November 27, 2012

Blog theTwentieth: On Saracens, Sugar, & Sicily

… with two recipes for 
Red Peppers Tangy ‘n Sweet
I’m just not sure what to think about Saracens.  On one hand, they threatened my people (on my father’s side) with extermination, for refusing to surrender themselves and their Christian faith.  On the other hand, Saracen traders brought Sicily sugar, which was experimented with in the culinary arts before it found its natural place in the confectionary arts, bequeathing to South Italy its repertoire of sweet-‘n-sour dishes, in which vinegar mixed with sugar gives the tangy effect.  It works great on red peppers, which look great on a holiday plate. 

Saracen in late antiquity meant Arabian, more or less, but by the  Middle Ages it generally meant Muslim to most Europeans, as Venetian meant European to most Muslims, in each case no doubt by the metonymy of naming a people by its foremost emissaries, its traders.  The Saracens menacing my Sicilian forebears were probably Moors from North Africa, the kind Orlando Furioso fought.  In any case, it goes to show what a cosmopolitan place the coveted island of Sicily was, that the Sicilians those Saracens were menacing were of Norman extraction, to which earlier Norman invasion of the island I trace my half-Irish niece’s and nephew’s red hair (on my sister’s side of the recessive gene pair, that is). 

It’s easy for me to make light of the Saracen expedition against Sicily because it failed, thanks, on at least one occasion, to the warrior Madonna.  Yes, the warrior Madonna, and, no, she’s not some pagan syncretism of Sicilian Christianity.  I learned about her from my Sicilian uncle, who is a martial arts black-belt that invented his own Sicilian martial art, which he named after himself—Liobú—formalizing into an art‑form an old Sicilian tradition of street fighting with tree limbs whittled smooth into rods.  He is also a poet of the Sicilian dialect, who has published books of poems translated on facing pages into Italian. Okay, so maybe my Sicilian uncle is syncretistic.  But Sicily’s warrior Madonna is not.

August 10, 2012

Blog the Nineteenth: A Musing on the Simplest Things

Tomato Salad

Simplicity is hard to understand.  Its being hard to understand is also hard to understand.  The usual way to understand something is to understand the relations among its parts.  But where there are no parts and relations, but simply unity, the seeing must be immediate:  you either see the simplest things, or you don’t.

If your way of eating is a way of life—not your own merely, but a people’s way of life—then it comes not through education, but through assimilation.  I have a colleague from South Carolina who told me that he learned to open a car door for a lady when his father once upbraided him, “What’s wrong with you, boy?  Don’t you know to get that door for your aunt?”  It’s obvious.  It’s a way of being in the world your people take for granted.  Like breathing, if you think too hard about it, you’ll liable to lose your rhythm and your breath.

That’s no doubt why it sometimes seems to me that Gentiles don’t know the simplest things, like how to make a tomato salad.  What’s more, they don’t seem to know that they don’t know.  You really can’t explain it to them:  either they taste the difference between ours and theirs, and what’s just right about ours, or they don’t.  If they don’t, it’s a waste of breath talking about it.

Of course, my reasonable self grasps the proposition that such cultural differences are relative, and that in matters of taste there must not be dispute.  It would make no sense to eat according to other people’s tastes, would it?  And even if one entertain the proposition that some cooking may be judged better than other cooking, or even that our own cooking may be judged better than every other people’s cooking, would not the liberal‑minded interpretation of this fact be that our own had attained to extraordinary heights of superiority, rather than that the others were defective?

But it just doesn’t seem that way to me.  It seems like the right way to dress a tomato should be obvious to a human being, upon a bit of reflection and experimentation, or, failing that, upon their first taste of our tomato salad.  It’s obvious because it’s simple:  taste for yourself.  And if you don’t taste the difference, I can’t explain it to you.

August 4, 2012

Blog the Eighteenth: Eggplant in Season

Make it easy, make it garlicKy.

The piles of eggplant at market are even higher than those of zucchini, eggplant being summer’s big boy.  This kid is high‑maintenance, though, and has been so from its youth.  Although eggplant’s agricultural history is long debated among those who care, it apparently began as a small prickly green vegetable with bland flesh and a bitter taste.  Being a member of the deadly nightshade family (like its cousin the tomato), it was sometimes feared to be poisonous.  What but an incurably curious omnivore could sustain interest in such a food? 

Human domestication has managed to get rid of eggplant’s pricks, but not always its bitter after-taste, so it often requires purging before cooking.  Cross-breeding has also managed to educe a variety of shapes and colors, one of those being the smallish white ovular variety that has given the fruit its English name.  A momentary mood of linguistic atavism once moved me to overpay for intriguing little white eggplants on offing at the gourmet market.  The recalcitrance of their flesh to flavoring and softening gave me a refresher course in the sophistries of gourmet supermarkets.

