Sun 31 Dec 2006
I was reading a piece in the Gourmet magazine for January about the restaurant Gambero Rosso, run by self-taught chef Fulvio Pierangelini, in the Tuscan coastal town of San Vicenzo, the thrust being whether it’s the best restaurant in Italy. Well, that’s not really the point writer Colman Andrews sensibly implies. It’s just all about the food, which Andrews describes as “straightforward” and “guileless” and “surprisingly simple and pure.”
Those remarks impelled me to consider the two types of chefs that seem to dominate the culinary world: Those who are straightforward and guileless and produce simple pure food, embodied by Alice Waters, of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, and her many disciples; and the impresarios of ingredients, the grand-standing magicians, manifest in Ferran Adria, of El Bulli outside Barcelona, frequently described as the world’s most important chef, and his proliferating emulators who have unleashed a tide of asparagus foam and spherification upon the land.
I have known people, even chefs, who dined at Chez Panisse and came back to report their disappointment, saying , “There’s nothing to it. Anybody could do that.” There is, actually and deceptively, a great deal to the cuisine at Chez Panisse and just anybody can’t do it, which is what makes eating at the restaurant such a pleasure. Waters’ doctrine of fresh, local ingredients treated with respect and minimal manipulation — but always impeccable technique in the kitchen — produces cuisine of jewel-like flavors and quiet integrity.
I have not eaten at El Bulli — there are 300,000 requests a year for the 8,000 seats available during the season — but in the summer of 2004 I dined at the restaurant La Alqueria, part of a fabulously beautiful and romantic 10th Century Moorish estate in Sanlucar La Mayor, outside Seville. The chef, Rafael Morales, trained at El Bulli and subscribes to Adria’s doctrine that a restaurant kitchen is an extension of the chemistry and physics laboratories and that a chef’s business is to astonish diners by yoking wildly disparate ingredients in startling forms.
The succession of 20 small courses, improbable and extravagant, brought on spoons or little plates, cunningly presented, led to responses that distilled to “Well, that worked” or “Well, that didn’t work,” notions that don’t have much to do with the satisfaction of one’s appetites. Not that the experience wasn’t interesting, intriguing and sometimes fun, but eating at a carnival can also be interesting, intriguing and sometimes fun. Whatever the case, I think that astonishment is not as important as gratification when it comes to fine dining.
Anyway, apropos of simplicity, a few days ago, LL said, “You haven’t made macaroni and cheese in a long time. I think not since we moved to the house,” which was about a year ago. Might as well say it: we love macaroni and cheese. My family ate the dish frequently when my brother and I were growing up, but it came out of a box named Kraft. My model is the macaroni and cheese at the Zabar family’s E.A.T.S. restaurant on Madison Avenue on the Upper East Side in Manhattan. An order brings a monumental slab of dense baked macaroni permeated by sharp, tangy, creamy cheeses and surmounted by a thick breadcrumb crust also thick with cheese.
So, my procedure is to make a bechamel sauce (good ol’ Fanny Farmer!) and stir into it in the last moments about a cup and a half of shredded cheeses, on this occasion sharp cheddar, Colby and Monterey Jack. I combine that with the cooked macaroni in a buttered casserole, sprinkle on some quartered cherry tomatoes and diced country ham and then shovel on a mixture of breadcrumbs and more cheese: Parmesan, Gruyere and cheddar. Japanese panko breadcrumbs are available at many groceries nowadays; I use those because they create a crisp crust and they last forever if you store them tightly sealed. Then bake the casserole for 35 to 45 minutes at 375 degrees. Lord have mercy, it was good.
I dithered about trying to decide what wine to serve with the mac and cheese, and finally LL said, “How about something basic and simple.” So I popped the cork on this Da Vinci Chianti 2005 (about $16) and it was indeed, basic and simple and fruity, just the thing, though for the life of me I don’t understand why the Italians, of all people, wouldn’t call the label “Leonardo.” I mean, fer gawd’s sake, the wine in made in the hometown of the great artist, engineer and the worlds’ smartest person ever; how about a little respect?
And then yesterday, which was chilly and rainy, I said, “How about some oatmeal?” because some hot oatmeal would really hit the spot. Now you will accuse me of being excessively purist when I tell you that we use only McCann’s Irish Oatmeal, but truly I have tried every oatmeal I can find and this is actually the best. Yes, you have to stand at the stove and stir the stuff for 35 or 40 minutes, as if you were making risotto, but the result is so rich and nutty, so oaty, so hearty in flavor and texture that it beats all other contenders. LL takes hers with butter and salt; I use brown sugar. Just a bit of milk to stir in. Pure goodness. Wonderful. Satisfying.