Saturday, March 17, 2018

Flatbread--First Experiment

Today, I attempted to make some flatbread to go with a meal of ful medames (Near Eastern stewed, spiced beans) that I was making for myself and my husband.  

I used ordinary all-purpose wheat flour because this wasn't a Viking meal and because I wanted to work with something familiar, since we were long-overdue for lunch and I was hungry.  The only respect in which I did not comply with Chef John's instructions is that I only let the dough rest for about five minutes before attempting to roll it out.

The end result?  Rolling the dough out turned out to be very challenging because it was stickier than the "slightly sticky" test led me to believe at first; I had to keep sprinkling flour on it to make it rollable and keep it from sticking to the mini-rolling pin I was using for the purpose. Also, though I was able to roll the dough out very thin (approximately a millimeter) I couldn't cook it that way because it would rip as I transferred it to the hot skillet.  The resulting dough was rather flavorless (but then, so are sandwich wraps) but had reasonable texture.  It was tasty enough, however, when wrapped around a hunk of ful.  

My husband pronounced the result a successful proof of concept, and said he was all for further flatbread experiments.  

Next time, I will schedule things so that I can let the dough rest for an hour in advance.  I may also try a different flour; possibly corn flour if not barley flour.  I will also try to get pictures of my next experiment.

EDIT: (3/17/2018) Link to my original post on Chef John provided at a reader's request.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Book Review--Mort Rosenblum's "Chocolate"

From a used-book source, a good friend of mine found a copy of the following book, which he then gave to me:
Rosenblum, Mort.  Chocolate:  A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light.  (North Point Press 2005).
Like The Secret History of Chocolate, by Michael and Sophie Coe, Rosenblum tries to give the reader a sense of the long history of chocolate, including some of the biology relating to the cacao plant.  But unlike the Coes, Mr. Rosenblum is not primarily interested in giving an encyclopedic history of the plant, or even in the story of its European adoption.  Instead he is interested in how chocolate is made today, and what makes the chocolate of the French, for example, "better" than the chocolate made by the Swiss or Belgians.  So he travels and visits chocolate makers, both mass market and exclusive, in over a half dozen countries on four different continents.

Mr. Rosenblum's conclusion?  The artisans do produce better chocolate.  But individual preferences, and mass marketing techniques, can and have created strong followings for even inferior products.  (He's not just looking at Hershey, either, though he devotes a generous amount of space to Hershey; its beginnings as well as the state of Hershey as of when this book was published.)

Chocolate is a fun and informative read.  If you are interested in the subject (and who is not, at least to some degree?), you should pick up a used copy, or look for it at your local library.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

A Reenactor Take on Viking Flatbread

Alert readers may have noticed that I have edited my post about using Chef John's add-the-water-gradually-to-the-flour technique for making flatbread to mention a Facebook video showing a similar technique by a Canadian group called Ðrottin.

I couldn't figure out how to post the Ðrottin video here, but recently I found a YouTube video by a different Viking reenactment group called Marobud; that video appears to the right.  Like the Ðrottin video, it also shows a reenactor making flatbread in a similar way to Chef John's suggested method. Marobud appears to be a Czech group, and they have made several other videos showing the group's attempts to cook, Viking style, while camping in the wild.

This Marobud video shows a reenactor dumping flour into a large, mostly flat-bottomed wooden bowl, adding water, and then working the water-laden flour into dough and shaping that dough by hand into flat disks before cooking on a portable griddle (of a type also found in Viking archaeological sites) over an open fire.  As Chef John suggested, the breads were cooked until they developed at least a few black char marks, and no oil was used on the griddle.  It is true that the reenactor pretty much added his water all at once, instead of adding it gradually as Chef John suggests, and he hand-shaped his dough and did not "roll" it out, but that's because he was making the flatbread in the woods in winter and it was snowing.  :-)

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

An Old Foodway Preserved

From the Colonial Williamsburg foodblog comes this interesting article observing that our Thanksgiving feast comes much closer to the way our 18th century ancestors served and thought of food.  It's a fairly short post, and well worth reading, but the following passage from it sums up the gist rather nicely:
To the modern diner a dish such as an apple pie or a custard tart would be a dessert item.  Modern folks think - first your savory then your sweet. 18th century people see no need for that distinction. They think - heavy first, then light. Thus, that apple pie goes right alongside the roasted beef and potatoes, or THE PUMPKIN PIE next to your TURKEY. That’s right!
Or to put it another way, candied yams and pumpkin pie are both sweetened vegetable dishes, so why not serve them with the main meal?

Happy New Year, since I have not said so on this blog sooner.  Hopefully, I'll be able to fit in, and write about, a food experiment or two in February.

Sunday, December 3, 2017


Americans are proud of their techniques for barbecuing meat.  Most regions of the American South have their variations, and restaurants in the North and elsewhere in the country try to emulate one version of American barbecue or other.  One man ate at as many of the various American barbecue restaurants as he could, and wrote a book about his experiences and conclusions.