Thomas Jefferson brought purple eggplant to America as a table decoration, but it took immigrants of the Mediterranean and Asia to teach Americans how to eat eggplant.  It is labor-intensive food to cook, so as a cook you must understand that its virtue is not so much in its flavor as in the power of its spongy flesh to assimilate the flavors you feed it.  In this respect, it is like white mushrooms.

July 23, 2012

Blog the Seventeenth: Zucchini in Season

Oniony and finished with egg,  
or maybe mixed with pasta.

I think that any discussion of what to do with zucchini in season must begin with the concession that zucchini bread is only a way to use up zucchini, not use it well.

Zucchini is abundant, it being mid-summer.  What to do with it all?  What a strange problem to have!  We choke on our prosperity.  I once heard an N.P.R. interview in which an impoverished third‑worlder said of America, “I want to live in a country where the poor people are fat.”  We’re not happy we’re fat, so why does being fat look beatific to someone hungry?  Is prosperity an optical illusion? 

How is it abundance becomes oppressive?  We exert ourselves to produce more than we need, and then need to exert ourselves some more to figure out what to do with it all.  We become indentured to our own abundance—the more we have, the more we need, to keep up and use up what we have.  Spending more to grow zucchini in our garden than it costs to buy it on the cheap in season at market, we end up with more zucchini in season than we know what to do with; so we spend some more on ingredients for zucchini bread, to use the extra up, ending up with more of that than we know what to do with; so we go get containers and ribbons to wrap it as gifts for other people who already have more than enough zucchini at hand, whether in their own garden or at the markets.  Conspicuous production leads to conspicuous consumption.

June 3, 2012

Blog the Sixteenth: Greens ‘n Potato Mash

With a Side of Dry-Roasted Meat.

Like most addictive substances, greens are an acquired taste.  Remember the first time you tasted alcohol?  Didn’t it seem inconceivable to you at the time that anyone could like that taste?  And if you had known how much trouble it is to produce wine, beer, or spirits, wouldn’t a passion for it seem not only gross, but down right unnatural?  Such is the case with greens.  What tastes like dirt to others, to its lovers is earthy; where others taste metal, its lovers taste minerals.  Greens require lots of soaking because, well,  they’re dirty.  They sometimes need par-boiling because, well, they taste like iron.   After these preparatory purges of huge unwieldy heads of greens, you end up with a small pile of green mush.  What but addiction could explain anyone’s going to such lengths?

Well, poverty might could explain some of it.  No doubt my people’s knack for making greens delicious goes back to that mating of poverty with resourcefulness that gave birth to their cooking.  They were poor.  Greens are both easy to find in the byways and easy to grow in abundance.  The tender stuff, especially the hearts, can be eaten raw in salads.  But what to do with the tough, the bitter, the metallic?  That’s when ingenuity enters in, and cooking gets started.

Such culinary ingenuity should not be taken for granted.  It is yet another witness to human omnivorousness.  One might expect animal appetite to tend naturally toward the pleasant and away from the painful.  But human beings like the sour as well as the sweet; the fiery as well as the mellow; the bitter as well as the salty.  The human palate enjoys being pinched, bitten, burned, desiccated, and generally roughed up, now and again.  We can get interested in the full gamut of tastes and feels.  Why?  Because our senses are the mediums of our minds, and we like to perceive and contemplate all that there is.  We are omnivorous.

May 23, 2012

Blog the Fifteenth: On Saving the Irish

… with Pasta Asparagus and Wine-dyed London Broil.

Let me begin this blog with the disclaimer that by marriage I have a right to make fun of the Irish.   I have on my sister’s side an Irish brother-in-law, whence a half-Irish niece and nephew (both with red hair, thanks no doubt to genes deposited by the Normans during their sojourn in Sicily); and on my brother’s side, a half-Irish sister-in-law, whence two quarter-Irish nephews (the remaining quarter being Puerto Rican, with that delicious pulled-pork my sister‑in‑law cooks making that miscegenation well worth it).   So I claim a familial right of mocking my own, but I am ready to take up arms shoulder‑to‑shoulder with my clan, if you should mock mine as I’m about to.

The Irish don’t merely make bad food; they have a bad relation to food.  My sister’s cooking has been, if not corrupted, at the very least compromised by her Irish husband’s palate.  To give evidence that my judgment constitutes not a ­prejudice, but a bias based on judgment consequent and considered, I will tell you how my sister ruins my pasta asparagus recipe to accommodate the aversions of her husband’s Irish[‑American] palate.  To give evidence, on the other hand, of my equity and flexibility, I will also tell you about a delicious, crowd‑pleasing, kid-friendly recipe for London Broil that I came up by Italianizing the recipe of an Irish friend’s brother-in-law.   

My point: the Irish can be saved, if only they will eat Italian.

April 29, 2012

Blog the Fourteenth: On Cabbage Barbary

Red Cabbage, why bother?

