Thursday, July 16, 2015

Medieval Makeover -- A Versatile Cheese Tart

The other day I was in a hurry.  I needed a dessert for company but I needed something that wasn't sweet.  I knew one member of the company preferred cheese and fruit at the end of his meal.  Also I wanted to try something different.

These thoughts came together to desiring something like a cheesecake but not too rich and with a good cheese flavor.

Okay, so I needed a crust.  I didn't want a pie crust; I was thinking more like a graham cracker crust.  But I didn't have any graham crackers!  So what can I do instead?  Bread crumbs!  Sweetened and spiced and buttered.

What about the filling?  I turned to a fun book, How to Milk an Almond, Stuff an Egg, and Armor a Turnip by David Friedman and Elizabeth Cook.  I have previously referenced the authors when I wrote about my Strawberry Tarte post and another on Icelandic Chicken.  Mr. Friedman is known in the SCA as Cariadoc.  By the way, as of this writing, the strawberry tarte post is one of the most popular at over 1000 page views.

ISBN 9781460924983
In the Milk an Almond book I found a recipe, "For Tarts owte of Lente" (page 42) which is basically a cheese filling between two pie crusts.  What I liked is that the filling was simple, without sugar or spices.  I hoped it would bake correctly without being encased in dough.

For a topping I had fresh strawberries and some delightfully tart pomegranate jelly. (Thanks to Mrs. R and her kitchen!)

That settled it:  I knew what I needed to do.  Now to figure out the details!

So I mixed bread crumbs with vanilla sugar and spices, then mixed that with melted butter until the mix held together when I squeezed some in my hand.  I patted that mixture into my rectangular tart pan.

Then I put cream cheese, eggs, butter, and milk into the blender and whirred it until it was smooth. I poured the filling into the crust, spilled a bunch of the filling while moving the pan into the oven, and baked it until it was light brown and set in the center.

Once the tart cooled I arranged strawberry halves on top and brushed the surface with melted jelly.  The whole thing went into the refrigerator until it was time to serve it.

I only had time to take a picture of the result
Success!  It was tasty and tart and only a little sweet.  The cream cheese flavor came shining through.  It was like a cheesecake but a simple and pleasant follow up to dinner.  The crust was a little crunchy, which was nice, and with enough sweetness and spice to make it interesting.

The last bit left; saved for my daughter!
This got me to thinking about other cheese and fruit combinations that might be good.  And then my daughter came home with a desire to cook and practice taking food pictures...

Our combined efforts produced a cheddar cheese tart with spiced apple topping.

******

Start by preheating the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

All the ingredients together:


Separate as specified
Crust:

1 1/2 cups dried bread crumbs
1/4 cup sugar (I used vanilla sugar)
a few scrapes of nutmeg
1/16 teaspoon ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cardamom
4 tablespoons butter, melted

Mix the crumbs with the sugar and spices, then pour in the butter and mix until the crumbs stick together easily when squeezed in your hand.  You may need to add some extra butter to achieve this.


Pat into the tart or pie pan, trying to keep the thickness even along the bottom and remembering to press the crumbs up along the sides and into the corners.  Avoid making the crumbs too thick in the corners.  Set aside.

Push firmly
Filling:

7 1/2 ounces cheddar cheese, cut in chunks
3 eggs
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup milk
(note:  Cariadoc's recipe calls for 1 T butter and 1 cup cream, which I did not have.  So I used 1 cup reduced fat milk with one extra tablespoon butter.)

Place all the ingredients in a blender, close tightly, and blend until smooth. 



IMPORTANT:  Put the tart pan in the oven and then pour the filling into it, thus reducing the chance to spill it all over!



Bake at 350 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes or until the top is lightly brown and the center is set.

Allow to cool.


The spot in the middle is loose crust that floated upward.
Topping:

2 tablespoons butter
2 medium apples, cored and chopped into chunks
1 tablespoon sugar (I used vanilla sugar)
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
1 teaspoon cinnamon
a few scrapes of nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon black pepper

Melt the butter in a pan and slowly saute' the apples in it.  As they are cooking, sprinkle on the sugar and spices and stir well.  If the mixture looks a little dry, pour a spoonful of water on it, stir, and then cover the pan to contain the steam.  

Note:  This makes heavily spiced apples, which my daughter and I both like.  If you don't like spices as much, reduce the quantities to as much as a half to make it more subtle.  We were thinking the spices would balance out the sharpness of the cheddar cheese.

Cook until apples are tender.  Let cool.
Yum.
Pulling it all together

Once the tart and the topping are cool, spoon the apple mixture over the top, aiming for an even spread of apple chunks across the surface.  


More yum.
Put the whole thing in the refrigerator until well chilled.

The Verdict

Yes, it is good!  The cheddar flavor was luscious, the filling was not oily (as I worried it might be, using cheddar), and the apples were spiced strongly enough to balance off the cheese.  The crust had some crunchy parts, which complimented the smooth filling and tender apples.  Success!


