Tuesday 10 June 2008


One of the joys of Italian cooking: thin slices of veal, pork, turkey or calf's liver which cook in a second and can be prepared in myriad ways. A dish of spaghetti dressed only with oil and garlic as first course, an escalope with a Marsala & cream sauce, a fresh peach to dip in the last of the red wine: perhaps a salad if you are feeling like pushing the boat out. A minimalist dinner which anyone can cook in minutes, leaving plenty of time for a good bottle, a good coffee and a chat. Bliss. The good Dr Pomiane would have approved mightily....

There are, however, two absolutely critical steps. The first is to find a butcher who can cut straight. The scallop should be no more than 1/4" thick, preferably a bit less. Maurizio does this by hand in one smooth and effortless slice; his son resorts to the electric slicer - admittedly, with equally good results. In the UK, I watch with anguish as the butcher struggles first with the meat and then with the knife, delivering something 1/2" thick at one end and which tapers to a sliver at the other. Cutting meat appropriately and efficiently thin is a knack, and you need bags of practice - which English butchers don't get because customers don't ask, or if they do, they don't make the mistake a second time.

Failure in step #1 ensures failure at step #2: the meat should be barely cooked. In a hot frying pan with a little oil and/or butter ( I prefer both), just lay the slice in, first on one side then on the other until each surface is just cooked. The time is so short, you practically need a stop watch. The meat shouldn't brown, or stiffen but remain soft and flexible. If it stiffens or curls, it is over-cooked.

Finally, remove the meat to a hot plate and leave in a warm +/-60C oven while you make the sauce.

If the meat hasn't been cut thin and evenly, you can't cook it like this - the result will be one end cooked, stiff, tough and curling and the other raw and flabby.

But surely, I hear you say, what about a meat mallet? - batuto carne in this neck of the woods. Contrary to widely held belief - i.e that you can make good the badly cut piece of meat by hammeriing it into shape - thumping the bejabbers out of a slice of meat does not do it one bit of good: all you do is crush it, guaranteeing that it will be dried out when cooked. The Italians only resort to the batuto carne for involtini - small parcels of stuffing, rolled in paper-thin slices of meat and then stewed or sautéed. In that dish the meat cooks through completely for 20-30 minutes - it has to, or the stuffing would be raw - so it doesn't matter that the meat's texture has been broken down somewhat; the juices will run out and only improve the sauce.
But back to step #1: if the meat isn't cut evenly it won't cook evenly, the solution to the problem is simply to change butcher, not a frenzied attack on the blameless meat with a hammer!

Tonight's Dinner:

Sage & Lemon Risotto.

Bream, grilled and then served with a concassé of tomato, dill, rosemary, and onion.

Summer Pudding.

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