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'The Philosopher's Kitchen'

If you think the low-carb diet or the raw-food diet is a relatively modern idea, you'd be surprise to learn that they have roots in antiquity.

Food historian and author Francine Seegan offers The Early Show a glimpse into foods of ancient Greece and Rome in her new cookbook, "The Philosopher's Kitchen," from which she serves up centuries-old dishes with a modern twist and some fun facts.

Plato, for example, advised all athletes to avoid sugar. To lose weight, Hippocrates suggested a diet rich in fats and proteins to decrease appetites. And Pythagoras, an outspoken vegetarian and accomplished cook, insisted that a nonmeat diet fostered physical and mental health and longevity.

Seegan used many different sources for her cookbook, including writings on food and health by Hippocrates and Plato and Marcus Aurelius' diaries.

Try the recipes she demonstrates on Friday's The Early Show:

Spaghetti With Caramelized Onions
Serves 6

Onions were thought to be aphrodisiacs, and both the ancient Greeks and Romans served them at wedding feasts to "seek the door of Venus."

In this modern version, the onions are slow-cooked to create a creamy sauce without using either cheese or cream. Spaghetti tossed with this silky vegetarian sauce is toppled with toasted bread crumbs and pine nuts, providing a lovely contrast of textures. The sauce can be made hours ahead and reheats nicely. Inexpensive yet elegant, this dish is perfect for a large group.

3 large sweet onions, thinly sliced
2 medium red onions, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon dried marjoram
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup pine nuts
0 cup plain dried bread crumbs
1/2 cup white wine
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon muscatel or sherry vinegar
Salt and freshly milled pepper
1 pound spaghetti
1/4 cup minced assorted fresh herbs, such as parsley, mint, and basil

  1. Sauté the onions, marjoram, and thyme in the oil in a large skillet over low heat for at least 45 minutes, until very soft.
  2. In the meantime, prepare the topping. Toast the pine nuts in a small, dry nonstick pan over medium heat until light golden. Reserve in a small bowl. Using the same nonstick pan, toast the bread crumbs over medium heat, stirring frequently, until they are golden brown. Add the bread crumbs to the toasted pine nuts and reserve.
  3. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
  4. After the onions have cooked for 45 minutes, raise the temperature to high and caramelize them for 8 to 10 minutes. Add the wine and honey, and continue cooking on high until most of the wine has evaporated. Remove the onion mixture from the heat and stir in the vinegar. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  5. Drop the pasta into the boiling water and cook according to package directions, then drain. In a large bowl, toss the cooked spaghetti with the onion sauce and minced herbs. Top with the pine nut and bread crumb mixture and serve immediately.

THE ANCIENT Greeks and Romans did not have spaghetti as we know it. However, many ancient texts describe a very thin, dry sheet of dough cut into various shapes. This dry dough was fried or baked but not boiled. Boiling pasta in broth or wine did not occur until the Middle Ages. Interestingly, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word macaroni is derived from an ancient Greek word for barley cake, which hints at a relationship between the two.

Free-Form Cherry Lasagna
Serves 4

Closed lips hurt no one, speaking may.
-CATO THE ELDER, 234-149 B.C.

The original recipe describes sheets of dry, thin bread dough layered with cheese, perhaps an ancestor to the modern-day Greek cheese pie and Italian lasagna. When I prepared it exactly as described in the original, the results were a little dry, so I created a sauce based on a fruit compote recipe of the time.

This unusual free-form lasagna with tart cherry sauce is just sweet enough to spark the appetite but not so sweet as to be dessertlike. If you have difficulty finding tart cherries, fresh apricots are a delicious substitute. One of my wonderful recipe testers, Judy Borger, prepared this as a side dish for duck using cranberries, the decidedly all-American fruit, with outstanding results.

