A few weeks ago my grandmother, who was born in 1918, was admitted to hospital in London having become ill and died not long after. Known to us as Nonna, she was an Italian Jew who endured and survived the calamitous antisemitism, racial legislation and bereavement of World War II. Her wartime stories deserve to be conserved and told, but I will not do so here. This is my food blog, so instead I’m going to honour my grandmother’s memory by sharing her instructions on why you should save your old, rock hard parmesan crusts.
Before I do, a recollection of my final visit to her not long before she died. I flew into London, and a few hours later took the train to the hospital where Nonna was being treated. As I walked up the hill to the hospital a thin rain was falling. On a low wall outside the entrance, a crapulous middle-aged man sat in the cold wearing his hospital pyjamas, a dressing gown and a Russian style furry hat. The stub of an intravenous drip dangled from his wrist as he sucked on a cigarette. Little scraps of paper and plastic blew in circles at his feet.
I met my dad at the entrance, and we went inside. Things got better. The hospital was bright and clean, and I liked the staff very much. They took her comfort very seriously. For instance, one of the most consistent rituals of Nonna’s existence was the aperitif of whisky which she enjoyed before dinner. (I calculated on the back of an envelope that over the course of her life she consumed one thousand, two hundred and thirteen bottles of the stuff.) When the hospital doctor learned of this he demonstrated the manifest superiority of the state-run British healthcare system by offering – and I kid you not – to write her a prescription for Scotch.
I had been warned that she was not in a good state, and – as advertised – her condition showed every day of her 94 years. She was befuddled and practically unable to speak or move, but when I entered the room and said hello she recognized me. This is remarkable partly because of her 94 years, but more because in recent weeks, for reasons which are not entirely clear to anyone including myself, I have grown a beard. In contrast to the nondescript brown hair on my head, it is an irate red colour and looks like a fake beard applied by a cretinous teenager attempting to buy alcohol. In spite of all this, Nonna smiled through her discomfort and confusion and seemed pleased to see me. Then she fell asleep, woke up twenty minutes later, looked at me and this time she croaked “Who are you?” But I didn’t mind. One out of two ain’t bad for someone who was born early in the reign of George V.
While she was sleeping, what was classified as her dinner was rolled in. My grandmother wasn’t a great sight, but it was what lay upon that tray that sent a shiver rattling down my spine.
Dinner was: soup, a shade of orange unknown in nature. Also a bowl of weapons-grade custard. And the centerpiece: a plate of pre-masticated, unrecognizable pink and white stuff covered in a pale ooze which I took for gravy. While I did a “I’m going to be sick” pantomime, my father (a fearsome eater and not easily intimidated by any dish) pivoted at the waist to lean in for a closer look. With his white hair, Savile Row suit and look of intense curiosity on his face, he looked like a distinguished natural historian examining a new yet revolting species for the first time in his long career.
I don’t hold it against anyone that the food was nasty: hospital food is hospital food, and they do the best they can. But throughout her life Nonna had been something of an epicure, and in spite of her discombobulation she was sufficiently compos mentis to find the smell bothersome. We wheeled the tray out.
When I went back the next day, things were a little better. She was more animated and cheerful, and ate a couple of spoons of a panna cotta desert which I’d bought on a whim and a fragment or two of peach. The third day I visited with my sister, and Nonna was in the best form yet. She greeted us with a smile, and I started on a monologue of random small talk: it was unseasonably warm in New York, I said. My boy Jacob – her great grandson – was enjoying his school very much. President Obama is a disappointment, I continued. The night before, I went on, my father and I had shared some foie gras for dinner.
Foie gras. She hadn’t been showing much interest in my prattling, but at the sound of these two syllables her primordial, tiny eyes shifted a little in an expression of recognition and interest. Foie gras had always been amongst her favourite treats. With great effort, she raised her frail arm and touched her thumb to forefinger in the internationally recognized symbol for “excellent” and croaked a verdict on our choice of dish: “Buono.” It was her most decisive and recognizable gesture I saw during my visit.
I returned to New York the next morning to rejoin my wife and son, and Nonna died a few days later. I am very glad I made the visit. I can only hope that as her strength ebbed, whatever fragmentary thoughts floated into her ancient and befuddled consciousness featured not bright yellow custard, but a reminiscence of sumptuous foie gras, cut into neat slices with a knife dipped in very hot water. Yes, I hope this is one of her final thoughts, not the smell of hospital food, and certainly not the mystifying appearance at her bedside of a comical red beard.
