“The natural progression from boiling water to boiling water with something in it can hardly be avoided, and in most cases is heartily to be wished for.” – M.F.K. Fisher
The Ligurians invented ravioli, kinda. They claim cooks on ships out of Genoa collected leftovers to pack in little pasta pouches for the next day’s meals. The culinary world seems content to go along with the Genoese and pretend that their 14th century concoction is somehow different from the stuffed pasta envelopes mentioned in a French document dated 1228 or the raviolis mentioned in Venice and England around the same time as the Ligurians were supposedly revolutionizing the putting stuff inside of other stuff industry. Malta’s had a version going back farther still, but the Maltese don’t get conquered as much when people forget their island exists so they won’t be voicing any challenges.
The truth is that we let Ligurians get away with big talk about “their” pasta because we feel sorry for them and nobody really cares anyway. The Basque fishermen kept their favored sites off the coast of ur-Canada a secret and Leif Erickson had shitty PR so the Genoese defaulted their way into discovering America even though people named it after that buttinski Florentine. Eventually, though, it was decided that you can’t discover something that you didn’t know existed so newer text books took away their claim to fame. As a palliative, people figured “Sure. You can have ravioli.”
In 2005 I was working at a recently opened small fine dining restaurant just outside of Birmingham. At the time all the big restaurants, and in Birmingham at that time when you say all the big restaurants you meant Frank Stitt’s Highland’s Bar and Grill, eventual James Beard Most Outstanding Restaurant award winner in 2018, the newer places owned by former Highland’s employees clever enough to attract investors hoping to recreate chef Stitt’s success, and a handful of non-Stitt affiliated places venturous enough to open sans pedigree and good enough to make their own name, were located on the south side of the city, creatively known as Southside, with a few starting to bleed into downtown.
Most of the area’s money lived in the suburbs to the south; mainly in Mountain Brook and Vestavia but Greystone and other areas of Shelby County were pretty flush too. My employers’ plan was to get themselves a former Highlands sous chef and build a restaurant right in between all that suburban money and the great restaurants in Southside and save people some driving time while making a buck in the process. That’s just what they did.
We were open for lunch the first few months. Dinner was the primary focus but there were a few corporate headquarters located nearby so the thought was that clients would be entertained and working lunches would be hosted. What we got was cookie cutter perfect reproductions of a table of two elderly women sharing a single chicken salad sandwich and loitering until well into the time when dinner prep should have begun throughout. It was a good thought, but lunch didn’t work at that spot.
It wasn’t all in vain, though. We gleaned a little bit of wisdom re the habits of our clientele and, more importantly, I added a new pizza topping combination to my list of favorites.
I had a theory about Lenten fasting that was described by someone whose opinion I value as “the stupidest damn thing I’ve ever heard.” He added something along the lines of “Where do you get this nonsense?” but I thought there was something to it so I’m going to share with you here.
I saw a map of the olive oil-butter line; the dividing line between areas of Europe that primarily use olive oil and those that primarily use butter as cooking fat. Now the EU has super-fast trains and Ferraris to carry goods from one region to another, but that wasn’t always the case. Until recently, you shopped locally without needing to be told to do so by a t-shirt. If you lived below the line you cooked with olive oil. Above, with butter. I remember looking at that map years ago during Lent and realizing the countries to the north of the line were mostly protestant.
The Catholic Church used to have a much larger appetite for fasting. By some accounts nearly half the days of the year were designated as preparation for feast days or days of remembrance or were part of a holy season. All of those were subject to dietary restrictions. If you’re an Italian Catholic in 1516 enjoying a nice dish of turbot sauteed with zucchini in olive oil and one of your dining companions reminds you that the next day, as the first Wednesday after the Feast of Santa Lucia and thus an Ember Day, was a fasting day, you might check the stores to be sure you had more turbot, zucchini, and olive oil to cook them in for tomorrow because the rules likely made no difference to you. The Mediterranean diet was such that you had to be sure and only inject lamb, pork, or beef into your regimen three times a week, which is likely two or three times more often that you were used.
I went to elementary school in an old mansion on the North side of Red Mountain overlooking Birmingham. It was donated to the Dominicans and the nuns converted the first two floors into classrooms and such with the third a convent dormitory. A few times a year two or three grades at a time gathered in a largish reception area bounded by the chapel, the library, and a classroom that housed the second grade for a while before swapping to house the fourth. It only had one easily coverable window so it was an ideal makeshift movie theater. The nuns set up an old reel to reel projector in back and showed us ninety-fifth run movies on a tripod mounted roll-down screen. The best seats were on the stairs.
After the movie we ran around the playground whacking each other with sticks as sword stand ins after watching Ivanhoe, arguing about who hit or missed with imaginary arrows after The Adventures of Robin Hood, and really arguing about who got to be Steve McQueen’s Captain Hilts (the coolest Cooler King ever) after The Great Escape. The movies were so old James Garner may have been the only actor who was still alive when we saw him on that tiny screen, but we didn’t know that. We were not learning and that was what mattered.
I was torn between Marcella Hazan’s (her name be praised) bizarre because you can’t believe it will work and a basic pomodoro so I mashed the two together with some bucatini my wife picked up the other day. Bucatini has been a fixture in our house for years but lately she’s been coming back from Aldi with a selection of varied pastas. She’s sent me diving into my copy of the Geometry of Pasta and scanning suggested recipes from any of a dozen books and web sites.
It’s been fun. I’d never had casarecce, but thanks to her adventurous shopping I’ve learned that with arugula and cherry tomatoes it sings. Chittara needs bottarga and while I love rigatoni with pancetta, peas, and cream the best choice for that sauce is garganelli. But today is back to basics, or at least experimenting with basics.
I was working on a few technical issues on this site so I haven’t been posting lately. One of my favorite writing stops is over at rollbamaroll.com where they have indulged me for almost seven years now.
I write a food column, mostly before football games. A what to eat when you have a tailgate or game day party type of thing.
This year the basketball team is doing so well that I thought I’d throw one in for those guys. The post went up Sunday before the game. I would have linked it here, but technical blah blah blah.
We won, big. 96-77 over Maryland to land us in our first Sweet Sixteen since 2004.
As it happens the women’s team is playing tomorrow (3/24) at noon CT on ESPN2, also against Maryland and this is a Sweet Sixteen matchup. Please excuse the recycled link, but Roll Tide.
28 ounces canned plum tomatoes, with their juices and torn apart by hand
1 yellow onion, don’t worry about its size
5 T unsalted butter
Salt to taste
This is a recipe that the well versed tomato sauce maker will look at and scoff. I didn’t believe it but it came from a Marcella Hazan (her name be praised) cookbook so it was invested with hours upon years of good will, so I gave it a try. In one sense it’s amazing. In another it’s a disappointment.