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Articles

Past Article

Feasting on Films and Food
By Francine Segan
April 9, 2004 - 6:16 AM PDT


Movie Menus

Maybe it's just me, but doesn't watching most movies make you hungry? Almost as soon as I pop the DVD into the player, I salivate. Oh, not for Silence of the Lambs, Tales from the Crypt, or Alien but for most other flicks. But I don't crave just any munchies; I want realism on my plate, just like I want it on the screen. I crave foods that really would have been eaten in the time period the movie is set in. I want a totally sensory experience.

How Francine Got Cooking

This movie-food fixation all started back while I was working on my first book, Shakespeare's Kitchen: Renaissance Recipes for the Contemporary Cook. Random House wanted me to test a bunch of the recipes in the book, all of which dated back to Shakespeare's time. I thought it would be fun to invite friends over to be my guinea pigs while we watched Shakespeare in Love. They loved the food, but almost more, they loved eating what would really have been eaten in the time period of the movie they were watching. At some point between the tortellini sprinkled with a sweet nutmeg-Parmesan topping (a surprising Renaissance staple) and the apple tarts with candied orange (apple pie, it turns out, is an old English not American invention), my friends started asking for future tasting parties. They threw out suggestions like a pre-Civil War meal with Gone with the Wind, an authentic Victorian high tea with The Age of Innocence and a Roman feast with Ben-Hur. I loved their suggestions, and tossed out a few of my own (a funny family movie night menu with all the food served in popcorn bowls and a romantic dinner from Morocco with Casablanca).

I realized that my second book was being conceived before my very eyes - and stomach. I got to work the next morning and wrote a twelve-page proposal for Movie Menus. My editor at Random House loved it, and so, I began a wonderful year shuttling between the library, to research historic cookbooks; my kitchen, to try out the recipes; and the video store, to rent hundreds of movies for inspiration on quotes, bloopers, and film trivia.

Here is a buffet made of recipes for three of my favorite film genres: Medieval-type epics, gangster movies and westerns.

For all of you who have ever wondered what Errol Flynn might have eaten if he were really a medieval Robin Hood or what Frodo would have feasted on in The Lord of the Rings, here are two easy-to-make starters from the Middle Ages:

Individual Meat Pies
Serves 10

During the Middle Ages, "four and twenty blackbirds" really were baked in a pie! Or rather, they were placed live in an already baked, but hollow, pie crust. Unsuspecting guests cut into the pie, releasing the birds.

The combination of sweet dried fruits with meat and aromatic spices makes for just as irresistible a first-course dish now as in 1390.

8 ounces ground pork or beef
2 tablespoons currants
2 tablespoons pine nuts
6 dates, pitted and finely chopped
3 prunes, pitted and finely chopped
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
2 tablespoons orange liqueur or orange juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 box frozen puff pastry, thawed
1 large egg, beaten

1. Place the ground meat, currants, pine nuts, dates, prunes, nutmeg, brown sugar, orange liqueur, salt and pepper in a bowl and mix well. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour, so the flavors can mingle.
2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
3. Roll out the puff pastry 1/8 inch thick on a floured work surface.Using a 2 1/2-inch round cookie-cutter, press out about 30 dough circles. Place 1 tablespoon of the meat mixture on each circle, fold in half, and pinch the edges to seal. Brush the top with the egg and place on a nonstick baking sheet. Bake for 20 minutes, or until golden brown.

Neapolitan Eggplant
Serves 6

So what does a Catholic chef in the 1400s do without a clock in the kitchen? One chef wrote that the eggplant should be cooked for no longer than it takes to say "two Our Fathers."

This sweet-and sour-eggplant appetizer is sort of the great-great-great-grandfather to Italian caponata, only much, much faster and easier to make.

2 large eggplants
Salt
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup sherry vinegar
2 tablespoon brown sugar
3 garlic cloves, minced
Pepper
Chopped pitted brine-cured green olives and drained capers, optional

1. Peel and dice the eggplants into 1-inch cubes. Lightly salt the cubes and allow them to drain in a colander for 15 minutes to reduce any bitterness.
2. Preheat the oven to 500 degrees.
3. Gently dry the eggplant on a paper towel, pressing out any excess moisture. Coat a roasting pan with the olive oil and add the eggplant cubes. Gently stir the cubes so they are coated in oil and spread them out into one layer. Bake, stirring occasionally, for about 25 minutes or until golden.
4. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, mix the sherry vinegar and brown sugar together until the sugar is dissolved, and then add the garlic.
5. Transfer the cooked eggplant from the roasting pan to a serving platter. Add the vinegar mixture to the roasting pan and stir to scrape up any bits in the pan. Return the pan to the oven and bake for about 3 minutes to soften the garlic. Remove the pan from the oven and pour the liquid over the eggplant. Stir well to combine and season to taste with salt and pepper. Top with chopped green olives and capers, if using.
6. Serve as a side dish or on toasted baguette slices as an appetizer.

