Echoes and Mementos

Thoughts and pictures about cooking, eating, reading, writing, and living.

Tag: onion

Fried Kidneys

This week I followed a recipe from my grandmother. It led me to an Italian butcher in Hoboken, Truglio’s, where the sound of cleavers splitting bone came from the main room, and where the back room’s floor was sprinkled with woodchips and sawdust. The owner had called me. My order had arrived. I paid $1.45 for some two pounds of meat, thanked him, and within 10 minutes had my stove set to medium.

The meat was kidney. If you are as off-put by offal as my girlfriend was, then you should think about what fills the skin around a sausage, the buns around a burger: the same stuff as kidney. We are used to eating one, unused to the other. While eating game in Alaska, writer John McPhee asks, “To a palate without bias… which would be more acceptable, a pink-icinged pop tart with raspberry filling (cold) or the fat gob behind a caribou’s eye?” The answer: probably the food closer to the earth. (Note: that does not mean you should cook these foods to woo your girlfriend or anyone else.)

I cooked the kidney in olive oil and onion, adding water when the meat started to sizzle, and throwing in a few bay leaves as the recipe ordered. The result was a food more gelatinous in texture than I am used to, though tasty. I don’t know if I’ll make the dish again. Even so, $1.45 and 20 minutes is a paltry price to pay for exploring the past, widening comfort zones, and finding a butcher who sells cuts of cow for osso buco.

Winter Marinara

When I visit the house where I was raised, the smell of simmering tomatoes often greets me before my family does. There it hangs, thinly as I twist the doorknob, and thickly in the yellow hallway, an assault on the senses. If you focus you can see it, the smell. It’s the same smell that, when I was a teenager, would awake me in the late morning, though my room was a floor above the kitchen and on the house’s far side.

Aromatics, tomatoes, and a long simmer give the sauce its strong smell. If you dissect the inner framework of a wall or the sandy shingles of that house, you will find, I am sure, the residue of garlic and plum tomatoes. If you live in an apartment, as I do, expect your neighbors to glance at you in the hallway with the dim hope of a dinner invite.

I use canned tomatoes for a winter marinara. We can shape the sauce’s character by tinkering with these tomatoes. For a chunky and rustic sauce, pour the plum tomatoes and their juices into the blender and pulse 5 or 6 times. For a silky smooth sauce, run the blender for 30 seconds. Also, I add no herbs. We can add other flavors later depending on what we’re cooking.

Four quarts of sauce result from the long  simmer. I recommend trying the recipe on a Sunday, for the leftover sauce will give you nice momentum into the week. On Sunday night, I’ll toss the stuff with pasta and flash-fried calamari and have a main course. You can remix the leftover sauce into eggplant parm, pizza, bean and zucchini dishes, the beginnings of a tomato-based soup, or whatever you want.

Makes 1 Quart

¼ cup             olive oil

3                    medium onions, chopped

4                    garlic cloves, minced

1 28-oz. can   tomato purée

1 28-oz. can   whole plum tomatoes and their juices, pulsed 5 or 6 times

1) Put olive oil and onions in a large, non-reactive pot over medium heat. Stirring occasionally, cook for 10-12 minutes, until onions are translucent.

2) Add garlic. Stirring often, and being mindful not to burn the garlic, for the fragments will fast turn brown and bitter, cook the garlic for some 90 seconds, until pieces are golden.

3) Add tomato purée. Add the pulsed plum tomatoes from the blender. Stir. When the sauce starts to simmer, switch the heat to medium-low. Let slowly simmer for three to four hours, stirring at 10-15 minute intervals, and dipping in bread when you wish.

A Farmer’s Pasta in Six Ingredients

“Guanciale” comes from guancia, the Italian word for cheek. Guancia also means pillow, for where do you rest your cheek at night? Guanciale, a strip of meat, comes from a pig’s cheek that has been cured. The cut is some 90% fat. I seldom eat meat, but in the hour before I do, something like guanciale arrives on my cutting board.

My favorite pasta calls for guanciale, spaghetti, onions, olive oil, tomato purée, and Parmesan cheese. Should you be unable to find guanciale, pancetta can substitute. But Guanciale gives the pasta a deeply animal flavor that takes you to a place out of time, to a sad barn in the hills, to the campfire of Stone Age hunters, to a savage and dirty place where tofu and cream-white chicken have never been tasted.

I learned to cook this pasta in Italy, from the owner of a farm near Bologna, where I worked a few summers ago. “A farmer’s pasta,” he often said while preparing the dish. (It appears on menus as spaghetti amatriciana.) Here’s his version:

And mine:

And a recipe:

Spaghetti Amatriciana (“a farmer’s pasta”)

Serves 2

1 tbsp   olive oil

1/4 lb   guanciale, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1            small onion, chopped

1 cup     tomato purée (or crushed tomatoes, etc.)

1/2 lb    spaghetti

Parmesan cheese to taste

1) Put two paper towels on a plate beside your stove. Sauté guanciale in olive oil over medium heat, stirring often. After three or four minutes, when the guanciale is browned  and a pool of grease coats the pan, transfer guanciale with a slotted spoon to the paper towels. Use paper towels to lazily wrap the guanciale.

2) Sauté onion in the guanciale’s grease for three minutes over medium-low heat. Pour in tomato purée. Let simmer, stirring occasionally.

3) Cook the spaghetti in salted water (about 1 tsp. salt) until al dente. Drain spaghetti. Add to simmering sauce. Add guanciale. Kill heat. Stir well. Sprinkle Parmesan onto the pasta. Eat.