Valentine’s Day weekend (Feb. 15, to be precise) the Barony of Buckland Cross hosted the second annual reincarnation of a well-loved event called Al-Hafla. The event was one that gave an opportunity for the “Unaligned Middle Eastern Tribes” of the SCA to meet and party together sooner than Pennsic (it used to be held in January but February was the earliest we could manage to do this year). Live music, dancing, and lots of food of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean origin were the order of the day.
This year I once again served as a cook for the event, but I was also in charge of the menu and securing the site, etc. What made my job infinitely easier was the participation of every single member of the Barony either on site that day and helping me plan out details. Our Baron, Aurddeilen-ap-Robet, went all out for decoration, obtaining tent cloths and stands to stretch it out across the hall. Aurddeilen also baked cookies from authentic medieval and old Middle Eastern recipes, and brewed tea and coffee. His sweets table was also a treat for the eye, beautifully arranged with all of his drinks decanters and dishes. Tommaso, the husband of our Seneschal Jaz, created folding table legs to support the brass tray tables given into Jaz’s keeping by one of the founders of the event, Baron Mukhtar Durr al-Jabal al Mukhfi. Baron Durr was also there on site early to help set up.
And when it came to the food, we had a lot of it. We went for a rolling dayboard spread, where people could help themselves when they wanted to. Besides oil cured black olives from Turkey, Turkish panir and Greek feta cheeses, Turkish stuffed grape leaves, flatbreads and rustic Italian breads, and some Turkish eggplant relish, my idea was to have a variety of hot and cold dishes of various kinds. Some of the dishes I chose are not of the medieval period, but they are Middle Eastern favorites and people expected them: chickpea hummus, spanakopita, and cucumber yogurt salad. Also popular but probably not period to any particular country is our “Moroccan chicken” – chicken breasts and thighs marinated in whole milk Greek yogurt suffused with ras al-hanout spice mixture (containing cumin, cinnamon, coriander, black pepper, turmeric, and saffron) and grilled.
There were some period recipes on the table however. Jaz made a medieval sumac chicken, using the recipe from Scheherazade’s Feasts: Foods of the Medieval Arab World. I wound up making my cicera fracta (the onion and saffron version of it). As well as my version of the Emir of Catania’s chicken dish, or chicken baked in bread, a traditional recipe from Sicily of cooked chicken macerated with pistachios, chicken broth, lemon juice, bread crumbs, and capers, all combined into a hollowed semolina bread loaf and baked (you can get a recipe here in my revised paper on Academia.edu on Sicilian food).
In the runup to the event, however, I found myself leafing through Charles Perry’s Scents and Flavors: A Syrian Cookbook. I was thinking of recreating the lamb/garlic/spinach/chickpea dish I had done from this text from 2019’s Al-Hafla (from Chapter 6: Sautes and Related Dishes, Section on Spinach: four recipes), but the quantity of lamb I used last year was prohibitively expensive. I needed to cut my budget way, way down.
Providently, the answer to reducing my food costs came when I opened the book randomly and stumbled upon the lentil dishes:
Section on lentil dishes, for which there are four recipes
The first recipe is of two kinds. Market folk and the bulk of people cook the first kind—so there is no point in giving a recipe here. It is worth noting though that adding carrots, chard, large taros, and saffron will improve it. (Scents and Flavors, page 133)
According to Charles Perry’s footnote to this recipe, the reason for “no point in giving a recipe” is because the dish is simply just boiled lentils. Of course I opted for the jazzed up version. Unsure if taro was available at the local Indian market and without the time to look, I went with chard, carrots, and saffron. Here is my version:
Syrian Lentils with Chard, Carrots, and Saffron
2 pounds of lentils
1 large bunch of carrots
1 large bunch of green chard
1/8 teaspoon of saffron threads softened in a few ounces of hot water
Boil the lentils until just done. Peel the carrots and chop them into thin disks (recipes in this book called for either carrots in coin form or in slivers; I opted for the coins). Destem the chard and roughly chop the leaves. In a separate frying pan, saute the carrots in olive oil until soft, and add the chard, sauteing until that is soft and cooked through. Add the carrots and chard to the cooked lentils. Mix thoroughly. Add the saffron and water; mix thoroughly. Serve warm.
