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I like to eat. Because I like to eat, I like to cook, especially for friends I like to eat with. That’s what this blog is about: what I lik...

October 1, 2017

Blog the Forty-first: Pickling Cherry Peppers

... or Italian Eggplant, "Sott'olio"


It’s pickling time, the perfect time to offer you my meterological theory of Western civilization. Western thought began in the Mediterranean where more often than not the blue sky smiles on you with a golden sun and the rich earth vouchsafes its bounty. If you’re an Aristotle or an Aquinas, you naturally begin reasoning about nature on the premise that she is a loving mother, beautiful, good, and benevolent in her purposes, and you resolve accordingly to seek your wisdom from her. But when human inquiry into nature migrates north, it meets cloud, wind, and hail, ground yielding tubers only if watered by much sweat, and life short, nasty, and brutish; so if you’re a Bacon or a Hobbes, you premise that nature is a cruel stepmother, as stinting of her secrets as of her treasures, and you resolve for your survival to put your mother to the rack until she tells you what you want to know.

That’s why they pickle cucumbers and cabbage up there. It’s a question of surviving the winter. But down in the sunkist land of my people, you pickle because it makes things delicious. It’s a matter of art. Taste their pickled cucumber and our pickled eggplant, or their pickled beets next to our pickled cherry peppers, and you will taste the difference between preservation of life and appetite for it.

March 16, 2017

Blog the Fortieth: "The Glories of the Pea"

In Transcendental Array




It’s spring intermittently down here just south of the Mason Dixon line, which means tis the season for N.P.R.’s donor marathon. I never donate to N.P.R., even though for decades it has been my primary and often sole news source as I cook supper. I’m attached to it on uncle Niccolo’s advice to keep your enemies closer than your friends, as well as for the antidote it provides to my own bias in the daily exercise of having to decipher the news under its. In any case, I will to my dying day be grateful to N.P.R. for this quotation from the diary of a Lady-in-waiting to Catherine de Medici during her reign over the cuisine of the court of Henri II: “Nothing else has been spoken of at Court this week but the glories of the pea newly arrived from Italy.”

Ah! Can you imagine a world in which peas are glorious?

So, I am abashed to offer you this post on what my people do with peas, because I feel as though my people’s recipes are not glorious enough for that quotation. The recipes are really, really good, but only in the usual way that our food is really, really good, and glorious should be even better than that, I figure. Anyways, I have one pasta recipe for you, a soup, a vegetable side, a chicken-braise, and a most unexpected calamari braise, in case there be an apologetical glory of sorts to be got from crossing kinds in transcendental array.

March 5, 2017

Blog the Thirty-ninth: At the Heart of Minestrone

Savoy Cabbage Braise,
or Pasta ‘n potatoes?



If you’re a Gentile in the least acquainted with Italian food, you no doubt think you know what “minestrone” is, but I doubt you do, because I doubt there’s something to know, speaking precisely. There is of course a single name, but that’s not conclusive, since we name and contemplate not only things but also their absence—as darkness names the absence of light and blindness the absence of sight. We moreover name what can be based on what is; and what could be based on what can be conceived; and what should have been be even against what already is unfortunately. Language and thought extend much farther than the reality before it, and venture so far as to name even the ineffable that cannot be named and the inconceivable that cannot be conceived (which is especially useful when you need to name God or mathematical fictions).

But what has any of that to do with “minestrone”? Well, the Italian suffix “-one” indicates that we’re dealing with something not only big but clumsy, something oafish or overdone—you call your fat uncle a “mangione”, not your voracious teen. A “minestrone” is an overdone “minestra”, which only raises the question of what a “minestra” is, itself vexed. One might translate it “soup”. But does the English word “soup” imply a medley of elements in liquid, whether thin as broth or thick as sauce? A “minestra” can be less than that. In Sicily, the day after a feast day my aunt made us a light supper out of a mild green served in the salted water it simmered in, drizzled with olive oil and squirted with some lemon. That’s a simple “minestra”. You eat the greens with a fork in your right hand and bread in your left, spooning and/or sopping up the broth at the end.  Is that soup?  Granted that you finish with a spoon, is it soup if you begin with a fork?

That’s the English horn of the dilemma. Then there’s the Italian. When you add pasta to a “minestra”, it is no longer a “minestra”, but rather a pasta. It changes its genus, as adding wings to a warm dinosaur makes it a bird. In the case of a minestra, the bread is but accompaniment. Add pasta to that same minestra, and the pasta becomes the essential matter of the dish, which then takes its specific form from its minestra. When I make pasta ‘n lentils, I sometimes save some of the lentils to eat on their own the next day as a minestra, accompanied no doubt by bread. In contrast, my people never have bread with pasta, for doubling the starches ruins the proportion. Only at the end after the pasta is all eaten, if there remain remnants of sauce in the bowl, might we reach for a piece of bread to sop it up.

