Casa Mia

Casa Mia

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Italian Summer Barbecues

When you’re Italian, even summer barbecues take on different meaning: it’s never just hamburgers, hotdogs, potato and macaroni salad from the local deli for us. Aside from the fact that the salads are homemade and we use the recipes with real mayonnaise that my grandmother somehow learned 75 years ago, burgers and dogs are evening snacks after the grilled steak, ribs, chicken and sausage. And of course, and there’s always something Italian on the menu, and I don’t necessarily mean pasta.

So you probably wonder about the barbecue story behind this because, after all, my recipes always come with that! The barbecues I remember years ago took place at my grandparents’ house and though my grandparents were Italian, they were both born in the US and behaved more like Americans in so many ways, except of course when it came to food… oh, and the backyard: between my grandfather’s handmade cement-based clothes line where my grandmother dried zucchini strips in curls for an antique Calabrese recipe and his imported marble statues and hand-built fountains spraying water, you would think you were vacationing in Rome’s Tivoli Gardens! On those occasions when we went to Grandma and Grandad’s house for 4th of July or Labor Day, the Iannuzzi Gardens were in full display: red, hot (and mean looking) pepper plants were growing in cement pots on the outer terrace, Italian music was piped outside and playing loudly, littleneck clams were chilling on ice in the outdoor kitchen sink, the watermelon laced with anisette was brewing in one of the fountains and my grandfather could be found tinkering in the basement with the water pumps or on his originally designed spit for the charcoal barbecue grill that they would use to roast beef.

If I haven’t already told you, Grandad was a mechanic and an inventor and with just an 8th grade education, a self-made businessman who manufactured steel parts used by the US Navy, Westinghouse and the Verrazano Bridge. His eccentric genius afforded him a fairly luxurious lifestyle in a very prestigious neighborhood where clothes lines and fountains were not indigenous. Grandma was a beautiful, sweet, dignified lady who grew into her role of the successful businessman’s wife intelligently and gracefully, socializing with women from all backgrounds. With her innate interest and talent for Italian homestyle cooking, came the natural ability for cooking authentic, delicious recipes of different ethnicities supplied by these women she met, hence the origin of our American potato salad, stuffed cabbage, icebox cake and a variety of other delicacies. So while Grandad was tinkering, Grandma was putting the finishing touches on the barbecue’s menu and as we arrived, I would find her preparing the Bermuda onion salad that would accompany the thin sliced boneless club (ribeye) steaks that were waiting to be grilled, still wrapped in the brown butcher paper. Only one small part of our menu, these steaks were served on a sandwich with a seeded Kaiser roll and the Bermuda onion salad which has now become my family’s staple at every barbecue. Even when the steaks weren’t there, the onions were and they have become the perfect accompaniment for hamburgers and hotdogs too. This is one of our heirloom recipes I am providing below so I ask that you treasure it.

In those days, the pre-dinner partying was never as important as the actual meal itself, especially for my grandparents, so as soon as the entire family arrived, the eating would begin. My father and uncle, usually accompanied with a martini or two, would shuck the clams in the outdoor kitchen while my grandfather readied the barbecue coals, my mother and aunts brought the foods outside, and the kids romped in the “pools” in their underwear to cool off. The sausage was barbecued first, as it took the longest to cook, and was served with fried green sweet Italian peppers that we called “dalianeed” (Calabrese slang for who knows what) and are today referred to as cubanelle peppers. Inevitably there were also very hot and spicy red fried peppers to accompany any and everything for my grandfather. Iannuzzi folktale dictates that Grandad “snacked” on them since he was a young boy - taking a pepper from one back pocket and dipping it into salt from his other back pocket and then crunching on it, no bread or water to cut the burning sensation they invariably caused - and so they were a constant presence at every meal. Although the rest of the family couldn’t match up to him, we all loved the hot and spicy, but I didn’t learn until later in life that we Calabrese Italians were known for spicy dishes seasoned with those mean red things growing in my grandparents yard.

Once the steaks were grilled, everything for the time being, was ready to go. The adults sat at the concrete table and benches while the kids sat at a nearby folding table on the patio that had its very own double fountain with a bridge between. During this session, before the hotdogs and hamburgers, we laughed and talked and drank while eating the sausage and peppers, steak sandwiches with Grandma’s Bermuda Onion salad, the homemade potato and macaroni salad, corn on the cob with butter and salt, tossed salad made with iceberg lettuce, red wine vinegar and more salt, and another Italian summer barbecue specialty that lives on in my family: tomato salad. As a kid, I ate very few tomatoes out of that salad in favor of the crusty Italian bread dunked into the indescribably delicious juices that the tomatoes made when mixed with the fresh basil, garlic and “dalianeed” peppers. Old habits die hard!

And then there was dessert, the best part for any kid though our dessert did not follow the path of tradition. The spiked watermelon is something I will never ever forget, or duplicate. My grandfather would drill a small hole into the watermelon manually with a drill crank and drizzle anisette into it first thing in the morning, then leave it in the cold fountain water all day until it was time for dessert, which, due to the thin fleshiness of the fruit, enabled the liquor to completely permeate it. As the women brewed the espresso, Grandad sliced and plated the watermelon so that when it was joined at the table with the freshly brewed black coffee, kid or no kid, you wanted both. The smell completely surrounded us and one slice of watermelon was never enough for anyone. Ironically Grandad was never really sitting there enjoying this with the rest of the family because he was on to his next mechanical exercise, making the homemade strawberry ice cream. With fresh strawberries, cream and lots of ice on hand, he and my father took turns cranking the old wooden “machine” with the stainless steel top until we had the perfect dessert. Although I am a chocolate lover, I have to say that there was no ice cream that ever tasted so good.

Fully satisfied, the kids would spend the rest of the day into evening running around the yard, taking another dip in the fountains and catching lightening bugs; I liked to lay down on the chaise lounge in the screen porch and listen to the sounds that, I have to admit, would sometimes lull me to sleep. Grandad could be found sitting in a lawn chair in the midst of his Roman empire, toothpick hanging out of his mouth, with his head falling to the side as he nodded on and off. My uncles and father would be rehashing funny stories about the factory that granddad owned and where they worked while Grandma and the ladies did a lot of clean up. When dusk set in, the grill would go back on, the hotdogs, hamburgers, Bermuda onion and tomato salads making a final appearance before the party came to a close.

Bermuda Onion Salad

1 large Bermuda onion, peeled, and diced

2 T. Oregano

¼ cup of red wine vinegar

1 tsp. Salt

Touch of olive oil

Mix all ingredients in a bowl several hours before serving to enable the juices to release their flavors.

Serve at room temperature.

Tomato Salad

6 large ripe tomatoes
2 cubanelle peppers

1 hot green Italian pepper (optional)

2 cloves of garlic

Fresh basil to taste (I like alot so I would put about 6 large leaves)

Sea Salt

Olive Oil

Cut the tomatoes into quarters and each quarter into 2 or 3 pieces crosswise. Place in a large bowl.

Slice the peppers in half, scoop out the seeds, and slice each half into 4 slices, then cut each slice into bite size pieces and add to the tomatoes.

