Saturday, August 30, 2008

Medieval Cooking Demonstration

There's a post at News for Medievalists about an upcoming demonstration of medieval cooking at the Lichfield Garrick on September 5th. Since this council-run theatre is in Lichfield (Staffordshire, UK), and since I'm cooking a feast in Dayton (Ohio, US) the very next day I doubt that I'll be able to attend.

Here's the description from the Garrick's website:
Join Prof Roland Rotherham the 'Ancient Foodie' himself and Chef Simon Smith as they give you a selection of recipes spanning from ancient Egypt, pigeon breasts with dried apricots, to Tudor times with Spatchcock Pheasant in beer sauce and berries, plus many more to delight your palate.

The show starts at 12.00pm, with prices of £8 and £6. If you get a chance to attend, send me a note and let me know how it went.

Friday, August 29, 2008

The VGT Omnivore’s Hundred

This list was posted to the Very Good Taste blog recently, and seems to be taking on a life of its own. Since it relates to trying new foods I figured I'd post my results - not too bad really (62, unless I miscounted).  There is only 1 item on the list that I won't consider.

Here’s what I want you to do:
1) Copy this list into your blog or journal, including these instructions.
2) Bold all the items you’ve eaten.
3) Cross out (I put them in red) any items that you would never consider eating.
4) Optional extra: Post a comment here at linking to your results.

The VGT Omnivore’s Hundred

1. Venison
2. Nettle tea
3. Huevos rancheros
4. Steak tartare
5. Crocodile
6. Black pudding
7. Cheese fondue
8. Carp
9. Borscht
10. Baba ghanoush
11. Calamari
12. Pho
13. PB&J sandwich
14. Aloo gobi
15. Hot dog from a street cart
16. Epoisses
17. Black truffle
18. Fruit wine made from something other than grapes
19. Steamed pork buns
20. Pistachio ice cream
21. Heirloom tomatoes
22. Fresh wild berries
23. Foie gras
24. Rice and beans
25. Brawn, or head cheese
26. Raw Scotch Bonnet pepper
27. Dulce de leche
28. Oysters
29. Baklava
30. Bagna cauda
31. Wasabi peas
32. Clam chowder in a sourdough bowl
33. Salted lassi
34. Sauerkraut
35. Root beer float
36. Cognac with a fat cigar
37. Clotted cream tea
38. Vodka jelly/Jell-O
39. Gumbo
40. Oxtail
41. Curried goat
42. Whole insects
43. Phaal
44. Goat’s milk
45. Malt whisky from a bottle worth £60/$120 or more
46. Fugu
47. Chicken tikka masala
48. Eel
49. Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut
50. Sea urchin
51. Prickly pear
52. Umeboshi
53. Abalone
54. Paneer
55. McDonald’s Big Mac Meal
56. Spaetzle
57. Dirty gin martini
58. Beer above 8% ABV
59. Poutine
60. Carob chips
61. S’mores
62. Sweetbreads
63. Kaolin
64. Currywurst
65. Durian
66. Frogs’ legs
67. Beignets, churros, elephant ears or funnel cake
68. Haggis
69. Fried plantain
70. Chitterlings, or andouillette
71. Gazpacho
72. Caviar and blini
73. Louche absinthe
74. Gjetost, or brunost
75. Roadkill
76. Baijiu
77. Hostess Fruit Pie
78. Snail
79. Lapsang souchong
80. Bellini
81. Tom yum
82. Eggs Benedict
83. Pocky
84. Tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant.
85. Kobe beef
86. Hare
87. Goulash
88. Flowers
89. Horse
90. Criollo chocolate
91. Spam
92. Soft shell crab
93. Rose harissa
94. Catfish
95. Mole poblano
96. Bagel and lox
97. Lobster Thermidor
98. Polenta
99. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee
100. Snake

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Braaaaaaains ...

No, I'm not going to write about brains as food - at least not yet. What I'm talking about here is one of the most useful kitchen tools for cooks who have to make the occasional huge feast: The Brain Book™.

I'm quite sure others have come up with similar concepts before - I don't claim at all that this is original - but I got the idea for The Brain Book™ after watching a good friend organize a miniature-painting competition. She had a box which she referred to as "the brain", which contained all the paperwork, reference sheets, rules and other documents. When one of the many people assisting her needed to know something, the answer was usually along the lines of, "I don't know, check the brain."

Now I'm one of the first people to admit that I'm not the most organized person in the world. In fact, my organization skills have been scientifically measured as being the third-worst in all of recorded history. This is why, when thought about "the brain" in terms of a way to organize cooking feasts, I immediately saw how useful it could be. So two and a half years later I finally managed to get around to putting it into action (which is a pretty good turnaround time for me).

