Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Spinach with Raisins and Pine Nuts -- Catalonia

I recently acquired a copy of A Mediterranean Feast by Clifford A. Wright.  This book is a tome!  At 8 inches by 10 inches by 2 inches in size and over 800 pages, it is impressive just to hold.  But when you open it up and start perusing, you find out it is much more than a collection of recipes.
ISBN 0-688-15305-4
 The inside cover says this:
A groundbreaking culinary work of extraordinary depth and scope that spans more than one thousand years of history, A Mediterranean Feast tells the sweeping story of the birth of the venerated and diverse cuisines of the Mediterranean. ...

The evolution of these cuisines is not simply the story of farming, herding, and fishing; rather, the story encompasses wars and plagues, political intrigue and pirates, the Silk Road and the discovery of the New World, the rise of capitalism and the birth of city-states, the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, and the obsession with spices.  The ebb and flow of empires, the movement of populations from country to city, and religion have all played a determining role in making each of these cuisines unique.
Yes, he teaches you the history of the regions as he presents recipes that typify the point he has been making.  Not every recipe is historical but he does make those connections when he can.  For instance, on page 19 he offers Espinacs amb Panses i Pinyons from Catalonia, and explains
This traditional Catalan dish, also popular in the Balearic Islands, is usually made with Swiss chard.  The dish reappears identically in Provence, Languedoc, Lazio ..., Liguria ..., Sicily, and Attica.  It is also an old recipe in Venice, and Iberian Jews know it as a favorite, too.
So I present to you Espinacs amb Panses i Pinyons, that is

Spinach with Raisins and Pine Nuts

2 1/2 pounds spinach, heavy stems removed and washed well
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, crushed
1/3 cup pine nuts
1/3 cup golden raisins, soaked for 15 minutes in tepid water and drained
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1. Place the spinach in a pot with only the water adhering to it from its last rinsing.  Cover, turn the heat to medium-high, and cook until it wilts, about 5 minutes, turning a few times.  Drain well in a strainer, pushing out excess water with the back of a wooden spoon.  Chop the spinach and set aside.

2. In a medium-size skillet, heat the olive oil with the crushed garlic over medium-high heat until the garlic turns light brown, about 1 minute.  Remove and discard the garlic.  Add the pine nuts and drained raisins and cook for 2 minutes, stirring, then reduce the heat to medium, add the spinach, season with salt and pepper, and cook until hot and fragrant, about 5 minutes.  Serve immediately.

Makes 6 servings

My Notes
I made a half recipe, using one bag of spinach that came prewashed so I just rinsed it and shook off the excess water in order to have "only the water adhering to it from its last rinsing."  That one bag filled my largest kettle!  I guess if I had made a full recipe I would have to wilt the spinach in batches.

It is important to press out the excess water as the recipe directs.  The spinach was a clump and it held a lot of water, which would have made the dish soggy.

Beware that the hot oil will splatter when you put the drained raisins in -- that can hurt.

I thought that my stove was set to medium-high heat but it seemed too hot when I started cooking the nuts and raisins -- the nuts browned quickly and the raisins puffed up like grapes.  That 2 minutes seemed like an eternity and I was working hard to stop any scorching.  In fact, it was cooking so quickly even after I turned the fire down that I didn't really taste for seasoning and it needed more of both salt and pepper at the table.  Next time I would use a lower heat.

The Verdict
Wow, tasty!  I usually eat spinach raw in salads, so this was a very different experience for me.  I enjoyed the leafy taste of the greens but I really liked how their flavor was balanced by the sweet of the raisins and the toasted, creamy, almost meaty flavor of the pine nuts.  I don't think I even noticed the olive oil in it.  The pepper gave a subtle tingling aftertaste on my tongue.  Success!

