Monday, March 17, 2008

On Baking Rice

One of the neat tricks I've learned from talking with caterers and the like is that when you're cooking rice for a lot of people (e.g. 120) you can bake rice instead of boiling it. The rice goes into a steamer pan with the same amount of water that you'd use to boil it, and then it's covered tightly and put into an oven for an hour. This method has the benefit of being less time-sensitive than boiling, and you don't have to worry about it burning on the bottom as the stuff in 30 quart stockpots often do.

A couple of days back I decided to try cooking frumenty this way. Frumenty is essentially a thick cracked-wheat porridge. I've tried making it at a feast once or twice and it always gave me trouble. Sometimes it just took too long to cook, other times it burned. The wheat is boiled in the same way as rice, so it seemed like a perfect candidate for baking.

I put a cup of cracked-wheat into a deep glass baking pan along with two cups of water, covered it with aluminum foil, and popped it into a 350°F oven. An hour later I took it out to check on it - huh ... too soupy and the grains were still a bit too crunchy. Back into the oven it went. I checked it another hour later and it was perfect. So frumenty can be cooked this way, and it is a lot easier, but it takes longer. Not a bad trade-off. I'll have to remember to update my recipe for frumenty to reflect this.

Days later the thought occurs to me: did they ever bake grain in the middle-ages instead of boiling it? This can be a hard sort of question to answer for certain, but I can look for evidence in the medieval cookbooks. There are lots of medieval recipes for rice, and at least a couple from each country. I start reading through them and after a while things begin to blur - they all sound about the same. Wash the rice, put in a pot with some liquid (e.g. water, broth, milk), and boil. Some add other things like meat or rice-flour or almond milk. Some add saffron or other spices. All of them say to boil it.

I didn't find a single recipe for rice or wheat that said to put it in a pot with liquid, cover it, and bake it. Ugh.

So then I'm forced to ask myself why? This is a cooking method that is perfectly suited to medieval European cuisine. The dish will turn out perfectly for a huge range of time and temperature. Why wouldn't they cook it this way? I don't have an answer for this, but I will veer off into speculation for a moment here.

The setup of the medieval kitchen, and especially the oven, was functionally different in a couple of significant ways. The ovens were usually heated up early in the morning by filling them with wood and sealing them up. When the oven was hot enough (around 500°F) the ashes were shovelled out, the floor of the oven was wiped out, and the bread baking began.

Interestingly enough, the ovens were often in a separate room from the kitchen. Sometimes they were in a completely different building. In small towns you could take your bread dough to the baker to bake it in their oven. While boiling rice is easy enough over a fire, and baking it is easy in a modern kitchen, it would be much more awkward to do if the oven were elsewhere. Not impossible, mind you, just more awkward.

I suspect that it just never occurred to any medieval cook that they could bake rice. Heck, it didn't occur to me, and I've got an oven right in my kitchen that heats to a consistent temperature at the push of a button. We modern cooks also use our ovens for a larger variety of foods - we "roast" meats there instead of over an open fire, and we bake vegetables like potatoes or turnips. In the middle ages, ovens were generally used for bread and pies - things made of or enclosed in dough.

So it looks to me like baking rice is one of those thinks like the sandwich. They could have done it - they had all the stuff to do it - but they just never had the idea, and so they didn't.

Of course I could be wrong, and I'd be overjoyed if someone found a recipe for baking grain instead of boiling it.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Thoughts on Pepper

The other night I was cooking dinner, and as I was seasoning whatever it was, a thought occurred to me. Why pepper? On just about every dinner table here in the US, on almost every restaurant table as well, are two spice containers: salt and pepper.

The salt I can understand. There's a biological need for salt, and since it was hard to come by in human pre-history, an innate desire for salt has developed. But what about the pepper? Pepper has no function in human biology, so there's no built-in drive to eat it. The only reason we put it on our food is for taste, and that's no different from any number of other spices. So why has pepper become more common than ginger or cinnamon or mint?

My first thought is that it might be a carry-over from earlier habits. Salt is one of the most commonly used spices in medieval cookbooks. Perhaps pepper was too, and since cooks sometimes do not put enough spice into a dish, maybe it became the practice to have the two most common spices set out on the table to allow the diner to suppliment a dish's flavor. As a quick check for this, I looked to see how often pepper shows up in medieval recipes.

I have some statistics from medieval cookbooks already compiled ... Unh. Not very conclusive. Below is a list of the four most common spices from various cookbooks.

