Casa Mia

Casa Mia

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.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Jessica's favorite: "Piwaf" (aka Rice Pilaf)

My grandson has arrived!

On January 11, 2010, at 9:26AM Ryan Patrick made his debut into the world at Greenwich Hospital in Connecticut after quite an ordeal. It’s funny about pregnancy and birth – well, not haha funny but somewhat ironic – although it happens every minute of every day all around the world and the drill is basically the same, there’s always something ever so slightly different with each delivery. My daughter’s case is one: all perfect 9 months aside, we all anticipated labor and delivery to be quite ordinary but just about the time Jessica passed the 24 hour mark, things got hairy and baby Ryan presented posterior (or sunny side up as the labor nurses so affectionately refer). Neither pushing nor vacuum nor doctor’s hands would get Ryan out until C-Section prevailed. Adding insult to injury, the anxiety and stress of it all seemed to have lent itself to my daughter contracting postpartum hypertension, with blood pressure readings close to 200/100 and fear of seizures. Instead of feeling joy and excitement, we were all just plain worried.

Jessica is home now, after having convinced the doctors that an extended hospital stay would only worsen her condition, and my maternal instincts have kicked in in full force. I can feed, change and cuddle Ryan in true grandmother (aka “Gigi”) fashion and tend to Jessica the way I did when she was just a baby herself. After 28 years, the memories of that time are flooding back - a blessing because I stupidly did not write them down back then and now have an opportunity to flash back and get my memories documented once and for all. I too had C-sections with both my girls and Jessica was a breech baby so although I was in labor, I didn’t have to push so hard and perhaps my trauma was slightly less. I do recall having palpitations when I came home from the hospital and it was my mother’s sage advice, nightly glasses of red wine to help me sleep and comforting, soothing, enriching meals that got me through.

With that in mind, the Jessica who is still my baby, and remembrances of my own postpartum twinges, I prepared a welcome home meal for my daughter. To strengthen her blood, roast beef; to give her much needed iron, spinach; to give her comfort and love, rice pilaf, or “piwaf” as she called it, her childhood favorite. Now I know we Italians don’t know from pilaf, but my college roommate’s aunt was Armenian and my mother took this recipe from Harriet’s family 34 years ago at my recommendation and then I adopted it when I had my own family. After all, who would dislike rice and lots of butter? Over the years, dietary concerns have restricted me from serving this tasty side dish but I threw all caution to the wind for Jessica yesterday.

Rice Pilaf
2 cups of raw rice, preferably Carolina
4 cups of water
2 double Knorr chicken bouillon cubes
1 stick of butter
½ bag Pennsylvania Dutch fine egg noodles

Boil the water with the bouillon cubes in a 6 quart pot. Add the rice and stir; lower the heat and cover. When all the liquid is absorbed and the rice is soft, turn off the heat and let sit.

In a large skillet, melt the butter until foamy. Add the noodles and stir with a wooden fork or paddle. Pay close attention at this stage as the noodles can burn easily. When they are golden browned on both sides, turn the heat to low and add the rice, stirring evenly into the noodles. Try to serve while noodles are crisp but if that’s not possible, as is usually the case, rice pilaf tastes just as good with soggy noodles.

This is a very simple side that’s great with chicken or steak, or Jessica’s favorite, roast beef.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Leveraging the Lentils

The doldrums are setting in. The holidays are sadly, (yet happily), over; the tree has dried up and awaits the garbage truck, the stockings, lights and other decorations packed away for another year; the January wind is blowing - fiercely and frigidly - and now I am ready for my grandchild to enter the family to break up the dull months ahead. In the past month, we have eaten every thing from stuffed turkey to fried baccala, from a fenneled, spicey pork roast to a garlicky filet mignon. I've served up tortellini in beef soup, polenta with "gravy," tagliatelle alla bolognese, and macaroni and cheese; I've creamed spinach, stuffed mushrooms, braised carrots, sauted escarole. And we gifted cupcakes, chocolate cakes, cheesecakes and lots and lots of cookies. So what's left? Well, we still have the lentils.

