Tonight I resume my blogging here at Cooking in Time.
Much has happened since I last wrote. Zen Baby is now Zen Toddler; The Mooch is now Picky Chick. Most shockingly, I have lost almost 40 pounds through a little dietary restriction and a lot of good, old-fashioned sweat (interval spinning, running, and working the left-midfield). In any event, my return to blogging begins with a book that I just received for Christmas. My family decided that I needed Odile Redon, Françoise Sabban & Silvano Serventi’s The Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy (check it out here). After a substantial set of introductory essays, the authors present just over 200 pages of recipes from the Middle Ages. For each recipe they provide: (1) the complete text in its original language with citation and description; (2) a mostly literal translation of the original text; and (3) an adaptation of the receipe for the modern kitchen, including ingredient descriptions, technical how-tos, and standard weights & measures.
Tonight, with the snow lying round about / deep and crisp and even, I decided that I would try out one of these 600-plus-year-old recipes. As I had juiced several pomegranates last week—and still had almost 1.5 cups of this beautiful, shimmering pink-ruby elixir left after making Pomegranate Martinis—a recipe on Pg. 87 of the book caught my eye. It was Recipe #34: Romania, or Chicken with Pomegranate Juice. What intrigued me was the technique it described of making almond milk, that most ubiquitous of Medieval ingredients, using pomegranate juice instead of water. I talked Nordic Babe into letting me experiment on the roaster chicken that had taken up residence in our freezer, figuring that if I didn’t act soon the long-frozen poultry would probably start hanging wallpaper in there while requesting a TV and a deep cleaning of the freezer floor.
The recipe called for browning in rendered fatback, but I substituted 3 parts bacon grease and 1 part finely chopped bacon instead. The process was simple. First, grind almonds into a fine powder, toss them into fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice, add lemon juice, stir and strain. The resulting liquid was unlike anything I have ever encountered; it was slightly sweet, slightly tart, and completely almond-y. Meanwhile, I rendered the fat in a large roasting pan and added onions and the chicken, which I had cut up into serving pieces. After browning, I drained the fat, added the pomegranate-almond milk and a strong spice mixture (made of black pepper, nutmeg and ground cloves), and then covered and simmered over very low heat until it was done.
An hour and a half after I had commenced primary ignition on the dish, we sat down to eat the fruits of my labor. Zen Toddler gorged himself on chicken con fuoco, as is his style these days. This is usually followed by multiple repetition of a single-word request (“Cookie! Cookie!”), and he kept that tradition alive tonight. Foodie Girl extolled its virtues while declining to join me in enjoying the sautéed mushrooms drowned in garlic and lemon that I served on the side. Nordic Babe seemed to like it, commenting that the almond came through much more strongly than she had expected. And yes, Picky Chick complained mightily about having to try the chicken—and then cleared her plate once we coaxed a morsel into her mouth.
Washed down with a good-but-average California Zin, the Romania experiment made for a festive December 26th meal. It was hearty and warming, with the spicy ground cloves and nutmeg echoing the Christmastime baked goods we have been inhaling almost the entire month. Someday I may have to check out the original source of this recipe, Liber de Coquina (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale f. lat. 7131 and lat. 9328), in person. Out of curiosity, does anyone know of a published facsimile of either of these manuscripts? Enquiring medievalists want to know…
I plan to continue making the occasional recipe out of The Medieval Kitchen, and will post the results here. Merry Christmas from my house to yours, and have a Happy New Year!
MUSIC: Some Philippe de Vitry to set the mood for this feast. Right time, right place—and an outstanding performance by Sequentia. I wonder if he ever tasted a sour (as opposed to the modern sweet) pomegranate? We’ll never know. Listen here.
“… on his way back from Rote Igel or Kochschule he would stop at the Casino in the Stadtpark for relaxation. There I found him, with Dr. Münz, seated at a little marble table on the high terrace, sipping his coffee seasoned with a glass of cognac and eagerly reading the daily papers fixed on a stick, Viennese fashion.” ~ Sigismond Stojowski 
Johannes Brahms’ contemporaries often mentioned his love of food and drink in their remembrances of him. Indeed, we know quite a lot about his eating preferences, favorite restaurants, and drinking habits… and let’s just say that the evidence is almost exactly the opposite of what one might expect of a famous Herr Doktor who rubbed shoulders with the élite of Viennese society.
