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Archive for the ‘Food History’ Category

One of the most exciting parts for me about my recent visit with Janet Clarkson in Brisbane was our trip to the local farmers’ market. Brisbane, being in the southern part of the state of Queensland, is sub-tropical, but much of the rest of the state lies squarely in the tropics which means, exotic fruits at the farmers’ market! In Brooklyn, there is no way we will ever see some of these things offered for sale by our local farmers, so it was lots of fun to browse.

This strange looking specimen is Monstera Deliciosa also known as “fruit salad plant.” To eat, you gently remove the scaly looking skin and eat the white pulp beneath. It tastes like a combination of pineapples and bananas, sort of tutti frutti.

The pineapples I had in Brisbane were incredibly fresh, with a subtle vanilla undertone. There were many different varieties available at the farmers’ market. I wish I could have tried them all.

Here are some luscious, purply, fresh figs, just waiting to be eaten.

Passion fruit grows like a weed in much of Australia, even further south in Sydney where it is not nearly as warm as Brisbane. My Australian husband misses having it around, so when I saw some in a green grocer’s shop in Brooklyn I bought a few as a surprise. They cost me $3 each. In Brisbane, Janet bought a whole bag for the same price.

Finally, a nod to Australia’s British heritage.

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While visiting Australia I had a chance to catch up with one of my favorite food history bloggers Janet Clarkson of “The Old Foodie”. We had a great visit, diving into her terrific collection of historical cookbooks, including her latest work: Menus from History: Historic Meals and Recipes for Every Day of the Year.

I thought it would be fun to cook a historic recipe together and she suggested choosing something from The English Art of Cookery by Richard Briggs, which was published in 1788. That year holds importance for both Australia and the State of New York, where I live. In Australia, it marks the arrival of the first European settlers at Botany Bay. In New York State, the legislature ratified the US constitution.

Sometimes historic cooking can be complicated and require lots of obscure ingredients. Luckily, we were able to find a recipe where we had almost everything on hand. Queensland, where Janet lives, is known for the superior quality of its seafood, so we decided to make something with prawns (that’s shrimp to us Americans). We headed out to Janet’s local farmers’ market and bought some right from the fisherman.

The prawns were fresh and toothsome, and the sauce is an intriguing mix of spicy horseradish and almost sweet mace and nutmeg. Over all we thought it was quite successful. It goes nicely with asparagus, which we had on the side, and you also might consider sprinkling some freshly chopped parsley or dill over the prawns for a nice green component.

Stewed Prawns

Adapted from From The English Art of Cookery by Richard Briggs (1788)

1 pound Prawns
1 cup wine
½ cup water
1 blade of mace
1 tablespoon horseradish (or more to taste)
¼ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon flour
¼ teaspoon grated nutmeg
2 slices toasted white sandwich bread cut in triangles

Peel the prawns except for the tails. Put the wine, water, mace, salt, and horseradish in a medium saucepan and bring it to a simmer. Add the prawns and cook covered until pink and cooked (about 5 minutes) be careful not to over cook them. Strain the prawns and reserve the cooking liquid, keeping it hot. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan, then whisk in the flour and stir for 2-4 minutes or until the flour turns slightly blonde. Pour in the hot cooking liquid and continue whisking. Add the nutmeg and continue whisking until the sauce thickens. Reheat the prawns in the sauce, and serve garnished with the toast points.

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A 19th Century German Cottage in Hahndorf, South Australia

Traveling in Australia one expects Vegemite, or a burger “with the lot” which includes, depending upon whom you ask, pickled beets, a fried egg, and a slice of fresh pineapple. But a lunch of homemade mettwurst and sauerkraut, washed down with rich German beer, and finishing off with a nice slice of apple struesel? That’s exactly what you’ll find if you visit Hahndorf in the state of South Australia

Most people have heard that the nation of Australia began as a British penal colony when the First Fleet bearing some some 750 convicts landed at Botany Bay in 1788. While the first settlers in the colonies which would become the Australian states of New South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania, and Victoria were primarily convicts, South Australia was founded in 1834 as a colony of free settlers. As might be expected, most of these settlers immigrated from England, Ireland, and Scotland. However, there were a significant number who came from Germany.

In the 1830s the Prussian king, Friedrich Wilhelm III forced the union of the Calvinist and Lutheran churches and any community which continued the old Lutheran practices found its pastor jailed and its land confiscated. In 1838 a group of 54 families fled this persecution by embarking on the ship Zebra and sailing for South Australia. They negotiated for the use of 240 acres of uncleared bush land about 16 miles outside of the city of Adelaide and founded the town of Hahndorf, which was named for Dirk Meinhertz Hahn, captain of the Zebra.

