Thursday, May 21, 2009

Modern Mystery

I've got all sorts of medieval things in the works ... but none of them are ready for the light of day. So as a diversion, I present you with a modern mystery object.

unknown thing

I really don't know what this thing is - my best (and obviously inaccurate) guess is that it's a cow-lip-stretcher.

unknown thing

It's about 6" long, appears to be cast stainless steel, and was manufactured in the early-to-mid 1900s. It has no identifying markings. It may have been farm-related (our family had a farm in the distant past, and I think that's where my dad got it).

unknown thing

My brother thinks it was used for skinning animals. I like the cow-lip-stretcher idea better.

unknown thing

My apologies for the poor quality of the images - I took them with my cell phone camera in poor light.

unknown thing

Anyone out there seen one of these before?

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Hitting the Sauce Again

Yesterday evening I put the recipe for Sauce for Stekys on the website. This was the indirect result of a puff-piece in the New York Times about "new" cuts of beef.

The Times article essentially talked about a marketing push by the US beef industry to sell inexpensive cuts of beef. While most (all?) of these cuts have been around for a while, they were rarely used in the US. So the beef industry renamed them and is presenting them as the next new thing.

Marketing antics aside, money is tight nowadays, so a cheap but still decent cut of beef sounds like a good idea to me. That's why when I was shopping for groceries last week, and came across a "Flatiron Steak" (sometimes referred to as a "butler's steak" in Europe), I went ahead and bought the thing without any idea of what I'd do with it.

According to the instructions on the package, it was suitable for broiling or grilling, and then should be cut across the grain. No problem. I decided to brush on some olive oil, salt, and pepper and broil it, and serve it with asparagus and herbed pasta.

Of course I can't leave it at that. I worked out any new recipes in a while, so how about a nice medieval English sauce to go with it? A quick search of recipes in "Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Books" had me settled on this recipe:

xxxj - To make Stekys of venson or bef. Take Venyson or Bef, and leche and gredyl it vp broun; then take Vynegre and a litel verious, and a lytil Wyne, and putte pouder perpir ther-on y-now, and pouder Gyngere; and atte the dressoure straw on pouder Canelle y-now, that the stekys be al y-helid ther-wyth, and but a litel Sawce; and than serue it forth.

Wine, vinegar, verjuice and spices - nice and straightforward. No verjuice on hand, so I'd have to use a little lemon juice. Hmm. Likely to be runny too - there's nothing in the recipe that acts as a thickener, and cinnamon in unthickened sauces sometimes makes them turn out kind of strange - almost stringy. Ok, so I'll thicken it. I could use wheat starch or rice flour or even eggs as a thickener, but my favorite medieval thickening method is to use bread.

This has to be the coolest trick in the medieval cook's repertoire. You soak the bread in a liquid like broth or wine for a while, strain out the solids, and then cook the liquid with the desired spices until it thickens. Need it to be thicker? Use more bread. The neat part is that while flour or starch thickeners can cause lumps, and eggs can cause the sauce to curdle if overcooked, using bread like this is amazingly tolerant of adverse cooking situations (like cooking in a large pot over a fire with no temperature control). It simply doesn't make lumps or curdle.

So that's what I did. The flatiron steak turned out perfectly, with a convenient gradation of doneness from medium-rare to medium-well. It wasn't as nice as a fillet mignon, but it was certainly better than some cheap steaks I've had. The Steky Sauce? Cindy proclaimed it to be "Yummy" and the kids both liked it. I'd call that a win.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Kalendarium Hortense - May

The Kalendarium Hortense was published by John Evelyn in 1683. It contains instructions for what a gardener should do throughout the year. The excerpt below is the list of what is to be done in the "Orchard and Olitory1 Garden" for the month of May.

Sow sweet marjoram, Basil, Thyme, hot and Aromatic Herbs and Plants which are the most tender.

Sow Purslan, to have young: Lettuce, large-sided Cabbage, painted Beans, &c.

Look carefully to your Melons; and towards the end of this Month forbear to cover them any longer on Ridges wither with Straw or Matrasses, &c.

Ply the Laboratory, and distill Plants for Waters, Spirits, &c.

Continue Weeding before they run to Seeds.

Now set your Bees at full liberty, look out often, and expect Swarms, &c.

1 - Olitory: of or pertaining to, or produced in, a kitchen garden.