Why red cabbage?  It demands explanation, because my people have a cabbage of their own, Savoy, and my mother knows how to make it very delicious.  At the grocery store, Savoy beckons with its glowing visage of chartreuse undulating to creamy white over a voile of curly ripples.  When you get it home and cut it open, a hundred giggles break out from its twin amphitheaters of nooks and crannies.  Vouchsafe it much onion, a little tomato pulp and broth, and this genial cabbage rejoices to return you steamy savory comfort.  (So different, the leathery grey-green cannon-ball sitting beside it in the market, best fit for boiling with corned beef and potatoes one day a year, in honor of a saint.)

So, I think an apology for my willingness to cook red cabbage is called for—an apology not in the colloquial sense of an admission of guilt, but rather in the classical (and paradoxically opposite) sense of self-defense.  To begin, you must grant me that the RED of red cabbage arrests the attention.  That granted, if one takes as one’s major premise, that the universal imperative of Nature is to paint the dinner plate GREEN, WHITE, and RED (and the red cabbage looked great on the plate last week with beef cutlets breaded and fried and broccoli lemony); and, further, cognizant of how difficult a RED for one's plate can be to come by at times in the market, one grants, for the minor premise, that this food is RED as RED can be; how can one not draw the conclusion, It must be cooked?  

Alas, logical necessity is one thing, and practicability another.  No genial cabbage, this.  It is armored against assault by storm, paw, and tooth.  It is contracted as densely as a rock, as if for indefinite siege, and when with a great knife and strain you cut it open, it seems to draw itself in yet tighter against your mortal stroke, its arteries looking readier to pour blood  than surrender. In cooking, it begrudges you its flavor and color, turning grey and bland, to render your victory over it Pyrrhic.  It is stubborn, tight‑fisted, and diffident.  It is northern.  Why bother with it?

April 22, 2012

Blog the Thirteenth: Kid-Friendly Cutlets

Beef cutlets breaded & fried, with Broccoli lemony and Cabbage barbary

I like to say that I hate kids, dogs, and vegetarians, and all for the same reason, because they ruin dinner.  If only the vegetarians would baby-sit the kids and dogs, the rest of us could eat in civilized fashion.  One of the reasons this is fun to say is that it’s socially acceptable.  On one hand, everyone knows its true;  on the other hand, people nevertheless think you can’t be serious.  In a way, they’re right that I’m not serious.  I actually like most kids, and most rather like me (so much so, that if one doesn’t, there’s likely something wrong with them, I always figure).  It’s the helicopter parents of our day that I don’t like, but that’s too credible to say in a socially acceptable way, so I blame the kids and dog instead, and the parents are fine with that.

As for the vegetarians, last time I said this in class, the President and Vice President of the school’s vegetarian club happen to be in attendance, and the next day the V.P. brought me a D.V.D. about the merciless treatment of animals by the meat industry.  I told him, “You see, this is just what I mean—you’re trying to ruin my dinner, aren’t you?  This D.V.D. is just performative confirmation of my complaint.”  He looked at me with such Ghandian forbearance, I had to promise to watch the video anyway, which ruined my joke as well as my dinner.

April 14, 2012

Blog the Twelfth: On Roasting a Kid with Potatoes and Onions

… or, if you prefer, a Chicken.

Well, we ended up having kid-goat (a.k.a., capretto) on Easter Sunday after all.   My Brooklyn aunt had already special ordered it with her butcher, and she didn’t want to cancel the order, so my mother returned to Jersey from her Brooklyn shopping spree with a plastic shopping bag heavy with half a kid-goat, chopped up into a motley assortment of bony parts, all cozied together in brown paper wrapping.  The baby pink flesh was so beautiful to see and so tender to touch!

I’ve decided to tell you how we roasted our Easter kid with potatoes and onions, because you can do the same with chicken parts, and it’s delicious.  Nor, mind you, is a blog on roasting Easter kid belated, since it’s still officially Easter.  Easter is the Christian Passover, and in imitation of Passover, it is an eight-day feast (or octave), stretching from the First Sunday of Easter to the Second Sunday.  As ever, Christianity finds a prophetic meaning in the Mosaic number:  Jesus’ rising from the dead on the first day of the week is the eighth day of creation, for as God created the world we know in seven days, on this eight day, through the resurrection of Jesus, he creates the eternal life of the world to come.  So, it’s still Easter, and you’re still in time to roast your kid.

As I mentioned, capretto is traditional in Sacco, and with both my mother’s brother come from Switzerland and her sister from Brooklyn, a colloquium about the best way to cook it was inevitable.  I suspect that you, Gentle Reader, are liable to misunderstanding my people’s culinary rigor.  You might think that our insistence on the eidetic demands of Nature’s culinary kinds would lead to a tyrannical regularization of our recipes and an intolerance of variation or innovation among us, à la Haute Cuisine.  Quite the contrary, because we believe the eternal forms to be eternal, we know our temporal imitations to be but temporal.  The intraversible distance between their perfection and our confections leaves much room, nay, infinite room, for controversy about how best to incarnate the eternal in the kitchen.  And, indeed, much discussion was had this Easter about how best to roast a kid.

