First Person

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    Rock, paper, paste

    By Paul Mantee/Special to The Malibu Times

    It’s probably incestuous. A columnist for The Malibu Times has written me a personal note; an open letterette one might call it, in her column. Apparently, my piece on the Atkins Diet caught her eye, and she was gracious enough to comment publicly. I had indicated that the Atkins nonsense, to which I am a captive these days, forbids me to eat pasta, a food for which I have a genetic pre-disposition. I’m sure she meant no harm.

    Oddly enough, directly preceding her recipe for baked lasagna, Jody Stump wrote in part: “And Paul, think about it, pasta is nothing but library paste-that stuff your kindergarten teacher told you never to eat. Flour and water.”

    This doesn’t help me. Nor does it exactly push anybody’s lasagna into the top 40. But it does switch on my snobbery button and turns the dial way up high.

    First of all, Miss Henning, my kindergarten teacher with the dynamite legs, also hammered home the value of placing the chalk in my right hand in spite of the fact that every chromosome in my body including an involuntary facial tic indicated I was a natural lefty, which probably left me (there I go to the left again) with untold psychological damage. You are, Ms. Stump, correct in your assertion that a mixture of flour and water constitutes pasta … in the same context that a solar attack on rock debris constitutes a day at the beach.

    Then I thought, hey, maybe there is a hidden meaning in here somewhere. A message between the lines. I’ll give you a recipe and you give me a recipe. (And who knows what they’re really saying to one another?)

    Probably not.

    A word about lasagna as we know it. The baked variety wormed its way westward during World War II. When servicemen from the East Coast passed through the West and ordered lasagna in a restaurant, they were presented with something they didn’t recognize. And they were disappointed. Lasagna, or more specifically, the narrower variety, lasagnette, was served in my grandfather’s restaurant, San Francisco’s Fior d’ Italia (Est. 1886) in concert with a lovely chicken saut kissed with fresh tomato and a breath of porcini mushroom. Heaven. But the servicemen missed their moms, which wouldn’t do. So that’s how those of us out West learned how to build baked lasagna. And it gripped us and became synonymous with Americana and that’s fine. However, be mindful, baked lasagna with all its attendant goop is Sicilian in origin, so enjoy, but do place the Gaviscon on the nightstand.

    About the sauce. Simplify. With all due respect to Ms. Stump, my grandparents and countless aunts and uncles would rise from the grave and smack me upside the head with a wooden spoon if they caught me adding a dollop of honey to what they called spaghetti gravy. And please leave the goat cheese to the Greeks. It has no meaning in Italian cuisine other than to detract from original intent. You want nouvelle? Wolfgang Puck is all over the place.

    My grandparents hail from a little town called Maggiano in the north between Lucca and the Italian Riviera. The heart of the matter is called Salsa Napoli and it’s the foundation of every northern Italian sauce that smacks of tomato at its most imaginative. Delicate, subtle, specific, and no trouble at all. You can get it at my house, or my cousin Rick’s up north, but you can’t get it in a restaurant anymore. Young chefs tend to push the river. The ingredients are few and simple; the trick is in the timing. My guess is Catherine de Medici seduced France with the likes of it. If you have 20 minutes to spare, try this:

    Ingredients:

    Olive oil

    Garlic (about 8 husky cloves)

    1 28 oz. can S&W Ready-Cut Tomatoes, drained (avoid the variety with added herbs)

    1 15 oz. can tomato sauce

    Salt

    Red pepper flakes (optional but suggested)

    Place the drained tomatoes, the tomato sauce and a smattering of red pepper flakes into one bowl and set close to the stove. Chop garlic extremely fine. Drizzle enough olive oil to lightly cover a 10-inch frying pan. (Stay away from coated pans. They hang pretty, take an age to heat up and never quite get it on.)

    Carpet the bottom of the pan with what appears to be too much chopped garlic. Place on your most aggressive burner and turn the gas on high. Lift the pan a few inches off the stove and as the garlic begins to sizzle, shuffle the pan so that nothing stays put. Here’s the tricky part. When the garlic turns golden brown (if it’s not golden you’ll get catsup, if its burned you’ll get garbage) place the pan onto the raging burner, and carefully add the tomato mixture. Back off. Watch it go mad and buck out of control. Allow it. Maybe 10 minutes. If you have to wipe a little excitement off the wall, this is an excellent sign. Give it a stir. Simmer for another 10. Salt to taste.

    My grandfather called this process “The Marriage.” If you care to introduce a fistful of chopped parsley and/or a handful of sliced mushrooms into the fray after consummation, it complicates matters exquisitely.

