Bowl of cactus leaf gumbo on antique French farm table
One morning, I went out to my garden and discovered that coyotes had climbed up our large cactus to eat the half-ripe fruits. All the prickly pears (tunas) I had looked forward to making into jam and drinks were gone.

Also gone were many of the cactus's huge leaves. They had not been strong enough to support the coyotes’ weight and now littered the ground. I planted most in my cactus garden; two I kept for cooking; one led to this recipe.

If you have not made gumbo before, you may wish to refer to my earlier post "Cajun Gumbo Made Easy."

Cactus Leaf Gumbo

3 cups nopales (cactus leaves), thorns removed and chopped into
    ½-inch cubes, measured after chopping
olive oil for coating
½  cup canola oil or other cooking oil with a mild flavor
½ cup white flour
3 medium onions, chopped into ½-inch squares
2 green bell peppers, chopped into ½-inch squares
1 cup sliced celery
6 cups cups “no chicken” chicken broth or tomato-free vegetable broth
3–4 bay leaves (fresh or dried)
6–8 large sprigs of thyme (any edible variety) or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
2 teaspoons chopped garlic
1 teaspoon ground chipotle chile pepper
¼ teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
Tabasco brand or Crystal brand hot sauce to taste
3 cups uncooked converted rice
1 teaspoon filé powder

1. Set the oven to 350°F. Toss the nopales cubes with a little olive oil and salt. Spread on a baking sheet with a nonstick coating or lined with a nonstick mat. Bake for 15 to 25 minutes, or until they have given up their moisture and become soft. Let sit until cool enough to handle.

2. Meanwhile, make a brown roux: Heat the ½-cup oil in a heavy-bottomed kettle. Gradually add the flour, whisking constantly. Cook until the mixture turns the color of peanut butter, being careful not to burn it. It should smell of toasted nuts.

3. Add the onions, green bell peppers, and celery and sauté for 5 minutes or until the vegetables start to soften.

4. Add 1 cup broth and stir over medium heat until the mixture is very thick. Continue adding broth 1 cup at a time until the mixture has the consistency of a runny sauce or a thick stew. This will take 5 to 6 cups of broth.

5. Rinse the oil, salt, and sap off of the baked nopale cubes and add to the mixture. Stir in bay leaves, thyme sprigs or dried thyme, chopped garlic, chipotle powder, cayenne, and hot sauce.

6. Simmer the gumbo for 1 to 4 hours.

7. Cook rice according to rice cooker or package directions to be ready at mealtime.

8. When rice is done, add filé powder to gumbo and remove thyme stems and bay leaves.

9. Serve the gumbo in bowls over rice.

Animal sacrifice in ancient Greece was seldom a terrible "sacrifice," as we moderns use the word. Occasionally the entire animal was burnt on the altar for the god or gods, holocaustos (wholly burnt) - but this was rare. Usually, an animal sacrifice meant a major party, with meat for everyone, and only bones wrapped in fat burnt as the gods' portion.

Indeed, the current scholarly consensus, according to all the best books about food in ancient Greece, is that flesh meat was seldom eaten except as part of a sacrifice - which were by no means all major state occasions. A sacrifice could be arranged by anyone who could pay for the animal and for the mageiros, the specialist sacrificer and cook who did the hard work.

I'm adding here a description of a sacrifice from my short historical novel,  The Priestess and the Slave. The 5th century BC narrator has suffered a stillbirth that nearly killed her; a year later, her husband is celebrating the birth of a healthy baby to their slave Glukera. 

... A few days later, he held the proper feast for all his  friends and relatives, even my parents, hiring a man to sacrifice a full-grown  sheep. After the sacrificer-cook slit the sheep's throat and let the beast's blood pour over the small altar in our courtyard, he sliced up the animal on the table he'd brought with him, removed the skin, and wrapped long bones and other morsels in fat to burn on the altar as the gods' rightful portion. We prayed that all the gods would enjoy the smoke, as the sacrificer-cook poured unmixed  wine over the flames.     
     Next, the man cut up the best of the animal's insides,  the heart, the spleen, the kidneys and the tender liver, and slid them onto iron  skewers. They went on the altar to roast as special treats for the guests of  honor. While they were on the flames, the sacrificer-cook skillfully butchered the remaining carcass, cutting the muscle meat into chunks and setting them to  boil in a tripod cauldron, with onions, herbs and barley. Slaves mixed great bowls of wine with water, and served it out to all, while we waited for the meat to stew.
    I was not sad, during this merriment. The gods had willed my childless state; it seemed to fit, somehow, with my odd ways of thought. I'd been a distant, unsatisfactory daughter to my mother, a constant source of discontent to her. Perhaps it was better that one like me did not bring up a child. Perhaps . . .
    Glukera sat her baby boy on my childless lap, and his starfish hands grasped for my empty breasts. I gently disengaged his tiny hands and gave him my gold bangle instead. He made a soft noise, bringing the bright bangle to his mouth, and Glukera smiled at me. 
     I nodded; it was good. When Kinesias grew to adulthood, he and his future wife would tend the family graves, giving the dead the oil, milk and honey that was their due, as I did now. My own dead baby would not go hungry, down there in the dark earth.

