Archive for September, 2009

Shabbat

September 30, 2009
Our friends' home in the mountains

Our friends' home in the mountains

I took two day off last week and escaped from Pagosa Springs. Some friends in the church are out of town and let us use their log house on the upper Blanco River. I arrived late Thursday and woke up Friday morning to a beautiful fall day. The surrounding peaks were all covered with fresh snow. The river is only twenty-five yards from the back door. I built a fire, gazed at the mountains and the water, and lost myself in the beauty.

The rest of the day I spent fly fishing and cooking. Yes, cooking. The Sabbath would begin at sundown. In the first century, the Sabbath feast was a time to join with friends and neighbors and eat a special meal. The law and tradition required no work on the Sabbath, but neighbors that brought food to share at the dinner were allowed to carry their empty dishes home after the feast. With a diet that was primarily vegetarian, the Sabbath was one of the occasions when fish and poultry were added to the menu. After a week of legumes, I wanted my special meal. So we celebrated the Sabbath on the banks of the Blanco River.

The Sabbath special was chicken braised in white wine. Instead of rice or potatoes — neither were part of the Mediterranean diet yet — we had bulgar and mushrooms. The side dishes were freshly picked leaf lettuce with oil, vinegar and feta cheese; pickled vegetables; and pita bread. It was a delightful feast in a wonderful place.

The Upper Blanco River

The Upper Blanco River


Shabbat Shalom!

Studying the Blanco River

Studying the Blanco River

TEMPTATION!

September 23, 2009

I have been eating first century cuisine for only three week, full time for nine days, and already I have had to fight back temptation. Last Sunday it reached a critical point. First, instead of doughnuts after church, we served ice cream sundaes. I love ice cream. I am especially fond of vanilla with fruit toppings and/or chocolate sauce. A little boy in the congregation, who was wearing a robe and told me he was dressed like Jesus, had chocolate on him from ear to ear. He told me that he was fixing his second bowl. I believed him and began to wonder, “Since this Jesus is eating ice cream, then why shouldn’t I consider it part of my first century cuisine?” I was strong and passed on the sundaes.

Later the same day, after the requisite Sunday afternoon nap, my wife and I went to see Julie & Julia. The movie was wonderfully fun. Julie was absolute correct when she commented that she loved braised cucumbers. I developed a recipe for them several years ago and will eat them as part of this diet (and will then share my recipe). They are wonderful. But back to my point: Sally bought a large bag of popcorn and a Diet Coke and proceeded to consume them both right in front of me! I know for a fact that Jesus did not face this kind of temptation.

Right now I am eating a first century lunch: olives, fresh dates, a small bunch of grapes and a piece of pita bread. Delicious! Even though I am not doing this to lose weight, you might be amused to know that I have already dropped six pounds.

Bon Appetit.

The Olives Are Here

September 21, 2009

Olives 2
Two days ago, UPS left ten pounds of manzanilla olives on our doorstep. The olives came from Penna Gourmet Olives in California (their web site is http://www.greatolives.com). Now comes the fun part. I plan to begin curing the olives tonight and will tell you more about the details of the process in the future.

Olives are naturally extremely bitter, so bitter that I wonder why anyone tried to eat them more than once. To cure them, I will have to break the skin, either by cutting each one with a knife or by bashing them with a cast iron skillet. Then I will soak the olives for weeks, changing the water every several days. Finally I will store them for months in a flavored brine.

In the first century, the vast majority of olives were pressed for their oil. Olive groves and presses existed all over ancient Israel and the Mediterranean region. Archaeologists believe that a major area of Greece was deforested so that olive trees could be planted. Their roots are not nearly as deep as other trees and the result was massive erosion. Even though some cultures liked the slightly bitter flavor of oil pressed from green olives, most farmers waited until the olives ripened and turned black. I suspect that the first olives cured for eating were the green ones that were harvested along with the ripe ones.

Olives 3

A Gift from UPS and Penna Olives

I have been eating well and though I have been tempted by modern and ethnic foods — my wife ate popcorn and drank a Diet Coke in front of me last night — I have not strayed from first century cuisine. Last night I had a light meal of fresh figs and apricots, flat bread and provolone cheese. No I did not make the provolone. Yes, ancient Romans and others were making and eating provolone.

Wish me luck with my olives!

Date Night

September 17, 2009

Dates and Cheese

Dates and Cheese

Last night I ate leftovers: lentils mixed with bulgar, pita bread, and several delicious, locally-grown apricots. And, of course, a glass of red wine. But the night before we had a really nice meal. Our appetizers consisted of raisins and roasted almonds (first century trail mix?). I prepared a chick pea and wheat berry stew that turned out to be very good. We also ate a sliced cucumber with just a touch of salt and a splash of white wine vinegar and had slices of a rustic bread. But the highlight of the meal was dessert … dates stuffed with cheese.

