Mesopotamian Cookoff Entry 7 – Roasted Barley and Herb Pilaf

It’s hard to overemphasize the importance of barley for the Mesopotamians.  It was quite simply, the mainstay of their existence, and was used to make bread, cakes and beer and feed animals (especially pigs to make them “clean” enough to eat), and it was integral to the barter system used to trade goods in many societies. They offered it to their Gods to feed and supplicate them. They also ate it in savory dishes as we saw in the Lamb with Barley and Mint and as we will see in a moment – possibly as a pilaf mixed with herbs and chopped vegetables.

All of the entries in the Mesopotamian Cookoff so far have been for meat dishes, so for this post, I wanted to feature a vegetable, cereal or bread. Here is the delicious Roasted Barley and Herb Pilaf from Yale Babylonian Culinary Tablet 25, recipe XXV.  The center of this dish is an ingredient called laptu, which seems to have two meanings depending on context. In his Textes Culinaire Mesopotamien (TCM), Bottero chose to make the dish only with turnips, which is one of the meanings of the word laptu.  I chose to use the other meaning of laptu – that of roasted barley to explore what might have been a grain dish for the Babylonians of this period.

The ingredients are very straightforward: water, fat, roasted barley, mix of chopped shallots, arugula, and coriander semolina, blood, mashed leeks and garlic. How these are put together, however, are up to the cook. There likely were cultural standards for dishes in ancient times as there are today.  But leaving the entire method up to the cook allows for a level of variation, creativity on the part of the chef and diner’s desire that is all but gone in the west these days.

I cooked this at as I was preparing the Fowl with Herbs for the previous post, so I used a cup of the stock I boiled the hens in to make the barley along with some water.  I wanted the nuttiness of the roasted barley to shine, so I kept the spicing minimal, using only ground coriander for some airiness and asafetida for some depth.  The pulsed vegetables added towards the end of cooking add a bit of texture, spice and crunch to the pilaf as well.  My husband in particular loved the flavor of garlic that the pilaf had – so don’t skimp on that, unless you know you don’t care for that flavor.

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Roasted Barley and Herb Pilaf by Laura Kelley

Ingredients
1 cup whole barley, cleaned
2 cups water
1 cup prepared stock
2 teaspoons of butter
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon asafetida
1 teaspoon ground coriander

3 shallots, peeled
1 handful of baby arugula
2 teaspoons semolina
2 teaspoons blood (if available)

1 leek, white and green parts well cleaned
4 garlic cloves, peeled

Method
Preheat broiler until its good and hot. Spread the cleaned barley on a baking sheet to form a single layer of grain. Place barley under broiler flame and leave for a few minutes until it starts to smoke and color. Stir lightly and turn pan if necessary until most barley is tan in color. Be careful not to burn the grain. Properly roasted barley will taste nutty. Burnt barley will just taste burnt. When done remove from flame and let cool.

Add water and prepared stock to a medium saucepan. You may season the stock anyway you wish, or use the cooking stock from another recipe (I used the stock from the pigeon recipe). Add butter, salt, asafetida and ground coriander and continue to heat.

In a food processor, pulse shallots and arugula once or twice. Then add the semolina and blood and pulse one or two more times. Add this mixture to the heating water and stir. When just short of a boil, add the barley and stir well. Bring back to a boil. Then reduce heat, cover and cook over a medium-low flame until about ¾ done – 20-30 minutes.

As the barley is cooking, pulse leeks and garlic two to four times until minced but not mushy. Add this to the barley and stir once or twice (not too much or barley will be soggy). Partially recover saucepan and continue to cook, checking frequently. It should be done or nearly done within 10 minutes.

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Whether her name were Ninlil, Nisaba, Ezina, Ashnan or my favorite, Ninbarshegunu whose name means something like, “lady whose body is dappled with barley,” [wow!] the cultures of Mesopotamia had many grain goddesses who ensured the harvests, protected the farmers, and filled the pots with food. They were respected, worshipped, fed and treated as subjects of representational or functional art as in the cylinder seal below from 2350-2150 BCE which shows a grain goddess and her supplicant gods receiving stalks of barley or other grain from her.  Interesting point made by this depiction is that the grain goddess is the one that the other gods come to to ensure their fields and harvests.

