Saturday, December 25, 2010

Shrimp Salad for a Christmas Lunch

When John and I entertain friends for lunch during the Christmas holidays, this is the dish I usually prepare:

The day before it is to be served:

2 lbs of frozen large farm-raised shrimp, shell on (easy peel shrimp)

Thaw shrimp overnight or under running water and boil 3 to 4 minutes in salted water with several tablespoons of Zatarain crab boil

Chill overnight.

3 mirlitons (chayote squash) Cut in quarters and boiled until tender.

Chill overnight

Next day, peel shrimp and put in a large bowl.

Peel mirlitons and cut in bite-sized pieces, and add to bowl.

Also add to bowl:

One can of hearts of palm, chilled, cut into bite-sized pieces.

Two stalks of celery, cut into small pieces

White part of one bunch of green onions, chopped

One bunch of chopped parsley

One can of water chestnuts, halved

Half a dozen Campari tomatoes, quartered, or a dozen grape tomatoes halved and pulp removed.

The tender part of a fennel bulb, cut into small slices

One teaspoon of red curry powder

Salt to taste (try one teaspoon, add more if necessary)

Two tablespoons of Hellmann’s mayonnaise

One tablespoon of balsamic vinegar

Combine with large spoon, cover and refrigerate until served in bowls over baby arugula

Serve with hot, crusty French bread and a dry white wine or Champagne or Prosecco.

Serves 6

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Raymonde Duval's Gigot

The fashionistas have taken over the Palais Royal in Paris and Raymonde Duval’s charming gallery which specialized in remarkable early 20th century French artists has been replaced by a shop selling chic and unbelievably expensive gloves. But we have many happy memories of beautiful works of art hanging on the walls of her small gallery, especially the brilliant canvases and works on paper by Augustin Hanicotte, a gifted artist who, celebrated in his lifetime, was almost forgotten after his death. Hanicotte was re-discovered and promoted by Raymonde in the 1990s. The artist, who worked both in Holland and in Collioure in the south of France, was a gifted colorist, very influenced by the Fauves, those early 20th century artists dubbed “wild beasts” because of their strong use of color and vivid imagery.

When Henri Matisse, one of the leading  fauves, who early in the 20th century helped invent the movement in Collioure, left his studio there, Hanicotte moved into it and remained for the next thirty years. The culmination of Raymonde’s efforts to bring Hanicotte’s art back into the public eye was a large retrospective of his work held in 2000 in the Musée d’Art Moderne in Collioure and in the nearby Château Royal which is pictured in so many of his works.

We had the good fortune to spend a day in Collioure seeing the exhibition with Raymonde, and when the exhibition ended, we were able to purchase about sixty of the wonderful works that had been on display. We sold them very quickly, keeping only one extraordinary watercolor and gouache for ourselves.

Raymonde and her elegant and now vanished gallery in the Palais Royal

Raymonde not only has a good eye for discovering art, but also a good nose for finding restaurants, and she is  a superb cook. We have had many wonderful meals with Raymonde, both in restaurants she has discovered and at her own table. Several times in Paris, and once when she visited us in Virginia, she made this succulent leg of lamb for us.

8 pound leg of lamb

10 cloves of garlic, peeled

½ cup of Extra Virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon of salt

½ teaspoon of pepper

Pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees

Dry the leg of lamb, then rub in the salt and pepper, coat with the olive oil

With the sharp point of a knife, make ten holes in the lamb and stuff in the cloves of garlic.

Place lamb on a rack in a roasting pan in which you have put one cup of water and put in oven.

Every half hour put another cup of water in the roasting pan.

After 45 minutes, turn the lamb.

Turn it again after another 45 minutes.

Let cook for another ½ hour, then remove from the oven and set aside for ten minutes before serving. Serves 8

Augustin Hanicotte (1870-1957) The Goat-herd, watercolor and gouache, 1925

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Tapenade of Jean Nicolas

Our friend Jean Nicolas, a retired Parisian banker, had for many years a very enviable job. As a loan officer of a major French bank, he would take potential clients to Maxim’s five days a week and over lunch decide whether or not the bank should lend them a great deal of money. Jean was then (and is still) very trim. I once asked him how he managed to keep his figure when he was obliged to eat so often in one of the great gastronomic temples of France. “Très simple,” he said. “I always order exactly the same thing: a chop, a green salad, and a bottle of Perrier.” Jean no doubt exercised the same self-discipline when handing out loans, and had more bankers followed his example, the world’s finances probably would be in less turmoil today.

