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Posts Tagged ‘Italian cooking’

LasagnaMy wife is not Italian. She’s Irish. She just married an Italian. (Actually, I’m mostly French, but try telling that to someone who’s struggling to pronounce “Giambastiani.”)

She calls herself a “truck-stop cook.” She isn’t what she would call a “chef.” She is a craftsman who has a few really good recipes.

Over the years, she’s cooked these few (these happy few), receiving raves from friends and family lucky enough to partake. Over the years, she’s tinkered with each concoction, improving and perfecting her enchiladas, banana bread, beef stew, spag-bol, quiche Lorraine, cinnamon rolls, cookies, fudge, and–notably–lasagna.

She’s been working on her lasagna recipe for 30 years. She measures by eye, always has sauce and cheese left over, always makes them two at a time–a large one for the feast, a smaller one to be frozen, uncooked, for later–and always, always it is wonderful, flavorful, and unlike any other lasagna I’ve ever tasted.

Last weekend, Ilene made her lasagna for a large gathering of friends and neighbors. The occasion was specifically to introduce her masterpiece to folks who’ve never had it before. Normally, I am her sous chef, doing all the chopping and grating, stirring and cleaning, while she swans in and casts her magic alchemy with handfuls of spice and multiple taste-tests. This time, however, I followed her around, noted her every move, measured every handful and pile she used, and weighed all the ingredients left behind. I calculated the mounds and pounds that went into each of the two mismatched pies, then got out my slide rule and conversion charts and constructed a single recipe for a 9×13″ lasagna.

Last night, I tried it myself, and got Ilene’s stamp of approval.

As with all recipes, I can think of things I want to try next time–a dash of this, a spoonful of that–but this is the radix, the omphalos, the groundwater source of Ilene’s wonderful, delectable, world-class lasagna.

Caveat: This is not a health-minded recipe. It’s a heart attack on a plate. We don’t have it every week, or even every month. For us, it’s a once-, maybe twice-a-year treat, usually bookended by days of low-calorie meals and exercise for preparation and recovery.

Trust me. It’s worth it.

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Simple LivingCioppino is an Italian standard, a fish stew in a tomato-based sauce, but before we get into the recipe, let’s have a lesson in correct pronunciation.

First, in Italian, the initial letters “ci” makes a “ch” sound, like the word “ciao.” Next, know that the word has only three syllables, never four; say it cho-PEE-no, not chee-oh-PEE-no. If you want to be exact, throw a bit of the “i” in the first syllable–chyo-PEE-no–but keep it to three syllables.

Good. Now, onward.

For my family, cioppino is the traditional Christmas Eve supper. In the morning it’s coffee and pastries over which we plan our maneuvers like Napoleonic generals. Just before noon, we split up–some to the kitchen, some to the streets. The kitchen crew begins the prep work for the sides and salads, breads and sweet-afters, while the street crews disperse, heading out to fish mongers and green grocers in search of the freshest of the fresh.

The calls come in to the kitchen. There’s fresh rockfish down the wharf. Scotty’s has sea bass. Central has live Dungeness, but they look small. The Dungeness at Petrini’s are beefy and fresh, but cooked. The kitchen receives the intel, reroutes operatives ad hoc, decides on the final mix of fish and shellfish, and sends out orders to purchase. The great thing about cioppino is that you aren’t locked into any specific mixture of seafood or shellfish. The only criteria is that it has to be good; flash-frozen is good, fresh is better, live is best (especially for the bivalves). Some years, winter storms will keep the crab-boats in harbor. Other years, there is no suitable fresh fish to be had. You have to be nimble, but the recipe doesn’t really care, as long as there is ample in the aggregate.

So take this recipe and make it your own, build it to your own taste. Pre-shell all the shellfish if you prefer. Keep the base, and build on that.

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