In some ways, it was not as good as the cream cheese and strawberry version.  The cheddar made the filling denser, more like eating a piece of cheese rather than like a piece of cheesecake.  Perhaps replacing some of the cheddar with cream cheese would make that better.  The strawberries were the perfect accompaniment to the cream cheese flavor as they were juicy and sweet.  The apples were very good with the cheddar, however our taste buds were asking for smaller chunks and a wetter topping; more like chunky applesauce.  If we did this again, we would aim for that topping goal.

We also thought about other flavor combinations that might be good, like
  • blue cheese with fig jam
  • bacon bits in a cheddar filling with a caramelized onion topping
  • blue cheese with apricot jam
  • brie and fig jam
  • goat cheese and poached pears (use the ones poached in spiced wine, as in here?)
  • goat cheese with lemon curd, garnished with raspberries
I would adjust the spices in the crust to best match the flavor choices.  I might not even sweeten the crumbs at all, or just very lightly.

Let me know what you try!

This could also be a very good breakfast dish...

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

More on Liquamen - Oh Wow!

Last May I wrote about my experiments with the Roman condiment called "liquamen."  You can read about it here:  Liquamen.  I was working from the book Cooking Apicius by Sally Grainger.


I didn't make it from fermented fish but used a more convenient recipe involving reduced grape juice and premade fish sauce.  My taste test showed that the best ratio of juice to fish sauce was 7 to 1.

Well, that turns out to be a good ratio if you are tasting the sauce from a spoon.  When it comes to using it as a base for a sauce, Ms. Grainger's recommendation of 3 to 1 is much, much better.

I have been experimenting with using the liquamen as a base for a variety of uses.  My favorite so far is as a steak sauce.  Another good use is as a dressing for steamed green beans.

Liquamen in a Sauce

Reduced grape juice and a purchased fish sauce or liquamen made from fermented fish
Olive oil
White wine vinegar
Salt
Pepper


For the steak sauce, I used

6 tablespoons grape juice
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1/4 teaspoon ground pepper (or to taste)
1/8 teaspoon salt (or to taste)

Mix well in a bowl and serve with a ladle so your guests can pour on the amount they want.


For the green beans dressing, I used

3 tablespoons grape juice
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 teaspoon ground pepper (or to taste)
1/8 teaspoon salt (or to taste)

Mix well in a bowl and then pour over the hot, steamed green beans.  Toss to coat.  Good to toss them again before serving.

Very peppery
The Verdict

The steak sauce is very thin and runny.  I liked it poured over the steak, using enough to have the sauce make a puddle around the meat.  It is amazingly tasty and inspires the eater to want more!

In analyzing the flavors, I would say it touches all five of the tastes our tongues can sense.  It is salty, it is sour from the vinegar, it is sweet from the grape juice, it is bitter from the pepper, and the fish sauce makes it richly umami.

I wondered if the spices I used on the steak influenced my interpretation of the sauce.  Probably they do as I use a salt-free blend with black pepper, garlic, onion, brown mustard seeds, lemon peel, chile pepper, allspice, coriander, marjoram, and oregano.  Hey, I use this blend because it tastes good on the steak!  But the steak is even better with the sauce.

One of my guest tasters smoked a tri-tip and tried my sauce on it.  He said he couldn't get enough of the sauce once he started putting it on the beef.  He was surprised at its flavor because he expected it to taste fishy and it didn't.  He was also surprised at the pleasant sweetness.

And the wine!
The dressing stuck to the green beans because of the olive oil.  I liked the stronger pepper flavor and the other tastes, most of which were like the steak sauce.  I think the dressing might be even better with some vinegar in it, like an oil-and-vinegar dressing.

These mixtures are so much of a success that, once the meat and beans were eaten, we cleaned up the rest of the sauce on our plates with the pesto crescent rolls.  A simple and yet very tasty meal.

I have the ingredients to make more liquamen, so I will post updates if I find any other uses.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Celebrating the 100th Post with a Hundred-Year-Old Recipe



I was truly astonished when I realized that this is my 100th post for this blog.  How should I celebrate it?  What would be appropriate?  I struggled with that for a while.  Should I do something spectacular?  Something on the 100th page of a randomly selected cookbook?  Even though my work levels have dropped, I still have other responsibilities than cooking, so what I chose had to be reasonable in its demands.

