Things of Beauty Part Three: The Apothecary Chest (and a Surprising Thing to do With Dr Pepper)


It is time again for me to gloat over my good fortune and expose my materialistic side once more as I continue with my tales of Things of Beauty from my kitchen. Today’s thing of beauty is my long desired and ever smile-inducing apothecary chest, which was a gift on my last birthday. I have always loved the look of these, with all the little drawers that house who knows what pills and potions, labelled with hand-written cards; the wood fragrant of exotic spices and salves, or perhaps even unguents; the handles of the drawers weathered from years of opening in order that the bearer of the chest might dispense of spoonful of something mysterious before closing the secrets away again safely… Mine is far from the weatherbeaten antique that the phrase ‘apothecary chest’ brings to mind, but is well-loved and as the years pass will almost certainly develop character of its own.

I keep my dried herbs in the snug (and perhaps even cunning) smaller top drawers of the chest. They go in little ziplock bags before they go into the drawers, to keep them as fresh as they can be kept, what with them being dried and all. Buying those bags was interesting in itself. I found myself going to an emporium of somewhat unhealthy repute, and asking for small bags that sealed across the top. The girl behind the counter produced an array of green coloured bags with pictures of a five pronged leaf on the front, and seemed taken aback when I told her that I was looking for something plainer, as it was for storing more, shall we say, legitimate kinds of herb. However, we got there in the end, and for a negligible sum I picked up 50 clear bags which seal to be airtight – I’m sure if I’d bought them from a cookware shop they would have set me back more. Even though they’re all full, I haven’t labelled the drawers, for two main reasons. First, I’m worried about damaging the paintwork on them. Second, my writing isn’t nearly arcane enough to give the air of mysticism that I’d like. A friend of mine was watching me cook one day, in an effort to learn, and gave up part way through, exclaiming that it was nothing but alchemy. I took this as a compliment, and love the apothecary chest for backing that statement up, but until I can write esses that look like effs I’ll leave the drawers blank. Besides, I suppose it adds to the impressiveness, when I can go to more or less the correct drawer for what I want without any visible means of telling them apart form the outside. The trick is that they’re alphabetised – that’s right, I alphabetise my dried herbs. Do you want to make something of it? Because if you do, I won’t promise not to turn you into a frog with my herb craft skills…

Some of the herbs I use more often than others – the mint more or less languishes in the drawer, jealous of the other herbs for getting out so much more, while the thyme is fit and healthy from getting out in the fresh air so often. I can’t deny that fresh herbs are much nicer, and give off a lovely fresh fragrance when you cook with them, too, but it’s handy to have a collection of dried too, for emergencies. I’m a terrible one for having things ‘for emergencies’. At work, I have an emergency jumper in case of a cold emergency, and emergency dried soups for hunger emergencies (and in case of the zombie apocalypse confining me to the office). At home, I have emergency toothpaste and shampoo in case of hygiene emergencies. I have tinned food galore – certainly enough to shake a stick at. I often take emergency socks in my bag on wet days, and sometimes emergency shoes on nights out in case my feet get sore. I’m the kind of person who usually has a safety pin and plasters. Ultimately, it will probably get to the stage of my carrying a suitcase with me everywhere, although for now I have it under control. I’m not sure what kind of emergency would require me to have dried herbs, but if one ever comes up I’ll be all set. The mockers and scorners will be noted, and denied my dried herb assistance when the time comes.

