Food families

In a comment on my chicken verdicchio posting, Max Vasilatos noted that the dish was “a piccata twist”, and in e-mail Victor Steinbok expanded on this theme, observing a family similarity between scallopine/scallopini dishes with a tomato-based sauce, piccata dishes (with lemon-caper sauce), and marsala dishes (with a marsala wine sauce). Typically, all are based on scallopine — thinly sliced meat (or meat pounded thin) — with a savory sauce (usually containing a sautéed allium: garlic, shallots, white or yellow onions, scallions, leeks), and served on pasta (though rice variants are possible, and I suppose other starches, like polenta, as well; linguine, fettuccine, and tagliatelle are typical choices of pasta, but there are other good choices too); there are also variants in which the meat is sliced into narrow strips or cooked in thicker chunks.

In addition to the variations already mentioned, there are at least five dimensions of variation within the family: the basic meat (usually chicken or veal, though pork tenderloin sliced or pounded thin is another possibility, and there are more); the sauce ingredients (various wines, lemon juice, tomato sauce, chicken broth); whether the dish uses butter or only olive oil; what other ingredients (mushrooms, capers, chopped flat parsley, artichokes, olives, prosciutto or ham, specific herbs, sweet peppers, hot peppers, sun-dried tomatos, etc.) are added to the sauce; and what garnishes (for instance, particular cheeses, chopped parsley, lemon slices, sliced olives) are traditional.

The result is a food family, with central members and distant relatives (like saltimbocca and Wiener schnitzel, and even rollatini, or more correctly involtini, in which eggplant slices play the role of the meat). Such families typically lack common names, though the relationships are made explicit in some cookbooks.

Recipe books tend towards the atomistic: each recipe is a little universe of its own, as if it had just popped out by itself and had nothing to do with any of the others. But of course most cooking uses a few “mother recipes” — templates with many possibilities for substitutions or expansions or simplifications — and “master techniques” — ways of dealing with foodstuffs. (Julia Child and James Beard, among a few others, are good about expressing the generalizations across recipes.)

There is, for instance, braising: brown (quick-saute) some foodstuff, add liquid, and let it cook very slowly.

I’ll return to mother recipes and master techniques in a little while. But first some more on chicken verdicchio (thanks to Victor Steinbok) as a representative of the scallopine family of dishes.

Victor found this pollo al verdicchio recipe in the Boston Globe (from December 2007). Yet another variant, this time with roasted red peppers (and with more things from cans than he and I are entirely comfortable with):

1 1/2 pounds boneless chicken cutlets
1/2 cup flour
Salt and pepper, to taste
4 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 pound button mushrooms, thinly sliced
1/2 cup white wine
1 jar or can (about 16 ounces) roasted [sweet] red peppers, sliced
1 can (about 14 ounces) artichoke hearts in water, drained and quartered
1 cup chicken stock
Juice of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

1. Place the cutlets between 2 sheets of plastic wrap. On a cutting board with a mallet or the bottom of a heavy skillet, pound the cutlets until they are quite thin. Dust them with flour, salt, and pepper.

2. In 2 large skillets, heat 2 tablespoons oil in each until hot. Add 2 tablespoons butter to each. When it foams, divide the cutlets between the pans. Cook them over medium-high heat for a few minutes on each side or until they are golden brown. Remove them from the skillets and transfer to a platter.

3. Add the mushrooms to one of the skillets. Cook, stirring, for 4 minutes or until the mushrooms release their liquid. Pour the wine into the mushrooms. Cook, scraping the bottom of the pan, for 2 minutes. Tip the mushroom mixture into the second skillet and cook, scraping the bottom of the pan, for 2 minutes more.

4. Return the cutlets to the skillet of sauce. Add the roasted peppers, artichoke hearts, chicken stock, and lemon juice. Bring the mixture to a boil. Lower the heat, cover the pan, and simmer for 10 minutes or until the sauce is well flavored.