Slice the garlic and add to the bowl; tear the basil leaves in half and add. Sprinkle with sea salt and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. Add a drop of water and toss. Refrigerate for no more than one hour before serving or add a couple of ice cubes to cool off. When mixed with the tomatoes, the water and ice creates this delicious juice that is just asking to be sopped up with crusty Italian bread.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Memories from the "other side"

Today I have reached the age where I can see the end of life drawing nearer - my life, the life of my friends and some of my family. Not to be morbid but, at 55, the years ahead of me are growing shorter, the ones behind, much longer, and after having received the very sad news yesterday that my second cousin on my father's side, Greg, suffered a massive stroke and died at 59, I am changing direction of this next post, previously scheduled to discuss summer barbecues, to rehashing some memories of the other side of my family in Greg's memory.

Like most families, ours was much closer to my mother's side than my father's. Most holidays and Sunday dinners were spent with Grandma and Grandad, Auntie Jean, Uncle Freddie and Uncle Bobby rather than Poppa, Grandma and Aunt "Cookie," but when we were together, boy was it fun. Even though first cousins Gay and Gary were playmates for Mindy and Stephen, I enjoyed the "Italian-ness" of the day in ways that were unfamiliar to my upbringing and definitely not enjoyable to my mother. Ironically, it was never about the food!  

What I loved best about those "Moliterno Sundays" was my grandfather: a short, chubby, incredibly happy man with a mustache and a strong Italian accent who called me "Poopsie," brought me Hershey bars and dollar bills when he came home from the dress factory where he worked and loved his food and wine. With a name like Felice, how could he be anything but happy? Poppa had diabetes so my grandmother restricted his intake of macaroni and vino on Sundays to the point where they bickered bitterly. I affectionately referred to them as "The Honeymooners." While the women were busy setting out the homemade braciole, stuffed breast of veal or steak pizzaiola, on the table, Poppa sat alone, with his macaroni dish full, napkin tied around his neck, glass of homemade red wine ready to be drunk as soon as the family joined. And as he watched my grandmother leave the room to fetch another dish, he poured his glass of wine into his dish of macaroni, stirring it around to remove all traces, poured himself another glass which he chugged down and poured yet another to replace them both before she made it back! Pretty smart thinking for an immigrant: he managed to get himself three glasses of wine this way instead of the one she permitted and he was happy!

But Grandma Louise was no dummy - short, grey haired, squatty and built like a box, Grandma had eyes behind her back and although she never said it, I'm sure she knew what he was doing. Maybe because 3 of her 5 babies died and she suffered from epilepsy, she was tough as nails, took no crap from anyone and kept the family in line at all times, especially her French poodle, Pee Wee, and my cousin Gary who she threatened to sweep the floor with constantly if they didn't heed her warnings. On those Sundays when my brother joined the chaos, the entertainment couldn't be beat as there was always fighting, yelling, laughing, and someone getting hit. (There was no such thing as a "time out" for misbehaving kids in those days!) It was that old-world-Italian, rough-around-the-edges-way about my grandmother that also made me love Moliterno Sundays because in spite of her bluntness and seemingly guarded persona, this lady hand-fed me Cheerios for breakfast when I was a baby and slept at their house, rubbed my back for hours to lull me to sleep, knit me sweaters and mittens and hemmed my bellbottom jeans, and amused me endlessly with her scoffing and snorting at women wearing mini skirts, professional boxers cheating during a match and bitchy women fooling around with someone else's husband on the daily soaps. Best of all, she was the family matriarch so every Sunday, in spite of Cookie's under her breath complaints about pulling out the food all over again, all my grandmother's nieces, nephews and their kids came over for dessert and coffee and to pay their respects to this lady. And for her part, though she "hmmmmphed" behind their backs, she accepted them and served them generously week after week after week. 

One of the Sunday cousin visitors was Greg. Since Greg's mother was my father's first cousin on Grandma's side, Greg, like his mother, wasn't really a Moliterno but a Crocco, and maybe that's why my grandmother was the way she was because it seemed that the Crocco lineage was responsible for that rough and tough veneer, although it was (fortunately) lost on Greg and a few other next gen cousins. When that clan united on Moliterno Sundays, the stories exchanged among Aunt Cookie, Greg's mom, Mary, her sister Renee, and brothers Frankie "Bird Cage," Bobbie and Johnny, as well as my grandmother herself were unbelievable! The teenaged second cousins like me, Greg, Glen, and Chris were left, as Greg said years later, in shock and awe. Stories included Grandma telling her cousin Biase with the huge handelbar mustache to shave his arms so that the homemade cheese he sold in the parking lot at any relative's wedding (my parents' included) wouldn't have hairs in it (no lie) and revolved around people with nicknames like the "Andrew Sisters", 3  unmarried distant cousins; "Lady Norelco," a hairy female cousin;  "The Little People" a family of short relatives, and "Da-Da"  a nosey neighbor who rocked on her front porch commenting on the neighborhood goings on most of the day (hence the da-da slang for guarda, guarda) - all brought laughs so hard from the adults, in-laws included who knew this people only by nickname, that when it grew late and everyone started packing up to go home, it was us young ones who begged to stay longer and hear more.

As the years went on, the younger cousins stopped coming to the Moliterno Sundays choosing to go out with friends of their own age instead; some of the older cousins moved away or divorced or just chose to wash their hands of the family shenanigans and the guard changed. My Poppa died, my grandmother moved to the south with my aunt and her family, and the family bond, as harsh as it may have seemed, just fell away. I didn't see Greg for years but from time to time we would email one another, even call and talk, and always we reminisced about some member of our crazy clan, Biase's hairy cheese or Joanne's "damn danderees" but always fondly and somewhat longingly. He was the only cousin from "the other side" I felt any closeness to and with him gone, I'm left to the memories of Moliterno Sundays alone.

Nevertheless, this is a cooking blog and so I will provide a recipe from Grandma Crocco Moliterno that is a favorite in my family. Although she wasn't a great cook, there were a few things that she made that my family loved like her Sunday gravy with neck of lamb (got some of those in my own freezer),  breast of veal stuffed with egg and breadcrumbs, steak pizziaola which I cannot duplicate and her famous chicken with Bermuda onion that I have provided below. This is as close to associating food with Greg that I can come so make this chicken on a family Sunday and enjoy the memories. I promise the next blog will be more light hearted....

Chicken with Bermuda onion
Chicken parts (legs, wings and some breasts with bone)
1/2 cup Olive Oil
2-3 Bermuda onions sliced
1-2 T. Oregano
Salt and Pepper

Wash all chicken parts and pat dry with paper towel. Place in a baking pan and add sliced Bermuda onions, olive oil, oregano, salt and pepper. Toss to coat chicken.

Bake at 350 for about an hour turning chicken pieces halfway through cooking. Remove when onions are soft but not burnt.

This can be made in advance and eaten cold during the summer or hot as desired. The onions are delicious by themselves. Serve with rice and vegetable. Grandma would have served this chicken with baked rice, similar to baked ziti (fix cooked rice in a baking dish with tomato sauce and shredded mozzarella), and escarole.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

From artichoke to carciofi

I'm back... at least for now. Since I bought these today - 2 for $1.00 at Wegmans, this great store in Princeton, NJ where I am currently working - I've been inspired to contribute to my blog again so here goes.

