Monday, January 6, 2014

Kaya's Lewis and Clark Adventure: Beaten Biscuits and Fresh Peas with Mint-Butter Sauce

The first chapter of many exciting recipes to come!

I don't think it's going to come as a surprise to any of you that it's not exactly easy to find recipes to feature for Kaya, especially authentic ones. So many of the foods her family enjoyed just aren't really native to my neck of the woods, and a lot of them aren't available to be imported either, which makes it difficult to make truly authentic 1764 Nez Perce foods. A lot of people have suggested that I just start featuring recipes from other Native groups and explain that it's still not something Kaya would have eaten, but I feel a little reluctant to tackle something like that because it seems to me like that would be perpetuating the stereotype that all Native groups were or are exactly the same, or were or are part of some united culture that spanned from coast to coast. The last thing I want to do is offend someone by making it seem like I'm supporting that entirely incorrect assumption, but I also want to make sure that Kaya and her history are featured equally alongside the other characters instead of getting shoved off to the side.

I think I've found a pretty good solution that should help fill in the gaps and flesh out Kaya's portfolio on the blog, and I'm really excited to introduce the idea to all of you. Let's get to it!

Let's start at the beginning: I like planning out recipes to do at least a few weeks in advance, so I can get an idea of what we can cook when, who will be home to eat it, and whether or not there's a more or less equal balance between characters and time periods each month. Kaya has always been the one who's been hardest to find authentic dishes for, so I spent a lot of time online searching largely unsuccessfully for Nez Perce recipes I could make in modern day New England. I was starting to get really discouraged, but eventually stumbled upon this book:

The Food Journal of Lewis and Clark: Recipes for an Expedition by Mary Gunderson was first published in 2002, just in time for the 200th anniversary of the expedition's beginning. It looks like it's out of print now, but I got a very nice copy from Amazon that doesn't look like it's ever been used for a very reasonable price. The reason it caught my eye is that although it covers a period almost forty years after Kaya's books take place, without help from the Nez Perce and other Native groups and individuals the expedition would not have succeeded. This would have drastically changed the course of American history, and unfortunately, often goes unacknowledged in the public perception of the event, which itself is grossly overlooked and oversimplified in most textbooks. You're likely to see mentions of Lewis, Clark and Sacagawea (which, for the record, is pronounced Sah-Cah-Gah-Wey-Ah, not Sack-Ah-Juh-Wey-Ah) and a brief description of the expedition's importance, but that's about it, and that's kind of why I don't love most history textbooks. Things like the Corps of Discovery and Jamestown should be worthy of more than a footnote, thank you very much.

More excitingly, it does actually feature several dishes that have Nez Perce roots, and devotes an entire chapter to discussing how they helped the expedition members get trough the winter on their way back East. Because of its connection to Kaya's descendants - and honestly, Kaya herself definitely could have been alive in 1805, probably with children and grandchildren of her own - I felt she was the logical choice to host any recipes we feature from the book. Right now, my plan is to start at the beginning and work my way through the book over the next few months, although I'm not necessarily going to go 100% in order. This also doesn't mean that I'm not planning on doing any other Kaya themed posts for the foreseeable future - I just really want to try out these recipes while also making sure one of my favorite American Girls gets her spot in the sunshine when I'm running low on inspiration.

The book starts off at the very beginning, with dishes that would have been eaten both in Washington, D.C. while Thomas Jefferson was president and at his personal home, Monticello. Jefferson was - as I hope you all know - the man who commissioned the expedition shortly after the Louisiana Purchase (a.k.a. the time the US doubled in size thanks to the French selling most of their American territories) to find better trade routes to the west coast and find out what the land out that way was actually like. It gives a really interesting contrast to the food the members of the Corps of Discovery and the people they met on their journey ate. Most of these recipes aren't all that different from foods Felicity might have eaten, although it's definitely stuff that's a touch fancier than the things her mother and Rose would be making for a random Monday night meal. The cookbook notes that the biscuits would only have been enjoyed by people who had servants or slaves who could take twenty or thirty minutes to beat air into the batter, although the peas might be more achievable for anyone who was able to grow or produce the materials to make them.

I decided to start with the peas, since I figured these wouldn't be hurt too much if they had to sit out for a couple minutes before dinner was ready, whereas the book warns that the biscuits will get pretty tough if they're left out, and I definitely didn't want that.

In what has turned out to be something of a tradition when it comes to me buying ingredients, I have discovered that a single one pound bag of frozen peas will get you about three and a half cups of peas (the recipe requires four), while getting two bags leaves you with a mostly full bag of frozen peas you now need to get rid of. I guess we'll be making those later this week.

I also might have bought too many green onions, which I was somewhat dismayed to discover still give me my horrible onion reaction I keep complaining about. It's not as bad, but I was still feeling slightly betrayed by these smaller cousins of my usual large foes.

