Christopher Kimball: This is Milk Street Radio from PRX and I’m host Christopher Kimball. Cookbook author Hetty McKinnon's mother immigrated to Australia from China in the early 1960s. Their house had a bucket of rice under the sink, fish and duck hanging in the backyard, and bitter melon growing in the garden. The food was a mix of the expected fried rice and noodles and the unexpected, condensed milk on toast. Hetty joins us today to talk about her latest cookbook From Asia with Love.
Hetty McKinnon: As a child of an immigrant, sometimes there are language barriers. My Cantonese is it's rudimentary really, it's enough to have an okay conversation with my mom but you can't talk about deep things. So, food was our way of really talking to one another. And she loves talking about food with me.
CK: Also coming up we track down the original lighter recipe for Fettuccine Alfredo and Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette tell us about their favorite culinary idioms from around the world. But first, let's head to St. Joseph's Abbey, a Trappist monastery nestled in the hills of Spencer, Massachusetts. Before daylight the monks living within the abbey stone walls are already praying and chanting. But praying is not all they do at St. Joseph's. The Abbey also happens to be home to the Spencer brewery, one of only 13 active Trappist breweries in the entire world and the only one in the United States. I talked to Father Isaac Keeley, the brewery director to learn about the Trappist tradition and life in the monastery. Father Isaac Kelly, welcome to Milk Street.
Isaac Keeley: Well, Chris, thank you very much. A pleasure to be here.
CK: There's a quote, I'd like you to respond to says monastic life is ordinary, obscure and laborious. And I thought that was an interesting way of describing it. Maybe you could translate that for us?
IK: Oh, sure. Well, first of all, you know, the quote comes from our constitutions. So, you know, our way of life really goes back to fifth century Italian peninsula rule of Saint Benedict (right) And because we are cloistered a lot of people don't see us and we don't see a lot of people. So, the point of that little statement is the kind of demythologize the life, for the people who really live it. It's a life of prayer and work and it kind of you just follow this rhythm.
CK: So, we're going to eventually get to the beer. But let's just talk about Trappist monasteries producing things, cheese, bread, etc. This is part of the tradition to support yourself and it is part of the notion of labor.
IK: Yes. So, this whole agricultural connection is kind of in the monastic genes to tell you the truth. It does function for self-support, but you also need physical activity, and particularly the younger people, it's very important, but even for somebody of my age, in a certain sense, you’ve got to keep moving, you know, to keep moving. So, there's a whole physical side to this, which helps to create a balanced lifestyle.
CK: Okay, so beer is a long tradition in monasteries. But I didn't realize maybe you could just tell the story briefly that you actually had to get a plan that was approved, right, because you can't just go out and do what you want to do. This is this is regulated within the Trappist tradition, right.
IK: You know, Belgium has something over 800 breweries and a huge percentage of those started with monastic or some other form of religious community that lived in some version of a monastery. By the late 1970s. commercial entities had acquired the rights to all those religiously based breweries, only the six Trappist monasteries continued to operate their own breweries, and then big beer marketing recognized the Trappist had an authenticity to them for still doing it themselves and so, big beer began trying to ride on the coattails of the Trappist breweries, somewhere rather to declare themselves somehow rather Trappist also.
CK: What would they actually use the term Trappist in their marketing and packaging?
IK: Yeah, and they did and they tried to use images and symbols that only the Trappists were using and, you know, it wasn't nice for a little while. So, what the Trappists did was they formed an organization called the International Trappist association and they were just authenticating products that they had been making for a long time. And then when, when we came along, we meaning the American Trappist brewery. The thought that a Trappist brewery outside of Europe would brew Trappist beer that was quite revolutionary in 2010. So myself and another brother we visited all the Trappist breweries in Belgium and Netherlands until everybody was willing to first allow us and then even require us to join the international Trappist Association, and to provide us with technical support, so that if we were going to do this, we would have the information and fraternal support to really do it. right.
CK: So, what is a Trappist beer, is it just the style of brewing? I mean, is there a definition for it?
IK: Okay, Chris, it's a great question. So, Trappist is not a style. First of all, that's the family name of our monks and nuns. So, the beer has to be made at a place where there's a live Trappist community in this brewery that's inside the walls of that monastery. operated by those monks. They don't have to do everything but it has to be their brewery that they're guiding they're directing. And the revenue can only be used to support the monastery and its charitable outreach. So that's why we at Spencer can do our holiday ale and our reserve ale and our Trappist ale. But we can do a Pils, we can do a Vienna lager, we can do a Monk's IPA, we can do an imperial stout, because strictly speaking Trappist isn't a style.
