Archive for the ‘historical’ Category


Origin Myth

   Posted by: Livia

My friend, Cee, asked me to ramble on about my interest in food and cooking.

I learned to cook from my mother (because my father not only doesn’t cook much, but also doesn’t like most food), and she would measure ingredients with her hand and her eyes. To teach me how to make (not particularly authentic) curry, she would pour the flour into my hand so that I could get a feel of how much went into this particular recipe. And she did that many times before she ever let me make it on my own. Huh – and that recipe isn’t on my food blog yet. Good to know.

But I really got into cooking when I started Weight Watchers in high school and all of a sudden that standard rotation of dinners weren’t what I needed. I tried new foods, new cooking methods, and all kinds of new recipes.

And then what really got me confident in my ability to work from concepts to finished dishes was Highlander. See, there was this terrible episode called “Through a Glass Darkly.” The main plot would have been decent if it hadn’t been filmed in a tediously repetitive way. But the subplot! The subplot had my favorite character recovering ancient manuscripts (on white A1 office paper, but moving on) that had gotten damp in a church cellar or something. There was a discussion of a Roman cookbook author named Apicius and a dish called Lentils and Chestnuts, which looked like road tar but tasted delicious. And my mother and I heard that – and looked at each other – and then promptly went to the internet to see if this was random silliness or a real thing. And we ended up with a terrible translation and the discovery that Apicius just lists ingredients and doesn’t actually tell you quantities or really many details at all. And about half of the recipes ended with the direction, “If anything is missing, put it in,” which is rather like, “Adjust seasoning to taste,” only much more vague. So my mother researched how to obtain or substitute for the ingredients. And she bought a couple books on herbs (before then, it had just been thyme. No, really, just thyme. Dried, ground thyme. And salt. But we eschewed black pepper, too). And it was all a very dubious process – with both of us almost losing fingers to the chestnuts, and far more vinegar that the single capful we used for deviled eggs (which was the whole reason we even owned the 1 bottle of white distilled vinegar in the first place). And then halfway through, all of a sudden, you could smell the flavors coming together and turning into food. It was the most amazing thing ever.

In college, every freshman who is going to work on campus must work in the dining halls. I lasted about a month (with pink eye the very first week I was supposed to work, and then I just gave up and quit once I had mono). But over a couple of the summers I spent working at the library, I picked up additional work with the catering branch of dining services and I loved the fancier side of things and learned a few tricks of presentation (in addition to learning napkin folding in first grade with the gifted program).

Then there were a couple difficult years after college when I was living at home. I loved conspiring with my mother to keep trying new dishes and cuisines, but my father was pining for simple food. He ended up complete rebelling against spagetti because my mother kept putting “green stuff” in the sauce (no, not spinach. Bot even basil. But things like *fresh* thyme) and said that he’d really rather have tomato sauce straight from the can like his mother made for him, if that were all right, please.

And then I moved into my own place. \o/!

*note: this entry was never finished, but it has some fun recipes nonetheless, so here’s the partial thing*

So last weekend I had people over for a workshop on Roman Cooking. Here are the recipes we got through (translations from the Flower & Rosenbaum translation of Apicius:


Isicia Omentata
liber II (Sarcoptes), i (isicia), 7

pulpam concisam teres cum medulla siligine * in vino infusi. piper, liquamen, si velis, et bacam myrtae extenteratum simul conteres. pusilla isicia formabis, intus nucleis et pipere positis. involuta omento subassabis com caroeno.

Forcemeat Sausages
II (The Meat-Mincer), i (forcemeat), 7

Chop up meat and pound with white bread without crust which has been steeped in wine. At the same time pound pepper, liquamen, and, if you like, seeded myrtle-berry. Make little forcemeat balls, inserting pine kernels and pepper-corns. Wrap in sausage-skin and cook gently in caroenum.

Right – so that sounds nothing like meatballs at all, does it? Well originally this was just a step to create the isicia that a whole other recipe called for – only we got distracted by the yumminess and ate all the meatballs plain – so I figured there had to be a meatball recipe somewhere in the book, and this was the closest I found.

When researching this recipe on the internet (hee!), I even found one guy who uses this recipe to make hamburgers. So those sausage casings the recipe is named after? Let’s forget about those. And I didn’t stick peppercorns into the center because if they were in another dish, I thought it might be too much of a texture surprise than if they were standing alone.

Right, so, what did we do?

