Ancient Roman recipes with a 21st century twist
I’ve been fascinated with Ancient Rome since I was a little girl intent on learning Latin from my mother’s tattered first-year primer and crying my little heart out when she informed me Latin was a dead language. Despite the setback, I studied Latin in high school, reading all the important Greek-to-Latin works: epic tales of bold battles and arduous journeys, noble heroes and vengeful gods, fearsome creatures and faithful spouses.
Later, when I joined a community theatre, I played a courtesan in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a farcical musical based on the comedies of the Roman playwright Plautus, who was born in 254 BC. As a result, I read most of his 20 surviving comedies, and was surprised to find that his jokes, written more than 2,000 years ago, were still funny. Maybe not laugh-out-loud funny, but certainly humorous and warmly human.
On my first trip to Rome, I cried when I caught a glimpse of the arched aqueduct. Here was proof of an ancient civilization that had running water, indoor plumbing, spacious kitchens, daily newspapers, fast food, massive sports arenas and, best of all, the curling iron. This was a civilization I could embrace. Except for the food.
I’ve tried to get into Ancient Roman cooking through Apicius, a collection of more than 450 recipes from the exalted Roman Empire. Several ambitious folks, far more talented than I, have adapted the recipes for the modern cook, yet to me they still feel a bit archaic and very strange.
I understand garum, the fish sauce favoured by the Romans; it provided that elusive fifth taste, umami, much like the anchovies in our Caesar salad or the fish sauce in our pad Thai. I’m fine with the Roman penchant for honey, figs, grapes, bread and wine. It’s when Apicius gets to the lovage and the defrutum and the passum that I kind of back away. Where’s the rigatoni and meatballs? The pecorino, the prosciutto and the pizza? As much as I love the romance of ancient Rome, I’m all about the 21st century when it comes to cooking. As Superman’s Perry White would say: “Great Caesar’s ghost!”
farro with feta cheese and garbanzo beans
serves 4 as a salad course
The Ancient Romans did like their salads and this one, made with the Roman grain farro, could have been (but probably wasn’t) a dish a noble Roman citizen might have enjoyed. Ever since kale has been arriving at the supermarket in baby form, I’m finally giving it a thumbs up, Ancient Roman–style. For the record, Empirical Romans neither saw nor ate tomatoes; the beloved pomodoro was introduced to Italy in the 16th century, although in many regions today it still isn’t a major ingredient in Italian cucina. For a more authentic salad, use chopped dates or figs instead of the tomatoes.
1 cup uncooked farro
1 can garbanzo beans, drained
2 cups baby spinach or baby kale
1 cup grape tomatoes, halved
2 tbsp lemon juice
1 clove garlic, minced
Pepper, to taste
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup feta cheese, crumbled
Cook farro according to package directions.
In a large bowl, combine farro, garbanzo beans, greens and tomatoes.
In a small bowl, mix lemon juice with garlic, pepper and oil. Pour over farro mixture. Top with feta cheese.
Match: Start dinner with a bubbly Prosecco.
chicken with prosciutto and fontina
You can vary this recipe, which is similar to saltimbocca, by making it with ham, Swiss and parsley, pepperoni, mozzarella, tomato sauce and oregano, or any combination of meat, cheese and herb. While many recipes call for stuffing the chicken and then sautéing, I believe sautéing the chicken before stuffing is a good way to get a head start on cooking the chicken while not losing the filling in the process.
4 chicken fillets
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp olive oil
4 slices prosciutto
4 slices Fontina cheese
4 basil leaves
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1/2 cup dry white wine
Preheat oven to 400˚F.
Coat a baking dish with cooking spray. Cut a slit lengthwise in each chicken fillet to form a pocket.
In a large skillet, melt butter with olive oil. Sauté chicken until golden brown on both sides.
Open each fillet and layer with prosciutto, cheese and basil leaf. Close. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer to baking dish, add wine and bake, uncovered, about 20 minutes or until chicken is cooked through and cheese is melted.
Match: Excellent with a Pinot Grigio.
fennel-roasted pork loin
One of the most surprising aspects of Apicius is the combination of a myriad of spices and herbs in many of the dishes. Here the use of fennel, rosemary and sage is reminiscent of the ancient passion for well-seasoned food.
4 cloves garlic
2 tbsp fresh rosemary
2 tbsp fresh sage leaves
2 tsp fennel seeds
4 tbsp olive oil
1 bone-in pork loin roast, about 5 pounds
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 onion, sliced
1 cup dry white wine
1 tbsp butter
Preheat oven to 325˚F.
In a food processor, mince the garlic, rosemary, sage and fennel seeds. Rub the pork with 2 tbsp olive oil, then rub the herb mixture over the roast. Season with salt and pepper.
Transfer the pork to a roasting pan. Roast, uncovered, 1 hour. Toss the onion with the remaining olive oil and add to the pan. Continue roasting until pork reaches an internal temperature of 160˚F, about 1 1/2 hours longer. Transfer to a platter, cover loosely with foil and let rest 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, place the roasting pan over medium heat. Add the wine to deglaze the pan drippings, stirring to scrape up the browned bits. (If pan drippings are dry, add a bit of water or broth.) Simmer until sauce is slightly reduced. Whisk in butter. Carve the roast and serve with the pan sauce.
Match: Serve with roasted Brussels sprouts or broccolini and mashed potatoes. This is another dish where Pinot Grigio works quite well.
linguine with white clam sauce
Fish was a common food for Romans, much more accessible than meat. For our modern busy lives, this is one of those recipes that can be whipped up at any time, with items mostly from the pantry — something the Ancients could only dream of.
1 lb linguine, cooked according to package directions
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tbsp butter
6 anchovy fillets
4 cloves garlic, minced
Pinch crushed red pepper flakes
Juice of 1 lemon
1 tsp zest of lemon
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1/4 cup dry white wine
1 1/2 cups clam juice
1 1/4 cups canned clams, drained
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
2 tbsp minced fresh parsley
In a large skillet, heat olive oil with butter. Add anchovies, garlic and crushed red pepper flakes. Cook, stirring, until anchovies melt, about 1 minute.
Add lemon juice and zest, oregano, wine and clam juice. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally, 7 minutes.
Add clams and heavy whipping cream. Heat through. Toss with linguine. Garnish with parsley.
Match: Serve with a Soave.