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.

The Unprejudiced Palate

One cannot survive on Joyce alone. While reading Joyce’s Dubliners, Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses, I was also reading “lighter works,” though frankly almost any reading would qualify as lighter reading than Ulysses. After reading a reference to a favorite college professor, Angelo Pellegrini, in a local paper, I bought the Kindle version of The Unprejudiced Palate: Classic Thoughts on Food and the Good Life and have been reading it off and on for nearly a month.

I don’t remember the exact courses I took from Professor Pellegrini, so they were probably very forgettable survey courses required for my undergraduate major. I do remember he would enliven some particularly dull readings by referring to old cookbooks or recipes from the same period. I’ve long forgotten the readings, but I still remember the recipes.

I loved Pellegrini’s zest for life. No dull pedant, he. I have a vague memory of being outraged upon learning he had not been granted a full professorship because the books he had published, highly popular cookbooks, were not academic works in his field. If I’d learned that in my senior year, I would probably have been more outraged for the most embarrassing moment of my undergraduate years came when I drifted off (fell asleep, as it were) in a class taught by the department chairman, a man noted for his critical essays, while he was reading from a yellowing notepad. The only thing I remember about that class is that it inspired me to see the movie Tom Jones, one of the few movies I’ve ever seen that seemed vastly superior to the novel it was based on.

Pellegrini’s zest for life and his philosophical views are the main reasons to read his cookbook, though the recipes he offers are “classics.” Personally witnessing that zest directly in class day after day adds to my enjoyment of the book, but even those who never saw him in person will sense it. He tries to share and promote that joy throughout the book.

There is a simple, enduring joy—and it needs to be discovered—implicit in the preparation of such excellent dinners that Father and the children would deem it a grave misfortune to miss one of them. It is the solid, thoroughly human satisfaction derived from doing something which inspires admiration while it promotes the happiness of others.

My mother was an excellent cook, and dinner was always a highlight of the day. No one had to be called twice to our table, and it was a rare, but not entirely unknown occasion, kids being kids, when one of us would refuse to eat something put on the table. I, on the other hand, started cooking rather late in life, but I still love cooking a special meal when family members visit. Even when single, I seldom resorted to fast-food restaurants. My favorite meals came in late summer and early fall when I would supplement fresh corn, tomatoes, and cucumbers from my garden with a simple cut of meat.

Angelo belongs to my parents’ generation or an even earlier one, but I was amazed how attuned I was to the philosophy he expresses throughout the book.

And I have come to believe, finally, as a result of my early experiences, that waste is a sin; or, if one prefers, that frugality is a virtue. One may take it as he will; it all depends on whether one prefers to be reminded that he is a bad man, to being told that his goodness is a trifle scant. Again, let me parry the likely thrust that I am a stuffy old moralist by immediately explaining that I am thinking of frugality partly as an end in itself, and not merely as a means for providing for the proverbial Armenians, whose starving ranks have recently been joined by so many others. Not that I am unconcerned for my starving brothers. Frugality, or the absence of waste, made a universal law, would mean abundance potentially available to everyone. And that includes the Armenians. I consider frugal habits as desirable as temperate habits in the achievement of the good life.

Thankfully, my childhood wasn’t as tough as the one Angelo describes in his book, but we were never very far from the bottom when I was growing up in some of the roughest neighborhoods in the Seattle area. Nothing was ever wasted in our family, and the main reason for having a yard was to grow a big garden to grow fresh food and to store food for the rest of the year. The part of the freezer that wasn’t crammed with salmon we caught contained frozen vegetables from our garden.

And like Angelo, I’m always disturbed when I see a neighbor’s fruit go unpicked.

Speaking for myself—and I do not hope to be completely understood, since such values are so intimate that their realization must await personal discovery—I conclude with the simple statement that the avoidance of waste is necessary to my happiness and that I am disturbed by the wasteful behavior of my fellows.

“Waste not, want not” seems as true to me today as it did when my parents preached it at the dinner table.

If Pellegrini was concerned with America’s emphasis on “bigger” and the accumulation of wealth when this book was published, one can only wonder what he would think about modern-day Republican claims that the top 1% offer the best hope for America.

In a land that idolizes the Rockefellers and the Fords, the growing of a carrot and a cabbage seems a trifling preoccupation—unless, perhaps, they can be exhibited as the biggest carrot and the biggest cabbage ever grown anywhere. There is yet no evidence that the experience of the war years has had the salutary effect for which some of us had hoped. The American still wastes and continues to trample underfoot whatever does not measure up to his gigantic illusions. He does not yet perceive the consequences of having used with reckless imprudence the precious yield of the good earth; he does not realize that the quantitative analysis of value is fundamentally deceptive; nor does he yet see with any clarity that, in his uncritical devotion to big things, he has neglected the trifles which, in their totality, constitute a principal ingredient in human happiness.

There’s a reason why cliches like “It’s the little things in life that matter most” become cliches. The real prize in this lifetime is happiness, and I’d agree with Pellegrini that small things in our daily lives like everyday delicious meals are more much more important in bringing happiness than big things like a new car or a fabulous week-long vacation in the Caribbean.