Clue: They're strangely beautiful, like a tropical flower; bland and yet somewhat exotic in taste; and a bitch to clean and prepare with their thorny and tough outter leaves and inner choke. When I was a kid, my family were the only people I knew who ate them, always stuffed with breadcrumbs and covered in tomato sauce. My friends gaped at them in awe demanding to know just what they were while I scraped the stuffing and soft layer from each leaf with my front teeth to reach that creamy concentrated burst of flavor buried in the heart. Yeah, they mighta choked Artie but, like Stymie, they weren't gonna choke me. 

Give up? If you guessed artichokes, you were right. Even though we always ate them the same way, I loved artichokes then and I love them more now and I have my life in Italy to thank for that.

In the motherland, artichokes are not just artichokes - they're "carciofi," pronounced car-choe-fee, a word that sounds just like what they might do if the preparer doesn't take care.  But there's nary a choke in those equisite carciofi, regardless of whether they're Roman or Jerusalem. When I saw Italian artichokes for the first time, my husband and I were visiting his aunt in Sicily and there were a bunch of them, "un mazzetto," propped in a bucket of water on her terrazzo, long-stemmed and full flowered, like peonies about to bloom. Aside from their "cuter" look, they were softer than the artichokes I was used to - those outter leaves weren't so thick, tough or thorny in Italy so although cleaning them was time consuming and a "bitch" as I lovingly say, the process was precise, helping to create a pretty perfect dish that was always worth the work. And once that part of the preparation was complete, the rest was usually a piece of cake because in Italy, carciofi are made in so many ways, each one more delicious than the next, far exceeding our traditional stuffed and sauced variety.

The first kind of carciofi I made were Roman style which I learned, among other things, in the Regional Italian Cooking Class, Lazio Region, I took through the American Women's Club of Rome.  These classes met once a week for the entire day, a different region for each class spanning over a couple of months for the northern regions, a couple of months for the south, and it was quite an excursion! On cooking days, I'd put my kids on the school bus and my friend would borrow my husband's BMW, (I couldn't drive stick), to drive us the 45-60 minutes north of Rome to Lake Bracciano. The ride would often include us crying over the heart wrenching Italian music playing on the radio,even if we didn't understand all the words, stopping along the side of the road to buy "cheap" porcini or making a detour for an always perfect cappuccino in a ceramic cup! We didn't dilly dally much though because we were anxious meet with the other students and instructors to learn about the history of the week's particular region, follow the recipes to work in teams preparing various specialties and then spending the rest of the day sitting at a beautifully set table eating the dishes we cooked, sampling the wines of the region for each course, while surrounded by the beautiful scenery and distinct smells of the food, the lake around the restaurant, and Italy in general. No matter what you think, Italy does smell differently from New York and every once in a while, I get a whiff of Rome as I stroll up Fifth Ave. that makes me want to just stand perfectly still while my mind wanders back 15 years... 

But back to the artichokes, thanks to the Lake Bracciano cooking classes, cleaning artichokes became a science to me that I use to this day:
  • take off the tough, dark, outter leaves (and there weren't many),
  • cut the top of the artichoke to discard the thorny tips and the stem, discarding the 1/4" at the end of the stem.
  • Pull the artichoke open and use a demitasse spoon to remove the choke, (again, not much there)
  • rub the cut leaves and the base with a lemon and put both the artichoke and cut stem into a pot with acidulated water while cleaning the rest of the artichokes.
So did the many different ways to prepare them. At Lake Bracciano, I learned how to cook Roman style carciofi, stuffed with pancetta and mint. But that wasn't where it stopped - in restaurants I had delicious and light homemade fettuccine noodles with artichokes and cream; risotto with sauteed artichokes, and best of all, carciofi alla guidia - deep fried and smashed with the back of a wooden spoon, drained and fried again artichokes that, with just the right amount of sea salt, just dissolve in your mouth with eat bite. I never did muster up the stamina to cook those but they are the first thing I want when I touch down on Italy's hollowed ground.

Well, I have 6 artichokes waiting to be cleaned and cooked, a $3.00 investment. I'm doing them Roman style.

Carciofi alla Romana
4 artichokes
2 1/2" slices of round pancetta
3 cloves of garlic minced
2 T. chopped mint
1/2 c. dry white wine
2 T. extra virgin olive oil
Salt and Pepper
Water to almost cover

Prepare the artichokes as I now do regularly, described above.
Slice the pancetta and cut it crosswise to make small cubes
Randomly stuff the pancetta into the artichoke leaves, pulling the artichoke open. Do the same with the chopped garlic and mint.

Put the artichokes into a pot large enough to hold all four in an upright position. When the stem is removed, the artichokes should remain flat in the pot. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, drizzle olive oil and wine over the artichokes and fill water halfway up the artichokes. Cover and let boil; then lower heat and cook till tender, adding more water if needed.

NOTE: Cut the artichokes into quarters and sautee in a frying pan with all the same ingredients, replacing the mint with parsley. While simmering, add the prepackaged cream sauce, panna, found in Italian specialty shops and deli's. Toss this sauce with pasta.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Hello out there!

Dear Followers, Fellow Bloggers, Friends, Relatives, Browsers, and Search Engine Optimizers,

If you are reading this, I now know you are out there still so I think it's time to explain the whole blog concept to you all. I share a topic (in this case my recipes), and spend a lot of time coming up with the appropriate recipes, photos and obviously the whole story behind them. You, in return, either keep coming back to find out all these secrets about me and my crazy family or because you like to cook and try new recipes.  You can give the recipes to someone you know who likes to cook or you can cook them yourself to show off to your friends and family. Whatever your motive, I'm not looking for royalties, or a by-line or even a formal "thank you" in return but, as is the purpose of a blog, I would like to hear from you now and then. If I post a survey, how about giving me an answer? And posting a comment isn't as tough as it looks - just click on the "0 Comments" link at the end of the post and a page will open with no comments displayed and a form where you can tell me what you think of me or the recipe you tried out. SNAP!

I've been having fun with this blog but lately, I'm feeling lonely. Since I've pretty much borrowed the entire concept from Julie and Julia, I might as well quote her: Hello? Is anyone out there?

Friday, April 2, 2010

Easter Morning

It's 8:30PM Saturday night before Easter. I'm 13, Mindy is 8, Stephen 5. My sister and I are in our bedroom smelling the asparagus, scallions and dried sausage sauteeing downstairs in the kitchen. Our new Easter outfits, shoes, hats, and underwear have been laid out on our dresser earlier in the day by my mother who has spent the last several days baking cookies and preparing the pizza rustica which we happily sampled earlier that morning. My brother is still bouncing off the walls, pleading with me and Mindy to let him into our room, as my father yells at him to "leave [us] girls alone" and go to bed. Soon the vacuum will be whirring and we will all be lulled to sleep, visions of chocolate bunnies, licorice jelly beans, and marshmallow eggs dancing in our heads!

As Easter morning breaks and we dress for 8AM mass, we tear into the baskets that the bunny has brought us through the very capable hands of my mother (and father), and sample a piece of bunny here, a jelly bean there. My mother gets the holiday spirit rolling with shrieks of reprimand for the chocolate she smells on my brother's breath, pins the corsages onto Mindy's, mine and her own spring coats, and we are off to church. I pray God forgives me for what I am about to admit but throughout the hour that the congregation is rejoicing over Christ's resurrection, I'm only noticing the color of Bonnie's dress, Anne's new shoes and Kathy's hat and thinking about the delicacies that are awaiting. And here's the bigger sacrilege: in spite of the delicious, aromatic, vinegar and garlic basted leg of lamb with accompanying greasy potatoes that is our usual Easter lunch, breakfast is the best part of the day!