I put on some wine to reduce by 1/3 = caroenum. And I dunked 3 or 4 slices of bread (crust cut off) into the wine and then squoze them out. The squishy bread was mushed in with roughly 2 pounds of 80%lean ground beef. We pounded (with a mortar and pestle because why not go all out?) some pepper and some dried elderberries (because I didn’t have myrtle and it seemed no fun to just do pepper), and then we added some fish sauce to turn it into a paste. Added that to the meat/bread mixture. And then we made teensy tiny meatballs (1/2″ diameter) and tucked a pine nut into each one.

I preheated the oven to 350F, put the tray of meatballs in the oven, and then poured in just barely enough of the reduced wine to mostly cover the bottom of the tray. Roughly 15 minutes (untimed) later, we had some of the tastiest meatballs ever.


And then I alternated with a vegetable – Kale with poached eggs

Patinam ex rusticis, sive tamnis sive sinapi viridi sive cucumbere sive cauliculis
Liber IV (pandecter), ii (patinae piscium holerum pomorum), 7

item facies: si volueris, substernes pulpas piscium vel pullorum.

** #6 – Aliter patina de asparagis: adicies in mortario asparagorum praecisuras, quae proiciuntur, teres, suffundes vinum, colas. teres piper, ligusticum, coriandrum viride, satureiam, cepam vinum, liquamen et oleum. sucum transferes in patellam perunctam, et, si volueris, ova dissolves ad ignem, ut obliget. piper minutum asperges .

Patina of wild herbs, black byrony, mustard plant, cucumber, or cabbage
book IV (many ingredients), ii (patinae of fish, green vegetables, and fruit), 7

Prepare in the same way, and if you wish add fish fillets or chicken meat. (So this book and another agree that this recipe should come after the Patella with horse-parsley, but I saw no reason why the recipe directly above it wouldn’t work as well. So here’s the recipe above, too)

#6 – Asparagus patina, another method: Put in the mortar asparagus tips, pound, add wine, pass through the sieve. Pound pepper, lovage, fresh coriander, savory, onion, wine, liquamen, and oil. Put puree and spices into a greased shallow pan, and if you wish break eggs over it when it is on the fire, so that the mixture sets. Sprinkle finely ground pepper over it and serve.

So here’s what we did –

Since it seemed a drying shame to use dried onions, I diced the onion first and put it in the skillet with 2 teaspoons of olive oil.

When they were just starting to caramelize, I added 3-4 big leaves worth of kale, cut thinly in a chiffionade (cause I wasn’t turning it into a paste, that’s for sure).

After a few seconds, I splashed a decent quantity (1/4 cup?) of fish sauce into the pan and let it cook down.

When the kale was bright green and a little relaxed but still perky, I added the pounded spice paste (pepper, dried lovage, cilantro, and powdered savory, mixed into a paste with wine), gave it a quick stir to distribute everything, and cracked three eggs over the top. I turned the heat down a bit and covered the pan to let the eggs poach.

When the egg whites were solid and the yolks were pinking up, but still a little runny, I finagled it all onto a plate mostly together and still looking pretty. I topped with a grind of pepper and a sprinkle of salt. Om nom nom!

(Here is someone else’s reconstruction of the asparagus one)

back to meat – I set up for a beef roast

So I am preparing another workshop on Roman cooking, and I’m trying to include more of the vegetable dishes.

But I have a translation problem.
Book III (The Gardener): Section IV Cucurbitas

See – that is the genus name for squash (summer & winter). But I’m pretty sure that squash was native to the western hemisphere.

So what would the Romans have been talking about?


Okay, so I was ashamed to post this without a proper googling, first.

This page explains that what I’m really looking for is called a calabash, and I think I am reading it correctly that the easiest substitution would be a zucchini, right?

ETA: Here is a picture of the calabash split open. I am dubious.


Okay, so when the calabash is less mature and in Italy, it is known as a cucuzza. Here is a good guide on picking and cooking one. Actually, this vegetable (straight, not bulgy, about 1 foot long) is frequently available at my produce truck. SCORE!

Here agrees that the calabash and the cacuzza are the same gourd.


ETA: 9/9/08 : Looks like someone has already done this research


Roman cooking

   Posted by: Livia

I’ll be teaching a Roman cooking class at my place this Sunday. Ancient Roman.

The plan is to start noonish with stuffed dates and then prep a pork roast and get that in the oven.

While the big hunk o’meat is cooking, we’ll make sauces for it and I’ll let people look through my cookbooks and we’ll make anything that looks intriguing.

I’m thinking there should be lentils and chestnuts… or maybe just lentils (those chestnuts are a pain to skin).

And there’ll be nibbling all the way through.

I have agreed to go to an SCA casual outdoor thingy this weekend, so now I have to make a potluck item… a potluck item authentic for prior to 1600.

