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.

I didn’t mind vegetarianism in former times, when it was a curiosity.  I felt ethnic pride back then about being able to accommodate the occasional vegetarian guest with my people’s Lenten repertoire of Friday-fare.  For their part, the vegetarians were like Jews keeping Kosher:  you were either of the strict observance and ate only with your own at home, or else, being of laxer observance, you unobtrusively picked out from among the gentile offerings what you were willing to eat.  I have a longtime college buddy who is so gracious this way, she got me used to expecting it.  But now that vegetarianism has turned into an epidemic entitlement, I’m expected to inquire in advance about my guest’s prerequisites for coming to my dinner.  I once had to come up with a menu for a lactose-intolerant kosher colleague and her vegetarian partner.  Doesn’t that sound like the start of a bad joke, not to mention a bad dinner? 

Well, as far as I’m concerned, if you’re vegan, you can’t make that my problem.  I’m inviting you to a dinner‑party, not a restaurant.  I’m not your mother, so I take no instinctual joy in getting you to eat.  I’m aiming at my own pleasure as much as yours, and to that end, I want to buy what’s best at the market today and make it the way I know how.  Being a son of my people, I may be counted on to provide tasty vegetables with the main dish, as well as various other (accidentally) vegetarian courses for you to make do with, without making me ruin my menu and my recipes.

—Okay, okay, tolerating the tolerance of the times, I guess it’s easier just to invite you in Lent than to rant.  But be a good sport and grant in turn that it’s rhetorically suave of me to throw the kids and the dogs in for cover, rendering my complaints about you socially acceptable to air before you now and again, however deviously.  Be a good sport and smile.

But I digress.  This blog is about the kids.   Kids are not as easy to feed as they used to be.  Kids today think they’re the center of the universe, because they are.  The whole world is turned kid‑friendly and child‑proofed.  When I was growing up, we expected reprisals for breaking stuff or refusing to eat what was proffered.  There was no child‑proofing the house for anything dangerous or precious, and there was no accommodating the dinner menu to puerile aversions.  We were expected to adapt both to the décor and the dinner. 

The world belonged to the grown-ups, and the job of growing up consisted in our progressive assimilation to their ways and foods.  To be sure, there was wailing and gnashing of teeth, and the occasional hunger‑strike by my sister willing to sit indefinitely at the table before her unfinished plate, but in the end, it had the effect of teaching us to enjoy food.  I grant that at first it might seem strange that a human being needs to learn to enjoy food, but upon reflection, perhaps it’s only natural that the reasoning animal needs reflection upon their sense experiences in order to rise from their first and immediate animal pleasures to the higher human pleasures of the table.   

My nephews have been raised around good food from the start and, not yet out of grammar school, they’re already gourmands.  They make me proud.  Because of them, kid-gentiles perplex me.  For example, it seems to me that the first impulses of nature would favor tomato sauce.  Did not the first European explorers of America mistake the tomato for the golden apple of mythology, calling it pomo d’oro?  But gentile children generally want buttered “noodles” instead, sometimes even without cheese!  It’s nonplussing.  Italian kids love tomato sauce, and it’s the fall‑back food in case they won’t eat anything else.  I don’t know, maybe you need to be breathing in the aroma of it from the cradle.  But, strange though it be to say, and stranger yet to contemplate, pasta with tomato sauce is not a safe bet when you’re having kid-gentiles for dinner.

What does seem to be of universal appeal to the puerile palate is breaded and fried.  It’s amazing what you can get kids to eat if you’ll but bread and fry it.  Allow me to quote the testimonial of a dad-gentile:  “Last night at dinner G. was still talking about your breaded, fried asparagus. You had no idea how consequential a little side dish you were making that night.  It has shaped his culinary landscape” (email quoted without permission :-).

