(LISTEN AND READ)
I had a totally different song picked out to head this blog entry…but Lime Jello, Marshmallow, Cottage Cheese Surprise by William Bolcom and performed here by his wife Joan Morris just fits the necessary mood! It’s a favorite that always cracks me up 🙂
Those who read this blog regularly will notice that this entry is a departure from the usual, but definitely should prove to be just as informative and just as fun. (As a reminder, you can click on any of the photos to see them larger.)
A couple of years ago, when I started the Recipes for Rebels project, I also began reading all kinds of food blogs (knowing that eventually I would be doing something similar). My favorites tended to be those about vintage recipes, about celebrity recipes, and about the history of cooking. Soon I found myself surrounded by “Lime Jello, Marshmallow, Cottage Cheese Surprise”-type people who dedicate their lives to perfecting the ultimate 1950s gelled ring-mold party delicacies…and I love it!
One of the most brilliant, amusing, and dedicated of these is Yinzerella (aka Emily) whose blog is called Dinner Is Served 1972. (Definitely check it out…she’s hillarious!) Since 2011, she’s been cooking (and blogging) her way through a set of 118 recipe cards (that came to her from her grandmother) in a plastic harvest gold box. They were a Standard/Chevron gas station give-away premium…called Dinner Is Served (the first set came free with the box, subsequent sets were available weekly for a nominal fee with your fill-up). Many of the dishes are fabulous, forgotten favorites…others defy reasoning and explanation. She works her way through the set, card by card, duplicating each recipe and entertaining us with tales of triumph and tragedy. A month ago, Yinzerella completed the very last card. But not to fear…she recently found the very elusive Dinner Is Served 1973 set!!! She is committed to continuing her quirky culinary quest. KUDOS!
For the past 3 years, Yinzerella has also been hosting the PIEATHALON. I’m very excited to be participating this year. Who doesn’t love pie? The rules are simple…a number of bloggers submit a recipe for a pie. Yinzerella reassigns them and each blogger is tasked with recreating that pie and then blogging the experience. But here’s the catch…these people aren’t right-in-the-head! They hunt and dig through their vast collections of vintage cookbooks, looking for the strangest pie recipes you can imagine. It’s totally luck-of-the-draw as to what kind of recipe you might get… Care for some Lime Jello, Marshmallow, Cottage Cheese Surprise, anyone?
HERE’S A LIST OF THIS YEARS PARTICIPANTS AND THEIR ASSIGNED PIES
(All the postings go live sometime during the day on June 8th, click the links to read each one.)
So after confirming with Yinzerella that I’d like to participate this year…I waited (it seemed like weeks) in anticipation as to what pie I might get. The morning of “recipe assignment day” finally arrived as I woke from a
dream nightmare… * * * side note -Those of you who’ve known me for years, know that I’ve been vegetarian since about 1981. * * * So I dreamt I got Steak and Kidney Pie or something equally out-of-bounds with animal organs, gellatin, or all sorts of yucky things… You see, I forgot to tell Yinzerella that I was vegetarian. I waited all day with this thought in the back of my head (the time difference Greece where I am and Baltimore where she is located, is 7 hours)… Silly thoughts, I know…there are millions of kinds of pie out there…
Finally…”You Have Mail” …YEAH! My assignment is here!!! I opened the email anxiously…it was a batch of image downloads…I opened the first one…”Oh shit!!!” I screamed, “I GOT STEAK AND KIDNEY PIE!!!” I kid you not. My next thought was, “Too bad…my friend Jenny from Silver Screen Suppers would LOVE this recipe”… I then said to myself, “Is there any way to do the recipe justice with meat substitutes? Steak and Kidney? Are you fooling yourself? Not even a ghost of a chance…”
Yinzerella was kind enough to allow me to switch my pie. Turns out that this recipe, which I had thought would have been perfect for Jenny…had actually been submitted by Jenny! Go figure… In all fairness, the Steak and Kidney Pie was a beautiful vintage recipe and looked like it might be delicious…if you’re INTO that sort of thing. LOL So Jenny picked a new (mostly meatless) recipe for me…Fluellen’s Pie.
