Thursday, November 10, 2016

Reverse Engineering a Roman Bread Recipe

Carbonized loaf of bread, AD 79, Roman, Herculaneum. 
© Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei
The 2013 video that appears to the left of this post shows baker Giorgio Locatelli recreating a bread recipe that could have been used to bake the loaf found in the archaeological dig at Herculaneum; a loaf made over 2,000 years ago.  A written version of the recipe may be found here at the British Museum's website, and a picture of the grayish, carbonized loaf from Herculaneum may be found to the right.

Mr. Locatelli believes that the flattish loaf was a sourdough bread.  He believes that its odd shape came from affixing a string around the loaf and making cuts in the surface of the dough mass before baking.   Mr. Locatelli also suggests that the Herculaneum loaf may have been baked with a string tied around the dough so that the finished loaf could be carried by the string; a useful bit of convenience in a place and time in which sellers were not expected to provide buyers with containers for carrying purchases. Interestingly, he does not believe the dough was kneaded much.  Instead, he thinks it was merely mixed thoroughly until it achieved the right consistency and then allowed to rest at room temperature for about an hour before baking.

It makes sense that early leavened loaves would be made from sourdough.  No special equipment is required, and no yeasts need to be isolated for special addition to your flour and water dough.  As for the lack of kneading, About Food suggests that the purpose of kneading is to align gluten strands within the dough into a framework that will make the bread lighter.   A dough that has fermented, however, will have a similar gluten matrix, caused mostly by the fermentation process; it won't need much kneading.  Although one can certainly put a lot of effort into kneading sourdough (and doing so can produce wonderful results, as I learned as a child from my mother's sourdough experiments), it may not be necessary to do so, especially if you are not interested in getting your loaf to rise substantially.

The moral of this story is that anything a person can create, another person can recreate by logical deductions based on specific knowledge of the type of item and the materials and processes typically used to make such items.  That's as true of bread as it is of clothing, hairstyles, machines and computer programs.  It is fascinating to see such recreation techniques applied to food as they have been to other areas of material culture.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

New? Retro? or just Old?

The embedded video by Lilly Jarlsson shows how to make freekeh burgers, a vegetarian dish that she says her great-grandmother made before World War II.  This is one of many videos Jarlsson has made about about how to live the "retro" lifestyle; how to dress, cook, and do many other things the way people did them in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.  

I became interested in Jarlsson's videos because of my interest in historical costume, but this video grabbed my attention because I'd never heard of "freekeh" before.  

"Freekeh", it turns out, is a very old grain that is currently enjoying a surge of popularity because of the growing interest in healthier eating.   It is the name for a variety of durum wheat which is harvested when "green" or young and then roasted before being packed for sale.  Like quinoa and other grains that are gaining attention and popularity here in the West, it has more fiber and nutrients than grains commonly used in Western cooking.  It has long been popular in the Near East.  You can read more about freekeh (pronounced "FREE-kah") here, here, and here.

Jarlsson's recipe involves cooking freekeh, mixing it with diced onion, walnuts, cheese, and parsley, and then thickening the mixture with breadcrumbs, corn meal or oatmeal before shaping it into patties or balls and panfrying it.  Since my husband detests cheese, and prefers his burgers to be composed of actual meat, I don't expect to be trying freekeh burgers anytime soon.  But I am amused at the sight of a historical Middle Eastern food that was made before World War II becoming a trendy "healthy grain" food now.  Perhaps it really is true that there is nothing new under the sun.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Fuuling Around

Fuul medames, served with flatbread and pickled vegetables.
Photograph by zachbe; found on Wikimedia Commons.
About a year ago, on Saveur magazine's website, I read and tried a recipe for a very old dish:  Fuul (or ful or foul) medames. The recipe suggested by Saveur may be read here.

Fuul medames, or simply fuul, is fava beans, boiled and/or simmered until the beans are soft enough to be coarsely mashed.  A suitably flavorful fat and seasonings of choice are added to the beans before they are eaten.

Fuul is an ancient dish in the Near East. The earliest physical evidence for fuul consumption is a Neolithic cache of fava beans discovered near Nazareth, in Israel, and bean caches have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs, though Herodotus (admittedly a less than reliable source) claimed that the Egyptians of his day neither sowed nor ate beans.  Today, the preferred additions to fuul are olive oil, lemon juice, and cumin, but there are a variety of other ingredients one can use to season fuul, including butter, onions, garlic, tomatoes, cayenne, chili peppers, harissa, tahini, coriander, and parsley. Fuul is a popular Near Eastern breakfast food, and is often accompanied with flatbread and eggs (either hard-boiled or fried).

