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!