A whole chicken is cut up, browned with onions, and simmered in a sauce made from almonds and pomegranate. Breathe new life into your weekly meal plan with something old: medieval recipes!
This post was inspired by the new novel, The Scribe of Siena by Melodie Winawer. If you’re looking for more medieval recipes, this one is from The Medieval Kitchen, which boasts hundreds. Recipe reprinted at the end of this post courtesy of The Medieval Kitchen (dist. by Univ of Chicago Press, cloth, $39,99)
The Scribe of Siena is a historical fiction novel about a 21st Century brain surgeon, Beatrice, who is jettisoned back in time to medieval Italy. There are no spoilers here because I’m only half way through but it is the perfect summertime read.
The most outstanding aspect of the novel, for me, is that the author doesn’t have to spend any time concocting strenuous circumstances to build suspense and drama. One already exists and we all already know about it. The Plague. The urgency is built in to the time and place in which Beatrice, quite inexplicably, finds herself. Siena, Italy in the year 1347. Devastation is coming and, even as a trained physician, she’s helpless to stop it.
I love Italy. And to love modern Italy is also to love ancient Italy because the two are not as far removed as one may think. Suffice to say, I’m enjoying this book on many levels.
And, because there is a lot of food in the book, I thought it would be fun to go deeper into the book and that time period by trying my hand at medieval cooking.
I’ve looked at cooking in a lot of ways over the years. As a means of showing affection. Or artistic expression. Providing a glimpse into an unfamiliar culture. But I’ve never thought of it as a means of time travel. The old ways of doing things in the kitchen just haven’t been on my radar.
But as I sit here typing away with my pomegranate stained fingers I see the value in it. This kind of cooking brings you closer to the food’s source. Getting up close and personal with a pomegranate is a uniquely sensual experience. I highly recommend it. Stains and all.
In some ways, this kind of cooking is what the Slow Food movement is about. Grinding your own spices (although I totally used a coffee grinder, not a mortar and pestle.) Turning raw almonds into a powder (instead of buying almond meal.) Scooping arils out of pomegranates, blending and then straining to make the juice (as opposed to grabbing a bottle of POM at the coop.)
There was a time when short cuts simply weren’t an option. What was that like?
I’m not willing to say one way is better than the other. But I think it’s infinitely worthwhile to experience both.
Especially when the result is as unique and satisfying as this Romania. This dish has a silky, stew-like quality that reminded us a little bit of Coq au Vin. The meat is soft and juicy. That is the benefit of simmering chicken in liquid as this recipe calls for.
But I must admit to taking a liberty here. For me, the disadvantage of cooking chicken in this manner is loose, soft chicken skin. Which I do not enjoy. So, I removed the chicken pieces at the end, lined them on a foil lined baking sheet, and popped them under the broiler for about 4 minutes. Just long enough to tighten up that skin without drying out the meat.
The almond pomegranate sauce is tangy and sweet, laced with the savory notes of the onion. It’s a shame that it loses it’s gorgeous magenta color in the cooking process, but the flavor is all there.
I served this with farro and sugar snap peas sautéed in butter with lime. It was an unqualified hit.
Both of my finicky eaters (ages 9 and 15) liked this dish a lot. My son went so far as to proclaim, “THIS is what chicken should taste like!” I see many more medieval recipes in my future!
Especially if they involve a new-to-me spice called Long Pepper. It’s not that easy to find (I had to order mine from Amazon) but it is so unique and carries quite a bit of heat. The strong spice mixture, called for in this Romania and many other medieval recipes, includes long pepper, black pepper, clove and nutmeg. A little goes a long way.
Many thanks to the folks at Reaktion Books for allowing me to reprint this Romania recipe here for your convenience. If you are hungry for more, I highly recommend The Medieval Kitchen cook book. It dives deep. What better way?
A silky, stew-like chicken dinner from The Medieval Kitchen.
- 1 whole chicken, about 3.5 lbs cut up into parts
- 2 fresh pomegranates
- 1 cup unblanched almonds
- 1 medium-large onion sliced into thin rings
- 2 ounces fresh pork fatback (I used olive oil)
- juice of 1 lemon
- 1/2 teaspoon strong spice mixture (recipe in notes)
Wash the almonds and dry them thoroughly. When they are completely dry, grind them to a powder in a blender. Remove from the blender jar and set aside (you need not wash the blender before the next step.)
Cut the pomegranates in half and scoop out all their seeds into the blender jar. Puree the seeds and strain; this should yield 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cups of juice. Mix the juice and the ground almonds, and add the lemon juice. Press the mixture through a fine strainer; the result will be an almond milk made with pomegranate juice instead of water.
Pat the chicken pieces dry. Sprinkle with salt. Cut the fat into 1/8 inch dice and render it over low heat in a heavy-bottomed casserole.
*Note from Christine* if using olive oil instead of pork fat, add it to the pot over medium-high heat at this point. Use enough to cover the surface generously.
Peel the onion and slice into thin rings. When the fat has rendered, brown the chicken and onion until evenly golden. If excess fat remains in the casserole, spoon most of it out before proceeding.
Add the almond-pomegranate juice and the spices. Bring to the boil, then turn the heat down as low as possible and simmer, covered, until the chicken is tender. 30 to 45 minutes.
Check for seasoning and serve.
Strong Spice Mixture
1/4 cup freshly ground black pepper, 1/4 cup ground long pepper, 3/4 teaspoon ground cloves, 1 whole nutmeg (grated.)