During this pandemic, we have watched television more than ever: movies, documentaries, opera from the Met, and, perhaps not surprisingly, cooking shows. Indeed, ever since we “cut the cable” and turned to streaming, I’m amazed at just how many television chefs there are. And although we’ve discovered a few new channels like Tastemade and Bon Appetit, none has in my opinion provided higher quality than good old PBS.
I had originally planned to begin a series of posts focusing on retro dishes from the 50s and 60s. That plan found its way to the back burner, however, when my brother suggested a recipe for penne with spicy Calabrian shrimp from Giada De Laurentiis’s latest cookbook, Eat Better, Feel Better.
“Shrimp again?” quipped my husband when he unpacked our supermarket order of EZ-peel shrimp on Friday? I could understand the remark; since we’ve been sheltering in place since March, our seafood orders have been limited to shrimp on sale from our local supermarket, frozen, though rather expensive, salmon fillets from celebrity chef Curtis Stone, and Italian tuna in olive oil from Amazon.
Before the internet, as some of you may recall, food companies often added recipes to their packaging that would suggest ways to use their products. Of course, the limited space on the package restricted these recipes to relatively simple dishes, but I still remember my mother cutting them out and adding them to her hand-painted tin recipe box, yet another culinary icon of a bygone era.
During these seemingly amalgamating days of self-quarantine (a.k.a. lock-up), I’m constantly finding food that’s either going bad or needs using up. I attribute this regrettable position to buying more than we need out of fear of running out or of an item’s becoming unavailable. Something we never did when, in happier days, we food shopped almost daily.
While self-quarantining these days, I’m cooking even more often than usual. I might attribute this increase to my attempt to avoid waste by using up ingredients before they go bad. I’m sure many of you face the same predicament. We buy more than we need at the market fearing that a long sought-after item might not be available the next time we’re there.
A recent case in point for me was with Roma tomatoes. Because the ones I purchased needed a little more ripening, I had set them aside on window sill where they enjoyed some California sunshine. Well, the proverbial out-of-sight out-of-mind maxim proved true and, if my better half hadn’t noticed them just in time, they might have been out-of-kitchen.
Yes; another shrimp dish. But during these times, they’re the only fresh seafood that’s readily available to us. Moreover, they’re a steal at $5.99/pound; easy to prepare for a weeknight; and utterly delicious.
Some zucchini in the fridge from our local farmers market brought to mind a recipe from Lidia’s Celebrate Like an Italian that I had come across a few weeks ago. Like many of the recipes in this book, this one yields enough food to serve 6 to 8. Therefore, since I was cooking only for two, I cut down on some, but not all, of the ingredients. For example, rather than cooking two pounds of shrimp, I used one and similarly reduced the number of zucchini from four to two.
Having endless hours at home these days, I decided to do some housecleaning on my computer, deleting old emails, files, and photos that were just taking up a lot of space. This chore eventually led me to the largest folder on my Mac, labeled “Recipes.”
I use this folder to collect ideas for posts from online sources like Epicurious, Food & Wine, the New York Times “Cooking” site, and the like. Not surprisingly it’s huge, bulging with recipes, some dating back six or seven years. Almost all of them include source information, which facilitates giving credit to their originators.
Our Christmas Eve menu is always the same. The main course is lobsters fra diavolo, made according to a recipe I developed from watching my Neapolitan aunt make them every Christmas eve and only on that vigil. If I requested them on any other occasion, she refused. For her, as they are for me, they were special; something to be anticipated and then consumed with great relish. I still remember my diminutive aunt slaughtering the live lobsters; a task that as she got older she relegated to me. “Center the cleaver right between their eyes,” she said. “And press down hard; don’t hesitate.” And this memory brings me such great joy.
Despite growing up in an Italian-American household, I never heard of the “Feast of the Seven Fishes” until much later in my life. For us, Christmas Eve meant one thing: lobsters fra diavolo. They were the focal point of an elaborate dinner that started with appetizers, which included an insalata frutta di mare, a seafood salad with calamari, shrimp, and celery dressed with lemon juice and olive oil. Occasionally there was also a plate of white-fish salad. After the cold appetizers, came a platter of baked clams, which concluded the antipasto portion of the meal.
We then went on to the pasta, which was always linguine alle vongole, linguine with clam sauce, always white, which was then followed by the main course: lobsters fra diavolo. Each of us was served an individual lobster. Even as a child, I had my own. Of course, my dad had to help me battle with it to extract its sweet meat napped with my aunt’s spicy tomato sauce. But as a child, it was the lobster’s savory bread stuffing that I enjoyed the most.