Before I do anything else, I have to acknowledge another inspiration for this idea. In addition to the Jane Kramer essay I mentioned in the previous post, there’s also Steve Rinella’s Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine. Rinella hunted for and prepared a banquet straight out of Escoffier, and then wrote an engaging book about it. My own ambitions are not so grand.
The most striking thing about the ingredients listed throughout Apicius’ book is the wide variety of spices. This speaks, I suppose, to the enormity of the Roman empire. Cumin is one of the most frequently used ingredients, which must come from the North African part of the empire. It’s certainly not something we associate with modern Italian cooking. I picked up some ground cumin that has been sitting in my local bodega for months; I think this is appropriate because any cumin imported to the Imperial court would have to travel by ship, and would not be at its freshest by the time it arrived. There is also a lot of honey to be used in both savory and sweet dishes, which is probably because cane sugar had not yet been introduced to the Mediterranean. I will be using honey exclusively, rather than sugar.
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Although I don’t generally care to use cookbooks, I occasionally find one that I pick up for the sheer novelty value. A little over a year ago I found a copy of this version the ancient Roman cookbook by Apicius, Cooking and Dining in Imperial Rome. The book was on a clearance table for a dollar, and I had to buy it.
I flipped through it once or twice; the recipes rely heavily on garum, and there are numerous recipes involving organ meats. The entry for “Lights of Hare” (recipe #386) describes that whimsical sounding dish as “A FINE HASH OF HARE’S BLOOD, LIVER AND LUNGS.” Did I mention there’s a lot of capitalization in the book?
After a few minutes I put the book aside, and forgot about it for a while. I recently read this essay by Jane Kramer, in which she discusses the usefulness of different cookbooks, and it got me thinking about Apicius again. Was there anything in it that I, as a 21st century vegetarian, could actually use?
To my surprise and pleasure there are a few recipes that I not only could make, but that I might actually want to make. I will try to substitute as little as possible. And I will, of course, be chronicling my attempts in these pages.
Posted by Howard