Although foie gras was one of her favourite delicacies and she was a very good cook, what came out of her admirably primitive kitchen was generally not elaborate. It was from her that as a youngster I absorbed some of the simplest kitchen tips and easiest of recipes. Here’s one of each.
Tip: save your rock hard parmesan crusts to elevate your minestrone soup from good to great.
Recipe: one of my desert-island peasant dishes, Tonno e Fagiolo (pictured at the top of this page.)
Zuppa di Minestrone
Serves 6 – 8
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 cup chopped onions
- 2 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
- 1 sprig’s worth of thyme leaves
- 1/2 red chili (optional. Italians don’t do this.)
- A couple of pieces of parmesan crust
- 2 1/2 cups peeled and cubed winter squash (like acorn squash)
- 2 celery stalks, diced
- 1/2 cup peeled and diced carrots
- 2 1/2 cups cubed potatoes
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 6 cups water
- 1 bouillon cube (beef, chicken)
- couple of threads of saffron
- 4 cups chopped kale
- 1 1/2 cups cooked or canned cannellini beans (15-ounce can, drained)
Warm the oil in a large soup pot on medium heat. Add the onions, and sauté for 5 minutes. Add the garlic and thyme and sauté for another minute. Add the parmesan crusts, bouillon cube, squash, celery, carrots, potatoes, oregano, water and saffron and cook for 10 minutes or until the potatoes are almost done. Add the kale and beans and simmer for another 5 to 7 minutes, until the kale is tender and the beans are hot. Discard parmesan crusts. Taste and season with salt and pepper.
Tonno e Fagioli
Note: the key thing here is to use the best can of tuna you feel you can justify. You can spend very little on your basic supermarket tin, or rather a lot on those beautiful glass jars of chunky fillets. Unlike some other things in life, what you get really is what you pay for. Secondly, this is one of those dishes which is more about intuition and personal taste than precise measurements. So start with the ingredients below, taste at the end, and add more of what you like/
Serves 4 as an appetizer, or two as a more substantial portion.
- 1 can of tuna in olive oil (see note above)
- 1 1/2 cups cooked or canned cannellini beans (15-ounce can, drained)
- 1/4 onion, diced
- 1/2 garlic clove, crushed or minced
- 1/4 red chili, diced (optional; Italians don’t do this)
- 1 tablespoon of olive oil (though the tuna will already have oil in it, so use your judgement)
- 1 tablespoons of lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon of parsley
- 1/2 teaspoon of lemon zest
- Salt and pepper
It’s noon on a Saturday, and the wife is at pilates. I am alone with my tormentor, and it is lunch time.
I take a slow breath, mutter a short prayer, and resume my pleading. I hear a wheedling desperation in my own voice and find it contemptible. My tormentor evidently agrees. He stares back at me with a pitiless, bored gaze. He wordlessly shakes his head, turns, and looks distractedly out the window.
Please, I whine, just one more try. It’s good, you’ll like it. You liked it two days ago, remember? Why don’t you like it now? Please just try it again?
My tormentor, all 35 pounds of him, inhales quietly, then sighs. He turns back to me, looks me in the eye, and utters the word which all along I knew he would.
No, I say, trying to sound calm. No no. You already had bacon for breakfast. Now it’s time for yummy pasta!
But this time it is said more firmly, laced with an inference of menace. It is the beginnings of a threat. This scares me, because I know how rapidly my tormentor’s apathy can turn into something altogether worse.
“Bay-gone. Bay-gone and waffle. Jacob want bay-gone and waffle.”
But Jacob, bacon and waffles is what we eat for breakfast! Now it’s lunch time, and I made this pasta with the meatball you liked two days ago, remember? Yum yum yum! (I’ve already resorted to “Yum yum yum”? This is the desperate patter of an idiot, and we both know it.) It is one third beef, one third pork, one third veal, I continue. There’s some pecorino romano in there, and a little parsley, and some lovely breadcrumbs! All top quality! I made it just for you. Here, I stammer whilst extending a miniature plastic spoon bearing a penne and fragment of meatball, let’s try again! Yum yum yum!
The response is a shout. “No pasta! Bay-gone! Bay-gone!” With an elegant, sweeping backhand he knocks the spoon from my hand. It careens onto the floor and the tears begin to flow. I’m a grown man, so the tears are not mine. At least the visible ones aren’t.
