls. Then my mom and my grandmother would fry the fillets to crisp perfection.

(Lest you think we adhered to traditional gender roles, my grandmother was the one who taught my dad how to clean a fish.)

I've been thinking about the island for the past few days, wishing I were still there, so Ma Ingalls's fried fish seemed like the perfect way to end the summer. I'm not quite brave enough to clean fish on my own (and without gulls to take away the remains), so I just used tilapia fillets.

It's quite simple. You start by frying up some salt pork until it's golden, and you remove the salt pork to a platter but keep the drippings hot. (And you know it's going to be good when it starts with fried salt pork.) Then you dredge the fish in cornmeal and a bit of pepper, maybe brushing the fish with a beaten egg beforehand so the cornmeal sticks. Fry the fish in the hot drippings until one side is golden brown, then turn the fillets over to finish cooking.

If you'd like, you can make a gravy to pour over the fish at the table. Once you've added the fillets to the platter, stir about a cup of milk into the drippings until it foams. Then sprinkle the fish with a bit of vinegar, and serve with the gravy.

I tell you, I am a salt pork convert. The fat added a new dimension to the fish, making it salty and rich.* I'm still not used to this pioneer way of pouring a milk-based gravy over a savory meat or fish, but it did taste better than the salt pork gravy. It was absolutely delicious, and the perfect way to end the summer.

*I later found out that my grandmother fried fish exactly the same way, with bacon fat instead of salt pork. That revelation made it all the better.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Huckleberry Pie (a.k.a. Hurricane Pie)

Hello again! I didn't get much historical cooking done this past month, due to a tremendous amount of traveling. Josh and I determined that we spent the equivalent of a weekend in the car driving from state to state (and out of the country), and that my pet hamster is now the most well-traveled hamster in history (since she came with us). And once we got back home, we had a hurricane to contend with. Thanks, Irene.

So on Saturday night we hunkered down for the storm with some new friends, a card game, and pie. Huckleberry pie, to be exact, although I cheated and used blueberries, because Stop & Shop has never heard of huckleberries. Still, Barbara M. Walker writes in her introduction to the recipe that many pioneers also cheated and used blueberries, which are apparently better than huckleberries. So my cheating has historical precedence.

This pie isn't much different than the modern blueberry pie we're used to, but it does have a few changes. First, you make the crust with lard instead of shortening. (Since one of our guests was vegetarian, I just used butter.) Then, once you've lined the pan with the bottom crust, you layer the blueberries and a mixture of brown sugar, flour, and nutmeg in the pan (instead of mixing everything together in a sugary medley beforehand). I laid the top crust on in stripes, so some of the brown sugar crystallized in the oven instead of soaking into the blueberries.

All in all, a pretty good recipe. The crystallized sugar made for a nice crunch, and the blueberries were tender and not too sweet. But I think I prefer the Joy of Cooking method of mixing the sugar in with the berries beforehand--it makes the filling melt together like jam.

Nevertheless, it was a good pie to snack on while getting to know new friends and swapping predictions about the upcoming storm. And it was even better the next morning for breakfast. I had a big slice with coffee and milk while watching the wind whip branches into the street.

We were incredibly lucky with this hurricane; we lost neither electricity nor property. I know it caused great damage further south, and even in other parts of Rhode Island. I'm thinking about all the people without power, or transportation, or perhaps shelter, and I don't know what to say. So I wrote about a pie, and about new friends. Good food and companionship--I wish that for anyone who's been hurt by the hurricane.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011


Oh, friends. I knew it couldn't last long. Three tasty meals right out of the gate? It was time for something bad. I just wasn't expecting it to be the cornbread.

I love cornbread. I don't have it all that often--it's one of those foods that I forget I like until I find it at a restaurant or someone else makes it. People often serve it with chili, but I associate it with maple syrup. My family makes maple syrup every spring, and when my sister and I were little, our classes took field trips to our house to see the process first-hand. The field trips always ended with a snack of warm, fluffy cornbread and maple syrup at our kitchen table. Understandably, I was excited to return to this snack of my youth.

This was not that cornbread.

And really, the recipe should have given me a hint. All you do is mix almost two cups of boiling water with three cups of cornmeal, and a pinch of salt. No rising agent, no sweetener. The only flavoring is the salt pork drippings,* which you use to grease the pan.

I went in with an open mind, I really did. I even pressed my hand into the dough like Ma Ingalls did, or so the cookbook informed me. I tried it hot out of the oven with cheese and soup, and the next morning with strawberry jam. But nothing could help that cornbread escape the dismal fact that it was, in Josh's words, "cornmeal and water mushed together."

I think I'll stick to the twenty-first century method for my cornbread.

*Remember those? You saved them for a reason!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Stuffed Roasted Hen

For my birthday yesterday, I tricked Josh into eating a Laura Ingalls Wilder roasted chicken.

It was a good day.

While he slaved away on grade reports, I got to work in his kitchen. First I made the stuffing: a savory blend of bread, butter, sage, and salt and pepper. As Walker recommended, I melted a quarter cup of butter in the roasting pan as the oven preheated. Meanwhile, I tried to slice up the bread I'd gotten for free on a tour of our favorite bakery.

Then I remembered that Josh's roommate had moved out earlier that day. And realized that she had taken all of the sharp kitchen knives with her.

We did find a bright green, plastic serrated knife in the drawer, so Josh sawed away at the bread in a manly fashion while I assembled other ingredients. Then, instead of grating the bread into teeny tiny little crumbs like Walker instructs (this seemed like it would lead only to madness and sliced-up hands), I tore it into little pieces and tossed it with the melted butter, a tablespoon of chopped fresh sage, and a sprinkle of salt and pepper.