Hahndorf is the oldest non-British, European settlement in Australia. Other communities with German roots include: Grunthal founded in 1841, Lobethal founded in 1842, and Bethany, also founded in 1842. In addition to introducing some tasty German cuisine to the local, primarily English colonists, the German settlers in South Australia were quite influential in Australia’s burgeoning wine industry. They planted the first vines in the of the now famed Barossa Valley wine region where some of the world’s best Shiraz grapes are now grown.

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Photo by Wikipedia user tristanb - used under CC license

When visiting Australia it is impossible not to encounter Vegemite, that mysterious black goop which many Aussies spread on their toast every morning and hold in a special place in their hearts. As a recent commercial attests, “Australian made….internationally misunderstood.”

I can report that while it looks like sludge left over from a secret experiment gone wrong, when eaten properly it is quite tasty. Vegemite is a concentrated yeast extract. I know, that really doesn’t make it sound any more appetizing, but it’s true. It’s made from the yeast that remains after the beer brewing process. Since Australians are unlikely to stop drinking beer any time soon, that means it’s quite sustainable and a good re-use of something that would otherwise be thrown away.

Vegemite is also one of the richest sources of B vitamins in the world. Oh yes, we’re piling up those exciting reasons to try out yeast spread on your toast aren’t we? Well, here’s something that should tantalize food lovers everywhere. Vegemite has a very high concentration of glutamic acid. So what, you say? Glutamic acid is what we taste when we experience umami or the “fifth taste” after salty, sweet, sour, and bitter. Umami’s prized, savory flavor is found naturally in many foods including Roquefort cheese, Parmesan cheese, soy sauce, grape juice, tomatoes, human milk, and beef. Vegemite nearly tops the list however, with over 1400 mg of glutamate per 100 grams; it is literally yummy.

As is customary around here, let’s have a brief look at the history of Australia’s favorite sandwich spread. Vegemite was invented in 1922 by, Dr. Cyril P. Callister, a chemist at the Fred Walker Company. The name was chosen in a nation-wide contest which was judged by Mr. Walker’s daughter Sheila. The winner, whose name has been lost in the mists of time, received a prize of ₤50 (about $2600 US today). The new product debuted 1923.

It was not a hit.

The next chapter in the history of Vegemite gives some insight into the Australian sense of humor. In 1928, after lackluster sales, Mr. Walker tried renaming the product Parwill. Australians were familiar with a similar yeast extract made in the UK called Marmite, so Walker created the tag line, “If Marmite . . . then Parwill” (try saying it with an Aussie accent). Whenever I groan at one of my Australian husband’s pun-filled jokes, he reminds me that it just might be genetic. Walker first tried selling Parwill in the state of Queensland as a test. It did about as well as you might expect . . . terribly. So the name was changed back.

In the end, Vegemite’s reputation was rescued by science. Just before WWII, the British Medical Association gave Vegemite its official endorsement as a product to be recommended by doctors to their patients as a source of B vitamins. During the war there was actually a shortage because the Australian military was buying every jar they could get their hands on to boost the nutrition of their soldiers. As often happens, when people can’t get something, they want it more, and the fact that it was helping their soldiers fight the good fight was great free marketing.

After the war Vegemite solidified its position on the brekkie table of the nation as it was fed to all the new members of the baby boom generation to ensure their good health:

How to Eat Vegemite Like an Australian

This is a case where less really is more. I think the reason so many non-Australians have tried Vegemite and hated it, is because, as they say on the Internet “You’re Doin’ It Wrong!” Follow these instructions and if you still don’t like it, well then you’re just a weirdo because it’s really good:

  • Toast some simple white sandwich bread
  • Spread the hot toast with a good amount of soft, unsalted butter and allow it to melt nicely.
  • Dip the tip of a clean knife into a jar of Vegemite and make a squiggle of it across your buttered toast. Do not, I repeat DO NOT, put more than this amount of Vegemite on your toast the first time you try it. Later, you may want to experiment with more, but start with just a tiny bit.

Some Australians enjoy horrifying visitors to their country by telling them they should just eat Vegemite from the jar with a spoon. For shame! Don’t believe anything they say about drop bears either.

Once you’ve mastered the art of eating it on toast with butter you might consider some of the other myriad uses Vegemite has been put to over the years including:

  • It’s a great addition to sauces and soups to give that savory umami taste.
  • Some pregnant women swear by it as a cure for morning sickness. Oh, and it contains a ridiculous amount of folic acid which is essential for women of child bearing age.
  • Mix with water and use as a marinate for chicken.
  • Add a little to your meatballs or meatloaf.
  • Vegemite is supposedly a great hangover cure (the Aussies should know!) and hey, the vitamins certainly won’t hurt.

Finally, no discussion of Vegemite is complete without the song that piqued listeners’ curiosity about it around the world:

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Cafe Volpini, Paris, 1889

If you find yourself among the gentlemen in their frock coats and wide cravats in a Parisian café in the 1880s during the hours just before dinner, and are wondering what to order, the word you’re looking for is vermouth. Between the hours of 5 and 7 all the best people crowded these fashionable watering holes for a pre-dinner tonic to whet the appetite. The most popular was vermouth, served plain over ice, or mixed with something sweet like curaçao, cassis or gomme, a simple syrup made with water, a very high percentage of sugar, and gum arabic to prevent the sugar from crystalizing.

