World Cuisine, Demystified


There are only two cuisines in the world: Italian and French. Yes, that’s what I said. All the multiple and manifold cuisines of this limitless world can be classified into two tidy categories: Italian and French. Italian food is built out of cheap ingredients, basic starches, poor cuts of meat, trash fish. The foods of most of Asia and the Americas (not counting New York), and Africa, are all Italian. They are basic, easy to make, and delicious. French cuisine is based on money: cream sauces, young veal, shaved truffles. Japanese cuisine is French. So is anything involving many side dishes, assistants, and laborious preparation. French cuisine is all brilliance, but I come down on the side of Italian. Remember the scene in “1900” where the family flavors their polenta by tapping it against a rotting fish? That’s Italian cuisine at its heart.

There are reasons for my preference. I’m lazy. I’m cheap. I don’t like cream and pastry. I think truffles and fois gras are just a wee bit overrated. I derive enormous satisfaction from turning basic groceries into delicacies. Also, I lived way below the poverty line for some time, and it shaped my food sensibilities.

Chopper cut his own ears off. Smith Street will do that to you.

Chopper cut his own ears off. Smith Street will do that to you.

This was the time I lived in a notorious armpit of Melbourne known simply as ‘Smith Street.’ There was never any shortage of interesting things to see on Smith Street: pub brawls, overdosed gentlemen being taken away on stretchers, folks sitting on doorsteps swigging from bottles in paper bags. The notorious criminal Mark “Chopper” Read lived just up the road from me. Smith Street was also a hive of multicultural food and culture, as armpit areas of large cities often are. I remember being able to buy chicken carcasses at Safeway for a dollar, with which I made delicious soup. A few blocks away, in a classier neighborhood, another Safeway stocked no such thing. There were long strips of baccala (salt cod), freshly made pasta, and other evidence of Italian influence. My time in this neighborhood helped formulate my interest in creating food from nothing, cuisine from poverty, strength from adversity. So I’ve always liked the Italian food ethic.

That being said, I’ve become something of a fan of Paula Wolfert recently, and Paula is not one to stint on ingredients simply because they are expensive or rare. Now that I have the wherewithal, she has inspired me to give French cuisine another chance (I confess it is mostly because of the bewitching names she gives her recipes, such as this one, “Monastery Chicken”). This recipe is simply delicious, and it is adapted from her book “Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking.”

I encourage you to try it despite the requisite linden, which I had never heard of before either. Linden is not staggeringly rare. I found linden at the herb store just around the corner from my house, the kind of place that sells incense and essential oils and tiny soapstone carvings of the Goddess. Linden flower is usually used as a medicinal tea, but it tastes and smells floral and sweet and entrancing. It’s worth it.

Monastery Chicken with Linden Tea Sauce

Serves two.

2 large chicken thighs

salt, pepper

1 garlic clove, crushed

1/3 oz linden flowers and leaves, dried

¼ cup white wine

¼ cup heavy cream

½ tsp lemon juice

Prick the skin of the chicken with a fork. Season all over with salt and pepper and rub the meat with the crushed garlic.

Bring two cups of water to boil in a small saucepan, and add all the linden leaves. Remove from the heat and let infuse for 15 minutes. Strain the tea, return it to the pan, and boil until it is reduce to 1/3 of a cup. Add the white wine and set aside.

Place the chicken thighs, skin side down, in a skillet, turn the heat to medium low, and heat slowly, allowing the fat to run out and fry the chicken until it’s just golden. Remove most of the fat from the pan with a bulb baster or a spoon, add the linden-wine mixture, partially cover and simmer for 15 more minutes, turning the chicken once.

Take out the chicken and put it on a serving plate in the oven to keep warm. Reduce the cooking liquid to about 1/3 cup, add the cream and boil until the sauce thickens slightly. Add the lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Spoon it over the chicken.

Chicken cooked in flowers is just good.

Chicken cooked in flowers is just good.

1 comment to World Cuisine, Demystified

  • WarPig

    Actually, most French food is food of the peasantry. Coq au vin, leek soup, French onion soup, etc. Fancy French restaurants add a few expensive ingredients and call it haute cuisine (French for, literally, “high cooking”).

    The French are even stingier than the Scots. Before refrigeration, when meat was becoming a bit too flavorful & tender (beginning to go bad) the French had to devise ways to make it palatable. No way were they going to let meat go to waste. So that is where the famous French sauces originated.

    Also they like their meat too close to rotting to begin with. A friend in the service was originally French. He said his mom would smother a chicken, then hang it by its neck in the basement. Each day she’d give it a tug, and when the neck separated, it was tender enough for her to cook. For me, that’s TOO “tender”. I like aged meats, but not aged to that degree.

    Everyone calls the French “frogs” thinking they eat frog’s legs on a regular basis. Although properly prepared frog’s legs are delicious, the average Frenchman lives on veal stewed to rags, or stewed chicken. Blanquette de veau and vin ordinaire are staples, as is coq au vin.

    The French just are so pissy and act so superior that most people fall for it. While French cuisine is excellent and delicious, it has its roots in the peasantry. Haute cuisine is trickery, much like putting truffles on a cheeseburger and calling it something else.

    But avoid the toe-jam smelling cheeses. ;-)