Grain Goddess and Supplicants

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Words and recipe by Laura Kelley; Drawing of Grain Goddess and Her Supplicants © Stephane Beaulieu, after Boehmer 1965: Plate XLV, #533; Photo of Roasted Barley and Herb Pilaf by Richard Semik@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.)

Mesopotamian Cookoff Entry 5 – Lamb with Licorice and Juniper Berries by Deana Sidney

Another vision of the Lamb with Licorice and Juniper Berries recipe comes from designer and brilliant historical cook, Deana Sidney from the site Lost Past Remembered. Deana used the ingredients from Yale Tablet 25 – Recipe XX (water, fat and licorice root, salt, juniper berries, shallots, semolina, cumin and coriander, garlic, leeks and yogurt or sour cream) to create the beautiful and delicious lamb roast pictured below.

Deana writes, “When Laura mentioned interpreting the oldest recipes in the world, I loved the idea. I had already made a Lamb with Mint and Barley inspired by the tablets and loved the flavors. The other recipe that caught my eye was for mutton with licorice and juniper. I thought the flavors would be really interesting. I can’t guarantee it is the same dish that the ancients ate, but it is delicious and their flavors inspired the final product.

I didn’t have mutton at hand but did have gorgeous lamb steak so used that. The licorice root was pretty easy to find… it comes in tea bags at Whole Foods!

Lamb and Licorice with Juniper Berries by Deana Sidney

Some of the licorice flavor comes off on the lamb and would of course be more pervasive if you used something like stew meat and cooked it for a long time, I decided not to. Should you want to do it that way, proceed by cubing the lamb or mutton and then cook it in the broth over very low heat till tender after browning.

The licorice and juniper soaked into the cous cous in a lovely way and I liked that it complimented the more mildly flavored lamb. The broth and the yogurt really give the cous cous an herby creaminess that I liked. Another one of the recipes used wild watercress with a licorice lamb… I really like the idea of a spicy herb with the dish so used wild arugula that I had found and loved the combination.”

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Lamb with Licorice and Juniper Berries by Deana Sidney

Ingredients
1 pound lamb steak from leg
1teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon coriander
1 teaspoon smoked salt
2 shallots, sliced
1 tablespoon oil

6 cups lamb stock, beef stock or water
4 licorice tea bags
1 tablespoon crushed juniper
1 pinch asafoetida
2 strips lemon zest or tablespoon citron zest

1 clove garlic
1 leek, white part only or 4 scallions
2 teaspoons oil
1/4 cup of your stock
1 cup yogurt

1 cup whole wheat couscous
watercress or arugula

Method
Coat the lamb with the cumin, coriander and salt after trimming fat bits from the steak. Brown in the oil with the shallots and remove the steak, leaving the trimmings.

Simmer the stock/water and licorice root and juniper for 1/2 hour. Strain broth and add to the pan you browned the lamb in with the trimmings, asafoetida and lemon/citron. Reduce about 1/2 an hour till rich and flavorful… there should be about 1 3/4 cup.

Saute the garlic and leek in oil and add the stock. Simmer till tender and add the yogurt. Put the lamb back in the pan and warm. Add the yogurt mixture and add the couscous. Stir gently till the couscous is cooked. Slice the lamb and serve on top of the couscous with the greens.

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Thanks Deana for another remarkable dish based on the Yale Culinary Tablets.  Clearly these dishes are so much more than “broths” as suggested by Bottero.  Not meaning to take another swipe a Bottero’s assumptions, but he has written on several occaisions that before the Yale Tablets, only two Mesopotamian recipes were known.  I’ve been mulling this over for some time and find that it is simply incorrect.  There is a wealth of literature on offering food – that is food prepared  to honor, propitiate and yes, feed gods.  Many modern cultures that feed gods (and their attendant priests or other servants) often partake of the meal with the god and priests, or dine after the god is deemed to have taken his or her share.

Nippur-Nusku Tablet (CBS 8550 Obverse)

I discussed the matter briefly with a scholar specializing in the ancient Near East and he agreed.  He said that certainly the Mesopotamian elite would have dined at the table with the gods and he encouraged me to start mining that liteature for recipes and recreate them for modern kitchens.

