October 1, 2017

Blog the Forty-first: Pickling Cherry Peppers

... or Italian Eggplant "Sott'olio"

It’s pickling time, the perfect time to offer you my meterological theory of Western civilization. Western thought began in the Mediterranean where more often than not the blue sky smiles on you with a golden sun and the rich earth vouchsafes its bounty. If you’re an Aristotle or an Aquinas, you naturally begin reasoning about nature on the premise that she is a loving mother, beautiful, good, and benevolent in her purposes, and you resolve accordingly to seek your wisdom from her. But when human inquiry into nature migrates north, it meets cloud, wind, and hail, ground yielding tubers only if watered by much sweat, and life short, nasty, and brutish; so if you’re a Bacon or a Hobbes, you premise that nature is a cruel stepmother, as stinting of her secrets as of her treasures, and you resolve for your survival to put your mother to the rack until she tells you what you want to know.

That’s why they pickle cucumbers and cabbage up there. It’s a question of surviving the winter. But down in the sunkist land of my people, you pickle because it makes things delicious. It’s a matter of art. Taste their pickled cucumber and our pickled eggplant, or their pickled beets next to our pickled cherry peppers, and you will taste the difference between preservation of life and appetite for it.

March 16, 2017

Blog the Fortieth: "The Glories of the Pea"

In Transcendental Array

It’s spring intermittently down here just south of the Mason Dixon line, which means tis the season for N.P.R.’s donor marathon. I never donate to N.P.R., even though for decades it has been my primary and often sole news source as I cook supper. I’m attached to it on uncle Niccolo’s advice to keep your enemies closer than your friends, as well as for the antidote it provides to my own bias in the daily exercise of having to decipher the news under its. In any case, I will to my dying day be grateful to N.P.R. for this quotation from the diary of a Lady-in-waiting to Catherine de Medici during her reign over the cuisine of the court of Henri II: “Nothing else has been spoken of at Court this week but the glories of the pea newly arrived from Italy.”

Ah! Can you imagine a world in which peas are glorious?

So, I am abashed to offer you this post on what my people do with peas, because I feel as though my people’s recipes are not glorious enough for that quotation. The recipes are really, really good, but only in the usual way that our food is really, really good, and glorious should be even better than that, I figure. Anyways, I have one pasta recipe for you, a soup, a vegetable side, a chicken-braise, and a most unexpected calamari braise, in case there be an apologetical glory of sorts to be got from crossing kinds in transcendental array.

March 5, 2017

Blog the Thirty-ninth: At the Heart of Minestrone

Savoy Cabbage Braise,
or Pasta ‘n potatoes?

If you’re a Gentile in the least acquainted with Italian food, you no doubt think you know what “minestrone” is, but I doubt you do, because I doubt there’s something to know, speaking precisely. There is of course a single name, but that’s not conclusive, since we name and contemplate not only things but also their absence—as darkness names the absence of light and blindness the absence of sight. We moreover name what can be based on what is; and what could be based on what can be conceived; and what should have been be even against what already is unfortunately. Language and thought extend much farther than the reality before it, and venture so far as to name even the ineffable that cannot be named and the inconceivable that cannot be conceived (which is especially useful when you need to name God or mathematical fictions).

But what has any of that to do with “minestrone”? Well, the Italian suffix “-one” indicates that we’re dealing with something not only big but clumsy, something oafish or overdone—you call your fat uncle a “mangione”, not your voracious teen. A “minestrone” is an overdone “minestra”, which only raises the question of what a “minestra” is, itself vexed. One might translate it “soup”. But does the English word “soup” imply a medley of elements in liquid, whether thin as broth or thick as sauce? A “minestra” can be less than that. In Sicily, the day after a feast day my aunt made us a light supper out of a mild green served in the salted water it simmered in, drizzled with olive oil and squirted with some lemon. That’s a simple “minestra”. You eat the greens with a fork in your right hand and bread in your left, spooning and/or sopping up the broth at the end.  Is that soup?  Granted that you finish with a spoon, is it soup if you begin with a fork?

That’s the English horn of the dilemma. Then there’s the Italian. When you add pasta to a “minestra”, it is no longer a “minestra”, but rather a pasta. It changes its genus, as adding wings to a warm dinosaur makes it a bird. In the case of a minestra, the bread is but accompaniment. Add pasta to that same minestra, and the pasta becomes the essential matter of the dish, which then takes its specific form from its minestra. When I make pasta ‘n lentils, I sometimes save some of the lentils to eat on their own the next day as a minestra, accompanied no doubt by bread. In contrast, my people never have bread with pasta, for doubling the starches ruins the proportion. Only at the end after the pasta is all eaten, if there remain remnants of sauce in the bowl, might we reach for a piece of bread to sop it up.

Notwithstanding the antiquity of these distinctions, when we add not only pasta but different sorts of pasta to the multifarious minestra of a minestrone, we don’t call it a pasta, but rather a “minestrone”, or an “oaf” of a “minestra”. This nomeclature does not make quidditative sense, but there it is anyway, existing. Exist though it may, if there’s no accounting for it, there’s no knowing it, speaking precisely, is there?

January 23, 2017

Blog the Thirty-eighth: OCTOPUS

in a Seafood Salad
(plus a Bonus Baby Braise)

Women of a certain age develop very definite opinions about color, and the last thing you want is to get lassoed onto a paint committee with them. I'm an idiot savant when it comes to colors. I'm great at mixing and matching them, but I never get their names right, as women of a certain age love to tell me.

I got into it once with such a one when I said that octopus is purple. "No it's not; it's white." I stared at her dumbly, as though she had eight heads. I would concede if she were to insist that I mix up blue and green, but there's no way she'll convince me I mistake white for purple. So I reply, "Well, it's kind of greyish white before you cook it; and the inside is quite white after you cook it; but on the outside it's purple as purple can be." And she, "Well, we've served it to you before, and it was white." Oh, is that what those cyclinders were? I thought they were digits of palm or tofu. Turns out they were cored octopus, which I subsequently spotted in the freezer of the fish market next time I went. You Gentiles had me this time. I was speechless. Dumb with incredulity.

When I was in Brooklyn at Christmastime, I spotted a new fish shop across from the pastry shop, and reconnoitering came upon three crates of octopus of as many sizes. To mine eyes they were beautiful to behold. When I asked the fishmongress where they came from, she said "Portugal". That clinched it, as my father always said the best octopus is fresh from Portugal, so I decided to buy some to make for my mother and me that night. I was tempted by the baby ones, which we cook in spicy tomato sauce, but t'was the season for octopus salad, so I decided to decide between the middle and mega size. The reddish color of the big boy before me seized my sensorium, so I asked for him. When he weighed in at $24, I think I manged to keep custody of my facial features as I gulped out, "That's fine."

I ended up sending a pic of the big boy boiled to my friend of definite opinions, with the text, 
"Documentary proof that octopus is purple:"