Polenta may not sound so exciting, but when made with love, it can be one of the most delicious and satisfying dishes you’ve had in some time. When the exotic foreign mystery grain of maize came to Europe via the Columbian Exchange, Europeans treated it like they did every other grain. They ground it and cooked it into porridge, adding their own local ingredients like dairy products. Today, this creamy and cheesy cornmeal porridge is still a favorite staple of Italian, especially northern Italian, cuisine.
A little while after, tomatoes followed to the old world, and though not considered edible at first, gradually evolved into items of culinary interest, onward to a destiny of being a beloved ingredient across the continent today. Salsa Pomodoro just means tomato sauce, but being the original Italian word for tomatoes, it hints that the first of these american fruits to arrive in Europe may have been yellow, and not red.
I’m still using some red tomatoes here because they look better with Polenta, but I’m also using some yellow ones to honor this original appearance. Though the original preparation was a simple but tasty dish of raw tomatoes with olive oil, cooking into sauce must soon have followed. But this is not your every day tomato sauce. Here, onions, mushrooms, a little anchovy, all make for a very rustic, meaty concoction, an acidic umami bomb that is not blended, packed with fresh herbs and resulting in a sauce that is simultaneously deep, bright, chunky and yet saucy, a full of flavor to counterpoint the rich polenta.
To further explore Episode 20, the Columbian Exchange, we’ll be making some classic recipes that were only possible once Eurasia and the Americas began mixing their ingredients.
To start, I can’t think of a better example than Mexican mole sauce. Mesoamerican chocolate and chili peppers bring the strongest and most unique flavors to this dish, but they’re used with Old World bread, sugar, spices, nuts, and seeds, and of course pork. Pork is ubiquitous in Mexican cuisine today but wasn’t around until Spanish colonists brought their pigs en masse to the New World, shaping a new cuisine in the process.
Mole has a reputation for being complicated, but it’s really not. It just has a lot of ingredients. Basically though, you just need to cover five bases for a good mole sauce: spiciness (from chilis), acidity (from chocolate, tomatoes, and citrus), sweetness (from dried fruit and cane sugar), spices, and thickeners (nuts, seeds, and bread).
To be extra authentic, pick up a cone of pilonciillo sugar from a Latin grocery store. Also, a more classic chili for this recipe would be pasilla negro chilis, but I am using the varieties I grew in my garden and dried this past summer. I’ve got chipotle, ancho, and cayenne.
Pasta with raisins and cinnamon? It may sound strange (to a westerner), but this was how people ate pasta when it first came to Europe. And believe me or not, I swear to you it’s delicious.
You see, the art of noodle making diffused westward from China via the Arab empires in the early middle ages. Pasta was among the cultural markers left on Europe when Muslims were living in Spain and Sicily. These Middle Eastern immigrants brought with them Middle Eastern ingredients, preparing their tagliatelle, ravioli, etc. with things like dried fruits and spices.
By the 13th and 14th centuries when pasta was really getting popular in European cooking, people still ate it this way, in addition to using more local ingredients like butter and cheese. By the Renaissance, professional cooks were making countless types of sophisticated noodles and stuffed pastas.
And so, after studying many of these recipes, I humbly present my own take on Medieval into Early modern style ravioli, stuffed with ground “capon” (sub chicken!), herbs, onions, boiled eggs, and a lot of Parmesan cheese. I know, I know. “Seriously, raisins?” you’re still thinking. . . but you’ve got to trust me on this. The contrast of salty and sweet and a little spiced across this dish, is really good!
Boiled and finished in a saffron butter. We’re also going to be making homemade raisins as stuff from the box isn’t going to cut it for this recipe. We want the tangy, still slightly juicy bite of one freshly dried in the oven.
That’s the key to making raisins in pasta taste good. So here’s how:
While cookbooks were certainly written during the Medieval period, they are few and far between compared to the amount produced during the early modern, or “Renaissance” period. And because those later Europeans had similar tastes, by reading their recipes we can learn a lot about the way people ate centuries before them as well.
And like we’ve said before, what people ate was pies. Or tarts. Similar really.
Think of just about any old world ingredient, and you can bet there’s a Medieval recipe for baking it into a pie. With such a wealth of options, it was almost impossible to choose just four, and I feel like I’m leaving some key representations of the period off the table… perhaps there will be a tart flight part 2 in the future…
Until then, I present a humble few. . .
An Apple and Gruyere Tart…
A Marzipan Torte…
An onion tart, or an early version of quiche as we know it today…
And a peach, cherry, and red wine pie
These mainly 16th Century recipes are not all sweet pies, or rather not only sweet. They blur the line between savory foods and desserts, and would be on the table at any time alongside any kinds of other courses.
To get started, we’ll need to make a big batch of pastry crust. . .
This was a fun one. I don’t normally make purely authentic recipes on this blog. As all the posts the last two years show, I prefer taking inspiration from the past rather than trying to recreate it. But with so many primary recipe sources written during the late middle ages, I figured I should probably try some of them.
This recipe comes from Le Menagier de Paris, a kind of instructional manual for a housewife of 1393. I picked it because it felt particular evocative of the era to me. Poultry Broth, thickened with almonds and heavily spiced? I mean what sounds more Medieval than that?
BROUET DE CANELLE
Cut up your poultry or other meat, then cook in water and add wine, and fry: then take raw almonds with the skin on unpeeled, and a great quantity of cinnamon, and grind up well, and mix with your stock or with beef stock, and put to boil with your meat: then grind ginger, clove and grain, etc., and let it be thick and yellow-brown.