CK: So, I did last night taste the ale, you know, I'm not I don't drink a lot of beer. I drink more wine, but it was lovely, you know, was smooth and buttery. And you know, not too hoppy. And it was actually delicious. I did notice though, that you also sell some specialty beers right? seasonally? Yeah, yeah. So the monkster mash pumpkin ale? (Yeah) So okay, so you guys like, you guys have a sense of humor here? I mean, I mean, on one hand, you're talking about this, you know, 1000-year-old tradition of making beer but you also you have a little fun with this too.
IK: Well, what we do so we have these serious, classic Trappist beers. But, you know, the monkster mash was really, it was a lark. Some of the brothers and the brew master, they just wanted to do a pumpkin beer and I thought, well, okay, okay. Go for it. Yeah, well, you know, monastic life, you know, you could think of it as it's serious, and it is a serious endeavor but, (um) the idea is that a balanced life should be a really happy life. (Yes, I agree) You know, Chris, it's really interesting to me that you're going to say you're a consumer of alcohol probably be wine. Here's the story. Before we decided to do the brewery, and the monastery would have consumed alcohol, only a major feast days or holidays. And typically, we would have served wine so most of the monks of this monastery before we did the brewery, if you're going to say, what's your alcoholic beverage of choice, they would have said wine. So, when it when we got on this project, and we were supposed to decide what's going to be the first beer from this new Trappist brewery, its first beer should be a beer for the monks, even though you want to sell it. So, he said, well, what's that style? Its call a potter's beer, a monk’s beer, brother’s beer. Typically, it's alcohol of between four and 5%. And it has a flavor profile, like what you tasted last night. It's a very accessible beer, which which has flavors typically of fruit and spice. And that beer the idea was to brew a beer that men who would say they were primarily wine drinkers to win him over on the first beer.
CK: You got me.
IK: So, you kind of confirmed that. So, Chris, I was really delighted to hear that kind of
CK: Father Isaac Keeley thank you. This has been just a great conversation. Thank you.
IK: Well, Chris, you know, it's been a great pleasure to be here on milk Street. I've enjoyed this very much. I'm grateful.
CK: That was Father Isaac Keeley. He's the brewery director at the Spencer Brewery and St. Joseph's Abbey at Spencer, MA. It's time for my co-host Sara Moulton and I to answer some of your cooking questions. Sara is the author of Home Cooking 101, also star of Sara's Weeknight Meals on public television.
Sara Moulton: You know, Chris, I followed up on a recipe myself from one of our recent calls. Remember, we had somebody who likes making gnocchi but didn't want to start with potatoes. She wondered if she could use potato flakes.
CK: Yeah, that was
CK: Well, yeah. But intriguingly wild I'd have to say it but sounded like a good idea.
SM: Right. And we talked about Barbara Lynch's recipes, but you know Barbara from South Boston, who's a great chef, and how she had a recipe in food 52. So, I thought, you know, I've never worked with potato flakes. I was sort of snobby about it because my mom always made mashed potatoes from real potatoes, and I thought, oh, there must be some faux ingredients in potato flakes, but I read the back of the package, and it just said, potatoes. So, I got Bob's Red Mill potato flakes, and I made those gnocchi
SM: Drum roll.
CK: They were great.
SM: No, they were pretty boring. The texture came out just fine. They were easy as can be. But we were all sort of underwhelmed. And then it occurred to me after the fact that potatoes don't have a lot of flavor I mean, it sort of depends on the potato, but you use high starch potatoes for gnocchi Maybe my sauce wasn't flavorful enough, the family voted it down. It wasn't terrible, it was perfectly fine. It was sort of fun. Maybe if I'd put them instead in brown butter with sage, I put a marinara sauce on top so but now I've got this whole bag of potato flakes. I don't quite know what to do with. So, I've been thinking about things to do with it. And I'm going to tell you the thing that I know will work, which is to add it as a thickener to soups. You know,
CK: Oh, that's a good idea
SM: Yeah, because I usually add a potato. I never use flour to thicken soups. So, I'm sure I could just put the flakes I never would do the trick.
CK: Here's what you should do. Next week, make the gnocchi again tell the family that you did it from scratch, and do brown butter and sage.
SM: Yeah, you know, I do have sage in house.
CK: And don't give it away.
SM: You're right.
CK: You have to hide the box.
SM: Maybe some toasted pine nuts on top.
CK: Yeah. And just say boy, you know, I didn't really like those potato flake ones by decided to make from scratch and I think you're really going to enjoy them. See? See what happens.
SM: Okay, I'm going to give it a whirl.
CK: Yeah okay, let's take a call. Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?
Caller: This is Kate from Des Moines, Iowa.
CK: How can we help you?
Caller: It used to be you know, you see a recipe, they just call for onions. And they call for a yellow onion or a white onion. And I've noticed that a lot of the recipes now call for red onions. And I was wondering if that was for a particular reason, or if that was just fashion or availability, or what was behind that?
