While Adolf Trump and Heinrich H. Bannon (with mouthpiece Joseph G. Kellyanne) usher in America First nationalism (is National Socialism or outright Nazism far behind?), HG/BSK practice internationalism at the table. With a bow to Muslims, there are two Middle East staples: Baba Ghanoush (garlic infused mashed eggplant) and Shakshuka (poached eggs in tomato-onion-pepper sauce) Shakshuka is very popular in Israel, a delight shared by Arabs and Jews. HG/BSK also like Halwa (from Lebanon) as dessert. Asia predominates in many HG/BSK dinners. Oyster (or scallop) pancakes from Korea. Pho and rice noodle/chicken salad from Vietnam. Ma Po Tofu from China. Watercress and smoked ham soup from China. Chicken and vegetable curries from India. Spicy eggplant and pork belly dishes from the Hunan and Szechuan provinces. Steamed sole with bok choy and garlic chips from Japan. A score of pasta, meat and chicken dishes inspired by the late Marcella Hazan’s Italian cookbooks. Soup de Poisson from France. Congee from China and the Philippines. Lamb chops and racks of lamb (imported from New Zealand) and cooked using French techniques. And, yes, many dishes from Mexico including chile and posole. For sheer comfort there is the strange Jewish-Russian-Italian medley, Kasha Varnishkes (buckwheat groats, chicken stock, eggs, mushrooms, onions and Italian farfalle pasta). HG/BSK will eat this tonight with gobs of sour cream. HG will accompany it with iced vodka (from Sweden). BSK will choose a wine from Argentina, Italy, Chile, France or the State of Washington. Hurray for diversity in culture, people, life and pleasure. This is the message fromHG/BSK’s American-Canadian-Japanese-Italian-Jewish-Russian-English-Irish-Welsh family.
One of the sillier American traditions is the Presidential “pardon” of a turkey on Thanksgiving Day. President Obama acknowledged the goofiness but continued the ceremony this week. There were no pardoned turkeys for the assembled HG/BSK family in Reims as there was no roast turkey for the big bout of gluttony. The family decided there was no way to get a big, juicy American-style turkey in Europe. An unhappy memory still lurked: Some years ago, Profesore Massimo R.’s American students at the University of Bologna arranged a Thanksgiving turkey feast at a favorite Bologna pizzeria. The proud pizzeria proprietor presented a glistening brown bird with an Italian flourish. However, one taste banished dreams of a Norman Rockwell-type farmhouse feast. This wasn’t a turkey. A buzzard? Vulture? Sea gull that had lost its way? Inedible. With this experience in mind, a loin of pork (roasted in milk atop the oven from a favorite recipe by Marcella Hazan) was the main dish at Thanksgiving dinner for eight (HG/BSK; daughter Lesley R.; son-in-law Massimo R.; granddaughters Arianna and Sofia; plus two beautiful young women, Sofia’s fellow students at Reims’s Sciences Po; one young woman from Brazil and the other from Chile). Side dishes were traditional: brussels sprouts with bacon; creamed spinach, dressing, mashed potatoes. Lavish amounts of gravy. Preceded by a big array of terrines and pates. Dessert was apple tart and sour cherry tart. Since we were in champagne country, the meal started with bubbly and then proceeded to Fleurie, Moulin a Vent and Brouilly. Thankful for family, fun and food.
HG has written before about the reluctance of most Americans to make squid and octopus part of their everyday diet. Sure, raw octopus is hard to find and cooking it well takes some skill. But, squid? Always available at Whole Foods and many supermarket fish counters. Cheap. Healthy. Simple to prepare. Versatile. Here’s how HG/BSK do it. Squid tubes are cut into rings and the tentacles into manageable clusters. Rinsed and then dried thoroughly. Very thoroughly, so that when fried, the squid will get crispy. Toss them into a pan of hot, smoking vegetable oil. Cook for one minute to 90 seconds. After draining on paper towels, BSK ads them to a pan of gently warmed Sicilian olive oil, thin slices of garlic, Greek hot and sweet pickled peppers. Showers the dish with parsley and some lemon juice. HG likes the sautéed squid (minus the peppers) mixed with linguine and a parsley/anchovy/olive oil mix plus some capers. David Tanis, the very good food writer, likes to top warmed canned cannelloni beans (Goya is the best brand) with squid, surrounded by slices of raw, sweet onion and ripe tomato and drizzled with a bit of olive oil. As far as octopus goes, HG gets some cooked octopus at Whole Foods and treats it like sashimi. Otherwise HG revels in grilled octopus at Greek restaurants (The eateries in Chicago’s Greektown section are expert in cooking octopus). But, the best octopus dishes are found in Europe. HG/BSK remember with fondness eating octopus with the late, great Italian food authority Marcella Hazan and her husband, Victor, at a stately restaurant in Mestre, the industrial town that is Venice’s neighbor. These were baby octopus just pulled from the Venetian lagoon, poached gently and served with only olive oil, lemon juice and coarsely ground black pepper. Sublime. In Madrid, HG/BSK found a funky, noisy, non-tourist bistro that served beautifully tender Polpo Gallego (octopus prepared in the Galician style). After lunching on this dish plus a platter of delectable little fried peppers); Gambas Ajillo (garlic shrimp) and a pitcher of sangria, HG/BSK were fortified to view Velasquez, Rubens, Titian, Bosch, Rembrandt, Goya and El Greco at the nearby Prado art museum. Nice to combine delicious food for the body with exhilarating food for the soul.