The two first up in that group come from Marcel Sigrist’s paper on preparation of offerings to Nusku at Nippur. The first “recipe” is just a list of added ingredients for Mersu that will lead to some savory dishes and the second is a Bread with Onion Seeds, Sumac and Saffron.  Both recipes and several new ones from the Yale Tablets for fowl dishes, a vegetable and a barley pilaf can be found on the original page that announced the Mesopotamian Cookoff back in July.

After this post featuring Deana’s interpretation of Recipe XX, I have only one more entry (other than my own) to post.  I hope that more people will cook, photograph and send in recipes before the end of September.  This is going well, but there are “new” recipes out there that bring to life to the cultures of ancient Mesopotamia and teach us how their knowledge and habits continue to resonate today.  (Words by Laura Kelley and Deana Sidney; Photo and Recipe for Lamb with Licorice and Juniper Berries by Deana Sidney).

 

Mesopotamian Cookoff Entry 3: Lamb and Licorice with Juniper Berries by Miles Collins

Pharaohs, prophets, warriors and peasants alike; all have valued licorice as a flavoring for food and drinks and as a medicine. To many ancients, licorice also tasted like love, for many sweet love potions from Sumer to Luxor to Vedic India were flavored with the root. Licorice was amongst the grave goods in Tutankhamen’s tomb and Theophrastus, the Greek philosopher and scientist called it the “Scythian root” and noted that it was useful for quenching thirst, curing coughs and soothing throats. Today, what do we make of such an important plant? Tea and jelly beans. How the mighty have fallen.

Luckily, culinary creative genius and friend of The Silk Road Gourmet, Chef Miles Collins has helped us resurrect the flavor of licorice in a savory recipe, at least as envisioned by the Babylonians who liked the flavor so much, that they recorded it on a clay tablet that now resides in the Yale Babylonian Collection. Mesopotamian Cookoff Entry # 3, Lamb and Licorice with Juniper Berries by Miles Collins, uses the ingredients from recipe XX on Yale Babylonian Culinary Tablet 25: water, fat and licorice root, salt, juniper berries, shallots, semolina, cumin and coriander, garlic, leeks and yogurt or sour cream. Miles was even generous enough to create TWO dishes to show how wonderfully flexible these “recipes” really are.

Lamb, Licorice and Juniper Version 1

Miles writes, “I must admit that in all the years I have been cooking professionally the food of ancient Mesopotamia has been poorly represented on my menus!  Looking at Laura’s recipe guidelines was an interesting insight into food from that period and so I decided to cook two dishes from one recipe.

The first would be a straightforward combination of ingredients put together in the manner it might have been back then.  I used couscous as the base ingredient and cooked it with the stock of the meat I was cooking.  After cooking it I wondered if this would have been a main dish in its own right or would it have been served as a ‘shared table’?

The main ingredient was the meat; I used lamb in place of mutton and cooked it with the flavourings specified by Laura.  What intrigued me the most was how the wild liquorice would work as it is an ingredient I have rarely used.  The combination of juniper and cumin was a new one on me; I could see the coriander and juniper working together and was pleasantly surprised by the overall balance when the stock was cooked.”

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Lamb and Licorice with Juniper Berries
I decided to cook two dishes using the same ingredients from one piece of meat, a poached lamb dish with a dish of couscous using the poaching ingredients as the flavour base. I used a carrot as an addition as I imagined vegetables being added to a cooking broth to help ‘bulk up’ the dish.

Ingredients
1.6 kilogram lamb or mutton shank
1 tablespoon coriander seeds, crushed
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
8 juniper berries, crushed
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
2 red onions
1 celery stick
1 carrot
1 leek
2 cloves garlic, peeled
2 bay leaves

Method
Marinade the lamb shanks with all of the dry seasonings overnight. Brown in a hot pan with the onion and halved celery stick. When nicely browned strain off excess oil.

Cover with water, add three liquorice sticks snapped in half and bring to the boil. Simmer for three to four hours until the meat falls from the bone.  Remove the shank from the broth and keep warm. Chop the carrot into equal pieces. Strain the broth through a fine sieve, rinse the liquorice and add two sticks to the broth. Return to the boil and reduce the liquid by half. Reserve the vegetables.

