One of the perks of being a university librarian is that occasionally books are donated that are interesting, but not appropriate for our collection. These books end up on our book sale table…and thence into out own collections. It was in this way that I recently acquired Samuel Chamberlain’s Italian Bouquet: An Epicurean Tour of Italy.

Chamberlain was a longtime contributor to Gourmet, and Italian Bouquet was a compilation and expansion of a series of articles he did for that magazine in which he produced combination travel guides and restaurant surveys to several countries. He was sort of a last example of a 19th Century artist/bon vivant/man of many talents (he was born in 1895).

One thing that Italian Bouquet really demonstrates is that what we in America refer to as “Italian” (or when we feel possessive “Italian-American”) is very much a composite of different regional foods – and why not, since our claim to fame is being a “melting pot”? It’s very interesting to see these foods in their original context…it tells us not only something about Italy, but about the Italians who brought these dishes with them to their new homes.

I could actually spend an entire week on this book (and probably will when I reach the Naples chapter, since the Italian part of my family hails from there), but with Memorial Day this weekend and the last days of the grilling season upon us I figured this was a good candidate. It caught my eye because the combination of cooking techniques seems crazy at first:

Chicken Cacciatore Piedmontese (from Italian Bouquet: An Epicurean Tour of Italy)

  • 1 frying chicken, cut in serving pieces
  • 1 large onion, sliced in rings
  • juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 2-3 sprigs parsley
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 3/4 cup flour
  • 1/4 cup and 3 tbs olive oil
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 egg white, beaten stiff
  • Oil for frying onion rings

Combine 1/2 onion, lemon juice, parsley, salt, egg white, and 1/4 cup olive oil. Marinate chicken in this mixture for 2 hours. Combine flour, 3 tbs olive oil, and water and mix into a smooth batter. Let stand for two hours.

When ready to cook, drain and wipe chicken pieces. Mix egg white into batter and coat chicken pieces. Broil under moderate heat, turning to cook throughly.

Dip remaining 1/2 onion in batter and fry. Serve chicken, surrounded by onion rings, with the following sauce:

Madeira and Ham Sauce (adapted freely from The Joy of Cooking)

  • 2 tbs butter
  • 2 tbs flour
  • 1 cup beef stock
  • 1/2 clove garlic
  • 1/4 cup and 2 tbs Madeira
  • 2 tbs chopped ham

Rub a small saucepan with garlic clove. Melt butter and stir in flour until blended. Add beef stock and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Reduce by half and add 1/4 cup Madeira and chopped ham. When ready to serve, add 2 tbs Madeira.

It sounds like a lot of work, but really 90% of it is chopping things…the actual preparation is very easy. And broiled battered chicken is surprisingly good. If you’re tired of barbecue sauce, you might want to give this one a spin before Summer departs.

This was an experiment born of necessity: I was intending to make Basil Chicken with some Thai basil a coworker had given me from the garden. I forgot the basil at work, it went bad, and I was left with a pound of ground turkey I needed to do something with. Fortunately, a 19th Century Russian restaurateur had already solved my problem.

In 1827, a man named Pozharski owned an excellently located inn; my sources differ on wether it sat astride the road from Moscow to St. Petersburg, or Moscow to Novgorod, but either way it was in a prime spot to catch nobles and bureaucrats traveling from the Tsar’s court in St. Petersburg to their estates in the country. Pozharski was a dab hand with a chicken and partridge cutlet – the poet Pushkin, a man who wasn’t afraid to
be enthusiastic about food, was one of his biggest fans. By 1861, the Pozharski cutlet was an entrenched feature of Russian cuisine and Russia’s 19th Century Martha Stewart, Elena Molokhovets, included it in her magnum opus, A Gift to Young Housewives:

Turkey Or Chicken Patties:

Cut off the fillets from 1 turkey or two chickens, remove the membranes, and chop the meat fine. Add 1/8 lb butter, less than 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, salt, and 1/2 French roll, soaked with milk and squeezed out.  An egg may be added as well.  Mix everything together and pound in a mortar. Shape into small patties, dip in egg and rusk crumbs, and fry in 2 spoons butter. Arrange the patties on a platter, and pour on the following sauce: Add the juice of 1/4 lemon and 3/4 wineglass of Madeira to the pan in which the patties were fried. Add a few capers, dilute with one glass bouillon,  and bring to a boil.

