For my last birthday, a dear friend gifted me with a subscription to the New York Times “Cooking” website. Although I had been tempted to subscribe, given my ever-growing number of cookbooks, I doubt that I would have ever done so on my own. For the last few months, however, prompted by the site’s daily email updates, I’ve become a frequent visitor and have grown even more grateful for the gift.
Sometimes the way I feel dictates what I cook. Such was the case the other night when I returned from the hospital after my husband underwent emergency surgery. He had been in severe pain and the anguish on his face conjured up in my mind images from Gustave Doré’s illustrations for Dante’s Inferno.
I was going to skip dinner but knew I’d need my strength to face the next day. After finding some left-over marinara in the fridge, I decided on something fast and easy that mirrored my dismal mood: Uova in Purgatorio, Eggs in Purgatory, a dish I’ve written about before here. Somehow, served on a thick slice of toast, they provided the comfort I needed.
Ever since losing my cookbook library to a flood from super-storm Sandy, I’ve been rebuilding it slowly. Since many of the books in my original collection are now out of print, I’ve been relying on used-book sellers both local and online. One book I was especially happy to secure, at an affordable price, is Jeanne Carola Francesconi’s La Cucina Napoletana. Close to 700 pages in length, it’s a treasure trove of classic Neapolitan recipes, often succinctly written, with many ingredient measurements marked “q.b.” which means “quanto basta,” Italian for “just enough.” Given her laconic style, I’m pretty certain that Francesconi had relatively experienced cooks in mind as her audience. But even a novice one can acquire an understanding of authentic Neapolitan cuisine, which today seems sadly to have been overshadowed by its Northern counterparts or bastardized by many popular chain restaurants.
Planning, preparing, and sharing dinner with my husband may be the quotidian pleasure I enjoy the most. It’s our time to look back on our day, discuss what’s on our mind, and give thanks for what we have. Unfortunately, fate occasionally steps in, snatches this delight away, and leaves me alone for dinner. In my youth, I may have handled this disappointment with a pre- and post-prandial libation, skipping the dinner between them. These days, however, being much older and a tad wiser, I may limit myself to one cocktail but shall never forego cooking and having at least a simple meal after it. I guess it’s my way of countering fortune and carrying on.
A great sale on beef short ribs at my local Whole Foods triggered our Sunday supper. After returning home from the market, I started to look for recipes and found one I thought would be perfect for a late-summer night, Jacques Pepin’s “Beef Short Rib, Mushroom, and Potato Stew.” The fact that it utilized a pressure cooker made it especially appealing, as we were having a bit of a heat wave. I made another trip to the market to pick up the potatoes and dried shiitake mushrooms called for by the recipe. Back home, as my husband was unpacking the shopping bag, he asked what the mushrooms were for. When I told him, he looked a bit perplexed and said: “Didn’t you write that one up already?” I searched my blog and, sure enough, I had done a post on the dish last year.
Another cook-book search for a recipe that wouldn’t require another walk to the market (We don’t have a car.) yielded one that could use the just-purchased potatoes and didn’t call for anything I didn’t already have on hand. The source was Mark Bittman’s tome How To Cook Everything; the recipe, “Short Ribs Braised with Potatoes and Mustard.”
An insightful essay by food-and-wine mavens Diane Darrow and Tom Maresca on the evolution of Italian-American cuisine brought me back to growing up in Brooklyn with a family that had survived the Great Depression. Although my parents and aunt were better off than most, having been gainfully employed and comfortably housed, during that dismal era, they nonetheless were deeply affected by it. My mother especially, who frequently recounted woeful stories of having witnessed people on breadlines in her youth, was extremely frugal, despite being the wife of a successful attorney. Moreover, as a family, our weekly dinner menus closely reflected the Depression-Era pattern described in Darrow and Maresca’s essay:
“Pasta three days a week was common; soups and frittate (Italian-style omelets, usually with vegetables or cheese sufficed for two or three other days. Monday, in almost every household, was soup night. Sunday was sacred to un buon’ pranzo. . . antipasto or soup, or at least a broth, followed first by a pasta course, then by a roast meat, most often a chicken. Dessert in the time-honored form of fresh fruit usually concluded the meal.”
Among the many advantages of living in New York City, perhaps the one we miss the most since moving to San Diego is the profusion of ethnic restaurants. They offer its residents ready, and often affordable, access to a wide variety of cuisines. Oftentimes, the chance to savor an esoteric dish you’ve just read about is no more than a quick subway ride away.
With a successful braise, the whole is typically, and understandably, greater than the sum of its parts. This low, slow cooking method melds the flavors of the braising-liquid and the meat components to yield a dish with elevated layers of complementary flavors. Given the rather quick braise in this New York Times recipe, however, the individual parts, while good on their own, never achieved the synergy of a successful slow one. Yet despite its lack of greatness, this dish was nonetheless enjoyable.
Sunflowers brought home by husband from our local farmers market evoked intimations of Tuscany that motivated me to prepare the subject of today’s post, peposo, a peppery Tuscan beef stew with a long history.