Take half of the meat, season with salt and pepper and reserve.  Lay out two sheets of cling film and lay the rest of the meat in a line. Roll the cling film to form a tight cylindrical shape. Leave to cool and refrigerate for three hours.

As the broth reduces add the carrots, leek, garlic and four or five peeled shallots, cook until just done.  Keep the broth warm or chill and reheat later.

Take a cup of couscous, season with pepper and cover with a ladle of hot broth,stir with a fork until fluffy. Season and fold in the poached celery, onion and reserved lamb. Add chopped coriander and serve.

When the lamb has set cut into equal sized pieces and reheat in the reduced broth. Cut the leeks into equal lengths and season. Crush the garlic and stir in a tablespoon of yoghurt, fold the leeks through the yoghurt.

Arrange the leeks in a pile, place a piece of lamb alongside and spoon the carrots and shallots around. Taste the broth and pour over.

Note: I found that the liquorice only started to come through once the broth had reduced, it makes an excellent flavour base for the couscous.
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Lamb, Licorice and Juniper – Version 2

Miles continues, “If anything the spices accentuated the flavour of the lamb rather than stand out, perhaps it was the quantities I used but I did find that only when I significantly reduced the stock with the addition of a little extra liquorice did the flavour become more interesting.

I purposely left the cookery methods and flavourings as basic and close to the original as I could; I wanted my chefs to taste food which by modern day standards is quite bland. Were I to serve this in one of the restaurants then I would have done more to the broth, herbs would have been added to compliment the juniper but saying that the couscous tasted fine.

If I were to do it again then I would have increased the amount of liquorice and perhaps infused the dried grains with a stock prior to cooking. I also think it would have made an excellent sop/broth with some root vegetables and a dumpling or two.

A very interesting experiment and thanks to Laura for inspiring me to do it.”

No, thank you, Miles for showing us some of the possibile dishes that could be cooked from recipe XX, and helping me with my 100th blog post. Clearly, the idea of a “broth” as envisioned by Bottero is not the only possible dish cookable from recipe XX. Hopefully, other cooks or chefs will add even more dishes as the Cookoff continues.

The interesting thing to me is, in addition to the use of licorice, is the use of juniper berries. Juniper is a common ingredient used today to flavor game dishes such as venison and wild boar. Like the carob we saw in entry #2, this is an ingredient that persists to the present day (today, cooks use chocolate to flavor game dishes and make them more savory) In these ways at least, the lineage of flavor persists from the ancient Near East to today. (Words by Laura Kelley and Chef, Miles Collins and all photos by Miles Collins.)

Mesopotamian Cookoff Entry 2: Lamb and Carob Stew by Laura Kelley

Old Carob Tree

A carob tree and a wellspring of water have been called miracles that have sustained sages and prophets alike. The slow maturation and flowering of the carob tree also teaches one to invest in the future even when it is arduous and promises no immediate gains. The carob is staple that provides sutenance, the promise of the next generation, and is incredibly tasty when cooked in a stew with lamb.

Carob Seeds

The second entry in the Mesopotamian Cookoff is from yours truly, Webmistress, Laura Kelley. It is a Lamb and Carob Stew based on the “recipe” XIX on Yale Babylonian Culinary Tablet 25 (4464).  The original called for meat, fat, salt, shallots and semolina, carob and water.  The tablet also calls for the addition of leeks and garlic mashed with a milk product (probably yogurt or sour cream) as well.  I added cumin, coriander seeds and a bit of salt – all of which would have been available in the ancient Near East.  The dish that resulted is pictured below, and I can personally attest that it is absolutely delicious, savory, earthy without any carob or chocolate-flavor to mar the flavor of the meat and spices.

Lamb and Carob Stew

What the carob does do is make a savory stew even more savory, and in the case of my creation, it blanketed the sharp edges of the added cumin and coriander seed. I feel justified in adding the cumin and coriander because in most of the modern world, recipes still don’t list each and everything that goes into the pot – that is a sort of rigor and precision that is uniquely a western European and American expectation. All over the world, ingredients are left unspecified to allow for creativity of individual cooks or just to use what they have on hand. If your interested in this concept of culinary variation, check out my post Viva Variation. For justification of the use of carob and semolina, see my growing lexicon of Mesopotamian food terms. But I digress. . .

