On Gruel, Grits and Bubble ‘n’ Squeak
December 30, 2008
”…the boys whispered each other, and winked at Oliver; while his next neighbours nudged him. Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity: “Please, sir, I want some more.”
The master was a fat, healthy man; but he turned very pale. He gazed in stupefied astonishment on the small rebel for some seconds, and then clung for support to the copper. The assistants were paralysed with wonder; the boys with fear.
“What!” said the master at length, in a faint voice.
“Please, sir,” replied Oliver, “I want some more.”
The master aimed a blow at Oliver’s head with the ladle; pinioned him in his arms; and shrieked aloud for the beadle.
The board were sitting in solemn conclave, when Mr. Bumble rushed into the room in great excitement, and addressing the gentleman in the high chair, said, “Mr. Limbkins, I beg your pardon, sir! Oliver Twist has asked for more!”
There was a general start. Horror was depicted on every countenance.
“For more !” said Mr. Limbkins. “Compose yourself, Bumble, and answer me distinctly. Do I understand that he asked for more, after he had eaten the supper allotted by the dietary?”
“He did, sir,” replied Bumble.
“That boy will be hung,” said the gentleman in the white waistcoat. “I know that boy will be hung.”’
from Dickens’ Oliver Twist
I’ve always imagined that Oliver was asking for more of a watery bland soup, perhaps like cabbage water. I wanted to make it, for the atmospheric overtones and as a light load after all that festive fare. Perhaps I could transform it into something posher and nicer and maybe use up all those leftover vegetables from the fridge.
It also sounded cheap. Bizarrely, the ‘Manual of Workhouse Cookery’ , first published in 1901, has just been brought out again, hoping to appeal to the new thrift ethos.
But it turns out gruel may be cheap but it isn’t soup. It’s more like porridge. Flour, oats or rice are boiled in water or milk. A little treacle can be added. According to researchers , gruel might have been dull and insipid, but it was also nutritionally adequate.
Which was nice for Oliver, but really rather disappointing for me. Particularly having just seen Polanski’s splendidly dark version of ‘Oliver’. It seems that Dickens was using a little imaginative licence.
Which takes me, by lateral turns of the road, to grits. What they were I have never known, except that they turn up in US literature. I was pretty sure they weren’t related to the stuff you put on icy roads to stop tyres skidding, but I did hope that they would be hard and unappealing little nuggets of something burnt and virtually inedible.
Wrong again. It seems that grits too are a type of porridge, this time made with maize. Good earthy pap to fill you up. But again, not what I wanted to make or eat.
Bubble and Squeak
So after all this meandering, wanting to cook something simple, traditional and atmospheric, and in keeping with the iciness of London in winter and the long dark East End nights, I fell back on another traditional cheap food, but English this time. Bubble and squeak. Sometimes known as ‘bubble and scrape’ (because you have to scrape it out of the pan, I think).
It’s like hash browns. Cakes of potato and any old green vegetables you happen to have, usually peas or sprouts or cabbage, are fried with onion. It’s a common accompaniment to a fry-up and therefore fondly envisaged as solid, if occasional, morning food, great to soak up last night’s alcohol.
I envisage it as the perfect thing for elevenses on New Year’s Day. If you’re up by 11 that is.
Bubble and Squeak, for 4
200g Brussels sprouts
700g potatoes, peeled and roughly cubed
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 onion, chopped
2 tbs capers (optional, though they add great ‘bite’)
a little butter
flour for coating
fresh coriander, chopped
Boil the potatoes in salted water for about 10 minutes, until tender. Drain and mash with the butter. Season well.
Cook the sprouts in salted water for 8-10 minutes. when they’re done, drain and cool them under the cold tap. Shred them roughly.
Fry the onion and garlic in the oil until translucent.
Mix potatoes, sprouts and onion together in a bowl. Stir in the capers and chopped coriander and season well. Put a little flour on your hands and shape the mixture into 8 cakes. The flour helps the cakes to retain their shape when being fried and creates a wonderfully crispy coating from which oozes the soft potato within.
Heat a little more oil in the frying pan and cook the cakes for a few minutes on each side. Don’t put too many in the pan at once as they can be hard to manoeuvre and will fall apart if you’re rough.
Serve with eggs, fried tomatoes or whatever you fancy, or have them with salad for a healthier option. HP Brown Sauce is brilliant here, as is ketchup.