Notwithstanding the antiquity of these distinctions, when we add not only pasta but different sorts of pasta to the multifarious minestra of a minestrone, we don’t call it a pasta, but rather a “minestrone”, or an “oaf” of a “minestra”. This nomeclature does not make quidditative sense, but there it is anyway, existing. Exist though it may, if there’s no accounting for it, there’s no knowing it, speaking precisely, is there?

January 23, 2017

Blog the Thirty-eighth: OCTOPUS

Behold!  
in a Seafood Salad
(plus a Bonus Baby Braise)

Women of a certain age develop very definite opinions about color, and the last thing you want is to get lassoed onto a paint committee with them. I'm an idiot savant when it comes to colors. I'm great at mixing and matching them, but I never get their names right, as women of a certain age love to tell me.

I got into it once with such a one when I said that octopus is purple. "No it's not; it's white." I stared at her dumbly, as though she had eight heads. I would concede if she were to insist that I mix up blue and green, but there's no way she'll convince me I mistake white for purple. So I reply, "Well, it's kind of greyish white before you cook it; and the inside is quite white after you cook it; but on the outside it's purple as purple can be." And she, "Well, we've served it to you before, and it was white." Oh, is that what those cyclinders were? I thought they were digits of palm or tofu. Turns out they were cored octopus, which I subsequently spotted in the freezer of the fish market next time I went. You Gentiles had me this time. I was speechless. Dumb with incredulity.

When I was in Brooklyn at Christmastime, I spotted a new fish shop across from the pastry shop, and reconnoitering came upon three crates of octopus of as many sizes. To mine eyes they were beautiful to behold. When I asked the fishmongress where they came from, she said "Portugal". That clinched it, as my father always said the best octopus is fresh from Portugal, so I decided to buy some to make for my mother and me that night. I was tempted by the baby ones, which we cook in spicy tomato sauce, but t'was the season for octopus salad, so I decided to decide between the middle and mega size. The reddish color of the big boy before me seized my sensorium, so I asked for him. When he weighed in at $24, I think I manged to keep custody of my facial features as I gulped out, "That's fine."

I ended up sending a pic of the big boy boiled to my friend of definite opinions, with the text, 
"Documentary proof that octopus is purple:" 




June 2, 2016

Blog the Thirty-seventh: Chicken Cutlets Fancy

Three Ways 
(Plus bonus rollatini)

I once read on a NYC subway that it takes a village to raise a child.  Well, it takes an Italian family to come up with a good chicken cutlet recipenot a nucleus of 2 parents, 2 kids, 3 cars, a dog & a nannybut a sprawling Italian family of aunts, uncles, and cousins that crosses not only the five Boroughs, but an ocean and a century, with transatlantic runners and gentile grafts. 

That commercial you have running in your head now of three generations of well-manicured women looking lovingly at one another across a casserole is not what I mean either.  Rather, as the founding fathers of the American republic understood that the best means to manage contention was to let contending interests contend until mutually canceling extremes give way to a mean, likewise recipes in my family contend until a family consensus pronounces sentence by acclamation—vox populi, vox Dei—dialectical contention giving way to general emulation.

My mother never liked my Aunt Rose’s chicken cutlets with white mushrooms and onions, which I love, so she never makes it, but I learned it from my aunt long ago, and I love to make it for dinner parties for gentile friends, who love it. For holiday dinners my mother loves to make her cutlets topped with tangy onions, which I’ve never liked and never make, even though the rest of my family all like it.  Aunt Rose’s daughter, my cousin, told me she has recently taken to making her mother’s cutlets with my Baby Bella mushrooms garlicky instead of her mother’s button mushrooms with onions, which if you ask me is not really her mother’s recipe at all, but a new recipe all her own.  Liking her mother’s recipe, I didn’t like the idea of hers, until I tried it on myself one night, with a difference I’ll tell you about, and now I like it precisely for its difference.  I’ll give you all these recipes here and you can pronounce and acclaim for yourself, as if a people.

April 5, 2016

DINNER DIARY: Leftover Genius, Frittata!

If not to others, is it okay to admit to yourself that you’re a genius?  Well,
Dear Diary, I don’t mind telling you, I am a genius with leftovers. My leftovers are better than most people’s fresh food. I can rejuvenate, reinvent, or extrapolate, as necessity requires or opportunity presents, nor did I learn this from my mother, who’s as bad at leftovers as she is good at cooking.

I even put people to the test. If you get the call to come “for good leftovers,” and you demure with any hint of disdain, you get on a Do Not Call For Leftovers list it’s impossible to get off of.  You get only one chance.  It may be unfair, but it’s just.


March 28, 2016

Dinner Diary: Asparagus Risotto as quick 'n easy as can be.



My sister-in-law decided that I was making Easter dinner, and my mother seconded the diktat.  I was benignly given a choice of her house or my mother’s, and my brother ignored my email inviting them all down to my house for Easter dinner in the land of my exile, no doubt taking my point.  I chose my mother’s house. 