March 31, 2012

Blog the Eleventh: Easter Lamb

“Christ our pasch has been sacrificed.
Therefore let us keep the feast …”

The featured meat of Easter dinner is lamb. This is the case not only for most Italians, but for most Mediterranean Christians. The reason for it traces back millennia to Jewish Passover rites that ceased with the destruction of the Temple, but live on both in Christian sacramental rites and Christian culinary traditions.

In the New Testament, Jesus is identified with the pasch, the sacrificial lamb that Mosaic law commands be offered up each year in commemoration of the one sacrificed on the eve of God’s liberating the Hebrews from their Egyptian slave-masters.  Because the Hebrews had marked the thresholds of their houses with the blood of the paschal lamb, their firstborn sons were spared, the angel of death passing over them when striking down the firstborn sons of Egypt.  The New Testament takes the extraordinary step of using this Passover redemption to interpret the political execution of Jesus as a paschal sacrifice:  Jesus is the true Lamb of God, and his crucifixion the perfect self-sacrifice that once and for all liberates all humankind from their enslavement to sin.

The rites commemorating the Hebrews' redemption from Egyptian slavery are seen by Christian faith as symbolic types of the redeeming death and resurrection of Jesus and so the Christian sacraments that celebrate this paschal sacrifice are embellished with many ritual symbols appropriated from sacrificial prescriptions in the Law of Moses.  It is in the spirit of such embellishing symbolism that Christian cooks took inspiration for Easter dinner from the Mosaic command to sacrifice to the Lord, in memory of his redeeming the Hebrews from Egyption slavery, the firstborn male of every animal.

These sacrifices were pretty joyous events, since eating of roasted firstlings before the Lord amounts to a sacred barbeque: God was commanding them to party before him.  Romans are famous for their abbachio, or suckling lamb (i.e., unweaned), but in my mother’s hometown it is always a kid-goat, a capretto.  When my mother and aunt came to visit me while I was living in Rome, we took a trip back to their hometown, where one remaining sister continues to live.  As the crow flies, it’s probably only an hour east of Salerno, but the mountain roads are so winding, it takes two hours to drive there.  The town itself is so hilly that its ancient streets are steps; there’s only one paved road down the middle, to accommodate the incursion of the automobile.  The town today is only a shell of its former self, as many a house, once overflowing with children even in the midst of postwar poverty, now lies empty most of the year, except during the great festival of the Madonna in August, when modern-day heirs of these ancient stone houses return to them for a summer holiday.

March 24, 2012

Blog the Tenth: Sunday Gravy

Tomato Sauce Gravied by A Medley of Meats

A Sunday morning in Brooklyn had a smell all its own.  The hefty aroma of fatty meats sizzling in oil hung sweet in the air, and floating above it, the yet raw vapors of simmering tomato puree.  Your mother had to get it started early, maybe even before you made it out of bed, in order to have dinner more or less cooked before going off to Mass, so that we could sit down to eat soon after coming back, in the early afternoon.  A Sunday afternoon was blessedly long, lazy, and boring, and Sunday dinner lingered on leisurely into late afternoon, when your aunt and cousins might show up with pastries, or maybe just an Entenmanns coffee cake, and the evening would fill with chatter and laughter, perhaps a squabble among the kids, no doubt avuncular disputes, and then, when you least expected it, a private joy would come to light, or a suppressed sorrow unchoked, because there was time and room and hearts for it to do so.

March 18, 2012

Blog the Ninth: Artichokes ‘n Potatoes

Stuffed with Love or Braised with Ease:  You Choose.

Today I will present you with dueling recipes, as in that cookbook that Jacques Pepin and Julia Child did together with contrasting recipes on facing pages of the book, except that it will be me facing off with my mother.  Let me concede from the start that her artichokes are more delicious than mine.  So what’s the contest?  Well, hers require the indefatigable patience of maternal self-oblation, while mine are easy enough for you to do even on a worknight.  If you’re not a self-oblating Italian mother, gourmet mania might perhaps substitute for maternal kenosis to carry you through my mother’s recipe, but I doubt it (however tendentiously).

My mother lovingly stuffs each leaf of each artichoke, one by one, with a delicious little breading, so that each time you pull off one of the leaves of your artichoke and scrape it with your front teeth, you get a little savory breading together with your little bit of artichoke flesh—yes, every single leaf.  These stuffed artichokes are such a favorite in my family, especially with kids, that it is beyond numbering how many my mother has made over the years.  She’ll complacently make as many as a dozen at a time, so they’ll be extra for the kids to take home.  (This amazes me in a woman who tells me that stripping broccoli di rape stalks one by one is playing house!)  In any case, I personally don’t know of any modern kids deserving of such a labor of love, and I maintain that it rises to the level of the spiritual virtue of charity if done for unworthy ones, so this can count for your Lenten mitvah of the day.