Jean was born in Nyons in Provence. He makes a tasty and very healthful tapenade using this family recipe. He has pointed out that the caper is called “tapé” or “tapeno”in Provençal, thus: “ tapenado” or “tapenade” means a sauce made with capers, even though ripe olives are the principal ingredient.

2 ½ cups of ripe olives, pitted and rinsed

½ cup of capers

4 filets of anchovies

½ tablespoon of Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil (2 if you prefer a thinner consistency)

Mix the ingredients and pass through a food mill or grind in a food processor, being careful not to over-process them.

Serve on toast or crackers.

Jean Nicolas on a visit to London, 1971 circa,
Lower Mall, Hammersmith

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Cranberry Conserve

This is one of our Thanksgiving standbys, and beats by a mile the red cranberry stuff that comes out of a can.

1 cup cranberry juice

1 cup sugar

1 jigger of port

Zest of one orange, minced

1 package of fresh cranberries, rinsed and picked through

1 cup of dried cranberries

In a medium saucepan, combine the cranberry juice, sugar, orange zest, and port and bring to a boil.

Add the fresh and dried cranberries and cook over moderate heat for about ten minutes, using a wooden spoon to mash the fresh berries against the side of the pan.

When the conserve is thick and jam-like, transfer it to a bowl and chill. Can
be refrigerated for up to two weeks.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Almost John Pozza's Tuscan-Style Beans

Life in Italy in the early 1960s was extremely inexpensive. At that time there were decent trattorie in Florence where one could get a good three-course meal for the equivalent of 50 cents. A bottle of the best Antinori Chianti Riserva cost 600 lire, just under a dollar. And shortly after I went to live there, for about eight dollars a month, I rented a room on the piano nobile of the 15th century Palazzo Rustici, behind the Palazzo Vecchio, where Leonardo da Vinci himself had spent some time in 1500 after he fled Milan because of the fall of his patrons, the Sforza family. The palazzo was then the home of one of his pupils, the sculptor Giovan Francesco dei Rustici, and it was with dei Rustici that Leonardo sought refuge.

My room in Palazzo Rustici boasted a graceful white marble fireplace topped by a fresco of Hercules, two arched alcoves that had windows facing the ochre façade of a Romanesque church, and a beautifully worn red brick floor that I kept swept and oiled. Such was the grandeur of my dwelling that I was usually able to ignore the reality that there was neither hot water nor any real source of heat. The fireplace was merely decorative and probably had been for centuries. That winter I bought a series of ornamental but useless stoves at the flea market and was probably lucky to have escaped asphyxiation. However, even when it was cold and damp, sunlight often streamed into the two windowed alcoves, giving the illusion of warmth. And I solved the hot water problem by joining the Canottieri, a rowing club on the Arno just a few blocks away, where I was able to take showers, shave, and maintain a reasonable level of personal hygiene.

The palazzo was a warren of rooms, large and small, rented out to foreigners: students, artists, and among them always a number of young Australians who were making their obligatory jaunt around the world before settling in down under. Next to my spacious room was a small one in which lived William, a pale, skinny, and reclusive young American scholar, who, by living very frugally, had made the funds of a one-year fellowship stretch out to five. A weepy Australian girl, inappropriately named Gay, who also lived somewhere in the palazzo, was obsessed with William and would leave gifts of food and flowers with notes at his door. When she became too intense in her pursuit, William would disappear for a few weeks, no one knew where.

The grand salone next to mine was the studio of a Fulbright artist from California, John Hunter, who was working on a series of huge paintings of Leda and the Swan. The working title he had given the series, which I believe he later wisely changed, was: “Take me to Your Leda.”

