December 19, 2014

Blog the Twenty-sixth: Sauce, sauce, & sauce.

(Tomato) Sauce Three Ways.

Back in Brooklyn, dinner came in a weekly round of foods—not to be confused with a regimen of recipes [think Nature, not Army].  Our week had an alimentary shape, with two rises and their twin dips, like the curves of a Venus de Milo.   The high points were Thursdays and Sundays, which were buxom by virtue of a first dish of pasta with sauce, invariably followed by a fancy second dish, and an especially fancy one on Sunday, when dinner was eaten midday, soon after coming back from the late morning Mass.  This first dish of some pasta shape or other with tomato sauce was a kind of basso continuo for the varying main dishes, which chased the graces of the seasons, the sales, or the moods of the moment. 

After the big Sunday dinner, Mondays and Tuesdays were lighter meals that might include leftovers or grilled meats, buttressed by  first dish of pasta soup or pasta sauté with seasonal vegetables.  Wednesdays and Fridays were fish days, not usually preceded by a first dish (so as not to blunt the appetite), but often followed by cheese (so as to fill out the fish).  Saturday was the day for roasted meat with a variety of fancy vegetable sides.  

I once had a gentile friend liken my mother’s round to his mother’s rotation of seven recipes [no need to mention the woman’s particular Northern European provenance—could have been any]:  she had one recipe for each day of the week, the same week after week.  That sounds to me like a post-modern Dante’s reconstruction of an infernal punishment, a gustatory No Way Out in which an eternal return of the same is greeted by a desperate Pereat mundus! instead of an exuberant Da capo! 

 no, my mother took a Bachian delight in inventing fugal variations on gustatory themes, imitating Nature’s ingenuity in varying her fixed species.  Of course we but imitate, and lacking Nature’s power of self-renewal, our cycles, unlike Hers, roll out in straight lines that have a beginning and an end.  Fix on such successive delights as your end, and human life becomes a restless desire of desire after desire ending only in death; but make use of them as sacramentals, and they offer a foretaste of what lives without dying. 

This waxing and waning of aliment, in alternating forms of fish, fowl, kine, or swine, variously winged by seasonal vegetables, kept appetite alive with expectation.  It was a little like Christmas—you knew the sort of present you might get, but you were never sure of what exactly until the day came, and your expectation could be as delighted by the unexpected as by the long-desired.  Yes, yes, it was like Christmas every day!

October 18, 2014

Blog the Twenty-fifth: Squid, squid, or squid?

Calamari” Three Ways:
Braised, Broiled, or Fried.

Why is it you can get a Gentile to eat squid if you call it “calamari”?  I live in a hard-drinking sailor town where peoples of northern European stock hold sway, and their frequent devotions to nectars of the grain are as likely to be accompanied these days by fried calamari rings as by fried onion rings.  It’s not as if the foreign name renders unrecognizable those tentacles winging the plate, and it’s a small step for imagination to reassemble the rings” into a squid torso. 

Plenty of people who will eat “calamari” won’t touch a fish cooked whole with its head on, as is done throughout the Mediterranean.  I used to think this childish, but lately I’ve been feeling moralistic about it, perhaps under the pressure of the bourgeoning vegetarian populations upsetting my culinary ecosystem.  That blank bovine stare they adopt at table as I chew my flesh and they their cud strikes me as judgmental.  I have a college buddy who worked in a slaughterhouse one summer, and he likes to say that he feels he has the right for life to put his hand to meat with a clear conscience, having wielded the stun gun with that same hand.  A fortiori the bar of moral vindication seems set pretty low if you’re expected to look your dinner in the eye when it’s already dead by someone else’s hand, and especially if there’s a jury of vegetarians watching for any wincing of conscience.

This is my first fish blog.  I ate a lot of fish growing up, and a lot of it before I liked it, on Fridays, and often also on Wednesdays.  When it comes to fish, you have to take “the food of my people” in the extended sense that extends to my father’s people back in Sicily, because as my father likes to say of my mother, “She’s from the mountains—what does she know about fish?”  We have friends of the family likewise from Sicilian shores, or else Naples, who “know” fish.  True, my mother’s father did use to take bus rides to Salerno and bring back fresh fish, but that was only an occasional treat, and the most beloved recipe of my mother’s people is baccalภsalted cod from Northern Europe (which they either fry, or else braise with potatoes, tomatoes, and olives (at Christmas), but salted fish doesn’t count, especially from Northern Europe.

