Here in this classic dish we have two essential elements of Japanese coming together: Soy and the Sea.
I couldn’t say I did any historical Japanese cooking if I didn’t make something with Dashi, the ubiquitous broth of dried seaweed and smoked fish flakes that’s essential to so many dishes. The unique flavor of Dashi is said to be that of the Sea itself.
And tofu, originally invented in China, was a vital source of protein for Buddhist monks abstaining from meat, but of course other people enjoyed it too. Tofu gets such a bad rap these days, but when its treated simply, fried up perfectly to be crispy on the outside and creamy within, it’s really tasty!
Both of those things come together simply and deliciously in Agedashi Tofu, a dish still popular today but some version of which must have been eaten for many centuries in Japan. Shallow fried tofu in Dashi, or “ocean stock” if you like, garnished with some nice veggies.
Sushi represents the ultimate and most definitive attempt in the long history of Japanese cooks distilling good food to its purest essence. It represents the quest to make a single, perfect bite. Fresh fish. . . perfectly cooked sweet and sticky rice. . . a little dab of soy sauce. I’m inclined to think they succeeded.
It’s true that chefs spend lifetimes mastering the art of Sushi making, but what most people don’t know is that it’s actually not intimidating at all to make a simple, more relaxed version at home. I’d even go so far to say that Sushi is easy to make. It’s just difficult to MASTER.
Before we get to rolling, let’s give what we’re making today context with a brief the history of sushi in Japanese cuisine. . .
What does it mean for one culture to “steal” from another? How often does it happen? Is it a bad thing when it does? Listen to explore those questions and more, as we visit the Far East once again, this time even farther east. . . to Japan and Korea.
Also known. . . by myself at least, as the lands of umami and kimchi.
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.
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. . .
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.