Welcome to feeding my 2 year old son. There are many trials of having a toddler in the house (the endless need for new shoes; the pain of stepping on a Lego block with bare feet; the poop which shows up in curious places), but I find feeding time infinitely the most stressful. I’m not very good at it. And my anxiety is clearly sensed by Jacob, so we become locked into a negative, downward loop.
The good news is that I think I know what’s wrong. It’s that I try too hard, and that I care too much what he eats. And because of this, I set expectations way above where they should be for a two year old. Maybe you are thinking, “how could you ever care too much about feeding your child”. But I’ve learned that actually Jacob responds best to an lackadaisical, shrugging, take-it-or-leave-it attitude in which my wife and the nanny are fluent, but which I find difficult. Instead, Jacob looks across his plate at me and sees a hand-wringing buffoon.
He doesn’t care whether the meatball is made with a precision blend of heritage pork, grass fed beef and humanely raised veal. All he cares about is whether he feels like cooperating today. And – because he’s a toddler, and toddlers are all contrarians by nature – he’s much less likely to cooperate if he thinks you really want him to.
I’m no child psychologist, but this much I know. When you are 2 years old, there’s nothing about your life which you can control. With one exception: you and you alone decide what you put in your mouth. So yes, meal times can quickly escalate into a power struggle, but one in which all the power is on one side of the table. If you come across as giving too much of a shit – as I do – you’ve already lost the game before the food has even touched the plate.
And if I’m being honest with myself, why do I really care so much about what Jacob eats? Of course there’s the primeval, instinctive urge for one’s progeny do not go hungry. But I think there’s a more modern impulse at play too, and that is vanity.
Truth be told, I don’t care too much whether Jacob becomes a gifted athlete. It would be great if he were, and I’d do everything to encourage it. But I was lousy at sports so it’s not that important to me. Same with being good at science, or playing the cello. But I will confess that it would give me enormous satisfaction if, when out for a meal with other kids, Jacob spurned the hot dogs and curly fries so coveted by his peers and instead looked up at the waiter and asked to try the venison. If this were to happen, I would faint with pride.
Will it ever turn out like this? Maybe, but definitely not if I try to force kale or pork belly or sashimi down his throat too early. Fact: 2 year olds (much like middle American adults) prefer things which are very sweet or very salty. Pressure a toddler too much with healthy things he doesn’t want, and you’ll surely wire him into perceiving food as a threat or a punishment. I believe Jacob is much more likely to grow up with a broad, curious palate if he feels that food is something to be enjoyed on his own terms rather than endured under duress.
So I have learned to change my ways. I – like every parent – do my best. I try to give him the green, bitter, fibrous things which are really good for him. And with enough trial and error, you find things that work. (If I sautée spinach with garlic and salt, he really likes it.) But mostly things don’t. In which case don’t push it, and give the kid a break. There have been times when, after a hostile lunchtime exchange and Jacob’s ultimate refusal to eat anything remotely nutritious, he and I have been so furious with one another that I’ve just said “screw it” and taken the kid to McDonalds and bought him Happy Meal. This doesn’t happen often, but when it does I’m at peace with that. I don’t see it as defeat, I see it as the sensible give & take of life.
Oh, one final thing. If ever you are sitting with other parents, and your kid is eating but theirs isn’t, do everyone a favour and be tactful about it. Mealtimes can be so very stressful, so boasting about the broadness of your brat’s culinary preferences when another child is acting up deserves nothing short of a punch in the face. So save it.
OK, recipe time. This is a way I have found for Jacob to eat pasta and broccoli. The bacon and cheese makes the dish sufficiently salty and cheesy that he may consider eating the vegetable. Unsurprisingly the novelty Teddy Bear pasta helps. He demands ketchup as an accompaniment, which is bit depressing, but what are you going to do?
You can buy this Teddy Bear pasta and many other distracting shapes from the Pasta Shoppe. Will your toddler like this? Who knows. Probably not. But it’s worth a try.
Teddy Bear Pasta with bacon, cheese and broccoli
Makes 2 child sized servings
- 2 cups of pasta
- 1/4 onion, or 1 shallot
- 1 slice of bacon
- 1/2 cup of brocolli heads, in small pieces, so they look like “little trees”. (Forget the broccoli stalks… your kid won’t eat them.)
- 1 tablespoon of finely grated pecorino romano cheese.
- 1 teaspoon butter.
Boil the pasta according to the instructions. Make sure it’s nicely soft, not al dente.
Meanwhile, cut the slice of bacon and into little pieces and begin the sautée in a little olive oil over a medium high heat.
After a few minutes, turn the heat down to medium low and add the onion / shallot.