In the room above me was John Pozza, an Italian-American former Fulbright scholar from Arkansas who had decided to stay in Florence after his scholarship year was up, and had found a teaching job.An odd bird, but talented, his hobby was making life-sized Renaissance-style angels in papier-mâché, all of which had the face of his Italian lover, whom I often saw, coming and going, on the monumental stairway that went up to the piano nobile. John’s replicas were so authentic looking that once when he tried to ship one to Arkansas, the Belle Arti Commission intervened because they suspected that it was a national treasure. He received authorization for shipment when he scraped a bit off the bottom of the statue’s foot and showed the representative of the Belle Arti that it was actually made from recent copies of La Nazione, the Florentine daily newspaper.

A few years ago, John, living again in Arkansas, sent me his recipe for authentic Tuscan-Style Beans (Fagioli all’Uccelletto), which had been a favorite Florentine dish of ours, not only because it was usually one of the cheapest things on the menu. Here is my version:

1 pound dried navy beans

¾ cup of olive oil

6 cloves of garlic, finely minced or put through a garlic press

1 14 ½ ounce can of whole, peeled tomatoes and their juice

½ 14 ½ can of diced tomatoes and their juice

3 sprigs of fresh sage or ½ teaspoon of ground sage

1 teaspoon of sea salt

½ teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper

Soak beans for at least 8 hours in enough cold water to cover them.

Drain beans and rinse under cold water, then place them in a large saucepan. Cover them with unsalted cold water and simmer until tender but firm (about 45 minutes to an hour).

Heat the oil in a heavy skillet and lightly brown garlic, being careful not to burn it.

Drain beans and add them, the tomatoes and their liquid and the sage to the skillet and gently simmer until the sauce thickens, and the beans become tender, about an hour. Do not add salt and pepper until beans are done. The dish will be better if it is allowed to sit on the back of the stove for a few hours before it is served.

6 servings


Saturday, November 6, 2010

A Consommé Devoutly to be Wished

Jim S., from Omaha, lived in several sumptuous apartments in Florence for over twenty years and never learned to pronounce the names of any of the streets they were on. The last and grandest was on the ground floor of Palazzo Guicciardini where he, his partner, Roger, and his mother, whose wealth provided the wherewithal, lived in their idea of grand style.

The apartment was first rented out by the Guicciardini family during the difficult period just after the Second World War. Before that, the entire enormous palazzo, next to the Palazzo Pitti, was a one-family dwelling.

The first rental was handled discreetly by an agency. The agent assured the then head of the family, Count Paolo, that he had found an extremely suitable tenant: a titled Englishwoman. The Count and Countess Guicciardini were, therefore, somewhat startled when they saw the new tenant in the cortile: a very mannish woman wearing a man’s suit and sporting a monocle. They soon discovered that they their new renter was the surviving half of one of the most famous Lesbian couples in English literature: Lady Una Troubridge, companion of the writer Radclyffe Hall whose novel of Lesbian life, The Well of Loneliness, had shocked Edwardian England and much of the rest of the world.

After Hall’ s death during the war, Lady Una, previously the epitome of femininity, began to assume her dead lover’s masculine ways and took to wearing her Saville Row men’s suits. Count Paolo’s nephew, Francesco, told me, that at first his uncle and aunt were appalled and shocked to have such a person living under their august roof, but gradually they got to know Lady Una and they became fast friends, playing bridge together and attending together the opera at the Teatro Communale, to which Lady Una always wore her late partner’s elegant dinner jacket.

By the time the slightly strange ménage à trois from Omaha moved into the flat, Count Paolo and his wife were long dead and his heir, the bachelor Count Francesco, was the owner of the palace. He was not at all shocked by his new tenants. In fact, Francesco enjoyed entertaining a wide variety of types from all social classes, not a few of them slightly disreputable. Count Francesco was unconcerned by what anyone thought of the comings and goings. “I cannot live my life to please my concierge,” he once told me.

Jim S. filled the apartment with many costly things: original Majorelle furniture, Tiffany lamps, and the like, and he would gladly tell you just how much his furnishings were worth.