BSK made a pasta dish last night that was an homage to the memory of Marcella Hazan, the woman who revolutionized Italian cooking in America. As HG noted in a previous post, Marcella introduced Americans to the simplicity and freshness of Italian cooking. With that in mind, BSK glanced at a clump of almost over-ripe tomatoes in a kitchen basket. They had to be used. Like Marcella, BSK respects food and abhors waste. The tomatoes were chopped with fresh basil and parsley. Tossed in a bowl with a goodly pour of Sicilian olive oil. Not cooked but allowed to macerate at room temperature so the flavors of tomatoes, herbs and oil married nicely. This uncooked sauce, heady with garden flavors, was poured over al dente DeCecco fettucine (yes, Marcella would have suggested a thinner pasta). Then, BSK added a creative Greek touch (maybe in memory of the glorious Grecian temples HG/BSK visited in Sicily many years ago): A shower of crumbled feta cheese and slivers of Kalamata olives. Absolutely delicious. Rest in peace, Marcella and thank you for the inspiration.
Marcella Hazan died last week at her Florida home. She was 89. Remarkable woman. She changed the way America thought about, cooked and ate Italian food. When Marcella began her American career a number of decades ago, Parmesan cheese came in cans (and it wasn’t really Parmesan) and American Italian cooking was based on spaghetti (even the word pasta was alien) and meatballs plus hefty cream, garlic and tomato sauces. Italian restaurants were described as “red sauce” joints. Through her cookbooks, cooking classes and cooking demonstrations, Marcella opened up the eyes of America to the reality and vibrancy of true Italian food: simple, fresh, healthy, ingredient-driven and, most of all, delicious. HG/BSK have relied upon Marcella’s recipes for pork roast braised in milk; vitello tonnato; pureed chickpea soup; Bolognese ragu; mushroom pasta sauce (Marcella’s recipe takes supermarket, bland mushrooms and invests them with torrents of earthy flavor)–and much more. Some 30 years ago, HG/BSK conducted a public relations campaign for one of Marcella’s books. In connection with this, HG/BSK visited Marcella and her husband, Victor, in their Venice apartment. It was a marvelous space with a beautiful kitchen tucked under ancient wooden beams and windows that looked upon scenic vistas of La Serenissima. The terrace contained a magnificent barbecue. HG/BSK accompanied Marcella on a shopping tour of the markets beneath the Rialto Bridge. She selected the freshest fish and crustaceans; vegetables, fruit, cheese, bread and charcuterie. Back in the apartment, Marcella created a meal that was simple — but, like all wonderful food, complex in that simplicity. The centerpiece was a zuppa di pesce, the best fish stew HG/BSK ever tasted (or will ever taste). BSK took scores of photos. As a person, Marcella was talented, imperious and not very likeable. For instance, she was without a shred of sympathy when she learned that BSK was allergic to shrimp; and was furious that she had to eliminate them from her fish stew. The dining group drank a very good Pinot Grigio during the meal (husband Victor was a noted wine writer) but Marcella stuck to her pre-dinner beverage (Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey) much to Victor’s annoyance. The next day she was on better behavior at a business lunch in the nearby industrial city of Mestre. HG has a vivid memory of the tender poached baby octopi devoured at that meal. Alas, the public relations campaign (for a variety of complicated reasons) did not turn out well and HG/BSK’s business relations with the Hazans ended abruptly. Though HG/BSK did not have a happy personal relationship with Marcella, HG/BSK admired her. Marcella was a brilliant woman. She had great honesty and integrity and did not believe in cooking shortcuts. BSK recalls a visit to Marcella and Victor’s Manhattan apartment. Marcella presented BSK with a tomato and an old fashioned vegetable peeler and suggested BSK peel the tomato. Peel a tomato? BSK had never done such a thing. Marcella was exasperated but, with painstaking care, she demonstrated how to swivel the peeler so as to remove the skin and not harm the fruit. Marcella did not pander or attempt to become a loveable television “personality.” She loved Italy and its culture and brought that passion to America’s kitchens and tables. While stern, Marcella was not rigid. She told BSK: “A recipe is not carved in stone. It is a suggestion. Use it and make it your own.”
