Monday, November 29, 2010

Pumpkin Lasagna Recipe by Request


First prepare a medium-sized pumpkin by cutting it in eighths and removing stem, seeds, and stringy interior stuff. Bake the slices on a cookie sheet, skin down, at 350º until it's pretty soft and you can easily peel off the skin. Cut the peeled pieces into 1/2 inch chunks. You will need around 2 or 3 cups of pumpkin -- if you have extra, use it in soup or make it into a side-dish with another meal. The pumpkins in the photo are the two that ended up in my two recipes of lasagna.

2-3 cups cooked pumpkin as described above.
2 or 3 onions, chopped and browned in butter or oil
Around 2/3 of a box of no-boil lasagna noodles
1 lb. of ricotta or farmer's cheese (ricotta makes a sweeter filling)
Optional: additional 1/2 cup of cottage cheese
Around 2-3 cups of shredded cheese that melts nicely (for the topping)
Sage-flavored white sauce (ingredients below)
Sage, basil, salt, and pepper to taste

Make the white sauce (see notes).

Mix ricotta/farmer's cheese/cottage cheese with sage and basil.

Brown the onions. Add sage, salt, pepper, and pumpkin and cook in the butter for a while longer.

Generously coat a 9 by 13 inch baking pan with butter. Layer the ingredients as follows:
  • A layer of sauce
  • A single layer of noodles, touching each other and covering most or all of the surface and coated with more sauce. (Break noodles to make them fit if necessary.)
  • Half of the pumpkin-onion mixture evenly spread over the noodles.
  • Another layer of noodles covered with more sauce.
  • All of the ricotta/farmer's cheese/cottage cheese mixture spread evenly over noodles.
  • Another layer of noodles/sauce.
  • The rest of the pumpkin.
  • More sauce and noodles.
  • ALL the rest of the sauce and a bit more milk if needed.
  • The shredded cheese evenly spread over the top.
After assembling the lasagna, be sure that all the noodles are in liquid sauce -- if not, add a bit of milk. Before putting it in the oven, let the assembled dish rest for around 20 minutes so that the noodles can begin to absorb the sauce.

Cooking time at 400º -- 30 minutes covered with foil followed by 15 minutes uncovered -- enough to brown the cheese. After removing it from the oven, keep the dish at room temperature for around another 15 to 20 minutes so that the cheese and sauce all firm up. Otherwise you will have trouble cutting and serving nice squares (this is true for all lasagna).

  • White sauce ingredients are: 2 -4 Tb butter (can omit butter if browning flour in non-stick pan), 1/3 cup flour, 4 cups milk, around 1 Tb. sage, salt & pepper. Should not be too thick. If you have never made white sauce, you need to look up the standard method of making a roux, adding hot milk, and simmering the sauce.
  • To make onions brown better, add 1 tsp. of balsamic vinegar or a pinch of sugar.
  • The lasagna can be refrigerated after baking and reheated a day or two later.
  • Obviously if you use browned flour only (no butter) in the white sauce, skim milk, non-fat ricotta or farmer's cheese, little butter or oil for browning the onions/pumpkin, and low-fat mozzarella for topping, you can make this an incredibly low-fat lasagna. I did not try making it low-fat.
  • I would NEVER use canned pumpkin for this!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving Dinner

Thanksgiving dinner is served --


The chefs:

Lenny making gravy.

Aparna whipping cream to top the pies. Foreground: spinach ready to saute.

Larry carving the turkey.

Elaine cleaning up.

The girls playing.

Happy Thanksgiving

We are all gathered in Pittsburgh, having traveled on dry roads -- some of us yesterday and others, the day before. The turkey cooks are working on the stuffing and stock. We had our traditional breakfast of chocolate cherry bread and cranberry pecan bread which we brought from Zingermans bakehouse (arriving there just one moment before the huge rush began yesterday morning).

In other years, I have photographed the entire process of cooking dinner, eating each meal, and children playing, but this year I think I'll wait and publish a selection at the end of the day to avoid repeating myself. Eating the same ritual meals each year is great, but posting the same photos doesn't seem right.

Happy thanksgiving to all!