Or, pour on a sauce made  of field mushrooms or truffles.

Or, arrange the patties around the edge of the platter and fill the center with fresh or dried peas.

…Or serve with mushroom sauce, or with greens or root vegetables, etc.

The advantages of this recipe to an innkeeper, particularly an innkeeper in Tsarist Russia, are obvious. Consider the following scenario:

It’s late evening at your inn, you’re cleaning up, and it’s raining or snowing outside. Suddenly, the door flies open and a noble or high official who could send you and your entire family to Siberia with a single stroke of the pen bursts in and says “Stabling for six horses, and I want dinner NOW!” You run to the kitchen, grind up some leftovers from the roasts, add some spices and enough butter to disguise the age of the meat, shape some cutlets, dip ’em in egg and breadcrumbs, pour over whatever sauce you’ve got on hand, and before you can say “I beg you sir…spare the children…at least spare the children!” you have a hot and tasty meal all ready.

That said, the usefulness for the rest of us who need something quick to eat is also obvious. Lesley Chamberlain’s excellent Food and Cooking of Russia (one of the first cookbooks I ever bought) has a handy modern version, which I have adapted slightly:

Pozharski Cutlets (from The Food and Cooking of Russia)

  • 1 lb ground chicken (or turkey)
  • 1 stick (1/4 lb) butter, softened
  • 2 cups white breadcrumbs
  • milk
  • salt, pepper, and nutmeg, to taste
  • 1 cup flour
  • 2 eggs
  • oil/fat for frying (traditionally butter)

Soak 1 cup breadcrumbs with milk and squeeze out. Mix with chicken and butter. Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg to taste, and mix thoroughly. Roll in flour and divide into small cutlets. Roll again in flour, dip twice in egg and breadcrumbs, and fry in fat about 3-5 minutes per side.

Chamberlain says the traditional accompaniment for Pozharsky cutlets is mushrooms in sour cream, but the original Molokhovets recipe gives some other good ideas. In particular, I think the Madeira sauce would be a nice touch. Sadly I didn’t have the time or ingredients to try any of them, and had to make do with mushroom wild rice.

The Lardin House Inn of Masontown, PA is one of the best restaurants I’ve never been to. They were generous enough to include their signature chicken recipe in A Taste of Pennsylvania History, and everyone I’ve cooked it for has loved it. Best of all it’s got simple ingredients. While we were in the Adirondacks this weekend, all Cat and I had to do was make a quick trip to the store for mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes.

Lardin House Chicken

  • 4 chicken breasts, skinned and boned
  • 1/4 cup butter, melted
  • 2 cups button mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 cups portabello mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 tsp garlic, chopped
  • 1/2 cup sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
  • 1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
  • 1 and 1/2 cups white wine
  • 3/4 cup heavy cream
  • salt and pepper, to taste

Saute chicken in butter until half done, 2-3 minutes each side. Add mushrooms, garlic, tomatoes, and parsley and saute for 2 minutes. Deglaze pan with white wine and reduce by half. Add cream and simmer to thicken. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

I discovered while cooking this dish for my grandmother in New York over the weekend that it tastes as good or better if you marinate the chicken breasts overnight in olive oil with a little salt and pepper. If you do, just omit the butter and saute the chicken in the olive oil.

