I've recently plunged again into the culinary --
at the Library of Congress, where Leonard Beck, Curator of Special Collections, gave me a glimpse of the outstanding rare cookbook collection. With the eager welcome of an enthusiast, Beck pulled book after book from the shelves.
Among the treasures were the manuscript of the first Italian Renaissance cookbook dating from the mid-1450s and the modest "American Cookery" by Amelia Simmons, the first and one of the rarest of all American cookbooks, published in 1796. It's hard to believe that only 30 years later came the brilliant, scarlet-bound volumes of Frenchman Antonin Care me, chef to Talleyrand, the prince regent, and Czar Alexander I.
Our ancestors were very good cooks, as I discovered years ago when I wrote a book on the history of cooking. Take the virtuoso Care me, inventor of the souffle' and architect of grandiose palaces of almond paste and pulled sugar. His autumn soup, which opens this menu, is simplicity itself, a nicely balanced combination of leek, celery, lettuce and green peas simmered in broth. Cream and fried croutons give the soup body, but in warm weather they could be omitted, leaving the fresh flavor of the vegetables to stand on their own.
The main course of veal stew dates to medieval times and Taillevent, cook to the 14th-century French King Charles V. Trestle tables would have been spread with a huge array of meats -- the French word "banquet" means bench, for that was where the guests sat. Copious amounts of spices, brought from the orient, were a sign of the affluence of the host, and in this recipe their flavor is balanced with vinegar and lemon juice (Taillevent's "verjuice" was made of sour grape or crab apple juice). The sauce is thickened with browned bread crumbs, giving a surprisingly light consistency.
Equally unusual is turnip cake, the toast of a party I gave recently. Layered with mozzarella cheese and seasoned with sugar, cinnamon and mace (or nutmeg), the cake dates from the early Renaissance, when vegetables first came into favor on the tables of the rich. From the same era comes zucchini salad, though its dressing of olive oil, vinegar, fennel and saffron could well be a creation of today's nouvelle cuisine. The salad also makes an excellent appetizer, an alternative to the autumn soup.
Last course is apple pie, reminding me of another trip back into history during a recent conference given by the Culinary Historians of Boston. The cookbooks of the Schlesinger Library of Harvard were background to discussions on such diverse subjects as the origins of johnnycake and the computer indexing of recipes. For more concrete sustenance, we enjoyed a colonial dinner, with recipes closely resembling this medieval pie.
Dried raisins and figs take the place of sugar (an almost unknown luxury in early colonial times), with a measure of sweet wine. Spices, of course, are mandatory, and this recipe contains onion -- unexpected, but a natural complement to apple. (Ever tried frying apples and onion to serve with pork or duck?) Old cookbooks often contain agreeable surprises. Timetable
In the accommodating manner of old recipes, all these dishes can be prepared well in advance for reheating at the last moment.
Up to 3 days ahead: make veal stew and refrigerate.
Up to 1 day ahead: make soup, fry croutons and refrigerate. In the morning, make zucchini salad and refrigerate. Bake apple pie and store in airtight container.
One hour before serving: decorate zucchini salad with parsley and leave at room temperature. Set the table. Chill cold duck or beer, if serving.
30 minutes before serving: heat oven to 350 degrees; heat veal stew and turnip cake.
10 minutes before serving: bring soup to boil on top of stove and add cream. Reheat croutons in oven.
After serving soup: if serving apple pie hot, reheat it in oven. AUTUMN SOUP (10 servings)
Homemade stock, whether of veal or chicken, makes a great difference to this soup. If using frozen peas, add them to the soup 5 minutes before cooking ends.
White part of 4 leeks, thinly sliced
4 stalks celery, thinly sliced
1/2 head ( 3/4 pound) romaine lettuce, shredded
2 quarts veal or chicken stock
1 1/2 cups uncooked green peas
Salt and white pepper to taste
1 cup whipping cream
Celery tops (for garnish)
FOR THE CROUTONS:
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup oil
8 slices white bread, crusts removed and diced
Wash and drain leek, celery and lettuce strips. Bring stock to a boil. Add leek, celery, lettuce strips, peas, sugar, and salt and pepper. Simmer, uncovered, until vegetables are tender, for 15 to 20 minutes. Taste for seasoning.
To make the croutons: in a frying pan heat butter and oil and fry bread, stirring constantly so croutons brown evenly. Drain thoroughly on paper towels. If preparing croutons ahead, wrap them in foil. Soup and croutons can be prepared up to 24 hours ahead and refrigerated.
To finish, reheat croutons in foil in a low oven. Bring soup just to boil on top of stove. Stir in cream, spoon into bowls and top each one with a celery sprig. SPICED VEAL STEW (10 servings)
Reminiscent of an Indian curry, this recipe is good made with lamb or beef as well as veal. Serve it with boiled rice.
4 slices white bread
1 cup red or white wine
1 cup beef or veal stock, more if needed
FOR THE CURRY:
3 pounds boneless leg or shoulder of veal
2 tablespoons lard or oil
2 medium onions, chopped
1 tablespoon ginger
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
Pinch saffron, soaked in 2 to 3 tablespoons boiling water
Salt and pepper
2 to 3 tablespoons lemon juice
2 to 3 tablespoons wine vinegar
For thickening mixture: bake bread until very dry and lightly browned, 25 to 30 minutes, in a 300-degree oven. Grind bread into crumbs in a food processor or rotary cheese grater. Stir in wine, let stand 5 minutes until crumbs are soft, then stir in stock.
