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.
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.
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, mezzirigatoni 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.