I seldom cook by numbers, any more than when I walk my dog, Hamlet, along the familiar streets of lower Manhattan I use a compass or plot my course on a map. When my wife, Judy, or friends ask how much of this or that I use in a stew or salad, I say “a little” or “a lot,” but usually I say “not too much”—not meaning to be rude, but because I agree with the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus that you cannot enter the same river twice, that each act is unique and irretrievable, like the water rushing downriver to the sea, or the seconds of our lives ticking away on our wrists, or the way we hear a tune or read a book. From a Heraclitean perspective, it is impossible to make the same dish twice—nor should one want to, since it can be made better the next time, when you will be a little wiser and the ingredients, a little more forthcoming. Recipes should be more like stories than like maps or formulae. So in this book I tell practical stories about some favorite dishes and how they fit into my life and hope readers will try them in the same spirit. In cooking, “not too much” is usually a good rule, since you seldom want a particular flavor to dominate. You want harmony, though syncopation helps.
I am a book publisher, not a professional cook, though in my youth I worked in restaurant kitchens, and later published many fine books by famous chefs who became friends—Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck, Daniel Boulud, Maida Heatter, and Patrick O’Connell among others—and learned from them, too. From time to time I’ve written about food for various publications, and many of the dishes I describe in this book appeared first in those magazines with a list of ingredients and step-by-step instructions for combining them. But in this book I shall describe some favorite dishes as if I were talking to friends who have liked something I’ve cooked and want to try it themselves. To friends I would not dream of reciting a list of measured ingredients and numbered instructions. Except when it comes to baking, where precision is important, I prefer to suggest parameters and leave it to others to work out for themselves such specifics as time, quantity, and temperatures, so that the dish becomes theirs, too. Cooking is like poetry, where one’s unique voice is everything: words and their placement are essential ingredients, too, but the poet’s own voice makes them sing, which is why when you paraphrase a poem you end up with nothing but words.
For example, take a simple penne in tomato sauce with basil and mozzarella, which I often make for friends at lunch.
PENNE IN TOMATO SAUCE
For three or four people you will need a twenty-eight-ounce can of San Marzano tomatoes. These are grown in volcanic soil on the slopes of Vesuvius and sold in high-quality supermarkets and Italian fine-food shops. I buy mine at Di Palo’s magnificent cheese shop on Grand Street in lower Manhattan, a few blocks from where I live. From a culinary point of view, Di Palo’s is as close to a visit to Italy as you will get without leaving home. San Marzanos are more plump than other varieties, with more tomato flavor and just enough acidity. But if you can’t find San Marzano, any good brand will do, preferably Italian. Muir Glen is a good American brand.
For the sauce, heat just enough extra-virgin olive oil to cover the bottom of a heavy pot large enough to hold a pound of cooked penne. As the oil warms but before it begins to shimmer, add two or three cloves of slivered garlic, and a minute later a medium-size jalapeño, minced, its seeds removed. Then reduce the flame to its lowest point. The idea is to infuse the oil with the various flavors over a very low flame until the fragrance fills the kitchen but before the jalapeño begins to brown. If it does brown a little, don’t worry. But keep an opened can of tomatoes nearby, to add as soon as the garlic mixture softens and the aroma rises from the pan. If you turn your back for a minute and the jalapeño blackens or the garlic becomes acrid, toss it out and start over. After you’ve chopped your eye.
If your tomatoes are watery and shapeless, throw them out and try another brand. To the tomatoes, add one or two tablespoons of dried oregano and reduce over a medium flame. Fresh oregano, if you have some in your garden, will give the dish a perfumed lift, but it is much less intense than the dried. You will have to strip from its stems more than twice as much as the dry for the fragrance to take hold: a chore perhaps not worth the effort. The sauce will thicken as the water evaporates in ten or fifteen minutes. It should be somewhat tight. If it thickens too much, add a little water. If it is too watery, reduce it further or it will not grip the pasta. Then add coarse sea salt and pepper to taste, adding the salt carefully, a few grains at a time, until the sauce comes smartly and suddenly to life. Some cooks add a little sugar or soften carrot and onion with the garlic and pepper. I usually don’t. The San Marzano tomatoes are sweet enough.
