We know by now that vegetables made up a huge part of the ancient diet. Across civilizations, the majority of people got most of their calories from grain and veggies alone, and even those few wealthier foils who could afford meat supplemented extensively with plant food.
Food historians know all about the ingredients the ancients ate, but as for exactly how they were prepared, we’re often left in the dark. With the Roman Apicius’s book “On Cookery”, we finally have some recipes that give a little insight. Out of them, I’ve prepared BEETS TWO WAYS, LEEKS AND BEANS, ROAST CABBAGE WITH PORK BELLY, and a GREENS AND FIELD HERBS SALAD.
To a modern cook, these recipes might seem basic. But I would argue they only appear that way. These preparations are simple, yet elegant ways to maximize and feature the flavors of individual plants and ingredients. Old world vegetables and spices, prepared at their finest.
So let’s dive right in.
BEETS, TWO WAYS
Here’s Apicius’s recipe for beets:
To make a dish of beets that will appeal to your taste, slice the beets with leeks and crush coriander and cumin; add raisin wine, boil all down to perfection: bind it, serve the beets separate from the broth, with oil and vinegar.
So we’re cooking beets and spices in a sauce, they serving them chilled as a kind of salad dressed in vinaigrette. Follow the recipe pretty close, except I’m substituting regular white wine for raisin wine, something any true Roman would have no problem.cooking with.
Start by crushing the spices, then toast them in a little olive oil. adding and sauteing the leeks. Add the beets and saute a couple minutes longer. Add enough white wine to submerge all the vegetables halfway, bring to a boil and reduce “all down to perfection” as Apicius says. Let it cool, and toss with good olive oil and some wine vinegar.
Can’t get enough beets? Neither could Apicius. In addition to listing them in multiple other vegetable recipes, he has more specific recipes for preparing them. Here’s one “other way”:
Cook the beets with mustard seed and serve them well pickled in a little oil and vinegar.
Pickled beets and mustard seeds? Yum. My only addition was some red cabbage and garlic. Roast the beets in olive oil with the garlic and generous coating of mustard seeds until the beets are tender. Boil two parts red wine vinegar to one part water, season with salt, and pour over the everything in a jar. Let stand for an hour or two at room temperature.
GREENS AND FIELD HERBS SALAD
Salads with lettuces and greens dressed in vinegar were a staple of the Roman table, rich and poor alike. I’m using romaine and arugula, and a recipe in Apicius for a “Field Herbs Salad” to make a dressing.
Field and forest herbs are prepared either raw with liquamine, oil and vinegar as a salad, or as a cooked dish by adding pepper, cumin and mastich berries.
Chop up whatever herbs you’ve got available! I used cilantro, parsley, oregano, and rosemary. The “Liquamine” used here and elsewhere in Apicius refers to brine, likely fish sauce. Toss enough olive and fish sauce with the herbs in equal parts until it’s a little pesto-y in nature. Spoon onto the greens.
LEEKS AND BEANS
This one’s what it says. Leeks. And Beans . But prepared in awe and love of both. In using almost nothing else and by cooking thoughtfully, we can appreciate the pure, simple flavor of these delicious vegetables. Nothing else is required.
“Leeks and Beans” from Apicius: After having boiled the leeks in water, green string beans which have not yet been prepared otherwise, may be boiled in the leek water principally on account of the good taste they will acquire; and may then be served with the leeks.
The term boil, as in all ancient recipes, should be taken with a grain of salt. Simmer your leeks slowly in a quart of salted water over a low-medium heat to develop a broth. Remove with a slotted spoon. Bring the broth to a boil and add the beans, blanching until just tender, about two minutes. Remove, and toss with the cooked leeks, some olive oil, and a little of the reserved broth.
ROAST CABBAGE WITH PORK BELLY
The peak of peasant fare! I couldn’t resist using a little meat in one of the dishes of this vegetarian feast. If a common Roman was very lucky, or preparing a truly lavish plate, they might get just a scrap of pork to flavor up their common cabbage.
That was the case in the source of this recipe idea. This one actually doesn’t come from Apicius, but from the poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and his old married peasant couple Baucis and Philemon. When their woodland hut is visited by the gods Jupiter and Mercury in disguise as travelers, the poor farmers scrounge up the most refined meal they can, and at great expense, in order to be good hosts. Ovid’s description of a peasant banquet not only demonstrates the sacred nature of hospitality in the ancient world; it also represents a picture of the very best a common farmer in Ancient Rome could possibly eat.
Among the courses served at the impromptu feast, is cabbage braised “in a little bacon”. My interpretation is to toss cabbage wedges with slices of raw pork belly, “lovage” (celery), leeks, and olive oil, salt, black pepper, and whole cumin seed.
Roast at 375F until color starts to develop, about 20 minutes. Now add about an inch of chicken or veggie stock and “braise” uncovered for another 15 minutes or so, until the cabbage is tender.
That completes the gardener’s bounty. All of these recipes are great as side dishes to main courses, or if you want to eat like a true peasant, they’re perfectly enjoyable all on their own with a crust of bread or some porridge.