What I settled on was using a 100 year old cookbook, which turned out to be an excellent decision for an historical recipe blog.  You see, I live in California and this year is the 100th anniversary of the Panama Pacific International Exposition, a world's fair, which was held in San Francisco.  If you know the history of that city, you know that a major earthquake followed by huge fire had ravaged the city in 1906.  The Exposition was a chance for the city to rebuild and to show to the world how wonderful it could be.  San Francisco pulled it off with style only nine years after its devastation.

http://www.nps.gov/prsf/learn/historyculture/images/lightshow.jpg
The fair committee created a beautiful "Jeweled City" with representations from countries around the world and from various U.S. states, along with displays of technology, agriculture, geographical wonders, and (of course) an amusements and concessions area.  You can view pictures and documents at the San Francisco Public Library website:  http://sfpl.org/index.php?pg=2000041101  and learn even more about its history at http://www.ppie100.org/  (Their "Stories" page has a video with actual footage taken at the fair!)

One of the exhibitors was the Sun-Maid Raisin company and they published a book of raisin recipes, the Souvenir California Raisin Recipe Book, which they sold for 25 cents.  I found a copy of it on their iPad website, sunmaid.com, where they offer a selection of their raisin cookbooks from the last 100 years, available for individual download.


If you go to their non-iPad/iPhone website, http://www.sunmaid.com/book/, you can get their PDF book and read a lot about the history of the company, including the discovery of Thompson Seedless grapes, the woman who became the face on the box, and how the Exposition lead to the company's widespread recognition.  It has recipes but not the historical ones.

On the introductory page of the 28 page souvenir booklet, the dedication is " 'To Mother' who in addition to her many other responsibilities is vitally interested in providing 'Good Things to Eat'..."

They point out that the recipes contained within are all prize recipes:  "We have eliminated all those that are commonplace.  We have printed in this book only those that produce the most delicate and most palatable foods."

I was amused at their blatant sales propaganda, under "The Economy" section:
Raisins, then, are economical because they supply the body with needed food-properties.  Nothing that is food is waste.  Raisins are not a luxury.  Economize by doing without other edibles that do not produce health, strength, and energy.  Never be without raisins.  Keep them always in the house.  Give them to the children after school in place of questionable candy.
There are several categories of recipes in the booklet:  bread, cookies, cake, candy (I guess they aren't of the questionable type), pie, puddings, miscellaneous dainties, and miscellaneous raisin dainties.

I selected "Raisin Puffs", which appears twice!  Once under puddings and once under raisin dainties.  I suspect some proofreading was neglected before publication but I am not bothered by this at all.  I liked it because it is a steamed pudding.

Raisin Puffs

Two eggs; 1/2 cup butter; 3 teaspoons baking powder; 2 tablespoons sugar; 2 cups flour; 1 cup milk; 1 cup Seeded Raisins, chopped fine.  Steam 1/2 hour in small cups.

<Note:  the other recipe says "1/2 package Seeded Raisins", which would be about 8 ounces by weight.>

Today's boxes are only 15 ounces, not the 16 ounces they used to be.
Yes, that is the entire recipe right there.  No other explanations given, I suppose because "everyone knows how to make a steamed pudding."  I decided to use my basic muffin batter mixing skills, that is, I beat the eggs and milk and sugar in one bowl, added the butter and mixed the liquids until the butter was broken up into small bits, then mixed the flour and baking powder in another bowl.  I added the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and stirred until blended.  Then I folded in the finely chopped raisins.

Finely chopped using my ulu knife!
The batter was evenly divided into seven small glass bowls which were well-buttered.

Pre-steaming
The wok turned out to be the most convenient way for me to steam the puddings.  I had to do a balancing act to get the bowls all in and the cover on but it worked.  Once the water inside was boiling, I set the timer for 30 minutes and turned the heat down a little to generate steam without so much bouncing.  At 13 minutes left, I refilled the water supply with hot water and brought it back up to a boil.

After the time was up, I tested each puff with a toothpick to see if it was cooked in the middle.  They were all ready and I put them on the counter to cool.

Post-steaming
They looked for all the world like muffins, except they weren't browned from baking.  They slipped easily out of their bowls after I ran a small knife around the sides.

Before tasting them, I decided they needed a glaze, and what better to represent California than lemon juice mixed with powdered sugar?  I decided to glaze only four of them so the taste testing would include the original recipes.



The Verdict

My guest taster and I each tried an original puff and a glazed puff.  We both liked what we were eating:  the puffs were not too sweet and had a moist, dense texture with a mellow raisin muffin-like flavor.  I thought they needed a little salt in the batter but he, who eats much more salt than I do, did not feel it was necessary.

A closeup of the middle
Success!  I think the puffs would be a good substitute for muffins if you were camping or otherwise did not have an oven available.  I liked that they only steamed for 30 minutes, rather than the several hours a full-sized steamed pudding requires.

The glaze added a little bit of excitement but not as much as I had hoped for.  I enjoyed the puffs with and without the glaze.  I was worried at first about them not being cooked enough despite the toothpick test because the tidbits off the bottom of the bowls tasted a little doughy and floury.  However that was not the case once the puffs had cooled.

I would definitely do them again.  For variation, I would add some lemon or orange zest to the batter, and maybe some spices like cloves or cinnamon.  But they are fine as is and good for dessert, breakfast, or with a cup of coffee or tea.

