Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Eating Medieval Art: Buran (Meatballs in Eggplant Sauce)

Since election day, writing about medieval food and cooking has seemed a little silly to me.  I've wanted to privately take refuge in the Middle Ages, reading books and writing my lectures about medieval art, but putting medieval stuff out over the interwebs has seemed to be beside the point.

But.  Then I got thinking about this recipe, which I made the week before the election, and is a medieval Middle Eastern dish.  According to Pleyn Delit, Middle Eastern or "Saracen" food was the trendy new cuisine in western Europe in the Middle Ages.  That fits a pattern I often talking about in teaching medieval and Islamic material: the medieval perception of the east and specifically of the Islamic world as a source of good things that people wanted for themselves.  In the current political climate, it also strikes a useful contrast against perceptions of the Middle Ages that have begun to concern the broad community of medievalist scholars: specifically the idea that the medieval past can serve as the origin point for a "European" identity and so can provide historical legitimacy for contemporary extreme right and white nationalist movements in Europe and in the United States.  Sierra Lomuto's guest post on "White Nationalism and the Ethics of Medieval Studies" and Dorothy Kim's on "The Unbearable Whiteness of Medieval Studies," both on In the Middle, provide an excellent introductions to these issues.   Imagining medieval people enthusiastically eating "Saracen" food can strike a very immediate blow again any idea of a "pure" European past, as it shows medieval people as actively incorporating the "other" into themselves.

To get to the cooking: there isn't a charmingly ye olde English version of this recipe in Pleyn Delit, since its from an Arabic source.  The book has you start by boiling the eggplant, whole, and then frying it, again whole, until it gets soft.

The meatballs should be either lamb or beef: I picked lamb.  Pleyn Delit recommends buying it ground but then asking the butcher to grind it again, to get it a finer texture.  I don't have a close relationship with a butcher, so I bought it ground and then whirred it up in the food processor to break it down further.

Then the meatballs get formed up and fried.  Interestingly, they are pure meat balls - no fillers and no binders, no breadcrumb or eggs.  And the eggplant gets peeled and whirred up in the food processor with some yogurt and spices.

Finally, the eggplant sauce gets added to the meatballs and the whole thing cooked together to marry the flavors.  I obviously had a proportion problem:  since you cook the eggplant whole, I had to use the whole eggplant, but I didn't want to make more meatballs than I could eat, so I ended up with a lot more sauce than I needed.  If I had been smart, I would have saved half of the eggplant for later.  I served this with more cariota (carrots) in order to avoid carbs, but it would have been better with rice or naan or pita.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Eating Medieval Art: "Tartys in Applis"

In talking about my food preferences and how they are shaping this project, I neglected to mention one thing: I have a major sweet tooth.  I love chocolate, but it's off the table for this project since it's a New World product.  I'm also a big fan of baked fruit desserts and so, when I saw a recipe for an apple tart in Plyen Delit, I knew I would have to give it a try.

The original recipe reads: "Tak gode applys & gode spycis & figs & reysons & perys, & wan they arn wel ybrayd colour wyth safroun wel & do yt in a cofyn, & do yt forth to bake wel."  I substituted prunes for figs, because I had some in my cupboard, and I didn't use any pears, because I didn't want to wait for them to get ripe.  For apples, I used Granny Smiths, as my favorite for baking in general.  The most unusual part of the recipe was the direction that the fruits be "wel ybrayd:" the authors of Plyen Delit translate that as chopping them up together in the food processor.   The result was similar to a mincemeat pie, but with no meat. 

The recipe didn't give directions for the pie crust, so I had to decide on a crust for myself.  I used this Smitten Kitchen pie crust and was very happy with the result.  My major issue with most apple pies is the soggy, flabby, mushy bottom crust.  This one was firm and light and flaky.  The only real difference I could see from pie crust recipes I've used in the past was not using the food processor for mixing in the butter.  I think Smitten Kitchen is right that using the processor always immediately over-processes but the butter, chopping it up much too finely and mixing it in much too evenly.  Doing it by hand kept the butter chunks much bigger - they were visible in the dough - and much more irregular in their distribution.  It also takes longer and requires more effort, but the results were worth it for me and I'm going to continue doing it that way.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Eating Medieval Art: Gourdes in Potage

I picked this for my second recipe from Pleyn Delit because it looked fairly simple and looked like it would reheat well - that's one of my major criteria for normal recipes since I don't have time to cook every night.  I was also curious about it because I couldn't imagine what texture it was going to have.  Pleyn Delit doesn't include any photographs of the prepared food so it's hard to imagine in advance was the finished dishes are going to look like. 

The original is given as "Take yong gowrdes; par hem and kerve hem on pecys.  Cast hem in gode broth, and do therto a gode pertye of oynouns mynced.  Take pork soden; grynde it and alye it therwith and with yokes of ayren.  Do therto safroun and salt, and messe it forth with powdor douce."  "Gourds" here means squash and I chose to use butternut, since its a squash I'm used to working with.  The squash is boiled in broth along with some onions and then that is mashed together: I used my potato masher and kept a fairly rough texture because that somehow seemed more appropriate, more "medieval," to me.  

