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.

The bourgeoisie of our day have told their children untruths. They have taught them that the organic vegetables from their gourmet markets are so fresh and so naturally good that anything but a bit of steaming and a pat of butter or, better yet, a drizzle of the finest [i.e., most expensive] e.v.o.o. [i.e. extra virgin olive oil] is all that one would want. If this ignorance be invincible, it is not harmless. Be it unintentional, it is abuse. Is the aesthetic abuse of children’s palates less objectionable than abuse of the rest of their bodies? These children come to me, grown up, and offer this homage, “I’ve never liked vegetables, but I like your vegetables.” I, like Paul and Barnabas before the Greeks who sought to worship them as gods when they healed in the name of Jesus Christ, want to tear my garments and cry out, “Brothers, this is madness!”

I am not the creator of the deliciousness of my vegetables, nor is my people. We credit ourselves not for creation, but for imitation. Our metaphysics is Platonic: the forms of foods are eternal; our cooking is but imitation of divine archetypes; success is participation in divine creation. My father grants that you can make a delicious ragú with chopped meat from the market, but insists that it is not alla Bolognese unless the meat is chopped by hand with a knife. Marcella grants that you can make a delicious rice dish by first boiling the Arborio rice in 3 cups of broth and then finishing it off stirring in a ladleful at a time, but it is not risotto unless you so stir it from the start. Be there ever so many vegetables, without Savoy cabbage, says my mother, it is not minestrone. These are not claims about the customs of a people or the rules of an art; they are claims about immutable essences and eternal verities.

My people’s cooking is thoroughly theistic—beholding a table laden with beautifully prepared food, my mother says, Che grazia di Dio! Such grace of God! For her people, Nature is a wondrous array of natural kinds brought forth in due order by a Creator who delights in each good he creates. This Creator has set over his creation an image of himself, the human being, and into the human being he has breathed a share of his own spirit, that by it they may delight in procreation. Did he not make Adam, then Eve, and leave the joy of the rest to them? He left it to Adam likewise to name the animals, divining from the nature of each its benefit. When you cook, Gentle Reader, know thyself: you are a vice regent of the Creator, a steward of creation, a midwife to Nature.  Far, far from the cooking of my people is that atheistic vision of a boundless universe of matter in motion that by chance throws out life in sundry forms on this tiny planet to be made use of by humans with a will as arbitrary as the chance that has supplied us material for transmutation. Let haute cuisine transform vegetables beyond recognition; let nouvelle cuisine construct its Babel towers; let culinary chemistry concoct new species of food; but may my people ever remain in the service of Nature and Nature’s God.

When you behold your broccoli before you on your kitchen counter, will you ask yourself what your broccoli wants to be, or what you want your broccoli to be? In deciding what you will ask, you decide what you will be: a godly steward of creation, a skilled midwife to Nature, a philosophic inquirer into the nature of things, or rather, a culinary tyrant, a capitalistic cook, a Frankensteinian food-scientist.  Gentle reader, picture yourself standing alone with Truth in the secret of your soul. Can you with a clear conscience say, “I’ll just put blue cheese dressing on it; it’ll be fine.” Does not the absurdity of that answer, the pusillanimity of it, the villainy of it, strike you now in this saner moment of reflection? If not, then let us part ways: sit not at my table; break not my bread with me; let not my children know of your ways; find another blog.

What does broccoli want, that is the question. It wants a great deal of garlic. It knows that it needs even more help than other vegetables do, but for this very reason, it will reward your helping it to be all that it can be by being very delicious—if only you will help it out with a great deal of garlic, and much olive oil.

Your broccoli will want a trim to make it receptive to its garlic & oil treatment. You will want to peel the stems, using a paring knife to grab the fibrous outer skin at the base and pull it away in strips, revealing the tender limb below, appetizing to take a bite out of in the way that the tender limbs of infants look to be. This sort of trimming may well seem tedious at first, but once you get the hang of it, your mind can wander freely in a calming out-of-body experience, while your fingers busily work away here on earth.

