Thursday, February 3, 2011

Asparagus with Apicius, Part Duo

Sooo, after I assembled my ingredients (or fairly accurate substitutions) I started up the cooking.

First I blanched the asparagus:

These asparagus spears were chopstick thin and required only about 3 minutes at a brisk simmer before being dumped unceremoniously into an ice water bath to retain their fresh, bright green color.  I dried them briefly on a kitchen towel, chopped them into 2-3 inch pieces, and put them into the Pounder.

Then I started pounding. Oh, I pounded. I worked that goddamn pestle like an oil derrick-- up and down, up and down.

What surprised me the most was how LOUD this pounding really was. My toddler, playing quietly in the other room with her father, announced "mommy too LOUD!" several times over before I had the bright idea to place a folded kitchen towel under the mortar. This served to muffle the pounding somewhat, but it still sounded like a jackhammer.

I took a little break to consult the Google on proper mortar and pestle technique. Apparently you are supposed to "let the weight of the pestle pull itself down." Uh, sure. Except that asparagus stalks, even the chopstick-thin little fuckers, are dreadfully stringy.

After 5 minutes of pounding the tapered, flowery tips were reduced to paste:

But it took an additional 20 minutes to get the stalks to anywhere near the same consistency. Somewhere around minute 13 it occurred to me that what I needed was some coarse salt. The Romans rarely mention salt in their recipes but according to Faas, it was apparently ubiquitous. In fact, the word "salary" comes from the Latin "salarium," which was the allotment of salt given to the soldiers of the Roman Legions as part of their pay. Luckily I had some coarse sea salt in the pantry and threw in about a tablespoon.

This was just what my asparagus paste needed. The grains of the salt worked like sandpaper, breaking up the stringy stalks much more quickly than just plain pounding. Additionally, the salt caused the asparagus to release some of its liquid, which also facilitated the pounding and smoothed out what I was starting to think of as "the Slime." Does anyone else remember "You Can't Do That on Television!" or am I the only one who loved cheesy Canadian kids' shows starring Alanis Morrissette in the 1980s?

Anyway, this is what it looked like at the end of 25 minutes.

Damn, my arms were tired; in our house, we call that "cardio."

You can see that there were still some strings, but all in all I was pretty satisfied with my efforts at the time.

Unfortunately, these strings would come back to haunt me.

Stay tuned for Part Tres.


Welcome back, faithful readers.

I have to do some "housekeeping" before I regale you with the tale of the Roman custard.

It has been suggested by those with more experience than myself in such things that my blog posts are too long and too infrequent (hey, it takes me a long time to write these verbose things, especially considering my free time is often limited to 15 minutes a day, which I choose to use to improve my personal odor by SHOWERING). But I digress. As usual.

Would you prefer to see these recaps broken up into smaller, more frequent posts? Maybe every other day, with the final post being my recipe for the experiment?

Suggestions welcome in the comments.

Thank you!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Experiment #2 Revised: Asparagus with Apicius, Part Unum.

I am sorry about the Little Dinner on the Prairie, folks. I didn't realize that burning anything other than doctor-prescribed, legally-obtained cannabis was basically illegal for the entirety of winter in the San Francisco Bay Area.

I mention the pot thing because-- damn! Everywhere I have been in the past week has smelled like dope smoke. From my neighbor's driveway to the BART station to the park to the hippie grocery store parking lot, people are toking up like there's no tomorrow. Maybe they have seen my other neighbor's house! Because according to him, there are really not too many more tomorrows for us to enjoy.

Seriously. The guy BRINGS the crazy all the way!

But I digress. So my plans for the Little Dinner on the Prairie have been scrapped for the time being. Never fear, however; Thumper's carcass is safe in the freezer as soon as it's safe to burn again. Oh, and it won't be bison poop that I burn. But that's another story for another post.

So instead I decided to go for the gusto and cook something REALLY old. 1500 years, as a matter of fact. I consulted two of my references on the cooking of ancient Rome, Patrick Faas's Around the Roman Table and Joseph Vehling's translation of Apicius (aka Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome). I lighted upon a recipe Faas calls "Asparagus Patina." I'll be the first to admit that my college Latin is rustier than a flea market Lodge skillet, so I decided to compare the translations in the two books to see if that could shed any light on the actual proportions of ingredients, method of preparation, etc. Because frankly, folks, Apicius was a little light on the details when it came to how to put this freaking dish together. Here's the original Latin (for all you Classical scholars out there):

Aliter patina de asparagus: adicies in mortario asparagorum praecisuras, quae proiuntur, teres, suffundies vinum, colas. Teres piper, ligusticum, coriandrum viride, satureiam, cepam, vinum, liquamen, et oleum. Sucum transferes in patellam peruncttam, et, si volueris, ova dissolves ad ignem, ut obliget. Piper minutum asperges.

That took forever to type. Anyway, Faas translates that this way:

An asparagus patina: put protruding asparagus tips into the mortar. Crush, add wine, and drain. Grind pepper, lovage, fresh coriander, savory, onion, wine, garum, and oil. Add the mixture to a greased patina pan and break eggs over it if you wish. Put on the flame until it sets. Sprinkle with ground pepper.

Vehling's translation is basically the same, with some minor differences in the ingredients:

Another asparagus custard:  Asparagus pie is made like this. Put in the mortar asparagus tips. Crush pepper, lovage, green coriander, savory, and onions; crush, dilute with wine, broth, and oil. Put this in a well-greased pan and, if you like, add while on the fire some beaten eggs to it to thicken it, cook without boiling the eggs and sprinkle with some very fine pepper. 

You know what this sounds like to me? A quiche. A frittata. An omelet. So I decided to treat it like one.

