With food, it’s well known that you can put something in a whole new light – even affect the way the taste is received – by giving it a different name. Preferably a foreign one.
To be fair, if you’re giving it a non-English name you’re usually also doing something at least a little different with it – gelato is not quite the same as ice cream. But sometimes, it’s just that, for instance, calamari sounds better to us than squid, or escargots sounds better to us than snails. I’m sure that that factor had a little influence, too, when the Frenchified English upper classes during the Middle Ages started calling the cows and pigs they ate by French names – beef (bœuf), veal (veau), pork (porc).
And it’s true, to look at it from the other side, that some of the things food can be called can seem rather unexciting. I was interested to learn, when touring the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, that one of the emperors of Austria (I can’t remember which) preferred boiled beef for dinner, reserving French food for formal occasions. Boiled beef! But of course it really matters what you boil it in and how you spice and what you serve it with. It doesn’t have to be boring.
Think of pörkölt, which is a Hungarian word meaning “singed” or “almost burnt”, and also the name of a meat dish that (with some noodles tossed in) is now known in English as goulash, which is mutated from a Hungarian word meaning “hunter”. It’s a flavourful dish, though the meaning of the name would mislead you. (As to the “hunter” name, consider the different catch you get from Italian for “hunter”: cacciatore. Chicken anyone?)
Now, look at stracotto. You can already guess that I’m going to tell you it’s something that sounds boring (you may even already know what stracotto is; if you do, ssshh, wait for it). But isn’t a lovely word? You may think of stracciatella, a name of both an egg-drop soup and a chocolate-chip flavour of gelato, or of ricotta, or some kind of frittata, or panna cotta, or, well, even terra cotta, I suppose.
Which leads us a little closer to this. Not just because cotta (and masculine cotto) means “cooked” but because terra cotta is ceramics (“cooked earth”), and when I made stracotto today I did it in a ceramic pot. Actually a slow cooker. Not a terra cotta one, but cut me some slack here.
So, now, what does stra mean if cotto means “cooked”? Here’s a hint: Latin ex, where it appeared, typically became Italian s. So, yes, extra cooked down, over time, to stra. “Extra cooked”? The English translation would actually be “overcooked”.
But we don’t call the dish “overcooked” in English. Even if, from the perspective of a lover of rare beef, it is. Say, I’m put in mind of something a friend of mine once told me. He was out for dinner with friends, and one of them ordered filet mignon. The waiter asked how he would like it done. The man said “Well done.” “Well done, sir?” “Yes.” As he walked away, the waiter was heard to mutter with disgust, “Might as well have ordered pot roast.”
I’m of the same mind as the waiter: filet mignon that’s not extra rare is overcooked. But not all cuts of beef are the same, and some cuts benefit from being incredibly overcooked. How incredibly? How about eight hours? Meet stracotto: Italian pot roast.
So here it is: This morning, I put five shallots cut in half and two chopped garlic cloves in the bottom of a slow cooker with two chopped sticks of celery, then put a 3-pound chunk of beef (with lots of nice fat) on top of it. Then I added about a quarter pound each of raisins and roasted plain almonds. I poured some tamari on the beef, and a bit more for good measure. (I don’t care that tamari isn’t Italian. My taste buds don’t care about “authenticity.” My kitchen is not in Italy, so that’s out the window already anyway. They only care about flavourful and interesting.) I poured a third of a bottle of Chianti over it all. And nestled four small potatoes around it for the sake of efficiency (in the time in which beef is cooked in a slow cooker to ultima ratio finis, or chicken to spreadability, potatoes are just past crunchy). And then set it on low and let it go for eight hours. (I did turn the beef a couple of times.)
Yes, there are usually more vegetables in with it. And maybe some other seasonings. Whatever. Faccio come voglio, io. The beef was splendid and juicy, the sauce flavourful but not oversweet (carrots might have pushed it over the top). I served it with celery fried in butter with more almonds and raisins. But does that sound like it should be called stracotto?
I mean, if you speak Italian, sure. Indeed, pot roast has a very similar level of crispness – stracotto has a voiceless fricative, a rolling liquid, and three voiceless stops (one of which, in Italian, is double-length), plus an /a/ and two /o/s; pot roast has a voiceless fricative, a rolling liquid, three voiceless stops, plus an /a/ and an /o/. But pot roast is ordinary to us, and rather demotic – of course, stracotto is about the same to Italians, but not to us: it’s Italian! We don’t know if they invented food and sex, but they sure have earned a reputation for both. Sometimes on the same plate. Eccolà: manzo a quel dio biondo!
And it reminds us of how crisp this word is, how spicy. Stracotto the dish is delicious, but in a distinctly different way than stracotto the word. Honestly, stracotto the word has a flavour that to my tongue is more like that of the dry sparkling shiraz from Australia that I’m drinking while watching the Oscars right now. Or maybe of the almonds and raisins if I had mixed them with the iced whipped cream I have in the freezer, and sprinkled some cinnamon on it all… hmmm… So, yes, I’ll have the stracotto first, and then the stracotto after. That seems like a good flavour progression. And in fact that’s just what I’ve just done.
Faccio come voglio, io: “I do what I want.”
Eccolà: manzo a quel dio biondo! “Here it is: beef fit for a blonde god!” (a quel dio biondo is a stock Italian phrase of approbation)