The quest to eat more vegetables in the Foreign Pantry household is at risk of veering into saga territory. It should be straightforward, after all – two thirds of the household are adults fully aware of the five a day rule and there are (sadly) no reports of broccoli shortages in the shops. And yet. And yet.
I’ve spoken before about my good intentions and, for the sake of my daughter (whose first full sentence was “more biscuits now?”) we do keep some of the green stuff in the fridge and a bowl of f-r-u-i-t somewhere under piles of letter and papers on the table, but it’s not like I’m a natural herbivore, to put it lightly. You know those smug families with fridges full of veg organised in rainbow order, who always seem primed to tell you about a “fabulous new aubergine recipe” they discovered at the weekend? That’s not me. My fridge is arranged in whatever way will fit the most cheese in, and I had to use spellcheck to make sure I’d spelled ‘aubergine’ correctly just now (but ask me about a brownie recipe and I’ll give you five.)
Which goes some way to explaining how I ended up here: covered in beer and batter, frying balls of spinach in ever increasing quantities of butter. Hey, at least it’s a start.
Today’s recipe is from Thomas Dawson’s The Good Huswifes Jewell, an influential late Elizabethan recipe book written at a time of growing culinary curiosity when rich households began to collect cookery books to keep up with the fashions of courtly kitchens. As with many other similar cookery books of the time, The Good Huswifes Jewell contains recipes for herbal treatments for illness as well as recipes for food.
The Elizabethan era was a unique one: continuing to build on the foundations of the Tudor dynasty but with veins of medieval tradition still running throughout it, much of what went on in Elizabethan kitchens was a fusion of old and new. Clear instructions for cooking and measurements in recipes, for example, began to be used with some regularity during the Elizabethan era, which marked a shift from the medieval ‘chuck it in and hope’ approach to quantities of ingredients. Similarly, the food historian Ken Albala noted that Jewell was the first English cookbook to provide a recipe for sweet potato and used simpler flavour combinations than had been used in medieval recipes. Yet some things didn’t change; making use of seasonal ingredients was still key and combining sweet and savoury elements in one dish remained a favoured technique.
This is something that Fritters of Spinnedge highlights very well: if you asked anyone in 21st century Britain whether spinach fritters fried in beer batter was a sweet or savoury food I think most people would answer savoury. But Dawson’s recipe for spinach fritters, nestled between recipes for spit roasted mutton and boiled pigeons, is distinctly sweet. And, frankly, delicious. I’ve yet to find a better way to eat spinach.
First I boiled spinach for a few minutes just until it was wilted, before straining the liquid off it and and adding a small handful of breadcrumbs. To this I added an egg, a teaspoon of sugar, cinnamon, ground ginger and pepper. Dawson then instructed me to add dates “minced fine” and currants, and then combine everything together. It looked wonderful. It smelt great. Maybe this could be our way to vegetable nirvana?
Maybe not. After making my spinach and date mix, I had to roll the mixture into small balls to be fried. This bit took a while; despite my judicious spinach straining efforts there was still a lot of water left over so each ball had to begin in a vice like grip to squeeze excess moisture out before being shaped. It took a long time and gave me mild carpal tunnel syndrome; I’d started making fritters about golf ball size but worried they were too large to cook through so ended up downsizing to conker size. This made the process much longer and wetter than I would have liked and I wondered if maybe I just wasn’t cut out for a life of vegetables after all. Like, maybe it’s in my DNA to resist greenery whenever I encounter it and by putting so much effort into these bloody balls I was actually fighting my own inherent nature? Nevertheless I struggled on heroically, buoyed by a promise I made myself of a congratulatory hot chocolate if I completed the task successfully.
