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Recipes and Stories

27 April 2011: Leftover Lamb

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
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. Read More 
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12 April 2011: Asparagus Soup

“Asparagus,” wrote Lettice Bryan with her singular gift for understatement, “is a nice vegetable, and requires equally as much nicety in preparing it.”

Those words, from her landmark 1839 cookbook, The Kentucky Housewife, were penned in the days before our global garden, when winter’s table was dominated by cabbages and dried beans. One of the first edible sprouts to nose its way through the thawing earth after the long, cold winter, asparagus was the very essence of spring, available for only a few precious weeks of the season.

It would never have occurred to Mrs. Bryan to explain that, or to caution that asparagus is only “nice” when it has just been cut from a garden that is merely minutes away from the pot. There was no need to warn against spears that had been shipped across several continents or preach that only locally grown, seasonal asparagus was worth having.

She offered no advice, as most authors do today, for keeping it fresh until it’s used, but simply directed to “Gather them when fully grown but very tender, taking care to have them as near the same size as possible, that they may all get done at the same time” and went right into preparing them for the pot. She also provided just three perfect recipes, knowing that, in this case, discretion was the better part of valor.

Of the three, the loveliest and most sensitive—indeed one of the loveliest recipes in print, then or now, was—

Asparagus Soup.

Your asparagus must be young and tender; scrape and wash it neatly, and let it lie for a time in cold water; cut small some of the green tops, and put them also in cold water. Make a broth in the usual manner, of a few pounds of fresh veal or poultry, and a small piece of ham. Cut the stalks of the asparagus into pieces not more than an inch long, and boil them in the broth till tender, seasoning it with salt, pepper, and butter. Mash to a pulp enough of the asparagus to thicken the soup, and let the other remain in pieces. Stir in a little rich sweet cream; just let it come to a boil, and serve it up with toasted bread cut in dice, dispersing over it some sprigs of the green tops.

—Lettice Bryan, The Kentucky Housewife, 1839

Yes, today we can have “fresh” asparagus any time we want, but to have it just minutes from the garden, prepared by the hands of such a cook, is unfortunately rare even in its season.

In translating the recipe for Classical Southern Cooking, I did absolutely nothing but standardize the format, fill in directions that she took for granted, and set proportions for six servings. Everything else is as Mrs. Bryan intended it, right down to the nouvelle-cuisine-sounding raw tip garnish. All it requires is the freshest asparagus you can find.

Asparagus Soup

Serves 6
1 quart of Chicken Broth or Meat Broth made with veal bones (preferably homemade)
2 ounces country ham in one piece
1½ pounds young asparagus
1 tablespoon butter
Salt and whole black pepper in a peppermill
1 cup heavy cream at room temperature
1 cup Buttered Croutons (Recipe follows)

1. Bring the broth and ham to a boil in a large pot over medium heat. Meanwhile, peel the asparagus and drop it briefly into a basin of cold water. Let it soak for half an hour.

2. When the broth begins to boil, take up the asparagus, cut off the pointed tips, and cut the stems crosswise into one-inch long pieces. Roughly chop a dozen or so of the tips and set them aside in a bowl of cold water to cover.

3. Drop the remaining asparagus and the butter into the boiling broth. Let it return to a boil, then cover and lower the heat. Cook at a good simmer until the asparagus is tender, about 5—and no more than 10—minutes. Season it to taste with the salt and pepper.

4. With a slotted spoon, take out about a cup and a half of the greenest stems and tips and put them to the side in a covered bowl. Puree the remainder with the broth by forcing them through a sieve as Mrs. Bryan originally directed, or through a food mill. If you are not that energetic, a stick blender or food processor does this job nearly as well.

5. Return the soup to the pot and heat it through over medium heat. Stir in the reserved cooked asparagus and cream. Simmer until just heated through, stirring well, and turn off the heat.

6. Ladle the soup into individual heated soup plate and garnish with croutons and a sprinkling of the chopped raw tips.

Buttered Croutons

Cut ½-inch thick slices of good, day-old bread (preferably homemade) into small, bite-sized cubes. For every cup of cubed bread, allow 2 tablespoons of butter. Melt the butter over a medium heat in a heavy skillet that will comfortably hold all the bread. Add the bread cubes and quickly toss them to until they are coated. Sauté, tossing frequently, until they are golden brown and crisp.

Another way requiring less attention: preheat the oven to 300° F. Put the butter in a shallow baking pan that will hold all the bread cubes in one layer, and melt it in the oven. Add the bread and toss until it is well coated. Return the pan to the oven and bake, stirring from time to time, until they are lightly browned and crisp, about half an hour. Read More 
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