Monday, June 1, 2015

We say "Salad" and They said "Sallat"

It is the beginning of June so summer is near and spring has had a chance to settle in and make the yard beautiful with greenery and flowers.  My work has finally slowed down so I have time to play in that yard!

I found myself restless and dissatisfied with the ideas I was getting for this blog post.  I wanted something with vegetables.  I wanted to use some of the plants in my garden.  And I wanted it to be the same but different.  I know, I know!  How do you meet all those requirements?

I spent this morning working in my herb garden, trimming and mulching and weeding.  I thought about how, during the Elizabethan period, fresh herbs were often a part of a good "sallat,", what we today call a salad.  Could I put together a fun and different Elizabethan-style sallat and enjoy it?

My feelings were mixed.  What I put into salads is usually lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, croutons, raisins or dried cranberries, and chunks of cheese.  Sometimes other items as they happen to be in my kitchen.  This is a tasty mix and I have no complaints with it.

However, fresh herbs can have strong flavors to taste buds not accustomed to them.  Tomatoes and cranberries were out as they are New World foods.  While croutons might have been used, I couldn't recall any references to them so I would leave them out.  What else could I add that would be appropriate to the period and still appealing?

I turned to one of my favorite books, The English Housewife by Gervase Markham, edited by Michael R. Best.

ISBN 0-7735-1103-2
The preface states this book "is the most comprehensive, the most practical, and the most readable of the many books of instruction written for women in the early seventeenth century."

In Chapter II he starts off describing the knowledge a wife must have of herbs:  how to grow them, the best times to harvest them, when to save the seeds, and, of course, how to cook with them.  His first receipt (recipe) is "Of sallats.  Simple sallats."
First then to speak of sallats, there be some simple, and some compounded; some only to furnish out the table, and some both for use and adornation.  ...  chives, scallions, radish roots, boiled carrots, skirrets, and turnips, with such like served up simply; also, all young lettuce, cabbage lettuce, purslane, and divers other herbs which may be served simply without anything but a little vinegar, sallat oil, and sugar;
He mentions, in his compounded sallat sections, ingredients like red sage, mint, violets, marigolds, spinach, blanched almonds, raisins, capers, olives, figs, currants, thinly sliced and peeled oranges and lemons, and pickled cucumbers.  I was pretty sure I could pull a variety of these ingredients together to make a sallat.

I collected small quantities of various herbs and flowers from my garden:  oregano, lavender, thyme, lemon verbena, rosemary, mint, violas, basil, and sage. (It is important to know that your plants are free from bug sprays and other toxins.)


They were rinsed with water and, as they drained, I assembled the "main" sallat. I used

spring mix (a blend of spinach and baby lettuces)
a shallot, peeled and sliced paper thin
a fresh cucumber, peeled and sliced
carrots, chopped and microwaved for about a minute to cook them to tender
dried currants
dried figs, thinly sliced
pickled pearl onions, chopped
pitted Kalamata olives that had been marinated in herbs and Cabernet wine, sliced
pickled capers

Lovely, isn't it?
I kept the quantities of these ingredients low (expect for the spring mix base) because I didn't want too much competition for flavors but I wanted a variety.

The herb leaves were stripped off the stems and either cut into slivers or chopped.  The lavender flowers were stripped and left whole. I put them into individual bowls so my guest taster and I could sprinkle them onto our individual sallats and judge their impact.  There were only four viola flowers so I placed them as decoration on top of the main sallat.


We scooped some of the main into our bowls then added whatever combination of herbs we wanted to try.  This was a great idea because it inspired us to have several bowlfuls each in order to sample the whole variety.  I think I had four servings.  We dressed our sallats with a balsamic vinaigrette.  We both tried eating a viola flower by itself.

The Verdict

We both concluded that the violas were pretty but didn't have much flavor.  I thought the lavender flowers were too strong and bitter to eat raw but I did start getting accustomed to their flavor.  My guest taster thought they were fine from the beginning.

A treat for the eye
We both liked all the herbs although some were strong and needed some getting used to.  My favorites were basil (no surprise there), thyme, and mint and they were the ones I kept going back to.  The sage was okay but I thought it needed to be chopped into smaller pieces.  The lemon verbena was strong and I kept thinking I didn't like it.  Eventually I liked it.

My guest taster's favorites were oregano, sage, basil, rosemary, and thyme.  He described their impact as "little bursts of flavor", which he liked very much.  He said he would love to have any of them again, including the bright flavor of the lemon verbena.

Success!  I am not doubtful any more about using fresh herbs in my sallats.  I know to keep their pieces small so to get those bursts without overwhelming the other flavors.

