Monday, November 02, 2020

breaking bread from hawaii

"You have no idea how to cook authentic Italian food."

My friend Dan Agostini must have told me that a hundred times since I first met him in the 1970s. Usually, I had just committed some unforgivable travesty using onions and garlic in a dish when a Calabrian grandmother would not use either. Or, the ultimate transgression: using Spanish olive oil -- in anything.

Some of you may remember my friend Jack Brock, who died here in a freak bicycle accident four years ago. He loved food, especially Mexican food. But he was a stickler for authenticity. If offered a plates of chiles en nogada that did not contain exactly the correct number of ingredients, he would reject it as a fraud.

Unlike Jack and Dan, I am not a traditionalist when it comes to food. My general rule is to never cook or eat the same dish twice. I understand traditional cooking. That is how I learned to cook. Abstract artists first must master the art of drawing before they venture down their own path.

I am always on the lookout for novel items in grocery stores. The other day I was in Hawaii, my favorite local grocery, when I spotted something new. Actually, two somethings new. Right next to each other. A box of bucatini and a jar of datterino giallo. Since I had just found some fresh yellow tomatoes that were cousins to the jarred variety, I decided to prepare a plate of bucatini all'amatriciana, a traditional pasta dish from Rieti.

The pasta dish is one of Italy's purest and simplest dishes to prepare. The sauce is simple: olive oil, pancetta, yellow tomatoes, and perhaps a bit of chili flakes.  Nothing more. It is a perfect match for the bucatini, which is a fat spaghetti with a hole through the center to catch liquid sauces. They are also a traditional match.

I started setting out all of my ingredients when I realized I had no pancetta and no serrano ham. Bacon is an obvious substitute, but I could hear Dan and Jack tutting.

So, I shifted from drawing mode to abstract mode. What could I use as a protein? Anchovies are a traditional Italian choice, but not for this dish. Out came a tin of anchovies.

And what would go well with the anchovies and tomatoes? Of course, olives. And capers. And if we were going to go off script that far, how about adding onion and garlic, and a habanero and serrano instead of pepper flakes, adding a Mexican touch to what was quickly turning into an international fusion experiment?

bucatini all'amatriciana does not contain any herbs. My sauce would. The traditional choices of thyme, oregano, and basil were possibilities. But I settled on marjoram, a relative of oregano with its own subtly distinctive taste. Even though it is not a common herb in Italian cooking, it is a natural with tomatoes. And, of course, having gone this far astray from tradition, the juice of a fresh lemon would add another layer to the sauce.

It was not until I had assembled all of the ingredients that I realized that I was cooking up something that was a morph between 
bucatini all'amatriciana and spaghetti puttanesca, a dish now popular in Naples.

Amazingly, it all came together. I had to add an additional tin of anchovies while I was sweating the tomatoes, chilies, onion, and garlic to balance out a rather shallow flavor. The addition of the marjoram to the sauce just before serving pulled the tastes together.

Even though I do not like to whip up the same dish more than once, I always cook enough for two or three additional plates for leftovers. I will probably eat one serving this afternoon.

Dan and Jack may not have approved, but this is how I cook: start with a traditional foundation and then build a Gaudi edifice on it.

And, as always, I thank Alex at Hawaii for continually offering surprises to keep my meals interesting.       

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