Sunday, April 27, 2008

Recipe - Roman-style Carrots

Photo of carrots from Jen Maiser's flickr collection
As a follow-up to my post on the use of spices in ancient Rome, here's a recipe derived from that era that appears in Deborah Madison's "The Savory Way." Although she doesn't specifically state her source, the book in her bibliography that looks like the likely source is "Ancient Roman Feasts and Recipes," by Jon and Julia Solomon (E. A. Seemann Publishing, 1977).

I don't particularly like carrots -- you'll never catch me snacking on carrot sticks -- but this is a recipe that I truly enjoy. The subtle flavor of cumin and mint, the hint of sourness from the vinegar, and the sweetness of the carrots meld into something delicious. And to cook a recipe that might have been enjoyed by Caesar, Cicero, Augustus and other prominent Romans is pretty cool too...

Carrots, Roman Style

Adapted from "The Savory Way," by Deborah Madison

1/2 pound carrots
8 small mint leaves
1 lovage leaf or several pale inner celery leaves
2 t. extra virgin olive oil
1/2 t. cumin seed
Salt to taste
1 cup water
1 T. Champagne or white wine vinegar
Ground black pepper
Chopped mint or lovage leaves for garnish

Peel or scrape the carrots. Cut into pieces 2 to 3 inches long, then cut the pieces lengthwise in quarters, sixths or eighths, depending on the size of the carrot. The goal is to have each piece be roughly the same size (so that they all cook at the same rate). Tear or chop the herbs into pieces.

Heat a skillet over medium heat. Add the oil, cumin seeds and herbs. Cook for a short time until the fragrance of the spice and herbs are noticeable, then add the carrots and toss well. Add the water, vinegar, salt. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer until the carrots are tender (20-40 minutes). Ideally, the liquid will evaporate and form a glaze on the carrots. If all of the liquid evaporates before the carrots are tender, add more water, 1/4 cup at a time.

Season with freshly ground black pepper and chopped mint and/or lovage leaves.

Serve hot, at room temperature, or cold.

Serves two.

Madison's notes on the recipe say that the original recipe contained a fermented fish paste that the Romans added to many savory dishes. Leite's Culinaria describes this fish paste:
Garum (or the similar Liquamen) appeared as an ingredient in most Roman dishes. It was a prepared sauce made of fish entrails and trimmings fermented in strong brine. It is an ancestor to our Worcestershire sauce, but is more closely approximated by the fish sauces of Southeast Asia, such as nam pla and nuoc mam. They provided a savory saltiness in Roman cookery, much as soy sauce does in Chinese and Japanese cooking today.

As a modern substitution, Deborah Madison recommends adding a finely chopped or pounded anchovy with the water at the beginning of the recipe.

On the subject of pepper, it's worth noting that the early Roman diet did not use the same pepper that we use today. The Leite's Culinaria article gives this explanation:
the pepper used by Apicius was probably not black pepper (Piper nigrum), but long pepper (Piper longum). It has a more resinous flavor than black pepper, with a lingering burn at the back of the throat.
If you're seeking an authentic Roman experience, long pepper can be found in specialty spice shops (like San Francisco's Le Sanctuaire or the Whole Spice Company at Napa's Oxbow Market).

Photo of carrots from Jen Maiser's flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons License.

Random link from the archive: Moong Dal Soup

Technorati tags: Rome : Italy : vegetarian : Food

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Spices in Italian cuisine: the very old is new again

Photo of Roman ruins from Savannah Grandfather's Flickr collectionA recent New York Times article by Ian Fisher described how foreign-born chefs are working their way up the restaurant hierarchy in Italy: a man from Jordan is running a chain of pizza restaurants; a chef born in Tunisia makes the best carbonara in Rome, according to a prominent restaurant reviewer. It's a common story in an era of migration. (The same phenomena surely applies in the United States. I recall seeing an article about how every different ethnic restaurant in Los Angeles relied on chefs from Mexico to do the cooking, generally with high levels of competence. Unfortunately, I am unable to find the article.)

