Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Duck Press

The duck press was invented in France during the 1800s by a chef called Mechenet to make what is one of the most extravagant and macabre dishes ever created: Caneton de Rouen à la Presse, also known as Duck in Blood Sauce. It was popularised by Chef Frèdèric who was head chef at the famous restaurant La Tour d’Argent where it became the signature dish. It is reckoned over a million were served there. What is particularly impressive is that the dish was made at the table in front of the guests.

At La Tour d’Argent you are given a card

telling you the ‘number of your duck’

The dish became very popular in Britain during that famously excessive (and thankfully brief) period of history, the Edwardian Era. London’s high society went to huge efforts to appear sophisticated; French cuisine has always been associated with sophistication and the dish Caneton de Rouen à la Presse was one of the best. The Savoy in the 1900s, which then had the formidable chef Escoffier at the helm, regularly served it.

Escoffier

To make the dish you first of all need a duck press which a large metal press usually made of bronze. It contains a spout low down on the press itself so that the blood and bone marrow can be collected easily and it stands on two our four heavy feet so that the whole thing remains stable; you don’t want to cover some count in blood goo unless you can really help it. Some of them have webbed duck feet. If you want to buy a duck press though it will set you back around £1000.

Once you have procured your press you need to prepare your duck. The best for this recipe would be a Rouen duckling, but a mallard would be a good substitute. First of all kill your duck by strangulation so that the blood remains inside the tissues than pluck it. Next day remove the innards, keeping aside the heart and liver, and roast it on the very highest setting on the oven for 15 to 20 minutes. Liquidise the bird’s liver and heart. This is the point where the press and the duck are wheeled to the dining table for the guests to watch.

Remove the legs and set them aside for later, then remove the breast meat cutting it thinly and keeping it warm and covered on a serving dish with a cloche. Push and shove the carcass in the press to extract the blood and bone marrow from the bird, collecting it in a jug placed beneath the spout.

Make a sauce by gently warming the blood with the liquidised liver, some duck or veal stock and some brandy or cognac. Lastly, whisk in a good knob of butter to thicken the sauce and make it glossy. Pour the sauce over the sliced duck breast. Serve with a green salad.

The legs are usually taken away and grilled to be served up during the next course.

So there you have it; a simple and affordable family meal. I have to say, I am a lover of rare meats and I don’t find this sort of food scary at all and it is being served in some restaurants today. If I make my millions, I’ll buy a press and get you all round for dinner.

I found this YouTube video of one being used, but if you’re squeamish, you’re best not looking, I’d say.

For more duck history and recipes, click upon this very link.

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Filed under Britain, food, French Cookery, General, history, Meat, Nineteenth Century, Recipes, The Edwardians

Celery

The great about celery is that it is two vegetables and one spice all in one.

The large familiar swollen stems are actually greatly enlarged leaf stalks and make up most of the plant visible above the soil. The celery we know and love was selectively bred in 14th century Italy from the wild plant that is “rank, coarse, and…poisonous” according to the celery expert Theophilus Roessle. It is these stalks that join onions and carrots to produce the trinity of stock vegetables – indeed it is for stock, or for salads, that celery is commonly used, but it does make a great vegetable on its own. It was very popular to serve celery sauces with poultry, or served covered in a cream sauce with pheasant.

In Good Things, Jane Grigson gives us two valuable pieces of advice: firstly, that celery is a seasonal vegetable that is at its best from November and December. We have lost this seasonality and it is a shame, I expect few of us have eaten prime celery improved by the ‘first frost’. The second piece of advice is how to eat the vegetable raw; once you have procured your first-frosted celery, you should trim it and spread down the curved length of the stem good butter. Next, sprinkle with sea salt. “Avoid embellishments”, she says “a good way to start a meal.” To prepare celery for eating, it is often a good idea to string it – this is particularly important if it is to be cooked. It’s very simple to do because the strings are quite near the surface of the stalk; take a vegetable peeler to its curved underside and peel the strings away. Easy.

If allowed to flower, the seeds produce a spice which was used to make celery vinegar, a popular condiment in the 18th century. It is also the part of the plant that is used to make celery salt, an ingredient in a classic Bloody Mary cocktail. To make it, just grind up some celery seeds and mix with double the amount of good quality sea salt.