March 10, 2012

Blog the Eighth: Asparagus 'n Eggs

A Match Made in Heaven for Meatless Fridays

Asparagus is perfect for Lent, coming in season just in time as it does, and loving eggs as much as it does.  Asparagus and eggs are a match made in heaven, so I say, Let no man divide what God has joined in a union as loving as it is holy.  Of course, leave it to the French.  The sophists flatter aversion to vegetables by pulverizing the poor thing and giving it over to be swallowed up by a bowl of cream surfeited with a dollop of butter, with only floating fragments surviving, as bits of limb did in the Cyclops’s bowl of milk after he washed down the companions of Odysseus whom he had chewed up.  The French are ready to do this to any vegetable you don’t like, and it always satisfies, because it’s the same taste satisfaction over and over again, namely hot buttered cream.  If not for the nutritive value of the vegetable doomed for the day, they might just as well hand out bowls of heated cream, a spoon, and the salt and pepper shakers.

My people so venerate asparagus that I won’t even call what they make of it a soup.  Soup implies a liquified mélange.  We, rather, cook the asparagus in a minimum of water so that it makes its own broth for itself, and then we drop eggs beaten with a little grated cheese into its broth, to add buttressing substance and complementary savoriness.  This soup is for the sake of the asparagus, not the asparagus for the soup, so in Italian one would call it in brodo, its own broth, in fact.

March 3, 2012

Blog the Seventh: Lentils or Pintos ‘n Pasta

Vegan Fare for Fridays in Lent

I was not reared to do penance.  I really cannot be faulted for it.  On one hand, my religious education took place in the milieu of liberalizing enthusiasm that followed upon the Second Vatican Council, and what I most remember of my 8 years of C.C.D. classes (Catholic Sunday school for public school kids) was the drumming into me, between stanzas of Kumbaya, of one principal doctrine, namely, that God loves me so unconditionally that he forgives any sin I commit.  Well, even taking cognizance of the pre-condition that I repent and mean it, that done, what was all the to-do about doing penance after absolution, given he was so set on being so unconditional about it, wondered I, ingenuous child that I was, untutored in the distinction between the will’s need of conversion and nature’s need of reparation.

On the other hand, it’s hard to repair habits of excess by means of abstinence when you like penitential food.  I can’t help it if I like my people’s Lenten dishes.  I get concupiscent yearnings for them even outside Lent.  We actually ate these meatless dishes on all Fridays of the year when I was growing up, and usually Wednesdays too, no doubt harkening back to a time when these were days of abstinence all year long, and not just in Lent.  It’s a testimony to the insuppressibility of my people’s culinary genius that their penitential dishes become a species of gustatory pleasure that waxes even as religious practice wanes. 

But when you’re a little Italian kid, this stuff seems like hell.  My sister once broke out into a tantrum when the smell of cooking lentils greeted us in the hallway of our house as we came home from school.  And I remember more than one evening when she held a protest at the dinner table, which standoffs with my father provided diversionary cover for my mother to spoon much of mine into her dish.  But almost all Italian kids eventually undergo the conversion.  Even my younger brother, who for the duration of his youth was unwilling to eat but six things, and got away with it because he was such a skinny-belink that my poor Italian mother was grateful to be permitted to feed him whatever it was he was willing to eat (I often say that I was the favorite when I was growing up only because I had no competition), even this begrudging eater by his 20’s began not only to eat pasta ‘n lentils but even to find comfort in it.  And so to this day.

February 25, 2012

Blog the Sixth: Mushrooms Garlicy

A Supererogatory Side,
or else a Pasta Garlicy, a Risotto, or even a Frittata

Because I could not resist the Baby Bella mushrooms on sale the night I broiled my pork chop some blogs ago, I decided to have a third vegetable side that night.  This inability to resist a sale testifies to the very wellspring of my cookery, namely poverty.  I learned to cook as a graduate student when, in the face of indefinitely protracted doctoral dissertation composition, I tired of cafeteria food and decided that, whatever the case might be with the dissertation, adulthood could not be put off indefinitely, and it was time to cook real food for myself on a daily basis.  There were however limitations, to wit, a graduate student budget.  So, I would go to the supermarket, buy what was on sale, go home, call my mother, and say, “So how do I cook veal breast—it looks like it’s all bones.”  Thus did I learn how to cook veal breast, and whatever else was on sale that week.

To this day, I go to the supermarket, not with a shopping list, but with a budget, even if not as constricted as in yesteryear.  I look for what looks good and is at a good price, which usually means what’s in season and hence in abundance, if not locally, then somewhere on the globe.  I shop global, not local, because that’s what I can afford.  My senses are the final arbiter:  what looks good, what smells good, what feels good—of what’s on sale—that’s what I buy, whatever its provenance, and I figure out what to do with it when I get it home.

