Ancient Recipe: Asparagus Patina (Roman, 4th century CE)

Asparagus patina is made like thisPut in the mortar asparagus tips. Crush pepper, lovage, green coriander [cilantro], savory and onions; crush, dilute with wine, liquamen [fish sauce] and oil. Put this in a well-greased pan, and, if you want, add while on the fire some beaten eggs to thicken it, cook without boiling the eggs and sprinkle with very fine pepper. ~ De Re Coquinaria (On Things Culinary) or Apicius, Book II

patina cooked

Originally, a patina was a specific type of Roman pottery; a round, flat, shallow dish. Over time, the word came to be used for the food cooked in the dish, not just the dish itself (compare modern terms like barbecue, hot pot, and terrine). The 4th-century Roman cookbook Apicius has a whole chapter devoted to patina recipes, including patinae of vegetables, fruits, meat, fish, and my personal favorite, calf’s brains and roses. The only common ingredient is ovae, eggs. As such, modern authors have often characterized patina as similar to a modern frittata, raw beaten eggs mixed with other ingredients and baked until solid. But the recipes in Apicius use eight different verbs to describe methods of incorporating eggs into patina, implying that the term was a general one covering everything from baked scrambles to delicate, airy soufflés. There were also egg-free variations, as in the recipe above, which instructs you to add beaten eggs only si volueris, “if you want”.

An element of surprise or trickery is found in many Roman dishes, making the food itself a form of table-side entertainment as guests attempt to identify what’s front of them. This celebration of the transformative aspects of cooking is found in many cultures, from Medieval European sugar-sculpted “subtleties” to the old Korean tradition of reshaping fruits and nuts into a confection shaped like the original. With its brilliant green color and the unusual step of pureeing the asparagus, I can imagine a group of Roman diners being similarly charmed and surprised by this recipe. I’ve made it for an Ancient Roman dinner I hosted and for my classes on Roman food, and it holds up to a modern taste-test quite well. It is named in the text of Apicius as “aliter patina de asparagis“, “another asparagus patina“, because there is a similar recipe immediately preceding it. The first asparagus patina is almost identical except for one ingredient: the meat of tiny birds called ficedulae (literally “fig-peckers”), three of them for one patina. I’ll be saving that for another time.

THE RECIPE

As it doesn’t deviate far from the modern palate, this is one of the most popular Ancient Roman recipes for revival, and there are numerous modernized versions out there. I mainly follow Cathy Kaufman’s reconstruction in her book Cooking in Ancient Civilizations (2006), but this recipe can also be found in other great books about Roman cooking, like A Taste of Ancient Rome (1994) and The Classical Cookbook (2012). The original Latin says to strain the crushed vegetable and wine mixture, a step which some translators follow and others, like the one quoted above, don’t. I personally think the recipe is better if you don’t strain. Roman vegetables were tougher and stringier than our vegetables, so this step was probably necessary to make 4th-century asparagus more palatable, but most modern asparagus will turn out sufficiently soft anyway.

Modern fermented fish sauce (available where Asian groceries are sold) will stand in for the near-identical Roman version. Savory and lovage are two herbs used in this recipe that you might not be familiar with, as they are less-popular today than they were in historical times. Savory is one of the traditional components of herbes de Provence and has a slightly bitter, spicy flavor. If you can’t find it, use thyme, marjoram or sage. Lovage has a similar flavor to celery, and crushed celery seed or the inner leaves of celery make a good substitute. All these substitutions were plants known to the Romans, so perhaps a strapped 4th-century chef might have done the same. The presence of pepper in the recipe hints at the intended audience of Apicius: enslaved or formerly-enslaved career chefs laboring in the kitchens of the wealthy. In Rome, pepper (known in three forms, black, white, and long) was a costly dried import from India. Households of more limited means used only fresh green herbs as seasoning.

raw patina

Asparagus and herb mixture.

First, gather your non-liquid ingredients: six eggs, 1 bunch of asparagus (trimmed), 1/4 cup chopped onion, 1/4 cup cilantro leaves, 1/4 teaspoon ground black or long pepper, 1 teaspoon dried savory or sage, and 1/8 teaspoon celery seed or lovage.

You will also need 1 tablespoon of olive oil (plus more for the dish), 1/2 a cup of white wine, and 1 tablespoon of fish sauce.

Preheat the oven to 400 °F. Spread the inside of a one-quart gratin dish, pie dish, or cast-iron skillet with oil.

Puree all the ingredients except the eggs in a food processor or a mortar and pestle. Depending on the size of the equipment you are using, you may find it necessary to mash up the asparagus first and then add it to the other ingredients. Make sure everything is combined to a smooth, even texture. Beat the six eggs and add them to the pureed vegetables. Mix well to combine, and pour the mixture into the dish. Bake until set (about 35-40 minutes. If a fork or chopstick inserted into the center comes out clean, the patina is done). Serve with fresh cracked pepper.

patina 2

Raw patina about to go into the oven.

THE VERDICT

The predominant flavor in this dish is, of course, asparagus, but the spices and herbs come through quite nicely. It’s best-served and eaten with a spoon, as it has a mushy texture. It goes well with crusty bread, white wine, and, I’m assuming, fig-peckers. VIII out of X.

