Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Cooking with laser

The Historical Food Fortnightly Rare Ingredients challenge focuses on ingredients that are hard to obtain.  To me, this immediately suggested something made with silphium, or laser as it was called in Latin.  I can't use real silphium because it is extinct, but I can substitute asafoetida - which is itself a bit hard to get hold of in New Zealand (the secret to obtaining it is knowing that Indian grocers often use its Hindi name: hing).

In fact the ancients also used asafoetida in place of silphium.  It was already extinct by the time De Re Coquinaria was compiled, so the recipes that call for it would actually have been made with asafoetida.

Asafoetida comes from the same family as silphium and apparently tastes very similar, but it lacks the medicinal properties that made silphium so sought after.  It's not popular in Western cooking, apparently because people find the smell unpleasant.  I don't mind the smell myself, but I can see why some people dislike it.

I should mention at this point that I have a very poor sense of smell.

Anyway, today's historical recipe is Parthian Chicken, an Apicius recipe which may or may not resemble actual Parthian cooking.  Here is the recipe:

Pullum Parthicum: pullum aperies a navi et in quadrato ornas. teres piper, ligusticum, carei modicum. suffunde liquamen. vino temperas. componis in cumana pullum et condituram super pullum facies. laser [et] vivum in tepida dissolvis, et in pullum mittis simul, et coques. piper aspersum inferes.

Here it is in translation courtesy of the University of Chicago:

Dress the chicken carefully and quarter it. Crush pepper, lovage and a little carraway moistened with broth, and add wine to taste. After frying place the chicken in an earthen dish, pour the seasoning over it, add laser and wine. Let it assimilate with the seasoning and braise the chicken to a point. When done sprinkle with pepper and serve.

Note that this version translates liquamen as "broth".  This is not very accurate; liquamen is our old friend garum, the quintessential Roman flavour.  There are recipes out there for making your own garum/liquamen, but I use nuoc mam fish sauce which is pretty much the same thing.

Neil from Pass the Garum says you can substitute celery for lovage, which is good because in 21st century New Zealand lovage is even harder to find than asafoetida.

I used a chicken breast instead of a whole bird, because there's only one of me, and a Shingle Peak pinot noir.  I don't know how closely Marlborough pinot noir resembles your typical Roman wine.  I tend to find New Zealand wines have more tannin than Italian ones, but whether this was true of wines in the Roman period (or even all modern Italian wines) I can't say.  I imagine there were many varieties of wine available then, just as there are now.

The Challenge: Rare Ingredients.

The Recipe: Pullum Parthicum from De Re Coquinaria by Apicius.

The Date/Year and Region: Fourth century AD Rome.

How Did You Make It: As per the recipe, I braised my chicken in wine and spices, with a little fish sauce.  I cooked the chicken for 20 minutes, at 170 degrees C.

Time to Complete: Twenty minutes braising time, plus the time I took to sear the chicken.  This is a quick and easy recipe.

Total Cost: I already had most of the ingredients on hand, but had to buy some asafoetida/laser/hing and caraway seeds.  These cost $7.50, but there is plenty left over.

How Successful Was It? This dish is fantastic!  The flavours are subtle, but well balanced.  I now understand why the Romans were so keen on laser - it gives the meat a beautiful savoury taste.  The meat was juicy and tender, but then braised meats always are.

How Accurate Is It?  Of course, I used modern kitchen equipment.  I also used celery instead of lovage, but otherwise I think this is reasonably accurate.  Even using celery isn't totally outside the realms of possibility for a Roman cook.  Every cook has to make do sometimes, no matter what time period they live in.

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