Clay oven chicken the medieval way


For years Rabbi Louis (Eli) Finkelman, who has written several guest blogs in this space, and his wife, Marilyn, have participated in the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), where they join other like-minded people in living for a few days or a few weeks in true medieval fashion. For months I’ve been badgering Marilyn to write a piece about medieval cooking, and she finally came through.

Marilyn Finkelman has been a teacher of writing and research in law schools, a teacher of adult Jewish studies, and a homeschool mom. In the SCA, as Lady Miriam bat Pessah, she does archery, embroidery, cooking, calligraphy, brewing (wine and mead), cheese making, illumination, and Jewish cultural studies. 

The Finkelmans are planning a clay-oven cooking extravaganza as part of their celebration of the festival of Sukkot, which started this year at sundown Sunday, Sept. 27. The festival in part celebrates the fall harvest, so that seems entirely appropriate!

Historic cooking is among my many hobbies in the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), an organization that encourages study and re-creating the arts and skills of pre-17th century Europe, the “Middle Ages.”

It always amazes me that we have cookbooks from that period given that, even in very wealthy households, the cook probably couldn’t read and no one would allow anything as valuable as a book to go anywhere near a place as dangerous as a kitchen.

Islamic recipes more user-friendly

I find the medieval Islamic recipes more user-friendly than northern European recipes. There are several wonderful translations available, including Nawal Nasrallah’s Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchen, a huge collection of recipes from 10th century Baghdad, and Charles Perry’s A Baghdad Cookery Book, a shorter collection of recipes from the 13th century.

But even the recipes that make sense intuitively present challenges. These dishes were cooked on open fires or in clay ovens, using different utensils and cooking methods. Some of the ingredients are hard to identify, and even those that are familiar may not have been very much like the ingredients available in our local market. The recipes are much sketchier than modern recipes, rarely including amounts or precise instructions. Typical is the instruction to add a given ingredient or cook the dish “enough.”

All of the Islamic cookbooks include several versions of judhaba, which involve making some sort of bread pudding, and cooking it in an oven while “hanging over it a fat chicken.” Here is the first of about 15 variations from Caliphs’ Kitchen (p.374):

Take a whole bread made with the finest … flour, let its weight be 1 ratl. Cut it into morsel sized pieces, which you then soak in water in a green glazed bowl for about an hour. When the bread pieces are saturated and puffed, put them in the pan. Pour on them 1 ratl honey, 2 ratls sugar, and 1 ratl water. There should be enough to cover the bread and a little more. Mix in aromatic spices and saffron, too. Put the pan in the bottom center of a hot tannur, suspend a plump chicken over the pan, and [let it roast until done], God willing.

As many questions as answers

Doesn’t that sound delicious? But it presents as may questions as it answers. What kind of bread would be considered “made with the finest flour”? Does the “green glazed bowl” matter? This recipe calls for equal weights of bread, honey, and water, and double the weight of sugar. Doesn’t that seem cloyingly sweet? What spices and how much of those spices? How do you suspend a chicken over that pan? Would it work in a modern kitchen oven, or do you need the live fire cooking?

And there are lots of variations in other judhaba recipes. Some call for different types of bread, cut to different sizes. The bread is soaked in different liquids, for example milk or berry juice. Proportions and types of sweetener vary. Recipes call for additions of different ingredients, for example apricots, dates, raisins, rosewater syrup, bananas, walnuts, almonds, sesame oil, eggs, onions, mushrooms, and more. Some recipes call for a thin bread laid under and over the bread pudding.

I tried a version of this in my kitchen oven, just laying chicken pieces over some soaked bread mixture, but it came out dry and dull.

Then, last summer, we built a clay oven in our backyard, and I decided to try this concept again.

Working from the base recipe, I used a loaf of medium density bakery bread. I soaked it in my metal mixing bowl, letting it get soggier than my usual bread pudding would be. I could not get myself to make it as sweet as the original recipe suggested, so I used the honey but not the sugar.

