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.
Indian food, both ancient and modern, has always been about those sauces and condiments. Contrary to the jarred preserved stuff westerners think of as “chutney”, the real stuff in India is almost always made with fresh ingredients.
There will be one more classic chutney in the next Indian recipe, but here are three to get us going: cilantro, mango, and tamarind.
All very simple, very basic, very DELICIOUS recipes.
Which ancient civilization made the most flavorful cuisine?
Perhaps you could make a case for any of the cuisines and civilizations we’ve covered thus far, and no doubt each one has been best at something. But when it comes to pure, impact of flavor? Nobody beats India.
Thanks to its geography, history, and available ingredients, as well as some impressively advanced cooking techniques we’ll cover in depth, the story of South Asian civilization is the story of spice, rice, and flavor. Oh, and of vegetarians too!
WARNING: side effects of this episode may include getting very, very hungry!
Music for this episode sampled from the late, great Ravi Shankar
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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.