Sunday, March 20, 2016

Historical Food Fortnightly: Roasts

The Challenge: They’re a staple of the historic table, in many different shapes and forms and types. It’s also a cooking technique. Try a historic recipe for a roast, or a recipe that involves roasting, and tell us how it turned out.

Roasts honestly terrify me. I've been trapped in a vicious cycle of fear. Meat is very expensive and the thought of ruining a large cut of it has always kept me from tackling roasts.  And because I seldom tackle roasts, I don't have much experience that could boost my confidence.

When I looked in The Cooks Oracle, which I've been mostly using for these challenges, the section on roasts was page after page of dense instructions, heavily footnoted! I felt even less confident. The more I read, however, the more I realized that our modern ovens were so dissimilar to a historic hearth, that I wasn't really going to be able to do a true historic roast anyway. 

I took a lot of inspiration from other challengers and decided to forge onward. I often make cornish hens, and ran across this poultry recipe from The Whole Duty of a Woman (1737).

The poultry part was incredibly straightforward and I knew I had all the other ingredients in my cupboard. 

Year/Region: London, 1837

How Did You Make It?:  I'm actually really proud of this dish, so here it is with more detail than I usually give. I made a roux of 1T bacon grease with 1T flour. I cooked the roux for about 1 minute, then slowly added 1/2 c of strong chicken stock (Colonial Williamsburg's Historic Foodways site said that a cullis is a strong stock) to make a gravy. I stirred in 1 T butter until melted and then added 1 T of lemon juice. I then mixed in about 2/3 small tin of anchovies, chopped fine. I spooned it over the roasted bird and topped each half with 2 fillets of anchovies.

Time to Complete: Since I wasn't roasting over a spit in front of a fire, for the game hen, I followed the Cook's Illustrated suggestion to cut out the spine and butterfly it in order to speed up cooking time. Prep was about 5 minutes, cooking time for the bird was 25, with maybe another 5 minutes to plate and garnish. Total time: 35 minutes.

Total Cost: $3.50 for the bird and I had all the other ingredients to hand. If I'd had to buy the anchovies, add approximately another $2.75. 

How Successful Was It?: This dish was amazing. I tasted the sauce before adding the anchovies and it was really delicious. I was afraid the anchovies would ruin it, and LB hates anchovies, but I opted not to mention them and see if he noticed. He wolfed it down. I would have eaten this gravy with a spoon. The anchovies added a nice degree of umami without greatly altering the flavor. Modern sensibilities would probably like a bit of color variation in the dish, from the brown fish, the brown gravy, and the browned skin.

How Accurate Was It?: Hard to say. The hen part was definitely less than accurate, but short of building an actual hearth, I'm not sure how close I could get. I essentially followed this recipe from Cook's Illustrated, It's a fairly classic method of roasting fowl. As far as the sauce, it's also hard to say. I'm pretty sure I interpreted the instructions correctly to the best of my understanding. There are no proportions really listed or how much it is supposed to make, but I was really happy with the balance of flavors, although next time I might use a bit less lemon. 

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