When I have friends over for a meal, and the dinner plates are readied for consumption, I am often the recipient of looks of disbelief from my guests. “This looks amazing”, “My god David, this looks delicious”, “Oh my god, I can’t wait to start eating”…these are just of few of the predictable gasps that are regularly leveled in my direction. I jokingly bellow loudly in response, using my best Regis Philbin voice; “C’mon, where you gonna get a meal like this anywhere in town?? Forget it, you can’t FIND a meal like this anywhere around here!!!”.
Bragging is not really one of my long-suits; I have a tendency to self-deprecate normally…except when it’s time to eat. And while I do indeed admit to a talent for “plating”, that is to say, arranging the food on a dinner plate for maximum beauty and desire to devour (see Facebook photo postings), I simply cannot answer the one basic question that is ALWAYS asked of me:
“Oh please, can you give me the recipe??” “What is the recipe??” “Where did you get this recipe??”
I then bellow even more loudly: “THERE ARE NO RECIPES!!!!” (with hands flailing in the air)
That’s because there really aren’t any! You see, I grew up in an Italian family where nothing was ever written down as far as food was concerned. My mother, like her mother before her, and her mother before her, did everything by look, feel, and smell. Cooking styles were passed down from generation to generation…but not recipes. One of the most famous dishes ever (Pasta Putanesca) is believed to have been created by unfaithful Italian wives, who spent the afternoon with their lovers while their husbands were out working (not sure what the male lovers did for a living, that their afternoons were free…but I digress). Having little time to prepare dinner before their husbands returned home, these so-called “putans” (sorry; that is not a nice word) threw together pasta, sauce…and anything else that was in the house in order to have something on the table at the appointed hour…anchovies, olives, capers, peppers, whatever, etc, etc, etc.
Well my style of cooking is not too far from that! While I do not take afternoon lovers, I do admit to spending a lot of time creating a meal based upon whatever spices and assorted food items happen to be around…it’s an artistic thing. Not one to waste food, I always find an artful way to create a mouthwatering dish with what’s around the house. I DO, however, have one secret…that is not really a secret…but it requires TIME as its main ingredient. I will now divulge, and then give an example of how it can ALWAYS be used to perfection.
STOCK (of all kinds)
Here’s how it works:
Got leftovers?? Hate leftovers? Not enough leftovers to use for anything? Got leftover bones from chicken, beef, veal, turkey, or pork? Got leftover veggies, legumes, potatoes, pasta, rice, fish, meat, etc, etc, etc???…don’t throw any of them away!! MAKE STOCK!!!!! (my personal version of it, anyway)
Throw them all into a big pot, along with some broth (chicken or beef) or water, or a mix of broth and water, and just start boiling…slow, steady, and long. This takes hours; 8 hours (or more) to be specific. Keep boiling low, uncovered, adding more liquid as you need to because the liquid will evaporate and/or “steam away”. Stir regularly and don’t let anything stick to the bottom of the pot. Walk to the kitchen to execute this most wonderful of tasks occasionally while you are studying, watching television, doing housework, or reading the Sunday paper. We spend more time than we think in our homes, and this little trick will MAKE your home smell like a farmhouse kitchen…deliciously odorous beyond measure. Boil, boil, boil, slowly until everything melts…and it will, in fact, melt. Allow plenty of time to cool, then remove and discard any remaining solids.
Once the remains cool, and you remove any fat that collects on the top layer, what you are left with is a gelatinous block of “solid aspic”…pure protein, and all flavor!!! (Aspic can be stored in the refrigerator easily in an airtight container, and used when you are ready.)
A good example of its use was just last night (June 26) when my girlfriend Tracy and I invited two good friends over for dinner. I had purchased 4 large, beautiful lamb-shanks (almost always affordable at $5.99-$7.99 per pound). I seasoned with salt, pepper; and rolled them in FRESHLY chopped Rosemary, Sage, Oregano, Lemon Thyme, Garlic, and Parsley–one big pile (not hard to do, btw, but I do the amounts by “look and feel”…I know when it’s right….sorry, it’s an innate talent passed on from Mom). Braise the meat in a pan until brown (6 minutes) with some olive oil and just a bit of butter (helps to brown). Set meat aside to cool. Season by feel and smell (salt/pepper/dill weed/fennel or favorite spices) some veggies (broccoli, mixed sweet peppers, onions, shallots, whole baby carrots, and mushrooms are good examples), and blanch in boiling water (5-6 minutes) but do NOT let them get soggy. Remove from water, drain in a colander, then put into a bowl or large baking dish and cover with foil…they do NOT need to be refrigerated.
TIP: When you smell your mix of spices on vegetables or meat; if it smells good, it will taste good!!! Use the sense of smell God has given you, and trust yourself!!
Now the fail-safe!!:
Put that giant block of aspic into a roasting pan, add chicken broth (by feel) and stir to break up the gelatin block; add one large can of whole tomatoes, one small can of tomato puree, and a generous pour (or two) of red table wine. Mix easily until you have a smooth “sauce”. Place the lamb-shanks into the broth, set your oven to 275 degrees and cover the roasting pan with foil or lid. Allow about 7 hours to slowly roast those lamb shanks. Enjoy the smell all day long!!! Occasionally remove roasting pan from oven and roll the shanks around, add broth if you feel you want more liquid, returning to the oven thereafter.
After 5 hours have passed, add those blanched veggies that have been sitting in that bowl, and raise your oven temperature to 300 degrees. Allow the final two hours for the vegetable flavors to permeate the smooth velvety sauce that has now been created from the aspic, broth, tomatoes (both whole and puree), and lamb juices that have magically flavored your roasting pan.
Remove from oven at the appointed time and allow to rest for about 30 minutes. During those 30 minutes, boil some pasta. Drain pasta, add a touch of butter or egg yolk to pasta, and stir. Plate pasta, add ladles of sauce and vegetables as desired, place a lamb shank on top, and serve!!
Prepare to be lauded as a cooking-god, food-fashionista, culinary-king, kitchen-queen, goddess-chef, etc, etc, etc., as that meat falls off the bone, and you hear the crunch of those vegetables!!!!!!!! Have some kind of bread (not a lot, as you already have pasta) to soak up the last bits of sauce on the plate that haven’t yet been consumed!!
This meal takes time…mostly just the oven time, as the prep time is only about an hour…but it is an unmistakeable winner. Just remember your secret ingredient….STOCK!
And while this may SEEM like a recipe, it really isn’t; because in my kitchen…
There ARE no recipes!!!!!
P.s. I post this after what seems like a thousand requests for my “recipes”…the recipes, that aren’t “recipes” of course. Just remember; you can eat anything you want using Julia Child’s simple rule…”One helping, no ‘seconds’, and no snacking in between”. ENJOY!!!