I purchased a good deep fryer primarily for family-friendly dinner parties.  So when my friend called me midday to accept my impromptu family‑dinner invitation to what till then looked to be a friendless Saturday (I’ve never outgrown my teen anxiety about being stuck home alone on a Saturday with no fun planned), I needed something to defrost quick, and what should I find in the freezer but beef cutlets from Graul’s.  Perfect!  Kids love ‘em breaded and fried, they defrost quick, they cook quick, and they please both young and old. 

There are a lot of bad beef cutlets in the world.  Butchery is the problem.  A beef cutlet has to be cut thin, and cut right, or it will not cook up tender.  That’s all I know—your butcher needs to know the rest.  I feel myself singularly comforted in the land of my exile that the Graul’s down the road offers me beef cutlets as expertly sliced as an Italian butcher of Brooklyn might slice them—and cheap too.  Beef cutlets are cheap eats.  They no doubt come from a less prosperous era when just a little meat of middling quality had to be stretched to serve a big family.  Slicing the cutlets thin, at the right angle, from the right cut, tenderizes, multiplies, and magnifies portions.  Being expansive in one dimension, beef cutlets look big on the plate, and well seasoned, pack a lot of taste-bang for your buck.

If you can but get your hands on decent beef cutlets, the rest is child’s play.  To season them, I lay them out on my plastic cutting mats, so that when I shower them with salt from on high I can judge proportion and distribution by eye.  I LOVE my plastic cutting mats—so expansive, so light, and dishwasher-safe!  I enjoy abusing them as one would a slave.  I have a dozen of them piled in a drawer no higher than a magazine, and I reach for them at whim and go through several in an hour, slipping them in here and there throughout the dishwater rack.  You absolutely have got to get them, Gentle Reader, and a dozen of them. 

Back to the beef.  So, I pull out a mat (or two : - ), lay out the cutlets, and shower both sides evenly all over with salt and pepper.  Then I beat some eggs with a dollop of milk, pinches of salt, and grindings of pepper.  I pour out  onto a paper towel a mound of 4C Seasoned Bread Crumbs (no substitute for these, as far as I’m concerned).  I dip the cutlet into the egg wash, letting excess drain, plop it onto the mound of crumbs, and press it into the crumbs with the fork, using the corners of the paper towel to direct crumbs where I want them.  I lay out the breaded cutlets in one layer on yet more mats (see, aren’t you glad I made you buy a dozen?), or on paper towels, so as to keep the breaded cutlets dry.  You want either to bread the cutlets well in advance of frying and leave them to dry off, or else bread them right before frying, so they have no chance to turn soggy. 

My mother doesn’t mind frying these before dinner starts and leaving them to sit in a barely warm oven until they’re wanted, but I trouble myself to do them right before serving, leaving my guests to gab at table while I fry in the kitchen.  On this night, however, the little girl‑gentile insisted on overseeing, so we set her up on her judgment-stool at a safe distance from the frying pan.  Beef cutlets fry up fast.  It’s very important that you not overcook them—a minute or less on each side.   You want them golden and gilded at the edges only, not crispy brown.  I use a broad frying pan and fry only two or three at a time, to give them lots of breathing room. 

I pour a goodly pool of peanut oil (or regular olive oil) into the broad frying pan and turn on the heat to shy of medium high.  When the oil is heated through, the cutlet will sizzle—not sear, not simmer.  The sound of it should be lively—not angry, not lethargic.  It should hum happily, and its humming should make you happy.  It should take less than a minute on each side.  When you see the edges of the cutlet just begin to gild, turn it over, and it should be a golden color framed by little bits of lovely caramel gilding at the edges.  I find that as the frying progresses, the oil starts sounding angry, and I need to turn down the heat a bit. 

If you get the cutlets right, the platter of them arriving at table will brighten the eyes of the children with curiosity and elicit oohs and aahs from mom and dad, brimming with good hope that this night the kids will eat without a fuss.

