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Jan 23, 2014 12:53 PM

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: 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. 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.