Once I was invited to dinner by Jim a few weeks before the annual Pitti fashion show. A disparate group of about eight gathered in one of the over-furnished salons for drinks before dinner. When we all had drinks in hand, Mrs. S. made her appearance, somewhat unsteadily. I suspect she had already had a drink or two. She was dressed in haute couture with many rings, bracelets, and chains and looked rather like a bulldog in elaborate drag. Roger handed her a drink, then another, and she drank them down without saying a word. Eventually, we moved to the dining room and took our places at a large rectangular table. I was directly opposite Mrs. S.. A lovely consommé was served and the conversation, which as I recall was about how high or low hems were going to be at the upcoming fashion shows, continued. Mrs. S. seemed to have no opinion on this topic and she sat silently as the various options were discussed. Then, suddenly, she snorted and fell face forward into her consommé. The conversation flowed on undisturbed while Mrs. S. gurgled softly in her soup. After a very long moment, Roger got up, lifted her out of the bowl, wiped her off with her napkin, and led her away. Surprised by the seeming nonchalance of the other dinner guests, I turned to my neighbor, a disagreeable German countess named Eva, and said. “Poor Mrs. S.! I hope she is going to be all right.” “Don’t worry about it,” Eva replied. “It happens every night.”

I never saw Mrs. S. again. A year or so after the dinner party, I heard that she had fallen and broken her arm but was mending nicely for an 80+ year-old. A few weeks later, one morning just before dawn, I had a vivid dream: there was a knock at the door of my apartment in Piazza Peruzzi. I opened it and there was the Angel of Death, wings and all. “I’ve come to tell you that Mrs. S. is dead,” the Angel said. “Thank you for letting me know,” I replied, and then woke up, and realized it was just a dream. It had seemed so real.

Later that morning friends came by for coffee. While I was telling them about the dream, the telephone rang. It was one of Jim’s friends. “Have you heard about Jim’s mother?” he asked. “I think so,” I said. Mrs. S. had died of natural causes a few hours before. Soup was not involved.

Here is a consommé, adapted from a recipe in my 1942 edition of The Original Picayune Creole Cook Book, into which Mrs. S. might have enjoyed a plunge. It is fairly simple to make, but does requires a lot of time.

Consommé Doré

1 gallon of water

1 chicken, cut up in pieces

1- ½ lbs beef marrow bones

1 lb of good boiled ham, cut in chunks

The whites and shells of two large eggs

2 large sprigs of parsley

1 small parsnip

1 carrot

2 stalks of celery

1 medium yellow onion

1 leek, washed

3 cloves

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon ground black pepper

3 dashes of Tabasco hot sauce

1 pat of butter

Put the chicken, ham and bones into a large pot of cold water, bring to a boil and let simmer for five hours, keeping the pot well covered.

Chop the vegetables and sauté them in a skillet with the pat of butter until tender . Add the vegetables, the salt, pepper, Tabasco, and cloves to the soup and let it simmer for another two hours.

Let the mixture cool and then chill in the refrigerator over night. Next day remove the congealed fat and scoop up the jelly, leaving the thickest part of the sediment (which, after the much-boiled bones are removed, can be added to another soup)

Put the egg whites and shells into the jelly and bring to a fast boil for about ten minutes, then let settle and cool.

Strain the mixture through a double layer of cheese cloth. According to the Picayure Creole Cook Book, it should be “ a beautiful golden-brown color.” May be served hot or chilled, garnished with a thin slice of lemon and a sprinkle of chopped parsely.

Serves six

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Polenta with Shrimp and Sausage

When I lived in Florence in the early 1960s, for a time I shared a maid named Aurelia with my painter friend, Flo Shoul.

Aurelia, a small woman with a hooked nose and a hump on her back, came from the Florentine suburb of San Casciano. A friend who had also grown up there remembered her and told me that during the Second World War Aurelia was the only person to go out when bombs were falling, because, she said, she was too ugly to be killed.

Twice a week, Aurelia spent a few hours changing my linen, doing my washing, sweeping and dusting and polishing, but she often mentioned that she was famous for her polenta and would like to fix it for me one day.

She kept my apartment on the top floor of a 19th century building on Via dei Vecchietti fairly spic and span. She chattered while she worked and listening to the narrative of her life, I learned a number of colorful Florentine expressions that were never used in polite company.

Every weekend, Aurelia took the train to a town on the Adriatic coast to visit her uncle, who, she claimed, had a title, was, in fact, a prince. There was nothing about Aurelia that suggested aristocratic connections, but I had heard that many Italian titles were not to be taken very seriously. I knew one pretentious young man named Baroncelli who was able to purchase the title “Barone,” and did so probably because “Barone Baroncelli” had such a distinctive ring. So, I thought, maybe Aurelia’s uncle really was a prince of one kind or another.

