May 10, 2017
A few times in my life I’ve been lucky enough to cook with my husband’s Great Aunt Fidalma. It’s always been in my kitchen, though I keep hoping to make a trip to Tuscany to cook with her in her kitchen.
Zia Fidalma speaks Italian and German. I speak English. Though I studied German in high school and college, and at one point was passably able to translate scientific German, my command of spoken German (and at this point, scientific German) is hopeless. I studied Italian for a while too, but the best I can do is read a menu, order in a restaurant, and find out where the restroom is.
So, cooking with Zia Fidalma starts with a language barrier but it doesn’t seem to matter. Somehow we communicate.
Mostly that means Zia Fidalma speaks slowly in Italian emphasizing the words I am likely to understand most.
Like the time we were in my kitchen in Santa Fe preparing dinner for twelve. The first course was spaghetti al pesto. A pile of basil stalks from my father-in-law’s (Zia Fidalma’s nephew) garden were on the kitchen counter. Zia Fidalma was plucking off basil leaves one at a time, inspecting each one. At one point, she looked up at me holding a leaf and said “è brutta” (it’s ugly), clearly wanting my agreement to discard the less-than-perfect leaf.
One day at our home in Chicago, she was making risotto for lunch. It had a very similar flavor profile to this pasta in that it contained broccoli, garlic and anchovies.
Zia Fidalma cranked up the 15,000 BTU burner to high. She sizzled some minced garlic for a moment. There was a vague hint of smoke coming from the pan. She added the anchovies and stirred them about. Smoke started to billow up. She smiled knowingly. She added the broccoli, undeterred. Smoke continued. She stirred. I stood there horrified. Then she lightly charred the broccoli. I was even more horrified. At long last some liquid went in and the rest of the risotto-making followed a familiar pattern.
I try to avoid smoking oil at all cost when cooking. I was more than a little concerned about how the risotto would taste.
However, I have never had anything but fabulous food from Zia Fidalma, so I had to trust that this would be OK, too.
This wasn’t her first rodeo. She’d been making risotto since before I was born.
In the end, all I can say is that the risotto was wonderful. It had layers of flavor. It provided an important lesson about how techniques different from what one would typically use can create incredible flavors.
So, if you see wisps of smoke coming from the pan as you singe the broccoli for this recipe, don’t fret. Just raise a toast to Zia Fidalma, and enjoy!