Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Pear Patina -- A Roman Empire Dessert Custard

I have acquired several Roman Empire recipe books over the years but the one I am attracted to the most was purchased in England and written by Sally Grainger.

ISBN 1-903018-44-7
I first wrote about it here, where I tried her recipe for modern day liquamen, a fish sauce used in many, many Roman dishes.  I stand behind my previous statement that the recipes she redacts are reasonable for the modern kitchen and the modern palate.  This recipe, a "fruit-based egg custard flavored with cumin" made me doubt that just a little, although her comments assured me that this "has been one of my more popular dishes at dinner parties and at reenactment demonstrations".

You may wonder why I doubted.  The answer is
the addition of fish sauce to a dessert always causes consternation until it is tasted.  Anyone who saw the television series What the Romans did for us with Adam Hart-Davies may possibly remember it was called a 'fishy custard.'  They gave it this name because they couldn't get past the fish sauce and see how delicious the other ingredients (honey, raisin wine) could be.
So I put my trust in Ms. Grainger and went ahead with the patina.

Pear patina, Apicius 4, 2, 35

1 1/2 lb Conference pears
200 ml red wine
50 ml passum  (see my notes, below)
2 tbsp clear honey
1 tbsp olive oil
1 - 2 tbsp fish sauce
4 eggs
1 tsp cumin
generous freshly ground black pepper

Fish sauce on the right
Peel and core the pears and chop them roughly.  Cook them till soft in the wine and passum.  Pass the whole mixture through a sieve or process it until smooth.  Add the honey, olive oil, fish sauce and 4 eggs and beat smooth again.  Dry-roast the cumin and grind to a fine powder.  Add it to the custard, then season with black pepper.  Pour into a greased casserole dish and bake for 20 minutes, or until it sets, in a moderate oven (375 degrees F, 190 degrees C, mark 5).  Serve warm with a final sprinkling of freshly ground black pepper.

My Notes

I did not have passum, which she describes as
a dessert or raisin wine made with grapes that were either allowed to shrivel on the vine or dried on rush mats.  More sweet must, from other grapes that had not been dried, was used to aid the pressing of the fruit. ... It is not a process we can duplicate but there are modern varieties of sweet wine that correspond to this. ... Any very sweet dessert wine such as a heavy muscat or a heavier Sauternes will also do.  Passum could either be dark or pale as long as it has that raisin flavour.
I had looked around for something like that but wasn't certain that I was getting the right type.  My flash of insight was to use a sweet Chardonnay (but not too sweet; I knew my dinner guests!) and to add dried raisins to simmer with the pears.

My latest visit to the local farmers market provided me with some very bumpy but lovely Bartlett pears. I used two (not both pictured) to get to 1 1/2 pounds.

The fish sauce was my latest rendition of reduced grape juice and dark fish sauce in a 1-to-2 ratio.  Yes, it tasted fishy on its own but I trusted the recipe and even used two full tablespoons.

The soft pears, raisins, and wine mix were pureed in my blender.  They were still hot from the cooking so I worried a bit about putting in the eggs and having them cooked right there.  However I didn't waste any time getting the eggs, honey, olive oil, and fish sauce put into the blender and processing the mixture until smooth.

I'm very glad I roasted the cumin seeds and ground them.  They smelled good.

A word of caution:  my blender jar holds five cups and it was very full.  I put the lid on and held it tight while processing the whole mix.  If I hadn't, there would have been patina mix all over the kitchen!   For the cumin and pepper, I mostly stirred it with a spoon and then lightly tapped the button to complete the mixing.  I probably should have put it into my food processor instead.

Too full!  Hang on tight!
I used a large casserole dish so the resulting patina was thin.

A pretty pink puddle
The custard was set after the recommended 20 minutes.  I let it cool a little while we ate dinner.

The surface looks almost bread-like
The Verdict

I served small pieces to my three guest tasters because it was so different.  Everyone liked it, including the person who does not normally eat desserts.

Visually it was pink (from the red wine) and lightly bumpy in texture, and it smelled spicy and sweet.

Looks like a pink brownie.
Each bite was a complex taste experience.  The cumin and pepper were there and needed to be there but did not announce themselves as distinct flavors.  Just a lovely spicy note.  I could taste the honey very clearly but my guest tasters didn't without thinking about it.  The pear flavor was dominant for me and I was glad.  The custard part came across as the right base to present the other flavors and stayed in the background.  No, none of us tasted anything fishy.  Just very, very good.

Fruity, spicy, creamy (with the crunch that pears bring), with just the right amount of umami to make the flavor deep.  I loved it!

One guest thought I should have used a smaller casserole dish, to make the patina thicker.  I agree although the thin version was certainly lovely.

Another guest told me he did not like the texture.  He does not like creamy foods much (like ice cream, and yet we are still friends) but prefers the creamy to have chewy or crunchy with it.  So we discussed options and agreed that a topping of chopped, toasted almonds would have been a stellar addition.  I would serve a bowl of the nuts on the side to allow my guests to choose.

There were leftovers, which I tried rewarmed -- very good, almost better than the first time -- and cold, which was also lovely.  Sometimes I put pepper on top and sometimes not.  Still very excellent.

Yes, success.  I would do it again.  An intriguing flavor mix with just enough fruity pear flavor to make it seem like a dessert.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

I Love Olives (But not like this!)

So I found this neat book, Lost Arts, A Cook's Guide to Making Vinegar, Curing Olives, Crafting Fresh Goat Cheese and Simple Mustards, Baking Bread and Growing Herbs.