How did vermouth fall from being the being the apertif of the beautiful people to a thing they now brag about avoiding? The first mention in print of the Vermouth Cocktail is in 1869 where it is defined as chilled vermouth with a dash each of bitters and maraschino liqueur, and a twist of lemon. Apart from Prohibition, during which it was difficult to get, vermouth was used in many cocktails until the mid-20th Century when the fad of the “dry martini” began. This was accompanied by much silliness about how much (or really how little) vermouth to add, including games like waving the bottle over your glass, or having a friend leave the room during the mixing and then return to whisper the word “vermouth” just before taking the first sip.

Martinis are not meant to be that dry. In this stupendous article on the subject, Jason Wilson speaks with cocktail expert Robert Hess who points out that “those mid-20th Century luminaries who championed a nearly vermouth-free martini, such as Ernest Hemingway, Winston Churchill and Humphrey Bogart, were borderline, if not full-blown alcoholics.” If you want a glass of gin, order one, but if you want a martini, Wilson encourages the restoration of a pre-war version which contains at least 4 parts vermouth to one part gin, or a pre-Prohibition recipe that is 50-50 gin and vermouth.

Yuck, you say? Ah well, perhaps that is because it is likely the only vermouth you have tasted has been of low quality to begin with and then has oxidized because it’s been open too long and stored improperly.

Vermouth is white wine that has been infused with a mixture of botanicals and fortified by the addition of a neutral alcohol like un-aged brandy or grain alcohol. The fact that it is fortified leads many people to believe that it is shelf-stable, that is simply not true. For a better vermouth experience, buy a high quality product such as one of the offerings from Boissiere, Noilly Prat, or Vya, and always buy from a source with high turnover. Vermouth should be used within 6-8 months of bottling or it begins to go off. Once opened, it should be stored in the refrigerator and away from light. Even when stored properly, it oxidizes like any other wine, so it is advisable to finish the bottle within a month after opening. Unfortunately, this means you should almost never order vermouth (or a cocktail containing it) in a random bar where the bottle is just sitting out and has been open for who knows how long. Find a cocktail establishment where they care about these things, or make it yourself at home.

Its refreshing character makes vermouth a perfect after work tipple accompanied by a handful of salty nuts. Let’s join the beautiful people of 1890s Paris and bring back this delectable treat.

Vermouth Cocktail

Makes 1 cocktail

1½ ounces dry vermouth
½ ounce maraschino liqueur
½ freshly squeezed lemon juice
a dash orange bitters
1 twist of lemon for garnish

Add all ingredients except the twist of lemon to a cocktail shaker, shake with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with the twist of lemon and serve in a 3½ ounce glass.

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A Whirling Dervish / Photo by Flickr user flydime

It must have seemed like magic, a substance that not only granted boundless energy, but curbed hunger as well. It wasn’t the first drug of course, we’ve had opium, alcohol, and psychedelic mushrooms for a lot longer. But coffee was different. As Balzac wrote:

Ideas quick-march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages. Memories charge in, bright flags on high; the cavalry of metaphor deploys with a magnificent gallop; the artillery of logic rushes up with clattering wagons and cartridges; on imagination’s orders, sharpshooters sight and fire; forms and shapes and characters rear up; the paper is spread with ink — for the nightly labor begins and ends with torrents of this black water, as a battle opens and concludes with black powder.

The Oromo ethnic group of Ethiopia are thought to be among the first humans to consume coffee. However, they did so in a very different way than we do now. In nature, the coffee tree produces a reddish-purple fruit called a coffee cherry or berry. At its center is found a seed. Modern processing strips away the fruit and then ferments and roasts the remaining seed, which becomes the coffee beans you buy at your local shop.

The Oromo people simply ground the ripe cherries along with their seeds in a stone mortar and then combined the resulting paste with animal fat — perhaps butter as they were nomadic pastoralists — which they then rolled into balls for convenient transport. Fresh coffee cherries are full of caffeine, sugar, and fat, and are about 15% protein. Combined with animal fat, they really make the perfect portable energy food. This form of coffee consumption was observed as late as the 18th Century by British explorers who described billiard ball-sized morsels which were stored in leather bags and eaten for extra energy by warriors on raids. Study of the oral history of the Oromo people shows that this use of coffee is likely quite ancient. There is also evidence of other usage of coffee by the peoples of Northeastern Africa. Some cooked the ripe berries into a porridge, others made wine from the fruit and skin.

