First Recipe, Part II: The Hunt For Peperoncino
The recipe I had decided to make from Lidia Bastianich’s new cookbook, pasta with baked cherry tomatoes, listed 12 ingredients. I had gotten the cherry tomatoes. Most of the rest of the ingredients seemed to begin with the letter ‘p’ — parsley, pecorino, peperoncino; even the garlic called for “plump” and “peeled” cloves — but the most baffling of them wasn’t even listed under ingredients: parchment paper.
“Isn’t that what the U.S. Constitution was written on,” I asked Diane.
“It’s used for cooking,” she replied patiently. “Just go to any supermarket.”
I checked out Gourmet Garage.
“You want what?” replied the person in the supermarket to whom I made the request. His face offered the same expression mine must have registered
“Parchment. Parchment paper.”
“Hold on a second,” and he got a more experienced staffer.
“Parchment?” the second person replied.
“Parchment paper. It’s used in cooking.”
“Come with me,” he said, and I followed him, glancing with longing as we passed the display cases full of prepared foods glistening in their little plastic containers, put together by professional chefs who knew what they were doing.
He brought me to a shelf full of paper goods, napkins, paper towels, tissues.
“It’s not that kind of paper,” I started saying. “It’s used for cook…”
Just then he produced a box that looked exactly like the one for aluminum foil, except it was labeled “Genuine Parchment Paper, Now Improved!” and inside was a roll of dull white paper, which made me wonder what it looked like before it was improved.
Fresh from our success, he led me easily to the next ingredient, fresh Italian parsley — although I had to choose between two types of parsley, one curly, one straight, neither of them labeled “Italian.” We figured it must be the curly. (Update: We were wrong.) The bread crumbs were just the reverse; the recipe called for “fine bread crumbs.” There were no “fine” bread crumbs but there were “Italian bread crumbs” and I figured this was fine with me.
The pasta I picked was a pound of “100 % durum semolina” spaghetti — it was “organic”, even — and I had no trouble with the “loosely packed fresh basil leaves” (although I realized later that the recipe meant they should be loosely packed when you measured them into a cup, not necessarily when you bought them.) Suddenly, though, there was a problem.
The recipe called for peperoncino.
We assumed this was a spice — it said “1/4 teaspoon peperoncino flakes, or to taste” — but we looked carefully through the spice racks, which were arranged alphabetically, and there was no “peperoncino.”
I went to a different supermarket, d’Agostino’s, where one of the staffers was so diligent in helping me search for the remaining ingredients that her manager said to me, “When you’re finished, you should bring her some.” But no peperoncino. Two supermarkets later, I decided I would get serious, and I went to Aphrodisia Herbs & Spices, aka Aphrodisia Herb Shoppe, on Bleecker Street — with its antique furniture and lolling cats protected by prominent signs forbidding us to pet them and endless shelves of labeled jars — which always struck me as the kind of place that wiccans went to for their potions. But if Aphrodisia didn’t have peperoncino flakes, then peperoncino probably did not exist in North America.
The proprietor, JoAnne Pelletiere, looked up at me from her chair after I made my request, having pronounced peperoncino carefully and prepared to spell it if necessary.
“That’s just red chili pepper,” she said.
Was she sure?
“I’ve been here 40 years,” she said. “You could have asked any of the old Italian women in the neighborhood.”
She got up, walked over to a jar marked “Crushed Red Chili” and scooped a little into a small brown paper bag (price: 40 cents). Because I continued to ask questions, she brought me over to a display she had on an end table — an array of peppers in front of a book called Spice that was opened to the chapter on chili peppers.
There were two types of peppers on display, those from which spicy pepper was derived — hot jalepeno, hot scotch bonnets, hot habaner, hot cayenne — and then those that were mild, such as Hungarian Wax, “which is made into paprika.”
When I told Diane the story of my hunt, still a little unsure about the spice I had bought, she replied: “Peperoncino flakes, red pepper flakes, crushed red pepper flakes, red chili pepper flakes; they’re all the same thing. And if they’re not the same, they’re interchangeable. Not big red bell peppers. Small chili peppers. ino as a suffix means small. Think of those small hot pepper flakes in the shake-out container in pizzerias.”
