Now We're Cooking!Jan 29, 2021 01:56PM ● By Mike Cutillo, Brendan O'Meara, Alison Fromme, Dave Milano, Cornelius O'Donnell, and Kathleen Thompson
A Little Gabagool’ll Do Ya
By Mike Cutillo
My dad was born in Italy, so I have lived my sixty years as a proud Italian-American, savoring many of the traditions that go along with that: Large—and loud!—family gatherings; an appreciation for Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, and Sinatra; wine; and one that is perhaps less well known, planning tomorrow’s dinner while eating today’s.
We were, if not prescient, at least fortunate to have sprung my eighty-nine-year-old dad from his senior living center and moved him into our home long before COVID began lurking, and so we lately have enjoyed intense doses of those traditions, especially during virus lockdown.
One night, we were finishing a dinner of homemade deep-dish pizza, the fresh dough courtesy of dad, when he said, in his thick Italian accent, “I think tomorrow we should try carbonara.”
I almost choked on my last bite of pie. It was like he had said, “Tomorrow, let’s cure cancer.”
Spaghetti carbonara, a historic Roman dish, is sublimely simple but notoriously tricky to pull off. Simple because it calls only for spaghetti, olive oil, black pepper, parmesan cheese, eggs, and lard. Tricky for two reasons: the eggs, which are added at the end and are cooked by the hot pasta with care taken so they don’t become scrambled eggs; and that lard, traditionally the tastiest fat—an oxymoron maybe to some but not to Italian cooks—on a pig, the jowls. In Italian, it’s guanciale (pronounced gwan-CHAH-lay).
Did I say this is not a vegetarian dish? And did I mention that guanciale is not easy to come by in normal times to say nothing about during the middle of a global pandemic?
I commented to dad that our pantry presently was lacking in cured pork jowl, and he said he’d been pondering that. Of course. I mean, what else is there to do during a lockdown but watch Italian soccer and think about dinner? His solution was to use the latest capocollo he had made instead.
“Capicola,” in dad’s dialect—sometimes called “gabagool” in Brooklyn-Italian—is cured pork shoulder or neck laced with fat, seasoned with wine and spices, stuffed into natural casing and hung to dry. Dad made it in his bedroom. No, seriously. He cured it by flipping one of our prized barstools upside down and hanging it on the wooden crossbar. Talk about repurposing.
The fat from dad’s barstool-cured gabagool rendered down perfectly and deliciously. I managed to not overcook the eggs, and our non-traditional, slightly jiggered version of carbonara, washed down with a glass of homemade wine, was incredibly tasty.
And dad said, as he took his final bite, “I think tomorrow we should try Italian pot roast.”
By Brendan O’Meara
Over the eons, ice has proven itself time and time again to be the great preserver. It suspends life, or what was once life. Things lie dormant in permafrost or locked away deep in the belly of a glacier.
An Incan child sacrifice was uncovered on the Llullaillaco volcano in Argentina, 22,000 feet up. She was likely heavily drugged with coca leaves and alcohol. She was well groomed and well cared for, and taken to the mountaintop where she likely died of hypothermia, a sacrifice to the gods.
A 1,000-year-old forest near Juneau, Alaska, is becoming de-blanketed by the receding Mendenhall Glacier. World War I soldiers in the mountains of northern Italy lay preserved (with love letters). Mammoth brains are found near the Laptev Sea coast. Archeologists discovered an Iron Age horse 6,500 feet high in the mountains of Norway. Thawing Siberian permafrost released anthrax into the air, an alarming discovery because what other dormant pathogens are buried? Spanish flu, smallpox, bubonic plague could all be released from the melting surface from shallow graves, creating—one shudders—another pandemic.
Closer to home, at home, in the freezer drawer, is a bowl, long chilled, belonging to our as-of-yet-unused ice cream maker, preserved, as it were, in ice.
Like an archeologist uncovering the bones, we discovered something wholly new that had been there for ages.
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” Such is the opening line to Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.
We didn’t foresee execution, but we did see ice cream.
As a point of pride, my wife and I don’t merely display our KitchenAid stand mixer as a token status symbol that belies its utility with a skin of dust, something put on the wedding registries for the sole purpose to say that “I, too, have this.”
