Cheater’s Italian Cooking

 Posted by on August 24, 2011  Food  2 Responses »
Aug 242011
 

One of my great life goals has been a delicious pasta sauce that can be made in the time between putting the pasta in the water and draining it, and that has minimal clean-up and non-perishable ingredients, so you can have them constantly on-hand.  I have succeeded.  The winning sauce is a variant on Amatriciana, a rich, tomato based red sauce with onion and pancetta, and with my modifications, it can be prepared in five minutes.

A sauce that can be made between putting the water on and draining it is relatively easy to achieve, but when one has just come home from work, haggard and voracious, the six-to-ten minutes it takes water to boil are invaluable.  They can be used for e-mail, changing out of work clothes, asking family about their days, doting on pets, or the ever-popular staring into space while the brain-drive defragments.  The effort to quality ratio was also a dominant factor in the development of this recipe.  While a fresh red sauce is better than most jar sauces, it’s generally only a bit better, and the small difference makes the effort of making something from scratch and cleaning it up hard to justify.  Thus my requirement was a sauce that can be created in 5 minutes, which generates minimal clean-up, and tastes considerably better than jar sauce.

Two great and widely-applicable cheats enable my nearly-instant Amatriciana, which are applicable in many contexts and have exponentially accelerated my ability to prepare any Italian dish and many others:

Dried Onion:

“I have an edible object!  I want to cook it!”

Great Cheat #1: Dried Onion

Even not knowing what the edible object is, I can still prescribe a technique that works 75% or the time:  In a large pan, simmer finely diced onion in delicious oil and/or liquid (olive oil & white wine, sesame oil and/or mirin & soy, take your pick), add some salt and basic seasoning (garlic, ginger, spicy red pepper, again take your pick), chop up edible object(s), add to onion mixture along with any chopped secondary food objects you may choose to contrast it, fry until cooked.  This is universal and easy, but not quite easy enough for a five-minute sauce, since it involves (A) having a perishable fresh onion on hand, (B) peeling and chopping said onion, (C) enduring onion vapors, (D) waiting for the onion to cook, (E) cleaning up peels, stems, splinters of onion, cutting board.

Dried onion solves all five problems.  Heat half a cup or so of liquid—any liquid—in a pan, sprinkle in a tablespoon or two of dried shredded onion, simmer for 20 seconds and the onion will reconstitute, and begin to cook and caramelize like fresh onion.  I use white wine (since here cheap white cooking wine is literally cheaper than water) but olive oil works, mead works, apple juice or cider works, and in a pinch water works.  It can’t substitute for fresh onion in a salad or a salsa, but for any of those myriad recipes, from marinara sauce to curry, which involve infusing onion into a mixture without having chunks of onion as an important ingredient, it solves infinite problems.  The primary drawbacks are (A) finding dried shredded onion, which is only carried at larger or specialty groceries, and (B) cooking it long enough for the pieces to get soft, or else they are detectably a little chewy in the final mixture, but the latter is rarely detectible and frankly doesn’t bother me when it is, and the former is countered by the fact that dried onion keeps indefinitely, so once you’ve found some you can buy a hogshead of it and have tasty foods for many moons.  Suddenly a whole world of 30 minute recipes become 20 minute recipes, and 20 minute recipes enter the realm of our between-pasta-stages ideal.

Frozen Garlic:

Likely you too have enjoyed the mild savor of a whole garlic clove roasted until it becomes soft and sweet.  As a pizza topping or accent in a sauce.  Problem: it takes a while.  Solution: a garlic clove which has been frozen and thawed again cooks to softness much faster, in a matter of five minutes instead of up to twenty.  These days, jars of pre-peeled garlic can be bought in many grocery stores.  Simply throw one in the freezer and, as you start your sauce, toss a handful of frozen whole cloves into the pan to simmer.  Five to seven minutes and they’ll be soft, sweet and completely done.