Monday, November 22, 2010


Courtesans & Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens by James Davidson begins with a discussion of an ancient mosaic from Hadrian's villa at Tivoli, a copy of a famous mosaic by Sosos of Pergamum called "Unswept Hall." He says "It is a floor that depicts a floor, closing the gap between art and life.... it is a trick floor, impossible to clean."

I've just begun reading, and I'm intrigued, so I looked up this photo of the mosaic. It's a long book -- it might take me quite a while to get further than page XV !

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

What did Cleopatra Eat?

Cleopatra, the most famous queen in history, was proficient in several languages and at least two cultures. She traveled throughout her Egyptian kingdom and went to Rome and other places to advance her dynastic and personal interests.

Cleopatra's first identity came from her ancestors, the Ptolemys: kings and queens of Egypt, descended from a Macedonian general in the army of Alexander the Great. They had ruled Egypt for around 300 years when Cleopatra was born, and always maintained a strong connection to Hellenism -- the Greek culture that Alexander had spread with his military successes, even inventing a synthetic god that combined both Greek and Egyptian god-like qualities. So Cleopatra's first two cultures were Egyptian and Hellenistic Greek.

Further, when Cleopatra was a young queen, Julius Caesar was creating a new empire for Rome, conquering new territories throughout the Mediterranean and Europe. After Julius Caesar's assassination, Mark Anthony became the next Roman conqueror. Cleopatra's sexual conquest of both of these heroes is what she's best known for. Of course.

I was wondering how this multi-cultural experience combined with the incredible wealth and status of an Egyptian queen to result in interesting dining experiences. In one story about her, Pliny says that she dissolved a valuable pearl in a glass of wine and then drank it to demonstrate the extravagance of her hospitality. This isn't cuisine. Several of Cleopatra's Ptolemy forebears were known for their love of eating -- to the extent that they were vastly obese. Much else that one can learn is only generalization. What products were grown? Which were valued highly? What did various customary dining conventions dictate? But I found a few specifics.

Dates from the date palms that grew near the Dead Sea were considered to be the best in the Roman world. During the same era of Roman conquest that brought both Caesar and Mark Antony to Egypt, Rome had begun to dominate Palestine, which was ruled by their client King Herod I. One of Cleopatra's political moves was an attempt to rule the nearby coastline of the Middle East -- she asked to be made queen of the entire region.

Flavius Josephus, the Jewish historian, described how Antony made King Herod give Cleopatra his date groves and farms producing sweet balsam, but that he was responsible for managing them and paying her what was due:
When Cleopatra ... accompanied Antony in his expedition to Armenia as far as Euphrates, she ... passed on to Judea, where Herod met her, and farmed of her parts of Arabia, and those revenues that came to her from the region about Jericho. This country bears that balsam, which is the most precious drug that is there, and grows there alone. The place bears also palm trees, both many in number, and those excellent in their kind....

But then, as to the tributes which Herod was to pay Cleopatra for that country which Antony had given her, he acted fairly with her, as deeming it not safe for him to afford any cause for Cleopatra to hate him. (Josephus, Chapter 4)
Surely we can assume that Cleopatra enjoyed eating the greatly prized dates from these orchards that were her own property.

In the matter of wine, the Ptolemys and many immigrant Greeks who had accompanied them to Egypt had added Greek-style vineyards and many other crops to those already grown in the fertile Nile valley and other parts of Egypt, which was far less arid than it is today. Near Alexandria at Lake Mareotis, a highly productive agricultural region yielded a particularly nice wine that was a favorite of Cleopatra, said the Roman poet Horace. Various writers described this wine. Athenæus mentioned that Mareotic wine was "white, its quality excellent, and it is sweet and light with a fragrant bouquet; it is by no means astringent, nor does it affect the head." Virgil said the grapes themselves were white, and Strabo said the wine aged well. Grain, olives, and other fruit were also cultivated in this region, and probably contributed high-quality foods to the royal kitchens.*

