Recipes and Stories

27 April 2011: Leftover Lamb

April 27, 2011

Tags: Historical Cooking, Historical Southern Cooking, Easter Lamb leftovers, Food Blogs

One of the best things about roasting a whole leg of lamb for Easter is that it usually affords a lot of lovely leftovers: sliced cold from the joint and eaten with herb mayonnaise or piquant barbecue sauce, either on a plate with potato salad and a salad of spring greens (or perhaps leftover cooked asparagus dressed with vinaigrette), or just tucked into a leftover yeast roll; diced and simmered in Scotch Broth (lamb-barley soup) made from the bones and scraps; or, perhaps my favorite, minced fine and baked under a blanket of mashed potatoes in a rich shepherd’s pie.

When it’s the latter that’s called for, I once again look no further than that under-appreciated culinary master from the nineteenth century, Mrs. Lettice Bryan, whose lovely individual shepherd’s pies can be found under –

Mutton Casserolles.

Take small scolloped pans, butter them well, and put over each a smooth paste of mashed potatoes, which have been highly seasoned with salt, pepper, butter, and sweet cream. Peel, slice and season some fine, ripe tomatoes; put a layer of them on the bottom of each pan, then put on a layer of cold boiled mutton, shred as fine as possible, and one of grated ham, sprinkle on some grated lemon, pepper, and nutmeg. Add a few spoonfuls of rich gravy, and as much wine; put a paste of potatoes over the tops, and bake them a delicate brown, in a brisk oven. When done, turn them out smoothly in a dish, spread over them a heated napkin, and send them to table immediately, with a boat of melted butter and wine.

– Lettice Bryan, The Kentucky Housewife, 1847.

How timeless Mrs. Bryan’s recipe remains to this day, reading like something from the latest issue of a trendy food magazine. There’s not much a modern cook could think up that this lady hadn’t already tried.

Though still popular in Kentucky, mutton is hard to come by for most of us, and “boiling” (their word for poaching the joint whole) fell out of favor as the iron range replaced the open hearth. But luckily this is equally as lovely with leftover roast lamb.

The recipe needs very little clarification for a modern cook. By grated lemon, she means the zest, and the “boat of melted butter and wine” is basically a buerre blanc.

Because American housewives in those days were rarely equipped with a wire whisk, butter was melted or “drawn” by adding it to a little water in a small pan. The cook held the pan over a simmering water bath and gently shook it (the best method) or stirred its contents until the butter was barely melted and still quite thick. Usually a little flour was added as insurance against “oiling” (their word for having it break).

At any rate, the casseroles are rich enough on their own: they certainly don’t need a butter sauce, but if you’re so inclined, bring a tablespoon of water and two of Madeira or dry sherry to a simmer over medium low heat, gradually whisk in 6 tablespoons of unsalted butter a teaspoon at a time, adding more before the previous bit is completely dissolved. It should be the consistency of thick heavy cream by the time all the butter is incorporated and melted. Season it with salt, to taste, and serve it immediately in a sauceboat that has been warmed by rinsing it with scalding hot water.

Here, with a little more detail, is Mrs. Bryan’s recipe for modern cooks. I’ve never added wine to the seasonings because the pan gravy from my lamb roast usually has a bit of Madeira in it. And because unmolding them is a bit tricky, I “send them to the table” in the individual gratin dishes in which they’ve baked.

Individual Mutton or Lamb Casseroles
Serves 6

1½ pounds leftover boiled or roast mutton or lamb
3 large, or 6 Roma-type ripe tomatoes
1 recipe Mashed Potatoes (recipe follows)
Whole black pepper in a peppermill
Whole nutmeg in a grater
The grated zest of 2 lemons
Salt
1½ cups leftover gravy (recipe follows)
1/3 pound cooked or raw country ham or prosciutto, roughly chopped

1. Preheat the oven to 350° F., and put on a teakettle of water to boil. If using roast lamb, chop it by hand with a knife or in the food processor, pulsing the machine to keep from completely pulverizing it.

2. Blanch, peel, and core the tomatoes. Cut them crosswise into 8 to 10 even slices. Seed and drain them in a colander set over the sink. Lightly butter 4 large ramekins or individual gratin dishes and line them with half the mashed potatoes.

