organizedferment

An Easy Harvest

It didn’t take long to realize why they call it a snail harvest, not a snail hunt. There’s not much hunting involved. Here in Umbria, the snails come out in force after a rain, and they enjoy their slow motion romp through a freshly rinsed, leafy playground. In gardens, they cling to the shady undersides of lettuce and chicories long after the morning sun creeps over the green mountains in the distance. For those with a headlamp or an alarm clock, these snails, lumache in Italian, make an easy harvest.

Porcini mushrooms put up a far greater defense, blending in with the forest floor, only springing to life at just the right moment, in the just right places, after the perfect amount of rain. These snails seem to relish the opportunity to be plucked from their slimy tracks, boiled with salt and sprigs of wild fennel, and then sauteed with rosemary, white wine, and garlic.

And for the snails that don’t aspire to be an appetizer, they enjoy living in a region with a lot of other good things to eat. Snails are not wildly popular in Umbria. All the better: if these slow, toothless creatures had more appeal, they would probably be extinct.

Ode to Kono

Japanese cooks are the hidden soldiers of Northern Italian cuisine.

They leave their homes seeking a better life. They work and live illegally. They advance. Cooks become sous chefs. Sous chefs become chefs. But they can only go so far. In Italy, where the food is simple and the standards very high, bravado and personality separate elite chefs from the ranks of very good chefs.

And quite simply, Japanese chefs are not marketable. Italians do not want to eat Italian food made by Japanese. Neither do tourists. They want to see a portly Italian man behind the stove, red in the face, singing opera and kissing everything.

The highly skilled Japanese chef has three choices: return to the grueling, thankless work required of cooks in Japan, play second fiddle to an elite Italian chef, or work as a chef at a simple osteria with little room for creativity and no chance for glory.

Kono chose the third option, and I got to work with him this year at a small restaurant in the town where I lived. He might be the best chef in Piemonte, but no one will ever know about him. I don’t think anyone even knew his full name.

But Kono was very, very good. Given a great kitchen, great ingredients, and a great supporting staff, he would be great.

Kono produced a seasonal, creative menu that changed everyday, in a kitchen that never seemed to have any food in it. In Kono’s kitchen, on a Saturday night at 7:30 one could walk through and see ramekins of different salts, branches of dried herbs, half a head of garlic, three or four mandarin oranges, and nothing else edible.

When orders come in at 8, Kono seems to produce everything on the spot, spinning between the six-burner stove and the refrigerator right behind it. He measures perfect portions of pasta with his hands. He tastes the pasta water for salt. He plucks a strand of spaghetti from its boiling water to test for doneness. He pokes a steak searing in a cast-iron pan and then flips it with his thin, stainless steel tongs that look more like big tweezers.

Kono’s work on the stove was impressive, but I was equally impressed by all the simple things he did. Kono gave beauty to mindless jobs that chefs normally delegate. He cleaned porcini mushrooms like an archaeologist cleans dirt from a precious shard of ancient pottery. He gave every scrap of leftover food a perfectly sized container and neat seal of plastic wrap. I never knew what became of the single raw shrimp or half an apple once they were wrapped and put away in Kono’s fridge. I trust they were not wasted.

Kono never raised his voice. Never seemed flustered. Never directed his staff. Everyone worked hard in Kono’s kitchen because they knew Kono was working harder. If you couldn’t do your job, Kono would do it. If you failed, Kono wouldn’t say anything. The punishment would be failure in itself.

Kono liked to tease the dishwashers and his fellow cooks. He swore in Italian, pulled pranks on the waitresses. Still, he seemed to suffer silently against the restraints of the osteria format. The owners and customers expected simple, traditional food. Prices had to be low, and with the restaurant’s meager turnover, expensive, new ingredients posed too much risk.

Kono still found ways to leave his mark. I’ll never forget his stacks of seared orange rounds, sliced roasted lamb, and herbs. His grilled octopus with fruit became the restaurant’s signature entree. He switched Stichilton for gorgonzola and made a creamy sauce for his homemade gnocchi: a brilliant twist on a classic, from a man born in a country without cheese.

Kono’s signature dish.

