Sunday, July 15, 2012

To Boil a Capon with Oranges and Lemons

This was an attempt at reading a period receipt (recipe) and interpreting it correctly despite the lack of measurements and explicit directions.  As with anything you try for the first time, there are parts you do well and parts that don't always turn out the way you want them to.

A capon is a "male chicken castrated when young to improve the quality of its flesh for food."  (

The receipt came from The Good Housewife's Jewel, by Thomas Dawson, originally published around 1596.

Published by Southover Press, 1996

The directions are as follows (page 13):

Take oranges or lemons peeled, and cut them the long way.  If you can keep your cloves whole put them into your best broth of mutton or capon, with prunes or currants and three or four dates.  When these have been well sodden put whole pepper, great mace, a good piece of sugar, some rose water and either white or claret wine.  And let all these seethe together a while.  And so serve it upon sops with your capon.

Did you notice that he never says when to put in the capon?  I assumed it was in the beginning with the broth, citrus, cloves, prunes, currants, and dates.  Note that I used lemons, I didn't have any dates, and I have no idea if my chicken was a capon or not.  I didn't ask it...  or check it or even really care.  Our modern birds are bred to be tender and we don't need to go out of our way to get a capon.

Chicken, lemons, cloves, currants, and prunes
And then with the broth

I deemed the mix "well sodden" after it had simmered gently for about an hour.  Then I added the Grains of Paradise (a black pepper substitute, ground), mace, sugar (about 2 tablespoons), some orange water because I had no rose water (just a splash), and a few cups of white wine.  For all of the spices I just guessed at the amount and can't really tell you how much that was.  Certainly no more than a teaspoon of any type, keeping in mind that I wasn't that familiar with the strength of the Grains of Paradise and I didn't want to over-spice the broth.

Here it is all together
Now is where I think I went astray with my preparation.  His directions say to "let all these seethe together a while", which I took to mean about 30 minutes.  I think this was far too long.  The flavors blended but weakened considerably and I think the meat was over-cooked.

Here is what the chicken looked like when I pulled it out of the broth.  I think it looks over-cooked although it was certainly tender.

It looked nice sliced on the platter with some parsley and a few of the currants:

My overall impression was that the meat was over-cooked.  Not dry but not as flavorful as I wanted and had that sort of mealy texture.  However my dinner guests did not agree with me and said it tasted great.

The Verdict:  Success?  It made a nice main course for dinner with the slices served over toast (called "sops") and some of the juice it was cooked in spooned over that.   (The sops soak up some of the juice.)

I'm not giving this a complete success rating because I felt it was cooked too long.  That didn't stop me from eating it, though!

This requires another test drive, I believe.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Wardyns in Syruppe

Wardyns (wardens) are a type of pear and were used often in medieval and Elizabethan times.  From what I gather from reading a lot, the original wardyns are either a variety that has been lost or has just been renamed.  Some sources say it is the name of any long-keeping pear that is good for cooking.

I have a reference that this receipt is found in the Harliean manuscript, a 15th century book on cooking.  

I haven't found the specific receipt yet but have made this enough times to know it without the book.
    pears  -- you want a variety that
                 holds up under cooking
    red wine
    pepper, ginger, cinnamon, cloves

(You can see the two types of pears; I ended up just using the ones on the right because they were ripe and the others weren't ripe enough.  I also used Grains of Paradise for the pepper.)

If you are serving a small number, then slice the pears in half.  Remove the core and stem.  If you are serving many, slice the pears into large, bite-sized pieces.  For these pieces, you may wish to remove the skin, too.

Flavor the red wine with honey and spices.  Add pears and simmer gently until tender.  

The pears right after they were put into the wine mixture

Pears after they simmered for awhile
Serve warm or cool.  

Notes:  You don't need measurements here because they depend on how sweet the pears are, how the wine tastes (sweet or dry?), and how you like the spices.  I love ginger with this dish and cinnamon is good, too.  And how much honey do you like?  You can use sugar instead but I think honey adds some depth to the flavor.

So put in what you think is right, stir like mad, then taste the wine syrup.  Do you like it?  Keep in mind that the spices should be stronger than you want because the flavor will soften a bit with cooking and the pears don't soak up their flavor that much.  But the sweetness level should be comfortable to your tongue.

Then you have to consider how long to cook this.  If your pears are very ripe, as these were, and quickly get mushy when cooked, then cook them over a very low heat so the pears have time to soak up the wine and flavorings before they get soft.

If the pears are firm you can cook them at a higher heat but really you don't want to if you can avoid it.  The longer the pear slices sit in the warm wine syrup, the more flavor they absorb.   

Here's what they looked like after they had cooked long enough that I was afraid they would turn to mush if I let them cook any longer:

You can see that the wine soaked in just a little way into the pear.  This will still taste good but I like it better when the red has gone much deeper into the pear slice.  If you make them in advance, you can store them in the wine syrup and they will absorb more of the flavor.

People love these warm or cool, especially if some of the spices stick to the outside, as happened here.  

Once when I had dinner in a restaurant in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I was eating a salad when the most wonderful flavor burst into my mouth.  I investigated to find that the salad had wine soaked pear slices in it. Wow!  It was wonderful!  So the next time I made them at home, I saved some, sliced them thinly, and put them into my salad.  Yes, it is good!  Chilling the pears makes them firm and easy to grab with your fork.

I mentioned above that I used Grains of Paradise in place of pepper.  They are an unusual spice that I recently acquired and was excited to try.  They are not related to pepper but have a peppery kick.  

They come as a whole spice and then you grind them up to use them.  

Grains of Paradise, whole
Grains of Paradise, ground
The websites I reviewed before using them said they tend to lose some of their peppery bite when cooked, so plan accordingly for the recipe.

When you are done cooking all the pears you plan on using, don't be too quick to throw out the wine syrup.  It will have a lovely flavor from all the ingredients and from the pears, and you can probably find someone who would like to drink it.  It is sort of a fruity Hippocras, that sweetened, spiced wine drink that the Romans loved and still showed up in medieval cookbooks 1200 years later.

The Verdict:  Success!  This dish always pleases the crowd and is easy to do.  Just make sure your pears are ripe before slicing them!