First things first, how many of you have heard of wheat berries? They are the entire kernel of wheat that are usually ground to make whole wheat flour. They are also great cooked. I usually use hard winter berries. When boiled, they are chewy and have a nutty, earthy flavor. They are perfect when cooked with legumes or served with vegetables. Spring wheat berries are paler in color and have a milder flavor. You will probably have to go to a health food store or a market like Whole Foods to find these.

Soak both your dried chick peas and wheat berries over night and then cook them together. After draining the peas and wheat, saute garlic and onion and then add liquid, either chicken stock, beef stock or water. I used cumin, coriander, salt, pepper and a bay leaf as flavorings. Cook for several hours until the chick peas are tender and the berries are swollen and beginning to split. I like to serve dishes like this with a splash of extra olive oil on the top.

The dates were wonderful and simple to prepare. I used the cheese I described several blog entries back. Simply slice the dates lengthwise and remove the pit. Then fill the opening with your cheese. You can use cream cheese or chevre instead of making your own cheese. I thought about mixing honey with the cheese, but the dates were plenty sweet without it. You could add chopped almonds or walnuts and maybe a dash of cinnamon, but the dates were absolutely wonderful with just the cheese.

Enjoy!

Pantry Update

September 16, 2009

Let’s face it, some home cooks are good, a few are great, and some are just terrible. Do you think it was any different two thousand years ago? In my last blog, I listed grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables available to the first century cook. These were the staple foods that almost every cook prepared. The use of herbs, spices and condiments probably made the difference between a good cook and a great one.

Remember that meat was a very special occasion food. Goat, lamb and mutton were eaten most often. Wild game, such as deer, was served only when one of the males in the household had time to hunt. Beef was available only when the cow was unable to produce milk or was too old to pull a plow. Pork and pork sausage was loved and eaten by everyone but Jews!

Poultry and fish were eaten much more often than meat. Yet they were typically eaten only once a week. First century Jews primarily ate tilapia, a fish caught in the Sea of Galilee. But only those living close to the lake ate fresh fish. Dried and pickled fish were the norm for everyone else. A wide variety of salt water fish was available to many people living near the Mediterranean coast. Pigeons and doves were the most common poultry, though chicken was certainly known. Hens were probably too highly prized for their eggs to end up on the platter very often.

Join the Feast!

The Diet Begins

September 15, 2009

So it begins. The diet is really quite simple. Eat a light breakfast. Bread, milk or juice, and maybe cheese or yogurt and some fruit. Eat a slightly more for lunch: a piece of whole grain bread, a handful of olives, a hardboiled egg, maybe some leftovers from the night before, a salad of cucumbers or lettuce, milk, water, fruit juice or a small glass of wine to drink. Dinner is more substantial. Bread was always served, maybe a stew or soup with legumes or grains, fresh or pickled vegetables, and fruit. Include a side dish of olives, nuts and/ or cheese. Have a glass of wine or water with dinner. Make one (and only one) meal each week special by adding poultry or fish. Meat will be reserved for a few very special feast.

This doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Tomorrow I will post meats, fish, and seasonings. Tonight we are having chick peas cooked with wheat berries. I think it will be great.

Let me know if you plan to join me by trying a first century diet.
Enjoy.

Blessed are the Cheesemakers … and the Bakers

September 11, 2009
Mediterranean Grain Bread

Mediterranean Grain Bread

I am a Ricki Carroll fan. “Who is she?” you may ask. She is the cheese queen. For some thirty years she has been teaching cooks how to make cheese in their homes. And she has a supply company that sells everything anyone needs to make cheese. I found Ricki Carroll two years ago when Joel Pugh, my partner-in-cooking gave me a copy of Home Cheese Making, 3rd edition. Since then I have made fromage blanc, ricotta, yogurt, mozzarella, farmhouse cheddar, and queso fresco, a Mexican farmer’s cheese. It is a wonderful and tasty hobby.

In the first century, the average family had a few goats and sheep that they milked every day. The milk spoiled quickly and had to be transformed into a product that lasted longer. So most of the milk was converted to yogurt and cheese. By the time of Jesus, cheese making was quite advanced. In order to increase its life, some hard cheese was smoked and other types of cheese were stored in brine, like feta cheese is today.

My first century pantry needed some homemade cheese. I started with fromage blanc, a creamy soft cheese that is not quite as rich as cream cheese and has a very slight sharpness. It is an easy cheese to make, and I am relatively certain that a very similar cheese could have been made in the first century. One simply heats a gallon of milk to 86 degrees and then adds a packet of starter. The packet contains a chemical that ripens the milk and rennet that separates the milk into curds (solids) and whey (liquid). Usually an acid, such as vinegar, lemon juice, or citric acid serves as the ripening agent. The whole ripening and separating process takes twelve hours. The curds are then placed into cheese cloth or butter muslin and allowed to drip for another ten to twelve hours. The result is over two pounds of a delicious and versatile cheese. It can be used to make a variety of dips and spreads. I like to take it to parties with a little smoked salmon and dill mixed into a cup of the cheese. Chopped garlic and cilantro or chives with the fromage blanc also makes a delicious spread. This cheese is also wonderful with fresh fruit and pastries. My first century breakfast and lunch will often be a slice of bread with this cheese. Add a piece of fresh fruit, dried apricots and a hand full of olives and it is a simple first century feast.

