Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thanksgiving in a can

It was the night before Thanksgiving and the A&P on Fulton Street, the one under the El that went from the East River out through Queens, was about to close. I was a teenager, on a mission for my mother to gather last-minute items for the next day's meal.

The supermarket was oddly quiet. There was one cashier, a manager sitting in a platform that overlooked the registers, a Con Edison worker picking up a six-pack of Rheingold Extra Dry, and me.

Or so I thought.

"Pete," I said, startled when the familiar face appeared without sound or warning. "How you doin?"

"Okay, kid, okay, good, see your uncle Joe today?" said Pete in that rat-a-tat-tat way of his. "Thought he'd be at The Club this afternoon but he never showed, no he never showed, your uncle didn't, didn't show."

Uncle Joe was both head of our family and, arguably, the tightly defined corner of the neighborhood where we lived. People relied on my mother's brother — for favors, kindnesses, sometimes money — and so, too, no doubt, did his friend.

"Dunno, maybe on a job," is all I needed to say in order for Pete to wish me a happy holiday and move along.

Until I stopped him.

"What's this?" I asked pointing at the two strangely familiar-looking cans in Pete's cart.

To this day, I wish I had allowed that poor man to be on his way. Because his answer has haunted me, in a very deep and painful way, ever since.

"They're good," Pete said, now handling one of the cans of Chef Boyardee Ravioli. "We run them under water, get all the sauce off, get it all off good. Then my brother makes his gravy and we pour that on top, know what I mean? They're good, they're okay, yeah, kid, they're not bad, pretty good."

Pete and his brother Johnny were in their late fifties, I'd guess. Neither was married, and they lived together, as best I can recall, in the house they had once shared with their parents. Johnny was a mailman. I can't say what Pete did for a living, because I never knew.

They called him Chicago Pete, though I doubt he ever stepped foot in Illinois. Who knows how they handed out nicknames back then. Some made sense, sure. Frankie Squarehead's dome actually did appear to be framed by right angles, for instance. But logic did not reign always, and I am suspicious about the handle bestowed upon Pete.

No matter. It is the culinary strategy in question here. Why on Earth would two grown men decide that opening a can of ravioli was in any conceivable way preferable to boiling a pot of salted water and throwing fresh or even frozen pasta into it? On Thanksgiving Day, no less!

Remember, they cooked their own tomato sauce. From scratch. One of the brothers likely made his own meatballs to go into the homemade sauce. And as for real ravioli, the stores were lousy with the things. This is Brooklyn we're talking about here.

What the hell were these two thinking with these cans?

I have lived with this riddle, this burden, for well over thirty Thanksgivings. The current haunting began a couple weeks back, after it was decided where the family's holiday meal would take place (in Manhattan, at cousin Jo's, it turns out).

The difference this year is that I decided it was time to exorcise my demons, by confronting them. And so, God help me, that's just what I did.

The can you already saw. Well, I opened it. Then I got out a colander. The ravioli (and I use that term advisedly) did not give up the red stuff so easily, but a constant stream of water did finally do the trick.

I won't torture you more than is necessary, so you'll just need to trust me on how the ravioli looked buck naked: think pale, gummy, foul-looking scary stuff, more like yellow Play-Doh stamped into unholy little squares than actual food-grade product. I touched one of the things with my bare fingers, just to get a feel for the texture; I won't be doing that again anytime soon.

That night, in fact, I suffered the most horrible nightmare. I was being smothered to death by a giant, gooey, yellow Blob. Steve McQueen was there, and so I thought I might have a chance at getting out of this mess. But all he would do to help me was toss lit cigarette butts at the yellow monster and yell, "Take that, Blobber." After awhile of getting nowhere with the lit butts he just took off on his motorcycle and waved goodbye. To me, not the Blob. I think.

I woke up in just a terrible sweat, made worse by the sight of my dog Otis sitting next to me on the bed. He was wearing a white toque and a red neckerchief. Worse, he was holding a bowl of the canned ravioli and singing Michael Jackson's "Beat It," except Otis was saying "Eat It."

I so need a drink just thinking about it.

Where was I? Oh, yes, the exorcism.

Always the dedicated Italo, I am never without some quantity of good tomato sauce on hand. And so, like Pete and his brother, I proceeded to apply my homemade sauce to the washed-and-prepped Chef Boyardees. Then — and this is the truly scary part — I took a bite.

Decades after our encounter at the long ago shuttered A&P, uncle Joe's friend and I were finally joined in a profoundly strange and unusual way. Only Pete and I parted ways on one crucial point. That first bite? It was also my last.

Next Thanksgiving, when I think about Pete and Johnny, I will probably feel as sad for them as I have always felt. You would think that rinsing my own can of ravioli, swallowing one of the awful things, might provide insight into their ritual, but the truth is that it did not.

I have no more clue today what they could possibly have been thinking. And probably never will.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Eat your tripe!

Yeah, I know, you won't go near the stuff.

Big surprise.

Well, I will. Last time I was in Rome, where they know from a cow's stomach lining, I sampled the tripe at maybe a dozen places. The Romans are masters at cooking the offal. Like cooks in Shanghai know their dumplings, or Hawaiians their poi. I once traveled to Rome with a companion whose sole mission was to consume every type of animal organ, gland and extremity that the Italians would put on a plate.

At one particularly splendid lunch, in Testaccio, at Checchino dal 1887, the two of us went through every offal in the place – and the place is world famous for its offal. Testaccio, you see, was once Rome's slaughterhouse district, and remains the epicenter for "fifth quarter" (innards and such) cuisine. The veal trotter salad was a standout as I recall, as was the arrosto misto, a mixed roast which included livers and sweetbreads and intestines and testicles. 