By chance, at the time I read the Saveur recipe, canned pre-cooked fava beans of the type commonly used in the Near East were available at our neighborhood Wegmans supermarket (for $2.49, or thereabouts, for one can, roughly enough for two servings), so I bought a few cans and tried the recipe out.

I loved it, and my husband was at least willing to eat it again on an occasional basis. That was fine with me, because $2.49 per can was a bit expensive for a regular lunch, and I couldn't find an online supplier that would sell the canned beans by the case at a reasonable price.  Fava beans are not terribly common in the United States compared to many other types of beans, and I do not live in a section of the country where Near Eastern immigrants have settled in great numbers and thus where Near Eastern groceries are common.

Shortly thereafter, our neighborhood Wegmans stopped selling the Near Eastern fava beans (which tend to be smaller than the larger favas often used in Italian cooking).  Wegmans switched, eventually, to selling canned, organic large favas for $1.76 per can.  I tried these favas.  They tasted fine, but I had to remove the skins from the beans after opening the can and before heating/cooking them per package directions, because eating fuul with tough bean skins in it is like eating beans containing small pieces of Scotch tape--not very appetizing.  Since I still had not found a supplier that could provide me with a sufficient quantity of canned or dry beans at a price I was willing to accept, I remained resigned to eating ful only occasionally.  This was unfortunate since Eric had become more interested in fuul after discovering that it tasted a lot better to him after he added some cooked ground beef to it.

Then, within the past month or so, I discovered a food blog called Matters of the Belly, which is written by Noha, an Egyptian woman now living in Australia. She writes, with authority, about how to make fuul, here, and suggests a number of different ways to flavor it.

Dried fava beans of the kind commonly used for fuul;
Photograph by miansari66; found on Wikimedia Commons.
Noha's recipe recommends making fuul from dried fava beans, and reading it inspired me to try again to find a source of dry favas, which would keep indefinitely and have the virtue of extreme cheapness. Moreover, she states that one can easily make a large amount of fuul at one time and refrigerate it, heating up smaller portions and flavoring them as you wish to eat them.  Because that's how Eric and I typically handle most meals (i.e., by cooking large quantities in advance and heating up individual portions throughout the week) Noha's recipe rekindled my interest in making fuul a regular part of our lunch time menus.  So I started another bout of web searching...and discovered that Wegmans carries Goya brand dried fava beans!

When I checked the shelves at our local Wegmans, the fava beans were there...for $1.79 a pound. They were the large beans, which are less desirable for fuul (because of the issue with the skins). But I bought three bags of them anyway.  This past weekend, I attempted to make fuul as Noha recommended, a process that took nearly half a day, exclusive of the time needed to soak the beans.

Noha's recipe recommends beginning by soaking the beans in a large quantity of cold water with 2 teaspoons of baking soda, which is supposed to make the beans more digestible and shorten the cooking time.  So that's what I did.  But the baking soda did not result in a significant reduction of the cooking time--possibly because the Goya beans were the large variety (and also appeared to be very old).  Or perhaps I needed to use more baking soda, because we have very hard water in our area.

At any rate, after two hours of simmering (per Noha's directions), most of the beans were still hard, and still possessed their skins.  So I decided to shell the beans by hand, which was trickier than one might suppose because I had also added red lentils to the mix per Noha's recipe.  So I was forced to scoop out a few beans at a time to shell them.  Even after shelling, it took nearly four more hours of simmering before most of the beans were soft enough to mash and the rest were at least soft enough to chew.  At that point, I decanted them, sprinkled a bit of lemon juice on the top to prevent oxidation, and refrigerated them.

It was a lot of work, but so far Eric and I have had three meals of fuul.  The batch I made tastes pretty much like the fuul I'd made from canned beans, though the texture is a bit rougher (due to the beans that never did completely soften).  I've been trying different ways of flavoring it, all of which were successful.  Best of all, fuul is extremely filling; one doesn't get hungry quickly after a meal of fuul, and one tends to want less food for the rest of the day after eating it.  Although I will go on looking for a source of dried, smaller fava beans, the Goya beans are a workable solution, and I expect we will be eating a lot of fuul from now on.  