Gratuitous Product Placement:

MY APARTMENT HAS NO FREEZER.  Consequently certain aspects of the culinary world are cut off, among them frozen garlic.  I must thus resort to a slightly-less-convenient but even more delicious alternative enabled by the Leifheit brand Comfortline Gourmet cutter.  It is a hand-held slicer which in a matter of seconds transforms peeled fresh garlic cloves into perfect paper-thin slices that look exactly like rose petals, and cook with incredible speed to perfect tenderness.

I ran across this particular device when I went to the nearest hardware and kitchen store to acquire a good cheese grater.  I found the grater of my desiring—the round kind with the crank which grates with amazing speed and minimal bloodshed—and it was shelved in the shop clearly paired with this little garlic slicer, with the unspoken motto, “If you’re serious enough to want this cheese grater, you want this garlic slicer.”  And oooh was it right.  Now I do have to go to the bother of peeling my own garlic (4-8 seconds per clove, oh noes!) but when done, the petal-like slices cook in approximately one minute, and are a lovely addition to, well, everything.

To Business:

Now, Amatriciana (Ah-mah-tree-chee-ah-nah) is the winner, an extremely rich and mildly spicy red sauce using tomato, bacon or cured ham of some sort, and, in the Roman version, lots of onion.  (My next goal is a vegetarian version, but the meat really does power the sauce, so every veggie variant I’ve tried has been not enough better than jar sauce to justify the difference.  Sorry, Aang.)

Amatrice is a town on Lazio, near Rome.  The official website of the Comune of Amatrice explains the history of Pasta Amatriciana, and is propagandistically insistent that the true beast can only be prepared using Amatrice guanciale, a special cut of salted bacon-like cured meat made only in Amatrice, and pecorino cheese also from Amatrice.  I will, out of respect for the town, post their official recipe for real Amatriciana in my recipe section, and publically confess that, yes, it is better, but (much like the difference between the pizzeria O Vesuvio next to my apartment and the pizzeria Le Campane 20 minutes across town which has less charcoal edge to the crust) it is not enough better to justify making the effort very often.  Amatriciana is usually served on the indomitable Bucatini (which for its floppiness merits being nicknamed “Jackson Pollock pasta” or “Finger-painting pasta”) but is also good on any noodle.

An efficient, printable version of my “Cheater’s Amatriciana,” with quantities and all that busywork, is posted in the Recipes & Cooking section above.  Here, I wanted instead to share the sequence, since Amatriciana is best summarized as: “Fill your pan with yummy.  Now add tomato.  Done.”   Thus, I narrate the process here only for the sake of those who enjoy the vicarious pleasure of food voyeurism:

Start the pasta going.

Add diced Pancetta to the pan, or failing that thick-cut bacon or, in Amatrice, guanciale.  Simmer until the fat softens and savory, salty liquid starts to pool in the bottom of the pan.  Throw in some whole frozen garlic cloves at this stage for more garlic savor.

Add a half-cup or so of white wine, which at this point should flare and sizzle in the pan and lose its alcohol within a few seconds.  Use it to re-hydrate the onion, which quickly becomes golden and sweet.  Add petals of fresh garlic at this point for even more garlicness!

Sprinkle salt and ground spicy red pepper, or chopped fresh spicy pepper.  Add a can of crushed tomato.  Enjoy.

“Get your piping hot tripe!”

 Posted by on August 7, 2011  Food  1 Response »
Aug 072011
 

Locals enjoying their "Trippa Fiorentina"