I looked through the other recipes for spices that might be mentioned, and ended up adding salt, cinnamon, sesame oil and cloves. I wanted to do one of the additional flavors, and settled on dates. I used some thin pita I had in the freezer for the bread above and below the bread pudding.

Hanging the chicken

I was stumped on how to hang the chicken over the bread pudding until a friend solved the problem for me. “What’s wrong with you, girl?  Haven’t you ever heard of beer can chicken?”  I used tomato cans instead.

There was a steep learning curve as we started using our oven. Once the oven was fully heated up, after about two hours of fire, we cleared the coals out and cooked with the residual heat. (We have since started doing some of the cooking on the fire while the oven is heating up.) We put the judhaba in right after the sourdough breads came out, so the oven was probably around 400 degrees, and left it in for about an hour or maybe a little less.

The result was superb. The pita on top of the bread pudding crisped up, turning into chicken flavored pita chips. And with the pita on top, the bread pudding stayed nice and moist. It was sweet and delicious.

The chicken was clearly not the point of the recipe, but it was crisp-skinned and delicately flavored. We served on a large platter, with the cut up chicken in the middle, surrounded by the bread pudding, with the pita chips around the edges.

My redacted recipe is still less precise than most modern recipes. And I do not know whether it would be as good cooked in a modern oven. But we are planning a “clay oven greatest hits” cook day this fall, and judhaba was tops on everyone’s list.

Stalking the ordinary celery

A NOTE FROM YOUR HOST BOBBIE LEWIS: This week’s blog is by guest author Louis Finkelman (aka Eliezer) Finkelman, rabbi, scholar, teacher and freelance writer as well as a gardener, cook, home brewer and vintner and assistant to the cheese-maker with whom he shares his Southfield, Michigan home. It originally appeared in My Jewish Detroit, an online magazine published by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit.

I found a cookbook that describes a classical French combination, mirepoix, as a finely-diced mixture of onions, carrots and celery, simmered or sautéed. The writer explains what each ingredient adds to the mixture. According to this sophisticated expert, the celery adds texture, but does not add much in the way of flavor, since celery basically has very little flavor.

Go to the supermarket and you can find celery that proves his point. In fact, you cannot find any other kind of celery in the supermarket. The thick, heavy stalks of celery, with their creamy color, just barely green, gently whisper the secret information about their flavor, “we taste of celery.” The green leaves have a strong, bitter flavor, but who uses the leaves of celery?

Visiting my son and his family in Israel, some years ago, I made the trip to his local Shufrasol supermarket. The celery there did not look like American celery. It had little, thin stalks, all a deep dark bright green. When we got home and used the celery in recipes, it did not taste like American supermarket celery either: rather than whispering, it shouted. It yelled, “I AM CELERY! HEAR ME ROAR!” In a soup, in a stew, in a casserole, a few snips of celery sufficed to make a bold statement.

My growing affinity for celery

I started growing celery at home, in my little backyard vegetable garden. My garden celery comes up much more like its assertive Israeli relations than the kind in American supermarkets. It comes up small, but powerful. It has an attitude.

This year, during my annual trip to the farm supply store to pick up my vegetables, I got a quick lesson in why we have such different versions of celery. The manager of the store directed me to find “ordinary celery.” I commented that “it does not seem ordinary to me. It does not taste like supermarket celery.”

American commercial growers (according to the manager of the farm supply store) irrigate their celery heavily to get those big, bland stalks. I read somewhere that growers even put shades on parts of the celery plant so that it does not develop too much flavor.

I thought about that quest for celery without too much flavor. That goes along with preferring white bread to rye or whole wheat. It goes along with cutting off the crust of sandwiches. It resonates with preferring white meat to dark. Turkeys raised for meat usually have been bred for so much white meat that they move about awkwardly. Their huge breasts so limit their motion that they need artificial insemination. All this happens in the search for less intense flavor. It all goes together. It rhymes.