CK: Well, red onions are often called for as a garnish, because I think they're a little less strong. But you can use any onion. I think Sara, you soak them in cold water, I soak them in distilled vinegar, but in it for about 10 or 15 minutes. And you can use them as a garnish, regardless of what color they are. If you're going to cook them, I did learn fairly recently that yellow onions are the strongest raw, but the stronger and the more sulfurous the onion in the raw state, the sweeter it is when cooked. So, the best onion to buy if you want a sweet product at the end would be yellow. But if you're just going to use this on a taco or something a red onions, fine. But essentially, they're all really pretty much interchangeable as long as you soak them quickly to begin with Sara?
SM: Yeah, I agree. We all go in fads foodies do. And suddenly is there's the “it” vegetable of the moment. And I've noticed in a lot of recipes I've seen recently in magazines, they call for red onions, even when they're going to be cooked. I'd like them for their color, you know, as a garnish for a salad or if you do add vinegar to them as Chris does it turns them this beautiful sort of jewel like pink color.
Caller: Yeah. And I kind of had wondered if that was what was behind it. As I've noticed in some of my newer cookbooks and my revised editions that now where they used to call for yellow or white, they call for red onions.
SM: I think it's just a fad, frankly.
CK: Yeah. I mean,
Caller: I guess I'll just stick to my white onions.
SM: Yes, do and they're far more affordable, and you can get them in a bag and, you know
Caller: Yeah, you know, it's just some recipes that just seems more prevalent than others. It's like red onion, red onion, red onion and then it seems to just have no reason behind it. So, the reason I guess I know now.
CK: Kate it's been a pleasure talking to you
Caller: You too. bye
CK: Take care bye,
CK: This is Milk Street Radio. If you have a culinary problem, give us a call. Our number is 855-426-9843 that's 855-426-9843, or you can email us at questions at Milk Street Radio.com. Welcome to Milk Street. who's calling?
Caller: Hi, this is Heather.
CK: Hi, Heather, how can we help you?
Caller: Hi, I'm calling because I work as a crew cook on a chef of 100-foot boat now I've worked on up to 200 feet and down to 50. On each of the ones I've had different issues with using scales. My first job was in Greece and I needed to use BBC recipes to cook for British people. And this is for dry measurements, ran out and bought a digital scale. And yeah, just they don't work on boats, because the numbers run up and down due to the motion, or buency, I have no idea. And so, I had a couple of ideas for what might work for dry measurements at sea on yachts. One of them was maybe just to ask what kind of scale you think I could try. And the other is, if there's a dry measurement, cup size, say like 16th or eighth, or something that was common enough, what kind of cups you would go out and get if you were in the same position?
CK: Wow. Well, first of all, let's start with this dark science. I know boats are always in motion even when docked. But I don't quite understand why gravity doesn't work when a scale is in motion, I would do everything with volume measurements, which are not as accurate. But you can get eighth of a cup, we get as many differentiated cups as you possibly can, get a couple sets of them, including all the tablespoons down to an eighth teaspoon and just convert everything over. You can find it online, you know, like a cup of flour, all-purpose should be 130 grams, for example.
Caller: Okay, just like print off a conversion sheet maybe yeah,
CK: Yeah. And then you can round it off a little bit. But why you can't use a digital scale on a boat? I just don't quite understand it.
Caller: Yeah, I don't even think you can use a regular scale. Like with weights on either side, it would theoretically sort of never be even if the boat was never 100% still. The one that I actually just happened to pick up when we were provisioning, you know, the day it was in the grocery aisle, called a diet scale, and it weighs from the top down, if that makes sense. But the internal weight might still be left to right. Or you know, horizontal,
CK: You make a good point because that's kind of like a fish scale. Right? You hold it up. Yeah, it's pulling down instead of weighing down. And even if the boat was moving, which it is, that might actually work. I never thought of that. That's a good idea. But you know, the backup method is just to use volume, which something we never suggest but in your case, on a boat. Could you try that scale the top down because I'd like to know that would be really interesting.
SM: Heather. First of all, I wanted to comment on how cool a job you have. Do you love it?
Caller: Yeah. I love like cooking on the anchor looking at beautiful seas and listening to food podcasts. It's very cool.
CK: Heather, we envy you. Yeah, it's a cool job. And try that other scale. Let us know. I think that would be interesting
SM: Do let us know.
Caller: I will. I will. And I love listening to you guys out there. Thank you so much.
CK: Take care.
SM: Bye bye.
CK: You know, I would love this podcast, this radio show a lot better if I was listening to it on a 200-foot yacht. Somewhere off the Bahamas. I think it would just make it so much better.
SM: But yeah, perhaps sipping in an old fashion, you know. Nice.