In Florence, daily meals become a pleasure, but there remains the peculiarity that, divine as the pizzas and pastas and cheeses are, the actual Florentine delicacies, the ones invented in Florence by Florentines, are generally a bit less inviting than the broader Tuscan and Italian offerings. “Bistecca Fiorentina” (Florentine-style steak) is excellent, of course, but take, for example, the Florentine lunch special of choice, “Trippa Fiorentina”, spiced tripe. Tripe. Honest to goodness, it’s tripe, chopped, fried tripe. Roadside carts sell it like hotdog stands as a quick lunch, and locals crowd around, and you can smell it for blocks. In a cuisine centered on bringing out the best of fine quality ingredients, a rich milk, a powerful tomato, Florentine lunches focus on the part of the animal that tastes like… well… what its job is. If someone wants to argue that the American hotdog is itself a rather questionable food, despite being a hotdog eater I can’t really deny it, but a hotdog stand does not make a city block smell like a hybrid between a cow’s butt and a urinal. I am an open-minded diner and have tried tripe many times in many forms, Italian, Chinese, and it always tastes like tripe. I can’t understand it. I know the words “traditional” “local” and “delicacy” are often code for “what we ate while under siege when we ran out of cats,” (if you don’t believe me, hunt down a Tuscan recipe for “stinco” i.e. boiled pig’s knuckles). Still, they clearly love it, and if people have the option to eat buffalo mozzarella or tripe and choose tripe, then… I will try it again. I’ll wait a few months, and with sincere effort… maybe. One does acquire some local abilities by osmosis after a while. After my first six months in Florence I gained the inexplicable ability to recognize saints Cosimo and Damiano in a painting even if they don’t have their characteristic hats. So perhaps a year will be enough to master even tripe.

A Simple Breakfast

 Posted by on August 7, 2011  Food  2 Responses »
Aug 072011
 

A simple breakfast from the corner store.

I didn’t have time to go to a restaurant for lunch, or to make it to the good market, so I had to make do with what I could grab from the little corner store at the end of my block.  Still, not too shabby.

Good Mozzarella di Bufala, tomatoes, basil, a sweet Prosciutto Toscano, young first crop figs, redcurrants, young Pienza (the official cheese of Pope Pius II), a tall glass of milk, fresh blood orange juice, and salad with Greek feta and Italian oil and vinegar.  (As you read I’ll give you three guesses and a few paragraphs to figure out which of these things was the hardest to find).

While everyone expects to be wowed by the restaurants in Italy, the grocery stores are just as overwhelming, and many of my most memorable Italian meals have been at home.  Grab a few fresh veggies and fry them in olive oil, serve over pasta.  But even cooking things is often unnecessary.  Italian cuisine is about ingredients: good vegetables, good cheese, good meat that you can just eat, no need for preparation, eat.  In Venice, where all but a golden handful of restaurants are tourist traps, I usually just go into a grocery store and buy a quarter kilo of whatever cheese is freshest and sit by the canal and eat it (and offer it to any sad-looking anglophone strangers who wander by, and are inevitably delighted).  The cold cuts too are a centerpiece instead of a substitute for real food.  Most countries never have and never will consider cold cuts a main dish, but if you get really good ones they don’t need to be disguised with a sandwich and its toppings, they are, by themselves, perfect.  Real prosciutto literally melts on your tongue like butter and fills your mouth with the soft sweet salt of paper thin meat – more flavor from one ounce than from an entire pack of common store “salami”.

It’s actually slightly unsettling how much better the ingredients are.  Figs and oil one expects to be better here since here is where they come from, and redcurrants and Pienza cheese (a soft, chewy cheese with the texture of colby or jack, but with a mild Romano-esque tinge, gentle and filling; completely different in its aged state which is so strong down the Romano spectrum as to be almost spicy) you can’t find in most corner stores, but it’s the simpler things that are slightly alarming.  Milk, for example.

Keep in mind here that I’m a serious milk drinker.  I don’t just like milk, I actually systematically explore milk, comparing different brands, farms, percent mixes.  I’m not a 1% person or a skim person or a whole milk person, since I like all of them, each for its unique qualities, the creamy instant-full-feeling of whole.   I can therefore say with some confidence that milk here is better.  It just flat out tastes better than milk in America.  The common, cheapest of the cheap store brand milk tastes as good as the fancy expensive organic stuff in the US.  In fact it tastes as good as the extremely expensive un-homogenized stuff, except for not having the lumps of half-formed butter peppering it as it glides down.  Why?  The only answer I can come to is production without hormones.  I’m not saying this out of any environmentalist agenda, just as a neutral observation from someone who’s tasted a lot of milk.  Italian tomatoes being superior is one thing–they get better sun here, better soil, the tickle of the Mediterranean in the air–but cows are not photosynthetic.  EU restrictions on artificial hormones is the only real difference I can think of.

