Livin’ La Vita Povera

Because of my still-new life as a hick, but also in part because of the economic high colonic we’re all involuntarily undergoing at the hands of some creepy old unelected super-rich white dudes (who aren’t even wearing rubber gloves) I’ve been fixated somewhat lately on wringing tear-inducing depth of flavor from the humblest of ingredients. Partly it’s due to my nature; I’ve always preferred Italian cooking to French. The core difference as I see it- and having lived in both countries I am satisfied that this view is reality-based (unlike those of my new love, and taking as historical fact that the Italians taught the French to cook) is that French food is aristocratic; it requires someone spending all damn day turning a veal calf into a few cups of demi-glace as a sine qua non, while Italian food is at heart peasant food that can be made from scraps and leftovers, in short order, with the natural offerings of the simplest subsistence farm or garden.

In France, they will tend to take an artichoke or a fish and turn it into something utterly other than itself, while in Italy they will make that artichoke or fish be the most sublime and delicious artichoke and/or fish that it ever could have hoped to be, using only a few easily sourced ingredients and a minimum of fuss. Also, I find that especially in the more traditional French food, bacon, butter, and cream are more or less essential; while I enjoy those three things plenty, it is perforce in moderation. I also stipulate that the Sunday Times would be downright palatable with the proper application of those three ingredients. They are crutches. The trick is to get things to taste complete without bathing them all in those gorgeous fats.

Now I realize that this distinction is self-evident, and originated when the Pope first absconded to Avignon, and I am absolutely grateful that I have both traditions to draw on- as well as the hundreds of others around the world- in my own kitchen every day. But from the point of view of someone who doesn’t usually spend all day making dinner (although I do spend most nights wishing I could) I find that the humbler traditions are more directly useful. And when you go deep into local ingredients, specifically your garden and your own cured meat, it is possible to attain the absolute pinnacle of culinary excellence without using copious cholesterol, servants, or exotic ingredients from the remotest corners of the world.

To wit: this dinner. To a cursory glance, it’s a plate of pasta. Admittedly, though, it’s really cool wheel-shaped pasta, and if you were honest with yourself you would wish that you had these bitchin’ wheels in your pantry right now instead of the mini-van pasta that you currently own. The thing about this plate of pasta is that it took me six months to make it taste as good as it tasted this evening. And I bought the wheels today.

Last Spring, like millions of gardeners, I started lots of seeds indoors long before the growing season began. Among them were plum tomatoes and basil. Around the same time, I bought something like ten pounds of fatback with the skin still on from our beloved grass-fed, organic butcher. (His meat is, too.) I cut it in strips and cured it for three months on a mix of salt and herbs, then hung it to dry. The resulting lardo is intensely flavored, creamy, rich, and a little bit goes a long way; like the guanciale, a teaspoon tossed in a pan and rendered at the beginning of a sauce, soup, or pot of beans imparts the most amazing depth of flavor to the resulting dish.

The sauce for this bad-ass wheely pasta that you’re now starting to really really wish you picked up on your way home today was nothing more than one broken-up organic hamburger patty left over from a recent phone-it-in-because-I’m-sick dinner plus minced lardo, garlic, dried hot pepper, herbs (dried herbes de Provence from the now triffid-infested Herb Jungle™ and a jar of the tomato sauce we canned a few weeks ago (made mostly out of those tomatoes and basil) simmered down until thick and wheel-coating. Apart from the beef, oil, salt, and black pepper, we grew (or cured) every damn thing in this dish I think. Oh, and the hot wheels. They’re Italian. You know, like a Ferrari. I also picked a salad of lettuces, sylvetta arugula, and herbs (dill, chervil, and parsley) that was possibly the best salad I’ve ever eaten. The recent weather (wet) plus the late season has made our salad greens very happy. It was crisp, creamy, sweet with a bitter edge, and astonishing in its comfort-food richness. This was just a plate of leaves, after all, with nothing but a little olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, and pepper.