    And thanks for initiating this exchange, Jody. It’s been fun. It also prompted me to break out my Random House Unabridged and look up bchamel.Like many of you, I was devastated when I heard about the Farmers’ Market crash. Wednesdays at the Promenade are a routine ritual in my life and it was a dumb stroke of luck that I was not there last week-I was on my way.

    There was a camaraderie among the regulars, which makes it especially sad to realize that some will be missing this week and forever more. Would it be the mom who always smiled in passing on hot tips, like “Go try the apricots down by the AMC?” Or, the wonderfully baggy old man who would whisper with a wink and wide-eyed excitement that the berries are “just as good and cheaper” at the stall on 3rd Street.

    My weekly menu planning has long started with a reconnaissance tour that gleaned as much from the shared intelligence of fellow shoppers as from what I saw, sampled and smelled, yet I never missed the Santa Barbara fish truck at 4th Street nor the Mussel Maiden at the opposite end of Arizona. I always stop at Redwood Farms cheese on 2nd and the bread vendors near Ocean. And, I relish the sweet pungency of ripe fruit and the visual feast of glistening produce. The market nourishes all our senses and, in doing so, it graces us with awareness that life is bountiful.

    This season is especially generous-and, somehow that makes the losses more poignant. I plan to work out my sadness by making a dish with ingredients that take me to every corner of the mall. It’s a chance to say “hello” again, and “goodbye.”

    Bouillabaisse

    When I was a child, I cooked as a child- great handfuls of anything good tossed in a pot then snatched from the stove before prudence would say the food was cooked. One of my specialties was bouillabaisse, genuine kitchen sink cuisine.

    The recipe is long, but the principles are simple and it cooks quickly. Just mix a variety of firm-fleshed, finny fish with shellfish and add the freshest produce. With a tender baguette for dipping, it’s a memorable feast.

    Farmers’ Market

    shopping list

    2 garlic heads, orange, bread

    2 pounds leeks, lemon, 24 mussels, 2 red bell peppers, 8 heirloom tomatoes, 2 lbs clams or scallops, basil, 12 fingerling potatoes, 1 lb. shrimp, parsley, eggs, 3 small lobsters

    Fennel bulb, celery. olive oil

    6 pounds of fish – red snapper, sea bass, flounder, monkfish -avoid anything fatty like tuna. Ask the vendor for another 5 pounds of fish bones.

    Serves 8

    Fish Broth

    3 Tbs. olive oil

    Leeks, cleaned and chopped

    Celery, cleaned and chopped

    6 garlic cloves, minced

    1 pepper, chopped

    1/2 cup basil

    Generous pinch of saffron

    Fennel, chopped

    The fish bones

    Orange rind, chopped

    1 cup dry white wine

    8 cups water

    1. In a heavy pot, saut leeks, celery, peppers and garlic in oil until soft.

    2. Add basil, saffron, fennel and fish pieces. Saut 5 minutes until fragrant. Stir in rind and squeeze in a tablespoon of juice.

    3. Deglaze with the wine. Add water and bring to a boil. Simmer 1 hour, then strain through cheesecloth to remove the solids. Season with salt and white pepper.

    The Soup

    1/4 cup olive oil

    The tomatoes, peeled and chopped

    The potatoes, peeled

    The fish, chunked

    Pinch of saffron

    The shellfish*

    3 Tbs. Pernod (optional)

    6 Tbs. parsley, minced

    1. Saut tomatoes in oil until thick. Add broth and potatoes. Simmer until potatoes begin to yield.

    2. Use your judgment adding the fish – you want each piece cooked until barely firm. Shellfish will be last and should cook 2 minutes, until mussels pop.

    3. Using a slotted spoon, scoop fish into large soup bowls, apportioning as you see fit.

    4. Add shellfish shells to the broth and boil 10 – 15 minutes. Add Pernod.

    5. Pour strained broth over the fish and serve immediately with a dollop of rouille sprinkled with basil.

    *NOTE: It’s easiest to buy lobster lightly steamed and cracked. Throw away the heads but use the chest and legs when boiling the broth. Scrub mussels in cold water and de-beard them before cooking.

    Rouille

    One pepper

    4 cloves garlic, minced

    2 teaspoons tomato paste

    1 Tbs. lemon juice

    1 Tbs. orange juice

    2 egg yolks

    1/2 cup olive oil

    Cayenne pepper to taste

    1. Roast the pepper over an open flame until it is completely black. Steam in a paper bag. Slip off the skin. Seed and chop it.

    2. In a food processor, form a paste from the pepper, garlic, tomato paste, juice and salt. Add the yolks. With the motor running, drizzle in oil until it thickens like mayonnaise. Season with cayenne.