Thursday, January 21, 2010

Ethnic Pride and Joy

A good conversation re-starter is to ask other guests, "If you had to subsist for the rest of your life on just one country's cuisine, which country would you choose?"
Putting national pride aside for a moment, it would still be difficult to nail down any one country, I think, although French friends may disagree. Certainly, high up in the food chain (so to speak) would have to be Italian.
Keeping in mind that Italy is a long country that extends from waaay up in the alps to waay down into sunny Middle Earth, Italy certainly does have an excellent variety of foods and flavors, and can draw from a wide range of ingredients for a wholesome, well-balanaced, and delicious range of foods. I'm still not sure whether ramen and spaghetti have the same heritage, and certainly Italian wine can compete with the best in the world to wash down whatever bounty is offered.
Since Saint Valentine's Day is approaching, and love is in the air, to one degree or another, I wanted to set the table and dedicate a meal to love. And Italian is, to me, at least, the most romantic of cuisines. (Sorry French folks!)
Certainly there is plenty of pasta to choose from, but for this meal, I chose ravioli. These are little pockets of flavor, which could be cheese, meat, vegetable, or any combination, best served with a counterpoint sauce. In this case, the sauce is tomato-based (northern and central Italy), with garlic, mushrooms and Merlot. There are four cheeses (Mozarella, Gorgonzola, Parmesan and Ricotta) in each little pasta puff.
And there are the meat balls. I'm not Italian, and I know there are all kinds of delicious variations on the ingredients, but these are ground beef (not hamburger), with three kinds of chopped onion, garlic, and colorful bell peppers, mushroom, egg, bread crumbs, whole black peppercorns, basil, cilantro, Italian parsley, thyme, rosemary, and a dash of salt, all squished together in golfball-sized balls and baked for about 45 minutes at 350F (160C). I found a zuchini hiding in the vegetable drawer, so I sliced that, blanched it, drained the water and added butter and grated Parmesan. For variety of color, texture and a range of vitamins and minerals, I built a little salad from a pile of sprouts, slices of bell pepper, some fresh herbs and spinach and a few baby tomatoes, cut in half and splashed with an oil-vinegar-parmesan dressing.
This, as with most Italianate food, should be washed down with a hearty red.
So what makes it a Valentine meal? Well, I forget, exactly, but maybe the red tomato sauce (tomatoes are also called love apples, after all!). Or maybe I was just in a romantic mood at the time.