Thursday, August 11, 2011

An Unusual Dish.

If you were invited to dinner and promised ‘an unusual dish’, what sort of things would spring to mind? What sort of dish would you expect? Hope for? Fear? 

It would depend on a number of factors, I would think. Your trust (or not) of the cook, and your own sense of adventure (or its absence) would be relevant. Your experience, of course – for a new dish would by definition be unusual, would it not? It is difficult nowadays, for the fortunate amongst us, to find new ingredients or preparations, and in this regard our predecessors were at an advantage. The humble tomato, for example, although ‘discovered’ by Europeans when they ‘discovered’ the Americas on the cusp of the sixteenth century, was still quite unusual on English tables until the nineteenth century.

Today, I give you a selection of recipes for dishes considered unusual by the cookery column writers of the time.

The writer of a column entitled Chats with Housekeepers from The Newcastle Weekly Courant  (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England), of September 12, 1884 suggests a red cabbage dish. She starts (for surely it was a ‘she’ at that time) by saying of the vegetable: “In England they are generally pickled, and in this form they are known to everyone. Not many housekeepers, however, think of stewing them, yet when thus prepared they constitute an agreeable and unusual dish.”

To Stew Red Cabbage.
Strip away the outer leaves from a firm, freshly cut red cabbage, and remove entirely the thick stalk form the centre. Shave the vegetable into very thin slices as for pickling, and put into a stewpan with a good slice of butter and a little pepper and salt. Cover it closely and stew it gently for two hours or more till it is perfectly tender, and keep stirring and pressing it down during the process. When sufficiently cooked, put a tablespoonful of vinegar with it, pile it on a hot dish. It may be eaten with all kinds of game, with broiled pork chops, or with sausages, which are just coming into the market.

The Times (of London) had a regular column called Recipes for Small Households in the 1930’s, and on one occasion in January 1938 the topic was ‘The Useful Casserole.’ The writer gave several meat-based casserole dishes, and then suggests this ‘unusual’ fish dish:

From Denmark.
Beat one pound of cooked potatoes with a little milk and some German mustard. Line a greased casserole with two-thirds of this mixture. Fill the centre with half a pound of cooked shredded white fish to which has been added a cup of good Bechamel sauce and a pinch of nutmeg, salt and pepper. Cover this with the remainder of the potato. Sprinkle with cheese, breadcrumbs, and pieces of butter. Bake for half an hour in a moderate oven.

I think it unlikely that the above two ideas would be considered unusual today, but perhaps the following one will. It is from the same series in The Times, the article dated February 1939. This time the topic was ‘The Meatless Meal’ – although the dish would hardly qualify for that appellation by today’s definition!

Mock Whitebait.
Here is a pretty and unusual dish.
Parboil sufficient marrow and cut it into pieces the size of whitebait. Roll them on a floured cloth, let them dry thoroughly, and fry them in a pan of boiling fat. Remove them when they turn a golden yellow. Drain and pile them on a napkin. Dust with salt and serve with quartered lemon and brown bread and butter.

Quotation of the Day.
A good cook is the peculiar gift of the gods. He must be a perfect creature from the brain to the palate, from the palate to the finger's end.
Walter Savage Landor


ACravan said...

I think the idea of "mock whitebait" is very unusual indeed. Sounds good, although not as good as whitebait. The other dishes appeal to me also. Curtis

The Old Foodie said...

I agree, Curtis - but the interesting thing is that marrow in any dish is unusual nowadays. I love the whole idea of mock food - have done lots of posts on it in the past, but there is alwaya something else interesting to find.

ACravan said...

I look forward to catching up on your "mock" posts. I first became intrigued with "mock" food as a child when my grandfather took me to some Kosher vegetarian restaurants in Manhattan's garment district and I saw mock meat dishes on the menu. I reacted with a child's confusion to the experience and still don't understand why he took me there since he was neither Kosher nor vegetarian. Later on, however, I became really fascinated with all of the things cooks could do with bean curd products and really love that type of cuisine. It's marrow season here and in US Italian restaurants of all classes and price ranges, fried zucchini, which resemble mock whitebait, are ubiquitous. Your piece brought back very fond memories of the first time I sampled fried whitebait, which was at the home of a friend in Mallorca, an excellent cook who also possessed a big fishing net with which he harvested whitebait in the early evening. There was a certain savagery in the process, which I try not to remember, but the whitebait tasted remarkable. Curtis