I served the sallat with chicken thighs baked in an Italian dressing coating and with an herb stuffing side dish.  Was this too much herb flavoring in one meal?  Not at all.  The flavors complemented each other and made for a very tasty dinner.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Baked Ham in Pastry with Figs

After making liquamen (fish sauce) in the previous post, I perused my Cooking Apicius (by Sally Grainger) book looking for a recipe or two that I wanted to try.

ISBN 1-903018-44-7
One that caught my attention did not use liquamen as anything more than an optional seasoning but I wanted to try it anyway.

Baked ham in pastry with figs (page 62)

1 kg piece of gammon, pre-soaked if necessary
5 dried figs
3 bay leaves
250 g plain white flour
1/4 tsp salt
2 tbsp olive oil
100 ml water
100 g set honey
olive oil for brushing
fish sauce, or salt and honey for seasoning


Cover the gammon in cold water, add the figs and bay leaves and bring to the boil.  Simmer for 20 minutes per 500 grams plus an extra 20 minutes.  Remove from the heat and cool in the water.  

While it is cooling, sieve the flour and salt together into a bowl and add the oil and the water gradually to form a dough.  Knead until smooth and pliable.  This amount of dough should cover at least a two-kilo joint so adjust the amount to suit the size of your joint.  

Cut the dough in half and roll one portion out into a large thin sheet.  Follow the method in the recipe for tracta on page 37.*  The pastry sheet should resemble that used for apple strudel rather than filo and the thicker edges of the sheet should be trimmed before you begin to wrap the meat.

Place the meat on a board and remove the skin.  Score the fat with a knife right through to the flesh to create a criss-cross pattern.  Spread the honey over the fat and into the cuts.  Spread it over any surfaces of the lean meat too.  

Brush your first pastry sheet with olive oil  and lay the meat at one end.  Roll the meat up in the dough, fold over the edges to make a parcel, and brush its exterior with more oil.  Trim away any excess pastry.

Roll the other half of the dough into a sheet and brush its upper surface with olive oil.  Wrap the meat again, this time tracking the minimum amount of excess dough under the joint.  Brush the exterior with more oil.  

Bake in a medium oven (375 degrees F, 190 degrees C, gas 5) for 1 hour until the pastry is crisp and light brown.  Remove and allow to stand for 10 minutes.  

Strain 250 ml of the cooking liquor into a small pan and season with a little fish sauce or salt if desired, and a little honey. Taste and adjust the balance of flavors.  Carve thick slices of meat and spoon a little of the liquor over them.  Serve it forth.

*To paraphrase these directions, you would roll the dough, turn it over, roll it more, and repeat until very thin.  Do not push from the center but use brisk "back-and-forth" motion at the edges.  Make it as thin as possible without it tearing.

My Notes

Gammon is a hind leg of pork that is cured like bacon by dry-salting or brining.  It is sold uncooked.  The difference between it and ham is that ham is already cooked.

I do not know of any place in my area that sells gammon.  Ham is easy to obtain and that is what I used.  However I was concerned about the amount of cooking time called for in the recipe as I did not want to overcook the already cooked ham.  So I shortened the amount of time simmering in the water to 30 minutes.

It took about 15 minutes of kneading to get the dough smooth.  Then I let it rest while the ham finished cooling and the dough's pliability improved because of it.   I rolled it out to what I thought was very thin (I could read through it) then used my hand to spread the oil on its surface.

Note that when you remove the ham from the simmering liquid you want to keep that liquid for later (that is the "cooking liquor" mentioned for the sauce).

My honey was runny, not set (solid), and that created a problem in keeping it on the ham.

The second layer of dough made a nice, neat little package of the whole thing.  It looked great!


It cooked about an hour in order to get the dough browned.


The Verdict

Meh.

I will call this a success but not anything glorious.  I don't think there is anything wrong with Ms. Grainger's recipe and feel that the problems were all mine from making too many changes.

The shortened cooking time did not appear to adequately flavor the ham with anything more than a light herbal scent from the bay leaves.  The figs did not seem to add anything at all although the water and the ham's exterior became darker.  The bay flavor was nice but weak.

The runny honey did not add anything to the tasting experience.  Ms. Grainger says, "The meat finishes cooking in its case while retaining the juices, which caramelize with the honey -- wonderful!"  My already-cooked ham did not have any juices and the honey was just a thin layer.

I probably could have gotten the dough layers thinner.  I thought they were thin enough and I even baked the scraps to see what they would be like as crispy.  They were very tasty but the wrapped ham layers were tough and dry.  Only the parts that were absolutely thin were pretty good.

The cooking liquor's flavor was weak and watery, so I added in about two tablespoons of liquamen and then reduced it by about 1/3 on the stove.  This tasted pretty good but only added a little bit to the ham's flavor.  It did soften and moisten the crust.  If I had a weak liquor again, I would reduce it first and then add the liquamen.

My guest taster thought it was fine.  I thought the ham was fine but not much different from the ham as it was purchased and the crust was okay.


