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Middle Earth Feast: Tolkien fan concocts a meal fit for a Hobbit

Thursday, September 19, 2002

By Elizabeth Vogel

The gathering appeared to be a typical summer barbecue. Neighbors watched guests in Erick Irvis' back yard toss around a Frisbee as he tended the grill. But rather than hot dogs and hamburgers, Irvis was grilling Black Angus ribs and dense pieces of organically raised bison.

On the table inside, instead of egg salad and coleslaw, sat platters and bowls filled with dishes of Middle Earth cuisine, 22 in all.

A recent "Lord of the Rings" dinner party was attended by, from left, Clayton Carlino, cookbook author Stephanie Simmons, her daughter Areya Simmons, Zachary Jones and host Erick Irvis. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

No ordinary barbecue, this was a lavish feast of regional cooking from Middle Earth, the setting of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings." Stephanie Simmons, her 13-year-old daughter, Areya, and colleague Zak Jones had started preparing the food for the Saturday fete on Thursday night.

"Tolkien is such a vivid writer that you could easily imagine the food he describes, but even so, cooking is always 90 percent intuition," Simmons said. "I put myself in the place of the characters, so I could imagine what they ate and how they prepared it."

Because Simmons lives in Somerset County, she gave the party for Pittsburgh friends with Irvis at his house in Blackridge.

Simmons has been a fan of Tolkien literature since she was a teen. Growing up, she said, she could relate to Tolkien's universal theme about the "corrupt and violent use of power without the people's consent. Middle Earth is our Earth, and just like us, you see the loss of people's ability to celebrate culture because of government intervention."

Reading Tolkien's books, she diligently recorded details about the cooking and food choices of Middle Earth characters. Later, Simmons revisited those notes. "When I went back to the notes I had taken as a teen-ager, I was surprised at what a good job I had done."

From those notes and many re-readings of the text, Simmons developed the recipes she used to create the Middle Earth dinner and a cookbook scheduled to debut in November.

As an educated fan herself, Simmons realized the importance Tolkien fans place upon accuracy when duplicating anything based upon his writing. In his novels, Tolkien paid special attention to detail, making it easier for Simmons to ensure authenticity in her recipes.

Keeping the kitchen conditions of hobbits and elves in mind, she prepared all the food with a stovetop as the only modern convenience, although she has also made all the recipes on a wood stove.

 
 

Stephanie Simmons of Buckstown, Somerset County, will cook some of her Middle Earth food, free for the tasting, at Mandala Books' fall open house, which will be from noon to 6 p.m. Saturday at the store, 211 S. Craig St., Oakland. The food will be offered across the street at Phantom of the Attic, 214 S. Craig St.

Simmons, who plans to do some catering in the Middle Earth tradition, can also be reached by e-mail at laiquatook@hotmail.com.

   
 

Before the dinner was served, Simmons distributed homemade menus bound with red ribbon. One side described the dishes, identifying them by their name (in one of Tolkien's languages) and place of origin in the Middle Earth. On the flip side, was a map of The West of Middle Earth at the end of the Third Age.

Dinner started with two soups, two salads and three appetizers. Yavanna, a chilled golden vegetable soup popular among elves, had bacon, peppers, onions and mushrooms, and Soroname, a warm soup, was filled with pasta, meat, tomatoes, beans and onions. Both were delicious and filling.

The salads, Nimcelen, the hobbit version of potato salad, and Calaquendi, a mixed greens salad with whole herbs, were refreshing, while the appetizers, Middle Earth's version of herb focaccia and a tomato, mozzarella and mushroom salad, sustained the appetite until the main dishes arrived.

Belfalas Baran, shrimp wrapped in bacon with a Dijon mustard sauce, combined the smoky flavor of bacon, the tanginess of Dijon and the delicacy of shrimp.

