Gone With the Wind in St. Louis
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Home at last! Almost as soon as I returned from Italy, I flew to St. Louis to visit my niece Rachel and her husband, Max Protzel, who are awaiting the arrival of their first child in two weeks, to put it in an old-fashioned way. Rachel is radiant. Max can't wait until the kid is old enough to play with Legos, although he fully intends to participate in the hard infant work ahead.
We have been calling the baby Hercules, a name that Max attached to the fetus as soon as he found out Rachel was pregnant, way before they even knew it was a boy. Rachel and Max aren't telling the real name yet. They want to keep at least one detail of their pregnancy secret. But because we all smile when we say Hercules, which we figure is better than "baby," the name has stuck. Even the grandparents -- my sister Andrea Alexander, and Max's parents, Joanie and Alan Protzel -- refer to the baby using the name of the mythical Greco-Roman demigod, the strongman of the Pantheon. I like to call him Ercole, which I thought was still a popular name in Italy until I started looking in Italy for nameplates and other silly stuff with names on it, the stuff they always sell in tourist shops. No Ercole. An Italian friend said that maybe if you are over 80 years old your name could be Ercole. In the end, I found a shop in Urbino that embroiders whatever name you want on baby-blue-(or pink)-gingham-trimmed white terrycloth bibs.
Seeing Rachel in her last days of pregnancy was only one reason to go to St. Louis. Bob Harned just had to attend a three-day Gone with the Wind weekend organized by one of Joanie Protzel's friends, Sally Tippett Rains, who wrote a book about the movie, "The Making of a Masterpiece" and has produced a documentary based on the book, which premiered at the St. Louis event. I have to say my favorite part of the weekend was a tour of General/President Ulysses S. Grant's farm home in St. Louis (he married a local woman and lived in SL for a time - who knew?), which featured a beaten biscuit demonstration by food historian Suzanne Corbet. Sally also staged a musical variety show, essentially a Saturday Night Live-like send-up of all things GWTW; a memorabilia exhibit (Scarlett O'Hara dolls, etc.), speeches by the last remaining cast members, the three men who played baby and young Beau (Ashley and Melanie's son), and a "ball" at which the Windies, as GWTW obsessives call themselves, dressed in Civil War period costume and danced the Virginia Reel.
Get a load of the costumes.
The ball also served double duty as a fund-raiser for Rainbows for Kids, the charity Sally founded to support children with cancer and other serious illnesses. The food at the ball was not worthy of mention (truth be told, it wasn't even worth eating), but we otherwise ate deliciously if not healthfully in St. Louis.
We started the weekend with my nephew, Max Protzel's famous Reuben sandwich. Max is the third generation owner of Protzel's, "the" Jewish delicatessen of St. Louis. His grandfather opened the place that he now runs with his sister, Erica. Max cures his own corned beef, which I think is better than any corned beef you can get in NYC. Truly. Not just because I love him. And his Reuben sandwich, of course based on corned beef, has now been cited more than once as the best Reuben in St. Louis, a town which seems to dote on Reubens. I mean, why else would its journalists have accessed the sandwiches around town more than once?
Besides the great corned beef, Max uses sauerkraut that is fresh, not fully fermented, and not too salty. He makes his own Russian dressing. The rye bread tastes like rye, not merely speckled white as most New York rye bread has evolved into, and every sandwich is grilled to order. You get a choice of either a 1/4-pound, 1/3-pound or 1/2-pound sandwich, but the big one is too big in my estimation. The small or medium sandwich is a better ratio of meat to everything else.
That covered one of the three meals on my St. Louis wish list. The other two were Pappy's Smokehouse for their singularly meaty, smoky, lip-smackingly seasoned ribs, not to mention great pulled pork and smoked brisket, and Crown Candy for a chocolate malted (or whatever milk shake, malted or sundae you choose - a hard decision) and their famous BLT. For some reason, at the last minute I changed my mind and ordered a turkey bacon melt instead of the BLT, which is made with Miracle Whip, a poor excuse for mayonnaise. Next time, I may just stick to the malted, which, after all, is enough calories for an entire day and something I shouldn't be eating to begin with.
A new meal for me was my sandwich at Adriana's on The Hill, The Hill being St. Louis' Italian section. I've had sandwiches at other Hill shops, but certainly Adriana's is the best. On the recommendation of Joanie, Max's mother, I ordered one of the several roast beef variations, roast beef on garlic bread with Provel cheese.
Provel? It's a St. Louis idiosyncrasy, a cheese invented by some pizza maker who wanted a cheaper more dependable melting cheese than mozzarella. When I ordered the sandwich, Adriana, who sits by the cash register and takes your orders and your money, said she wouldn't give me the Provel. I had to have Provolone. But I insisted I had to try it. So she gave me a few slices, which tasted like salty American cheese to me, and a chaser of her homemade caponata "to wash away the taste of the Provel."
By the way, "St. Louis-style" pizza is made on a cracker-like crust with Provel. Haven't tried it yet, but I will be making another trip to St. Louis soon, when Hercules enters the world.
