Thursday, January 29, 2009

Platter of Figs: Europeans are better, I get it already

I believe that the Europeans have a more civilized food culture. I do. But I am sick of hearing about it. No one needs to tell me one more time about the leisurely three-course dinners with wine and cheese, the modest portions, the reverence for fresh produce, the love of terroir, the horror of McDonald's.

I just finished the part of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle in which Barbara Kingsolver rhapsodizes about her Italian holiday, wandering through those dreamy farmer's markets, discovering divine little restaurants, marveling at the glorious landscapes and gracious Italians. Something happens to smart people when they write about Italy and their brains turn to polenta. 

One European custom I want to debate: the three-course meal. In restaurants, yes. But at home?

Last night my mother came over and I made David Tanis' menu "Feeling Italian, part III" from Platter of Figs. It included: 

-Orecchiette al forno 

-Lamb osso buco with orange, lemon and capers

-Persimmon pudding, for which I substituted white chocolate ice cream made from David Lebovitz's Perfect Scoop because there are no persimmons to be found in late January.

Quite an endeavor, bringing those three courses sequentially to the table. Quite a lot of food.

For the orecchiette, you cook the little discs of pasta, toss with homemade (yes) fennel sausage, ricotta, and broccoli rabe. Bake. What a hit! The orecchiette was sitting there on the table for some time as we waited for the lamb shanks to finish cooking, and we kept picking at it, like the greedy and barbaric Americans that we are.

Except, does anyone really want lamb shanks after a delicious pasta? Shouldn't you just eat your fill of pasta along with some salad and call it a meal? That's the American food culture -- everything on the table at once like in a Norman Rockwell picture -- and is it really so wrong?

It felt unnatural to bring out lamb shanks after the pasta. Or maybe it was just these lamb shanks:

I hesitated to include that unlovely photograph, but it gives you the idea. This dish was fine in its gamy, bony, shanky way. But none of us had trouble behaving with admirable European restraint.

The white chocolate ice cream was another story.


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