"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Diary Of A Foodie–It All Started With Mamma Mia

My mother was not that great a cook.  Our fare was standard – meat and potatoes, salad, milk, and pie – except on meatless Fridays when she cooked what she had eaten growing up in a first generation Italian home in New Haven. Angel hair with anchovy sauce, spaghettini with peas, and spaghetti marinara. Most non-Italian Catholics hated Fridays because Irish, Polish, or German bourgeois cuisine had no fishy fallbacks.  The Granskis, Flannigans, and Schnellers all ate nothing but frozen haddock – old and off-tasting, long in the cranky freezer of George Brown’s Market, thawed and refrozen so many times that it was a greyish white, covered with frost, and smelled bad. Whenever we played ball in Mikey Flannigan’s backyard on Fridays, I could smell the fish cooking all the way to the back hedges. Our Fridays, however, were Five-Star.

Mamma Mia

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Spaghettini with peas may sound uninteresting and bland, but when cooked with fresh vegetable stock, oregano, olive oil, garlic and hot pepper flakes and garnished with freshly-ground Parmesan cheese, it is delicious.  My mother learned the recipe from her mother who had made it from fresh summer peas that had been put up in Mason jars, oregano grown in the Pantuccis’ hot house, and olive oil imported from Italy by another neighbor who was in the importing business.

Spaghetti with peas

Good anchovy sauce is neither fish nor salty, and when cooked together with white wine, olive oil, garlic, parsley, and lemon is perfectly well-complemented and blended.  Anchovies are delicate fish, and the slightest overcooking releases a strong fishy taste.  The trick is to sauté them only until the filets begin to break apart, then add the wine and finally the lemon to give the salt and fish taste sweetness and a bit of acidity.

Image result for images old fashioned large can italian olive oil

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In Italy spaghetti marinara is a seafood-based sauce; but in the United States it was the name given to any meatless tomato sauce. My mother, however, had learned to make it the original way; and although it meant a trip to New Haven, she was able to get the calamari and scungilli used to give the sauce a distinctive seafood flavor. She sautéed the squid or conch in olive oil and garlic, added a can of Italian plum tomatoes and good tomato paste, and red wine, and let the sauce simmer all day.  By the time it was ready the squid and scungilli were soft and tender, and the sauce was fragrant and appetizing.

Image result for spaghetti marinara with seafood

All three recipes were simply to prepare, unique, and the most appealing dishes my mother prepared. Perhaps it was the contrast – a boiled pot roast, meatloaf with pineapple, or baked chicken with a can of mushroom soup vs. the best Neapolitan cooking was no contest. I learned how to cook on Fridays.

I also learned about food from my aunts who had retained far more of the Old Country in their cooking than my mother who wanted to keep parlors, antimacassars, garlic, coal oil, and mothballs as far from our Anglo-Saxon West End neighborhood as she could.

Aunt Margaret/ specialty was baked artichokes stuffed with garlic, parsley, and Parmesan cheese.  When done, the centers were a bubbling, cheesy, high-flavor thick fondue; the ends of the leaves crispy, and the entire artichoke was bathed in extra-virgin olive oil from Sardinia.

Image result for images baked stuffed italian artichokes

Aunt Leona made Eggplant parmeggiano; and I learned that the trick is to drain the eggplant slices by covering them with salt to draw out the water, then drying them, dipping them in egg, and sautéing them in olive oil until lightly brown. The sauce is not an add-on, but a rich meat tomato blend, cooked slowly all day with veal, beef, and pork.

I learned that one can never cut corners. Eggplant parmesan without frying the eggplant in egg batter and oil first is watery, insipid, and tasteless. There can be no cheating on the sauce; and for the dish to succeed it has to be as complex and blended as any used for pasta.

I learned that paying attention to detail is the key to all cooking. If the anchovies are even 30 seconds overcooked, no additional garlic, wine, or oil can recover it.  If the wine does not completely evaporate, the sauce is harsh and alcoholic. If the proportions of cheese, parsley, garlic, and olive oil are not right and balanced, the baked artichokes become hard, gluey, and undistinguished.

