From time to time I like to spend a pleasant hour or two browsing through my collection of old food books. They range from the really historical – nutrition texts from the 1930s – through to total Kiwi classics – Alison Holst’s first book, for example, or the Hudson & Halls Cookbook from 1977.
These books offer great perspective on home cooking trends. Sometimes the recipes in them really do seem like historical relics. It’s unlikely anyone these days would be attracted to the Chicken Pineapple Flan recipe found in 1963’s 500 Recipes for Parties, for example. (The same book has lots of advice for throwing a party which also feels quaint: “An invitation to dinner should be by written letter. Short and to the point… it should be sent two or three weeks beforehand”. Telephone invitations, we are told, are acceptable, but “not considered to be so courteous”.)
I don’t just look at my old books for laughs, though. I occasionally find inspiration there. The baking recipes in old books tend to stand the test of time; we all have precious recipes from our mums and grandmothers that we still cook regularly.
Vegetable dishes can also often spark ideas. Setting aside the hideous-looking jellies and aspics set with vegetables, and the grievously overcooked greens (cabbage stewed in milk, anyone?) – there’s some yumminess to be found here. And top of the list are the potato recipes.
One of my treasures – a 1937 edition of The Cookery Book of the N.Z Women’s Institutes – contains a whole beautiful chapter of potato recipes. And I’d say every one of these is something we’d all happily cook today. Potato recipes, perhaps, are less faddish and more classic than other cooking trends.
The chapter starts, sensibly, with How to Boil a Potato (Old). There’s a separate recipe for new potatoes; my favourite instruction here, once the spuds are cooked and dry, is to ‘rub each one with a piece of butter’. No-one’s going to turn that down for dinner, to this day.
I rather like the sound of Potatoes and Cheese; this is a dish of waxy cooked potatoes, grated, fried in dripping or butter slowly until beautifully browned and crisp on one side, served with hot cheesy sauce. Mmm. I’m intrigued to try the Potato Omelette: baked potato flesh, passed through a sieve, mixed with egg yolk, lemon juice, pepper, nutmeg and salt. You fold in fluffy egg whites and then fry all this in hot fat for 10-12 minutes. I imagine that would be like a lovely light potato cake.
But the recipe that really intrigues me is Potato Cushions. Subtitle: ‘Daintiest Potato Recipe in the World’. Isn’t that awesome? Daintiest! In the World!
I haven’t tried this recipe since it requires a lot of boiling fat, and a deep-fryer is something I don’t possess. But it reads basically like fancy hot potato crisps; you cook slices of potato first in moderately hot fat, then a second time in ‘much hotter’ fat until they puff up ‘like lovely cushions’. I love the way this recipe is written. You must wash and dry the potato slices properly, we are threatened, or “you will find this recipe a dismal failure”. And we’re told to make as many as we like, but that will be “piles, once the family samples them”.
I would really like to see Potato Cushions on a restaurant menu some time soon. They sound delicious. And wouldn’t they make a good serving suggestion on a potato box?
There’s so much more to love here: Potato Pie; Potato Puffs; Potato Scones and Potato Pastry. There’s even Potato Pudding (Sweet). These dishes are all, it seems to me, rather timeless; even the pudding. Perhaps potatoes are the little black dress of vegetables: always in style?
Like all fashion rules, that theory holds true 95% of the time. Hudson & Halls, bless them, break the rule with their dish, Potatoes Russe. It starts well: baked potatoes, topped with sour cream and caviar. But then: “top with a measure of vodka poured over each one”. Yikes. If you try this at home, I’d love to know about it.
*Niki Bezzant is a food and nutrition writer and speaker. For more from Niki see www.nikibezzant.com.