Meanwhile, fill a large pot halfway with water, and add salt until you can just begin to taste it. Then bring the salted water to a rapid boil and add a pound of dried or fresh penne, either ridged (rigate) or smooth, preferably an Italian brand. I keep a small bowl of cool water nearby so that as the penne cooks I can extract a few pieces with a slotted spoon or tongs, drop them in the cool water, and taste them without burning my mouth. Fresh pasta will take only a few minutes to cook, so watch it carefully lest it turn to mush. Dried pasta may take as many as seven or eight minutes, though some imported dried pastas cook almost as quickly as fresh, so, unless you’ve used the brand before, taste and be careful not to overcook it. It should be firm to the bite—al dente—before you add it to the tomato sauce, where it will cook a little more. When the pasta is ready, lift it out with a long-handled strainer—the Chinese version is best. Toss the strained penne into the thickened, warm sauce, and with a wooden spoon mix it about until the pasta is well coated. The idea is to flavor the penne, rather than think of the sauce as the main ingredient and the pasta as its conveyance. Discard the pasta water if you plan to serve the penne at once. If you choose to serve the pasta later, save the water, bring it to a boil, and ladle some slowly into the pasta as you reheat it over a moderate flame until the penne loosens. The pasta will no longer be al dente, but will be edible nonetheless. Serve very hot in large pasta bowls. Top each bowl generously with hand-shredded—not chopped—fresh basil, and cube for each serving a small handful of the freshest possible mozzarella, being careful that the cheese rests upon the basil leaves and not the hot pasta, lest the cheese melt and become stringy. Use only very fresh mozzarella, made the same day. Avoid the plastic-wrapped product sold in supermarket coolers. You may prefer buffalo mozzarella from Italy for a tangier flavor. Unlike mozzarella made from cow’s milk, which toughens as it ages, buffalo mozzarella becomes sharp and softens with age. Dieters should know that it takes four quarts of whole milk to make a pound of mozzarella. In this recipe, a half-pound cubed should be enough for four.
The secret is the jalapeño, which adds subtle heat from the bottom up and intensifies the other flavors. You will not notice it at once, but it will be awaiting you at the back of your tongue. If instead of jalapeño you use dried Italian red-pepper flakes, the heat will be less subtle, though a quick dusting of a few flakes reduced to a powder by your fingertips before you add the basil and mozzarella complements the jalapeño from the top down. Another secret is the cool mozzarella contrasting with the hot, peppery pasta and spicy basil. I have seldom served this to anyone—even dieters—who didn’t ask for more until there was none left.
SPAGHETTI OR LINGUINE WITH CLAMS
Spaghettini or linguine with clams is another simple dish, too often made to seem complicated. All you need is a pound of pasta; two or three garlic cloves, peeled; a jalapeño, finely chopped; just enough olive oil in which to heat the garlic and pepper; two cups of dry white wine; some Italian parsley; and, for two people, two dozen littleneck (small, hard-shell) clams, rinsed, or, much preferably, two pounds of Manila clams if you can find them (and if you can’t, look for New Zealand cockles, a close relative). Manilas are sweeter than littlenecks and used widely in Italy. Dried red pepper flakes are optional. Fill a stockpot half full of water, add salt, and bring to a boil. Meanwhile, heat a little olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pot just large enough to accommodate a pound of cooked pasta and the clams, and add the whole garlic and chopped jalapeño and cook gently until the garlic and pepper soften. Add the wine, and reduce quickly by half. Then add the clams, cover the pot, and when the clams open, after a few minutes, remove the cover and turn off the flame. Add the pasta to the boiling stockpot, and when it is al dente (see page 7), lift it with tongs and add it to the clam sauce. Coat the linguine or spaghettini with the sauce, and serve in large pasta bowls. Sprinkle with coarsely chopped Italian parsley and serve. A sprinkling of red-pepper flakes and a dash of extra-virgin olive oil are optional. If the pasta seems dry, add a ladle or two of hot pasta water. This quantity will serve two, maybe three.
