Wild and domesticated artiodactyls cows, sheep, deer, gazelle etc. were an important part of the Mesopotamian diet. But based on archaeological assemblages of bones, domestic and wildfowl were perhaps more important than the larger hoofed creatures. At some sites the number of bird bones greatly exceeds the number of medium-sized mammal bones, and are also found with bones from fish, shellfish claws and mollusk shells. So in terms of meat, the Mesopotamian diet was quite varied indeed.
Today’s entry in the Mesopotamian Cookoff is a fowl dish based on the ingredients from Yale Culinary Tablet 26 – Recipe 2, a dish that I call, Pigeon with Herbs. The ingredients are: pigeon, salt, water, fat, vinegar, semolina, leek, garlic, shallots, tulip bulb, yogurt or sour cream, and “greens”. But how these are put together and in what quantities – aye, there’s the rub (pun intended).
Fowl with Herbs
I was intrigued with this recipe because of the mint and vinegar combination – which seems to be a fairly common ingredient combination for fowl dishes in the cuisine evident from the Yale culinary tablets. I’ve cooked with these ingredients in a modern Afghan recipe for Spicy Eggplant with Mint available in The Silk Road Gourmet and really like the play of the sour and sweet together. It is interesting to note that this combination is still in play in regional cuisines almost 4,000 years after the recipes were recorded on the tablets.
Straight out the gate, let me confess that I used Cornish hen instead of pigeon or dove because that’s what I had on hand. They are a bit meatier than pigeon, so if you decide to cook pigeon, quail or chicken in this manner, adjustments in cooking time and quantities of ingredients will be necessary.
I also used one of my favorite ingredients in the dish – pomegranate vinegar – because pomegranates were enjoyed in Mesopotamia and the recipe called for vinegar. I get my pomegranate vinegar at a large Asian market near our home. This ingredient makes the dish, and the use of different vinegar would really change the flavor. That said, there are many different types of vinegar out there, so feel free to experiment, but quantities used will have to be adjusted according to type and concentration of vinegar.
I also flavored the water the fowl is boiled in quite a bit. The recipes state that the water is “prepared”. I took this to mean flavored to influence both the flavor of the fowl and the flavor of the sauces or gravy that is produced at the end. Having served and enjoyed the birds at table (they were terrific!), I think that this step is crucial and might be overlooked in the recipe.
Pigeon with Herbs by Laura Kelley
2 Cornish game hens, cleaned and salted inside and out
4 cups water
2 cups chicken stock
1 cup pomegranate vinegar
3 tablespoons butter
¼ teaspoon asafetida
2 teaspoons dried mint
2 tablespoons coriander seed
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 large Sri Lankan cinnamon stick
1 handful baby arugula, chopped
½ yellow onion
1 leek, white and green parts, well cleaned
6-7 garlic cloves, peeled
½ cup lightly drained yogurt
3 handfuls of fresh mint leaves
1 handful of fresh sage
4 garlic cloves, peeled
Water to moisten herbs
More pomegranate vinegar to rinse hens
1-3 teaspoons semolina, to thicken sauce
Clean and dry fowl and salt liberally, inside and out. Set aside. Prepare water, stock and vinegar in a large saucepan or kettle large enough to hold the hens. Add butter, asafetida, mint and arugula, coriander and cumin seeds and cinnamon stick and heat over a high flame, stirring occasionally. When the water has come to a boil, add the hens and return to a boil. Reduce heat a bit and cook uncovered over medium-heat for five minutes. Then reduce heat till stock just bubbles. Cover and cook for 5 minutes or so.
In a food processor, pulse together the onion, leek, garlic and lightly drained yogurt until it is a small dice or minced. Be careful not to blend until pasty, some shape and texture of vegetable is desired. When this is done add to the water and chickens and continue to cook for another 5-10 minutes – do not overcook. Total cooking time for hens in the pot is 15-20 minutes. When done, remove birds from the pot and cool until able to handle.
Preheat broiler to highest heat, for grilling hens later. While cooling the hens, take the stock you used to cook the hens and pour it into a clean saucepan. If you are using a cup or two of stock to make couscous, barley or some ground to enjoy with the recipe, do so now and pour off about one-third to one-half of the stock that remains. Heat to a steady low boil, stirring constantly and cook uncovered to reduce, stirring occasionally.
Pulse the mint and sage (or other herbs you choose) a few times in the food processor until nicely minced and add a teaspoon or so of water to moisten them. Divide hens in two, down the spine, by slicing with a large, sharp knife or cleaver. Pour pomegranate vinegar over the hens, inside and out to wash away herbs from cooking and set aside.
Rub both sides of the hens with the mint and sage herb mixture until an even coating is achieved and set aside. Continue to cook stock until it starts to thicken. Add semolina to facilitate this process, stir until dissolved.
Place rib side down on a lightly sprayed baking sheet. Cook under the preheated broiler flame about 4-5 minutes per side. Watch constantly and be careful not to burn the hens. Turn baking sheet as necessary to ensure even cooking. When done, remove from heat and let rest 5-10 minutes while finishing the sauce.
If desired, strain the sauce, but I did not, preferring a more rustic presentation. I served the dish in a shallow bowl adding a layer of Herbed Barley and sauce beneath the hen and a bit of sauce on the fowl. I also served the sauce separately on the table for those that wanted a bit more.
This dish – especially when served with Herbed Barley – was fantastic! Everyone was happy with it and thought that it tasted more like a creative concoction of a skilled modern chef than an ancient recipe. For those skeptical about boiled fowl, the 15 minutes or so these birds were in the pot did them no harm, and the roasting with herbs before serving, made it simply delicious. I can guarantee that it will be like nothing else your family or guests have ever eaten.
The sharp eyed will notice that I used an onion instead of shallots and tulip bulbs. Today’s onions, largely mass-produced in China are much more bitter than ancestral onions. The taste of onions in the ancient world was probably milder – more like a shallot, hence my substitution of one for the other. Since tulip bulbs are said to be bitter, and I haven’t experimented enough with the flavors to recommend a species of tulip, I thought that using a modern onion would be a reasonable substitute – for now. (Words and recipe by Laura Kelley; Photo of Roasted Chicken with Herbs by James Camp@Dreamstime)*
*(I am not a good food photographer, and purchased a photo from a stock house that was a reasonable stand-in for the dish I cooked. To see my photograph of the dish, click here and understand why I purchased the photo. I think that my photos may improve with my purchase of a macro lens, but I’m not guaranteeing that – only hoping.)