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How to Cook a Wolf Week, Day 5: Cook for the Carnivorous

The perfect flank steak.

Breakfast was oatmeal with maple syrup and butter; a combo that had never occurred to me before Fisher, and one I will make again.  Lunch was a smidge of leftover polenta.  Dinner was the best dinner I’ve had in a long time.

This recipe is not really a recipe in Wolf, but more of a note between paragraphs.  It’s in the revised addition, written twelve years after the original, when Fisher slips in a few more decadent recipes:

When I am cook for the carnivorous, my true salute to them is a beef fillet, of about four pounds.  I turn it for at least three hours in a garlicky marinade, half olive oil, half soy sauce.  I roast it on a rack for one half hour in a very hot oven.  I slice it one inch thick, slip generous wedges of maitre d’hotel butter between each slice, pour a good cup of red wine over the whole, and serve it in its various hot juices.

This was not a meal to be enjoyed alone.  I called up friends with a dinner invite and then set off to the grocery store to select my meat.  I ended up with a flank steak of about four pounds.  I didn’t read the read the recipe carefully enough and forgot to make the marinade until 30 minutes before I needed to cook it.  In the marinade, I put lots of freshly minced garlic, and half and half oil and soy sauce.  That’s it.

I cranked my oven to broil, and nestled the steak into a cast iron pan, then set it in the oven for 10 minutes, flipping it half way (cook for less time if you like your steaks on the rare side). I let it rest ten minutes, sliced it, and adorned it with butter.  No wine, as Fisher suggests.  I’m not a teetotaller, just an impoverished artist, so there is seldom a spare bottle of wine sitting around.

The steak was served with a side of sauteed swiss chard, and buttered bread with Parmesan cheese.  It. Was. Heavenly.  The short marinade time didn’t seem to matter.  It was perfectly salty, perfectly flavorful.  It was perfect.  It was beyond perfect–this may be one of the best things I have ever cooked.

And for dessert? “…Thick slices of fresh pineapple, soaked for several hours in an Alsatian kirschwasser, and then topped with a sherbet made with lime juice.”  The pineapple I got fresh from the grocer, the kirsch was sitting in the back of the liquor cabinet.  I soaked the pineapple slices overnight, then made a quick sorbet using bottled Key Lime Juice (the good stuff they sell for key lime pie) and this recipe.  I own an ice cream maker and it’s  brought me so much joy.

We ate every bite of this boozy dessert, slurping up the melted sorbet and kirschy pineapple juice at the bottom of our bowls.  We were drunk, fat, and happy.

Ms. Fisher writes a lot about keeping the Wolf at bay.  The Wolf is not just a metaphor for hunger; it represents despair and defeat.   Fisher’s dishes are good food made quickly and easily from the simplest ingredients.  While cooking them, I felt alive and accomplished; I felt hopeful and unbeatable; I felt that if I could feed myself this well, this cheap, then I could stop the Wolf from sniffing at my door.

How to Cook a Wolf Week, Day 4: Like a Warm Morning in Spring

Breakfast was hot cereal (steel cut oats) with milk and a little brown sugar. Lunch was polenta, a dish I have written about many times, and I think is the ultimate poor food. It’s tasty and about as cheap as it gets. As MFK Fisher puts it:

Polenta is on of those ageless culinary lords, like bread. It has sprung from the  hunger of mankind, and without apparent effort has always carried with it a feeling of strength and dignity and well being.

It costs little to prepare, if there is little to spend, or it can be extravagantly, opulently odorous with wines and such. It can be made doggedly, with one ear cocked for the old wolf’s sniffing under the door, or it can be turned out as a well-nourished gesture to other, simpler days.   But no matter what conceits it may be decked with, its fundamental simplicity survives, to comfort our souls as well as our bellies, the way a good solid fugue does, or a warm morning in the spring.

Bam. I ate mine with a few sautéed veggies.

Dinner was ham. My roommate put it best: “I don’t mind ham, but I don’t…seek it out.” Exactly my sentiments.  Fisher’s describes her recipe for Baked Ham Slice as “One good way to cook meat slowly without feeling completely extravagant…”


Baked Ham Slice
From How to Cook a Wolf by MFK Fisher (1942).