Steam the broccoli in the microwave for a minute until soft but not mushy. Put aside.
When the pasta is done, drain, and check the pan with the bacon and onion. If there is too much bacon fat for your liking, drain it off. Add the pasta and steamed broccoli to the bacon and onion in the pan and sprinkle the tablespoon of grated pecorino romano. Add the blob of butter so that the whole dish is nice and smooth.
Serve with a side of ketchup if demanded.
“Manhattan. Sometimes from beyond the skyscrapers, the cry of a tugboat finds you in your insomnia in the middle of the night, and you remember that this desert of iron and cement is an island.” - Albert Camus.
Reading these lines last week put me in a maritime frame of mind, and I decided to make fish soup.
Say it again. Fish Soup. A pair of syllables which could not sound more humble. But as I discovered, fish soup is no place for complacency. For the man who has a perfectionist streak it is possible for fish soup to drive him within inches of lunacy.
When people think of fish soup, what most commonly comes to mind is Bisque (often lobster, but cheaper and equally good with shrimp or crab). I’m not a big fan. I find bisques too smooth, unnervingly velvety, and I remember them being considered the height of sophistication in the 1980s. A bisque is the Roger Moore of soups.
I prefer my fish soups rougher, more alive. I like my bowl to be teeming with tentacles, pincers, carapaces and antennae. When I stir my soup, I want the surface to be broken by the head of a langoustine, who fixes me briefly with a dead-eyed stare before I decapitate him with a twist of my fingers to devour his body and suck out his brains.
There are as many fish soups and stews in the world as there are nations (or at least nations with a coast). A brief cross-section for those who are interested:
- Spain: Caldillo de Perro; Sopa del Duelo; Suquillo
- Italy: Brodetto di Pesce Veneziano; Zuppa di Pesce alla Barese; Cacciucco Livornese
- Greece: Kakaviá; Avgolémono Psarósoupa
- Turkey: Balık Çorbası Bodrumlı
- America: Quahog Chowder; Cape Cod Squid Stew; Ciopinno
And of course, there’s the French who invented the Bisque, La Bourride and – perhaps the most celebrated fish stew of them all – Bouillabaisse. And last week I tried my hand at Bouillabaisse.
But it turns out that Bouillabaisse isn’t something at which you casually ‘try your hand’. As anyone who has spent time with the French knows, they’re not afraid of making life irksome. My attempts to make Bouillabaisse became – in the language of the TV talk-show host - a ‘personal journey’ during which I faced much hardship and frustration, but emerged a stronger person in possession of two truths which I had always known, but had somehow forgotten.
The first truth is that that trying to recreate a grand European dish in a tiny New York kitchen probably isn’t going to work.
And secondly, that the French can be rather annoying.
In my quest to cook an authentic Bouillabaisse, I unearthed – like Indiana Jones crawling through the jungle – recipes from 1826 (Brillat-Savarin), 1904 (author unknown), 1988 (Gilbert Le Coze). With a characteristically French hauteur, they all seemed resolute on one things: Bouillabaisse is not to be considered Bouillabaisse without Rascasse.
The rascasse (in English: Scorpionfish) is a devilishly ugly fish which inhabits the rocky waters of the Mediterranean. Might substitutes be allowed, I wondered? “Mais non,” seems to be the message telegraphed from Marseille, “you must ‘ave ze rascasse to make ze Bouillabaisse, you degenerate British imbecile!”
Emboldened by this challenge, I girded my loins and became determined to find a rascasse for my Bouillabaisse. I asked New York’s finest fishmongers. No joy. My challenge evolved into an obsession. Increasingly frantic I began to stay up late, deaf to the imploring tones of my wife, glued to the computer like a lonely pervert scouring the internet for porn as I searched for where rascasse might be found in North America. Still no luck.
I discovered a directory of Marseille fishmongers, and came close to calling them… but lost my nerve. I speak some French, but the lessons I took as a youngster occupied an awkward parallel universe in which we would invite an imaginary French boy named Jean-Yves to play badminton on the beach, watch the Tour de France together on the sofa, visit the local discotheque, then stop off at the Turkish baths for a rub. (OK, I made that last bit up.) In other words, I’m wholly ill-equipped to ask a grumpy French fishmonger (unshaven, smelling of Pernod and the sea, filterless cigarette glued to a blob of tar on his lower lip) whether he “might be kind enough to airfreight me a couple of Rascasse Rouge or other specimens of the scorpaenidae family, and whether he might know what the customs implications would be of the aforementioned endeavour.”