The author Lucan (born 39 C.E. -- thus writing around a century after the events he described) wrote in Pharsalia; Dramatic Episodes of the Civil Wars about Caesar and Cleopatra. He included a long description of a banquet which she gave to overwhelm his senses. Among a plethora of details about the physical surroundings, the queen's garments, and "her luxuries, as yet unknown To Roman fashions" are a few hints about the food; in particular, Lucan makes clear that authentic superior Roman wine was preferred to the local vintage: "no juice of Mareot grape But noble vintage of Falernian growth Which in few years in Meroe's vats had foamed, (For such the clime) to ripeness." He also mentions
"On plates of gold They piled the banquet sought in earth and air And from the deepest seas and Nilus' waves, Through all the world; in craving for display, No hunger urging. Frequent birds and beasts, Egypt's high gods, they placed upon the board: In crystal goblets water of the Nile They handed."
Unfortunately, this really doesn't help much. They ate gods? Really. Well, the Egyptians did worship a lot of animals, including fish, mice, crocodiles, and bulls, and their gods often took animal form or had animal heads with human bodies. The Romans found this animal-worship odd -- Roman gods were always human in form. Cleopatra herself went around dressed as Isis, and statues in her likeness were worshiped in temples to Isis.

Plutarch, also around a century after the fact, mentioned eight wild boars being roasted, among other extravagant preparations for only 12 guests at a banquet that Cleopatra was giving for Antony; Plutarch said his grandfather had heard the story from an eye-witness. The still-later classical author Athenaeus wrote quite a long passage about a banquet that Cleopatra gave for Antony, but he didn't name a single specific food -- just talked about the gold dishes and Ethiopian slave boys she handed out as door prizes.**

Cleopatra's suicide is another very famous part of her legend. Her last meal, according to Plutarch, included a basket of figs from the country. And beneath the figs and fig leaves in the basket lay the asp, which she had asked for. Or maybe the asp came in a water jar. This account leaves many open questions, but in any case, that's the end of the story.

So on to the generalizations -- what was available to the richest of rich Egyptians at that time? Scholars have found a few texts establishing elaborate meals, based on tombs where food was provided for a high-status afterlife. Perhaps they give a clue to what the Egyptian queen might eat. Here is one such list of food for a dead woman in ancient times: "a triangular loaf of bread of emmer wheat ...; an unidentified liquid containing some sort of fatty substance; cooked fish; pigeon stew; cooked quail, dressed with its head under one wing; two cooked kidneys; the ribs and legs of beef; a dish containing cut beef; stewed figs; fresh nabk berries; small round cakes sweetened with honey; three jars of some form of cheese; wine."

In ancient Egypt, along with sacred grain priests ate beef and goose from sacrificial animals. Those who could afford more than grain porridge or bread also ate dairy products from sheep and cattle, fruits like pomegranates and figs, other meats, honey from dates, and wild lotus and fish from the Nile. They drank more beer than wine, but probably had both. A list of foods eaten in pre-Hellenistic Egypt adds: filberts, walnuts, pine kernels, olives, peaches, Indian medlars, quinces, pistachios, lentils, and radishes. Roasted papyrus was another delicacy. Cleopatra could have had the opportunity to enjoy such foods.

During the Ptolemy era, new, improved, or expanded crops included sesame, poppy seed, cabbage, lettuce, garlic, chick peas, and cumin, as well as "figs, walnuts, peaches, apricots, plums and olives." The greatest change was in a new type of grain: instead of emmer wheat and barley, the Greeks expanded cultivation of a different type of wheat that they found more desirable for bread. Most of the changes affected cash crops, which enabled Egypt to become a highly profitable breadbasket for Rome; however, the foods that were available give a hint about what Cleopatra could have eaten in Egypt during most of her life. (Lists from Crawford, p. 138-140)

During her long stay in Rome at Caesar's estate in Trastevere, Cleopatra would have lived at least as well as a wealthy Roman, and no doubt eaten the types of foods documented in the many sources about Roman dining and banquets -- especially the many books about the recipe collections of Apicius. This is a subject with a huge literature, so I'm not going to repeat it. Like everything about Cleopatra, what she did in Rome is only known through the speculation of scholars.

