Commonplace Vol. 1, Issue 12

In which there is autumnal food, and the writer declares other people's recipes heresy.

Hello! This issue has settled out to seasonal food, in the immediate. I’ve come to realise that all my writing revolves around the seasons, and has for some time. I spent a few years in my early 20s where I wasn’t really aware of the seasons, living in the city, and everything since has been a reaction against that, an effort to get back to the feeling of my childhood and teens when the seasons governed everything I was able to do.

So in this issue we’re looking at toad-in-the-hole, foraged mushrooms, and Irish stew, all of which are autumnal dishes to me.

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Toad-in-the-hole is a peculiarly English dish, and I’m not sure why. It’s not as though batter and sausages are an unknown combination elsewhere, and the specific “toad” I was using this time was in fact a German bratwurst, which worked pretty well. The oven pancake is a thing in Finland, and Nina has put it to good use here as comfort food. Including meat directly in it seems like a logical next step, and yet few other places seem to do so. Possibly the odd name the English gave it put everyone else off.

Oddly, despite extensive oiling of the dish, the batter stuck to it like cement. I blame this on the non-greasy bratwurst, which probably absorb some of the oil rather than provide more in the manner of the Isles sausages with which the dish is more traditionally made. The German sausages go beautifully with the batter, though. I hadn’t any mustard to hand, which I regret, but will ensure to have in stock next time.

That’s a point of some puzzlement to me, actually. I like mustard, and buy it reasonably frequently. There is never any to be found in the fridge. I never buy chutney or relish (although I do like them), but there are always a good half dozen jars in the fridge, of many and varied types. I’ve started making some inroads on this stash this morning, at least.

The batter is a three-parts-by-volume thing - about 300ml of milk, about 300ml of eggs, and about 300ml of flour. You could add salt, but I prefer the sausages to do that, and the gravy with which you will serve it, because gravy. The Traditional Method is to add the eggs to the flour, beat, and then mix in the milk, but I don’t do that, because I am a Cookery Rebel. Or rather, I found a better method via Nigella Lawson and Jane Grigson, and have had such good results that I stick to it - beat the eggs and milk together and add the flour in little bits. You get a smoother batter and a much better rise. Admittedly, that’s more important if you’re doing a Yorkshire pudding, for which the proportions are slightly different, but it doesn’t hurt to get it here either.

I like green beans with toad-in-the-hole, lightly boiled and buttered. There’s a good case to be made for autumnal vegetables of many kinds here, though.

Cee knows a great deal about mushrooms, and this time of year she’s subject to a barrage of pictures of them from me, with the question of “what’s this?” and the subtext of “and can I eat it?”. This year she was able to show me a good mushroom for the beginning forager, the hedgehog.

These are upside down, showing the little spines that give the fungus its name, and plenty of pine needles stuck to them. They’re basically impossible to mistake for anything else except the terracotta hedgehog mushroom, which is also perfectly edible, just a darker colour and reputedly slightly less tasty. Here’s a whole dish of them:

(The one in the bottom left corner is probably the terracotta version; I did not notice any difference in taste, but once cooked, it was hard to identify.)

And here they are cooked, and ready to eat with bread and butter:

They’re absolutely excellent, with a nutty sort of taste, and retain a somewhat firm, not-quite-crunchy texture even when cooked; very unlike field mushrooms or indeed oysters, shiitake, or other commercially available ones. They do release a lot of water in the process of cooking, though; we poured it off, and I’d reckon that about 500g of raw mushrooms came down to about 300g cooked. I’m extremely happy to now have three mushrooms I can reliably identify in order to eat them, adding to the field mushroom and the puffball. To be fair, I can also identify the fantastically named amethyst deceiver, but it’s much less common, and I’d reckon myself lucky if I found a handful, let alone a meal’s worth.

There is, however, no meal more autumnal in my mind than the stew, or the Irish stew as it’s known elsewhere. This is one of those things where the “Irish” label is justified; I have a clear memory of coming across the name in an English book at maybe 6 years old - probably something by Enid Blyton - and going to inquire of my mother what this dish was. She told me it was “just ordinary stew”, which as far as we were concerned, it was. Most of my stew-making comes from my father, and I’m not entirely clear if he learned it from his family or from my mother. Either way, it’s a thing for which I’ve never had to look up a recipe; it’s just there in my head.

I did look up a few recipes for purposes of writing this issue, though, and was somewhat concerned to find that many of them were, well, wrong. Many of my most-used books don’t have a recipe for it, which is fine. You’d expect In An Irish Country Kitchen to have it right, though, and it doesn’t. And even Darina Allen is missing an essential detail in Irish Traditional Cooking, and does some stuff I don’t recognise. In fact, looking at the various recipes I can find, I’m led to the conclusion that my family’s recipe is actually a bit unusual. Unorthodox, perhaps.

