The Lost Art of Real Cooking
Rediscovering the Pleasures of Traditional Food One Recipe at a Time
It's time to take back the kitchen. It's time to unlock the pantry and break free from the shackles of ready-made, industrial food. It's time to cook supper.
The Lost Art of Real Cooking heralds a new old- fashioned approach to food-laborious and inconvenient, yet extraordinarily rewarding and worth bragging about. From jam, yogurt, and fresh pasta to salami, smoked meat, and strudel, Ken Albala and Rosanna Nafziger arm you with the knowledge and skills that let you connect on a deeper level with what goes into your body.
Ken and Rosanna celebrate the patience it takes to make your own sauerkraut and pickles. They divulge the mysteries of capturing wild sourdoughs and culturing butter, the beauty of rendering lard, making cheese, and brewing beer, all without the fancy toys that take away from the adventure of truly experiencing your food.
These foods were once made by the family, in the home, rather than a factory. And they can still be made in the smallest kitchens without expensive equipment, capturing flavors that speak of place and personality. What you won't find here is a collection of rigid rules for the perfect meal. Ken and Rosanna offer a wealth of recipes, history, and techniques that start with the basics and evolve into dishes that are entirely your own.
At the farmers market one blistering day in August, I spotted perfect, fat, zeppelin–shaped cucumbers, longing to achieve apotheosis through pickling. When I muse on the idea of the Platonic Pickle, it is never sweet, tainted with turmeric, sliced into spears or rounds, diminutive like a wimpy French cornichon, flaccid, or in any way marred by pasteurization. The whole point of a true Pickle is the bacteria that make it sour, which experts contend promote digestive health. Pasteurization kills everything, including the flavor, so for a real pickle, you should do it yourself. We are going for the real pickle, the mother of all pickles. So sour your face twists. So garlicky you stink for a week. So crunchy it sounds like biting into an apple. So kosher it makes you curse in Yiddish. This pickle is a fat and warty Leviathan. Gripped with a whole fist, it doubles as a lethal weapon.
Surprisingly, pickles are simple to make; they demand no canning or complicated equipment. People have been making pickles like these for centuries, long before pasteurization. The only problem I encountered on my first trial was heat. In the Central Valley of California, where it can hover over 100 degrees for weeks on end, letting pickles ferment on the countertop is begging for disaster. Experiment number one involved a few pounds of beautiful unwaxed zeppelin–shaped cukes in a stoneware crock, with peppercorns, coriander, dill fronds, and garlic. This was covered in brine (just tap water and enough salt to float an egg) and left to do its business for two weeks. They smelled like pickles. Looked like pickles. Yet when I pulled one from the crock it literally exploded in my hands. It was hollow and filled with noxious gas. They had become not pickles, but hand grenades. Obviously something had gone terribly wrong.
As it turns out, 80 degrees is the absolute upper limit for beneficial bacteria to thrive and dominate the brine. Any hotter and the evil beasties take over. Not even my stalwart air–conditioning could save these from infiltration. For those of you with a cellar, this is the ideal solution. My cellar, an oddity in the Central Valley since we are 13 feet above sea level, would have worked fine, but it is filled with pottery equipment, glaze chemicals, and clay dust. It is a basement pottery studio, and when I fire the kiln, the space rises well over 100 degrees. I realize I am breaking the rule of historical authenticity here, but there is a good solution for those without a cellar. The fridge is too cold, but a wine fridge is perfect, kept at about 55 to 65 degrees. In my mind that's too cold for red wine, and not cold enough for white. So out came the bottles and in went the pickles. This became my makeshift cellar for many of recipes that appear in this book. A root cellar dug outside the house would also work perfectly, but not everyone has the luxury of a yard to dig up.
The recipe. Start with a large glass jar or ceramic crock big enough to hold fat pickles, about four or five inches in length. Pour boiling water in the crock to sterilize it for a minute or so, then pour out the water. Don't use antibacterial dish soap, because this will kill much of the guys you want alive. Heavily chlorinated water will do the same. Rinse off the pickles and place them in the jar with enough space at the top to cover. Add the spices, which might include dill fronds or seeds, peeled garlic cloves, whole peppercorns, and coriander. Fennel seed is also a nice twist.
