Living in two cities is taking its toll on my ability to cook interesting meals, mostly because I am not prioritizing shopping for good ingredients. That’s not to say I’m not eating well, of course! My freezer and pantry provide a pretty solid foundation. On the way back from the gym this afternoon, I grabbed some shrimp at the Fresh Grocer. Here’s what I did with it:
A few of my Italian friends insist that eating pesto with shellfish is an American combination, but some quick googling reveals many recipes in Italian for variations on the theme. What almost all Italians will agree on, however, is that there shall be no parmigiano shaved over the fish. I’ve always taken this rule to be true, yet have never come up with a convincing argument for any of my non-Italian friends. No surprise there. Who needs another food rule, after all? Does the rule really hold up?
A few years ago Robert Trachtenberg tackled this question in a well-written piece for the New York Times:
Still, it seemed less an informed decision than a mantra. “It’s just a blanket rule they’ve imposed on themselves,” says David Pasternack, the chef at the Italian seafood restaurant Esca in New York. “They don’t want to try anything new.” According to Lidia Matticchio Bastianich, the issue is also a regional one. “Mare e monte — mountain and sea.” she says. “It wasn’t until I went south that I had even heard it was possible to work cheese into a recipe at the sauce level.” A little research, however, turned up the oldest surviving Sicilian recipe — from around 400 B.C. — for fish: “Gut. Discard the head, rinse, slice; add cheese and oil.”
He investigates further by calling up restaurants in Italy, finding chefs who do admit to putting small amounts of cheese in seafood dishes, all the while claiming exception to the rule, which everyone knows holds true. Cookbook author Nancy Harmon Jenkins sums it up wisely:
One of the great things about Italy is they love making rules. And they obey very few.
I remember arguing vehemently with a Moroccan chef friend about *not* putting parmigiano on pasta served with shrimp and vegetables. I still remember my frustration with the conversation, and his gesture as he dismissed my naïveté. My Italian chef friend dismisses the Morrocan chef’s ignorance, yet reserves the right to waive the rule in pasta dishes whose sauce includes anchovies. I’d qualify Jenkins’ statement: Italians actually *think* they obey the rules, but manage to find personal exceptions for just about all of them. 🙂
In the end, cooking is all about choosing for yourself which ‘rules’ to follow and which rules to break. Challenging long held assumptions makes for some amusing discoveries after all. Come to think of it: aren’t some of the most creative advancements made because someone dared to break the rules in the first place?