The Ladies' Tea Guild

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Historical Food Fortnightly Challenge: The Frugal Housewife, with Shrimp Curry from 1942.

ingredients for the Shrimp Curry (with trout).
Photo: Elizabeth Urbach
The Challenge: # 9 The Frugal Housewife
Throughout history, housewives and housekeepers have kept a close eye on their budgets and found creative ways to pinch pennies while providing delicious and nutritious food. Create a dish that interprets one historically-documented method of frugal cooking.  

I chose to interpret frugality as a way to use pantry staples, including canned meat, to pull together an easy dish.  You could also use leftover fish from another meal in this recipe!

The Recipe: (where did you find it, link to it if possible)
Found in my grandmother's cookbook, Burnt Toast Recipes: Victory Edition, published in Los Angeles in 1942, this recipe for Shrimp Curry takes advantage of pantry staples to make it economical as well as tasty.  The recipe book is a collection of recipes put together by the Women's Auxiliary to the Women's and Children's Hospital in Los Angeles, which took care of the wives and families of servicemen who were stationed in the area during WW2.  My grandmother worked as a candy striper at the hospital during the summers, taking the train out from Omaha, NE where she lived and taught school during the rest of the year.

California seemed to be lucky in comparison to other areas, because of our climate enabling food to be grown year-round, as well as the large number of dairies and poultry farms, and everyday residents who kept a cow and a few chickens around for butter, eggs and milk.  Fish were being caught and canned in Monterey throughout the War, and while much of it was sent to other parts of the U.S., and overseas to our armed forces and our allies, there was still quite a bit of food available, with or without food rationing.  This recipe is frugal in its use of butter and imported spices, and makes good use of canned fish.  Although it calls for shrimp, any canned fish can be used.  (Ignore the mushrooms in the photo above -- they were part of another recipe but mistakenly got into the photo for this dish.)  

Shrimp Curry
Sautè 1 small minced onion in 2 tablespoons butter until onion is soft but not brown.  Stir in 1 ½ teaspoons curry, 2 teaspoons flour and ½ teaspoon salt.  Simmer tightly covered for 20 minutes, then add 1 can shrimp (cleaned and shredded), 2 teaspoons lemon juice.  Simmer for 5 minutes and serve with browned rice.  – recipe from Alberta Austin.

Trout Curry on Toast.  Photo: Elizabeth Urbach.
The Date/Year and Region:
World War 2 California

How Did You Make It: (a brief synopsis of the process of creation)
I am allergic to shellfish so I decided to do what any frugal WW2 California housewife would do and substitute some other kind of canned fish for the shrimp.  I had a can of smoked trout that I wanted to use up, and I thought the smokiness would taste good with the curry spices, so that's what I used instead.  I think a can of tuna would have been a good choice as well, but I didn't have any in the cupboard.  I also only had half of a large yellow onion instead of one whole small onion, so I minced that, but I couldn't taste it and I think that changed the finished dish noticeably.  Other than that, and using a modern electric stove, I followed the recipe almost exactly.

I found that I couldn't simmer the mixture "tightly covered" because my saucepan's cover has a permanently open vent built in, and I added a few tablespoons of water to the pan during the cooking time because the onions looked really dry.  I'm not quite sure why the recipe called for adding 2 teaspoons of flour because once the onions had cooked, even with my addition of the water, there was little to no moisture in the pan to be thickened into a sauce, and there was no moisture or sauce once I added the fish.  My trout was packed in oil instead of water, and I only added the fish to the pan, not the oil; if I had added a can of shrimp packed in water, and poured in the water as well, that would have made a difference to the sauce, but the recipe didn't specify how big the can of shrimp should be, and whether or not to add the water. 

I also thought that the ½ teaspoon of salt was too much, and the 1 ½ teaspoons curry powder wasn't enough because the finished dish was saltier than I would like, and I could hardly taste the curry, although the whole house still smells like curry now!

Time to Complete:
About half an hour; most of the time was spent waiting for the onions to finish cooking.  It would have taken a bit longer if I had cooked rice to serve alongside it, but since I didn't have any rice in the cupboard, I served it on toast. 

Total Cost:
All from the pantry.  If bought fresh, the onion would have been around 60 to 70 cents, the butter would have been about $2 per pound, the curry powder would have been around 2 dollars for the little canister, and the can of shrimp or trout would have been a few dollars.  If I had used tuna it would have been 1 to 2 dollars.  Altogether it would have cost around $10 for the supplies. 

How Successful Was It?: (How did it taste? How did it look? Did it turn out like you thought it would?)  I thought it was a successful recipe and I would make it again with a few modifications.  The onion kind of disappeared after 20 minutes of simmering, so I would not mince it, and I would use more of it next time.  I would also use more curry, since I could hardly taste it, and less salt.  I would also add some more water or broth to the simmering onions to see if that would make a sauce and dilute the salt.  It would be really tasty, then!  The smokiness of the trout overpowered the curry, but it tasted good when I could taste the smokiness and the spices together.  I think it would also be good with tuna and I might try it that way next time.

It tastes better than it looks; I don't know if it would look more appetizing on rice than on toast, or maybe if I cut the toast into fancy points or put some parsley on top, but I didn't have any parsley or other garnish.  The recipe also didn't make very much of the mixture. It would stretch farther with a lot of rice and a lot of sauce, but I served it on toast, so it served one for dinner, and would serve about 2 for appetizers with fancy toast points.  If I had to spend $10 for all the ingredients fresh, though, I would have been disappointed by its serving only one or two people!


QNPoohBear said...

It's great you used your grandmother's cookbook. I was really interested to read about what foods were available in California at that time. If you're interested in seeing what was available in New England, check out my exhibit

South Bay Ladies' Tea Guild said...

Thanks for the comment, QNPoohBear! I'll definitely be checking out your exhibit about New England.

Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,
Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round,
And, while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn
Throws up a steamy column, and the cups
That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each,
So let us welcome peaceful evening in.
-- William Cowper (1731-1800)
"The Winter Evening" (Book Four), _The Task_ (1784)