In the end, finding a Rascasse – even among the bountiful diversity of New York – proved impossible. So teetering on what felt like the far reaches of my sanity, I threw in the towel (much to the glee of the imaginary Frenchmen I pictured to be observing my pitiful efforts) and accepted that sometimes it’s OK to surrender. Yes, even to the French.
(At this point it is worth pointing out to my French friends that I’m really only kidding, and that my teasing is surely born from a deep-rooted British sense of envy for your cuisine. And 35 hour work weeks. And outrageous vacations.)
So I turned to one of my favourite culinary works: Cooking For Friends by the French chef Raymond Blanc. During the early nineties, prior to the resurgence of native British chefs like Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay, Raymond Blanc was the godfather of cooking in the UK. Cooking for Friends is written in the weary tone of a man who believes he is surrounded by savages (of whom you – the reader – are almost certainly one), and who is convinced that the world is condemned to a downward spiral into barbarism.
The book says it can “show how anyone can make simple and delicious food”, and it contains such easy, throw-together dishes as “Roast Gressingham ducklings with a jasmine sauce and sultanas coulis.” Or “Fillet of hare in a juniper-scented cream.” Right, exactly the kind of thing I’d rustle up when having a few pals over for a simple dinner.
Here is a somewhat adapted version of Raymond Blanc’s generic “Soupe de Poissons”. It is a long list of ingredients, but it is really easy. My primary addition is to throw in some clams or other small sea creatures. Also, whereas Blanc is somewhat prescriptive about his choice of fish, I’m more cavalier. I used a striped bass which are cheap on the East Coast. Also, contrary to the snobbery to which I’ve become accustomed from the French, the recipe is appended by a charming concession that “if you want to make a ‘low-budget’ soup, it is possible to use only fish bones and the taste would still be quite delicious. This is common practice in small bistros and restaurants.”
SOUPE DE POISSONS
- A whole fish, weighing about 1.5 lbs. Get your fishmonger to scale, gut and filet it for you. KEEP THE BONES.
- The aforementioned bones, chopped small
- A handful of clams, or some squid, or a couple of langoustine, other small tasty sea creatures of your choosing. Ensure they are cleaned properly.
- 1 small onion, peeled and chopped.
- 1 small carrot, peeled and chopped
- 4 garlic cloves, unpeeled and lightly crushed
- 2 tomatoes, chopped
- The leaves & sprouts from the end of a fennel bulb, washed and chopped
- 1 generous pinch of saffron
- 3 fl oz of olive oil
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 7 fl oz of white wine
- 1 bouquet garni (1 bayleaf, 4 sprigs of thyme, 2 parsley stalks tied together)
- 2.5 pints water
- 1 tablespoon Pernod*
- 2 pinches cayenne pepper
- Some garlic croutons (which you could make, but I’m too lazy so mine came in a packet.)
Making the soup.
In a large saucepan, sweat all the onion, carrot, garlic and tomatoes together with the fennel and saffron in olive oil for 2 minutes. Add the fish, chopped bones and tomato paste, stirring all the time, and sweat for another 2 minutes. Add the wine and bouquet garni, and cover with water. Add the Pernod*, bring to the boil, skim and simmer for 30 minutes.
While the soup simmers, steam the clams / squid / other sea creatures until they are cooked. Set aside.
Cool the soup down a little, then remove the bouquet garni. Pour the contents of the pot, fish bones and all, into a blender or food processor and grind. Force the soup through a fine sieve, pressing with a ladle to extract as much liquid as possible.
Finishing the soup and serving.
In a saucepan, bring the soup to a boil, then skim off any fat. Add the clams / squid / other sea creatures. Taste and season with salt, papper and cayenne pepper. Serve with garlic croutons, and some fersh crusty bread on the side.
*A note on Pernod. There’s no point in buying an entire bottle just to use a couple of tablespoons in this recipe. You’ll never drink the rest of the bottle. What I suggest is to go to your local bar, buy a couple of shots and pour it into a to-go cup.
- Gonads on toast.
- Cockroach Of The Sea.
- Caesar Salad: the taste of loneliness.
- Arrivederci Nonna.
- In defense of the Happy Meal.
- Fish Soup, and why the French are annoying.
- Baking turns me into Woody Allen.
- Tuber Magnatum: worth selling a kidney for?
- Off-piste Italian.
- The silliest meal of my life (followed by a good mushroom recipe)
- Summer’s nearly over. Thank God.
- Prozac, Xanax, Chicken Tikka Masala.