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The Food Almanac: Tuesday, May 7, 2013


Annals Of New Orleans
New Orleans was founded today in 1718. Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, chose a high spot in a sharp bend of the Mississippi River to begin a French colonial town. It's where the French Quarter is now. He named the place for Duke of Orleans, Phillippe II, a flamboyant guy. The feminine form of the city's French name--La Nouvelle Orleans--is a joke about his personality. Nobody questioned whether this were a good place to put a city, because it wasn't a city yet. Without a doubt, the spot was a terrific port. That remains true to this day. So away we went!

Food Calendar
It's National Leg of Lamb Day. Lamb legs are less expensive than lamb racks, but like the leg (round) of beef or veal, it's best roasted in the oven. Unlike lamb shanks (which we're seeing a lot more lately), a lamb leg doesn't really need to be slowly cooked with a lot of moisture in the pan. However, I do think they're better when marinated with garlic, rosemary, wine, and a bit of tomato.

One of the most interesting alternative methods I've seen for cooking a lamb leg is what the latet Chef Chris Kerageorgiou used to do at La Provence. He'd cut the bone out, then stuff the center with an herbal lamb sausage. He'd wrap the leg back up again, then roast it and carve it across into discs of meat with the sausage in the center. That was seriously good.

The best side dishes with lamb leg are wild rice or roasted potatoes (on the starchy side) and mustard greens or broccoli raab (for greens). I like cooking those greens in the natural sauce that comes from roasting the lamb, with some crushed red pepper to jazz it up a bit.

The Old Kitchen Sage Sez:
Why doesn't anyone make a roast leg of lamb poor boy sandwich? I'd bet that would be good, with lots of gravy, lettuce, tomatoes, and horseradish mayonnaise.

Gourmet Gazetteer
Lamb, Kentucky is in a hilly rural area enclosed by a long loop of the Licking River, which flows into the Ohio at Cincinnati, about twenty miles north. Lambs Ferry Road brings you to Lamb, which tells us that the place has been called that for a long time. Just across from the farm buildings, the CSX Railroad enters a pair of tunnels under a rill for about a mile. The tunnels are said locally to be haunted by a man who was killed in one of them by an oncoming train. The nearest place to hope for a shepherd's pie lunch is Knotty Pine On The Bayou in Cold Spring, about three miles away as the crow flies, but more like a ten-mile drive. I also like the sound of Brooker's Pondcreek Haus in Covington, also a ten-mile drive from Lamb.

Gourmets In Movies
George "Gabby" Hayes, who played the same crusty old cowboy galloot in dozens of westerns in the 1940s and 1950s, was born today in 1885. In real life he was the polar opposite of his movie character. He was renowned among his friends for dressing to the nines and dining in the finest restaurants. He made a fortune, lost it, and made another.

World Records In Food
The world's biggest swordfish catch occurred today in 1953 off the coast of Chile. The International Game Fish Association certified it at 1,182 pounds. Swordfish can occasionally get very big indeed. They have few natural enemies (the mako shark is its only serious threat). Still, enough swordfish are caught by fishermen to have depressed the population for awhile. It has since come back well enough that you can have swordfish once in awhile. We think the price ought to be legislated very high to keep the heat off these magnificent fish.

Gourmets On TV
Today is the birthday (1934) of Willard Scott, the long-time weatherman on the Today Show, who ate very well in his travels. He said, "If I go down for anything in history, I would like to be known as the person who convinced the American people that catfish is one of the finest eating fishes in the world."

Philosophy Of Fine Living
Rabindranath Tagore, an Indian poet whose words were so profound that he is frequently quoted, was born today in 1861. Lines of his that get me out of bed every morning are:

I slept and dreamt that life was joy
I awoke and saw that life was duty.
I acted, and behold: duty was joy.

The Saints
This is the feast day of St. Duje, the bishop of Salona, (now in Croatia) in the third century. He is the patron saint of Split, Croatia, from which most of the Croatian immigrants living in the New Orleans area come. Many famous restaurants here can trace their ancestry to the area around Split: Drago's, Ruth's Chris Steak House, Crescent City Steak House, Bozo's, and Uglesich's among them.

Edible Dictionary
rosemary, n.--A wild, evergreen herb from the Mediterranean countries, used in cooking food as well as in medicine since ancient times. It has thin, almost needlelike leaves about three-quarters of an inch long. It has the resinous qualities of a desert plant, and its aroma persists long after it's dried. Rosemary branches are most often used in roasting poultry and meats, particularly chicken and lamb. Once you get a rosemary plant started, it grows into a sizable bush even without much care. In the late winter, it flowers with small blue-purple blossoms. When rosemary is part of a dish, you know it by the aroma alone.

Food Namesakes
Donna Rice, whose affair with Gary Hart brought down his 1988 Presidential candidacy, was married to Jack Hughes today in 1994. Pitcher Larry Sherry and his catcher brother Norm became the first all-Jewish and the tenth brother pitcher-catcher battery in big-league history. Singer and pianist Eagle-Eye Cherry was born today in 1971. That's really his name. Poet Robert Browning's life had its first stanza in London today in 1812.