3. Pat the tomatoes dry and put a layer of them over the mashed potatoes, about 2 slices per dish. Divide the meat evenly between each and season with a few grindings of pepper, a grating of nutmeg to taste, and the lemon zest. If the ham isn’t very salty, add a little salt. Top with the gravy and then the remaining mashed potatoes, smoothing them with the flat of a knife or spatula.

4. Bake until nicely browned and heated through, about half an hour.

For the mashed potatoes, as Mrs. Bryan would have made them:

Mashed Potatoes.

In the spring, when the potatoes are old and strong, they are much nicer mashed than when served whole, though mashed potatoes are fine at any season. Boil them till they are very tender; if old, in a good quantity of water, but if young, in barely enough to cook them tender. Peel them, mash them fine, press them through a sieve, to get out all the lumps, season the pulp with salt, pepper and butter, moistening it with sweet cream or milk; stir it with a spoon till the seasonings are well intermingled with the mass, and serve it warm, making it smooth in the dish. They are nice with any kind of meat, particularly poultry.

– Lettice Bryan, The Kentucky Housewife, 1847.

In case you need a bit more detail, my translation of the standard method for a modern kitchen, From Classical Southern Cooking, is:

Mashed Potatoes
Serves 6

2½ pounds mature potatoes of a uniform size
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
About ½ cup cream or milk
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill

1. Scrub the potatoes under cold, running water, and put them in a large pot. Add enough water to cover by 1 inch. Remove the potatoes, cover, and bring almost to a boil over medium high heat. Add the potatoes, bring to a full, rolling boil, reduce the heat to medium (a steady bubble but not a hard boil) and simmer until tender, from 20 to 30 minutes. Drain and let sit in a warm place for about 5 minutes, then quickly peel them.

2. Force the hot potatoes through a ricer back into the pot in which they were cooked. Over low heat, gradually beat in the butter, then the cream, and a healthy pinch of salt.

3. Stir until they are smooth and the liquid is incorporated. If they appear to be too dry, add a spoonful or so more cream or milk, but don’t overdo it. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Mound them in a warmed serving bowl, dust the top with a little black pepper, if liked, and serve at once.

Words on the Past

March 22, 2011

Tags: Historical Cooking, Food Blogs

When it came time to write the inaugural essay for this page, the thought that kept swimming to the surface was a theme from an essay I wrote last year: with thousands of “blogs” crowding cyberspace and literally millions of words floating around on the Internet, does the world really need yet another one?
Probably not; almost certainly not.
Most blogs (horrid word, that) are just silly, self-absorbed, attention-getting streams of consciousness that begin and end with the author’s ego. They have about as much substance as a cozy Hallmark moment.
Do I really want to add more of that to the world just to get attention?
But then it occurred to me: fool, you just started your own web site. Your name is has been dot-commed. The whole purpose is to get attention, and if you didn’t want to do that, you’d never have gone to this much trouble. What’s all this demure posturing about?
The ugly truth about writers is, we can’t stop ourselves. Just like painting, composing, sculpting—writing is a compulsion we can’t help. We’d do it even if no one read it, even if we were dogged by critics who said our words were no good.
There are countless novels tucked away in boxes under the author’s bed, novels that no one else has—or ever will—see.
But just because there’s a compulsion to put words on the page, it does not follow that those words have to be vacuous. If this turns into little more than a lot of navel-gazing streams of time-wasting, meaningless fluff, it’s no one’s fault but my own.
The contributions here may not be regular; but I do promise not waste my and your time just to keep myself in front of you.
Having said all that, from here on, this is what you’ll find here: nothing new.
I have spent most of my life looking backwards into history, and what really interests me in the kitchen is less of where we are going than where we have been.
Most food professionals nowadays spend too little time thinking about that past, and it shows. Cooking is no different from anything else: without a firm understanding of where we’ve come from, the cooking, no matter how clever, will have no roots, and without those, like spring lettuce pinched from its bed, it soon withers and is forgotten.
This page looks back to the kitchens of our past. They weren’t perfect, but they still define our kitchens present and future, whether we like it or not.