Once back at home, the dining table welcomes us with a pink linen table cloth, fresh tulips, dyed eggs and Grandma's Easter bread and babies. Mom immediately heads for the kitchen and, using last night's sauteed asparagus, scallions and sausage, as well as cubed mozzarella, ricotta and lots of eggs, begins preparing our frittata - an Italian omelet reserved just for this holiday. Meanwhile, my father gets the coffee perking and I bring all the other Easter goodies to the table, like the dishes of diagonally-sliced homemade sausage, pizza ghiende (commonly known as pizza rustica), birds nest cookies and apricot pastries, while Stephen and Mindy continue to munch on the contents of their baskets. After half an hour or so, some champagne and oj and an Easter basket down, the weeks of chopping, stuffing, drying, rolling, twisting are finally fulfilled. As a joyous family, we proceed to the dining room to enjoy our breakfast feast.

Fast forward about 15 years: Mindy is 25, Stephen 22 and I'm 30 with 2 kids, ages 3 and 1. Although I'm not hosting Easter breakfast, I made the pizza rustica on Good Friday, a tradition I uphold to this day, managed the construction of 2 Easter baskets, vacuumed the entire 4 rooms of my house, purchased the girls' dresses, hats, ruffled socks and maryjane shoes (at Lord and Taylor!) and dressed them both, pinning on corsages, in time to meet my parents and sister at 8AM mass. Once again, I am occupied throughout the hour with Noelle's squirming, Jessica's hat falling off and thoughts of our traditional Easter breakfast. When we get to my parents' house, I hold the girls off with a piece of bread from their very own Easter baby while my mother works her magic with the frittata. My  sister and her fiance (now my brother-in-law) are serving the champagne and OJ, bringing the sausage and cookies to the table as my kids open their baskets of goodies from Grammy and Poppy's Easter bunny. And Stephen is nowhere to be found.

Over the years since he was a child rebutting my mother's fashion advice,  Stephen has creatively managed to evade the Easter church police posing as our parents so it's no surprise that he is MIA now. But just as I get Noelle settled into her highchair and Jessica's V-8 juice is served, just as my mother starts serving the frittata and we are about to take our first delicious bite, my brother comes pounding down the stairs, with the family Newfoundland/Lab, "Max," in tow, loudly singing his crass versions of otherwise popular songs, and all is lost. Jessica gets out of her seat, running to the stairs to meet her "Stevie Wonder"; Noelle starts squirming, whining, begging to be let loose to join the fun that is Stephen. All decorum is lost; all the weeks of preparation, shot to hell as quickly as you can say Peter Cottontail. Because in spite of the fact that my brother, like my sister, parents and in-laws, has a huge Easter basket for my kids, he has not one shred of Easter tradition in his bones. As he comes into the dining room, teasing and taunting everyone in his path, including my sweet old grandmother, he is dressed in his Easter finest: no shirt, no shoes, black and white striped boxers and his omnipresent "fro." Perhaps he is still rebelling for being forced to wear those suits with short pants or perhaps he's just the Easter grinch, a charlatan in fun uncle clothes. I believe the latter for with not an ounce of shame, he sits at the head of the table and chows down, critiquing every morsel along the way, throwing black jelly beans at my sister, demanding 16oz refills of iced water from my mother, tossing the ball in the living room to Max, singing Bad Boys with Jessica, taking the food out from a shocked Noelle. And so our Easter begins….

Here’s hoping yours is calmer or at least made a little bit funnier, definitely more interesting and hopefully tastier since reading this story from our crazy family's past. To thank you for bearing with us, I share our prized Easter recipe.

Pizza Rustica (aka “Ghiende”)
Pillsbury pie crusts (2) or double recipe of pastry dough
18 eggs beaten with grated locatelli cheese
4 tsp baking powder
1/2 lb of thick sliced prosciutto, cut into pieces
1-1/2lb fresh mozzarella (in water) cut into cubes
1 large packaged mozzarella, cubed
1-1/2 lbs. fresh sausage, browned and sliced in rounds

-Make the pastry dough or roll out one sheet of pie crust for the bottom of a large rectangular roasting pan.
- Beat the eggs in two batches in a blender with cheese
- Pour into a bowl and mix with the other ingredients. Then pour into the roasting pan.
- Top with the other rolled out pie crust.
- Brush with beaten egg and bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 45 minutes or until a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean.
- Remove from the oven and let cool completely. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Preparing for Easter

Do you remember Alexander's department store? It was a step down from Macy's but a step up from Korvettes and when our parents would treat my sister, brother and me to our Easter outfits, and some spring clothes, it was the most exciting day of the year - at least for me forced to wear the same uniform day after day. While Mindy and I tried on bright yellow spring coats and mod  "bonnets" with wide brims, Stephen would entertain the other shoppers with his moaning and groaning, pleading and threatening, and whining and nagging over the amount of time we girls were spending on our shopping, the suits my mother would suggest for him, particularly any with short pants, and the fact that my father was "letting her get away with it," all the while laughing at his unhappiness.  In spite of his drama, our annual venture was the official kickoff of winter ending, spring beginning, and the first sign that the Easter preparation period would soon begin.

As you should know by now, everything in my life revolves around the food and Easter is no exception. Throughout the 6 weeks of Lent, we deprive ourselves of red meat, rich foods and 3 solid meals a day per canonical law, but we are dreaming of what we are going to scarf down once Easter arrives! So we start preparing right before Ash Wednesday and by the time the blessed holiday arrives, everything is ready to launch. And it all does on Easter morning with as much fanfare and excitement as the arrival of Santa.

First we start with the sausage: every January, right after the Christmas holiday season officially closed, my grandparents would make homemade dried sausage that cured in the cold, dry attic for about 3 months until it made its Easter debut.  Grandma would hand cut the pork butts and mix the chopped meat with paprika and fennel seeds smuggled in through the mail by relatives from the old country, adding enough salt to ensure the curing process would not spoil the goods. After the mixture was hand stuffed into the casings, Grandad would hang them over a pole in the attic for about a month and then lay them out on paper-lined trays with bricks to flatten them until they were ready to complete their curing process in a ceramic vat of olive oil. There was and still is no taste to compare with our sausage and even slicing it became a distinct art form to our family, as slicing thinly and slicing on an angle enhanced the taste.

For several years now, my brother, the Easter charlatan, has carried on the sausage tradition from my grandparents and this year, I was his sous chef.  I chopped butts and stuffed casings, although I admit to using his fancy attachment to the Kitchen Aid mixer, after he mixed the various ingredients with his hands! Unfortunately, the paprika and fennel did not come from Calabria but I'm sure it'll be fine. And the sausage is drying right now - in the fridge rather than the attic because you just can't trust the weather on the east coast anymore - too damp, too inconsistent. I doubt that we will put it into a vat of oil and probably won't even cut it super thin and on an angle but it will still be the best sausage you can imagine. I'm not providing the recipe because, let's face it, who in their right mind is going to make homemade sausage? (I never said we were a sane family...)

