Wednesday, May 29, 2013

How to render suet for cooking

Back when I first started this blog, I learned a few things right away about historical cooking. First, some old recipes are very similar to their modern counterparts (like pie). Second, animal fat is wonderful. From salt pork to lard, it's all delicious.

Lard may have fallen out of favor with the onset of fat-free food, but used sparingly, it can make all the difference in a recipe. It gives pastry dough that beautiful flaky texture, and it adds depth to dishes when used to grease pans before cooking or baking. Historical cooks knew this well, since they didn't have margarine or canola oil at hand (though butter was a delicious alternative). Today, it turns out there's a small but thriving population of cooks who use (and talk about) animal fat regularly, including those paleo enthusiasts who only eat what our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have eaten. (We're talking waaay back when.)

You can substitute butter for animal fat in most historical recipes, but if you'd like to see what all the fuss is about, you'll need to prepare the fat. Alas, this was a hard-learned lesson for me, one that explains why I had so much trouble making those delicious apple turnovers a few years ago. But you, ah! dear reader, you can benefit from my experience.

First, you need to find out what kind of animal fat you're dealing with. In the United States, you'll most likely wind up with one of two kinds:

  • Suet, or raw beef or lamb fat
  • Lard, or pig fat (can be rendered or not)

If you are lucky enough to wind up with rendered lard, your job is done! You can proceed directly to your favorite recipe. If you have suet or unrendered lard, you have a little more work to do.

Rendering fat refers to processing "waste" animal products, like the fat around kidneys (suet), into an edible form. If you look at raw suet, you'll see why: it's stringy and piece-y, and hard to work with. You need to cook it and remove the sinews in order to use it. (Whereas I just worked in bits of raw suet to the turnovers...a difficult enterprise.) Here's what to do:

1. Chop the suet or lard into small dice, removing as many sinews and tissues as possible.

2. Place a heavy Dutch oven over medium-low heat. Pour in enough water to cover the bottom of the pot, and place the diced fat in the pot.

3. Heat, stirring occasionally, until the fat has completely dissolved into something that looks like oil and there are little browned bits floating around in it. Time varies wildly; it took me about an hour and a half to render 1/4 lb of lamb suet, but that's also because I had to start over.

4. Strain through a cheesecloth to remove all the browned bits.

5. Store in a jar or other container and let harden, then refrigerate indefinitely.

Then try it out in your favorite recipe and see what you think. It's different! Do any of you cook with animal fat? What do you like about it?

Friday, May 17, 2013

Why I love historical recipes

I've been chronicling my adventures in historical cooking for almost two years now (!), but it wasn't until recently that I began to wonder why. I love history, isn't that enough? Well, yeah, but what's the bigger picture? Why does it matter to cook from old recipes?

Here are a few of the answers I've come up with. Yes, they're fun and strange and sometimes all too familiar, but they also have a lot to do with respecting the past and thinking mindfully about everyday life.

  • Historical recipes are often made with whole foods. In the book In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan famously wrote, "Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food." By this he meant to avoid overly processed foods, items with unpronounceable ingredients, or foods with catchy marketing names, like Go-Gurt. In a recent interview he explains further: we should try to eat foods that were around before the post-WWII food manufacturing boom. That way you have a better chance of consuming more natural foods--that is, foods closer to their natural state, something Josh and I have been trying to do. Recipes from the pre-WWII era are more likely to include fresh, whole veggies, fruits, and meats.

  • They teach me to be a more flexible cook. Before the late nineteenth century, most cookbooks assumed women knew their way around a kitchen. Mothers taught their daughters how to cook, and recipes just fleshed out their repertoires. Cookbook writers rarely used exact measurements, instead telling women to take a "bit" of cooked fish or a "handful" of flour. Baking was a different story--writers were more precise, probably because of the proportions necessary to make sure bread rose and pie crust didn't collapse--but women were meant to use their intuition and years of experience when cooking. I'm a notorious recipe-reader, and it's scary to eyeball a spoonful of herbs instead of measuring them exactly. What if the food turns out too salty or too bland? But I'm slowly letting go of exactness, encouraged by the reassuring lack of measurements in old recipes. And for the most part, the food turns out okay.

  • They teach me to enjoy meals more. Nineteenth-century meals were elaborate, and most families of even modest means tried to enjoy dinner together. Sitting down together at the dinner table showed respect for the time it took to make the meal. Today it's all too easy for Josh and me to gobble down dinner in front of the latest Supernatural episode, but we try to sit down at the table when I cook from an old recipe. We have a chance to catch up on our days and talk as though we have all the time in the world.

