Potato Watercress Soup with Nutmeg

1 Apr

Watercress, a mildly spicy green, was used as a garnish in England for many years in the early 20th century. From comic novelist P.G. Wodehouse:

[Speaking of one of his greatest characters, Psmith] “Psmith is the only thing in my literary career which was handed to me on a plate with watercress round it, thus enabling me to avoid the blood, sweat and tears inseparable from an author’s life.”

“If you had brought him the artistic temperament on a plate with a bit of watercress round it, he wouldn’t have recognized it.” Uneasy Money

“Albert, who seemed, on the evidence of a short but sufficient acquaintance, to be a lad who would not recognize the finer feelings if they were handed to him on a plate with watercress round them, promised to be invaluable.” A Damsel in Distress

“Bob’s the sort of man who wouldn’t catch a ball if you handed it to him on a plate, with watercress round it.” Mike: A Public School Story

Watercress also used to also be served for tea, with bread and butter. It sounds a bit plain, but raw watercress has a slight bite, so watercress sandwiches are actually quite tasty. One of my favorite watercress dishes, though, is Potato Watercress Soup. I like it with a heavy dose of nutmeg, to bring out the watercress’s pepperiness. There were a number of recipes for this soup floating around in the 1940s, thanks to a wealth of potatoes, and a push from the Ministry of War to get the public to use them. Watercress is fast-growing and fairly easy to cultivate, so it made a cheap and mildly peppery addition to dishes. In richer times, cream was often added at the end, but I’m not a huge fan of cream soups, so I don’t tend to add it. If you do want to add a splash of cream, do it at the end and check the seasoning.

The watercress season in the UK begins about now, but you can also get it in the US nearly year-round. These days, it’s often grown hydroponically, in other words, in water rather than in soil. If you do get it from the farmers’ market, it has a lot more flavor, but often has little snails and sand in it, so do be careful when you wash, dry and sort the watercress to look out for them. And yeah, don’t add them to soup!

Potato Watercress Soup with Nutmeg

4 to 6 Servings, depending on your serving size

1 tablespoon butter
2 shallots, minced
1 clove garlic, thinly sliced
1 Idaho potato, or other thick-skinned varietal, peeled and sliced on a mandolin
1 quart vegetable broth
1 whole nutmeg
1 splash lemon juice, or vinegar if lemons not available
1 1/2 bunches watercress, washed, dried and sliced thinly (reserve a few sprigs for garnish)

Heat the butter in a large pot and sweat the shallots in the pot. When they are almost cooked through, add the garlic and continue to cook. When the garlic is cooked, add the potatoes and broth and bring to a boil. Using a microplane, grate fresh nutmeg over the potato mixture, tasting it periodically to make sure you don’t add too much. Simmer the mixture until the potato slices are cooked through. When cooked through, add the salt and lemon juice, then finally the watercress, reserving a few leaves for garnish. Remove the pot from the stove, then pulse the soup mixture in a food processor, or using a stick blender, until smooth but with some texture. Serve topped with watercress sprigs. Make sure you’ve seasoned aggressively with the salt.


Skate with Clams, Leek, Potatoes and Celery

2 Mar

When I was growing up, my Mum used to make a lot of potato-leek soup. Something about the mixture of sweet, mildly garlicky leeks paired with the comfort-factor of potatoes just works. In this dish, I used potatoes and leeks as the base of a skate dish. Access to clams, cockles and the like were sometimes limited during the war because of defensive mining along the coast. They weren’t rationed, but could be tough to get hold of. This dish would work just as well without them, but I like the briny flavor and juicy texture of clams against the other elements in this dish. Celery is so under-rated as a vegetable. It has a great crunch when raw but I’ve also come to really enjoy it lightly cooked. In this recipe, I just sliced right through the celery stalks on the bias and tossed them into the vegetable mixture about 2 minutes from the end. They still had a slight crunch to them.

Of course, bivalves had kind of a bad association in peoples’ minds during World War II. Limpet mines were developed by the British navy to attach to enemy naval vessels using magnets, and a version for land use, clam mines, were later developed by the Brits too.

Skate with Clams, Leek, Potatoes and Celery

3 Servings

1 Idaho potato, or other thick-skinned variety, peeled and cut into batons
2 tablespoons bacon drippings
3 slices onion
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 leek, cut into batons, green section only
2 stalks celery, cut on the bias (reserve celery leaves)
6 clams (optional)
1/4 cup vegetable broth
1 skate wing, cut into 3 servings along the lines of the flesh

Put the potato batons into a small pot of water and bring to the boil. Add a pinch of salt and reduce the heat to a simmer. Simmer until 90 percent cooked-through, then strain and set aside. Heat 1/2 the bacon drippings in a sauté pan. Add the onions and sweat until translucent. Add the garlic slices and cook through. Then add the leek, celery, clams and broth and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer then cover until the clams steam open. While the vegetables and clams are cooking, heat another sauté pan over a high heat with the remaining bacon drippings. Take the 3 skate portions and salt them, then sear in the hot bacon drippings until the first side is golden. Flip the fish portions over carefully using a fish spatula, and being sure to slide the spatula under the fish in the same direction as the natural stripes of skate flesh to avoid breaking up the skate portions. Cook on the other side until cooked through, then remove the fish from the pan and rest for 2 minutes. Carefully remove the clams from the vegetable pan and set them aside, Spoon the vegetable and broth mixture into the bottom of 3 large bowls. Top each vegetable portion with a skate portion. Add the clams to the bowls, and garnish everything with the celery leaves.

