Thursday, September 13, 2007

Where is the "Cutting-Edge" Modern Italian Kitchen?

Famous eaters of all sorts have been flocking to Spain to see chefs like Ferran Adrià cook their modern molecular gastronomy, and the result has left many asking "Where is Italy now?" and mocking the slow food movement as archaic. One quote from Stephen Shaw the founder of eGullet was: "Italy's big selling point is "We cook the same food our grandparents cooked, we hate change, our food is simple and old-fashioned, if you walk ten feet you're in a different region, hooray for Slow Food . . . "

Let us please be fair to Italy. In the context of historical cuisine, Italy has really done her share. In fact, I ask you to name one country in all of Europe (or the world) that has contributed more. It was Catherine de Medici that introduced the whole concept of chefs to France, in fact, France should get on her knees in thanks for the Italian contributions to her kitchen. In the 15th century when the most of the world was poking each other with pointy sticks the Italians were building the Sistine Chapel.

Let's also be honest, until recently, what has Spain given the culinary world besides tapas and paella? They have precious little to lose by propagating a fad.

Perhaps the Italians are just sitting the current culinary revolution out.

Don't worry, even today, when Italy cooks, the whole world watches.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

French Food is Not Heavy

I often hear people say that French food is "heavy" and to be honest I can't understand what they are talking about. I have grown up with French food and cooked it all of my adult life (unfortunately, we are talking about a span of nearly half a century). Like Julia Child, my mother also attended the Cordon Bleu while she was on lay-over in Paris when she was a hostess in the 50's. I grew up with Coq au Vin, Boeuf Bourguignon and Poulet au Vin Blanc and the dish most often destroyed nowadays: Vol au Vent. I never thought of any of these dishes as heavy... quite the opposite actually, it was my grandmother's American food that always did me in. Fried Chicken with giblet gravy and mashed potatoes took all day to over-come and Thanksgiving dinner usually put me in bed for 24 hours. Yankee pot roast was another story all together.... add to that, the tremendous amounts of sugar that kept me bouncing off the walls and you really have a cuisine worth bitching about. French food never bothered me nor did I ever consider it heavy or unbalanced in any way.

In properly prepared French cuisine the sauces are balanced, so the use of cream is counter-acted by the acidity of the wine or the addition of some lemon juice. Additionally, when you eat French food you should always drink wine with it. It is part of the meal and without it, the food becomes unbalanced, probably unhealthy and certainly less enjoyable. I had an American friend who didn't like wine but professed to love fine food (especially French). He always ordered ice tea or (more often) a coke. I never understood how he could do this. I mention this only because he died at the age of 37 from a heart attack... c'est la vie.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Missing Julia

Back in the 1960's when I was a kid I watched Julia Child's cooking shows all the time. In those days there were only two cooking shows on in the US. The Galloping Gourmet and Julia. I never liked the GG for some reason but I always watched Julia.

It was always Julia's intention to teach people how to cook French food with American ingredients and I can tell you in the 60's there was not nearly as much quality produce available as there is now. I remember a time before whole bean coffee and imported cheeses. So Julia had quite a task getting American produce to taste French.

If nothing else, (and she was much more) she was a pioneer and tireless advocate of French food. French food is hard to cook...properly. It requires attention, understanding of complex cooking techniques and access to a wide variety of fresh ingredients. In those days most Americans usually had a couple of Martinis or Scotchs, then threw a steak on the grill and baked a potato...opened a bottle of half-dead Beaujolais and that was dinner! And it got much worse...I remember going to people's houses and eating meatloaf, boiled carrots and drinking milk (even the adults).

I have no doubt that there are very good sources of recipes for French food in French, but in English Julia's books are still bellwethers and I will always have them in my cookbook library.

I knew and cooked with this woman vicariously for nearly 40 years and she is like a second mother to me. She is solely responsible for planting the seeds that led me to become a chef and develop a deep passion for food.

If there is a Madonna of the American kitchen, it is Julia Child and I miss her very much.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Traditional Food

I am wondering if the average gastro tourist coming to Italy is looking for traditional restaurants or Super Chefs? As I read food forums like eGullet it seems as though the majority are in pursuit of the latter.

I find myself at a culinary crossroads. While I am interested in the creative new cutting-edge creations from world renowned chefs, I am also fascinated by the traditional preparations which have evolved over centuries, handed down from generation to generation and continually adjusted and perfected. The aromas emitted from the kitchen windows of my village make my mouth water so overwhelmingly fast, that it is hard for me to imagine how starred chefs can eclipse this.

