This dish is one I had never tried before but I have to say I'm a fan.
Although it seems to have gone out of fashion for a bit in medieval Europe, asparagus was very popular in ancient times. An asparagus recipe is included in one of the oldest surviving cookbooks found to date. It's Roman from the 3rd century. If you've never had asparagus, give this recipe a try. It's simple to make and makes a great side dish or even a main dish.
Cook Time: 15 minutes
1 lb green asparagus
5 oz water (roughly 1/2 cup)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 common onion
1 teaspoon salt
pinch of ground spices: cinnamon, ginger, cloves
Measuring cup and spoons
Large frying pan
Rinse the asparagus and snap/cut off the ends.
Place the asparagus in a large frying pan. Add about 5 oz water and let it simmer for roughly 5 minutes. Be careful not to overcook.
Meanwhile, chop the onions.
Drain the water and add oil, chopped onions and spices.
Fry 6-10 minutes or until onions are translucent and asparagus is tender.
Place in serving dish and enjoy!
Like many medieval dishes out there I found a couple different variations. Mostly I went with the recipe I found at “Let Hem Boyle,” a website on historical cooking. In her comments Mistress Grelsdotter mentions that the original recipe she adapted from did not specify spices beyond to “use ground spices or not to use them.” So helpful. Much historic cooking was done almost by feel, definitely learned by doing. We can look at what spices were available at the time and location, however, and go from there.
Let Hem Boyle used cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and saffron, but other recipes used only salt, pepper, and saffron. You'll notice we did NOT use saffron. You are more than welcome to use it in your own dish, of course, but you'll find it costs about $7 a gram. So 20-some dollars for the 2- or 3-gram sizes you often find in the grocery store. To give you an idea, this small container of ground ginger is 22 grams. Thus saffron, is too rich for our blood. Luckily the asparagus tasted great without it.
Preparation is pretty simple.
If you've never prepared asparagus before, when it says to “snap off the ends” we mean the blunt end, not the pointy end. Just FYI, because I know you're staring at it.
Rinse your asparagus, snap off the (blunt) ends and lay them in a large frying pan. Add 5 ounces of water (which is about half a cup) and simmer for 5 minutes. Simmer means just starting to bubble. Don't let these boil or you'll cook off all your water.
While that's going chop up an onion, but keep an eye on the pan also, it's easy to lose track of time.
CAREFULLY drain out what water is left and add your olive oil, onions and spices. Mix everything in the pan but try not to send it all over, use some finesse.
Let it sit and there you go, delicious (basically steamed?) asparagus with flavors!
Lesson of the week:
Getting back to spices for a bit, because they're important. They weren't used to cover up the taste of rotting meat, they were used just like they are today, to add variety to food. Also to show off your wealth. However, many spices were available even to the ploughman. The use of spices in cooking is a vast topic but your basic list for medieval Old World cooking is going to be :
cardamom, cinnamon, clove, cubeb, galangal, ginger, grains of paradise, mastic (gum arabic), spikenard, nutmeg, mace, black pepper, long pepper, saffron, sugar and sumac.
(Of these, I've never cooked with mastic or sumac, but we'll see what happens.)
You'll notice I said Old World and not European. There is a reason the spice trade existed. As for New World cooking, I'm not terribly familiar with the topic, so it'll be fun to research and try out.
As for saffron in particular, WHY is it so expensive?! The spice is actually the stigma of a type of crocus plant. They're the red fibers on the photo below. Each flower has three of them.
,You need to hire people to pick those little guys out of each flower. It has to be done by hand and it's slow work. According to Business Insider you need to harvest 170,000 flowers to get 1 POUND of saffron, and they only bloom for about 6 weeks. Saffron is used as a spice, but also as dye. It's such a process and so expensive that people used to cut it with other things to cheat customers. If caught, you could actually be executed for this as per the Safranschou code.
I had been told at one point that the medieval Irish dyed their leine saffron in protest against English laws but I cannot currently find anything to back that up. They DID dye their leine saffron but maybe they just liked being showy...
Hypocras - A non-alcoholic drink you can serve cold or warm
(also a story about how Val nearly killed us all via ginger ... although, it was totally my fault)