Thursday, 5 June 2014

Luncheon for... forty-one!*

The most important thing I have learned about being an apprentice: never express interest in a Cool Project unless you want Boss Laurel** to respond, "That does indeed sound cool. I look forward to reading your project report".

Completely unrelatedly, I spent Friday and Saturday morning cooking a documented 10th-century Arabic lunch at an SCA event.

A while back, the lady coordinating the food for the weekend put out a call for new and inexperienced event cooks to undertake a single meal at this event. I've spent a fair amount of time as a kitchen minion and am a reasonably competent cook, but had never before planned and/or implemented an entire meal on this scale. However, we'd*** just received a copy of the Annals of the Caliphs' Kitchens for Christmas, and Boss Laurel wanted me to start working my way up to cooking a feast. So in a fit of madness, I volunteered for Saturday lunch with the intention of doing the whole meal from that cookbook.

The book itself is marvelous. It's a complete annotated translation of a 10th-century manuscript, along with extensive notes on Islamic cuisine, dining, and medical practices, and a glossary of terms that occupies nearly half the book. I've been working my way through it since January and might eventually know my way around it properly in a year or two. What makes it even more unusual is that it's full of measurements - and the author has included the original measurements as well as an approximate modern equivalent, weights to weights, volumes to volumes. There's even a discussion on the properties of the wheat used in the region at that point in history, allowing one to use appropriate flour for bread-making.

So. I knew going in to the planning that I wanted something that could be prepped as much in advance as possible (so I didn't run the risk of lunch being late). I wanted something that wouldn't be ruined if lunchtime ended up either earlier or later than planned (so that everything would still taste good). I wanted something that sounded tasty to me personally (because there was no way I was going to cook a meal that I wouldn't eat). I wanted something that wasn't too out there, flavour-wise (because there was no way I was going to cook a meal that no-one else would eat). And finally, I wanted something that involved vegetables and/or fruit (because bread and cheese and cold meat is not so good for the digestion).

My initial thought was to do some sort of stew or casserole, but as I started looking through the recipes I found several chapters of cold dishes. The advantage of cold dishes is that they can be completely plated up in advance and served directly from the fridge. And as far as the recipes went, chilled was better because ice was an expensive luxury good - if one served a guest chilled food, it was an indication of esteem. Plus it was the very end of May, so there was a reasonable chance that the weather would be warmish. Hot stew would have been overly-filling.

As I read through the recipes for cold dishes, I noticed that they were all variations on a theme of "cook and chop or shred a thing, make a sauce, dress the thing, garnish with cucumbers and fruit". One shredded meat and one chopped vegetable seemed like the right amount for a lunch, so I settled on chicken and aubergine, along with four sauces in total. Rather than dressing them as separate dishes, though, I decided to serve both plain with the sauces alongside. That way people could have as much or as little of any of the sauces as they chose, and any children or fussy eaters could have plain food. Not quite how they'd have been served, but the food was unusual enough that I didn't want to scare anyone.

The chapters on cold dishes all indicate that they are to be served before the meal, i.e. as appetizers. I decided to treat the whole lunch as a precursor to the feast that would follow in the evening. I wanted to have lots of little nibbly things and lots of flavours. Enough that people would go away feeling satiated but not stuffed.

The final menu was this:

  • Roasted chickens (shredded) and cooked aubergines, served with four sauces
  • Flatbreads  
  • Olives 
  • Apricots and figs
  • Peeled sliced cucumbers
Because I was flying in from another country my lady Boss Cook kindly agreed to do all of my shopping for me. The shopping list I priced up was under budget, so I assume the actual groceries were likewise. She also ended up cooking and shredding the chicken for me for reasons of space in transport.

Olives in brine are listed as a good thing to eat before the meal in chapter 24 (humoral properties of condiments).

Apricots and figs are both included in chapter 26 (seasonal fruits and fruits served before the meal), though they really should have been fresh rather than dried. Fresh fruit is a lot more expensive, unfortunately.