2 shallots, minced
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons olive oil, plus more as needed
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup vegetable stock
1 1/2 cups pitted fresh, canned, or frozen tart cherries
Grated zest of 1/2 lemon
4 lasagna sheets
1 bay leaf
6 whole allspice berries
1 cup whole-milk ricotta cheese
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
Pinch of ground white pepper
Pinch of ground nutmeg
2 tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted
Shaved Parmesan cheese for garnish

  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
  2. Sauté half of the shallots in 1 tablespoon of the oil in a saucepan over medium heat until softened, about 3 minutes. Add the wine, stock, and cherries, and bring to a boil. Cook until the cherries are very soft and the liquid has mostly evaporated, about 15 minutes. Allow to cool slightly, then pulse in a food processor until coarsely chopped. Return the mixture to the pan, stir in the zest, cover, and keep warm over very low heat.
  3. Once the water is boiling, add the lasagna sheets, bay leaf, and allspice, and cook according to package directions. Drain in a colander, remove the bay leaf and allspice, and toss lightly with a few drops of oil to keep from sticking.
  4. Stir together the ricotta and grated Parmesan cheeses, white pepper, and nutmeg in a small bowl until combined. Heat 2 teaspoons of the oil in a small saucepan over low heat. Add the remaining shallots and cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Add half of the cheese mixture to the shallots and stir until combined. Remove from the heat and stir in the remaining cheese mixture.
  5. To assemble, cut a lasagna sheet in half. Spread about 1 teaspoon of cherry sauce on a serving plate. Lay the half sheet of lasagna on the sauce. On one end place 1 tablespoon of cheese, fold, and top with a little more cherry sauce. Repeat with the other half sheet of lasagna on the same plate. Repeat the entire procedure with the other 3 sheets of lasagna. Garnish each plate with the sesame seeds and shaved Parmesan. Serve immediately.

You can list neither all the virtues of fine flour, nor all its uses, how often it serves the baker and the cook.
-MARTIAL, A.D. 40-103

THE ROMANS used flour and even the starchy water from cooking grains to thicken sauces. Still today, many Italian chefs use this method to control the consistency of sauce.

Assorted Fig Appetizers
Serves 6

I call a fig, a fig: a spade, a spade.
-Menander, 342-292 B.C.

Plato was often referred to as a "fig lover" because of his extreme fondness for these succulent morsels. The ancients believed that figs, one of the oldest cultivated fruits, brought pleasant dreams and should be eaten before dinner, "when the appetite is virgin."

Here, three different tantalizing fillings for figs provide a perfect assortment of tastes to start any elegant meal.

18 whole dried figs
1 cup white wine
3 teaspoons mascarpone cheese
Grated zest of 1/2 lemon
2 tablespoons finely chopped pistachio nuts
1 teaspoon honey
2 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto

  1. Bring the figs and wine to a simmer in a saucepan over low heat until the figs are soft, about 5 minutes. Remove the figs with a slotted spoon. Continue cooking the wine until very thick and syrupy, about 10 minutes. Reserve.
  2. Cut 1/4 inch off the tops of 6 figs and set the figs, cut side up, on a serving platter. Top each with 1/2 teaspoon of the cheese and sprinkle with the lemon zest.
  3. Remove the stems from 6 more figs and halve the figs lengthwise. Pile the pistachios on a small plate and press the cut portion of each fig into them until the butts adhere.

    Arrange the pistachio fig halves on the serving platter and drizzle with a little honey.

  4. Remove the stems from the remaining figs and halve the figs crosswise. Make a small cavity in each center with the tip of your finger. Cut the prosciutto into 1/2 inch-wide strips, roll into a bundle and press into each fig. Place the stuffed figs on the serving platter and drizzle with the wine syrup.

There are numerous reference in antiquity to Greek athletes eating figs to build stamina and muscle. Hercules, an athlete of heroic proportions, reportedly enjoyed fresh figs for dessert.

Hercules was renowned not only for his amazing strength but also for his rather limited intellect. According to legend, on one hot summer day he was seen shouting insults at the sun and threatening to shoot it with an arrow if the weather didn't cool down immediately. On another occasion, while on a choppy boat ride, Hercules screamed at the waves and warned that he'd beat them if they didn't calm down.

Field and Forest Salad
Serves 4

Mushrooms have a wonderful woodsy fresh flavor and are delicious raw. Try this salad as a side dish with grilled foods or as a light starter, and be sure to experiment with various mushroom varieties such as chanterelles, oyster mushrooms, and morels.

