Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Vitellina Fricta -- Roman Empire's Veal in Sweet and Sour Onion Sauce

Just to make sure we are all together in our thoughts here, veal is unusual and expensive around here, so I used some tri-tip steaks instead.

Last month I made the Vitellina along with Patina de Persicus, a Roman Empire peach dish with cumin.  I reported on the peaches and now I am writing up the vitellina.  I waited because I found I needed to do the recipe over again.

This recipe is also from The Roman Cookery of Apicius.

ISBN 0-88179-008-7

The translated Roman recipe is:

Vitellina Fricta  -- Fried Veal (Steak)

[Combine] pepper, lovage, celery seed, cumin, oregano, dried onion, raisins, honey, vinegar, stock, wine, olive oil, and boiled wine.

Mr. Edward's redaction is:

Veal in Sweet and Sour Onion Sauce (page 204)

1 lb 1/4" veal steak


1/4 t ground pepper
1 t lovage (or celery seed)
1/4 t celery seed
1/4 t cumin
1/2 t oregano
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 T raisins
1 t honey
1 t red wine vinegar
1/4 c red wine
2 t olive oil
1/2 c veal juices or beef stock

The honey is in the canning jar.  I used marjoram instead of oregano.
Saute the meat lightly in olive oil.  Skim the fat from the frying pan, preserve juices, and finish cooking in the following sauce.

For the sauce, first grind together pepper, lovage (or celery seed), celery seed, cumin, and oregano.  Add chopped onion, raisins, honey, vinegar, red wine, olive oil, and veal juices.  Blend.  Pour the sauce into the pan with the veal, cover, and cook very gently for 1 hour.

My Notes (Attempt #1)

I had two pounds of steak so I doubled the sauce recipe.  That turned out to be unnecessary, even a bad idea as there was too much liquid.

While the steak was browning in olive oil,

I started grinding the spices to make the sauce, using celery seed for the lovage.  Then I mixed in the other ingredients and blended them.

Sans beef stock.

Sauce complete.
Then, after I drained out the excess olive oil from the pan, I poured the sauce over the meat.

I think the steak was drowning.
As I mentioned before, it was pretty full and seemed like too much liquid.  But it did encourage me to keep the fire very, very low so the whole thing was at a very gentle simmer.

It struck me that cooking for 1 hour was too long but I went ahead and followed the recipe.

At the end of the hour I used a slotted spoon to remove the meat and other chunks.  Then I spooned a little of the pan sauce over the meat and put the rest into a small pitcher for serving at the table.

The Verdict (Attempt #1)

As I feared, the meat was terribly overcooked.  Chewy, rubbery, and difficult to eat.  The onions and raisins were cooked thoroughly.  I was disappointed at the sauce's flavor.

Not quite shoe leather but close.
Here's what I noticed:  During most of the cooking time the sauce smelled delicious.  I could not wait to taste it.  By the time the hour was up, most of the flavor had cooked out of the sauce and it was dull and unexciting.  My guest tasters and I ate our first servings but no one wanted seconds or to even save the leftovers for another meal.  That is telling.

I call it a failure.  Meh.  Blah.  

But it needed to be done again.  The cooking smells were too promising to abandon all hope now.

My Notes (Attempt #2)

This time I still had two pounds of steak but I only made a single batch of the sauce.  

I followed the same procedures.

You can actually see the meat!
This time I cooked it for 30 minutes only.  I tested the doneness by cutting the meat at 20 minutes and decided it could use a little more time.

The Verdict (Attempt #2)

The meat was still thick and juicy when it came out of the pan.  Not shriveled and tough-looking.

Yes, I made the peaches again!
I thought that it was cooked just to the right amount, where it was still pink inside.  It was still tender, too.

Yum.  Oh yes, yum!
I am so glad the shorter cooking time was a good idea!  

The sauce had an inviting scent throughout the process.  When I first tasted it, I was put off by the onions still being a little crunchy.  That made their flavor more potent than I anticipated and I felt that I didn't like the sauce at all.

But after I got past that, I realized that the sauce was quite flavorful.  The celery seed made an interesting musty,  mildly bitter flavor without being overwhelming.  The pepper was just a back-up bitter.  The raisins were a lovely sweet and I wanted more of them.  I felt the wine and red wine vinegar were too much in the background to really call this sauce "sour" but they blended nicely with the honey and other flavors to give a good, rich, and umami taste.  I liked it!

If I do this again, I would add more vinegar just to get some "zing" from the acidity.

I think the onions would have cooked more if I hadn't put them almost entirely on top of the steak.  I should have let them nestle in around the meat and add their flavor to it.  An alternative is to cook the onions a little before putting them in the sauce.  I would microwave them to get them "parboiled."

Success!  We all liked the meal and we ate the leftovers the next day, which were still tasty.  We hope to make it again soon.

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