* I acquired these citations from various online articles about Cleopatra and Lake Mareotis. The quotes from Flavius Josephus and Lucan come from the Project Gutenberg editions of their works. Other information comes from Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt by Joyce Tyldesley; "Food: tradition and change in Hellenistic Egypt" by Dorothy J. Crawford; and Food and Society in Classical Antiquity by Peter Garnsey.
** Athenaeus of Naucratis. Yonge, C.D., Editor. The deipnosophists, or, Banquet of the learned of Athenæus, volume I, p. 239.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Empty Plates


Today we went to the Detroit Institute of Arts, not realizing that much of the museum was inaccessible -- many galleries were full of set tables for a gala fundraiser tonight. We were back home long before the no-doubt stunningly dressed crowd arrived to dine beneath the severe images of Diego Rivera's murals. I doubt if many of the diners were going to feel mocked by Rivera's message, though that interpretation wouldn't be wrong. I enjoyed the imagery of empty plates and efficient setting up.



Beyond the Rivera courtyard, we observed many centers of activity that we did not photograph. I peeked into one kitchen where huge piles of lettuce were being made into salad beneath a mural of "Where the Wild Things Are." We saw long tables in the sunlit medieval courtyard. And above all, we enjoyed a normally unavailable view of the Rivera murals from a balcony above -- exceptionally opened to make up for the inconvenience.


I hope that the gala was a great financial success: the DIA needs all the help it can get these days. We rejoined at a higher level of commitment, but we'd never go to a dinner like that.

Monday, November 08, 2010

No Toga Party: What did poor people eat in ancient Rome

Photo and blog post © 2010 mae sander
The Roman banquet is as familiar in American popular culture as the toga party -- though the popular conception of a toga party probably is more rooted in John Belushi than in echoes of classical studies from university life of old. 

Say "Roman Banquet" and what comes to mind? Eggs to apples. Exotic delicacies like roasted hedgehogs and flamingo tongues. Honey-sweetened wine, perhaps deliciously flavored with lead from the glaze of the drinking vessels. Spices brought from all over the Roman Empire and traded from the East. Olive oil. White bread made from the best flour. Produce from the host's country estates, perhaps nearby, perhaps farther off in Sicily or other areas. Slaves to cook, serve, and entertain the guests (all men). 

Most of the people in ancient Rome were very poor. Everyone knows that they had bread and circuses. Archaeology provides a glimpse of the circus, but what about the bread? What did the really poor Romans eat? 

Indeed, the Romans, both rich and poor, ate bread. In the later centuries of the Roman Empire, distribution of grain -- wheat and barley -- to the large poverty-stricken population provided an important part of the diet, at least to the lucky poor who were eligible for free food. Wheat was higher-status than barley -- so poor people were more likely to afford barley when they had to buy their own food. They sometimes made their grain rations into bread, and sometimes into porridge. 

Porridge was lower-status than bread for many reasons, especially because it could be made from the coarser and less desired barley. Because the process of making bread with yeast results in a more nutritious product (the fermentation process makes some nutrients more accessible) those who ate bread were on the whole healthier, as well as richer. 

"Apart from cereals," we learn, "dry legumes, in particular lentils, chickpeas and broad beans, were the main source of protein as of calories in the Mediterranean basin as a whole.... Dry legumes also supplied the amino acids in which wheat and barley were low, and the missing vitamin A. The flour of legumes was commonly blended with wheat flour to make bread." * 

Artisans and other non-upper-class Romans thus ate beans. Street vendors sold a "kind of pudding" made of chickpeas -- I wonder if it was like hummus. Imports from the fertile agricultural regions of Egypt included lentils and chickpeas, as well as the high-quality wheat for which the Nile valley was widely known. Sometimes rich or official benefactors gave out free food at festivals, but this was unusual. One Roman politician spent a fortune showering the crowd at the Circus with chickpeas, beans, and lentils. (I'm thinking of Meg Whitman spending $141.5 million -- except I don't know if the Roman won or lost his election.) 
Garden produce was sometimes affordable to the lower or maybe middle classes, according to literary sources -- cabbage, leeks, beets, onions, garlic. It was a commonplace that poor people drank only water, while those who could afford it, drank wine. High-quality fish and the famous garum fish sauces were food for rich people, but poorer people could sometimes manage to buy or catch some not-so-nice fish from the even-then-polluted Tiber River. Even salt cost money -- spices were only for the rich. 

