An Italian dinner…
We had a late dinner on Monday night. The edge was off our hunger, thanks to the antipasto platter and parmesan tortilla “crackers,” so we had the luxury of working at a leisurely pace.
We were going for the “We ate all our vegetables” merit badge this evening, with five different vegetarian offerings, plus the salad. We were feeling quite virtuous, particularly because the ice cream maker wasn’t whirring.
(Okay, I will admit we ate ice cream, before you award us a gold star for good behavior. It simply wasn’t a fresh batch that night.)
We were in the mood for Italian — not the red sauce/lasagna type of Italian, but the seafood garlicky type that leaves you with vampire-repelling breath. We had seen a lot of pale people up in the great Northwest. One can’t be too careful about a variety of dangers. Including possible vampires. Know what I mean?
Since our time in Seattle was growing short and this was to be our last home-cooked dinner, we were pulling out all the stops.
Flavorful salad doesn’t have to be difficult to make. Start with good-lookin’ greens (because starting with something good-lookin’ in any venture is always a good idea) and choose your greens to compliment the type of dressing you plan to use. For example, vinaigrette on iceberg is a waste. Well, so’s the iceberg for that matter. If the greens are delicate, like ours were, (mainly red leaf lettuce that night), use a more delicate dressing, but ratchet up the flavor with accompaniments. We made a simple vinaigrette with fig-infused balsamic vinegar and olive oil, threw on a few cherry tomatoes, added a handful of bleu cheese crumbles and a smattering of dried cherries. Mama Mia!
On a trip to Italy three or four years ago, Michele, Michele’s daughter Megan, Michael and I took a private cooking lesson from a chef in Florence. He and his wife and mother hosted us in his mother’s remarkable flat and put us to work in the kitchen, chopping, slicing, stirring, and helping to assemble a meal so exquisite that its memory will be with us always.
Jacopo and Anna regaled us with stories and taught us new techniques for making everything from gnocchi to tiramisu. We have duplicated the recipes many times and think of our Italian friends fondly on each occasion.
Tonight, we would be recreating Jacopo’s caramelized cipolline onion recipe. The main ingredient is patience. Cipolline onions are flat, oval pearl onions. You cook the onions low and slow in a small amount of olive oil until the natural sugars in the onions begin to caramelize. You add a dash of balsamic and a bit of fresh thyme near the end. The flavor is so rich that a few bites suffices.
This is not something you make in large quantities, and if you did, you would be watching and stirring until well past bedtime.
Spaghetti squash is a snap to make if you know how. Wash the squash thoroughly with soapy water (God only knows who’s been pawing it in the store). Dry it. Pierce it in several places with a knife blade. (Remember this next time you have aggressions you need to take out on something or someone. No one has ever been arrested, to my knowledge, for murdering a squash.) Stick the whole thing in the microwave for nine minutes. Squeeze it after the microwave goes off (through the protective barrier of a dish towel for insulation). If it doesn’t feel soft, nuke it another couple of minutes. Repeat as necessary. You want it to get soft enough that you will be able to saw it in half with a large serrated knife.
Before I was clued in on this technique, I used to try to hack my way through uncooked spaghetti squash in order to put halves face down in water and steam in the oven or microwave. Emergency visits are borne on the back of such stunts. Do not risk injury for this vegetable. Follow the directions I outlined for microwaving the sucker whole.
Once the squash is done, cut it in half (either way, but I think horizontal is best), scoop out the seeds, then separate the meat into delicate threads by running a fork across it. Look! It’s pasta. No, it’s a vegetable. It’s like the Clark Kent of the vegetable world.
Add a big dollop of butter and a touch of garlic salt. You’re done!
We julienned some carrots, used a waffle cutter on zucchini and yellow squash, and steamed them ever so briefly before shaking on a little citrus herb mixture.
At this point, it might be natural for you to peruse the various pictures of Michele performing tasks, such as using the Zyliss grater to make delicate shreds of cheese to top our main course, and wonder why you never see me working. Michele will vouch for the fact that I was slaving by her side. It’s just that my camera kept being awfully handy and I couldn’t resist the opportunities for documentation of our journey.
There were more than enough chores for two and we played so well off each other’s energy, tossing ideas back and forth, each of us contributing to the final success of each meal.
Since we were in the learning stages, working to ascertain what looked good, what photographed well (we got the “what tastes good” part down), it was a process of constant experimentation. Chemistry lab was certainly never this fun.
We needed a drum roll for the main course, shrimp scampi. We had made a butter from minced garlic, parsley, butter, minced shallots, white wine, freshly squeezed lemons, salt, pepper. We warmed our skillet, then tossed in the butter. Once it was melted, we threw our shrimp into the buttery mess, cooking just until the shrimp turned opaque. (Cook ’em too long and you’ll swear they could make tires from them, they’re that rubbery.) Pour the remaining melted butter mixture over the pasta (low carb — Dreamfield’s, of course), place the shrimp on top of the pasta. Prepare to make funny noises as you eat.
We chose to circle the platter with sliced heirloom tomatoes, which proved to be a wonderful counterpoint to the garlicky shrimp, as you might have guessed.
It was an incredible evening. The food was good enough to make your Italian grandmother shed a tear of joy. We were exhilarated, yet exhausted. It was time to say Buona Notte. Good night.