CK: You’re listening to most of the radio. Up next, its cookbook author Hetty McKinnon on her latest book From Asia with Love. That's right up after the break. This is Milk Street radio. I'm your host Christopher Kimball. Right now, it's my interview with cookbook author Hetty MacKinnon. Her latest book is called From Asia with Love. Hetty, welcome to Milk Street.
HM: Thanks, Chris. Thanks for having me.
CK: You have a fascinating backstory, I guess you'd call it your parents immigrated to Australia from Guangdong Province. And you but you grew up in a suburb of Sydney. So could you just talk a little bit about that because it just sounds really interesting.
HM: Yeah, I mean, my parents are from Guangdong Province, a little place called ____. And they came to Australia in the late 50s, early 60s. And they got married there. And you know, their three children, we lived in the suburbs, on a street that was predominantly white Australian, and there were three Chinese families in on that street, and we were all related. It was my aunt next door, and us and then my grandmother down on the corner. So, it was a very Chinese upbringing. You know, at home, we spoke Cantonese, we ate a Chinese banquet for dinner every single night, my mother cooked elaborate Asian breakfasts every morning. And so, living between these two cultures was something that I had always done and perhaps didn't really think about it much when I was a kid. But I do remember thinking it was hard. Because the moment I left the, my front door, I had to become this well I had to try to become as Australian as I possibly could, you know, you try to speak English like everybody else and eat the types of foods that they eat in the school playground. And so, there is this kind of dual life that was is not unusual but is something that I really just started reckoning with as I became, you know, more interested in food. But it was a really idyllic kind of upbringing, you know, we, it's different growing up in an immigrant family, because it's not like we do a lot of activities, our lives were very domestic, my mom never really took us out and went to the park, or she didn't really do things like that with us. But what she did do for us is she cooked, and she cooked with fervor, and great enthusiasm. And every single meal, there was no such thing as having, you know, sandwich night. You know, every meal was just so elaborate and so much preparation. And she was like, so committed to that act of cooking things, the way she remembered them. And back then, as a child, you know that there's not things that you really appreciate, you know, you just think, wonder what it'd be like to have a bowl of cornflakes for breakfast?
CK: Were your parents the first to come over in your extended family? Or were there already people living in Sydney before they got there?
HM: No, they were the first. So my mother came to Australia specifically to get married. My father had come when he was a little bit in his teens to to work and my father actually passed away when I was a teenager. So, his history is not as, as you know, clear in, in my, in my family, and in my knowledge as my mom's history is, but they they came to Australia for a better life. My mum's passage to Australia was a fairly at times treacherous one. This is the way my mum describes it, the boys were on top of the ship, and the girls were down the bottom. And, you know, that's the kind of very little stories you know, it's very hard to get these stories out of that generation that experienced so much, you know, so much hardship. And it's often common amongst immigrants not to really want to look back. But you know, she she left China was in Macau for a little while in passage to Hong Kong. And then was in Hong Kong for a number of years. I don't know exactly how many I would say two to three years. She still has family in Hong Kong. And then from Hong Kong, she came to Australia to marry my dad. But you know, a lot of the food that she cooks is, I would say southern southern Chinese and Hong Kong meals. And I could never understand why she loved condensed milk. She always has some in the fridge. And when I was in Hong Kong a few years ago, I I was in some of the____. And they have condensed milk on everything. So, it made a lot of sense to me after I revisited Hong Kong.
CK: Well, you have a recipe for the condensed milk on toast or bread, I think in the book
HM: Exactly, exactly. I thought that condensed milk on toast was an idiosyncrasy of my mother's I thought oh, she's just you know, this is something that she's made up. Of course, she just loves that condensed milk but when I went to Hong Kong, it was served in cafes everywhere. You know.
CK: I love your description of the house because it says so much. You said, your house had a giant microwave, a dishwasher used for storage only a bucket of rice under the sink, a backyard garden with chilies and winter melon and fish and duck hanging to dry out next to the laundry. So that that one sentence pretty much describes your childhood in some ways, I guess.
HM: Yeah, yes. And it was food for present and food for the future. You know, my mom was before preserving and fermenting was cool. It's just the way that her generation ate you know, nothing was wasted. And you know, next to our freshly laundered clothes, there would be fish and duck being preserved for future meals. And we haven't even mentioned my mum’s three freezers she has three freezers throughout the house with meats, shrimp, fish, wonton’s that she's prewrapped, dumplings that she's prewrapped. My mom could pull out you know a fairly impressive banquet just with things that she already has in the house or in her freezers. That's a very different way of living.
CK: Let's talk about you you started your food career delivering I like to delivering salads to people in the Sydney suburbs by bicycle. Because we got a death-defying career, how did you get the idea of delivering salads by bicycle?
