Cooking Roman for Feast of Sorrow

We at Cook the Books Club have been reading Feast of Sorrow, by Crystal King.  This, our current bimonthly selection is being hosted by Debra of Eliot's Eats.  Ms. King has written an excellent novel for anyone interested in ancient Roman history, food or just some fascinating reading.  It's a fictional memoir, based on the life of an individual, historical gourmet, Marcus Gavius Apicius, even though not much is really known about him, and his imagined head chef, a slave named Thrasius.  It begins in 1 BCE, the 26th year of Augustus Caesar's reign. The author has certainly done her research, everything rings true, often horrifyingly so. 

From the publishers:
"Set amongst the scandal, wealth, and upstairs-downstairs politics of a Roman family, Crystal King’s seminal debut features the man who inspired the world’s oldest cookbook and the ambition that led to his destruction.

On a blistering day in the twenty-sixth year of Augustus Caesar’s reign, a young (slave) chef, Thrasius, is acquired for the exorbitant price of twenty thousand denarii. His purchaser is the infamous gourmet Marcus Gavius Apicius, wealthy beyond measure, obsessed with a taste for fine meals from exotic places, and a singular ambition: to serve as culinary advisor to Caesar, an honor that will cement his legacy as Rome's leading epicure.

Apicius rightfully believes that Thrasius is the key to his culinary success, and with Thrasius’s help he soon becomes known for his lavish parties and fantastic meals. Thrasius finds a family in Apicius’s household, his daughter Apicata, his wife Aelia, and her handmaiden, Passia, with whom Thrasius quickly falls in love. But as Apicius draws closer to his ultimate goal, his reckless disregard for any who might get in his way takes a dangerous turn that threatens his young family and places his entire household at the mercy of the most powerful forces in Rome."
Our challenge at Cook the Books is to create a dish inspired by whatever book we are reading.  The only problem with this one, given its countless food mentions, was to narrow things down. 

To go along with the novel and to help with the cooking, I purchased a copy of Cooking Apicius, by Sally Grainger, which is quite interesting and informative regarding ingredients, and the preparation of ancient Roman food.  So we have garum for salt and date, or defrutum or other wine syrups to replace sugar.  Can you imagine Italian cooking without tomatoes, pasta and most of the cheeses of today?  Really!

 I wanted to make a simple Roman style meal.  No stuffed dormice or crispy, fried flamingo tongues.  Something ordinary people would sit (lie) down for.  Not having a troop of kitchen slaves to assist, and without some rare or hard to find ingredients, we must rely on approximations and shortcuts occasionally.

I was encouraged by Grainger's book to give fish sauce (garum) more of a go, as I'd been relegating it to green papaya salad and a few other Thai dishes.  For more on that subject see a post from my past on fish sauce. Just did a taste testing of the ancient brew mentioned in that post and of a more recently purchased (unnecessarily as it turns out) Thai Kitchen brand.  Couldn't tell the difference, both fairly salty, not fishy, but umami.  So it stands to reason why salt is not needed in their recipes. Another article you may be interested in from The Guardian, discusses garum's continued use in present day Italy.

The dishes I decided on were all in Cooking Apicius: slices of roast chicken served with a Roman style sweet sour sauce (an excellent use of left-over chicken), cabbage with cumin, leek and coriander, and flatbread (lagana).  This handy video helped with correct forming of the bread.  Altogether a type of everyday Roman meal.

Chicken in Sweet and Sour Sauce, Apicius 6.8.1

      From Cooking Apicius by Sally Grainger

1 whole chicken, roasted or poached (or just use chicken breasts), breast meat pulled off into strips
1 tsp dill seed
pinch of asafoetida powder or resin (optional)
2 heaped tsp fresh chopped mint
2 tbsp white wine vinegar (I used red)
2 tbsp date syrup (I used agave)
2 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp olive oil
1 dessert spoon whole-grain mustard
defrutum to taste (recipe below)

Dry roast the dill (and the asafoetida if used)  in a frying pan and grind to a fine powder.  Chop the mint and combine with the spice in a bowl and add the other ingredients.  Mix well and allow to stand to combine the flavours.  Taste.  If it is too sweet add a little more fish sauce, too vinegary, a little defrutum.  Serve with cooked chicken pieces.  I plan on using the extra sauce as a salad dressing.

This is a simple syrup made from grape juice with either figs or quinces added to the syrup while cooking.

2 l. red grape juice
5 dried figs

Bring the grape juice to a gentle simmer and cook on the lowest setting for at least 2-3 hours.  Check constantly to ensure it does not reduce too much and take it off the heat when the volume has reduced by two-thirds.  Cool and remove the figs.  Store in a corked or close-fitting bottle.  Don't you love my cute label?  The figs are very good for dessert, sliced and served with ice cream or creme fraiche.