I finished the pasta like almost always with fresh minced parsley. I have to say that we were kind of speechless as we ate it. You can see in the picture that there was just enough sauce to barely coat the alloy rims you SO wish you had bespoked starch. And yet the flavor, the archetypal pleasure and satisfaction buttons that this pushed deep in our brains was such that I had an actual epiphany: that right now, in 2008, after 6 months of careful manual labor, I had managed to recreate something that people have taken for granted for centuries, and from which the touchstones of our taste originate. I had to go out of my way to make this dish possible. We are not smarter or better at our jobs or lives than people who lived hundreds or even thousands of years ago. It’s good to remember that, however depressing it might be- especially given that we’ve just taken a third mortgage out on the next generation.

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8 Comments

  1. cook eat FRET
    October 4
    Reply

    great fucking post
    all of it – damn boy
    i can’t even write a comment to do it justice
    except to say that it should be published somewhere other than here

    i did a wagon wheel pasta dish a year ago – i love that shape. it grabs in all directions.

    i covet your lettuces, your lardo – your knowledge…

  2. Zoomie
    October 5
    Reply

    Like you, I often prefer bistro cooking to haute cuisine but I wanted to defend the everyday French cooking, which is not high in fat, just high in flavor, usually fresh flavors. They’d use butter to your lardo but it’s the same idea.

  3. Jen of A2eatwrite
    October 5
    Reply

    This is the way all cooking should be done – simply and use what you have.

    Fabulous post.

  4. Heather
    October 5
    Reply

    Holy crap, did you get an A on this post? It reads like a term paper (I mean that in a good way). Well, you get an A from me. Which is a really big deal, as I don’t take an A lightly.

    Last night I spent three hours turning a 2.5-lb. chuck roast, a half a bottle of $10 wine and two armfuls of toms from the garden into the best Bolognese I’ve ever had. I had it on pappardelle, though, because it’s my favorite. And I have enough sauce to can three or four pints. Win.

  5. Jo
    October 5
    Reply

    First i second the comment that not all French food is haute Cuisine. Provincial French cooking, especially in the Loire valley and Provence can certainly give Italy a run for its simply prepared simple ingredients credo, but I get where you’re going with this. Then again I just spent about 12 hours this weekend cooking braises.
    More importantly though I wonder if some crazy pasta person has tried to come up with spinner mag pasta wheels…just sayin’
    (http://www.metacafe.com/watch/976650/300c_spinners/)

  6. peter
    October 5
    Reply

    Claudia: The epiphany was real, so it just sort of came pouring out.

    Zoomie: Yep, I hear you, but obviously I was talking more about the classical tradition.

    Jen: Thanks- It’s funny how minimalism becomes maximal.

    Heather: I wish you had been my biology teacher in high school. Pappardelle al sugo is awesome. If you can find boar, it’s even better.

    Jo: I lived in Provence, and it’s absolutely true that the cooking there is more Italian. But so are the people. I’m really glad that it’s braising season again. Love the wheels idea.

  7. Hunter Angler Gardener Cook
    October 5
    Reply

    I assume you know that most French food is not the wussified, pinky-off-your-Budweiser stuff Escoffier diddled with, and the Gascon cooking or Provencal cooking or hell even the basic cooking in Normandy is pretty down to earth And if pot-au-feu isn’t extracting flavor from crap, I don’t know what is. There. I am finished defending the cheese-eating surrender monkeys.

    On to your lardo. Major props. Never done it, although I do something similar iwth my guanciale. I eat a lot of hog jowls, let me tell you.

    Nice sauce, too. But the wagon wheels remind me too much of Chef Boyardee. Blech. I’da gone with orecchiette, but maybe that’s because I just read Maryann’s post on them over at La Dolce Vita…

  8. peter
    October 5
    Reply

    Hank: You have forgotten the power of the adorable four-year-old lobby when it comes to pasta shape choices. To make the post conceptually complete, I should have made pasta with local flour and eggs. But the kid wanted wheels.

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