SHOPPING WITH THE FOOD MAVEN
As I was leaving Protzel's deli in St. Louis the other day, I noticed that Max already had Chanukah candles for sale by the cash register. "So early?" I asked. "The first night of Chanukah is Dec. 1," answered Max. Then I remembered the old saw: "Jewish holidays are never on time. They are always early or late." That's because our holidays are based on the lunar calendar, not the Gregorian calendar used in the Western world. (Getting back to pregnancy for a second: Did you know that women do not carry babies for nine Gregorian months, but for 280 days, which is exactly 10 cycles of the moon, or lunar months.)
What I'm getting at is: Isn't it time to consider Chanukah gifts, and could Christmas be far behind?
Consider Shopping with The Food Maven, the newest feature on my web site. It's not just cookbooks, but all kinds of things for your kitchen, your table, your life. For instance:
Max and Rachel gifted Bob and me with a SodaStream seltzer maker nearly two years ago and because it has changed our lives - we no longer have to lug cases of seltzer home, or pay upwards of 50 cents a bottle for it (sometimes way upwards), or dispose of plastic bottles that are clogging the planet - I have just put the introductory SodaStream machine, the one I have, in my store.
The SodaStream carbonators, as they call the carbon dioxide chargers, make a minimum of 60 bottles of seltzer and cost $15 each (when you exchange an old one for a new one, which you can do at many cookware shops these days, including Williams Sonoma, which carries only the most expensive version of the SodaStream). That comes to 25 cents a bottle of seltzer. Even with the investment in the plastic housing and bottles for $100, that's substantially less than buying seltzer, especially if you drink as much seltzer as Bob and I do. I'm good for at least two bottles a day. And I always say that the proof that Bob is truly Jewish (the son of a convert), despite his seemingly WASP background, is that he can't go to sleep before having a few burps (kreps) induced by seltzer.
WHAT I'M COOKING
MACARONI WITH CAULIFLOWER
Serves 6 to 8 as a first course, 4 as a main course
Pasta and cauliflower are a popular combination all over the south of Italy, but the Sicilians, above all other southerners, take this dish beyond its very humble origins, adding anchovies, a bit of tomato paste, pine nuts, raisins, even adding exotic saffron, making the vegetable sing with flavor. Unfortunately, our supermarket cauliflower doesn't have nearly as much flavor as the Italian-grown vegetable, but I scored a gorgeous locally grown head at the farmer's market last week and couldn't wait to cook it this way. To my very pleasant surprise, the cauliflower itself had a wonderful flavor, so I also boiled the pasta in the cauliflower-cooking water.
The recipe is from my book, The Southern Italian Table. I followed my own recipe exactly, and it came out perfect, but one important bit of information somehow got lost in the editing of the book: The cauliflower will fall apart during its second cooking with the flavoring condiments and it will, indeed, become a sauce, lumpy as it is, not just chunks of vegetable tossed with pasta.
1 medium head cauliflower (about 2 pounds), broken into small flowerettes, washed
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, minced
1/3 cup pine nuts
2 or 3 anchovy fillets (rinsed well if packed under salt)
1/3 cup currants or raisins
1 tablespoon tomato paste
Big pinch powdered saffron or 2 pinches of saffron threads (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 pound any tubular macaroni, such as penne, ziti, or rigatoni (my favorite) or orecchiette
Toasted breadcrumbs or grated pecorino or Sicilian caciocavallo Ragusano
In a large pot of boiling, well-salted water, cook the cauliflower until quite tender. Drain well, reserving about 1 1/2 cups of the cauliflower cooking water.
In a 10-inch skillet or sauté pan, heat the oil over medium heat and sauté the onions for about 4 minutes.
Add the pine nuts and sauté them for about 5 minutes, until the pine nuts are browned lightly and the onions are golden.
Add the anchovies and mash them into the oil with a fork or the back of a wooden spoon. When dissolved, which will be almost instantly, add the raisins and cauliflower. Toss well, reduce the heat to low, and heat together a couple of minutes.
Meanwhile, dissolve the tomato paste in 1/2 cup of the cauliflower cooking water, adding the saffron, if desired.
Stir the dissolved tomato paste (and saffron) into the cauliflower, adding a bit more of the vegetable cooking water if a moister sauce is desired. Simmer gently for 2 or 3 minutes, tossing the cauliflower in the liquid. Taste for seasoning and add salt and freshly ground black pepper as necessary.
Cook the pasta in at least 4 quarts of water with 2 tablespoons of salt. Drain well.
Toss the cooked pasta with the sauce (I re-use the pasta boiling pot. A saute pan will not be big enough.), again adding a bit more cauliflower cooking water as needed. Stir and toss together for 1 minute, so the pasta absorbs some of the flavor from the sauce.
Serve immediately, preferably with toasted breadcrumbs, but with grated pecorino if you like cheese. I prefer only breadcrumbs.