So you get to help me with the joy of indecision mixed with compulsive planning. [ingredients I need to buy for the recipes will be in bold]

I made a poll to let people pick:

Medieval and/or Roman picnic food: At a picnic – in the heat & humidity – I’d want to eat [note: check the recipes, no really]

Nutty dates – 9 (50.0%)
Pickled cucumber – 5 (27.8%)
Asparagus frittata (served cold) – 7 (38.9%)
Mushrooms – 6 (33.3%)
Stewed Apricots – 4 (22.2%)
Pig liver “sausages” – 1 (5.6%)
Pears in compost – 9 (50.0%)
eh, screw authentic! I’ve a hankering for more strawberries in balsalmic vinegar – 6 (33.3%)

Nutty Dates
Stone dates, and stuff with nuts and ground pepper. Roll in salt, fry in cooked honey, and serve

Pickled cucumbers
Prepare cucumber with pepper, pennyroyal [lovage and oregano], honey or reduced wine, fish sauce, and vinegar. Sometimes asafoetida is added.

Asparagus frittata
Put in the mortar asparagus tips, pound, add wine, pass through a sieve. [note: I have a wee food processor now!] Pound pepper, lovage, fresh coriander, savory, onion, wine, fish sauce, and oil. Put puree and spices into a greased shallow pan, and if you wish break eggs over it so that the mixture sets. Sprinkle finely ground pepper over it and serve.

Cook mushrooms in reduced (white?) wine with a bouquet of fresh coriander. When they have cooked, remove the bouquet and serve.

Stewed apricots
Take small apricots, clean, stone, and plunge in cold water, then arrange in a shallow pan. Pound pepper, dried mint, moisten with fish sauce, add honey, reduced sweet wine, wine, and vinegar. Pour in the pan over the apricots, add a little oil, and cook over a low fire. When it is boiling, thicken with starch. Sprinkle with pepper and serve.

Pig liver “sausages”
Make incisions in the liver with a reed, steep in fish sauce, pepper, lovage, and two laurel berries. Wrap in sausage casing, grill, and serve.

Pears in compost (note: only recipe not from Apicius – and, yeah, that’s what the title said – think compote)
Put 3/4 cup white wine, 1 tsp cinnamon powder, and 1/4 cup sugar in a large pot. Heat, and stir until the sugar melts. Add dates, pitted and sliced into thin strips; 1/2 tsp sandalwood powder [saffron & nutmeg]; 1 teaspoon ginger powder; and a dash of salt. Stir. Remove from heat and set aside. Put 2 firm ripe pears, cored and washed, in a 2-quart saucepan with enough water to cover [+ some wine for flavor/color] to cover them. Heat to boiling and cook for 10 minutes, or until pears are fork-tender. Remove pears from the water and cool. Slice the pears into eighths lengthwise and add slices to the wine syrup. Stir gently to coat the pears with the syrup. Heat the syrup to boiling and cook for 5 minutes, or until liquid is slightly thickened and turns red [yellow]. Remove from heat and pour the pears and syrup into a serving dish. Chill. Serve cold.

So for making Roman Recipes, I first consulted the Vehling translation (because that was the one my mother let me take with me when I moved), but then later I consulted a more reliable translation, the Flower & Rosenbaum translation, which has the Latin and the English on facing pages. Oh, and then I am referencing a completely different translation after the fact – it’s not a good translation, but it is online so I can show you what I’m talking about.

So here’s what we had for dinner last night:
Roast Pork
The whole point of making this dinner was that I had bought a huge pork loin and had cut it into three, still large, roasts. And then my mother had been making pork roasts and sending me the leftovers. And my freezer has been slowly filling up with pork! If I made a roast on my own, I’d then still have 2/3 of the roast right back in my freezer. So I came up with the nifty theme and invited people from the SCA to join me for dinner.

I was intrigued by the Vehling translation’s description of a roast that was first broiled and then braised. And I was all, hmmm… that’s like browning it before you braise it, only we usually do that in a pan rather than an over – cool, it’ll be like brisket.

Only then I checked the Flower & Rosenbaum translation and found that Vehling had been smushing together two recipes that were supposed to be separate. I’m still a bit dubious and I am half inclined to check a manuscript edition because the Flower & Rosenbaum have very clear punctuation and separations of one thing from the next, and I suspect that is a modernization. I did not, however, get around to actually checking before I made the dinner.

So I made the simplest recipe – the one that is a lot like the way I make pork when I do not have a fancy recipe to go from: cover it in salt and roast it and then drizzle with honey right at the end.

Only I usually do all kinds of fancy things like embedding garlic cloves in the meat, and sliding sprig of rosemary between the fat layer and the meat, and studding it with cloves of garlic. The honey, however, was new.