By late antiquity (3rd-4th centuries) Emperor Aurelian introduced distribution of free pork -- up to 25 kilos per person -- to as many as 120,000 people per year. Like the grain distributions, though, the recipients were often the representatives of larger families, who had to share their portions. Many poor people weren't eligible for any free food, with the result that malnutrition, especially among children, was common. The people of ancient Rome included the upper class rulers, slaves, freedmen (former slaves), artisans, soldiers, small farmers, and a vast number of urban poor. The banquets and refined cuisine that one most often hears about included participants from only a tiny fraction of the large Roman population.

*Information comes from Peter Garnsey, Cities Peasants and Food in Classical Antiquity, 1998, p. 242-245; Jeremy Paterson, "Trade and traders in the Roman world" in Trade, Traders and the Ancient City, ed. Parkins and Smith; and Neville Morley, Trade in Classical Antiquity. Photo shows Roman Emperor's villa at Piazza Armerina, Sicily.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Lunch in Torres Torres: Guest Post by Arny

Arny writes about lunch in a Spanish village:
On Thursday we went to see our friends Adolfo and Fran's place in Torres Torres, where Adolfo grew up. They have spectacularly restored his grandparents' house, which is about 100 years old.

Our mutual friend Ramon picked us up at 12:30 and drove us the 35 miles to the village, pointing out some interesting old buildings and the high-rises of a resort community up the coast a ways from Valencia. Torres Torres is named after two old towers, now in ruins, that sit above the village. I don't know why it's not Dos Torres, but I like Torres Torres better, and it won't get confused with the Lord of the Rings. Both Adolfo and Fran were eager to show us their house, which took 3+ years to renovate.

Here is a picture of Adolfo and Tracy, and part of Ramon, in the kitchen. There is Spanish walnut paneling in front of almost all the appliances and there's an American walnut door because the Spanish walnut can't be made into such a tall (3.5 meter) door.

While Fran made the salad, we walked with Adolfo to pick up the main course, an authentic paella (with chicken and rabbit), from a woman who has been making it for over 40 years. She has a special room with maybe a dozen places that she can cook over a wood fire. There were only 3 going Thursday, but at peak times she does 100 a day.

On the way back, I couldn't resist buying a huge bag of little oranges for 3 Euro. There was a representative bag hanging from the front door of a place a few doors down from Adolfo and Fran's. Ramon showed me that you needed to push the iron door open, take one of the bags on the floor of the entryway, and put the money in the mailbox. We were behind Adolfo on the walk back. He was amused when he saw the oranges, because A. they were from trees owned by the woman who made the paella and B. because he would have given me oranges from his own trees.

The meal was extremely good, and as we were finishing, Adolfo's aunt came by with and for dessert. She brought a very nice apple cake, and Fran brought out a pie-like thing that was basically a whole baked pumpkin.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Regulating a Farmers Market

The L.A. Times is reporting on the fraught issue of regulation of farmers markets:
"Shannon Reid, a market manager for Raw Inspiration, a nonprofit organization that runs 18 markets in Southern California ... told the regulators [from the California Department of Food and Agriculture] that she had caught a vendor repackaging produce from Mexico for sale at one of her markets but had been discouraged by her organization from reporting such violations to authorities. She said that her employer later retaliated against her after she did so anyway."
I am aware of less-serious accusations and ideological quarrels about what is local and self-produced food at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market. This makes me think about how difficult it must be to police farmers who claim to be the producers of what they sell. Produce from Mexico is obviously beyond any gray area of local produce.

Issues of what can be claimed to be organic also plague produce sellers. If cheaper produce is mislabeled, its sellers can offer it more cheaply than the real thing, as organic produce is so much more expensive to produce and bring to market.

As a consumer, I can only hope that the regulators are vigilant and honest, and will be receptive to evidence of fraud -- in the L.A. case, the accuser had photos of the vendor repackaging tomatoes, and further, the same vendor had been caught out at similar misdeeds in the past.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Is there such a thing as pumpkin lasagna?


