A frequent reference made by many food bloggers these days is to the Food Network’s show “Chopped.” As are its television contestants, real-time home cooks are often faced today with a hodgepodge of ingredients from their fridge and pantry and challenged to get a meal on the table.
“Technology.” It’s a word that doesn’t come up much in my posts. In fact, I think this may be the first time it has, since my focus is usually on food and not the appliances that I use to make it. But today, this musing is on an appliance that I believe will help me prepare some spectacular dishes as it did earlier this week as well as last night.
Not since I purchased my first Cuisinart food processor in 1978, have I been so impressed with culinary technology. Back then, on a graduate-student budget, $160, the price of the “economy” Cuisinart model, was a challenge; but even after using it once, I thought it was worth every penny.
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.”
Last night, throwing caution to the wind, I finally made a frittata from left-over rigatoni and meatballs and even a hard-boiled egg. The egg found its way into this omelet when I mistook one of my husband’s hard-boiled eggs, stored in an egg carton, for a fresh one and tried to crack it open. Well, I thought, as long as I was taking a chance with the pasta, what harm could adding the egg do? Now, I’ve made plenty of pasta frittatas before, some of them chronicled on this blog. None, however, featured something like pasta with meatballs.
Frequent cooking at home typically yields a variety of odds and ends in the fridge: a handful of mushrooms, a small piece of cheese, a few herbs, a cup of sauce. For us, ingredients like these usually wind up in a frittata or a pasta. Such was the case the other night when, while cleaning out the fridge, I found some uncooked tomato sauce and a three-ounce piece of mozzarella left over from making a pizza a few days before.
I don’t know exactly why, but it seems that when I make a homemade pizza, everything seems OK. Maybe it’s my Neapolitan heritage, but when the simplest of ingredients come together and cook in just a matter of minutes, for me, all’s well with the word.
Let others enjoy the “gourmet,” multi-topping pizzas so popular today; for me, a plain Margherita is the only way to go.
Wine Pairing: Gragnano, Dry Lambrusco
After numerous requests from my husband for stuffed cabbage, I set out to make the dish. The recipe is from a now cancelled series on the Cooking Channel that featured Laura Calder, a Canadian chef who focused on French cuisine. In fact, I had made this dish with some success about five years ago; however, last night’s attempt was an epic failure.
Some of the responsibility for my culinary mega flop is mine. Rather than buying the savoy cabbage called for by the recipe, I mistakenly purchased a Napa, or Chinese, cabbage since it was marked “Savoy” on the shelf.
A frittata, an Italian omelet, was one of my family’s go-to dishes for Friday suppers or Lenten meals, when as devout Catholics, we needed to abstain from meat. I remember how my aunt hovered over the frying pan in which she had just sauteed the fritatta’s filling, which ranged from onions and peppers to left-over spaghetti to potatoes, to even a hunk of fresh ricotta. Using a wooden spoon, she would gently push the setting eggs towards the center of the pan, allowing the uncooked portion to take their place.
Ever since Proust memorialized his madeleines, novelists as well as food writers have been forever writing about memories evoked by the aromas or flavors of culinary delights. Well, I’m about to join the crowd with a simple recollection recently elicited by a plate of winter cherries presented to me on Christmas Eve by my better half.
I’d forgotten that I had told him how on one Christmas Eve in the mid 1960s, after a traditional multi-course Italian fish dinner, my aunt proudly presented a cut-class bowl full of bright red cherries. We were all amazed: cherries in December?
My aunt explained that they were imported from South America and weeks later confided to me that they had been quite expensive. If my memory serves me well, she said that they cost $3.00 a pound. In today’s currency that would be about $27.00. I believe, however, that the joy she took in sharing them with us, which was so apparent on her face as she made the presentation, made her feel they were worth every penny.
And from his facial expression, I think my husband, who knew how special that childhood memory was to me, experienced a similar feeling when he surprised me with the plate of winter cherries after our Christmas vigil supper.
Ah the snows of yesteryear.
Recently, I was going through some photos on my computer and came across one of myself. It’s a candid shot snapped in the kitchen by my husband, who, by the way, deserves credit for most of the photos on this blog.
In the picture, I’m just sautéing the aromatics for a braise of lamb shanks, but what struck me about it is the hint of contentment on my face. Was this expression due to the satisfaction I get from cooking or could it be attributed to anticipating the gratification I would get from sharing the finished dish with family and friends?
I’m really not sure, but perhaps that tranquil look explains why dishes like braised lamb shanks are called “comfort food” and may indicate that the comfort derives not only from eating but also from preparing them.