Some people just cut away the stems completely and use only the flowerets, but that’s childish. It not only means throwing good food away, it also means losing the variety of texture, shape, and color that the stems offer. Others (like my mother) try to say there’s no need to trim unless the broccoli happens to be old and tough. I learned to trim because I saw my aunt doing it one day, and when I asked my mother about it, she had to avert her eyes in order to tell me that she doesn’t see any need to do it—tell-tale sign, thought I, of a bad conscience.

Now, to be fair to my mother, we weren’t discussing the standard Andy Boy broccoli one finds at every market, but the bitter broccoli di rape so beloved of my people and of every true Italophile. (It goes by the name of rapini in gourmet markets, but that name has always struck me as pretentious: it has the ring of Florentine mannerism). Broccoli di rape comes in batches of single weedy stems as thick as asparagus, so trimming them seems as fussy as it does tedious. But I testify to you, Gentle Reader—and against my own mother!—that for years my broccoli di rape would come out chewy, no matter how long I cooked it, because of that fibrous skin, and ever since I found the skill and patience to peel it, I have never since had that problem.

The peeling of the stems to their tender cores also allows you to give your broccoli a fitting shape. I shape them like little trees, by halving or quartering the stems at the base and then gently pulling apart the segments, for a torn rather than cut look. I make the little trees comparably sized, and not too small. My people will not cut up your food for you. That’s for babies. They want the species of food to be recognizable by its look (species is just the Latin word for ‘the look’ of a thing, the first manifestation of its kind).  Imitate the branching stems Mother Nature favors, and leave it to the eater to cut it to size for themselves.

Let me acknowledge two other, foreign aesthetics on this point of shaping and sizing your vegetables. Did you know that the Chinese are the inventors of the fork? They invented it as a cooking tool, and thought it gracious for the cook to cut your pieces into mouth-sized morsels for you. But you can still always tell what it is, right? When a Frenchman gets to work hacking at something, he always manages to turn it into something that needs a new name of art because it doesn’t look like a thing of nature anymore. All that cubing and grinding and mincing and mashing and straining and blending and reducing, always turns it into something je ne sais quoi.

After trimming the broccoli, I rinse it clean and soak it in cold water, to plump it. My Swiss aunt once told me that half the vitamins of a vegetable leach out into the water in a matter of minutes when you soak it. But when I see how happy it makes my broccoli to soak, I can’t begrudge it its bath. Besides, I take modern “science” with a grain of salt; it’s always saying unlikely things, and then taking them back. My people have been nourishing themselves on soaked vegetables for centuries, so there seems to be enough vitamins left over to sustain a race. (I just read in the Wall Street Journal that a Swedish study has demonstrated that you get fat from eating too many calories, whatever the distribution, demonstrated by force feeding college student differing combinations of protein, fat, and carbohydrates for three months. Modern science has “proven” that you get fat from eating too much?  Glad we finally know that “for certain”.)

So, while my broccoli is luxuriating in its cold bath, I work on the garlic. Standard Andy Boy broccoli needs much more help than bitter broccoli di rape, so for the Andy Boy I slice the garlic, but I leave it whole for the broccoli di rape. Why, you ask? Because of the lex parsimoniae: less is more. The aim of my people’s cooking is to bring out the specific deliciousness of each food, and we do the least necessary to achieve that, lest we detract from the virtues of the food by artifices of art that glorify our skill more than Nature’s gift—lest, in short, we end up with French food.

For Andy Body broccoli, I’ll slice several cloves of garlic in half, lay each half with its flat side down on my cutting board, and securing the pieces with my fingers tightly curled inward, I slice it thinly lengthwise with my chef’s knife. The idea of slicing the garlic into thin slivers, rather than chopping it into tiny cubes, is to allow the eye to see it but not the tooth to feel it.  

I use my chef’s knife for almost everything these days. In the past, my mid-sized slicing knife was my preferred instrument. But then one day, Jacques explained in passing that you don’t chop straight up and down with a chef’s knife, but rather slide it forward (like the motion in reverse of an elliptical machine at the gym). As soon as I saw him show the movement in slow motion, my eyes were dazzled by the revelation of the nature of the thing. The world has not seemed the same to me since. If you remain benighted, Gentle Reader, it may seem to you incredible that such a large knife is what’s best to slice a garlic clove fine, but it is.