The earliest documented evidence of the use of coffee as a beverage is in 15th Century Yemen, just across the Red Sea from Africa. Practitioners of Sufism, a mystical sect of Islam, would grind up the fresh coffee cherries and boil them in water, drinking the brew to stay awake during their night dhikr or extended prayerful meditation. Sufi mystic, Shaikh ibn Isma’il Ba Alawi of Al-Shihr, said that coffee combined with prayer could lead practitioners to “the enjoyment which the people of God feel in beholding the hidden mysteries and attaining the wonderful disclosures and the great revelations.”

The Shadhiliyya order of Sufis was instrumental in spreading coffee throughout the Islamic world during the 13th through 15th Centuries. Their dervishes (whose whirling I imagine was fueled all the better by coffee) were lay people and and once they were introduced to this magical brew in a religious setting, they brought it into the secular community.

Once coffee was brought to the Arabian peninsula from Africa, two distinct beverages were made from it. The first, known as quishir was actually a tea made by steeping dried coffee cherries and their husks in boiling water. Coffee is still drunk this way in Northeastern Africa and Yemen today. The second preparation was called bounya which comes from the word bunn, Ethiopian for the “seed” or “bean” of the coffee tree. Bounya was a thick drink made from raw, crushed beans, the residue of which was consumed also, leaving nothing in the bottom of the cup.

There is an argument as to whether the roasting of beans began in Persia or Saudi Arabia; where ever it happened, it was the next step towards coffee as we know it today. In the 16th Century, Islamic coffee fanatics invented the ibrik, a small coffee pot in which they boiled their favorite brew. Finally, in the 18th Century, people began to infuse the roasted, ground beans the way we do today. However, in some parts of the world, like Turkey and Greece, boiling is still the preferred method of preparation.

Coffee Being Poured from an Ibrik / Photo by Flickr user hettie gm

Unless you know someone with a coffee tree, it is very difficult to get fresh, ripe coffee cherries in the US. If I ever get my hands on some, I’m going to try making coffee power bars by grinding them up and mixing them with butter. Happily, I did succeed in finding dried coffee cherries and their husks which can be made into quishir. The folks at Counter Culture Coffee sell a product called Cascara which is the dried fruit and husks of the coffee tree and is meant to be drunk as a tea. The word “cascara” is Spanish for “husk,” so named because the coffee that goes into it is grown in El Salvador where they don’t have a tradition of making tea out of dried coffee fruit.

Cascara or Dried Coffee Berries and Their Husks

The result is an interesting hybrid. It smells somewhat like coffee, but fruitier. It has the slight bitterness of coffee, but the body is more like tea, not as thick in the mouth as coffee. The initial flavor is similar to coffee but then there is a bloom of fruits: currents, raisins and surprisingly, a touch of lemon and orange, perhaps this is the coffee’s natural acidity? It is almost like a black tea that has been flavored with a fruit essence, the way Earl Grey is flavored with bergamot. However, the quishir is smoother with none of black tea’s harsh tannins. It definitely has more caffeine that black tea, I felt quite perky after drinking it, perhaps even able to last through an all-night prayer session.

To Make Ancient Coffee or Quishir

5 grams (about 1½ tablespoons) dried coffee cherries and husks
8 oz (½ cup) water at 190-200F

The coffee fruit and husks are more delicate than beans, so it is important that you not use fully boiling water. Allow the water to cool to 190-200F before pouring it over the coffee.

If you don’t mind lumpy bits in the bottom of your cup as you drink you can just put the quishir/cascara in your mug and then pour the hot water over it. Or if you prefer, put it in a measuring cup and when it’s done steeping, strain it into a mug. Steep for 5-7 minutes and serve. Try it alone first and then if you like, add some sugar to bring out the fruity flavors.

Sources:

Meehan, Peter. Pop Some Coffee Cherries. New York Times, November 11, 2009

Seidel, Kathleen. Serving The Guest: Food For Remembrance.

Weinberg, Bennett Alan, and Bonnie K. Bealer. The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World’s Most Popular Drug. New York: Routledge, 2001.

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14th C. Painting of the Knights Hospitaller

This article is part of a series of recipes suitable for the Medieval season of Lent during which all animal products other than fish were forbidden except on Sundays. I’ll be posting at least one Lenten recipe per week until Easter Sunday (April 4, 2010).

The idea of making a sweet pastry during lent is pretty daunting; no butter or eggs are allowed. At first, I thought of olive oil cake, but that has eggs in it. One of the best parts of Lent is how it challenges you to be creative in your cooking. I knew that over the past 2000-odd years there must be a cook out there somewhere who came up with a decent dessert that kept to the rules. I found several. In the Republic of Malta, they make a traditional cookie during lent called a Kwarezimal. The word is derived for the Latin term for the season of Lent, Quadragesima. In parts of Italy there are Lenten cookies called Quaresimali, however, they contain egg whites. I wonder which crafty baker got her local priest to agree to that one?

Having never tried Maltese cuisine, I decided to make the Kwarezimal. If you’re interested in learning more about the Italian Quaresimali, Faith Willinger wrote a nice piece about them for The Atlantic.