We like to quote Cary Elwes from the movie Robin Hood: Men in Tights, “Unlike some other Robin Hoods, I can speak with an English accent.” It was a dig at Kevin Costner’s take in Prince of Thieves, and so it is our dig at those who own the mixer as an ornament instead of using it for its creative power. And so the ice cream bowl attached to the mixer and soon we churned: Half a cup of coconut milk, one cup oat milk, three-quarters cup sugar, six ounces of silken tofu, and one tablespoon of vanilla extract. (We’re vegan.) The motor whizzed and whirred. Around and around and around. We mixed in several Good Life mini chocolate chips and put the bowl back in the freezer to set.
And it was in this moment, this very moment, that I could solemnly say, “Many months later, when we still faced down the pandemic, we were to remember that distant day when a discovery took us to see ice cream.”
I don’t need to tell you, but I will: It was delicious.
Fungus Among Us
By Alison Fromme
Back in March 2020, my friend sent a message to the neighborhood listserv. “Have sourdough starter. Want some?” Sure, I thought. My new job at the local university had just gone remote. My two kids started “homeschooling.” Our family of four fought for bandwidth. I was volunteering as PTA president. Why not? In the midst of the pandemic, all the cool forty-somethings on social media were posting beautiful bread pics.
A jar appeared on my doorstep, and on doorsteps across the neighborhood. Inside was a gooey mass of flour, water, and actual, living yeast. You can use it instead of store-bought dry yeast to make dough rise—if you can keep it alive. What now? I texted friends. They sent complicated multistep instructions and recipes. Feed daily. Sterilize jars. And on and on. What did I get myself into?
I’ve never been able to follow recipes precisely, so the future looked bleak. I tried. I did. Every time you feed the starter but don’t bake, you have to discard the excess. I couldn’t bring myself to throw it out—the waste! So I started collecting it in jars in the fridge, throwing it in waffles, gifting some to friends. I baked bread, with inconsistent results. There was so much baking to do, so many jars to wash, so much daily effort to manage this thing. So many weekend mornings when I thought, is this really what I want to be doing? I’m mean, sure I’m saving the $7 cost of an artisan loaf, but... I threw the starter in the back of the fridge, where it sat, neglected. I felt guilty, but hey, this is my first pandemic, I’ll let it go.
But I couldn’t let it go. I persevered, continuing to bake a loaf now and then. And here’s why. The thing is alive and growing, and during a pandemic, any signs of life are welcome. Bread baking is this ancient thing—at least 10,000 years old! It has withstood wars, migrations, plagues, and all manner of human upheaval. It connects us as humans, across time, across the globe. It links us to nature, to the yeast fungus and lactobacillus bacteria that pump out bubbly carbon dioxide and tasty sour flavor. By putting your hands into soft dough made warm by the life in those microbes, and cradling your little dough baby, you can lose yourself in a luxurious, sensory experience. And the bread! Toasted with butter from a local dairy? Yum.
This is how to make Mommy Fromme’s Sourdough (This is not an actual recipe. Also, Fromme rhymes with mommy.):
Let’s be clear, perfection is not the goal. I’m no expert. Sometimes the bread I bake is too wet, or too flat, or has a vein of unmixed flour running through it. Whatever. The pleasure of putting flour, water, and salt together and then opening the oven to that fresh-baked smell can’t be beat. Let’s get started.
Find a starter. Ask a friend, make your own, or buy one on the internet. Keep the starter alive by following the instructions on the King Arthur Flour website: https://www.kingarthurbaking.com/learn/guides/sourdough. Name it, and pretend it’s a pet (or something, I don’t know, I don’t have pets). No need to sterilize jars or even use new ones. It may not be food safe, but it works for me. If you use a too-small jar, it’ll ooze out and make a mess. You can ignore the starter in the back of your fridge for weeks and, even when it looks gross and separated, you can still wake it up and bake three days later. If don’t want to throw out the excess, give it to friends or throw it in waffles—don’t fret about adjusting your favorite recipe, just reduce the amount of water and roll with it.
Ready to bake bread? When your starter is very bubbly, follow Mark Bittman’s recipe, with adjustments (https://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/11376-no-knead-bread). Double the recipe, using roughly 4 cups all-purpose flour, 1 cup rye, and 1 cup whole wheat. Try Farmer Ground Flour (http://www.farmergroundflour.com/). Replace the store-bought yeast with 1 cup or more of starter. Reduce the amount of water, to, I don’t know, 2 or 3 cups? Definitely don’t forget the salt.