When the guests thought they could eat no more, out came the main dishes. Herb-crusted salmon was served with simmered cabbage, potatoes and onions. A wild rice dish filled with yellow peppers, olives, beans and tomatoes was reminiscent of paella.

The newest experience for guests, however, was the bison and Black Angus ribs, both roasted over an open flame and flavored with hickory, mesquite, oak and maple chips. "When we have our wood delivered, they stack it by flavor," Simmons said.

The bison was served with a sauce made from beef stock, herbs and garlic and a side of broiled asparagus. According to one guest, it tasted like denser brisket.

Simmons, who buys her buffalo from the Bison Corral, in Schellsburg, Bedford County, said the density comes from the nutritious diet fed to organically raised buffalo. The Black Angus ribs, marinated in cedar and maple barrels, had a sweet smoky flavor.

Two side dishes were made from corn. A delicious corn pudding, served at room temperature and flavored with cinnamon and nutmeg, would make a perfect Thanksgiving dish. The corn chutney, made from fresh corn, jalapeno and sweet red peppers, black olives and sun-dried tomatoes was spicy with a good flavor. Adding sweet-potato chips made it especially good.

Although many dishes had similar ingredients, each had unique texture and flavor.

Lembas, a Tolkien original familiar to "The Lord of the Rings" fans, were constantly coming out of the kitchen -- it's Areya's favorite thing to make. These dough balls, made from whole-grain red wheat flour and sweetened with cranberry juice and turbinado sugar, are fried in olive oil and taste delicious, especially when fresh from the stove.

The prettiest and most colorful part of the meal had to be the three fruit punches. Ent Draught, a glowing, green concoction, was flavored with kiwi, honeydew and lime juices and got its color from seaweed. Juicy raspberries and blackberries floated in the deep ruby-colored cranberry punch, and a mixture of mango, papaya and peach juices, as well as rum, gin and vodka appealed to those 21 or older.

The fabulous feast finished with dessert.

The burnt sugar cake was moist, with a refreshing hint of orange, iced with raspberry butter cream. The hot cocoa, made from several types of cocoa and carob, with a touch of chile peppers, was dangerously rich. Although the cocoa was not spicy, the peppers tingled the tongue.

Simmons' cookbook, called "Regional Cooking from Middle Earth: Recipes of the Third Age," is scheduled to be released Nov. 11. The book includes 111 recipes from the regions throughout Middle Earth.

Using her hobbit pen name, Emerald Took, Simmons has recipes that range from beverages to salads and soups to breads and quiches.

Most contain vegetarian alternatives that use mushrooms, leeks and potatoes to replace meats, and she suggests all dishes be made with whole ingredients, such as whole grains, turbinado sugar and pure honeys. Furthermore, Simmons encourages people to avoid salt, because "it takes away from the natural flavor of food."

Sampling Simmons's food or reading the recipes, we couldn't avoid noticing connections between Tolkien cooking and African, Anglo-Saxon, and even Mediterranean cuisine, but Simmons insists that this is merely a coincidence.

"The agriculture and geography of where you live and how you live determines what you eat -- that is how it is in Middle Earth. Middle Earth is a temperate zone that has herbs and onions and squash and lettuce just like we have."

Despite the existence or nonexistence of connection and parallels, the cookbook and Simmons' cooking in general is a delicious way to celebrate both our culture and Tolkien's.

As Simmons explains in her Author's Note, "Above all, this project is meant to honor and respect all peoples ... from Middle Earth and our own. Tolkien said that Middle Earth wasn't some other dimension or parallel universe; it was our earth. I feel he really loved this earth, and so do I. It is in that spirit that this project was conceived. I hope it brings you great fun, joy, sharing and a full tummy."

Elizabeth Vogel, who was a summer intern at the Post-Gazette, is a senior at Mount Lebanon High School. She tested all the recipes but one.