Next comes the Easter bread - a little dry, a little sweet, and a lot of delicious! Yes, it's easy enough to make the dough, but really tough to work into just the right shapes. Grandma always made one big round bread like a doughnut with two eggs on either side and a piece of blessed palm from Palm Sunday mass, as well as a "baby" for each of her grandchildren. She would proudly present us with our baby bread, wrapped in a brand new handkerchief secured with a thin pink or blue ribbon and wait for our reaction as we unwrapped it to find what did in fact look like a small baby and tasted like a weird bread. I have to admit that as a kid, I thought it was a bit strange to receive this as an Easter present: unwrapped, the baby was about 12-18" inches long, (depending on how old each grandchild was), with an egg that represented the baby's head, crowned by a piece of blessed palm, and legs that crossed with distinct toes on the baby's feet. Minus the arms and facial features, the bread really did look like a swaddled baby! It felt criminal to cut into it and dismember the damn thing for a piece of bread that admittedly, I needed to grow into, and grow into it I did. My own kids were fortunately less traumatized by the look of the baby and acquired a taste for it at a very young age as demonstrated by Noelle, age 2 below.

I'm not giving out this recipe either as again, I sincerely doubt anyone would make it or want to eat a baby but I will tell you how to make the baby bread shape. Simply, a piece of dough is rolled out and crossed over the egg, toes are cut with a knife into the bottom of each piece or leg, and voila, un bambino. (When all is said and done, really not such an easy task.) No matter how long I have been making them, my babies never turn out as eerily cute or oddly tasty as Gram's but I do love making them if for no other reason than to carry on my grandmother's tradition so I make a large round one for the Easter host and babies for the other members of my family. Add a shmear of butter and yummo as the infamous RR would say.

Sometime during that week before the holiday, my mother would bake delicious Easter goodies like birds nest cookies and apricot pastries that would also make their debut on Easter morning. Although not a baker, these were her specialties and I don't know of another family that had these cookies in their Easter repertoire. Maybe because they are a huge pain in the neck to make! So, as Mindy and I got older, mom started delegating the task to us, particularly the birds nests, and she never went back. I made them for a brief while until Mindy became the family baker and makes them to this day. This recipe I will share with you however because aside from the fact that misery loves company, they are delicious, very colorful and perfect for Easter. Here's the process - you decide....

After making the cookie dough, Mindy and I  would roll teasponfuls into balls, dip them in egg whites and chopped nuts, then place them on a cookie sheet, bake for a few minutes, pull them out, press a hole into the center with the end of a wooden spoon, (fortunately mom always had several spoons regardless of how many she would break on my brother's ass), put them back into the oven for another few minutes, take them out, cool them, then fill them with different kinds of jellies and just keep repeating the process. We would get punchy from standing up and rolling, dipping, denting, filling over and over and over again until all the damn dough was used up and one year, during our bouts of exhausted hysteria, Mindy and I decided we should roll up one big ball and fill it with jellies in sections so we could slice it up and serve it as a cake! We got as far as gathering all the dough into the big ball until my mother coaxed us out of going further through her giggles but it was an exciting idea nonetheless and one we reprised every single year! The apricot pastries didn't fare as well over the years. I have made them a few times and Mindy did them last year but no one has really owned them and probably never will as carrot cake has repeatedly beat them out. (Side note: Since Mindy is hosting Easter dinner this year, I have volunteered to revisit the nests and pastries. I'll let you know if I succumb to the one big nest.)  

But wait, there's more! What would Easter be without pizza rustica and frittata? That story will just have to wait until next week as the countdown to Easter draws nearer. In the meantime, get started on these...

Bird's Nest Cookies
1 bag of shelled walnuts chopped
2 sticks of margarine softened
2 egg yolks
2 C. flour
1/2 light brown sugar
2 egg whites
Assorted jellies (mint, grape, strawberry, raspberry)

-Soften the margarine and add brown sugar. Cream together.
-Add the egg yolks, blend thoroughly and add flour. Mix well.
-In separate bowls, put slightly beaten egg whites and chopped nuts.
-Make balls of dough mixture. Roll first in egg whites and then chopped nuts
-Place on a greased cookie sheet in preheated 350 degree oven for 5 minutes; remove from oven and, with the end of a wooden spoon, press the center of the cookie making a dent.
-Place back in the oven for 8 minutes more. Remove and place a small amount of thick jam in each cookie pocket.

What did I tell you???? 

Friday, February 26, 2010

Lent is here and so is Friday night pizza!

February is winding down, it's been snowing for 2 days and it's a Friday night during Lent. Though Lent is a time of fasting, repenting, mourning, and examining our conscience, I've always liked this time of year: maybe it's because I like the rituals of old Catholicism that involve mass in Latin, incense, bells ringing, novennas and holy water which resurface meaningfully during this period as we prepare for Christ's resurrection using ashes, reciting the Stations of the Cross and exchanging palm. While I giggled my way throughout church services back then, moaning all the while about having to give up candy, there were no complaints from me about no meat on Fridays.

Back in the day, fish wasn't all that it is today. Most of us didn't like it and those of us who did, like us Moli's, ate it sparingly - only on Fridays, Lent or not, and usually flounder or sea squab - no salmon, chilean sea bass or red snapper. But on Fridays in Lent we didn't necessarily dine on fish; sometimes there was spaghetti "aglia ool," (garlic and oil), pasta "vazool," (with beans), lentils or, hold on to your hats, canned sardines usually accompanied by some doughy, stretchy, basily, homemade pizza. Maybe because of the snow, it being a Friday in Lent and ipod tunes like "Build Me up Buttercup" and "Ferry Cross the Mersey" filling the kitchen, I was reminded of those days of yore and made homemade pizza... with sardines on the side.

My father loved sardines and my mother bought a tin of those boneless, skinless things in oil each week. Dad would gingerly peel back the top of the tin with a special key that was glued to side of it, being careful not to spill any oil on the tablecloth or counter, and not a one of us could do it but him. I don't recall my mother, sister or brother liking sardines but I sure did, so much so that my mother would put them into a sandwich on toast that I would take in my lunch bag when I was in grammar school. When I unwrapped the wax papered sandwich, the bread soaked with oil from the sardines, and took a bite from one of the cut quarters, my best friend, Kathy Porter, would publicly and loudly "ew" and "gross" and hold her nose until I wrapped up the remains and tossed it in the cafeteria garbage pail along with Kathy's sour milk container.

Tonight I ate sardines out of a flip top can, without the help of my father, the squishy toast and Porter whose zany ways and tastes in food have grown in leaps and bounds since she was an 11-year old tall, skinny girl frying up and eating her own peeled skin. (Gotcha back, Kath!) Ok so she would still hate the sardines but there's the homemade pizza....

Pizza Dough
(for 2 large pizzas)

2 packages of active dry yeast
1-1/2 C. lukewarm water
Pinch of sugar
4 c. flour
1 tsp. salt
1/4 c. olive oil

• Sprinkle the yeast into 1/4 cup of lukewarm water with pinch of sugar. Let it sit for a minute or so and then stir it to mix. Keep in a warm place for about 5 minutes until the mixture doubles in volume.

• Mix the flour and salt in a bowl or large pot and make a well in the middle. Add the yeast mixture, 1 cup of lukewarm water and the oil.

