10 June 2010

AUNTIE PASTA: Back of the Box

SARONNO, Italy - Even before the idea for this blog was fully developed, I knew I wanted the Auntie Pasta page to be about food, but not about recipes. But since then I have included some recipes on this blog, and in going through my collection of recipes the day, I found there were others that I would like to share with you as well.

What got me thinking about recipes was the review of the new summer cookbooks in the Sunday New York Times last week, including one that claims to teach you what your grandmother never taught you. Grandmothers seem to play an important part in the cooking lives of a lot of people, me for one.

My Grandmother was a very good cook but I never saw her open a cookbook, in fact I don’t think there were any cookbooks in her house. She just seemed to know what to do. She, like most women of her generation, had learned to cook by watching and doing what she was told when she was a kid growing up in Italy.

Preparing food was serious business in Italy at the turn of the 20th century, there wasn’t a lot of it and there was no messing around in the kitchen. She carried that philosophy with her to the New World, and when she told me to watch the pot of boiling snails on the stove and make sure none of them escaped, you’d better believe my five year old eyes were glued to that pot lid.

By the time I was given that responsibility I had eaten, and helped prepare all types of greens, tripe and snails, rabbit and venison, rolled meatballs, cut fresh pasta into strips of fettucine, chopped parsley and knew the difference between regular mint and the mintuccia that Aunt Mary sent from Italy. I was a cook in training and didn't know it.

Sometimes it was difficult not to start playing with the gooey mess that water and flour make before it becomes pasta dough, or pressing ground meat around my ten little fingers and playing an imaginary hamburger piano. It wouldn’t take much to keep me in line though; a look would usually do the trick. That was the culinary discipline part of my training.

As a young bride I would often call my mother and ask her for recipes. She was not a patient person and her instructions were short and to the point. Sometimes I would get recipes from my aunts, scribbled on scraps of paper with vague proportions and approximate instructions. They were my mentors, and even though I was young and had a lot to learn, they treated me as an equal, cooks talking to another cook.

In those days before Gourmet (unfortunately now defunct) and Food and Wine, before Julia Child made culinary history with her French Chef television series, and long, long before the advent of celebrity chefs, that is how we all learned to cook. A certain amount of knowledge was always assumed and the key points of a dish were often all you needed, i.e. clean and boil artichokes before you season them and put them in the oven to bake - a small, but crucial detail that results in being able to eat them rather than throw them away, as I did on my first solo flight into the wonderful world of artichokes.

I use quite a few recipes I find on the back of boxes of pasta and packages of things here in Italy but I’ve hesitated to include them in this blog because the instructions are often vague and the measurements approximate. But I’m wrong. You are cooks and if we speak cook to cook, I think it will work out. With that in mind, here is a Sicilian fish recipe that uses frozen codfish, but you can use any firm, white fish, fresh or frozen.

Fiori di Merluzzo di Capperi (Filets of Cod with Capers)

Defrost the fish. Chop a bunch of parsley and two garlic cloves. In a frying pan heat 3-4 tablespoons of olive oil and when it is barely hot, add half of the chopped parsley, garlic and the fish. Season with salt and pepper. When the fish filets have cooked on one side, turn them over. Add ½ glass of dry white wine and when it has evaporated add a can of chopped tomatoes. Let the fish and tomatoes cook for about 15 minutes and then add the remaining parsley and garlic, a pinch of dried oregano and two teaspoons of capers. Cook for an additional 5 minutes. The recipe suggests serving the fish with mashed or boiled potatoes but I prefer serving it over white rice.

Two suggestions: One, use capers that have been preserved in brine, not in salt; and I found that if you fry a sliced onion in the olive oil before you add the parsley, garlic and fish, it gives the dish another layer of flavor.

If you try this recipe I would appreciate knowing how it worked and what problems you had, if any. You can write to me at thisitalianlife@yahoo.com. Buon Appetito.

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