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons raspberry vinegar
Salt and freshly milled pepper
2 cups very thinly sliced assorted mushrooms
3/4 cup assorted fresh herbs, such as basil, mint, and parsley
2 tablespoons finely chopped pistachio nuts

  1. In a small bowl, whisk together the oil and vinegar, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Arrange the mushrooms and herbs on a serving platter and drizzle on the vinaigrette. Top with the pistachios and serve immediately.

Original Recipe

Field and forest herbs can be eaten as they are, dipped in a dressing of liquamen [fermented fish sauce], oil, and vinegar, or cooked in a shallow pan with pepper, cumin, and mastic berries [related to pistachio nuts].

Popular opinion about lettuce varied in ancient Greece; some raved about its healthful qualities, while other believed it caused everything from an upset stomach to impotence. The Pythagoreans believed lettuce would "relax desire" and even nicknamed it "eunuch." One Greek myth associates lettuce with a handsome lover's demise. Adonis, to escape the wrath of Aphrodite's other lover, hid in a lettuce bed, only to die any way when his rival turned into a wild boar and killed him.

Sea Bass With Feta
Serves 4

You cannot teach a crab to walk straight
-Aristophanes, 450-388 B.C.

This recipe is from the oldest known Greek cookbook, Art of Cookery, by Mithaecus. It had a great impact on the foods of Athens and the Greek provinces in the fifth century B.C. Even Plato mentions Mithaecus, noting that he "provided a wonderful service to the body."

The feta and herb topping takes only minutes to assemble, keeps the fish moist, and adds a truly wonderful flavor to bass or your favorite seafood.

1/4 cup plain dried bread crumbs
3 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon minced fresh dill
1 tablespoon minced fresh chives
salt and freshly milled pepper
4 sea bass fillets, about 7 ounces each

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
  2. Combine the bread crumbs, cheese, oil, dill, and chives in a small bowl.
  3. Generously salt and pepper the bass and place on a lightly greased baking sheet. Press the bread crumb mixture on top of each fillet. Bake, uncovered, until the fish is firm and cooked through, about 20 minutes.

Seared Tuna with Onion-Raisin Marmalade
Serves 4

Coriander had been cultivated for at least 5,000 years. This fragrant spice is mentioned in Sanskrit texts, ancient Egyptian papyri, and even the Bible. The Roman introduced coriander into northern Europe where it was often used to flavor and preserve meats.

This Roman recipe for coriander-crushed tuna with tart-sweet marmalade is also delicious served cold. Leftovers, if there are any, make wonderful sandwiches.

2 large red onions, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 cup golden raisins
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon honey
1 celery rib with leaves, thinly sliced
1/4 cup sherry vinegar
Salt and freshly milled pepper
4 tuna steaks, 1/2 inch thick, about 8 ounces each
1/4 cup coriander seeds
2 heaping tablespoons minced fresh parsley

  1. Sauté one of the onions, the sugar, and the raisins in the oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat until golden, about 10 minutes. Add 1/2 cup of water and the honey. Cover and simmer for 8 to 10 minutes, until the liquid has evaporated. Add the remaining onion, the celery, and the vinegar. Uncover and simmer for 8 to 10 minutes, until the vegetables are very soft. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and set aside.
  2. Preheat the grill or broiler.
  3. Liberally season both sides of the tuna with salt and pepper. Coarsely crush the coriander seeds in a sturdy plastic bag using a flat, heavy skillet. Press the crushed seeds on both sides of the tuna steaks.
  4. Grill or broil the tuna to the desired doneness, about 2 minutes per side for medium.
  5. Arrange the tuna steaks on a serving platter and top with the onion-raisin marmalade and a sprinkle of the parsley.

PLATO, although born into a wealthy aristocratic family, lived very simply, eating only one meal a day. On his return from a visit to lush Sicily, he disapprovingly wrote, "I found myself utterly at odds with the sort of life that is there termed a happy one, a life taken up with Italian and Syracuse banquets, an existence that consists in filling oneself up twice a day, never sleeping alone at night, and indulging in all the practices attendant in that way of living." I don't know about you, but I for one find his description of ancient Sicily rather inviting.