What was really nice was how easy it was to prepare and still make a lovely side dish.  Simple yet classy.  I served it with the Icelandic Chicken (see the April 1, 2014 post) for a tasty and filling meal.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Icelandic Chicken

This recipe satisfies both my historical recipe and "another country" goals.  I got it from a website run by Cariadoc, AKA David Friedman, whose recipe "A Tarte of Strawberries" I made and posted on May 15, 2012. The tarte recipe, by the way, is my most-viewed blog post to date.  I had the pleasure of meeting Cariadoc at the Society of Creative Anachronism's West Coast Culinary Symposium last month and was amazed to find out he has been researching and redacting historical recipes for over 40 years.


Icelandic Chicken is from An Old Icelandic Medical Miscelleny, edited by Henning Larson, and published in Oslo, 1931.  


A brief description gives us, "This important Icelandic medical document, containing a curious mixture of superstition and medieval medical knowledge, has been edited from a fifteenth century manuscript found in Dublin."


Cariadoc's web page has a translation and his redaction.  I followed it somewhat, with the exception that I made half the amount of dough and used four boneless, skinless chicken thighs instead of two halves of a chicken.  I thought that was more manageable for myself and my dinner guest.




Icelandic p. 218/D1 (GOOD)

One shall cut a young chicken in two and wrap about it whole leaves of salvia, and cut up in it bacon and add salt to suit the taste. Then cover that with dough and bake like bread in the oven.

5 c flour
1/2 lb bacon
3 T dried sage (or sufficient fresh sage leaves to cover)
about 1 3/4 c water
3 lb chicken, cut in half

Make a stiff dough by kneading together flour and water. Roll it out. Cover the dough with sage leaves and the sage leaves with strips of bacon. Wrap each half chicken in the dough, sealing it. You now have two packages which contain, starting at the outside, dough, sage, bacon, chicken. Put them in the oven and bake like bread (325deg. for 2 hours). We find the bacon adds salt enough.

The part of the bread at the bottom is particularly good, because of the bacon fat and chicken fat. You may want to turn the loaves once or twice, or baste the top with the drippings.

My Notes
The two-and-a-half cups of flour mixed well with the 7 ounces of water and formed a stiff and slightly sticky dough.  I rolled it out to somewhere between 1/8 and 1/4 inches thick, then cut it into four pieces to match the four chicken thighs.  Next I put the sage leaves around each piece.  I guessed at how much to do because the instructions said, "to cover", but I didn't want the sage flavor to be too strong.  What I did was fine and I could have added more without worry, I think.

I wish I had shaped each dough piece into a rectangle before putting on the sage leaves.  That would have made it easier to wrap the thighs when ready.

Next I added 1 1/2 strips of bacon to each portion and placed a thigh on the widest part of the dough.

With some stretching and creative patching, I encased each thigh in the dough.

Ready for the oven!
I baked them at the specified 325 degrees F for one hour and thought the dough needed a bit more time.  At this point juices were leaking out of the packets and the whole thing had the lovely scent of cooked bacon.  I gave it another 30 minutes (for a total of 1 hour, 30 minutes) and declared it ready.

You can see they didn't get very brown but I hoped the chicken was cooked all the way through.  It was and so was the bacon, although I wasn't sure at first because I am used to eating bacon that has been fried and this had a different texture.

The Verdict

Success!  We both liked it although I was not as fond of the dough casing as my guest was.  I mostly pulled the meat out of the dough and ate it that way.  My guest ate each bite of meat with the crust around it and enjoyed it.   

The flavor was meaty, slightly salty from the bacon, with a light sage flavor.  I would have been happy to add more sage or perhaps some other spices for variety.  The top of the crust was crisp and tender but the bottom was tougher and hard to cut through.  Next time I would attempt to keep the thickness even throughout and perhaps cook the packets on a rack so they didn't sit in their juices, which I think made the crust tough.

I had the leftovers a few nights later and thought it was even better reheated.  It seems like the crust had a chance to soften and that the flavors blended better.  I ate more of the crust this time around.