I grew up on books.
Fantasy books, specifically. We had no video games in my house, and weren’t generally allowed to watch much television, but all read voraciously, me, especially. I read everything — classic fiction, Victorian novels, science fiction, encyclopedia entries — and it all seeped in, taught me things, but few ever taught me as much as the Redwall series, by Brian Jacques.
If you’re from my generation, you may also have grown up on tales of Martin the Warrior, of woodlanders and sea rats, Loamhedge and Salamandastron. Redwall captured my imagination wholly: it was a combination of memorable characters, a fine-tuned formula, and vivid storytelling, interspersed with silly jokes, song lyrics, and pages upon pages of descriptions of food.
The Redwallers love a good feast, and each book features at least one, typically in celebration, or at the end of one season, on the cusp of another – a Nameday feast, for example, for the naming of the new season, or harvest festival, or a feast celebrating an Abbot’s anniversary – and each are intricately described in loving detail. For example, from Redwall:
Brother Alf remarked that Friar Hugo had excelled himself, as course aftercourse was brought to the table. Tender freshwater shrimp garnished withcream and rose leaves, devilled barley pearls in acorn puree, apple andcarrot chews, marinated cabbage stalks steeped in creamed white turnip with nutmeg.
Sometimes friends do go from us-it will happen more and more as you grow up, Chugg. But if you really love your friends, they’re never really gone. Somewhere they’re watching over you and they’re always there inside your heart.
– Brian Jacques, The Legend of Luke
The lessons I learned from these books were not unlike those I learned from my other, favorite, most formative series, All Creatures Great and Small, by Yorkshire veterinarian James Herriott. Though Herriott’s books were largely autobiographical and Jacques’ were fantasy, there were several common threads: first, that animals were often better people than people, and, second, that though death is inevitable and the loss of a loved one is sad, it is all the more cause to celebrate the life lived and the beauty of the surrounding world.
Redwall’s champions are very seldom career soldiers or warriors. Aside from the mythical Martin and the Badger Lords of Salamandastron, they are often simply ordinary woodlanders placed in extraordinary circumstances. I could relate to Mariel, the intent and brash hero of Mariel of Redwall, who became a warrior not out of a love of violence or battle, but to save her father and help her friends. In Redwall, the good are always good and the evil always despicably so, and both are simple enough to determine at a glance. Real life is much trickier, and shades of gray mean both heroes and villains can be difficult to define or identify.
But Redwall’s world remains comforting, to me. It taught me that heroism is not picking up a sword, but wielding it for the right reasons, and that if you are strong, you should protect the weak. I might not be able to live within Redwall’s abbey walls, or in the mountain of Salamandastron, or wander Mossflower woods, but I can carry them around with me.
And, it turns out, I can recreate just a little slice of their world, right here, in my own kitchen.
When it was decided that we’d be celebrating food through the month of November, my mind went straight to Redwall and the feasts I’d so loved reading about as a child (and still do!). I knew I wouldn’t be able to recreate an entire scene, but I wanted to try my hand at a few of the staples, and so, a few weeks ago, I treated myself and my family to a typical Redwall meal.
The Otters’ Shrimp and Hotroot Soup
A favorite of the otters, it was nearly impossible to find a recipe which matched the one in my head. Most recipes I came across created something more like a Rhode Island shrimp chowder: full of potatoes and other vegetables, and lacking the punch I felt was necessary. There is no particular recipe for shrimp and hotroot soup in the books, but I had always imagined it as a spicy broth, filled with shrimp and little else. According to the Redwall wiki, “the main components of the soup are river or pond shrimp, bulrush, leek, onion, lots of garlic, horseradish, and a fiery spice known as ‘hotroot pepper’.”
Not terribly helpful, but I kept searching, until finally, I came across something that looked like a fair approximation of what I’d had in mind: Killer Shrimp.
