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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Feb 15, 2013

Pleasures Deferred are Pleasures Redoubled

by Chef John Leonard

Last year my Christmas present from my wife was a week of retreat, renewal, contemplation, and above all, silence, at the Trappist monastery in Gethsemane, Kentucky.  This monastery’s most famous monk was Fr. Thomas Merton (known as Fr. Louis in the monastery), writer of, among other books, “The Seven Storey Mountain”, perhaps the definitive spiritual coming of age book.

A hallmark of the Trappist order is the rule of silence.  Other than prayer, chanting, and singing the Sacred Office according to the Liturgy of the Hours, talking is kept to a bare minimum.  When I visited the monastery with my mother two years ago I felt sorry for the monk standing in front of the “Silence, please!” sign as my mother asked him question after question, finally forcing him to break his silence.

I haven’t been to my retreat yet but I look forward to it.  I have read that modern people at retreats cut off from cell-phones, i-pads, televisions, and the like go through withdrawal, some of them becoming distinctly uncomfortable with silence that forces them spiritually inward. Perhaps they aren’t comfortable with what they discover about themselves.

My personal theory is that we live in a world where not enough is deferred, and in particular, pleasures.  When it comes to food that means we don’t eat seasonally anymore since someone, somewhere is growing now what we can only grow in the Summer, and through the magic-carpet effect of refrigerated container ships and in some cases cargo jets we can eat whatever, whenever.  When we go to the supermarket we see the cornucopia—“the horn of plenty”—of produce that rightly belongs to other seasons.  We eat indifferent tomatoes now, instead of waiting for the ambrosial ones of late summer.  Even in my house there are strawberries in the refrigerator and I am convinced that when I open the door they somehow glare at me with an accusatory, “we shouldn’t be here now” look. The right tomatoes to eat now are the wonderful ones that were made into sauce in early Autumn; and the right strawberries to eat now are the ones that were transformed by the wonderful alchemy of water, sugar, and airtight jars into strawberry preserves.

This notion of eating seasonally and deferring culinary pleasures is age-old and rooted in (former) necessity, but I maintain it has merit.  I think of this also because the Lenten season is upon us and for many it is a season of deferring what one enjoys, partly to concentrate on spiritual self-renewal, but with the happy effect of finding anew after 40 days the pleasures of that which was foregone.  I note in conclusion to this section that in Italian Mardi Gras i.e., “Fat Tuesday”, is known as “Carnevale”, which in Latin means “removal of meat”, thereby indicating that which will be set aside for the Lenten period.

In keeping with eating seasonally, at some point in the next few weeks we will be making a classic French peasant soup called a “garbure”.  There are many versions of garbure but all include root vegetables, dried beans, and just small amounts of meat for flavoring.  The Jewish equivalent to garbure would be a cholent, the rich and satisfying stews prepared before the Sabbath, consigned to the local baker on the Sabbath eve, and left to cook overnight in his oven to be picked up after the Sabbath services for the family meal.

Of course before we do the garbure and go into a lean season we must recognize Mardi Gras. Perhaps a jambalaya will fit the bill, and a molten chocolate cake for good measure. Before we defer the pleasures we might as well enjoy them.

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Jan 27, 2013

What To Eat During The Winter Months

The culinary excesses of the Holiday season hopefully now but a distant memory, the issue still remains:  what’s good and good for you to eat during these dark and cold months of Winter? 

One obvious answer: Cabbage.

A member of the cruciferous family of vegetables, cabbage, in all its forms, is a nutritional miracle, with so many health benefits that the list seems almost unbelievable: cholesterol reduction, cold prevention (lots of vitamin C), regulation of the digestive tract, and, oh yes, let’s not forget, cancer prevention, and much more.

Those of Irish descent remember cabbage in colcannon or boxty; the Northern Europeans among us remember cabbage soup, stuffed cabbage, or cabbage rolls.  Those of Chinese descent remember stir fry cabbage.

Cabbage is such a ubiquitous Winter food that even during the darkest days of the Cultural Revolution in China when many starved the government would mound cabbage on street corners in all the major cities and citizens could help themselves.

I remember back in the middle 80’s when I “commuted” from Bangkok to New York every six weeks on Aeroflot, the Soviet airline, that cabbage was the staple at every meal. For sure the smell wasn’t pleasant but that was mitigated by the fact that along with the cabbage came the endless small glasses of ice-cold vodka. Nobody complained.

Kids, however, do complain about the smell of cabbage, especially when it’s boiled or pickled, such as in sauerkraut.  The solution is to cook it (or not) differently. There are wonderful recipes for Asian- style slaws with cabbage, carrot, and green onion all dressed in a sesame-soy dressing. Kids love that. Or how about stir fried with chicken and other vegetables such as bean sprouts, pea pods, and served over brown rice. Stuffed cabbage has always been one of my favorites. Because the leaves are blanched ahead of time the smell is gone. Whether stuffed whole or in rolls (rouladen in German), stuffed cabbage is wonderfully satisfying and your aspiring chefs can help you assemble the dish.

We’re going to include cabbage in our Winter Cooking for Life program over the next few weeks. Be on the lookout for the recipes your chefs bring home and ask them what they think of cabbage…..now.

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Aug 31, 2012

CKC Rebranding

Creative Kids Corner has just launched it's new identity! Check us out!

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