Cookbook authors only started giving precise measurements and cooking times a little over a century ago, so figuring out older recipes can be a real challenge. One of the earliest cookbooks we have is De re coquinaria or On the Subject of Cooking. Some of the recipes in it are attributed to Marcus Gavius Apicius who lived in the 1st Century CE and was famed as a gourmet. The book is sometimes also simply referred to as Apicius.
Not being a Latin scholar, I am indebted to the archaeologist-cook Ilaria Gozzini Giacosa who has given us A Taste of Ancient Rome (translated by Anna Herklotz). In this detailed and entertaining book, Ms. Giacosa, gives us everything we need in order to attempt some of Apicius’s ancient recipes in the modern kitchen. Here is Ms. Herklotz’s English translation Apicius’s original recipe for Duck with Turnips:
“Crane or duck with turnips: Wash, truss and boil in a pan with water, salt, and dill until half cooked. Cook the turnips so that they lose their bitterness. Remove the duck from the pan, wash again, and place in a pot with oil and garum and a bouquet of leeks and coriander. Over this put a turnip that has been well washed and cut into very small pieces, and cook. When it has cooked somewhat, add defructum for color. Prepare this sauce: pepper, cumin, coriander, and silphium root, moistened with vinegar and cooking broth. Pour over the duck and boil. When it boils, thicken with starch and add over the [remaining] turnips, Sprinkle with pepper and serve.”
Aren’t you glad they don’t write recipes that way anymore? Ms. Giacosa redacts the recipe, adjusting it to modern expectations by giving some measurements for the ingredients and leaving out the boiling of the duck, instead going straight to roasting it in a pot. The resulting recipe is actually very similar to a classic French dish called Caneton Poêlé aux Navet or Casserole-roasted Duckling with Turnips. I decided to put the two together and make a sort of Caneton Poêlé aux Navet á l’Apicius by using the French method with the ancient Roman flavors.
You may have noticed a few unfamiliar ingredients in the original recipe, namely: garum, defrutum, and silphium. Garum is perhaps the most ubiquitous ingredient in ancient Roman cooking. It is a fermented fish sauce they used to put on just about everything. The best garum came from what is now Spain and Portugal, regions still known for their fish cookery, and Roman nobles would pay a pretty denarius for it. Someday I would like to attempt making my own garum, but considering it requires layering fish innards with salt in a clay pot and leaving it out in the sun for three months, I think it will have to wait. There was a reason the garum factory was always located on the outskirts of town. Luckily, fish sauce is still beloved by Thai and Vietnamese chefs, among others, so for this recipe I used the Thai fish sauce called nuoc mam which is widely available at stores selling asian ingredients or even in the asian section of your supermarket.
Defrutum is a sweet syrup made by boiling grape must (what is left after the grapes have been crushed to make wine) and reducing it to about half its original volume. This ancient ingredient has survived in two different products still made in Italy, saba, and vincotto. They are essentially the same as defrutum but have been aged in oak barrels (which the Romans did not use). Sometimes vincotto is mixed with vinegar or fruit flavors so read the label carefully when shopping to make sure you get the plain version. I found some vincotto in a gourmet shop, I have also seen both vincotto and saba for sale online.
Our final mystery ingredient is truly a mystery. Silphium (also called laser by the Romans) was coveted by the wealthy as an exotic ingredient, and was so expensive that only the tiniest amounts were used. It is a resin from a plant that is now extinct. It is thought to be from the genus Ferula. It grew only in a small area near the ancient Greek settlement of Cyrene in what is now eastern Libya. The reason for its extinction is unknown, some speculate that it was farmed intensely until the soil was depleted, others think animals were grazed on it to improve the flavor of their meat, leading to overgrazing and extinction. Supposedly the last stalk of silphium was given to the emperor Nero (37 CE – 68 CE) as a gift.