Before I began I did a quick search on the web for references to Apicius's asparagus custard; I happened to find Howard of Eat to Blog who attempted this very same dish and documented his efforts. While I applaud Howard's dedication, it looked disgusting. Really, truly, disgusting. Like vomit-from-a-dog-that-had-eaten-asparagus-disgusting.

I was pretty sure I could use some basic cooking knowledge to get something that had a bit more visual appeal and might even be edible. Of course, I wanted to stick to the recipe as best as I could, and that meant finding a mortar and pestle.

I'll spare you the details of THAT particularly quixotic quest. Suffice it to say that I visited a lot of Asian groceries and random housewares shops before I found what I was looking for at Kamei Restaurant Supply in the Richmond neighborhood of San Francisco: a Thai-style granite mortar and pestle that must weigh upwards of 12 pounds for under $20. Score!! In the midst of my journey I also discovered that 99 Ranch Market carries a number of exotic species in their freezer section.

Squab! Rabbit! Quail! A Parttrigw(??)! Even better, all of them were labeled "product of Canada," which assuages my conscience somewhat-- I hate to think about what a Chinese factory squab farm must look like. These frozen delights will no doubt be of use for some future cooking experiment.

Then I had to locate the ingredients. Pencil asparagus and a bottle of Two Buck Chuck Sauvignon Blanc were readily available at Trader Joe's, onions were plundered from the stock of wild purple onions I had originally purchased for the Little Dinner on the Prairie, coriander is just the fancy European word for cilantro and therefore is just  59 cents a bunch at 99 Ranch, and eggs, olive oil, pepper, and "garum" are pantry staples around these parts (I'll get to the garum in Part Duo). But the lovage and the savory proved more elusive; in the end, I scrounged some fresh savory across the Bay at Berkeley Bowl (making this a $7 bunch of savory, I might add, at $2 for the herbs and $5 for the privilege of driving across the Bay Bridge) and had to admit defeat on the lovage. A search for acceptable substitutes mentioned celery leaves, so celery leaves it was to be. I like celery leaves, by the way. I hate the way they chop them off the celery hearts you buy at the grocery store.

So I had my ingredients. Next up: the cooking. Stay tuned for Asparagus with Apicius: Part Duo.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Experiment #2: Little Dinner on the Prairie

Today I bought the ingredients for the next experiment, the one I am calling "Little Dinner on the Prairie."

Clockwise from top: "cosmetically-challenged" apples, dried heirloom apples; LARD!!!!!, a whole rabbit, stone-ground cornmeal, wild onions, and dandelion greens. 

I'll be cooking up this feast on MLK Day. Stay tuned for the full recap! 

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Home Queens, Transvestites, and Bison Poop.

I went to the Alemany Flea Market this morning in search of a cast iron Dutch oven for the Little Dinner on the Prairie. I was not disappointed. I scored a nice little vintage oven with braising spikes in the lid for $25 and a genuine Griswold muffin pan for $5. Then, across the stacks of Garfield comic anthologies and Reader's Digest Condensed Books I spotted another treasure: The Home Queen Cookbook: Two Thousand Recipes on Cookery and Household Economy, Table Etiquette, Toilet, Etc., Contributed by Over Two Hundred World's Fair Lady Managers, Wives of Governors, and Other Ladies of Position and Influence. This seems like quite a lot to cover in one book, but apparently publishing was a different beast in 1893 when this book came out.

Better, almost, than the title of this tome were the newspaper clippings tucked inside its pages. Most were recipes cut from the pages of the San Francisco Examiner in the years between 1943 and 1945, exhorting women to stretch their meat ration points with delicious recipes like "Fish Salads Attractive  in Many Styles." 

But best of all was this. Totally random. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: 

A dead male carnival sideshow geek in a dress was two columns' worth of news in 1944! Here's my favorite paragraph: 

Alex Marks, the "Cobra Woman's" husband...said that they had been married 18 years. "I didn't know Elsie was a man until after we were married, and then there wasn't much to be done," he said. "And besides, 'she' was such a nice wife to me that it really didn't make much difference." 

Isn't that sweet? 

The other thing I did this week was visit these sunbathing beauties at Golden Gate Park. 

I was looking for bison poop for the Little Dinner on the Prairie experiment. Unfortunately, there was no one around to bother with my bizarre request, so I've emailed the folks at Rec & Park in the hopes of getting some steaming buffalo patties to use as cooking fuel. 

There aren't too many trees on the prairie, you see. And dry grass burns too hot and fast to be of any use as a cooking or heating fuel. So the savvy homesteader (and the Native peoples whose land he was stealing) burned dry bison turds. So in the interest of authenticity, I plan to do the same. 

Burning crap patties, people. THIS is what I do for your entertainment! 

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Food Porn

I have been searching for the perfect recipe for my next project, and in the process stumbled upon one for chicken and dumplings that sounded so good I had to make it. My husband said it tasted like something his Grandma used to make, which is the highest possible culinary comment coming from him. And I must say, they were some pretty delicious chicken and dumplings.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Pan, Boss! The Pan!

My crappy $2 garage sale Lodge skillet is now a thing of black, shiny, glistening beauty, seasoned to perfection.

I used the method described in my previous post-- flaxseed oil sparsely applied; three hours in a very hot oven;  repeat seven times. I cooked a steak in it last night, and it made a crust faster than conjunctivitis in a toddler's eye. Oh, yeah.

Tomorrow my friend Susi (who is getting interweb-famous as part of the Project Project Runway and Iron Craft  projects) is going to watch my kid for me so I can track down some fuel for my next experiment's fire. I have to go to the hardware store and then stop at the bison paddock in Golden Gate Park.

Make of that what you will.