Watercress: A Victorian Superfood

At the mention of watercress, we often think of afternoon tea parties and anemic sandwiches with their crusts neatly removed.

But watercress was a favorite of the Victorian working classes, who valued its spicy, tangy flavor and relative cheapness — watercress sold for a few pence a bundle, a price well within the budget of even the poorest laborer. They paired it with plain, black bread for lunch and sometimes, when times were tougher than usual, dinner. For laborers living under the worst conditions, the black bread and watercress sandwich was the only food available.

The Victorian working classes actually benefitted from their watercress-based diets. A recent article in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine concluded that watercress, which is packed full of vitamins and minerals, contributed to the surprisingly good health of early-Victorian laborers.

Luckily watercress could be found on almost any street corner in larger cities like London. Watercress sellers would stand with their wooden carts and baskets from sunrise to sunset, tempting every man and women who passed with mountains of glistening watercress, which they sold in paper-wrapped bunches. Customers would frequently eat their watercress right out of the paper wrappers, enjoying the plant as one would enjoy an ice-cream cone.

Watercress is available in most supermarkets for about $0.70 a bunch. The Austerity Kitchen does not recommend you eat your watercress plain, however. Instead, try it in salads and soups. Its peppery flavor goes well with many savory dishes. Here’s a delightful recipe from watercress.co.uk, a website devoted to promoting the cause of watercress:

Watercress Omelette with Mushroom and Stilton

0.5 ounces butter
2.5 ounces mushrooms
3 eggs
1 ounce Stilton, or cheese of your choice
1.5 ounces watercress

Melt the butter in a non-stick frying pan. Add the sliced mushrooms and cook over a high heat until golden brown. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon. Stir a handful of chopped watercress into the beaten eggs and season with salt and pepper. Pour the eggs into the hot pan and tilt the pan to cover the base with the mixture.

Reduce heat to moderate and cook until the omelet is just set and the underside is golden brown. Scatter the mushrooms and Stilton over the top. Slide the omelette on to the plate and fold in half. Garnish with extra watercress and serve immediately.

If you want to save a few dollars, substitute Feta cheese for Stilton. Serve this omelette with a green salad and, of course, black bread!

The Austerity Kitchen Challenge: Frugal Fruit Salad

Produce is expensive. While shopping the other day, I noticed grapes were $2.50 a pound, and peaches $3.00. Not fare for an austere diet, for sure.

So I decided to develop a “frugal” fruit salad for this month’s Austerity Kitchen Challenge. Frugal Fruit Salad depends on canned fruit cocktail as a base. This shaves a couple dollars off the overall price of the salad as a 15-ounce (125 grams) can of fruit cocktail retails for about $0.85. I prefer Aldi’s Fit&Active light fruit cocktail. Aldi packs their fruit in pear juice rather than syrup, which lends a nice freshness to the fruit. But you can substitute any brand of canned fruit cocktail packed in juice.

The foundation of fruity frugality

With canned fruit cocktail as a base, you need only add one or two fresh fruits to impart an added toothsomeness to your salad. And you can easily control the amount of fruit salad you make — no need to use up an entire pineapple, or a dozen peaches before they rot.

Frugal Fruit Salad sets you back about $1.10, depending on the fresh fruit you use in the salad.

Frugal Fruit Salad

(Serves Four)

1 15-ounce can fruit salad packed in juice
1 grapefruit, or 2 oranges
1 banana
1-2 tsp sugar, or sweetener of your choice
cinnamon to taste

Placed canned fruit salad in a serving bowl. Cut up the fresh fruit into small chunks. Add to the canned fruit salad. Sprinkle sugar and cinnamon over the salad. Refrigerate for two hours before serving.

Steerage Soup: Third-Class Dining on the Titanic

The Titanic set sail from Southampton on April 10, 1912 with a treasure trove of culinary delights.

The ship carried in its hold a few hundred tons of foodstuffs for the voyage, including 2,500 pounds of sausage, 36,000 oranges, 1,500 gallons of milk, 40,000 eggs, 1,000 bottles of wine and 800 bundles of fresh asparagus.
But while the Astors and Guggenheims sipped champagne and crunched asparagus in first class, the passengers in steerage dined on more austere fare. A typical dinner menu in steerage included rice soup, corned beef and biscuits. Fresh fruit served as a dessert.
Coming from countries like Norway and Ireland, where fresh fruit and vegetables were scare, the Titanic’s third-class passengers found their menu almost luxurious. In fact the Titanic’s kitchen staff did do their best to provide meals that the passengers would find comforting and nutritious.

Here’s a recipe for rice soup, much like the one enjoyed by the Titanic’s third-class passengers. It’s a simple dish, but tasty:
Cream of Rice Soup
2 qts chicken stock
1 cup rice
1 qt cream or milk
1 small onion
1 stalk of celery
Salt and pepper to taste
Fresh herbs (optional)
Lightly brown the onions and celery. Add chicken stock.
Wash rice carefully, and add to chicken stock, onion and celery. Simmer slowly for two hours
Put soup through a sieve; add seasoning and the milk or cream. Bring the soup to a simmer again, and simmer for five minutes. Add fresh herbs to taste.
Serve this soup with biscuits, like the Titanic’s kitchen staff did, or a green salad.