1 one-inch slice of ham (“or thicker if you can afford it!”)
1 sweet potato for each person
1 cup brown sugar
1 handful parsley
2 teaspoon hot mustard
1 tart apple for each person
1 cup hot water (“or cider, or wine”)

I set the ham slice in a shallow casserole, then spread it with minced parsley and the mustard.  I was skeptical about the combination of mustard and ham, but I trusted Fisher (it turned out to be awesome).  I placed sliced apples and potatoes in the casserole around the ham, and poured in the hot water.  I sprinkled everything with brown sugar before sliding it in the oven at 325 degrees, for about 40 minutes (until the potatoes were tender).

The entire apartment was filled with the homey smells of cooking ham.  When it finally came out of the oven, I was so anxious to eat it, I forgot to snap a photo.  Just imagine a delicious ham, swimming in sweet juices, befriending supple apples and potatoes.

No, I don’t seek out ham–but I would seek out baked ham slice any day.

How to Cook a Wolf Week: Day 3, That Butt of Gibes

A meal of ground round patties.
Breakfast today was another hearty helping of toast; lunch, minestrone leftovers. Fisher said any good minestrone is better the next day.
I came home from work at night tired, hungry, and not at all excited to be on  history diet.  My ever-present roommate, Jeff, asked me what I was doing for dinner.  I told him as long as he didn’t mind eating history food, he was welcome to join me for some ground round steaks.
This recipe is wedged into Fisher’s text, nestled between recipes in a chapter on affordable meat: “One way to use cheap meat is to buy that butt of gibes and snobbishness, ground round steak.”

Fisher recommends serving this dish with “hot French bread and a crisp green salad, and a red wine or ale if you can and will.”  I set Jeff to work on a salad of fresh lettuce, carrots, and green peppers, while I heated a cast iron skillet until a splash of water sizzled on its surface.

This mixture will create a flavorful sauce for the patties.

I prepped my ingredients: three large hamburger-style patties of beef and a bowl of chopped chives, parsley, and a healthy glob of butter.  Fisher wanted me to add wine, or vegetable stock, or tomato juice to create a sauce for the meat; but I had none of those things in my pantry.  But I did have half a pint of cherry tomatoes, which I halved and added to the herbs, and topped off with a few shakes of Worcestershire sauce (as per Fisher’s suggestion).

As Jeff and I assembled our ingredients, it made for a cheerful assortment of colors on the kitchen table.  Just looking at all the fresh vegetables heartened me and I began to fully understand what Fisher means when she talks about cooking to keep the wolf at bay: a good meal can change your entire outlook on the world, and make you feel safe and accomplished.

Gettin ready for DINNER!

When the skillet was good and hot, I “Put in the pats of beef.  There will be a great smoke and smell, so windows should be open if possible.”  I cooked the burgers two minutes on each side, then turned off the heat, added the herb/butter/tomato mixture, and quickly covered the pan.  “There will be another great sizzle and fume.  Put the cover on quickly, to catch all the first fine savor.  In about 50 seconds, stir the mixture thoroughly to catch all the meat-essence in the pan…and put the mixture with a spoon over the cakes of meat.”  And so we did, and served up our dinner with thick slices of fresh baked, whole grain bread.

Making this dinner was so quick, about 20 minutes from start to finish. We both agreed it tasted delicious; Jeff even went back for seconds, and he is usually apprehensive of History Food.  The meat was incredibly flavorful, particularly for such a short cook time.

This meal was cheap, easy, and tasty. Eating it put me in a good mood after a long day.

How to Cook a Wolf Week: Day 2, A Broken Egg

“Probablly one of the most private things in the world is an egg until it is broken.”
This lovely bit of prose opens Fisher’s chapter “How Not to Boil an Egg.”  Fisher lays out a plan for meatless dinners–with eggs as the center of the show, bread to accompany, and perhaps a glass of port to comfort the soul.  A bit shocking for the 1940s.  Fisher suggests any number of vegetables to make a good frittata (string beans, peas, spinach, artichokes, etc), but she gives us a recipe for a zucchini and tomato frittata.
Use a cast iron skillet for this recipe, so you can go from the stove top to the oven with ease.
Frittata of Zucchini (for example)
From How to Cook a Wolf by MFK Fisher (1942).
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion or three green onion
1 clove garlic
5 small zucchini, cut into thin slices
1 large fresh tomato or 1 cup canned tomatoes
salt and pepper
1 teaspoon herbs…parsley, sweet marjoram, or thyme
9 eggs
Heat oil in skillet and add minced onion and garlic; cook slowly ten minutes.  Add zucchini, tomato, and seasonings.  Cover, and cook until vegetables are tender. Remove from heat and let cool.
Beat eggs lightly, season with salt and pepper, and mix with cooled vegetables.  Pour back into skillet, cover tightly and cook over low heat until the edges of the frittata pull away from the pan.  Brown over a low broiler.
My copy of How to Cook a Wolf is the revised edition, published in 1954.  Fisher added this note: “As an older and easily wiser frittata cook I almost always, these richer days, add a scant cup of good dry Parmesan cheese to the eggs when I mix them.  Often I add rich cream, too.  How easy it is to stray from austerity!”  Like most of the recipes Fisher presents in her book, she doesn’t see this recipe as a poor man’s meal–a food only to be cooked in desperate times.  She views this as an  any day, everyday meal: filling, healthy and satisfying–that can also be made on the cheap.