Malta has a fascinating history, very much connected with the medieval military-religious order called the Order of Knights of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, which began in the Holy Land in the 12th Century where the brother knights would care for and provide military escort to Christian pilgrims visiting Jerusalem. They soon became very powerful with direct political and monetary support from the Pope and priories spread across most of the countries in Europe.

After suffering a great defeat at Rhodes by the Ottomans under Suleiman the Magnificent, the order was reduced to moving from priory to priory in Europe with no real home. In 1530 King Charles I of Spain gave the islands which now make up the Republic of Malta (along with the North African port of Tripoli, now in Libya) to the order in perpetuity. In exchange the Knights paid an annual fee of one Maltese Falcon which was sent on November first each year to the King’s representative, the Viceroy of Sicily. Yes, that is where Dashiell Hammett got the idea.

Now known colloquially as the Knights of Malta, the order spent the 16th and 17th Centuries ridding the high seas of Barbary pirates and conveniently keeping any booty they captured. The islands of Malta were taken by Napoleon in 1798, and many of the knights dispersed throughout the world. A number settled in Russia where they built a priory and tried to rebuild the order. They limped along in these reduced circumstances until the mid 19th Century when Pope Leo XII created a new Grand Master for the order and encouraged him to return to the original humanitarian hospital work upon which the order was founded over 700 years earlier. The order has recently returned to Malta where it signed an agreement with the government and holds a 99 year lease on the Fort of St. Angelo, which had been the Knights’ primary military fortification beginning in the 16th Century.

These Kwarezimal cookies take advantage of the mediterranean climate in Malta, containing a lot of citrus in the form of orange, lemon and tangerine zest and an exotic ingredient: orange flower water. Orange flower water is an extract made from the distillation of bitter orange blossoms. It is a common ingredient in Arab cuisine and was probably introduced to Malta when it was under Muslim rule from 870 to 1091. You should be able to find it in a middle eastern grocery. If you can’t get any you could try using orange extract instead, but it is likely to be sweeter since it is not made from bitter oranges. Another option is to go in a completely different direction and use vanilla extract which would combine nicely with the citrus zest.

Kwarezimal remind me of middle eastern sweets, covered in sticky honey and filled with nuts, they’re like a citrusy baklava. The slightly bitter flavor of the orange flower water is tempered perfectly by the honey and all that chopped citrus rind is like a burst of sunshine in your mouth that lasts a long time. They would go really well with a nice little glass of Sauternes or a similar dessert wine.

Kwarezimal, Maltese Lenten Cookies

Adapted from Anne and Helen Caruana-Galizia

Makes 10-12 large cookies

½ pound blanched almonds (about 1½ cups)
1½ cups flour
1¼ cups sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 lemon
1 orange
1 tangerine
1 teaspoon of orange flower water or vanilla extract
⅓ cup floral honey (orange blossom is nice)

Preheat oven to 325F

Spread the almonds in a single layer on a baking sheet and toast them in the oven until they are golden brown and fragrant (15-20 minutes.)

Take the almonds out and allow them to cool. Increase the temperature of your oven to 375F.

Peel all of the rind from the three citrus fruits using a vegetable peeler. Try to only peel off the colored part of the skin and not the white pith that lies beneath. If you notice some pith on your pieces, use a serrated knife to scrape it off. Chop the citrus peel as finely as possible.

When the almonds are cool enough to handle, set aside enough to decorate your cookies, you’ll need about 24 or so. Grind the remaining almonds coarsely in a food processor. Mix the ground almonds with the flour, sugar, cinnamon, and the chopped citrus peel. Add the orange flower water or vanilla extract and 2-3 tablespoons of water. Mix in the liquids and see if it comes together as a dough. Depending on the weather you may need more water. Carefully add it only a tablespoon at a time, stopping when the dough comes together in a ball.

Form the dough into oval shapes about 6 inches long, 2 inches wide, and ½ inch thick. Place them on a parchment lined baking sheet and bake at 375F for 20-25 minutes. Be careful not to leave them in too long or they will become very hard when they cool.

While they are baking, heat the honey in a saucepan over low heat to thin it out. When the cookies come out of the oven allow them to cool in the pan for 5 minutes and then transfer them to a cooling rack. Use a pastry brush to coat the top of each cookie with honey and then stick some whole toasted almonds on top. Pistachios work well in this capacity as well, or use both.

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I always think of preserved lemons as a North African ingredient, lending an exotic, mysterious flavor to Moroccan and Tunisian cuisines, among others. But recipes for “pickled lemon” can be found in several 18th and 19th Century American and British cookbooks and I was surprised to find them in a spring rabbit recipe in Patricia Wells’s classic At Home in Provence. I’ve also seen mention of a Cambodian chicken soup made with whole preserved lemons that sounds very intriguing.