HM: Well, Chris, I really entered into this without much thought at all, really, it wasn't a it wasn't a dream of mine to be in food. I was working in PR prior to this. And I had three children quite quickly and so I guess there was a different need. I wanted something that kept me within the home. Surprisingly, having worked in PR, and suddenly I found myself like thinking actually want to be at home, like I want to do something that allows me to be with my children to be with my within my community. And so, I've been a vegetarian for 25 years, so a long time. And at that time, I was this was about 10 years ago, I was starting to really learn to cook and learn to put flavors together and put ingredients together and, and the type of food I was eating at home, I really wanted to share that with other people. So that was really the the genesis of Arthur Street Kitchen, which was my salad delivery business. Twice a week, I cooked salads at home on my own, but my mom would come and help sometimes. And I would pile them on the back of my bike and deliver them just in my local neighborhood. And so, when my customers started asking for recipes, I started writing them down, and some emailing to them because they wanted to cook it for their friends. And so that's how my career in writing recipes started. And that led to a book called Community, which was self-published initially, in 2013 I think. I self-published this book. And it was 1000 copies, I think. But inexplicably, they sold out in like two and a half, three weeks all across Australia, people were ordering it on my website. And it was just this weird phenomenon that I didn't really understand. To this day. I don't really understand it, to be honest.
CK: How many copies are in print now?
HM: Over 100,000 it's, it's been a huge hit in Australia. At that time, I was like I don't know how to deal with you know, all this attention. I just want to cook you know I don't want to do all these other things.
CK: I've noticed some of your recipes just I don't know, I just I love the sound of them like udon with soft boiled egg hot soy and black pepper, or Cacho y Pepe udon noodles. What did this talk about the udon Cacho y Pepe, which I guess makes perfect sense. It's just a different noodle.
HM: Oh, wow. That has been a recipe I've wanted to do for years for years. And I just when I thought of this book, I was like perfect. I've got somewhere to put it. But Cacho y Pepe is such a just a beautiful combination and so simple. And I thought it goes really well with a really toothsome, mouthful of a noodle. And that's what udon is. And so, it just is just a classic kind of East meets West dish.
CK: So, you'd like Vegemite, obviously (I do) you put it in your brownies. So, what explain to me what Vegemite does to your brownies that you'd like so much?
HM: So, Vegemite for those listeners who don't know is a sandwich spread in Australia. And it's it's very salty, and a bit kind of yeasty, I guess. But in brownies it brings out so you know, the idea of adding salt to chocolate makes it taste more chocolatey. Well, the Vegemite does the same thing and it also adds this nice caramel flavor to it.
CK: So, the wok let's talk about woks. You love your mother's wok, it's 40 years old. I have two questions. If you have a typical stovetop, gas stovetop, yeah. How do you get enough heat into the wok so if you're stir-frying protein meat or something, whatever, or lots of vegetables? You're vegetarian. Can you actually stir-fry to get enough heat into the metal so you can actually stir fry or are you just going to end up steaming?
HM: Oh, yeah, I mean, definitely can get enough heat. I have a cast iron. It's quite a thin one. And I just have a normal gas stovetop. I mean, I think you really do need gas. And then you heat it. You have to heat it until we can see the wisps of smoke coming off. And then it's hot enough.
CK: So okay, I'm talking to the expert here. How do you season and take care of your wok?
HM: Yes. So, I mean, in terms of the seasoning, I didn't season my wok because it was inherited, my mum gave it to me it's like 40-45 years old or something. So, it's been around, it's actually been around the world this wok. But my mum's trick is and I was preface this by saying it's not based in on any science. But she seasons it with a bunch of greens. So, she'll put water, or just a splash of water, like not a whole lot of water. And she'll season it with the greens first. Then she throws it out. And then she'll burn it with oil and just heat. So basically, a wok is better seasoned, the more you use it. So, I don't probably use my wok enough. Every time my mom sees my wok. She often calls on FaceTime and asked to see my wok. And she'll she's a very Asian mom
CK: not your kids just the wok.
HM: Well, she'll see the kids after, but she will ask to see the wok. That's you'll see the walk and she'll say, oh, you don't use that much do you? And she'll say something like that. And and it's true. Like my wok is so precious to me that I probably don't use it enough.
CK: Has your relationship with your mother changed a lot now that you are the well, you are a cook in the family, I guess we talk a lot about cooking food based on what she prepared when you were young. Has this relationship matured, or changed in some way in the last 10 years?