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Lamb and Carob Stew
Buttery-soft and delectable halal lamb fresh from the farm is spiced with ground coriander and cumin seeds and sauteed in light sesame oil.  The shallots are added and lightly caramelized.  The stew is then given an incredible depth of flavor by the addition of ground carob powder.  Then it is lifted by the addition of leeks and garlic mashed with whole milk yogurt and served on a bed of semolina couscous cooked and steamed over homespun lamb stock.  As superb today as it was almost 4,000 years ago.

Ingredients
1-1.3 pound lamb roast, cut into bitesize pieces
1 tablespoon coriander seeds, freshly ground
3 teaspoons cumin seed, freshly ground
2-3 tablespoons light sesame oil (gingelly)
6 medium shallots, peeled and sliced
2 -3 cups of water
2-3 generous tablespoons of carob powder
1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
1 leek (both white and green parts), carefully cleaned and rinsed
6 cloves of garlic, peeled
1 cup of yogurt

Serve over couscous – cooked separately as desired.

Method
Flavor lamb with half of the ground coriander seeds and about 1 teaspoon of ground cumin seeds. Massage the spices around and into the meat as possible. Let stand for several hours or overnight to really flavor the meat.

Heat light sesame oil in a large saucepan and sear the seasoned lamb until opaque and just beginning to color around the edges. Reduce heat, remove meat from pan and set aside. Add sliced shallots and cook over low heat until the start to caramelize. Caramelization will happen more quickly if you don’t stir or otherwise disturb the shallots too much.

When shallots are done to your liking, add the remainder of the ground coriander and cumin seed and cook to warm the spices, 3-5 minutes. When spices are warm and aromatic, add water. (Start with 2 cups and add more if needed or desired after meat is added.) Cook to warm water. When water is hot, add meat and stir. Cover and cook over medium heat for 5-10 minutes to bring meat up to temperature. Add carob powder and salt and stir well. if the carob clumps, break it up. Recover and cook over medium or medium-low heat until lamb is soft, stirring occaisionally. The exact amount of time will depend on how large you cubed the lamb, but should be about 40 minutes or so. Watch the heat so that the lamb doesn’t burn, lower heat if necessary.

Prepare couscous as desired while the lamb is cooking.

When lamb has almost softened, uncover and cook for about 5- 10 minutes. In a food processor, pulse the leek and garlic until a diced vegetable is achieved. Add yogurt and pulse once or twice more to mix. Don’t blend until mush, the crunch of the vegetable is desired.

Add to the stew and stir well. Cook uncovered stirring occaisionally until stew is hot once again. Serve over couscous and garnish with fresh cilantro.

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Yale Babylonian Culinary Tablet 25 (4464)

A word or two about my choices. I chose lamb, simply becasue I like it, but almost any meat will work with this recipe. I chose a stew, but many other options are available – a braised dish, a cooked shank, or even a roast that is first boiled. I also flavored the meat with the dry spice rub to increase the impact of the coriander and cumin flavor on the stew. In the first test run of this recipe, I added the spices only to the stew and they were not as prominent as when added to the meat before cooking and in the stew.

For the form of semolina, I chose couscous – simply because it was a form of semolina and would be tasty with the lamb stew. Other options could include a ground and lightly roasted semolina to thicken and add flavor to the stew (much as roasted rice is used in SE Asian dishes today), or coating the meat prior to searing with a semolina and spice mixture – sort of like spiced breadcrumbs might be used today.

I chose to integrate the yogurt, leek and garlic mixture into the stew, much as one would add yogurt to an Indian curry. However, other choices could include as a condiment for diners to add at will to the stew, or even a dip for breads that accompany the meal. Adding the blend into the stew adds great texture with the crunch of the vegetables as well as little blasts of additional flavor when diners bite into them.

Other dishes and combinations are doable and I hope will be done by others. This is only one possibility for the nineteenth “recipe” listed on the Yale Babylonian Tablets – there are many other culinary creations to make, but clearly this is much more than just another meat broth as envisioned by Bottero. (Words and recipe for Lamb and Carob Stew by Laura Kelley.  Photo of Carob Tree by Ivlys; Photo of Lamb and Carob Stew by Laura Kelley; and other photos borrowed from google images.)