It sure didn't look like the stuffing of my childhood, but hey, this was my own personal prairie, this kitchen lacking in utensils. I made do.

Next, the chicken. We quickly discovered that the bright green knife would not puncture the plastic encasing the chicken. Josh, ever resourceful, sliced it open with a potato peeler. He then vowed to buy kitchen knives as soon as he had free time.

Once we'd gotten the chicken free, though, the preparation was pretty straightforward. Rinse and dry the chicken, rub its insides with salt, fill the cavities with stuffing, and rub the skin with a tablespoon of butter and salt. I was supposed to sprinkle flour on top, too, but Josh's roommate had, sadly, taken that as well. So I slid the roasting pan into a 350 degree oven and let it cook for 2 hours, pausing to turn the chicken over halfway through. Then I shared the news with Josh that we would be eating a Laura Ingalls Wilder chicken.

"Oh, boy," he said.

And yet: despite the lack of knives; despite eating at 9:00 at night because I had once again forgotten to backwards-time the project; despite neglecting to make the gravy because the giblets weren't included and there wasn't any flour; the chicken was delicious. Succulent, juicy, full of flavor. It might be better than my stand-by roasted chicken recipe. Even Josh approved.

Like I said, it was a good day.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Baked Beans

These baked beans were a two-night project, mostly because I am not organized enough to plan my cooking 5 hours ahead of time. Interestingly, I was organized enough to pre-soak a few cups of navy beans overnight, but I completely lost track of time the next day. So I spent a quiet Sunday night doing the preliminary assembly, and raced home the next night to bake the beans all evening. This dish required commitment. And a LOT of water. These are high-maintenance beans, my friends.

ready for simmering

So, night one: after the beans were finished soaking, I simmered them in a new batch of water for 40 minutes and poured in half a teaspoon of baking soda, which sent up a nice fizz of bubbles when it hit the beans. Then the beans had to simmer for 30 more minutes, this time with 1/4 pound of salt pork thrown in for good measure. It felt a little like the beans were taking the best bath of their lives, and I was the attending servant. They ended their night in the refrigerator, stored in an enameled casserole dish.

Night two found two small onions and a green pepper joining the beans, as well as a drizzle of molasses. (Apparently the molasses helps the dish taste more like the baked beans we're used to.) Then I stuck the whole thing in the oven and let it bake for 4 hours.

I have to be honest: this was not a pretty dish. It didn't look like the baked beans I'm used to, all silky and deep red-brown. I'm almost afraid to show you the picture.

but this is for historical purposes, so i will include it

Even Josh thought I was weird for eating it. But what it lacked in beauty, it made up for in taste. Like the fried salt pork, these beans are to be savored in small quantities. I liked them best accompanied by a warm cheese biscuit and some fruit. If you're looking for a hearty dinner that will last you all week, and you're up for some front-work (and bean-attending), try them.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Fried Salt Pork with Gravy; Drippings

Our inaugural recipe is a real winner. A slab of salt pork, sliced and fried into the crispiest, unhealthiest morsels. It's doused with a gravy made from milk and the pork fat left over in the pan. Oh, my--I could feel my arteries hardening just as I read through the recipe.

Salt pork is a slab of pork, often fatback, that's been salted into submission. In the 19th century, the salt helped the pork keep without refrigeration, so you could stock up at the country store and then dip into your cellar storage when needed. Despite knowing this beforehand, I'd never actually seen salt pork, and I wasn't sure what to expect.*

It came out of the package as a dense white chunk, sparkling with salt crystals. It hardly smelled like anything. But it sliced up easily enough, and I set the slices in a skillet of water to boil off some of the salt. (I later found out that most salt pork has at least some red meat in it--I guess I ate only fat that day. Alas.)

Once the pork had boiled, I rolled the slices in flour and set them to fry. The pork fried up fast, brown and crispy.

I poured off most of the drippings (all that glistening pork fat in the pan) to keep for later, since this stuff was prime cooking fat back on the prairie. Better than butter for those pioneers! Then I whisked flour and milk into the tablespoon of drippings left to make a gravy. I served the whole dish on a plate, with a generous salad to off-set the pork (and the guilt). Tentatively, I took a bite.

That pork tasted like the best bacon I have ever had. Crispy, melt-in-your-mouth, almost too rich for a full serving. The milk gravy dulled the taste a bit, which maybe was the point--I can't imagine eating an entire meal of fried salt pork. But if I'd been out working in the fields all day, maybe I'd approach it with a little more abandon.

Good, rich food, a simple recipe--it can't all be this easy...

*I've found salt pork in the meat section of my local Whole Foods and Stop & Shop.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Book One: The Little House Cookbook

I confess: I'm cheating. Our first book is technically not a historical cookbook.

I prefer to think of it as easing into this project. Baby steps.

Barbara M. Walker created The Little House Cookbook after she and her daughter recreated practically every recipe described in Laura Ingalls Wilder's autobiographical Little House series. Drawing from period resources, Walker remained as faithful as she could to the original recipes while updating the measurements for twentieth-century use. The book is full of helpful hints about how to make the foods more palatable to our modern tastes--for example, you might want to serve Laura's cornbread (made only of cornmeal, salt, and drippings) with maple syrup. Walker also provides a short quotation from the series with every recipe, filling in the context so we know exactly when Laura might have eaten blackbird pie.

In a way, the historical background and the connection to a beloved literary character make this the perfect book to start off the experiment. It's a link between the past and the present.

So tie on your aprons and let's start cooking!