Monthly Archives: March 2021

Pie-Style Pressure Cooker Pigeon

Last post I told you all about the origins of the pressure cooker, and how it was invented by Frenchman Denis Papin in the seventeenth century. One part of his story really struck a chord with me, and that was an almost throwaway comment made by diarist John Evelyn. He attended the ‘philosophical supper’ where Papin cooked for the members of the Royal Society, everything pressure-cooked in his “Digester”. Evelyn wrote about in his diary and described how deliciously tender everything was, but noted that the pigeons were particularly delicious:

We ate pike and other fish, bones and all, without impediment; but nothing exceeded the pigeons, which tasted just as if baked in a pie, all these being stewed in their own juice, without any addition of water save what swam about the digestor

As soon as read that, I knew I had to try it.

I don’t know what your mind conjures up when you imagine what a pigeon pie was like in days of yore, but I always think of Dorothy Hartley’s illustration and description in her wonderful book Food in England. Hers has a double crust and a layer of suet dumpling dough inside, but it was the interior of the pie that I was interested in here.

Dorothy Hartley’s pigeon pie

After a pie dish is lined with the pastry, a slice of braising steak is laid inside with the pigeons on top, then there is a sprinkling of bacon pieces and mushrooms. Stock or gravy is poured over them before the dumpling layer and second pastry layer are added on top. This recipe is for old pigeons that require long cooking, but if young pigeons (squabs) were used, the pies were cooked quickly and at a high temperature, the shortcrust pastry swapped for flaky or puff pastry and the stewing steak swapped for sirloin or veal. There is no definitive recipe, and there are recipes for pigeon pie from the seventeenth century that contain oysters, bone marrow, pistachio nuts and cockerels’ stones (testes). However they are cooked, pigeon pies were well regarded because of their tenderness.

In my interpretation of pie-style pressure cooker pigeon, I stuck quite closely to Hartley’s description, though I added a few aromatic herbs and vegetables and good glug of red wine. I heartily recommend it, and the pigeons do come out exceedingly tender:

Serves 4

1 good knob of butter or bacon fat, around 30 g

4 cloves of garlic

1 leek, trimmed and sliced

2 sticks of celery, chopped

3 bay leaves

12 sprigs thyme

2 portobello mushrooms, sliced

Salt and pepper

2 tbs plain flour

6 rashers dry cured streaky bacon (smoked or unsmoked)

2 oven ready woodpigeons

400 g piece of braising steak (I used top rib)

125 ml red wine

250 ml beef stock

2 tbs chopped parsley

Melt the butter or fat over a medium high heat and add the garlic, leek and celery. Tie the bay leaves and thyme with some string and toss into the mixture. Season well with salt and pepper. Fry and brown the vegetables for around 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the mushrooms and fry for a further 5 minutes.

Meanwhile season the flour and scatter it over a plate. Give the steak a good coating of seasoned flour by pressing it down so that it gets a good covering of flour: make sure you do both sides.

Lay out 3 bacon rashers side by side on a board, sit a pigeon at one end and roll up, tucking the rashers underneath. Repeat with the other pigeon.

Take the pan off the heat, sit the beef on top of the vegetables, sprinkling in any flour that refused the stick to the beef. Sit the pigeons on top and pour over the wine and stock. The liquid should cover the beef, but only go up around a third of the pigeons. Add more stock – or plain water – if necessary. Add the parsley and then close the pressure cooker lid.

Bring up to full pressure and then turn down to a quiet hiss for 1 hour. Turn the heat off and allow to cool enough so that the lid can be removed safely.

To serve, remove the pigeons from the cooker, take off the bacon and return it to the vegetables, then remove the pigeon breasts – you should be able to do this with a spoon – and divide the beef into four pieces.

Just look how clean the meat comes from the bone. Deliciousness.

Mash the very soft bacon into the vegetables. Place a piece of beef in the centre of a plate or deep bowl, sit a pigeon breast on top and spoon over the vegetables and gravy.

Serve with mashed potatoes and garden peas.

References

The Accomplisht Cook (1660) by Robert May. Available at: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/22790

The Diary of John Evelyn Volume II (1665-1706) by John Evelyn. Available at: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/42081

Food in England (1954) by Dorothy Hartley

Modern Cookery for Private Families (1845) by Eliza Acton

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Filed under Blogs, Britain, cooking, food, Game, General, history, Meat, Recipes, Seventeenth Century, Uncategorized

Pressure Cookers, a Potted History

Hello everyone! It’s been a while hasn’t it? My apologies but getting the book ready for handing in took rather longer than expected.

I thought I’d break the ice with a post all about the pressure cooker – an odd subject to choose, you may think, but bear with me, for it has a particularly interesting genesis. (Also, I recently received one from my sister-in-law.)

