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Why does "peasant food" prep dirty so damn many dishes?

I ask this having just made this lovely brandade de morue recipe from the NYT: http://www.nytimes.com/recipes/12777/... but it applies to other peasant food as well. Choucroute garni, cassoulet, feijoada completa, shepherd's pie, etc.

Didn't our ancestors in their mud huts/farmhouses/yurts have better things to do than wash dozens of dishes and utensils? Not that I mind most of the time, but I'm baffled by the lack of simplicity in preparing some of these dishes.

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  1. I think many of these classic peasant dishes evolved from creative reuse of leftovers. Ex: cassoulet - the dish would incorporate a variety of meats traditionally used in that region. The dish evolved from making frugal use of the bits and dabs from past meals. Now days people approach it as a project covering several days rather than a logical ending for meals past.

    1. Really? I think of these as one pot meals.

      9 Replies
      1. re: seamunky

        Well, they end up in one pot when it comes time to serve them, but they aren't prepared that way! My brandade, which is now in the fridge ready to be heated in the oven for dinner tonight, involved several bowls, pots, knives, peeler, cutting board, measuring cups, little prep bowls for measured herbs and lemon peel, and a gratin dish for baking.

        So if you were eating at my house tonight (but let us test it first before you join us, just to make sure it's good!), you'd think, "Wow, cod and potato puree all in one dish--what an amazingly simple meal!"

        1. re: Isolda

          When I watch a TV cooking show, the ingredients will usually be shown already-measured into mis-en-place bowls, because it would be a waste of time for them to show these things being measured out. They often do things involving more pieces than I would ever do at home and I sometimes get annoyed. Typically, they'll separate eggs, make batter with the yolks, then tell you to put it in another bowl, wash and dry the mixing bowl well,
          then beat the egg whites. Or use a second mixing bowl.
          Me? I'm doing the whites first, transfer them to a plate or piece of parchment, then use the mixing bowl for the rest of the batter without having to clean it out. Then I'll fold the whites back into the batter. I'll chop the nuts in the food processor, dump into a bowl, then go straight to the other wet and dry ingredients, and put the nuts back in at the end, with a couple of pulses. You can put all your spices and herbs in individual mounds on one plate and add them in the correct sequence. The vast majority of the cookies, quickbreads, and bars that I make are done in one bowl, usually with a wooden spoon and a rubber scraper. I do the wet stuff first, dump the flour over it, sprinkle on the leavening and toss it in a bit, then stir the whole thing up. If making a pasta dish, I cook the pasta in a saucier, and while it's draining in the colander, cook the sauce in the same (unwashed) saucier. It's fun to give yourself a mental challenge - how would I make this dish if I lived in a third world country, or in another century? Inevitably, that cuts down on the fuss.

          1. re: greygarious

            I do stuff like this, too, but it sometimes takes me until the second attempt of a recipe to learn to cut corners. And I do love my adorable little bowls.

            1. re: greygarious

              I don't consider most baked items (like cakes) to be peasant food, though.

              People who baked elaborate desserts in bygone eras were not sloppy *at all*. Because it wasn't hungry housewives who baked, it was the (paid) cook. Old cookbooks often called for elaborately complex methods (like long beating times), and many ingredients required a fair amount of preparation (removing sugar from a cone, for instance, or removing seeds from dried fruit), and it was the paid cook who was expected to spend all day on complex preparations, and someone else was to wash the dishes, with her bare hands and not much else.

              It isn't my experience or understanding that most middle and upper income people in any century or location, are content with sloppily prepared things or unhygienic conditions; nor do they typically want to eat "peasant" foods at all. NPR had an interesting piece on British food

              "Cooks and their assistants, he says, were often highly skilled at very advanced cuisines. Take, for example, the "fancy ices" that were all the rage at the end of the 19th century. Ambitious cooks would use specialized copper and pewter molds to create elaborate ice cream delicacies in the shapes of swans, doves, even asparagus — all without the benefit of modern refrigeration."


              It's quite amazing, actually!

