Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Persian Stuffed Hens

This is one of my favorite recipes! For this one I looked to the ancient Greek historian Polyaenus and his Strategems. Polyaenus says that at Persepolis, the capital of the Persian empire, there was a bronze pillar with the ingredients listed that were required for the Great King's daily lunch for, as that compiler of food stories Athenaeus says, 15,000 people! I like to think of this pillar as the world's first recorded catering invoice! So, I looked at the list and designed a stuffed bird dish. I originally made this with duck for my advisor, Professor Dusinberre, at UColorado because she studies Achaemenid Persia and first showed me the Polyaenus source. Experimenting since then, I now like it with game hens best.
Persian Stuffed Hens
3 game hens
2 small jars of capers packed in salt
olive oil
sesame seeds
pita bread
Now, I like to make alot of stuffing and then cook the stuffed birds on a bed of stuffing. If you do not want so much stuffing, although I highly recommend it, make half as much stuffing.
1) Now this dish is based on an ingredient on that pillar, "candied capers with salt for stuffings." From talking to Professor Dusinberre and the fact that that pillar specifies 1300 birds as needed per day, I decided to use this caper stuffing for birds. Now, to candy something without sugar, we need to use honey. This is the same concept used in the post about Apicius' stuffed dates. So, heat some honey in a pan at low heat.
2) Then when it starts to bubble, add the capers packed in salt.
3) Get them all coated in the honey so that you have a pan of salty, sweet caper goodness.
4) Then turn off the heat and set it aside. Now for the rest of the stuffing. In a separate pan, add some olive oil, maybe a quarter cup or so. Add a handful of sesame seeds and a handful or two of blanched, slivered almonds.
5) When these start to turn a light golden brown, add a chopped onion and some minced garlic.
6) Let that cook for a couple more minutes and add your parsley, raisins, and cumin.
7) Then add your caper mixture.
8) Then add a quarter cup of apple cider or so and cook it until it has cooked off.
9) Now take one or two loaves of pita, depending on how moist your stuffing is, and mince them up
Then add add them to your stuffing until it is the right consistency ... think the consistency of the stuffing you just made for Thanksgiving!
Stir and get ready to stuff!
10) Get your birds ready.
And stuff em!
Then, tie them with twine. I take the rest of the stuffing and make a bed on my baking pan. Then I rub my stuffed hens with cumin and set them on the bed.
Now bake them uncovered at around 400 for about 45, or until the stuffing in the birds reads 165 degrees on your meat thermometer. If they start to look like they are getting too done on the outside, turn the oven down to 300. Then eat them! They are shockingly good. Shocking! A really exotic and delicious dish. 
Enjoy this attempt at recreating the food from the royal table of the ancient Persians!


Lew said...

This looks amazing.

When Athenaeus says 15,000, do modern historians take that at face value? If not, what's the ancient historian to reality conversion factor?

Jake Morton said...

To answer your first question, I did some rough estimates with Professor Dusinberre of how much food is listed on the 'catering invoice' column and how many people it would feed. A huge amount. Enough that the leftovers would feed peoples dinners for their 'people' later. Perhaps a situation like the Godfather where the family head would feed the capos and then each of them would take the leftovers to serve their underlings and so on. Much more work needs to be done on Persian dining and the social connotations of dining at the king's table.
Your second question is a huge one. Always, one must take into account the goals and motivations of the author, for whom he is writing, etc. If the point being made here is how decadent the Persians are compared to the Greeks, then one would expect exaggeration. I admit I have not read the rest of the work or really studied Polyaenus enough to give a fair answer of the distorting lens he is putting on the 'facts'. Good to have your questions back!

Lew said...

But it is at least possible they cooked for 15,000 every day?

Why? That seems like a crazy amount of resources and effort. They couldn't just give out raw food, or money to buy food? How many cooks would they need?

Jake Morton said...

Yes, you are supposed to say that! From Herodotus and the Persian wars through accounts of Alexander, Persian decadent dining habits are contrasted with the frugal Greek ways. Symptom or cause of Persian inferiority in war, either way they are deeply symbolic in the Greek mind of Persian moral and physical decay. How apocryphal is this column? No idea. Without a doubt, this 'catering invoice' raises more questions than it answers, but is still a really cool source. More than 6 kinds of flour are listed! That is my favorite part.