• Gradually blend the flour into the liquid with your hands until all the flour is mixed in. If more water is needed, add a little at a time. The dough should form a ball but not be too dry or too tacky.

• On a floured surface, knead the dough until pliable, about 10 minutes. Put back into the bowl, dust with flour and cover with a plate or pot cover and kitchen towel. Keep in a warm spot for 1-1/2 - 2 hours. Punch down and let rise again.

Sprinkle 2 large cookie sheets with cornmeal. Divide the dough in two parts. Stretch each piece with hands and roll out to an oval/rectangle to fit the cookie sheet on a floured surface. You'll notice that homemade pizza dough is much softer and pliable than store bought so this shouldn't take much time.

Top the pizza with desired toppings. I made them simply with just tomato sauce and mozzarella. Earlier today I made the sauce using one large can of tomatoes, a clove of garlic, drop of olive oil, pinch of salt and several leaves of fresh basil. Don't puree these tomatoes - while the sauce is cooking, use a fork to squeeze the tomatoes and cook the sauce on low heat until it's reduced, about an hour.

When you spread the sauce, use your fingers to press it into the dough. Top with grated mozzarella, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with ground black pepper. Cook on the bottom rack of a preheated 500 degree oven for 10 minutes, making sure the bottom crust is browned.

You can’t really prepare in advance for this meal but if scheduled properly, you should have plenty of time to make it to Friday’s Stations of the Cross. Amen.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

For Dinner Parties: Tagliatelle Bolognese

Are you all just dying to know how to make that scrumptious looking bolognese sauce in the picture? I know, I've been holding out but one just can't give away all the best recipes off the bat, and this is one of them. However, since I mentioned my muse, Marcella Hazan in the last post, I will carry through on the Marcella theme in this one and supply the recipe for tagliatelle bolognese, a Marcella Hazan classic.

But first, a little story.....

Once upon a time, people used to have fancy dinner parties on Saturday evenings with friends and neighbors, business associates and their wives, (women weren't the business associate back then), and even relatives -always without their kids. I know, dinner parties at other peoples' homes without the children does not belong to the "2000's child-rearing code of conduct" since kids nowadays are always seen, always heard for fear that they may grow up to be serial killers, but I grew up in that other era - not seen, not heard and I think I turned out ok. Ironically, not being included made adult dinner parties fun even for us. 

My mother loved her dinner parties. She hosted them regularly but alas, since she was an excellent cook and hostess, she wasn't invited back that often - bad for her but wonderful for my sister, brother and me as we reaped the rewards at our own dinner party before the guests arrived by sampling every delicacy my mother concocted... and she had talent.  But we had the most fun with the pre, during and post party activities.

First there was the shopping: all three of us would accompany mom to the grocery store in her hair rollers and kerchief and distract her from her necessary preparations by conning her into buying us mallomars and TV dinners - anything to leave her alone while she shopped for god's sake! Then there was the cleaning: when my mother was having company, you couldn't live in the house - anywhere. All of us, including my father, weren't permitted to walk into the living room that she just vacuumed for the third time that day, let alone sit on a couch. It's a wonder that she had as many dinner parties as she had since the drill was always the same: she would literally kick my father out of every room and he would whine back that it was his house after all and where was he supposed to read his paper? Added to that mix was my brother who took every opportunity to rile my  mother up even more just for the hell of it by touching the table she just set or the flowers she arranged or worse still, anything on the stove because my brother had an uncanny ability to then make those things drop... and break... and just cause total chaos, much to the delight of my sister and me. He'd act up, we'd laugh and he'd get hit - it was a tradition, a ritual, a routine that never wavered and he'd never learn. And Mindy and I, well, we would just survey all of mom's dinner party touches, clucking about the tall colored tapers and the little round flat chocolate mints that were arranged in concentric circles on the candy dish at every party while making mental notes to do the exact same thing when we grew up!
Ah, when the doorbell rang and my mother screamed at us in hushed whispers to "get up those stairs right now," then the fun really began. Somewhere after the first course, all three of us would tiptoe out of our rooms to sit on the steps in our center hall colonial, while we snickered, whispered and giggled at the adults making total fools of themselves as they ate and ate and drank and drank. And lo and behold, during those few hours, my mom's pre-party mania would miraculously slip away and she would actually excuse Lillian for staining her perfectly pressed linen tablecloth with beef stroganoff and ignore the red wine stain on the beige rug that she would have to "afta" first thing Sunday or fluff off the cigarette burn on her upholstered chair because in those days everyone smoked. Even when my brother would be discovered sneaking into the kitchen to grab a piece of bread, the dinner party spirit would reign supreme and once his presence was acknowledged, we were all  invited downstairs for a little while to chat with Jackie and Vinny and pick on the leftovers, even take dessert upstairs. And with all the fussing and prepping and cooking and serving, the dinner party was a declared success, my mom the Martha Stewart of the 70's. Best of all, we kids didn't have to lift a finger to clean up a mess that we got to enjoy and didn't make!

In later years, I had lots of dinner parties too and alas, like my mother, didn't get a lot of invitations in return. Some of my guests had the nerve to scold me for entertaining them so generously, telling me not to expect anything like what I had done when I came to their house for dinner, maybe 6 to 12 months later. The few invitations I received in return even included my kids which certainly changed the rules of the game, and honestly, some of the fun was gone. The tide had definitely turned and it's obviously still not returned, even in a recession! Maybe the pre and post dinner party mania is just too much to bear in an already stressful world but for me, it's still the best game in town: planning the menu and experimenting with new recipes is fun, the spirit festive, there's a reason to clean the house and the appreciation from your guests is uplifting, so I continue to plan, prepare and host dinner parties.  It's really not so bad if you like the people you're entertaining and a little help from the husband/wife/kids goes a long way so try it and you may like it. I'll help too with these stories and advice, direction, recipes - just ask Val.

Marcella's tagliatelle bolognese has made its appearance as a first course at many of my dinner parties and I now happily provide the recipe. Here's a menu for one of my classic dinner parties in which it was served, with the corresponding recipes as well. A long story like this deserves a reward!

Mushrooms beschamel
Tagliatelle bolognese
Veal Marsala
Zucchini with mint

Tagliatelle Bolognese
(for 2 lbs. of tagliatelle)
1 yellow onion chopped fine
6 T. olive oil
6 T. butter
1 celery stalk chopped fine
1 carrot chopped fine
1-1/2 lbs. ground lean beef
1-1/2 c. dry white wine
1 c. milk
1/4 tsp nutmeg
2 cans of canned tomatoes

  • Using an earthenware pot like Le Crueset or copper dutch oven (which I usually use), melt together the butter and olive oil. Add in the onion and sautee until translucent and slightly golden.

  • Add the celery and carrot and cook for a few minutes till softened.

  • Add the ground beef and salt, crumble with a wooden fork and cook until the meat has lost its rawness. Put in the wine and turn up the heat to medium high and cook, stirring occasionally, until the wine is evaporated.

  • Turn heat down to medium and add the milk and nutmeg, cooking till milk is evaporated.

  • Puree the tomatoes and add to the pot. Like my grandmother, I puree my tomatoes with a food mill.  Because the seeds and skin can cause the sauce to be bitter, she believed in using the food mill instead of the blender to puree the tomatoes, and she was right. 