My father, who had never cooked a thing in his life, took the advice of the architect who designed our house, and the kitchen had plenty of space but none of it where it was needed.  When as an adult I started cooking for my parents, I couldn’t believe how my mother had possibly negotiated the tiny counters, poorly laid-out appliance areas, and unhelpful distances between knives, colanders, and baking dishes.  However, she did; and I learned how to work well within the most indifferently-planned kitchens. I learned to be as efficient in my use of space as my mother was; and learned how such efficiency is the key to good cuisine.

I learned to rely on my sense of smell.  In an age where oven thermometers rarely worked, when electric stoves made fine tuning next to impossible; and where working in a small kitchen required tight coordination and vigilance, smell was indispensable. My mother knew when the roast was cooking too fast or too slowly, whether the sauce needed stirring, or whether the slow heat under the skillet was too high or too low.

In other words, I learned how to cook without recipes; how to rely on my instincts of taste and smell; and how to manage the most difficult of flavors.

I never cooked at all while growing up. The kitchen was my mother’s and hers alone. Besides, an extra person in the unwieldy and useless kitchen would have added needless work, time, and effort. So I watched.  I watched her slice, mix, taste, adjust, and finalize. I watched her debate over spices – more oregano? basil? fennel? I watched her get up to stir the vegetables and baste the chicken without a timer.  I learned how to coordinate the many dishes that make up a meal and have them served hot.

Image result for image fresh basil

Other than the pasta with peas, the anchovy spaghetti, and the marinara sauce, I make none of the dishes I was served at home.  My mother, as I have said, was a perfunctory and mediocre cook for six days of the week.  Yet she was a good cook – that is, she understood how to cook.  As as a housewife in the Fifties, bored and dispirited by the suburban routine, it was not surprising that dinner was always a chore and never a pleasure. Her organization, efficiency, discipline, and good instincts made the chore as easy as possible.

Image result for images fifties housewife

When I first started to cook as an adult, I had – without ever realizing it – learned all it took to be a chef.  I had all the practical skills; a good sense of space, utensils, temperature, and preparation; and an idea of what ingredients went together and what spices complemented them.

I have never cooked from a cookbook.  I invent new recipes and modify others. Pork instead of lamb; Asian spices instead of Cajun; Moroccan instead of Italian.  I have paid attention to the food I have eaten in India, Africa, South America, Eastern and Western Europe, and the Caribbean. I have a particularly good memory for food I have eaten, and have learned how to disaggregate the ingredients.  I know what goes into Lambi Creole without having a recipe.  I ate tagine once in Rabat, and now make five different varieties of my own based on that one memory. I can combine the ten spices used to make a complex curry in the right proportions.  I was invited to dinner by a master, although amateur Gujarati cook, and I can still reproduce the tapa-sized dishes on her vegetarian thali.

This ability has more to do with paying attention and thinking about food in its aggregate rather than any special innate sense of unusual taste.

My mother had a very acute sense of smell; and I learned to be as sensitive to fragrance and odor as she was. I like her knew when a cucumber had been sliced in the kitchen; what type of perfume Mrs. Bernstein was wearing; and when the first hint of dampness came up the basement stairs.

I learned to pay attention to how things tasted and smelled.  I could distinguish among the many different spices in a sauce or soup and name them.  I knew exactly what was cooking the minute I entered the house – or anyone else’s house for that matter.  Attention, disaggregation, and alertness.

My mother liked to take credit for my cooking; and I never begrudged her that.  Although she could never have imagined the range of Italian, Indian, Thai, Bangladeshi, or Romanian dishes I prepare; I could never have mastered the art of international cooking without her example.  She never expressly taught me anything; but observing her was enough to figure out how cooking is done; and the good fortune of having eaten delicious food in over 60 countries did the rest,.

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