Monthly Archives: July 2012

Forgotten Foods #2: Verjuice

Having a crabbed face of her own, she’ll eat less Verjuyce with her mutton

T Middleton, Women beware Women, 1657

Verjuice was a very popular cooking ingredient from the Middle Ages onwards. Many old recipes ask for it and they seem to hit a peak during Tudor times. It is essentially the juice of either sour grapes or crab apples; Britain might not be the best place to grow delicious sweet grapes, but we can certainly excel in growing sour fruit! It took the place of fresh lemon juice in recipes for salad dressings, desserts like syllabubs; it was added to stews, soups and sauces as a seasoning, as well as an ingredient in marinades. It was also believed to have medicinal properties; for example, it was mixed with olive oil and blown up horses’ noses to treat colds! It was basically a necessary piece of kit in any kitchen, seeming to drop out of favour by the end of eighteenth century when lemons became more accessible.


Crushing the grapes for verjuice

The word verjuice comes from the Old French verjus, with ver-  meaning green or unripe and –jus being juice. The earliest written mention of it in British literature comes from around 1302, so we are talking old. It must have been such a useful ingredient in a place where fresh lemons will have either have been impossible to get hold of or terribly expensive.

I expected never to taste verjuice, but then as I was wandering around the excellent Global Foods Market in St Louis minding my own business, I happened upon a jar of it in the Middle East aisle of the shop. Naturally I bought some and thought I’d try some original recipes where verjuice was a main ingredient rather than just a seasoning.

17th century verjuice vinaigrette

In the 1897 volume of Good Housekeeping the subject of using verjuice in salad dressings inexplicably crops up. It takes quotes from the 17th century cook book The English Huswife by Gervase Markham. Anyway, it says that if you want to make a simple sallet then make a dressing of verjuice, sallet [olive] oil and sugar. Use it with sparagus, camphire, cucumbers, leeks, blanched carrots, purslane, with a world of others too tedious to nominate. He must have been in a bit of a mood the day he wrote that part.

It was a pretty brief recipe. Although verjuice is very tart, its underlying flavours are rather subtle so it needed quite a high ratio of verjuice to oil (much more than vinegar or lemon juice dressings).

I mixed together 4 tablespoons each of verjuice and extra virgin olive oil. To offset the sourness, I added a teaspoon of soft dark brown sugar, stirring until it dissolved. Lastly I seasoned it with a little salt and pepper. Easy and surprisingly subtle. Any leftover dressing can be stored and blown up your horse’s nose should it ever get a sniffle.

Sweet verjuice ‘scrambled eggs’ with brioche toast

I recently wrote a post about fruit curds, and I seem to have found a possible source of the preserve when looking for verjuice recipes. There is a recipe in Le Patissier François (published around 1690) that has helpfully been translated into English by Harold McGee where verjuice and salt are added to eggs in order to make them coagulate at a lower temperature, tenderising them:

Break four eggs, beat them, adjust with salt and four spoonsful of verjus, put the mix on the fire, and stir gently with a silver spoon just until the eggs thicken enough, and then take them off the fire and stir them a bit more as they thicken. One can make scrambles eggs in the same way with lemon or orange juice.

It is of Mr McGee’s opinion that a sweetened version of this recipe could be the origin of the fruit curd. Notice that fresh lemons or oranges can be used, suggesting that they are less common than verjuice.

Below is my interpretation of that recipe. I add plenty of acidic verjuice and a large pinch of salt, meaning that the ‘scrambled eggs’ actually end up thickening more like a custard. I have to say it was delicious, so if you ever do come across some verjuice have a go at this recipe:

Ingredients (for 2 people)
A good knob of butter
2 eggs
6 tbs verjuice
good pinch of salt
2 level tbs sugar
2 slices of brioche

Melt the butter in a saucepan on a medium heat. Whisk together the eggs, verjuice, salt and sugar until there is no trace of white left. Pour the egg mixture in the saucepan and carry on whisking over a medium heat. Meanwhile toast the slices of brioche. When the eggs have thickened and are just about to boil, pour them into two small pots and serve with the brioche.

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Filed under Britain, Desserts, food, French Cookery, history, Seventeenth Century

Curried Beetroot Chutney

A while ago, I discovered a recipe for a 19th century British curry (see here for the original post). The recipe required me to prepare both a curry powder and a curry paste. It made a very good, strongly spiced curry, but ever since the jars have been sat in my fridge. I thought there must be something else I can do with these concoctions. After a little thought I came up with this chutney idea and it works very well: the earthy beetroot is very sweet which offsets the spices very well. I thought of beetroot because I often panfry beetroot in olive oil with cumin seeds and always thought the combination delicious. Because beetroot is so sweet and quite a lot of sugar is required for the syrup, I include a quantity of carrot, otherwise I think the sweetness and beetroot flavour may make it a little too rich.