The recipe calls for five green onions with the greens chopped up, which should apparently give you about a third of a cup of green onions. I ended up with about a full cup, but since this is part of what makes this dish more exciting than just defrosted peas with butter on them, I decided cutting back on them wasn't something I was interested in. Similarly, I might have added a little more than a teaspoon of mint.

I'll admit I probably wasn't as diligent as I should have been while the peas cooked on the stove, but they didn't burn and weren't overcooked, so I'm happy. They did take some encouraging to stop being rock solid and frozen on the top, though.

You're supposed to add the green onions in the last minute the peas cook, stir them around a little, take them off the stove and then add the mint and the butter. There was something about the resulting smells that just really screamed old timey to me, and when I called my cousin over to confirm this, she agreed with me. I don't really know how to qualify it, because it's not a dish I've ever had and so I can't say it reminds me of something I ate at say, Williamsburg, but the mint and the butter definitely made me think of colonial stuff.

Honestly, it might be triggering memories of the botany class I got to participate in as part of our learn about colonial America field trip in third grade.

Thomas Jefferson isn't one of my favorite presidents, but he did have a good taste in food. I've mentioned before that he basically introduced macaroni and cheese to America, and these peas are similarly tasty and not too difficult to make. If you're looking to make them healthier - although this is already a relatively healthy dish - you could definitely leave out the butter entirely and still be left with the same great flavors. I honestly didn't think it had much of a buttery flavor at all, and considering my university used to like to drown vegetables in as much butter as possible to get college kids to eat them, I think I know what a buttery vegetable tastes like.

I don't think they reheated super well, but they should be fine if you serve them immediately or at least have a way to keep them warm before people eat them.

The biscuits presented an interesting challenge. I still don't have a food processor, so when the recipe calls for it, I usually just go with a pastry cutter and hope for the best. This recipe has kind of convinced me that I might want to invest in a real food processor at some point soon, because I kind of worry my cutting the butter into the flour and salt didn't really produce the best possible biscuit dough.

Adding in the liquid resulted in a weird, not quite sticky dough that was pretty easy to handle, but felt more like cookie dough than biscuit dough. The book does warn that these biscuits won't be as puffy and flaky as biscuits that use baking soda or baking powder, but I was still a little concerned that these were going to be more crackers than they were biscuits.

The recipe says this dough will get you about eight or twelve biscuits, but my biscuit cutter is pretty tiny, so we ended up with quite a few more than that.

And as you can see, the biscuits really didn't rise much at all in the oven, and the ones that did are the ones that were a little or a lot thicker than the instructed one fourth of an inch width. I was expecting them to be a little flakier, as I was promised if I handled them correctly they would have some layers and pockets of air in them, and I'm pretty sure I followed the recipe as correctly as I could without a food processor.

That said, even the thing ones did kind of have easy to pull apart layers. The recipe recommends putting slices of country ham in the pocket the layers create, and I can definitely see where having a bigger biscuit to tuck that slice in would make a tasty sort of sandwich.

Honestly - and I know this won't necessarily make many of you want to run out and make these yourselves, but hear me out - my first thought when looking at these and taking a bite of them was this is totally hardtack. For those who aren't familiar with hardtack, it's a very hard biscuit or cracker that's historically been rations for armies, navies, exploratory groups and other people who know they're going to be away from home and fresh provisions for a good long time. It's pretty frightening stuff, and it's not exactly something you want to wind up eating unless you're curious or really have to.

That being said, these were actually pretty tasty. They were very crunchy on the outside, while warm and a little soft on the inside. The flavor's pretty bland, but that just makes them a great vessel for cheese, jam, or anything else you'd like to put on or in it. The recipe warns to eat these immediately because they can get tough when they've just been sitting around at room temperature, but my cousin had one well after they'd been out of the oven and said she liked it.

I think part of my confusion is that the way the recipe is written, I was expecting a sort of flat biscuit, not a cracker or some weird hybrid of the two. From what I'm gathering in further research, I guess they're using biscuit to mean something we'd classify as a cracker, which is fine by me, it's just strange to go into a new recipes expecting it to turn out one way, only to wind up with something entirely different. I'd never heard of a beaten biscuit before, so this was a fun learning experience all around. It's also just good to know that I didn't mess something up!

Overall, this was a pretty encouraging start to our Lewis and Clark cooking adventure, and I'm looking forward to trying some of the more exotic recipes in the future. And exotic recipes there shall be! I never thought before I started this blog that I'd ever have reason to try and get my hands on oxtail, but now it's definitely on my radar.

Why? You'll have to wait and find out!

Spoilers: it sounds a lot more complicated than peas and biscuits.

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