ISBN 0-89815-674-2
The author is Lynn Alley and in the introduction she tells of her childhood realization of "any connection between the food on my table and the land from which it came."  After that she discovered a love of gardening and an "interest in the 'lost arts.'"  While pursuing those interests she began to teach others and, in the process, wrote this book.

Chapter 1 is titled "The Old Bat, or How I Came to Make the Best Olives Ever", which made me laugh!  The first paragraph is,
For centuries, humans have been curing and enjoying olives.  I have to wonder why.  If you've ever tasted a raw olive, you've got to marvel at the imagination of the first person to pursue the matter!  Was he starving?  Or crazy?
She goes on to tell the tale of a
rather opinionated friend of a friend who, during a discussion on the subject of curing olives, supplied just the kick in the seat of the pants I needed by insisting that she knew how to make olives better than anyone else.  Her smug assertion prompted me to go home and make the best batch of olives ever.
How?  My understanding was that all olives had to be cured in lye, which I have no problem handling (I have made soap) but was a little unsure I wanted to use it on my food.  She does describe how to use a lye solution and the benefit: "it does the job of leaching the bitter glucosides out of the olive more quickly and more thoroughly than anything else can."

She also describes a dry salt cure, which sounded interesting to me, but what really caught my attention was the brine cure.
The brine cure is simple and safe, and it offers the most plausible response to my question about who first discovered that the olive was, give the right circumstances, edible.  I suppose it's possible that, long ago, some olives fell into a saltwater tide pool and stayed there undisturbed for a considerable length of time.  Then one day someone, perhaps a housewife or fisherman, happened by and decided to give one a try.  Much to her delight, the olives had become pleasantly salty and quite edible.
Ms. Alley says "People still cure olives today in some Greek islands by dipping a basket of olives daily in the sea for 10 days.  When the inner flesh is dark brown, the olives are ready to eat."

Well, this year I planted two olive trees and one of them supplied me with actual olives!

I strained my back carrying them up the slope.  ; )
I know, but it was the first crop and I was excited to give curing a try.

Her Process (page 12)
To begin the brine processing, place your clean olives in cold water and change the water each day for 10 days.  ... Weight the olives down with a plate so they all stay submerged.  No need to cover at this point.  This will start leaching the bitter glucosides out of the olives.  Notice the change in both the color and the aroma of the olives.  At the end of the 10-day period, you can make a more permanent brine solution to continue the process.  Add 1 cup of non-iodized salt to each gallon of water.  Use enough of this brine to cover the olives.  Change this solution weekly for four weeks.  At the end of four weeks, transfer the olives to a weaker brine solution until you are ready to use them.  The solution should contain 1/2 cup of non-iodized salt to each gallon of water.
Just how long it will take for your olives to become edible, I cannot say.  Mine seem to take about two or three months to really develop a rich, olivey flavor.  The best piece of equipment you have for assessing when your olives are done is located between your nose and your chin.  It doesn't cost much to maintain (outside of your biannual dental checkups), so use it!
Store your olives in the weaker brine in a fairly cool, dark place and keep them covered.  A scum may form on the top of the olives, but according to my mother's Italian neighbors, this simply adds to the flavor of the olives! ... Toss out the scum and use any olives that look unspoiled.  (A squishy olive is a spoiled olive.)
My Attempt

First I washed my harvest.  Then I put it in a clean container and amply covered it with cold water.  I didn't have any sort of plate that could hold the olives down (everything I had was too big) so I used a clean cloth to push the olives under the surface.

I think it is pretty.
I changed the water nearly every day for the prescribed ten days.  Each time I rinsed the olives and cleaned the container and wrung out the cloth.  Everything looked great and the colors were changing, becoming more uniform. At some point the olives remained submerged on their own.

This was taken about half way through the ten-day process.
On the tenth day...
I realized that I didn't need to mix up an entire gallon of brine for my olives, so I reduced the quantity accordingly.  1 cup of salt to 1 gallon of water reduced to 1/4 cup of salt to 1 quart of water.  Plus I threw in a little extra salt just to be sure.

Salty brine.
I rinsed the olives and thoroughly washed the container before use.  The container had a lid but did not seal air tight.  I stored it in a cupboard so it was in a cool, dark place.  I marked the calendar to remind me to change the brine each Wednesday.  The extra brine was stored in the refrigerator.

First day of brining.
After a week in the brine, the olives looked like this:

Notice there is one missing.  It was squishy and broken so I threw it out.  I rinsed the olives and washed the container before refreshing the brine.

At the end of the second week, this is what I found:

See the mold?
Ick!  But was this the scum Ms. Alley mentioned?  I was uneasy but I dutifully rinsed off each olive, washed the container, and refreshed the brine.  Another olive was thrown away.

At the end of the third week, it was worse.

Double ick.
Each olive was surrounded by a haze of slimy, fungal filaments.  The brine was discolored.  Nothing was appealing.  I threw out the whole thing and called the experiment a failure.

What did I do wrong?  I wonder if I didn't make the brine salty enough.  Other sites I looked at said the brine should be strong enough to float an egg.  I didn't check this because I was following the book's directions.  Or maybe my set up wasn't clean enough?  I was trying to be thorough without sterilizing since that seemed more authentic.

I was discouraged but not totally put off.  Maybe I can find some wayward olives around my town and try again.  Or I can wait until next year if my trees produce again.

I am pleased I gave it a good try and also that I didn't invest a lot of time or money into this failure.