Friday, June 7, 2019

Four Ingredients

Here's another sauce that you could make even if you were in a coma.  Or if you had a bambino on your hip, one holding on to your leg, and your father-in-law sitting at the kitchen table in his boxer shorts telling you what you were doing wrong.  (Obviously, I'm acquainted with this situation, as are most Italian women.  I don't think there's any kind of government legislation that could be proposed to change it.)

This sauce is rich, spicy, and visually dazzling.  And it has four ingredients.  Count 'em: four.  It's supposed to be served over polenta, but Sicilians don't eat polenta so I serve it over penne.  You can serve it over anything you want.  My alien husband Anthony puts it over yogurt and eats it for breakfast, which is even more proof of his extraterrestrial origins.

Sausage and Mushroom Sauce
Put two large cans of peeled Italian tomatoes into a big pot and bring to a simmer.  Cut up 2 lbs. of hot Italian sausage into little pieces and fry them in some olive oil in a big cast iron pan.  DO NOT DRAIN.  Add the fried sausage to the pot of tomatoes.  NOW - and this is magic! - fry a big bunch of sliced mushrooms in the sausage drippings.  Not only will the sausage dripping make your mushrooms taste like heaven, but the mushrooms will clean the sausage stuff off the pan.  No kidding.  It's why I like to make this sauce.  Add the mushrooms to the tomatoes and sausage, and simmer until the tomatoes get super soft and you can break them up with your wooden spoon.

Taste the sauce.  If it needs salt, add salt.

Then you'll have five ingredients.  Oh, well.

Italians: Endgame

What do you do after you eat copious amounts of amazing Italian food?  You have dessert, obviously.  Just a little something sweet to go with your coffee.  Not too much, or you'll end up exploding like that guy in the Monty Python movie, which would not be a good thing, especially if you're on a date.

I'm not going to spend a lot of time talking about desserts.  My general feeling on the subject is this is why God gave us spumoni.  Maybe a cookie to go with.  Cannoli, if it's your birthday; cannoli cake if it's your wedding.

The cannoli comes from the bakery.  The spumoni from the freezer.  Tutto finito.

That being said, my husband's Aunt Geraldine used to make spectacular homemade cannoli for Christmas, substituting chocolate and vanilla pudding for the ricotta filling.  For the record, the traditional way to make a cannoli shell is to wrap the dough around a piece of wooden broom handle and fry it until it's crispy.  I'm sure you did not know this.  It's a great way to recycle a broom.  Wash it first, please.

However, if you're adventurous or bored, you can always make a dessert.  The most spectacular dessert I know of is my pecan pie, and I've already given you that recipe.  I know it's spectacular because I just got back from my son Nino's graduation, where several people from several different nations told me so.  And these people are not stupid, because Nino graduated with a master's degree from Harvard, so all of his friends are smart.  And he apparently spent a certain amount of time baking pecan pies with the aim of bribing people to be his friends.


That's Harvard, mind you.  And my daughter Nikki studies at the University of Chicago.  So there's no shortage of brains in the Staccato family, unless you take into account our oldest cat Moof, who's the dumbest ball of fur who ever hacked up a hairball.  But she's fluffy.  And she purrs a lot.  Which is her way of bribing people to be her friends, since - lacking intelligence and opposable thumbs - she can't bake a pecan pie.

But even she could probably figure out how to get the spumoni out of the freezer.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

It's a Miracle!

Miracle Soup didn't start out to be Miracle Soup.  It started out to be 'scarole and beans, and I canonized it.  If you ascribe to the philosophy that food is medicine, this stuff is right up there with the Salk vaccine.  Don't get me wrong.  'Scarole and beans is delicious.  But it also works wonders when invoking St. Anthony is getting you nowhere.

Miracles are few and far between these days.  I mean, if we're taking at face value what Sister Barbara was telling us in first grade, people were used to go around parting the Red Sea, raising the dead, and turning water into wine all the time.  Nowadays we can't even get a pothole fixed.

Here are the miraculous ingredients:  'Scarole and beans has 'scarole (escarole, but nobody calls it escarole) so you get your greens (lots of vitamins), beans (protein, iron, fiber), garlic (proof that God loves us), olive oil (you'll live a hundred years), and chicken broth (a miracle in itself).  And if you serve it with a substantial amount of crushed red pepper, it'll clear out your chest and sinuses.

Trust me.

'Scarole and Beans (Miracle Soup)
Cook a pound of white beans according to the package directions.  While that's going on, put about six cups of chicken broth in a big pot.  Now take two big heads of 'scarole, wash them, tear up the leaves, and put them in the pot with the chicken broth.  It'll look like a LOT of 'scarole, but don't worry, it cooks down.  Bring the chicken broth to a boil, cover the pot, and turn down the heat until it's just simmering.  Simmer for about an hour.  When the beans are done, pour off some of the excess water, but don't drain them.  You want some of the bean juice left in there.  Now take a half a head of garlic, chop it fine and brown it lightly in a quarter cup of olive oil.  Stir the garlic and olive oil into the beans, and pour the beans into the escarole.  Salt and pepper to taste, and you can add a little dried basil if you want.  Serve with crushed red pepper.