Il mio zio, il principe,” as she referred to him, was elderly and not in good health and Aurelia was, she told me, the only one in the family who was kind to him. He had, she said, two very mean sisters who lived nearby, but who rarely came to see him.

Once after a weekend with her uncle, Aurelia told me that she had something very important to tell me, but that it was an enormous secret and I could not even hint of it to anyone. “I must find a very discreet lawyer,” she said, “un avvocato molto discreto.” “Why?” I asked. “Because,” she said in a whisper, “My uncle has decided to adopt me!” “Aurelia! That means you will become a principessa!” She smiled.

There was, she confided, one condition that she had to agree to before her uncle adopted her, and it had to do with his mean sisters. “After I inherit,” she said,” I must hire a long black car with a uniformed chauffer and, wearing a new pair of white gloves, go to visit his sisters. During the visit I must not take off my gloves nor sit down.” She obviously was relishing the prospect of putting the mean sisters in their place.

After she had been working for me for some time, Aurelia began to act strangely. Instead of spending several hours cleaning my apartment, she would stay the entire day. Since I paid her by the visit and not the hour, I didn’t really care, but it was disconcerting to have her there from 9 in the morning until early evening, finding things to do that did not really need to be done. I called the friend I shared her with and Flo reported the same bizarre behavior. “I can’t get rid of her!” she said. Eventually, Flo sent her Italian boyfriend, Aldo, to ask questions in the quartiere where Aurelia lived. It did not take him long to solve the mystery. To earn a little extra cash, Aurelia was renting out her room by the hour to the neighborhood whores and could not return home until their business was done.

Finally, one day when a friend from Livorno was coming to lunch, I told Aurelia that she could make her famous polenta for us. About half an hour before the guest was to arrive, I left Aurelia setting the table while her pot of polenta bubbled away in the kitchen. I went out to buy wine and bread for the meal, and when I returned my guest was at the front door. We entered the apartment together and went into the dining room. As we approached the table, I noticed, sitting next to my plate, Aurelia’s upper and lower dentures, which, I assume, she had taken out for a rest and forgotten. “Aurelia,” I called to her, “it‘s such a nice day, I think we’ll eat on the terrace instead.” A change of venue was definitely called for if we were to regain our suddenly lost appetites. I had a hard time getting out of my mind the image of Aurelia’s false teeth next to my plate even as we ate her excellent polenta on the terrace with a beautiful view over Florence. I don’t know if she ever became a princess, but I never asked her to prepare lunch again.

Here is my favorite way to prepare polenta, the delicious Italian cousin of grits:

1 lb raw extra large shrimp, peeled and de-veined
2 links of good quality smoked sausage, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil + one tablespoon
1 clove of garlic, sliced
2 tablespoons all purpose flour
1 cup milk
½ cup wine
1 cup chopped parsley

For the polenta:
4 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup of polenta or coarsely ground corn meal
4 tablespoons butter
1 cup cream cheese

While the water is coming to a boil in a large saucepan, brown sausage and garlic slices in the olive oil in a large skillet, being careful not to burn the garlic. When sausage and garlic are well browned, remove sausage to a plate and discard garlic. Toss shrimp in skillet in the now flavored oil until they are pink and beginning to curl. Remove to plate with sausage.

When the water has come to a boil, add salt and slowly whisk in the polenta or corn meal. Reduce the heat to a simmer and stir in butter. Stir occasionally while it cooks. It should be ready in about 30 minutes.

While the polenta is cooking, add the extra tablespoon of olive oil to the skillet. Slowly stir in flour over a medium heat until it begins to lightly brown. Stir in wine and then the milk while stirring vigorously until the sauce is smooth and thick.

When the polenta is tender, stir in the cream cheese over low heat.

Add the sausage and shrimp to the sauce in the skillet and gently reheat.

Sprinkle the parsley over the mixture, and serve immediately over mounds of polenta.