As for broccoli di rape, given the intensity of its flavor, whole garlic cloves suffice, and can be left behind in the serving dish or dinner plate, at the eater’s pleasure. I use the handle of my chef’s knife to gently crush garlic cloves until I hear them crack, which loosens the skin; then I slice a bit off each end and pull away the loosened peel. I’ll use quite a few cloves of garlic. Maybe I’ll halve the big ones.

Now, in the old days, almost everyone par-boiled their broccoli, especially the broccoli di rape, to tame its bitterness. But these days we pre-steam in the same pot it will sauté in. First I pour a stream of regular olive oil (extra virgin would be too assertive for the Andy Boy, and unnecessary for the rape), until the expanding pool covers the bottom of the pot. Then I add the garlic and turn on the heat to medium. It is much better to add garlic to cold oil than to pre-heated oil, since you always risk over-heating the oil and instantly browning the garlic when you toss it in, which browning is always irremediably disastrous. While you wait for the garlic to begin to sizzle, drain the broccoli and have it close at hand.  When you hear the garlic sizzle, it’s time to tip the pot to float the garlic and begin the look-out for gilding. As soon as you see any gilding, the moment of crisis is upon you.

You are about to instigate a pitched battle within your pot, between water and fire, for control of your garlic. You will be introducing dripping wet broccoli, and seeing its imminent demise, your fiery oil will want to go down in a blaze of glory and brown your garlic, to despoil you of it. You must put out its fire before it does so, and rescue your golden garlic from the searing conflagration. Quick!, dump that broccoli in; Quick!, spray it with salt; Quick, cover the pot, grab it by both handles, and shake it up to get the garlic up off the bottom of the pot and the water mixed with the oil. If that bitch Fortuna is with you, the battle should soon be won and the fury of sizzling soon abate. But if your oil rages on, then you must bring reinforcements of water to bear, to quench the fire, before your garlic is scorched.

The salt is important to keep the broccoli bright green. Also, you want the salt to cook in. There’s no making up afterward for not cooking salt into food. At some point, the fiber of a food’s substance closes forever; at that point, no amount of salt poured on top will be able to cross the chasm; your food will have a black hole at its heart.

Keep the pot covered, and let your broccoli steam in its own vapors, until it seems half way to tender—yielding to a fork, but still too firm. At this point, uncover the pot to allow the broccoli to continue cooking, but also to dry off enough to sizzle and sauté in the oil. My preferred implement for flipping the broccoli around every so often is a flexible spatula, the heat-resistant kind, because I don’t want the broccoli to disintegrate. A flexible spatula allows me to slide under the broccoli and scrape the bottom of the pot, flipping the broccoli over as I go. If any of the garlic pieces emerging from underneath look like they’re getting browned, I pick them out and throw them away.

By the end, the broccoli should be glistening, limp, and unctuous. My people don’t go in for crunchy vegetables. To be tasty, vegetables need to cook, both so as to release their own flavor and also to absorb the flavor of garlic and oil. You of course don’t want mushy vegetables; what you want is for your broccoli to yield to fork and tooth with a tender resistance. Get your crunchiness from your bread, which you eat together with your broccoli.

I often make this broccoli as a vegetable side to roasted meats. But its other delicious use is for making pasta with broccoli. You’ve probably been wondering when this blog on Italian food would finally get around to talking pasta, and you probably were not expecting it embedded in a blog on broccoli, but here we are. The secrets of a religion are not revealed to the casual inquirer, but rather to the initiates who evidence their sincerity by perseverance.

Let us be clear, you and I, Gentle Reader, on a non-negotiable. Pasta is not dinner, and it is not a side-dish. Pasta is a primo, or first dish, to be followed by a main dish of animal flesh, be it of land, air, or sea. To run the full course of an Italian dinner, you start with a little antipasto; then a first dish of pasta; then meat or fish with vegetable(s); and finally salad, fruit, and coffee. This variety eaten in small portions adds up to much greater satisfaction of both soul and body than a hill of pasta or slab of flesh. Your soul’s senses and your body’s needs are as manifold as Nature’s graces— let your pleasures be manifold too.

