Friday, November 13, 2009

Essays on Italian Food: Part I

So much has been written about Italian food – the tradition, the culture, how to select ingredients, how to prepare dishes, what wine complements what food. To start a series of essays seems the height of conceit. I am not Italian. I did not grow up in the kitchen beside my nonna making tortellini from scratch. In fact, until I was 45 years old, I thought all Italian restaurants specialized in heaps of re-heated pasta swimming in over-cooked sauces.

My understanding of real Italian food has changed over the last few years. Time in Italy spent rubbing elbows with local contadine has a way of changing a person's perspective. I returned to the U.S. an evangelist for authentic ingredients and preparation techniques. My credo is that cooking Italian right yields many benefits: it simplifies food buying and preparation, it is cheaper, it is healthier, it has endless variety, it is delicious, and (above all) it satisfies. Those of you who have eaten at our family table know how passionate I can be about what makes the meal Italian.

Think about this. When was the last time you ate anything and felt really satisfied – not just stuffed or full, but truly satisfied? The average American adult eats out 7+ times a week! When they do eat at home, much of the food is pre-packaged. Everyone spends too much when they eat at a restaurant or grab a frozen entree from the freezer. Perhaps they feel pressure to eat a lot to justify the cost. I believe they eat too much because the food delivers very little satisfaction.

So here goes. I'm one more voice in the wilderness promising salvation if you just shop, cook, and eat according to my food gospel. Anybody listening? A few foodies perhaps. Does the world really need another food writer? I would be the first to say, "No!" Words can never substitute for the smells, colors, textures, and tastes of good food.

One approach would be to simply re-state gems of cooking wisdom penned by other authors, and then add my own commentary. That does not seem very original, but it might be the best way to bring authority to my discussion. First I must sort through all of the really bad Italian food writers out there and draw only from the best sources. This is really not so difficult. I start by eliminating every text with the words 'Quick, ' 'Easy,' or 'Low-fat' in the the title. Then skip over anything written by Rachel Ray, Giada de Laurentiis, or Mario Batali. That does not mean that their advice is always bad, just that it is distorted by commercial interests which have nothing to do with good food.

It is important to always include at least one good recipe in each of my essays – paying forward, if you will. Passing on lessons learned is a very important (and traditional) part of being a great Italian chef. It is not unusual to see two little Italian women at the market arguing with loud voices and shaking their fists at each other. If you listen carefully, you will realize that they are just debating the proper way to wash spinach or to slice prosciutto. They are not mad – they are taking a stand on a matter, probably because their teacher took the same position. Real Italian cooking is a living tradition. So much for literary authority.

The author I would like to paraphrase today is a favorite of mine: Marcella Hazan. Her cookbooks include very intelligently written introductions, even though some of the recipes are a bit esoteric. One thing she wrote in her Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking has stuck with me, "Real Italian cooking never uses one ingredient too many, nor does it require one additional step in preparation." I have tested that theory again and again, and it holds up every time.

Today's topic: Braising. Marcella was the first to introduce me to braising as a specific method of cooking meats. Actually, I had been doing this for as long as I can remember (i.e. pot roast), but never called it braising. It is a combination cooking method using both moist and dry heat. Typically a food (most often meat) is first seared at a high temperature and then finished in a covered pot with a variable amount of liquid, resulting in a particular flavor. Braising relies on heat, time, and moisture to successfully break down tough connective tissue and collagens in meat. Many times the added liquid is acidic (such as wine), helping to tenderize as the food simmers.

Many classic braised dishes such as Coq au Vin (cooking a tough rooster in wine) and Boeuf Bourguignon are examples of braising. Slow cooking in a crockpot is also a form of braising, I guess. Vegetables and seasonings are added to the liquid to enhance the flavors. The remaining liquid is often reduced to make a sauce.

Marcella Hazan is quick to point out that braising is not a fancy way to cook. It originated not only as a way to make cheap cuts of meat more tender, but also to limit the amount of fuel needed to cook a lot of food for a big family. In Italy, one avoids heating up the oven to roast meat. It wastes energy and makes the kitchen hot (not good during a Sicilian summer). Once the food is seared and the added liquid begins to simmer, the lid of the pot is put on to keep the heat local. A very low flame is enough to keep it cooking for several hours.

My wife Lori makes an irresistable lamb fricasee by braising shoulder chops (not the most tender cut) in white wine and veal stock. She finishes it by whisking in an egg and lemon juice. Wow! Lori learned this recipe from chef Donatella at Azienda Fontelunga just outside Cortona in eastern Tuscany. This may look like a complicated recipe, but after you have done it once, it will become an easy model for all kinds of meals. Here it is.

Agnello Fricassea

2 tbl good olive oil
1/2 tsp dried red pepper flakes
1 sprig fresh rosemary
2 cloves garlic, peeled
about 2 lbs misc. lamb cuts
1 tsp plain flour
2 cups dry white wine
2 cups veal or chicken stock
1 egg
juice of 1/2 lemon

Prepare the rosemary by stripping away any older, more bitter leaves from the base of the sprig. Prepare the lamb by carving the meaty portions away from the bones (but keep the bones).

Heat a large frying pan, heat the oil until very hot (shimers but does not smoke). Add the dried red pepper, rosemary, and garlic and gently move them around until they begin to release their aromas (about 1 minute). Add the lamb, bones (a lot of flavor there) and all, and sear all sides turning often with tongs (about 7 minutes). Toss in the flour and stir to cook it in the pan drippings. Add the wine, partially cover, and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat, but keep the liquid bubbling.

It will take at least 10 minutes to cook off the wine. Try to reduce it to a sticky film, but not burned. Add the stock, stir, and cover again. Go do something else for 20-30 minutes.

Just before serving, take out the garlic and rosemary and throw them away. Break up the egg in a small bowl and then whisk in the lemon juice. Remove the lamb from the heat and pour the egg/lemon over the top stirring as you go. Season with salt and pepper.

Spoon the lamb out onto a large platter and garnish with rosemary and lemon slices. This is beautiful served with sauteed wild greens. You will want plenty of good bread to fare la scarpetta, that is, to 'make a little shoe' for mopping up every drop.

1 comment:

  1. Yum. You're making me want to cook lamb for dinner.