Today’s entry in the Mesopotamian Cookoff comes from my dear husband, Stephen, who has put up with me and my wild ideas and projects (like Silk Road Gourmet) for many years. For years I’ve asked him to join me in some of these escapades – help me write this story (screenplay, paper etc, you name it) – and much to my chagrin, he never has. He usually just rolls his eyes and smiles and offers an alibi like, “I can’t write fiction”, or “I’m a crummy dancer”, or some other excuse. This time however, something different happened. He said yes. He has thrown his hat in the ring and cooked a dish for us, and done the write up and recipe etc. I am happily amazed at his participation and hope that it turns out to be a trend.
Stephen writes, “Since Laura tests all of her recipes on me as she is working with them, I’ve put on some weight since she started writing the Silk Road Gourmet books and web posts. But there is something you ought to know. Although she is the cookbook author, I was the first in our family to dabble in historical cookery. I’ve always had an interest in history, including the cultures (and cuisines) of the past. Most of my interest has been in early American and European cooking, but I’ve also long been interested in ancient cuisines. In fact, I first made Laura a Mesopotamian feast over a year ago. So, perhaps in some small way, I’m responsible for the Mesopotamian Cookoff, since it was after that dinner that she started showing such interest in the ancient recipes.
It should then come as no surprise that she has been trying to dragoon me into participating in the Cookoff. Having read the posts from others who have tried their hands at the ancient recipes, I had no expectation that anything I could do could compare with the delicious and beautifully presented results posted so far, but being a strong believer in propitiating the goddess of domestic harmony, I agreed to try.
I decided to try the Turnip with Herbs, partly because there had been no attempts at vegetable dishes so far and, I must admit, because it did not seem to require the multiple, complicated steps some of the meat dishes did (game bird pie, for instance). From the very limited description translated from the ancient tablet, the original dish appeared to be a simple boiled turnip with an unusual herb sauce.
(Yale Tablet 25-recipe XXV). Turnips (or roasted barley) with Herbs. Ingredients and method: Prepare water, add fat, turnips (or roasted barley). Add a chopped mix of shallots, arugula, and coriander that have been mixed with semolina or other flour and moistened with blood. Cook until done. Add mashed leeks and garlic.
I however decided to go a different route than that, and mash the turnips and herbs. I assumed the Sumerians, Akkadians, and other Mesopotamians could mash vegetables if they wanted to, so what the heck. It also meant I wouldn’t have to use the blood or semolina.
Mashed Turnips with Herbs by Stephen Kelley
6 medium turnips
4 large shallots
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 bunch fresh cilantro
3 ounces arugula
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
3 teaspoons sea salt
3 tablespoons butter, warm
1 cup milk, warm
Peal and cube the turnips. Boil the turnips with 1 ounce of the arugula and 1 teaspoon of salt until the turnips are fully cooked but not too soft. Remove the arugula (as much as you can) and strain the turnips. Add the butter and milk and mash the turnips. Set aside.
Roughly chop and rinse the cilantro, leek, shallots, and remaining arugula. Add the garlic, coriander, cumin and remaining salt with the chopped herbs. Pulse the herbs in a food processor until finely chopped.
Fold the chopped herbs into the mashed turnips and mash until it is evenly distributed. Reheat and serve.
I had expected the mashed turnips and herbs to have a very strong flavor, given the cilantro and leek. Surprisingly, they had a very mild flavor, with occasional hints of cilantro or leeks. It made a simple, tasty side dish to either an ancient or a modern meat dish.
There was one problem, however. Six turnips make a lot of food for two. So we had lots of leftovers. Looking for something to do with mashed turnips that would be consistent with cooking styles of 3,000 years ago, Laura suggested making something akin to potato pancakes. I liked the idea, so here is how we did that:
Turnip with Herb Pancakes by Stephen and Laura Kelley
2-2 1/4 cups leftover turnips with herbs
2 eggs (beaten)
1 cup rye flour
1 cup vegetable oil (for frying)
Kefir Labneh (yogurt cheese) (for condiment)
Chopped herbs (for condiment)
Place mashed turnips in a mixing bowl and combine with the beaten eggs. Turn in a cup of rye flour (we used rye flower, which the Mesopotamians had, but you could use the semolina or spelt mentioned in the original tablet).
Heat the oil on high in a frying pan.
Form turnips mixed with eggs and flour into patties and slide the patties into the hot oil. Fry on med-high until the outer edges of the patties begin to brown. Lower flame and continue frying until the interior is hot. Flip and cook until desired color is achieved. Drain on a rack or paper towels. Serve with kefir labneh yogurt cheese (or sour cream) and herbs.
I actually liked the turnip “latkes” better than the original mashed turnips (so Laura gets credit for that, but I’ve always known she’s a much better cook than me–she’s the one with cook book, after all). The mild cilantro and leek flavor, topped with the yogurt, made for a very satisfying breakfast.” (Words by Stephen Kelley. Photo of Mashed Turnips with Herbs by Laura Kelley (with new macro lens); Photo of Turnip with Herb Pancakes by Stephen Kelley.)