I like to use dried herbs in soup, or in sauces where they’ll be simmered for a long time, to allow them to get less like pencil shavings and more like something that once came from a plant. They’re also good in baking – cheese and herb muffins, for example. The savoury muffin is a revelation, although can be a strange sensation if you’re expecting sugar and you get cheese. The brain doesn’t know what to make of it. It’s worth the synaptic confusion, though, cheese muffins (chuffins) are pretty awesome. The four larger drawers of the apothecary chest house my stock cubes, and any other related items that I happen to have. Currently, the vegetable stock cube drawer also contains a small package of bay leaves, and the chicken stock cube drawer a packet of chicken flavouring from instant noodles. Not haute cuisine, but good for making a quick chicken noodle soup along with some dried ginger and mixed spice. I use my collection of spices more often than the herbs, and I wonder about rearranging things to reflect this. The reason that the herbs got pride of place is that there was the right amount of them to fit in the drawers. My spice collections is a bit larger – as you can see. There are three empty jars on the right, there, where I removed three herbs to store them in the chest. I have some sumac berries to fill one of those jars and intend on buying some juniper berries to go in one of the others. That leaves me with one opening for something interesting to fill – whatever catches my eye on my next big shopping trip, really. There are also a few that will empty out as I can decant the last of the herbs that are in them into the drawers, and I can expand my collection further – you just never know what you might find at the Chinese supermarket that you’ve never heard of but definitely want to find out more about. I love having the spice jars in a drawer like this, it gives the illusion of going on forever, as the jars at the back sit half in shadow. It does not go on forever – if nothing else, that wouldn’t be practical. The last thing you need when you’re in the middle of a paella is for your paprika to be halfway to the sun, or to have to stop halfway through making a curry because your cardamom pods are so far away from you that they’re almost approaching the back of your head…

I have another photograph here that features the apothochest, it’s of this Sunday’s dinner. After my post on Saturday about roasts and stews and whatnot, I wanted to live up to my own standards and make a nice, hearty, traditional Sunday dinner. I was out and about very early and took advantage of this to go into the supermarket just as it opened – in fact, I had to wait for it to open at 9am. It’s not like me to be up at that time on a Sunday morning, and I suppose it could have been one of those dreams where you think you’ve got up and dressed only to realise that you are still in the land of snooze. I don’t think so though. If it is, it’s been going on a really long time, and thinking about it makes me brain spin – what if nothing’s real and it’s all just an illusion sent by a demon? Descartes has a lot to answer for (ooooh, Descartes, get me…).

I know a joke about Descartes. He’s in a pub, and the barman says to him ‘one for the road?’ Descartes replies ‘I think not’, and promptly vanishes…

I didn’t say it was a good joke.

Anyway, assuming that my life of the past two days has been real and not a dream or a demon-sent illusion, on Sunday I had boiled ham with mashed potatoes and cabbage for dinner. Pretty bland as dreams or demon-sent illustions go, I think you’ll agree. Mashed potatoes and cabbage are my foods of the moment – specifically savoy cabbage, cut up and steamed. This time I didn’t add anything to it – not salt, pepper or butter – and it was just as good without. It’s easy to get into the habit of seasoning everything, but fresh veg speaks for itself a lot of the time. Anyway, boiled ham is a traditional enough British dinner, but mine has a bit of a twist to it. For years my mum’s been making cola ham, which sounds like a terrible idea but in reality is extremely good. The sweetness of the cola (she uses diet, so it’s really the sweetener-ness I suppose) balances the saltiness of the meat wonderfully – if you think about it, you traditionally serve pineapple with a gammon steak, so the principle is similar here. On top of the fact that I know this recipe is really good, I had recently read a recipe for Dr Pepper and mustard glazed ham, where a ham joint is roasted and then finished off with a sticky coating. I went for a middle ground between the two with my smoked gammon boiled in Dr Pepper with a Dr Pepper and mustard gravy.

I bought a 650g smoked gammon joint – it was only for two of us and was more than enough, although it got polished off without any trouble. I put this in a pot with enough Dr Pepper Zero (that’s Diet Dr Pepper for boys, you know) to cover the meat, and brought up to the boil. As soon as it started boiling I turned the heat right back down and put the lid on, then left to simmer for one hour. After the hour I took the pan off the heat, and coated the outside of the ham in wholegrain mustard – three or four teaspoons’ worth. I left it in the cooking liquid, covered, for a few hours to completely cool and for the mustard flavour to infuse. I sliced the meat, and put the slices in  a casserole dish. I then put the cooking liquid back on to a high heat. Once the liquid had reduced by about half, I thickened with arrowroot. The way I like to do this to avoid any lumps is to take a tablespoon or so of the liquid and put it in a small bowl or ramekin, then add a teaspoon of the arrowroot – or cornflour, potato flour or any other thickening agent, even plain flour is fine, you just have to use more of it and make sure to cook it off thoroughly so you don’t get a floury, gluey taste. Stir the two together to make a paste; it is easier to knock the lumps out of the arrowroot in a small bowl than it is in the pot – a fork can be quite good to make short work of this. I actually have a teeny, tiny whisk that came in a hot chocolate gift pack that’s perfect for the job. Once you have a smooth, thick paste – add more liquid or arrowroot as you need to – pour it back into the pot, stirring well. Heat through for a minute or so, stirring well, then take off the heat for a minute or so, still stirring. Once you put it back on the heat it should start to thicken, if it hasn’t already. Give it up to five minutes just to be sure, then repeat if necessary. You don’t want to add too much and end up with wallpaper paste. Once I’d thickened the cooking liquid to a gravy consistency, I poured it over the ham and covered with foil. This was now ready to be heated up and served later in the day – when I was ready, I heated for twenty minutes at 200C, making sure to keep it covered to maintain the moisture of the ham. Once heated, I served the meat on its own and put the gravy into a jug to be added as required.