Cookbooks make for pleasant reading and often better viewing (some cookbook photography is so lustfully shot that it is basically pornographic). They often have good cooking ideas and can serve as an active spur to the imagination. But, very few contain recipes that, when followed step-by-step, turn out right. Mark Bittman, the ubiquitous Bittman, is the great advocate of simplicity and a best-selling cookbook author. In HG’s opinion, Bittman’s recipes disappoint. They should be read as creative outlines to constructing a dish rather than precise instructions. The recipes in Saveur Magazine sure read good but make for unfortunate eating (SJ disagrees). HG relies on three cookbook authors: Mimi Sheraton (the former New York Times restaurant reviewer); the late Michael Field and Marcella Hazan, the woman who has had a powerful and positive impact on cooking Italian food in the home kitchen. Mimi Sheraton’s cookbook, From My Mother’s Kitchen, is an HG favorite. There is a strong emphasis on Jewish cooking (but not kosher—there are good recipes for clams, lobster and a ham-and-bean soup). The recipes are can’t miss and they emphasize simple things like matzo brei, blintzes, fish salads, pan broiled steaks and hamburgers, etc. Michael Field’s books feature precise recipes. Do exactly as he says and you have a winner dish. Always. Marcella Hazan is invaluable. However, it is necessary to adjust the quantities. She likes, in the Italian fashion, a lot of pasta and a little bit of sauce. A lot of Americans (including HG/BSK) like the reverse.
Finally. A real dinner of celebration. Oh, it’s good to win and the Obama victory had an extra measure of sweetness as Mr. Cellophane (aka Mitt), the wasted $400 Million Man (Karl Rove) and The Hair Brained (Donald Trump) tasted the bitter dregs of defeat. Talking about tasting, deliciousness abounded as HG and BSK hosted a happy group of distinguished Democrats at a laughter infused dinner party. Present were Mayor Bob Murphy of Lakewood, CO. (a landslide election winner earlier in the year) plus his brother, Don. Bob’s wife, the lovely, Ina Gustafson was present (wearing some of the striking jewelry she designs). Joining us from Crested Butte, CO.. were Mike Rock, the distinguished urbanist and former city manager. Mike was accompanied by Trish Layton, economic development expert, equestrienne and former championship diver. A handsome and talented group bearing numerous bottle of excellent Pinot Noir. Dinner started with prosciutto and ripe figs; mozzarella and tomatoes; prosciutto wrapped around breadsticks. Sparkling Pinot Grigio. Then there were some brimming bowls of fettucine with Bolognese ragu (BSK follows Marcella Hazan’s recipe and it is robust and full of flavor). The Pinot Noir set it off nicely. This was followed by camambert and gorgonzola, artisan sourdough bread and a tossed salad of baby lettuces. Dessert: BSK’s apple crisp and vanilla ice cream. The crisp was made with apples selected by BSK from the HG/BSK orchard. Chiiled limoncello ended the meal. But, not the happy, laughing sounds.
Okay. In his last post, HG claimed that the world’s best green chili stew is in Colorado (HG fears a New Mexico hit squad bent on avenging this slur to the Land of Enchantment). And, where is the best meat sauce ragu? In BSK’s New Mexico kitchen.
Six hour drive from Denver to New Mexico under grey, cold skies. Famished and chilled upon arrival at Casa HG/BSK. Time for a fireplace blaze and comfort food on the table. BSK checked the freezer and there was a container of BSK’s ragu, saved for just such an occasion. The ragu was BSK’s creative variation on Marcella Hazan’s classic Bolognese ragu. Accompanied by a bottle of Willamette Valley red, steaming bowls of pasta topped with BSK ragu restored the travel weary.
HG made a judgment. He pronounced BSK’s ragu the world’s best. HG made this judgment after spending three weeks in Bologna devouring tagliatelle with ragu at the city’s best trattorias. HG adores BSK but sentiment has no place in HG’s culinary judgments. BSK ragu rules.