During this pandemic and while sheltering in place, my husband and I have been struggling to make room in our over packed freezer. One by-product of this effort has been the “mystery meal,” something frozen so long ago that we don’t know what it is. Sometimes even after opening the container, we’re not able to identify it.
Growing up, I always looked forward to my aunt’s Carnevale, or Fat Tuesday, dinner, which featured homemade fusilli pasta with a three-meat (beef, veal, and pork) tomato sauce. She made this dish only once a year to retain its special significance: a farewell to meat for the forty days of Lent.
I remember how I would salivate as the sauce slowly simmered and my aunt would use thin iron rods to roll the pasta dough into long tubes of pasta that roughly resembled the barrel of a rifle. As she made the pasta, she’d advise me to eat as much meat as I could since there wouldn’t be any more on the menu until Easter.
As I’ve probably mentioned before, I typically let what’s available in my supermarket influence what will be on my table for dinner. Such was the case this weekend when a 50%-off sale on pork shoulder led to the purchase of a five-pound roast and a subsequent search for a recipe with which to prepare it.
Our local public library has a used-book store with an outstanding, ever changing, selection of cookbooks, usually in near-perfect condition and at extraordinarily low prices. I used to visit it at least once a week and buy one or two books each time I went. For the last couple of months, however, I’ve cut back on all my cookbook purchases primarily because of space. My shelves are literally full.
But a few weeks ago my husband, who works close to the library, came home one evening and presented me with, you guessed it, another find. It was a pristine copy of Michael Lomonaco’s Nightly Specials. “Where are we going to put it?” I asked. I’m sure that was not the response my better half expected, since he knew I had enjoyed the author’s cooking both at Windows on the World and more recently at Porterhouse Bar and Grill at the Time-Warner Center. “It only cost $2,” he replied. Just look through it and. . .”
Back in the early days when The Food Network seemed more focused on serious cooking than on competition shows and celebrity, Jamie Oliver, a British chef, made his debut on the network in 1999 with a series called The Naked Chef. As might be inferred from the show’s title, Oliver took a minimalist approach to home cooking, stripping recipes to their bare essentials.
I was a fan then and still am, after twenty years of watching him on television and reading his books at home. Recently, while viewing our local PBS channel here in San Diego, I came upon what I believed to be his latest show, 5 Ingredients—Quick & Easy Food. After watching several episodes, I purchased the eponymous book spawned by the series. All the beautifully illustrated book’s recipes do actually adhere to the limit of 5 ingredients, except for kitchen staples like salt and pepper, olive oil, vinegar, etc. and most can be prepared relatively quickly, making them perfect choices for weeknight cooking. Many of the recipes can also be found online on Oliver’s website.
Sometimes a recipe doesn’t turn out the way you hope. Such was the case this weekend when, inspired by a post by friend and expert food writer, Diane Darrow, about a stuffed pork-shoulder roast, I set out to make one. That our local Whole Foods was having a sale on pork butt motivated me even more to attempt to replicate Diane’s success. Attributing her recipe to one in an old issue of “Saveur,” she provided an illustrated account of her adaptation of the recipe capped with a photo of the finished roast. It looked so good.
Whenever my skeptical aunt was underwhelmed by somebody’s claim of having made an earth-shattering discovery, she’d make the sardonic aside “Beh! Ha fatto la scoperta di Cristoforo Colombo.” (“Eh! He made the discovery of Christopher Columbus.”) Well yesterday, which just happened to be Columbus Day, I was similarly underwhelmed by my discovery in the fridge of a pork roast that had reached its use-by date. First off, it meant that I would have to abandon the pasta recipe I had planned on for today’s post. Moreover, I had already done my shopping for the day and wasn’t up for a return trip to the market to look for any special ingredients that might be required by a pork-roast recipe.
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.
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.
“Delicious simply” perfectly describes the pan-grilled pork chops from Mark Bittman’s best-selling tome How to Cook Everything. The recipe epitomizes simple cooking that exploits salt, fat, acid, and heat to yield some of the best pork chops I’ve ever had. Indeed, after preparing this dish, I better understand the popularity of Samin Nasrat’s award-winning Netflix series eponymously named for the same culinary elements.