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.

A misguided charity might seek to excuse.  Ireland is beautifully green [so tell me, how did they manage to come up with the only ugly shade of green known to me, who love green, to celebrate their day of ethnic pride?], but their land is still northern, so their cuisine is handicapped by their clime.  Throw in the agricultural exploitation of a hateful Empire that turned their whole country into a potato field subject to a devastating blight, and you might want to cut them slack.  But how would that explain their refusal now, in the midst of American abundance and Italian-American evangelization, to spurn delicious food charitably proffered to them? 

For example, one Thanksgiving my sister asked me to bring a vegetable to Thanksgiving dinner at her house with her Irish in-laws.  Well, an Italian[-American] Thanksgiving is, I admit, an eclectic affair—the turkey often being preceded, for example, by lasagna, and the sweet potatoes accompanied by broccoli di rape—so in an ecumenical gesture of rapprochement, I figure I’ll make my cabbage barbary for her Irish in‑laws.  The Irish like cabbage, right?  And my red cabbage braised in red wine will be a nice Franco-Italian twist to surprise and delight on a holiday, right?  

Wrong.  They wouldn’t even taste it, not one of them.  It’s Thanksgiving, and you don’t eat cabbage on Thanksgiving.  You eat two kinds of potatoes—mashed and sweet—and you eat string beans or asparagus, but under no conditions do you eat cabbage, let alone broccoli di rape.  And, by the way, you eat only the white meat, and throw the dark meat away!  Is that not taking white too far?  May not one subjected to witnessing such things be forgiven a bit of brotherly mockery? 

When I was growing up, my block was half Italian and half Jewish, as was my public school, and I assumed that the rest of the world was similarly constituted.  In later youth, my Catholic‑school cousins made me aware of adjoining neighborhoods inhabited by a people who went to Mass but were not Italians.  They were Irish.  Mass aside, they seemed to me less like us than Jews were.  Why is it that when my Jewish friends rave, “Oh my God, so much food!”, it sounds like a compliment, but when my Irish in-laws say the very same words, it sounds like a reproach?  Does it ever occur to them how it would sound for us to exclaim at their dinners, “My, how little food, and how little of it delicious!” 

On the other hand, there’s my half-Irish sister-in-law, who has learned not only to eat right, but to cook right, and enough too.  The credit for this must be evenly divided between her own culinary gusto, my brother’s clamorous love of food, my mother’s salutary example, and her own Irish father’s Italophilia.  So I can bear personal witness that if the Irish but come over to Rome in matters culinary as in matters religious, there’s good hope of salvation for them.

Meanwhile, my brother-in-law doesn’t eat sharp cheeses (does doesn’t just mean won’t, to trace a statement of fact back to a decision of will?), and my sister reminds me of this “fact” when I’m cooking at her house, as though I am expected to leave the grated cheese out.  I don’t think so.  So let me tell you how she ruins my pasta asparagus, and you, Gentle Reader, judge whether the Right and the Just in this matter lies with my brother-in-law’s Irish palate or my people's.

I got this recipe for pasta and asparagus from a cookbook entitled The Food of Southern Italy, by Carlo Middione (William Morrow & Co., New York).  It was a cocktail table book at the house of some graduate school buddies of mine, anglophiles of Scottish and Irish extraction who cooked organic food even before it was cool to.  They also wore Birkenstocks.  Dinner was as pallid as the cooks, but the photographs in the Italian cookbook were delicious, so I ordered it (on a rotary phone--before the WEB).  The recipes vary from great to not, but this one for pasta with asparagus is a winner, and it's the season for asparagus.

The surprise of the recipe is that it uses tomato sauce, which seems all wrong for asparagus, doesn’t it?  But guess what, on the contrary, it brings out the flavor of it—in moderation.  The key to the recipe’s success is a secret ingredient that creams the tomato sauce—eggs beaten with Pecorino Romano.  The creamy tomato sauce that results is lip-smacking, bowl‑scraping delicious.

But my Irish brother-in-law doesn’t like cheese.  So what does my sister do?  She omits the egg and cheese and adds more tomato sauce, ending up with tomato sauce littered with asparagus.  Ugh!, ugh!  I say it again, ugh!  This is how red-sauce Italian restaurants have ruined the reputation of southern Italian cooking—they drown everything in tomato sauce.  It’s a taste‑sensation as reliable as it monotonous, having the egalitarian appeal of brand‑recognition:  let’s eat “Italian” tonight.  I don’t eat “Italian”.  I eat food, the food of my people, every night.  My sister says she gets tired of “Italian” food.  I don’t know what she’s talking about—unless it be that stuff that Irish family of hers is willing to eat.

