June 2, 2016

Blog the Thirty-seventh: Chicken Cutlets Fancy

Three Ways 
(Plus bonus rollatini)

I once read on a NYC subway that it takes a village to raise a child.  Well, it takes an Italian family to come up with a good chicken cutlet recipenot a nucleus of 2 parents, 2 kids, 3 cars, a dog & a nannybut a sprawling Italian family of aunts, uncles, and cousins that crosses not only the five Boroughs, but an ocean and a century, with transatlantic runners and gentile grafts. 

That commercial you have running in your head now of three generations of well-manicured women looking lovingly at one another across a casserole is not what I mean either.  Rather, as the founding fathers of the American republic understood that the best means to manage contention was to let contending interests contend until mutually canceling extremes give way to a mean, likewise recipes in my family contend until a family consensus pronounces sentence by acclamation—vox populi, vox Dei—dialectical contention giving way to general emulation.

My mother never liked my Aunt Rose’s chicken cutlets with white mushrooms and onions, which I love, so she never makes it, but I learned it from my aunt long ago, and I love to make it for dinner parties for gentile friends, who love it. For holiday dinners my mother loves to make her cutlets topped with tangy onions, which I’ve never liked and never make, even though the rest of my family all like it.  Aunt Rose’s daughter, my cousin, told me she has recently taken to making her mother’s cutlets with my Baby Bella mushrooms garlicky instead of her mother’s button mushrooms with onions, which if you ask me is not really her mother’s recipe at all, but a new recipe all her own.  Liking her mother’s recipe, I didn’t like the idea of hers, until I tried it on myself one night, with a difference I’ll tell you about, and now I like it precisely for its difference.  I’ll give you all these recipes here and you can pronounce and acclaim for yourself, as if a people.

April 5, 2016

DINNER DIARY: Leftover Genius, Frittata!

If not to others, is it okay to admit to yourself that you’re a genius?  Well,
Dear Diary, I don’t mind telling you, I am a genius with leftovers. My leftovers are better than most people’s fresh food. I can rejuvenate, reinvent, or extrapolate, as necessity requires or opportunity presents, nor did I learn this from my mother, who’s as bad at leftovers as she is good at cooking.

I even put people to the test. If you get the call to come “for good leftovers,” and you demure with any hint of disdain, you get on a Do Not Call For Leftovers list it’s impossible to get off of.  You get only one chance.  It may be unfair, but it’s just.

March 28, 2016

Dinner Diary: Asparagus Risotto as quick 'n easy as can be.

My sister-in-law decided that I was making Easter dinner, and my mother seconded the diktat.  I was benignly given a choice of her house or my mother’s, and my brother ignored my email inviting them all down to my house for Easter dinner in the land of my exile, no doubt taking my point.  I chose my mother’s house. 

March 19, 2016

Blog the Thirty-sixth: The Wines of my People

Or at least the ones I like.

You’ll no doubt not be surprised to hear me say that I like the wine of my people better than the wine of any other people—especially if you have any talent for logic, for simply supply the minor premise, and the conclusion follows from the given, that I like the food of my people better than the food of any other people. 
But won't you be surprised to learn that I do not think that the wine of my people is better than the wine of every other people? I see I have perplexed, if not appalled you, familiar Reader. And what if I should go on to say that next to the French, I think my people perfect dolts when it comes to purveying their wine to you? I see I’ve now appalled you, if also amused you.

Well, let’s begin with my enthymeme’s unstated premise, namely, The wines and cuisine of a place are siblings. Engendered as they are by a common terrain and clime, a land’s cuisine and wines adapt to each other as they grow up together—call it syncretism, call it synergy, call it family. Likewise, growing up with my people’s food, I like their wine. Because I like wines that like my food, I like wines that don't mind tartness and pungency and savoriness. That also means wines that don't want center stage, but like jiving or jamming with food. My people drink wine with food, and not with just any food, but with meats. We have wine with antipasto, but water with pasta; we have wine with the meat dish, but water with the salad and fruit. On special occasions, we might have sweet wine with dessert, or spirits after, and that's pretty much it. We drink a lot, but we don't get drunk.

I like my reds pretty dry, pretty tart, pretty tannic but not too, to offset the oiliness and savoriness of my food. I don't like strawberries or red cherries in my wine; I like dark cherries, raspberries, blackberries, and plums.  In the white, I love apples and pears. I like my fruit fresh or dried (like raisins), but not cooked (like jam). Flowers are okay, but I like herbs better. I like the cedar or balsamic notes of old wood, but not the vanilla or sweet spice of new oak. I like manly stuff like leather or tobacco or dark chocolate, but not exotica of the tropics or the East. I like earth and minerals, and earthy funkiness (think mushrooms, not feet), but not fur, sweat, or dung (can you blame me?). I don't like candy or chemicals either (what the hell are they doing in the wine, anyway?). I do like to tongue velvet and silk (okay, was that too much information?).

March 5, 2016

Dinner Diary: A T-Bone Steak with Asparagus and a Sweet Potato

I hadn’t cooked for a couple of days and, well, it was starting to feel unnatural.... 

