Food Alone: Alice Waters’ Long-Cooked Broccoli

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from The Art of Simple Food, p. 204.

I have a theory about Alice Water’s dominion of food. The restaurant-patrons of this country owe Alice more than we are conscious of. The standard she set at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California has become so assilimiated into our expectations of restaurant food that a visit to her restaurant — the upstairs café, at any rate — may produce a reaction merely on the level of “it was a very good meal.” I have eaten three times in the café, never in the restaurant downstairs that is open only at night. Each time I have been impressed by the quality of the ingredients and its preparation. But the food never sang to me. Friends whose discernment I trust have eaten in the restaurant and praised it highly and higher than the café. The daughter of a friend of mine worked there for a few months and loved the experience. The establishment treats its employees well. Still, Chez Panisse has evolved into one among many good expensive restaurants. People now are aware of Alice for her admirable advocacy of public health and improving the food we eat, but it’s easy to forget that, more than any other chef in the country, including Thomas Keller, she made excellent restaurant food attainable for anyone with a bit of disposable income. I expressed elsewhere in this blog my political reservations about the Slow Food Movement, which she promotes, but I respect her efforts, even if she is quintessentially a product of the People’s Republic of Berkeley.

Her cookbooks, on the other hand, have always let me down. There is not one any longer on my shelves. I’ve long been convinced that she farms them out or does not devote to them the attention to detail she ought to. But now The Art of Simple Food is beginning to change my mind. My friend Sherry has made several recipes that I’ve tasted and greatly enjoyed. This simple dish is the first from the book that I’ve tried. I like it, although it required tweaking — of course. Which cookbook recipe doesn’t?

Here is her recipe with my emendations interspersed in italics:

Makes 2 1/2 cups

Cut the stems from the florets of:

  • 1 1/2 pounds broccoli

Shadowcook: Halve the amount of broccoli

Trim off and discard the dry ends of the stems, and peel the rest and slice thin. Divide or chop the florets into small pieces.

Shadowcook: The point is to reduce the broccoli into as small pieces as possible.

Warm in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat:

  • 6 tablespoon olive oil

Add the broccoli with:

  • 6 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
  • a pinch of dried chile flakes (optional)
  • Salt

Cook for a few minutes, stirring occasionally. Add:

  • 1 cup water

and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to a bare simmer, cover the pot tightly, and cook until very tender, about 1 hour. Stir occasionally and add water if the broccoli starts to dry and stick. When the broccoli is completely tender, stir briskly (the broccoli will be falling apart) and season with:

  • Juice of 1 lemon

Taste for seasoning and add salt, lemon juice, or oil as needed.

Shadowcook: Follow these instructions, but bear in mind that there’s likely to be more liquid at the end than she leads you to believe. So, whip the top off, turn up the heat, and reduce the liquid. I did that while water for 3 oz of twisty-type pasta came to a boil. The lemon is a nice touch. I grated parmiggiano reggiano over it. I think it helped it.

Next time:

You’ll be surprised at how heavy this dish can be, if you’re not careful.

I experimented by reserving a small amount of pasta, adding a big spoonful of broccoli to it, and then stirring in little bits of soft gorgonzola to melt. It was good — and certainly did not need any salt — but I preferred the purist version. I liked this recipe quite a bit.

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Marcella Adapted: Sauteed Egpplant and Tomato Sauce with Butter and Onion over Orrecchiete

from The Essentials of Italian Cooking, p. 152.

Five years ago or so, I spent a few days in Palermo, Sicily. It wasn’t at all hard to find good places to eat. On aside street near the state archives where I was working, I found a small family-operated trattoria that provided me two good lunches two days in a row. On the first afternoon, I ordered pasta with eggplant in a tomato sauce. The server — a shy, young woman who was the daughter of the cook — brought me a plate of penne covered with a thick sauce. When the taste of mint unexpectedly exploded on my taste buds, I must have looked surprise. My server, who was waiting to see how I liked my food, said, “Do you like it? We add mint to our sauces.” Her attentiveness to my reaction made me wonder if the addition of mint represented a radical experiment on the cook’s part. Or was it typically Sicilian? She really couldn’t say. But she gave me the impression that the cook like to experiment with flavors that were common in Sicilian cooking.