HM: Completely, you know, completely changed. When I started to cook when when I had the salad delivery business was the first time that I actually cooked alongside my mother, my youngest was a baby at the time. So, she would come to really look after him. But when she was there, she would, you know, I'm doing kind of air quotes right now she would show me how to peel vegetables, and how the correct way of washing Asian greens because my mom's very particular about those things. And it was the first time I really saw my mother in a different light. Like beyond just being my mom cooking alongside her we would talk she would tell me about her friends or tell me about things that she remembered from when she was young. So just being in the kitchen with her brought out more stories brought out a different side of her personality where I saw myself in her and her in me and it was an incredible thing and it was through the food. You know, we are two women that grew up in different times. And as a child of an immigrant, sometimes we there are language barriers. My Cantonese is, you know, it's okay. It's rudimentary, really. It's enough to have an okay conversation with my mom but you can't talk about deep things. And that's something that a lot of children of immigrant’s experience is actually that language barrier with with your parents. So, food was our way of really talking to one another. And she loves talking about food with me. She loves asking me what I'm cooking for dinner and how I'm going to make it and when I was cooking the salads, she actually experienced a whole new world of food because she only really ate Chinese food or Asian food. And when I was cooking the salads, I was making Middle Eastern flavors and spices that she had never eaten before. Or, you know, she had never eaten eggplant that wasn't steamed. I was serving her these eggplant that had been coated in spices and roasted. And so, it was a new sensation for her. So, I think we definitely became I think more as equals when I started cooking.
CK: Hetty It's a great pleasure having you on Milk Street. Thank you so much for being here.
HM: Thank you. I've loved all the things that you've raised. Thanks. Thanks, Chris.
CK: That was Hetty McKinnon. Her latest cookbook is From Asia with Love, Every Day Asian Recipes and Stories From the Heart. You know, the buzzword in the food world is authenticity. Now that's a term that implies some golden standard, by which iconic recipes have to be judged. Hetty McKinnon points us in another direction. Recipes are a mash up from culture to culture from generation to generation. Hetty McKinnon's children will grow up thinking that Cacho y Pepe is absolutely authentic and that's because what your mother cooked is in fact, the only authentic food in the world. You're listening to Milk Street radio. It's time to chat with JM Hersh about this week's recipe. Fettuccine Alfredo? JM, how are you?
JM Hersh: I'm doing great.
CK: So, you and I were talking about Italy recently that every time you go there, you discover that what you thought, you know is not right pretty much. Which either says something about you or Italy, but I think it's and we talked about Fettuccine Alfredo. And it turns out the real story is nothing like what I thought so let's start with your trip to Rome.
JM: Yeah. And actually, I mean, Americans think they understand, it’ so it’s not just us by the way, Americans think they understand what Fettuccine Alfredo is and the reality is that Fettuccine Alfredo in the United States is wildly different from Fettuccine Alfredo in Italy. And actually neither of them is that great. You have to go back in history to find the real and the really good Fettuccine Alfredo.
CK: So, what you're saying is if you go to Rome, and get Fettuccine Alfredo, that's still not the real Fettuccine Alfredo.
JM: Well, it depends on how you interpret that. So, there are two restaurants in Rome that have competing and quite legitimate claims to being the original Fettuccine Alfredo restaurant. We have to go back to about 1914 and a guy named Alfredo de Lelio has a restaurant in Rome, called Alfredo alla Scrofa. DeLillo and his wife just gives birth. She's not feeling so well so, he reaches back for a recipe that has been dated to at least to the 1400s that is simply called Roman macaroni. And it's nothing more than pasta, butter, salt and cheese. He feeds this to her. It restores her vitality after birth, and she insists that he put it on the menu. Now, nothing comes of it until around 1920 when a couple of American actors Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford show up love it so much that all their friends and fans start swarming the restaurant for years to come. Thus, was born Fettuccine Alfredo, which is a tangle of fresh egg, fettuccine, butter, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, water, and salt. Nothing more. Not the heavy cream, not the chicken, not the carrots, not the mushrooms, all the stuff that you see in American versions. It's a very simple dish.
CK: So, you went to Rome, and you went to these restaurants, is that what they made that simple dish?
JM: They do. They do. And what happened actually there are these two restaurants you know, a de Lelio had to go into hiding during World War Two. And so, he sold his restaurant to two of his staff their grandchildren still run it today still make the same dish. Well, later on around 1950 de Lelio comes back and he opens a new restaurant Il Vero Alfredo, the true Alfredo, just a few minutes away. And they are they make the same dish and his daughter and granddaughter still make the same dish today. And yes, it is the original dish that he had served for so long at both restaurants’ minor differences and actually vero Alfredo. They actually put a little bit less cheese and a little bit less butter. And that was the first clue because it's a little bit better, because it wasn't quite as you know, kind of gut wrenchingly heavy, which this dish tends to be both in Italian and in American versions.
