Friday, November 23, 2007

Out with the old and in with the new!

Thanksgiving is a funny kind of holiday for me. I'm so normally focused on the foods of the Old World (specifically, medieval Europe) that New World foodstuffs are relegated to the back burner. Of course this changes around Thanksgiving, when I spend quite a bit of time doing this odd mental dance. I want to celebrate the foods of the New World and find interesting new ways to serve them, but still keep true to the (young) traditions of the Thanksgiving meal.

Here's what I made this year:

Turkey - The only big surprise here is that the turkey was huge! We wanted a fresh turkey and ended up with a choice between one that was too small and one that ... wasn't. The 22 pound bird just barely fit into the roasting pan, and was lightly seasoned with salt, pepper, and tarragon.

Stuffing - Cooked inside the turkey, I used a mix of white bread and pumpernickel, with onion, sage, thyme, celery seed, and dried cranberries.

Mashed Potatoes - Yes, potatoes and stuffing. My family has always operated on the principle that there is no such thing as too much starch.

Gravy - Made from butter, flour, and the drippings from the roasting pan. Gravy is one of the four food groups.

Green Beans - I wanted this to be a little fancier than just plan green beans, but didn't want to stray too far from traditional Thanksgiving fare. What I ended up doing was to steam them and serve them with a cream sauce with tarragon, and top them with some home-made croutons.

Cranberry Chutney - This is great stuff, sweet and tart, with a little extra zip. I keep the recipe here so I don't lose it.

Cranberry Sauce - Some of the family prefer the jellied cranberry sauce from a can to the chutney recipe above. Fortunately I've found that this kind of sauce is very easy to make with fresh cranberries. Put two cups cranberries (washed and cut in half) into a saucepan with one cup water and one cup sugar. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until it thickens (about 20 minutes - a drop of the juice should gel when put on a cold plate). Strain through a fine sieve and chill.

Pumpkin Pie - served with fresh whipped cream.

Apple Pie - a crumb-topped pie, my wife's family recipe.

All of these, with the exception of the apple pie, are New World dishes (had to make the apple pie though, or the family would revolt). I'd like to have a corn-based dish for next year, so I'll have to look for something suitable. Anyways, I think it's time for another slice of pie before returning to the food coma.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Hello Tallow!

A few months back I bought half a cow. I'd done this previously - if you have the money up front and enough freezer space then it's an incredibly economical way to buy beef. This time I did something a bit different though. Instead of throwing away all the odd parts that Americans generally don't eat, I had the processor pack them up as well (which is why I have that well publicized cow tongue ... got do do something with that thing). This means that along with some really great beef I've got a lot of suet and "soup bones".

So late last week I took a package of bones out of the freezer to let them thaw, and on Sunday I put them in a big pot with lots of water (and onions, salt,  pepper, and rosemary) to make beef broth.  Everything went well and I now have the broth frozen in one cup portions for quick, easy use.

All pretty boring, really.

The interesting part started when I was disposing of the used bones and gristle.  I'd dumped the dregs in the sink and made my first discovery:  one of the large pieces of bone had a huge chunk of marrow in it.

Of course I was heartbroken.  I've got recipes that call for marrow, and here I'd let some go to waste.  I poked out the piece of cooked marrow and smooshed it and marveled at the quantity of soft fat still in it.  Neat, in a gross kind of way - or is it gross, in a neat kind of way?

Next I gave the pieces of bone a quick scrub and set them out to dry (I think a couple of people I know have been experimenting with bone carving.  If not then I can just pitch them later).  Back to boring ... until the next time I checked the sink, which is when I found that what I thought to be globs of fat that would easily be washed down the drain were in reality globs of tallow that had now cooled and cemented themselves to the sink.

I know they made candles out of tallow in the middle ages (they're supposed to smell like beef when lit), but I've never seen tallow.  I'd always imagined something about the consistency of beeswax.  Nope, this stuff is hard!  They should make toys out of this stuff, or maybe car bumpers.  It's a hard, brittle, yellow, plastic-like substance.  Softer than most plastics, but harder than candle wax.