“I live in Vienna as if I were in the country,” Brahms once told a friend, and this is borne out in what we know of the Brahmsian cuisine. He ate his midday meal at the same restaurant every day: Zum Roten Igel (The Red Hedgehog). Today the Hotel Amadeus occupies the site of this famous tavern at Wildpretmarkt 5, a two minute walk from St. Stephen’s Cathedral; in its heyday the Igel hosted musical performances and was also favoured by Franz Schubert. But what were Brahms’ meals there like?
Robert Kahn recalls that Brahms never ate alone at the Rote Igel; he always had “two or three acquaintances” with him, and the meal could be accompanied by jokes and prickly insults of all sorts. Brahms was evidently fond of a “highly-seasoned meat course” there (goulash beef, perhaps?). The staff at the Rote Igel “kept in the cellar a small barrel of the finest Hungarian Tokay for his private consumption.” He was also known to have a special weakness for Rindspilaw (beef-pilaf), a simple peasant dish.
His proletarian taste also revealed itself in the homes of those who hosted him. The Kalbeck family noted Brahms’ fondness for Silsalat (an Austrian herring salad), while a Dutch professor recalled her surprise at his “loud demands” for whitebait—a favorite fried food of the dockworkers. There was even a rumor that, when opening a can of sardines, Brahms would drink the oil directly out of the can. Moral of the story: You can take the boy out of the Hamburg slums, but you can’t take memories of favorite childhood foods out of the man.
“There at the head of the table sits the ‘Uncle’ with the long, white-flowing beard. The laughter with which he signs receipts for jokes, roars its way out to us. Yes, Uncle Brahms can drink and eat!” ~ Flore Kalbeck, daughter of the music critic Max Kalbeck, on her memories of Brahms visiting their family home for supper 
Be on the lookout for two Brahmsian recipes posted here in the near future: a hearty Beef-Pilaf and Austrian Herring Salad. Stay tuned for more…
MUSIC: Nordic Babe’s favorite Brahms movement, bar none—Mvmt. III of the Third Symphony (described as “Sheer Sensuality” by one critic. Ahem.) Listen here.
 Sigismond Stojowski, “Recollections of Brahms,” The Musical Quarterly 19 #2 (April 1933): 150.
 Robert Haven Schauffler, “Brahms, Poet and Peasant,” The Musical Quarterly 18 #4 (October 1932): 556.
 Burkhard Laugwitz & Reinhard G. Pauly, “Robert Kahn and Brahms,” The Musical Quarterly 74 #4 (1990): 603.
 Schauffler, 556.
 Karl Geiringer, Brahms, his life and work, 3d ed. (New York: Da Capo Press, 1982), pg. 165.
 Schauffler, 556.
Act One. Meet Me At the Derby. Our story begins on a night in 1937 near the corner of Hollywood and Vine. A hungry regular at a chic hangout asks the restaurant’s owner to whip up a late-night snack for him. Raiding the fridge, the restaurateur pulls together some diverse ingredients (chicken breast, bacon, tomato, egg, avocado, bleu cheese and lettuce), chops them up, and then serves the resulting salad to his customer. The salad is such a hit that the client returns many more times and requests the exact same salad… and word of mouth does the rest. Soon, the salad is on the menu and the restaurant has a hit on its hands.
The hungry customer the night it all started was Sid Grauman, owner and operator of Grauman’s Chinese Theater; the improvising owner was Robert Howard Cobb, after whom the salad would forever be named; and the restaurant was, of course, The Hollywood Brown Derby. Word of mouth worked so well in this case because the buzz came from Hollywood startlets, assorted film stars, directors and producers.
The Cobb salad screams “California!” with its fresh tomato and avocado combination; it hangs loose with the bacon & chicken, but then lets you know it has a more sophisticated side by including bleu cheese. What if those flavors—that slice of old Hollywood glamour—could be contained within a hamburger bun?
Act Two. Another Bobby Flay Creation… and Ground Chicken. Tonight required a quick, improvisatory meal, dreamed up mid-day and executed quickly. (Yes, I forgot to set out the sirloin steaks I was supposed to prepare. Again.) Nordic Babe mentioned over the weekend that she had been craving the Chicken Cobb Burgers I made a while back—and for once I was actually paying attention! I decided to surprise her by filling her request mere days after it was uttered.