Pressure cookers are ingenious things because they cook food much more quickly than regular saucepans or stockpots, and this is because the food – usually a stock or casserole – is cooked under high pressure and therefore a higher temperature. A regular pot of water boils at 100°C, but cannot reach a higher temperature because the water becomes steam, boiling away into the ether. However, place a sealed lid on top, the steam – a gas – cannot escape and consequently pressure builds up in the air space within the cooker. Because the steam it at high pressure, it’s harder for water to enter the gaseous phase, and it requires more energy to do so, effectively raising the boiling point. Inside a domestic pressure cooker, water boils at 120°C (around 2 atmospheres of pressure), and reduces the cook time by as much as 80%.

Until recently, I was a bit dubious about cooking in this way, because whenever I make stock, or slowly braise some meat, I bathe the meat and vegetables in water or stock at around 80°C, I don’t boil them; that usually results in tough meat and a lot of scum. Not good. The thought of cooking something at 120°C and having something tender as a result, seemed unintuitive, but I was wrong, tenderness is expected; in fact some “gourmets” are of the opinion that the meat is too soft and cannot “replace the traditional method of simmering.”

Its origin story goes right back to the 17th century. French physician Denis Papin invented his ‘Digester’, as he called it; a large cylindrical sealed chamber, heated over coals able to reach pressures of eight atmospheres (boiling point around 175°). He presented it to the Royal Society in 1679; amongst the fellows were luminaries such as Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke, and so impressed were they that they commissioned his book A New Digester or Engine for Softening Bones in 1681. The next year, he cooked the Society a Digester dinner. Present at the meal was the great diarist and champion of salads, John Evelyn, who later wrote:

12th April, 1682. I went this afternoon with several of the Royal Society to a supper which was all dressed, both fish and flesh, in Monsieur Papin’s digestors, by which the hardest bones of beef itself, and mutton, were made as soft as cheese, without water or other liquor, and with less than eight ounces of coals, producing an incredible quantity of gravy; and for close of all, a jelly made of the bones of beef, the best for clearness and good relish, and the most delicious that I had ever seen, or tasted. We ate pike and other fish, bones and all, without impediment…the natural juice of all these provisions acting on the grosser substances, reduced the hardest bones to tenderness…I sent a glass of the jelly to my wife, to the reproach of all that the ladies ever made of their best hartshorn.

Diagrams of the Digester from Lapin’s book

So it seems that Evelyn not only confirms that cooking under pressure makes meat – and even bone – exceedingly tender, but also that it is a very good thing.

As good as it may be, that it was invented in the first place seems rather odd – why build a machine for softening bones? Papin makes his objective very clear: “no body can deny that…by the help of the Engine here treated thereof, the oldest and hardest Cow-Beef may be made as tender and as savoury as young and choice meat.” Cheap cuts that cost little but require a lot of fuel to cook tenderly, were suddenly quick to prepare and very pleasurable to eat, and he knew that this had huge implications for the working poor, and the improvement of their scant, and often miserable, diet.

Papin was very influential as part of the Royal Society, and worked alongside Robert Boyle, assisting him in his experiments exploring the nature of pressure, the result of which being Boyle’s Law. It wasn’t long before someone realised that his Digester had potential beyond the softening of bones: “all you need to do is attach a piston and you have begun to produce a steam engine.”

The Digester as a piece of cooking equipment did not take off – it was expensive to build and could be rather dangerous. It wasn’t until the addition of safety valves that effectively stopped the pressure from getting too high, and safety locks preventing the lid from flying off if opened too soon, would it become more common. This would take a while, and domestic pressure cookers only became available in Britain from 1949 where they were “hailed with delight”. The cookers were still prone to exploding, and they still wouldn’t become very popular until the 1970s when safety legislation was tightened further.

An early – and dangerous – domestic pressure cooker (pic: Foodal)

Today, pressure cookers are very safe and are very easy to use; though I do admit I was a little worried using one for the first time. With a pressure cooker, a rich beef stock can be made in 2 ½ hours rather than 12, making stock-making suddenly economically-viable. This fact convinced me to give it a go. After a quick rummage in the freezer, I found not beef bones but hogget bones, leftover from the legs I roasted for the podcast and Grigson blog last year (see here and here). The resulting stock was magnificent – richer and more delicious than any meat stock I had cooked before. Then, I tested it out on some pigeons, cooking them pie-style just as John Evelyn had mentioned in his diary, but you’ll have to wait until the next post to hear about that!

The best lamb stock I ever did make!

References

A New Digester or Engine for Softening Bones (1681) by Denis Papin. Available to view at: https://wellcomecollection.org/works/heyqybu9

The Diary of John Evelyn Volume II (1665-1706) by John Evelyn. Available at: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/42081

The Instant Pot of the 1600s Was Known as ‘the Digester of Bones’, Atlas Obscura website (2018): https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/who-invented-the-instant-pot

Larousse Gastronomique (2001)

Marguerite Patten’s Century of British Cooking (2015) by Marguerite Patten

On Food and Cooking, Second Edition (2007) by Harold McGee

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