When Kono decided to leave, another Japanese chef took over. The new guy had worked over ten years in Italy, and even opened his own small restaurant in Japan, where he did everything (wait tables, cook, clean, wash dishes) by himself.

I don’t know what happened to Kono. He mentioned working in Sardegna for the busy tourist season. Perhaps he found another job in Piemonte. I don’t think he will go back to Japan. He deserves his own restaurant, a place where he decides exactly what to put on the menu, and customers come because they know he will be cooking.

I like to think Kono finds happiness in draping a beautiful leaf of sage over a mound of steaming pasta, or finishing his plate of octopus with a sheen of olive oil and just a touch of something green from the garden, but I’m pretty sure Kono wants more. He has earned it.

Somewhere in Emilia-Romagna

I have pictures to remind me, but the memory of a few distinct sounds brings me right back to the damp, pervading coldness of a nondescript farm in an area that seemed to be the middle of nowhere. Dark, barren vines disappeared into the misty distance. The gray daylight seemed to have no source, time felt suspended, and the low-lying fog numbed all the senses.

But then we gathered around a wood fire with a copper cauldron fixed on top of it, and the crisp, staccato sizzling and popping of pork skins frying in oil and pork fat cut right through the cold, gray, flatness, and again, we were alive and present in the place.

Not far away, in a large garage, the remains of a freshly slaughtered pig had been divided into piles of meat: one lean and one stringy and fatty. The animal’s organs hung on hooks, slowly dripping their particular liquids onto the concrete. Angelo, a traditionally trained butcher, began the solemn, serious work of making salami.

In this austere setting, the traditional craft of preserving meat seemed to re-inhabit its context of scarcity and need, when the only choice was to preserve food or to starve during the winter. The piles of meat signified delayed reward: one had to do the work and then patiently wait for the salami to mature.

And in stark contrast, we feasted on the bright, immediate sounds of the sizzling cauldron and the pleasing, head-filling crunch of fried pork skins shattering in our mouths. Salami takes patience, but ciccioli are for consuming here and now. Recalling their sounds: sizzle, pop, and crunch, brings me right back to the experience and connects me to the smell and taste of the crunchy snacks.

No More Nice Food

Maybe we all have eaten too much good food and simply need other words to describe it. Perhaps we want to sound sophisticated and continental, or maybe the usage just slipped in and spread like an invasive weed. However this started, we all need to stop this nasty habit of calling our food “nice”.

Food is not nice. Your brother-in-law might be nice. Your friend’s parents might be nice. Most Grandmothers are nice. A day with no clouds, a slight breeze, and temperatures between 65 and 75 Fahrenheit is nice. When you shower, fix your hair, and put on a button-up shirt or a cocktail dress you might look nice. But food is never nice.

I blame the English for mislabeling food as nice, and I assume the parlance comes from their recent period of gastronomic deficiency, when so many polite and proper English people were served barely palatable food, and out of decorum said things like:

“Sebastion. you’ve outdone yourself. This soup is quite nice.”

or:

“Charlotte, you brought such a nice casserole to our luncheon.”

or:

“How’s the roast love?”

“Nice. Very nice, dear. Can you pass the gravy?”

Unfortunately, this terrible qualification of food carried on, even after British food rose from its slump. Even worse, labeling food as nice has spread beyond the United Kingdom, and as much as we love Jamie Oliver, we should request that the networks censor him every time he gets on syndicated television talking about how “n***” some fresh strawberries or homemade pasta tastes.

Here’s the real problem: when a person describes a food item as “nice”, this person says absolutely nothing about the food. Is the food edible? Palatable? Delicious? Hunger-eliminating? Outstanding? Pleasant to the eyes? Nice could mean anything, and therefore it means nothing.

One would never come out of a Oscar-worthy movie and say, “That movie was nice.” One would never see one of the world’s most breathtaking paintings and say it was “nice”. Beautiful buildings, songs, poems, and photographs are never called nice. But far too many people will eat beautiful plates of food, food prepared with the same care and love as these songs, films, and paintings, and have the nerve to call the food “nice”.

It may sound like I am nit-picking, but the words we use to describe our food are important. These words shape how we think, and how we think about food effects how we produce and consume it.