Appearance over substance

In a way, that quest for less intensive flavor matches the quest for perfect appearance. No doubt, the big, creamy, thick celery has a certain visual appeal that the small, thin, dark green stuff cannot match. The huge red strawberries in the market all look beautiful; sometimes they taste like strawberries, too. The only apples available in the supermarket look like wax models of apples: big, flawless, shiny. They come in bright red or bright green. Though growers have identified hundreds or thousands of different varieties of apple, our selection at the market usually gets restricted to the three or four prettiest. I will not even mention tomatoes. Some of us do not share the preference for bland and pretty. Those who seek intense, complex flavors have to look for produce at ethnic shops, or farmers’ markets or just grow our own.

When it comes to people, too — do I have to spell this out? — we might make an effort to overcome our resistance and put up with people who have too much flavor and too imperfect an appearance. We might find our best companions, our wisest guides and our most promising students. They might make our lives more interesting.

Editor’s note:  A mirepoix is a mixture of two parts onion, one part carrot and one part celery, roughly chopped and cooked slowly in a bit of oil until the onion is translucent. This recipe, from a contributor named Gordon on the website, uses a mirepoix with braised chicken breasts. You can cook up mirepoix ahead of time and use it to add to soups or stews. The photo with the recipe is by naples34102, another Allrecipes contributor. 

My game of Jeopardy! (and a California recipe)

Answer: It was broadcast on April 2, 2004.

Question: What was Bobbie Lewis’s national television debut?

It’s hard to believe that was almost 10 years ago! As I mentioned in my February 17 Feed the Spirit, I was a contestant on Jeopardy!, which is marking its 50th anniversary this week. My show was taped in mid-January, 2004 and aired on April 2.

That was so long ago that I have the recording on VHS, not on DVD.

So how did this come about? In the fall of 2003, Jeopardy! held auditions in Detroit.

My friends and family kept telling me I was good at trivia – indeed, I could often answer the Jeopardy! questions quickly – so I registered and a few weeks later found myself with 100 or so other hopefuls in the ballroom of a Detroit-area hotel. It was one of at least five such sessions in Detroit; there are a lot of people who dream of being on Jeopardy!

Answer: You ace a test with 50 short-answer trivia questions.

Question: How do you get invited to be on Jeopardy!?

They gave us a 50-question quiz, reading and projecting the questions on a screen, while we scribbled the short answers on an answer sheet. The questions seemed to come every five seconds or so. There was no way to say to yourself, “Ooh, ooh, I know that, let me come back to it,” because by then they were on to the next question – and there was nothing on the answer sheet to help you remember the question.

I missed at least five, and probably got at least a few more wrong. Dejected, I started to pack up my things when I heard my name called as one of the half-dozen from that session who had made the cut.

Answer: You’ll never know.

Question: What’s a passing score on the Jeopardy! quiz?

They never tell applicants what the “passing” score is or what their personal score was; you either make the cut or you don’t.  In some sessions there were a dozen who passed, in others, three or four. “Tell your family and friends you missed it by one,”  was their not-so-helpful suggestion for the losers.

We chosen few were asked to participate in a short mock game and then do a short taped interview. They wanted to make sure the prospects wouldn’t freeze at the sight of a camera.

Then they told us we’d be in a “pool” of contestants for a year, and they could call us any time. “Well, that’s that,” I thought, never expecting to hear anything more. Imagine my surprise when the producers called just a month later, inviting me to be on the show!

Now the process is a little different. They do an initial weed-out of applicants with an online quiz a few times a year. Those who pass can move on to an in-person audition – another 50-question quiz plus the mock game and interview – either at the Sony studio in Los Angeles or at one of the other cities the team visits throughout the year. Learn more about the process here.

Answer: A lot!

Question: What do most viewers not know about Jeopardy!?