Mediterranean Fruit Salad
Serves 12

A magnificent orchard four acres deep…Here luxuriant trees are always in their prime, pomegranates and pears, and apples glowing red, succulent figs…pear mellowing ripe on pear, apple on apple, cluster of grapes on cluster, fig crowding fig.
-Homer, Circa 700 B.C.

This lovely passage about lush Sicily reminds me of the wonderful modern Italian fruit salad they call Macedonia. Italians claim the dish got its name because the country, like the fruit salad, is made up of many different parts. In fact, the key to this wonderful and refreshing salad is to combine lots of different fruit. I've included only what was available in antiquity, but if you like, you can add bananas, oranges, pineapple, and other fruits unknown to the ancient Greeks and Romans

1 apple or pear, cored and diced
1/2 cup honey
8 ounces cherries, pitted
8 ounces grapes, sliced in half
4 apricots, pitted and diced
2 peaches, pitted and diced
2 plums, pitted and diced
1 pint raspberries or strawberries
1 pomegranate, seeds separated (optional)
3 figs, quartered
2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup fruit liqueur, such as limoncello

Toss the apple pieces in a large serving bowl with the honey to keep them from discoloring. Combine with the cherries, grapes, apricots, peaches, plums, and raspberries. Top with pomegranate seeds, if using, and fig quarters. Sprinkle with the sugar and drizzle with the liqueur.

Peaches in Spiced Wine
Serves 4

Apicius, the first-century Roman gourmet, lists recipes for both peaches in wine and berries with vinegar in his Roman cookery book, proving that these favorite Italian summer desserts have a 2,000-year-old tradition.
Originally from Persia, peaches were planted in ancient Greece and then introduced to the Romans. Initially, the Romans treated peaches with suspicion, believing that those picked in Persia were poisonous. Galen, the renowned second-century physician, even thought that peaches could cause fevers. Luckily, for peach lovers, the Romans overcame their concerns and decided that peaches planted on Italian soil were safe.

3 firm peaches, peeled, pitted, and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons honey
1 cup dessert wine
1 teaspoon ground cumin

Divide the peach slices among 4 large wineglasses and top with the honey. Pour 1/4 cup of the wine into each glass and sprinkle with the cumin. Serve immediately.

Original Recipe

A dish of peaches. Clean firm peaches, cut them into pieces, and boil. Arrange in a shallow pan, sprinkle with a little oil, and serve with cumin-wine sauce.

Bay Leaf Cookies
Makes 2 1/2 dozen cookies

Grasp the subject, the words will follow.
-Cato the Elder, 234-149 B.C.

Daphne, a nymph, pleaded with Mother Earth for help in avoiding Apollo's amorous advances. Mother Earth obligated, changing her into a bay-laurel tree for protection. Zeus, watching the transformations, vowed to always wear a wreath of laurel leaves and make the laurel a part of all triumphal ceremonies in her memory.

Cato the Elder, the Roman statesman, inspired this memorable dish of bay leaf-flavored cookies.

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1 large egg
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup frozen white grape juice concentrated, thawed
1 teaspoon anise seeds
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup whole-milk ricotta cheese
3 bay leaves, finely crumbled and coated with olive oil

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. Beat the butter and 1/2 cup of the sugar in a large bowl using an electric mixer until creamy. Add the egg, salt, baking soda, grape juice concentrate, anise seeds, and cumin, and continue beating. Slowly add the flour until combined.
  3. Drop the dough by rounded teaspoonfuls onto a greased nonstick cookie sheet and make an indent in the center of each with a teaspoon.
  4. IN a small bowl, mix together the cheese and remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar. Place half a teaspoon of this sweet ricotta mixture in the center and top with a sprinkle of the crumbled bay leaves.
    5 Bake on the center rack until the bottoms are golden brown, 15 to 18 minutes.

Original Recipe

Recipe for must [reduced pulp after the wine grapes are mashed] cake: Moisten 1 modius of wheat flour with must; add anise, cumin, 2 pounds of lard, 1 pound of cheese, and the bark of a laurel twig. When you have made them into cakes, put bay leaves under them, and bake.

As a youth in the military, Cato and Elder shared quarters with a soldier who introduced him to Pythagoras' philosophy for a simple living and eating. As a result, Cato's dining habits changed. His breakfast, for example, "Never saw the fire."

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