The historical novel Feast of Sorrow by Crystal King, the current selection of our Cook the Books Club, was quite an interesting read. While the narrator is a slave named Thrasius, the protagonist is his owner, Marcus Gavius Apicius, who lived in the 1st century during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius and became famous for his love of food and his sumptuous dinners. Rich and ambitious, he is driven by the desire to become culinary advisor to the emperor. The pact with the devil (Sejanus) he makes exacts a high price.
The novel weaves together the lives of the individual characters with ancient Rome's life, politics and cuisine. A couple of novels I read some years ago prompted me to delve into the subject of Roman recipes for which De Re Coquinaria (a.k.a., Apicius) were the source1. This is not the right venue for a detailed discussions of the relationship between Marcus Gavius Apicius and De Re Coquinaria. The latter is a great source and I consulted it again to find a recipe to go with our book selection.
Lately I have been on a celery streak: my mother used celery as part of odori (a collection of aromatics), but we never had celery salad or any dish in which celery played a leading role. Celery omelette2 was the result of my first foray into celery-land. Beautiful freshly harvested celery at the farmers' market and recipe number 71 in this translation of De Re Coquinaria3 inspired a dish of braised celery and leek that has become an instant favorite with both my husband and me. My recipe, solidly savory, is quite different from the ancient one, but I owe to it the suggestion to pair one of my favorite vegetables, leeks, with one I am getting to know.
Roman recipes use garum4 as condiment, a fermented fish sauce, which I substitute with anchovy fillets (I would try using colatura di alici5 if I had access to some). While anchovies provide a distinctive nuance, besides salt, they can be omitted to make a vegan version of the dish.
- 8 ounces / 225 g leek, white and light green portion, clean weight (set aside the dark green portion to make broth or stock)
- 3 tablespoons / 45 ml extra-virgin olive oil
- 8 ounces / 225 g celery, diced small
- 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
- 1/4 teaspoon sweet paprika
- 1-2 anchovy fillets in olive oil (if you omit this ingredient, the dish is vegan; add fine sea salt to taste at the end)
- celery leaves, finely chopped, as topping
Cut the leek(s) in half lengthwise and slice into thin half moons. Rinse them in a colander, then place them in a bowl and fill it with cold water. With your hands, swirl the leeks to clean them well, then scoop them out of the water with a sieve or slotted spoon and drain them in a colander.
Warm up the olive oil in a cast-iron skillet or pot. Add the leeks, stir well and cook for a couple of minutes.
Add the celery and thyme leaves, stir well and cook for a couple of minutes. Sprinkle the paprika on the vegetables and stir well. Cover the skillet or pot and cook on gentle heat until the vegetables are soft, stirring every now and then. (The time it takes depends on how fresh the vegetables are.)
Cut the anchovy fillets into small pieces and add to the vegetables. Stir well to blend.
Take off the heat, sprinkle the celery leaves, give a final stir and serve warm.
Besides as a side dish, the braised celery and leeks can be used as stuffing for roasted squash (for example, Delicata squash, which I particularly like because you can eat the skin as well as the flesh).
Another way is shown in the photo above: I cooked a cup of beans6 (fagioli) of my favorite variety (organic Paul's mix, locally grown by Warren Creek Farms), drained them leaving about 1/4 cup / 60 ml of the cooking liquid, then added them to the vegetables 10 minutes or so before they were fully cooked, stirred well, brought the liquid to a simmer, covered and completed the cooking as per the recipe above.
1 From the blog archives: carrots with cumin sauce (the post includes pointers to some ancient recipes)
2 From the blog archives: celery omelette
3 Book III of Apicius (scroll down to number 71)
4 See a modern garum recipe on this page (which includes also a recipe for pear patina, a dessert mentioned repeatedly in the novel)
5 Wikipedia entry on colatura di alici
6 See this post for details on how I cook beans
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