Friday, January 11, 2013

Nothing Strange About Loving Spaghetti

I don't know about you, but when I was a kid, Barbara Stanwyck only meant one thing to me - she was that mean old bitch in the gauchos on Big Valley - I wanted nothing to do with her. But Double Indemnity and The Lady Eve changed my relationship with Stanwyck forever, once I saw those movies and just about every movie Stanwyck ever made, well I was a changed woman.

Have you ever seen The Strange Love of Martha Ivers? Good and Evil couldn't have a better fight than this one - Stanwyck is conniving and calculated and brimming with sexual energy that you just don't get in the movies these days. But I don't want to talk about her, or Kirk Douglas' first major film performance, or Lisbeth Scott's throaty voice and adorable smile, or Van Heflin's Bad-Boy-Turned-Good-Guy, no, right now I want to talk about the spaghetti scene.  Food rarely catches my attention in film noirs, but lately I've been looking a little harder because of the restaurant scene in this movie. About half way in, Van Heflin takes Lisbeth Scott to the Italian restaurant in town, and she's nervous as a cat cause she's handed him over to the Bad Guys, and Heflin is just mad about her, he's never been so in love with a girl, and there's a bottle of chianti on the table, the kind that's wrapped in wicker, the kind I can get off the shelf at the Food Lion here sometimes, and the girl at the register always says, "Oh I love these bottles, I want to decorate my kitchen with these bottles, but I don't drink wine . . . " anyway - the waiter arrives, a big guy in a clean white jacket and little black bow tie and he puts two huge beautiful plates of spaghetti with meat sauce down and Van Heflin says, "Mmmm that looks wonderful," and he picks up a spoon and a fork and digs in and poor Lisbeth Scott is having an anxiety attack because she's betrayed Heflin and he pours her some wine and she just can't eat, she wants to tell him how awful jail was and she's trying to apologize in advance for the beating he's going to get in the alley and Heflin wants nothing of her story, he wants the little bowl of parmesan cheese across the table. And the whole time I'm watching the scene, I'm torn between continuing to watch the movie and running into the kitchen to make spaghetti.

So for Christmas last year, not this year, this year I got a Cossack hat and new sunglasses to replace the ones I lost when I tripped in the grocery store parking lot, oh never mind - last last year my sweet husband gave me an amazing cookbook - my husband who cooked spaghetti for me on our first date - Vincent Price's A Treasury of Great Recipes, published by Doubleday in the year of my birth, 1965. Vincent Price, the one and only thespian of celluloid and stage, had a thing for art collecting and cooking and food and restaurants. And his treasury is bound in leather and gold and has silk page markers and it's one of my most treasured possessions now. Vincent and his wife Mary recount all their favorite restaurants around the world and they give you the original menus and the recipes for their favorite items on the menus. Technicolor photos find Vincent and Mary dining at Luchow's in New York and Rivoli in Mexico City. See Vincent tasting crepes suzette at Chicago's Whitehall Club and best of all Mary and Vincent in their own fabulous Moroccan style kitchen in California. But before I go on and on about Vincent and Mary hosting the Queen of England and the President of the United States at a special dinner in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond or veer off on a tangent about The Raquet Club in Palm Springs where my stepfather had drinks with William Powell once, well before I go all wild about that photo of Vincent in Antoine's wine cellar in New Orleans, I shall give you Spaghetti Alla Bolognese from Ristorante Tre Scalini in Rome. Straight from Vincent Price himself:

     One of the happiest times we ever spent in Rome was on a quick visit we made there one December. The city had thrown off its summer torpor and it bustled with Christmas animation. We arrived in the early evening after two weeks in Greece and Turkey, and we were starved for Italian food, having had our fill of lamb and rice and vine leaves stuffed with Zeus knows what.
     With one mind we decided that the only place for us that night was Tre Scalini, on the Piazza Navona, where we could  dine to the music of Bernini's fountains. In the summertime, Tre Scalini has tables on the piazza under a flapping awning. There, cooled by the fountain-conditioned air, you can eat the superb Italian ices and ice creams for which Tre Scalini is renowned. Their specialty is an ice cream made with white Italian truffles, the recipe for which is such a jealously guarded secret that we didn't dare even hint that we might be interested in it. (It's not my favorite ice cream, anyhow.)
     But that December night, surfeited with Turkish delight, we craved good, old-fashioned Italian cooking with no nonsense. And so we ordered spaghetti with meat sauce, of all things! And it was fabulous, as only Italian pasta can be. That recipe, so much less exotic than truffled ice cream, the chef imparted to us gladly, plus several good tips on how to boil spaghetti. I suppose you could dine in Rome for a-thousand-and-one night without exhausting the marvelous variety of foods and restaurants there. But somehow on your first night revisiting the city you return to a favorite place and a favorite dish, and are never disappointed.

SPAGHETTI ALL BOLOGNESE (Spaghetti with Meat Sauce)
Serves 4
The best known and best loved pasta dish in all Italy is probably this one. The city of Bologna has a gastronomic fame for more than the sausage that bears its name, and the Ragu alla Bolognese, this rich meat and tomato sauce, is used on many other pasta dishes throughout Italy. Every chef varies it a bit to suit himself, and this recipe has evolved slightly from the Tre Scalini original since we have have been using it. Try this sauce on conchiglie, the little shells sometime. They hold more of the sauce because of their shape, and you might prefer it that way.

tomato puree
bay leaf
chicken livers
dry white wine
beef stock
Parmesan cheese
salt, pepper
olive oil

1  In a heavy skillet heat: 2 tablespoons butter and 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add: 1 onion, finely chopped, and cook until soft. Add: 3 rashers lean bacon, cut into small pieces, 1 carrot chopped, and 1 stalk celery, chopped. Sauté over medium heat until lightly browned.

2  Add: 1/2 pound beef, coarsely ground, and stir until meat is coated with fat. Add: 2 chicken livers, minced. Stir until meat browns evenly.

3  Add: 2 tablespoons tomato puree, 1/2 cup dry white wine, 1 cup beef stock, 1 bay leaf, and 1 strip lemon peel (thin yellow skin only). Season with: salt, freshly ground pepper, and 1 clove garlic, crushed.

4  Cover and simmer for 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove bay leaf and lemon peel and allow to simmer uncovered until sauce thickens slightly. Just before serving stir in: 1/4 cup cream and reheat sauce. (Makes 1 pint.)

1  In a large pot pour: 3 quarts of water. Rub a little olive oil or butter around the sides of the pot above the water line. This will prevent the water from boiling over when you cook the spaghetti.

2  Add: 1 tablespoon salt and bring to a rapid boil. When the water has been boiling briskly, take 1 pound spaghetti and feed by handfuls into the boiling water. Dip one end of the spaghetti sticks into the water, and as they get soft let them coil into the pot. Never break them. Stir with a wooden spoon occasionally.

3  If you are using packaged spaghetti, cook for about 12 minutes, or according to directions on the package. It should be soft but firm when you bite it. (The Italians call this al dente, or "to the tooth.") Homemade pasta will need less time to cook--only 5 to 7 minutes. Drain cooked spaghetti in a colander. You can keep it warm by placing the colander over a pan of boiling water and covering it with a towel wrung out in warm water.


Place spaghetti on a warm platter and dot with: 4 tablespoons butter. Sprinkle with: 4 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese. Serve with meat sauce on the side, or in the center of the platter with the spaghetti around it. Pass a bowl of freshly grated Parmesan cheese with the platter. 

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