A Few “recipes”

The Unprejudiced Palate: Classic Thoughts on Food and the Good Life is not a cookbook in the traditional sense, but I don’t think I should discuss it without citing some of the kind of recipes it offers

I switched from iceberg lettuce to salad greens about ten years ago because I found it impossible to successfully grow iceberg lettuce, but I was surprised to learn that Pellegrini was preaching that change way back in 1948:

When is the American going to learn that there are vegetable salads other than sliced tomatoes and quartered head lettuce? Endive, escarole, dandelion and chicory shoots, with a dressing of olive oil, wine vinegar, and whatever else suits one’s taste, yield superb salads as counterpoints to roasted, broiled, and fried meat. Endive and escarole are available in the fall and early winter. In temperate climates chicory shoots thrive in the garden the year round. They are at their best in the early spring. Dandelion is the most desirable from February until it blooms. These salads are all slightly bitter and should therefore be eaten with well seasoned roasts and steaks. Those whose experience with food is rather limited may have to cultivate a taste for them. On first acquaintance, it is best to try one of them with a roast loin of pork well seasoned with fresh sage and garlic. Add thereto French bread, a bottle of red wine, potatoes that have been roasted with the meat, and bless forever the immigrant who put you wise to the dish.

Although I’ve still never been adventurous enough to add dandelion shoots to my salad, I can no longer imagine a salad without mixed greens. On my last trip to California I even discovered a salad that consisted mainly of spinach greens, and I couldn’t wait to get to the store to try to recreate the taste myself.

I’m not sure I would have been ready for this advice when the cookbook came out, though I’m sure my dad would have loved it.

There is not a cookbook worth the paper on which it is printed which does not suggest the frequent use of two famous Italian cheeses: Parmigiano and Romano. They are hard and dry and full of flavor, the classic grating cheeses in occidental cookery. The dairy interests have recently cluttered the market with “Parmesan type” counterfeits that aren’t worth a damn. They are so foul that they may safely be guaranteed to ruin any food on which they are sprinkled. Nor is it safe to buy the grated product even in a reputable Italian store; for the temptation is too great to grind up all the dry and stale odds and ends of cheese that cannot otherwise be disposed of, and palm them off as grated Parmigiano. The prudent cook will buy a chunk of the genuine cheese and grate it in the kitchen as needed.

At seven I suspect I would have hated real Parmigiano cheese because it would have reminded me of those “stinky” cheeses dad loved. Me, I preferred real “American” cheese, though I have a hard time gagging the stuff down now. Today, I can hardly imagine eating any form of pasta with some fresh-grated Parmigiano cheese on top.

I doubt everyone has caught up with this tip, but I certainly have.

The quality of the pasta is of first importance. The best is made with durum wheat semolina. It is best because when cooked for approximately twenty minutes it is firm, free from sticky starches, and retains its shape. Pasta made with ordinary wheat flour is a phony, and no Italian will use it. It “mushes” up, falls apart, and sticks to the teeth. There is plenty of durum wheat in America, and many experienced Italian macaroni manufacturers to put it to good use. Since there are also the usual impostors—caveat emptor!

Personally, I never buy pasta. I always make it from scratch and would never consider making it without using semolina, though I use half semolina and half regular flour. Once you have a press, it actually takes less time than using that store-bought stuff.

My wife is the pesto expert, but she says Pellegrini’s recipe is close to the recipe she uses:

Two of the most renowned versions of al magro pasta asciutta are the culinary contributions of the northern Italians: pasta al burro and pasta al pesto. Each requires a lot of butter, a fact that explains why it is indigenous to the North, the center of the dairy industry. The recipe for pasta al burro is exceedingly simple. While the pasta is draining, melt a third of a pound of butter (for six portions) in a large kettle. Keep it over a slow fire and toss the pasta in it briskly until the butter is evenly distributed. During the tossing, throw in three or four spoonfuls of cheese. Add, if you like, some minced parsley. Serve very hot with plenty of cheese over each serving. For pasta al pesto, proceed as above, adding to the melted butter the following herb sauce: For a pound and a half of pasta, mince four cloves of garlic and enough fresh basil to fill a cup. The traditional method is to reduce them to a paste in mortar and pestle, with the addition of small quantities of olive oil as needed. I have never used these implements, but I have achieved, I am sure, the same results with a sharp, heavy, straight-edged knife. A bit of patience and a little time are required, for the mincing must be thorough. Al pesto is a strictly seasonal dish. The basil must be fresh from the garden. According to my taste, it is also the best of all varieties of pasta asciutta. When I eat it I am never actually satiated. I simply stop eating when my jaws are fatigued and I can no longer masticate with ease. What further recommendation is needed for the dish?

I haven’t had a mortar and pestle in the house since my chemistry days, but with a Quisinart, it's certainly quick to mix some pesto up. Leslie mixes a big batch and freezes some for later.

I haven’t tried Pellegrini’s vinegar yet,

If you want a fine-flavored vinegar, make it in this way: Stuff loosely a quart jar with fresh tarragon and basil leaves. Add two hot chile peppers and two crushed cloves of garlic. Fill the quart with wine vinegar, seal tightly, and let it stand for ten days or two weeks. Shake the jar violently every two or three days. Then strain and add enough wine vinegar to make three pints. The result will be something precious.

but considering how many of his other recipes I love, I’ll try it shortly.

I’m not sure I could recommend Pellegrini’s book just on the recipes included since many have become popular since the book was written, but I will say that it was a joy reading it and being reminded of things I’ve often felt but have never quite put into words. It never hurts to be reminded that much of what will make us happy is completely within our control, particularly in a world where so much seems beyond our control.

2 thoughts on “A Few “recipes”

  1. I’m warming to that cookbook more and more, Loren! Yes, the quality of the pasta is so important. Impressed you make your own. You won’t believe this, but I myself have been making basil-based green pesto and sundried tomato-based red pesto this week. Though I use a fine olive oil not butter, and a food processor not a mortar and pestle. But Parmigiano — always. In fact, I was intending to do a post about the wondrous alchemy that is pesto, and may still do so. So many recipes for pesto — the variations are infinite. The Sicilians put anchovies in theirs!

    • Leslie uses olive oil, too. Kind of surprised he didn’t, though maybe olive oil was harder to find, and more expensive, when he wrote the cookbook. I think we only started using it in the last ten years or so.

      According to the introduction, Pellegrini was one of the very first to publish a pesto recipe in America.

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