Cut veal in 1 1/2-inch cubes, discarding sinew but leaving a little fat. In a flameproof casserole, heat lard or oil and brown pieces of veal on all sides, a few at a time. Take out veal, add onions and brown them also. Replace veal, stir in bread mixture and bring to a boil.
In a small bowl mix ginger, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, saffron and its liquid, adding more water to make a soft paste. Stir paste into veal stew with salt and pepper. Cover and cook in a 325-degree oven until meat is tender, 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Add more stock during cooking if pan gets dry.
Stir in lemon juice and vinegar and taste for seasoning, adding more spices, salt, pepper or lemon juice. Veal stew can be prepared up to 3 days ahead and refrigerated, or frozen. For serving, reheat it on top of the stove or in a 350-degree oven. UPSIDEDOWN TURNIP CAKE (10 servings)
If you don't have a nonstick pan, make turnip cake in a baking dish, sprinkle the top with more cheese, dot it with butter, and serve as a gratin directly from the dish.
4 pounds white turnips, thickly sliced
Salt to taste
1/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon mace or nutmeg
1 pound mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons butter
Put turnips in a large pan of salted water, cover and boil until tender, 8 to 10 minutes. Drain. Mix sugar, cinnamon, pepper, cloves and mace or nutmeg. Butter a 10-inch frying pan or skillet, preferably nonstick, and set a layer of turnip slices in bottom in a neat pattern. Sprinkle with some of the spice mixture, top with a layer of cheese, sprinkle the cheese with more of the spice mixture, then add another layer of turnips. Continue adding layers until all ingredients are used, ending with turnip. Cake can be prepared up to 24 hours ahead and kept covered in the refrigerator.
Bake cake in a 350-degree oven until very hot and cheese has melted, 30 to 35 minutes. (To test, insert a skewer in the middle and leave for 30 seconds. It should be hot to the touch when removed.)
Transfer skillet to top of stove and cook until butter smells toasted, showing cake is browned on bottom, about 5 minutes. Run a knife around edge of cake and unmold onto a platter.
Note: Cake can be cooked up to 24 hours ahead and refrigerated, in the pan. Reheat it in a 350-degree oven and turn out just before serving. ZUCCHINI SALAD WITH SAFFRON (10 servings)
Good as a cold appetizer, or as a vegetable accompaniment to meats.
1/2 cup flour
Salt and pepper to taste
3 pounds zucchini, cut in medium slices
1/4 cup olive oil (for frying)
FOR THE DRESSING:
1 teaspoon fennel seed
1/2 cup parsley sprigs
3 cloves garlic, crushed
2 slices white bread, crusts discarded
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
Large pinch of saffron infused in 1/4 cup boiling water
1/4 cup olive oil
Season flour with salt and pepper, sprinkle over zucchini and toss in a bowl until well coated; discard excess flour. In a frying pan heat a few spoons of oil and fry some of the zucchini, turning so the slices brown on both sides, 3 to 4 minutes. Take out, spread in a shallow serving dish and fry remaining zucchini in same way.
To make the dressing, pure'e fennel seed, half the parsley sprigs, garlic, bread, vinegar, saffron and liquid, and oil in a food processor or blender. Spoon dressing over zucchini, cover tightly and store in refrigerator at least 6 and up to 24 hours so flavors blend. Let salad come to room temperature and decorate with remaining parsley sprigs before serving. MEDIEVAL APPLE PIE (10 servings)
Using grated apples, with dried fruits instead of sugar, this unusual pie tastes more of tart mincemeat than apple.
2 onions, chopped
3 tablespoons butter
8 dessert apples
6 dried figs, chopped
3/4 cup dark raisins
1 cup port or sweet white wine
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon crushed anise seed
FOR THE PASTRY:
4 cups flour
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup shortening or lard
1/2 to 2/3 cup water
1 egg, beaten with 1/2 teaspoon salt (for glaze)
Fry onion in butter until very soft but not brown. Peel apples, core and coarsely grate them. At once mix with onion, figs, raisins, wine, cinnamon, ginger and anise.
Sift flour and salt into a bowl. With a pastry cutter or 2 knives, cut in butter and shortening until mixture forms large crumbs. Mix eggs with 1/2 cup water and stir into flour mixture to form a soft dough. If necessary, add more water. (Do not overmix or the dough will be tough.) Chill dough before rolling.
Roll out 2/3 pastry dough and line a 10-inch springform pan, overlapping edge of pan with dough. Spread filling in pastry and brush dough edges with some of the glaze. Roll remaining dough to a 10-inch round and cover apple mixture. Roll rolling pin over edge of pan to cut off excess dough. Flute dough edges to decorate and seal them together. Brush top of pie with more egg glaze. Roll out pastry trimmings and use to decorate pie with leaves, flowers, etc. Brush decorations with glaze and chill pie for 15 to 20 minutes.
Brush pie again with remaining glaze and bake in a 375-degree oven until brown and dough starts to shrink from sides of pan, about 1 to 1 1/4 hours. The pie can be baked up to 12 hours ahead and stored in an airtight container. Serve it at room temperature or reheat it in a low oven.