During an uncharacteristic flurry of New Year’s cleaning, I found myself weeding the bookshelves; always a difficult prospect, but especially when it comes to the cookbook section. Well, it turns out my hoarding instincts sometimes pay off. Growing up in Australia, my husband was given a British cookbook called Poor Cook: Fabulous Food for Next to Nothing by Susan Campbell and Caroline Conran. I love quirky old cookbooks and so would never get rid of it. On a lark, I looked to see if it was still in print. It isn’t. However, used copies are going for over $100 on Amazon!
Originally published in 1971, Poor Cook is remarkably prescient when it comes to discussing the intrusion of convenience foods on the home kitchen. In the introduction, authors Campbell and Conran write that, “pre-packed foods have been expensively prepared by other people, however cheaply they may have been bought in their original state, and are lavishly packaged and advertised. And if the people who enjoy feeding their families continue to carry their shopping baskets steadfastly past the supermarket door, in search of the odder cheap ingredients, then the shops will go on selling them, but if nobody asks for things like belly of pork and breast of lamb they will soon disappear for ever.”
They also heap praise upon their local butchers, thanking them in the acknowledgements and reminding readers that they should, “always be extra nice and good-tempered in the butcher’s shop; it really is worth being good friends with the man who sells you your meat. He will advise you which piece of the animal would be most suitable, if you tell him what you want the meat for. He is also more likely to be prepared to do tedious work in the way of boning, mincing and cutting a joint just so, if he is your friend and sees that you care, and if you make a point of going into the shop when it is not particularly busy.” And here I thought rock star butchers were a phenomenon of the 21st Century.
For all it’s similarities to the modern day, the book also shows the difference between the cookbook publishing industry then and now. Along with wholesome, simple recipes for dishes like Chicken Broth with Butter Dumplings, and Brisket in Beer, the book has an entire chapter titled “Pâtés, Terrines, Pies and Brawns” which includes some challenging dishes such as Galantine of Breast of Veal, and Brawn (aka headcheese), which modern readers are only used to seeing in specialty books like Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie. Campbell and Conran admit that things like terrines and raised pork pie “are all quite considerable tests of cooking ability,” but they warmly encourage the reader, saying, “don’t be surprised if the first one you make looks a bit strange; it gets better with practice, and it is a lovely thing to be able to produce at a picnic.” I much prefer this to today’s 30-minute wonder books.
As in many parts of the world in the late 60s and early 70s, food prices in Britain were climbing. Campbell and Conran wrote this book to help people get back to traditional cooking with cheap, simple ingredients. With foreclosures and unemployment at record highs, that’s something we could use a little of right here in 2010. Throughout the year I will cook some recipes from Poor Cook to see if they are as affordable now as they were back then; and more importantly are they tasty? Meanwhile, when you get around to your Spring, or Summer or whenever cleaning be sure to check those shelves for hidden, out-of-print gems.
I couldn’t resist starting with the terribly English sounding Toad in the Hole. We have no solid evidence for the origin of the name. The earliest usage is 18th Century and there is an English pub game with the same name, but that’s about all we know. The dish is essentially sausages in a Yorkshire Pudding-type batter; not exactly diet food, but great eating in this cold weather we’ve been having. The batter poofs up around the sausages into a light eggy cloud with crispy edges. The version in Poor Cook also includes bacon which I haven’t seen before, but who am I to argue? As long as you don’t buy fancy gourmet sausages and bacon, you can serve four people for about $10. Add a salad and a side of Boston Baked Beans, and you’ve got a cheap and cheerful winter dinner.
Toad in the Hole
adapted from Poor Cook by Susan Campbell and Caroline Conran
4 large sausages
4 slices bacon
4 oz. all purpose flour (about a cup)
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1 generous cup milk
2-3 tablespoons lard or canola oil
For the batter, use a fork to blend the flour and salt in a mixing bowl. Make a well in the center and break the eggs into it. Gradually add the milk while mixing with a portable mixer or a wooden spoon until all of the flour is absorbed into the batter, there will still be some milk left. Add the rest of the milk and then beat for 2-3 minutes with a portable mixer or 5-10 minutes with a spoon. Cover the batter and let stand in a cool place for 1 hour.
Preheat oven to 475F.
In a skillet, fry the bacon for 2-3 minutes and remove to a plate. Add the sausages to the skillet and cook until they are nicely done. Put the lard or canola oil into an 8 x 8 inch baking dish and place it in the oven for 5 minutes to get it nice and hot. When the lard is melted and hot or the oil is hot, put the bacon in the bottom of the baking dish and the sausages on top, lying parallel to each other and return the dish to the oven for about 5 minutes. Have your batter ready, take the baking dish out of the oven, pour the batter over the meats and return the dish to the oven. Bake for 5 minutes at 475F and then lower the temperature to 425F and bake for 35-40 minutes. The batter will puff up around the sausages and turn a rich golden brown.