How to Cook a Wolf Week: Day 2, “Soup…is good.”

My groceries for a week.

A day of Sludge done with, I was relieved to get into more hearty dishes.  Above, my groceries for the week:, at a cost of $35 in total; including $10 worth of vegetables from my CSA, $5 for some un-homogenized milk from Ronnybrook farms, and the rest spent on bread, cheese, etc.

For breakfast, I had (in Fisher’s words): “…piles of toast, generously buttered, and a bowl of honey or jam, and milk…You can be lavish because the meal is so inexpensive.  You can have fun, because there is no trotting around with fried eggs and mussy dishes and grease in the pan and a lingeringly unpleasant smell in the air.”  Toast it was! Deep, brown, whole wheat bread, fresh from my local bakery.  Buttered, with a schmear of honey, and a glass of milk.  Done.

For lunch, I consulted the chapter “How to Boil Water” for Fisher’s lunch recommendation: “a heartening, ample soup.”  With a drawer full of vegetables, I decided to make “A Basic Minestrone.”  I was interested in Fisher’s interpretation of the classic Italian dish. “Probably the most satisfying soup in the world,” she says, ” for people who are hungry, as well as for those who are tired or worried or cross or in debt or in a moderate amount of pain or in love, or in robust health, or in any kind of business hugmuggery, is minestrone.”  Sounds reassuring, doesn’t it?

A Basic Minestrone
From How to Cook a Wolf by MFK Fisher (1942).

1/4 bacon or salt pork or fat ham.
1 small onion
1 stalk celery
1 handful fresh, chopped parsley
2 cups tomatoes, peeled
1 tsp each oregano and basil

Any other vegetables you have on hand

1 cup of dry pasta

Salt and pepper

I cut the fattiest pieces off a ham steak I bought for dinner later this week.  I put this fat in a large soup pot, and let it render before I added the onion to soften.  Ham fat as a soup base?  Delicious.  Then in went the celery, parsley, and herbs, and left to soften for 10 minutes.  Last, the tomato (I used canned), stirred constantly until heated through.  Then, I added two quarts of water.

At this point, Fisher recommends adding whatever vegetable you have on hand (but never beets!); I added 1/2 a small, green cabbage; 1 potato; 2 cloves garlic; 1/2 an acorn squash; 2 carrots; 2 stalks celery; and a handful of kale.  Fisher recommends chopping these fine; then mashing them with a potato masher…While I can’t explain Fisher’s obsession with smooshed food, I decided to simply leave the veggies finely chopped.

I brought the soup pot to a boil, then turned it down to a simmer, and let it cook until the vegetables were tender, about an hour.

When deprived of seasoning for a time, one forgets the richness it adds to a dish.  As the soup simmered, it smelled like sweet summer days and freshly cut lawns: green and spicy.

20 minutes before serving, I added a cup of dried macaronis.  Then,  just before ladling it into bowls, Fisher says to “Churn the soup ferociously, and serve over thin toasted bread or not, but always with a good ample bowl of grated dry cheese to sprinkle upon each serving, as the pleased human who eats it may desire.”  I adorned my soup with grated Romano.

The soup, it turns out, was o.k.  I’ve had better; I feel my addition of kale instead of spinach wasn’t such a good choice.  It made the soup olive green and a little stinky.

But the soup wasn’t bad, either. It was warm and filling, and I felt ready for the rest of my day.

Tonight, we’ll continue with our Italian theme for the day, with a vegetable Frittata.

How to Cook a Wolf Week: Sludge

That’s it. Sludge.