The first two sauces are from chapter 31 (cold poultry dishes served before the hot food). The first was made of:
  • Ground almonds
  • White sugar
  • Cucumber pulp
  • Wine vinegar (white, in this case)
  • Salt
  • Olive oil
  • Mint
  • Basil
Strictly speaking it should also have had thyme (but the shop failed to supply it) and almond oil (which is expensive). The fresh herbs were to be minced and sprinkled over everything, but since I was serving the sauce separately I decided to stir them in.

The second:
  • Vinegar
  • Salt
  • Ground caraway
  • Cassia (I substituted cinnamon)
  • Galangal
  • Olive oil
  • Mint
  • Parsley
This one should also have had rue, but it's impossible to find and potentially dangerous. I'd eat it myself under controlled circumstances, but there was no way I was going to feed it to a large group miles from the nearest hospital.

 The next sauce was from chapter 39 (making yogurt, drained yogurt, and cheese). The sauce is called jajaq, and is really honestly not tzatziki. Honestly.
  • Yogurt
  • Salt
  • Mint
  • Cucumber pulp
This one was an interesting sauce to make. The recipe proper called for garlic (which I had intended to add but didn't), chopped onions, parsley, tarragon, rue, lettuce stems, artichokes, and green almonds. However, the recipe is followed immediately by a translation of a poem that describes five separate bowls of yogurt, each with a single green herb flavouring it. That, plus knowledge of modern variations on this sauce, led me to infer that the recipe itself was listing all the options exhaustively, rather than instructing the cook to use all of them together.

The final sauce was from chapter 45 (making cold dishes of vegetables and the best of roots).
  • Vinegar
  • White sugar
  • Ground almonds
  • Caraway seeds
  • Cassia (again, I used cinnamon)
This should have had saffron in it, but it's expensive and one of the attendees was allergic to it. Having tried it both with and without at home, though, it didn't really change anything other than the colour of the sauce.

The final component of the meal was the flatbread. I took the recipe from chapter 13 (humoral properties of grains and bread made from wheat and rice). I used spelt flour (both to deal with a wheat intolerance and because it's closer to 10th-century wheat, chemically-speaking), water, salt, and yeast to make a stiff, heavy dough, let it rise for half an hour, rolled it into small discs with a very small amount of olive oil on the outside, and then dry-fried them in a cast-iron pan. Only set off the smoke detector once!

Rather than using active dry yeast I should really have been using a yeast dough starter, which would have changed the flavour. However, since I was travelling to the event that wasn't really an option.

Cooking the bread was the most time-consuming part. 10 minutes to mix 2kg of flour into dough, then the rise, then cooking the breads two at a time for 2 minutes each. I made around 50 of them, I think. The sauces all got made up the night before. The chicken was already done when I got there, but since I'd originally planned to use pre-cooked hot chickens from the shop, the only extra time would have been from picking the carcasses. And then cooking the aubergines took 15 minutes, plus the 45 minutes it took for the water to come to a boil. Fortunately I woke up earlier than I'd planned.

As I was cooking the bread with the help of Boss Cook's bearded assistant, my trusty kitchen minions plated up all the dried fruit and the olives. At that point, the only things left to do were last-minute, so we all had a good break of about an hour.

We ended up with two attendees who didn't eat chicken, so for them I made baked stuffed aubergines. The stuffing was spiced rice left over from supper the night before with ground almonds mixed in, and I baked the aubergines with olive oil, salt, cinnamon, and caraway before stuffing them.

I think it went well. There were almost no leftovers, just enough that it didn't appear anyone went away from the table hungry. Everything was on the table at the right time at the right temperature, and I managed to make it so that everyone was able to eat all of the food or all but one item.

And yes, I'm already plotting my next meal.


*My mother has immediately gone to a scene from the film Easter Parade. That scene doesn't appear to be on YouTube, but this one which she will also have gone to is.

**The same is also true of Boss Herald.

***Technically it was the Spouse's Christmas present, but he's mostly playing with Roman food at the moment and I was feeling inspired.

1 comment:

Sara / Aryanhwy said...

Sounds DEE-licious. Boss Herald would approve, except that she didn't get to eat any of it. :(