Monday, May 31, 2010

So what have I learned??

So ancient Rome wasn't all dinner parties and grand banquets.  They lived ordinary, normal lives, working and raising families just like we do today.  There were bakeries and take-out restaurants throughout ancient Rome and most homes had a central wood stove in which they did the majority of their cooking.  Their diet consisted mainly breads, olives, cheeses, nuts, fruits and pickled meats or seafood and, of course, wine (although they watered it down). Most of the foods we think of as traditionally Italian really are not, at least not Roman.  There were no sun dried tomatoes, no mozzarella, no noodles...  Just lots of fish, herbs, honey and wine.  One of the major ingredients in ancient cooking was garum, a fish sauce used in nearly everything.  It was made by frying small fish (like anchovies) over high heat until they basically disintegrated into a liquid.  Today we have asian fish sauces that are similar, so there is no need to simmer anchovies all day long!  Garum was combined with vinegar, honey, wine or oil to create a balance of sweet or salty, depending on the dish.  I assume this was used primarily for a preservative effect, much like all the herbs and spices.  I used bay leaves in just about everything (and happily left out the fish sauce) as well as olive oil or honey and wine.  Their dishes were plentiful and there are many source out there in which you can rediscover ancient Roman cuisine.  The food is flavorful, healthy and a pleasant combination of whole, natural ingredients that is a nice change in today's processed and fast food world.  A quote from one of Emperor Nero's advisors, Gaius Petronius, sums up Roman cooking best.  He says """After a generous rubdown with oil, we put on dinner clothes. We were taken into the next room where we found three couches drawn up and a table, very luxuriously laid out, awaiting us.We were invited to take our seats. Immediately, Egyptian slaves came in and poured ice water over our hands. The starters were served. On a large tray stood a donkey made of bronze. On its back were two baskets, one holding green olives, and the other black. On either side were dormice, dipped in honey and rolled in poppy seed. Nearby, on a silver grill, piping hot, lay small sausages. As for wine, we were fairly swimming in it."

My Final Presentation

So I ended the quarter with a final presentation on ancient Rome.  The photo is me dressed as best I could as a Roman matron, at least the best that the costume shop on campus would allow.  The hair isn't entirely accurate, but it was the 'fanciest' hairstyle I could find.  My initial thought was to create an ancient dinner party, but when my presentation was moved into a different room with our entire class (not just the 8 or so we've had all quarter) I re-adjusted my plans...  I made several of the best dishes from throughout the quarter and presented a slide show of information on ancient Roman life.  I served the fig appetizers, cucumber salad, cheese biscuits, libum, and chickpea dip with homemade Parmesan pita chips.  The students who had gone abroad and hadn't tried the recipes before were quite impressed and the folks that had been in my class throughout the quarter were happy to have another taste at the dishes.  I heard from several classmates that the food was great and had quite a few people ask me for the recipes.  All in all I think that this project this quarter was quite a success and my classmate really enjoyed being guinea-pigs throughout my experimentation.  A few of these recipes will be in pretty regular rotation at our house and I'm looking forward more research on my own.

Cheese and Anise Seed Quick Bread

So I wanted to try several different breads, but I'm not a great baker and most needed lots of kneading and then several hours of rising...  I simply didn't have the time or patience to attempt these, so I found a couple recipes that didn't require that (the Romans had to be busy too, right???) including the cheese biscuits I posted about earlier and this one.

These are also from Apicius' On Cookery and are described as "bread shaped like dice made with anise seed, cheese and oil."  It is a moist bread with a texture similar to banana bread and as I said before is quick and easy to make.

I used an 8x8 pan for this but found the dough to be pretty thick and difficult to spread out, so you could probably use a baking stone of some sort and get a nice crust on the bottom too...  I mixed together flour, salt, baking powder, anise seeds and cumin.  In another bowl I combined cottage cheese, oil, eggs and honey.  I added the dry ingredients to the wet and stirred until they were blended together.  As I said, I tried to spread this into an 8x8 pan but it was pretty thick...  I baked it until it was golden brown and it should be served warm - much like everything else...

So this was really good too - a good savory bread that would be great with a hearty soup or something.  It had  a pretty strong flavor but throughout this project I've found that to be the case with most of these ancient dishes.  I served this the next day and it was a thick and 'sturdy' bread that was quite tasty.