Nice, Clean, and Fair” doesn’t have the same ring, does it?

“Good” is a much better word, and “good” is the perfect place to start when weaning ourselves off “nice”. But we can’t throw “good” around and water-down its true meaning. English speakers must look to Italians, who only call something good, or buono, when that something really is good. Good is a serious thing, and the word still means something.

Recently, I was eating pasta and clams with three Italians. I was hungry, and I was enjoying the pasta quite a lot, and I said: “This is good.” They all stopped eating and looked at me. The man who prepared the pasta put down his fork and said, “No, this isn’t good. The pasta isn’t cooked well. It sat for too long in the pan, and now it is mushy.” Then we all went back to eating.

In Italian, for a dish to be “good”, it must taste good, be appropriate for the season and occasion, and the food must be executed properly. English speakers should adopt the same criteria, and once the word “good” really has value, describing exceptional food will be easy.

If “good” still sounds too boring or generic, our language offers plenty of alternatives. Delicious. Prepared perfectly. Tastes exactly how it should. Satisfying. A revelation. A party-in-my-mouth. Wonderful. Sexy. All these words and phrases that food-writers try to avoid work perfectly well in real-life. Use them, please. Use them in strange combination, add curse words, or raise your voice for emphasis if you have to. Just don’t call your food nice.

 

Previously published here.

That was good.

What We Can Learn

What Americans Can Learn from Italians

Simple things, made with good ingredients, almost always taste better. Every meal doesn’t have to be a new creation. The tastiest things are often utterly simple: homemade pasta tossed in butter and herbs, spaghetti with fresh tomatoes, garlic, and olive oil, or a thick slice of cold watermelon for dessert.

Coffee doesn’t need anything other than milk and sugar. Salad doesn’t need anything more than olive oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper.

Meat doesn’t have to be perfectly tender and medium rare to be good. The marbled, chewy, tougher cuts, cuts that like to be cooked well done, with a nice crust, rendered fat, and crispy, charred pieces of grissle, have much more flavor than filet mignon.

Don’t snack. Sit down and eat meals. Enjoy your food. Eat until you are satisfied, and don’t eat again until the next meal-time. (Afternoon gelato is an exception)

A glass of wine at lunch is almost always a good idea. If you can’t drink 4-6 ounces of wine at lunch and make it through the rest of your day, you should readjust your priorities.

Everyone can eat food that is in season. Everyone can plant some herbs, vegetables, and fruit trees in their yards. Almost everyone out here does, and you don’t have to start a food blog, buy a new pair of Birkenstocks, or refer to Alice Waters as simply “Alice” to do these things.

You don’t have to wait until Thanksgiving to dedicate an entire day to eating. Sunday is occasion enough.

Bitter is beautiful: espresso, bitter aperitifs like Campari and Aperol, and the whole host of bitter digestive liquors are nearly lost on Americans and this is a shame. We’re missing out on some of the most refreshing and satisfying beverages that exist.

It’s okay to fully cook vegetables. Zucchini or broccoli, cooked until soft, and seasoned with a touch of salt and olive oil can be a revelation.

Restaurants, in general, should not be trusted.

During summer, simple red wine can be served chilled with chunky slices of peaches.

What Italians Can Learn From Americans

You don’t need a knife to eat a banana.

You don’t know everything about food because your mom is a good cook.

Men should not be served before women at the table. Perhaps this is just a cultural difference, but it seems odd for a man to be gentlemanly in all other aspects of life, and then come home and dig into his plate of pasta before the Nonna has been served and his wife has even sat down at the table.

Sandwiches can be good. Too many sandwiches in Italy are austere, under-filled affairs that Italians only eat if there is no other option. As a result, Italians look down on sandwiches, and think of all sandwiches as a second-class food. Sandwiches can be great if given a little love, and with its wealth of cured meats, interesting cheeses, and preserved vegetables, Italy has no excuse to not be making good sandwiches.

There is no need to peel everything: pears, peaches, apples, potatoes, cucumbers, even kiwis can all be eaten skin-on.

Hoppy beer is delicious.

Cookies are not a breakfast food.

To be great, a meal doesn’t need three courses. Less is more.

A sandwich, loved.