Friday, September 16, 2016

Somewhere where there's ... cheese!

A recent archaeological discovery in Denmark is believed to confirm that cheese was being made there in the Bronze Age. 

This article from discusses the discovery of a 3,000-year-old ceramic pot in central Jutland that was found to contain "a white-yellow crust" that the archaeologists had not seen before. Lab analysis tentatively identified bovine fat in the substance. From this, the archaeologists theorize that the crust is the remains of cow's milk that was being heated to make cheese, but had been overheated and burned, sticking to the pot. They also suggest that this kitchen accident is the reason the pot was discarded intact (and it remains intact even today)--so the guilty party would not be blamed for ruining an otherwise perfectly good pot. 

This incident reminds me of the burnt pretzel discovery that confirmed the making of pretzels in 18th century Bavaria. It goes to show that archaeology can often learn more about the material culture of the past from its trash than from items that were lovingly preserved.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Future of Food?

Picture of a Sens food bar, from the Sens Foods Kickstarter page
Recently, I've posted about Soylent and MealSquares--recent inventions that are meant to be "complete" foods--items a person could live on indefinitely.  

This week, I learned about a food bar that its makers are producing, not as a complete food source. but as a sustainable one whose supply can easily be renewed, and a healthy, guilt-free, meat-like source of protein for vegans.  The source--crickets!

Apparently when they are ground up into a flour-like substance and baked into food bars, crickets make for great high-energy bars and protein bars, according to SENS Foods, the Czech company that makes them.  The Kickstarter for the product can be seen here.  The company will sell two varieties of protein bar (at least 20g of protein in each) and two varieties of energy bar, in appealing flavors (like dark chocolate and orange). Though the Kickstarter has 11 days to go, it has already made the necessary number of pledges, so it appears as though the Sens bars will become a reality.

I am very curious about the taste of Sens bars, but am not presently in a financial position to support the Kickstarter.  Nonetheless, the Sens project has given me food for thought.  Most food sources devised to address the issue of feeding large numbers of people sustainably (soy, vegemite) do not produce food I would be happy to eat on a long-term basis.  But so long as I don't have to crunch tiny legs and thoraxes, cricket protein is something I'd be willing to try.  I may be in a minority on this issue; my husband rejected the idea of cricket-based food before I'd even finished describing Sens Foods' product.   It will be interesting to see whether Sens Foods' product achieves broad acceptance, or becomes yet another footnote in the wider history of food.

EDIT: (9/7/2016)  Perhaps Sens Foods is slightly behind the curve. (and probably other places as well) sells cricket flour, so inspired consumers can make their own experiments.  See this page of search results.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

A "Square" Meal?

A few months ago I wrote about Soylent, the liquid meal substitute.  I was not impressed by it, either in concept or with regard to what I read about consuming it as a sensual experience.

A few nights ago, I followed a ad link to a website advertising a much newer product with a similar purpose, but rather different in design; the site can be found here.

The product in question is the MealSquare, a baked good of 400 calories per serving that, like Soylent, claims to be nutritionally complete.  Unlike Soylent, it requires significant chewing and has a discernible flavor. The FAQ describes a MealSquare as "dense, subtly sweet cornbread/pumpkin bread, with chocolate chips and sunflower seeds for added variety."

I find the approach the MealSquares people take toward their product to be more wholesome than that of the makers of Soylent.  For example, though they claim that you can get 100% of your minimum daily requirement of vitamins and mineral from MealSquares, and all the necessary calories, they admit that living solely on MealSquares is not "optimum for health." "For example, no substitute has been discovered for fish as part of a healthy diet (fish oil pills don't cut it)."

One MealSquare (photo from the website)
Looking through the FAQ and other parts of the website, the MealSquares approach to making its niche in the food industry is to emphasize the following factors about its product:  1) it is primarily made from whole foods such as whole grain oats, eggs, and milk; 2) it can easily be used as either a meal replacement or a snack, because they are square and can easily be cut into 4 100-calorie units of equal size; 3) the easy divisibility and exact calories make the produce useful for dieters, though it's unclear whether people attempting to live solely on MealSquares lose weight.