CK: So just so I'm clear, there's no cream in this recipe
JM: Never any cream. That's an American thing, and it's not a good thing. I was actually talking to de Lelio’s daughter and granddaughter saying, you know, why is it that Italians always claimed they don't eat Fettuccine Alfredo, and they said, well, it's both true and not true. Because they don't actually eat Fettuccine Alfredo. These restaurants tend to cater to tourists. But again, remember this recipe dates back to 1400s and Italians simply know it by other names, and it goes by a couple of them you know, pasta in bianco, white pasta, burro e formaggio, butter and cheese, but my favorite, and here's where the real clue came in. Pasta pancia sconvoltoupset belly pasta. Italians really do eat Fettuccine Alfredo, and particularly young Italians, because it's what their moms make them when they have an upset belly
CK: Really? Now who would think that Alfredo would be the ideal for an upset stomach?
JM: Exactly. Well, you know, Alfredo did because he fed it to his wife when she wasn't feeling so great and so that sent me on a new path because you know, these Fettuccine Alfredo’s served at these two restaurants, you know, are really, really heavy and I'm thinking okay, no upset belly is going to handle that. So, my search for the true the real, the better Fettuccine Alfredo, then took me up to Parma, Italy, because I wanted to understand Parmigiano Reggiano the cheese at the heart of this recipe. And so, I went to a dairy where they had me taste you know, dozens of different from Parmigiana Reggiano’s and the thing that came away from this is that this is definitely a case where less is more, and that was the problem with these restaurants in Rome, they were just like, piling on the cheese and butter. So much so that it was blowing away your ability to appreciate any of them.
CK: So, when someone makes this at home, the authentic version is just less fat, less cheese and less butter.
JM: Yes, and more motion. That was the thing. You know, there's a real dramatic presentation of this dish at both restaurants where they toss the warm fettuccine with the butter and the Parmigiano Reggiano right at your table. And they make quite a show of it. And I thought, well, it's probably just to show like, why are they doing that? But as you said, a home cook always knows best. And so, I actually headed to a small town about 30 minutes north of Rome, Castelnuovo di Porto, where I found a home cook, Francesca G____ who knew nothing about Fettuccine Alfredo. But she did know something about pasta y bianco, she'd made it her daughter growing up. And so, she took me through her version of what we know as Fettuccine Alfredo and she used a lot less butter, a lot less cheese and a lot more motion. She tossed those noodles and the butter and the cheese for many minutes. And that was really key because she was relying on the starch and the cooking water from the pasta to add a creamy body that nonetheless was light, you know, not larded up with all that fat. And her version of Fettuccine Alfredo, although she doesn't call it that was absolutely stunning, light and rich and creamy all at once.
CK: Now does she cook the pasta, like in two quarts of water instead of 4 to get more starch in the water?
JM: Absolutely. Yeah, she cooked it in probably half or maybe even less of the water that we would typically use to cook pasta. And then she used a whole lot of that water when she was tossing the noodles with the butter and the cheese.
CK: So once again, you go to Italy, and you come back with something that nobody knows over here I don’t know why. JM Thank you the true Fettuccine Alfredo, less butter, less cheese, more pasta, water and a lot more motion. Thank you.
JM: Thank you. You can get this recipe for Fettuccine Alfredo at Milk Street Radio.com.
CK: This is Milk Street Radio coming up next. Graham Barrett and Martha Barnette tell us about their favorite food inspired idioms from around the world. We'll be right back. I'm Christopher Kimball, you're listening to Milk Street radio. Right now, it's time for some culinary wisdom from one of our listeners.
Caller: Contrary to popular belief, it is not necessary to soak dry beans. Soaking basically does two things rehydrates the beans so they cook a little bit quicker and if you discard the soaking liquid leach out a lot of the illegal saccharides that cause gas. What will cause your beans to not cook properly was using an acidic solution like a tomato sauce or if your beans are too old or stored improperly if you didn't have the foresight to soak beans the day before just cook them, provided you have a couple of hours will be fine. And don't even get me started on hot soaking.
CK: If you'd like to share your own cooking tip on mainstream radio, please go to 177 Milk Street .com slash radio tips. Next up its Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette their host of A Way with Words. Grant, Martha How you doing?
Martha Barnette: Hey Chris, we're doing great.
Grant Barrett Fantastic, hi Chris, nice to talk to you.
CK: So, you're going to surprise me today, right? I hope so.
GB: How do you like sausage Chris?
CK: Ought oh I don't know where this is going. I like it 30% fat.
GB: Maybe you need to say Das ist mir wurst - this is sausage to me. That is what the German’s say when they couldn't give a fig, or they don't care.
CK: I would say Das ist mi Wurst Get your hands off my sausage
MB: The Germans really do love their sausage. There are so many expressions in German that have sausage in them. Expressions that translate as poor sausage, schlechte wurst meaning poor guy or poor gal or little sausage kleine Wurst. Ridiculous sausage. They just can't get enough sausage in their language
GB: But they're not only about sausages. They also talk about cookies. Martha you're slowly getting on my nerves, darling
MB: I'm sorry to have gotten on your cookie.