Since then, I’ve tried to incorporated mint into tomato sauces with eggplant and had mixed results. This time, I think I nearly succeeded. The only drawback of the plate of pasta I concocted last night was the quality of the mint I culled from my garden. Because the mint plants are rather stiff and past their prime, I cut back on the amount, which had a beneficial effect on the result.

As for the sauce, this time, I decided to adapt one of Marcella’s other basic tomato sauce. It could easily become my favorite.

First, Marcella’s recipe:

2 lbs fresh, ripe tomatoes, [blanched and skinned], or 2 cups canned imported Italian plum tomatoes, cut up, with their juice

5 T butter

1 medium onion, peeled and cut in half

Salt

1 to 1 1/2 lbs pasta

Freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese for table

Put either the prepared fresh tomatoes or the canned in a saucepan, add the butter, onion, and salt, and cook uncovered at a very slow, but steady simmer for 45 minutes, or until the fat floats free from the tomato. Stir from time to time, mashing any large piece of tomato in the pan with the back of a wooden spoon. Taste and correct for salt. Discard the onion before tossing the sauce with pasta.

My very free version:

Beginning with 6 pounds of tomatoes, I blanched them for 45 seconds and then peeled them when they were cool enough to handle. I chopped them up coarsely. Having only one big sweet white onion, I chopped it coarsely and added it to the tomatoes. Then, I cut up 10 tablespoons of unsalted butter, which I added to the tomatoes.

Instead of simmering the sauce for only 45 minutes, I turned the flame as low as it would go and simmered the sauce for nearly two hours. The liquid reduced by half, which still left me a lot of sauce.

After I removed the sauce from the heat and let it cool a bit, I put two and a half ladlefuls at a time into a food processor and pulsed it. Once I had processed all of the sauce, I froze most of it, but kept aside about a cup and a half.

Now comes the eggplant part:

I cubed about a pound of Japanese eggplant. Pour very generous slugs of olive oil into a skillet. It will disappear in no time once I add the eggplant cubes. Eggplant always takes a good 15 to 20 mins on a medium-low flame to sauté to the point where the meat of the eggplant is caramelized sufficiently and the edges of the cubes are browned. For this reason, I don’t start the pasta water until the eggplant is nearly done but I start heating the water before I add the tomato sauce.

When the eggplant is soft enough, I add the tomato sauce I’ve reserved from the batch I’ve made and then turned down the heat.

I chopped a handful of mint, but only add half of it to the eggplant and sauce. While the pasta water came to a boil, I simmered the eggplant in the sauce, letting the sauce reduce and the fats to separate from the tomato sauce. Season with salt (I used my new favorite, Maldon sea salt, and it brighten the sauce right up).

Into the water went the orrecchiete. When it was done, I drained it quickly but did not shake off much of the water. Right into the pan with the eggplant sauce and I stirred to coat. The pasta should not be smothered in sauce. As a final touch, I sprinkled the other half of the chopped mint. A bit of parmigiano binds the flavors, but don’t drizzle olive oil. You want the silky flavor of the butter to emerge.

Last Thoughts:

I’d love it if someone gave me a reason to follow Marcella’s direction to simmer the sauce only 45 minutes. I fear that the tomatoes would be insufficiently cooked. However you adapt this combination of flavors — butter, tomato, eggplant, and mint — I think its success depends on the butteriness playing the bass line along with melody of the other flavors.

Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers’ Prosciutto and radicchio

from Italian Easy: Recipes from the London River Cafe, p. 96.

Last night I passed such an enjoyable evening that the experience has become a new standard of what makes for me a very good dinner party: two gracious, lively, and experienced hosts; great food served without fuss; lots of good wine; four friends who listen as easily as they talk; and lots of laughter punctuating interesting tabletalk. After we’d been at table a while and finished our dessert, my dinner companion to the right of me gasped when he looked at his watch. 11:30! How did it get that late? I, for one, am never up that late, so I really must have been enjoying myself.

So, tonight I decided to cook something quick and light. I managed the quick. And this dish is certainly light, but not in the way I meant — light on calories. Oh, but it’s good. And hard to improve on. Still, I’ll tweak it to accommodate a serving for one.