Nowadays, of course, we can get lemons whenever we want, albeit shipped halfway around the world. In the past, once the season was gone, the only way to capture some of that sunny taste was to preserve them in salt and sometimes other spices. The salt intensifies their citrus flavor and mitigates much of the bitterness found in the pith of the fruit. Both the pulp and the rind are used in cooking.

The best part is, preserved lemons are stunningly easy to make. All you need are good lemons, salt, a jar, and some time. I really should have made my batch in winter when the citrus groves nearest me (Florida and California) are producing fruit at the peak of ripeness, but I guess late is better than not at all.

Since the peel is going to be eaten, it is important to choose officially certified organic lemons or confirm with the farmer that they have not been sprayed with pesticides. It is also important that they be unwaxed. Any kind of coarse salt will do. I was given a bag of the famous French Sel Gris de Guérande as a gift. This large-grained, gray salt has been collected from salt marshes in northeastern France since the 9th Century. I’ve had some really good Moroccan food in Paris, so using French salt for this project seemed just the thing.

This recipe is a bit like that old magic trick where you soak an egg in vinegar and then are able to squeeze it through the opening of a bottle that looks far to small for the purpose. I was very skeptical about fitting 4 lemons into a quart sized canning jar, but it works. In fact, depending upon the size of your lemons, you might cram 5 in there. Just be sure to start with the cut side facing down into the jar so the juice goes inside as you are squeezing them into place.

These will be ready to use in about a month. I’ll report back then on the chicken tagine with preserved lemons and green olives I’m planning.

Preserved Lemons

Adapted from Paula Wolfert

Makes 4 – 5 lemons

6 – 7 small, organic, unwaxed lemons
½ cup coarse sea salt or kosher salt

1 wide-mouthed quart jar with sealable lid(s)

Sterilize your jar and lid(s) by putting them in a 225F oven for 5 minutes

Scrub 4 (5 if they’re really small) of the lemons under running water with a stiff brush. Dry them well. Use a serrated knife to partially quarter the newly washed lemons. Start cutting at the top but do not cut all the way through, stop about ½ inch from the base. Pull the 4 pieces apart slightly, being careful to keep them connected at the base.

Sprinkle salt all over the insides of the quartered lemons and then push the pieces together to keep the salt from falling out. Put the salted lemons in a large bowl and gently toss them with the remaining salt.

Push each lemon into your sterilized jar, cut side facing into the jar. It may seem like they won’t fit but if you squeeze and push gently, giving the jar a quarter turn each time, eventually the lemons will compress and squeeze into the jar. Some of the juice will come out in the process, but that’s fine. After each lemon goes into the jar, sprinkle in some of the salt left in the tossing bowl. Before pushing the last lemon into the jar you may need to squash the others down a bit with a wooden spoon to make more room. Sprinkle the last of the salt on top.

Juice the remaining lemons until you have enough juice to completely cover the lemons in your jar, leaving about ½ inch of head space at the top.

Close the jar tightly and allow the lemons to ripen at room temperature for 30 days. Turn the jar upside down every other day to help distribute the salt and juice.

After 30 days the lemons are ready for use. For long term storage, cover with olive oil and store in the refrigerator for up to 1 year.

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Photo by Isobel Craig

We’ve all heard the phrase “He’s no spring chicken,” meaning someone isn’t as young as he used to be. So we know what a “spring chicken” isn’t, but what is it?

Being a lover of old cookbooks, I recently decided to make Chicken Célestine, a late 19th Century recipe also served by the great chef Fernand Point at his restaurant La Pyramide near Lyon which opened in the 1920s. Chicken Célestine (after translation into English) calls for “spring chicken.” However, the French title uses the word “poulet” which, according to books of the time, describes what was then known in the US as a “broiler,” a young chicken, 2-3 months old and weighing 1½-2½ pounds. The reason it’s important to use such a young chicken in this dish is, the cooking method. It is braised for only about 15 minutes and so needs to be small and very tender to cook so fast.

When I went out to purchase a chicken of the required size and youth, I quickly discovered that the smallest whole chickens available at any number of supermarkets and gourmet shops in my area weighed at least 3 or 4 pounds. Even the venerable D’Artagnan, source of exotic meat and game birds for food lovers everywhere, doesn’t have any chickens under 2¾ pounds.

Scratching my head, I hit the books to find out what this recipe was really asking for and if I could get it. A little research in some old cookbooks, Larousse Gastronomique, and Julia Child’s famous “To Roast a Chicken” episode of The French Chef, shows that the term “spring chicken” is a British usage which means a young chicken that weighs 1½-2 pounds and is 2-3 months old. That sounds just like our “poulet” or “broiler.” According to Julia Child’s sublimely entertaining chicken episode, the USDA classifications for chicken in the early 1960s (when she made the show) were as follows:

  • Broiler: 2-3 months old, 1½-2½ pounds
  • Fryer: 3-5 months old, 2½-3½ pounds
  • Roaster: 5½-9 months old, 4-7 pounds
  • Capon: 7-10 months old, 8 pounds
  • Stewing foul: up to 12 months old
  • Old Hen: older than 12 months (and good only for soup)
  • Due to changes in the poultry industry, the USDA has changed these classifications. The invention of battery farms, the use of antibiotics, and selective breeding all mean that chickens grow a lot faster than they used to. So as you might expect, they are slaughtered younger than they were in Julia’s time. You can read the current USDA poultry classifications here.

