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.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating! I can't wait to hear what happens next. (I also want to hear why you're giving up on the bison poop.)