Sometimes you find interesting cookbooks in unlikely places. Having been coerced (well, strongly encouraged) by my girlfriend and my friend Scott to attend the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire, I was hiding in the Faire’s tiny bookshop from the many, many people dressed as Captain Jack Sparrow (this was right after the last Pirates of the Carribean movie was released) and discovered A Taste of England, by Josy Argy and Wendy Riches, sitting on the remainder shelf. It’s essentially a British version of A Taste of Pennsylvania History, but unlike Elliott and Nunley’s later effort, A Taste of England got government support from the English Tourist Board.

There’s an ongoing effort in Britain to rediscover national and local foodways, proud traditions which went into hibernation with the advent of the Empire, the Industrial Revolution and processed foods. This book’s an early (1979) example of the movement, and has a lot of really interesting recipes.

After proudly consuming some very American 4th of July barbecue items on Friday, what’s an Anglophile to do to in repentance but cook something with “Britannia” in its name?

Chicken Britannia (from A Taste of England: Traditional English Food – Where to Find It and How to Cook It)

  • 1 chicken, quartered
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp pepper
  • 1/2 tsp cumin
  • 4 tsp made English mustard (Colman’s)
  • 3/4 cup chicken stock
  • fresh breadcrumbs

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Mix salt, pepper, and cumin and rub into chicken pieces. Spread with mustard and cover with breadcrumbs. Place in baking pan and add stock. Bake for about an hour, until the crumbs and mustard have set into a crunchy coating. Baste and return to oven for another 30 minutes. Serve with savory rice (Near East garlic rice pilaf works well) and pan juices.

This recipe produces a tender, faintly mustardy chicken. The book said it’s also good cold for picnics, and I believe it. It was contributed by the Shant Hotel in Kent, near Maidstone. Apparently the historic building was gutted by a fire in 2002, but it’s still listed as in operation on several current travel websites so perhaps the establishment and the chicken still survive, in name at least. UK readers, please enlighten!

I’m at a conference this week, so I won’t have much chance to experiment. Here’s something to tide you over: 

Like many gaijin, I am a big fan of katsu. When the Portuguese missionaries showed up in Japan in the 1500s, they brought along both the Roman Catholic Church, and their mastery of fried foods. Catholicism ended up not being a permanent fixture, but nobody could debate the tastiness of the frying. Tempura and pork and chicken katsu have remained a vital part of japanese cuisine, and a refuge for westerners on whom the flavors of raw fish and edamame are lost.

This particular katsu recipe has the double virtues of being fast and easy. I’ve seen other recipes that advise marinating your chicken or pork with a little soy sauce, sake, and sliced scallions before frying. These are tasty, but less convenient for a work night.

Chicken Katsu (from Hiroko Shimbo’s The Japanese Kitchen)

  • 4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 3 eggs beaten  with 1/3 cup water
  • 2 cups panko crumbs
  • oil for frying
  • 1/2 head cabbage shredded

Put the flour, egg/water mixture, and panko crumbs into separate bowls. Dip the chicken breasts into the flour, then the egg wash, then back into the flour, then back into the egg again, and roll in panko crumbs. Heat oil for frying (about 2 inches) and fry chicken breasts about five minutes on each side, until golden brown. Serve with shredded cabbage and tonkatsu sosu.

If I had a signature dish, this’d be it. The General and I have a long history.

My hometown of Spokane, Washington, was not exactly a culinary melting pot in the Mid ’80s. While there were several Chinese restaurants, they were essentially interchangeable having gotten most of their menu items from Leann Chin’s book (the best of this group, the Tungloon Garden, is still in business and still makes the best bulgogi to be found outside a Korean eatery). Then along came the China Best, our first “high class” Chinese restaurant, and on their menu was an item called “General Tso’s Chicken”.

This was a big deal for us. General Tso’s work was pretty much unknown in Eastern Washington and the China Best rose to fame very quickly on its strength. Quite honestly, it’s hands down the best General Tso’s I’ve ever eaten anywhere…and I’ve lived in two cities with Chinatowns.

The history of General Tso and his Chicken (which is really about as Chinese as the Hamburger is German) makes for interesting reading. When I want to make people laugh at my history nerdiness I call it “General Tso’s Taiping-Quelling Ever-Victorious Chicken.

