Friday, January 11, 2008

Lentils with Coriander

by Steven Williams

color photograph of lentils

"Aliter lenticulam: coquis. Cum despumaverit porrum et coriandrum viride supermittis. (Teres) coriandri semen, puleium, laseris radicem, semen mentae et rutae, suffundis acetum, adicies mel, liquamine, aceto, defrito temperabis, adicies oleum, agitabis, si quid opus fuerit, mittis. Amulo obligas, insuper oleum viride mittis, piper aspargis et inferes." (Apicius, 192)
from De Re Coquinaria of Apicius, Librorvm X Qvi Dicvntvr De Re Coqvinaria
Germany, 1920

Ancient Roman mosaic of slaves serving food at a banquet from Carthage 3rd century CE

"Lentils another way: Cook the lentils, skim them strain add leeks, green coriander; crush coriander seed, flea-bane, laser root, mint seed and rue seed moistened with vinegar; add honey, broth, vinegar, reduced must to taste, then oil, stirring the purée until it is done, bind with roux, add green oil, sprinkle with pepper and serve."
from De Re Coquinaria of Apicius (translated by Joseph Dommers Vehling)
published by Walter M. Hill, 1936

Inula dysenterica antique botanical late 18th century colored print by Francis SansomFleabane aka Flea-bane, Common Fleabane, Middle Fleabane, Rarajeub (Job's Tears), and Pulicaria dysenterica (Inula dysenterica)
This herb is from a perennial plant native to most parts of Europe and found growing in masses in moist meadows. It has a soft, hoary foliage with flat heads of one, two, or three bright yellow flowers about an inch across. The size of the flowers is large in proportion to the size of the plant. Fleabane is astringent with a slightly soapy smell and an extremely bitter taste. Its young leaves were also one of the basic ingredients of the Roman summer salads. Modern cooks frequently substitute rosemary when trying to reproduce or mimic ancient recipes without offending modern taste.

asafetida or asafoetida (Ferula assafoetida) color botanical drawing
Laser Root
This spice is currently believed to come from a plant that is either unknown or else possibly became extinct at about the time of the early Roman Empire. Currently it is understood that asafetida or asafoetida (Ferula assafoetida) is an appropriate subsititute with very similar qualities as a spice. Asafetida, also known as Devil's Dung, Stinkng Gum, Asant, Food of the Gods, Hing, and Giant Fennel, is a species of Ferula and is native to Iran. The spice itself is a gum made from the dried sap of the plant's stem and roots. Asafetida has a very strong odor must be stored in airtight containers because otherwise it contaminates spices stored near it. Interestingly, heading asafetida in oil changes the odor and associated taste to one that is very similar to sauteed onion and garlic. Currently it is primarily grown for this use in Iran, Afghanistan, and Kashmir.

Rue aka Ruta graveolens color vintage botanical illustrationRue Seed aka Common Rue, Herby Grass, and Garden Rue (Ruta graveolens)
Seeds from a perennial evergreen shrub originally native to southern Europe and North Africa but now widely found in North America and the Balkans. The Romans considered rue sacred to Mars, Diana, and Aradia and frequently grew it around temples to Mars. The plant's essential oil can cause blisters on the skin of sensitive people. It is probably because of this property that during the Middle Ages Rue acquired a reputation as a repellant to evil Spirits. It was often hung in doorways and windows as well as being given as a gift to new parents. Rue's purported protective qualities apparently also lead to it being given the nickname Witchbane. People during this period took to carrying bunches of Rue because of its reputed effectiveness at also repelling witches. The taste is apprently sharp and very bitter. This herb can be dangerous when ingested in large quantities during early pregnancy. It is also a skin irritant and a significant percentage of the population have severe allergic reactions to Rue. Because of these dangers, it is not commonly used in modern cooking but sometimes modern cooks will substitute liquid bitters to achieve a similar flavor effect when revising recipes that call for Rue. Despite this contemporary reputation, Rue is still sometimes used in Italian cooking and is a favorite and commonly found spice widely used in Ethiopian food.

color drawing of an Apicius by Michele TeysseyreThis recipe is said to have been from Marcus Gavius Apicius (25 BCE - ?). Actually, this particular version came from a fifth century compilation attributed to Apicius. The difficulty in attributing it to its actual author is based in part on the fact that there were several well known Roman gourmets of this time (between the 44BCE and 100 CE) who went by the name Apicius. There is evidence to support the argument that Apicius may in fact have been a nome de plume chosen at the time to invoke a then widely understood stereotype of a famous and wealthy Roman gourmet.

A modern generic lentil soup recipe modified to include flavors similar to that in the Classical Roman lentil dish:

Before cooking always examine, sort, and rinse lentils well in order to find and remove any stones, gravel or dirt that may have gotten through processing. Lentils require no soaking.

Hearty Lentil Herb Soup
Preparation time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 40 minutes

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped fennel bulb
1 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped leek
1/2 cup chopped carrot
1/2 cup of chopped red or yellow bell pepper
4 cloves of fresh garlic, peeled and chopped
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1 14oz can of diced tomatoes with the juice
1 pound dry lentils
2 teaspoons fennel seeds
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 Tablespoons of fresh oregano (or substitute 2 teaspoons dried)
4 Tablespoons of chopped fresh mint (or substitute 2 teaspoons dried)
1 cup red wine
7 cups hot water or chicken broth

Heat the olive oil in a soup pot over a medium heat for two minutes. When it is hot enough, add the onion, fennel, celery, leek, carrot, bell pepper, and garlic and saute the mixture about six or seven minutes. Stir in the fennel seeds and cumin and cook about one more minute or until the onions are golden brown (about eight minutes total). Add the diced tomatoes with their juice, the oregano, and the lentils. Bring this mixture to a boil then reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer the soup for about thirty-five minutes or until the lentils are tender. Add the cilantro during the last five minutes of cooking time. Season to taste with salt and black pepper. At this point many cooks liquidize lentil soups in a blender or food processor to give them a smoother texture while others may be quite pleased with a 'chunkier' soup. Add the mint just before serving. Makes about six to eight servings.

Byzantine Roman fishes and loaves mosaic 5th century CE from the Church of the Mulitplication of the Loaves and the Fishes at Tabgha on the north-western shore of the Sea of Galilee in Israel

For additional recipes see also:
Beer Bread, a bronze age flavor variation with other ideas
Spring Fava Beans, Roman Style
Christmas holiday food and drink from the works of Charles DickensBeef Burgundy, Crackling Bread, Pice Ar Y Maen, Sevillian Yellow Plum Conserve, and Les Ioles (Writers' and Artists' recipes)Omlette Aurore by Alice B. Toklas, Artists' and Writers' Recipes

Newer Article: Michael Hague, part 1: The Illustrated Children's Classics


Older Article: Jordan Sonnenblick, venturing into the deep waters of adolescence

Creative Commons License
Aliter Lenticulam (Lentils Another Way aka Lentils with Coriander) by Steven Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available by contacting Steven Williams through Bookmarc's BookmarcsOnline.

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