Celery plant showing off its stalks and root

It might surprise you to know that celery is a member of the carrot family, but if you look beneath the soil surface you will find a large swollen root, though it doesn’t look very much like a carrot; it is round, creamy and white and covered in small knobbly roots. This is celeriac, sometimes just called celery root. It goes really well with game and can be roasted like parsnips or pureed with some potatoes. Raw, it is an excellent ingredient in coleslaw.

Here are a couple of recipes that show the celery stems off at their very best. Both can be made from one head of celery.

 

Braised Celery

This is my favourite way of cooking celery and it is also very simple – the most difficult bit is remembering to take it out of the oven! It requires the inside stalks of a head of celery – don’t throw away those outer sticks, you use them to make celery soup (see below). It is best made with beef stock and served with roast beef or game, in particular pheasant.

one head of celery, outer 8 stems removed

2 oz of butter

8 fl oz beef, chicken or vegetable stock

salt and pepper

Separate the sticks of celery, string those that need it and slice them in half and place spread out in a single layer in a shallow ovenproof dish. Dot with the butter and pour over the stock. Season with salt and pepper. Cover tightly with a well-fitting lid or some foil. Bake in the oven at 160⁰C (325⁰F) for 2 ½ hours.

 

Celery Soup

This is the best way of using up the really stringy outer stalks on a head of celery. It’s pretty low-fat (you could swap the butter for olive oil) but has a nice ‘cream of…’ look and feel but without the actual cream. To achieve this, all you need to do is to stir in a couple of fluid ounces of milk after the soup has been liquidised. One of my favourite soups.

2 oz butter

1 bay leaf

¼ tsp allspice

8 sticks of celery including the leaves, sliced

1 medium onion, chopped

1 medium potato, diced

1 pint of vegetable or light chicken stock

2 fl oz milk

good pinch of ground white pepper

salt

Melt the butter in a large saucepan, when it stops bubbling add the bay leaf and allspice. Cook in the butter for 30 seconds or so before adding the celery, onion and potato. Mix well to coat the vegetables with the butter. Turn the heat down to low-medium and cover the pan. Let the m cook gently for 20 minutes until the vegetables have softened. Add the vegetable stock, bring to a boil and simmer gently for a further 30 minutes. Let the soup cool a little before liquidising in a blender. Push through a sieve if you like your soup super smooth. Add the milk and a good seasoning of white pepper and salt; the amounts are up to you, but I use around 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/8 of a teaspoon of pepper.

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Filed under Britain, history, Recipes, Uncategorized, Vegetables

Shortbread

The history of shortbread goes back to at least the 12th century and originally started life as ‘biscuit bread’; biscuits that were made from left-over bread dough that was sometimes sweetened and dried out in the oven to form a hard, dry rusk. This practise took place over the whole of the British Isles, not just Scotland.

Over time the leavening was lost and exchanged for butter, making it an expensive fancy treat that was only bought for celebrations such as Christmas and Hogsmanay (Scottish New Year). There are similar ‘breads’ outside of Scotland such as Shrewsbury cakes and Goosnagh cakes.

The large amount of butter is what makes shortbread short: the term short, when applied to biscuits and pastry, means crumbly, like shortcrust pastry should be. It is the reason why the fat added to biscuits and pastries is called shortening.

Mary Queen of Scots

Today, shortbread is made from flour, butter and sugar, though other flavourings are added. Caraway was particularly popular; Mary Queen of Scots was particularly fond of them. Other extra ingredients included almonds and citrus fruits like this 18th century recipe from Mrs Frazer:

Take a peck of flour…beat and sift a pound of sugar; take orange-peel, citron, and blanched almonds, of each half a pound, cut in pretty long thin pieces: mix these well in the flour; then make a hole in the middle of the flour, put in three table-spoons of good yeast; then work it up, but not too much…roll out; prickle them on top, pinch them neat round the edges, and strew sugar, carraways, peel, and citron, on the top. Fire it…in a moderate oven.

In George Read’s 1854 book The complete biscuit and gingerbread baker’s assistant, there are fewer ingredients, but includes eggs for some reason:

1 ¼ lb. of flour, ½ lb. of sugar, ½ lb. of butter, 3 eggs, ¼ oz. of volatile salts…a little essence of lemon

FYI: Volatile salts were smelling salts, that could also be used to leaven dough.