The forms and uses of pasta are numerous and various enough to constitute a genus. One of its species is pasta all’aglio e olio. Almost any vegetable sautéed in garlic & oil can be further sautéed with pasta, to yield a pasta dish after the name of the vegetable—at hand, pasta broccoli.

When making such an oil-based pasta, one needs extra olive oil, for the pasta. One also wants the vegetable cut smaller, so that it can partner with the pasta in one mouthful. In the case of broccoli, I cut it up into smaller pieces while trimming it, and manhandle it while cooking it. I also cook it a little longer, past limp, to beat up, but short of beat down.

The shape of pasta is matter for serious deliberation. (I never have fewer than a dozen shapes of pasta on hand to choose from. You might could make do with as few as half a dozen, being a Gentile.) A familiar favorite for Andy Boy broccoli is penne. In any case, it needs to be something short for the fork.  As for broccoli di rape, long pasta is de rigueur, whether spaghetti, linguine, or fettuccine. The problem is you, the Gentile. You don’t know how to twirl your long pasta on a spoon, and long pasta with strands of broccoli di rape, however limp, prove unmanageable for you. Moreover, many a Gentile has been propagandized by New Italians to believe that long pasta is not eaten with a spoon in Italy. Let me disabuse you of this conceit.

When I lived in Italy for a year, I myself was ready to believe that the spoon is not used. But I had my doubts, for two reasons. First, if true, it seemed an extraordinary coincidence that all the Old Italians of Brooklyn used a spoon. How could corruption spread so far so fast? It seemed, if not impossible, improbable, especially since it’s not easy to use a fork and spoon—it’s a rite of passage when growing up, well beyond that of mastering the use of knife and fork in tandem. Second, carefully observing the New Italians who weren’t twirling on a spoon, I noted that they often did not manage to twirl their long pasta on the side of the bowl and get it to their mouths neatly and elegantly. Stray strands often dangled from their forks and mouths. I thought, “Are not good manners meant to render eating both easy and comely?  Why this insistence on a way less so in both respects?”

Added to this was a remarkable intolerance. I was very graciously hosted by a very generous family who were courteous in every respect but this, that the mother could not abide my asking for a spoon to twirl my spaghetti with. She watched me with an eagle’s eye until one of my twirls flung a drop of sauce on the table cloth, and then with gleeful triumph pointed and declared, "See, the spoon did not help!"   The next time I ventured to use a spoon, I was eating with some workmen being fed along with me at a monastery, and I excused myself for using a spoon, as a thing done in my family back in America. One of the workmen said to me, “Oh no, we use the spoon at our house too.” Then it dawned on me: this is class struggle. The Italian bourgeoisie are so intent on distinguishing themselves from the working class, that they would sooner have spaghetti dangling from their mouths than use the spoon reserved by etiquette for soups. What nonsense.

But here is your problem, Gentle Reader:  both sides of this Italian class struggle are agreed that you must never cut your long pasta short by breaking it in half before boiling, or cutting it up in your dish. You will be scorned by both sides for this. So you must choose either the dangle or the spoon. The dangle requires no skill and gives you snob-appeal; the facility of the spoon requires much practice, only to open you to snubbing. Pick your poison.

Okay, so you’ve chosen your pasta (and utensils) in light of the aforementioned considerations, and you throw the pasta into a big pot of rapidly boiling salted water. The water must be well-salted. The amount of salt required is NOT the amount required by the pasta, but rather, the amount required by the ABUNDANT water. I always dump a big handful of coarse kosher salt into a big pot of water, and I always taste the pasta in the last minute of cooking, and if it tastes bland, I add more salt until it doesn’t. (Tradition has it that it is impossible to add salt to pasta at table, but “impossible” is said in many ways.)