The Baby Bella's looked good and were cheap, so I grabbed them.  I love mushrooms.  I do not understand people who do not.  They perplex me.  If the truth may be spoken, they seem to me to be missing a part of soul.  I know that a soul, being immaterial, cannot have separable parts, as does a brain.  It can, nevertheless, have parts of a sort, namely powers.  But what power can be lacking in these poor souls?  They do not lack the power of taste, for the mushrooms taste bad to them, however unaccountably.  Are we to think there is a power of soul more specific than taste that is necessary for the appreciation of mushrooms?   It seems pretty well established for some time now that the formal objects of sensation are five, corresponding to our five senses.  And so these poor souls perplex me.

February 18, 2012

Blog the Fifth: Carrots Lemony

Left Flank to a Pork Chop Breaded & Broiled
(and a RED ready-to-hand)

Well, we’re still working on that weekday dinner from two blogs ago, of a pork chop breaded & broiled, flanked by broccoli all'aglio e olio, a.k.a., broccoli garlicy, and marinated carrots, to be here dubbed carrots lemony

Now in the interests of full disclosure, I must admit that not only are carrots lemony not a dish of my people, but I have introduced them into the family over the objections of my father.  Whenever anyone says how delicious the carrots are, my father may be relied upon to explain why they’re not.  He thinks they don’t taste like anything, just boiled.  Well, don’t you mind him, Gentle Reader, just let him talk.  I suspect that he would like the boiled carrots better if instead of a litte white wine vinegar with lemon I put a lot of Balsamic vinegar on them, but that would just give them the familiar taste satisfaction of his usual vinaigrette, at the expense of suppressing the flavor of carrot. 

What I like about this dish is that the restrained use of vinegar to season the carrots and the final spurt of lemon juice just before bringing them to table bring the carrot flavor unexpectedly into relief, brightened with refreshing lemoniness.  People often exclaim, “They’re so refreshing!”  The dressing of a boiled vegetable with olive oil and lemon juice has a special name in Italian, all’agro, which loosely translates as “sour”.  Well, “sweet and sour” sounds good in English, and “sour cherries” doesn’t sound bad, but “sour carrots” does.   Even “tart carrots” doesn’t quite cut it.  So I go for the fun epithet lemony.

February 11, 2012

Blog the Fourth: Broccoli Garlicky

Side Kick to 
a Pork Chop Breaded & Broiled  
(or else, a Pasta Primo)

My mother says, “Vegetables need help.” And that’s the truth. What she means by “help” is olive oil, salt, and garlic (or else onions, but that’s another blog). One of the most common preparations of vegetables in my people’s cooking is all’aglio e olio. It’s fun to say, once you’re able to. It defies the usual abhorrence for hiatus that Italian shares with English (e.g., “a apple”). Yet the phrase all'aglio e olio sandwiches two such hiatuses between lilting l’s, themselves sandwiched by vowels, and preceded by yet another lilting l and vowel. One’s tongue ends up sliding through it all with the pleasure a child takes in sliding through mud, or perhaps the pleasure an acrobat takes in his own nimbleness. But since the American tongue is not practiced in Italian acrobatics, let’s give it a name fun for us to say: Broccoli Garlicky.

This pair, garlic & oil, has the remarkable power to accentuate the specific deliciousness of many a vegetable. Its action is not like the invisible operation of salt, which educes from a food’s native potency its specific taste. Rather, garlic & oil act more like a harmonic chord, or the contrapuntal melodies of a polyphonic chant, or the jiving of a jazz back-up. Music-making was practiced for generations before the discovery of the mathematical ratios that explain harmonies, but chemistry has yet to achieve this for cookery. But I can testify with the certainty of immediate perception that garlic & oil rightly used makes vegetables taste good, each in its own way. It is a thing I wonder at, a thing I praise, not a thing I can explain. Salt brings out the flavor; garlic and oil accent it. Would you come naked to the dinner table, Gentle Reader? Would you come with only a fig-leaf to cover your humblest member? Is not the beauty of a beautiful body even better displayed well-clothed than unclothed? Then let us so adorn our vegetables as to magnify their beauty for both eye and tongue, with garlic and oil.

February 3, 2012

Blog the Third: Pork Chop Breaded & Broiled

A Staple of the Workday Repetoire
Having a full-time job, I cannot cook as my mother did on weekdays.   I fear that for the rest of my life I will be haunted by Proustian reminiscences of the well-kept house and well-laden dinner table I so much took for granted in my childhood, and the face of someone in dismay at the idea of my going out in it, snatching a shirt from my hand to iron it for me.  A feminist friend in college once told me that everyone deserves a wife; I’d say, an Italian mother.

But this is why you, Gentle Reader, need me, because you don’t have my mother.  I have culled for you from her plethora of dishes a sub-repertoire of workday recipes for delicious food that take less time than she had, even if no less tender loving care.