              1. re: greygarious

                Never use as many bowls/pans as a recipe calls for. Often my mise en place is all on the cutting board.

                1. re: melpy

                  I accidentally bought a way-big cutting board. Now, I'm happy I did: I cut/chop, then move that stuff to the upper reaches (probably another zip code) of the board, and start the next cut/chop. At the end, all's still on the same board, saving lots of dishes.

                  1. re: pine time

                    I have a number of different size boards and use the really big one just the way you say.

              2. re: Isolda

                I would LOVE to eat at your house tonight! But I think I missed it. So....how was it? Was it worth the many bowls, dishes, pots, and plates?

                1. re: Isolda

                  That brandade recipe using so many pot and bowls, bears no resemblance to the original recipe.

                  The original recipe goes more along the lines of: soak salt cod in water overnight and then dump out water. (Or don't dump water.) add milk (or no milk), spices, and sliced potatoes and simmer for 15-20 minutes. Drain liquid and reserve broth for sipping. Crush fresh garlic in mortar with oil and mix into fish/potato mixture. Place pot in oven or side of fireplace and cook until bubbling.

                  As others have said, it was originally a one pot dish, as were all old peasant dishes. And many were based on the day before's leftover roasts, etc.

              3. Wait, isn't that what the bread is for to catch all those yummy juices and gravy left behind? Ie: peasant bread? :)

                1. I think of peasant food as the opposite of simple. People had to make do with what was cheap, available, leftover, often a bit nasty, so they became brilliant at extracting flavor and nutrition from things that a wealthy person might disdain - it was and is a lot more work. Great fun when you're in the mood, though!

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: elenacampana

                    Yes, I always thought of salt cod as rather nasty, but when I see what it can turn into, I appreciate it a lot more.

                    1. re: elenacampana

                      There is a broad misconception - I'm not sure you are extending it here, but I think so - that in the 'olde' days, people used rotten food, particularly meats, and did things like cover them with spices or cook them a long time. This is not the case. There were times of starvation, but typically meats were 'properly' fresh or appropriately cured/preserved. Vegetables were seasonal but not eaten rotten.

                      On the other hand, certain practices were meant to deal with food situations we don't see as often anymore, such as really tough meat from working oxen or horses, and stale bread because there were no dough conditioners.

                      1. re: benk

                        "Vegetables were seasonal but not eaten rotten."

                        this is why most cuisines from places other than the tropics have a form of fermented vegetables and preserved meats.

                        people may not have known about microbes and bacteria and such, but they certainly weren't eating rotten food.

                    2. They probably just used one pot and didn't wash in between. Soak the cod, take it out. Cook milk and cod, remove, Cook potatoes, remove. etc. They weren't as exacting as we are w/ following recipes, just add whatever there is. I generally use one pot when possible.

                      5 Replies
                      1. re: chowser

                        I could imagine that they didn't have to make the garlic oil because they just kept a bottle of olive oil with garlic cloves sitting in it all the time (they didn't worry about botulism because the botulism risk wasn't known). They didn't wash the potato pot, they just cooked in it every day. They mashed everything together in the pot they used for the fish, and baked it in the oven in that pot too.

                        I once made jam with a woman who never washed her jam pot. I don't think she even washed it when jam making season was over and she wouldn't be using the pot again until next year.

                        1. re: chowser

                          ^^^^this. standard measuring spoons and cups are a modern kitchen gadget. even as a modern cook i simply cannot fathom needing a measuring spoon for something like salt even though recipes will offer a measured amount.

                          your mom taught you to make brandade. some days you had plenty of baccala and other days you may have had but a few scraps. these dishes are not rocket science.

                          i have never lived anyplace with miles of counterspace and go insane when invited over to a friends for dinner and their sink is piled high with utensils and bowls.

                          all those little bowls and tins for mise en place on tv? there is a minimum-wage dishwasher who is tasked with cleaning all that up when the camera stops rolling. he doesn't work at my house.

                          1. re: hotoynoodle

                            I can send Bob over once he's done here :) Honestly he is a HUGE help when I'm doing things that make a lot of washing up. ANOTHER reason to not divorce him...again.

