Feb 24, 2013

Troppo

“Troppo”

For some reason I woke up thinking of Emile Zola’s (probable) masterpiece, the novel “Germinal”, about a strike at a coal mining facility in Northern France around 1860. In the novel the horrific working and living conditions of the miners are described in searing prose by Zola and it makes for vivid if painful reading—somewhat like the migrant camp scenes from Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”, only much more affecting.

Then the Italian word “troppo” popped into my head.  “Troppo” means “too much”, as in “troppo caldo”—too hot, “troppo forte”—too funny, “troppo stanco”—too tired, and so on.  My mind superimposed the word “troppo” onto “Germinal” and made me think of Zola’s description of the Sunday dinner the protagonist family enjoyed each week. It was one small rabbit prepared in the most “extendable” manner possible to feed—most inadequately—around 10 family members. The description of the littlest children sucking on the bones is as fresh as the day I read the novel many years ago.

So what do my mental pilgrimages have to do with “Cooking for Life”? Just this: for the most part America’s relationship with pasta can be defined by the word “troppo”. Too much in every way: sauces, richness, portions, and calories—you name it.

And yet many Italians who fit wonderfully into the exquisite fashions for which Italy is rightly famous eat pasta almost every day. How do they do it?

Usually pasta in Italy is eaten as the “primo”—the first course.  This course traditionally provides the bulk of the carbohydrates in the meal since the “secondo”—the second course, consists of protein and vegetables. “Primi” are not meant to fill you up; rather, they are meant to be part of the healthy and reasonable journey from hunger to satiety, and not beyond. Thus the portion of pasta “primo” is probably only half or even one-third what one would expect in most Italian restaurants in America. Second, most “primi” are not suffocated by the heavy sauces and cheeses we prefer here in America. One of my favorite “primi” is spaghetti with garlic, red pepper flakes and black pepper. It’s given a swirl of good olive oil and some grated cheese and that’s it. Others are dressed with vegetables and other light and healthful ingredients, such as the one we’ll prepare soon in class.

It’s tagliatelle with cavolo nero, chickpeas, and pecorino.  “Cavolo nero” is a dark-hued cabbage that most closely resembles kale. It’s a classic winter vegetable in Italy and I suspect that since we won’t find it around here we’ll make the recipe delicious with kale. Chickpeas (“ceci” in Italian) are health-bombs, packed with protein but with little fat. Pecorino is a sharp goat cheese with a bright and aggressive flavor.  Our aspiring chefs will blanch the kale, drain and shred it, sauté it with a little garlic, and then combine with the chickpeas and pecorino. A few turns of the pepper mill for some coarse black pepper and the dish will be done. They’ll get enough of this “primo” to address their need for carbohydrates but not so much that they won’t be looking forward to the next dish they will have made: “Saltimbocca di pollo alla Romana”. Literally, “chicken jump-in-your-mouth Roman style”.  Description and observations to follow…

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