Friday, November 30, 2012

Secrets of Fish Cooking.

Today I want to give you a final (for the time being) sample of ideas from the pages of our source for the week - Eighteen Books Of the Secrets Of Art & Nature, Being the Summe and Substance of Naturall Philosophy, Methodically Digested … (1661) by John Wecker.  Never fear, I will be getting back to this fascinating book again in the future – there is much, much more fun still to be had with it.

If it was meat yesterday, then surely it must be fish today? 

To fry Fish upon a Paper.
And for that cause the invention was found out how to fry Fish upon a Paper, as well as with a Frying-Pan. Take a single Paper, and raising up the sides like to a Lamp, pour in Oyl, and before it soke through, set it upon the clear coles without any flame, for the Oyl will not pass through, avoiding she fire, nor will the Paper burn, because it cannot dry, the Oyl preserving it. But fire cannot be without extream dryness, nor can flame or motion so attenuate as to make it burn, but it will grow hot by degrees putting under fresh Coles, and so it will boyl, which is very strange, for the Fishes will be well fryed in it.

You may take all the bones out of some Fish called Piones.
If you take out his guts and wash him, and let him stand twenty four houres in sharp Vinegar, and stuff him with Spices, you may boyl or rost him, and his bones will not hinder you to eat him.

Excellent seasoning of Fish.
You shall excellent well preserve Fish thus: Fry them meanly with Oyl, but not perfectly, then strew Salt upon them, that they may not be salt or fresh, and laying Bay leaves and Myrtle leaves between, when they are a little dryed, lay them up in a Pannier.

For those of you who do not eat flesh of any kind, there is little in the book on vegetables. I give you the single find, so far, in the expectation that this is about all there is.

That Coleworts [Cabbages] may not boyl
Paxamus, one of the Greek Husbandmen seems to have written well, that if one pour in a little Wine into boyling Coleworts, they will boyl no more, but, losing its force, it will change colour and dye.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Secrets of Meat Keeping and Meat Cooking.

Today we continue trolling the cyber-pages of Eighteen Books Of the Secrets Of Art & Nature, Being the Summe and Substance of Naturall Philosophy, Methodically Digested … (1661) by John Wecker (I love you, Google books.)

At peak holiday and entertaining times, we all struggle with refrigerator space. Imagine the challenge of keeping meat for more than a day or two in warm weather in the olden days. Olden day cookery books abound with hints on how to preserve flesh and how to retrieve it when it was already putrefied. Our source of the day has some comments and ideas.

To keep flesh long uncorrupted.
It is reported that in the Mountains of West-India, flesh is kept so long uncorrupted that is beyond belief, for near the City Cuzcum, Horses having been killed above four Moneths, will be as fresh and without any ill sent, as if they were but newly killed. I suppose the cause to be not only the cold, which though it be exceeding great here, yet in greater cold flesh will not be preserved so long. Wherefore I conceive that the Ayr is thin and brackish, may be the flesh of itself conduceth something thereto. For flesh corrupts sooner in Water than in the Ayr because the Ayr is thiner, if all other things be alike. And again by the fame reason flesh Will keep longer if you fasten a brass Nail into it, because the force of the Brimstone dryeth it.

The final hint is repeated elsewhere in the text, without the explanation of the force of the brimstone.

To keep flesh from corrupting.
If a Nail of Brass be stuck into Hogs or Crows flesh, Plutarch saith, That by its astringent faculty and drying, it will keep their flesh long uncorrupted. Those that dig forth Mettals know this by certain experience by abiding in the Mines; and Langius saith, That he that shall enquire after it may here be satisfied of it.

Of course, the rationale for ‘hanging’ meat and game is that it tenderises the flesh (and improves the flavour.) If, back in 1601, it was time to kill an elderly, hard-working farm beast, the flesh would have been far too valuable to used as pet food, but would surely have been expected to be very tough? I wonder if the following hint would have worked?

