’m not a joiner. Yet for several years, I’ve been a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier (an impressive name for a bunch of wonderfully down home women involved in the food world), and Slow Food, the movement begun in Italy hoping to reverse the damage done to eating habits by McDonald’s and too many TV ads touting longer life from energy sticks and frozen entrees.
Many of these members love the eating part but find cooking daunting and stressful. Some say it’s just too hard to face a spaghetti primavera or a stracotto (stew) recipe. I don’t mean seasoned cooks (so to speak) but would-be ones who look at a seemingly simple recipe for pasta with fresh tomatoes and basil, read “peel and seed a kilo of tomatoes,” and think, “Isn’t there more to life than this?”
I say, don’t bother. (Forget the guest with tomato-phobia in a previous column.) When a recipe tells you to throw out some of the most nutritional part of the vegetable, beware!
Most simple and good recipes don’t demand long lists of ingredients (many urging you to “finely” chop; nothing is “finely” chopped, unless the cook is a whiz with a knife; it is “minced,” “chopped fine,” or “chopped coarse” — and sure, language grows and changes but not well-edited cookbooks.)
For example, recipes for polenta that insist it must be stirred by each dinner guest for 20 minutes need a red pencil. Sure it’s congenial to let guests help out, but any polenta worth its corn needs only a 10-minute simmer. This goes for all polenta, fine, coarse (and minced).
Words like “bain marie” or phrases such as “carefully fold in the egg whites” or “push through a fine sieve” are deterrents from even trying, while recipes beginning with “pull the heart, gizzard, and liver from a fresh-killed duck, saving the blood” or even “separate 15 eggs” can actually cause cooks to go catatonic (I still despair at all the little shards of eggshell that sneak into the separation process).
But simple short cuts can bypass the tedium of such recipes. Cooking over a pan of hot water ensures you don’t burn the bottom of a delicate ingredient, like chocolate or an egg and butter sauce. I often put the saucepan requiring a “hot bath” on a very low fire protected by a round of heavy metal insulation found in cooking stores.
Then I stir like crazy and nothing curdles, burns or boils over.
Every butcher and fishmonger I know personally does all dirty work necessary to prep meat, fish or fowl. One of the lovely luxuries of Italy’s open markets is that there is always someone shelling beans, paring vegetables, or putting puntarelle (chicory) through their paces.
All you have to do is steam, dress (we’re not talking clothes here), and eat. Sure, it may cost you a euro or two more, but for a special meal for multitudes, it’s worth it.
New recipe readers should know they can vary. For example, a stew that called for beef chunks is equally good with pork, rabbit, lamb or chicken. Forget fish recipes with more than three or four ingredients — a fresh fish needs only a little olive oil, salt and pepper, and a squeeze of lemon to fulfill its destiny.
I’ll go along with a little onion and tomato or, for Asian dishes, some ginger, green onion and a dash of sesame oil, but I stop there.
Oh, and before you read the instructions on quenelles de brochet be sure you have a good handle on plain and simple. And don’t expect the fishmonger to clean your latterini.