28 July 2011

AUNTIE PASTA: False Friends

SARONNO, Italy - A few years ago there was a quiet food revolution in the U.S.A. Dishes once only seen on menus in Italy, starting popping up on menus, and along with them a newly expanded food vocabulary. With a huge Italian population, Italian food has always been popular, but  the new wave of Italian food went far beyond spaghetti and veal parmigano. Dishes like carpaccio and vitello tonnato  started showing up on restaurant menus and TV chefs did their best to out Italian each other. All of a sudden everybody was an expert.  
Good Eating in Savona, Italy
As more and more Italian dishes enter the American food vocabulary, it’s easy to think those same words will work when you visit Italy. After all, spaghetti is always spaghetti and lasagna is always lasagna, no? For those two words, it’s true, but unfortunately with others, you might be in for a surprise.  

My own experience with this phenomena happened one afternoon in Saratoga, New York, when I was shopping at a very large bookstore near by cousin's house. After the tiny bookstores we have in Italy, it was an overwhelming experience and when I saw they had a coffee shop, I headed straight for it. 
Mystery Mix
 After looking at the menu I had no idea what they were talking about. A Coconut Cream Frappucino? A Pepermint Mocha? My head was spinning. I ordered a cup of regular coffee. The young girl behind the counter asked, “a latte?” “No”, I said,  coffee”. “A latte,” she reaffirmed. “No,” I said again, “I want a cup of coffee.” 

You can laugh, I can even laugh now, but at the time I was totally disoriented. Was I not saying what I thought I was saying – i.e. coffee? Why did she keep asking me if I wanted ‘latte’? What I didn’t know was that in the U.S.A. , the word ‘latte’ had taken on a whole other meaning.  
The Real Deal - Cappucino
Here in Italy, coffee is still coffee and latte is milk. If you want coffee with milk you can order a cafĂ©’ latte and get coffee with a lot of milk in it, a cappuccino, which is espresso coffee with steamed milk, or a marochino, espresso coffee with just a little milk. But if you order a latte what you are going to get is a big, tall glass of warm milk. 

And it’s not just Starbucks. The other day I was watching an old episode of Top Chef Masters, and the elimination challenge was to create two dishes, one using a sea food, the other with meat. The fish selections included sea cucumber, geoduck, fish liver and giant squid.

The turf section included kangaroo, goat’s leg, black chicken and some others I can’t remember right now. However, the challenge was for each chef, all renowned in their field,  to choose one surf, and one turf. When Jonathan Waxman’s turn came up, his surf choice was the giant squid. He said he was going to make fritto misto. 

Fish Fry Italian Style
The only problem is that to make fritto misto you need a misto, or a mix of things to fritto a.k.a. fry. 

Now I see that Chef Waxman, who is good at cooking American food, has written an Italian cookbook. He says, "The first thing I wanted to do is to demystify a lot of the terminologies. The second is to keep it so realistic in terms of items in each dish that people didn't go crazy, and the third thing is talk about technique in a way that is really straight-forward. I think a lot of people have gotten goofy in how to make gnocchis, how to make pizzas, how to make Bolognese sauce. I hope I give them a good road map on how to do them."
He’s right about the ‘getting goofy’ part, but he kind of missed the boat on the straight forward part. I took it to mean he was going to present authentic Italian recipes. But, if his recipes are all like the one I saw for Salsa Verde (Green Sauce), I am wrong. Chef Waxman's recipe for Salsa Verde and the Salsa Verde of Piedmont, where the recipe is said to have originated, are as different as apples and oranges. 

His recipe calls for cilantro (which is almost impossible to find in Italy), tarragon (a French herb only found here in its dried form) and arugula and basil. I won’t even go into the part about picking the bones out of the anchovies with a pair of tweezers. That just isn’t going to happen.   

The green in the Piedmontese Salsa Verde recipe is parsley. Just parsley.  It is true that each region of Italy has its own unique variation of Salsa Verde, but I've never seen one that calls for anything other than parsley. Any other green alters the taste and the balance between the green part and the other ingredients. What I think is that Waxman got a little goofy on this one. 

 Minestrone Soup
Another misunderstanding, this time on Top Chef, was made by guest judge Eric Ripart. This famous French chef chastised a contestant, who happened to be of Italian decent, for not making a proper minestrone because she left out the macaroni. She defended herself saying she had put beans in the soup. Actually she is right and Ripart is wrong. Italian minestrone calls for beans, not pasta. You can put pasta in it if you want, you can also put rice, you can put in whatever you want as long as it isn’t meat. There is never meat in minestrone, minestrone is a vegetable only soup.

With all due respect to Chef Waxman and Chef Ripart, here’s the authentic Piedmontese recipe for Salsa Verde. I’ll save the minestrone recipe for next week. 

Piedmontese Salsa Verde
 Piedmontese Salsa Verde

4  slices stale, white sandwich bread, crusts removed
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
4 cups (packed) fresh Italian parsley leaves (stems removed) (about 2 large bunches)
1 1/2 cups extra-virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, chopped
5 anchovy fillets (in oil)
1 hard-boiled egg yolk
Fine sea salt

Place bread slices in medium bowl. Pour vinegar over them and let stand until bread softens, about 15 minutes. Squeeze dry.
Transfer bread mixture to a food processor (or you can use a mortar and pestle and do it by hand); add the next 5 ingredients and process until almost smooth. Transfer salsa to medium bowl. Season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Best if you let it sit for at least one hour before serving.  Can be made 1 day ahead, covered and refrigerated. Let stand at room temperature 1 hour before serving; re-whisk before using.
Optional: You can add 1 teaspoon of chopped capers, or chopped cornichons.  

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