Enseignements (France, 1300): Pepper - 50%, Ginger - 35%, Cinnamon - 28%, Mustard - 26%

Forme of Cury (England, 1390): Salt - 47%, Saffron - 39%, Ginger - 23%, Pepper - 14%,

Du fait de cuisine (France, 1420): Salt - 81%, Ginger - 70%, Grains of Paradise - 62%, Pepper - 41%

Liber cure cocorum (England, 1430): Saffron - 34%, Salt - 31%, Pepper - 27%, Ginger - 20%

Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery Books (England, 1450): Salt - 56%, Ginger - 42%, Saffron - 41%, Pepper - 31%

A Proper newe Booke of Cokerye (England, 1550): Salt - 36%, Cinnamon - 30%, Ginger - 22%, Mace - 18%

The Good Housewife's Jewell (England, 1596): Ginger - 40%, Pepper - 40%, Salt - 40%, Cinnamon - 35%

At a glance, we can probably leave out the grains of paradise and the mace - they both only make the top four of a single book. Salt makes the top four of 6 books, and is the number 1 spot for 3 of them. Pepper also shows up in 6, but is the top spot for only 1. Ginger is in the top four of all 7 books, and is in the top spot for 1. Also, ginger ranks higer than pepper for 5 of the books. Why don't we have a ginger shaker on the table then?

It looks like I need to do more digging ...

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Humbles of Venison

Several months back I was looking for venison recipes and came across a recipe in "The Good Housewife's Jewell" (England, 16th c.) titled "To bake the humbles of a Deere." I didn't have any deer kidneys on hand, so I tried it out with ground venison instead. It was ok, but nothing to make a fuss over, and something seemed a bit strange with it. So I took a closer look at the source and did a bit of digging.

The first thing that I found was that the two different editions I had of the source were not in total agreement. One edition called for dates where the other (which I'd used) called for oats (spelled "oates"). A bit of a discrepancy there. Which one was right? I checked with an authority on the source (Hi, Johnnae!) and learned that in the microfilm version the word is clearly dates.

But this left me without much of a binder for what I'd initially assumed was something like meatloaf (yes, a faulty assumption - even I do this from time to time). A quick look at the adjacent recipes in the text and it was fairly clear that the recipe was most likely a pie. No problem. I'll make it as a pie then and see how it turns out, only this time I figured I'd get some deer kidneys and do it right.

Hence the delay. Apparently deer kidneys aren't something that can be purchased in one-pound packages at the local supermarket. Neither are they available at the butcher shop, or even (gasp!) at that mecca of food-enthusiasts, Jungle Jim's. I asked some hunters I knew and learned that they usually discard the kidneys along with the rest of a deer's innards. So I asked those same hunters if maybe, please, pretty-pretty-please, if they get the chance would they save the kidneys from their next deer for me? I got more than a few weird looks and some hesitant "Ok"s, and then I waited.

At the point when I'd all but forgotten what I wanted them fore, my apprentice presented me with two deer kidneys that had formerly belonged to a deer which had been shot by her uncle (Kristen's uncle, not the deer's). They were smaller than I'd expected, and were slightly disturbing to hold - they felt kind of like a small bag filled with jello.

deer kidneysdeer kidneys

At last we had real deer kidneys, so of course we had to cook them. I dug up the (corrected) recipe again and looked it over.

Source [The Good Housewife's Jewell, T. Dawson]: To bake the humbles of a Deere. Mince them verie small, and season them with pepper, Sinamom and ginger, and suger if you will, and cloues & mace, and dates, and currants, and if you will, mince Almonds, and put unto them, and when it is baked, you may put in fine fat, and put in suger, sinamom and ginger, and let it boile, and when it is minced, put them together.

The first question that sprang to mind was whether the kidneys should be cooked before using them - I vaguely remember a hunter joking about needing to "boil the piss out of them". We did a quick check of the other medieval recipes for deer kidneys and found that most of them did indeed specify boiling as the first step of the recipe. So I popped them into a small pot of water and let them boil. It was a bit creepy, really, because I could see a thin trail of blood streaming out of the kidneys as they boiled. Once this stream stopped I figured they were cooked well enough.

deer kidneysboiled deer kidneys

They'd shrunk a bit - we were obviously going to have just enough for a small pie. They also felt like they'd bounce pretty high if dropped. More like a superball than cooked meat. The recipe starts with mincing them "verie small", so I got out the chef's knife and did just that. Tedious, but not difficult. The rest of the recipe was quick and easy, we mixed everything all up, put the filling into a pastry-lined ramekin, covered it, and popped it into the oven for a half hour or so. When the crust looked done, I melted some butter, added the spices, and poured as much into the pie as I could (it overflowed a bit).

deer kidneysvery small pie

Of course the proof of the pudding (and apparently the pie) is in the eating. The apprentice and I looked at each other for a moment. People have been eating kidneys for a long time, probably as long as there have been people, so it has to be ok to eat. It's meat, it's well cooked, and it has all sorts of good-tasting stuff in it. With a bit of a mental shrug, we passed around the forks and cut the pie.

deer kidneysvery small pie, opened

Not bad at all, really. I don't know what I expected - maybe more of a liver sort of taste. It's basically a mincemeat pie. The flavors of the spices, fruit, and butter pretty much drowned out everything else. The meat was a bit chewy in spite of being minced, but it wasn't bad enough to put me off kidneys. In the future I'll probably be making this with venison steaks or ground meat, as it's a lot easier to get and it won't have any substantial effect on the flavor.