Today is an age of acute environmental and ecological awareness; animal species are prized and valued with much being done to preserve their often dwindling numbers. A number of regional and national delicacies, once revered and consumed by millions of hungry eaters, are now but mere footnotes in forgotten recipe books of old, removed in the hope of conserving overeaten creatures. Turtle soup, likewise, has been removed from dinner tables across the United States, save a few establishments in the Pittsburgh region. This once popular dish formed the backbone of several presidential inaugurations, catered for hundreds on the first transcontinental railways and helped to establish the flushing post-revolutionary country. Its relative disappearance from American menus has prompted many an interest into how and why certain dishes are lost to history.
When colonists first arrived on the North American continent, turtles provided excellent fare for the hunger stricken settlers, gorging on their abundant meat and feasting on their eggs. Certain historians have sourced the arrival of turtle soup with the first Thanksgiving. Once the Revolutionary War had begun, the dish was circulated across the length and breadth of the country, featuring in many menus and eating establishments.
Recipes from the early 1800s attest to its growing appeal in the newly formed United States. The meat was described as being particularly plentiful. A large snapping turtle is said to contain seven distinct grades of meat, each one different in texture and consistency and comparable, therefore, with cuts of pork, chicken, beef, prawn, fish and many more besides. It was a matter of beheading the carcass, stripping out the internal meat and dismembering the flippers in order to create a turtle soup.
However, as with many complicated dishes, turtle soup began to fall out of favour with the US eating establishment. Alternatives to the timely and rather gruesome preparation of turtle began to take precedent. Relegated to the canned goods aisle, ‘mock turtle soup’ was soon superseded by many new flashy foodstuffs including TV dinners and Spam. Although available in certain establishments in the Pittsburgh Area (including various turtle producing farms), the dish has effectively disappeared in the United States, gone the way of pepper pot beef stew, Frogmore Stew and Migas.
An ecological alternative for turtle soup has been devised by History.com; substituting actual turtle meat for lean stew beef in a meat or vegetable broth with can be served with mashed potato or polenta. The recipe for ‘mock turtle soup’ can be found below (History.com, 2012):
MOCK TURTLE SOUP
Start to finish: 1 1/2 hours
1 1/2 pounds stew beef
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup flour
1 red onion, diced
3 sticks celery, diced
2 carrots, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup sherry
2 cups chicken, beef or vegetable broth
2 cups canned diced tomatoes
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
Chopped parsley and hard-boiled egg slices for garnish (optional)
In a small saucepan or sauté pan, melt 4 tablespoons of butter over medium heat. Whisk in flour and 1/2 teaspoon salt gradually until incorporated, then continue stirring to avoid burning. Cook until the roux is nut brown and the raw flour taste has disappeared, about 3 minutes. Set aside to cool.
In a large saucepan or Dutch oven, melt 4 tablespoons of butter over medium heat. Add the beef and 1/2 teaspoon of salt, and brown thoroughly, about 10 minutes. Remove meat from pan and add red onions, cook for 3 minutes, then add celery, carrots, bell pepper and garlic. Cook vegetables until translucent and browning begins, about 8 minutes.
Add beef back to the pan and deglaze with 1/2 cup of the sherry, stirring to remove any brown crust that may have formed on the bottom of the pan. When sherry is almost fully evaporated, add broth, diced tomatoes, cayenne and the remainder of the sherry. Simmer for 30 minutes to let the flavors blend. Whisk in the cooled roux gradually to get the soup as thick or thin as you like. When soup has thickened, serve hot, garnished with chopped parsley and egg slices.
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