food, history, rural life, and how we connect our cultural past and future
In which I do a bit of culinary experimentation in a restored 19th century Texas landmark building
Now that I have recovered from my bout of food poisoning and caught up some at the office I can spend time over the next few weeks telling about my wonderful trip to Texas. My road companion Kelly and I have been known to laugh for 200 miles at a clip so being on the road with her was wonderful.
The first stop along the lecture trail carried me to the Bistro Calais. Owner and Executive Chef Phillip Mitchell was not quite sure what he was getting himself, and his lovely restaurant, into when he agreed to host a Jefferson themed meal as a fund raiser for the Houston Society of the Archaeological Institute of America. He graciously let me completely rearrange the front room of the restaurant into a lecture space with rows of chairs, a screen and a laptop projector. The excellent and enthusiastic Bistro Calais staff made the whole event come together with hardly a glitch! Thanks to all!
Chef Mitchell devised a menu using as his culinary guide Dining at Monticello (2003). The sixty diners were served Beef Soup with Vermicelli, Salad of Spring Greens Dressed with Lemon and Olive Oil Vinaigrette and Fried Asparagus, Chicken Fricassee, Cauliflower with Brown Onion Sauce, Fresh Peas and Roasted Carrots. The dessert plate was a sweet and lovely presentation of Gingerbread Crisps, Lemon Curd Tarts and Fresh Berries. Of course in the Jeffersonian mode a wide selection of appropriate wines were served with the several courses. Yum!
Chef Phillip Mitchell in his kitchen.
In such a context I decided my talk on the slave cooks at Monticello would be the perfect setting to demonstrate something very unusual; the Tea Cream recipe of James Hemings, the Paris trained slave chef of Thomas Jefferson. It is among only 6 recipes ascribed to Hemings (d. 1801) in the Monticello collection. The cream itself is a soft custard that calls for the dried, preserved, inner skins of chicken gizzard to be used as the rennet to thicken the milk.
Ok, I can hear the “Yucks” and see the retching motions. But, as I found out when I first did the research on this recipe, the enzyme in the gizzard linings was known by the French and English chefs in the 18th century and was something James would have learned during his culinary training. Because my husband and I raise and butcher chickens for our freezer each year I had access to the gizzard linings. When peeled from the gizzard, washed and then dried they resemble nothing so much as a well-fried potato chip. Taking my jar of dried gizzards to Houston was part of my plan to recreate the original Tea Crème recipe in front of an audience! The ‘tea’ in Tea Cream is Jefferson’s favorite Green Yunnan China tea leaves infused in the milk giving it a lovely scent and flavor.
Here you see me talking while my two ‘scullions’, actually very skilled students from the San Jacinto Community College Culinary School, poured the warm, sweetened, flavored milk through the cheesecloth over the gizzards. Then they took the mixture to the kitchen to do the baking and chilling step. By the time I neared the end of my talk I received notice from Kelly, who acted as my helper on the trip, that the custard had not thickened in the way we had anticipated. It was more like liquid whipping crème than custard. Saving the evening from disaster Kelly came up with the best solution – serve a nice taste for all the guests in champagne flutes! It was delicious even if not exactly what I was aiming for.
I think my mistake was not soaking the dried gizzards in the warm milk long enough and also using already pasteurized milk rather than the fresh, unpasteurized milk available to the cooks at Monticello. It was an exciting experiment however, and I was thrilled to be recreating a dish that had likely not been made for close to two hundred years! I will again collect this year’s gizzard linings and when I make Tea Cream next time it will be with raw milk. I’ll let you know how it turns out.