Wednesday, January 9, 2013

An Imitation of Italy, or An Inspiration by Something Much More?

Recently my mother gave me the book An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler.  Once I finish it, I will give a more detailed review of it, but it's a hard book to explain. It's about cooking, but unlike a cookbook or an instruction manual, it simply tells you what to do with food.  "Try doing this to your vegetables.  Once you have done that, do this.  Now you take the leftovers and do something else."  It's all about simple ways to cook basic foods and how many ways you can turn them into other dishes.  Sort of.  Again, it's a really hard book to explain.

Adler does something I never hear any chef suggest.  She believes in boiling vegetables.  Who does this anymore?  Boiling means cooking all of the nutrition and flavor out of everything.  Vegetables are supposed to be steamed until they are tender-crisp or else slow roasted.  Adler believes boiling in salt water until you can stick a fork in a vegetable is one of the most flavorful and useful ways to cook them. 

I think I have been so trained against boiling vegetables that I'm not sure I've ever done it.  At most I've blanched.

One of the first recipes in the book suggests boiling broccoli and cauliflower until soft, mashing it up a bit with olive oil and grated cheese, and then using that vegetable-enhanced water to cook pasta.  Once the pasta and vegetables are mixed together, the flavors blend beautifully.

I was transported back to my Italy trip in 2011.  One night we had a first course of a pasta dish of cauliflower, broccoli, potatoes, and bowties.  The method (with different veggies) is even posted on the riding center's website.  Our host Sadio boils the vegetables with the pasta rather than cooking them separately.  He also adds potatoes.  I decided that as much as I liked the version I had in Italy, I wanted to try Adler's version with no potatoes (I'd rather not have things so starchy).  I also remembered that some of the vegetables and beans I ate as contorni during that trip were often boiled and we doused them with olive oil at the table, which is exactly what Adler tells the reader to do.

I boiled one head each of cauliflower and broccoli in salted, rapidly boiling water per Adler's instruction. I really freaked when I put them in.  Their colors were so vivid.  I hated the thought of losing that.

I was amazed at how quickly they cooked.  They didn't even lose their color by the time they were done.  Once they were soft, I put them in a bowl and mushed them up.  I doused them with olive oil.  I am very fortunate that my brother gave me a lovely bottle of artisinal olive oil for Christmas.  This was the perfect use for it.  Next I tossed it all with plenty of grated pecorino.  It's a cheese I love and one my husband can tolerate both taste-wise and digestion-wise as it's made with sheep's milk and therefore lactose-free.

I used the vegetable cooking water to cook the pasta, allowing the pasta to absorb that vegetable flavor, marrying the tastes together further.  In the end everything was tossed together with a touch more cheese and oil. 

I'm afraid I never took a photo of the finished product.  I decided it was best to leave that to the imagination.  Anyway, a rustic dish like this didn't seem to warrant getting out the light box. 

That night in Italy when we had the pasta as a first course, we had chicken saltimbocca as a primo piatto.  I simplified it at bit and simply browned some boneless chicken thighs, then finished them in some white wine, sage, and butter.

In homage to the book, which encourages us to waste nothing, I shredded the broccoli stems in my food processor, covered them with cider vinegar mixed with salt and Penzey's Bavarian Seasoning, and let it sit overnight.  I had it with my eggs the next morning.
The pasta was wonderful.  It was so much more than the sum of its parts.  The flavor was something beyond the vegetables, olive oil, salt and cheese.  It's amazing how much flavor one can squeeze out of so few ingredients. The chicken was awfully good too.

I am sure to continue experimenting with boiling vegetables and seeing what else I can do with the parts I don't eat.


Pam said...

This sounds really good! I can imagine all the great flavors and cooking the pasta in the veggie water surely has a lot to do with it. Yum!

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

How interesting! I think most of us are trained against boiling vegetables so to hear that it produces good results is really interesting!