Words To Eat By
"That little lamb stew I had the other night was so wonderful that you could cuddle it in your arms."--James Beard. "At a dinner party one should eat wisely but not too well and talk well but not too wisely."--W. Somerset Maugham.

Words To Drink By
"As you get older, you shouldn't waste time drinking bad wine."--Julia Child.


Soulmass Bread.

The second of November is a special day of observance in some branches of the Christian Church. It is “The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed” or “The Feast of All Souls” - more commonly known as “All Souls’ Day”, or, in Spanish-speaking countries, the Day of the Dead. Many of the traditions of the day have ancient pre-Christian roots, as do many other church feast days (Christmas being particularly notable.) Naturally, there are some special foods associated with the day.

In some part of England, special breads called Soulmass loaves (Sau’mass or Solmas-Loaves) were made – perhaps to be eaten, but some to be kept, for luck (a similar tradition existed for Easter hot-cross buns). A mid-nineteenth century glossary of Yorkshire words describes them:

I doubt that the bread was anything other than the baker’s basic everyday dough, and that there were more than a token number of currants in this special bread. So, for today’s recipe I give you a much richer, fruitier version of currant bread, from The New Hydropathic Cook Book (1854) by Russell Thacher Trall.

Currant Bread.
Take three pounds of flour one pound of currants one pint and a half of new milk and one gill of yeast. Warm the milk, and mix it with the flour and yeast cover with a cloth and set it by the fire. When risen sufficiently, add the fruits and mold it then put it intoa baking tin or deep dish, rubbed with sweet-oil or dusted with flour after it has risen for half an hour longer, bake it in a moderately hot oven.


Is Gruel Cruel?

I have talked about gruel before, on this blog, but it is a rare (maybe non-existent) food topic that can be exhausted in one short story. Yesterday I delved into an interesting nineteenth century English book of home remedies and recipes called Cookery for Invalids: Persons of Delicate Digestion, and for Children. Given the author’s hearty enthusiasm for the medicinal value of sherry, brandy, champagne, and other alcoholic beverages, I wondered if perhaps she was also upbeat about some of the traditional dishes for invalids – including gruel.


There is often a real kill-joy tone in nineteenth century home medical texts – as if there was a deliberate attempt to be punitive towards the sickly person, or at the very least, to ensure there was no secondary gain in the sick role. The concept of tempting the invalid’s appetite seems seriously at odds with many of the awful-sounding recipes in these books – and ‘gruel’ is the epitome of these.

The word ‘gruel’ is derived from the Old French gruau meaning ‘ground grain’, and in England in the fourteenth century, this is what was meant. Also at this time the word referred to a thin soupy dish made from grain. Gruel could be made from any grain, but in particular oatmeal and barley were used. The liquid might be water, or ‘cow mylke’ - or almond milk for the wealthy, especially during Lent. Depending on circumstances or availability, almost anything could be added to enrich this basic potage – leafy greens, eggs, currants, or wine, for example.

I am sure that some of these early ‘gruels’ or grain potages were delicious as well as sustaining, but by the nineteenth century something had happened to its reputation. Perhaps the Poor Laws had something to do with it, when it became one of the staple foods of the workhouse, its miserably weak character reinforced by the image of Charles Dickens’ Oliver holding out his empty bowl and asking for more?

The word ‘gruel’ instantly evokes the idea of eternally unappeased hunger. It even sounds thin and tasteless. It makes us think of prisons and workhouses, of gruesome conditions and gruelling work, of chronic coughs and wasting illnesses. Doesn’t it?

So, what does the wine-approving Mary Hooper say on the subject of gruel?

The author gives many recipes for gruel made from barley, oats, or fine wheat flour. I give you two of the more interesting versions, for your use when the cold virus strikes.


Restorative Gruel.
This delicious substitute for Groat Gruel is made as follows:-one ounce of rice, one ounce of sago, one ounce of pearl barley put three pints of water, and boil gently for three hours, when the liquor should be reduced to a quart. Strain it in exactly the same manner as groat gruel, and flavour with wine, brandy, or anything else that may be suitable.
If made a little thicker, say with an ounce and a half of each ingredient to three pints of water, a jelly will be produced, which may be eaten cold with sugar, fruit, syrups, or preserve.


Onion Gruel.
This is an old-fashioned remedy for a cold, but can never be recommended unless boiled for at least five hours. The long boiling takes away the pungent odour of the onions and the breath will not then be aflected by them.
Take two ounces of Embden groats and four large onions sliced, put them on in a quart of cold water. Let the gruel boil gently for five hours, stirring occasionally, adding water to keep the original quantity. When done, strain through a fine sieve, salt to taste, and serve with toasted bread. The yolk of an egg beaten up in the gruel
is a good addition.


Watch the video: An Almanac Minute: New Years Eve (November 2021).