Wednesday, March 9, 2011

"Harvesting" Meals from your Refrigerator

During WWI Americans voluntarily shifted enough food from our tables to increase supply of vital foods to our European Allies by 230 metric tons. Initially homemakers were urged to "fight a war against kitchen waste" with challenges that a "French family could live for a week on what is thrown out from American kitchens."

Cooks back then saved every scrap. Vegetable peelings and even the water they were cooked in were saved as the basis for soup stock. Delicious dishes were created from what might have been tossed. A cup of leftover rice is the basis for great main dish -- rice and cornmeal waffles. The last ounce of cheese grated into a white sauce turned vegetables into a creamed protein dish.

Slogans highlighted the possibilities -- then and now. "If a single ounce of food is thrown away in each of our 20,000,000 homes, nearly 1,300,000 pounds will be wasted each day." "One cup of milk saved in each of our homes is the product of 400,000 cows annually." The list of suggestions went on and on. The key is thoughtfully making the most of what they (and we) have.

Camouflage cookery was essential to success -- where bits of leftover meat are stretched with bread or vegetables into an entirely new meal. Cornstarch extended a baking batter instead of an egg and coffee is used instead of milk. The high point of these culinary concoctions is the "meat cake."

In some recipes meat is ground up and mixed with crumbs, stretching a sandwich worth's of roast beef into a meal for six. A writer for Wallaces' Farmer magazine set the gold standard for food shifting in this recipe for meat cakes where the role of the meat is filled simply with gravy. The recipe is still so good that it fooled a number of people at a cooking demonstration last Saturday in the baking lab at the Minneapolis Mill CIty Museum. And two charming young lads who watched me put it together liked it so much that they sent their mother back in to ask for the recipe. Here it is.

WWI "Meat Cakes"

2 cups bread crumbs -- either dry or stale
about 1 cup beef or chicken gravy -- low salt, but highly seasoned
for "hamburger" I use a lot of pepper. To mimic sausage add sage.
You may add other seasonings your family likes -- cumin, poultry
seasoning, maybe even a bit of chili powder

1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 egg
butter for frying the cakes

Put the bread crumbs into a mixing bowl and add the gravy. Mix and let stand until the crumbs absorb all the gravy, about 10 minutes, or longer if you like. Sprinkle the baking powder over the mixture and then stir in the egg. If the mixture is too dry, add more gravy. If you don't have anymore gravy, a bit of milk will do. Form the mixture into thin patties, about a quarter of an inch think. Melt a tablespoon or so of butter in a frying pan. When the butter begins to turn bubbly, gently add the meat cakes. Fry until browned and then flip over to cook other side.

Makes 4 to 6 patties

NOTE: This recipe is an approximation. Much depends on the dryness of the bread crumbs. Fiddle with it a bit as you put it together to get the mixture to approximate hamburger or sausage meat,