Get geeky. Watch the “Air” episode of Cooked on Netflix (https://www.netflix.com/title/80022456) and check out actual science research at North Caroline State University (http://robdunnlab.com/projects/science-of-sourdough/).
Experiment. Mistakes are edible. You’ll figure it out.
Leftovers in Lockdown
By Dave Milano
Ours is a bulk-quantity, from-scratch kitchen. Been that way for years, since before the kids moved out, since the days when the house was a hubbub of family and friends, since the keeping of a family cow, a dozen chickens, and a significant garden struck us as reasonable enterprises (our accountant’s definition of “reasonable” notwithstanding). Back then the daily presence of gallons of fresh milk, outsized quantities of garden produce (fresh and preserved), and freezers full of beef, pork, and chicken (much of that provided by a hearty network of like-minded micro-farming friends) naturally elicited a pattern of old-fashioned, batch cooking in the kitchen. Several loaves of bread emerged from the oven at once, a four-pound chuck roast braised in the slow cooker, a simmering pot of blueberries readied itself for homemade vanilla ice cream. That was the mode du jour.
Adaptation followed. The kids left, the cows and chickens left, the buzzing household quieted like a passing locomotive. Mary and I did what we could to rewrite the kitchen program, diligently experimenting with pot and pan portion control. What we found was that old habits die hard. An easier solution was to cook big and invite folks over. This turned out to be a cracking good tactic, especially in autumn when garden production (still functioning in full force) was over the top. Lunch, dinner, and sometimes breakfast with friends. Good, good, good.
Then came the lockdowns.
Leaving aside the great, gaping loss of sharing for another (much longer) discussion, we found ourselves dealing with an immediate and very practical problem. With just two mouths to feed, a simple overgrown zucchini, a watermelon, a mere quart of black currants, suddenly caused minor alarm. Standing over the cutting board I would think, “Just how many leftover meals for two am I making here?” The thought of three straight days of spaghetti squash, however enticing on day one, was nothing less than the culinary version of hopes dashed.
So we re-adapted, this time learning how to make leftovers better. One key technique made the difference. Instead of creating an entire large meal from start to finish and re-serving it later, we divided just the oversized ingredients, refrigerated them for later, and with them made new, mostly different, meals. The following pattern for spaghetti squash will explain:
Bake a spaghetti squash until almost done. Scoop out the strands and divide into appropriate meal sizes, say, three. Refrigerate all but today’s meal. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Gently fry some Italian sausage, casings removed, in a heavy, oven-safe pan until done. Drain off most of the fat and add spaghetti squash to the pan. Toss together with one or two minced garlic cloves, adding some olive oil if the mix looks too dry. Season with salt, pepper, and a touch of oregano and ground fennel. Cover the pan and heat until warm but not browned, stirring occasionally. Sprinkle the mix generously with mozzarella cheese, sprinkle again with parmesan cheese. Place the pan in the hot oven until cheese melts. Serve from hot pan to plates. Garnish with basil leaves.
Day two: Serve the second portion of spaghetti squash with meatballs in a red sauce.
Day three: Make spaghetti squash fritters for breakfast. (Recipes abound—I simply mix spaghetti squash, flour, eggs, parmesan cheese, chopped onion and chopped cooked bacon, season with salt, pepper, and whatever else suits me, shape into patties, and fry in olive oil.)
Et voilà! Lockdown leftovers reanimated! (Still can’t wait to have folks over...)
A Packet of Goodies
By Cornelius O’Donnell
I had thought to use something like “Memories of Meals Past” as a headline for this essay, but that seemed too much of a downer. Let me explain:
I'd been taking cooking classes for several years. And I then I graduated to teaching what I learned, happy to be passing along ideas and recipes. Working for a company devoted, in those days, to making products for cooking that could be sold by demonstrating the benefits for cooks. Back then there were retailers only too happy to offer instruction. Voila! You would find me on early-morning TV talk shows or in radio interviews, promoting these personal appearances in their Housewares departments. “Have apron, will travel” was my motto.
I wasn’t alone in my traveling-cook role. Others were taught in stores by professional chefs, some by restaurant owners, food stores, or by only plain gifted amateurs.