  • They help me appreciate how far we've come. Laura Ingalls Wilder had to subsist on salt pork because there were no refrigerators and few slaughtering animals on the prairie. Pieces of fatback were salted beyond recognition so they would keep for long periods of time. Yes, salt pork is delicious, but it gets old after a while. I really appreciate purchasing a small piece of fresh meat from the grocery store or the farmers' market and keeping it in the fridge until I'm ready to cook. Similarly, I love my gas stove and oven. So much easier than slaving over a hot fire every day (including the dead of summer!).

  • They give me respect for the women who came before me. Notice how I refer to most cooks as "women." For centuries and centuries, women have been the ones to cook meals for their families, using the very recipes I write about here. But I have it easier, because I have my handy gas stove and oven, refrigerator and freezer, and inexpensive "luxury" items. I cook for two people. Half the time Josh cooks instead, and we divide dish-washing duties. The women before me had no such luxuries, and they cooked three meals a day, seven days a week, often with only their daughters to help. They fed large families, on top of washing laundry, cleaning house, and raising their children. And their husbands probably didn't offer to cook. Women of the past were truly indomitable.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Boiled ham (or, a foray into Eastern Europe)

Sometimes I think way too hard about how to use up leftovers. The potential for waste bothers me. If we have half a head of red cabbage sitting in the crisper because Josh realized he really, really hates cabbage after a disastrous night of fish tacos, I have this deep-seated urge to use it up. And not just in any old random dish. It has to complement the rest of the meal I'm putting together. (See? Told you it's a lot of work. Which is entirely due to my unrealistic exacting standards.)

So the other day, when I was planning a meal around 18th-century boiled ham, I decided to use up said red cabbage and some fennel and goat cheese that was lying around. The flavors and textures seemed like appropriate complements to the meatiness of the ham. I sauteed the cabbage and some sliced onion in a little olive oil until soft, then covered it in leftover sour cream and baked it for about 20 minutes in a hot oven. Meanwhile, I sliced the fennel into thin strips and sauteed that in a mixture of olive oil and butter just until browned, following a recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi's wonderful Plenty. While the ham boiled away in a big pot of water (seriously, that is the only instruction), I caramelized the browned fennel and tossed the resulting fragrant mixture with the leftover goat cheese. Once the meat was finished, it was time to plate the food with a bit of cheddar cheese bread from our favorite bakery on the side. The result was one of the more colorful plates I've seen in the dinner department.

Josh was hesitant to try very much (the cabbage debacle still fresh on his palate), but I dug in. And after a minute the flavors and textures all seemed to meld together and call up an entirely unexpected food memory: that of robust, satisfying meals eaten one fleeting spring week in Budapest and Prague. Somehow, without really meaning to, I'd channeled all those leftovers and one 18th-century dish into a hearty eastern European dinner.

When I was in college, I spent the spring break of my senior year in Budapest and Prague with the guy I was dating at the time. He was studying abroad in Hungary, and it was the first time I'd ever been east of France. I remember the food vividly: soft cheeses soaked in olive oil and garlic, apple tarts, a somewhat successful homemade goulash, and giant mugs of dark beer. We visited a medieval-themed restaurant in Prague, where we ate fried pork cracklings and hearty bread. (There was other food at that meal, too, but only the pork cracklings stand out. Understandable, right?) The food was so different from the less flavorful western dishes I was used to that it still glows in my mind as a turning point in my dining history. But I hadn't revisited those flavors since that spring.

The night of the accidental eastern European meal, though, I rediscovered those tastes. Sweetly sour cabbage, salted with bits of bacon; butter-browned fennel, faintly tinged with anise and tangy goat cheese; salty, toothsome ham. Like discovering a new ethnic cuisine, it was a window into a different kind of food world, and all thanks to the happy accident of trying too hard to use up leftovers. I only wish Josh didn't hate red cabbage.

Boiled Ham
(slightly adapted from American Cookery by Amelia Simmons)

2 lbs of ham
mustard, for serving

Fill a large pot with water and set over high heat. When the water boils, carefully set the ham in the pot and let cook, uncovered, for about half an hour. When cooked, remove the ham from the pot and let cool slightly on a cutting board. Slice off the rind and reserve for another purpose. Slice the ham thinly and serve with mustard (and eastern European sides, if you wish).