When the publication of an intriguing New York Times Cooking recipe for crisp gnocchi coincided serendipitously with my finding a forgotten shelf-stable package of those dumplings in the back of my cupboard, I had to make the dish.
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.
Recently, I’ve been reading two mid-century cookbooks: one by Jeanne Carola Francesconi, La Cucina Napoletana (1965), considered by many to be the bible on Neapolitan cooking; the other by Elizabeth David, Italian Food (1954), one of the first English-language books to emphasize authenticity and seasonality in its exploration of the subject.
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.
In a house with a kitchen dominated by two women, one Sicilian (my mother), the other Neapolitan (my aunt), it was rare that my father took to the stove. Born around Naples and coming to the States when he was around 10 years old, he only cooked twice that I remember. And only once did he share a recipe with me. (I can’t remember why but no one else was at home.) It was a recipe so simple that he must have leaned it as a child back in his home town, Cappacio, in the province of Salerno.
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.
Perhaps the most classic pasta from Puglia, orecchiette, Italian for “little ears,” provide the perfect shape for one of the region’s most popular dishes, Orecchiette with Broccoli Rabe and Sausage. Italian food authority Michelle Scicolone explains why in her Williams Sonoma cookbook, Essentials of Italian: “As you toss, both ingredients [broccoli rabe and sausage] become trapped in the hollows of the ear-shaped pasta, making every bite wonderfully flavorful.”
My brother recently sent me a link to a recipe in the New York Times for “drunken spaghetti,” or spaghetti all’ubriaco and suggested that I do a blog post about it. I’ve seen the dish prepared several times on television by celebrity cooks like Rachael Ray and, over the years, have read about it in the press. Recipes for it also abound on the internet, some posted by travelers who first encountered it in Tuscany, others by food writers like Mark Bittman, who wrote a column about it in 1998, after having enjoyed the dish at Osteria del Circo in New York City.
I must admit that the dish, as well as its preparation, has a lot of wow factor, which makes for good television, especially when a celebrity chef dumps, with a flourish, an entire bottle of wine into a pot for cooking the spaghetti. As you might expect, some cooks go overboard and call for using status wines like Barolo or Rosso di Montalcino and the audience soaks it up with oohs and aahs. Indeed, all the razzle-dazzle associated with this dish may be the reason I’ve avoided making it until now.
A technique article on SeriousEats.com for preparing spaghetti aglio e olio prompted me the other night to prepare it for a late-night supper.
I’ve made this dish numerous times, but the article included an interesting video that demonstrated a technique for “finishing the pasta the right way” that made me rethink my own. What struck me most in the video was the cook’s rapidly swirling and tossing of the pasta in the sauce after adding the pasta water, which resulted in a beautiful emulsion.
When I was growing up in the 50s and 60s, we really didn’t dine out that much. My family enjoyed such good food at home that the only reason for going to a restaurant was to give my mother and aunt a break from cooking. More often than not, the restaurants we chose were Italian. In fact, two of our favorites are still going strong in Brooklyn: Michael’s on Avenue R and Gargiulo’s in Coney Island. A third favorite, Patsy’s, continues to be popular in Manhattan. All three served then, as they still do, typical Neapolitan dishes that were similar to those we enjoyed at home but, at least in my aunt’s opinion, never quite as good.
In the early 50s, however, southern-Italian restaurants were being challenged by northern-Italian competitors. These new style establishments strove to distinguish themselves and, with some condescension, frowned on the heavy use of garlic, olive oil, peperoncino, and even dried pasta like spaghetti. Butter took the place of olive oil; cream sauces replaced tomato based ones; herbs like rosemary and thyme and spices like saffron and nutmeg lent more nuance than did basil or oregano. Southern dried pasta was replaced either by the fresh egg variety or by risottos, often finished with flair at tableside.