Cooking (and Contemplating) New England

"Mince Pies," from Lydia Maria Child's "American Frugal Housewife" (1833)

December 27, 2015

Tags: Lydia Maria Child, pies, mincemeat, beef

Where's the Beef? In 1832, it was in the pie!

Mincing Medievalism
Mincemeat pie is a relic of the time centuries ago when two things were true of European food: one, that until Shakespeare's day pies were made more often with meat, poultry, or fish than with fruit or vegetables as the primary ingredient; and two, that very few dishes of any kind, including pies, tasted primarily sweet or primarily savory. Most dishes, including pies, offered what we would consider a blend of sweet and savory tastes, something like the sweet-and-sour items on a Chinese restaurant menu. Or like that American classic of the Betty Crocker era--ham baked with brown sugar and pineapple. (more…)

"To alamode a round," from Amelia Simmons's American Cookery (1796)

February 11, 2014

Tags: Amelia Simmons, beef, a la mode, pot roast

Not Your Average Pot Roast, from 1796

A La Mode des Francais, Anglais, Américains
The expression "à la mode," as appended to apple pie in modern American English, actually makes no sense: apple pie in the style or fashion of . . . what? Or whom? Have we slovenly Americans yet again, in importing vocabulary and cuisine from France, robbed both of their native clarity and elegance? Not really. It turns out that long before apple pie topped with vanilla ice cream, another "à la mode" dish was so widely loved that there was in that case as well no need to fill in the blank after the "de." This was, in the Anglophone world, "beef a la mode." Nor was the American Amelia Simmons the first to make the usage even more casual by turning the phrase into a verb that served as shorthand for the entire process of cooking the dish: "To alamode a round." The English author Elizabeth Raffald had pulled a similar stunt three decades before: "To a-la-mode beef." (more…)

"To Bake a Bulloks Cheek to Be Eaten Hot," from Hannah Woolley's The Queen-like Closet (1670)

November 27, 2012

Tags: beef, cheeks, Hannah Woolley

A Cheeky Dish

A Bit of Thanksgiving Corrective
Before the standard roast turkey, stuffing, and gravy overtook Thanksgiving dinner like some monocultural virus decimating all other species and preparations, New Englanders enjoyed a healthy diversity of meat, game, and poultry on their annual festive board. Describing a typical New England Thanksgiving of the time, the December 23, 1801 issue of the Hampshire Gazette enthusiastically details steaming joints of roast beef, platters of mutton, tender chicken pies, and succulent geese alongside the reasonably-sized and well-dressed turkey to be found on the typical regional table. Alas, the modern turkey is not only an invasive weed of a bird driving out the many pretty Thanksiving offerings of the past, it is also untidy and overgrown, usually a titan of 18 to 22 pounds that takes visceral strength and uncanny arm movements to wrestle into the oven. Ah, for the eight or nine or even ten pound dainty fowl of yore. And in case we haven’t made our anti-turkey case sufficiently strong, be it remembered that the big bird is, after all, yet more poultry in a contemporary culinary world more awash in the stuff than the Jersey shore currently is in storm detritus.

So if you, like us, find in these few weeks after Thanksgiving that you’d like a break from the early 21st century’s relentless feathered regimen, now might be just the time to stew up some beef cheeks. Yup, beef cheeks. Don’t let the name of the cut put you off—we’re talking cheeks, yes, but not of the posterior kind. And if eating head parts isn’t something you’ve done before, this is a perfect way to start—the cut is small and the preparation uncomplicated. Trimmed and cooked long and slowly in Guinness stout and a couple of glasses of Cabernet Sauvignon until the meat falls apart under a fork’s gentle prodding, beef cheeks have a deep, rich savor all their own. Serve them over toasted French bread, ladle on a bit of their own spiced gravy, light the candles, and be prepared to be blissfully transported.

It’s no surprise given their exquisite taste that braised beef cheeks have become trendy in snobbish food circles. But that doesn’t stop them from being a perfect late autumn dish for those of us who mostly learn of metropolitan fads only decades after the fact. The recipe for them given by Hannah Woolley in The Queen-like Closet is also a perfect example of how inspired a simple seventeenth-century dish can be.

The Ingredients
Serves 6

4 pounds beef cheeks, about 3 pounds after fat and silverskin are trimmed
1 bunch parsley
4 sage leaves
2 sprigs rosemary
1 small handful thyme, about 5-6 stalks
12 ounces Guinness stout
2 cups Cabernet Sauvignon
Thick slices of good-quality bread, preferably French bread, 2 per person

“some whole Spice”

1 stick cinnamon
10 whole cloves
10 allspice berries
1 teaspoon sea salt
3-inch square of cheesecloth
Kitchen twine

Our Version of Hannah Woolley’s “To Bake a Bulloks Cheek to Be Eaten Hot”

First we preheated oven to 325° F.

Here are our meat, spices, salt, wine, stout, and herbs. We also got out cheesecloth, twine, and toothpicks.

Next we trimmed the beef cheeks. This took some time as they were covered with a thick layer of gnarly fat that snuck into crevices of the meat and was difficult to extract, as well with as a good bit of filmy membrane, aka silverskin.

Take your time with this step, don’t get discouraged at all the trimmings, and you’ll get a nice looking piece of meat at the end; hurry, become overzealous, or just plain sloppy and you’ll get cheek mincemeat!

When we were done, we weighed the cleaned meat and the trimmings and discovered that we’d lost about a pound (maybe a bit more even) in all. This of course makes the cut more expensive than the price we paid per pound, but it’s what the cheeks needed and we ended up with some right good meat.