I found this part of the article to be interesting:
With this mixing of cultures only in its early days, there seems to be no major shift in Italian cuisine, even if foreigners are doing the cooking more and more. Unlike in France, where foreign flavors have blended well over time with native ones, attempts here at some fusion of Italian and other cuisines have not caught on. There is, as yet, no equivalent to curry in Britain.

Still, there seems some leakage. Food experts say that foreign chefs, here and there, add spices not often used in Italy, like coriander and cumin.

Coriander and cumin might not be part of modern Italian cuisine, but they were both common during the days of the Roman Empire. Spices -- most of which were brought from the East at great expense -- symbolized status, and so the upper classes used them with abandon. Coriander and cumin are both natives to the Mediterranean, but they were still part of the mix, as an article at Leite's Culinaria about food in ancient Rome explained.

The earliest known cookbook from the Roman era was written by Marcus Gavius (or Gabius) Apicius, who lived during the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius (an English translation of the full text can be found here).

Several recipes mentioned in the Leite's Culinaria article call for cumin or coriander:
[399] Locustum Elixam cum Cuminato
Real boiled lobster is cooked with Cumin Sauce [essence] and, by right, throw in some [whole]…sentence missing in surviving manuscripts…pepper, lovage, parsley, dry mint, a little more cumin, honey, vinegar, broth, and if you like, add some [bay] leaves and malobathron.
[116] Spondyli (boiled parsnips)
Boil the parsnips in salt water [and season with] pure oil, chopped green coriander and whole pepper.
[61] Lucanicae (Lucanian sausage)
…Crush pepper, cumin, savory, rue, parsley, condiment, laurel berries and broth; mix well with finely chopped [fresh pork] and pound well with broth. To this mixture, being rich, add whole pepper and nuts. When filling casings, carefully push the meat through. Hang sausage up to smoke.

The bold spicing of savory foods continued in Europe throughout the Medieval period (an extensive description of that era can be found in Jack Turner's "Spice"), but eventually faded away (possibly as a result of the deprivations of the Dark Ages). Modern Italian cuisine evolved after the era of spices had ended in Europe. Could it be that the recent rise of non-Italian-born chefs in Italy could push the cuisine towards its ancient roots?

Photo credit: Photo of Roman ruins from Savannah Grandfather's flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons License.

Random link from the archive: Cinco de Mayo and Food Traditions

Technorati tags: Food

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Another No Knead Bread

When Mark Bittman wrote about Jim Leahy's "no knead bread" in the New York Times in 2006, it caused a frenzy in the blogosphere, leading to hundreds of posts about attempts to make the bread. I tried it myself and deemed it to be bimbo-esque: beautiful but shallow.

I recently started baking another kind of "no knead bread," but I really doubt that it will be sweeping across the blogosphere, even if Mark Bittman writes an article about it in the Times food section. This no knead bread is a German-style rye bread called Kornbrot or Vollkornbrot, (meaning "kernal bread" or "full kernal bread," respectively). Unlike the 2006 Leahy blockbuster, this bread takes a lot of effort, including several days of preparation, a strong arm and a lot of patience.

An Early Start
Unlike the batter-type starter I used for the La Brea Bakery sourdough, this recipe uses a stiff starter with a consistency of soft bread dough and an incredible stickiness and elasticity. The photo to the right shows the inner structure of the starter 12 hours after it was fed. Starting out as an airless blob of dough, it rises to become a lacey network of gluten strands. It smells like a loaf of classic sourdough bread.

The starter requires a few days of feeding before the bread baking day. I keep my stiff starters in the refrigerator when I'm not preparing to bake, so I removed one of them and began the refreshment process. Twice a day over the next few days, I combined 10 grams of starter, 25 grams of water, and 45 grams of bread flour, kneaded it into a smooth mass of dough, and placed it in a covered container.