February 25, 2016

Dinner Diary: Broiled Loin Lamb Chops

Oh shit.  I forgot to take something out of the freezer for dinner.  What now?

February 11, 2016

Blog the Thirthy-fifth: One potato, two potato, three potato ...

... Four potato salads.

You know how when you have one kid who is good at everything, and another who is good at only one thing, you have to make a really big deal about that one thing, and act as if he’s the family maven when it comes to that thing? That’s how it is with Italians and potatoes. It would be untoward for us to claim potatoes too. Brotherliness requires ceding to the putative peoples of meat and potatoes that putativity.

But if the truth may be told—and why else do you read this blog if not for that? and why do I remain putatively anonymous if not for that?—my father loved to say, “I love potatoes but your mother never makes them for me,” whenever she made them, which was regularly, so that his point was not “never” but “never for me,” as if to say, granted she cooks them all the time, if not for you too she would not make them for me alone. Whether that is a distinction without a difference, I leave to you to decide. In any case, Italians in fact eat lots of potatoes, even if not every night, and they like to—it’s not as if some British-induced famine forced them to eat them. Of course, one of the ways they make potatoes is with pasta, but it’s not the only way and not the usual way, and so that Irish crack about pasta e patate counts as an ethnic slur, and all you libs should note that down.

But you have a much bigger problem to deal with here than Irish wise-cracks about pasta e patate. The Italian way of making potato salad calls into question the very meaning of the English word “salad”. Historically speaking, English and Italian are, if not first cousins, at least second cousins by remarriage. That heavy tonguing of Anglo-Saxon by Normandized Latin was followed by a couple centuries of literary Italophilia, and nearly a score of academic Latinophilia. So you might well think as ordinary a word as “salad” would more or less translate. But I fear that it does not.

Italians call many vegetable preparations insalata that English-speakers would not call “salad”. I mentioned in my post on “broccoli lemony” (an English alias for insalata di broccoli) an episode when my colleague’s drunk wife (won’t mention the ethnicity) offered my dinner guests wry exclamations on the conveniences of my serving my steamed broccoli “cold” (i.e., at room temperature). Her rightly embarrassed husband rose to the defense of his host’s cold broccoli with, "It’s like a salad." Notwithstanding his apologetic, his wife remained wry. Notwithstanding her wryness, she got me wondering: how did her husband’s comparison aim to excuse my broccoli before the Gentiles? What exactly do Gentiles mean by “salad”? 

(Gentiles make me wonder a lot.)

January 26, 2016

Blog the Thirty-fourth: A Reaction to RISOTTO

On doing it right, or not at all ~ 
which means you making your own broth!

When it comes to risotto, my zeal is not to be trusted, for it is the zeal of a convert.  Pauline, I am as zealous for it now as I was zealous against it before being knocked off my sheep.  What knocked me off is another specialty of North Italy, bollito misto, as little known as esteemed, and which you best always name in Italian, because there’s just no way to say “boiled meats” in English that will make it sound delicious.  But you’ll never master the art of making delicious risotto, unless you also give yourself to the art of making delicious broth; and you’ll never master the art of making delicious broth, unless a day’s exertion yields you something more than broth to eat.  That means learning to like boiled meat for dinner.  I hope to talk you into that.

I first encountered risotto back in the ‘80s, in the form of expletives gushing from Gentile converts to Northern Italian cuisine.  These self-appointed evangelists had been to the newly prospering North and came back witnessing to fellow Americans, whom they pronounced benighted by Italo-American red‑sauce fare, what real Italian food was like.  Well, my Italo-American family very rarely mentioned Northern Italian food, and when they did, it was with respect, so I didn’t like this dissing of our food by heretofore benighted Gentiles, who managed thus to provoke in me a hostile curiosity about this Northern contender to pasta.

Risotto is in fact North Italy’s answer to pasta, and like pasta, is a first dish, not dinner (if you try to make dinner out of it, you’ll only bloat yourself with eating too much starch and milkfat in one sitting).  Like pasta, risotto is a remarkably versatile staple, readily marrying with many another food to yield spectral variations. However, unlike pasta, it is labor‑intensive to make, if made right, and it is very often not made right, both here and in Italy, because it is, well, labor‑intensive to make right. 

For one thing, it demands homemade broth, which takes all afternoon to make.  For another, it requires continuous stirring for nearly 20 minutes over a steamy pot, because the signature creaminess of risotto comes not from cream, but from the soft epidermis of Italy’s short‑grained Arborio rice breaking down from the friction of continuous stirring, to melt into a starchy cream that absorbs the flavor of whatever ingredient you’re featuring—which is why your featured ingredient must be cooked tastily before adding the Arborio rice to it, so that it too can break down in the stirring and its flavors blend with the rice cream.  Risotto is not fried rice and not rice pilaf, it is creamed rice, and it gets that way from continuous stirring and thorough blending.  Restauranteurs have tricks for stirring less, but I tell you, they are feeding you risotto stillborn.