Pumpkin leftovers are a challenge. I made pumpkin soup on Halloween weekend because the pumpkin just looked too good to be a jack-o-lantern. Around half the roasted pumpkin was left from that recipe.

Today I was thinking about pumpkin ravioli, which seems generally flavored with sage and a white sauce. However, I'm too lazy to fool with all that filled dough. It seemed to me that it should be possible to use the same family of foods and flavors in pumpkin lasagna, so I googled it and found that lots of people have thought of this before. I'm not surprised.

I proceeded, using what I had in the house and getting some ideas from this blog post from Sweden: roasted pumpkin lasagna. The essential lasagna layers between the ready-made sheets of pasta were a white sauce (made from browned flour, sage, and milk), farmer's cheese (close enough to ricotta), the roast pumpkin cooked with oil/butter and browned onion, and various cheeses that I had on hand.

The result -- which you see in the middle of the picture -- was quite delicious. We ate quite a bit and also have some in the freezer for another dinner.

UPDATE: I made it again, with slight variations, and we served it the night before Thanksgiving. Here is a real recipe: Pumpkin Lasagna Recipe by Request as I promised to several people.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Joan Nathan at the Book Festival

Joan Nathan's presentation this evening about her book Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous was in the form of an interview with Ari Weinzweig, co-owner of Zingerman's Deli. The two have known each other for many years, and are both very effective speakers, so the audience had a feeling of being in a very interesting discussion between two lovers of food. Especially French food. The discussion ranged widely, covering not only the food, but also the history and origins of the Jews of France, their general reticence, and especially their tendency for a long time to avoid discussion of their Holocaust experiences.

The two speakers had a rather detailed discussion of the Jewish quarter of Paris, the Marais, in which Jews settled some time in the Middle Ages. I especially enjoyed their conversation about two delis owned by the the Finkelsztajns -- now ex-spouses. Florence Finkelsztajn -- whose deli both speakers prefer -- gave Joan Nathan a recipe for her pletzel, a type of biali, on which her deli serves a delicious pickeled beef sandwich. I know I've eaten in the Finkelsztajn deli, but I think it was prior to their divorce when there was just one store. I definitely realize that my experience of Paris and my reading on French Jews has ranged widely, but is very out-of-date.

Before tonight's presentation, a local caterer served an amazing buffet of desserts made from Nathan's recipes, including cheesecake and several other cakes and tortes. The book has been available only since last Tuesday, so this must be a remarkable baker. I hope to find an excuse to make some of the recipes soon.

It was most enjoyable.

A Perfect Description of a Banana

Many of you know me personally, and probably therefore know that I hate bananas. Well, in today's New Yorker, I found the most perfect description of bananas that I've ever seen, Roz Chast's article "Bananas" accompanied by the lovely illustration at right.

For example, Chast says:
"I am disgusted by bananas’ texture. Compare the texture of a banana—mushy, baby-foodish, almost what you would feed a sick person—with the brisk athletic crispness of an apple. And, please, not one of those bulk apples you buy in a plastic bag. Those are mealy and they give all fruit a bad name. It’s no wonder so many kids don’t like fruit, if that’s the only kind of fruit they’ve ever had. I mean like a really good Macoun or Honeycrisp."
This is the best description I've ever heard. Exactly how I feel.

And about banana peel. She mentions a person eating a banana, slowly --
"But watch how the peel starts to drape over the hand. Now the banana is halfway eaten. The peel is now draping over the entire hand. Finally, the person finishes the banana and is left holding this disgusting peel, which is quickly turning brown and smelly! It’s not like an apple core, which you could throw out a car window and think, even though you’d be kidding yourself, Maybe an apple orchard will start here. Or an orange peel, which you wouldn’t throw out a car window, but at least it smells nice. ... The banana peel is garbage of the worst sort, the kind you must get rid of right away. You need to walk quickly to the nearest trash receptacle, throw it in, and then nonchalantly walk away, all the while giving off psychic vibes that you know nothing about it, that it’s somebody else’s peel."

I recommend reading this if you hate bananas. Or if you love bananas and want to know how a banana hater feels. And now don't tell me I'm the only person in the world who hates bananas except for Ladelle.