I taste the pasta a minute short of the cooking directions, and when the pasta has ceased to be at all crunchy, but is still firmer than I like it, I use a spork or slotted spoon to transfer the dripping-wet pasta into the pot of broccoli, which I have brought back to a lively sizzle. Then I sauté the pasta with the broccoli garlicky, adding ladlefuls of the pasta cooking water as needed to keep the pasta from drying out and sticking. I want to keep the pasta moving and slippery, sautéing it until it glistens with the oil and becomes speckled and stained green with broccoli. You’ll have to decide for yourself how wet or dry you like the final product, adding pasta cooking water at any point to achieve the slipperiness you like.

This stuff must be served up quick, fresh, and hot, and eaten right away. I often put some of the pasta cooking water in a little pitcher at the table, for people to moisten their pasta with, if they want. I also always provide grated Pecorino Romano, my favorite being LOCATELLI. When I was growing up, my father insisted that cheese does not go with greens--it is an abomination to our people, he averred. My mother acquiesced in dubious silence, and I never heard any other Italian making the same categorical claim. Then, one day, my aunt told me that she would refuse to eat pasta e broccoli di rape without cheese. Imagine, Gentle Reader, my nonplussment. Even without the professional training in logic I was to receive many years later, I understood these to be contradictory claims.  Daring filial impiety, I tried adding cheese and I loved it. Ever since, I always add cheese, but only after the first twirl or two without, in deference to the command to honor one’s father, even if he is wrong.

Broccoli Garlicky

* Trim the broccoli of its fibrous skin, and leave it to soak in a cold bath.
* Add a good deal of thinly sliced garlic to a pool of regular olive oil, and heat. When golden, add drained but still wet broccoli to pot, quickly salting, covering, and vigorously shaking it up in the pot.
* Let broccoli steam until softening sets in. Then remove cover to let broccoli dry off and sauté, until tender, glistening with oil, and redolent with garlic.
* Correct for salt, and eat with crunchy bread.


Broccoli di Rape

* Strip all but the most tender stems of their fibrous skin—yes, one by one. Splice any overly thick ones. Leave all to soak in a cold bath.
* Lightly crush garlic cloves; trim their ends off; pull away their peels.
* Toss cloves into a pot of regular olive oil and heat to sizzling; at first sign of gilding, snatch rabe from its bath and thrust it into the pot, quickly salting and covering it, and giving the pot violent shakes.
* Steam the broccoli di rape until limp; remove cover, and let dry off and sauté, until unctious and savorous. Eat dripping, with crusty bread.


Broccoli ‘n Penne   

* Strip broccoli of its fibrous skin, and soak in a cold bath. Sauté an abundance of thinly sliced garlic in an abundant pool of regular olive oil. At very first sign of garlic gilding, add wet broccoli to pot, off heat, and salt broccoli. Cover pot, shake it all up, and return it to heat.
* Let broccoli steam until softening sets in. Then remove cover to let broccoli dry off and sauté, until tender, glistening, and redolent.
* Cook penne in abudant well-salted water.  When pasta is just short of done, transfer wet with a slotted utensil into sizzling pot of broccoli.
* Sauté pasta with broccoli for a minute or two, adding pasta water for slipperiness, until pasta is glistening, bespeckled green, and savorous.
* Eat with grated Pecorino Romano, if it you like.


Broccoli di Rape ‘n Linguine 

* Strip each stem of its fibrous skin, splitting the fattest ones, and soak them all in a cold bath. Sauté several lightly crushed garlic cloves in a goodly pool of regular olive oil. At first sign of garlic gilding, add wet broccoli to pot off heat, salt broccoli all over, cover pot, and shake it all up.
* Return covered pot to heat and let broccoli steam until softening sets in. Then remove cover to let broccoli dry off and sauté, until tender, glistening, and unctuous.
* Boil linguine (or spaghetti) in abundant well-salted water. When just short of done, transfer with a spork dripping wet to sizzling pot of broccoli.
* Sauté pasta with broccoli for a minute or two, adding pasta water for slipperiness, until pasta is glisten green.
* Consider adding grated Pecorino Romano, after first forkful or two.