  • When the sauce start to bubble, turn the heat down and simmer slowly. Cook uncovered for 3-1/2 to 4 hours, stirring occasionally.

  • Season if needed and toss with pasta to serve.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

My favorite recipe of all time: Risotto with Pumpkin

Based on the recipes I've been giving you, you must think I'm your typical chubby Italian lady with an oregano stalk in my ear mixing my meataballs while stirring my gravy when nothing could be farther than the truth.Well, the chubby Italian part is close but my cooking repertoire is a bit more extensive. Although I love all the old time recipes, and there will be more to come, I started developing an interest in what my family might have considered "nouvelle" Italian cuisine around the time I got married 30 some years ago.  My husband-then-boyfriend and I went to the very best restaurants in New York while we were dating: the Four Seasons, il Gattopardo, La Caravelle, Lutece, but our favorite was in Little Italy, il Cortile.  Back in 1978, il Cortile would have been considered an upscale restaurant for that area: it was small, the food was excellent and it was always crowded. Since they didn't take reservations for only two, Tony and I would arrive around 8:30 on a Saturday night and wait in the small portico shoulder to shoulder among other starving diners for hours (no lie) until we were seated. There were many times when we ate dinner at 11pm with the likes of Lou Pinella (who had hit the ground ball that won the Yankees the series at the time) and it was always worth the wait, for it was at il Cortile where I first ate pasta with pesto, spaghetti puttanesca and "petto di venere" or Venus' breasts (tell you more about that one another time).

Next to the famous meatballs, these were the first dishes I learned to make: the pesto, from a neighbor, the puttanesca from my first recipe book, The New York Times 60 Minute Gourmet by Pierre Franey (minus the clams), both of which became my early contributions to other members of my family. "The 60 minute gourmet" was my bible for the first few years of my marriage until I discovered The Classic Italian Cookbook by Marcella Hazan - the Italian Julia Child who taught me all about the world of Italian cooking that had otherwise revolved around gravy and meatballs, chicken cacciatore and sausage and peppers. Marcella prepared me for the years later when I would live in Italy and would learn more about Italian cooking that would differentiate my cooking from my mother and grandmother's but it all began with her risotto.

Yes, you need to make your own chicken stock and yes, you need to stand over the stove cooking it slowly for 20 minutes or more, and ok so there's lots of butter, wine and Parmiggiano cheese and sometimes even ingredients that I never even heard of growing up like pancetta and zafferano (saffron), but mastering a risotto has by far, become the most rewarding, versatile and personal favorite dish in my cooking portfolio. It is what I serve guests to make an impression and my family to warm them up. It can be served very simply alla milanese as a side dish for osso bucco or veal saltimbocca or as a main dish with porcini mushrooms,  seafood, or, my favorite, zucca, a small squatty pumpkin very common in Italy that you can now find in supermarkets or local specialty markets in the US.  If you make a visit to Italy, you will find risotto on every restaurant menu from north to south, getting heavier tasting and richer in ingredients along the way. I prefer to keep it simple..

I made risotto alla zucca for last night's dinner. I found a piece of squatty pumpkin in a small Mexican local vegetable market but if you can't find it, butternut squash is a good substitute. To serve 4 people, I used one small box (16 oz) of arborio rice and 1/4 of the whole zucca, equivalent to one butternut squash. When I make chicken stock for risotto, I make it very "plain" with only parsley, celery and onion which I strain and freeze in quart containers. For this risotto, I cheated a little and used one quart of my own stock plus 2 cups of College Inn low salt chicken broth.  

Keep in mind that imported arborio rice is usually sold by the kilogram which is slightly over 2 lbs. If you are making that much for more than 4 people or you want leftovers as we sometimes do, use 1/2-3/4 of a whole zucca(2 butternut squash)  and at least 2 quarts of stock.  Although I love the saffron in risotto, I do not include it in my risotto alla zucca - the pumpkin turns the rice a nice orange color on its own and honestly, how orange is too orange? When making risotto milanese or risotto with seafood, the saffron should be dissolved in warm water and introduced in place of the broth halfway through the cooking process.

Any questions on this process or risotto in general, just ask. Remember, it takes time to master and time to cook, but hey, we're worth it.

Risotto all Zucca

1 small box (16 oz) arborio rice
1/4 of whole zucca or 1 butternut squash
1 large onion chopped fine
4 T. butter plus 2 T olive oil
1/2 c. dry white wine
1-1&1/2 quart homemade chicken stock or College Inn low salt chicken broth
4 T. butter
1 C. grated Parmiggiano cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
  • Remove the outer skin of the zucca and cut into cubes. If using butternut squash, be extra careful as the skin is extremely hard. Cut the squash in half lengthwise and remove the seeds. Then cut in half crosswise and remove the skin. This will make  it somewhat easier to cut the squash into cubes.
  • In a heavy dutch oven or casserole pot (I usually use a copper pot but Le Crueset is heavier and just as good), melt the butter and olive oil together. Add the chopped onion and saute for a few minutes but don't brown. Add the zucca/squash with a touch of salt and stir constantly.
  • Cook the zucca until soft but not mushy.  Keep in mind that because butternut squash is harder than zucca, it will take longer to cook.
  • Meanwhile heat the broth in a nearby pot almost to a boil.
  • Add the arborio rice to the zucca mixture and stir to coat. 
  • Deglaze with white wine, stirring in gradually until the wine is completely absorbed.
  • Here comes the tough part. By the ladleful, add the broth, stirring the rice slowly and gently until it is absorbed, being careful not to let the rice become too dry and burn the pot. After each ladle of broth, stir the rice until absorbed and repeat the process until the broth is completed. This should take about 20 minutes and the rice should be a little hard to the taste but not raw. If you prefer the rice to be softer, add more broth. (You can use College Inn or bouillon.)
  • When the rice is cooked. Turn off the heat and stir in the remaining 4 T. of butter, parmiggiano, ground black pepper and salt to taste. Serve with extra parmiggiano as needed.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Meatball Variation alla Enza

I think I've mentioned this before: my husband is Sicilian and no, he is NOT in the Mafia. I do admit that he does have tendencies to "never forget" an injustice upon him and I have used all the standard Sicilian "mafioso" digs on him in our fights over the years but beyond that veneer, he is honest, generous and perhaps unfortunately, not involved in any dirty business that might help our declining financial situation. He's also into food as much as I am - it's been the common bond between us from the start and sometimes, the only bond. For the most part, the Calabrese/Sicilian connection is not always an easy one, but I digress....

The Sicilians cook so differently from what I consider "Italian" cooking. My late mother-in-law used onion, hard boiled eggs, pignoli nuts and raisins in her roasts, meatloaf, meatballs and those other home-style, old- fashioned dishes made with organ meats, like soffritto, that are no longer considered healthy. I ate risotto for the first time at her house (again with chicken livers), caponata, asparagus soup and baby lamb and I thought pasta alla norma was really pasta alla Enza until a few years ago. Although very different from my mother's cooking, I learned to appreciate Enza's Sicilian style. And in case I forgot, she  would frequently remind me in her heavy Italian accent: "After all, Valeria, I am Sicilian..." as though that alone was justification for everything she said or did. I say this affectionately - she was a kind, happy, strong woman who thought I was a great Italian cook "for an American girl" and she is missed by us all.