Come over here kid, learn something. You never know you might have to cook for twenty guys sometime. You see, you start out with a little bit of oil and you fry some garlic, then you throw in some tomatoes, tomato paste, you fry it. You make sure it doesn't stick. You get it to a boil and you shove in all your sausages and meatballs. Add a little bit of wine, a little bit of sugar...

There must be fifty food scenes in the first Godfather alone. Although I'm Italian-American and have seen spaghetti and meatballs made all my life, I researched how it was done in America during the 20s and 30s when gangsters were in their prime. I cringe to repeat the awful things done to unsuspecting pasta back then. You'd probably rather swim with the fishes than eat what passed for 20s-era "Italian spaghetti." One recipe even instructs unsuspecting Americans to bake pasta with ketchup. Here's an authentic Sicilian mafia recipe from the 1920s:

Spaghetti and Meatballs with Eggplant
Serves "the family"

Meatballs:
5 slices white sandwich bread, crusts removed
1 pound ground beef
8 ounces ground pork
2 large eggs
1/2 medium onion, finely minced
3 tablespoons grated Parmesan
3 tablespoons finely minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 teaspoon fennel seed, slightly crushed
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1. Tear the bread into small pieces and place in a large bowl. Sprinkle with a few tablespoons of water and allow to stand for a few minutes until the water is absorbed. Squeeze out any excess.
2. Add the beef, pork, egg, onion, Parmesan, parsley, fennel, nutmeg, salt and pepper and mix until just combined.
3. Form meatballs, about 2 inches in diameter (you should get about 13).
4. Heat the oil in a large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat.
5. Add the meatballs and brown on all sides, turning as necessary, about 3 minutes per side. Reserve.

Sauce and eggplant:
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
1 large onion, minced
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 twenty-eight ounce can crushed tomatoes
1/2 cup red wine
1 1/2 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 teaspoon fennel, slightly crushed
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper
1 large egg plant, peeled
12 large fresh basil leaves
1 pound spaghetti

1. In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, until golden, 5 to 6 minutes. Add the garlic and continue cooking until softened, about 1 minute. Stir in the tomatoes, wine, sugar, parsley, fennel and bay leaf.
2.Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to maintain a simmer. Cook for 5 minutes, season to taste with salt and pepper, and then gently submerge the meatballs and the meatball pan juices into the sauce. Cover and cook for 50 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, slice the eggplant into 1/4 inch thick slices. Then make two cuts from the bottom of the large end halfway up to make 3 sections, yet keep the eggplant slice intact. Generously salt both sides of the eggplant and lay them in a single layer on a rack, or onto paper towels, for 15 minutes. Pat well with paper towels to remove all excess moisture.
4.Heat 2 to 3 tablespoons of oil in a large non-stick skillet over medium high heat. Add the eggplant slices in one layer and fry until dark golden, turning once, about 5 minutes per side. Transfer to a paper-towel lined plate to drain. Repeat with the remaining eggplant, adding more oil as necessary.
5. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the spaghetti and cook according to the package directions. Drain.
6. To serve, remove the meatballs from the sauce and cover to keep warm. Put the spaghetti into a large bowl and pour the sauce over it, tossing well to coat. Divide the pasta among 6 plates. Top with a slice of fried eggplant, and lay a basil leaf or two over the top. Serve warm.
7. Serve the meatballs after the pasta course with a green salad and crusty bread.

And finally, to wrap up your movie feast, a great dessert from an early 1800s chuck wagon cook's diary that's perfect with your favorite western, whether it's The Alamo, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly or Blazing Saddles.

Brown Betty
Serves 6

6 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
2 cups apple juice or water
Juice of 1 lemon, about 1/4 cup
10 ounces dried apple slices
2 tablespoons whiskey, optional
1 cup graham cracker crumbs, about 5 whole crackers crushed

1. Preheat the oven to 500 degrees.
2. In a large ovenproof skillet, melt 4 tablespoons of the butter over medium heat. Add the brown sugar, cinnamon, apple and lemon juices and bring to a boil. Add the dried apples and simmer, stirring frequently, until the liquid is nearly absorbed, about 15 minutes. 3.Remove from the heat. Stir in the whiskey, if using. Sprinkle the graham cracker crumbs evenly over the apples. Dot with the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and bake until browned, about 5 minutes.
4.Serve warm topped with your favorite ice cream or whipped cream.

I hope these recipes inspire you to try your hand at cooking up something to match the time period of your favorite flick. The next time a DVD lands in your mailbox, try 3-D glasses for your palate. Its lots cheaper than dinner and a movie out and more fun, too.

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Index
Movie Menus

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Francine Segan
... is the author of Shakespeare's Kitchen and Movie Menus, the latter divided into ten chapters, that is, ten film genres spiced with appropriate recipes and a detailed list of suggested films in each genre.

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