So now I've got two things to watch for the next time I thaw out a package of bones.  Remove the marrow before cooking, and collect the tallow after.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

But it could have happened!

The second most annoying thing in researching medieval cooking - the first of course being the myth that medieval cooks used spice to cover the taste of spoiled meat - is what I usually refer to as a cheeseburger argument.  This is usually an attempt to justify a modern dish as being "possibly" medieval, and generally takes the following form:

"They had beef in the middle ages, right?  And they sometimes ground meat, right?  And they sometimes cooked meat on a grill and they had cheese and bread, right?  So they had all the things they needed to make a cheeseburger.  Therefore the odds are that someone somewhere made one in the 500 years between 1000 and 1500."

Um ... no.

Sure, it sounds reasonable, but aside from being research in the wrong direction (choosing something modern and looking for it in the past, instead of looking at what there was and trying to make sense of it) the argument contains a number of logical flaws.

One of the flaws is called "Post hoc ergo propter hoc" (literally "After this, therefore because of this").  To make a cheeseburger you need to have all the ingredients (true), so having the ingredients will inevitably lead to making a cheeseburger (false).  Thousands of people in the US have raw fish and lye in their houses, and the vast majority of them will never make lutefisk.

This could also be a form of an "appeal to probability" (I still can't find the fancy Latin term for this), where it is assumed that because something can happen, it eventually will happen.

Another flaw present is a "fallacy of composition" (again, no cool Latin ... I'll keep looking), which assumes that if something is true for the parts then it's true for the whole.

So, while medieval cooks had all the stuff they needed to make a cheeseburger, and while it was possible that someone would make one, the concept of a cheeseburger (or any kind of sandwich for that matter) simply isn't one a medieval cook had.  Eventually someone did come up with the idea of a sandwich (most historians think it was sometime in the 18th century) and I'm sure a cheeseburger appeared shortly thereafter, so I suppose that given all of human history it was inevitable, but it wasn't in the middle ages.

Sometimes those making a cheeseburger argument tack on a short addendum when challenged, something along the lines of "You don't think they made cheeseburgers?  Prove they didn't."  In terms of classical logic this is called "Argumentam ad ignorantiam" (argument from ignorance), where the only "proof" that a premise is true is that it hasn't been proven false.  If this is allowed than almost anything can be "proven" - Henry the Fifth was actually a female orangutan!  Don't think so?  Prove he wasn't.  See?

Still it's soooo tempting. There's a particularly appealing modern dish, and a recipe or two from the 14th century that has a couple ingredients in common, and maybe even a hint at a method that kind of sort of matches, or maybe just a name that's spelled in a similar way.  That's why we need to practice CONSTANT VIGILANCE!

I'm going to go have a cheeseburger now.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Medieval Cooking Symposium

Just a quick post today.  I spent the weekend at the Middle Kingdom Cook's Symposium - a small gathering of professional and amateur cooks and historians in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

I had an absolutely fantastic time, which included attending a class on medieval meat preservation methods (which I intend to try out as soon as possible - text and photos will be posted), and tasting many many (way too many - I ate until my stomach hurt) dishes I'd never tried before.  

Two of the more notable foods encountered were some sauteed cow tongue[1] made by Helewyse de Birkestad (a.k.a. Louise Smithson) and an incredible gingerbread dessert made by Hauviette d’Anjou (a.k.a. Channon Mondoux).

On the whole, it was a wonderful way to spend a Saturday - learning, schmoozing, and just being historically geeky all around - and it was well worth the 5 hour drive to get there.

[1]  The cow tongue was notable not so much because of its flavor, but more because I'd never had it before and I've still got that whole tongue in my freezer.  It wasn't at all bad or unpleasant, but I think I'll look for a recipe with a little more spice to it.