October 5, 2014

Blog the Twenty-fourth: Oh, to Woo with Tiramisú!

An Instant Classic

I remember with Proustian clarity the first time I had tiramisú at Café Dante in New York’s West Village, where I spent many nights of my teenage years as a weekend ex-pat from Brooklyn.  The not yet trendy dessert exemplified the Italian genius for suffusing gracefully light substance with intense flavor—case in point:  gelato.  Did you know that gelato has less milk cream in it than American ice cream?  So much less that it even falls below the legal standard to be branded “ice cream”.  The impression it gives of creaminess comes from richness of flavor and refinement of texture.  It’s art perfecting nature, not just packaging it.

Tiramisú is the Italian answer to English trifle.  Trifle has the exuberance of the barbarian about it, with its voluptuous mounding of luxuries: whipped heavy cream between deposits of rum-soaked sponge cake, strewn with fruits both fresh and liquored, along with any other trifle fancy may suggest be thrown in to boot.  Italians have a dessert inspired by it called zuppa inglese (“English soup”), in which ladyfinger biscuits are dunked in sweet vermouth and then layered with yellow pastry cream, of the sort my mother’s people call French cream For a while before they came to America, her father had a café in Sacco that my mother ran, and she fondly remembers making gelato and zuppa inglese to offer for sale.  But the very name tells you that, however much the Italians enjoyed this confection, they felt it as foreign.

Not so with tiramisú The name means “pick-me-up”, no doubt because of the espresso in which the ladyfingers are soaked­—which are called savoiardi in Italian (suggesting that they are perhaps an import from the French House of Savoy, although it’s unclear whether Savoyan cooks weren’t in fact Italians, making the name a faux ami I surely need not recall for you, Gentle Reader, that the foundations of French haute cuisine were laid by the Neapolitan cooks Catherine de Medici brought with her from Italy to France?).  The history of tiramisu’s origins, though quite modern, is controverted, and far less interesting and less charming than the origins of my own recipe, which I’ll tell instead. 

September 25, 2014

Blog the Twenty-third: Lasagna

Pure and Simple

When it comes to lasagna, I’m not to be trusted.  I am at my most bigoted.  I have not found any other lasagna acceptable but the lasagna of my people, and here I mean “my people” in the very strictest sense, namely, my mother’s people (not my father’s), and not just any of my mother’s people, but only the ones who emigrated to Brooklyn, for even the lone sister they left behind in the otherwise derelict village of Sacco has had her lasagna corrupted by that pestilence from the north, béchamel.  (In general I pride myself on not withholding from you, Gentle Reader, even ugly truths.  But here again I must not be trusted, for I will not acknowledge that the French learned how to make béchamel from Neapolitans.  As the Apostle admonishes, Some things should not even be mentioned among you.)

Further impugning my chauvinism is the fact that lasagna is not, speaking factually, a food of my mother's people. Lasagna was unknown in the impoverished post-war Sacco where my mother grew up.  It was my aunt Rose, the family pioneer first to emigrate to America by way of marriage to an Italian-American immigrant, who learned to make lasagna in the Italian diaspora of Brooklyn—in Canarsie, of all nieghborhoods!—and who ever after remained family maestra of the dish.  Her lasagna was the true magnum opus of Thanksgiving dinner, the turkey being but our American totem to surround with sundry more savory Italian foods, including at least two other meat dishes and a half dozen vegetable accompaniments, to follow the lasagna as the first dish.

But once again, I don't see that the facts matter much.  Although my mother's people did not invent lasagna, their recipe realizes its essence, and that's a much better reason for chauvinism, is it not?  Now I am not indiscriminate in my rejection of every other lasagna save ours:  I distinguish between partial corruption and complete abomination.  “Corruption” results from the introduction of an alien element that obscures the nature of the thing, however without undermining its essence, whereas “abomination” renders the nature monstrous by way of essential degradation.  In the case of lasagna, for example, whereas a meat sauce only overdoes it, a béchamel sauce positively undoes it; whereas peas are but perplexing, hard boiled eggs are repugnant; whereas oregano offends, nutmeg disgusts. 

How do I know this?  By grasping the essence.  At the heart of every nature is its essence, the formative principle of the whole that marshals its complement of natural properties.  What accords with a thing’s essence is good, true, and beautiful. What is repugnant to it, threatens its unity, its clarity, its harmony.  If a human being is healthy, they glow from within.  The glow failing, they reach for cosmetics; go to excess with those, and they even become ugly.  A healthy nature is of the essence—nothing can substitute for that.