Frittars of Eggs and herbes 

This version of this post first appeared on the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Shakespeare and Beyond blog.

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Frittars of eggs and herbs

Food is intimately connected to climate and season. It was for Shakespeare and his contemporaries: It is for us today. Beautiful, local produce is once again available in the northeast now that spring is turning into early summer.

In Shakespeare’s Love’s Labor’s Lost, Berowne insists that all things have their season “At Christmas I no more desire a rose / Than wish a snow in May’s new-fangled shows, / But like of each thing that in season grows (1.1.109-111). Roses do not thrive in winter; snow should not fall in May; Berowne appreciates all things in their proper season. In a recent New York Times article on food, diet, and climate, the authors concur about eating seasonally: “Anything that’s in season where you live, whether you buy it at a local farmers’ market or at a supermarket, is usually a good choice.” Early modern farmers and cooks often used almanacs to determine when it was the best time to harvest, preserve, and consume particular foods. (Read more about almanacs in this post by Katie Walker and learn more about diet regimes from Ken Albala’s book Eating Right in the Renaissance.)

A recipe book held at the Folger attributed to a Mrs. Knight from the eighteenth century lists “garden stuff in season” for the months of May through December (W.b.79, 54). Knight was concerned with what was in season in her garden and when it would be available to cook and preserve.

garden stuff in season, cropped

W.b.79, 54

may: asparagus colliflowers silesia lettice cucumbers
peas bean artichokes scarlot strawberries kidney beens
Distill herbs this month
June: as above with dutch cabbagas melons young onions
carrots parsnups seleisia & cass Lettice
Jullys: pease beans kidney bean colliflowers cabbages
artickoes cabbage lettice & then sproonions cucumbers
carrots turnups musk mellons wood strawberrys
August: cabbages and their sprouts colliflower Articokes
cabbage lettice carrots onionspotatoes turnups some beans
peas & kidney beans reddishes horse raddish onions
cucumbers for pickling garlick melons

In her list for May, she notes that asparagus, lettuce, and strawberries are in season. She also remarks that this is the ideal month to distill herbs into tonics and waters for medicinal and culinary uses throughout the year. All the items for May are still in season in June and they are joined by melons, young onions, and Dutch cabbages. In August, she notes that cucumbers for pickling are ripe and, perhaps, that pickling should commence to preserve those vegetables.

When I have an abundance of fresh herbs and vegetables, I often make fritters or frittata to quickly transform seasonal ingredients into something tasty and nutritious. Deb Perelman writes on Smitten Kitchen that a dish of zucchini fritters was inspired by “the zucchinis that seem to be growing in my fridge this summer; I never remember buying them but they’re always around.” I was excited to see a recipe for “Frittars of Eggs and herbes” in another Folger recipe book from the seventeenth century attributed to Lettice Pudsey (V.a.450, 2v)

The Recipe

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Frittars of Eggs and herbes
Take persle peneriall and Margerum the quantity
of a handfull finly choped put to them vi egges
a littell grated Bread and three or fouer sponfull
of Melted Butter beate them all togeather and
season itt with Salt and Suger Cloues and Mace
beaten then frye itt as yow doe a tansy & soe serue itt

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Frittars of eggs and herbs

Richly spiced with mace and clove and full flavorful fresh herbs, this savory fritter recipe is easy to prepare and satisfying as a main or side dish. When you have abundance of herbs and eggs to hand, this fritter will make good use of them. Serve with a bright salad, radishes, grilled asparagus, or other seasonal vegetables prepared simply.

A tansy, like a fritter, was an omelet-like egg dish that often included the herb tansy that also gave it its name. I tested this fritter mix as small fritters (about ¼ cup of the mix per fritter) and as a single, large fritter (rather like a frittata). Both were delicious. I’ve provided cooking instructions for both variations below. You might consider adding additional seasonal vegetables and reducing the amount of bread accordingly. The original recipe calls for “a littell grated Bread” and I decided to use chopped stale bread, instead of store-bought bread crumbs, for texture and binding. As small fritters and frittata, the batter soaked the bread and held together beautifully. I also left out the pennyroyal. Although it was used in early modern medicine and is still used in herbal remedies today, it can be toxic to humans and is far more difficult to procure than parsley and marjoram.

Eating seasonally requires culinary creativity. It is just this kind of creativity that Pudsey and Knight demonstrate in their recipe book and cooks today continue to explore and reinvent. By paying attention to what was growing in the garden, when it was ready to pick, and what might be done with it, Knight could make the most of her harvest. Since late spring and early summer is, in Knight’s account, a good time for harvesting and distilling seasonal herbs and Pudesy’s simple “frittar” recipe lets that abundance shine.