Perhaps I'm giving the impression that the starred chefs have nothing to offer, but in fact I am very interested in the inventions of all chefs, famous and obscure, cutting edge and traditional. No one who loves food could not be. What I mean to say is that traditionally prepared food is equally as interesting and equally worth pursuing. In fact the type of cooking that I am trying to describe does not really exist in restaurants. I am speaking of preparations requiring hours and hours of hand work and equal time cooking. This type of food is not economical for a restaurant to make but is often practiced in homes, mostly by loving mothers for their family or for a special feast or wedding. In most cases food like this can't be bought and the recipes are either memorized or closely guarded. This is the food I covet and I look for restaurants that try to practice this.

Traditional foods and ancient ingredients have gotten pushed to the way-side in most modern restaurants and many of us have no idea how complex and layered their flavors and aromas can be. Classical cuisines are based on hundreds, if not thousands of years of method, technique and ingredients and offer us an amazing array of flavors and textures.

For me, experimental cuisine means using a rice like Favorito which, even though it has been grown locally for hundreds of years, it is now almost extinct and very hard to find and as you might have guessed, it makes mind-blowing risotto.

I can't help wondering if we are not gravitating towards traditional food because we are fleeing something else? In all things artistic there have been revolutions for the simple. In the 18th century formal French gardens were dug up to make the more natural looking English gardens. In art we see how artist’s styles became increasingly looser and more natural over the centuries.

In the past 20 years, fine food has become increasingly fussed-over and contrived in order to garner more fame and revenue for the author and I find that the restaurants that serve these “creations” are usually uptight and uncomfortable, even the wait staff propagate this ostentatious funk. To me, traditional food, comfort food and regional food all represent a departure from our modern attempts to glorify food.

"Simple pleasures are always the last refuge of the complex." - Oscar Wilde

Making Risotto with an Angel

Adelgisa is my friend Paolo's mother and she is the quintessential Italian "momma"... round and cherubic, she has fire in her eyes and cooks like an angel. I spent some time bent over her stove and this is what I walked away with.

First a few comments:
-This recipe seems rather basic but I assure you it makes your eyes roll.
-I don't use measurements because this dish is always cooked by feeling...
-Italians are not that hung up about the rice. Everyone has a favorite but most buy what ever is on sale. I have repeatedly asked opinions from people I respect and I get all sorts of answers, so use the risotto rice you like and have some experience with. Adelgisa used Roma, I think, but it isn't that important because the flavor will come from the stock and the meat and texture is a matter of timing.

Ok, lets start:
Melt some butter in a high-sided pan, add finely chopped shallots and fry them over medium heat without browning (a little salt will soften them quicker). When they are about half-way done, throw in some Salsiccia that has been removed from it's casing (an Italian sausage, Salsiccia means "salted fat" and it comes flavored (fennel, picante etc.) or plain. Use plain if you can get it. If in doubt, fine grind pork shoulder with a little extra fat and some salt and pepper to taste.

Break the pork into tiny-tiny bits and once the pork is cooked down add some of the rice and toast it lightly with the pork.

Add some bone dry white wine, she used Cortese, and let it be absorbed.

Add some stock. To my surprise (and horror) Adelgisa uses Maggi cubes, diluted and kept to a simmer on the back burner. Trust me here...Maggi cubes can work miracles in the right hands! Again...don't get too hung up on expensive ingredients.

Adelgisa is not the stirring type. She adds the broth a little at a time and quickly stirs, it in, then covers the pot and lets it sit over a low flame. Piano piano!

After about 13 minutes she checks the risotto. When she is happy with the texture, she turns off the burner (the rice should be a little under done) and adds some Parmesan cheese and a knob of butter, lets it sit for five minutes and dishes it out.

That's it.

Your results may vary because of the Salsiccia, but go slowly and make the recipe your own. You will find how it will work best for you. The ingredients will tell you what they need. Dial it in your own way and don't be upset if it doesn't blow your mind the first time, it will in time!

More about the rice:
Arborio doesn't really stand for much these days and you are better off chasing down a Carnaroli or Vialone Nano which are more likely to be found in a US/UK grocery store. I went to my local supermarket here in Asti and here is a pretty good list of what can be found here and some of the cooking times involved:
Europa: 15 min
Padano: 15 min
Ribe: 15 min
Carnaroli: 18 min
Vialone: 15 min
Roma: 14 min
Baldo: 18 min
Originario: 12 min
S. Andrea: 14 min
Superfino Arborio. 18 min
Please note cooking times can vary and you should begin tasting the rice frequently after 12-13 minutes over moderate heat. The rice should be slightly firm to the bite.
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