It is delicious with cold meats or cheese and is also a great alternative to mango chutney as a condiment for a curry.

The recipes for the curry powder and curry paste needed for the pickle can be found here.

Ingredients

3 tbs flavourless cooking oil such as sunflower, canola, groundnut &c.

2 tsp cumin seeds

1 tbs 19th century curry powder

1 tbs 19th century curry paste

2 lbs beetroot, peeled and diced

1 lb carrots peeled and diced

1 med onion, chopped

2 tart apples, peeled, cored and grated

1 ¼ UK pints red wine vinegar

1 ½ lbs sugar

1 ½ tsp salt

Heat the oil in a stockpot or large saucepan – you need it quite hot, don’t be scared, the hotter the better. Toss in the cumin seeds and fry in the hot oil for around 30 seconds, then add the curry powder and paste. Stir and fry for around 2 minutes then add the remaining ingredients. Bring to a steady boil, then make sure the sugar has dissolved before letting it simmer away for around 90 minutes until the beetroot is tender and the vinegar and sugar have formed a thick syrup.

Pot into sterilised jars. The chutney can be eaten as soon as it is cool, but it is best to leave it for a couple of weeks to develop its flavour.

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Filed under Britain, food, General, Indian food, Nineteenth Century, Preserving, Recipes, Vegetables

Favourite Cook Books No. 1: The Be-Ro Book

 

I thought I would start a series of posts on the cook books – and books of cookery writing – that I think are the best out there. I end the post with my favourite recipe from the book – Butter Tarts.

So many of you might be thinking, why the heck is the first one up Home Recipes with Be-Ro (or as it is known to me, The Be-Ro Book)? Well it is this book that got me into cookery in the first place because it was the one my Mum used when I was growing up. Before I was even thought of my Mum owned a bakery and so we had the luxury of having most things baked or cooked from scratch. This was the go-to book for all the family staples, and when I was off school on holiday and it was raining outside she would entertain me and my brother by giving us pastry trimmings to cut out. As we got older we chose recipes from The Be-Ro Book and cooked them with help from Mum. So I was essentially brought up on this book and its recipes, and it is certainly where I got my enthusiasm for cooking; I have been conditioned to feel at home in the kitchen.

The copy I have is the Centenary Edition, though it doesn’t say anywhere in the book when in was printed. I know that the Be-Ro Flour Company was formed in the 1880s, so it dates the book to the 1980s. My Mum has an even older copy this one, though the recipes are identical. Be-Ro still makes flour and Be-Ro recipe books are still printed today, these days of course you can go onto the Be-Ro website you will find the same recipes, which haven’t changed.

Well almost; the main difference between my copy of The Be-Ro Book and the modern version is that it suffers rather from a post-war rationing complex – most recipes ask for margarine rather than butter. Luckily shortbread escapes this, but buttercream does not. In fact there’s a lot of nasty margarine-based buttercream.

You are forgiven for not holding this book in as high esteem as I do, yet the classics are here, and they bring back great childhood memories. I also have to say it has really good basic skills teaching too, so don’t underrate it.

Many of the recipes are coming back into fashion, especially now that budgets are a little less flexible and the weather is cold and wet. Personal favourites of mine include a really excellent moist and light milk chocolate cake; its secret is the inclusion of evaporated milk and my Mum still bakes it. The steamed sponge puddings are excellent too as are the many tea loaves. It does fail on a terrible recipe for flapjacks that uses cornflakes instead of oats. You can’t win them all though, can you?

Butter Tarts

In my opinion these butter tarts are the best things in this book, though I have made a few changes to the original recipe. The filling is a mixture of raisins in a sweet caramel sauce that forms a delicious chewy crust as it bakes.

This recipe makes 12 butter tarts.

Ingredients

shortcrust pastry made with 8 oz flour and 4 oz of butter (or butter and lard)

1 oz butter

2 oz caster sugar

2 oz soft dark brown sugar

4 oz raisins

a few drops of vanilla extract

Roll out the pastry thinly and cut out circles using a pastry cutter measuring 3 ½ inches in diameter and line a steep-sided patty pan tray. You can use a tart tin, but I find you can’t get enough of the filling in.

