Not all of our friends here would be thrilled to be invited to our house for a typical American meal. The Italians we know are pretty much united around the notion that American cuisine is a total disaster, regardless of our prowess in many other fields. They’ll give us technology, higher education and marketing, but when it comes to food, Americans are non-starters.
In a culture whose daily conversations center around what you’re eating for lunch that day, or, if it’s the afternoon, what you already ate, food is everybody’s business. Perfunctory exchanges with neighbors blossom into deeper engagement when the talk turns to food, touching on the source of your ingredients, your preparation method and what you paired with each course. Even our favorite market vendor offers advice, convinced that we don’t quite know what to do with the bounty of fruits and vegetables on offer here.
I’ve listened to groups of men sitting side by side in our piazza discussing the best approach to porcini mushrooms. There are the defenders of the grill who square off boldly against the sughetto (little sauce) crowd, with spirited interruption from the sott’olio (preserved in olive oil) team. And they can keep it up for hours with no visible loss of passion for the topic. Even Brian’s bicycling group talks about their favorite dishes, what they ate yesterday and what they’re likely to eat today.
So when our good friends Pina and Giulio recently insisted that they wanted to eat what we eat for dinner in America, it was with no small trepidation that I developed the menu. Did they really mean it? Would they expect hamburgers all around? What about fried chicken? Mashed potatoes and gravy? Never mind that we rarely eat those things, preferring, well, Italian food.
But national pride was involved, so I decided to go with a menu that featured what we actually really like to eat for dinner at our house in the U.S. I didn’t want to resort to a caricature of a confused external perception of the American table. I’m not even sure we can claim a national dish beyond Thanksgiving turkey anyway. And maybe that’s a perfect metaphor for American culture. On any street in the U.S., you might find a Vietnamese family sitting down to pho, enchiladas at a Mexican household or Thai food shared by the college roommates on the corner. Diversity, at least as far as food culture goes, is celebrated in the U.S.
In this spirit, I served a cauliflower soup with mustard croutons (thank you, Heidi Swanson and Super Natural Every Day), followed by grilled steak in Argentinean chimichurri sauce and brilliant Paula Wolfert’s eastern Mediterranean pilaf featuring bulgur and greens, an addictive dish I’ve customized over the years. An American insalatone (great big salad) followed the main course and we finished the evening with clementines, an Italian digestive and, yes, homemade chocolate chip cookies.
Only then could our friends admit they had been seriously worried. They had gone so far as to develop a back-up dinner plan in case of an actual dining disaster at our house. Happily, the dinner was pronounced squisito and a full-blown food crisis was averted. Word is spreading, too. Another group of friends are hoping that there is una cena Americana in their future and after all of the doubly squisito meals we’ve consumed at various home tables in Italy, it’s our turn to gear up for the challenge.
Paula Wolfert’s Best-Ever Bulgur and Greens Pilaf
4 garlic cloves, peeled and coarsely chopped
Sea or Kosher salt
1/2 lb. sweet onions, finely chopped (Vidalias are good here)
1/2 lb. leeks, tough green ends discarded, cleaned, and chopped fine
1 lb. bitter greens (a terrific opportunity to use wild greens you’ve foraged or try Tuscan kale, Swiss chard, beet greens, dandelion greens, chicory or whatever you’ve got); make sure to remove tough stems and slice them as thin as you can if you want to use them, too)
1 cup coarse bulgur (commonly sold as #3 bulgur)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil (don’t skimp; use all of it and use the best)
2 1/2 teaspoons Turkish red pepper paste (see note below)
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes (omit if you’re using a pepper paste that is already spicy; see note below)
1/2 cup water
Lemon wedges for serving
Mash the chopped garlic with 1 teaspoon of salt, using a fork. You can do this on a cutting board or omit the knife and use a mortar and pestle.
In a large, deep pot, combine the mashed garlic with the onions, mixed greens, bulgur, olive oil, red pepper paste, black pepper and red pepper flakes. I use a 35-year-old Le Creuset for this because it holds heat at a very low temperature and gently steams the bulgur, greens and alliums. Cast iron would be great, or anything that has a good, thick insulated bottom. Season with salt to taste.
Using your hands, work the water into the mixture in the pot until everything is well distributed.
Here’s the critical part: take several sheet of paper towels and fold them to fit inside the pot, covering the mixture completely. Really tuck the edges in like the paper towel is a blanket.
Cover the pot, then put it on the stove on medium heat just to get the internal temperature to rise. When you start to smell the onions, leeks and garlic and/or you see steam emerging from the pot, turn the heat down to the lowest setting. This should happen within ten minutes at the most. Monitor the pot from time to time, but resist removing the lid.
The pilaf is done when the bulgur has expanded quite a bit, usually about 45 minutes. This is an exceptionally forgiving dish, though, so an hour or more is fine. Less than half an hour will result in uncooked onions and leeks and crunchy bulgur, which is not at all what you want. The paper towels keep things nice and moist, holding the steam from the greens and alliums serving to plump up the bulgur until it is ready to eat.
Serve the pilaf hot or cold, garnished with lemon wedges. In the unlikely event that there are leftovers, we often sauté little tomatoes in extra virgin olive oil with garlic, Italian parsley and a little white wine and serve this sauce over a poached egg that is nestled on top of leftover pilaf. This is a case of the leftover often eclipsing the first appearance of the dish.
Note: Paula Wolfert provides a great recipe for Turkish pepper paste in her book The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean. I have never bothered to make it beyond the first time I prepared this dish because I find harissa to be a terrific substitute. Now that I am in Puglia, I use a condiment called la bomba Pugliese, a hot pepper puree with red peppers, eggplant, artichokes, mushrooms, zucchini, peperoncini, garlic and white wine vinegar. Once, in a pinch, I used sriracha. Not eastern Mediterranean, but really very good.