I really liked the concept, though, and would love to try it again some time using a piece of uncooked pork, like a tenderloin or roast.

I looked around the Internet to see if I could acquire a gammon and found I would have to import it at a cost of around US $80 before shipping fees.  I will pass on this!

Friday, May 1, 2015

Liquamen -- Fish Sauce from the Roman Empire

In 2007 I was fortunate enough to travel to England; in particular I got to visit Vindolanda and Bath, both sites that were influenced by the Roman Empire about 2000 years ago.  At one of their museum stores (I can't recall which!), I purchased -- what else? -- a cookbook!

Not just any cookbook, though.  It was Cooking Apicius, Roman Recipes for Today by Sally Grainger.

ISBN 1-903018-44-7
Ms. Grainger is a researcher interested in experimental archaeology, food history, and food in antiquity.  I have seen references before to Apicius, "a collection of Roman cookery recipes, usually thought to have been compiled in the late 4th or early 5th century AD." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apicius)  The problem I had with it was most of the references were to recipes we would consider very strange, like cooked dormice.  It was almost enough to make me believe the Romans ate nothing but weird (to us) food, however I know that old cookbooks often give us recipes that were for feasts or other special gatherings.  Thus the food tends to be exotic.

Ms. Grainger has, in my humble opinion, focused on reasonable recipes:  ones where we can easily find or make the ingredients.  When I read them over I get excited rather than revolted about making them.

In the Introduction, she discusses "fish sauce" as a fundamental ingredient to Roman food.  There are various types, depending on how they are prepared.  I focused on liquamen:
This was made by dissolving whole small fish, as well as larger pieces of gutted fish, ... into a liquor with salt.  The fish, often anchovy, were layered with salt in a barrel or pit and left for anything up to four months.  The whole mixture cleared from the top and settled into layers.  The paste at the bottom was called allec and was used as a pickle in its own right.  The liquor was called liquamen.
(If you would like to learn more about the different fish sauces, read her paper here.)

Fortunately she gives us a recipe that does not require us to buy fish or to wait four months.

Adapted fish sauce  (page 29)

1 liter carton white grape juice
1 bottle "Oyster brand" fish sauce or a pale variety of fish sauce

Note the color of the grape juice
Tip the grape juice into a large saucepan and bring to a gentle simmer.  Cook at the lowest setting for however long it takes to reduce by half.  This is never set in stone as grape juice can have a higher or lower sugar content.  Cool and store.  

You can use this for other recipes in Apicius as well as for your fish sauce.  The ratio that works for me is two-thirds fish sauce to one-third grape syrup.  This produces a blend that is neither too salty, nor has it lost too much of the cheesy/meaty elements that you need.  

You might find that you need to adjust this ratio depending on the type of fish sauce that you have.  The darker varieties tend to be saltier but unfortunately this is not always the case!  You might try half and half to achieve the correct blend.  Experiment!  The initial cost is low and well worth the effort in the long run.

My Notes

It took several hours to reduce the grape juice to half its original volume.  The first hour was spent trying out different heat levels:  I wanted to reduce it quickly but not boil or burn it.  The lowest setting wasn't enough to produce any visible evaporation so I bumped it up to just below a simmer.  I would not recommend this as a project to start in the evening when you need to go to bed at a reasonable hour.

Once it was at half volume (I measured it!), I poured it in a heat-proof container and put it in the refrigerator.

Now a beautiful golden color
The fish sauce I had already was not even close to being pale.  I just decided to hope I could find the right blend as Ms. Grainger suggests.

Experimentation

First my guest taster and I tried the fish sauce by itself.  This gave us an idea of how salty it was as well as the "cheesy/meaty" flavor it had.  My taste buds said, "too strong, too salty, and a very fishy aftertaste."  My guest taster said the same thing and he loves anchovies on his Caesar salads (I don't).

We also tried the reduced grape juice by itself.  It was a pleasant, grapy flavor.  As he said, "What's not to like?"

Then we started tasting different ratios of fish sauce to juice.  I used a teaspoon measure, a separate spoon for each liquid, put the liquids in a little bowl, and stirred them to mix.  Between samples we cleansed our palates with water crackers and plain water.  Here are our results:

1 part fish sauce to 1 part grape juice:  Too fishy!  I found that the salt was almost burning my mouth.

1 part fish to 2 parts grape:  Still too salty.  The fish was overwhelming the grape.

1 part to 3 parts:  Better.  We could still taste the fish but started tasting the grape.  It was more balanced but still not good.

1 part to 4:  Starting to like it.  Getting to a balance.

1 to 5:  Still too salty but finally not too fishy or grapy.

1 to 6:  Seems just right!

1 to 7:  Very good.  Less salty than 1:6 and we liked it better.

1 to 8:  Too grapy.  Not enough fishy/umami flavor.

The Verdict

We decided that for the very dark and strong-flavored fish sauce I had, the best combination was 1 part fish sauce to 7 parts grape juice.  It was good enough that after tasting a spoonful, we actually wanted to taste more. Success!