It’s another meal that doesn’t look fancy, most of the plates I turn out don’t, but in all fairness it doesn’t have to look fancy to look appealing. Boiling the ham makes it really tender and juicy, and not the least bit tough or dry, although I dare say if you boiled it for long enough you might find it started to go that way. This shouldn’t be considered a challenge. The sweetness of the mustard and of the Dr Pepper compliment the ham, which takes on a hint of the flavours from the drink without being sticky or sickly. The gravy is rich with the flavours of the smoked meat and smells divine, but also brings a little kick and texture from the mustard. There is no need to add salt or pepper to the dish – the balance of flavours is all there already. It went down a storm, and at the rate I’m collecting successful Sunday dinner recipes I’ll have to start having two Sundays a week – just one more reason that I am a firm believer in the three-day weekend. If only the people in charge would catch on. Perhaps if I offered them some Dr Pepper ham – what’s the worst that could happen?

Tunes: I think it was only a matter of time before the mention of Sunday lunch made me choose ‘Easy’ as the tune to go with the food. I love Faith No More’s cover – it’s pretty faithful to the original but with a more rocked up vibe. It’s still a smooth tune, and one for when you’re making an easy Sunday dinner but still want to do some singing along and dramatic pointing – the crowd at 1:24 have it down: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t1WAMNIunKc

Movie: What we watched on Sunday night wasn’t a film, but Come Dine With Me. I don’t watch any of the soaps, in fact I actively avoid them, but when it comes to watching peculiar people cook, or attempt to, I’m helpless to resist. Couple the car crash nature of  the failures in cookery, self awareness and social grace with Dave Lamb’s irresistably funny commentary and you have, in my opinion, a hit. It’s easy to take in and comforting, with a hint of sharpness from Dave and quite often an odd mix of ingredients – which I am using loosely to mean contestants and the menus they come up with. It’s a perfect partner to the Dr Pepper ham and an excellent way to spend a Sunday. I can’t find any of the specific clips I remember laughing most at, but it’s all available here: http://www.channel4.com/programmes/come-dine-with-me/4od

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About Rock Salt

Seasoning while rocking out since 1983. View all posts by Rock Salt

5 responses to “Things of Beauty Part Three: The Apothecary Chest (and a Surprising Thing to do With Dr Pepper)

  • Miss L

    I made your Dr Pepper Zero ham and can vouch that it is delicious! Had some trouble with the glaze/gravy, but I don’t really like gravy anyway, so didn’t mind so much.

  • rocksaltuk

    That’s awesome, I’m so glad you enjoyed it. Gravy can be tricksy.

  • Jason

    I have fell in love with your apothecary chest and I know you said you got it as a gift but I was wondering where it might have been bought from? Myself, like you love those apothecary chest and when I saw yours I said I want one like that. But I have been unsuccessful in finding this one. Any info would be helpful.

  • Jason

    P.S. If you are unable to find out where it was bought, would you be able to send me the measurements of it. If I can’t buy one I will just make one for myself.
    Thank you!

    • Rock Salt

      Hey Jason! The G man can’t exactly remember where it came from – had a quick search but nothing’s really coming up. In terms of measurements I could probably do you height, width and breadth but I’m all-consumed by NaNoWriMo this month, so I couldn’t offer you a full break down of the drawer sizes and things. Let me know if that would do!

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