But will they eat the vegetables?  Here, again, the kid-gentile bewilders.  He likes broccoli, and he likes it raw.  This I find not only perplexing, but concerning:   first, because raw broccoli is as bland as can be, and fibrous to boot; and second, because if the child is accustomed to squirrelishly darting about nibbling on crunchy raw things, can he be blamed for feeling himself unable to sit at table and enjoy cooked things in the company of his fellow human beings without fidgeting and fussing to our dismay?  But if the child may not be blamed, are we obligated to tolerate him?  And so am I concerned.

I think the root of this dilemma is a longstanding rift in Western thought on the question of what’s natural.  In a classical tradition of metaphysics that dates itself back to Plato, Nature is a good, beautiful, and orderly arrangement of kinds, each with its native properties and activities.  The word natura means birth, and natural denotes what you were born to:  birds to fly, fish to swim, and human beings, I aver, to dine.  On this view, natures have inborn oughts:  puppies ought to see, even though some are born blind; birds ought to fly, even though some are born lame; human beings ought to dine, even if most merely eat.  And kids ought to eat broccoli, like the rest of us human beings.

In contrast, on a materialistic vision of the universe even older than Plato’s, Nature is the matter in motion that underlies all things, things which collisions of atoms have thrown up by chance configured as we find them and which are therefore in principle reconfigurable by human technology.  On this view, the factual is the actual, and the wild no less natural than the civilized—perhaps more ‘natural’. 

On this latter view, the arbitrary motions of your child are as natural as those of his constitutive atoms, and he has a ‘natural’ right to his arbitrary tastes.  On the former view, there are things and ways it is ‘natural’ for a human being to eat, and you gain, if not the upper hand over the child, at least metaphysical leverage with him.  Choose your cosmology, Gentle Parent, and you choose your fate.

If you choose to civilize him, then you must cook his broccoli.  To render it more digestible and more delectable, strip away the fibrous skin of the stems.  Then split and trim them into little trees.  Put a big handful of salt into the steaming/boiling water to keep the broccoli bright green.  You don’t want it mushy, because he’s not a baby; and you don’t want it crunchy, because he’s not a squirrel.  You want it firm, to give satisfaction to his tooth, but tender, to bring out its flavor.  The mom-gentile brought it along for me already steamed, and she got it just right.

Now for dressing it.  When my people dress broccoli with olive oil and lemon juice (rather than vinegar), it’s called all’agro, which I call lemony.  To dress broccoli lemony, I crush a garlic clove and rub the serving dish with it.  If there will be kids peering into the dish, I throw the pieces away, to throw off suspicion.  If, on the other hand, I have adult lovers of the stinking rose, I tuck thick garlic slices in among the broccoli.  I then shower the broccoli evenly all over from on high with salt—enough of which is very important for mild‑flavored foods.  Next comes a very generous drizzling evenly all over of regular olive oil; then measured squirts of lemon evenly all over; and lastly a very generous drizzling of extra virgin olive oil evenly all over.  At this point, I leave it to you to decide whether to patiently flip the pieces over and over to blend and imbue, or to leave it unmixed and mottled.

The dad-gentile was watching me dress the broccoli and remarked on how he would not have thought from my descriptions that I put quite as much oil as I do.  He said I need video for my blog, but don’t wait on that, Gentle Reader, because I’m camera-shy, and not because I’m ugly.  Since a picture is worth a thousand words, I’m making up for it with all these words.

The mom-gentile was also standing by at the dressing (you just can’t keep families out of the kitchen!), and she reassured me that I could dress it however I liked because the kids had already noshed on it in the car on the way over.  I had told her to bring steamed broccoli along and that I would dress it, so I suspect that she feared the kids wouldn’t eat it dressed and she distributed the risk by letting them nosh on some in the car.  All the more gratified am I to be able to report to you, Gentle Reader, that they ate some more at dinner!  Similarly, the little girl had prevailed upon them on the way over to stop and get her some kind of fruit smoothie thing, which to their credit they disclosed immediately upon coming in the door.  For my part, I sized all 40 inches of the little lady up and down and formed a secret resolve to get some Italian food into her before the night was up. And I did!