Serves 4

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Casa Sant'Alessandro, Pomarance, 1973

Terry Hughes and Isaac Bitter, contadini finti, during the vendemmia, 1973

Girando, un contadino serio, during the vendemmia, 1973

Sunset (or was it sunrise?) at Pomarance, Late Summer, 1973

Eugenio and lamb, Casa Sant'Alessandro, Pomarance, 1973

Simonetta and daughter Anna, Casa Sant'Alessandro, Pomarance, 1973, the year of the famous vendemmia

Florence, October 2009

A cat in the garden of Villa I Tatti, where we had an al fresco lunch, October 15th, 2009

A view from the villa at Grassina, October 2009

Eugenio, Simonetta, John and Joel, in front of Santo Spirito, Florence, October, 2009

Eugenio's Lasagna, Grassina, October, 2009

Eugenio's Lasagna

When I first lived in Italy, I had a very romantic idea of what the annual vendemmia, the grape harvest, must be like, and when people spoke of it, I imagined a pleasant outing under blue skies, shears in hand, going through vineyards in the company of picturesque peasants, snipping bunches of luscious grapes from the vines. I thought it would be a delightful lark.

In 1973, I got to take part in this annual ritual when I rented a farmhouse, Casa Sant’Alessandro, on the property of my Florentine friends, Simonetta and Eugenio Biliotti, near Volterra. I was there to finish in peace and quiet a student guidebook to Italy that I had been commissioned to write. The stone house was about a mile from the main villa where Simonetta and Eugenio spent time when they were not in Florence. The casa had running water and electricity and a great deal of charm, and in those days that was all that I required. I was there, off and on, from spring through autumn, and except for a few weeks when a shepherd and his sheep occupied the ground floor of the house, it was very peaceful and very quiet.

I had no telephone, no television; my only connection to the outside world was a Grundig shortwave radio that gave me news and music. My main way of communicating with the villa was by tying messages to the collar of “Brie,” a friendly hound that had nothing better to do than wander back and forth between the little house and the large one. Sometimes messages arrived within minutes; sometimes they took hours. That summer, the big news story from the U.S. was the investigation for fraud of Vice President Spiro Agnew. When I heard early one morning that he had resigned, I looked outside and saw Brie on my doorstep. I wrote the news on a piece of paper, attached it to her collar, and told her: “Vai alla villa!” She wagged her tail and eventually ambled off. Simonetta and Eugenio had a houseguest: Terry Hughes, a correspondent for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Terry, who usually was in the middle of breaking news stories, was sitting on the steps of the villa having his first cup of coffee when Brie arrived, and was amazed to learn this important information from a scrap of paper delivered by a dog.

Terry was back for another visit in autumn when it was time for the vendemmia and was as enthusiastic as I was about taking part in it. In fact, he had brought Mickey Mouse T-shirts for Simonetta’s several guests to wear while harvesting the grapes…why, I am not sure. The peasants, for whom the vendemmia was serious business, were not exactly welcoming to us amateurs, and the image of Mickey on our chests did nothing to win them over. Once the harvesting began, we understood why. It was not easy work, and we were mostly in the way. But we stumbled along the rows of vines, clipping as best we could the clusters of grapes and dropping them into the plastic bins we dragged behind us. Finally when the sun was about to set, we put down our shears and, exhausted, hiked back to the villa…and that is when the magic began. Eugenio and Simonetta had put up a long table in the hall of the villa and suddenly large platters of steaming lasagna and bottles of red wine, made with grapes from a previous harvest, were served and everyone who had been laboring in the fields sat down and drank and feasted. We were all ravenous and it was, by far, the most delicious lasagna I had ever tasted.

Eugenio, who over the years has developed from a very good cook to a superb and dedicated cook, says he does not remember what kind of lasagna he made on that occasion, but here is the recipe he prepared for us when last October we stayed with him and Simonetta in their 16th century villa in Grassina, just outside of Florence. It is probably even more delicious than the one I remember so fondly.

