I'm drawn to folk recipes -- the kind that aren't actually written down, or if they are call for things like “some sugar” or “enough salt.” Recipes that make use of leftovers in your refrigerator. Take Shepherd's Pie. for example. Even better take a dish that was introduced to me by my British husband -- Bubble and Squeak. He grew up on the stuff.
Here's the recipe for Bubble and Squeak, plus one for Shepherd's Pie. On Sunday, make a large roast -- more than enough for your family -- of whatever kind of meat you fancy, whatever's on sale at the grocery store or whatever's just been slaughtered on the farm. Save the juices from the roasting pan. Serve the roast with potatoes and vegetables in season.
On Monday, heat up the leftovers. On Tuesday, have something else for dinner (save the leftovers). On Wednesday, make cold roast sandwiches for lunch. On Thursday, grind up the meat that's left for Shepherd's Pie. You can use a food processor if you must, but using your grandmother's hand-crank meat grinder makes it more of an event. You can employ the kids or just get a good workout for yourself, and it doesn't make that horrible noise. Throw some onions in the grinder along with the meat. Add the juices from the roasting pan from Sunday to the ground meat and onions. Put it all in a casserole dish. Mash a lot of potatoes. (I like to get these steaming before I start the grinding so that they are almost ready to mash by the time the meat's ready.) Plop the potatoes on top of the meat and make nice patterns on the top with a fork, making sure you get little peaks of potatoes sticking up. Bake at 350 degrees F for about 45 minutes, or until the little peaks starts turning a nice crunchy looking brown. Serve with chutney.
On Friday, have some more Shepherd's Pie. On Saturday, heat some oil in a large frying pan. Put in what's left of the Shepherd's Pie. Add whatever cooked vegetables you may have languishing in your refrigerator, provided they have not succumbed to small furry things feeding on them. Listen to it Bubble and Squeak. The British have a penchant for naming things by the sounds they make. Serve with chutney.
And speaking of chutney, there is another food item that fits beautifully with my style of cooking. I don't do well with jams and jellies because they are far too particular. They must come to exactly the right temperature, requiring a thermometer -- I can never find mine, although I'm sure I have one somewhere -- and the patience to keep an eye on said thermometer instead of getting engrossed in a good book. If they don't get up to temperature you wind up with a sweet sticky soup, and if you go over it you have something so hard you could have used it as a candle had you put a wick in it before it set. I speak from experience. And oh, the tragedy of tossing those hard lumps of precious fruit. I suppose I could have sliced them up and put them on sandwiches. But never mind.
Chutney requires no such vigilance and starts with a lot of whatever fruit is coming out of your ears at the moment you get the canning bug. When my husband came home with two large boxes of pears and I had little pear soldiers lined up in orderly rows on all of my counters, it was time to make pear chutney. There are many recipes for chutney. I got mine from a book called Preserves and Preserving, something my husband received for his 50th birthday in the hopes that he could pickle and preserve himself to a ripe old age -- so far, so good. I use these recipes for inspiration, but do not feel bound by them. Lots of fruit, onions and vinegar are the basis of any chutney, and then there's whatever spices you think might go well.
I must note, at this point, that canning is the one thing that breaks me out of my casual attitude towards cooking. I have the Ball Blue Book (an essential if you plan to do any canning) and I follow its directions to the letter. If any of our cans open without the satisfying pop of a good, airtight seal, its contents go in the compost bucket faster then you can say “botulism,” and we have, so far, been spared any drastic intestinal mishaps.
I have noticed over the years that the recipes that I'm so fond of are of an age in which nothing was wasted, nothing was thrown away. Everything, down to the last stale crust of bread, could be used for something (bread pudding, for example). And this was not just a practice of the lower classes. This brings me to the recipe for my husband's favorite, and very classically English, dessert: Trifle.
Actually, I can't give you an exact recipe for trifle, but I can tell you a story. I heard this story from my mother, and I have no idea where she heard it or if it is a true story or not. It's just a story and is as good as any other story, and it will tell you (roughly) how to make trifle.
The King was traveling in the countryside and decided to visit a certain country Lord. The Lord's cook was in a panic about what to serve. “Oh mercy,” she cried, “I have nothing to serve for dessert.” She had some stale cake from two days ago, and of course most households had jams and eggs and milk available at any time. She put the stale cakes in a beautiful glass bowl and poured in some sherry to soften it. She spread jam on the cakes and sliced up all the fruit she could get her hands on. She made a custard and put it on the fruit and topped the whole thing with whipped cream, garnishing it with nuts and berries. The dessert was served and the cook waited nervously, wondering how her concoction would be received.
After dessert, the King called for the cook. He raved about the dish, saying it was the most delicious thing he'd every eaten. The cook blushed and curtsying modestly said, “Oh sir, it was just a trifle.”
So there you have it. The recipe for trifle entails some stale cake, whatever fruit you happen to have too much of, something alcoholic (brandy, rum, sherry) or juice if you're a teetotaler, jam, cookies, nuts, custard, whip cream. Some have been known to use Jell-O and Cool Whip (the American version -- I shall refrain from passing judgment), and others have worked chocolate into it. You really can't go wrong, unless this column is so muddled you that you try to put in the leftover Shepherd's Pie. Personally, I don't usually have stale cake around, so I make a sponge cake that bakes in 10 minutes and soaks up the liquor admirably. Funnily enough, the cake recipe came from a story about trifle from the pages of this very publication, 12 years ago ("Just a Trifle," June 1996). I make a custard using a recipe from the Joy of Cooking slightly altered -- I never could get it thick enough for my liking until I added some cornstarch.
For a highbrow trifle, I put a layer of marzipan on the cake before I spread the jam. But I've never made the thing the same way twice. Variety is the spice of life, and the best foods are recycled.
Quick Sponge Cake (from Betty's friend Eleanor, who got it from her mother)
Beat 3 eggs and 1/2 cup sugar until thick and pale yellow. This can take several minutes. Sift together 2/3 cup flour and 1 teaspoon baking powder. Fold gently into the egg mixture. Spread evenly in a greased and floured pan (the original recipe calls for a 9 X 13 jelly roll pan, but I prefer a 9 inch round cake tin). Bake at 425 degrees F for 10 minutes. Remove immediately to a rack to cool. You can make this the night before you need it and soak it in the alcohol overnight.
Custard (from The Joy of Cooking, slightly altered)
Scald 2 cups of milk in the top of a double-boiler. Sift together 1/2 cup of sugar, 1/8 teaspoon salt, and 2 rounded tablespoons of corn starch. Stir 3 egg yolks into the dry ingredients and add this thick paste to the milk. Continue cooking over the boiling water, stirring constantly (I can't manage anything constantly, but if you hang around the kitchen and give it a good stir in between other chores, you should be all right), until it begins to thicken. As it cools, beat to release the steam and add 1 teaspoon (more or less) of vanilla, rum or sherry. Store this in the fridge until you're ready to pour it over the trifle.