Lentils were Friday night meals. My mother served them throughout the cold winter months to warm our insides and since they were always accompanied by a second dish we really liked, even during the old Friday night fish days of Lent, we didn't mind the thick beans with the heavy dark green oil. And as appearingly "dull" as the meal seemed to be, there was an exuberant end-of-the-week tone present each Friday night in that small, warm kitchen. Who am I kidding? Every day of the week was loud and exhuberant in our house but Fridays perhaps more so while my mother served lentils and thick homemade pizza, or lentils with doughy paprika foccaccia, even lentils with "sea squab," a type of blowfish that she found in the local A&P that my sister, brother and I literally BEGGED for each week. Later on, when I got married and had my own kids, I switched it up a bit and served lentils on Friday nights with stromboli's, boboli's or my own homemade pizza, not as thick as my mother's and topped with some of my mother-in-law's pizza ingredients. Although my kids had no baby brother to lock out of the house in the dark while throwing the garbage, there was the same Friday night "exuberance" - lentils, pizza, friends and "Full House" on channel 7.

To get you out of the doldrums this winter, leverage those lentils of the new year with strombolis stuffed with spinach and mozzarella, sausage, peppers and mozzarella, or broccoli di rape, sausage and mozzarella. In warmer months these breads can be stuffed with fresh tomatoes and veggies but those recipes will come. And remember, strombolis and pizza make great appetizers too!

Using Pizza Dough

Working the dough takes time. I prefer using homemade dough especially for pizza but when making a stromboli, store bought works well once you learn how to work it well. Here are some of my tips for working the dough for stromboli, or pizza.

  • Use only pre-made pizza dough from a bakery, pizzeria or Italian delicatessan
  • If dough has been refrigerated, it's important that it's at room temperature before stretching it out and preparing it.
  • Sprinkle a baking sheet with a hand full of flour and put the dough on the sheet and cover with a clean dish towel. Let it sit for about 2 hours.
  • Sprinkle some flour on the counter top and press the dough down. Using both hands, stretch the dough in a circular motion. Alternate the hand stretching with a small roller or rolling pin, sprinkling with flour.
  • The dough should be rolled out to an oval shape that is length and width of a baking sheet.

Spinach and Mozzarella Stromboli

1 fresh pizza dough, prepared as explained above
2 packages frozen chopped spinach
1 Polly-o mozzarella, grated
2 garlic cloves, chopped fine
Olive oil to saute spinach
Pinch of salt
Crushed red pepper or dried red hot pepper (optional)

Defrost spinach and squeeze out excess water. Saute in a frying pan with olive oil, chopped garlic, salt and hot pepper if desired. Spread the spinach onto the rolled out dough, leaving a 1-inch border around edges. Sprinkle the grated mozzarella on top of the spinach.

Taking one end of the oval, roll the bread approximately 3 times, ending with the narrow end facing the top.

Drizzle some olive oil on the bottom of the cookie sheet and spread around with finger tips. Place the bread on the cookie sheet and using your fingers, spread some oil onto the top of the bread.

Bake the bread in a preheated oven at 375 degrees for 20 minutes or until the crust is golden browned. When cooled, cut the ends of the bread and slice it lengthwise, then slice it crosswise into slices to serve.

Sausage, Pepper and Mozzarella Stromboli
1 pizza dough prepared as described above
1 lb. sweet fresh Italian sausage with fennel
3 red bell peppers, sliced in 1/2" strips
1/2 lb. mozzarella, grated
Olive oil for sauteing the peppers

Take sausage out of its casing and brown the rounds in a frying pan with a tablespoon of olive oil, stirring frequently. Remove the browned sausage to a bowl. In the same pan, add another tablespoon of oil and fry the peppers.

Spread the sausage and peppers onto the pizza dough and sprinkle with mozzarella. Roll the bread from the narrow end as done for the spinach bread but be careful to avoid making holes in the dough from the sausage.

Drizzle olive oil into a cookie sheet and lift the bread carefully onto it. Using your fingertips, spread the oil onto the top of the bread. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes or until golden brown. When cooled, cut off either end and slice bread lengthwise, then slice it crosswise into slices to serve.