With this hot weather, no-one feels like eating very much, and we’re mainly just snacking. This doesn’t stop me looking through my old cookery books, and I’ve been leafing through my 194 ‘Cooking Today and Tomorrow’ by Nell Heaton. There still seems to be this fantasy, misconception, erroneous view that British food used to be dull, overcooked and unadventurous. I’ve read all sorts of criticisms of British cooking but mainly it seems aimed at cafés and restaurants after the war. I am guessing that cooks did the best they could with rationing, poor transport of goods from one place to another, people working in the industry with no experience, not to mention various severe weather events.
Off my hobby horse and back to Nell Heaton. I’m looking at the section in her book about vegetables. She lists thirty-five different vegetables, plus three different sorts of artichoke (globe, Japanese and Jerusalme0 four different beans (brad, butter, kidney, runner, beetroot leaves as well as actual beetroot, pumpkin, seakale, sorrel, sprue (the early thinning’s of asparagus – I had completely forgotten I knew this word!) and turnip tops – sixty-three different discrete recipes for vegetables in this section, plus of course all the other recipes which crop up in different chapters.
It seems some cookery writers forget that ordinary people were buying and growing such a variety of vegetables in back gardens and allotments. Nell is writing for ordinary folk cooking what to them were ordinary dishes with vegetables familiar to them – celeriac, sweet corn, kohlrabi, okra – how many people today think okra arrived with the wonderful cuisines which accompanied Commonwealth arrivals?! How many thought pumpkins came over with the Halloween traditions which take-over our shops in October? Cooking cucumber? There are recipes way before we had south-east Asian recipes as part of our everyday menu.. There are recipes to accommodate individual vegetables at different stages – for example, old turnips- peel, boil, simmer until tender, mash with margarine (butter still on ration) and season; young turnips – peel, scoop into marble shapes, cook in boiling salted water, serve as a garnish, or in a cheese sauce, or cold dressed with mayonnaise and garnished with parsley; turnip tops – use in the spring, wash well, cook quickly in a spoonful of boiling water, salt and pepper, rub through a sieve, add margarine (again butter was rationed) serve garnished with grated cheese.
Of course, there is the wartime slant on cooking:
Marrow as mock whitebait
- take slices of prepared vegetable marrow and cut into small strips
- drop them into batter (see section on ‘Eggs’)
- drop separately into hot deep fat and cook until golden brown
- drain and serve piled high on a dish
- garnish wit parsley and a sprinkle of red pepper (paprika)
… and then there is the absolutely weird, and maybe typically British eccentricities:
- wash 3 good sized lettuces, trim them and remove any discoloured leaves
- blanch in boiling water for 5 mins, rinse well in cold water, drain
- cut into even sized portions
- place in a greased casserole with seasonings of pepper, salt and sugar and 2 oz of melted fat
- cook in a low oven, let them simmer for 2 hours
- add an egg beaten in a cupful of milk and stir well
- cover the top with grated cheese and return to the oven to brown
I cannot imagine what lettuce – blanched and casseroled for 2 hours would even look like, let alone taste like! I am imagining that the variety would have had tougher leaves and maybe more like cabbage – but even so, after that amount of cooking it would surely just be tasteless mush! A waste of good cheese if you ask me!!