March 19, 2016

Blog the Thirty-sixth: The Wines of my People

Or at least the ones I like.

You’ll no doubt not be surprised to hear me say that I like the wine of my people better than the wine of any other people—especially if you have any talent for logic, for simply supply the minor premise, and the conclusion follows from the given, that I like the food of my people better than the food of any other people. 
But won't you be surprised to learn that I do not think that the wine of my people is better than the wine of every other people? I see I have perplexed, if not appalled you, familiar Reader. And what if I should go on to say that next to the French, I think my people perfect dolts when it comes to purveying their wine to you? I see I’ve now appalled you, if also amused you.

Well, let’s begin with my enthymeme’s unstated premise, namely, The wines and cuisine of a place are siblings. Engendered as they are by a common terrain and clime, a land’s cuisine and wines adapt to each other as they grow up together—call it syncretism, call it synergy, call it family. Likewise, growing up with my people’s food, I like their wine. Because I like wines that like my food, I like wines that don't mind tartness and pungency and savoriness. That also means wines that don't want center stage, but like jiving or jamming with food. My people drink wine with food, and not with just any food, but with meats. We have wine with antipasto, but water with pasta; we have wine with the meat dish, but water with the salad and fruit. On special occasions, we might have sweet wine with dessert, or spirits after, and that's pretty much it. We drink a lot, but we don't get drunk.

I like my reds pretty dry, pretty tart, pretty tannic but not too, to offset the oiliness and savoriness of my food. I don't like strawberries or red cherries in my wine; I like dark cherries, raspberries, blackberries, and plums.  In the white, I love apples and pears. I like my fruit fresh or dried (like raisins), but not cooked (like jam). Flowers are okay, but I like herbs better. I like the cedar or balsamic notes of old wood, but not the vanilla or sweet spice of new oak. I like manly stuff like leather or tobacco or dark chocolate, but not exotica of the tropics or the East. I like earth and minerals, and earthy funkiness (think mushrooms, not feet), but not fur, sweat, or dung (can you blame me?). I don't like candy or chemicals either (what the hell are they doing in the wine, anyway?). I do like to tongue velvet and silk (okay, was that too much information?).

March 5, 2016

Dinner Diary: A T-Bone Steak with Asparagus and a Sweet Potato



I hadn’t cooked for a couple of days and, well, it was starting to feel unnatural.... 

February 25, 2016

Dinner Diary: Broiled Loin Lamb Chops



Oh shit.  I forgot to take something out of the freezer for dinner.  What now?

February 11, 2016

Blog the Thirthy-fifth: One potato, two potato, three potato ...


... Four potato salads.

You know how when you have one kid who is good at everything, and another who is good at only one thing, you have to make a really big deal about that one thing, and act as if he’s the family maven when it comes to that thing? That’s how it is with Italians and potatoes. It would be untoward for us to claim potatoes too. Brotherliness requires ceding to the putative peoples of meat and potatoes that putativity.

But if the truth may be told—and why else do you read this blog if not for that? and why do I remain putatively anonymous if not for that?—my father loved to say, “I love potatoes but your mother never makes them for me,” whenever she made them, which was regularly, so that his point was not “never” but “never for me,” as if to say, granted she cooks them all the time, if not for you too she would not make them for me alone. Whether that is a distinction without a difference, I leave to you to decide. In any case, Italians in fact eat lots of potatoes, even if not every night, and they like to—it’s not as if some British-induced famine forced them to eat them. Of course, one of the ways they make potatoes is with pasta, but it’s not the only way and not the usual way, and so that Irish crack about pasta e patate counts as an ethnic slur, and all you libs should note that down.

But you have a much bigger problem to deal with here than Irish wise-cracks about pasta e patate. The Italian way of making potato salad calls into question the very meaning of the English word “salad”. Historically speaking, English and Italian are, if not first cousins, at least second cousins by remarriage. That heavy tonguing of Anglo-Saxon by Normandized Latin was followed by a couple centuries of literary Italophilia, and nearly a score of academic Latinophilia. So you might well think as ordinary a word as “salad” would more or less translate. But I fear that it does not.

Italians call many vegetable preparations insalata that English-speakers would not call “salad”. I mentioned in my post on “broccoli lemony” (an English alias for insalata di broccoli) an episode when my colleague’s drunk wife (won’t mention the ethnicity) offered my dinner guests wry exclamations on the conveniences of my serving my steamed broccoli “cold” (i.e., at room temperature). Her rightly embarrassed husband rose to the defense of his host’s cold broccoli with, "It’s like a salad." Notwithstanding his apologetic, his wife remained wry. Notwithstanding her wryness, she got me wondering: how did her husband’s comparison aim to excuse my broccoli before the Gentiles? What exactly do Gentiles mean by “salad”? 

(Gentiles make me wonder a lot.)