Since liquamen is mostly an ingredient to recipes and the reduced grape juice can be used alone or mixed with other items, I did not turn the juice into a big batch of liquamen.  I kept the two liquids separate but with the ratio marked on them so I could mix up what I needed when I needed it.

Now I have to decide which of Ms. Grainger's mouthwatering recipes I want to try using the liquamen!

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Seer Torshi -- Persian Pickled Garlic!

This is a case of blogger imitating blogger.  My daughter shared with me a food blog post about pickled garlic:  the traditional slow way (takes about 7 years) and the "quick and dirty" way (takes 3 months to 1 year).  I was intrigued. 

My internet research indicates this is a popular technique for preserving vegetables.  See "Tursu" in Wikipedia:  "The pickled vegetables of the cuisines of many Balkan and Middle East countries.  The word torshi comes from torsch, which means 'sour' in the Iranian languages."  I strongly suspect it is an old, old technique since, when you get down to the basics, it really only needs a clean container, garlic, white vinegar, salt, and honey.  And a lot of time!

The idea is to fill your container with garlic heads or cloves, unpeeled, then surround it with vinegar in which honey and salt have been dissolved.  Put a weight on top to keep the garlic submerged and let the mixture ferment for a week or so.  This softens the garlic and causes it to sink, so you remove the weight, top it off with vinegar, cover it, and let it sit in a cool, dark spot for 1 to 7 years.

This website, Novel Adventures, recounts a story of a person who was offered a taste from the family stash of seer torshi:  "My mother-in-law explained the condiment's origins.  Her grandmother had made the seer torshi forty years earlier, and every time the family ate it, they could feel her presence with them."

Forty years and more!  What a way to remind your family of you long after you are gone.

I decided to try the fast method to seer torshi, as per FoodinJars.com's recipe.

Method 2:  "Quick and dirty" Seer Torshi (1 pint batch)

4 - 6 heads of garlic, or enough to tightly pack a 2 pint mason jar
2 cups distilled white vinegar
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon honey
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
That's all, Folks!
  • Split heads into individual cloves but do not peel them.
  • Add garlic and white vinegar to a stainless steel pot and heat uncovered on medium-high until simmering.  Add salt and honey and simmer for an additional 5 mintues.
  • Remove from heat and allow to cool.  The garlic cloves will have softened somewhat but should still be fairly firm with their skins intact.
  • Pack the garlic cloves into pre-sterilized 1 pint mason jar.  Add 3 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar and then fill the jar with the cooled white vinegar mixture, leaving about an inch of headspace.
  • Unlike the traditional method, this garlic pickle should not ferment.  Also as that garlic is pre-cooked, it tends to sink in the brine and shouldn't need to be weighed down.  I imagine you could process the jar at this point to seal it -- I didn't bother.  Store in a cool, dark spot for a minimum of  3 months or up to 1 year.
My Notes

I made just one pint jar of this recipe as I only had 6 heads of garlic.

To sterilize my mason jar, I used the directions from Ready Nutrition:

Microwave Method
  1. Pre-heat the oven to 280 degrees Fahrenheit or 160 degrees Celsius.  The hot oven will be used to dry the jars once they have been sterilized in the microwave.
  2. Fill the jars halfway with cold water.  Place the jars in the microwave.  Depending on the size of the microwave, more than one jar can be sanitized at the same time.
  3. Heat jars in the microwave on high for around three minutes or until the water boils.   The boiling water will sanitize the inside of the jar.
  4. Place jars upside-down in the oven.  Allow the jars to drain and dry in the oven.  Once the jars have dried and are still hot, they will be ready to be filled with preserves and sealed.  Heating the jars allows them to expand so they will not break when filled with hot preserves.
Once the jar was done in the microwave (and the water definitely boiled as I found it all over the inside of the oven!), it sat in the regular oven until the cloves in vinegar had cooled.  I put the lid and band in the oven just to get them heated and possibly sterilized, too.

You can see a definite change in the garlic cloves before simmering
Before
and after the simmering was through,

After
I used a slotted spoon to transfer the garlic cloves from the saucepan to the sterilized jar. 

The garlic did not float in the liquid, as the recipe specified.  I used almost all of the liquid in the saucepan to fill the jar.

After that, I sealing the jar with the band and lid.  Then I let it sit on the counter overnight before I put it away in the cupboard while it aged.  About a half hour after I sealed it, I heard a "pop" and noticed that the lid was pulled down -- a vacuum seal had been generated.

Not shaken or stirred
The Verdict

I don't know!  It certainly was easy to prepare.  I really liked not having to peel the garlic.  It didn't take long to simmer and it cooled down quickly enough that I got to bed on time.  I guess we will all have to check back on this blog in three months to a year.  I don't know how long I can actually wait!


Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Lemon Chicken Stew -- North African Cuisine

The book from which this recipe comes is Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World, by Lilia Zaouali.

ISBN 978-0-520-26174-7
However, it is in the chapter on contemporary North African cuisine.  So while it is not terribly historical, it is from a region I wanted to explore.  And it looked good!

The medieval recipes are translated but unredacted and make for some interesting reading.  One I want to try some time soon is on page 65, "Marinated Olives with Thyme" and one I am dubious about trying is on page 64, "Fish Drowned in Grape Juice."  Yes, you take a live fish and immerse it in grape juice so it will "thrash about and swallow the juice until its body is filled with it."

Getting back to what I did do, I present to you (from page 148)

Lemon Chicken Stew

1 chicken (about 3 1/2 pounds), cut into pieces
4 tablespoons olive oil
salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
2 medium (or three small) potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
1 medium onion, peeled and thinly sliced
2 tomatoes, thinly sliced
2 small lemons, thinly sliced
1 bunch fresh parsley, leaves only, finely chopped


Moisten the best pieces of the chicken (thighs, wings, and breasts) with a tablespoon of the oil and season them with a pinch of salt, the cinnamon, and half the turmeric and white pepper.

Arrange the potato and onion slices in the bottom of a terrine.  Sprinkle them with salt and the rest of the turmeric and white pepper, and add enough water to cover them completely.  Add the remaining 3 tablespoons of oil and mix well.  Arrange the chicken pieces on top along with the tomato and lemon slices.

Put the terrine into a preheated medium oven and cook for about 45 minutes, turning the chicken pieces from time to time.  Before serving, sprinkle with the chopped parsley.

My Notes

I used three pounds of boneless, skinless chicken thighs, black pepper instead of white, two potatoes, half of the shown onion, and 1 1/2 of the shown lemons.  The parsley was skipped.

Instead of a terrine I used a round casserole dish.  The recipe did not say to cover the dish, so I didn't.
Filled to the brim and ready to cook
The oven was heated to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and it took 1 hour and 20 minutes to ensure the meat was cooked through.

I didn't turn the chicken much as the dish was very full and I worried about spilling and splashing.  Just a few times at the end to make sure the meat was cooked thoroughly.

The Verdict

Success!  This was quite good.  The tomatoes and lemons cooked to tender and started melting into the sauce around the meat.  I could taste the lemon juice in the sauce -- it made the sauce "sparkle" in flavor -- and yet the potatoes and onions were still robust enough to make this dish more than just chicken in sauce.

I was glad I sliced the lemons as thinly as I could as they get eaten (rind, white, and pulp) with everything else, adding a nice twist in flavor.  The turmeric makes the sauce an orangey-yellow and that is attractive against the other specks of spices and colors from the tomatoes and lemons.

A beautiful presentation
If I were to do this again, I would put in less water with the vegetables or perhaps use broth instead.  The rounded bottom of the casserole dish fooled me, I think, into putting in more water than I really needed to make a good sauce.  It did taste a little thin on flavor.

I would also use more spices than called for, especially salt.  This says a lot because I don't usually salt my foods.  My guest taster discovered that seasoned salt was a good enhancement and from that, I conclude that increasing the amount of cinnamon and pepper would be the right thing to do.  This could be because of too much water for the sauce but perhaps not.

The stew was perfect served with rice.  I would add a cucumber salad to it next time, too.

Dig down deep to get the onions and potatoes

Friday, March 20, 2015

Scottish Border Tart, Take Two

On an early post, I tried the Scottish Border Tart but neglected to include the eggs in the filling.  They were listed in the ingredients but did not show up in the instructions.  So I tried the recipe again, this time adding the eggs at the bold text.
To make the filling beat the sugar and butter together until the mixture becomes creamy.  Beat in the eggs. Add the sifted flour and ground almonds. Spread a layer of jam over the bottom of the pastry and then add the filling.  Arrange a lattice design of pastry strips on top.  Cover with the flaked almonds.  Bake in moderate oven (350 degrees F) for 30 minutes.  15 minutes before the tart is cooked remove from oven and sprinkle over a layer of confectioner's sugar.  Return to oven. 
I used the same pan so everything was the same except for the eggs.

The first thing I noticed is that the filling spread like a batter instead of like a crumble.


Then the almonds on top sank into the filling more.


The finished tart looked softer and showed off the powdered (confectioner's) sugar better.


And the individual pieces looked and tasted fluffier than the first attempt.

Take Two:  Fluffy
Take One:  Crunchy
The Verdict

It tasted great!  The softer texture was nice and more like a coffee cake than a shortbread.

I liked it and so did my coworkers.  Success!

In comparison, they were both good.  However I and my guest taster enjoyed the first version the most because we liked the shortbread crunch along with the almonds.  My recommendation:  fix whichever one appeals to you the most.  Crunchy or soft -- your choice.