                              1. re: hotoynoodle

                                Just took him to Israel!

                                It really is nice to have someone here who quickly leaps in.

                        2. This is a GREAT comment. I have often wondered the very same thing. Unfortunately, at the juncture of simple-fare and haute cuisine is a bridge of unimaginable complexity. I say burn that bridge, leave the self-important chefs to their own devices, and let the People reclaim their food. PLEASE!

                          1. One year when my in-laws came to visit, Papa asked that we'd throw a dinner party and he'd make this massively complex Colombian stew. I offered to help, but he shooed me from the kitchen … about an hour later he was yelling for me: "Are these all the pans you have?" Now, in his world, the cook was the cook, NEVER the dish-washer, and there was a pile of pots and pans in the sink that covered much of the windows over it. "Can't Tania come in and wash some of these?" he asked plaintively. I think I offended him by saying that was my job and doing it.

                            Some of the simplest dishes take a LOT of prep, like Pad Thai for instance; most complex stir-fries, actually. When cooked on the street on their home turf, the vendor starts the day with the sauce bottles all filled, the various containers of lemon grass, ginger, garlic, vegetables and meats all cut to spec, packed and handy. On the street the wok just stays hot and the stuff goes in when somebody wants it.

                            At the other end of the spectrum, many peasant-style dishes I've tried were not even cooked in the kitchen, but prepped and put into a baking dish, which was then placed either in an outdoor oven with a banked fire for several hours, or dropped off at the baker's. Our having our prep, cooking and baking all jammed into a single space can actually put us at a disadvantage!

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: Will Owen

                              Yeah I'm always amazed by how much work Pad Thai is. Then you should make it in smallish batches of 1-2 serving to not crowd the wok. I can see why it makes great street food - prep in bulk, prepare to order, easy and cheap to get out rather than making at home.
                              As for the OP - Shepard's pie is definitely meant to be made from leftovers. I make spaghetti pie from leftovers, and always find it amusing that the recipe I follow for method/oven temp has the sauce and noodles cooked from
                              scratch. Nope, it's a leftovers dish.

                            2. Real peasants, like me, use paper plates, cups and bowls whenever possible when cooking. Especially handy when you have to prep a whole bunch of things that need to be kept separate, as in stir-fries, etc. I also do all marinating in heavy plastic zip-closure freezer bags, usually gallon size. Some eco-freak probably will have a cow reading this, but that's how I do it.

                              1 Reply
                              1. I looked up a few of these recipes, and I can see how they could be cooked much more simply than a modern cook would.

                                Take away the measuring cups and spoons - the cook would measure by eye. No little bowls for prepping ingredients - you'd chop and add straight to the pot.

                                No specialized potato mashers, garlic presses, peelers etc. No blenders or food processors. You'd have a knife, a heavy spoon, a grater to do all those things.

                                The branade recipe, for example, I could see done with one pot for the fish and one for the potatoes. You'd mix/mash/bake/soak in those pots as well. A knife for cutting, a cutting board or countertop, a spoon and fork for mixing/mashing, a small oven proof dish set on the back of the stove to heat the garlic oil, and you're done.

                                For peasants of the mud hut variety, the food could be a lot simpler, and a *lot* less meaty than the dishes listed above - they'd be going more for big pots of porridge )with a bit of meat mixed in if they were lucky) and bread for the foundation of their diet.

                                For farmhouse type cuisine, which is what I would associate these things with, food preparation and cleaning were also hard, full-time work - I think modern people would be completely aghast if presented with the level of sheer hard labour involved in feeding the family and hired help of even a smallish farm.

                                1. I made a pretty good bigos today. I used a cutting board, a knife and a dutch oven. (I suppose I also used a stockpot to make the stock I added and a strainer to strain it.)
                                  That's one classic peasant dish with 4 types of meat, mushrooms, sauerkraut, herbs & spices and no more that 5 tools.
                                  Recipes (and anything edited by the NY Times style editor) are best ignored for anything simple and down to earth.

