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James Joyce - Rigatoni con Stracatto

I read Ulysses in my first year of college, armed with a “European Literary Tradition” class syllabus and a book of annotations that was nearly as long as the novel itself. The details of Proteus and Stephen Dedalus didn’t stay with me in the least, but what remained was the overwhelming sense of loneliness I felt: People were always sadly eating kidneys in a pub, a kind of dual gastronomic punishment (first the solitude, then the kidneys). For a generation that’s been told we should never eat alone, Leopold Bloom’s day seems like a cautionary tale (an extremely elaborate one).

Restaurants can be a taunt to the solitary diner: You can’t even be alone with your loneliness when there’s a table of strangers at your elbow. And your pity party of one would have felt particularly grim if you were seated next to James Joyce’s party of ten. When the Joyces went out, they went as a pack—a boisterous one. Hemingway shared the gossip from Paris in his letters: “[Joyce] and all his family are starving but you can find the whole celtic crew of them every night in Michaud’s, where Binney and I can only afford to go about once a week.” I picture a modern-day Joyce dining out, making it rain euros while ordering bottle service.

Joyce’s enjoyment of food, unlike that of his withdrawn characters, was wrapped up in his enjoyment of others, and vice versa. Writing to his brother, Stanislaus, he requested both food and company: “a slice of corned beef and cabbage, a sizeable beefsteak prepared on a gridiron, and (excuse the hierarchy) an intelligent supra-burgher like yourself to share the meal.”

But Joyce’s favorite dining companion was his wife, Nora—who conveniently also did all the cooking. A day with the Joyces meant a day of eating, starting with hot chocolate at 9 a.m. “At midday we have lunch which we (or rather she) buys, cooks (soup, meat, potatoes and something else)…. At four o’clock we have chocolate and at eight o’clock dinner which Nora cooks.” If anyone tells you having multiple hot chocolates a day is wrong, direct them here. 

Eating wasn’t all that went on in the Joyce’s kitchen; if you read their infamously naughty correspondence, you might not want to eat off their dining table when you learn where it’s been. But their exploits prove what Joyce clearly already knew: The kitchen isn’t just a place for the stomach, but for the heart. As he writes to Nora, after a short absence, “I shall not quit the kitchen for a whole week after I arrive, reading, lolling, smoking, and watching you get ready the meals and talking, talking, talking, talking to you. O how supremely happy I shall be! God in heaven, I shall be happy there!”

Rigatoni con Stracatto Recipe

When Joyce mentions food in his letters, he usually mentions it in bulk: “I would like roast beef, rice-soup, capuzzi garbi, mashed potatoes, pudding and black coffee,” he writes Nora. “No, no I would like stracotto di maccheroni, a mixed salad, stewed prunes, torroni, tea and presnitz. Or no I would stewed eels or polenta with… Excuse me, dear, I am hungry tonight.”

Browse these endless lists of dishes (which also find their way into Ulysses), and you’ll almost assuredly find a soup or two. Joyce constantly mentions soups and stews in both his letters and his novels“thick giblet soup” is a favorite of Leopold Bloom, although Joyce has a particular fondness for stracotto, a braised pot roast served with pasta, which he discovered while living in Trieste. It’s a hearty dish, more suitable for a stick-to-your-ribs winter meal than for middle-of-summer Bloomsday, but Bloom’s meals weren’t particularly seasonal either (Kidneys? Cocoa and cider? In June?).

This is one of those one-pot wonders with flavors so rich, you’ll wonder why it wasn’t more work. As my roast simmered away on the stove, I remembered what Joyce wrote while struggling with Ulysses: “The ingredients will not fuse until they have reached a certain temperature.” More effort doesn’t always mean a better result. Sometimes it’s just a matter of letting the flavors meld.

(Adapted from Gourmet)

2 pounds boneless chuck roast
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 large onions, finely chopped
2 carrots, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 celery ribs, cut into 1-inch pieces
6 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup red wine
2 cups beef or veal stock
1 can (14 ounces) crushed tomatoes
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 bay leaves
1/2 teapoon red chile flakes
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1 pound dry rigatoni
Grated parmesan cheese, to taste

1. Pat roast dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper. In a large pot over medium heat, add 1 tablespoon oil until hot but not smoking. Add meat and brown on both sides, about 12 minutes total. Transfer to a platter and set aside.

2. To the same pot, add remaining 1 tablespoon oil and the onions, carrots, celery and garlic. Sauté over moderately high heat until softened and golden, about 5 minutes. Add wine, stock, tomatoes, thyme, oregano, bay leaves and chile flakes and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low.

3. Return roast with any juices on platter to pot and cover. Braise, turning over once every 30 minutes, until tender enough to shred with a fork, about 3 hours. Add additional wine as needed, if sauce reduces too much.

4. Transfer meat to a cutting board and allow to cool slightly. Meanwhile, discard bay leaves from sauce and, using an immersion blender, purée sauce until texture is thick and even. Cut meat into 2-inch chunks, then shred with 2 forks. Return shredded meat to sauce, and season with salt and pepper.

5. Cook rigatoni in a pot of boiling salted water until al dente. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup pasta water. Stir water into sauce, then add pasta and stir to coat. Top with grated cheese.

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