    One thing puzzles me, the USDA has combined the first two categories, creating something they call a “broiler-fryer” which is under 13 weeks old. No weight range is given, but this bird is supposed to have a very flexible breast bone which indicates youth. Epicurious’s excellent “Food Dictionary” entry on chicken says that broiler-fryers can weigh up to 3½ pounds. From what I saw on my shopping trip, it seems there aren’t very many true broiler-fryers out there and if you’re looking for and old fashioned “broiler” as defined by the old rules, good luck with that.

    Fortunately, for us historic recipe geeks, there are other options. In Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia Child mentions another category of chicken, namely the “squab chicken” or “baby broiler.” This is a very, very young chicken at 2 months old and weighing in at ¾ – 1 pound. She writes that this is equivalent to the French “poussin” which is available through our friends at D’Artagnan. Another possibility for cooks who want a young (and thus very juicy and tender) bird is the Rock Cornish hen, also called a Cornish game hen. They fall right between the “squab chicken” or “poussin” and the “spring chicken” or “broiler” of old at 4-6 weeks in age and a weight of up to 2½ pounds. The Rock Cornish is a hybrid breed created in the 1950s by cross breeding Cornish roosters, and White Plymouth Rock hens. Alphonsine Davalis Makowsky, a French-American chicken farmer, is credited with the creation of this hybrid which was immediately seized by fine restaurants all over the US as a way to serve a whole bird as a single serving of tender, succulent meat.

    I am still left with the question, “Why are there no old style “broilers” available anymore?” Is it the growth of portion sizes in the US? Have home cooks lost the knowledge of the different sizes/ages of chicken and their proper uses? Do the meat companies (Tyson, I’m looking at you) want to make more money and so don’t bother selling small birds, instead using them for chicken parts or processed chicken products? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.

    For my Chicken Célestine I chose to use 2 poussin which together weigh about the same as a “spring chicken” or old fashioned “broiler,” I also thought they would fare best with the cooking method. It’s a very simple dish using only mushrooms, a little tomato, garlic and a zesty pinch of red pepper in a white wine sauce, to bring out the delicate, sweet taste of the spring chicken. Served with rice and a bouquet of daffodils on the table it just might transport you.

    Chicken Célestine

    adapted from Fernand Point

    Serves 2

    4 tablespoons butter
    2 poussins (see above) weighing a total of about 2 pounds, cut into 4 pieces each
    ½ pound cremini mushrooms, cleaned and quartered
    2 small ripe tomatoes, seeded and diced
    6 tablespoons Congac
    1 cup dry white wine
    ½ cup homemade chicken stock or low sodium canned chicken stock
    sea salt
    freshly ground pepper
    1 pinch red pepper flakes
    1 clove garlic, minced
    4 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped

    Melt the butter in a large deep saute pan. Stir the butter until it turns a nut-brown color. Add the chicken pieces to the pan and cook them over medium-high heat, turning so they brown evenly.

    When the chicken is browned, add the mushrooms, and tomato, stir to combine and cook for 5 minutes. Next add the Cognac, wine, and chicken stock, and red pepper flakes. Then season well with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

    Adjust the heat so the wine sauce is simmering, cover the pan and cook for 15 minutes or until the chicken reads at least 160F on a thermometer placed in the thigh.

    Remove the chicken to a hot platter and cover it with aluminum foil so it can rest while you make the sauce.

    Skim the fat from the top of the sauce or use a fat separator. Sprinkle ½ the chopped parsley into the sauce along with the minced garlic. Reduce the sauce until it coats a spoon. Taste, and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper if necessary. Spoon it over the chicken, sprinkle on the rest of the parsley, and serve with rice.

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    This article is part of a series of recipes suitable for the Medieval season of Lent during which all animal products other than fish were forbidden except on Sundays. I’ll be posting at least one Lenten recipe per week until Easter Sunday (April 4, 2010).

    My series of Lenten recipes wouldn’t be complete without an actual Medieval Lenten recipe. This one comes from a Medieval cookbook called Potage Dyvers (Diverse Dishes) which was written between 1430 and 1440. It is found in the Harleian collection of manuscripts in the British Library.