A Cajun recipe, Killer Shrimp consists of a rich broth, simmered slowly on a stovetop, and finished with a pile of shell-on shrimp. It’s eaten with crusty bread, and, I may say, is incredible as leftovers when finished with a little heavy cream and mixed into linguini, or simmered with mussels.
Shrimp and Hotroot Soup (slightly adapted from Steamy Kitchen):
- ½ small onion, diced (leek could be substituted)
- 1 celery rib, diced
- 5 cloves Garlic, minced
- 1 stick of butter
- 2 T Dried or fresh rosemary
- 2 tsp Dried thyme
- 1 T Dried fennel
- 2 tsp Celery seed
- 1 T Crushed red pepper flakes
- 2 tsp Black Pepper
- 2 tsp kosher or sea salt
- 1.5 quarts seafood or vegetable broth
- 16 oz Bottled Clam juice
- 1/2 lemon
- 3 oz. Tomato paste
- 1 cup beer (you may use any beer you like — I chose a blonde)
- 2 lbs shrimp
The steps are largely straightforward: good for otters, busy with training, who would want to simply be able to toss ingredients in a pot and let it simmer while they patrol.
Step one: Melt the butter in a large saucepan. When it is foamy, add the diced onion and celery, saute until soft and fragrant. Meanwhile, grind the herbs to a mortar and pestle (or in a coffee grinder). When aromatics are soft and the onion is translucent, add the herbs, pepper, salt, broth, clam juice, tomato paste, and beer. Slice a lemon in half and add directly to the broth. Stir to combine, bring to a boil, and turn down the heat to simmer for 1-3 hours.
Just before you serve, add the seafood, and cook for another ten minutes, or until shrimp are pink and opaque. Serve in bowls with warm, crusty bread. Top with more hot sauce, if you want the real Redwall otter experience — but keep a glass of strawberry cordial nearby to cool your burning tongue after!
The Moles’ Turnip ‘n Tater ‘n Beetroot Deeper ‘n Ever Pie
I don’t know if any fictional food has ever captured my imagination quite the way the moles’ trencher food has. Deeper ‘n ever pie appears in almost every book, often hauled in by teams of two or more moles. It is an impressive dish not only due to its solid, comfort food appeal, but also for its immense mass: Dibbuns (the young of Redwall Abbey) have, on occasion, been known to fall directly into it.
I knew, as I began my search for the best possible recipe, that I wanted to create a deeply satisfying root vegetable pot pie, featuring a rich crust, tender vegetables, and a savory gravy. Moreover, it needed to be vegetarian. I assumed such a dish would be fairly straightforward to find.
I was, to my great surprise, wrong.
There are a great many vegetarian pie offerings out there, but none seemed to have all the elements I’d imagined: the pie was too slight, the filling too bland, the gravy meat-based or otherwise simply missing. Even the recipe from The Redwall Cookbook didn’t quite fit what I had in my mind’s eye. In fact, it was purely by chance that I came across a recipe I wanted to try at all.
Still, as soon as I saw this pot pie from Yvette van Boven’s Home Made Winter (by way of Serious Eats), it seemed the most likely contender. The filling of various root vegetables, the gravy, the crust: it was nearly perfect. Try it for yourself, and see:
Turnip ‘n Tater ‘n Beetroot Deeper n’ Ever Pie, recipe adapted from Yvette van Boven
- 4 1/2 cups (1 l) vegetable broth
- 1 turnip, peeled and cut into 1 inch chunks
- 1 white potato, peeled and cut into 1 inch chunks
- 2 cans sliced beets
- 14 ounces wild mushrooms, cleaned and torn or cut into equal pieces
- 3 tablespoons (50 g) butter
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 leek, sliced
- 2 large cloves garlic, minced
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1/3 cup (75 ml) crème fraîche
- 1/3 cup (75 ml) dry sherry or marsala wine
- 1 refrigerated pre-made pie crust (or make your own!)
