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?