What the heck is it? Sounds like a home remedy for a nasty contagious virus spread by popular daytime talk show hosts… Well, if you’re better versed in Shakespeare than I, you might have figured out that it refers to Captain Fluellen in Shakespeare’s Henry V. Fluellen was a loyal Welsh countryman to the king, who is described as honest and brave with “much care and valor,” but “out of fashion.” He’s quirky, but loyal…trustworthy, but tied to his old ways. Within the play Captain Fluellen forces Pistol (the bully) to eat a leek (which even the smell of leeks seem to nauseate Pistol). It’s his “humble pie.”
So it turns out that Fluellen’s Pie is leek pie. Yeah! Leeks are beautiful and in season here now. The recipe is simple and uncomplicated in flavor, letting the subtle charms of the leek shine in this “humble” pie.
The character in the play is Welsh, and Shakespeare references the patron saint of Wales…Saint David. “Upon St. Davy’s Day…” (March 1st each year) this saint is honored with festivals around the country and by the wearing of a leek. I imagine pies like this abound on that day.
Accompanying the recipe, I received a photo of its author…a sturdy woman with the biggest leek I’ve ever seen balanced atop her head. She wasn’t familiar to me, and I assumed she must be British since the recipe came from Jenny who lives in London. The woman was Nancy Spain (in the photo she was judging leeks in a county fair produce competition), and she has quite the remarkable story.
The source of this recipe is The Nancy Spain All Colour Cookery Book (1963). In this case, it seems you CAN’T truly judge a book by it’s cover… “Easy To Make, Practical Dishes…” wouldn’t be defined by me as anything like the stuffed bread dish (pictured on the cover) that seems to be topped with a pastry dough-sculpted animal skull…or is that an angry killer-squid…or a beheaded bird carcass? (Click on that photo and you tell me…)… Sorry Nancy, but none of those look “easy to make” OR “practical.”
“This book is written for more-or-less kitchen maniacs like myself, who in spite of their incompetence, love food, love to eat, and love to have a few friends in and show off the fact that they aren’t utterly undomesticated.”Nancy Spain
The pages are filled with fantastical dishes like the miniature turbans made from fish fillets and filled with ground meat, prune snowballs, jellied eggs in aspic, and curried bananas to name a few. She offers a wealth of party planning tips, like the one about NOT inviting too many celebrities to your party…they only like to talk about themselves. You must invite 5 non-celebrities to every “star,” so there’ll be someone to listen to them. Play loud music, but only instrumentals…otherwise guests like Lena Horne will be listening to the lyrics and not paying attention to you. And for teenager parties, serve hot prune kababs (prunes stuffed with marmalade and processed cheese, then skewered with tomatoes and broiled). What teenager wouldn’t LOVE that? The book sounds GREAT and it’s filled with stories about her many celebrity friends. I MUST ACQUIRE THIS BOOK!
“One of the last times I visited her, she spoke of pig’s trotters in sauce vinaigrette–lingeringly and with inspiration, as a genius should.”Colette, friend of Nancy Spain
None-the-less, the recipe for Fluellen’s Pie is great and Nancy Spain was a delightful surprise for me. As with practically all of the more than 100 celebrities I’ve written about in the last 2 years, I’m now “over-the-moon” in love with her too.
Nancy Spain was an extremely popular British celebrity and multi-media journalist of the 1950s-60s. Now mostly forgotten, except for a few aging baby-boomers (and their parents) who vaguely remember Nancy’s appearances on TV shows like What’s My Line? and Juke Box Jury. Spain was a free-spirit, unapologetically lesbian, a pioneer in the history of LGBT issues, and one who deserves more recognition.
Born in 1917, Nancy recalls being fascinated with cooking, wearing a make-shift apron (a dishcloth pinned to her dress) around the kitchen at age 5. Her obsession deepened when she learned that her Great Aunt was the famous Mrs. Beeton (a sort of Hints from Heloise of mid-1800s England).