Roasted Sunchoke Soup with Caramelized Pears

27 Feb

Although sunchokes are originally from America, French explorer Samuel de Champlain brought from Cape Cod to Europe in the 17th century, so they’ve grown in Britain for some time. They’re sometimes called Jerusalem artichokes or earth apples, and are tubers that look a bit like ginger (see above). In this soup, I roast the sunchokes for a sweeter flavor that brings out the earthiness.

One thing to keep in mind – when you’re preparing the sunchokes, if you peel them, they’ll oxidize and turn pinkish. You can avoid that if you pop them in water with a splash of lemon juice once you’ve peeled them.

Roasted Sunchoke Soup with Caramelized Pears

5 Servings

3 1/3 pounds sunchokes, carefully scrubbed
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon drippings or vegetable oil
Vegetable broth
1 splash Sherry vinegar

For each serving:
1/4 strip bacon, small diced
1/8 Bosc pear, sliced

Preheat the oven to 350°F. In a medium bowl, combine the sunchokes, salt and pepper and vegetable oil or drippings. Toss thoroughly and turn the mixture onto a foil-lined baking sheet. Roast in the oven until tender, then remove from the oven. I like to keep the skin on my sunchokes – if you do this, you’ll need to make sure the skin is very, very clean before roasting. If you prefer to peel the sunchokes, do it now (the soup will be a little paler if you peel them). Turn the roasted sunchokes into a food processor in 2 batches and blend to a purée. Add vegetable broth as necessary to help blending, and finally, add the splash of Sherry vinegar. Render the bacon, reserving the drippings for another recipe. Add the pear slices to the pan and brown them on both sides. Serve the soup topped with the pear and bacon

Day 31: Bacon confited-Guinea Fowl Heart with Brussels Sprouts and Blackcurrant Preserves

23 Feb

Yesterday I put the liver saved from a whole roasted guinea fowl (guinea hen) to good use. Today I’ll be using the heart. Heart is a bit tricky, since it’s a tough little muscle, and cooking it over a high heat can give it an elastic band consistency. Slow cooking it in fat is a good way around this. I got the idea from a meal a couple of year’s ago at DC’s pig-centric restaurant Eola. Chef Daniel Singhofen served Confited Pork Heart with Mashed Turnip, Brandied Cherries, Pecans, and Bronze Fennel as an hors d’oeuvres, to get his diners to give offal a shot. It’s worth giving a whirl – it’s free since a lot of whole birds come with it in the cavity. Heart’s pretty healthy too – it does contain some cholesterol, like most animal proteins, but it’s also packed with Niacin, Vitamin B6, Folate, Riboflavin, Vitamin B12, Iron and Zinc.

Bacon confited-Guinea Fowl Heart with Brussels Sprouts and Blackcurrant Preserves

1/4 strip bacon
1 Guinea Fowl heart
1/2 Brussels sprout, cut in half
1 tablespoon vegetable broth
1 demitasse spoonful blackcurrant preserves

Slice the bacon very thinly then render it in a non-stick pan. When the bacon is crispy, use a slotted spoon to remove it to a plate. Pour the bacon into a boiled egg cup. Allow the bacon fat to cool slightly, then add the heart. Put the egg cup in the microwave and set to “keep warm” for 2 to 5 minutes, or until the heart is cooked through. Heart gets tough very easily, so it’s important not to cook the heart on high. Sear the cut sides of the Brussels sprout quarters in the hot pan, and season with salt. Add the vegetable broth and simmer until the broth has evaporated. Slice the heart very thinly and reserve the bacon fat for another use. Serve the heart garnished with Brussels sprouts, reserved bacon, and blackcurrant preserves.

Day 30: Guinea Fowl Liver with Apple, Rhubarb-Apple Preserves, and Walnuts

23 Feb

We’re 30 days into The Ration Diaries now – thanks for reading! You now have a month’s worth of recipes at your disposal. I’m working on dividing them into a more user-friendly database, so stay tuned for more in the coming month.

Reach into the cavity of any whole bird, whether it’s a chicken, turkey, or guinea fowl (guinea hen), and you’ll usually find some of the offal, wrapped together. These usually include the neck, which can be added to the roasting pan towards the end to add to the pan drippings, and occasionally the heart and liver. If you buy a lot of whole birds over a month (they tend to be cheaper in the long run), you can save and freeze the livers to make a mousse, but during the war, my Granny didn’t have a freezer, of course. I thought I’d use the guinea fowl liver saved from making cinnamon-roasted guinea fowl for a little pre-dinner nibble, on this dinky little Steelite pedestal plate. It took me all of 5 minutes, since I just seared the liver and served it with some rhubarb-apple preserves, fresh apple and walnuts. Although it does contain some cholesterol, liver is rich in Thiamin, Zinc and Manganese, and is a great source of cheap protein, Riboflavin, Niacin, and Vitamins A, C, B6 and B12, so it’s worth serving it to your family. I find children pick up on grown ups’ sense of disgust for certain foods, so if you don’t make an “ew” face in front of them, they’ll probably at least try liver. In other cultures, offal and what some American or English kids would deem “gross” are actually favored. For example, Eskimo children used to fight over the eyeballs of fish, which used to be sort of like candy for them – a treat. So if you serve the liver with something sweet like fruit, which balances the strong flavor, and don’t make a big deal about it, it might become a family favorite!