So what goes into The Brain Book™? Good question!

What goes into The Brain Book™
I start with a thin 3-ring binder - one of the ones with a clear pocket on the front and two pockets on the inside - kind of like this one. All of the pages that go inside are put in clear plastic sheet protectors - an especially good thing in a kitchen, where a notebook naturally attracts substances like grape juice and peanut butter. The actual contents, in order of appearance, are as follows:

  • Shopping list
  • The Menu
  • Pre-cooking and prep work schedule
  • Cooking schedule
  • Plating and garnishing guide
  • Recipes
  • Receipts envelope

Shopping List
This is one of the few things in the notebook that doesn't go into a sheet protector because it's a multiple-page document. Instead I staple it and put it into the inside-front pocket. I usually work up the shopping list in a spreadsheet. All the ingredients for each recipe are listed, with the quantity needed multiplied out for the entire feast. Then I sort by ingredients and total everything up. Finally I add a list of all the non-food items (e.g. paper towels) I'll need at the bottom. When things are purchased, I check them off on the list. This seems simple, I know, but it really does help things.

The Menu
Not much to comment on here. This is mostly so the other staff in the kitchen can check on what goes out with what.

Pre-Cooking and Prep Work Schedule
This is a one or two page, day-by-day listing of what needs to be cooked or prepped in the week or so before the feast. For example: Monday - bake & freeze 2 batches of bread, Tuesday - buy tart crusts, Wednesday - put frozen meat into refrigerator.

Cooking Schedule
This is another spreadsheet. I break the day down into 1 hour segments across the top, and have the full menu (broken out into sub-components of a dish where necessary) down the left side. Then I mark out when things need to be chopped, cooked, put into holding boxes, plated, and served. The part of the schedule that covers the actual feast is sometimes broken down into 30 or 15 minute intervals when appropriate.

Plating and Garnishing Guide
A list of every dish, grouped by course. It states what kind of serving plate should be used, what serving gear (e.g. spoon or fork) should be included, and how the dish should be garnished.

One page per recipe, with the full list of ingredients and complete instructions. This year I'm experimenting with adding a "red card" to recipes where I need to make accommodation for guests with particular food allergies - I'll let you know how it works out.

Receipts Envelope
This is so I can get reimbursed for any money I've spent. It gets tucked into the rear-inside pocket of the notebook.

This seems like a lot of work, but it's worth it. During the feast, any of the kitchen staff can determine on their own what work needs to be done, how something should be cooked, and how and when it should be served. Because of the redundancy, multiple people can be working on different things at the same time (e.g. two people can be working on different recipes, another can be plating, and another can be instructing servers). This hugely improves the efficiency in the kitchen, reduces stress, and helps prevent mistakes. It's also very helpful in that during a feast, when the staff asks what needs to be done and my mind has turned to mush, I can say, "I don't know. Check my brain."

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Harvest Days 2008

I'm now in the middle of preparations for the Harvest Days event. I've got a substantial - all English - feast planned, with some new dishes (OK, the recipes are actually some 500 years old, but they're new to the re-enactors of this region).

The feast is going to be held on September 6th, so naturally I'm going a bit nuts right now. Therefore it seems like a good idea if I add to that workload and start posting bits and pieces about what I'm doing.

The Menu
All was good with the menu until a couple of months back when I realized that the current Prince (and future King) of the Midrealm is allergic to pork - which of course appeared liberally throughout the feast. So I scrapped a half-dozen dishes and added three or four different ones. Then I heard from my local huntsman and game-keeper (Hi James!) that the pigeons weren't breeding fast enough and kept dropping dead for no reason. There goes another dish (bother! I was so looking forward to serving everyone squab. Oh well, there's always next time).

So now as it stands I've got a menu consisting of 3 courses and 16 dishes (give or take, depending on what you count as a dish. Medieval menus are pretty flaky about the number of dishes claimed for a feast, so I see no reason to me more accurate than they were).

I've also got at least three sotlties (entertaining/amusing bits for during the feast - in France they were called entrements) planned that should go over reasonably well. I can't tell you more about them though as it would spoil the surprise.

The Kitchen
My apprentice visited the site yesterday evening and reported back that the kitchen is the size of a small country. There's also an outdoor barbecue pit (which is good because one of the dishes - pommes dorreys - works best when cooked over an open fire).