Sadly, the China Best is no more, but they did have the decency to reveal their General Tso’s recipe in Spokane Cooks! Northwest, which is like a snapshot of the Spokane restaurant scene in the ’80s. I carried it on an index card all the way through college and grad school, and I now present it here, updated and tweaked:

General Tso’s Taiping-Quelling Ever-Victorious Chicken (China Best Style)

  • 4 skinless boneless chicken thighs, cut into bite size pieces
  • 4 scallions, chopped
  • 1/2 tsp chopped garlic
  • 1/2 tsp chopped ginger
  • 2 tbs soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon shaoxing rice wine (find at Asian market or substitute dry sherry if desperate)
  • 1 tbs chinkiang vinegar (this is a dark, strong vinegar you can also find at your Asian market. You can try white vinegar, but the taste won’t be anything near the same)
  • 1 tsp chili sauce (use more or less depending on your heat tolerance)
  • 1 small handful dried hot chili peppers (these are for color and are optional)
  • 1/2 tsp white pepper
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tbs sugar
  • 10 tbs cooking oil (peanut preferred)
  • 1 tsp sesame oil

Marinade:

  • 4 tbs soy sauce
  • 1/2 tsp shaoxing rice wine
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp white pepper

Mix marinade ingredients, and marinate chicken pieces for 1 hour. Heat 8 tbs cooking oil in a wok or heavy saute pan and stir-fry marinated chicken for 8-10 minutes. Remove from wok, set aside, and clean wok for next step.

Add 2 tbs oil to clean wok. Add garlic and ginger and stir-fry for 1 minute. Add the soy sauce, rice wine, vinegar, chili sauce, dried chilies, salt, pepper, sugar, and scallions and stir fry for another minute or so, until the scallions just begin to change color. Add chicken back into wok and mix with sauce. Remove from heat and sprinkle on sesame oil before serving.

One nice thing about this recipe is that the chicken isn’t deep-fried first so you can at least pretend it’s healthy to your friends. I was actually completely unaware that General Tso’s is normally breaded until I went off to college in Milwaukee….and the first time I ordered it I thought I’d gotten Sweet and Sour Chicken accidentally instead. The Chinese restaurant people had a good long laugh when i went back to complain.

My return from Detroit happily coincided with the arrival of my long-awaited verjuice from Deborah Peterson’s Pantry. Verjuice is the sour juice pressed from unripe green grapes; in a time when lemons and their juice were crazy tales brought home by Crusaders returning from Outremer and wine was too expensive to let turn to vinegar, verjuice provided the sour/acid taste to Medieval cooking. It continued to see use in this way right up to the 18th Century, but in the end verjuice was replaced by readily available supplies of lemons and cheap wine vinegar in much the same way that sugar replaced honey as the primary sweetener of the Northern European diet. 

It’s tough to find an 18th Century British recipe that actually uses verjuice. By the time Hannah Glasse wrote her book in 1745, Britain was at the center of global trade. I would not, however, be a gamer/librarian/history buff if I didn’t have a few medieval cookbooks lying around, so I dusted them off and invited some friends.

There’s no better way to try verjuice than by using a recipe where it figures in the title. This one originates from an unsigned 14th Century Tuscan manuscript, and is reprinted with its modern version in The Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy.

Gratonata of Chickens: Cut up your chickens, fry them with pork fat and with onions; and while they are frying add a little water so that they cook nicely in the pan; and stir them often with a large spoon; add spices, saffron, and verjuice and then boil; and for each chicken take four egg yolks, mix them with verjuice and then boil them separately; and beat everything together in the pan, and boil everything together with the pieces of chicken; and when it boils remove it from the fire and eat it. 

