As I was describing my idea for the challenge to Alyssa, she and I basically jinxed ourselves by saying “Mediterranean Food!/?” at the same time. The wording probably wasn’t exact, or we don’t count alternate punctuation marks in jinxes, because we both continued talking happily that night. A few nights later Alyssa asked me if I had any ideas for what I was making. Possible spoiler “Sumac?” I added, otherwise clueless.
A few nights later, I was in bed with my Kindle, skimming the series for mentions of food. The series is set in a land somewhat like the Byzantine Empire could have been if the ancient Greek gods were still worshiped. Setting-wise, this excludes tomatoes, potatoes, corn and any pepper you’d chop. Since those are some of the most adaptable foods for cooking, I knew I would need some inspiration from the books. Unfortunately I forgot that about half the series involves journeying, and foods on the road tend to be bread and hard cheese, with a stolen chicken for a treat. Even when characters are sitting for a meal, there isn’t too much time spent on describing the food. Soup comes up a few times, everyone drinks wine, olives are stored in jars, and court meals involve soft cheese spreads and lamb. Somehow all this was less than inspiring without the prospect of a tomato to balance the saltiness.
I went back to the books. Agriculturally, olives are a big deal—Gen, the thief, doesn’t just pass through the Sea of Olives on his travels; another character tells him an etiological myth for the trees. In terms of relevance to the cooking challenge, though, olives interest me only in the form of olive oil. I dislike the texture of canned and jarred olives, and am particularly disgusted by the smell of brine.
I had almost resigned myself to the possibility of making a bowl of barley for breakfast and calling it my inspired meal, when I reread a passage about wheat. I love wheat.
The meeting on wheat production seemed to be a recitation of the yield of every wheat field in the country in the last year. Costis tried unsuccessfully to pay attention. They were a half hour into the list when the king asked, “What’s the difference in the wheat?”
“If Your Majesty would like to see, I have samples here.” [Pilades] reached into a variety of small bags that he was carrying and dumped handful after handful of grain onto the table. Dust rose in a cloud, and the king winced, waving his hand in front of his face. Pilades didn’t notice. He called the king’s attention to the formation of the seeds, to the number of the seeds, to their shape. He dumped more piles onto the table and explained the advantages of each, which one yielded the largest crop, which survived the most inclement weather, which could be planted summer or fall. Many facts Costis knew, having been raised on a farm. Some were new, and the lecture, once begun, was clearly unstoppable.
The king, who normally wandered away to a window during meetings like this, sat immobilized. He had little choice. If he so much as shifted in his seat, Pilades moved in closer, hovering over him with zeal. No doubt he rarely got a chance to expound to this extent and was reluctant to lose the king’s attention. The king made a few abortive attempts to escape but was ultimately forced to sit and listen.
… When Pilades finally wound down, the king, his face blank, thanked him. He thanked the two men he’d begun the meeting with and suggested that perhaps they could finish their business at another meeting, or better—they could just give him a written summary and he would look over it sometime himself. They nodded; the king rose and escaped into the hall. Once there with the door closed, he put his face in his hand.
“Thank gods I didn’t ask about fertilizer,” he said.
--Megan Whalen Turner (2006)
In fact, wheat confuses me even more than it confuses the advisors initially present in the meeting described above. In an attempt to replicate a Marks and Spencer salad last fall, I went on a grain-buying trip to Whole Foods, where I discovered that spelt and farro look almost exactly the same, both being varieties of wheat. Farro is the more expensive of ye olde wheats, and also takes about three times longer to cook; spelt sounds as rustic as you can get.
With that passage in mind, I decided to adapt a Middle Eastern rice soup recipe from the Around the World Cookbook Alyssa and I used in college. The rice became spelt, the beef meatballs became cubes of Quorn because I’m meat-adverse but the soup needed the textural contrast, and all the fresh herbs changed to dried ones from last summer’s garden.
I’m still not sure the spelt is the most likely wheat that the characters would find at an inn in Sounis, but unlike the characters in the series, I never had a lecture about varieties of wheat.
1 large onion, chopped
2 Tbsp. olive oil
½ Tbsp. ground turmeric
½ cup yellow lentils
6 cups water
1 cup chicken (I used Quorn Chik’n Tenders + 1 veg bouillon cube)
1 cup spelt
~1 Tbsp. each, dried parsley and mint
~½ Tbsp. each, oregano and dried lemon-thyme
1 clove garlic, sliced thinly
dab of butter
small pinch of saffron strands
- Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium-low heat, and fry the onion, stirring often.
- When the onion is golden (or when some of the pieces look like they might start to burn if you don’t do something soon), add the turmeric, lentils and water.
- Bring lentil-onion mixture to a boil, then put the top on the pot, and lower the heat to simmer for 20 minutes.
- Add the protein, spelt and herbs (except the saffron). Stir, and simmer for another 60-90 minutes, depending on how crunchy you are willing to leave your spelt. Spelt, like rice, will plump with water. Spelt will absorb more water per dry cup than rice will, so most of the water in the pot will disappear by the time the soup finishes. When I served my soup, the spelt was plump and its kernel was splitting open. My thinking now is that it would make more sense to put the spelt into the pot with the lentils.
- For the saffron, pour some boiling broth over the strands in a small bowl. Let the strands dissolve in the water, and add the liquid to thesoup towards the end of cooking.
- Garnish soup with garlic, lightly fried in butter.