Saturday, March 21, 2009

The La Cucina Delle Regioni D’Italia Series

These books are extraordinary.  I discovered them randomly years ago when a friend scored one in Italy. Originally published there in the 70’s and 80’s as a regional series of about 20, they are now somewhat rare, and completely worth the hunt.  

First, they are so Italian. Unlike our crisp, studio-generated, hand-holding counterparts - these are rough, organic and bold both in body and spirit.  They make you want to touch them. . . bound in yielding cardboard, their covers and pages are coarse linen card stock intensely color-stained with drawings, paintings and poster reproductions. They are so beautiful you want just to live beside them.  And then there’s the meat of it.

I sit with these books. Read them front to back. Innocently dip in and get hijacked for hours.  Mario Batali - who claims he never wants these to go out of print - says they are written “Italian-style,” that is, their story, components and instructions are all a single paragraph mash-up. There are no separate lists of ingredients, often no quantities, temperatures or even specific cooking techniques given. It is part of their charm.  These books assume a basic working knowledge of cooking.  It is all so refreshingly old-world.  

The recipes themselves are loopy, authentic. They call for curious ingredients (by our dainty standards), and are given in their original Italian dialect followed by choppy English translations.  Further, much of the text isn’t translated at all: introductions, poems, quotations and menus are left to stand in their original. So if, say, you’re not frosty on your Umbrian, you simply have to fly with the thing. All of this can be joyously bumpy going, and revelatory.  Here’s Crostini di Milza (Spleen toasts):  

Take some ox spleen, open it with a knife so that the skin remains outwards, then scoop out the flesh, leaving nerves and skin.  If you have some meat sauce, leave the flesh to cook in this sauce, adding bits of butter: otherwise heat in butter a mixture made with a slice of ham...

or here, Minestra di porri (Leek Soup):

In the ancient Florence this soup probably was the traditional dish prepared on the feast of St. Laurence (10 august).  In fact it has been found a recipe for a leek soup in the menu of the Canons of the Basilica and the feast was called feast of the leeks instead of feast of St. Laurence.  Slice the white part of 1 kilo of leeks and put them in a pan with oil...

I had to try the minestra immediately as I couldn’t wrap my head around it, which always sparks me to action.  And it was unlike any "soup" I’ve made before: a lush, crispy-soaked baked crouton walloped with leeks, pine nuts and parmesan.  These recipes lean on vintage technique to make what seems only ordinary shine.  This, my friends, was a vegetal dream of welsh rarebit, the chartreuse topping of which was glisteningly held together with an à la minute velouté.  We ate more than was right. 

For Crostini di fegatini (Livers on toasts) I sautéed rabbit liver and giblets with onions, deglazed with stock, gingerly thickened with an egg yolk-lemon-flour liaison, then served on crostini. Upscale chipped beef? Glorious. Old-fashioned.  A cunning way to elevate what is workaday. 

I love these books, how gorgeous they are, their fearless approach to the whole beast, how they assume a common food intelligence which instinctively accounts for human wiggle room, for our kitchen quirks and tics.  Because cooking, after all, is a wild thing, and these books channel that spirit perfectly.     

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Pig, Winnie & Me

Devil’s Gulch Ranch in Marin called us last week wondering if we’d like one of their soon-to-be slaughtered pigs, a half that is, 100 pounds plus. These animals are glorious, milk-fed and reared in pastures alongside wine grapes and asparagus. As Bill Niman of BN Ranch says of his animal's charmed lives: they have just one bad day. How could we say no?

I naturally drove the thing straight to Winnie's with an assist from our friend John who helped devise and haul the impromptu body bag. Winnie is pukka when it comes to food and cooking. Forget willowy California cuisine. She was born and raised in Minnesota where she fed a large extended family and worked in restaurants. She also completely restored an old creamery and presided over the lodgings. Her mother opened, ran and cooked at a road-side diner in her 60’s & 70's, for God's sake. 

I have learned crazy things at Winnie’s side in her wide Dutch still-life of a kitchen. How about warm bacon-honey gravy from pan drippings with grained mustard and feisty vinegar poured into bowls of hot potatoes, green onions and raw garlic; wine-infused braised beef with roots, finished with currant jelly, over handmade buttered egg noodles; blistered vinegar-soaked potatoes kilned with olive oil and lard (if we’re lucky) tossed in a grocery bag with rough salt, or tomato-potato gratin packed with rosemary and roasted under the slow pungent drip of a garlic-jabbed leg of lamb? I am not kidding.

Winnie adores all things pig and has a preternatural with with one. You can study the meat charts until you’re blue, but something else altogether is at play in big butchering - a kind of communion with the animal. Winnie is our pig whisperer. 

Our hulking side dwarfs even her ancient butcher shop’s block (so well used that most of its giant surface is concave with knife work).  We circle the thing ceremoniously - our heads bowed in golden light under huge copper pots - wondering where to begin; how to undertake this glistening pig.  We run our hands over it a lot, feel our way in, remove head and ham first so that its core almost fits the block. Winnie finds natural separations of flesh with her fingers and we follow with our scraggy tools (her mother’s tiny black bone saw is surprisingly effective in this). In a few hours the refrigerator is larded with rib rack, porterhouse, picnic roast, shoulder roasts, belly cuts, ham, head, tail. 

I am always amazed at how tiring this work is, at how sobered and awed I am afterwards. The only seemly thing to do, I guess, is to sit-down gratefully with friends to grilled new porterhouse and garlicky fat white beans with fennel, oranges and bitter greens (a version of which is on our new menu). It is a life.