I’m starting my week with Fisher’s recipe for those truly desperate, hungry, and broke:  Sludge.

“How to Keep Alive” is the chapter title, and it begins “There are times when helpful hints about turning off the gas when not in use are foolish, because the gas has been turned off permanently, or until you can pay the bill.

Let us take for granted that the situation, while uncomfortable, is definitely impermanent and can be coped with. The first thing to do, if you have absolutely no money, is to borrow some…As soon as you have procured fifty cents, find some kind soul who will let you use a stove…buy about fifteen cents’ worth ground beef from a reputable butcher…about ten cents’ worth of whole grain cereal…(and) spend the rest of your money on vegetables.

Get one bunch of carrots, two onions, some celery, and either a small head of cabbage or the coarse outer leaves from some heads that should be trimmed a bit anyway.  It does not matter if they be slightly battered: you will wash them and grind them into an odorous but unrecognizable sludge.

Fisher recommends any remaining money be spent on additional vegetables, like squash and zucchini.  This recipe, she says, will feed you for about four days once cooked into Sludge;  I scaled down the proportions for one day’s worth.

From How to Cook a Wolf by MFK Fisher (1942).

1 floppy carrot
1/2 small onion
2 sticks celery
1/4 small green cabbage
1/2 acorn squash
1 fistful ground beef chuck
1/2 cup steel cut oats

I sweated the onions, carrot, and celery in a little bit of oil, over medium heat for about five minutes.  I seasoned with salt and pepper, then tossed in the meat,  breaking it up with a spoon, until it browned: about seven minutes more.  I added the cabbage and squash, and covered it all with what looked like “too much water.”  I turned up the heat, brought it to a boil, then turned the heat down to low to let it simmer.  I let it cook, covered, for 30 minutes on low.  It looked like a sad soup, but it smelled fairly magnificent.

After thirty minutes had passed, I added 1/2 cup of steel cut oats.  I left the temperature on low, and let it simmer uncovered for an hour.  When it was done it looked, and smelled, like a very thick chicken and rice soup.  At this point, Fisher recommends grinding the entirety of the dish in a food mill; I decided in advance to skip this step, and simpley dice all of the vegetables very fine.  I let the sludge cool and stuck it in the refrigerator to await my breakfast.

I have to admit I wasn’t excited to get up today and try a bowl of sludge.  When I pulled it out of the fridge, I was shocked to discover it had formed into a nearly solid mass.  I scooped out a cupful and microwaved it.

I have to say, it’s not bad.  I added a little extra salt, and it tastes pretty much like a bland chicken soup.  I sincerely enjoyed the texture of the steel cut oats they were a little more firm than rice, which tends to get too squishy when left in a soup overnight.

Sludge is cheap as hell to make, and there’s a lot of healthy stuff in there: protein, whole grains, veggies.  And it is really filling.  I ate it three times today without complaint.

How to Cook a Wolf Week

left: Ms. Fisher herself.

“Now, of all times in history, we should be using our minds as well as our hearts in order to survive…to live gracefully if we live at all.” – MFK Fisher, How to Cook a Wolf.

MFK Fisher composed her book How to Cook a Wolf in 1942, right after the great depression and during WWII rationing.  Government pamphlets demanded “balanced meals;” for example, a breakfast of “fruit juice, hot or cold cereal, scrambled eggs with bacon, buttered toast, coffee or tea or milk.”  At the same time, rationing restraints promoted “Meatless Tuesdays” to a horrified meat-and-potatoes culture.  Housewives nationwide concocted hideous combinations of rice, peas and nutmeats, molded into decorative rings, to mimic the meat their husbands craved.  Add a white sauce and you’ve made a healthy, economic, family dinner.

Fisher’s approach to a balanced diet on a budget?  Jarringly modern. Fisher proposed to “balance the day, not each meal in the day.”  Breakfast was simply hot cereal, with maple syrup and butter. Lunch could be a  hearty soup of garden vegetables.  And dinner? No meat necessary.  Have a frittata with tomatoes and zucchini, topped with cheese.

Most importantly, Fisher’s message is that a full stomach can be achieved on a restricted budget and be accomplished with the gusto and spirit of a true connoisseur.  This week, I’m going to follow Fisher’s gastronomic survival guide, moving from the most austere dishes to Fisher’s most indulgent celebrations of culinary craft.  For the next fives days, we’re going to keep the wolf at bay: and do it on a budget.