That and the fact that Italians care about ingredients.  In fact, the whole cuisine is about ingredients.

No one can win an argument about which is the best cuisine in the world, and I won’t argue that even the finest (non-truffle) pasta dish is usually not a match for a proper French or Turkish pastry or a really good tuna nigiri, but I think I’m right in saying that Italian is the best simple cuisine in the world.  The most delicious pasta sauces are usually still just a few ingredients prepared in a very simple way.  My Amatriciana and Carbonara I can make in the time between when the pasta goes in the water and when it’s soft enough to eat.  Because so little is done to the ingredients, their quality really shows through.  This is likely why it developed in Italy, where the vegetables and other food are naturally so good, so doing almost nothing to them is best.  Elaborate kitchen alchemy is necessary only when the fundamental foods are, well, the sorts of things subsistence cultures had to eat.   French baking is an art form, as are German sausages, all kinds of curry, but when what you have are truly good ingredients, Italian is definitely the best way to bring them out.  That also makes it the easiest great cuisine to become proficient in.  Anyone who wants to achieve a fine French sauce, or even cook a really, really good steak, requires a decent apprenticeship.  Good Italian?  One session in the kitchen with me and you can wow friends and neighbors, and I didn’t have much more than that with the Italian Moms (and American professors) who taught me.

A standard Italian glass beside my own.

Have you had your three guesses yet?  That’s right!  The most difficult thing to find was: a tall glass of milk.  Specifically a tall glass, as for reasons passing my understanding the standard sized drinking glass in Italy holds about three mouthfuls of liquid if that.  I had a grand hunt up and down the shopping district hunting for a glass large enough for what I never realized was apparently a rare perversion: taking a deep breath and downing a huge, cool glass of water, or taking a large volume of something with you to accent a meal.  Between that and the fact that water is so scarce and expensive in restaurants, and wine so common, I remain among those baffled that the Italians don’t all die of dehydration.  In Rome where public fountains provide free water everywhere it’s one thing, but in Florence where said fountains are scarce and, when present, inevitably broken?  Must be the patron saints.  Or… who would be the Roman god of hydration.  Neptune, maybe?  Apollo?  Castor and Pollux perhaps?  Leucothea?

My Fight with Florence

 Posted by on August 7, 2011  Florence  2 Responses »
Aug 072011
 

Florence's Ponte Vecchio after dusk.

Me – I’m going to stay inside all day and do work.

Florence – But I’m Florence.  Florence is better than work.

Me – No, I’ve been here more than a week now, it’s time I wrote some Ex Urbe entries and shared some of what I’ve done so far.

Florence – I have pizza…

Me – I went to more than a dozen museums, and so many restaurants to describe!

Florence – Gelato…

Me – It’s Vasari’s birthday; I really want to write about him today.

Florence – Frescoes, sculpture…

Me – You’ll have frescoes tomorrow.

Florence – But I have perfect weather today, cool and breezy and just humid enough.

Me – I opened the windows.

Florence – A beautiful sunset, curls of twisty pink cloud growing steadily purple as the sky turns richer and richer blue, wouldn’t that look amazing next to the green and white stripes of my Baptistery, or the gold stone tower of the Palazzo Vecchio?

Me – Look, I’m just trying to write home about how wonderful you are!   Can’t you stop being so wonderful for a few hours?

Florence – I have live music.

Me – I don’t care.

Florence – A live orchestra tucked away in one of the squares below, notes drifting up: Bach, then Vivaldi, you know you love Vivaldi…

Me – I’m not listening.

Florence – Crowds cheering, drums…

Me – Not listening.

Florence – Fireworks…

Me – Wait, really?

Florence – Fireworks, crackling, over by the Duomo, just low enough that you can’t quite see them beyond the houses.  You know I haven’t had fireworks by the Duomo since Easter.

Me – … … …

 

I lost.