Some people brown some Italian sausage and put it in the soup.  But why.

Connie, you might say, that's a lot of work to do when I'm sick.  And you'd be right, so if you don't have somebody else to do the cooking for you, use the next recipe.

'Scarole and Beans Express (Miracle Express)
Put a big box of chicken broth in a pot.  Bring to a simmer.  Brown a half a head of chopped garlic in a quarter cup of olive oil.  Add a can of white beans to the garlic and oil, heat through, and pour it in the chicken broth.  Bring to a boil and add a package of frozen spinach.  Salt, pepper, and a little dried basil.  Eat with crushed red pepper, as much as you can stand.  

And feel better.


Friday, May 10, 2019

Rated R

There are some foods that are for adults only.

Asparagus.  Guacamole.  Pickled beets.  Black olives.  Liver and onions.  Calamari.  Grapefruit.  Sardines.  Beer.  These are definitely foods for adults, WAY beyond the comprehension of most kids, except for the ones who grow up and listen to Zappa.  Then, one day, sometime after their 18th birthday, they give one of these foods a try and all bets are off.  They can't get enough.  (This is especially true of beer, which they've probably "tried" well before their 18th birthday, but there are other reasons for that.)

Now consider lentil soup.  From the point of view of a kid.

Otherwise known as pasta lenticchie (pronounced "pasta lin-deek"), lentil soup has very little to recommend to a child.  It's brown, it's mushy, and - let's be honest - it looks like somebody already ate it.  I wouldn't even TRY it when I was a kid, no matter WHAT my parents were threatening me with.  And my parents were REALLY good with the threats.

Then, one day, magic.  

I still can't say it's my favorite food.  I don't put soup on the top of my favorite-foods list because, in general, I prefer food I can chew.  But my husband Anthony and my son Nino, who are both soup monsters, love this stuff.  And I love cooking it because:
  1. I love my husband Anthony and my son Nino.
  2. You could be in the final stages of rigor mortis and still make lentil soup in fifteen minutes.
Bonus points:  Lentil soup is vegan.  And incredibly good for you.  And now I'm going to stop sounding like every person I've ever had no use for.
Lentil Soup
Take a bag of lentils and pour them into a strainer.  Rinse them "real good, four to five times" and that's a direct quote from my grandmother.  Put them in a pot with about three inches of water.  Add a big can of Italian plum tomatoes, a chopped onion, 5 teaspoons of olive oil, a tablespoon of salt, and a teaspoon of black pepper.  Bring to a boil, then cover the pot, turn down the heat, and let it simmer for an hour-and-a-half.  Cook about a quarter pound of broken-up spaghetti in another pot.  Drain and add to lentils.  Done.

You can eat lentil soup straight, or add a little wine vinegar at the table.  And/or you can put a dollop of Greek yogurt on top of it.  And/or some crushed red pepper.  It's all good.

Leftover lentil soup tends to dry out a bit and get thick, which makes it perfect for stuffing into a pita, so now you have a sandwich, and it travels well.

Welcome to adulthood.  There are benefits.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

It's Pronounced 'Fazool'

I was reading an article on the Internet the other day, titled something like "Words You Pronounce Incorrectly at an Italian Restaurant".  The writer was clearly not Italian, unless Italian Restaurants have their own language, a language I've never heard before.  Which may be the case, based on my experience in Italian restaurants.  And I can say the same for the food.

At any rate, for the record the word is broo-SKET- ta, not broo-SHET-ta, I don't care what the skinny blonde waitress says.

Also for the record, American Italian really IS its own dialect.  A language lives in another country for a hundred years, it takes on its own life.

For example, the dish pasta e fagioli.  Now, in Italian-Italian, this is pronounced (more or less, depending on what part of Italy the Italian in question lives) pas-ta-eh-fah-jo-lee.  In America, it's pasta fazool.  

Pasta Fazool
Pasta fazool is a vegan's dream, though if you said "vegan" to most Italians they would just give you a blank stare.  Pasta fazool has vegetables (garlic and tomatoes) and protein (beans, that's the fazool part).  And fiber, if you use whole wheat pasta, which I do.  In my opinion, the jury's still out on whole wheat pasta.  I think it tastes just as good, so I use it, but I'm convinced that any day now the geniuses in the world of food science are going to come out and tell us that semolina (that's the stuff that white pasta is made of) is the secret to living cent'anni.  Mark my words.