Here’s how you make pasta asparagus, right, simple, and delicious.  Since I use only a little tomato sauce, I make it extra tasty:  contrary to usual practice, I use extra virgin olive oil rather than regular, and chopped garlic rather than cloves.  I lightly crush, peel, and halve a couple of garlic cloves, slice them lengthwise into slivers, and then chop the slivers finely crosswise.  I scrape the chopped garlic off the cutting-board into several tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, and turn the heat up to medium under the pot.  When I hear sizzling, I tip the pan to float the chopped garlic, and keep it sizzling just until it turns golden and sweet-smelling.

Then I add a can of pelati (whole peeled Roma tomatoes imported from Italy!  I was cooking at my sister’s beach house on Mother’s Day, and when I asked her where she had put the cans of pelati I brought, she answered that she had crushed tomatoes in the cabinet I could use, at which I exclaimed, I don’t think so, and my mother in quick succession, Oh my God, how could you buy those!, to which my sister replied, My God, it’s not like I killed the Pope!  See what I mean by compromised?).  Sometimes I seed the tomatoes, by cutting them in half and squeezing out the seeds, and I usually take only the tomatoes from the can, leaving the “juice” it’s packed in behind, being suspicious of its provenance (where would it come from, if not from tomatoes unworthy of being presented whole?—a fortiori, crushed tomatoes!!!).  I add salt (a teaspoon or two?), enough of which is as important as enough olive oil for tasty marinara sauce (so called because the tomatoes are crushed rather than pureed). 

Tomato sauce must be well‑thickened, well‑salted, and well‑oiled.  It should simmer neither gently nor angrily, but lively, for 20 or 30 minutes, and you need to crush the whole tomatoes as you go, and also stir and scrape regularly to keep the sauce from sticking and burning, especially in the later stages.  It needs to go from soupy to saucy, and when it does, it will start plopping instead of bubbling; its smell will turn from vegetal to sweet, its taste from raw to succulent; and its oil will float to the top.  If it tastes raw, it needs more cooking (you can add a bit of water, if needed, to let it simmer some more without sticking). If it tastes cooked but bland, then it needs more salt, or olive oil, or both—add more, until delicious.  If you didn’t use imported whole pelati from Italy, as I told you to, give up hope of making it delicious, and do better next time.

The asparagus needs to be boiled or steamed.  I break off and discard  the bottoms of the asparagus stalks as far down as they snap naturally, and then snap the remainder of the stalk into inch-pieces, putting them to soak in cold water until I’m ready for them.  I either boil or steam the asparagus in water well-salted to keep it green­—until fork-tender, which means just past crunchy and well before mushy.

Besides the sauce and asparagus, you need to get eggs ready (2 Large or 1 Jumbo per 2/3 pound of penne and 1 large bunch of asparagus).  I wash the eggs with soap and water before cracking them open, because they are used raw in this recipe.  I beat them with dashes of salt and a great deal of freshly ground black pepper.  In addition to the eggs, you also need to get ready a cup of grated Pecorino Romano  (yes, a whole cup!) , which I grate into curly locks—as  is just and right—with my handy Oxo Rotary Cheese Grater.  It’s amazing how much cheese the egg and tomato sauce absorb.  Would you believe you’ll need even more grated cheese for the table?  And a pepper mill at table too.

Having assembled your tasty tomato sauce, boiled asparagus pieces, beaten eggs, and grated cheese, you boil 2/3 pound penne per large bundle of asparagus, until al dente (i.e., tender-firm: past crunchy but well short of mushy).  Drain the pasta well, and return it to the pot.  Then add the asparagus and cheese, and toss well to mix.  With some of the pasta’s heat thus dissipated, you can quickly mix in the beaten egg without it’s cooking and turning into scrambled eggs.  To this glossy mass of egg-glazed pasta with asparagus, add only enough tomato sauce to turn it a rosy or orangy red. But keep it creamy!  You want this creamy tomato sauce to cling to the pasta, not to top it merely and certainly not to drown it.  Top off with more grindings of black pepper, and serve it quickly, steamy, billowy, pink and green and creamy, with more grated cheese and black pepper ready to hand at table.