    The original is in Middle English, but thankfully back in 1888, the Early English Text Society of Oxford University published a translation, which is now in the public domain. Like most early recipes, it is more an aide-mémoire for a cook who already knows how to make the dish, than a real recipe, providing only a list of ingredients with no amounts, and precious few instructions. Trying to turn recipes like that into something useful for a modern home cook can be challenging and fun, involving lots of trial and error. In this case, I used a redaction done by Cindy Renfrow in her book Take a Thousand Eggs or More, a large collection of 15th Century recipes.

    The middle English word “rapeye” (pronounced RAP-ee) means a sauce of dried fruits, boiled in wine and spiced. It comes from the old French word “rapé.” It was commonly served with either meat or fish. In this case the rapeye is mixed with fish and used as a filling for pies. Regarding the pastry, the original manuscript says, “Take Dow, & make þer-of a brode þin cake.” or “Take Dough, & make thereof a broad thin cake,” with no indication of what kind of dough. Since this is a Lenten dish, no animal fats could be used to make the dough. Most likely the cook was expected to make a simple dough of flour, salt and hot water, which makes for a pastry with about the same consistency as a rock. It is thought that diners would simply break open the pie and only eat the inside, leaving the tooth-breaking crust behind. I decided to cheat a little and make a dough using olive oil, not a common ingredient in northern Europe in the 15th Century, but which would make the pies more fully edible. It turns out that Lebanese cuisine has quite a few olive oil based pastries, so I borrowed one from the inimitable Anissa Helou.

    Rapeye requires one unusual ingredient, powdered galangal. You should be able to find it in a shop carrying Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, or Indian ingredients. I got mine at Kalustyan’s in New York, which does sell by mail order. Galangal looks a lot like ginger, but it tastes sort of mustard-y and sweet at the same time. It is often found in the cuisines of Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia.

    If you’ve never tried Medieval food, you might be surprised at some of the flavors. Most of the recipes we have came from great houses whose wealth meant that they could afford exotic spices like galangal which had to come from Indonesia or China. In the same way that rich people nowadays might show off by serving caviar or foie gras, Medieval Lords and Ladies had their cooks dump the whole spice box into the pot. Many spices that we now associate with sweet dishes like nutmeg, clove, and cinnamon were used freely in main courses containing meat or fish. Our fish pies are no exception. The dried fruit makes them quite sweet and the spices used make them taste more like pumpkin pie than fish pie to the modern palate. In fact, I could barely taste the mild fish at all. Who knows, maybe that was the idea, considering how much fish had to be eaten during Lent maybe our Medieval cooks were trying to disguise it. After all, there are no rules against having sweets during Lent.

    Rapeye

    Adapted from Cindy Renfrow and Anissa Helou

    Makes 12 6-inch half-moon shaped pies

    For the Filling:
    1 pound haddock fillet or other mild white fish
    1 teaspoon galangal powder
    ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
    6 black peppercorns, crushed
    ½ cup dry white wine
    2 ounces seedless raisins
    4 ounces dried figs, cut into 2-3 pieces each

    For the Pastry:
    2 cups flour
    ½ teaspoon salt
    4 tablespoons olive oil
    ⅔ cup water
    more olive oil for brushing

    Preheat oven to 400F.

    Make the pie filling by simmering the dried fruits in a small saucepan with the wine until they are tender, or about 10 minutes. Remove the fruits from the pan and reserve the simmering liquid. Blend the cooked fruits into a paste using a food processor or blender. If you find the paste too sticky add a little of the simmering liquid and blend further. Put the fruit paste in a medium sized mixing bowl. Next cut the fish fillet into large pieces and blend it to a paste in a food processor or blender. Mix the fish with the fruit paste, add the glangal powder, ground cloves, and crushed peppercorns, and stir thoroughly to combine.

    Make the pastry for the pies as follows: Whisk the salt and flour together in a bowl, make a well in the center and pour the olive oil into it. Use your fingers to work the oil into the flour until it is evenly distributed. The result will look like pebbles or breadcrumbs. Add the water a little at a time, stirring, until the dough comes together in a ball. Depending on the weather you may not need all of the water, or if the dough is too crumbly you can carefully add a little more (1 teaspoon at a time). Wrap the dough in plastic and let it rest for 10 minutes.

    Turn the dough out onto a clean, unfloured surface. Knead the dough until it is smooth (about 5 minutes). Divide the dough evenly into 12 pieces, roll each into a ball. Cover the balls with a damp kitchen towel.

    On an unfloured work surface roll each ball into a 6-inch circle. You may need the tiniest dusting of flour on your rolling pin to keep the dough from sticking, but don’t use much.

    Fill one half of each circle of dough with the pie filling. Fold the empty half over the filling to form a half-moon. Seal the seams by pinching the dough together about every ½ inch. Use a pastry brush to paint each pie with olive oil, this will aid in the browning process. Pierce each pie 2 or 3 times with a fork to help vent steam during baking.

    Bake on a parchment lined baking sheet for about 30 minutes or until light golden brown. The pies may leak some liquid as they bake, the parchment will help make cleanup easier.

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