The Food Almanac: Monday, January 28, 2013

It's National Lasagna Day!
Wikimedia Commons/ Jon Sullivan



In The Food Almanac, Tom Fitzmorris of the online newsletter The New Orleans Menu notes food facts and sayings.

Days Until. . . 
Mardi Gras--15
Valentine's Day--17

Advanced Wining 
In San Francisco, the twentieth annual Zinfandel Festival is going on in San Francisco. It's expected that 1500 Zinfandels will be tasted by some 100,000 attendees. Very few of them will be white Zinfandels (if any). It's orchestrated by ZAP--Zinfandel Advocates and Producers. Zinfandel, a deep red wine nearly unique to California, is such a distinctive wine that it attracts a devoted group of fanatics. It is in fact a great wine, and I find that the big versions age very agreeably in just five years or so. We'd drink more of it here if the alcohol weren't so high. It's not uncommon for Zinfandels to go above fifteen percent alcohol. That is not a good match to spicy food. It's great with meats and Italian eating, though.

Gourmet Gazetteer
The town of Zinfandel is right where it ought to be: in the center of the wine country in Napa, on Highway 29 at Zinfandel Lane. It is a community of about a dozen blocks of houses, surrounded by vast acreage of vineyards. It's just south of St. Helena, whose growth is beginning to encroach on the town of Zinfandel. But Zinfandel still has its own zipcode: 94567. Raymond Vineyards--a long-running, excellent winery--is right there. A good place to stop for a tasting.

Today's Flavor
This is International Lasagna Day. The cold weather likely on this date makes a big casserole dish full of meaty, saucy, cheesy, heartwarming lasagna seem perfect. Lasagna is a long time in the oven; what could be better than a winter day for that?

Like many dishes, lasagna is named for the container in which it is made. In this case, it's unappetizing. The Greek word from which lasagna descends meant "chamber pot." The first versions were baked in large, deep dishes. The ingredients and their assembly probably evolved from the many layered, baked casseroles (Greek moussaka is the most familiar) that are still found in the Balkans. Lasagna as we know it-with its layers of cheese, meat, and sauce-is probably not much more than a hundred years old. 

However, recently a story broke in England claiming that the dish originated there. This is not entirely incredible, because layered dishes (shepherd's pie) are also of long standing in the Isles.Here's the story from the BBC.

The current controversy among cooks of lasagna in America is whether the dry noodles (flat, broad sheets, sometimes wavy at the edges) should be layered into the dish cooked or uncooked. Both seem to work, but we have a better idea: the best lasagna is made with fresh (undried) pasta sheets, uncooked.

Many sources report that today is also Blueberry Pancake Day. Fresh blueberries are completely out of season in America. They are, however, growing nicely and ready to fly or float in from Chile. They're not even all that expensive. Still, this doesn't seem like the right day for this. Not even the pancake part. Pancakes are associated with Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras to you and me), whose earliest possible date is eight days off.

Edible Dictionary
maltagliati, [mahl-tah-ghlee-AH-tee],Italian, n., pl.-Rough translation: "bad sheets." Adding that we're talking about a pasta variety, that about captures it. The sheets are pasta dough rolled out thin, then cut or torn in a desired shape. The miscellaneous pieces left over from this process are maltagliati, which may not look good but have the same flavor as the "good sheets." There's no word for those (other than just plain tagliati, which tells us that Italians have a soft spot for these irregular leftover pasta scraps. They even have another name for them: stracci, or rags. Maltagliati are perfectly fine for the lower layers of a lasagna, among other uses.

Deft Dining Rule #834:
You should never be able to finish a restaurant serving of lasagna comfortably.

The Old Kitchen Sage Sez:
The perfect lasagna has exactly twice as much cheese--both in kind and in quantity--as it has meat.

Dining With Royalty
Today is the feast day of Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor. He died on this day in 814, of natural causes, after a great life. He united much of western Europe for the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire, and set a new standard of civilization and government. His dining style was revolutionary, too. At Charlemagne's banquets, roses were scattered over the tables and guests ate with utensils, not fingers. (The implements were mostly knives, the fork having not yet been invented.) One of the world's greatest white wines is named for him: Corton Charlemagne, all Chardonnay, big and rich. He wasn't a saint, but he was beatified.

Annals Of Food Writing 
This is the birthday, in 1873, of Sidonie Gabrielle Colette, a French novelist who wrote under her last name alone. She was highly quotable on the subjects of eating, drinking, and loving. Here are a few of her memorable lines:

"The three great stumbling blocks in a girl's education are homard a l'Americaine, a boiled egg, and asparagus." 

"As he chops, cut, slices, trims, shapes, or threads through the string, a butcher is as good a sight to watch as a dancer or a mime."

"If you aren't up to a little magic occasionally, you shouldn't waste time trying to cook."

"If I can't have too many truffles, I'll do without truffles."

Beverages Around The World 
Today in 1997, Pepsico pulled out of Myanmar (Burma), because of of human rights concerns. So added to the onus of living under the communism, the Burmese people were forced to live their lives without Lime Pepsi, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell.

Music To Dine By
Today in 1830, Daniel-François-Esprit Auber's opera Fra Diavolo opened in Paris. It was about a reprobate from Naples bearing the same name as the opera. Fra Diavolo means "brother devil." It appears on Italian menus as a spicy dish of shellfish (shrimp and lobster, most commonly) and a peppery red sauce.

Food Namesakes
Today in 1945, General "Vinegar" Joe Stilwell reopened the Burma Road from that country to China, a victory in World War II. . . Jackson Pollock, the painter famous for dripping paint on canvases, was born today in 1912. (Pollock is the northern Pacific fish used to make fake crabmeat.). . . Marty Fried, drummer for the 1960s rock band the Cyrkle (who opened for the Beatles when they toured America) was born today in 1944. . . Jan Lamb--Hong Kong stand-up comedian, radio personality, and voice-over artist--bleated his first today in 1967.

Words To Eat By
"Voluptuaries, consumed by their senses, always begin by flinging themselves with a great display of frenzy into an abyss. But they survive, they come to the surface again. And they develop a routine of the abyss: 'It's four o clock. At five I have my abyss.'"--Colette, French playwright and author, born today in 1873.

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Words To Drink Zinfandel By
"In the mirrorlike relationship between wine and human beings, Zinfandel owned more reflective properties than any other grape; in its infinite mutability, it was capable of expressing almost any philosophical position or psychological function. As a result, its own "true" nature might never be known."--David Darlington, from his novel Angels Visits: An Inquiry into the Mystery of Zinfandel.