The MealSquares page states that the product is still in beta test mode.  However, the product is already available for sale.  For $90.00 USD (and they only sell within the US, at least for now), the company will send you a box of 30 MealSquares.  Thus, each 400 calorie square costs $3.00 (shipping is free).  Price discounts are available if you agree to have a specified number of boxes sent to you on a monthly basis. However, don't plan on stockpiling them.  MealSquares have a shelf life of only two weeks unrefrigerated and one month in the refrigerator, which makes them unusual as food bars go, and is a distinct disadvantage over the powdered version of Soylent, for example.  If you only wish to taste MealSquares, you can buy a package of just 10 squares for $29.00 (plus $5.95 shipping).

Unlike the reviews of Soylent, which read as though the reviewers wanted to like the product despite their reactions to its physical qualities, the Internet reviews of MealSquares have a negative tone even though the product is more physically appealing than Soylent.  This review from Business Insider gives useful information about the size of a Meal Square (a bit larger than an iPhone 5S), taste and texture (like "vegan banana bread" but dry; best consumed with milk or another beverage).

The author concludes:  "Some of my colleagues had less positive experiences, with the main complaint being the squares seemed to suck the moisture out of your mouth.  Indeed, if you didn't have anything to drink, it wasn't that enjoyable. I ate the squares for a few days, and while convenient, they didn't make me feel either healthier or unhealthier from a physical standpoint."  On the other hand, microwaving a MealSquare before eating, as the company recommends, makes it softer and melts the chocolate chips inside--a definite plus.

Another review, this one from reddit, notes that a Square is very filling and "takes a bit of time to eat"--advantages for a meal replacement bar.  The reviewer concluded that the product is "bland" but "quite dry and hard to eat when you're not that hungry.  Probably won't order again." But a third reviewer, who had been using Soylent regularly because he hates food, experimented with switching to MealSquares instead and had a more positive experience than he had had with Soylent.

It seems to me that, although there are definitely some people eager for a long-term easy-to-eat nutritionally complete single food like Soylent or MealSquares, most people prefer a more varied diet. Among people who really just want an occasional meal replacement or alternative, the extreme claims made for foods like Soylent or MealSquares are fast generating skepticism and a vague if general distaste.  That doesn't surprise me.  People's taste preferences in food differ widely.  It is hard to imagine any one food that would satisfy all of them, and attacking the problem by producing foods that are "meh" to everybody hardly qualifies as a win.

EDIT:  (8/16/2016)  Yes, I know that the checkerboard background on the photograph showing a MealSquare is almost violently fluorescent in appearance.  That's not my fault; that's how the photo appears on the company's website! 

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Oldest Comfort Food

A few days ago, a friend posted this article from the American Schools of Oriental Research blog on Google Plus.  The article explains in some detail how we know what we know about the food cooked by the inhabitants of ancient (e.g., Biblical period) Israel.

In the web article, Cynthia Shafer-Elliott, Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible and Archaeology at William Jessup University in California, examined Biblical references to food, vegetables, legumes, and other foods known to grow or otherwise been available in the area for millennia, and available food preparation tools and techniques to support her conclusion that most Israelites often ate stew, probably on a daily basis.  Pottery usable for stewing has been found, as well as a kind of oven called the tannur (compare to the tandoor used in India), for baking flatbreads.  A photograph of a reconstructed tannur appears in Ms. Shafer-Elliott's web article.

Ms. Shafer-Elliott's conclusion that the early inhabitants of Israel stewed much of their food. makes sense in light of the practical difficulties of other forms of cooking technology, such as hard boiling, in the ancient and early medieval world.  Ms. Shafer-Elliott's article mentions a written Assyrian source that contains at least 100 different stews and soups.  The ancient Romans, including Roman legionaries, ate porridge (stewed grain) as a large part of their daily diet.  The Vikings likely enjoyed lots of stews and porridges, and Hungarian herdsmen of the same period were making goulash--a kind of stew--at the same time.  Meanwhile, at least 2,000 years ago, the Chinese were making soup, a fact we know because a little of one batch still survives.

Clearly, the crock-pot chef's favorite cooking style--take a heatable piece of crockery, put in some liquid and tasty food ingredients, and simmer for hours till done--has a long and honorable history.  It makes me feel a little bit connected to the past every time I make a stew or soup in my crock pot.