This blog will talk a lot about my family and the recipes that I grew up with or cultivated myself during my own life experiences but it will also provide some of my mother-in-law's Sicilian ones as well. One of the things I loved was "agre dolce", sour and sweet, broccoli and meatballs. Although she made her meatballs differently from mine and the recipe I had provided, I have used my meatball mixture in this recipe and served it as a main course with rice or some simple pasta on the side.

Try it out and let me know what you think.

Enza's Agre Dolce Meatballs
Meatball mixture (see Jan. 20 post)
2 onions sliced thin
1-1/2 tsp sugar
1/2 c. vinegar
Olive oil for frying (not EVOO)

After mixing the meatballs, shape them into large squares, rather than rounds. Enza made big meatballs and these need to hold their shape.
  • In a large pot, not a frying pan, add oil up to about 2" high and heat.
  • Fry the meatballs with the sliced onions, turning on each side.
  • When meatballs are browned and mostly cooked, add the sugar and vinegar to the pot. Stir, loosening up the onions but being careful not to break the meatballs.
  • Cover and let boil 6-7 minutes. If liquid is evaporating quickly, lower the heat slightly.
  • Simmer 5 minutes more and serve.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Mom's Meatballs are the BEST!

I hate cheese. There, I said it. Who would have thought? I’m Italian, I love wine, the perfect accompaniment to cheese, and I cook, pretty good at that I must say, so what respectable cook doesn’t like cheese?

I don’t like the consistency of it. I’m told that when I was a baby, I literally gagged at those cellophane-wrapped cheese slices, factory-produced by the Kraft company. Why shouldn’t I? They were tacky, and yet slimey: my brother and sister used to take bites of them and stick them to their faces. Talk about gross! They were artificial looking: each slice was exactly the same size, bright orange in color, and conveniently packaged in 8’s, 16’s, and 24’s for every size appetite. And the taste – well, what exactly was the taste? Did they have a taste? All in all, they were just indicative of the era in which I was born in which white, doughy “American” bread and fake cheese sandwiches were a staple.

I don’t like the taste of cheese either, at least not the cheeses that my family ate like LOCATELLI ROMANO, our “macaroni cheese.” I hated seeing my father grate it onto a paper towel and then put it into an old peanut butter jar with holes punctured into the lid that was stored in the refrigerator. I hated it sprinkled on our Sunday platter of macaroni so much so that my mother made my dish separate from the rest of the family’s and for a long time, I wouldn’t help clear the macaroni dishes from the table for fear that my hand would accidentally touch the edge of dish where the remains of my mother’s delicious gravy had been intermingled with that disgusting cheese.

What makes cheese look, feel and taste so awful to me though was the smell – this overpowering quality was the key to it all. That grated locatelli cheese smelled so awful I couldn’t imagine enjoying a forkful of spaghetti that had any trace of it on it. I came home in tears from many a birthday party where macaroni and meatballs garnished with cheese, even bottled Parmesan, was served. My mother’s occasionally fancy dinners where she served gorgonzola with our salad, even though “on the side,” were totally ruined for me. On holidays, when a sharp piece of provolone was offered up to the family for antipasto as if it were some kind of gift, I kept far away from anyone who came close to the malodorous culprit in case its smell (as its smell) seemed to attach itself to them.

Yes, I hated cheese so much that there was doubt in everyone’s mind that I would ever make a meatball for my family when I married – after all, how could you be a good Italian cook without meatballs which of course, contained grated smelly, pungent, c-h-e-e-s-e. My mother marveled at how I would mix the meatballs with my hands, a requirement to the recipe’s success; my sister joked at the outcome, donating a little “meatballer” gadget to my bridal wishing well; and everyone waited with bated breath for the first invitation to Sunday dinner at my house. So, against all the odds, I made my first meatballs and though not like my mother’s, they definitely had legs. My husband’s family used Parmiggiano Reggiano on their macaroni and in their meatballs and because it didn’t smell too bad, and is much milder in taste than locatelli, I made my meatballs with parmiggiano – for years. I used a wooden fork to mix the cheese into the rest of the ingredients and when I thought it was safe, I used my hands to mix it completely. Sorry Mindy, I never used the meatballer…

The parmiggiano broke the ice and as my meatballing got better, so did my tolerance for cheese. I started eating mild cheeses like gouda and brie and before long, ventured into nibbling on chunks of parmiggiano, perfect with wine, and goat cheese. I still hate Kraft slices, but I will eat cheddar cheese. I hold my nose at provolone and try not to at those who eat it, but I love Jarlsberg. I can’t do gorgonzola on salad or otherwise, no matter how chic, but I will say that I have eaten pizza with “quattro formaggi” many, many times while I lived in Italy… (remember, it’s melted.) And although I will probably never eat locatelli sprinkled on my macaroni, I know it is the key ingredient to the golden brown, crunchy yet soft, salty, moist, absolutely best meatballs that my 78 year old mother still makes every Sunday. So I share the secret to their success with you but don’t breathe a word of it to anyone, especially not in their faces. You know, I guess I don’t hate cheese anymore.

Mom’s Meatballs
Follow these directions to the letter in order to get the perfect meatball, I mean down to the brand of bread and salt. Don’t scoff. Aside from using parmiggiano instead of locatelli, I’ve used Pepperidge Farm white bread and it’s not starchy or moist enough; I’ve used Italian sea salt and it’s just not salty enough. If your supermarket doesn’t have beef, pork and veal chopped, aka meatloaf mix, ask the butcher! All-beef meatballs are drier and too meaty tasting. Until I used these exact ingredients, my meatballs just weren’t like mom’s. Use your hands to mix the meatballs or you will get chunks of bread or garlic in a bite and please, PLEASE, don’t try to cut on time or calories by removing the frying from the process. If you don’t fry your meatballs before you drop them into the gravy, don’t come crying to me.

1 ½ lbs.Beef, pork and veal chopped
2 extra large eggs
8 slices Wonder American bread
2 cloves garlic minced
¼ cup parsley chopped
Morton Salt (approximately 1 ½ tsp)
½ cup Grated Locatelli Romano cheese

Put the ground meat into a large mixing bowl and add the salt and pepper and chopped garlic. Drop the eggs into the center and add the cheese and parsley. Taking two slices of bread at a time, run the bread under water and remove the crusts, then ball the bread slices to squeeze out the water. Put each of the sets into the bowl.

Using a wooden fork, mix all the ingredients until blended. Remove your rings and other jewelry that may be susceptible to catching food particles and finish mixing the meatball mix with your hands.

Fill a large frying pan halfway with corn or vegetable oil and heat. Meanwhile, roll the meatballs into the desired size. (We sometimes serve meatballs as an appetizer so we make them small; otherwise, roll them the size of a regular good old fashioned meatball.) When the oil is hot put in a few meatballs, but don't overcrowd them, and watch for them to brown before turning. You'll notice that they start to shrink a bit in size and can be moved around in the pan without sticking so you can add more. Don't walk away or do other things while the meatballs are cooking because, in a blink of an eye, they can go from being perfectly brown to becoming crunchy and then dry inside. Turn them on to the other side and cook until nicely browned on both sides. Remove and add another batch.

At this point, you can either add the meatballs to your fresh gravy or freeze them for future use. Stay tuned for tomato sauce recipes.