Tasty Prussian Rations: Erbswurst

When the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870, Prussia struggled to feed its soldiers. Previously, it served them pea soup and bread. But soup is messy, and bread quickly becomes moldy. The Prussian army needed rations that were tasty, satisfying and convenient.

The Prussian state turned to Heinrich Grueneberg for a solution. In 1867 Grueneberg invented the “Erbswurst,” a sausage made from dried bacon and pea flour that could be quickly rehydrated in a mess tin. The Erbswurst proved the perfect food for the Prussian army, as it was tasty and keep well under the worst conditions. The Prussians built a large factory, which employed 1200 people, for making the sausage. The Erbswurst factory produced 5,000 tons of “sausage” during the war.

Perhaps the Erbswurst helped the Prussians defeat the French. It certainly proved popular: In 1899, Knorr purchased the license for the recipe. It continues the production of the Erbswurst to the present day.

Finding Erbswurst in the United States might be a challenge. But you can approximate the taste by making a hearty split pea soup. Here’s a fantastic recipe from Saveur, via The Bitten Word:

German Split Pea Soup (Erbsensuppe)

2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 slices bacon, finely chopped
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 rib celery, finely chopped
1 large carrot, peeled and finely chopped
1 small celery root, peeled and finely chopped
Kosher salt, to taste
2 tbsp. flour
10 sprigs flat-leaf parsley
8 sprigs fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
1 lb. green split peas, rinsed and drained
2 large smoked ham hocks (about 2 lbs. total)
Fresh black pepper, to taste


Place oil and bacon in a 6-qt. pot and cook over medium-high heat until crisp, about 6 minutes. Transfer bacon to paper towel with a slotted spoon; set aside. Add onions, celery, carrots, and celery root, season with salt, and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 10 minutes. Stir in flour; cook for 3 minutes.

Tie parsley, thyme, and bay leaves together with kitchen twine; add to pot with peas, ham hocks, and 7 cups water. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, until peas are very tender, about 1 hour. Remove from heat. Discard herbs. Transfer hocks to a plate to let cool; pull off and chop the meat; discard fat, skin, and bones. Stir meat into soup, season with salt and pepper, and ladle soup into bowls. Sprinkle with reserved bacon and ground pepper.

Serve with a sour rye bread and butter.

Parting the Ox and His Tail: A Recipe for Oxtail Soup

During the Great Depression, folks boiled a lot of bones. But it wasn’t as gruesome as it sounds. They were making delightful, inexpensive and nutritious soups. Oxtail soup was one of them.

A hearty dish filled with chunks of beef and fresh vegetables, oxtail soup is the perfect dish for a winter evening. You can leave it simmering all day in a crockpot, or quickly prepare it on the stove top. Either way, oxtail soup is sure to please. And at only a dollar per serving, who could resist?

Oxtail Soup

(Serves 5)

1 pound beef oxtail
6 potatoes, chopped
2 onions, chopped
2 Roma (plum) tomatoes, quartered
6 stalks celery, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
1/2 medium head cabbage, chopped
4 cubes beef bouillon
ground black pepper to taste


In a large stock pot add oxtail, potatoes, onion, tomatoes, celery, carrots, and cabbage. Fill stock pot with water until all ingredients are covered.

Stir in bouillon cubes and season with pepper. Cook over medium heat until vegetables are tender and oxtails are cooked through; the meat should easily flake off them.

Serve oxtail soup with a hearty, wholegrain bread.

Clostridium Capers: The Wonders of Salt Rising Bread

Salt rising bread is a natural marvel. A bit of cornmeal, a splash of milk and a few cups of flour result in beautiful loaves of delicious bread.

While its exact origins are unknown, salt rising bread was first popular in Ireland and Scotland during the seventeenth century. Its popularity continued well into the twentieth century, especially during times of rationing and dearth, as the bread has an earthy, cheesy flavor that precludes the need for additional toppings. This cheesy flavor comes from Clostridium, the bacteria that leavens the bread.

A Loaf of Salt Rising Bread A loaf of salt rising bread

Naturally present on coarse-grind cornmeal, Clostridium just needs some milk (or water), potatoes and salt to leaven this unique bread. And it will only cost you a $1.50 per loaf!

Amishrecipes.net has a fantastic salt rising bread recipe:

Amish Salt Rising Bread Recipe

2 1/2 cups potatoes, sliced
2 tablespoons cornmeal
1 1/2 tablespoons salt
1 quart boiling water
1 1/2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup warm milk
1 tablespoon shortening, melted
11 cups flour

Sprinkle 1 tablespoon salt and the cornmeal over potatoes. Add boiling water and stir until salt has dissolved. Cover and keep warm from noon to the following morning.

Drain off liquid into a large bowl. Add the baking soda, 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar and 5 cups flour to the liquid. Stir until ingredients are well blended. This sponge should be the consistency of cake batter. Set mixture in a warm place, and let rise until light and full of bubbles. This requires about 1 1/2 hours.

Scald milk and cool to lukewarm. Add shortening. Add milk and remaining flour to sponge. Knead for 10 to 12 minutes and shape into loaves. Makes 3 medium-size loaves. Let rise until light – about 1 1/2 hours.

Bake at 350 degrees F for 1 hour.