Get Cooking: A summer recipe from the Middle Ages

Get Cooking: A summer recipe from the Middle Ages


One September, a friend gave me a ginormous zucchini from his garden. In this country, cooks typically make zucchini bread with such beasts, or just stow them on the counter until the squash is tossed, the cook ceding to guilt or the zucchini to bacteria.

But I reckoned that other countries also must have late-season bounty; what do they do with their arm-sized zucchini? Sure enough, I found great recipes for cooking such vegetables from places as far-flung as Chile and Italy, even Brooklyn.

Likewise, we all know what cooks do hereabouts to cool down when beset by insufferable heat and weather. We back out of the hot kitchen, for instance, or serve foods that cool, such as chilled melons or other foods replete with water. We eat mint chocolate chip ice cream.

For my part, I fancy studying the cuisine of the Middle Ages, in Europe especially, that lengthy time between the Dark Ages and the first tendrils of the Renaissance (roughly 500-1500 A.D.). It was an era of enormous paradigm shifts in the way people lived, interrelated and, indeed, cooked.

What did common persons do for food in, say, England or France when the temperature outside (and, in their day, inside as well) was a scorcher? They didn’t have mint chocolate chip ice cream.

Except for the cooking at court or that for ecclesiastics, it’s a fair question because you could call the entire Middle Ages “the eon of hot soup.” Every home or hut had a hearth and the hearth had its pot, a vessel (typically earthenware) warmed 24/7, into which was tossed all manner of comestible and from which was drawn its heated mix.

A “green porray,” as a French cookbook called it in the late 1400s, of cereals, grains and cabbage (with water) would have been a mainstay — indeed, most every single day’s eating — augmented now and then by salted pork or a meat scrap or an egg. And always, the porridge was hot.

I did find a few recipes from the Middle Ages for foods served cool or at room temperature and, from among them, a sort of salad of vegetables in a sweet and sour (what we would call) dressing. It’s very delicious and quite cooling, in its way, due especially to the vigor of its sauce’s flavorings, energized as they are by acidity and piquancy both.

Typical of recipes from the time, no measurements or timings, so I tried to emulate medieval style. For example, a Jedi might say here that “the cinnamon is strong with this one,” cinnamon being favored by medieval cooks only second to black pepper as a spice. So, in it goes in a marked amount (especially for a cooled vegetable dish). It’s pretty tasty, in truth.

Translating the original Old English of the recipe was a fun challenge. I cannot give you the entirety of course but here’s just the beginning: “Compost. Take rote of persel, of pasternak, of rafens, scrape them and waische them clene.” (“Composed salad. Take parsley root, parsnip and radishes; peel and wash them clean.”)

When the recipe states “whan it is colde” (“when cold”), it means cool enough to handle after a blanching. For preparing this recipe, we’re able to use ice baths or very cold running water and even refrigerators.

But “do lat alle thise thynges lye al nyyt,” it’s important to follow the direction to let the initial seasonings marinate the vegetables overnight. Doing so develops the many flavors.

I substituted celery root for parsley root (the latter is hard to come by hereabouts). The original recipe doesn’t give an indication of how the vegetables are prepped, so I cut them into large julienne for a sort of matchstick “white salad.” (It’s after Memorial Day.) If you want more color, you might cut up red instead of white radishes, carrots in place of parsnips and even purple over green cabbage.

Just be strong in the cinnamon with this one.

From “The Forme of Cury,” compiled about 1390 A.D. by the master cooks of King Richard II. Serves 2.


For the salad:

  • 1 cup each parsnip and celery root, peeled and large julienne
  • 1 cup white radish, cleaned and large julienne
  • 1 cup inner leaves green cabbage, large julienne
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup Bosc pear, peeled and large julienne
  • 1/4 cup green or golden raisins
  • 1/2 teaspoon fennel seed
  • 1 teaspoon powdered ginger
  • 1 tablespoon rice or white wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon white grape juice or apple juice
  • Few threads saffron

For the dressing:

  • 1/4 cup white wine or apple juice
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1 teaspoon sweet mustard (brown or “ballpark”-style)
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground or powdered cinnamon
  • Outer or large leaves of green cabbage


Blanch (to your desired level of crunch) the parsnip, celery root, white radish and cabbage; drain and plunge into an ice bath or very cold water. Drain and pat dry on kitchen or paper towels. Add to a bowl, sprinkle with the salt and add the pear, raisins, fennel seed, powdered ginger, vinegar, juice and saffron. Toss, cover and refrigerate overnight.

Make a dressing of the remaining ingredients, except the cabbage leaves, by heating them together in a small pan or pot, simmering for a few minutes, then cooling the mixture. (You also may heat the dressing in a microwave, then cool it well.) Toss with the refrigerated vegetables and serve in bowls lined with the large cabbage leaves

Get Cooking: A summer recipe from the Middle Ages


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