RELATED RECIPES

COROLLAIRE "GREEN MOUND" (MIXED GREENS)

  • 1 bunch each kale, collard and mustard greens (make sure the mustard greens are the smallest bunch -- they tend to overpower the rest)
  • 6 cups stock (chicken, vegetable, avoid the pork)
  • Pepper, sea salt, onion powder, garlic (minced)
  • 1 lemon
  • 2 medium white onions (or 1 large Vidalia onion)

Preparation time: about 1 hour.

Wash greens gently but thoroughly, then wrap in a towel to dry. Chop greens into medium, bite-sized pieces, not too small. Remove large stems (they will make the greens bitter).

Meanwhile, put on stock and bring to a boil. Add onions, diced and minced garlic to the stock (yes, you can use bouillon to make the stock, but watch the salt levels). Bring to boil and simmer.

Place collard greens in stock first, giving them about a 5-minute head start. Add seasoning to taste. (We seasoned the soup at the end.) After greens begin to turn a stronger green color (about 5 minutes), add kale and mustard greens; blend. Allow the greens to simmer, covered, stirring occasionally.

Watch the stock levels; if the water begins to get low, add a cup of stock or water to the pan so that the greens will not burn. Cut lemon in half, squeeze juice in and allow halves to simmer with the greens. How long you cook them is up to you. Greens will be tender in about 45 minutes; some people prefer to eat them a bit more raw. You can also steam them the same way till tender, which will retain more vitamins in the greens, and less in the broth. Serves 8.

Note: Hobbits have a tendency to be big on broth: you can pour these greens over red potatoes or eat them as they are.


BELFALAS BARAN "GOLDEN BROWN FROM THE SOUTHLANDS"
SHRIMP WITH DIJON MUSTARD

  • 2 pounds medium/large shrimp, cleaned and deveined
  • 1 pound bacon (smoked) or turkey bacon
  • 1 large jar of Dijon mustard (or hot and spicy mustard for the extremely brave)
  • 1/2 cup organic honey
  • 2 oranges
  • 1 clove fresh garlic, minced
  • Pinch crushed red pepper
  • Toothpicks
  • Unbleached parchment paper

Preparation time: 15 minutes (it took us much longer than this to wrap all the shrimp).

Tester's note: We bought large shrimp.

Cooking time: 10 minutes.

Cut bacon pieces in half lengthwise and then in half across; set aside.

Place minced garlic in a medium bowl with chopped basil and thyme. Roll shrimp in mixture. Roll shrimp in bacon and secure with a toothpick. Place on cooking sheet on unbleached parchment paper. Sprinkle with a pinch of crushed red pepper. Cut oranges in half and sprinkle with juice . . . not too much. Place in oven on 525 degrees (broiler) for 5 to 7 minutes or till shrimp turns pink. (Our shrimp was precooked, so we broiled until bacon was done.) Turn once. While broiling, mix honey and mustard and a spray of juice from the orange.

Remove shrimp when ready, cooling slightly. Place on serving tray with Dijon bowl in the middle and enjoy! (We had quite a bit of leftover dip, so we suggest halving the recipe.)

Serves 10 to 15 people.

Tested by food editor Suzanne Martinson


CARDOLAN "SOUTHLANDS" CORN CHUTNEY

  • 2 1/2 cups fresh corn, cooked and cooled
  • 1/4 cup chopped jalapeno peppers
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 cup chopped sun-dried tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup minced garlic
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 1/2 cup chopped black olives
  • 1/2 cup chopped red sweet peppers (fresh, or sauteed and cooled)
  • 1/4 cup parsley
  • 1 dash (or more for the extremely daring) hot sauce

Preparation time: about 10 minutes (45 minutes in refrigerator).

In a large bowl, combine and stir ingredients (we used 3 cups corn). Refrigerate 45 minutes to 1 hour. Use tortilla chips, crackers or burrito shells, or nan bread cut in pieces and serve.

Tester's note: 1 ear of fresh corn equals about 1/2 cup.

Serves 8.

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