I have been following a recipe from Maggie Glezer's "Artisan Baking Across America" (also sold as "Artisan Baking"). The bread is mostly healthy whole-grain ingredients: rye flour, cracked rye kernels, whole rye kernels, and sunflower seeds. The balance of the ingredients are the refreshed starter, water, salt and commercial yeast. Yes, the bread contains yeast in the form of sourdough starter and commercial yeast. Although sourdough starter has been a critical part of rye bread for centuries (see the "Bread Science Note" below for details), sourdough starter is in this recipe to improve the bread's flavor.

About eight hours before baking, I start preparing some of the ingredients. The whole rye grains are mixed with hot water. Cracked rye is mixed with lukewarm water. The refreshed starter is mixed with water and cracked rye (to create a "rye starter").

No Knead Doesn't Mean No Effort
Putting all of the ingredients together is where the "no knead" part comes in. The first step is to combine all of the pre-mixed ingredients from the night before (or from that morning) with rye flour, water, yeast, and sunflower seeds. Then it's time to mix -- not knead -- the dough. Glezer instructs to
...mix this stiff, heavy dough for as long as you can with a wooden spoon. Cover the dough and let it rest for 15 minutes. Stir the dough again for as long as you can and let it rest again for 10 minutes. Stir the dough again for as long as you can. When the dough looks pasty and is quite sticky, the mixing is complete.
Strictly speaking, there is no kneading involved, but I can testify that it is almost as much work as kneading a ball of dough. The Kornbrot dough is thick and viscous -- it has more in common with stiff oatmeal or cake batter than bread. For example, after scraping the dough into a bread pan, you actually use an offset spatula to smooth the top before letting it rise.

The dough rises for about one hour after mixing, then is baked for about three hours at 300 F (150 C). Some of the patience I referred to above is required after the bread comes out of the oven. Glezer recommends letting the finished loaf rest in a plastic bag for twelve hours before eating.

I have baked this bread four times, with better results each time. Sliced thinly, lightly toasted, and smeared with butter, orange marmalade, or gruyere cheese, the bread is delicious. The combination of whole grains, cracked grains, and sunflower seeds provide interesting texture, while the matrix of sourdough starter and rye flour offer structure and hearty rye flavor.

Kornbrot Blegs
I have a few blegs related to this bread that I hope can be answered by my readers:
  1. If anyone knows where I can buy "cracked rye" (rye kernels that have crushed so they look like bulgur wheat) in the Bay Area, I'd appreciate a tip. I resorted to mail ordering the cracked rye from Bob's Red Mill, an easy enough process but one that almost doubles the price of the product (and requires additional planning ahead).
  2. The top crust of the loaf has been too hard and generally inedible. Could I improve the result by covering the loaf with aluminum foil for part or all of the baking?
  3. The recipe calls for a firm starter, but Glezer says you can use any kind of sourdough starter. How could I convert the recipe to use a batter-type starter? Is there a simple formula that adjusts the water content to account for a different type of starter?
  4. Can you recommend another Kornbrot recipe? I saw one in Peter Reinhart's latest book but haven't studied it to know what is required.
Bread Science Note
It turns out that the sourdough starter is a critical ingredient in breads that made from rye flour and kernels. Rye has been grown for millennia in northern and central Europe. The cool and wet weather of that region can cause rye kernels to sprout while in the field or just after harvest. Sprouting causes an increase in the enzyme alpha amylase, which breaks down the starch in the grain (these smaller sugars are more easily used by the sprouting seed). Too much alpha amylase will cause the loaf to collapse and be gummy and inelastic. By using a sourdough starter, the pH of the dough is lowered (i.e., made more acidic) and the alpha amylase is deactivated. The rye that is sold in American stores is grown in drier climates (probably the plains of Canada), so the sourdough isn't a necessity for making an edible loaf, but it gives the bread a more complex flavor, longer shelf life, and moist texture.

Random link from the archive: Wraps around the World: Rendang Wrappo, Kuala Lumpur

Technorati tags: Bread : Baking : Germany : Sourdough : Vegetarian : Food