I had some leftovers from this amount, but it freezes well. If you want to adapt it to more modern and carnivorous tastes, add chicken sage sausage to it, it’s really delicious.
Second recipe Boil lentils until done. Pound meat, boil, drain the water, and pound in the mortar until soft. Add in hot spices, pour in tail fat, and cook it in a brass pan until it contracts and browns. Put in a frying pan—putting in a layer of noodles, a layer of pounded meat, a layer of lentils, and so on—until the pan is full. Pour on a good quantity of melted fat and a little of the meat broth. Put the fat on while it is on a low fire—pouring along the edges, using a thin ladle, so that the fat reached underneath/ Keep boiling until the noodles are done and it is ready to eat. (Scents and Flavors, page 133)
My first thought when I read this is, “This is Syrian hamburger helper.” I was not about to boil meat and pound it in a mortar the night before an event when I had many other things left to do, though. I opted to use ground meat (which also means I did not also need to use lamb’s tail fat, since I was not going to boil all the fat out of the meat). I was set on using ground lamb mixed with ground beef, like in a kofte mixture. Unfortunately, due to my local Turkish market burning down (don’t ask, I have no idea what happened, but it’s closed and gone now) I had no ready resources for ground lamb so instead used beef. This was not the meat the recipe actually called for—there’s a section of chicken recipes but everything else is lamb—but I had to improvise. As far as “hot spices” go, pepper, cinnamon, coriander, and cumin rank among those, and they flavor beef well. And since I have galangal and long pepper on hand, I planned to use those too.
What did the author mean by “noodles”? From my research on medieval Sicilian food, my assumption was that this was dried semolina pasta, the type known as “itriya” (“threads”). In Sicily, dried pasta was made as early as the 12th century and even became a trading commodity. Frustratingly, there is not one recipe in this book for the noodles made for savory dishes. They must have been so common and commonly made that it was not needed to give a separate recipe for them. The cooking directions for this recipe, however, with the call for liquids to be added to the dish as it cooks low and slow, certainly in my mind point to the pasta being a dried one rather than fresh.
Interestingly, the combination of lentils with pasta has continued into modern-day Syrian cooking, with a dish called horaa esbao; this is one version I have found, but it is very different than the medieval version. For one thing, it is meat free and uses flavorings such as pomegranate syrup. Like most homestyle dishes, every cook puts their own twist on the recipe. Some make their own fresh pasta, some use dried.
Here is my redaction from Scents and Flavors:
5 pounds of ground beef
2 pounds of lentils
Enough dried thread-like pasta, broken up, to generously cover the bottom of a large catering tray pan (two boxes of spaghetti or angel hair will do, I used a Polish noodle that I found at my local international market on sale that looked like short broken up spaghetti and saved me time).
1 box or two small cans of beef broth
Cinnamon, cumin, black pepper, coriander (not found in any of the recipes but also used by me: long pepper and galangal, because I had them and they stand up well to beef)
Preheat oven to 375F. Boil the lentils until done. Brown the beef with your chosen spices; drain some, but not all, of the resulting fat. When the meat and lentils are cooked, layer the noodles at the bottom of the tray; then layer the meat, and then the lentils. Pour about half of the beef broth into it, and put into the oven for about 45 minutes, adding the rest of the broth midway through. It’s done when the pasta at the bottom is cooked.
Verdict: People liked it, and the redaction made a lot of food (I was aiming for 60 people and spent about $50 on ingredients, so it certainly was economical). It is a rib-sticking dish between the lentils and pasta. I want to try it again, in smaller quantities, with ground lamb and without the galangal and long pepper.