Balls finally shaped it was time to make the batter. Dawson suggested an ale and flour mixture, which I wasn’t about to argue with. Ale was the main drink of the fifteenth century and the first half of the sixteenth, after which beer began to take over. Ale tended to be sweeter than beer and was commonly brewed by women as part of regular household food production. Very good ale-brewers (AKA “ale-wives”) with a head for business could also make extra money selling their excess ale from their house, although commercially produced ale was subject to testing by local tasters (cushy job, right?) and anyone found selling sub-standard or watered down ale could face a hefty fine. The ale taster in Worcester during the reign of Elizabeth I was given the very onerous task of visiting “every brewer’s house in this city…and there to taste their ale whether it be good and wholesome for man’s body, and whether they make it from time to time according to the price fixed.”
Good ale could take a couple of days to produce, and I had as long as my daughter’s nap would last, so I had to duck out of becoming an “ale-wife” on this occasion and instead use what we had in: Doombar amber ale. I don’t actually drink beer myself, but I know some people get very het up about what counts as ‘good’ beer, so if Doombar doesn’t meet your exacting standards please direct all your outrage towards my husband, not me. Thanks.
I made up a thick batter of ale and flour and heated a frying pan with a knob of butter. Dawson didn’t give instructions for what the fat should be when frying the fritters, but in another recipe for “Fritter Stuffe” he mentions frying with butter, so I assumed he wouldn’t complain about it being used here either. Once each fritter ball had been coated with the batter it was plopped onto the pan and turned regularly in the butter to ensure it cooked on all sides. It wasn’t quite deep fat frying but apparently it was still smoky enough to set off our fire alarm, which momentarily woke our daughter, thereby threatening to ruin my fragile and newly found appreciation of vegetables. For some reason my husband had foreseen the possibility of this happening (casting no aspersions on my cooking ability, I’m sure) and was able to do the tea-towel dance under the alarm fast enough to switch it off before the toddler woke properly.
Fritters fried and toddler soothed back to slumber, it was time to taste test. Admittedly, it wasn’t an attractive dish. Plopped onto a plate with no arranging they looked like burnt sprouts oozing grease like there was no tomorrow. It wasn’t a fantastic advertisement for a new healthier lifestyle and I wondered if this had once been an Elizabethan version of avent-garde dining that had gone very wrong. Still, there was only one way to test…
…and thank the fritter gods I did. These were great! Okay, faffy and fiddly to make and ugly at the end, but really quite delicious. Definitely not healthy, though; the first taste was of buttery, beer-y batter which melted as soon as it hit the tongue.
The spinach mixture was sweet, but not in a sugary, synthetic way. It was almost middle Eastern in its flavour combinations – the dates and currants lending a syrupy, treacle like element. Overall most of the spices were subtle, but the pepper was quite prominent and gave a kick to the back of the throat that lingered for a while after all of the fritter had been eaten.
Okay, so is this a feasible way to get more vegetables into your diet on a regular basis? No. Absolutely not. Not only does it take a bit of time to complete all the steps and roll out the spinach mixture into individual balls, it’s not really a healthy way to eat vegetables either (which sort of defeats the point.) But would I make it again? Yes! And that is definitely something to celebrate, if only because now I’m able to be one of those smug people who has a fab new spinach recipe to share with the aubergine lot.
But so what if these take a bit more time to prepare and are a little wonky to look at? They taste great and, at the very least, are a fun way to fritter away an afternoon (sorry).
Fritters of Spinnedge
225g fresh or frozen spinach
2 tablespoons of breadcrumbs
Teaspoon of sugar
6 or 7 dates
1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/2 teaspoon pepper
For the batter:
75g plain flour
30ml light or amber ale
- Boil the spinach until wilted or defrosted. Strain it and shred it finely.
- Beat the egg and add it to the spinach along with the breadcrumbs and spices.
- Finely chop the dates and add them, with the currants, to the mixture. Mix all together until fully combined and sticky.
- Make balls the size of small conkers from the spinach mixture.
- Make the batter by mixing the flour and ale together and whisking until there are no lumps.
- In a frying pan, melt a large knob of butter until sizzling.
- Dip the balls into the batter and place them into the pan of butter. They should begin sizzling immediately and you will have to turn them on all sides to ensure they are cooked through.
- Eat straight away – these are better hot and fresh.