Off to The Fresh Market I went, and when it was my turn at the meat counter I asked, “May I please have a pound and a half of ground chicken?” The answer was a quick and authoritative “No.” Evidently they consider the salmonella risk too great to sell ground chicken, so I had two options: I could substitute ground turkey (in my Cobb burger?) or I could buy Nordic Babe a late anniversary present—the meat grinder attachment for her Kitchen Aid stand mixer. Obviously I chose the latter option and arrived home ready to grind the whole chicken breast I purchased (it provided six patties, FWIW). The process was so simple that I have a feeling this grinder will be called into service more often than I expected.
I served the burgers with homemade french fries. Not long ago my mother gave me my grandmother’s french fry potato cutter from way back when. It’s a Presto slicer, and I have no idea how old it is. All I know is that it provides nice, uniform-sized potato slices that fry up perfectly while connecting me to my family’s culinary past. It easily has the most sentimental value of all my kitchen gadgets. And it can make great cheese cubes, too.
Act Three. The Verdict. The chicken stayed moist and tender, which is the biggest challenge in this dish. I grilled the patties in a covered grill pan on the stovetop and was very happy with the result. Overall, the play of the tangy, acidic vinaigrette against the soothing avocado, the ripe, slightly sweet heirloom tomato slices, and the salty Point Reyes bleu cheese and applewood bacon offered just the right balance without pushing too far toward any one extreme. Surprisingly, The Mooch refused to eat her bacon because it had touched the avocado; she wanted “real bacon” (we finally figured out that she wanted a slice on the side like at breakfast). Foodie Girl only managed to eat a quarter of her burger, but even I have to admit that these burgers are huge when everything is stacked. It was difficult for little mouths to fit around them, but the fries certainly went down much easier (no surprise there). Next time I’ll use more avocado and also put some of the vinaigrette on the bun to moisten it a bit. Other than that, it was a most excellent spur-of-the-moment selection. Took me right back home to the Golden State…
MUSIC: Deanna Durbin singing “A Serenade to the Stars” in 1938′s Mad About Music... listen here. Why? Because that film (1) starred Sid Grauman as himself, (2) opened in the year the Cobb Salad really took off, and (3) epitomizes the state of movie music in that era. Hooray for Hollywood, indeed.
Writers are always advised to write about what they know. By following this advice, I am afraid that this is the post that reveals the depths of my geekdom—or at least my fascination with the obscure and poorly-illuminated. In any event, here are some ruminations on a topic near and dear to my heart.
As a scholar working on the early Middle Ages, I occasionally get asked questions like, “What did people eat in the ninth century?” It is difficult to conjure an acceptable answer to that question without seeking further elaboration. Which medieval person’s diet do you wish to explore? The king? One of his courtiers? A monk? Or a bishop? Since this question has so many potential answers, let’s start with the most threadbare diet (the one that I think people most often have in mind when they ask this question): that of the medieval peasant.
The medieval peasant’s food and drink was simple and humble fare. (Gee, there’s nothing like stating the obvious.) Think basic sustenance. Let’s pretend that you are a peasant living in Carolingian Francia around the year 850. Your food is local in the most literal sense; you eat whatever you can make or pick or otherwise harvest in your immediate vicinity. The core of your diet is grain: bread that you or your neighbors baked, barley or oats made into pottage, or the fermented products of grains (beer or ale, called cervisia). Yeast breads are the most common, with unbleached flours made from barley, rye or spelt. You might “spice up” your loaf with a sprinkling of oats, beans or lentils for texture. Bread for breakfast, bread for lunch, bread for dinner… “our daily bread” indeed.
If you choose to skip the beer, you can always drain the water from the boiled barley, add some honey for sweetness, and quaff to your heart’s content. Mmm. That would be quite pleasant, given that your alternative would be water, so long as “it is not drawn from a muddy cistern but from a clear well or the current of a transparent brook” (Lupus of Ferrières). On the grounds of sanitation alone, I’d recommend you go for the beer. Most people do.
In terms of vegetables, three items form the core of your non-bread diet: beans, vetches, and—most importantly—peas. Peas are grown in abundance and are an important source of protein, which (along with fat) you sorely lack. You can make peas into porridge (hee) or simply boil them without mashing. Pretty much everything goes into the pot for boiling, as this is your preparation method of choice. Even the fruits you might happen to obtain, like apples or pears, are boiled before consumption, because you have been taught that eating food raw is unhealthy and potentially dangerous. Speaking of apples, even in Carolingian times people complain about schoolboys stealing apples from their orchards. Plus ça change…
What about meat? You can always go forage through the underbrush down at the nearby creek or marsh. Besides the fish you catch and serve salted or dried, alternatives such as crickets, grasshoppers, and the like provide a precious source of protein for you and your family. Unfortunately meat is generally too pricey for you, with the exception of an occasional helping of salt pork or perhaps bacon fat.