A staple of this workday cookery is the broiled pork chop.  It cooks in 10 minutes and satisfies in the way that only pork can.  Being a crowd‑pleaser and kid-friendly, it also serves me well at dinner parties when I want to put my greatest effort into a pasta, risotto, or elaborate vegetable side-dish.  It offers all-purpose, serviceable, proletarian satisfaction, on workdays and playdays both. 

January 29, 2012

Blog the Second: Our Daily Salad

Postscript to Steak & Potatoes:   
the Salad, the Fruit, & sweet Coffee

I wrote my first blog never so much as having seen one before, and did I ever think it would take that long a post to describe the simplest sort of meal I cook for myself of a weekday evening?  It has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words; turns out steak & potatoes are worth 2,996.

And all those words didn’t really include the salad.  I have much to say to you about the salad, Gentle Reader, even if I fear you may not be ready to hear as much as I have to say.  One explains complicated things through simpler things, but the only way to explain the simplest things is by complicating them.

January 24, 2012

Blog the First: Steak Grilled Stove Top

A Rib-eye crosshatched
(with Potatoes Garlicky and Zucchini Herby)

So, what did I cook for myself today, this dark and cold Thursday of the long stretch of winter after the holidays?  Well, at the Graul’s they had nice steaks on sale, as they often do. They had filet mignon, but I hate filet mignon, first, because it has so little flavor that it requires the sophistical artifices of French sauces to give it any character—but my people don’t like such sauces for meat, most of our cooking being more or less elaborate forms of au jus cooking—and second, because it has an effete texture more suitable to gumming than chewing, but I still have teeth.  So I went without hesitation for the boneless rib-eye.  I always want fatty steak, and so do you.  (If you like lean meat, this is not the blog for you; go look for another blog with a name like the Skinny Glutton or something.)  Of course, I want delicate striations of fat evenly marbling my flesh, not globs or belts or knots of it.  It should also look bright and moist and appetizing.  Do I need to tell you, Gentle Reader, to eat with your eyes?


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 like to cook for people I like to eat with. In this I am my mother’s son, who says, “I like to feed people.”  She’s Italian.

My friends like to call me a gourmet, but I’m not a gourmet. I’m a home cook, and a bigoted one: I only cook the food of my people, because I think the food of my people is better than the food of any other people. By my people I really mean my mother’s people, from a mountain town in Campania east of the city of Salerno, called Sacco– my mother is a "Saccatara".

What my friends love about her cooking is that it’s so tasty. Like her native land, it’s also golden, glistening, and rosy. It has the lively sound of their chatter (no lethargic simmers, no violent searing). It’s highly aromatic—the aromas waft out the window and tease the passers-by, Italian and Gentile alike. It makes you eat too much. It makes you want to forgive your enemies and your family.  It makes you friends.

My mother and my father were part of a late immigration of Italians to Brooklyn in the 1950’s. They came from parts of an impoverished post-War Italy where their life more resembled the 19th century than the 20th. When these fugitives of post-War poverty crossed the Atlantic, they crossed centuries. The cuisine they brought with them was the distillation of generations of local tradition, and they were keen to preserve the integrity of their native cuisine in this foreign land in a way that the Italians they left behind were not. Those Italians modernized.
My mother did not.

BUT, she did mingle with other immigrants, and all these émigrés of South Italy to South Brooklyn synthesized their inherited cuisines with one another and with the abundant fruits of American prosperity. In a new world they cultivated an ancient cuisine. Out of American soil they raised up an Italian cuisine not to be found in new Italy. This all happened in Brooklyn, in my mother’s kitchen, among others.

She learned old dishes from new friends by eating their food with them at their tables. Then at home "la Saccatara" gave her own turn to each dish "all'improviso", as seemed right to her in the moment. I'm the one who, after the fact, interrogates ("I'm not one of your students," she bristles), verifies by experiment, and then writes it all down. You need me to tell you how my mother cooks, or rather, used to cook, before she moved to Jersey and forgot how she used to cook it when she cooked it right!
(I call her "Americanizata").

When my friends call me a gourmet, I retort, “No, I’m not a gourmet; I’m a slavish imitator of my mother’s peasant cooking.” That retort is a bit hyperbolized, in that, if it’s true I’m an imitator, it’s perhaps not as true that I’m a slavish one; and if it’s true that my mother’s cooking is Italian, it’s not quite true that it’s peasant cooking (both my grandfathers were merchants, in fact, albeit impoverished ones).

The hyperbole is just my way of resisting gentile gentrification of my people’s cooking.  My mother cooked her food for her blue-collar family. That we ate better on most weekdays of my childhood than we well-to-do professionals do today at our weekend dinner-parties is one of the ironies of social history.  It takes a 'Saccatara' all day to make the food she makes for her family. My parents did not eat to work, but worked to eat, together with us, at table, every night.

