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Published: Wednesday, July 15, 2009, 12:01 a.m.

Dine like history’s great thinkers (and eaters)

  • Chicken from ancient Africa, from Francine Segan’s “The Philosopher’s Kitchen.” See Page E2 for the recipe.

    Chicken from ancient Africa, from Francine Segan’s “The Philosopher’s Kitchen.” See Page E2 for the recipe.

  • (optional with seganbooks infobox)

    (optional with seganbooks infobox)

  • (optional with seganbooks infobox)

    (optional with seganbooks infobox)

Our washer and dryer share a utility room with about 250 cookbooks, many of them older than the appliances, which are almost 20 years old themselves.
Some of the cookbooks may not have been opened since we put them on the shelves when we moved to this house, yet they remain, a testament to our inability to get rid of books. Don’t ask about books in the rest of the house.
But among the frequently used cookbooks we have, one that is often open on the kitchen counter in recent years is probably “The Philosopher’s Kitchen: Recipes from Ancient Greece and Rome for the Modern Cook,” by Francine Segan.
I’m addicted to this book, and so far I’ve gone through more than a dozen recipes and not found a clunker yet.
Segan is a food historian and writer who connects us to the tables of other times, dusting off ancient texts and recipes to give us a sense of how Socrates (no hemlock for me, thank you), Cicero or Marcus Aurelius might have dined.
The dishes have, as you might expect, a Mediterranean flavor, including North African influences. Most are pretty simple to prepare. You have the usual divisions of appetizers, soups, salads, breads, fish, fowl, meat — and at the end of the book are tips for Epicurean entertaining and menus for spring, winter and fall, plus a vegetarian menu.
Segan relies on depictions of food and banquets in ancient art, plays, poems, correspondence and other writing, including the oldest known surviving cookbook, “De Re Coquinaria” (“On Cookery”), attributed to a first-century Roman, Apicius.
Her book is liberally sprinkled with tidbits of history and philosophy. For instance, Epicurus (341-270 B.C.) is quoted above one recipe: “It is impossible to live pleasurably without living wisely, well and justly. It is impossible to live wisely, well and justly, without living pleasurably.”
The book is definitely a pleasure, whether you’re making assorted fig appetizers; Brussels sprouts with olives, raisins and pine nuts; tuna with mint-caper pesto; or one of my favorites, featured here:
Chicken from ancient Africa

½ cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon ground coriander

Freshly milled five-color peppercorns

½ teaspoon ground cloves

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon ground allspice

½ teaspoon ground cumin

1 ½ pounds skinless and boneless chicken breast, cubed

Salt

¼ cup walnut or olive oil

2 cups chicken stock

¼ cup white wine vinegar

½ cup chopped pitted dates

1 tablespoon honey

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon bottled horseradish

4 ounces bitter greens, such as arugula, mustard greens or dandelion greens

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Mix the flour, ½ teaspoon of the coriander, ½ teaspoon of pepper, and all of the cloves, cinnamon, allspice and cumin in a large bowl. Season the chicken generously with salt and pepper. Toss the chicken in the seasoned flour until well coated. Discard excess flour.
Heat the oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the chicken and brown on all sides. Transfer to a plate. Add the stock and vinegar to the pan and bring to a boil, scraping up browned bits at the bottom of the pan. Stir in the remaining ½ teaspoon of coriander, ½ teaspoon of pepper and the dates, honey, Worsestershire and horseradish. Stir in the chicken, cover and bake in the oven until the sauce is thick and bubbly, 30 to 35 minutes.
Remove from the oven, mix in the greens and cilantro and serve. (It’s nice over rice.)
The ancient recipes are not nearly so precise, so much of what Segan does is extrapolation and adaptation. She also provides many of the original recipes, including the one for the chicken dish above from “On Cookery” by Apicius:
Chicken in the Numidian way
Prepare the chicken, boil, take out, sprinkle with asafetida and pepper, and roast. Pound pepper, cumin, coriander seed, asafetida root, rue, Jericho date, pine nuts; moisten with vinegar, honey, liquamen (fermented fish sauce) and oil. Mix well. When it boils, thicken with flour, pour over the chicken, sprinkle with pepper, and serve.
Take your pick. I’m sticking with the version for “modern cooks.”
More Francine Segan
@Breakout text first-line indent:Segan’s book appealed to me so much, I looked into her other foray into historical cookery, “Shakespeare’s Kitchen: Renaissance Recipes for the Contemporary Cook.” The concept is the same, with quotes here from the Bard, and recipes from cookbooks of the 1500s and 1600s. There are also tips for Renaissance entertaining.
If you want even more Segan, she also wrote a couple of books geared to entertaining with themed menus, “Movie Menus: Recipes for Perfect Meals with Your Favorite Films” and “The Opera Lover’s Cookbook: Menus for Elegant Entertaining.” Menus are tied to film genres or eras (or operatic motifs or composers) and suggestions made for movies or operas for your guests to enjoy with dinner.



Story tags » Cooking

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