Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The Seventh Day of Christmas.

January 1 ....
“On the Seventh Day of Christmas,
My true love gave to me
Seven swans a swimming …”

Swans just wont do for the new version of the song – not legal, not tasty (they say) and too beautiful. If you really want to know how it used to be done, you can find out how to roast a swan from a previous story. It was usually served for effect rather than for taste – an expensive but not delicious bird stuffed back into its skin and feathers to impress the guests with the host’s wealth and power.

We might stick with the aquatic theme for the day with seven fish, brought to our kitchens swimmingly fresh.

Today is also New Years Day, the Day that the Eternally Optimistic (or Eternally Deluded) amonst us make Resolutions. Resolutions always have some sense of penance associated with them – I am not sure why this is. No-one seems to resolve to Eat More Chocolate or Drink Better Wine or Do More Shopping. A fairly universal resolution involves Getting Healthier – which involves Eating Less, or at least Eating Better, and Doing More Exercise. I therefore feel obliged to suggest a healthy (but historical) way of cooking fish. As it turns out, our source will also be appropriate if your Resolution has an Economic (i.e Save Money or Spend Less) theme.

Nicolas Soyer, grandson of the great Alexis Soyer, pioneered, or perhaps promoted Paper- Bag Cookery in a book written in 1911. There was a line of commercial paper bags sold for the purpose, but baking paper of the parchment kind folded bagwise around the food usually works pretty well.

Whitefish Fines Herbes.
Take two whitefish of fair size, get the fishmonger to bone them. Fill the cavity with half a teaspoonful of mixed finely minced chives or shallot and parsley, season to taste with salt and pepper and a tiny squeeze of lemon juice. Put into a well-greased bag, and bake for 15 minutes.
Then dish up on a very hot dish, pour the liquor from the fish into the center of each and serve at once. Haddock and fresh herrings are also excellent when cooked this way.

Soyer’s book has a chapter entitled A Weeks’ Dinners for the Working Man’s Home. In it he notes that the era of Paper-Bag Cookery introduces to the wife of the working man (who presumably is not a working woman, in spite of her prolonged daily slaving for her master) a dual advantage – better quality of dishes that she may prepare, and “more leisure for herself” (presumably because of less dishes to wash?). He does however acknowledge that some “frugal house-mothers” may be appalled at the prospect of needing to use several bags to prepare dinner itself, (not including the pudding). He addresses this by including some one-bag dinners, and (if the second bag for the bread pudding or plum porridge or whatever is too extravagant) suggesting the following recipe, for which he does not give a name, but which is essentially:

Stewed Fruit in a Jar.
If you would like a sweet for which no attention is needed, and do not wish to use another bag, try the following:
Place a layer of sugar at the bottom of a clean empty jam jar, add a pint of well-washed gooseberries or peeled and cut up rhubarb, half a pint of water and cook the same time as the beef. If cooked in a greased bag instead of a jar this will be doubly delicious. When done, serve it with sweet milk – i.e, half a pint of milk thickened with a tablespoonful of flour or cornstarch and sweetened to taste.

The lyrics for the foodie Twelve Days of Christmas now read:

“On the seventh day of Christmas, my good friend gave to me
Seven fish a-swimming
Six eggs a-poaching
Five golden fruits
Four keeping cakes,
Three boiling hens,
Two chocolate tarts,
And a partridge in a pear tree.”

Tomorrow’s Story ...

The Eighth Day of Christmas.

Quotation for the Day …

They say fish should swim thrice . . . first it should swim in the sea, then it should swim in butter, and at last, sirrah, it should swim in good claret. Jonathan Swift.

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