My mother’s food tastes so good because it’s so simple. That probably sounds attractive to you, gentle Reader, but it may yet prove your vexation. Since the ingredients are very few, they must be very good and very fresh, or the food falls flat. Since the combinations are simple, proportion and balance are decisive, or the food falls flat. Too little salt, or too much garlic, or sauté the onions too little, or cook the fish too long, the meat not long enough, and the food falls flat.

Tasty food takes time and tender loving care. That fantasy you have of tossing a splash of wine into a crackling pan with one hand while sporting a cocktail in the other, gossiping all the while with your friend on the kitchen stool, is deluded.  You must reverently attend upon what you are cooking, as the grace of the moment. Art is but half of what you need; 'sive Deus sive natura' must vouchsafe the rest. Be attentive to the grace of the present moment. Be a humble steward before the food before you. Be suppliant before nature. Don’t gab while you cook.

The reason you need me to learn to cook the way my mother does is that my mother can’t explain herself. Trust me on this. You try to cook it the way she says she does; it comes out disastrously; you call her up, and she says, “Well, didn't you add water?”  – No, you didn’t say to add water. – “'Ma, non e logico, bella mamma?' Do I have to tell you everything?” – YES!!! You have to tell me EVERYTHING!!! –“You don’t cook; you play house.”

You see how sweet my little Italian mother is not, when she wants not to be? And so, as did Aaron with Moses for the Israelites, I'm going to interpret my mother for you. And for good measure, I’m going to throw in all my own opinions about eating as a human being should want to.

Knowing my family history is good for you, gentle Reader, because when you get annoyed with me, as you surely will, and work yourself up into a contrarian mood about my blog, you can take her side against me. This way we keep it all in the family. That’s how my family likes it.

A Postscript Contra gentiles

I now and again receive queries I take to be complaints about my use of the word Gentile. One reader, for example, posted this comment: "Not to begrudge what must be a deeply held familial tradition in word choice, but “Gentile” refers not to non-Catholic, but to non-Jew."

That comment amuses me, so let me make hay of it.

First of all, it’s not a family tradition, but a joke, and a sufficiently learned one that most of my family wouldn’t get it either. As for my family, their custom is the usual one of naming other peoples by their given names rather than by a single name meaning Not-Us. As for the learned joke, insofar as it is funny, it may well cease to be so once I explain it, but here goes anyway.

As a joke on my avowed chauvinism, I variously use Gentile (as proper noun, or else gentile as adjective) to refer to anyone outside my mother’s family (including my father); or else any Italians outside Brooklyn (including Queens, the Bronx, and certainly Long Island); or else any Italians outside New York (including Italian Italians); or else any Europeans who are not Italian, but most of all Europeans north of the Alps—and by extension their North American progeny, especially in this land of my exile, by which I mean the Mid-Atlantic city I now live in, in exile from Brooklyn; and most generically I mean white people, where white is a color of soul, not skin (which means you can have a pale soul even if you have olive skin, and an olive soul even if you have pale skin, even though clearly it's best to have olive skin and an olive soul).

Now, in its defense, my usage does have the warrant of birthright. With all due respect to Jewish anglophonics, the word is not Hebrew, Aramaic, or Yiddish, but Latin, a common Latin word used by my Roman forebears long before Jews merited their notice. The Latin term has the generic meaning of foreigner, and this is the meaning it retains in St. Thomas Aquinas’s 13th century missionary handbook of apologetical theology, Summa contra gentiles, where the Gentiles meant are Jewish and Muslim critics of Christian beliefs.

But my ancient Roman forebears had also used the word more specifically to name the foreigners north of the Alps, the conquered tribes that in a later reflux invasion poured back over those Alps into the Italian peninsula to conquer their conquerors. Those poor Northern Italians absorbed the brunt of that Frankish invasion, and so ended up the Samaritans of the North, so to speak, as Sicilians are of the South, as ancient Greco Roman civilization retreated to the relative purity of middle South Italy, the homeland of my mother's people, and thence to middle South Brooklyn.

But at the heyday of the Roman Empire, the Latin word "gentile" was used to translate Testaments both Hebrew and Greek into Latin, the emergent lingua franca of Western civilization. In the apostolic Church, the name is used to distinguish Greek converts from Jewish ones, especially by Paul, who is dubbed the Apostle to the Gentiles when, after a dramatic fall from a horse, he converts from the zealotry of his Pharisaic Judaism to the zealotry of his charismatic Christianity, and sets out as a missionary to preach it to Gentiles from Jerusalem to Rome.

It is an amusing conceit of the Blog that I am a culinary Paul on mission to convert Gentiles from the profane ways of eating passed down to them by their people, to eating the way a human being should want to—the way of my people, mostly my mother’s people.

IN SUM, as this blog presents itself as a protracted profession of culinary chauvinism, in that spirit I make use of the term Gentile not only as a term of contradistinction, but also of reproof, yet charitably, for your good, gentle Reader, for is it not written that if the just man strike or reprove me, it is a kindness?