Chicken with Verjuice:

  • 1 chicken
  • 1 medium onion
  • 2 oz pork fatback
  • 10 tbs water
  • 10 tbs verjuice
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1/2 tsp ground mace
  • 1/2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 pinch cinnamon
  • 1 pinch saffron threads
  • salt and pepper

Cut chicken into serving pieces, season with salt and pepper, and slice onion thinly. Cut fatback into small dice and render the fat in a heavy bottomed casserole or dutch oven. Add chicken and onion and brown on all sides. Add water and bring to the boil, then add 3 tbs verjuice and the spices. Cover and simmer for about 45 minutes. Remove from heat.

When chicken is done, beat remaining 7 tbs of verjuice into the egg yolks in a small saucepan. Bring nearly to the boil over low heat and then add to the casserole with the chicken. Mix well until sauce is thick.

This recipe reminded me a lot of chicken adobo, but with a slight fruitiness due to the presence of verjuice rather than vinegar. It’s really worth the trouble to get ahold of actual verjuice (you can use it instead of vinegar or lemon juice just about anywhere, and unlike them it doesn’t combine poorly with wine on the palate), but if you really want to try this recipe without it the book suggests using the juice of one lemon combined with 3 tbs water as a substitute. 

To go with the chicken, we made some gnocchi. The gnocchi here are the original gangstas of the pasta clan, dating from a time before either semolina or potato flour for starch. This recipe is also from The Medieval Kitchen, and is from another unsigned 14th Century Tuscan manuscript.

If You Want Some Gnocchi, take fresh cheese and mash it, then take some flour and mix with egg yolks as in making migliacci. Put a pot full of water on the fire and, when it begins to boil, put the mixture on a dish and drop it into the pot with a ladle. And when they are cooked, place them on dishes and sprinkle with plenty of grated cheese.

Gnocchi

  • 1 and 1/4 lbs cream cheese
  • 1 and 1/2 cups flour
  • 6 egg yolks
  • salt
  • freshly grated parmesan cheese

Mash cream cheese into paste. Mix in flour by hand and add salt to taste. Blend in egg yolks, continuing to knead until a smooth mixture forms. Boil water in a large pot, then reduce to simmer. Drop half-teaspoonfuls of mixture into simmering water and wait until they rise to the top on their own. Drain and serve, topped with parmesan cheese.

This recipe didn’t specify the flour type, but you can’t go wrong by doing what I did and using spelt flour. It’s still historically accurate and it gives the gnocchi a slight nutty flavor. This recipe makes a lot of dough, which is not a bad thing because it stores pretty well and the gnocchi themselves are easy to make.   

But, you ask me, what’s with two Italian recipes ? Aren’t you all about British food? Fear not, gentle readers. The vegetable recipe I used is 100% English. It’s from The Forme of Cury, compiled in 1390 by Richard II’s master cooks (before all that Tragedy Of unpleasantness). The modern version here is from Lorna J. Sass’s To The King’s Taste. Since H.M.’s kitchen staff wrote in English (albeit Medieval English) the original here has a little more “flavor”:

Funges:Take funges and pare hem clene and dyce hem. Take leke, and shred hym small and do hym to seeth it in gode broth. Color it with safron, and do there-inne powder-fort.

Mushrooms and Leeks

  • 8 small leeks
  • 1 and 1/2 lbs large mushrooms, quartered
  • 3 tbs butter
  • 1 cup chicken or vegetable stock
  • 1/2 tsp brown sugar (before 1492 this would have come from traders in the Levant)
  • 1/8 tsp saffron
  • 1/2 tsp minced fresh ginger
  • beurre manie (3 tbs flour mixed with 3 tbs soft butter)
  • salt and pepper

 Wash leeks and discard tops and roots. Slice white part into rings. Saute in 3 tbs butter until soft, then add mushrooms and stir to coat. Combine stock, sugar, and spices and pour over vegetables. Cover and simmer 2 minutes, and then add beurre manie, stirring rapidly until thickened. Salt and pepper to taste. 

Chicken with Verjuice, Gnocchi, and Leeks and Mushrooms...better together!