(Later, in a book I got from the library entitled “American Feast: A Celebration of Cooking on Public Television,” published in 1999 with a foreword by Julia Child, I noticed that Lidia Matticchio Bastianich had a recipe for spicy capellini that called for “8 Tuscan peperoncini, seeded and chopped” but then she added “see note.” The note said “Peperoncini (pickled hot Italian peppers) are available at specialty shops and most supermarkets.”)
I told Diane I had gotten almost all the other ingredients, including the two types of cheeses, from the supermarkets. I asked her if it was ok that the pecorino was already grated
“ABSOLUTELY NOT!” she said, definitively.
So it was back to Bleecker Street, this time to Murray’s Cheese.
“What kind of pecorino?” the man behind the counter asked.
He must have seen I was at a loss, and suggested a choice of two. The first was Il Tortet, which, like most of the cheese at Murray’s, came accompanied by a museum-style label. “Pecorino Toscao oro antico,” the label began. “With even a remembered knowledge of Italian, you’ve probably figured out on your own that this means ‘Old Gold Sheep Cheese.’” Well, actually, I had not. “Yup, it’s pasteurized, aged for 6 months and gold refers not only to its color, but to its excellence. Firm and flaky, it has the beloved aged sheep cheese flavors sheepy, nutly and grassy.” (It’s possible I don’t remember this accurately; is “sheepy” really a flavor?)
The man behind the counter gave me a sliver to sample. It tasted like, I don’t know, cheese.
He offered me a taste of a different kind of pecorino, Fulvi. The label: “Pecorino Romano. Part of the daily rations for Roman Legionaries in the first century A.D., Fulvi is still probably made from pasteurized sheep milk in the Roman countryside and is less hard and dry than its Sardinia-made counterparts.”
“This one’s much sharper,” I told the counterman after tasting the new sample.
“You want the other one?”
“No, I like sharper” — a realization I had just made. (Are they really called cheesemongers? This one seemed much nicer than the name implied.)
As long as I was there, I picked up one of the last ingredients, Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Although Murray’s is a cheese store they had choices of extra virgin olive oil from several countries. I read the labels, with their nuanced descriptions of the varying tastes, and decided I would be safest with Italian.
Since I was immersing myself in food, I thought I would finally look up what “extra virgin olive oil” meant, a term that always provided me with a little secret titillation or some suppressed tittering. I found this from food writer Margaret Visser:
“Olive oil is called ‘Virgin’ when it is the first oil to come out of the olive, that which is released from the fruit with the least pressure being applied. It is ‘Extra’ to distinguish it from merely ‘Superfine’ Virgin oil. ‘Extra’ has less than 1 percent oleic acidity…plane ‘Virgin’ or ‘Pure’ has up to 4 percent, and anything more acid than that is inedible lamp oil.”
It suddenly occurred to me on the way back that maybe I should start cooking the recipe. How long would it take for my fresh tomatoes to turn into rotten tomatoes?
“A couple days,” Diane answered. “Do they seem to be rotting or getting too soft? Hope they’re not in the refrigerator. You’ve been eating them, right?
“What’s wrong with their being in the refrigerator?” I replied defensively. “ Where should they be?”
“They should be on the counter. Cold destroys the flavor. Unless they’re very very ripe, then you can put them in the fridge.”
I fought from thinking dark thoughts. It was time to get cooking.
(Photographs by Jonathan Mandell, except the cheeses, which come from Murray’s Cheese Web site.)
The Bastianich series so far:
Lidia Bastianich, The Italian-American Julia Child?
Tomatoes — First Ingredient, First Recipe — what an heirloom tomato is, and why people engage in a rotten tomato riot every year in Bunol, Spain.
First Recipe, Part II: The Hunt For Peperoncino
First Recipe, Finally Cooked. Or: Why Many People Don’t Cook
Meatball. A Meditation</a
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