Fall in New England is an ideal time to roast or bake all sorts of good things to eat. Firing up the oven warms the kitchen on cool autumn days, while making dishes based on such classic foods as pumpkins, apples, and turkeys suffuses the house with wonderful aromas. But sometimes making a whole roast turkey with stuffing provides just too much of a good thing, leaving too many leftovers. The recipe we give you today offers an alternative to roast turkey, one that is just as delectable but that better suits our smaller modern families. The surprising thing is that it's also part of the classic New England cooking repertoire.
The recipe we’re referring to, “To Rost a Capon with Oysters and Chestnuts,” takes us even farther back in time than we took you last summer, to 1670. A capon is a cockerel, or young rooster, that has been “fixed.” The operation produces a 7-9 lb. bird whose flesh when cooked is more moist and tasty than that of other chickens.
We’ll tell you more about the recipe in a minute, but first something about the cookbook where we found it—Englishwoman Hannah Woolley’s The Queen-like Closet. It wasn’t until 1796 that the first cookbook written by an American author, American Cookery by Amelia Simmons, made its appearance in print. Before this, people in New England who wanted to use cookbooks (and who could afford to do so) had to rely on imported English titles.
Woolley’s book is one of three English cookbooks that are known to have been part of the stock of Boston booksellers in the 1680s. One of the others, first published in the 1650s, had been given what at the time was the racy title of The Queens Closet Opened. This book purported to reveal the domestic “secrets,” including recipes, of Queen Henrietta Maria, whose husband Charles I was the English monarch who had literally lost his head at the hands of Oliver Cromwell and his stalwart Puritan supporters. Since most people in New England who took sides at all in the English Civil War sympathized with these Puritan opponents of the king, The Queens Closet Opened offered New England readers a peek into the private life of someone who combined, in modern day terms, the allure of Princess Diana with that of one of the wives of Osama Bin Laden.
Hannah Woolley was trying to capture some of this glamour for her own cookbook by calling it The Queen-like Closet. But in the book itself, as opposed to the title, Woolley actually did the opposite. She made the high-style cookery of the royal household familiar and accessible, bringing it within the means of the average upper-middle-class household. And in so doing, she inaugurated a tradition of English (and American) female cookbook authorship that has lasted right up to the present day.
And now for the recipe:
“To rost a Capon with Oysters and Chesnuts”
by Hannah Woolley, from The Queen-like Closet (1670)
Take some boiled Chesnuts, and take off their shells, and take as many parboil'd Oysters, then spit your Capon, and put these into the belly of it, with some sweet Butter, rost it and bast it with sweet Butter, save the Gravie, and some of the Chesnuts, and some of the Oysters, then add to them half a Pint of Claret Wine, and a pice of sweet Butter and a little Pepper, and a little Salt, stew these altogether till the Capon be ready, then serve them in with it; Garnish your Dish as you please.
Perhaps you can begin to see why Woolley was popular with her intended audience. The recipe isn’t that hard to make, but its primary component, the capon, is just enough out of the ordinary to generate excitement, especially when enhanced with chestnuts, wine, and butter. Combining fowl with oysters became popular in the seventeenth century and remained so well into the nineteenth century. In Northern Hospitality, we also include a fowl recipe by Amelia Simmons in which oysters are featured in both stuffing and sauce.
More Tips for making it...
If your local supermarket doesn’t have capons in stock, it will probably order one for you. Ours arrived the next day. You can also substitute a roaster chicken, if you'd prefer. As for the chestnuts, they were out of season when we were making the dish, but dried chestnuts, which are readily available online, worked perfectly well. Again, you can make substitutions, such as walnuts, but the dish will taste best with chestnuts.
For our 7 lb. capon, we used 18 oysters and ½ lb. (about 40) dried chestnuts. First we cooked the chestnuts by boiling them gently for about 45 minutes. While the chestnuts were simmering along, we shucked and very gently parboiled the oysters. Don't overcook the oysters. Just heat them through, or you'll have tough, rubbery shellfish. We drained the chestnuts and coarsely chopped them. Then we put about half the oysters and a quarter of the chestnuts inside the bird, along with a tablespoon of butter. We trussed the capon and roasted it for 20 minutes at 450°, after which we reduced the temperature to 350°, basting the bird with butter every 20-30 minutes.
After an hour, we spooned off the drippings, and returned the capon to the oven, along with some potatoes and mushrooms (in a separate pan on a separate rack) which were going to be served as one of our side dishes. Then we began making the sauce. To a cup of red wine (we used cabernet sauvignon, but any readily available variety will do), we added the drippings from the bird (including some of the fat), a tablespoon of butter, salt and pepper, and the remaining chestnuts, bringing the mixture to the simmer and stirring frequently.
About 20 minutes later, we tested the capon with a meat thermometer and found that it had reached the desired temperature of 165°. The total capon roasting time was an hour and 40 minutes. Our potatoes and mushrooms were also now nicely roasted, and the green beans we had put on to boil for a few minutes were done as well. In order to avoid overcooking them, we waited until this last minute to add the remaining oysters to the sauce.
And there you have it. “Rost” capon with oyster-chestnut gravy and stuffing, roasted potatoes and mushrooms, green beans, and some nice crusty bread. Our 7 lb. capon with this amount of sauce made 8 servings, enough for a family dinner or a dinner party, with a bit remaining for another day. Featuring a bird that is nice and plump but is considerably smaller than the modern-day turkey, and with trimmings not that different from those that go with what has become the traditional Thanksgiving dinner, this spread would make an excellent Thanksgiving option for anyone who doesn’t particularly enjoy the challenge of days or even weeks of turkey leftovers.
Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald
Authors of Northern Hospitality: Cooking by the Book in New England (University of Massachusetts Press, 2011) www.stavelyandfitzgerald.com