Ancient Recipe: Parsnip Fries with Wine Sauce (Roman, 5th Century CE)

“Then there is the carrot. ‘This vegetable,’ says Diphilus, ‘Is harsh, but tolerably nutritious, and moderately good for the stomach; but it passes quickly through the bowels and causes flatulence. It is indigestible, diuretic, and not without some influence in prompting men to amatory feelings, on which account it is called a love-philtre by some people.” ~ Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae [The Philosophers’ Dinner-party], 2nd century CE 

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The Ancient Romans didn’t eat fries in cones of wax paper, but they should have.

We hold these truths to be self-evident: carrots are orange, parsnips are white. But it wasn’t always that way.

From a botanical standpoint, the two plants are different enough to keep them out of the same genus (they belong to Pastinaca and Daucus, respectively). Most modern people simply use color to tell them apart. But ancient people tended not to differentiate between these two tapered, edible roots, in spite of the fact that parsnips seem to have been first cultivated in northern Europe and carrots in Persia. In Old English, for example, both were called by the same name, moru. The Romans had two different words but used them interchangeably, just as the roots were used interchangeably in their cuisine. Apicius, the compendium of all things Roman and culinary, offers recipes for carotae seu pastinacae, carrots or parsnips. The ancient confusion hints at the carrot’s biggest secret: it wasn’t always orange.

Farmers selectively breed their crops, encouraging desirable traits like size, productivity, and sweetness to create new cultivars and strains. Our modern food plants have been genetically manipulated for so long by human beings that they look extremely different from their ancient ancestors (who says GMOs are a recent phenomenon?) Ancient fruits and vegetables had more of the “bad” qualities that have been bred out in the centuries since: you can bet that the Romans never heard of a seedless grape. Color is a trait that can be selected for just like any other, and Roman carrots, in addition to being smaller and less sweet than our modern ones, only came in purple or a very parsnip-like white. So where did orange carrots, rich in the same beta-carotene that gives everything from pumpkins to flamingos their color, come from?

Scientists believe that a genetic mutation in the purple carrot resulted in the first yellow carrots around the 11th century, which was then selectively bred to create our modern orange. A popular legend asserts that orange carrots were developed in the 17th-century Netherlands as a tribute to the Dutch royal family, the House of Orange-Nassau. The Orange in that family’s name refers to the French principality of Orange, a transformation of the Latin place-name Aurasio that came to be associated with both the color and the fruit. But should we believe the carrot-as-political-tribute story? Maybe. It’s true that the Netherlands was known for its carrot production in the 17th century. It’s also true that a century later, “carrots sold with their roots too conspicuously showing were deemed provocative” by the Dutch Patriot party who forced out the House of Orange. But whether the orange carrot was actually developed in tribute to the House of Orange is unknown, though it’s the kind of unqualified claim that frequently gets presented as fact in places like tourist guides and bar trivia.

All this means that when reconstructing a Roman recipe in your modern kitchen, orange carrots are to be avoided at all costs, but parsnips or carrots in other colors will do just fine. The Roman love for both vegetables is well-documented. In the first century BCE, they were demanded as tribute from the tribes of Germany by the Emperor Tiberius; two hundred years later, the Roman-Greek writer Athenaeus records their health benefits in the text quoted above, including the ability to rouse sexual desire in men.* Any aphrodisiac qualities attributed to carrots and parsnips by the Romans are likely due to their phallic shape. In ancient medicine, this was the plant’s “signature”, the physical resemblance between a plant and the part of the human body it could cure or affect. This belief continued well into the Medieval period, when for example walnuts were believed to be good for brain health because a walnut looks like a tiny, wrinkled brain.

In this simple and delicious recipe from the Roman cookbook Apicius, the roots are fried in olive oil and dressed with a pungent savory/salty sauce called oenogarum, a reduction of red wine, fish sauce (garum) and pepper. We might consider this recipe an antecedent of French fries with ketchup. The parallel is a surprisingly close one; the South American potato would eventually dethrone the parsnip as the favorite starchy vegetable in Europe, while ketchup arose from the same origins as Roman garum.

INGREDIENTS

  • 3 large parsnips or (non-orange) carrots
  • Enough olive oil to fill a pot about two inches deep
  • 2 cups red wine
  • 1/6th of a cup fish sauce
  • 2 teaspoons ground black or long pepper
  • 1 tablespoon of cornstarch

Wash and peel the parsnips and cut them into small pieces. I did half-circle wedges, but you could also try a traditional French fry shape. Dry the parsnip pieces thoroughly with a paper towel.

 

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This is what happens when you put moist, fresh vegetables into hot olive oil. Be careful!

Fill a pot with olive oil up to around two inches and raise the heat to medium-high. After a few minutes, drop a small piece of parsnip in to test if the oil is hot enough to fry. When the oil is ready, fry the parsnips a few pieces at a time (they are moist and will produce a lot of bubbles). Move the parsnips around with a wooden spoon or other tool to prevent them sticking.

 

When the parsnips are golden brown on the outside, remove from the oil and drain on a plate lined with paper towels.

Next, make the oenogarum. Bring the red wine to a low boil in a saucepan. When it has reduced by about one-third, add the fish sauce and pepper. Mix the cornstarch and about half a cup of water into a slurry in a separate bowl, Slowly add this to the wine while stirring with a spoon to prevent clumping. Reduce the mixture another third. The end result should have the consistency of barbecue sauce, thicker than water but liquid enough to pour.

Serve as you would French fries and ketchup, with the wine-sauce drizzled on top of the parsnips or on the side for dipping.

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These pastinacae are ready to prompt men to amatory feelings.

VERDICT

I feel like with every ancient recipe I make, I claim that it’s the best one ever. I’d better start on that rose-and-lamb-brain patina, or the dish invented by Emperor Vitellius that contained fish semen. This one really is good though! The parsnips are soft on the inside and crunchy outside, and the oenogarum has a powerful blend of flavors that provide the salt and other seasoning. I wouldn’t want to eat the oenogarum on its own, but it’s perfect when balanced against the bland starchiness of the parsnips. This is one of the first Roman recipes I could genuinely imagine someone ordering from a modern restaurant (or a food truck, for that matter, which inspired the photo above). X out of X.

* The aforementioned Emperor Tiberius was accused by his enemies of the most extreme sexual perversion. One wonders if his documented love of a vegetable considered to be an aphrodisiac is purely coincidental.

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.

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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.