The Mafia Cooking Hour
During my months-long quarantine, I have been sustained by five things:
- My relationship with Martine
- Playing chess with the computer
- Watching movies on TV and my computer
That last item deserves some explanation. I have always enjoyed cooking, but I never was able to give it the attention it deserved. When I was working, I cooked good food, but I shied away from recipes that required some sophistication and a lot of time. Now that I am retired and quarantined, I am able to take the time to make some really good meals.
Mostly for Martine’s benefit, I got my hands on a cookbook by a convicted mafioso, Henry Hill, featuring the Italian cooking of the New York/New Jersey area: The Wiseguy Cookbook. Although Martine was born in France, she was mostly raised in Northern New Jersey (in Oceanport). As a child, it was New Jersey Italian food that she loved most. That was before she came out to Los Angeles and fell for Hungarian food.
For myself, I have become more interested in the vegetarian cuisine of India. Fortunately, Youtube has some excellent and very authentic recipes by Indians, Pakistanis, and others featuring Indian cuisine. This week, I made the following:
Manjula presents us here with a recipe for Chick Pea Pulav (aka Chole Biryani). The followed the recipe exactly, except that I added half a chopped onion and some extra hot Indian red chile powder. The only change I would suggest is to use one cup of water rather than a cup and a half. The dish is superb.
Fortunately, there is a nearby Indian foods store in Culver City called Indian Sweets and Spices. In better times, there is a little café on the premises with vegetarian-only curries; but there is also an excellent selection of teas and such hard-to-find items as mango powder, foenugreek leaves, garlic/ginger paste, and asafoetida.
The Beach During the Early Days of the Plague: Now Forbidden
I used to love taking walks, but now I am somewhat indifferent. You see, what attracted me was not the mere exercise: It was having a destination. And my favorite destinations were bookstores. Well before the coronavirus plague reached our shores, the bookstores of Los Angeles pretty much melted into history. Now I will occasionally take a walk to an Italian grocery in Santa Monica or to the West Los Angeles Post Office.
For a while, it was possible to walk along the beach, or over the bluffs in Santa Monica overlooking the beach. Now both are closed to enforce social distancing. The above Los Angeles Times photo was shot during the early days of the plague. Now, the police are out in force chasing people from the beach or anything else that looks like a nice place to walk. We are urged only to walk for the sheer fun of it, or to go to the market or pharmacy to shop for necessaries.
One thing I absolutely refuse to do is wear a mask while taking a walk. If some random bozo attempts to upbraid me for it, I will gladly send my sputum in his direction. As I wrote in yesterday’s post, until I can find another solution, I cannot exercise while fogging up my glasses. I will gladly stay far away from other walkers, as my distrust of strangers long predates the arrival of the coronavirus. I am always happy to answer strangers’ questions in my ungrammatical Hungarian, which may include some colorful expressions of contempt.
Later this week, I will probably walk to Bay Cities Imports (the Italian deli in Santa Monica) to pick up one of their delightful Spaniard sandwiches together with some ingredients for a future Italian meal. Their pasta, sauces, and Italian sausages are nothing short of superb.
I Develop My Cooking Skills
Living during a time of pestilence, I have decided to become a better cook. My goal is to cook meals that both Martine and I like. We both like Italian food, but for some reason, Los Angeles is not a great place for Italian cooking.
Although Martine was born in France, she spent her most of her childhood in Oceanport, New Jersey, where she loved the pastas with rich red sauce—not the pale imitation to be found in Southern California.
Several years ago I picked up a used cookbook written by ex-Mafioso Henry Hill entitled The Wiseguy Cookbook: My Favorite Recipes from My Life as a Goodfella to Cooking on the Run. Now you may remember an entertaining gangster film directed by Martin Scorsese and released by Warner Brothers in 1990 entitled Goodfellas. The film starred Ray Liotta as a mafioso with the non-Italian moniker of Henry Hill. Well, it’s the same Henry Hill as wrote the cookbook.
Today I spent several hours preparing a favorite dish that Hill cooked while serving time at Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary in Pennsylvania on narcotics charges. The recipe is for “Oven Penitentiary Sauce with Sausage” on page 133. For some reason, there is an Italian grocery in Santa Monica called Bay Cities Italian Deli whose shelves are not picked clean by hoarders. (I guess they’re too busy snooling on their stash of toilet paper.) So I have access to high-quality Italian groceries, while not having comparable access to American goodies at the supermarket.
The Oven Penitentiary Sauce with Sausage was a big hit with Martine, and I loved it as well. It was the rich Italian food of the Italian migration to the East Coast, with lots of garlic and fresh basil baked in a 350º oven for an hour. I even added my own touch, combining the sauce with fusilli pasta in the oven for an additional quarter hour.
I am looking forward to exploring this cookbook in greater detail during the prevailing plague conditions.
Burger Heaven, American Style
One of the advantages of my having a Hungarian upbringing is that it allows me to cast a critical eye on what most Americans would consider good eating. Take, for example, the hamburger. One starts with a plain piece of ground meat, chars it, and adds an inch or two of cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, onions (either raw or caramelized), mayonnaise, ketchup, mushrooms, and God knows what. The result is a concoction that will likely contribute more to staining your shirtfront than satisfying your hunger.
Hungarians prefer to season the meat itself rather than topping it off with a salad. My mother used to mince (not chop!) onions, garlic, and parsley and work it gently in with the ground beef (which itself could be mixed with bits of ground pork or veal). Take a look, for example, at this recipe for fasirt, a kind of Magyar fried hamburger. Whether fried or charbroiled, the Hungarian hamburger would usually be served between two pieces of rye bread, cheese optional. It had flavor. And if we wanted vegetables, they would be there on the plate, fresh from our garden, rather than piled high over the meat patty.
The same goes for meatballs. If you get matballs and spaghetti in an Italian-American restaurant, the meatballs will usually be plain meat. Our late landlady made her meatballs the Old Country way, buy adding seasonings to the meat before cooking it.
It’s a simple technique, perhaps a little time-consuming, but it tastes ever so much better than the plain unadorned ground meat.
Erin Hill’s Painting of Montalcino in Tuscany
When I first moved to Los Angeles during the last Ice Age, everything that was classy had a French name: The restaurants, the big real estate developments, and so on. Sometime over the last twenty years, suddenly Tuscany became the measure of all things ritzy. Although it is still filled with empty storefronts with “For Lease” signs, I can see the developers trying to turn it into a little Tuscany.
I can’t think of Italian food in Southern California as being so rarefied if for no other reason than it tends to be pretty mediocre. Take meatballs, for instance: If one is a gourmet chef, one doesn’t make meatballs that are nothing but differently-shaped hamburger patties. It is necessary to mince onion, garlic, parsley, and perhaps a few herbs into the ground meat mixture first. Even my Hungarian Mom knew that when she made hamburgers. But in L.A. that never happens.
I remember a huge meatball at a Buca di Beppo in the San Fernando Valley that was nothing but a large hamburger hockey puck.
So I don’t take Los Angeles’s Tuscan dreams with anything but a grain of salt, and perhaps some minced onion, garlic, parsley, and perhaps a few herbs.
The painting above is from the Erin Hill studio website. It’s quite pretty and a steal at $220.00. Maybe my hijacking the JPG file will make you want to buy the painting.