How to Cook a Wolf

I came across this excerpt and commentary on How to Cook A Wolf (1942), a book by food writer M.F.K Fisher, that I think is appropriate to my Tenement experiment:

“The book was written when wartime shortages had compounded the problems of the Depression, and Fisher offers sensible advice in each chapter about how to make do, provide nutrition, and even enjoy oneself at table. Along the way she illuminates her times. For true emergencies, the essay “How to Stay Alive” ponders what’s needed spiritually and nutritionally to survive on what was a few cents a day in her time. It includes a recipe for making a slumgullion of “ground whole-grain cereal,” a tiny amount of cheap meat, and loads of vegetables (“wilted and withered things a day old maybe…[or] the big coarse ugly ones”), stewed three or more hours.

‘I know, from some experience,’ she says, ‘[that it] holds enough vitamins and minerals and so on and so forth to keep a professional strong-man or a dancer or even a college professor in good health and equable spirits. The main trouble with it, as with any enforced and completely simple diet, is its monotony. It must be considered, then, as a means to an end, like ethyl gasoline, which can never give much esthetic satisfaction to its purchaser or the automobile it is meant for but is almost certain to make that automobile run smoothly.’

All this sounds more applicable with each morning’s news. “

In the 1870s, proteins and fats had been discovered and taken into nutritional consideration, but vitamins had not yet made an appearance. It’s interesting that by the 1940s, vegetables are introduced as part of a poor man’s diet. But even today, it’s fresh produce that can be prohibitively expensive on a budget. The most expensive item of food I’ve bought so far is a bag of apples, and I anticipate my daily intake of fruit will put me far over budget.

The entire article on historic food writing is intriguing, and is on a blog that is quickly becoming one of my favorites: The Education of Oronte Chum

Origin of a Dish: Steak au Poivre

Black pepper-crusted steaks. Photo by Alan Tran.

While writing my first book, Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, I researched the eight most popular flavors in American cooking: black pepper, vanilla, chili powder, curry powder, soy sauce, garlic, MSG, and Sriracha. When I dived deep into each of these eight topics, I often found fascinating new information and recipes–some of which didn’t make it into the book. So over the next few months, I’ll be publishing this exclusive content on my blog! If it whets your appetite to read the whole book, make sure to get your own copy here.

When we cook a steak, we often cover it in a thick layer of cracked peppercorns and salt. A simple, but flavorful, preparation. This generous crusting of pepper is often credited to a trend born of the 1960s, with a dish called steak au poivre. But the roots of this classic steak preparation may go back much further.

Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery is a manuscript collection of recipes, gifted to Martha on the occasion of her first marriage to Danial Custis. The recipe book– copied from recipes of her in-laws–includes recipes that date from the late medieval era to the early 18th century. One in particular caught my eye: a roast of venison crusted in black pepper.

To Season a Venison

Take out ye bones & turne ye fat syde downe upon a board. yn take ye pill of 2 leamons & break them in pieces as long as yr finger & thrust them into every hole of yr venison. then take 2 ounces of beaten pepper & thrice as much salt, mingle it, then wring out ye juice of lemon into ye pepper & salt & season it, first taking ye leamon pills haveing layn soe a night. then paste it with gross pepper layd on ye top & good store of butter or muton suet.

Here’s a rough translation of the recipe: De-bone a roast of venison. Take the peel of two lemons and cut it into finger length strips, stuffing them into any holes left from the bones. Let the meat sit overnight, and remove the lemon peels. Take two ounces ground pepper and six ounces salt, mixed with the juice of one lemon, and season the holes the lemon peels previously occupied. Crust it with cracked pepper and butter or fat.

Sounds like the great-great-granduncle of a modern steakhouse dish, doesn’t it? This pepper-heavy treatment of venison was recommended through the 19th century to offset the strong, gamey flavor of the meat. The salt and fat would also serve to keep moist what was a particularly lean, dry meat. By the end of the 19th century, this dish evolved to have a creamy, pepper sauce, or sauce poivrade, and became known as “Steak a la Diane,”named after the Roman goddess of the hunt. The renowned Auguste Escoffier gave us a recipe for pepper sauce intended for venison in Le Guide Culinaire, published in 1903.