While I did travel far and wide (Australia, Canada, Japan, and each summer in Corning’s Museum of Glass shops area), I loved heading north to Pittsford, New York, and the classes at Ginger and Dick Howell’s Seasonal Kitchen, held in their rustic home kitchen in the woods. Each year I had to come up with three or four menus to suit each season.
Their students were most often repeaters and so, in this family atmosphere, there was almost a club-like feeling. In the situation we face today here in the USA, Ginger has put the live classes on the back burner. Instead, I was pleased to receive, via e-mail, a copy of their new multi-paged newsletter with Ginger’s top favorite recipes and daughter Holly’s insightful wine and spirits suggestions for each dish. This got me thinking...
I found an especially appealing confection in their collection. It could be a way for you to reach out to your neighbors and invite them to pick up a little packet of goodies tucked into a small box or basket by your front door. I think it would do wonders for their hunkered down spirits—and wonders for you, too. You can tell by the title of this recipe—Telluride Bars—that the Howells were skiers in their younger days...
For the shortbread, sift 1 3⁄4 c. all-purpose flour and 1⁄4 c. sugar, then rub in 10 Tbsp. butter softened to room temperature. Knead into a ball and press into the bottom of a greased 9x13 Pyrex baker. Bake at 300 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes.
For the filling, put 8 Tbsp. butter, 1⁄2 c. plus 2 Tbsp. brown sugar, 1⁄2 c. dark corn syrup, and 1 can sweetened condensed milk into a pan and stir over low heat until the sugar has dissolved. Bring to a boil over medium heat and keep stirring and boiling for 7 minutes. Watch carefully to keep from scorching. Add 1⁄2 tsp. pure vanilla, stir well, and pour over the shortbread. Allow to cool.
For the topping, melt 6 oz. semi-sweet or dark chocolate in a stainless steel bowl over a pot of boiling water (bottom of bowl not touching the water). Spread over the filling. When cold cut into 2-inch squares. (The recipe makes about fifty-four bars.)
These bars are delicious. Just package a few of them (depending on how many will do for each family size) in plastic bags. Tie with decorative ribbon (I like the tartan variety) and I guarantee spirits will soar.
By Kathleen Thompson
At the beginning of the pandemic I was all about the Quarantini—a cocktail you made at home and drank alone, or with members of your household, during a period of imposed isolation.
“I’m having a Quarantini,” sounded fun.
It made me feel this imposed isolation thing might not be that bad.
Soon, Photoshopped images of these drinks, along with their recipes, started populating Pinterest. These recipes weren’t anything new. They were just your basic cocktail recipe jacked with citrus and rimmed with powdered Emergen-C.
To defeat the coronavirus.
I looked forward to my Quarantini every evening. It helped lower my anxiety, took the edge off my isolation, and numbed the news.
But I knew the added citrus and the Emergen-C weren’t canceling out the gin. A nightly Quarantini wasn’t sustainable for me.
My liver needed a break.
In early summer I started seeing ads for high-priced non-alcoholic, herbal concoctions that could replace gin, tequila, or even whiskey in cocktails.
These exotic elixirs were sold through a website with an earthy, herbal, apothecary vibe. I ordered a sampler of three bottles from this company called Seedlip.
The first bottle tasted interesting. As in, not good.
The second tasted like liquid potpourri.
And the third would have worked better in my essential oil diffuser.
I scurried back to my Bombay Sapphire.
As summer segued into fall and the plague continued to rage, I started noticing more companies coming into this “mocktail” space. It wasn’t just me. Everybody was drinking too much.
I saw an ad for one called Ritual. I bought a bottle and had some hope for it because it marketed itself as a gin alternative and not some random elixir.
And it turns out I don’t mind the taste of Ritual. It doesn’t taste like gin, but it does have that hot-at-the-back-of-the-throat finish that gives me a sense that I’m drinking something serious.
And really, that’s all I really want from a cocktail. I just want the sense that whatever I’m drinking is both delicious and powerful enough to propel me into a new headspace. And all I want from a cocktail hour is enough time to catch my breath and recalibrate.
My big takeaway from this experiment with gin alternatives is it’s not the alcohol in the cocktail that matters. It’s the stopping of work, the taking out of the shaker and the jigger, the slicing of the limes, the zesting of the lemons. And when the concoction is made, whether with Bombay or something non-alcoholic, it’s the taking of the moment to admire it. It’s the sitting down and the sipping of it slowly.
And in this way coming to know, in the end, we’ll all get through it.