During WWII, Spain served in the Royal Women’s Naval Service as a truck driver. After the war she pursued writing and journalism, publishing 6 non-fiction books (one, a biography of her famous Great Aunt) and 10 crime-noir novels. She was distinctive in her style choices, preferring “natty men’s sportswear” (by her own description). When she began writing a column for the Daily Express, they promoted her with the slogan, “They call her vulgar…they call her unscrupulous…they call her the worst dressed woman in Britain…”. She was open (but not blatant) about her committed relationship with publishing heiress Joan Werner Laurie. Her adventuresome writing covered topics like outdoor rock climbing, race car driving, and operating giant dock-cranes at the harbor…in addition to cooking and entertaining.
Spain and Laurie shared an elegant estate home where they raised their 2 sons (1 from Joan’s previous marriage, 1 from an affair of Nancy’s). The couple invited race car driver Sheila van Damm to live with them. Although it’s not something I usually discuss in this blog…Nancy was know for her extravagant affairs, including actress Marlene Deitrich and singer Lena Horne. They were regulars at the legendary Gateways club and Sheila van Damm’s risque Windmill Theatre. The three women of the household loved entertaining. They were surrounded by intellectuals, celebrities, and a very Bohemian circle of friends. Nancy counted Noel Coward as one of her closest.
“I’m an impromptu sort of cook–I tend to ask my friends home, and then look in the larder.”Nancy Spain
Along with her column in the Daily Express, she began writing for the News of the World and She magazine (published by Laurie). Spain’s boldness enraged a few, but entertained many. She was sued twice by Evelyn Waugh (author of Brideshead Revisited) and lost.
Spain branched out with radio programs and eventually as a regular on several TV programs. She endured the thinly-veiled mockery of some who criticized her sexual orientation, and yet continued to share her zest for life and her zest for adventures with the world. Nancy had an exuberant spirit that was showcased in her passionate writings. (Even if her idea of a good time, was serving hot prunes on a stick to starving teenagers.) Nancy would become an inspiration and role model to many who felt silently trapped in the sexual oppression of the 1950s.
Nancy was tragically killed in a plane crash at the early age of 46. She was traveling with her partner Joan Werner Laurie enroute to report on the 1964 Grand National races. The tiny Piper Apache crash-landed into a cabbage field near their destination of Aintree Race Course. All 5 occupants were killed instantly. Nancy and Joan were cremated together and buried at a family cemetery.
Nancy’s friend Noel Coward said, “It is cruel that all the gaiety, intelligence, and vitality should be snuffed out, when so many bores and horrors are left living.”
HERE’S SOME GREAT SHOTS OF NANCY
(Click any image to see them larger)
So here’s the recipe for Nancy’s pie (click to see it larger)… As a vegetarian of 34 years, I didn’t do the “bacon rolls” that she suggests. I could tell by the ingredient list that the smoky flavor might be important to this recipe, so for the grated cheese…I mixed Edam and Gouda (for their creamy, melty goodness) and a smoked Provolone (this really does give that fatty, smoked flavor of bacon…I use this trick in many recipes as a flavor substitute). I also used a lot more than the 2 ounces she calls for (what can I say…I like cheese!). Additionally I used shavings of the smoked Provolone as part of my garnish.
“Although I often crave vegetables, I’m no vegetarian. Eat or be eaten is my motto…”Nancy Spain
Converting this recipe from the British Imperial weights and measures to US Standard really wasn’t necessary…It’s not a very exacting recipe, and the units called for here are close enough in their equivalency (1 US Standard ounce = 0.96 British Imperial ounce… 1 US Standard pint = 551ml, 1 British Imperial pint = 568ml… ) So you’ll be using 1 US cup of milk, 2 Tablespoons each of cornstarch and butter (“cornflour” translates from the British to cornstarch, not cornmeal), and 4 T of grated cheese (Ha, ha, ha, seriously Nancy?).
My previous experience with cooking leeks was almost strictly limited to soups. So when she directs us to SAUTE the whole leeks, I couldn’t imagine how I was going to get them tender without burning them totally…nothing worse than tough, chewy leeks or a pie that has to be eaten with a knife (most leek recipes tell you to cook until translucent and NOT to brown them, but perhaps this is more about the visual aesthetic than flavor). If she wants me to leave them whole, then I decided to BRAISE them instead… Sauteing in a little butter until they got some color, and then adding water and covering to allow the steam to cook them through. This worked out perfectly.