The result of this diet is that you eat “heart healthy”—high (way high) fiber, low fat, low protein, low calorie. But you lack essential lipids and vitamins (A, C and D in particular), as well as calcium. In fact, the levels of fiber in your diet are so high that your digestive tract probably does not absorb the nutrients in your food properly.
One of these days I’ll get around to offering up a recipe for pottage so that you can try to eat like a Carolingian peasant–or Alcuin of York*–for a day. Oh, and remember to pair it with peas, please.
Here are a few good sources for more information on the basics: Pierre Riché, La Vie Quotidienne dans L’Empire Carolingien; Frances & Joseph Gies, Life in a Medieval Village; Paul B. Newman, Daily Life in the Middle Ages
MUSIC: Gustate et videte, Gregorian communion chant… listen here. Because, hey… it’s O taste and see (Ps. 34)
*Note: Theodulf of Orleans’ satire of Alcuin ridicules him for his rhetorical games and his typical meals (pottage and beer or wine), and then casts him aside: “Good riddance, porridge and heaps of curds!”
Few cookbooks have gotten as much use in our house as Patricia Wells’ Bistro Cooking. It is full of outstanding French bistro fare that is surprisingly simple to prepare (although often time-consuming, alas). To name but two of our favorites, Nordic Babe does a mean Gratin Dauphinois Madame Cartet, and I am in love with the Poulet Rôti L’Ami Louis. The simplicity of these dishes lets the flavors of the ingredients come through in all their purity without much in the way of distraction.
Today I needed to use up the leeks that had been sitting in the refrigerator for several days. They were supposed to become leek and potato soup last weekend, but I never got around to it. So I decided on a tart instead: one of those cheesy, leeky tarts so typical of the north of France. (Just thinking about it makes me want to work in the words “vasty fields,” but there seems no elegant way to accomplish this at the moment; so there it is, dear reader.) Turning to Wells’ cookbook, I found a Flamiche aux Poireaux that piqued my curiosity.
Now, if there is one thing you should know about me, it is that I am definitely not a baker: pastries, tarts, cookies, cakes, pies and the like are all the domain of Nordic Babe—and she is, thankfully, a fabulous baker. But the pâte brisée in this recipe seemed like something I could pull off fairly successfully. In fact, there was only one mishap: I failed to put down enough flour when I rolled out the pastry, so I had to get rather inventive while extricating it from the counter so I could move it into the tart pan. Other than that, it was smooth sailing.
Acquiring jambon for the tart, on the other hand, took a little doing. I figured that The Fresh Market or Whole Foods would have me covered; unfortunately, I assumed incorrectly. I ended up purchasing it by the 1/2 lb. from a local favorite that serves croissant au jambon et fromage, although they are best known for the superb breads and tarts that Lionel prepares with much diligent care and attention.
The finished flamiche aux poireaux—golden brown and warm—practically begged me to pop the cork on a bottle of Zind-Humbrecht Riesling. How could I resist? The honeyed sweetness, the combination of crispness and acidity, and the rather full-flavored finish pair perfectly with the hearty texture and gruyère/leek scent of the tart. I served this pairing with spring mix tossed in a lemon-vinaigrette I had already made over the weekend.
And the response? Foodie Girl, our intrepid seven-year-old cheese fanatic, raved about the gruyère as she asked for a second slice. Her little sister, The Mooch, offered up her excited assessment—”This is kind of like pizza and pie at the same time!”—while devouring it with aplomb. Now the watermelon sorbet is ripening in the freezer, just waiting for Nordic Babe and I to savor it once the kids are down for the night. Bliss.
MUSIC: “Sous le ciel de Paris,” Yves Montand… enjoy it here.
If I remember correctly, the first time I ever ate a fish taco was at Keegan’s Grill on East Camelback (near 32nd St.) in Phoenix. We used to love to go to that place and, although they later settled on Mahi tacos for their menu, what I first enjoyed there was a halibut taco with black beans. Its nearest rival in the Valley of the Sun could be found on the menu at Z’Tejas. Ever since then, I have made it something of a hobby to compare the ingredients, types of fish (and relative success), and other variations between the myriad fish tacos I’ve encountered, although I’m certainly not as obsessive as these guys. For the record, the best fish taco I have ever eaten was at Tako Taco, a hole-in-the-wall near Waimea on the Big Island.