Spring Cabbage with Cumin
      Apicius 3.9.1 & 3

500 g. spring cabbage (I used collard greens)
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tsp roasted and ground cumin seeds
2 tbsp sweet wine
salt to taste or 1-2 tbsp fish sauce
1 small leek, thinly sliced and briefly steamed or boiled
1 handful coriander leaves, chopped
freshly ground black pepper

Prepare the cabbage by cutting off the thicker stalks and trimming any discolored leaves.  Coarsely shred it and wash in cold water.  Put the olive oil in a large, deep lidded pan and heat.  Drain the cabbage into a colander and shake off most of the water.  Place in the hot pan.  Cover it and leave for a few minutes to heat and then stir briskly.  Cover again and steam the leaves briefly until just cooked.  Keep some crispness to the leaves and remove the lid so that any remaining water can evaporate.  Add the ground cumin and a splash or two of the wine.  Heat through over a hot flame and flavor with a little fish sauce or with salt.  Serve with the hot steamed leek (I just steamed the onion with the cabbage in the last covered bit) and chopped coriander sprinkled over the top.  Finish with freshly ground pepper.

Lagana (chapati/roti)

300 g whole wheat flour
100 g all purpose flour
250 ml water

Sieve the two flours together and discard any large flakes of chaff.  Add the water and begin to knead the dough with your hands until it forms a single ball.  Flour has different absorbency rates and so more or less water may be necessary.  Continue to knead for 5-10 minutes until smooth and pliable.  Put in a bowl and cover the dough with cling-film or a damp towel.  Leave to rest for one hour.  Bring it out onto a floured surface and divide in half.  Return one half to the covered bowl and roll the other into a sausage.  Divide this into ten parts.  Put all the pieces back in the bowl, dust with flour, cover with cling film so it doesn't dry out.

Prepare the area for rolling in advance.  Dust the surface with flour and have a pile of flour to one side.  Heat a griddle or heavy frying pan (I used a cast iron one) over a medium flame or setting.  Watch the video clip above for rolling instructions.  When you have a few discs ready you can begin cooking.  Place each one on the hot dry frying pan and leave for roughly 20-30 seconds, at which point the bottom should have brown patches.  Turn and cook a further 10-12  seconds and remove with tongs.

If you are serving them as bread, pile them up in a basket lined with a napkin.  Leave them covered until ready for service.  Alternatively, re-heat in an oven wrapped in tin foil.

For dessert I made what was called in those days a patina, which is basically a simple egg custard with various things added, such as fruit or nuts.  Mine was a blueberry patina, as we had blueberries that needed to be used.  It was sweetened with some of the Defrutum, as well as unauthentic powdered sugar on top.

 We both enjoyed our Roman dinner experience.  I did not mention to Bob that there was fish sauce in several of the dishes. :)  Why mess with someone's head? being my thought.  This will be posted at the Roundup for the current Cook the Books selection, after the 31st, at Beth Fish Reads for her Weekend Cooking event, Jan. 13-14, as well as with the January Foodies Read Challenge. Hope you will visit and check out the ancient as well as current foods on offer, not to mention good book recommendations.


"This Must Be the Place" for Brutti-Boni

Just finished This Must Be the Place, a novel by Maggie O'Farrell.  She certainly knows how to spin an intriguing story or two.  Or three, or four.  They kept coming, interconnected, and at different dates, and places, leaping back and forth between 1986 and 2016, with the various characters, though most were a recurring group.  I found it a bit confusing, and was continually shuffling around in the book to figure things out and understand what was going on.  Still O'Farrell keeps us fascinated throughout.  She is such a good writer.  I've read a number of her novels at this point and loved them all.   From the Publisher:

"Meet Daniel Sullivan, a man with a complicated life. A New Yorker living in the wilds of Ireland, he has children he never sees in California, a father he loathes in Brooklyn, and a wife, Claudette, who is a reclusive ex–film star given to pulling a gun on anyone who ventures up their driveway. Claudette was once the most glamorous and infamous woman in cinema before she staged her own disappearance and retreated to blissful seclusion in an Irish farmhouse.

But the life Daniel and Claudette have so carefully constructed is about to be disrupted by an unexpected discovery about a woman Daniel lost touch with twenty years ago. This revelation will send him off-course, far away from wife, children, and home. Will his love for Claudette be enough to bring him back?"


First Chapter - First Paragraph Tuesday Intros

I'm doing something new today - First Chapter ~ First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, which is hosted by Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea, where bloggers post the first paragraph(s) or introduction of a book they are currently reading or planning to read sometime soon.

I have noticed some stunning beginnings in my reading years, though the books don't always live up to them. My contribution today is This Must be the Place, by Maggie O'Farrell.  I'm just into the second chapter, but it's quite good so far.


Lamb in Cotes-Du-Rhone for Cook the Books

 I have enjoyed all of the books by Martin Walker, in his series featuring Bruno, Chief of Police.  The Patriarch, is our current selection for Cook the Books Club.  However, a disclaimer here - many of us, myself included, like to start reading books written in a series at the beginning, as further along, the returning characters have undergone some previous development.  I suppose authors don't like to repeat themselves too much.  So, you may want to go back and read the first first.