Pre-heat your oven to 350 F. In a large saucepan, bring the broth to a boil. Simmer the turnip and potato chunks under fork tender. Remove the chunks and set aside, reserve the broth. In the same saucepan, saute the mushrooms in half the butter over high heat. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.
Melt the remaining butter in a large pan over medium heat. Add the leeks and saute until it begins to brown. Add the garlic and rosemary and saute for 2 minutes. Stir in the flour. Stir in the broth, cooking and stirring until the sauce is just thicker than yogurt. Blend with an immersin blender, or in batches in a standing blender, until smooth. Stir in the crème fraîche and sherry. Cook the sauce until it thickens. Stir in the root vegetables and mushrooms.
Pour the filling into a deep casserole dish, and top with the pie crust. Crimp around the edges and cut vents into the crust. Bake for about half an hour, or until crust is golden brown around the edges. Serve with a side of homemade cranberry sauce, and a dark brown beer.
So, we now have an appetizer and backbone to our feast, but Redwall’s chefs delight not only in entrees, but in the varied and sundry treats surrounding them: candied chestnuts, wheels of cheese, home-brewed ales and wines, frivolous clouds of desserts. Sadly, I was unable to procure chestnuts to candy, but I felt compelled to add a few finishing touches to our meal, in the form of strawberry cordial and dessert.
A favorite among the Redwall Dibbuns, strawberry cordial is a refreshing, non-alcoholic addition to any feast, and would be particularly delightful, I think, in summer. Here’s how to make it:
- 1 bag frozen strawberries or 1 pound fresh
- 1 cup refined sugar
- 2 cups water
In a saucepan, bring the all ingredients to a boil. Reduce the heat, and let simmer, until berries are soft. Remove from heat, and blend with an immersion blender or in batches in a standing blender. Pour into a sealable container, and refrigerate for up to a week.
To use, fill a highball glass with ice. Add 2-3 tablespoons of strawberry syrup. Top with club soda, mix well. Garnish with a sprig of mint.
Dessert was a little more tricky. Redwall bakers churn out pastries of immense magnitude, heavenly concoctions trimmed with sugared flowers and containing multiple preserves, layers of buttercream and cake, or swimming in cream. My own options, unfortunately, were a bit limited. I wanted to keep it simple and seasonal, and create a recipe which would not be out of place at an Abbott’s Jubilee.
In the end, I decided on a Laura Harcourt original, utilizing this pastry cream recipe.
Roasted Apples with Meadowcream (slightly adapted from The Kitchn)
- two large apples (Honeycrisp would work well)
- shelled pecans
- 1 1/2 cups whole milk
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup flour
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 4 large egg yolks
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Warm the milk in the saucepan until you start to see wisps of steam. It should not actually be boiling. In a medium bowl, whisk together the sugar, flour, and salt. Add the egg yolks and whisk them into the dry ingredients until thoroughly combined. Pour a little of the hot milk into the eggs and whisk to combine. Continue pouring the milk slowly into the eggs, whisking continuously.
When all the milk has been added to the eggs, pour everything back into the saucepan. Set the pan back over medium heat. Whisk constantly until cream begins to thicken.
When it has thickened to a pudding-like consistency, pause whisking every few seconds to see if the cream has come to a boil. If you see large bubbles popping on the surface, whisk for a few more seconds and then remove the pan from heat. Stir the vanilla into the pastry cream and then pour the cream into a bowl. Cover the pastry cream with a piece of plastic wrap pressed right up against the surface of the cream and chill completely.
“It’s a long hard road ahead for you, little warrior. Enjoy a happy day while you can.”– Brian Jacques, Martin the Warrior
Seasons of plenty,
days of peace
in Redwall, may they never cease.
long life and health:
our Abbey’s precious wealth.
From winter’s white
to summer’s gold,
from spring to autumn, we uphold
Mother Nature brings.
Respect her earth and living things.