Pour brine over, which is best made with kosher salt; use half a cup (eight tablespoons) of salt to eight cups of water, which equals half a gallon. Add a quarter cup of vinegar, which many people do to play it safe with the level of acidity. You can double the whole recipe, if you like. Also, you can use less salt if you like milder pickles, about six tablespoons to a half gallon of water, which is about a 5 percent solution.
Place a small dish inside the mouth of the crock with a weight on top to keep the pickles submerged. Some people contend that a grape leaf helps the whole process. Cherry leaves are also supposed to work. Don't cover with a lid, but you can tie a cloth over it if you are afraid of dust in the cellar or bugs.
Let the jar sit undisturbed in a cool place for 25 days. Remove any mold from the top if any develops. From the jar should emerge the most beautifully light green, extremely sour and salty, fat and seriously pickled pickles on earth. From there, you either eat them all in the next week or so, or put them in the fridge, which stops the fermentation, where they will keep for months. But I doubt they will last that long. The fridge also mellows out the saltiness when they first emerge from the brine. These go very well sliced lengthwise on a toasted baguette with smoked turkey and a good stinky cheese, arugula, and a dab of mayo. Breakfast!
The average grocery store only tells you half the butter story. Their standard butter, made from uncultured ("sweet") cream, either salted or not, is but a sad cousin to butter churned from cultured cream. Uncultured cream is plain cream that has been pasteurized to kill the bacteria naturally present in milk (and all living things). Most cultured cream has also been pasteurized, but has particular bacteria reintroduced in a process much like making yogurt. Incidentally, fresh unpasteurized milk from healthy cows is brimming with wholesome bacteria quite similar to the bacteria that gets reintroduced in the culturing process.
The beauty of it is that cultured butter simply, miraculously, tastes more buttery than sweet butter—not at all tangy or cheesy or yogurty—but pure, fall–on–your–knees buttery. Since cultured butter has a lower water content than uncultured butter, not only is it the tastiest thing you could ever spread on your toast, but it's perfect for making flaky pastries, too. And it's ridiculously easy to make at home—easier than making sweet butter, in fact. Leave that potted fern on top of your grandmother's heirloom butter churn—all you need is a broad wooden spoon and a bowl.
Look for good, raw or non–ultra–pasteurized cream in a natural food store or the farmers market, or talk to local dairy farmers (see Resources for a list of raw milk sources). Steer clear of the "ultra-pasteurized" cream widely available in grocery stores, as its flavors have been thoroughly cooked out. If you want your butter to have a gorgeous golden hue, look for cream from grass–fed cows, as their milk has a greater vitamin A content. Get a couple of quarts of cream, at least.
First, put your cream into a very large bowl. Add a good dollop of plain live–culture yogurt, mix well, cover with a plate or board, and let it sit in a warm spot overnight.
In the morning, stir the cream vigorously for a few minutes. It will start to thicken and look grainy. Keep stirring. Suddenly the butter clumps will stick together, and with a few more strokes, you'll have a lump of butter in a pool of thin, translucent buttermilk. Drain the buttermilk—but do save it for biscuits, or drinking straight!
Next, flatten the butter lump and chill it for a while, because it's still soft and warm from being left out overnight. When it's stiffer, take it in your hands and knead it under running water, either in a bowl or your sink if it's clean enough, or on an angled board. There are trapped pockets of buttermilk in the butter, and if you don't work them all out, the buttermilk will sour unpleasantly and the butter will not keep well.
Doesn't it feel absolutely delightful to squeeze a couple of pounds of butter in your hands, instead of rationing out little bits from a foil–wrapped pat? When all the buttermilk is washed out, let the butter dry a bit, wrap it tightly in parchment, and refrigerate it. It's delicious right away, but if you let it age for a week or two in the refrigerator it will only get better.