Gray and Rogers serve it forth like this:

16 oz Egg tagliatelle

6 Prosciutto slices

1 Radicchio head

1 garlic clove

2 T rosemary leaves

2 oz parmesan

1 stick unsalted butter

Cut the prosciutto and radicchio into ribbons the same width as the tagliatelle. Peel and finely chop the garlic. Chop the rosemary. (But not too far inadvance of cooking it, they say in a note.) Grate the Parmesan

Melt half the butter in a thick-bottomed pan. Add the garlic and rosemary and cook for a minute. Add half the radicchio and prosciutto. Cook just to wilt. Remove from the heat.

Cook the tagliatelle in boiling salted water until al dente, then drain. Add the rest of the butter and half the Parmesan. Put into the cooked radicchio, then stir in the remaining radicchio and prosciutto. Toss thoroughly and serve with Parmesan.

My version:

Am I such a literal person that I think this recipe is not written as well as it might have been? I think for inexperienced cooks a few more direct objects in the last paragraph might have been more helpful. The timing of the pasta water needs adjustment as well.

Before you do anything else, preheat your oven to 200 and put the plate you will eat the pasta out of in the oven to warm. I’ve decided this makes a big difference to any dish, but this one especially so.

I followed the instructions — except that I started a pot of water, salted as usual with kosher salt, on the stovetop. It’s easier to keep water at a simmer than it is to keep food warm and in the perfect cooked state.

Then I chopped up everything before hand. Be careful of the rosemary. Trust Gray and Rogers and tolerate a stronger taste of rosemary in the cooking stage than you might otherwise prefer. If you follow their proportions (in other words, halve the amount for this version), the pasta mixed with the vegetables will tame the strong flavor of the herb.

Their instructions to cut the prosciutto and radicchio into ribbons the width of the noodles matters. I don’t know why, but now that I’ve done this recipe a few times I believe that it really makes a difference. With regard to texture and visual impact, It contributes to the balance of the dish overall, I suppose.

I find it hard to say how much butter I used. Try to judge how much to use in this way. Eyeball the radicchio and prosciutto. If you cut the proportions in half, I think the amount of butter will still be unnecessarily generous. So, I would start with a quarter of a stick. When you add the radicchio and prosciutto, judge for yourself if there is enough fat to sauté adequately what you’ve put in the pan. My rule of thumb is to halve the amount of butter a recipe like this calls for and then throw in a touch more to be decadent and to err on the right side of flavor.

Gray and Rogers instruct you to put only half of the radicchio (but all of the prosciutto). I put in more than half. I anticipated not wanting quite so much crunch in my vegetables as they seemed to think advisable. I sautéed it all much past the point of wilted.

Notice that they do not call for salt and pepper. If your prosciutto is good, meaning not particularly salty, you’ll need a pinch of kosher salt at the end and god knows how much more at table.

Do not remove the sautéed vegetables and prosciutto from the heat. Turn the heat to its minimum instead. If the pasta will be done soon, toss in the rest of the radicchio at this point. There’s no point in its being completely raw when added to the pasta. I don’t believe hot pasta will render softer, so add it now and let it sit until you’ve drain the pasta.

By this time, you should have put in your tagliatelle. Normally, I confine myself to 4 ounces of dried pasta. 3 ounces will do fine here for one person. There’s a lot of substance to this dish. Cook the pasta according to instructions. If I had felt more energetic, I would have rolled out a batch of my own dought, but Di Cecco egg tagliatelle worked very well.

Scoop out some pasta water before you drain the noodles. It will help in moistening the dish. Drain the pasta, add more butter and the remaining grated Parmesan to the hot noodles still slightly dripping wet. (I’ve just supplied the direct objects that I felt were missing in the instructions.) Combine. Now add all the radicchio and prosciutto on top and toss well with more Parmesan. If it looks too dry, try adding a bit of the pasta water you set aside. But only a little. This shouldn’t be a saucy dish. Salt and pepper. Serve right away.

Last Thoughts:

Looking back, I see that my comments on this recipe are more than half again as long as the original recipe. Hmm. Is that me or is that the recipe? In any case, depending on the prosciutto you buy (prosciutto di Parma is best), this recipe is underseasoned. But really good. Don’t be stingy on the butter. The depth of flavor comes from that fat. And 3 ounces of pasta is really all one person needs in this case. I have fully embraced the strategy of overwhelming pasta with vegetable-based sauces — not meat sauces like Bolognese. Any pasta that is served with fresh seasoned vegetables can stand being submerged under those flavors.