Then cooked ground pork is added along with an egg or egg yolk and some spices.  I assume the egg is meant to thicken and bind the whole, although I don't know if it was really necessary.   On the first night the dish was rather bland, despite the spices.  So when I reheated it later in the week (and it does reheat well) I added additional spices, including some pepper even though that isn't mentioned in the original. 

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Eating Medieval Art: Chykens in Hocchee and Cariota

I'm starting this project by focusing on the cooking aspect and, for now, I'm not worrying about connecting the cooking to medieval art-making practices, but am focusing on getting familiar with medieval techniques and tastes.   Focusing on the cooking allows me to integrate this work into my everyday life, by simply making one of the meals I prepare each week a medieval recipe.  This should allow me to make progress on this new project even while I keep up on my work as department chair, teach, and put finishing touches on the book.

Since I am integrating this aspect of the work into my regular cooking, it is being shaped by my preferences and practices when it comes to food.  To set some of that out: I do eat meat and I eat a broad range of meats - chicken and beef but also pork, lamb, veal, duck, and occasionally rabbit.  Sorry if that bothers anyone.  I don't eat much fish, but I do like shellfish.  I try to avoid carbohydrates, only because if I don't try to avoid them I'll end up eating mostly carbs.  And I have a problem digesting dairy, although I really like cheese.  I will sometimes put up with a bellyache for a good cheese and sometimes will remember to take a "milk pill" first.   I typically cook more elaborate things on Saturday and Sunday nights and I look for recipes that will reheat easily later in the week.  I live alone so I half most recipes to get 2-3 servings.

For a first medieval meal I picked "Chykens in Hocchee" and "Cariota" both from Pleyn Delit.  The original recipe for "Chykens in Hocchee" is: "Take chykens and scald hem.  Take persel and sawage, with obere erbes; take garlec and grapes, and stoppe the chikenus ful, and seep hem in gode broth, so that they mey esely be boyled therinne.  Messe hem and cast therto powdour douce."

I chose this because it didn't seem so strange and so seemed approachable, but it ended up being stranger than my first reading suggested.  Making it required first stuffing a game hen with a mixture of grapes, herbs, and garlic; then sealing that shut; and then poaching it in broth.  You are supposed to add some lemon juice in with the grapes to compensate for the grapes available today being sweet and medieval grapes sour.  I forgot to do this and so added the lemon juice to the poaching liquid insead.

Poaching isn't my favorite way of cooking a bird: the flabby white skin doesn't appeal.  That's probably why Pleyn Delit suggests removing it.  My biggest surprise in cooking this one was that the grapes didn't break down at all, but stayed whole and firm.

Before the serving, the meat is sprinkled with "powder douce," a mixture of cinnamon, ginger, sugar, and salt.  It's not a combination of spices that I associate with meat - more with baked goods.  It's not bad, just, strange.  It makes everything smell a bit like Christmas.  I boiled the poaching liquid down  to create some sauce.  To go with it, I made "Cariota," roasted carrots mixed with some chopped herbs.  I kept my carrots whole for the visual appeal.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Introducing "Eating Medieval Art"

Last fall, I taught a seminar entitled "Materials, Making, and Meaning in Medieval Art," for which the main text was Theophilus' twelfth-century art-making manual, On Divers Arts.  As we read that text, my students and I kept making connections to our own, twenty-first century, culture of food and cooking: his from-scratch instructions for making artists' materials read to us like recipes; his directions for using extra fish parts (heads and guts) for making glue reminded us of the current interest in using the whole animal; and his prescription that certain twigs be gathered at a specific time of year recalled for us the movement towards seasonality in food. 

Those connections peaked my interest in exploring connections between medieval art-making and medieval cooking and food culture and so, with this blog post, I announce my new research project, "Eating Medieval Art."  To be clear, this is not a project about images of food in medieval art (not that there would be anything wrong with that as a project).  Instead, it is about overlaps in materials and processes between these two areas of medieval practice: it is about eggs, fish, cheese, and green vegetables, and about grinding, mixing, heating, and cooling.  And it is about how such overlaps might have informed the meanings of both art-making and cooking and eating for medieval people.

My work on this project is going to take two forms.  One will be the traditional, scholarly, academic work of research and reading.  The other will be experimental and experiential and will involve cooking medieval recipes along with experimenting with medieval art-making techniques.  For the latter, to begin with at least, I will be working with modern cookbooks that present somewhat modernized versions of medieval recipes, starting with Sharon Butler, Constance Hieatt, and Brenda Hosington's Plyen Delit: Medieval Cookery for Modern Cooks (second edition). 

The cooking portion of this project is a way for me to bring together my personal and professional interests and so to trouble the boundary between amateur enthusiasm and properly distanced scholarly work (as advocated in Carolyn Dinshaw's How Soon is Now?).  I've always enjoyed cooking and so this is a way for me to bring that enjoyment into my work.  It is also the portion of the project that I plan on documenting here.  I don't know what else may come out of this work, in terms of publications, etc.  I'm trying not to focus on the outcome(s) of the project, but rather on the process of the work itself.