The crust recipe I used, is one (that after years of disappointing disasters) that now seems to work out almost every time. You can see it in the video below, and detailed in this previous blog. The only secrets are NOT to over-process and NOT to add too much water. The crumbs should barely hold together in a ball. If it gets too wet…throw it out and start over! Adding more flour will only result in a tough, inedible crust.
Then came time to garnish. Not sure how (or why) her food stylist decided to glue the chopped parsley around the edge of the pie…but since I was omitting the bacon rolls, I went my own direction. Tomato sounded good with the cheese and leeks, but that ONE tiny slice on her pie just wasn’t enough for me…I made tiny flowers from assorted-color cherry tomatoes with capers in the middle for the top of mine! O.K….I did get a little carried away, but I was really having fun! I may have lost the intention of Fluellen’s “humble pie,” but I was filled with the exuberance of Nancy Spain…
Nancy doesn’t tell us what temperature to serve it at…but I knew I’d have a sloppy mess on my plates if I tried to serve it hot. I opted to let it cool to room temperature. I served it with a mixed green salad of assorted baby greens and a balsamic vinaigrette. I must admit, I set the table with knives at each place setting (I still had no confidence in this cooked whole leek thing). But I was WRONG! The leeks on the top of the pie were indeed tender and the filling had firmed up enough to slice neatly…no knives at the table needed. The flavor was wonderful, with the unique subtleness of the leek blending effortlessly with the creamy, smoky sauce. The texture was still a little too soft in my opinion…perhaps an egg might have given it more body, more quiche-like…but leftovers the next day (after being refrigerated overnight and then brought back to room temperature) were PERFECT! If I was making this again (and I will), I will prepare it the day before. Bravo Nancy! This recipe is a winner!
Coincidentally, Alex and I had been discussing leek pie around our house for weeks before this Pieathalon assignment…in the form of a Greek dish called Blatsaria that comes from the mountainous areas of northern Greece.
Tyropita (cheese pie) is one of my favorites when it’s well made (read: homemade) and Spanikopita (spinach pie) is NOT (due to childhood traumas with slimy school lunch spinach)! So this pie is made with leeks replacing the usual greens. The 2nd unique part is that it’s made with cornmeal instead of the usual phyllo dough. Corn seems to be fairly rare in our part of Greece, but in the north it was much cheaper than wheat flour and found its way into their traditional dishes. There are many regional variations but this is the one I chose to make…
So here’s a BONUS RECIPE!
Saute a large, finely chopped leek (all but the toughest green parts) in LOTS of olive oil until soft. Mix with about an equal amount of Feta cheese (I LOVE the Feta that is locally produced on our island!!! It has a creaminess and flavor that reminds me of cottage cheese. You might try looking at a French or Danish Feta at your local cheese shop for something similar). I added 2 beaten eggs, a splash of milk, and fresh ground pepper to the mix.
Bring 2 1/4 cups of milk to a simmer. Gradually whisk in 2 cups of cornmeal, adding it in a steady stream. Constant stirring will keep it from getting lumpy. Remove from heat and add a little salt (you won’t need much). The result will be a VERY stiff (and sticky) dough. Grease the bottom of your pan with olive oil. Press half the dough over the bottom and up the sides. Keep dusting your hands with cornmeal to avoid sticking. Add the filling. Thin the remaining corn dough with water (about a cup or a little more), just to the consistency of a pour-able cake batter. Pour over top of the filling.
Bake in a moderate oven for 45 minutes to an hour. It should be just lightly browned. Let mostly cool before slicing and serving.
This was wonderful too! The cornmeal crust was spongy, the leeks and Feta flavors sparkled, and it tasted like a Greek grandmother’s cooking. Great for brunch or lunch if you paired it with a Greek “villager salad” of tomatoes, cucumber, bell pepper, onion, ripe olives, and Feta, all dressed in olive oil and sprinkled with oregano. Try to finish this pie off throughout the first day (the crust texture suffered slightly from being refrigerated overnight). It needs to be served at room temperature (or can be lightly warmed). Invite some friends over for a fresh leek pie Greek luncheon.