Melt the butter in a saucepan, take off the heat and stir in the remaining ingredients. Add 2 teaspoons of mixture per tray – this should be just enough for 12 tarts.

Bake for 15-20 minutes at 200⁰C (400⁰F) and cool on a wire rack.

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Filed under baking, Books, Britain, food, General, Recipes, Teatime

Potted Chicken Livers

Now I know you’re thinking that I am dressing up something French as British by saying ‘potted chicken livers’ instead of pâté but the British have been potting meats like beef, game and salmon, and also liver, for a long time now. Potting helps preserve meat if covered with an airtight layer of clarified butter and kept in a cool place. I am going to write a post very soon on potting meats as well as some other methods of meat preservation soon; the point of this post was for me to write a little diatribe about how the word pâté has the same roots as pot so I could feel a little smug and say that I was right. You know like those people who say raspberry coulis, when they just mean sauce. It turns out that I was a little wrong: my French is worse than pidgin and I just assumed the two words had the same root. I am blaming Elizabeth David for this gaff: she talks of potted chicken livers as though that’s what everyone calls them down her way.

Pot or pâté? Ms David knew which side of her toast was buttered

So as it turns out that the word pâté has the same roots as the words pastry and pasta, coming from Greek words meaning ‘small particles and fine textures’ according Harold McGee in his tome On Food and Cooking. So potted livers have a fine texture as they are a mixture of butter and liver, and pastry is made up of particles of flour and butter. Actually, pâté started life more as a chopped assemblage of meats, rather than the refined smoothness we think of today. Oddly enough pâté and pie eventually became interchangeable words in medieval times because chopped meat was often cooked in pastry on both sides of the English Channel. As I have said before, the food histories of Britain and France blend so much there is sometimes no point in trying to discern between the two.

Anyway, I have chuntered on enough now so I shall give you two recipes for potted chicken livers. First, a couple of mentions on preparation and storage: in this recipe the livers are fried in butter until pink, about 4 or 5 minutes on a high heat. It is very important that they should be cooked through and only slightly pink, not just seared and bloody and rare. I don’t want you coming down with Campylobacter or some other nasty food poisoning microbe. The other thing is to cover your potted livers with a good layer of clarified butter along with a lid or a covering of cling film, especially if being kept in a cold larder. The butter isn’t necessary if you are keeping them in the fridge, but they should be covered with something; butter is best though as it stops the livers from oxidising and turning from rich brown to muddy gray (oxidising is harmless, they’re still good to eat).

To make clarified butter, slowly melt some butter in a saucepan over a low heat. Skim off any froth or foam with a spoon and then decant the butter into a jug making sure none of the butter solids get poured out with it.

Potted chicken livers with brandy and peppercorns

This is the classic recipe for potted chicken livers, though I find that there is never enough brandy. I use quite a lot compared to many recipes because I like to be able to taste it; brandy is very rich and it can be a bit too much, especially with all that liver and butter too. To counteract this is I add a good dose of piquant pickled green peppercorns which are available at delicatessen’s shops or online. You can of course omit the peppercorns and reduce the amount of brandy if you’d rather.

Ingredients

8 oz chicken livers

6 oz butter

2 to 4 tbs brandy

3 tsp rinsed and drained pickled green peppercorns

salt and black pepper

clarified butter (optional)

Pick over the chicken livers, removing any large pieces of gristle, carefully removing any little green bile ducts that may be left on them. Get a frying pan nice and hot and add 2 ounces of the butter. When the butter stops foaming, add the livers and fry for a total of 4 or 5 minutes, turning them half-way through.

The idea is for the livers to be cooked, but still a little pink, so cut inside one to check after 4 minutes of frying. Tip the livers and butter into a blender or food processor and return the pan to the heat whilst you deglaze it with the brandy. Tip the brandy and burnt bits into the blender along with the rest of the butter and blitz until the required smoothness (I like mine very smooth). Mix in the peppercorns and the seasoning before potting in one large earthenware pot of several smaller ones. Pour over the clarified butter to form an airtight seal.

Potted chicken livers with gin, rosemary and thyme

My attempt at a recipe rather more Scottish in its flavours, which I think works very well. These livers are much more savoury and less rich than in the recipe above: a good shot of gin provides a subtle aromatic bitter hit of juniper, and the fresh herbs mellow it nicely.

The method is exactly the same as the above except 2 teaspoons each of finely chopped rosemary and thyme are fried along with the livers. Of course exchange the brandy for the gin and omit the pickled peppercorns.

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Filed under Britain, food, French Cookery, history, Meat, Preserving, Recipes