Sauce Diane

Lightly whip 2dl [about 2 cups] of cream and add it at the last moment to 5dl [4 1/2 cups] well seasoned and reduced Sauce Poivrade. Finish with 2 tbs each of small crescent shaped pieces of truffle and hard-boiled white of egg. This sauce is suitable for serving with cutlets, noisettes and other cuts of venison.

His sauce was comprised of three other sauces and stocks, each one slowly simmered from finely diced vegetables and joints of meat to add levels of deep flavor, and finished with slices of truffle. The entire dish, rich with pepper, would have taken an army of kitchen staff days of preparation before it finally landed in front of a restaurant patron.

French chefs simplified the dish after the turn of the century, calling it “steak au poivre” for the first time. Venison steak was replaced with crushed peppercorn-encrusted beef, which was pan seared and served with a brandy, butter, and (sometimes) cream-based sauce. The dish was often cooked table-side because when the brandy was added to the hot pan it resulted in an impressive tower of vaporized alcohol flames.

In the 1960s, American home cooks were introduced to the cuisine of France by Julia Child. Child’s longtime friend Jacques Pépin remembered her in the New York Times as “… almost a foot taller than I and her voice was unforgettable — shrill and warm at the same time.” They loved to disagree and debate proper cooking techniques and ingredients; “I like black pepper and she liked white pepper,” he recalled. According to Pépin, Child’s style of cooking meant “a simple meal made with great care and the best possible ingredients.” Her strong opinions on food come through in her recipe for steak au poivre. Child’s 1961 recipe for steak au povire in Mastering the Art of French Cooking was the first to be published in America, but she speaks to her readers as though the recipe was a familiar one, a nod to its pre-existing popularity in restaurants.

Julia Child.

Steak au poivre can be very good when it is not so buried in pepper and doused with flaming brandy that the flavor of the meat is utterly disguised,” Child writes. “In fact, we do not care at all for flaming brandy with this dish; it is too reminiscent of restaurant show-off cooking for tourists. And the alcohol taste, as it is not boiled off completely, remains in the brandy, spoiling the taste of the meat.” As a rule, she felt “there was too much flaming in table top cookery.” In Child’s recipe, after the steaks are seared a sauce is made with leeks and crispy cooked bits left in the bottom of the pan, as well as vegetable stock, cognac and a lot of butter.  The peppercorns crisp into a crust, and the dish is served with potatoes to soak up the rich sauce.

Through Mastering the Art of French Cooking, steak au poivre entered the American mainstream and set the precedent for how we prepare beef; a perfect example of Julia Child’s tremendous culinary influence. The dish is also key in shaping our modern identity of pepper. Steak au poivre treats pepper not as just another spice to be shaken into every dish, but as an ingredient with a bold flavor all its own. Steak au poivre today influences how most Americans cook their meat: crusted in salt and pepper, seared and served. The most basic cooking technique, and perhaps the most delicious.

Steak au poivre. Photo by mmmWolf.

Steak au Poivre
From Mastering the Art of French Cooking, 2011 reprint, by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, Simone Beck

2 Tb of a mixture of several kinds of peppercorns, or white peppercorns
Place the peppercorns in a big mixing bowl and crush them roughly with a pestle or the bottom of a bottle.

2 to 2 1/2 lbs. steak 3/4 to 1 inch thick
Dry the steaks on paper towels. Rub and press the crush peppercorns into both sides of the meat with your fingers and the palms of your hands. Cover with waxed paper. let stand for at least half an hour; two or 3 hours are even better, so the flavor of the pepper will penetrate the meat.

A hot platter
Sauté the steak in hot oil and butter as described in the preceding master recipe. Remove to a hot platter, season with salt, and keep warm for a moment while completing the sauce.

1 Tb butter
2 Tb minced shallots or green onions
1/2 cup stock or canned beef bouillon
1/3 cup cognac
3 to 4 Tb softened butter
Sauteed or fried potatoes
Fresh water cress

Pour the fat out of the skillet. Add the butter and shallots or green onions and cook slowly for a minute. Pour in the stock or bouillon and boil down rapidly over high heat while scraping up the coagulated cooking juices. Then add the cognac and boil rapidly for a minute or two more to evaporate its alcohol. Off heat, swirl in the butter and half-tablespoon at a time. Decorate the platter with the potatoes and water cress. Pour the sauce over the steak, and serve.



The Historic Ingredient: Verjus

verjuice2Long Island’s Wolffer Estate Verjus, a tart coking ingredient made from the juice of unripe grapes.