The broccoli was cooled to room, and my people often serve it this way.  The coolness and lemony freshness of it offered a pleasing contrast with the hot‑fried beef cutlets, as mom and dad remarked at table.  I’ve had gentile guests remark upon it mockingly.  One inebriated woman went on and on to her husband about how she wasn’t ever again going to worry about getting vegetables to the table hot.  He tried to deflect her flippancy with an answer I sometimes resort to as well, “It’s like a salad.”  If you need to call it broccoli “salad” to get your gentile guests to accept it’s being cool, do what you have to; I disapprove, because I don’t want anyone to think it can substitute for the salad properly so called of raw greens to follow.  In any case, because the dressing uses lemon for tartness rather than vinegar, vegetables lemony can be as hot as you like, whether hot out of the pot, or lukewarm.  I, for one, think that the mild flavor of broccoli comes out better cool or lukewarm than hot.

With kids and vegetables, you have to pick your battles.  I’m not so foolhardy as to hope they’ll eat such a winter RED as red cabbage, so I braised that for us grown-ups.  Savoy cabbage is the cabbage of my people.  My recipe for red cabbage is my own, and threfore will require a blog of its own, for an apology.  Likewise, matter for another blog are the antipasti offered in the livingroom before dinner:  it included kid‑favored dried Soppressata sausage and roasted almonds, along with chunked Parmigiano, and olives for grown-ups; there were also darling little caper berries, which attracted interest; the darling little bowl of carrots lemony, however, was rebuffed, I suspect because the mom’s transparently tendentious YUM!!! upon tasting one raised suspicion.

Myself, I favor reverse psychology:  “Here’s a little piece for you to try, if you want to; you can ask for more, if you like it, because I don’t want you to waste any.”  My subtext here is something like, “Granted that you are the center, there are things from the periphery of the universe I’m not willing to waste on you.”  I think the kids respect me for it.  They’re so used to hovering adults drawing out all their little thoughts and desires for affirmation and edification, that a little adult disinterest comes as a relief.  If I converse with them in front of their parents, the parents inevitably interrupt us with explanatory narrative and affirmation, as though my interest were in the child’s development rather than their thoughts.  I relate to kids with a theoretical interest in their mode of being, rather than a concern for their welfare.  When parents leave us alone, I ask them for their theories about the phenomena of their experience, and their ethical evaluations of acts they’ve witnessed or committed.  If they ask me for my opinions, I tell them, which means I tell them stuff parents conspire not to. Throw in his kid-friendly food and his fun-to-say Italian name, how could you not like the guy?

Also, I release them from the dinner table when they’ve had their fill.  Gentile parents labor under oppressive notions of propriety, which become acute at other people’s houses.  My people want the kids to eat what we eat, and together with us at table, but when they’re done, we want them to go away and leave us in peace.  The gentile parent asks, “Can you sit up in your chair and have another bite of broccoli and tell us about your game today?”  No, he can’t, he’s a kid and he’s done here; by they way, if he could, why would we want him to?  Pity us all, send them off, and we’ll call them back for dessert. 

That’s what I did:  went down to the TV room and negotiated a choice between older boy-gentile and younger girl-gentile of Netflix download that we could all agree to, then went back upstairs to talk grown-up talk.  I finished off the Valle Reale Montepulciano D’Abruzzo and left the Taurino Salice Salentino to the dad-gentile.   Once the wine was finished, we had the salad.  After a while, I cut up some nicely ripened pears and brought a little plate down to kids, and they ate some. 

When the time came, mom brought out the brownies and ice cream she had brought along for dessert, and we call the kids back upstairs.  The boy-gentile volunteers to do the courtesy of topping the bowls of ice-cream.  I special-order a dollop of the vanilla gelato centered on a little brownie square, to be doused with some cognac.  We end up each with their customized dessert in the living room, all quite contented.