5. Transfer the chicken to a platter. Leave the lid off the pan. Let the sauce simmer steadily for 5 minutes or until it reduces slightly. Spoon the sauce over the cutlets and sprinkle with parsley. – Adapted from Caffe il Cipresso

The Caffe il Cipresso — in Tyngsboro, 44 miles from Boston’s North End (on the New Hampshire border) — specializes in Tuscan food (hence the reference to cypresses, Cupressus sempervivens being the Mediterranean, Italian, or Tuscan cypress tree). On its web menu it lists as a specialty

Pollo alla Verdicchio: Two chicken breasts sautéed with mushrooms, artichokes and roasted red peppers in a white wine sauce with a hint of lemon

Enough of chicken verdicchio. Back to mother recipes and master techniques. Here’s a version of my mother recipe for Chinese stir-fried dishes, adapted from puckish postings to the newsgroup soc.motss in February 1993:

To start with, you need a wok, or a wok-equivalent frying pan. its function is to get real hot, so you can put some oil (peanut oil, in the classic approach, but there are other possibilities if you or your guests are allergic to peanuts) into it and get on with stir-frying your stuff.

There are two basic kinds of stuff: proteiny stuff (seafood, poultry, red meat) and veggie stuff. All stuff, of whichever basic kind, should be sliced into thin strips or pieces for quick cooking. (Getting good at slicing fast takes practice, but at the beginning, going slow gets the job done and doesn’t carry off any bits of your fingers. Slicing things can be a companionable exercise, by the way; there will be plenty of things to slice, so that if you have at least two usable knives to slice with and surfaces to slice on, you and your companion of the evening can speed dinner on and entertain one another with chat or show tunes meanwhile.)

It helps to have containers to throw the different collections of sliced stuff into, before and then after stir-frying.

Allium-veggie stuff — garlic, onions, scallions, shallots, etc. — has a special status. Unless you need to avoid these guys, you’ll want them as part of the meal.  Underpinning.

You will probably also be needing some liquid with oomph — vegetable, chicken, beef, clam, whatever broth — to make a sauce for the dish. You might need corn starch for thickening.

Finally, you need soy sauce and can probably use: fresh ginger root, roasted sesame oil (plain or with chilis), dry sherry, plain rice wine vinegar.

(Note that I’m only reporting on his Chinese-style home cooking, not touting some authentic cuisine.)

I leave the preparation of rice (or whatever starch you want) as an exercise for the reader.

Here we need to know if you’re a vegetarian or not. If so, choose two or more kinds of veggie-stuff, with textures as different as possible. Possibilities include asparagus, broccoli, carrots, celery, corn, green peppers, green beans, peas, pea pods, cabbage / bok choy / napa / Chinese cabbage, kale / mustard greens, mushrooms (of many kinds), fennel, flat parsley, etc. (For greens of all kinds, you should use a huge amount — I usually start with an amount that seems reasonable to me, then double it — because greens cook down alarmingly.) If not, choose at least one, plus your proteiny stuff; for reasons which will become clear below, also warm your oven to its lowest temperature.

I recommend some allium-veggie stuff. Plain ole yellow cooking onions are the default. Chop a couple of them.

Mix some soy sauce, sesame oil, and dry sherry, plus some grated black pepper, in a bowl. Add chopped fresh ginger for some extra zing. This will be the marinade for your proteiny-stuff or your most substantial veg (e.g., broccoli, cabbage, carrots, or fennel). Add the stuff to the marinade and stir. Go away and nuzzle your sweetie, read a chapter of a book, catch the news, whatever. Come back periodically and stir the stuff some more.

Heat the wok and here we go…

Add a couple of tablespoons of peanut oil, let that heat for a minute or so, and throw in the chopped onion (chopped garlic optional). Stir while it cooks. If it starts to brown, turn the heat down. (In a restaurant this would all be done with fabulously higher temperatures, and much faster. I don’t recommend emulating the restaurant technique, unless you have restaurant equipment.)

There is no time in here for sweetie-nuzzling, alas.

Now add whatever it was that you marinated, and sauté it, turning the stuff constantly with a long-handled spoon (the long handle is to keep you from sautéeing your hands as well as your foodstuffs; that oil does fly about). A few minutes should be enough.

Remove the whole wok-ful to a container and put it in the oven to keep warm.  (Do I have to mention that you should use a container that won’t melt or burst into flames in the oven? I have an assortment of stainless steel bowls for such purposes.)

Back to the wok. Do not dawdle. Add some more peanut oil, and repeat the whole business with the remaining veggie-stuff. Don’t cook those veg to death; they have more minutes in the pan.

When the second batch is sautéed, retrieve the first batch from the oven and toss it into the wok. (It would be prudent to turn the oven off at this point.) Add enough of the liquid so that things are just a bit soupy. (If you’re looking at seriously soupy dinner, whip some corn starch into more liquid and add *that* to the wok.) Simmer, stirring constantly, until the whole business looks spoonable.