Shortbread usually comes in three different forms: small round biscuits, fingers or large rounds. To make the fingers, dough is cut into a large rectangle and the fingers are scored with the back of a knife so they can be broken up easily after cooking. A pattern made with fork marks is always made too.

To make large rounds, the dough is pressed into a round earthenware mould or a tart tin to make petticoat tails. When making the petticoat tails, the dough is scored into triangular slices like a pizza. The term petticoat tails comes not from the French petites gatelles (‘little cakes’) as many think (though Scottish cuisine did have more in common with French food than English food during the reign of Mary Queen of Scots), but from the term petticoat tallies – the name of the triangular pattern used to make bell hoop petticoats like Elizabeth I would have worn.

You can still buy the earthenware moulds – I’ll be buying one when I move back to England later in the summer.

Basic shortbread

This recipe makes enough for two petticoat tails rounds made in a seven inch tart tin. It’s hard to say how many biscuits or fingers – it depends on how wide and thick you make them. The important thing is to take them out before they start to brown.

To achieve a nice melt-in-the-mouth crumbliness use cornflour as well as normal plain flour to make your shortbread. Somewhere between a 1:1 and a 3:1 ratio of plain flour to cornflour works well. You don’t have to do this; they are still good with just good old plain flour.

6 ounces flour mix

4 ounces salted butter cut into cubes

2 ounces icing or caster sugar, plus extra

extra caster sugar

Rub the butter into the flour using fingers, pastry blender, food mixer or processor; be careful not to overwork things though if you’re using a food processor – shortbread dough doesn’t like being handled too much. Stir in the sugar and with your hand bring everything together to make a pliable dough – it’ll feel like it won’t form a dough at first, but as your hands warm it will.

Now you can roll or press out your dough into whatever shape you like and then place in the fridge for 20-30 minutes to harden:

For petticoat tails you are best diving the two into two halves and pressing the dough into your fluted flat tin. Score lines to mark out the slices, using a ruler if you want to be really precise. Make a nice pattern with a fork.

For fingers roll out the dough to half an inch thickness into a vaguely rectangular shape. Use a knife and a ruler to cut out a large rectangle and then score the lines with your ruler and knife, making patterns with your fork prongs.

For biscuits you can really do whatever you like; thick, thin, round, square. I think a little under half an inch is a good thickness. Cut out the biscuits and make your all-so-important fork marks.

Heat the oven to 180⁰C (350⁰F). Place the biscuits onto a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper. Sprinkle with the extra sugar and bake until cooked but before any signs of browning. Petticoat Tails and fingers take about 15 minutes, individual biscuits can be variable, but usually about 12-15 minutes.

Variations:

For lemon shortbread add the zest of one lemon when you add the sugar, and for almond shortbread add 5 or 6 drops of almond extract. If you want to try it with caraway, sprinkle in 2 teaspoons of caraway seeds at the same time you add the sugar.

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Filed under baking, Biscuits, Britain, Desserts, Festivals, food, history, Recipes, Scotland, Teatime, Uncategorized

A good egg?

We all take eggs a little for granted these days, so to get us appreciating them a little more,  I thought I’d write a post on the humble egg…

Where to start with eggs? They are so integral to our life because of their versatility. Whole eggs can be boiled, fried, poached, coddled, scrambled and baked. Used as an ingredient in pastry, in sauces and soups, they enrich and they bind, then if you separate the white from the yolk, you can make amazing meringues, velouté sauces, mayonnaise, hollandaise sauce, sauce Béarnaise and – my personal favourite – custard (please don’t call it crème anglaise!). Twenty-six million eggs are produced per day in the UK. It beggars belief, it does.

Well I think I shall start with the age-old philosophical question: ‘What came first? The chicken or the egg?’ Just as Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat does her amazing book A History of Food. She very interestingly points out that from a culinary point of view it is the egg that came first because chickens were introduced into Europe in the 5th century BC after the Greeks and Italians had been eating the eggs of other birds like geese, ducks and guinea fowl.