  • They tape five shows a day, one after the other, with an hour’s break for lunch. The week’s worth of contestants – 11 hopefuls  plus a few alternates – start out together in the morning. Except for the previous game’s winner, all contestants are chosen by lottery from the day’s pool.
  • Only the winner gets the money. The person who finishes second gets $2,000 and the person who finishes last gets $1,000.
  • Jeopardy! doesn’t pay for airfare, hotel or any other expenses – but the winnings should cover it, even if you come in last. (If you win the last game of the day and live out of town, they do pay for you to come back the following week.)
  • There isn’t a huge amount of swag for contestants either. I got a Jeopardy! tote bag, a travel mug, a cheap ballpoint pen – and a very nice glass frame with a photo of me and host Alex Trebek.
  • All the contestants are instructed to bring two changes of clothing, so if you win and come back, it looks like it’s another day. I guess they figure out that if you win three games and there’s still more taping to be done that day, no one will notice if you’re wearing the same clothes you wore a few games earlier.
  • Around the game board is a row of lights, which you can’t see on your TV. Contestants are not supposed to buzz in until the lights go off when Alex finishes reading the question. Those who buzz in too early are penalized a tenth of a second. That’s why you see contestants hitting their buzzers repeatedly – if they’re too early, and no one else buzzes in, they might still have a chance to answer.

It was my luck to be in the last game taped that day, so I had to sit through four previous games with my palms sweaty and stomach churning.

Before the first game of the day, one of the producers goes over the personal stories for Alex’s chat after the first commercial break. The producer gives Alex two stories per contestant to choose from.

Here’s my favorite, which for some reason Alex chose not to use:

The contestant was an attorney in Washington, D.C. and was at a fancy government dinner where someone introduced her to King Somebody. She had an Uncle King, and was interested to meet someone with the same name. “So, King,” she said, “what is it that you do?” He looked at her for a long moment and then said, “I’m the king.

Answer: By being the only contestant to get the correct answer to Final Jeopardy.

Question: How did Bobbie Lewis redeem her terrible performance in Jeopardy! and end up in second place?

As I told you in my earlier post, I did not perform very well in my one and only game. I don’t know whether I was buzzing in too early or too late, but I didn’t have an opportunity to answer many questions at all, and when I did, I made a few stupid mistakes. But I was the only one who had the correct answer to Final Jeopardy and so I came in second. My $2,000 winnings paid for a swell four-day vacation in Los Angeles. My husband and I toured the Sony studio, visited the fabulous Getty Museum and the fascinating LaBrea tar pits, enjoyed looking at the gorgeous houses in Venice and the weirdos at Venice Beach, and had a terrific meal at a Persian kosher restaurant.

Would I do it again? You betcha – although 10 years later the synapses are firing a little more slowly. I don’t get as many answers as I used to, and there are a lot more “ooh, ooh, I know that!”  moments. I seriously doubt that I’d make the cut. Luckily I don’t have to worry about it  –  no one who’s already been on the show can audition.

Answer: Nothing, but it’s made with artichokes and wine which makes me think of California.

Question: What does this week’s recipe have to do with Jeopardy!?

This is a nice recipe that’s great for weight watchers because it’s made with skinless, boneless chicken breasts and has no added fat, and it’s elegant enough to serve for a fancy company meal.

Bread and Wine; The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken: Serving up good books … and good recipes!

two interesting books about food have caught my eye and I’m happy to recommend them to you. Both include recipes, but they’re not cookbooks.

The first is Bread & Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table with Recipes, by Shauna Niequist whose website tells more about her life. Bread & Wine is similar in many ways to Feed The Spirit: It’s a collection of essays about family, faith, values–and food!

The second book is The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken: A Search for Food and Family by Laura Schenone. It’s a fascinating tale of the author’s search for her  culinary roots.

I will call these authors by their first names, because after reading their books, I feel I know so much about them and their lives.