In this novel Bruno is invited to the chateau of a boyhood hero, a popular leader in the French Resistance, for a lavish birthday celebration.  Of course a murder ensues and our village police chief gets involved.  It looks to be an accident, but Bruno thinks otherwise.  Family secrets and tragedy are exposed.  Also causing trouble in the region, an animal rights activist is protecting deer without any means of keeping them safe, outraging local hunters. 

For this, as in his earlier novels, the food and wine descriptions were plentiful and tempting, however the only difficulty was in narrowing it down to what might be available, or in tune with the season.  I decided to go with a take-off from one of Chief Bruno's very first mentions, a roast of lamb marinated in wine with herbs.  Not being able to secure the Monbazillac, I went with a nice, earthy red Cotes-Du-Rhone from Saint Cosme instead, and made a braise of  lamb shoulder stew chunks.


Roasted Roots for Blood at the Root

Blood at the Root, by Peter Robinson, is the 9th in his Inspector Banks mystery series.  I don't like to admit it really, but a male author's perspective is frequently coming directly from Mars (just my personal opinion here) and I often find the writing of women more simpatico. It would be obvious to most why Banks' marriage is failing.  The real mystery is the length of time his wife put up with things.  But his problems, marital, and job related tend to get in the way of the murder solve, and there is a lack of real resolution at the end.  We're supposed to read the next book apparently.   All that aside, I know some of you are total Peter Robinson fans, and actually the plot was quite intriguing with the supposed "good boy" turning out to be something else altogether.  Neo Nazis, race riots and drug exporting behind it all.

As the Publisher's blurb says:
"In the long shadows of an alley a young man is murdered by an unknown assailant. The shattering echoes of his death will be felt throughout a small provincial community on the edge—because the victim was far from innocent, a youth whose sordid secret life was a tangle of bewildering contradictions. Now a dedicated policeman beset by his own tormenting demons must follow the leads into the darkest corners of the human mind in order to catch a killer."


Pacific Spinach Cannelloni and Nero Wolfe

 Don't you love discovering new authors and new foods?   Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe Mysteries have just done it.  He's been around (1886-1975) for quite a few years, but new to me all the same.  The detective hero, Nero Wolfe, head of his own agency,  has been described as "overweight, epicurean and orchid-loving."  And I love how he spends as much time with the orchids as he does solving mysteries and helping his chef, Fritz, to perfect various culinary creations.  In the first of this volume, two novels in one, Black Orchiids and The Silent Speaker, Fritz was making some special sausages, saucisse minuit.  Later on he and Nero, on the advice of a Southern girl, material witness in an ongoing murder investigation, tried adding chitlins to a batch of corned beef hash, in a quest to solve that cooking problem, of nearly equal importance to solving the identity of the murderer.


Cacao Nibs and Mac Nut Brittle

No Tricks, just treats today! Saturday morning project!  My first experiment in cacao nib brittle making, or brittle making period.  I found 4 recipes to experiment around with, and this is the first, maybe the only.  The kind of guinea pig I don't mind being..  This one was courtesy of  Marc Matsumoto at No Recipes. The only change I made was adding in macadamia nuts. His notes are excellent, so I've included them as well.  My notes and changes are in pink.


A Death in Vienna - Pastry Disaster

 I just finished A Death in Vienna by Frank Tallis, the debut novel for a new series, and was quite impressed with his unique combination of the history of psychology and early 20th century Vienna, romance and mystery.  This is the era of Freud, Klimt and Mahler. There is a new wave of artistic as well as scientific innovation, contending with old school thought, the reigning, male dominated conservatism which categorized abused and traumatized women as "hysterics" and often had them committed to hospitals for the mentally ill.  It was also an age in which antisemitic feeling was gaining ground.

This then is the setting for a murder, and the fledgling psychologist hero, Max Liebermann, assists his police detective friend in finding the totally unusual and unexpected solution.

A beautiful medium is killed in mysterious circumstances – a murder that couldn’t have been committed by anyone alive, from all the available evidence.  The supernatural is invoked, but of course, appearances can be deceiving.  A fascinating, delightful read and highly recommended.


Bird's Nest Pudding for the Farmer Boy

Our latest Cook the Books Club selection was Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder, her charming, somewhat bucolic, and idealized novel of early American farm life, as seen through the eyes of a young boy. Mostly biographical, as it was based upon her husband's upbringing in upstate New York.

I enjoyed the story, with all of the homegrown vegetables, grains, and meat, the home cooking, preserving of food, weaving, spinning, and their whole life of self reliance and  living on and from the land.  Even using the straw for hats, leather for shoes, etc.  Talk about going back to the land.  We have come so far from that sort of life. Refreshing to read about.

Even the "bad boys" at school get their comeuppance.  This is definitely not a dysfunctional family.  Though of course we know there were lots of those at that time as well as in our own.  She spared her young readers, many of whom likely wished themselves on the little house planet.