This is the third is a series of posts I’m doing about Medieval cooking; I’ve already eaten dishes from the earliest known English cooking manuscript; and dabbled in Martha Washington’s historic recipes; now, I want to focus on an interesting medieval ingredient: verjus, verjuice, or literally “green juice.”

The History

A byproduct of the wine industry, grape vines are thinned midway through the season, producing a haul of unripe grapes which can be pressed for their juice. Before lemons were imported into Northern Europe after the crusades, verjus added sour and acid flavors into food. Tartaric acid, better known as cream of tartar when used in baked goods, is responsible for its flavor; poured over ice and drunk straight, verjus is a refreshingly tart grape juice. I’ve read it can also be pressed from windfall apples and other unripe fruits and can be bottled and kept for up to a year.

Winemakers are trying to reintroduce verjus to a contemporary market; I found my bottle in a cheese shop, Formaggio Essex, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The New York Times wrote about verjus in 2010, suggesting it as ideal for saucing up a chicken (also a very traditional use) and replacing the lemon in “lemon bars” with verjus, for a dessert.

I scoured the internets for period-appropriate verjus recipes, and cooked up a dinner party to taste test the results!

The Recipes

I hosted my dinner on a Friday night, so I decided to a go a little Medieval-Catholic-ee and observe a “fast day,” meaning no meat. All my offerings were veg, starting with a squash soup from Libro de Arte Coquinaria (The Art of Cooking) written c. 1465 by Martino da Como.

verjuiceA Squash or Pumpkin Soup, 1465.

The translated recipe for this dish can be found in The Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy. I used two butternut squash, sliced and cooked in a homemade vegetable stock that was heavy on the onion. I pureed to softened squash, and blended it with egg yolks, grated asiago cheese, and saffron. I plated each serving with a tablespoon of verjuice, and topped it with two kinds of black pepper, cloves, fresh grated nutmeg, and a dash of cinnamon. My diners were pleased with the recipe: they loved that the results were lighter and less sweet than a typical, contemporary squash soup. Get the full recipe here.

On the side, I served Green Poree for Days of Abstinence, a medieval French recipe of chard cooked with verjuice and finished with butter. I had picked this recipe to round out my menu, but this simple dish ended up being the favorite of the night. The verjus made the slow-braised Swiss chard sweet and bright. Everyone agreed it was not only the best Swiss chard they had ever eaten, but it was also a pleasure to eat: even my husband cleaned his plate.

verjus4Swiss Chard with Verjuice: The Best!

Swiss Chard Braised with Verjus
Adpated from The Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy

This recipe is enough for one head of swiss chard, which would feed 1-2 people. I recommend preparing one head of chard per person; it cooks down substantially.

1 head Swiss chard, washed, dried, and tough stems removed.
1/4 cup verjuice
1/2 cup vegetable stock
2 tablespoons butter (or to taste)
Salt (to taste)

In a large pot, add chard, stock, salt and verjuice. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer 20-30 minutes until tender. Stir in butter and serve with toasted bread.

 verjuice3Verjuice dessert bar.

For dessert, I took the New York Times’ suggestion and baked Ina Garten’s Lemon Bar recipe, replacing the lemon juice with verjuice. I wasn’t sure if I should still add the lemon zest, however. I didn’t and I found the results to be too subtle and flavorless. Most of of diners enjoyed the slightly tart taste of the custardy bars; I took the leftovers to a party, and everyone gorged themselves. By the way, when making this recipe, I realized I didn’t own a 9×13 pan, so I dumped the batter in a much smaller pan and told myself it would be fine. As a result, the extra thick verjus bars didn’t set properly in the middle, and were a bit runny when I sliced into them. But thems the breaks, and no one seemed it mind.

The Results

Verjuice is awesome. I would buy it and try it again; I would even attempt to make it myself after I move out of New York have some outdoor work space. I think it’s a great thing to keep in the kitchen and I’m really curious to try it to deglaze pans and make sauces for meat. I’d love to use it with more cooked vegetables; I think the flavor complements greens better than lemon juice. And one of my dinner guests pointed out it would be a great mixer for drinks; she envisioned gin, which would make an excellent summer cocktail.

If you’re interested in giving verjus a try, there is an entire cookbook devoted to Cooking with Verjuice. You can also buy it online if you haven’t seen it in any nearby stores.

The possibilities are endless. The flavor is incredible (even if you hate grape juice, like I do!). Try it.