That flesh may soon grow tender.
The flesh of Cattle that are slain will soon grow tender and soft, that are hung in a Figtree. Plutarch in his Symposiacks demands the reason of it. For faith he, when a Cook had amongst the Meats of Ariston had offered a dunghill Cock, in sacrifice to Hercules, that was, fresh, tender, and would even break in pieces, Ariston said, the Figtree made it tender so soon, affirming that all Birds be they never so tough will grow tender by hanging in a Figtree. The reason he gives is this, That the Figtree sends forth a vapour that is strong and digesting, and thereby flesh is digested and concocted. The same is done by laying them into an heap of Wheat, and cover them all over with it.

If it was still suspected to be tough after its allotted time in the fig tree, then it could still be rescued in the kitchen:

That old flesh may sooner by boyled and wax tender.
Monks Rheubarb*, some call it patience, (it is a plant with a great top, and large long leaves, and the stalk is red when it is ripe, and the root yellow,) boyl this with flesh, and it makes them tender and more fit to be eaten.

*Rumex patientia, or Patience Dock: a member of the Dock family, related to, but not the same as the rhubarb used for pies.

Finally, on another meat-tack altogether: have you ever bought mince for bolognese, then wished for pot roast instead? You could have solved this problem a few hundred years ago by using the instructions given below. This is definitely not recommended today as Comfrey can be dangerous when taken internally due to its high alkaloid content, which can induce liver failure. 

That flesh cut in pieces may grow together again.
The roots of Comphrey that are black without and white within, and glewey, if they be boyled with chopt Meat, will soon make them grow together again, as if they had never been cut.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Secrets of the Bakers.

For the next few days I want to explore with you some of the ‘Secrets Mechanicall, performed by Millers, Smiths, Bakers, Cooks, Painters and Apothecaries’ as they are shared in a book published in 1661.

The title page of the book goes like this:

Eighteen Books
Of the
Secrets Of Art & Nature,
Being the Summe and Substance of
Naturall Philosophy,
Methodically Digested.
First designed by John Wecker, Dr. in Physick, and now
much Augmented and Inlarged by Dr R. Read.
A like work never before in the English Tongue.
Printed for Simon Miller at the Starre in St Pauls
Church-yard, 1661.

Book XVII contains the particular secrets that we are going to unlock today. Many of the ‘secrets’ in the book are taken from ancient sources, some remain slightly mysterious (even to the author of the book, who reports them nonetheless,) but some are very practical indeed - such as the following instructions for building an oven which is economical on fuel.

An Oven that will save charges.
An Oven to bake many things, that is also usefull, and is now used at Millan, sparing two parts of wood of three, because the fire shut in hath three times more force. Make a square Oven about two cubits broad, and one cubit high, and a half, with Lime and Bricks. Above let there be four large holes, round, as big as your pots and dishes, cover the upper superficies within all with Brass, but where the holes are, cut away the Brass, and let the pieces serve for covers. When therefore you use it, set your dishes and pots in their places; when you need no vessel, put on the coverings that the Oven may have no vent; under the upper place there is a cavity, and a square little door, by which you put in Wood and Coles: but On the side there is a much larger but lower door, and in the lowest part of it, in the middle place there is a single Iron Grate, through which the Ashes fall down; wherefore it is plain that the door you put the wood in by is in the upper part, and the other in the lower part. Also flesh is Roasted upon a Spit, setting Hinges on the sides of that door by which the Ashes are drawn forth: for there the coles will roost flesh, and the flame in the upper place will turn the Spits, if a Wheel be set as it should be, but then since it hath a vent you cannot save so much Wood.

One small section is dedicated to ‘the Bakers Art’ and contains a short piece on the mysterious skill of making bread which will keep for a very long time.

A way to make Bread that shall keep long uncorrupted.
But to return to my principall purpose, the general cause of keeping it is drying of it; For things dryed keep very long; so that Bisquet may be kept a whole year is good. For (as I have proved elsewhere) all things that corrupt, corrupt by reason of sound moisture; and therefore the watry moisture being taken away it will keep long. But it being difficult to take away the watry moisture, but some of the radical moysture that is fat must be consumed also: hence it is that this does not nourish so much as common Bread; but also in Ships by the moysture of the water, it will all grow mouldy, and for the most part will corrupt alos, wherefore that they are forced to bake it twice or thrice, or to eat it corrupted: But Men say that in the Island Sava, which is two hundred miles from the Moluccos, Bread is made will last three years; we know not how they make it, but if it be reduced to our principles, the generall rule must be urged. Wherefore it must be thick and fat, and baked at an easie fire, mingling something therewith that naturally resist putrefaction. But perhaps we cannot attain to it, because our Ayre is thiner or moyster than the Indian Ayr, or from some other cause more fit to breed corruption.