Speaking of bread, I also did a little baking while making the cheese. I call this my Mediterranean Grain Bread. Joel developed the recipe and it is delicious and easy for cooks with a little baking experience to make. I will be making several different breads over the next six months, including pita bread and unleavened bread. By the first century, there were a wide variety of breads made in the Mediterranean region. Adding eggs, herbs and spices made breads special. So did the use of a more refined flour.


The First, First Supper

September 8, 2009
Our first, first century supper

Our first, first century supper

We prepared and ate our first, first century dinner. I use the plural tense because my wife and son shared the experience. While on the subject of my family, I have been asked several times if they are joining me in this experiment. No. Well, sort of. I am the cook in the family. This means that, at least for dinner, they eat what I prepare. It also means that, for breakfast and lunch, they will eat everything non-first century that they can touch or order. Burritos and potato chips will remain a staple of my son’s diet.

Back to the first supper. It was a tasty meal with a diversity of textures and flavors, and yet it remained true to the type of dinner that was served in the first century. A lentil stew was the centerpiece of the meal. Dinner also included cucumbers and yogurt, lettuce with a simple vinaigrette, Mediterranean-style olives and flat bread. I made a lot of the lentil stew, so we have dined on leftovers. It tastes better each time it is reheated.

Another rule for my diet: For the most part, I will be eating meals similar to those eaten by a first century farmer and his family. Well over fifty percent of the calories consumed came from whole grains and legumes. Average families also ate vegetables and fruits that were in season and dried fruit and pickled vegetables the rest of the year. By virtue of City Market, I will have access to fresh vegetables this winter. Eggs and milk products, such as yogurt and cheese, completed the average menu. Only at the Sabbath feast each Friday evening did they eat fish or poultry (doves, pigeons or chicken. The City Market in Pagosa Springs does not carry doves or pigeons, so I will eat chicken). Red meat was reserved for very special occasions, usually for a festival celebration like Passover or a banquet for honored guests. Goat meat and lamb were the usual fare, beef only when the cow was too old to pull a cart or plow.

You should know that a first century day laborer did not eat this well. Their dinners, when they had work, consisted of bread with beans or porridge and maybe an onion or a few leaves of wild lettuce and a glass of wine that tasted more like vinegar than a good Shiraz. The wealthiest people ate meat a little more often and had access to imported foods and a greater diversity of spices. Except for governors, emperors, and the wealthiest of the wealthy, the daily meals were vegetarian.

Enjoy the feast.

The Challenges of a First Century Diet

September 1, 2009

There are challenges to keeping a first century diet. The climate of Pagosa Springs is quite a bit different than that of the Mediterranean and the Holy Land. I live at an altitude of some 7,600 feet above sea level. We average around 130 inches of snow in the winter and the January temperatures can be punishing. I would like to eat only foods grown locally, but, believe it or not, there are no olive trees in this part of Colorado. Nor are there fig trees or date palms. And I have yet to see a single lentil bush. I will buy these and other Mediterranean foods at the local market or order them online. I can purchase many fruits and vegetables at the local farmers’ market. Cucumbers, onions and garlic were staples. Those are easy. Some foods common in the first century are not so readily available. Citrons were the only citrus fruit available at the time of Jesus. Unless I can find fresh citrons, I will use lemons instead.

Another challenge: as I wrote last time, I am an Episcopal priest. I go to church potlucks. Church members invite me to dinner. Meetings are held in local restaurants. Women’s groups feed me cookies. These are good things in my opinion and my waist line testifies to that truth. In addition, coffee is an important part of my ministry. Should I cheat occasionally and eat a little 21st century Mexican food or drink a latte for the sake of the gospel? A local restaurant makes wonderful green chili buffalo burgers. Another serves sautéed shrimp on a bed of creamy grits. These wonderful delicacies were on no one’s first century Holy Land menu. Neither were salmon tacos or sushi rolls. This is going to be hard, especially the coffee. I have already given up diet Coke. That was hard enough. But I am a bit of an espresso connoisseur and I love my morning double shot.

My redemption may be pomegranate juice. I am fond of bottled pomegranate juice. Unsweetened pomegranate juice is one pre-packaged beverage that I will use. I know for a fact that Jesus and his followers steered clear of high fructose corn syrup for many centuries, so no sweetened juices.

This is the road over the Red Mountain Pass, several hours from where we live.  Notice the absence of date palms

This is the road to Ouray. Notice the absence of date palms

I bought a few groceries last night for my first century pantry:

• Melons
• Tahini (sesame seed paste)
• Almonds
• Halawi dates
• Split peas
• Wheat berries
• Lentils
• #3 bulgar
• Pearled barley
• Chick pea flour

I already have chickpeas, onions, garlic, olives, whole grains for bread, dried apricots and yogurt. These will get me started.