Basic Pasta Dough
To start, pour some flour in a bowl. All–purpose flour is fine, but avoid bread flour, which has too high a percentage of gluten—great for creating the tensile strength to hold air pockets in bread dough, but makes rolling out unleavened dough difficult. In Europe, the percentage of gluten in the flour is very low, especially in what they call "soft summer wheat." And making pasta there is actually physically easier because it has a lower percentage of those tough glutens. You can mix some pastry flour with regular flour for a similar effect. Or even buy Italian–type 00 flour, which is very finely milled and makes a pleasant soft dough.
Next break an egg in, or two. Or none. Or two yolks. It all depends on how eggy you like your pasta. I prefer one whole egg. Then add a pinch of salt and some water. How much, you ask? Enough to create a fairly stiff dough. Start by mixing the wet with the dry with a fork, and then switch to your hands. The dough should be pliable but not sticky. Move the dough to a wooden board and knead for about five minutes until smooth. You might need to add a little more flour to prevent it sticking, but try not to add too much. Now let the dough rest—in plastic wrap so it doesn't dry out, or under a bowl on the counter. Maybe an hour. Or not. Resting allows the glutens to relax and makes it easier to roll out. But if you're in a hurry, go right ahead and roll away. It will just take a little more oomph. This is your basic dough. Use it in the all the recipes that follow.
Tagliatelle (with Tomato Sauce)
Go ahead and laugh, out loud if you must. But this is one of the most gorgeous combinations of ingredients on earth and I dare you to make it completely from scratch. I promise it will be a revelation.
Roll out your dough on a floured wooden board as thin as you like. I use a plain wooden pin without handles. Somehow I feel closer to the dough this way. An eighth of an inch seems about right. If making a lot, you'll need to do this in two or more batches. Cutting the noodles can be done with a sharp knife drawn along the edge of the rolling pin, or you can roll up the sheet and cut it with a scissor—but if the dough is even slightly wet, the noodles may stick together. Don't worry if they are not even and regular. Call them maltagliati ("badly cut"), and sound sophisticated.
There is also an ingenious device called a cittara (the words zither and guitar are both cognate). It is a box with metal wires tightly strung across either side. It doesn't sound too bad when strummed either. You lay the sheet of dough on the wires and go over it with the rolling pin. Perfect strands fall into the box. As with all cut noodles, a little flour on the dough will prevent them from sticking.
There are also pasta machines, not the electric kind—fie. I mean the hand–cranked models, which have been around for the past century. These are quick and produce a beautifully regular noodle, if that's what you're looking for. One end rolls out the pasta on successively narrower settings, so you can make absurdly thin dough. Start on the widest setting and feed the dough through a couple of times before changing the setting. Keep lightly flouring the sheet of dough as you go. The other side of the machine cuts the sheets into various widths, and there are also other attachments for ravioli and the like. I have been using the same pasta machine since I began to cook in earnest about 25 years ago, and have only had to replace the clamp that attaches to the table once.
I like to drape the fresh noodles over the backs of chairs or outside from a tree, only to admire the silken strands. Most people leave them in a clump; just be careful not to squeeze the clump, or they will stick. If you need to wait before cooking, put them in the fridge, covered with a towel—plastic wrap will cause moisture to condense on them and will ruin the lot.
When you are ready; that is, when your guests are ready to eat (pasta does not wait for people, people wait for pasta) have ready a big pot of salted water boiling rapidly. The tagliatelle will take about three minutes to cook, and you really mustn't boil them until the last minute. These are a little wider than linguine, and the wider the cut, the longer the noodles will take to cook. The only way to tell when it is done is to taste. You can throw it against the wall just for kicks, too. Serve with Fresh Tomato Sauce."Almost all the recipes on offer here, from pickles to pastry, are doable in the humblest of kitchens..."
-The Wall Street Journal
To keep up-to-date, input your email address, and we will contact you on publication
Please alert me via email when: