Friday, January 24, 2014

Culinary hall of fame: Sylvia Windle Humphrey



Coriander; fold it in a coffee filter and staple it closed to add to soups or stews

Sylvia Windle Humphrey deserves inclusion in my little hall of fame simply because of her charming name. Can't you just picture her in long Edwardian skirts, writing elegant cookery books by gaslight, and then moving sedately off to a charity function on the arm of the distinguished Mr. Humphrey?

In fact, we must move her forward in time, closer to our own era. She was the author of A Matter of Taste, published by Macmillan in 1965. My copy of this book is yet another of my library-book-sale, cast-off, jacket-less, one dollar treasures. It is a cookbook, filled with unusual recipes whose sources she thanks gracefully in her brief acknowledgements (why were authors so much briefer about acknowledging people then?) -- brief but tantalizing. Who was Mimi Ouei, and does the Artistic Cooking School of New York still exist, and can anyone find a copy of Sir Alan Herbert's Two Gentlemen from Soho?


No matter. I include Mrs. Humphrey in my Culinary Hall of Fame only facetiously for her name but really for having had the brains to write a book just on seasonings, to explain what seasoning food means (to add something masterful like lemon juice in a small quantity, so that it “pulls together into a fused oneness” the whole of the dish without flavoring it lemony) and if nothing else to teach the reader the difference between spices and herbs. I was perfectly ignorant about that, too.



Spices, she explains, like cinnamon or nutmeg, are tropical. They are the unopened flower buds, the barks, the interior seed sheaths, and so on, of warm climate trees or flowers. Herbs are the weedy whole plants, such as rosemary or basil, from temperate climates. All share characteristics helpful to food: they literally irritate the mouth, or they exude an aromatic oil, or they excite the taste buds in specific ways, sweet or bitter or sour, without chemically altering food. Or they might do a combination of two, or all three together.

Her basic information goes further. You can almost open the book at random and find fine things. At the top of the spice pyramid for example, in terms of expense and deliciousness and glamor, she places as does all mankind saffron, cardamom, and pepper; at the top of the seasoning pyramid, in terms of exemplifying an almost mystic total usefulness, she puts three items I would not have thought of: lemon, ginger, and vanilla. Mrs. Humphrey argues that these are the queens of all seasonings, and she makes her argument (and starts her book) in part by reporting a taste experiment with peaches, "after Brillat-Savarin."
To a professional chef, an acquaintance with Brillat-Savarin and a studying of peaches may be routine matters. The home cook gazes admiringly at Sylvia Windle Humphrey and thinks, the lady knows her stuff. Another reason to put her in my Hall.


The book also includes leisurely information on the herbs as garden plants, and makes the reader want to run out and pester the staff at the local Home Depot's nursery department as to when they'll get in a supply of costmary, sweet woodruff, or angelica. And did you know that you can use anchovies -- not a garden plant -- to improve eggs or broccoli or "almost anything that is not a sweet"? Throughout her book in fact she encourages the reader, even if not in so many words, to try practically anything in cooking with herbs and spices, as long as it is not clearly an idiotic idea. This makes sense. When you observe the ingredient lists of some recipes, especially old classic ones, you are, after all, forced to conclude that hungry and thirsty people must have put in the pot or cup whatever they had on hand, and hoped for the best. Why else should beef stews include garlic and wine and allspice, etc., etc., or why should a mug of coffee include whiskey in Ireland, chocolate in Vienna, and cardamom in Turkey? Then again, why not include coffee as an ingredient in "Chili meatballs with rice"? Mrs. Humphrey does.

And she has nice things to say about wine. One gets the impression that somebody annoyed her on this point, for she has to unburden herself before she can go on to quotes from Apicius and then to recipes. "The preconceived misconceptions about the usefulness of wine in cooking are so deep that it is hard to root them out. A faint air of moral superiority frequently goes along with the 'We don't like the taste of wine in food,' or 'Of course the children don't care for wine in the things they eat....' " Yet we all keep little bottles of lemon, almond, or vanilla extract, at 85%, 85%, and 35% alcohol levels respectively, on hand for months in our cabinets, and cook from them without thinking of any complications, moral, culinary, or otherwise.

She is a treat. I have prepared her Braised Celery, have just introduced coriander into my soups and stews ("how have we in America lost track of this mild, inexpensive way to give spirit to our foods?"), and look forward to making a baked chocolate-cinnamon pudding called Africanella. And, with Mrs. Humphrey as my teacher, I have just yesterday reformed a family recipe to make the best chili of my experience. I will call it Chili a la Sylvia Windle, and offer it to you for your own improvements and your own moniker.

In a Dutch oven, soften, in olive oil, 1 onion, chopped, 1 green pepper, chopped, and 1 red pepper, chopped. Cook gently and stir in a small handful of fresh thyme sprigs, a small handful of fresh sage leaves, 1 bay leaf, 5 whole cloves, and 1/4 teaspoon each of cayenne pepper and cinnamon.

Remove the vegetable herb mix to a bowl, and then brown 1 and 1/2 pounds ground beef in the pot. When it is browned, spoon off and discard all the fat, and return the vegetable mix to the pot. Add 1 large can of tomato puree, 1 and 1/2 teaspoons chili powder, and 2 teaspoons brown sugar. Add salt and pepper, a can of black or kidney beans if you can do this without The Children shrieking about it, and simmer all gently for about 40 minutes.

Serve with practically any starch -- brown rice, noodles, corn bread -- except I suppose potatoes. But then, why not potatoes?

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