Serve on rice (the traditional white or the new-age brown), or even barley. Or rice noodles or udon noodles. Or (one of my great favorites) bean thread, a.k.a. Chinese vermicelli. Or, more inventively, an Italian-style wheat pasta.

If you have two woks, you can make two different dishes at once and multiply your anxiety by four. Or you could draft a friend into overseeing the other wok and enjoy crossing flaming-hot long-handled spoons with someone you used to admire and respect.

(I realize this describes more of an *attitude* towards cooking than an actual *procedure* and fear it might not lead  anyone to enlightenment, or even a decent dinner.)

Bonus. The whole procedure can be translated into a mother recipe for an Italian sauté. Use a sizable skillet rather than a wok (though there’s nothing wrong with a wok), replace the peanut oil with olive oil, eliminate the soy sauce, the sesame oil, and probably the ginger root. Consider using a dry white wine instead of the sherry, and lemon juice or red wine vinegar instead of the rice wine vinegar. Chinese greens, however, work fine. Kale and fennel are good too.

Otherwise, run wild. (Consider lamb for both the Chinese and the Italian versions. It’s especially good with strong-tasting veggies, greens like kale and green vegetables like broccoli. And consider shrimp or firm fish.)

Instead of rice (though there’s nothing un-Italian about rice), go for pasta of some kind, including the thicker pastas: fusili, penne, mostaccioli, radiatore, farfalle, rotini. Supply grated parmesan or Romano.

4 Responses to “Food families”

  1. Victor Steinbok Says:

    The most common hierarchical (family) recipes are for sauces and soups. Sauces, in particular, have long been developed in families. For many Asian menus, it seems as if the ingredients are chosen from a grid–one column for protein (which could be any single meat, fish, mollusc or tofu or some combination), several columns for vegetables, several more for flavoring ingredients (e.g., ginger, hot peppers, extra garlic, basil/mint, etc.) and one for sauce (which could be white, brown, clear, oily or starchy, with some variations, depending on the particular cuisine). Then you have the starch choice with different kinds of rice or noodles (particularly in Vietnamese dishes, where starches compete for attention and final flavor adjustment is made at the table). But, even with such multitude of options, these dishes are still nowhere near Western sauces when it comes to families.

    The stir-fry “recipe” above is a bit simplistic. For one, combinations of alliums are often called for, as well as combinations of rhizomes, such as ginger. Marinating sounds like a Western modification on Asian cooking. Most traditional marinades would involve a tenderizing ingredient (starch slurry, soy sauce, fish sauce, wine or vinegar), but not really a combination of flavors. The purpose of the marinade in Asian cooking is very different from that in European cooking–which is why Arnold’s recipe looks very Americanized. When I mentioned a combination of alliums, I meant that some may be used as a flavor agent (added to the pan early) or some as vegetable (added late–usually sliced onion, scallions, or whole cloves of garlic). For example, I usually throw garlic and shallots in first, along with other flavoring agents, but leave sliced/chopped onions to the end, only partially cooking them (keeping them crunchy). So I modify the stir-fry family as follows: 1) flavorings, including alliums; 2) protein+tenderizer; 3) long-cooking vegetables (mostly tubers, some stems, such as bamboo shoots, cauliflower); 4) short-cooking vegetables (virtually all of them–including all greens, all onions, broccoli, mushrooms); 5) secondary flavoring agents (such as vinegar, fish sauce) if they are not included in 6) the sauce (which usually includes starch).

    Plenty of other families as well from a variety of cuisines–chili, stews, pies, etc.

  2. Victor Steinbok Says:

    I am aware of the set-up, so I was not trying to “correct” it. But I dawdled in making this clear and adding another comment about the “family recipe”. My version has an advantage of being perversely symmetric: oil-flavor agents-veg-protein-veg-flavor agents-sauce. It’s a kind of palindrome.

    I also wanted to add that “family” cooking style is fairly transparent in cooking reality shows (competitions). When contestants present their creations, judges seem to be particularly harsh when they perceive a misnomer, e.g., when a chef presents a “consomme” that is not clear. On one hand, this is a prescriptive language issue–definitions of certain thing are set in stone and should not be misrepresented. On the other hand, this also makes it clear that a lot of the creations are simply variations on specific themes (members of families), despite a complex flavor palette. I presume you borrowed the language of “family”, “mother” and “master technique” from sauces (or from someone who did the borrowing first).

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Yes, the terminology of “families”, “mother recipes”, and “master techniques” isn’t at all original with me, but I have no idea where I got it from.

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