Once there was no more silphium to be had, the Romans took to using another plant instead which they called laser parthicum. We think that laser parthicum is asafoetida, a plant in the same genus as silphium. Asafoetida is still used today in cooking in the Middle East and Asia. In particular it is used by Jainists as a replacement for garlic and onions which their religion forbids them to eat. Asafoetida is available at stores which sell Indian spices. Beware, it is extremely pungent, keep it in a well-sealed container if you don’t want your entire kitchen smelling like, well, armpit. Don’t be alarmed, when you cook with it, the smell changes into something like very savory caramelized onions. It lends a tangy almost citrusy flavor to the finished dish, which combined with the earthy cumin and coriander makes it taste very middle eastern. Nowadays we think of Rome as a great western city, but before tomatoes, pasta and many other foods became part of its cuisine, Roman food was very much influenced by the lands it conquered in the mysterious east.
Duck with Turnips á l’Apicius
1 large duck (about 5 pounds)
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon Thai fish sauce (nuoc mam)
1 small leek
1 bunch fresh cilantro
2 pounds fresh turnips
2 tablespoons vincotto or saba
1 ½ teaspoons ground cumin
1 ½ teaspoons ground coriander
½ teaspoon asafoetida
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons flour
1 – 1½ cups duck or chicken stock
Preheat oven to 325 F.
Wash the duck and pat it thoroughly dry inside and out.
Truss the duck by tucking the ends of the wings underneath the bird and tying the legs together with kitchen twine. If the wing-tips have been cut off, tie another piece of twine around the middle of the duck to secure the wings to its sides. Use a sharp knife or skewer to prick holes in the duck skin around the thighs, back and lower part of the breast. This helps render the fat out while cooking.
Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a dutch oven. Over medium-low heat, brown the duck carefully in the olive oil turning it so all sides are nicely brown (about 20 minutes).
Remove the duck from the dutch oven and pour off the oil. Put 1 teaspoon of Thai fish sauce in the dutch oven along with 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Return the duck to the pot and add a bouquet garni consisting of the leek trimmed of its roots and dark green leaves and the bunch of cilantro tied together with kitchen twine. Peel and cut 1 turnip into a small 1/2 inch dice and sprinkle it over the duck. Cover pot and put it in the center of your oven for 15 minutes.
While the duck is cooking, prepare the rest of the turnips. Peel the turnips and cut them in a larger 1 inch dice. Cook them in salted boiling water for about 5 minutes. Drain the turnips and set them aside.
When your duck has cooked for 15 minutes, add the partially cooked turnips to the dutch oven, arranging them around the duck. Using a pastry brush, paint the duck with 2 tablespoons of vincotto or saba. Return the duck to the oven for about another 35 minutes or until a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh reads 165 F and the juices run clear. Baste the turnips occasionally with the pan juices during this last phase of cooking.
When the duck is cooked, remove the it and turnips from the pot and put them on a hot serving platter. Cover with tented aluminum foil and allow the duck to rest (and finish cooking) while you prepare the sauce.
Pour the juices from the dutch oven through a fine mesh strainer and into a liquid measuring cup. Let it stand for a minute to allow the fat to rise to the surface. Use a spoon to remove as much fat as you can, or use a fat separator if you have one. Once the juices are defatted, see how much you have. Add duck or chicken stock until you have a total of 2 cups. Pour your 2 cups of stock and cooking juices into a small saucepan and bring it to a simmer over medium heat.
In a medium saucepan heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over low heat. When the oil is hot, use a whisk to blend in 3 tablespoons of flour. Continue whisking until the flour begins to turn a light brown. Remove the pot from the heat and immediately pour the hot stock and cooking juices into the flour and oil mixture and continue whisking until completely blended and the sauce begins to thicken. Put the pot back over a medium-low heat and add the cumin, coriander, asafoetida and balsamic vinegar, whisking to combine. Bring the sauce to a simmer and cook for a few minutes, partially covered to combine the flavors. Season to taste with salt freshly ground black pepper and serve on the side with the duck and turnips.