On the Road with Cooler-Free Camp Cooking

by Rufina Cambrensis

This article first appeared in the Seahorse, the monthly newsletter of the Crown Province of Østgarðr, in July, 2002.

If you have read the previous installments in this series (July 1996, July 1997, and at www.ostgardr.org/cooking/), you'll recall that the recipes included were kitchen and/or camp-tested, the finished product being meals that could be cooked at a camping event with ingredients that needed no refrigeration (with occasional use of modern conveniences such as canned chicken or dried boullion cubes). This time, we'll share the development history of a Cooler-Free(tm) recipe that (1) doesn't have the Sweet-N-Sour flavor imparted by meats preserved in Lord's Salt; and (2) uses fresh (or even freshly-picked!) greens.

I have wondered for a while how we could incorporate fresh greens into the Cooler-Free repertoire; with the appearance of the Pennsic fruit and vegetable stand, greens for sallets or sautees can be had within a few minutes' walk, but not every event can boast a greengrocer on site. Would it be possible to incorporate greenery growing on site into a medieval camp meal? WARNING: don't go picking greens on someone's property unless (1) you have the owner's permission, and (2) you're reasonably confident that they haven't been sprayed with toxic pesticides!

Contrary to popular misconception, many medieval cookery books contain recipes with greens in either a starring or supporting role. For example:

Hare in Wortes (Harleian 4016, #1)

Take Colys, and stripe hem faire fro the stalkes. Take Betus and Borage, auens, Violette, Malvis, parsle, betayn, pacience, the white of the lekes, and the croppe of the netle; parboile, presse out the water, hew hem small, And do there-to mele. Take goode broth of ffressh beef, or other goode flessh and mary bones; do it in a potte, set on the fire; choppe the hare in pieces, And, if thou wil, wassh hir in the same broth, and then drawe it thorgh A streynour with the blode, And then put all on the fire. And if she be an olde hare, let hire boile well, or thou cast in thi wortes; if she be yonge, cast in all togidre at ones; and lete hem boyle til thei be ynogh, and ceson hem with salt. And serue hem forth. The same wise thou may make wortes of a Gose of a night powdryng, of beef, or eny other fressh flessh.

This looked like a good candidate for camp cooking: a one-pot dish of salted animal flesh (goose or beef "of a night powdryng") cooked with broth and greens (many of which listed are available commercially and/or grow wild), thickened with oatmeal.

We tried it at home first, using a corned-beef brisket, and choosing parsley, leeks and beets from the roster of greens:

We decided that we could eschew the parboiling and pressing of greens (which sounded needlessly aggressive) recommended in the original recipe. After chopping the greens and the leeks, we threw everything in a Crock Pot to slow-cook for the day. (We also made this recipe at Pennsic XXIX, using brisket again, and shallots, parsley and kale that a friend brought from her garden; after chopping the greens, we assembled the ingredients in a cast-iron pot and hung it to simmer over the fire.)

In both cases, the oatmeal thickened the "pot likker" into a nice gravy, but the brisket made the dish SALTY (and fatty). We vowed that next time we would make it with beef that we pickled ourselves, which would also bring the dish closer to the Cooler-Free ideal (the brisket had lived in our friend's cooler, which seemed like a bit of a cheat). Our usual pickle-of-choice ("Lord's Salt", popularized in Scadian circles by Cariadoc's Miscellany), however, contained many spices not called for in our Wortes recipe, so we browsed our cookbooks and found another one in Apicius, Book I, Recipe 11:

To keep cooked sides of pork or beef or tenderloins
(Callum porcinum vel bubulum et unguellae coct ae diu durent)

Place them in a pickle of mustard, vinegar, salt and honey, covering the meat entirely, and when ready to use, you'll be surprised.

(Regrettably, Vehling's translation doesn't provide the original Latin for the recipes themselves. If anyone has a different translation of Apicius, we'd love to take a look!)

We tried:

A few days before Pennsic XXX we bought the meat and roasted it until well-done, put it in a glass jar, mixed the other ingredients and poured them over the meat. At Pennsic, we rinsed the meat, sliced it into cubes, threw the meat, broth, oatmeal, and greens (this time spinach, parsley, and leeks) into the cast-iron pot and hung it over the fire to cook (in the rain, this time; fortunately we had a restaurant-sized wok to use as a couvre-feu). Once again, the oatmeal thickened the broth nicely, but this time the pickled beef made the dish SOUR! Helas.... In the future, I suspect we'll need to either rinse the meat in several changes of water, or parboil it and discard the parboiling water, to keep the taste of the preserving agent from overpowering the dish.

So, we thought, as long as we need to run another test on the recipe, now would be a good time to try some of those "wild" greens. We guessed that nettles and violets would be the most widely available of those listed. Now it was time to hit the books. We learned that violet leaves can be eaten boiled, and, if added to soups, act as a thickener. (Young, tender leaves can be used in salads.) Nettles, although dauntingly armed, can be cooked like spinach or other potherbs, and, once boiled, lose their sting; half of the Seahorse staff has eaten them many times, and reports that they give off a pleasant minty smell while cooking. Young, tender nettle leaves supposedly have no sting, and, as one might have guessed by now, can be used in salads.

Armed with this information, we concluded that the recipe's parboiling, pressing and chopping were probably intended to subdue tough, bitter wild greens.

The Seahorse staff were surprised to discover, on prospecting trips through Forest Park, that there are apparently no stinging nettles in New York City in June (although we found lush, bountiful crops of poison ivy, for which nobody in history seems to have found a culinary use). Violets, however, were reasonably common, and we combined a large handful of them with store-bought greens of parsley, beet and collard. (The "colys" in the recipe is presumably colewort; Sylvia Landesberg says it's extinct, but that the closest modern equivalents are kale and collard.)

This time we included the parboiling step, both because collards are tough and because the violet leaves were gathered wild and we didn't know for sure what had been sprayed on them by man or beast. We also soaked the corned-beef brisket for an hour or so, discarded the soaking water, and trimmed off most of the fat before combining brisket and greens to simmer for 3-4 hours.

The result was NOT too salty, yet still quite flavorful. Between the effects of the oatmeal and the violets, the broth formed a velvety gravy.

Sources Consulted:

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