Just over two weeks ago, I was cutting some fresh ginger root for stir-fried rice noodles with vegetables. I had a good fast hard chop going with the big, sharp chopping knife, vigorous, since ginger is stringy and tough. I was working my way through what’s known in recipe-speak as a “thumb-sized piece” when I hit something else, something the knife didn’t resist at all. It was an immediate transition of my attention. In a lightning-split second, I leapt from daydreamy cooking to animal alertness.
Fingertips are much softer than ginger, it turns out. I took stock of the damage: the knife had gone in sideways, making a nice fat beret-shaped flap of the soft, fleshy pad of the tallest finger on my left hand, missing the bone entirely, cutting up through the top of the nail but stopping short of complete severance. I ran the fingertip under cold water, wadded up some paper towels, compressed them around my finger, and stuck my arm in the air. Brendan brought Bacitracin and Band-Aids, and, when the bleeding seemed to be under control, we swaddled the finger with a good dollop of antibiotic ointment.
There was some speculative discussion about the emergency room, but then Brendan googled the matter and found a clever diagram with dotted lines bisecting a hypothetical digit, showing which fingertip cuts needed stitches and which didn’t. Mine fell just on the side of staying home, which was a relief; the roads were icy, the E.R. is expensive, and we were hungry. So we finished cooking the meal (Brendan did, actually), which tasted even better with the accompanying gruesome jokes about added blood protein and the relative tastiness of human flesh versus more traditional Chinese ingredients, such as, say, cat.
Less than 3 weeks later, things are pretty well back to normal except for a gash in my fingernail and a swollen tenderness on the freshly-healed fingerpad. My mishap was far tamer than the famously awesome injuries restaurant chefs seem to undergo on a nightly basis. If the harrowing accounts of war-zone-like, flaming, minuscule-hellhole kitchens are to be believed, and I don’t see why they’re not, those macho, badass pros in toques have so much scar tissue on their hands from hot grease burns, they can pull a molten pan from a flaming salamander without a mitt and not feel it. They’ve all cut various fingers off at the knuckle, splashed boiling soup into their own eyes, caught their hair on fire, punctured themselves on meathooks, and gouged holes in their own chests with oyster shuckers. Maybe I exaggerate, but not, as far as I can tell, by much. Professional cooking is not for the weak.
As one of the weak, I have to confess that this unexpected injury of mine, paltry and humdrum though it may have been, served as a useful wake-up call. Since almost cutting my fingertip off, I have cooked with the animal alertness I was shocked into when it happened. Here in this sweet, cozy farmhouse kitchen with its huge butcher block cutting surface, handy old knives, excellent pot collection, and simple but effective propane stove, I’ve been approaching cooking lately with a newfound respect and caution and vigilance. These qualities aren’t prominently featured in my character, to put it mildly; I tend to be slapdash and devil-may-care and impatient in all things. But these days, I chop and grate and slice with my ears pricked for predators, stepping softly, sniffing the air.
Pasta alla Norma
This is a southern Italian dish, one of the most ubiquitous in Sicily. It was named after Bellini’s insanely popular 19th century opera, Norma. It works with any kind of pasta, but the best one to use is rigatoni, says Brendan, who taught himself to make it after a trip to Sicily, when he became addicted to it.
Last night, he cheffed up a batch. It was rich and hearty and impossible to eat slowly; the warm, cheesy, eggplant sauce-coated noodles slide down the gullet and immediately demand to be followed by more. We devoured big bowlfuls while we watched the weird, hypersensationalized spectacle of the Grammys, sitting by the fired-up Jotul woodstove, almost too hot in bare feet and short sleeves even though outside it was below zero.
Chop up three Italian eggplants, the smaller ones, into rough 1-inch squares. Fry them in olive oil with salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper until they’re soft, 10-15 minutes. Put them aside in a covered bowl.
Heat salted, oiled water for pasta.
To the same pan the eggplant was fried in, add a little more oil, and in it, sauté a small finely-chopped onion and 2-3 finely diced garlic cloves until soft. Add a box of Pomi strained tomatoes and cook, bubbling, until the sauce is thick and savory, about 15 minutes. Add the eggplant and stir and simmer on low heat. Add salt and pepper if necessary.
The pasta water should be boiling by now, so throw in a pound of rigatoni and cook according to directions, generally 12 minutes. (We use a very good gluten-free variety called Pasta D’oro, made by Sam Mills.)
Roughly chop a large handful of fresh basil. Roughly grate 3/4 cup of ricotta salata cheese – it’s a soft, salty peasanty cheese that’s completely different from regular ricotta – a southern Italian cousin of sweet ricotta. (Watch your fingers on the grater.)
Strain the pasta well and dump it into a large serving bowl. Stir in the tomato-eggplant sauce, the chopped basil, and most of the ricotta salata. Serve with the rest of the cheese with a good Nero d’Avola. It’s a meal in itself, but if you want to finish it with a crisp salad, no one would blame you.