So I figured that a little “roman inspired” creativity never hurt anything, so I lightly dusted the fat on top with asafoetida, and then a heavier dusting with ground cumin. Then I added a nice, thick coating of kosher salt. Oh, yeah, and I pinned bacon rind to all of the exposed surfaces so that the edges wouldn’t dry out during cooking.

I preheated the oven to 400 degrees, and then I lowered it to 250 as soon as the meat went in. Since I had no idea how heavy this roast was, nor do I own a meat thermometer, I went for long, slow cooking that would end up with the meat very thoroughly done, but still tender. I think it ended up cooking for about 4 hours.

And I completely forgot about adding the honey.

It was still quite tasty.

Not satisfied with how simple the roast was going to be, I gave in and decided to make one of the sauces for roasts. Since I was unable to obtain laurel berries or myrtle berries, I went for the third one – and still ended up having to skip half of the ingredients.

I put into a mortar:

  • a lot of pepper
  • dried lovage
  • dried celery leaf instead of celery seed
  • dried dill
  • asafoetida
  • cumin

and then I added slightly damp ingredients

  • ginger, cut into slices against the grain
  • parsley, shredded

then I started working in the liquid ingredients to form a paste

  • a splash of worchestershire sauce and thai fish sauce to make the equivalent of liquamen
  • olive oil
  • a wee little bit of red wine vinegar, which wasn’t in the recipe, to keep it from getting too oily

The sauce turned out very tasty and complemented the pork perfectly.

This is just mushrooms sauteed with oil, liquamen, and pepper.

Almost every translator has you taking time to dry the mushrooms in the middle of cooking. Having cooked mushrooms, and read how modern cookbooks describe the process, I think Apicius is just talking about how mushrooms release a lot of liquid when the start cooking, and that you need to keep cooking through that point until the liquid evaporates before you start to add seasonings (esp. liquid ones) or you’ll end up boiling your mushrooms more than sauteing them.


Again, I chose to use yellow split peas because I like them so much that I had bought a brand new bag a while back only to come home and find that I still have 2/3 of a bag already.

So first I boiled and skimmed the peas.

In a mortar, I ground up black pepper, lovage, and cumin. I added cilantro and liquamen (worchestershire sauce & fish sauce) to make a paste. I then added about half a cup of wine (Manischewitz!) and let it sit and get happy together while the peas finished cooking, and I finished cleaning my apartment.

Then I put a decent amount of olive oil in a pan, poured in the spice and wine mixture to start

I also made some non-Roman accompaniments

After having tasted the peas, I decided that this was a rather spicy and pepper-heavy meal. So I got some yogurt, drained it, and made a raita. There are no yogurt sauce recipes in the cookbook even though there are references to soft cheeses. I think that’s because it’s a rather cold, wet sort of thing to be mixing with ones food and you never know what sort of digestive complications that might create.

And while there are recipes for cucumbers, I chose to serve them just drizzled in white balsamic vinegar to make them as refreshing as possible.

Both additions were good choices.

Elderberry Custard
I posted about this day before yesterday, when I made the first part of the recipe. While looking for the spices for the pork, I found dried elderberries for sale. So I stewed together the dried berries with a few raisins (as I did not have raisin wine, and I thought any sweetness added would be a good thing), a lot of wine (Manischewitz), and some pepper. I did add some honey because I was adding honey to the hard cider I have going, and I was very worried about the lack of sweetness to the dish.

So after it had boiled down and reduced, I strained the liquid out and refrigerated it.

After the roast was out of the oven, I beat together 6 eggs and poured in as much of the elberberry concentrate as looked right, beating it all together. Then I ladled it into greased ramekins and set them in a larger casserole that had an inch of water.

They were ready just as the musical episode of Xena (The Bitter Suite) was finishing.

I thought the end result was just too eggy, and everyone ended up adding some honey to it. I think I would like to try again with just egg whites (elderberry meringue?) and just egg yolks (elderberry zabaglione?) to see whether either one yielded a more favorable result.


Elderberry Custard

   Posted by: Livia

So I’m making Elderberry custard from a roman recipe.

Now I’ve already strayed from the recipe a little because the spice dealer had dried elderberries instead of fresh ones, but since I thought I’d have to substitute another berry entirely if I ever hoped to make the dish, I’m calling it a win.

So this is for company. And I am wondering whether I want to cook it the way it says in the recipe, over a double boiler (which I have, thanks to [redacted]!), or whether I want to put it into little ramekins and bake the custard in a water bath (the only way I have made custard before, with the added benefit of a pretty presentation.

Also there’s no sugar in this recipe. I couldn’t stand it and added a little bit of honey, but I sure am glad that I have a back up dessert: french bread