Even though my Granny raised chickens, meat was still a scarcity in World War II Britain. The English in the 1940s were virulently of the offal-is-awful camp, so the liver, hearts and other innards were sometimes given to the cat in Granny’s family. A few people, like my Grandfather, ate liver with the traditional bacon and onions on toast.

Guinea Fowl Liver with Apple, Rhubarb-Apple Preserves, and Walnuts

2 hors d’oeuvres servings

1 teaspoon drippings
1 Guinea Fowl liver, cleaned
6 slices apple
1 demitasse spoonful Rhubarb-Apple Preserves
1 walnut, toasted and quartered
2 sprigs watercress

Heat the drippings and sear the guinea fowl on both sides. Season well with salt. Slice the liver on a bias. Plate half the liver on a spoon or small plate. Top with 3 of the apple slices, 1/2 demitasse spoon of the preserves and 1/2 walnut. Garnish with a sprig of watercress. Repeat for the other serving.

Day 29: Happy Pancake Day!

21 Feb

In England, Shrove Tuesday is Pancake Day – the day when you use up all the ingredients you can’t have during Lent. English pancakes are a little different than American ones. American pancakes are fat and fluffy. English pancakes are more like thick crêpes, and we top them with freshly squeezed lemon juice and sugar, instead of maple syrup. They’re also delicious with cinnamon sugar. Today, though, I decided to go with an old favorite, apricot and lemon. I tossed lemon zest into the batter to make them extra fragrant, and drizzled the prepared pancakes with warm apricot jam.

Lemon-Scented English Pancakes with Apricot Jam

Yield: 12 small pancakes – 4 Servings

2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 pinch salt
1 egg
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup cold water
1 tablespoon melted butter
Non-stick spray
1/4 cup apricot jam, warmed

Sift the flour into a mixing bowl. Add the salt and mix. Make a well in the center of the flour and break the egg into the well. Whisk the flour and egg together and slowly add the milk, to prevent lumps. Whisk in the water and then finally the melted butter. Heat a non-stick pan over a high heat. When very hot, spray with non-stick spray and reduce the heat. Ladle 2 ounces of batter into the pan and when the pancake starts to bubble in the middle, flip it carefully over and cook the other side briefly. Repeat with the rest of the batter. Serve the pancakes with the apricot jam drizzled over the top.

Day 28: Cinnamon-roasted Guinea Fowl with Pears

21 Feb

The season in the UK for guinea fowl is just ending (that’s guinea hen to you Americans) It makes for a great roast when paired with warm spices and fruit. I went with a smoky cinnamon-pear combo in this recipe. This flavor profile also works well for other game birds (squab, partridge or pheasant).

Shot for game birds was fairly limited during the war since Brits were asked to donate guns and ammunition to the war effort or UK-based forces like The Home Guard (Local Defence Volunteers or LDV). The image of hunters in our minds tends to be the tweed-coated aristocrats out for sport (think most recent episode of Downton Abbey), but hunting and fishing was also a vital food source if you happened to live in a rural area and were from a low income family. If you happened to have a gun still, which was rare, you could shoot your own game.

Cinnamon-roasted Guinea Fowl with Pears

1 2-pound guinea fowl (guinea hen in the US)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 cinnamon sticks
Non-stick spray
3 Anjou pears or other thin-skinned pears, halved, stickers removed
Ground cinnamon
1/2 cup to 1 cup vegetable broth

Preheat a convection oven to 400°F. Remove any giblets from the guinea fowl and reserve in the fridge – hearts and livers can be used for another recipe, and neck can be used for a pan gravy. Pat the bird dry, then season with salt and pepper, including inside the cavity. Insert the cinnamon sticks into the cavity and tie the legs together if desired. Spray a foil-lined baking sheet tray with nonstick spray where you are going to put the guinea fowl, then put the guinea fowl on the baking sheet. Roast the bird for about 1/2 hour, then sprinkle the pear halves with salt and ground cinnamon.

Spray with a little non-stick spray, then add them to the bird with the neck, if available, and roast for another 15 minutes to 45 minutes, depending on the size of the bird.

A thermometer inserted into the thigh joint should read 160°F. You should allow about 20 minutes per pound of guinea hen, total cooking time. Guinea fowl meat is naturally darker than chicken so don’t worry if there’s a pink tinge to the meat – it will all look like “dark meat.” Rest the guinea fowl for about 15 minutes before carving and serving with the pears.

If you like, you can add vegetable broth to the baking sheet to deglaze, then reduce the vegetable broth for a quick jus.

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