 

 

Ancient Recipe: Tzoalli (amaranth candy) (Aztec, prehistory – 16th century CE)

3“The priest brought down a small idol made of this dough. Its eyes were small green beads, and its teeth were grains of corn…he ascended to the place where those who were to be sacrificed stood, and from one end to the other he went along showing the figure to each one saying, ‘Behold your god!'” ~ Aztec amaranth dough ritual described by Diego Durán in 1574

The Aztecs had a way with words. They described the world around them with amazingly poetic turns of phrase and names so grandiose and ominous they sound straight out of a Dungeons & Dragons sourcebook. Just take the name of Huitzilopochtli (weet-zeel-oh-potch-tlee), one of the most important Aztec deities, which translates to “Left-Handed Hummingbird.”

A mighty war-god crowned with feathers, Huitzilopochtli was associated with the sun and with a special kind of grain cultivated by his worshipers. We know it today as amaranth, but the Aztecs called it huauhtli (wow-tlee), which is unusual for a Nahuatl word because it comes from a root that can’t be connected with any other. The same people who called warriors “eagle-jaguars” and human sacrifice “the flowery death” and worshiped Left-Handed Hummingbird alongside his sister, Face Painted With Bells, seem to have had a lapse in creativity when it came to describing amaranth. Perhaps huauhtli was considered so sacred and important that it could only be referred to as itself.

In the Aztec diet, amaranth was second in importance only to corn. Every part of the plant is edible, but the Aztecs valued the tiny seeds the most, which are packed with essential amino acids and twice the iron content of wheat. As with corn, amaranth grains could be toasted and eaten whole or ground into flour to make the familiar base of every Aztec meal: tortillas and tamales. During the holy month of Panquetzaliztli, the Raising of the Banners (analogous to December in our calendar), toasted amaranth grain would be mixed with honey to form a special dough called tzoalli. This substance was shaped into idols of Huitzilopochtli and other divinities, which were paraded through the streets and displayed in the temple before being “sacrificed”; priests broke the candied offerings into tiny pieces and distributed them among the crowd to be eaten.

The association between amaranth and Huitzilopochtli is likely due to the brilliant fuchsia color of amaranth flowers, which makes them a favorite of Huitzilopochtli’s namesake, the hummingbird. The ritual of group tzoalli consumption represents the life-giving power of the gods and calls to mind sacrificial rituals in many other cultures. When the Spanish conquered the Aztecs and established their colony of Nueva España, they noticed a parallel between this ritual and their own Christian Communion ceremony, in which a gathering of worshippers also consume the flesh of God. The Spanish were so affronted by this pagan Communion that they outlawed the cultivation of amaranth in New Spain, despite the grain’s centrality in the Aztec diet. But the Aztecs continued to cultivate amaranth out of sight of the colonial government, and the ritual of shaping and sharing tzoalli survived in a new form. Today, Mexicans still make a sticky amaranth sweet for the Day of the Dead and other holidays that is nearly identical to the original Aztec recipe. Sometimes cut into simple squares, it can also be sculpted into skulls or other shapes that recall the idols of Huitzilopochtli. The modern Spanish name even has some of the creative flair of an Aztec name: it is called alegrìa, meaning “joy”. Having tasted it, I can understand why.

THE RECIPEtzoalli 1

As with many historical recipes, the precise procedure for making tzoalli is unclear, and there were probably many variations. I based my version on modern alegría, which uses whole, toasted amaranth grains rather than amaranth flour. The binding agent in alegría is molasses and/or raw sugar, which were unknown to the Aztecs. Some secondary sources claim the Aztecs mixed amaranth with human sacrificial blood for their tzoalli, an unlikely exaggeration (while human sacrifice did accompany the Panquetzaliztli celebration, first-hand accounts like the one quoted above make it clear that the dough idols were made before anybody was sacrificed). Most sources describe the use of honey, which the Aztecs knew in two forms: bee honey imported from their Mayan neighbors to the south, and locally-produced maguey honey, the boiled-down sap of a species of agave plant.

First, we need one and a half cups of toasted amaranth grain. I was lucky (or lazy) enough to find pre-toasted amaranth grain at Kalustyan’s in Manhattan, which carries a staggering array of spices from all over the world and has served me well for many an ancient recipe. You can toast your own amaranth in a covered pan over medium-high heat for about 30 seconds, one tablespoon at a time. Once the grain is toasted, melt three-quarters of a cup of honey, just enough so that it flows like water. I microwaved my honey in a bowl for 15 seconds, stirred, then microwaved 15 seconds more. You can also melt it in a pot over the stove on low heat while stirring constantly.

When your honey is warm and melted, all you have to do is combine the warm honey and amaranth in a bowl and mix well. At this point, I also added half a cup of ground pumpkin seeds to the mixture. Modern alegría often contains pumpkin seeds, and they were well-known to the Aztecs, so I didn’t see why not. Spread the mixture into a 9 x 13 inch pan lined with wax paper and press it down flat with moistened hands (it’s pretty sticky). Let it chill for abut two hours in the refrigerator, after which the tzoalli can be cut into bars and served. You could, of course, shape it into little statues of a left-handed hummingbird, but it didn’t seem right to me without all the attendant ceremony (and sacrifice).

tzoalli 2

THE VERDICT

The grain itself has the mild flavor of puffed rice, with just a hint of something else I can only describe as….planty. Have you ever bitten into a live twig? That’s the flavor I’m talking about: that generic “plant” taste, clean, organic and faintly bitter. But mostly the tzoalli crunches and tastes like honey, with a hint of nuttiness and salt from the pumpkin seeds.

This might be the best-tasting ancient recipe I’ve ever made. I can understand how special it must have seemed as a rare holiday treat, especially to an ancient Aztec who was breaking a religious fast and unused to eating concentrated sugar. In the future I’ll try making it with maguey honey, which has a distinctive taste. X out of X.