Life’s “beautiful and broken moments”

In Bread & Wine, Shauna writes about “the beautiful and broken moments of everyday life–friendship, family, faith, food, marriage, love, babies, books, celebration, heartache, and all the other things that shape us, delight us, and reveal to us the heart of God.”

Each essay is followed by a recipe. Shauna says she likes nothing better than gathering family and friends around her table and feeding them. She’s a devout Christian, and the title refers to the bread and wine used sacramentally in the church as well as the food and spirits that sustain us on a daily basis. Shauna says the moments she feels God’s presence most profoundly take place around a table.

Although she has developed into an excellent cook, she stresses that she didn’t start out that way. She frequently reminds us that the complexity and sophistication of the food have little to do with the quality of the experience of sharing food. “Some of my most sacred meals have been eaten out of travel mugs on camping trips or on benches on the street in Europe,” she says.

Shauna advises anyone unused to cooking for guests to “start where you are.” If entertaining is not something you’re used to, invite people over and serve pizza with a salad and bottled dressing, on paper plates if necessary. As you get comfortable with the idea of being a host or hostess, you can become a little more adventurous and start experimenting.

A search for culinary roots

Award-winning food writer Laura Schenone has a mixed ethnic heritage that includes Croatian, Irish, German and Italian great-grandmothers.

In her early 40s, living in suburban New Jersey with a husband and two young sons, she found herself yearning to be able to cook something that could span generations and tell a story. She wanted, she says, “a recipe I could trace from my family, back into history, further and further back, into an ancient past. Even more importantly – a recipe that could take me to a landscape more beautiful than postindustrial New Jersey….I wanted nothing more and nothing less than an authentic old family recipe.”

She turned to her father’s Italian family to find it. Her Italian great-grandmother, Adalgiza, had come to America – to Hoboken, New Jersey – from Genoa, where ravioli is an essential component of the cuisine. Adalgiza’s ravioli, Laura says, were “the real deal.”

Laura sets out not only to find the “original” recipe but to learn how to make ravioli the old way, rolling and flipping the dough until it is so thin it’s translucent and crimping the filled squares with an ancient ravioli press. It took a lot of practice, often testing the patience of her husband and sons. Armed with Adalgiza’s ravioli recipe – passed down to an aunt, who wrote it out, and then to a cousin – Laura sets off to visit Genoa, on Italy’s Ligurian coast. She also visits Recco, the small mountain town where her great-grandfather was born.

By Ewan Munro from London, UK (La Barca, Waterloo, London Uploaded by tm) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia CommonsShe discovers that Ligurian cuisine is quite different from the southern Italian foods most of us are familiar with. She learns that poverty, more than anything else, drove millions of Italians from their homeland to America in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The mountain folk were so poor that they could rarely afford wheat for pasta and olive oil, now considered staples of Italian cuisine. They were nourished by the chestnut trees that grew around them, using the wood for furniture and the dried nuts to make flour. They flavored their dishes with mushrooms and herbs found in the chestnut forests.

A fancy but not-too-difficult recipe

Laura’s recipes are really complex and look daunting even for an experienced cook like me. But she includes detailed instructions and lots of photos. Shauna’s recipes are less intimidating. Here is one that she adapted from Sally Sampson’s book The $50 Dinner Party. Shauna says it may look difficult because of the long list of ingredients, but it’s mostly just chopping and throwing things into the pot. I recommend mixing up the spices and getting everything chopped before you start cooking.

The recipe says it serves six. Shauna says she often doubles the recipe to serve 10 to 12 and serves it with a simple green salad and pita or naan. And I halved it for my husband and me. Half the recipe made enough for two generous dinners and two lunches. It tastes great left over!

If you think you don’t like Indian food, this might change your mind. It’s spicy-flavorful, not spicy-hot. If you don’t like hot, leave out the cayenne pepper. If you like heat, add a little more.