Not long ago the economy, which was then a stretch limo with tinted windows, slowed down, had the passenger side rear door thrown open, and I was ejected unceremoniously and left to tumble to a stop by the curb. As the economy accelerated away from me and before the door slammed shut, I could hear the heartless laughter of the girls inside. But I was not bitter. It had been a good, long ride, and although the end was a bit abrupt and unanticipated, the curb onto which I had been dumped was in front of my very own house, in which was my very own wife, my very own dog, and more to the point for this article, my very own kitchen, which is where I found myself after I had brushed myself off and poured myself a drink.
I mention this because the whole incident was just another in long line of moments in life that have formed what I might call my "culinary posture." You might refer to it as a culinary "style," but "style" just doesn't seem like the right word here. It's more a philosophical orientation than a technique or recognizable selection of ingredients. My "posture" is that which helps explain why I would choose to cook the things that I do.
Ever since I can remember, I have looked at life as a game of survival, of figuring out how to get through life with what I had. Being cheap is what some would call it, and while I think that to be an uncharitable description, I don't think it a wrong description. I remember hearing a story when I was a kid that described the relationship Native Americans (which Native Americans I don't remember) had with nature. The wise elder was telling a young man that he should be able to lead a life such that wherever he passed, he would leave no footprints. That's a very poetic way of explaining what today we might call a "green lifestyle." The wise elder was also trying to encourage a certain asceticism, using only what you have and only what you need, in order to more fully understand your place in creation. I think of that story from time to time in the kitchen.
I'm not a gourmet cook, and I don't look to dazzle with exotic spicing or masterful technique. I like simple food, simply prepared. I like the foods that people used to keep themselves and their families alive -- but that doesn't mean that it can't be tasty. I take my cue a lot from traditional ethnic foods, the foods that kept the Polish or Mexican working classes fed, or the meals you might have found on the table of the farmhouse in America. Good old stick to your ribs kind of stuff -- pierogi, for instance, or rice, bean and tacos on freshly made white flour tortillas, or a delicious plate of biscuits and sausage gravy. A lot of these foods are such staples that you can easily find them in the frozen food section at the grocery store, or in some package that claims to have captured the essence of the authentic, but you really can't recreate the real experience of gravy made from pan drippings, or the taste and texture of pasta made from scratch. There are things you just can't buy.
Beef heart stew comes to mind. Here is a hearty meal that is fabulously delicious and fits perfectly into my culinary posture. I first tried beef heart out of curiosity after having heard Andrew Zimmern gush about it on one of his Bizarre Foods programs. Beef heart is a little hard to find, but there is a market near me that carries it on a regular basis. You'd think there would be more of it out since there's a heart in every cow we kill for all the burgers and steaks we eat, but it doesn't get much attention. Surprisingly, beef heart is extremely economical. I get it for $1.68 per pound, and there is no waste on a heart -- the whole thing is edible. You can slice it up and sear it, and it's good, but a little tough. However, let it simmer in a pot for several hours on the stove top, and you've got yourself a tender, tasty, almost sweet piece of meat. And the process is totally easy:
Beef Heart Stew
- 1 beef heart (somewhere between 1 to 2 lbs.)
- 1 yellow onion sliced thin
- 2 tablespoons of flour
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon pepper
- 2 cups water (3 if you like a thinner broth)
Rinse beef heart, cut into 1- 2 inch cubes, then dredge in flour until lightly coated. Use more flour if you think it needs it, it's not a critical measurement.
Heat oil in a Dutch oven or any two quart pot with a lid. When the oil is hot, dump the meat in and give it a nice sear. Stir it around a couple times to brown it on all sides.
Add the sliced onion, salt, pepper and the water to the pot. Bring it to a boil, reduce heat to simmer, and put the lid on.
Let it simmer for 2 hours at least, 3 hours is better.
Serve over mashed potatoes, or better yet, make some homemade pasta.
This would make 3 or 4 hearty servings, and trust me, it's rich, warm, delicious and thoroughly satisfying.
The homemade pasta? Easier than you think.
- 1/2 cup flour (I like to use half A.P flour and half Semolina, but you can use one or the other.)
- 1 large egg
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
Mound the flour on a cutting board. Make a well in the center by sticking your finger in the center of the mound and then tracing increasingly bigger circles.
Break egg into a small bowl, add the oil, and mix just until yolk is broken and distributed somewhat evenly. Pour the egg/oil mixture into the well in the flour.
Using a fork, gently begin to mix the flour into the egg. Continue until the egg is absorbed. Powder your hands with flour, and form the dough into a ball.
Knead the pasta dough for several minutes (3 to 5) until you get a smooth ball. It should feel a little tacky, but not be so wet as to stick to the board. Add more flour if you think it is too sticky.
Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and let set for at least 30 minutes, but you could let it go for several hours. You could store it in the fridge overnight if you wanted, but bring it back up to room temperature before you work with it.
Roll dough on a well floured board to desired thickness (as thin as you can get it), cut into a noodle shape that pleases you. Or roll out in a pasta machine. This is quicker, but not necessarily better.
Boil in salted water for 1 to 3 minutes. (Yes, fresh pasta cooks much more quickly).
This basic recipe (1 egg to 1/2 cup flour) makes one hearty serving of pasta, so just work in multiples (like 6 eggs to 3 cups flour) to figure out how much to make.
It really is that simple, and the pasta really is that much better.
Simple. Cheap. Good. A good fit for my culinary posture.
And the economy? It still passes by the house, and I wave, but I don't think it remembers me anymore, and that's cool. I'm comfortable in the kitchen, and I'm living in such a way that when I cook, I leave no dirty dishes.