Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Hard Rock Knocks

Mosaic floor from a church in Petra (detail)Back when I was a struggling crew coach, money was always an issue. In the off season, I invariably had to find a job to support my bad habits. One summer I landed what I thought was gonna be a sweet gig cooking the books for an Italian stone importer (actually, I just paid the bills). He had a smokin' hot French associate who could be heard swearing in her native tongue over the telephone to quarrymen in Europe. We had a tasteful West Hollywood showroom with stunning mosaic granite and marble tile. One heard rumors of the shady antiquity deal, but I never saw anything like that go down. Unbeknownst to me, the owner was looking for a Lloyd to his Ari Gold. After unknowingly failing to pay a parking ticket for him and pick up his Mercedes from the impound yard one afternoon, I was unceremoniously fired about four weeks into the summer. I spent the next two months eating tuna out of the can, riding my road bike and surfing. My credit card balance ballooned and I lost about 15 pounds, but I turned heads when shirtless!
Before that fateful day however, the owner invited me to his home in Beverly Hills for dinner one night. He and his wife lived in this magnificent old Spanish colonial that I dreamed of owning one day. For the main course, his wife served a crispy roasted chicken, unadorned except for salt & pepper, but what I remembered most was a simple, and simply delicious first course. All it was was conchiglie (sea shell) pasta with onions and peas, a little white wine and lots of pepper. Her secret was sweating her onions on the lowest flame possible for a good 40 minutes or so before adding any other ingredient. I tried it out on my parents one winter, and my stepmother Anita loved it so much that, for a while there, it was all I ever made when I visited. It got to be a running joke after a time.
Conchiglie e Piselli - adapted from an old Naples recipe
  • 1 large onion, thinly sliced
  • 4 ounces pancetta, diced
  • 2⁄3 cup olive oil
  • 1½ Tbsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 cup fresh, shelled baby peas
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 1 pound conchiglie (shell) pasta
  • 3 cups water or chicken stock
  • 1 cup parmesan cheese, grated
Sweat thinly sliced onionToss in pancettaToss in string beans once onions have almost dissolved
Sweat onions and pancetta with plenty of pepper in olive oil over low, low heat for 40-50 minutes, stirring frequently. The onions should almost liquefy, but not brown. Add peas and 1 cup of white wine, cover and cook over medium heat about 5 minutes. Add 3 more cups of water or stock to the peas. Bring mixture to a boil and add pasta shells. Reduce heat to medium and cover the stock pot. Stir pasta frequently. Most of the broth should be absorbed, but if necessary, add just enough extra liquid to allow pasta to cook to al dente. Toss with parmesan cheese and red pepper flakes to taste. Serve immediately.
Conchiglie e Piselli
This is a good first course on Italian night, or even a one-dish meal if you're going stag. It's important to keep as low a flame as possible when sweating your onions. I place my stock pot in a large sauté pan and heat that over a medium-low flame. I get great indirect heat that way. Remove the sauté pan once you are ready to boil your liquid and cook the pasta.
Simmering the pasta produces a slightly thick sauce as the starch combines with the wine and chicken stock. The pancetta adds smoky complexity. With a few more cups of stock and maybe some poached chicken breasts, you can stretch your food dollar by turning this dish into a very good soup.
Keep It Fresh: you want the peas (or whatever!) and onions to stand out, so fresh, fresh, fresh from the farmers market when in season. Unfortunately, life often throws you a curve ball. Be flexible. The peas weren't that impressive looking but the string beans were dark green, and plump. I removed the tips and cut them into thirds before adding them to the onions and pancetta. The result was still a bright-tasting pasta sauce.
Enzo's meatballs, onions and peppersEnzo's meatballs, onions and peppers
I cheated.
On my way to the market, I swung by Enzo's and ordered a plate of meatballs and peppers. They were ready by the time I finished shopping. I even sat down for a glass of wine with the waiter before heading home. Totally. Worth. It.
Well, I didn't make my millions importing stone for high-end homes in southern California, but I learned some interesting French cuss words, and walked away with a terrific Italian recipe from the old country. One, I share with you now, the others will have to wait until I'm losing at cards or you're in the passenger seat as I drive the streets of New York City.
Thanks for taking the time - Blog O. Food

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