On occasion I like to look through the many cookbooks my wife, Becky, and I own, to find a recipe we have never tried. Recently I was looking through one University of Nebraska Press book, Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book, and I found a recipe for something called Bubble and Squeak. I loved the name so much I immediately decided I had to try to make it. I was a little discouraged to learn that Bubble and Squeak is fried beef and cabbage, because neither Becky nor I like cooked cabbage. However, when I read further and discovered that the dish is served with Wow Wow sauce, I was again hooked. I was surprised to find out that Wow Wow sauce is a real thing. I thought Terry Pratchett had just made it up for his Discworld books.
In Jane Grigson's Vegetable Book the author lists the recipe for Bubble and Squeak as published by Dr. Kitchiner in his 1871 book Aspicius Redivivus, or The Cooks’s Oracle. This is a book that Grigson describes as “the raciest, most opinionated, least practical cookery book ever written.” If I hadn’t already been pulled in by the name of the recipe, or that it is served with Wow Wow sauce, that quote alone would have been enough to suck me in.
The recipe is not very precise, which usually is not helpful for the way I cook. I like to have a recipe that lists specific amounts of each ingredient. History tells me that, if left to my own imagination, the result will be an inedible catastrophe. However, I thought that even I couldn’t mess up this recipe.
The first part of the recipe calls for slices of cold boiled salted beef sprinkled with a little pepper and lightly browned in butter. I started with 1½ pounds of an inexpensive steak. The recipe never mentions what cut of beef to use and, after all, I didn’t have a lot of confidence in the recipe, so I couldn’t see using expensive beef. I also didn’t boil the meat; I simply fried it in some butter in a cast iron skillet until it was thoroughly cooked.
The second part of the recipe simply states to boil a cabbage, squeeze it dry, chop it small; remove the beef from the frying pan and replace it with the cabbage; sprinkle with salt and pepper; keep the pan moving for a few minutes; then lay the cabbage in the middle of a dish with the meat around it. Instead of boiling an entire cabbage I chopped up half a cabbage and boiled that. This turned out to have both positive and negative results. The positive is that I have no idea how long to boil a whole cabbage, but it is easy to tell when chopped up cabbage is done. When the cabbage looked tender, I poured it into a strainer and pressed out as much water as possible. The negative part of this operation is that pressing out the water also made the cabbage sort of mushy. I removed the beef from the skillet, put the cabbage in, and put it back over a medium heat. The cabbage started to brown very quickly, so it didn’t cook very long.
As I mentioned earlier, without specific information on a recipe I tend to get terrible results. This was a problem for the Wow Wow sauce. The recipe for it provided by Dr. Kitchiner is “beef stock, sharpened with a tablespoon each of vinegar, mushroom ketchup, and port wine, and a teaspoon of made mustard. Finally you add plenty of chopped parsley and two or three pickled gherkins.” I felt I could get by with the somewhat vague recipe for Bubble and Squeak, but I thought I needed some idea of how much beef stock to start with for the sauce. So I looked for Wow Wow sauce on Wikipedia and found that a recipe for it was published in Nanny Ogg’s Cookbook, a cookbook Terry Pratchett wrote from the perspective of Nanny Ogg, one of his Discworld characters. Given that I am a big fan of all things Terry Pratchett, I actually own a copy of Nanny Ogg’s Cookbook. The recipe for Wow Wow sauce is:
Butter, about the size of an egg
1 tablespoon plain flour
30 ml beef stock (this is 1¼ cups)
1 teaspoon English mustard
1 dessertspoon white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon port
1 tablespoon mushroom concentrate
Salt and black pepper
1 heaped tablespoon dried parsley
4 pickled walnuts, chopped
The mushroom concentrate needs to be made the night before and, since I was making this right before Thanksgiving, I didn’t have the time. However, Worcestershire sauce can be substituted for the mushroom concentrate and for the port, which is good because I didn’t have any port, either. While I was frying the beef and working on the cabbage, Becky worked on the Wow Wow sauce. If you would like to see how the sauce comes together, you will have to look on page 60 of Nanny Ogg’s Cookbook.
Instead of putting the beef and cabbage in a separate dish, we put it all together in the skillet and poured the Wow Wow sauce over it.
Despite our misgivings about eating cooked cabbage, my wife and I both really enjoyed the dish. We will definitely make it again and we plan to make Wow Wow sauce for other beef dishes as well. We made Bubble and Squeak the night before Thanksgiving. The Sunday after Thanksgiving, we were thinking about warming up various leftovers for dinner. Becky reminded me about the Bubble and Squeak and I said I would eat it. She looked disappointed, so I told her she could have it. “Really?” she said, looking very pleased. To be honest, her enthusiasm may have had less to do with how much she liked Bubble and Squeak and more about being sick and tired of turkey, but she was pleased nonetheless.