The Romans use tomato in their Trippa alla Romana, along with Pecorino Romano cheese and fresh mint leaves and white wine. Stirred all together this makes for a full, rich, satisfying flavor that even a professed tripe hater ought to appreciate, if only they would allow it to their lips.

Like the Romans, I cooked up a batch of trippa on a Saturday, just this past one in fact. (Why the dish is tradition on that day I do not know, though it seems as good a day as any.)

What happened is that I woke up craving lunch at Cul De Sac, a wonderful place near the Piazza Navona where the trippa is especially tasty. And so there I was at five o'clock on Saturday morning (already 11 a.m. Rome time), checking flights to Fiumicino and wondering if a Sunday afternoon meal might be in the cards.

I had the fever all right. But a last-minute booking to the Eternal City was simply not to be, and so I settled for preparing my own trippa instead. 

Here in Portland, where I live, it is not so easy being a tripe lover. Other than the Salvadoran restaurant in town, which serves a mean menudo on Sundays, there is not a self-respecting, tripe-cooking toque wearer to be found. And good luck trying to buy the stuff at the supermarket. New Englanders, for some oddball reason (not a good one, I assure you), like their tripe pickled. Yes, pickled. Why not just rip off the soles of your filthy, stinky shoes and eat those? Geez!

Butchers or so-called "Italian" stores? Forget about it. I once inquired about ordering tripe from one of the meat markets in town and was told, nicely of course, that I would need to purchase an entire box. That would be the same box that the butcher needed to special order, filled with tripe he believed could not be sold to anybody in his orbit but me.

I ask you, just what was I to do with 30 pounds of beef tripe — summon every coyote within howling distance to hoof it on over to my house for a big feed?

Luckily, Portland is teeming with Asian markets, and you know how those people enjoy their weird-ass foods. (That was a compliment, if you didn't know.) It is never a problem procuring a few pounds of fresh beef tripe from the Asian market I have come to frequent. But as I hail from a place where you buy your tripe from men in white aprons named Sal and Tony, not An or Duong, tripe-buying here took some getting used to.

I am not entirely sure why I'm telling you all of this. If I were a betting man I'd wager nobody's even bothered to read this far into a blog post devoted to yucky, disgusting, are-you-really-going-to-eat-that-stuff tripe.

Wait. I am a betting man. Not the degenerate gambler my brother is, but a wagerer nonetheless. If anybody still is out there drop me a line. I'll have all three of you over the house next time I'm feeling kinda Roman.

Or I could check on flights to Fiumicino again. Good as this trippa was, it would be a whole lot better around one-thirty on a Saturday afternoon in Roma.

I'm just saying.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Homemade bread gnocchi

I'm thinking about printing up T-shirts for you guys.

"I went over to the Meatball's for dinner," they might say, "and all I got was this lump of stale bread."

What happened is that an all-wood-fired dinner party commenced the other evening — we're talking roasted mussels with garlic and butter, and slow-cooked bone-in pork roast, and Jerusalem artichokes with brussels sprouts leaves, and other good stuff I won't torture you with.

And did I take one lousy picture the entire night? Or, worse, jot down a single improvised recipe?

You have every right to be pissed off. Wouldn't blame you a bit.

Which brings us to the subject of your (possible) new T-shirt. See, I like to have a couple different loaves on hand for a dinner, and that night there were four: a baguette and a sourdough loaf from Scratch, plus two loaves I baked fresh in the wood oven. As you might imagine, that was more pane than four people could comfortably consume, but as bread and I enjoy an especially intimate relationship (we do, you know), I am never at a loss for ways to bond with it.

And these bread gnocchi (gnocchi di pane if you are keeping score in a Romance language) were a fine way to bond indeed. (Speaking of the mother tongue, gnocchi is Italian for, well, "lump." And so I am literally offering lumps of bread here.)

The leftovers after a couple days, minus the sourdough. (Most any recipe for gnocchi di pane will tell you to cut off the crust. I'd sooner cut off a finger. Not one of my own, necessarily, but still.)

Soaked in hot milk, lovely crust and all, and left in the fridge overnight.

Drained (two cups' worth of the wet bread, give or take) and run through the Cuisinart with two eggs, some nutmeg and Romano cheese, then onto a work surface where it gets mixed with about a cup of flour.

Like so.

Molded and placed into a well-buttered baking dish.

After about 15-20 minutes at 375 F, thrown under the broiler to brown.

Pour on some melted butter and more of the grated Romano.

If you're still not happy I'll get right on those T-shirts. But you're making a big mistake. These lumps of stale bread were top drawer.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Pumpkin & ricotta ravioli

I'm a big fan of the freshly baked pumpkin pie. (Hear that, Josephine?) But I'm more of a pasta maker. And roasted pumpkin makes a really swell ravioli filling.

Our guest of honor, an American Tondo. This pumpkin's roots (so to speak) are in Italy. It is relatively new to the U.S., and I like it a lot. A local farmer grew them this year.

Pretty, huh?

Anyway, so you cut it up into one-inch pieces, toss into a roasting pan and season with salt, pepper, nutmeg, rosemary and (of course) garlic.

About half an hour at 375 degrees ought to do it.

And it's ready for the Cuisinart. (You could just mash it all up by hand instead, which would give the filling more texture. I'd have done that had I not been adding the cheese.)

Get (or make) yourself some ricotta. (The pic doesn't show this, but I wound up with two-thirds pumpkin and a third cheese.)

And mix it up by hand, like so.

Then it's on to the pasta sheets. (Yes, Jeannie, I will one day dedicate an entire post to making fresh pasta.)

Cover and shape with pasta sheet No. 2.

Let the pastry cutter do its thing.

And there you go.

A simple brown butter sauce will do. But, hey, it's your ravioli, do what you want.