I began early on in my twenties to collect cookery books and one that I really enjoyed reading and cooking from early on was The Readers Digest Cookery Year. Sounds dull I know – Readers Digest magazines were not the most scintillating of reads, even when you were stuck for an interminably long time in a dentist’s waiting room watching paint peel from the walls and trying to not hear children screaming just before the high pitched squeal of the drill wailed out – but this was a really interesting book, with colour plates of seasonal veg and fruit, photos of all the various animals and cuts of meat. Then the recipes followed for each month using veg, fruit, fish and meat for that season. It was first published around 1974 and it contains 500 or so traditional recipes, some of which are in danger of being lost if we are not careful, such as Durham Squab Pie. The book has a guide on how to skin rabbits, hang pheasants etc etc and gives advice on preparation. Sounds daunting but the recipes are easy to follow. This would be an appealing book for a novice cook, with hundreds of photographs of finished dishes to give a bit of confidence. It starts with chapters introducing one to all the basic main ingredients. Varieties of fish, meat, poultry, vegetables and fruit are all described in detail and are illustrated with the most marvellous water-colours. This medium seems to work well, giving a far clearer impression of the anatomical characteristics of the subject than can even the best photograph. Despite being a book from the 70s it is not bland or dull. Each month includes menus for that month and it uses butter, lard, and beef dripping in many recipes, so not for people with fancy diets! You can buy a new version of this book, but sadly they have gone all health conscious and it leaves lots of the more interesting dishes out and replaces butter or lard with olive oil. You can get hard back copies of the 70s edition on e bay for around £15 and it is well worth it.
Durham Squab Pie, which I mentioned above, is a lamb dish that makes you want to stoke up the fire and settle down for the evening. Originally, many, many years ago it was made using the (humble and much maligned) pigeon, which is what squab means. In culinary terminology, squab is a young domestic pigeon or its meat. The meat is widely described as tasting like dark chicken-though seemingly everything is when folk are stuck for a comparison! The term is probably of Scandinavian origin; the Swedish word ‘skvabb’ means “loose, fat flesh”. It formerly applied to all dove and pigeon species, such as the Wood Pigeon, the Mourning Dove, and the now-extinct and wonderfully named, Passenger Pigeon, and to their meat. More recently, squab meat comes almost entirely from domesticated pigeons. Anyway, the dish I used to cook a lot in the eighties, uses lamb or mutton chops. Squab pies would have had pie crusts top and bottom but mine uses sliced potatoes to line the buttered casserole dish.
Anyway – here is the recipe: Lightly pan fry the chops in oil until brown then lay to one side. You’ll probably need twelve for 4 people. Add a knob of butter to the pan and fry a couple of sliced cooking apples with a sliced onion and a table spoon of brown sugar. Peel around 4 or 5 medium potatoes – King Edward’s preferably, or just whites will do – then slice them thinly – about the width of a pound coin – no wider. Butter a casserole dish and line the bottom with half the potato slices, allowing them to overlap slightly. Lie the chops on the bed of potato slices, then sprinkle generously some fresh rosemary over them. A grind too of a little rock salt and lots of black pepper. When the apple mixture has been lightly browned, add to the chops and top up with chicken stock until just over the top of the chops- a litre should be more than enough. Then add another layer of sliced potatoes over the top. Add a knob of butter. Pop in a preheated oven at about 160 degrees centigrade for an hour. Needs some good bread to mop up juices afterwards!