Archive for the ‘Pastas’ Category

Antipasti of Winter ’09 – ’10

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

         HERE’S A meal for you!  I like Christopher Isherwood’s description of Ingrid Bergman — she was, he says, not beautiful like Garbo but radiantly appetizing, “her presence was like breakfast on a sunny morning: a clean tablecloth, freshly made coffee, rich cream, deliciously crisp toast.” Sounding on a different string, Isherwood that deadpan comedian-documentarian writes of “sandy yellow railway cake,” “roast beef and stewed plums and pink soap-cheese” (this in an English pub c. 1939), and a picnic lunch in Hamburg in the 30s included sausages “of the indecently pink kind, the kind full of lumps and gristle, the kind that looks in cross-section like a very old stained glass window.” No, I don’t think Christopher could have landed a job with the Michelin guides.

        Meanwhile, in another book I’ve been reading, Lord Peter Wimsey the Piccadilly sleuth is dining with a friend at a London club. Time for soup. “Clear?” asks the waiter, standing stiff in his braid, “or thick?” Can you imagine walking into San Francisco’s Delfina and asking for a bowl of thick?

        YOUR CORRESPONDENT has fallen in love with the pumpkin ravioli one can buy in boxes of 54 at the Lucca delicatessen out at 22nd and Valencia, this in San Francisco of course. Pricing and welcome at this deli are, by the way, the best I’ve found among the dwindling fraternity of sausage-pasta-olive oil emporiums in the City. But how to sauce them, pray tell. Especially with 324 sitting just offstage in one’s freezer! Well, I googled the question and found quite a discussion proceeding on the web. Most of us seemed to agree: a simple brown butter and sage sauce is the most appropriate for these rich and scrumptious objets d’art gastronomiques.

        There is a viable alternative, however, an innocent little orange sauce I invented. It’s mostly orange juice, a tumbler-full say, with a half jigger of Marsala for bite, a little butter for body, and nutmeg and rosemary if you have it for punctuation. And golden raisins — these top things off very nicely. Recipe for 2: just boil the lot lightly and pour over 36 ravioli. Bonus: this sauce is marvelous, I think, on salmon steaks done briskly in the pan.

        And the sauce for spinach ravioli? I found it inadvertently by feeding myself a dozen of said ravioli with brown butter and sage and accompanying this lovely minestran mess with a chicken leg I’d baked for 40 minutes in olive oil and a LOT of lemon juice. Result: the tingly drippings from the chicken when poured over fowl and the already lightly sauced pasta created a new and greater SAUCE of wonderful rich flavor.

         BULLETIN!  Like a hot rod with special fenders and ultra-chrome hubcaps, our recipe for Grillade des Mariniers du Rhone (see chapter 9) has been tarted up to advantage. Our new suggestion is you add some sliced potatoes and a bit of bacon to the round steak or ribs-over-onions, then bake the full complement to kingdom come and serve with large cannellini beans warmed in a little olive oil and sage and have some mint jelly at the ready.

         IT’S SCARCELY news to speak of the wonders of the internet in planning a journey when the screen is full of websites devoted to this-that-and-the-other country inn in France, Italy, wherever. Room after room parades before you, 360 degrees of ’em — should I reserve the one with the four poster, the one with the view, the one with the cute eiderdown? And the menus — what shall I order when I visit the Auberge de Watcha-ma-callit six months hence? Surely that Confit Surprise will still be on the bill of fare.

         And this isn’t all when it comes to getting-the-picture of exactly what your trip will be like, presuming of course that defective mattresses or obsessive creakings of the plumbing worthy of a haunted house won’t be part of the deal. For instance you can go to You Tube and for eight minutes or so watch, yes watch, in real time, the Clermont Ferrand-Marseille express tooling down the Allier River gorge, diesel engine put-putting across your computer screen. Or see a picture, from maybe May 26, 2007, of the station master giving the silvery five-car Le Cevenol the high sign to ease out of Villefort station.

         The thought struck me: why, I could save big bucks by staying home and just watching Languedoc roll by on my office screen. But I guess I’d have a little less to tell you afterward. No train strike, no missed connection, no distressed mattress, no Garbo in the corridor. And just how did that confit taste?

         SPEAKING OF travel, I see that I neglected in my account of the years 2002-07 to mention that I traveled by train, three trains actually, from eastern Holland to London in ’07 — anything to avoid Heathrow! It was a mission of some delicacy; I was consoling a dear friend who’d had the misfortune to develop a crush on an ambivalent woman, even following this intermittent fondler via The Flying Scotsman to Edinburgh, where a beastly but perhaps just conclusion to l’affaire platonique on a dreary streetcorner forced him to crash land out of his preoccupation, in a handy Chinese restaurant yet — it wasn’t far from the Robert Louis Stevenson house — a process that took several hours but was apparently totally successful. When I met him at Kings Cross he looked mightily relieved.

         A bonus of this novelistic paragraph in the life of a gastronomical tourist is that I chanced to stay in London at Durrants (accent on the first syllable), that low-ceilinged, much-mirrored hotel of unimpeachable eighteenth century provenance just behind the Wallace Collection. A bit pricey, and more bowing-and-scrapin’ than I require, but good old St. Margaret’s, my Bloomsbury stand, had just closed down — no more “duay boiled eggy” as the Italian waiter would shout, kicking his way through the kitchen door at breakfast — and Durrants proved an enchanting nest.