Most of the recipes I can find - which are similar enough to make me think that one of them is an original, probably the version in All In The Cooking, and the rest derive from it - use only three main ingredients (lamb, potatoes, onions) and layer them into a pot, which is then filled in with water, and not stirred during cooking.

There’s a Beef and Guinness stew in Allen’s books, which has the seasoned flour step that I consider the basis of the dish, but then it goes on to add, well, Guinness, which is a rather different thing. There’s a “brown stew” in All In The Cooking, which is pretty close to mine, except it takes a left turn into Weirdsville, in the County of Heresy, at the end by adding tomatoes and Worcestershire sauce.

So, here’s my version, which I am going to maintain in the face of all the evidence is correct. First, it uses beef, not lamb. Stewing beef, to be precise. You take some flour, and you add salt and pepper - quite a bit of each - and you roll the bits of beef in that. Then you fry them in small batches in butter, and put them in the bottom of a decent-sized saucepan. If you’ve leftover flour and seasoning, you tip that into the frying pan too, to make a rough roux, and add it to the pot. Now you cover the beef in the pot with hot water (from the kettle, ideally) and set it to a slow simmer. You chop onions (not too small) and add them. Then you chop turnip (swede, most of the time), carrots and potatoes, and add those, in that order. You top up with more hot water, and leave to simmer, stirring frequently, until the meat is on the verge of disintegrating. You then check the seasoning, and serve with mashed potato or colcannon.

It is permissible to add parsley. Parsnips can go in, if you’re keen on them. You can leave out the onion (I did yesterday) and add garlic instead. If the taste isn’t as robust as it should be, you could add a beef stock cube, or a few drops of mushroom ketchup. You could do the whole thing with lamb. You definitely don’t use expensive cuts of beef. Tomatoes, Worcestershire sauce, and other notions are right out. And as with any peasant dish from anywhere in the world, it’s better the second day, reheated.

I’ve recorded the making of yesterday’s stew in a series of pictures on the brand-new Commonplace Tumblr. You can see the making of the accompanying colcannon there too. And should it be of interest, Commonplace is now on Twitter as @commonplaceish. I can’t promise that the account there will be terribly interesting, or contain much that’s different from here, but at least if I get into arguments about food on it, you’ll be able to see them in real time.

Another, somewhat less seasonal-feeling but no less relevant dish I’ve been cooking of late has been pasta al burro. This is a fancy way of saying “pasta with butter and cheese”. If you’re trying to be authentic, then it should be Parmesan cheese, or something similar, but I think you can get to the spirit of it with just about anything. I’ve also cooked plenty of carbonara; pasta with egg and cheese. And, admittedly, bacon, or pancetta to be precise. These very simple pasta dishes fascinate me, not least because they’re so very cheap to make, and they’re good.

A kilo of penne pasta from Lidl costs 89 cents. Butter is about 3 euros per kilo, if you go for a medium-good butter. The cheese can be had for about 2 euros per pack. That’s 5.89, but the pasta will do for six people, the butter is enough for a dozen servings for those six, and the cheese will do about six. That’s about 24 cents per person, give or take a bit (don’t @ me; I can do percentages in my head, but this is maths). Since we have chickens in the back yard, as all proper peasants should, we get the eggs for free. If we were proper proper peasants, we’d have the pig as well; buying the bacon makes the carbonara slightly more expensive - but it’s still very cheap. I suspect Jack Monroe would have some things to say about my buying more butter and cheese than is needed, mind, which is completely fair. But you take my point - this isn’t food for free, but it’s food for not very much.

I’ve been doing some thinking about peasant food in general, which is what’s driving this. The chickens have made me look at the supply of eggs in a new light; we provide them with chicken feed, but it’s not expensive, and we get eggs in return. They could - and probably would - survive fine on food scraps and random bits of forage. Pre-modern people, except in the most crowded of circumstances, could almost always keep a few chickens, so would have the ongoing supply of eggs. The pre-modern chicken would not have supplied as many, of course, but eggs are still essentially free food if your chickens are free-ranging and self-feeding. I see much being made of hunting, trapping, and fishing as protein sources, aside from farming, but I’m given to wonder how much account is taken in food history of the egg. Yet another research topic, I suppose.

This issue has been brought to you by woodland foraging, translations of medieval German mystics, Flight Rising, and excellent research assistance. Eat well, and I shall write again soon.

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