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.