Okay, I shall reword our question: ‘What came first, the fowl or the egg?’ Well, from a culinary perspective, the answer is the fowl. Eating eggs was a bit of a no-no because if one ate an egg, you were – in effect – eating a whole chicken, which is a huge waste. Due to this fact, superstitions naturally arose and still exist today. For example, the people of present-day Burkina Faso believe that children that eat eggs become thieves, plus there is a French saying  on a similar vein: ‘He who steals an egg will steal a horse’.

Eggs as food only really took off when chicken farming became common. It unfortunately took off in such a way that the poor old chickens – on the whole – have a miserably terrible time in their battery cages. That said I think there is legislation going through that says that all chickens should get some time to stretch their legs.

In the 1970s and 80s, our eggs were in a right old state – there was intense over-crowding and the chickens were fed a meal made from the carcasses of dead birds. Quality of life, and egg, was very low, and because of the sheer number of chickens in one place, it didn’t take long for disease to spread. In this case it was the bacterium Salmonella enteriditis (SE) that killed many chickens and quite a few humans too. Coupling this disease with the fact that eggs from different ‘farms’ were being mixed up together, the source of the disease couldn’t be found readily.

All this was addressed by the British government in the 1990s – chickens are now vaccinated against SE and with the introduction of the Lion Quality code that allows each individual egg to be easily traced back to its place of origin, so if there is an outbreak it can be tackled swiftly. Only one percent of eggs get contaminated nowadays, and even then there number of bacterial cells averages out at around 10 per egg – you’d have to be pretty unlucky to become ill these days.

I personally, only go for free range; I feel far too guilty about the conditions they have to endure and I can’t bring myself to buy battery. The best eggs are those you can get from farmers’ markets, and are usually pretty cheap too.

The good thing about modern farming methods is that we get fresh eggs all year round. Normally chickens stop laying during wintertime and therefore eggs had to be preserved, usually by pickling, in Britain. I quite like a pickled egg now and again. I often think how we’d cope as a nation if we suddenly had to eat our food seasonally. I reckon it’d be character-building. Eggs were off limits during Lent because they are from animals. No wonder they are so prominent during Eastertime.

The best way to enjoy an egg is to make a simple meal from it, and what couldn’t be simpler than the boiled egg? Actually there seems to be 101 different methods to boil an egg perfectly and it is far from easy to get consistency. It requires a post to itself. However I cannot let this story wait…

Louis XV of France loved boiled eggs and had them every Sunday for breakfast. He was so deft at eating them that the Parisian people would come and watch their king’s skills at work. A crowd would gather, then a high-ranking servant would shout: ‘The King is about to eat his egg!’, and everyone would watch agog as King Louis sliced the top of the egg with one swift stroke of his fork. It’s amazing what passed as entertainment, though I have to admit it’s quite a skill.

Louis XV

There is only one egg dish that ranks highly when it comes to gastronomy though and that is the omelette. Don’t be deceived by the French name; it cannot be claimed by them. During the Middle Ages, the English would tuck into cheese omelettes pretty regularly, though in those days we used the word fraysse. Like much Franco-Angle foods, the exact origins are lost in time.

One final mention about hen’s eggs from a culinary perspective – they are a lot bigger than they used to be. Any recipe older than, say, around 1900, need a little modification and you might be best using two-thirds of the number stated.

Also, there are more than just hens’ eggs available if you know where to look for them…

Quail eggs – these are probably the most common after the chicken egg, though were a novelty in the 1970s. I don’t really use them and don’t see the point of putting tiny fried eggs on food just for the sake of being fancy, I’d rather have a nice real farm chicken egg. However, they do make great pickled eggs.

Duck eggs – these crop up more commonly these days, particularly in Chinese supermarkets. Apparently, ducks will lay their eggs anywhere, so to be safe a duck egg should be hard-boiled.

Goose eggs – I had never eaten a goose egg until recently when I spotted some for sale at Soulard Market in St Louis. They are massive. Naturally I snapped one up and ate is just like Jane Grigson said to: ‘fried in a little butter’. A ‘rare rich treat’ indeed. I can heartily recommend trying one.

Chicken eggs are dwarfed by goose eggs

Gull eggs – the only egg on the list I have not tried. In fact I have never seen them before anywhere. Ever.  I wonder if they are still available. If you know anything about getting hold of some, let me know.

Egg recipes so far:

Custard (general)

Proper ‘pouring’ custard

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