Monday, September 30, 2019

Starting Points: Hen With Horseradish

This weekly feature shows the initial steps I go through for interpreting a medieval recipe. Today's randomly selected recipe is the following:

LXXIX - Hen with horseradish. First boil the hen in clean water so that it's nicely tender and soft. Take the horseradish and cut it in small pieces or grate it on a grater. Pound a handful of peeled almond and add that. Then make this to taste, not too thin or thick. Then put baked simle slices on a plate. Put the hen over it and then put this horseradish over it. [Koge Bog (Denmark, 1616 - Martin Forest, trans.)]

I haven't done a lot of recipes from Danish sources, but in general they seem to have more subdued spicing than what I've come to expect from medieval European cuisine. That isn't to say they don't have strong flavors - this recipe does call for horseradish after all - but they tend to use fewer spices. I suspect that this is related to Denmark's shift from Catholicism to Lutheranism in the early 16th century, paralleling England's change in both religion and cuisine.

There's not much to this recipe - essentially just chicken and horseradish. The only other recipe I've found like it is this Hungarian one:

Hen with Lippa sauce. Remove the feathers, take out the insides and do what I told you. Boil the hen or the capon in cabbage soup. Grate some horseradish onto it, and once cooked, take it out of the fire, don't let it be too hot, for that will take the power of the horseradish. Once you put it into a plate, pour some sauce onto the horseradish. Hungarians like this dish. If you can, cook a fat hen or capon.  [The Prince of Transylvania's Court Cookbook (Hungary, 16th c.)]

The first step is pretty simple, boil a chicken. While the recipe just uses water I'd be inclined to take a tip from the Hungarian recipe and add some aromatics and salt. Plain boiled chicken is just plain sad. So, the chicken would go into a big pot with some carrots, onions, and celery and a teaspoon of salt and then I'd let it boil for an hour or so until the legs pull out easily.

The next part of the recipe is a little odd. I'm ok with grating horseradish and grinding almonds, but "make this to taste, not too thin or thick" seems a bit nonsensical. Just how thin can a mix of two particulate solids be? It also sounds like it would be an unpleasantly grainy mixture. Given how gound almonds are most often used for making almond milk (or marzipan, but that's not helping) this section makes me thing they mean to make an almond-milk sauce flavored with horseradish.

With this in mind I'd grind a cup of almonds, add a tablespoon or two of grated horseradish, mix it all with two cups of hot water, and then strain out all the solids. I'd then cook the liquid in a saucepan until it thickens a bit. Ok, I'd probably add some salt here too. A little salt helps just about everything.

The serving instructions call for putting the chicken on top of some "simle" and pouring the sauce over it all. My assumption here is that "simle" is "simnel" - a loaf of bread made from fine, white flour (this morphed into a modern sort of cinnamon-raisin bread, but that's aside from things). Pouring soups and stews over slices of bread is pretty common in medieval cookbooks so it's a pretty safe bet. I'd cut the cooked chicken into pieces (or maybe shred it), put some into a bowl on top of a slice of bread (something like a dense, farmhouse white), and pour the sauce on top.

Given that it's pretty much white on white on white, I'd likely garnish it with some parsley or something just for a bit of color.

If I was really feeling brave (or bored) I'd make it exactly as written - as chicken on bread with a gritty paste on top. More likely though I'd let someone else do that part.

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