Since we’re on the subject of pasta, I should mention the irresistible Bolognese ragù from the great Mario Batali’s Babbo Cookbook
, which I have somewhat modified.
This is one of the all-time great ragùs, and easy to make after a little trial and error. Again, you will need a pot large enough for the rather substantial sauce and a pound of imported tagliatelle, Spinosi brand if you can find it. Batali uses pappardelle, and you may, too. In the pot, heat a little olive oil and soften a few chopped garlic cloves with some diced onion, carrot, and celery. Then cube a quarter-pound of pancetta (unsmoked Italian bacon) or, preferably, guanciale, cured from hog cheeks but not smoked, if you can find it in your Italian specialty store, and spin the cubes for a few seconds in a food processor. Scrape the pancetta or guanciale into the pot, and stir until it begins to melt. Then crumble a pound each of ground veal and pork into the pot and over a medium-hot flame brown the meats. Then toss in a small handful of dried oregano leaves, and mix everything together. Batali calls for a small can of tomato paste at this point, or use three generous tablespoons of estrato instead.
Now add a cup of milk and another of white wine, reduce the flame to a simmer, cover the pot loosely, and let it simmer over the lowest flame for an hour or so, checking from time to time that the sauce hasn’t dried out and begun to burn. Add more milk and wine as necessary. Add sea salt and fresh-ground pepper to taste carefully. Then sprinkle a good handful of very fragrant fresh thyme leaves, from the garden if you have one, into the ragù. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, cook a pound of tagliatelle until it’s al dente, and transfer the pasta with tongs to the ragù and mix thoroughly, saving the pasta water if you’re not planning to serve the ragù immediately (see page 7). Drop a tong-full into each large pasta bowl, sprinkle with grated parmigiana, and serve while hot. The dish is even better the second day, as leftovers.
In childhood, I became interested in cooking as I watched my grandmother Ida bake pies, preserve peaches and applesauce from her own trees, and roast chickens that she had fattened herself in the cellar when it was too cold for them outdoors. My grandparents’ old house, atop a steep hill in Auburn, Maine, had a primitive coal-burning furnace which kept the cellar warm but didn’t do much on icy days for the big, drafty parlors, despite heavy wood-framed storm windows. Ida was tall, handsome, and amiable. She carried herself with dignity and smiled often and easily. She was not a great cook and not always even a very good one, but she tried. Her grandchildren respected and loved her and went along with the pretense that her food was delicious. Or perhaps, being children, they didn’t know any better. At the age of ten, I did know better, for my parents would often take me with them when they dined out with friends on Sundays at country inns—including the Toll House, with its famous cookies—around Boston, where we lived when we were not visiting my grandparents in Maine.
My grandmother was from Russia and said she liked cold houses with warm kitchens. Her husband, my grandfather, was born prematurely and kept in a shoe box wrapped in fur until he was old enough to survive, or so I was told. When I knew him in old age, he wore in winter what was called a pelt, a stiff canvas coat lined with a sheepskin, an echo, I thought, of his primitive incubator. On bitter winter days when the frost formed peaks on the storm windows in the unheated parlor, my cousins and I sat in the kitchen warmed by the big woodstove with its nickel trim and the words “Model: Home Fireside” in raised letters above a temperature gauge on the oven door.
Prospect Hill, where my grandparents lived, was almost perpendicular, and with my friend Raymond Begin, who was smart and funny and spoke French—he would become a Roman Catholic priest in Canada— I skied down it on heavy wooden Norwegian skis with knobs at the tip. Then, with sealskins attached to our skis, we would herringbone back up. Afterward we would go across South Main Street to Cloutier’s store (pronounced “Cloochies”) for frozen Milky Ways and root beer.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Eating by Jason Epstein. Copyright © 2009 by Jason Epstein. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.