         The lunch in its restaurant was excellent, even if the only sound one could hear was the click-clack-clink of cutlery politely maneuvered by the three or four other people dining in this elegant tomb, a pinstriped gent over there and in the corner wasn’t that the Duchess of Denver and some satellite spinster chattering with her sotto voce. But best of all were the afternoon scones served in one or another of the many little panelled sitting rooms lined up like enlarged train compartments down the hall from the reception desk where the bowers-and-scrapers hang out. Such scones! Buttery good and just moist enough not to lose their patrician culinary manners, and with nothing more than currants inside. Yes, these weren’t those Gibraltarian rock cakes masquerading as scones in American chain coffee houses.

Postscript Hollandaise:

Monday, September 3rd, 2007

        I cannot abandon matters minestran without reporting that one of the best pasta dishes I’ve had on-the-road was a tagliatelle with whitefish and a Champagne dill sauce at the Pays Bas Hotel in Utrecht.  And Utrecht, birthplace of that wild and wonderful conductor Willem Mengelberg, is a lovely little city, full of amusing canals and streets going all higgledypiggledy. Note echoes of London and Baltimore in the row houses agile Dutchmen reach by steps worthy of stepladders.

        We traveled to leafy Utrecht one rainy afternoon for a concert of university students conducted by a budding maestro who happens to be my fourth cousin, one generation removed. Otto (not the nuclear fissionist, that’s his first cousin twice removed) conducted beautifully, but my epiphany in a crowded room of apple-cheeked young Holllanders came following the program when members of the orchestra rose in turn to sing their university songs.  This was not quite Berkeley or Cambridge, Mass. When Gaudeamus Igitur rose lustily through the quasi-beer hall in which we were gathered I had the feeling I was caught delightfully in the bloodstream of Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture. And that Champagne dill sauce had, I’m afraid, been upstaged.

        But the bec fin in me had a field day next year in Holland when my Berliner cousins introduced us to poffertjes, those bulbous, fluffy pancakes constructed in large measure out of baking powder. One consumes platter upon platter of these addictive domettes at Wassenaar beach, a much-umbrella’d venue that sets you down in the middle of an Impressionist painting peopled by careening kiddies and reclining parents.  Our poffertjesian orgy followed as it happened attendance at a concert of the Residentie Orchestra in The Hague. A hirsutely advantaged maestro named Pehlavanian made much of Beethoven’s Eroica, and as we negotiated our way past the skate-boarders outside the concert hall I felt fulfilled.

        But that was before the poffertjes . . .


Monday, September 3rd, 2007

        And this is a slightly modified version of a “nouvelle” pasta served us at Le Nord in Lyon, 1984. It originally included string beans which I’ve decided are a “non contributing” element here, to borrow a term from my wife’s architectural history reports. Frankly, this ragoût with its pretty pool of orange, green and white seems more Berkeleyesque than Lyonnais.


        Of course when we’re in Lyon, a city I’m much fonder of than many Americans, we always take a crash course in the “real local thing” as old Henry James might have put it: tripe one way or another, herring salads, sausages galore. Lyon specialties are muscular stuff, stevedores of the menu. Patti Unterman, astute doyenne of American dining critics, says eating in Lyon reminds her of digging into the hearty fare of Chicago — the details of the menu may be different (I don’t think tripe is in yet on North Dearborn), but both cities are trenchermen’s territory for sure.

        But Chicago doesn’t have the Three Rivers. I heard that old line my first dinner in Lyon, forty-five years ago, a snowy January when Place Bellecoeur looked like an abandoned stage set: the waiter in the empty dining room of the Royal Hotel couldn’t have been jollier as he intoned, bottle in hand, “You know, there are three rivers here, the Rhône, the Saône — and (pouring now from the bottle of Guess What) Beaujolais!”

        It was next to the second of these attractions, along the world’s greatest farmers’ market, the one on the Quai St-Antoine, that I had my chance to play Cartier-Bresson. Camera in hand, walking with teenage tower-climbing son, I spied, just ahead, a neatly mustachioed octogenarian gentleman, top-coated and mufflered, a retired accountant perhaps, newspaper in arm, beret almost halo-like on his quintessentially Gallic head, looking intently on many baskets of flowers lined up for his inspection.

        Widower, or wife at home? Happy, or sad? Well, he was a sort of Everyman, but a very, very French-looking one. And the republics and non-republic he’d lived through . . . I snapped quickly, and now Monsieur St-Antoine has a second home next to our front door in a San Francisco Victorian.

         Read, if you get the chance, the vintage Francophile Richard Cobb on hilly Lyon. He writes about enchantments like the “multitude of tiny squares perched perilously on some diminutive pocket handkerchief of level ground.”


Cut a peeled carrot into thin slices and steam them; cut several slices of coppa into thin strips; then warm the coppa with the carrot slices in a rather generous amount of butter with dill weed.

Meanwhile boil a little less than 1/2 a pound of pasta shells and drain them in a colander; also, heat gently 2 cups of chicken broth combined with a 1/2 cup of cream (or crème fraîche) and topped with some chopped fresh basil.

Toss the warmed veg/coppa rounds-and-juliennes with the pasta and some grated dry jack or parmesan cheese, then fill soup bowls about halfway with the broth/cream and ease in the pasta/veg/coppa. Give each ragoût-eater a fork and spoon to fish the goodies from their minestran lily pond.