Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Comfort on a Tablecloth

It's been awhile.  But don't worry, I've still been eating well.

Tonight, for example.  Tonight was about two foods, both relatively new on the timeline of my life, yet somehow they have both become comfort foods.  Much like croque monsieurs, Caesar salad and tuna fish spaghetti snuck into my life in the past five years or so.  But they are here to stay and are able to feed my soul just as well as they fill my stomach.  And I think that's what comfort food means.

I can remember the first time I ordered a Caesar salad, on a whim at a local restaurant.  Some people order Caesar salad all the time, but I am not one of those people.  I don't know what made me do it, but I do know that it was good.  And so, last night, when I happened to watch this video, I started craving a Caesar once again.  As I watched, I realized that a Caesar is all about the salt.  When asked to list salty foods, I, like most people, would list potato chips and french fries, popcorn and pretzels.  I would probably even list anchovies--crucial to Caesar salad--but I would never think to list the salad itself.  But the salt is there.  It's there from the anchovies, it's there from the Parmesan cheese.  And it makes sense.  Salty foods are crunchy; in its way, Caesar salad is crunchy too, relying on the heart of a romaine lettuce.

Caesar salad, though, is not just salty and crunchy, the way snack-y foods are.  The salt (anchovies) in a Caesar are emulsified into its dressing, adding what can only be called a silky component.  All the parts of a Caesar dressing (I used chopped anchovy, garlic, mustard, Worcestershire, pepper, vinegar, and olive oil) combine as though by magic, with a spell of Parmesan cheese holding it all together..  Eating my salad tonight, I didn't taste any one ingredient.  I just tasted dressing on crisp romaine.  Concentrating, I tasted the heat of the garlic, the sharpness of the mustard, the acidity of the red wine vinegar and the ballsy richness of the anchovy.  But no one thing overwhelms another.  The Parmesan is key.  A hard grating cheese, it is still a dairy product, so it brings both saltiness and creaminess to the table, and he's the one that creates the harmony.  Delicious.

The second item on the table tonight was tuna fish spaghetti.  I actually never eat my tuna sauce over spaghetti, favoring instead penne or rigatoni, but I just think of "tuna fish spaghetti" as the name of the dish.  Strange, as I did not grow up eating this dish, but there you have it.

I first encountered the dish in a Jamie Oliver cookbook.  He makes a red sauce with canned tuna, but the key, what really makes the dish, is the addition of cinnamon.  I know--this sounds weird--but when you realize that southern Italy has strong North African influences, everything falls into its place in the grand scheme of culinary tradition.  Even if you still find the dish odd, once you hear how easy it is, you'll want to make it too.  Saute an onion in olive oil, adding a pinch of salt, some basil (stalks or leaves), and a sprinkling of cinnamon.  Add a can of tuna and canned tomato sauce  to hold it all together.  Crushed red pepper for spice.  A splash of wine or balsamic for acidity.  Let it cook together, then toss over a short, tubular pasta.  Parmesan cheese if you choose.  Basta.  The cinnamon doesn't taste sweet or even dessert-y.  What it does is add depth to the dish, adding a smoky element.

Into the equation add a candle, red wine in a juice glass and a red-and-white-checked tablecloth, and you've got one comforting Italian dinner on your hands.