We removed the leaves from the thyme sprigs and the needles from the rosemary stalks by holding a single herb stalk in one hand and running two pinched fingers of the other hand down the length of the stalk in the opposite direction from the way the leaves grow. The thyme is a small leaf and needs no further chopping. We bundled the rosemary needles together and chopped them small. Then we made a mound of the parsley, sage leaves, rosemary, and thyme, mixed them together and chopped roughly. This would become our stuffing of parsley and sweet herbs, as Hannah Woolley instructs.

There is a natural flap of meat at one end of each beef cheek that makes a nice cavity in which to insert the herbs. We did this, then rolled the meat and secured each piece with two toothpicks.

We placed our stuffed cheeks in the enameled dutch oven. The quantity we had just covered the bottom of the pot in one layer.

We then made up our sachet of spices, putting 1 stick cinammon, 10 whole cloves, and 10 allspice berries into a square of cheesecloth and tying it up with cotton twine.

We added the teaspoon of sea salt to the pot. We like to undersalt our food (just a taste preference). You could add another teaspoon or two of salt, depending on taste.

In went the two cups of Cabernet, 12 ounces of Guinness stout (another rich stout would do just as well), and the spice sachet.

To retain moisture while the dish cooked slowly in the oven, we placed a piece of waxed paper over the mixture,

and then added the dutch oven cover.

Now it was ready for oven braising.

We left it alone for three hours, until curiosity got the better of us. When we tested the beef, it was still tough and we were worried. But we popped it back into the oven and in another hour, all was very well indeed. Our braised beef was tender, our gravy rich and deep and fragrant with spices. We removed and discarded the sachet.

As the beef was cooling, we lightly toasted the French bread rounds.

It was time to serve. Atop each piece of French bread, we placed one beef cheek and then spooned on enough gravy just to soak the bread. We served two cheeks per person. We had made brussels sprouts and mashed sweet potatoes for accompaniment.

With a glass of Cabernet and a bit of good company, this came pretty close to a perfect, and perfectly simple, meal.

Hannah Woolley's original recipe, with commentary, can be found in Northern Hospitality, p. 232.

Beef, or Veal Stewed with Apples (Very Good) by Catharine Beecher

January 2, 2012

Tags: beef, veal, apples, stew, braise, hash, Catharine Beecher

Beef Stewed with Apples--indeed very good! A dish from 1846.

Despite its title, this dish isn't much like a modern stew of pieces of meat, fowl, or fish simmered along with vegetables in a rich broth or gravy. It's more like a seventeenth- or eighteen-century hash, which, as we explain in Northern Hospitality, was an elegant preparation of thinly sliced meat. Beecher's recipe calls for beef or veal, cut "in thin slices," and apple "sliced fine."

We confess that we thought this might be a rather bland dish. It was a popular preparation right into the nineteenth century, which is why we included it in our book. But there is so little to it--just sliced beef or veal, apples, a bit of onion, salt, pepper, and some butter to coat the pan.

The ingredients

Our fears were unfounded. Cooked slowly together, these unassuming ingredients achieve unexpected flavor and complexity. The juices released by the apple slices as they cook (we used Granny Smiths) soften the beef perfectly while giving it character; the onion, salt, and pepper bring out the natural flavors of the ingredients. With the addition of some cooked white rice and steamed winter vegetables, we had a pleasing supper.

Our Version of Miss Beecher's Beef, or Veal Stewed with Apples (Very Good)
Serves 6

2 tablespoons butter
3.5 lbs. top round of beef, thinly sliced
6 Granny Smith Apples, peeled, cored, and thinly sliced
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and thinly sliced
Salt and pepper

To make our stewed beef and apples, we used a 10.5-inch (3 quart) stainless steel sauté pan with a lid. We began by coating the cold pan with two tablespoons of butter. We put in the slices of beef, apples, and onions in alternating layers. We sprinkled a bit of sea salt between each layer, along with some freshly ground black pepper.

We covered the pan and stewed the beef and apples on low heat. After the mixture had cooked for about 45 minutes, we uncovered it and stirred it once, then turned the burner up just a little to low medium. (Our electric stove offers minute gradations in burner temperature, such as low-medium. If yours does not, you can cook the entire dish slowly on low heat. The slower the better, actually.) We covered it again and simmered it for another hour and fifteen minutes. Keeping the dish covered and stirring only occasionally helps to retain the moisture that softens the beef. This long, slow, moist form of cooking is also called braising. After two hours, we uncovered the pan to find a mellow, appetizing blend of cooked apples and beef.

Total cooking time was two hours.

Slicing the beef

Slicing the apples and onions

Buttering the pan

Beef and apples in the pan

Adding a layer of onions

A full pan

After cooking on low heat for 45 minutes

After cooking on low to medium for the full 2 hours

In the serving dish

Served with simple accompaniments--rice, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and a piece of whole wheat bread (actually a bit of 17th century manchet, for which see the Oct. 21 blog post on "Of Baking Manchets")

Note: Any firm apple can be used in this dish.

(Recently, we deployed to great success a locally grown Pippin in another dish we were making. Pippins are slightly tart, firm apples that ripen in late fall in New England. They're still easy to find in the UK, but harder to find here. We hope they'll become popular again here as they're delicious to eat and great to cook with. Look for them at farmers' markets and local orchards. Ask your local orchard to consider growing them.)

The Pippin would have held up perfectly in this beef and apple dish too. But a softer eating apple, such as the MacIntosh, would not have worked so well--the meat must stew gently for a long time, and the apple must be able to hold up to this length of cooking without becoming pure liquid.

As for choosing the piece of beef or veal, we recommend using a relatively inexpensive cut, such as the top round. It is perfectly suited to being cooked slowly with moist heat.

Finally, be sure your pan is large enough to hold all of the raw ingredients easily. It should have a thick, sturdy bottom so that hot spots don't develop during the long cooking process.

The original recipe, with commentary, can be found in Northern Hospitality, p. 237.