Skinny food. That’s cucina di magro.
Vegetables. Legumes. Fish. Fruit. Shellfish. The bones of the Mediterranean diet.
No meat, at least none that walks around on four legs. Or even two.
Many years ago, out of sheer curiosity and a strange desire to experience gastronomically and historically what people encountered during the forty-day Lenten Fast, I eschewed all meat for the duration.
I lost five pounds without even trying. Shall I admit that I could afford to lose five pounds? Yes. But my wallet grew fatter. Like a miser hoarding gold, though, I saved money because meat, as we all know, gobbles up a goodly portion of most household budgets. Truth be told, my usual get-up-and-go morphed into a will-o-the wisp as the long days closed in on Easter.
Yet I wondered about people in the past, those who didn’t have five pounds or energy to spare …
But aside from weight loss and monetary gain, the best part of my modern “mortification” turned out to be the abundance of dishes I cooked. To maximize the whole experience, I’d challenged myself to cook something different every day, dishes I might never have made otherwise, dishes I’d read about in this book or that essay, written on scraps of paper or ripped out of magazines.
And these days, I — now like many others — find myself in a place where less meat and more money sound like a Madison Avenue deal. Cucina di magro, an old idea made new.
And since Lent looms large, in the spirit of things, exploring the meatless kitchen again seems apropos. Now I own a special handbook to guide the lost, Virgil-like, through the various levels of what some consider Hell. Going meatless, that is.
A compendium of recipes appropriate for any day of the year, not just Lent, G. Franco Romagnoli’s Cucina di Magro: Cooking Lean the Traditional Italian Way pulsates with pithy comments (“Garlic, discretion should be thy name. Garlic should whisper, not shout its presence.”) and delightful nuggets (“Theoretically it [antipasti] should not appear on meatless days or days of fasting and penance, but if an occasion arises, go ahead and have a fling.”).
Sadly no longer in print, Cucina di Magro nevertheless rewards those persistent enough to seek out copies. Barring that, search for a copy of Paola Scaravelli’s Cooking from an Italian Garden; it delivers many of the same plums, so to speak.
Looking for all the world like large purple plums, eggplants taste succulently meaty, as their alternate name confirms: Poor Man’s Meat. Or caviar, for those with elevated tastes. As Romagnoli’s recipe for Pasta e Melanzane Fritte proves:
Spaghetti with Fried Eggplant
2 medium eggplants, weighing about 1 ¼ pounds each
Extra Virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, peeled and halved
28-oz. can of peeled whole tomatoes, drained and crushed by hand
10 fresh basil leaves, rinsed and dried, coarsely chopped
1 ½ t. sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
½ cup feta or other crumbly cheese, like ricotta salata
1 pound spaghetti
Slice eggplants lengthwise into ¼-inch slices. Sprinkle with salt on both sides and let drain in a colander over a plate for about an hour. Rinse, pat dry, and slice into thin strips about 2 inches long. Heat oil in a heavy frying pan over medium-high heat and fry eggplant until crisp and golden. Using a slotted spoon, remove eggplant from oil. Drain on paper towels. Repeat with all strips.
Sauté garlic in slightly cooled-down olive oil. Discard the garlic. Add the tomatoes and let cook briefly, about 2 minutes. Stir in the basil and about ¼ t. freshly ground black pepper. Stir and cook the sauce over low heat for about 20 minutes. Add sdalt if necessary (taste!).
Cook and drain the pasta. Place pasta in a large pasta bowl Pour the sauce over the pasta and mix well. Strew the fried eggplant strips over the top of the pasta and crumble the cheese over the top. Serve immediately with a simple green salad and country bread.
*Formerly titled Carnevale Italiano: The Romagnolis’ Meatless Cookbook and The Romagnolis’ Meatless Cookbook.
© 2009 C. Bertelsen