Mm, thick and yellow brown! We’re subbing in black pepper for the grains of paradise which I don’t have access to, but otherwise I followed this recipe pretty much to the letter, even the “great quantity of cinnamon”. Eep. The end product is definitely unusual to my modern palate, but not bad at all! It tastes more like Indian food than European to me, but for the late middle ages, that’s to be expected.
My interpretation of this recipe is 1 part ground almonds, 2 parts chicken meat, 4 parts chicken broth, and then like .5 parts of the cinnamon and spices. Your quantities may vary.
That’s right! It’s a whole chicken wrapped in a pie crust.
I got the idea for this recipe years ago from Chef John from foodwishes.com, and always thought that with some extra spice and imagination, you could do a great Medieval style version. This showstopper recipe combines three great culinary passions of the European Middle Ages: 1) Lots of spices, 2) Baking everything into a pie, and 3) Cooking things that look like other things!
A couple important distinctions. While Medieval pie crusts, known at the time as coffins, were probably not designed to be edible, ours most certainly will be. And regarding my distaste for frivolous cooking techniques, a whole pie in the shape of the chicken contained within it does not feel so egregious to me as say… a roast meat made to look like a fruit or something. No jelly or wax involved here, and natural spices give it the meat yellow color . (Medieval cooks loved to dye and color their foods as well).
This recipe seems complex but is actually quite simple. We will be treating the chicken like any roasted bird, coated with salt and spice and stuffed with herbs and aromatic vegetables. We’re simply going to wrap a pastry crust around it too for some extra dimension. Almost like a primitive chicken pot pie.
It’s almost Anthrochef’s 2 year anniversary. And to celebrate, we’re starting a recipe that will take 2 years to fully cook! That’s right, we’re fermenting some soy sauce from scratch.
I can think of few better examples of the power of human cultural tradition then something like soy sauce. Honestly, who first decided to make a soy and wheat dough, let it get moldy, dry it out, then let it ferment in brine for 2 years before consuming what resulted as a foodstuff??
It’s remarkable that people figured this out.
This recipe is a couple weeks of actual work, and then indeed a very long 1-2 year waiting period for the sauce to fully age (Full disclosure, this post is actually just part 1…) . It’s worth it though. Homemade soy sauce has an earthy, umami rich flavor that’s hard to locate in a store, even in the best Asian markets.
It will be a little scary eating this moldy soy dough brine when all is through, but we have a few elements on our side to battle any bad bacteria. Sunlight is key to the soy sauce fermentation process and also good at killing off bad microbes. Also, using charcoal as a weight should soak up some impurities from the water. Finally, when we strain this out a year from now, we’re going to boil before serving, one last measure of food safety before consuming this potent, delicious sauce.
The Song Dynasty of Medieval China was a turning point in food history. As farming productivity exploded, cities rose to dominance, and populations dramatically increased, so too did the quality of life and the quality of cuisine follow.
To put it another way, people had access to not only more food, but better food. Even poorer commoners tended to eat 3 meals a day and occasionally some snacks. Most remarkable though, was that for one of the first times in history, meat was being consumed across social classes. With prices low, and restaurants and street stalls serving conveniently sized and priced portions, everyone could afford some animal protein now and then.
And the most popular of all the meats? Then and perhaps now as well… Pork. So. . . we’re havin’ ribs.
I’ll admit, this recipe is inspired by the style of ribs you can get with Chinese take out in America. But taking all historical factors into account, that is the rise of meat and pork, the authentic black soy bean sauce, the dry rub spices made possible by recently opened trade routes, as well as the popularity of grills and barbecues for street food in Song cities, I see no reason to call this recipe inauthentic! I’ll stand by the assertion that these ribs could totally have been served from a stall on the Imperial Way, centuries ago.
The charcoal grill is of course the best way to go, but these ribs are delicious in an oven as well. To get started, we’ll need to whip up a couple things first: Some homemade Chinese Five Spice for a dry rub, and some Hoisin style, black bean sauce for a marinade. After that, all we need is ribs and fire.
It’s not really correct to imply smoked fish is a specifically Medieval thing, and for that I apologize. People have been smoking fish since long before recorded history began, and we could have done this recipe at any point on this website’s culinary journey.
But as we touched on in episode 16 of the podcast, since both the diets and entire economies of northwestern Europe during the middle ages were so dependent on dried and smoked fish, now seemed an appropriate time to make some.
Though the fish of European Medieval times was herring, I was unable to locate any in my home town, so I opted for an all purpose recipe, for smoking just about any fish, as was done on Weber grills across the ages .
How the times change. Today, this rye could be an expensive artisan loaf in a high end bakery. In dark ages Europe, it was food for peasants.
This is a true Middle Ages commoner’s bread, as there is no wheat flour involved. It’s almost all rye, but cut with a little barley and oats which were the only grains many serfs across Medieval northwest Europe would have had on hand. It makes a dense, chewy bread, whose texture still manages to be pleasant, that’s healthy for a carbohydrate, and packed with tangy rye flavor. It’s also very easy to make, with no kneading required, just many hours of waiting time.
Though be careful where you get your rye from. You don’t want to contract St. Anthony’s Fire like poor old Waigulf from the other side of the manor. Ate a bad loaf and was dead soon afterward, ‘e was.