Updated Recipe

Serves 2 as a main, 4 as a side.

Parsley, one handful (approximately ½ cup) leaves and stems, washed and chopped

Marjoram or oregano, one handful (approximately ½ cup) leaves, washed and chopped

6 eggs
2 cups bread, torn or cut into small pieces
4 T melted butter, plus more for cooking
¼ t salt
1/8 t sugar
1/8 t ground cloves
1/8 t mace

Melt the butter. Set it aside and allow it to cool, Chop the greens and bread.

Lightly beat the eggs with a whisk in a large bowl and season with the salt, sugar, cloves, and mace. Stir in the parsley and marjoram. Stir in the melted butter. Stir in the bread pieces with a spoon or spatula.

To make many small fritters

Heat a large skillet, griddle, or non-stick frying pan. Grease with a small amount of butter.

Dollop fritter mix onto the pan using a ¼ cup measure. Do not crowd your fritters. Cook in batches if necessary.

Cook fritters for 2 minutes on one side and then flip them over and cook the other side for 2 minutes. They should be brown, but not burnt; cooked, but not overdone.

Serve immediately.

To make one, large fritter

Heat a 10-inch skillet or non-stick frying pan. Grease with a generous amount of butter.

Pour the fritter mix into the pan. Allow the fritter to cook undisturbed for 4 minutes. Using a spatula (or your preferred plate flipping method), turn your fritter over and cook for an additional 4-5 minutes. Test the center with a skewer to ensure that the fritter cooked on the inside when it looks beautifully browned on the outside.

Slice and serve immediately.

 

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Herb Soop

A few weeks ago, thanks to my old friend George Leader, I was lucky enough to visit an archaeological dig at an eighteenth-century farmhouse on The College of New Jersey’s campus. I’d never been to a dig site before, so the technical details alone were fascinating: the reasoning behind determining where to dig in the first place, the standing sieve to strain buckets of earth for artifacts, the practice of wrapping fragile artifacts in foil (who knew!), the technology used to date wooden architectural features. I really dug it. (Sorry. Couldn’t resist.)

Seeing the farmhouse, getting to hold some of the artifacts unearthed that day – a metal button, a shard of blue and white pottery, and a small clay sphere that we theorized might have been a marble – made me think about this project and what we can uncover. I’m used to engaging with the past through words on a page. The archives always feel a little bit magical to me: these texts still exist centuries later, and I get to touch them, smell them, read them. I felt a similar tug at the dig, seeing artifacts being unearthed and thinking about our access to the past through what happens to have been left behind. At a basic level, archaeological investigation and archival literary research give us physical access to fragments of past lives, preserved deliberately or accidentally. You figure out where to look, but you don’t always know what you’re going to find.

This project is one of reconstruction from a distance and with pieces missing: the recipes are vestiges of what did get recorded, leaving little behind of what didn’t. Cooking from the archives creates a powerful bridge between me and the past. I will never stand in a kitchen without refrigeration, without even the possibility of electric lights, without having spent my whole baking life reaching automatically for ingredients like vanilla extract and uniform sticks of butter, but I can still approximate how Naples biscuits would have tasted nearly three hundred years ago.

There’s always a gap, though, related to how just far that bridge can reach. Working on this project has brought me up short at this gap time and again: reading handwritten manuscripts begs to know more about the person who wrote them, but there’s often little headway to be made. We can decipher handwriting, but identities are harder. This impulse isn’t just personal – it’s a question that comes up often for me and Marissa, of who wrote these recipes down, of what we know about them. Usually, not much. But this recipe left a faint trace of one of the individuals behind it.

This Herb Soop comes from UPenn MS Codex 1038, home to some of my favorites, like the Maccarony Cheese and Desart Cakes. The volume contains at least three separate hands, and we still don’t know anything about these writers. This handwriting is the second in the volume, probably written down sometime in the 1790s or early 1800s. The end of the recipe attributes it to “Lady Laroche.” (She is probably the source and not the writer of this recipe, since several subsequent recipes in the same handwriting are attributed to other women.) It is nearly impossible to know anything about the other women whose names accompany their recipes – the Mrs. Baker who gave the writer her recipe for Curd Cheescakes, the Mrs. Fordham who told her how “To make Flumery,” or the Mrs. Turner who showed how “To Dress a real Turtle as the[y] do in the West Indies,” for instance. “Lady,” however, provides direction in a way that “Mrs.” often cannot.