Other countries have their own barbecue practices, such as, for example, Australia and South Africa. Wikipedia attempts to chronicle all the worldwide barbecue variations here, though they admit their article still needs more research.

Bear in mind that what some places in the world think of as "barbecue" is really just grilling meat outdoors.  The true American barbecue involves methods of cooking meat "low and slow", i.e., for a long time over low heat, making even cheap tough cuts tender and tasty.

At least one other country has a technique for cooking meat "low and slow"--Mongolia.  The Mongolian slow cooking technique for meat is called boodog (or bodog).  It is as elaborate as American barbecue, if not more so, but very different in detail.  It is usually practiced upon goats or marmots, and no one is sure how old it really is.

Boodog cooks the animal's meat inside the animal's own hide.  Here is a summary of how it is done.
  • Kill your goat by hitting it over the head, and then cutting its throat, to drain the blood from the body.
  • Carefully remove the head and the legs, and hang up the body to drain.   Cut off most of the fur.  Be careful not to nick or cut the skin elsewhere. 
  • Tie off the holes where the legs used to be with wire, and remove the meat and organs from the rest of the animal through the hole where the head used to be.  Cut the meat into stew-sized chunks, and season it as you like.  Add vegetables if you wish (probably a modern variation).
  • Heat a number of rocks (i.e., by putting them in a fire).
  • Layer the heated rocks and the meat into the animal skin in alternating layers until the skin can hold no more.
  • Close the head opening with more wire.
  • Use a blowtorch or similar fire source to singe the remaining fur off of the skin.  This act also contributes to the heating of the meat inside.
  • When the meat is done (and experts in the technique supposedly can tell when it's done by the sounds coming from the meat sack that used to be the goat), slice the skin open and serve.
It is Mongolian custom to hand around the heated, greasy, blackened rocks to the folk eating the meat; supposedly, it's good luck to pass them back and forth in your hands (gingerly, of course) and helps alleviate arthritis.

There are videos depicting the process; I have attached two of them to this post.  Please note:  VIEWING THE BOODOG PROCESS IS NOT FOR THE SQUEAMISH!  But if you are curious, and not likely to be distressed by watching butchering and prolonged meat handling under less than kitchen-clean conditions, feel free to watch the videos above.  The top one is about a half-an-hour long.  The one underneath is the TL;DR version, about two-and-a-half minutes long.  Both are very graphic, but fascinating, and despite common elements, is very different from American barbecue rituals.

EDIT:  (12/4/2017)  The longer video shows a different barbecue technique than boodog; khorkhog, in which the animal's meat is placed with vegetables and hot rocks in a closed container other than the animal's hide to cook.  Usually large metal milk containers are used.   The process is less messy than boodog but the principle is the same; heat your meat gradually inside a closed container with hot rocks.  It is still a "low and slow" method of cooking.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Depression Era Cooking

This weekend, I found a series of YouTube cooking videos made by Clara, who was 91 when she started making them.  Clara shows her viewers how to cook the kind of food she had to cook during the Great Depression in the 1930s, when money was scarce.

The embedded video here shows Clara cooking "The Poorman's Meal"--fried potatoes with onions and hotdogs--for her teenage grandson and his friends.  I'm not sure what impresses me more--the fact that a 91-year-old woman is sharing knowledge on the Internet through YouTube, or the fact that the same simple recipes and cheap ingredients are a hit with kids today.

Other recipes Clara demonstrates are "Depression Breakfast" (sugar cookies eaten with coffee--a special treat, explains Clara, because bread was eaten with coffee for everyday!) and "The Poorman's Feast" (a three-course meal:  rice with lentils; very thin steaks, fried in olive oil and lemon juice; and an endive salad).

Sadly, whatever Clara videos there are on the Internet are all that will ever be available, as she died in 2013 at the age of 98.  But it's wonderful that she shared with the world the things people did to eat well for little money.  Her videos provide insight into what life was like during the Depression, as well as practical advice about cooking tasty food for little money.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Not The Scots' Fault!

Haggis, that infamous blend of meat and grain sewn into an animal stomach, has long been deemed to be a culinary joke played by the Scots on the rest of humanity.

Now, a Scottish butcher who has been researching the subject has announced that haggis was not invented in Scotland at all.  It was brought there... by the Vikings.  Seriously.

Apparently the word "haggis" itself appears to be of Scandinavian origin, arising from the Old Norse word haggw, which means to hack into pieces.  The earliest written recipe known in Scotland dates to about 1430 CE.  The butcher on whose research this claim is based, Joe Callaghan, also states that haggis, which is usually made from sheep, should actually be made from venison, since deer are indigenous to Scotland and sheep are not.  If you'd like to order some "staggis" from Mr. Callaghan's shop, go here.

There are news articles about this theory in the Telegraph and in Iceland Magazine for readers who want to know more, as well as a number of others that can be found with a Google search.