The Americanization of Spaghetti

June 25, 2017

Looking through my bookshelves I came upon this odd volume, written by Giuseppe Prezzolini in 1955.  I had no idea that there was enough interest in pasta in the fifties to warrant an entire book.

Mr. Prezzolini, it turns out, was a professor at Columbia, and the head of their Casa Italiana.  He was also a literary critic, magazine editor, and author of several books.  And in good news for spaghetti eaters everywhere, the man lived to be 100.

The book contains a slew of historical recipes, like this one.

As well as dozens of contemporary recipes from many sources.  This was my favorite:

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Things I Love: Purslane

June 24, 2017

I will never forget the farmer in Venice who laughed uproariously when I asked her to give me the purslane she was weeding from her fields.  “This is not for humans,” she said contemptuously, handing over great heaps of the thick slightly lemon-flavored weed. Yes, it’s a weed, but as Ralph Waldo Emerson noted, weeds are just plants whose virtues we have yet to discover.

I’m a longtime fan of this particular weed. Googling around I found this article I wrote almost twenty years ago extolling its many virtues. Thoreau was another fan. “I have made a satisfactory dinner off a dish of purslane which I gathered and boiled. Yet men have come to such a pass that they frequently starve, not from want of necessaries, but for want of luxuries.”

It puzzles me that purslane, with its satisfying crunch and easygoing flavor, isn’t better known. You can eat it raw, in soups or simply boiled. Here’s a Mexican favorite.

Purslane tacos.

Shopping list: purslane, tomatillos, a green chile, corn tacos, queso fresco.

Staples: onion, garlic.

Begin by making a quick green salsa.  Peel the papery husk off 4 tomatillos, wash them and toss them into a blender with 1 small green chile, half a small onion and a clove of garlic.  Whirl them into a thin liquid.

Take a big heap of purslane, wash it well, chop it well, and boil it for about 10 minutes. Drain.

Slick a skillet with oil and add the salsa. Bring it to a boil, turn the heat down and add the purslane. Add salt and pepper to taste. (Diana Kennedy adds cumin as well, but I prefer the tacos without.) Cook it down until it’s thickened into a lovely sludge.

Sprinkle some queso fresco across the top and served wrapped into warm tortillas.

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Jeong Kwan Cooks at Le Bernardin

June 23, 2017

The Buddhist monk and celebrated chef, Jeong Kwan was in New York yesterday, cooking a meal to celebrate the winter Olympics in PeyongChang next year.

Eric Ripert has spoken with great reverence about the chef, so I’ve always been curious.  The Chef’s Table episode about her is very beautiful, and I was eager to experience one of her meals.

I was certainly not the only one; a great group of press people turned out to taste the chef’s vegan meal; Martha Stewart was sitting next to me, snapping away. She immediately fired off a few shots on Instagram, announcing the numbers as they came in.

We started with tiny porcelain cups of lotus flower tea: delicate, floral and fragrant, it’s one of those drinks that you taste once and never forget.

Then we were introduced to 15-year old soy sauce the monk brews herself; she urged us to have a spoonful before we began eating, and to use it liberally throughout the meal.  The sauce was dark, complex and mellow with a lingering flavor that echoed in your mouth long after the sauce itself was gone. I used it as dipping sauce for ganjang and bugak, the centerpiece of crisped seaweed (which had the robust and appealing flavor of fried fish tails),  balloon flower leaf, ailanthus (which is also known as “tree of heaven”), potato and shiso.

This was followed by a bowl of pretty little local leaves in a dressing that hinted at orange and spice., and then this grilled deodeok and deoduck with pine nut.

Deoduck is bonnet bellflower; the chewy root, splashed with gochujang, is a standard in Korea.  But that little ball of pinenut and shredded deoduck on the side was remarkable: simultaneously oft and slightly crisp, it was tinged with the taste of  sesame oil  The chef eschews all alliums – no garlic, no onion, no scallion – but she has no fear of either sweet or heat.  There was a touch of chile in almost every dish we ate, and she uses rice syrup and fruit to contrast the saline taste of soy.

A surprise package at each plate. As each little sphere of gangwon was opened up the fragrance of chestnut and shiitake leapt into the air, enveloping the table in the most sensual aroma.  Great fat juicy mushrooms had soaked up a luxurious broth of  soy, sesame, rice syrup and fermented berry juice; they were tangled into gingko nuts and jujubes. Hauntingly delicious.

Now waiters appeared bearing a black tray covered with little black bowls for each diner: Barugongyang.  The empty bowls were for soup and rice, which we passed around the table and served to one another. (I’m embarrassed to admit that our table neglected to wait for instruction and simply helped ourselves, putting the rice and soup into the wrong bowls.)

Starting at the bottom left:

BongPyeong which was translated as “mook with buckwheat.”

Mook, or muk, is a soft substance, with the texture of taro that can be made from almost any starchy substance.  This one was buckwheat topped with two year old kimchi, ailanthus, shiitake and cabbage.

DunNae: a little pancake constructed from  baby squash and wild sesame seeds and topped with a bit of squash. In contrast to the contemplative quietness of other dishes, this chewy, slightly spicy offering exploded on the palate like carnival food. A bit of excitement on the plate.

InJae: grilled burdock

Topped with sprouted daikon, plum and rice syrup, gochujang, chili power, sesame seed and sesame oil. Burdock is a bitter root to swallow; you either like it or don’t. If you don’t, all that seasoning won’t help.

ChoDang: pan-seared tofu with fermented sansho.

Tofu mans up and gets serious character.  Eaten slowly, you suddenly discovered a world of flavor in the dense, chewy white substance.

Daegwallyeong

Our old friend, cabbage kimchi.

SokChu: Lotus root water kimchi

Water kimchi is a Korean standard.  Not hot, this was crunchy slices of lotus root cooked in orange and plum syrup and persimmon vinegar.  The chef asked us to leave a bit of lotus root to clean our bowls at the end of the meal.  It felt like a sacrifice.

BangTae Mountain.

Named for a famous Korean mountain said to hold “the secret of ancient times,”  this sticky rice was mingled with Korean thistle, kidney beans, puffed corn and wild sesame oil.

Odae Mountain

Sip slowly. Think about it.  Tease out the flavor of mushroom, daikon, ginger, lotus leaf, jujube.  Note the hint of chile.  This is the entire meal in a single bowl: flavors that whisper instead of shout, ask that you listen carefully with all your senses.  A reminder of how much there is to see, hear and taste if only we will pay attention.

 

Postscript

Should you want to experience this Korean temple cuisine, one New York restaurant provides that opportunity.  I have to admit that I haven’t been in many years, but here’s my very old review of Hangawi.

 

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Swordfish Season

June 22, 2017

This cover, from September 1946, is one of my all-time favorites.  Love that swordfish leaping out of the sea!

Inside, some interestingly ornate suggestion for using said swordfish:

Should you be wondering what “drawn butter” is, here’s the answer.

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