It turns out that this “Lady Laroche” can be one of only two women. James Laroche, a Bristol politician and slave-trader, was created baronet in August 1776. Since the baronetcy became extinct when he died in 1804 without any male heirs, this Lady Laroche has to have been one of his two wives. The first Lady Laroche was born Elizabeth-Rachel-Anne Yeamans in Antigua. An heiress (she brought at least one plantation to the marriage) and widow, she married James Laroche in 1764 and moved to England with him. After Elizabeth-Rachel-Anne died in 1781, James remarried; his second wife may also have been named Elizabeth. We know nothing else of her except that she survived her husband and died in Wales in 1824. Can we know how or even if this recipe writer and either Lady Laroche knew each other? What else they might have talked about, why this particular recipe was the one shared? No. But sometimes, even this small glimpse into archival identities feels like uncovering something satisfying.

The Recipe

Herb soopHerb soop contd

To make Herb Soop

Take Parsley, Spinnach, Cabbage Lettice, Leaves of
White Beet, Sorrell, Cucumbers, Pease & small Onions
with the green ends to them, a little Mint, and a very
little Fennell. Wash them all clean, and Chop the
Herbs very small. Season them with Pepper & Salt,
Put them into a Pot to stew with a piece of Butter
according to your quantity, but no Water. Let
them stew quite tender. Have ready boiled some
Cream or Milk, with the Yolks of Eggs beat up in it,
Mix this gently with the Herbs and serve it up.
You must not let it boil, or be on the Fire after the
Eggs are put to it. You are to observe it is not to
be a thin liquid, but more herbs than Soop. that is,
thick of the Herbs. Less than half a pound of butter
will do unless the Terene is very large. There shoud
be Cellery chopped amongs the herbs if to be had &
—-
other herbs you like but not strong of any one in particular.
Some leave out the Fennell, as it is apt to be too strong.
Lady Laroche.

Our Recipe

3 generous handfuls of spinach (about 1 1/2 c. chopped)
1/2 c. parsley, chopped
a few mint leaves, chopped
1 large or 2 small cucumbers, diced (I also seeded mine)
1-2 celery stalks, sliced thinly
1 c. chopped cabbage
3/4 c. green peas (fresh or frozen)
3 scallions, sliced thinly
1/2 tsp. salt
a few grinds of pepper
1 tbsp. butter
1/2 c. milk
1 egg yolk

In a medium saucepan, combine all ingredients except for the milk and egg yolk. Cook them over low-medium heat, stirring often enough to prevent the greens from sticking. Cook until the greens are all wilted and the cucumbers are translucent; for me, this took about 20 minutes. (Though you could probably let them “stew” even longer.) Heat the milk in the microwave or on the stove until quite hot. In a small bowl, whisk the egg and then, still whisking, add the hot milk in a steady stream. Remove the herb mixture from the heat and stir in the milk. Serve immediately.

The Results

The Soop tasted green: stewed together, the herbs and vegetables made a pleasantly flavorful whole. I’d never had cooked cucumbers before and was curious – they softened but held their shape, rather like zucchini, and provided nice texture in the soup. I liked the zip from the scallions and the chewiness of the cabbage (even if cooking it did make my kitchen rather … fragrant). In its piling together of many different herbs and vegetables, the Herb Soop felt like a precursor to some of Yotam Ottolenghi’s recipes. I found it satisfying that what I was tasting was probably pretty close to some of the results this recipe would have yielded for eighteenth-century cooks: all of the ingredients remain available, the cooking technique was easily duplicated in my kitchen (albeit with the ease of a gas stove), and the methodology was specific enough that I could follow the recipe’s instructions closely.

In fact, this Herb Soop recipe is quite detailed in its ingredient list and instructions – it’s very helpful to know, for instance, that the end result should be “more herbs than Soop” – more so than many of the other recipes we’ve engaged with, like Artificial Potatoes. But it provides few precise measurements. I guessed at these proportions, determining them largely based on what I had and what I liked. (I don’t love fennel, so I’m one of those “some” the recipe mentions who “leave [it] out.” And my little produce market doesn’t carry sorrel, so I didn’t use it.) And I imagine that’s what early cooks did as well, making the soup slightly differently each time based on what needed to be used or what was available.

What else could you toss in here? Leeks, zucchini, basil, cilantro, green bell peppers – really, anything green that happens to be lurking in your crisper could make its way into this soup. Some hot pepper flakes would liven things up. I see the appeal behind the milk-and-egg liquid choice: it’s a rich addition and adds some depth to the greens. However, I might substitute some vegetable broth or chicken stock for a lighter soup. Basically, this recipe provides a wonderful alternative idea for using up the leftover greens that I normally toss into a grain salad, a stir-fry, or baked eggs.

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