A Wolf in the Kitchen introduced the Editor to Dublin coddle, and for that alone she would be grateful to its author, Lindsey Bareham. She is a distinguished writer of cookbooks and prolific columnist, but that tale is for another time. Back to the Wolf, its subtitle sets the tone; “easy food for hungry people.” In “are you a wolf? Why you should read this introduction,” Bareham explains that:
“Wolf is not a sexist game. While this book was gradually taking shape in my mind, it seemed to me that Wolf summed up everything the book stood for: someone who is hungry, has a vast appetite and not much money. He or she also loves food and has high expectations but not very much experience of cooking. He or she doesn’t want to spend much time planning what food to eat, shopping for it or cooking it. He or she does, however, enjoy eating, either alone, with a special friend, or with a gang of mates.” (Bareham 8-9)
Bareham delivers on her promise but sells herself short in one respect. A Wolf in the Kitchen is authentic and interesting enough to lure the experienced cook too, someone willing to build dinner with some efficiency through a haze of the fatigue that follows long days at the office. It is a ‘first time’ or ‘student cook book.’ It does not disdain canned foods, allows the cook to incorporate prepared mixes and emphasizes cheaper foodstuffs.
“This is” also, Bareham explains, “a realistic cook book, a book that tells you how to cheat and prosper…. It is about laying in a few basic provisions so that you can always rustle up something decent to eat.” (Bareham 8) In concept if not content, A Wolf resembles those eighteenth and nineteenth century household manuals that cover not just cooking but also the planning of meals, management of servants and concoction of home remedies. Most of us lack either the means to hire help or inclination to repurpose earwax as blistex, so Bareham concentrates on the cooking and planning alone.
Her reader will find sections on how to shop for food, what kind of equipment to buy, descriptions basic technique (boiling water, skinning tomatoes… ) and suggestions for further reading. Chapter one, “the right cans,” represents a useful corrective to the snobbery that rejects them:
“Canned food is hassle-free food. It shouldn’t be regarded as the poor relation of the food world. Not if you choose your cans carefully, that is. Some canned products can be as effective as fresh, if not more so. Cans present few storage problems and all you have to do is open the can and eat.” (Bareham 22)
Effective cans include anchovies, beans, chickpeas and pulses of all kinds (but not green string beans), coconut milk, corned beef, red peppers (usually, however, jarred in the United States, but no matter) tuna… and Spam. This last may rankle but should not. Spam tastes fine; it was wartime familiarity that bred contempt. As Bareham explains, “if you chop it and fry it, it turns gorgeously crisp and un-Spam-like.” (Bareham 123)
Bareham likes frozen peas too, and considers them honorary cans to keep as staples. The Editor agrees, and with unseemly enthusiasm; frozen peas beat all but the freshest fresh ones.
Bareham on peas does not jibe with Bareham on corn. For some reason she clings to canned corn in all its mealy, slimey unsatisfaction, although canned creamed corn is better, and indispensable to some southern puddings and breads. Frozen corn, especially shoepeg, is revelatory in comparison, and if, unlike peas, it cannot compare to fresh picked, it is more than suitable for soups and stews. She also might have done more to plump for sardines and ought to include canned salt cod. These lapses by our wolf are minor, unrepresentative and forgiven.
If the canned goods that Bareham recommends will be familiar to the experienced pragmatist, the guidance she provides to the novice should not be underestimated. All cans are not alike; the quality of various things found in cans varies, and brands of the things that can well vary in quality too. Italian tomatoes, particularly San Marzano, outclass anything American or from anywhere else; Bareham takes note. Why do we find it impossible to produce a superior product when heirlooms abound in early Fall?
We could offer a little guidance of our own. Anything canned by Goya is likely to outshine the same thing canned by someone else, and there is nothing quite like a vintage sardine from France.
Wolves are properly uncompromising on the subject of pasta: “Most Italains eat dried pasta and unless fresh is made by an expert (as opposed to a supermarket), dried pasta is the thing to buy.” (Bareham 86) As references to pasta, tomatoes and tuna imply, A Wolf is cosmopolitan rather than insular, but British dishes--good plain food--do appear in proverbial droves.
Lists may be unimaginative but do convey content. Bareham sends instruction in Anglesey eggs, cheese dishes (golden buck to serve with salad, Glamorgan sausages, ‘West Indian’ macaroni made with Angostura and tomatoes; bottles and cans!), cock-a-leekie, a fish pie, Irish stew if marred by carrots, (classic) mushrooms on toast, authentic enough shepherd’s pie (always lamb, never beef), toad in the hole along with more prosaically named preparations for sausage (“Who can rsist them sizzling in the frying pan?”), minted pea soup, a kedgeree and nine curries. (Bareham 204)
A Wolf in the Kitchen also includes a recipe for that ingenious English invention, bread sauce, something always absent from other beginners’ cookbooks.
And so to coddle. Bareham likes it and so do we. It is not a household term in the United States but
“[a]nyone born and raised in Dublin will know exactly what is meant by Dublin coddle. When made with creamy but densely textured Irish potatoes, decent rashers of home-cured bacon and plump, meaty porkers, it is hard to believe that there is nothing else in the pot but onions and water.” (Bareham 210)
Not quite nothing; Bareham’s recipe does not differ much from Theodora FitzGibbon’s authentic rendition, but we are Miesian and god is in the details; for coddle a smatter of parsley, greens and butter. Bareham finishes the homely staple with them to real effect. She also refers to peas, a suggestion you may ignore.
The Editor herself inadvertently ignored the suggested addition of “spring greens,” baby bok choy or Chinese cabbage to an American, the first time she concocted coddle. The Editor had been distracted, a more and more prominent state of proverbial affairs. A little knowledge became a dangerously good thing. Aware that scallions to her become the spring onion in England, she had misread the recipe in haste and threw some of them at the pot with the parsley.
And never looked back; scallions are as essential now as potatoes. With apologies to Bareham, the ones from Idaho or Maine work better than well. Storebought bacon is fine, and in fact the Editor prefers English or Irish to the fattier American, or ‘streaky,’ bacon beloved of Bareham. This latter exudes enough grease and smoke to unbalance Dublin coddle.
So take our advice, make yourself a coddle, do so with scallions and lean unsmoked bacon and butter it up.
Lindsey Bareham, A Wolf in the Kitchen: easy food for hungry people (London 2000)
Theodora FitzGibbon, Irish Traditional Food (London 1983)
A Taste of Ireland (London 1968)