                                  1. Shepherd's pie is not old, with earliest references in the early 1800s. Potatoes weren't widely accepted in English cooking before that. Cottage pie is an equally old name, though in current English usage, one is has lamb, the other beef. In either case it is basically a way of using leftovers from the Sunday 'roast'.

                                    Your examples all involve long slow cooking by the hearth or in an oven. And some use products home-preserved products, things like salted meats. In a French farmhouse the duck or goose confit would have been used multiple ways, cassoulet being only one.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: paulj

                                      The first recipe in the Mutton section of Mrs Beeton is for 'Baked minced mutton', and is a rather simple dish using the cold roast mutton (and already mashed potatoes).

                                    2. That's what a scullery maid (or scullion) was for - lighting fires, carrying water, scrubbing things, taking out the garbage, etc.


                                      2 Replies
                                      1. re: paulj

                                        Yep. Even tenant farmers who rented their farms from the estates of the great and powerful often had hired help, both laborers in the fields and a maid or two in the house. Plus a big family to help out. Plain crockery was inexpensive and commonplace so kitchens in these farms could be well stocked.

                                        Much of what we call "peasant food" really comes from this class of people, the European equivalent of the middle class American farmers.

                                        The people we now think of as peasants were too poor to even rent their own lands and largely lived as seasonal agricultural workers for the farmers. They were pretty close to being malnourished for most of their lives.

                                        1. re: Roland Parker

                                          That's a good point. In Europe, labour was really cheap up until sometime in the 20th century. And on a farm, you wouldn't just be cooking for the family - you'd have the servants and field hands in the mix as well. A lot of these stewed/slow baked dishes are more labour saving the more people you're cooking for.

                                          My understanding is that North America tended to depend less on servants in part because of the isolation of many farms, and part because it was much easier to get your own land, rather than going into service. Which was part of the motivation for the development of labour saving devices for household work.

                                      2. "Rustic" or "peasant" dishes often revolved around--as others have mentioned--re-use of leftovers, frugal use of food, and/or using what was on hand. In addition, in many cultures the wife/mother was responsible for home cooking and worked from the home all day doing just this, and food prep was a huge part of her time (as well as cleaning, etc). Childcare was another responsibility, but in many poorer cultures, children are not treated as we might treat children in a middle-class setting, but as additional help for the house, land, and so on. In other words, they could not afford the luxury of spending part of the day focused on the child and their satisfaction and tended to afford them more independence out of necessity.

                                        In addition, often children and extended family (such as live-in grandmothers) helped with food prep. When you factor in the significance of the responsibility of cooking frugally (and the time devoted to it in order to live) with the availability of help (in the form of children, etc), you can see where "peasant" food was sometimes, but not always, consisting of more steps than we might expect. The goal was not necessarily efficiency first, but to use what they had, be it food or live-in labor.

                                        And as other people mention in this thread, often prep went over several days. Of course, not all food in this category requires lots of hands or pre-planning; look at something like porridge. Even so, of course depending on the era you imagine people eating porridge in, it could be kitchen intensive, too, what with starting the fire and all. Even then, that leftover porridge was turned into more food (e.g., Porridge, Day 2 or stuffing for game, etc) until the only saving grace it had was as the family's chicken or pig food. ;)

                                        Also, as someone else mentioned here, if a classic recipe is based on these methods, there may be a lot of steps and dirty dishes because that's how people cooked without microwaves, dishwashers, food processors, and so on. They (usually) had extra helping hands in the form of grandma and children.

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: team_cake

                                          "Pease porridge in the pot, nine days old". Mollie Katzen's newest cookbook talks about a "real" ribollito taking several days: the first day you make the beans and eat some of them, the next day you add stale bread to the leftover bean soup and eat that, the next day you bake the 2nd day's leftovers and eat that, and so on, each day's supper building on the previous one: modern cooks who try to step in at stages 3 or later are missing out on the early stages of what becomes the dish. It's like saying a chicken casserole is tedious starting with a whole chicken because first you have to cook the chicken, then pick off the meat and chop it, etc.

                                          And even peasants had special occasions from time to time when they would go all-out!