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.
Leftovers. It’s a word that really doesn’t sound too appealing. All too often, it conjures up images of dry, dull tasting food, whose sole reason for being on the table is to avoid wasting it. I believe the reason for their bad rap can be attributed to the way leftovers are all too often re-heated in modern kitchens: the microwave. Another explanation might be a rushed home cook using too high a flame or temperature.
As a food blogger in a family of two, I often have a lot of food left over, especially after having prepared a stew or braised dish for a post. And having been brought up by family who lived through the Great Depression, it was imbued in me that wasting food is a sin. As a result, I’ve come to take pride in what I do with leftovers, or what my Neapolitan aunt called “i resti,” which, by the way, sounds far better than the English equivalent.
A case in point is last night’s supper, mezzi rigatoni sauced with the abundant remains of Sunday’s braised oxtails. There wasn’t much meat left in the tomato-based sauce, but there was plenty of minced onion and carrot as well as tender pieces of celery.
I took half of the remaining sauce (the other half is in the freezer) from the refrigerator and let it come to room temperature. I then placed it in a heavy bottomed casserole and reheated it covered on a low simmer for at least 30 minutes, adding a spoonful of water when it became too thick.
Meanwhile, I put up the pasta to cook and later transferred the sauce from the casserole to a large skillet over a low flame. To thin out the sauce, I added about a ladleful of the pasta water. When the pasta was just shy of al dente, I drained it, transferred it to the skillet, sprinkled it with a handful of cheese and tossed it until the pasta was well coated in the sauce.
The result was delicious and had it been served to guests at a dinner as a primo, or first course, none would have guessed it was a leftover but rather thought it to be a rich ragu.
Inspired by a recent post on Diane Darrow’s blog, Another Year in Recipes, last night I prepared its featured recipe, Braised Lamb Shanks with Rosemary. Because I had by accident left my rosemary at the market, I substituted fresh chopped thyme, supplemented by some herbes-de-Provence infused sea salt. Nevertheless, the dish turned out splendidly. The lamb was the proverbial fall-off-the bone tender and was smothered in silky, buttery onions. The deeply flavored braising juices were deliciously soaked up by some whole-wheat couscous.
Owing to time constraints, we didn’t take any photos until after the lamb was cooked. However, the photos we took come close to conveying exactly how good this braise was.
At the end of her post, Darrow wondered why lamb has become so unpopular in the US. Indeed, since the early 60s, when per-person lamb consumption was about 4.5 pounds per year, today it hovers around 1 pound. In the comments section, readers suggested several reasons ranging from lamb’s gamey flavors to its high price and even to its limited availability.
Like Darrow, I too am puzzled about lamb’s decline in popularity here. Growing up in the 50s and 60s, at home I was served more lamb than beef. A roast leg of lamb was often the main course of a Sunday supper; broiled lamb chops with lemon wedges were a frequent weeknight meal; and one of my favorites was my aunt’s lamb breast stuffed with eggs, cheese, and herbs.
Maybe with the arrival of the more affordable New Zealand lamb in our supermarkets we may see an increase in consumption. In any event, I’ll be posting plenty of lamb dishes here.
Tonight we celebrated our one-year anniversary of moving to San Diego from New York City. We had originally planned to dine out for the occasion, but given all the social and political turmoil, we lost our appetites. We’re saddened by what’s going on, but nevertheless we wanted to mark the occasion and, at least for the moment, leave political furor behind.
Eventually, we opted for a quiet celebration at home and chose to make a recent recipe from the New York Times for a hanger steak with a salsa verde that touted the wonderful flavor that could be obtained from a value cut of beef with a salsa verde made from kale, scallions, a modicum of grated garlic, salt and olive oil.
Alas, I could not find the recommended hanger steak or any other of its value-priced alternatives at my local market. But mirabile dictu, choice rib-eye steaks were on sale at a price even cheaper than any of the recommend value cuts.
As has happened before, I did not think the this evening’s meal was going to be subject of a post so we took no photos of the prep or even of the finished dish. But as we completed dinner and reflected on how this leafy-greens salsa enhanced the steaks, my husband snapped a photo of me smiling over the remains of the meal.
The sauce requires a minimum of preparation: Cut 4 scallions into 2-inch pieces; set aside. Finely chop 2 or 3 additional scallions and add to a medium bowl with 2 1/2 cups of finely chopped kale, finely grated garlic clove and 1/3 cup of good olive oil; season with salt and pepper.
When the steaks are almost done, spread the sauce on plates. (The kale will have softened some.) When the steaks are done, place them over the salsa and let them rest, during which time the juices from the steak will marry with the salsa. While the steaks rest, lightly char and season the set aside scallion slices the meat’s remaining fat. Top the steaks with the charred scallions and a squeeze of lemon juice.
Here’s a link to the recipe online that includes directions for cooking the meat.
Inspired by a recent post on Diane Darrow’s blog, Another Year in Recipes, I prepared a classic Coq au Vin from a recipe in Julia Child’s tome From Julia Child’s Kitchen. Published in 1975, the book is now 43 years old, something I never considered until I was reading the recipe and noticed that for a dish with 2 1/2 pounds of chicken along with bacon and mushrooms simmered in 2 cups of red wine and the same amount of stock, it called for a minuscule amount of thyme, 1/4 teaspoon.
At first I thought this might have been a misprint, but as I thought about it more, I realized that when the book was published fresh thyme was not readily available in most supermarkets. Consequently, her measurement was most likely for dried thyme.
No big deal; however, this realization made me think how fortunate we are today to have such an abundant and diverse supply of food items available to us not only in gourmet and fancy-food shops but also in our local supermarkets.
I used to live in New York City’s Upper West Side and Chelsea neighborhoods, where finding specialty items was a piece of cake at stores like Zabars, Citarella, Buon Italia, Murray’s Cheese, Manhattan Fruit, and Dickson’s Farmstand Meats, not to mention the famed Union Square Farmers Market.
Recently, however, we moved to San Diego. And although we’re lucky to have here a vibrant Little Italy with a couple of well stocked Italian food stores and a wonderful bi-weekly farmers market, for most of my food supplies, I have to rely on my local supermarket. As I walk its aisles, I can find an abundance of high quality fresh produce, a wide variety of fresh herbs, and good selection of imported specialty items. In fact, the store even has its own Murray’s Cheese Shop.
I’m not saying that I don’t miss having the plethora of food stores that NYC afforded me, but I do feel pretty lucky that local supermarkets have come such a long way since Julia published the aforementioned book 43 years ago.