Peaches in Spiced Wine

So the idea of these was much better than the execution, but I'm taking full responsibility for that...  I bought peaches pretty early in the year and didn't get the kind that pitted easily.  So I was forced to chop around the pit, leaving me with small chunks of peaches, not nice halves of freshly pitted fruit...  Anyway, thinking I was going to be taking these to class with me the next morning I simmered the peaches in wine, honey and cumin until the fruit became soft.  Because of the size of the fruit chunks, I ended up with sort of a peach sauce that was actually really good!  Much like the pear patina, it tasted like fresh peaches and was a really pretty pinkish color...  The original recipe was from Apicius and you're supposed to simply slice the peaches into a large cup or bowl and top with honey, then pour dessert wine on top and sprinkle the cumin over them.  This would be quite tasty and later in the summer when the peaches are better, we'll definitely be trying this one again!

Pear Patina

So the Romans had very savory and flavorful dishes.  At the end of a meal, they needed to counter some of the intense flavors of the main dishes with a palate cleanser of sorts.  They often used sweet breads, fruits, pudding or egg-based dishes with cheese.  This patina is a custard of sorts that combines most of these ideas.

I started by peeling and halving 4 pears and taking the cores out.  I simmered them in water until they were soft.  I scooped them out of the wine and smashed them in a bowl with honey, pepper, cumin and sweet raisin wine (passum).  Meanwhile, I had eggs and milk in a mixer and was combining them until they were "fluffy."  I added the pear mixture and blended the whole thing together.  I poured it into a baking dish and baked for about 25 minutes. 

I had no idea what to expect out of this, except that with the eggs and milk it would be a sort of custard dish.  It was.  And it was good.  It tasted like fresh pears (and wine!).  It turned out really watery, and I'm not sure exactly how to avoid that, other than maybe making it in a smaller dish next time.  It didn't look overly appetizing, but it sure tasted good.  And it was perfect as a finishing taste, not to sweet or heavy, just a nice ending for a meal...

Ancient Roman Libum

This one was one of the best recipes I came across, and one of the easiest to make.  It is literally 5 ingredients - honey, flour, ricotta cheese, eggs and bay leaves.  I mixed the eggs, ricotta and flour into a dough, divided it out into 4 round loaves and placed them on a baking stone, each with a bay leaf underneath.  I baked them until golden brown and removed them from the oven.  In a separate bowl, I heated up the honey then put the warm buns in it so they absorbed some of the honey.  Let stand for a half hour or so and enjoy! (Remove the bay leaves prior to eating...  They just peel right off.)

These were absolutely incredible!  They were dense little sticky cakes that were originally used as sacrificial items in ancient times.  They were given to household gods on occasions like childbirth or weddings.  The recipe comes from Cato's On Agriculture, which was full of simple recipes for farmers or citizens out in the country.

Cucumber Salad with Raisin - Coriander Vinaigrette

So this seemed a bit strange to me, a salad made strictly out of shredded cucumbers, but it made more than I thought...  Cucumbers were brought to Rome in the 6th century BCE by the philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras (one of the first known people who practiced a raw foods diet, he didn't eat anything animal based or that required a fire for cooking) .  He studied in Egypt and it was there that he learned of a recipe of cucumbers and raisins, coriander and mallow, a marsh herb that was thought to be a miracle food that prevented hunger and thirst, given by the goddess Demeter to Hercules.  This version is served with a creamy feta dressing, and would be great with a crusty bread or as a cooling side dish for spicy foods...

So I started by grating 2 regular cucumbers that I scooped the seeds out of.  I didn't peel them, but I suppose you could...  Then I mixed feta, heavy cream, a sweet and syrupy white wine, honey, fresh lemon juice, olive oil, coriander and pepper.  I used an immersion blender to make it thick and creamy - not something they would have used in ancient Rome, but it was the best I could do!  The next morning I mixed the dressing with the shredded cukes and topped the salad with golden raisins and chopped cilantro.

Again, it was very good, the raisins added a really interesting texture and flavor.  I could see how it would be effective in cooling your palate after a spicy dish, the cucumber and cilantro had a great, refreshing taste.