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.
For millions of years, the two main hemispheres of planet earth were separated by an impassible ocean. North/South America and Eurasia/Africa, two divergent ecosystems, food chains, and human civilizations. . . Then one day in 1492, a guy named Columbus passed that impassible ocean, and began the momentous and tumultuous process of bringing the Old World and the New World back together, into one.
Human civilization and the ecosystems of earth itself would never be the same.
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. . .
Did Europeans suddenly wake up one day, tired of Medieval living, and decide to change course, to rebirth themselves in modern ideas and start creating good art? Or, as usual, is the story something much more complicated, gradual, and subject to the influence of other cultures from outside?
Hmm, I wonder?… Come listen for an extensive tour of the Italian Renaissance, how it began, and what it meant for people and what they ate.
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.
How did Europe get out of its dark ages? It’s not a wholesome story, as the secret to their success was mainly the conquest and plunder of other peoples’ luxury goods, namely their foods and spices. Classic Europe.
Would it surprise if I told you that the Black Death did a lot to help as well? Come take a culinary journey through the High and Late Middle Ages, and see why.
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.
Ginger, garlic, and green onions. Those three ingredients tie Chinese cuisine, both modern and Medieval, together, and make up the beginning of so many recipes. Here, they will be our base for a delicious bone broth, as well as some northern style potstickers to go swimming in it.
Yum. This recipe looks like a lot of work, but is really quite simple, easy, and hopefully elegant. The potstickers are homemade but easy to assemble, made from a healthy and nicely textured whole wheat dough to simulate more ancient flour. Really, the hardest part of this recipe is waiting all day for the soup to cook.