GB: Du bist auf meinen Keks gekommen darling.
CK: Texas cookie
MB: Texas cookie. Yeah, if you're really irritating, then you're getting on someone's cookie. And then they also talk about tomatoes. That's that's a very common expression in German tomato Tomaten auf den Augen haben which means to have tomatoes on one's eyes, to be oblivious
CK: That's good.
GB: Well, it goes back originally when it was first us It meant that you were sleepy or bleary eyed or red eyed because the ideas of the very red eyes look like kind of like red tomatoes. And there's old German school slang, which for being stupid, you might say something like you have tomatoes on your glasses.
MB: I don't know why we haven't picked that up in English. I think it's terrific.
CK: So, what else do the Germans have in in the food category?
GB: Oh, goodness, how much time do you have Chris?
MB: Oh yeah, well, lots of sausage.
GB: Well, you know, everything has an end, Chris, but only a sausage has two.
CK: Oh, I like that
MB: that's some wisdom.
CK: So, did they burn a sausage at both ends?
GB: We'll have to call the Germans and ask them
MB: I think you’re mixing your metaphors.
GB: You know, besides German. There's also some fun stuff in Arabic and Czech.
MB: Yeah, in certain varieties of Arabic. You'll hear almashmash ladayh mawsim 'iizhar mujaz or just feel mishmash. And mishmash is a kind of apricot that has a brief blooming season. And it's really, really delicious when it's first picked. But the very next day it goes mushy and unappetizing. And that phrase translates as something like tomorrow, apricot. And what that means is you've got to go for the gusto when the apricots come in season, and that's going to be you know, like one day basically,
CK: I love that term, mishmash
GB: so it's not quite apricots, but the Czech’s have a saying pack your five plums it means get your things together and get out. That's something like zabalte si pět švestek
MB: But what's interesting is that in German, instead of saying pack your five plums, you say pack your seven plums and get out of here.
GB: The Germans are always one-upping people
CK: the Germans had a better economy then Czech’s obviously.
GB: All right, here's one you got to remember Chris. I love this one Czech speakers when they're describing something, or someone that is kind of ordinary or unremarkable or someone who is indecisive. They'll describe them as Ne tučné, neslané. which means not fatty, not salty. Neither one thing nor the other kind of neutral. And it's lovely. It's kind of like the French would say ni figue ni raisin neither fig nor grape.
CK: Oh, I like that
GB: more or less in Czech and French mean the same thing.
CK: I like the fatty, not salty’s better that's really good. That’s good
MB: And Chris, we can leave you with our favorite Irish proverb involving carrots because it's it's really good advice. Are you ready?
CK: This is advice I obviously need right?
MB: You might, you might.
CK: Okay, here we go
MB: it's never bolt your door with a boiled carrot, ever
CK: Excellent, excellent advice.
GB: It's actually a punch line part of a punch line to an old riddle question: what's a very good definition of nonsense answer: bolting a door with a boiled carrot and melting butter in a wig.
CK: Oh man,
MB: Again, very sensitive.
CK: Well, okay, if I have any boiled carrots after dinner, I'm not going to bolt the door you know. Grant, Martha thank you so much. Neither fatty nor salty, but I still liked it.
GB: Chris you are both figs and grapes. Thank you.
MB: See you next time
CK: That was Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette hosts of A Way with Words. You know, I spent some time in Sweden in the 1980s. In addition to drinking a lot of Aquavit and eating __ I did fall in love with air expressions. My favorite is glidai en räksmörgås which I think means to slide in a shrimp sandwich. That is someone who got all the rewards without doing any of the work. And yes, it does sound a whole lot better in Swedish. If you tuned in too late, just want to listen again. You can download and subscribe to Milk Street radio and Apple podcast Spotify wherever you find your podcast. To learn more about Milk Street, please visit us at 177 Milk Street .com there you can download each week's recipe. Watch the latest season of a TV show or order our latest cookbook, which is Tuesday Night's Mediterranean. You can also find us on Facebook at Christopher Kimball's Milk Street and on Instagram and Twitter and 177 Milk Street will be back next week and thanks as always for listening.
Christopher Kimball's Milk Street radio is produced by Milk Street in association with GBH Executive Producer Melissa Baldino. Senior audio editor Melissa Allison. Producer Sarah Clapp and Jason Turesky. Production assistant Amelia McGuire, intern Emily Kunkel, production help from Debby Paddock. Additional editing by Sidney Lewis, audio mixing by Jay Allison at Atlantic Public Media in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. The music by Toubab Krewe additional music by George Brandl Egloff. Christopher Kimball's Milk Street Radio is distributed by PRX