Eugenio uses RANA pre-cooked lasagna noodles, which may be difficult to find. If you must use dry pasta, de Cecco is a good brand to use. You may prepare the lasagna pasta while the sauce is cooking:

1 lb of dry lasagna sheets
Bring 6 quarts of water with one teaspoon of salt and one tablespoon of olive oil to a vigorous boil, and cook for the time recommended on the package. Stir them often to prevent them from sticking to each other. When the sheets are al dente, drain in a colander and place the sheets in a pan of cool water to keep them from drying out until you are ready for them.
For the sauce:
1 lb and 1 ounce of ground beef
¾ lb of good pork sausage, taken out of its skin
1 medium red onion, minced
1 stalk of celery, minced
1 small carrot, minced
½ teaspoon of chopped rosemary
1 cupful of dried porcini mushrooms, rehydrated with hot water
1 large can of peeled tomatoes
½ cup of extra virgin olive oil
1 cup of dry red wine
1 teaspoon of salt
½ teaspoon of freshly ground pepper
½ cup of chicken broth
1 cup of grated very good Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
Six extra pats of butter to be added later

Heat the olive oil in a large pot and sauté over a low flame, the onion, celery and carrot until they have softened ( about 2 minutes), then add the ground beef and sausage, stirring frequently until almost all the liquid has evaporated. Stir in salt & pepper, and, before the mixture begins to stick to the bottom of the pan, add the wine and keep stirring until it is almost all evaporated. Add the chopped rosemary and after 20 seconds the peeled tomatoes and the chicken broth. Cover the pot and let simmer over a very low flame for at least 40 minutes, stirring occasionally.

For the Béchamel:
5 tablespoons of butter
4 tablespoons of all-purpose flour
4 cups of milk
2 teaspoons of salt
½ teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg

Melt the butter over medium-low heat in a saucepan. Add the flour and stir until it is smooth.
Increase heat to medium and, continuing to stir, cook until the mixture turns a light golden color (6 to 7 minutes).

Heat the milk in a separate pan over medium-low heat until it is almost at a boil, then whisk in the hot milk a cup at a time to the butter mixture until it is very smooth. Cook for another 10 minutes while stirring constantly, then remove from heat and stir in salt and nutmeg. If the sauce is too dense, stir in a little more heated milk.

Smear the bottom of a large, flat baking dish with butter. Then place a sheet of the pasta in the dish, cover with spoonfuls of the sauce, then the Béchamel, then the cheese, then another sheet of the pasta, and sauce and Béchamel and cheese, repeating these layers until you have filled the pan.

Place in 350 degree oven for about 20 minutes. Serves 8

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Beating Austerity in the Kitchen (More or Less) - A blog about food and the people I've shared it with.

When I was on liberty in London as an N. R. O. T. C. midshipman more than half a century ago, I bought an English cookbook because I was charmed by its title: Beating Austerity in the Kitchen. It sounded so stiff-upper-lip, that much-admired quality of the English. The Second World War had been over for almost a decade, but life in Britain still seemed grim. London was pocked with bombed-out ruins, drabness was pervasive, and the food I encountered in the restaurants and hotels was hardly edible.

I stayed in a small hotel near Russell Square where breakfast was included in the modest cost of the room. Each morning at seven, the proprietor set out racks of cold, scorched toast and poured thin, lukewarm milk over bowls of cornflakes which by a quarter past seven were unrecognizable as such.

Buying a cookbook in post-war England was perverse, bordering on the masochistic. Beating Austerity in the Kitchen was a thin volume that might have been mistaken for a slender first book of poems by a chronically depressed poet had it not been for its bright yellow dust jacket festooned with red and blue rosettes. It contained a lot of information about preserving, storing, and stretching food that was still being rationed, and was written for the British housewife accustomed to preparing and eating the kinds of dishes Cyril Connolly had in mind when he wrote: “Oh, the superb wretchedness of English food, how many foreigners has it daunted, and what a subtle glow of nationality one feels in ordering a dish that one knows will be bad and being able to eat it!”

Apart from its gaudy dust jacket, the showiest thing about this modest book was the name of its author: Lady Peacock. Since by now the good Lady more than likely “has gone to get the prize for domestic virtue” (the translation of an inscription I once saw on an ancient tomb in Florence), she probably will not object if I borrow her title for these recipes my partner, John Copenhaver, and I have enjoyed through the years and would like to share with our friends in this new Age of Austerity when we may not be eating out quite as often.

Some of the dishes are a little extravagant to fit comfortably in a blog with a title that suggests restraint and frugality, but if you prepare them in your own kitchen, consider what you will save on tips alone.