Now, if your inveterate Irish husband won’t eat grated cheese, then just dump some of the boiled asparagus into marinara sauce and serve him that, but don’t call that “Italian”.

By now, Gentle Reader, you know well that pasta is never dinner.  It’s always a first dish, to a second of animal flesh, whether of land, air, or sea.  This is not a matter merely of nutrition.  It’s slavish for a human being to think of food nutritionally.  A human body is the medium of a rational soul that delights in contemplating diversity.  Your body is not a machine that needs refueling—it is an organism that wants satisfying.  It is also more than an animal organism with appetites instinctually determined to specific food. Human beings are omnivores in body as in mind:  just as they are curious about all things, they are ready to eat all things. 

You can fill up your stomach, but you will not satisfy your sensorium  unless you give it a diversified portion of Nature’s sights, smells, and tastes.   Your bodily senses, desires, and passions are manifold, in partnership with a mind whose capacities and desires to perceive, probe, and know are manifold—even infinite.  That’s why, Gentle Reader, you need to eat a second dish after your pasta.  This is not custom speaking, but Nature:  Attend!  If you try  instead to fill your belly with pasta and call that dinner, your soul will leave the table hungry, and her unrequited yearnings will lead you later to eat the ears and tail off of a month-old Easter bunny, shamefully, for Nature will have her pound of flesh, or else.  

After tasty pasta, a roasted but light meat is good.  For such occasions, I came up with a simple way to make London Broil delicious.  I’m very proud of this recipe, because my mother’s people being mountain people, beef was rare among them, and my mother has never mastered the art of roasting slabs of beef.  But, exiled among beef‑eaters, I’ve picked up a recipe or two.  An Irish friend once described for me how his bother-in-law takes a fork to London Broil, stabbing it systematically in neat, close rows all over, on both sides, and then marinating it in Guinness.  GuinnessI don’t think so.   So I figure: I’m Italian, I’ll use red wine. 

What a good idea that turns out to be!  By some magical chemistry, after several hours under wine—not fewer than 3 hours, and all day long is much better—the aromas of the wine and meat marry and transmute into a perfume as stirring to the soul as to the senses.  Once the meat is suffused with this nectar of Deus sive natura, I remove the wine-dyed slab from the sacred bath and dry it off with paper towels.  Then I crush and halve a garlic clove, using the halves to rub each side of the meat well all over.  I heavily salt both sides and grind lots of black pepper all over.  Finally, I massage the spices into the meat with regular olive oil, dipping my fingers in it or else spraying it on.

I place the meat thus marinated and seasoned on a broiling pan, until I’m ready for it.  I turn the broiler onto high when I put the pasta to boil.  Once I’ve managed to get the pasta to table, before sitting down, I put the broiler pan in, very close to the broiler element or flame—within a couple of inches—and set a timer on to 5 minutes.  Keeping an ear out, when the timer goes off, I check the meat; if the broiler is hot enough, the meat should be crusted over and a bit curled; if not, I give it a little more time.  I turn it over when crusted over, and set the timer to 3 minutes.  In three minutes, I check whether it’s ready, or will need 2 more minutes. 

It is imperative that the meat cook to medium rare, and in no case beyond medium, or it will be tough.  London Broil is typically from less tender cuts of beef, and the way to get such beef tender and tasty is to marinate it, cook it pink, and slice it thin.  If you have people afraid of pink meat, see if they’ll eat the slices from the very end of the slab.  If not, put some end-slices back on the broiler pan and under the heat only just long enough for them to lose their color.  However, under no circumstances are you to waste the prime slices from the middle on such people.  Offer them seconds of pasta.

Once the meat is ready, remove it and leave it on a cutting board to relax for five minutes, while you sharpen your slicing knife.  It is imperative that you slice London Broil as thinly as you can, and on the bias (at an angle).  It will be delicious this way, but chewy if sliced thick.  I usually serve the serpentine slices in wavy rows on a long platter with big piles of mushrooms garlicky tucked in, and a sprig or two of green parsley here and there to set off the pink meat and brown mushrooms.  It’s beautiful to behold, delicious to eat, and ecumenical besides: Italian, Irish, Jewish, and Gentile alike rave with delight, both young and old.  

And, in a way, an Italian way, I owe it to the Irish.