That's enough on things for now. Sometime in the next few days I'll probably post some pictures of the kitchen with comments, instructions and examples of making a Brain Book™, and various notes about food and prep-cooking.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Return to the 21st Century

I've made it back from GenCon and am now trying to come to terms with my current reality. On the whole, it was a great convention. I met a bunch of new people and learned some neat stuff. The seminars went well (the room was full for my talk on medieval food preservation).

While I was in Indianapolis, I also took the opportunity to visit the central branch of the Indianapolis Marion County Public Library. I'd photographed a medieval cookbook there last year but had missed two pages of the introduction. This has now been corrected, and the first thing on my to-do list (adding those pages to the transcription of A Noble Boke off Cookry) has been crossed off. I still need to finish processing the images, but I can do that a bit at a time and get it done eventually.

Most of the rest of GenCon was gaming or writing related, so I won't go into details here. Suffice it to say that I had lots of fun, schmoozed a lot, and talked an awful lot about medieval cooking (hopefully not too much - I do have to keep a lookout for when people's eyes glaze over). So I'll wrap this up with thanks to Lois Laube at the library, Jean Rabe and the other fantastic folks of the Writer's Symposium, and Sue & Art Wachowski and their minions from the Miniatures Hobbies Events (e.g. Paint & Take).

Oh, and I've decided that next year I'm going to actually play a game or two at the convention.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Sounds of Pennsic

Pennsic is now over and I'm safely home. While I did little cooking, a bit of partying, a good amount of shopping, and an awful lot of schmoozing, what really seemed to capture my attention this year was music.

The Whiskey Bards

While their songs are from a wide range of styles (barbershop, folk, etc.) and the lyrics can get very bawdy, the quality of their performance is stunning. In spite of bad acoustics, interruptions, the pervasive smoke of campfires and torches, and being handed the occasional drink, they still managed to keep the close harmonies clean and clear.

Their music is available from, iTunes, and from their website.

Vince Conaway

Vince is a fantastic musician who plays the hammered dulcimer with amazing skill. I've known him for years and have always been impressed with not only his musical talents, but his knowledge of the history of music as well. If you ever have a chance to watch him perform (he's usually playing at renaissance festivals and the like), go ahead and ask him a geeky question. Odds are that he'll have an answer - and that he'll keep playing while he talks (a difficult trick).

Vince Conaway's music is available from, iTunes, and from his website.


These guys are an absolute trip. Most of their songs (at least the ones I've heard) are upbeat numbers driven by a powerful drum line. They look like they stepped out of the Codex Manesse and have a sound that instantly takes you to some rollicking medieval tavern. In short, they really kick medieval butt!

Wolgemut's music is available from (in limited amounts), iTunes, and from their website.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Kalendarium Hortense - August

The Kalendarium Hortense was published by John Evelyn in 1683. It contains instructions for what a gardener should do throughout the year. The excerpt below is the list of what is to be done in the "Orchard and Olitory1 Garden" for the month of August.

Inoculate2 now early, if before you began not, and gather your Bud of that year. Let this work be done before you remove the Stocks.

Prune off yet also superfluous branches and shoots of this second Spring; but be careful not to expose the fruit without leaves sufficient to skreen it from the Sun; furnishing and nailing up what you will spare to cover the defects of your Walls. Continue yet to cleanse your Vines from exuberant branches that too much hinder the Sun.

Pull up the Suckers.

Clip Roses now done bearing.

Sow Radish, especially the Black, to prevent running up to seed, pale tender Cabbages, Caully-flowers for Winter Plants, Corn-sallet, Marigolds, Lettuce, Carrots, Parsneps, Turneps, Spinage, Onions; also curl'd Endive, Angelica, Scurvy-grass3, &c.

Likewise now pull up ripe Onions and Garlic, &c.

Towards the end sow Purslan, Chard-beet, Chervil, &c.

Transplant such Lettuce as you will have abide all Winter.

Gather your Olitory seeds, and clip, and cut all such Herbs and Plants within one handful of the ground before the Full. Lastly,

Unbind and release the Buds you inoculated, if taken, &c. likewise stop, and prune them.

Now vindemiate4, and take your Bees towards the expiration of this Month; unless you see cause (by reason of the weather or season) to defer it till mid-September: Byt if your Stocks be very light and weak, begin the earlier.

Make your Summer Perry and Cider.

1 - olitory: Of or pertaining to, or produced in, a kitchen garden.

2 - inoculate: insert a bud for propagation, cause to propagate, as by grafting or layering.

3 - Cochlearia species; a.k.a. Scurvy grass, Scurvygrass, or Spoonwort

4 - To gather the vintage. [Obs.]