- Jenny
My Rice Pudding Cake is a grab-bag of neolithic elements from across Europe and Asia: rice, milk and eggs. Rice was domesticated in China 12,00 years ago - but my cake uses the Arborio rice bred by Italians for risotto. Our modern dairy cows, along with other cattle, are apparently all descended from 80 or so beasts domesticated from wild aurochs in Iran (ancient Persia) about 10,500 years ago. (Most milk used by the ancients would have come not from expensive, high-status cows, but from the far more democratic, and more readily available sheep and goats.) Eggs from chickens (domesticated in India or Asia) were uncommon in Europe until about the Roman Empire - a chicken was considered an impressive gift in 5th century BC Greece - but eggs from other birds must have been on the human menu since the Paleolithic._
My Rice Pudding Cake is based on the "Golden Lemon-Rice Cake" from Patricia Well's wonderful cookbook Trattoria. It's a fabulously healthy-feeling cake, not too rich and sweet, and every time I've made it, people have asked for the recipe.

The cake is naturally gluten free. It works JUST FINE with lactose-free milk, if you have lactose-free people to worry about as well. And the sugar can be reduced, or replaced with glucose powder, if you have people with sugar problems. (One warning: don't try too many substitutions at once unless you have to. A version made with low-fat lactose-free milk AND minimal sugar is more or less edible, but a touch spartan. On the other hand, the friend I make it for that way thinks it's a luxury compared with no cake at all.) _

6oz / 180g Arborio rice
1 and 3/4 pints / 1 litre full-fat milk (2% milk is fine, but low-fat milk makes the cake distinctly less luscious.)  
5 oz /  150g caster sugar 
3 large eggs at room  temperature
1 teaspoon of real vanilla extract/essence
1. In a large glass bowl, combine the rice, milk, salt and 2/3 of the sugar. Microwave for about 30 mins (stopping  the microwave and stirring every five minutes or so and making sure it doesn't  boil over) until the rice is tender and it's a bit porridgey but not quite as thick as risotto. Allow to cool for 20 or 30 minutes. It will form a skin but it doesn’t seem to matter, I just keep stirring it back in. (Note – at this stage, if you just stir in the vanilla and don't bother to add eggs or cook it, it is delicious spooned into bowls as a quick rice pudding.)

2. Preheat the oven to 325F / 170C.

3. Prepare a 10 in / 25cm round pan in your favourite way. I always use silicon paper, with a spot of butter or olive oil to stick it to the sides of the pan.

4. With an electric mixer, or by hand if you’re feeling strong, combine the eggs and the remaining sugar and beat until thick, about 2 minutes. Stir in the vanilla. Next, pour that mix into the rice/milk mixture in the big bowl and stir a bit. Pour it into the prepared pan. It will be really quite gloopy.
5. Place the pan in the centre of the oven and bake until the cake is a pale golden colour and firm in the centre - 40 or 50 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool in the pan. 
6. Turn the cake out onto a plate. The top can be sticky, so put some silicon paper on the plate you turn it with. Optionally, sprinkle with icing sugar through a small sieve/strainer, to make it look prettier. It's great with cream and/or ice cream, and especially good with berries as well.

Bon appetit! 

- Jenny Blackford
Beer is an ancient food, dating back about 11,000 years in Mesopotamia and Egypt. In fact, barley may have been domesticated so that people could brew beer.

Humans have been gathering honey for a long time too. A cave painting in Valencia, Spain, from about 8,000 years ago shows two people gathering honey as angry, giant bees buzz around them.
 Today, the White House announced at its blog that President Barack Obama was inspired by home beer brewers to try the ancient art of beermaking himself.

Several rounds of brewing experiments ensued, and the White House installed its first bee hive at the White House, which now houses 70,000 bees. Today's announcement said that the White House is now producing beer flavored with its own honey, and it provided a link to two of the White House beer recipes, which are now available here for anyone to make. 


No, I haven't forgotten that I promised to post a recipe for cactus gumbo. The recipe is ready, but many of my New Orleans friends have not yet returned home or do not yet have power. I'll post the recipe in a couple of days.




    Eric T. Reynolds
    Shauna S. Roberts
    Jenny Blackford
    Distinguished guests


    June 2013
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    Hadley Rille
    Archaeology Series Novels

    Song of the Swallow (2011)
    Thrall (2010)
    Like Mayflies in a Stream (2009)
    The Priestess and the Slave (2009)

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