18 January 2013

Companionship and Toasted Cheese

In October of 1997 I was on a ferry from Calais, France to Dover, England.  From Dover my friend and I had a long train ride to the North of Scotland.  After a month of hostels and backpacks and European men with questionable intentions, my friend and I were still friends, but we did not have eight hours of conversation left in us. I needed a book.

I picked two books from the duty-free gift shop on the Ferry, and read them both on the train. One was The Yellow Admiral by Patrick O'Brian, number 18 in a popular series featuring the brave, dashing sailor Jack Aubrey and his friend the naturalist and intelligence agent, Stephen Maturin.

The eighteenth book is not the best place to jump into a story, but O'Brian and his publisher knew that, and the new reader is helped along with crucial bits of backstory, so I didn't have trouble following it. I've forgotten the other book I bought that day, but in the nearly 16 years since I first read The Yellow Admiral I've been pecking away at the series, in order, and its stories of battle, sickness, family drama, political intrigue, natural discovery and the deep friendship of the two main characters.

The one thing the books don't have is luscious descriptions of the food that is served. When food is described it's either to underline the shipboard routine, or to suggest the excess which is served at the officers dinner.  With that, and the food being from another culture and another time, I do not walk away from the books thinking about food. Salt horse is probably never going to be on my menu. The exception is the toasted cheese that Aubrey and Maturin eat as a snack when they are up late playing music together.  There's no style, except that Aubrey's steward, Killick, always serves the toasted cheese in a special silver dish with an alcohol burner to keep the food warm.  It's simple comfort food, and it's the one foodstuff I really wanted to recreate.

Toasted cheese is also referred to as Welsh, Gloucester or English rabbit, depending on what is added to the recipe beyond cheese and toast. I mixed the liquid in with the cheese, although most recipes have the liquid poured over the toast.  Aubrey's cook probably used port, as it seemed to be readily available, regardless of how long the ship had been at sea. I used red wine, but white wine, beer or milk would all work.

I don't have a sterling chafing dish for my toasted cheese, so we have to eat it as soon as it's ready.  I think Jack Aubrey will forgive me for that.

Toasted cheese

8 ounces cheddar cheese
1 teaspoon prepared mustard
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup wine, beer or milk
8 slices bread
2 Tablespoons butter

Turn broiler on high.

Shred the cheese, mix with mustard, Worcestershire sauce and liquid and set aside.

Toast the bread, spread with butter, and arrange the slices on a cookie sheet. Distribute the cheese mixture on the toast and spread to the edges.

Broil the bread until the cheese begins to bubble and brown. Mine took about 5 minutes, and I rotated the pan about halfway through to keep the browning even.  Eat as breakfast, lunch, dinner, or a snack to fortify yourself for a late night music session with a good friend.

(A note on Worcestershire sauce: the standard bottle wrapped in brown paper contains anchovies and so it is not vegetarian, but there are lot of vegetarian options, so it's easy to accommodate vegetarians with this dish.)

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