Since we had avocados, mangos, and limes on hand, I figured it was time to take the fish taco out for a spin this week—but with a twist. Instead of just cabbage or lettuce with tomato, beans (black or refried), fish, and some kind of sauce, what if I accessorized the tacos with homemade guacamole and mango salsa? I decided to roll up my sleeves and give it a try.
First, I needed some salsa ideas. I knew that Bobby Flay would be the person to consult for a fruit salsa; just out of curiosity, I thought I would ask Nordic Babe and see if she had ideas. “Hey, honey, where would you turn to find a good mango salsa recipe?” Disinterested answer, as she walked through the dining room: “How ’bout Bobby Flay.” So that part of the equation was solved. A few modifications later, I had a tangy, fruity salsa—or is it a relish?—ready for taco-filling and chip-dipping:
Next I turned my attention to the guacamole. I remembered how intriguing I had found Steven Raichlen’s BBQ article in July’s Bon Appetit. I vaguely recalled that he had included a guac recipe, and, after consulting that issue, I found that my memory isn’t as bad as I often think it is. It turns out that the article included a recipe for Colombian guacamole. As far as I can tell, the primary difference between it and Mexican guac is that the Colombian is smoother (really a purée for dipping) and has a much stronger lime component. The only modification I made was leaving out the water completely—the consistency was perfect without it. I pentupled the recipe (as I started with a dozen verrrry ripe avocados) and then called a friend to come pick up some of the extra. I am happy to report that it was a hit!
As for the fish, I used some orange roughy fillets from Trader Joe’s. I pan-seared them in brown butter, only adding kosher salt for seasoning. I figured that the fish should be simple, given the mountains of flavor already present in the tacos.
I served the tacos with tortilla chips, along with sides of refried beans and Goya Mexican rice (yes, out of the box). The guacamole made the tacos more filling than I had expected, although the taste was incredibly vibrant and complex. In terms of kid-friendliness, the mango salsa was too spicy for the little ones (Drat! I knew the jalapeños I added would push it over the edge), but they devoured the fresh avocado slices I gave them, along with “simplified” tacos and rice. A great time was had by all, and that’s all I can really ask for, eh?
MUSIC: Some random conjunto ranchera, played by Flaco Jimenez… listen here. Why conjunto? Because this dish is such a cultural mash-up, only Mexican-Mariachi-meets-German/Czech-Polka could match it. And fish tacos supposedly originated in Ensenada. Comprende?
This week’s co-op order arrived on Friday, and I had no shortage of garden-fresh cucumbers. Recipe ideas churned in my head, and then it hit me: What could possibly be better than raita for squeezing every last ounce of flavor out of a cucumber?
I decided to prep Madhur Jaffrey’s Tomato Raita on Sunday afternoon so that the flavors could blend overnight. Served with chicken kebabs on Monday evening, the raita would offer a spicy-yet-light-and-cool dipping sauce for the chicken—and we all know how much the kiddies like dipping sauces.
As I reached for the ground cumin in the bottle from the store—crowded between the vanilla and the cloves—I remembered the very nice spice grinder that Nordic Babe gave me for Father’s Day. A cool kitchen gadget was about to be called into action!
I left the store-bought ground cumin in the cupboard and grabbed the tin of cumin seeds instead. Out came the sauté pan, and in went the seeds for a few minutes of roasting over medium heat. [Smell of roasting cumin wafts through the room.] Cumin seeds release such a delicious, nutty aroma as they darken a shade or two; the smell is instantly recognizable (IMHO, nothing else really smells like cumin), and it quickly takes over the atmosphere of the entire house. As soon as the first tiny seed popped, jumped and danced across the pan, it was time to take them off the heat.
After cooling for a few minutes, I ground them in my white Kuhn Rikon grinder. The difference between the freshly-ground cumin and the stuff in the bottle was unbelievable. Note to self: Remember to grind your own spices whenever possible.
Cucumbers chopped. Tomatoes diced. Spices in play. Delectable.
The dinner turned out wonderfully, although the children were suspicious of the paprika I sprinkled on top of the rice. Once I told them it was the same sprinkles that they eat on the hummus every time we go to our favorite Lebanese place, all was well. We will certainly be doing this meal again.
MUSIC: ’Chamma Chamma’, Urmila Matondkar . . . check it out here