There are many other treasures in this book which, sadly, do not fit this blog’s food theme. If they did, and I had time I would give you remedies ‘Against the ill smell of the arm pits’ and tell you how to make ‘Water that will make the skin shine,’ ‘How to find a thief’, ‘How to make a Dog follow any Man’ and many other wonderfully useful hints.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Fries or Chips?

I recently came across yet another magazine article purporting to tell the history of French fries. If ever there was an impossible task, then finding out the ‘truth’ about the origin of French fries must be it. The first rule of research is to define the question, and here we have our first problem.

Do we want to know the name and whereabouts of the first person to fry a potato? And do we allow a whole potato, or must it be in pieces? And if pieces, what size and thickness? What shape? And they must be hot, surely, or they would be – if very thin – what the English buy in bags and call ‘crisps.’ And at what point of thinness are French fries entitled to be called Saratoga Potatoes?

Or, is the debate merely about the name, in which case, we need two linguistic histories. They may be French fries in America, but in everyday Britain they are ‘chips.’

Perhaps all that we want to know is the date of the first published recipe for French fries or French fried potatoes or potato chips or chipped potatoes or even simple fried potatoes? This is the only likely part of the debate to be able to be definitively decided – but not today.

I will give you a few points, such as I have concluded or gleaned over time.

As for our very first question, I feel it likely that the first person to fry a potato (or piece thereof) was the first person to find themselves in simultaneous possession of some potatoes, some fat, a fire, a pan, and an appetite. And that person’s name or whereabouts, my friends, we will never know for sure.

There are recipes for fried potatoes in La Cuisinere Republicaine, published in 1795. We know that recipes are usually in use for a very long time before they appear in print, and this is particularly true of ‘street food’ such as fried potatoes. We know also that Thomas Jefferson became sufficiently enamoured of ‘potatoes fried in the French style’ during his sojourn in Paris at the turn of that same century that he brought the idea back to the United States. To invoke another celebrity, one of the early uses of ‘chips’ of potatoes is ascribed to Charles Dickens, in A Tale of Two Cities (1859), in the phrase “Husky chips of potato, fried with some reluctant drops of oil.”

The first recipe that I am aware of for fried potatoes in an American cookery book is The Virginia House-wife, (1824) by Mary Randolph:

To Fry Sliced Potatos.
Peel large potatoes, slice them about a quarter of an inch thick, or cut them in shavings round and round, as you would peal a lemon; dry them well in a clean cloth, and fry them in lard or dripping. Take care that your fat and frying pan are quite clean; put it on a quick fire, watch it, and as soon as the lard boils and is still, put in the slices of potatos, and keep moving them till they are crisp; take them up and lay them to drain on a sieve; send them up with very little salt sprinkled on them.

The first that I know of for ‘chips’ is the following, from Practical and Economical Cookery, by Ann Smith (1858)

Potato Chips.
Peel the potatoes and wash them clean, then peel them again with a sharp knife; if possible, make only one peel of the whole potato; throw them into salt and water; when you think you have enough for a dish, take them out and lay on a cloth to dry; have some fat boiling in a stewpan and throw them in; when a fine brown and crisp, take them out with a slice, lay them on a sieve; when all done, dish them up on a napkin. You must not put too many in the fat at a time, or they will not crisp.

This recipe indicates that, as in the Randolph recipe, it is long, thin, curly strips of potatoes that are fried – a very elegant form of potato chips indeed, and not at all what you would want to accompany your burger or battered fish.

Please, do weigh in on the debate, preferably via the comments, so we can all enjoy the discussion.