Here's how you make pasta fazool.  In a big pot, cook a pound of white beans according to the package directions.  When they're done, pour out most - but not all - of the water.  Leave a little liquid.  Meanwhile make a marinara sauce (recipe here) and in another pot cook about a third of a pound of pasta (we use elbow macaroni, but you can use whatever you want).  Brown a LOT of chopped garlic (like, half a head) in some olive oil until golden and add it to the beans.  Then pour in the marinara sauce.  Drain the pasta and put that in, too.  Salt, pepper, and dried basil to taste.  Go easy on the basil.  Too much, and it'll be the only thing you taste.

If you want it soupier, you can throw in some chicken broth.  And a package of frozen spinach.  Now you've got:

Marinara Soup
Make a batch of marinara sauce in a big pot.  Add chicken broth, like the College-Inn-in-a-box stuff.  Rinse and add a can of white beans.  Cook some small pasta, like orzo, on the side.  About a third of a pound.  Drain pasta and add to the pot.  Add a package of frozen spinach.  When the spinach isn't frozen any more, you got soup!

So I used canned beans.  Don't judge.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Cooking for a Holiday - Christmas, Part V - Lasagna

Before Prozac, there was lasagna.

Lasagna.  Lasagne (n., pl.).  Italian turkey.  The baked spaghetti.

I never heard the word lasagna come out of my grandmother's mouth.  It was always "the baked spaghetti".  And, yes, it was the main attraction on holidays, always with - never instead of - turkey (Thanksgiving, Christmas) and/or ham (Easter).  We had it on the Fourth of July, too, if I correctly remember.  And my grandmother's freezer was always full of mini-lasagne, made with any leftovers from the main event.

Before I begin, let me give you a word of warning:  This lasagna, for all its fabulousness, will be a little watery/oily when you take it out of the oven.  I hear this is a common situation.  I read somewhere that the water hides in the lasagna noodles.  I have also read that this can be remedied by either using "no-cook" noodles, or to let your cooked noodles dry out before you use them.  The first recommendation is an infamia, so I won't even discuss it.  As for the second recommendation, I promise you that if you let your noodles dry out they will be impossibly sticky.  Myself, I pour off the extra water until the whole lasagna threatens to fall into the sink, and then I suck the rest out with a turkey baster.  To each his own.

The transformation of a gazillion ingredients into a ten-pound tray of organized layers is, to put it mildly, a challenge.  The way to wrap your mind around it is to think in components.  Baby steps.  This is the secret to dealing with any overwhelming situation in life, not just lasagna.  In fact, if we want to get philosophical about it, we can call it "The Zen of Lasagna", which could be the title of my next book.

Here are the components of lasagna:
  1. Sauce.
  2. Lasagna noodles.
  3. Ricotta.
  4. Ground meat.
  5. Mozzarella cheese.
  6. Parmesan cheese.
Now, we'll go through each of them, one-by-one.

The Sauce
Use your Christmas Sauce, the recipe for which is in the previous post.  If you've been paying attention and taking me seriously, you've already made this, so it's all ready to go.  Just have it handy.  Even if you're making lasagna for some other occasion than Christmas, I do not recommend same-day sauce.  You'll be up until two in the morning.

Lasagna Noodles
Follow the package directions, but cook the noodles only long enough until you can poke a fork through them.  Keep them waiting in a pot of water, so they don't stick together.  You'll need about 20 noodles for the whole lasagna, but make extra because you never know.  Sometimes they tear.

Buy four pounds of ricotta from a deli counter.  Do not buy the pre-packaged stuff, because I don't know what that is, but it's not ricotta.  Drain off the water.  Serve 1 pound of the ricotta as a topping for the pasta on Christmas Eve, and use the other 3 pounds for the lasagna.  Put the three pounds of the ricotta in a big bowl with 2 eggs, 1/2 cup of parmesan cheese, 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley, a teaspoon of salt, and a teaspoon of pepper.  Beat with an electric beater until it's fluffy and then put it in the fridge until it's showtime.

Ground Meat
I use about 2 1/2 pounds of ground sirloin.  Other people use a "meatloaf mix" of ground beef, pork, and/or veal.  I like sirloin.  Brown it real good with some salt, pepper, and parsley.  Drain on a plate lined with some paper towels.  Do this step last because you don't want it sitting out too long. 

Mozzarella Cheese
Buy four pounds of packaged shredded mozzarella.  Who's gonna know?  You probably won't use all of it, but you might.

Parmesan Cheese
I buy a big container of  fresh grated parmesan, also from the deli counter.  Because there's no bigger pain in the ass than grating cheese.

Get all that stuff ready, and you're in the home stretch.

Pre-heat your oven to 350 degrees.

Use a giant rectangular aluminum roasting pan.  In fact, use two, one nested inside the other.  If you've been watching the weight of the ingredients, you'll agree this is a good idea.  Don't use a "lasagna" pan, even if it says "extra-large".  It won't be deep enough.

Now we layer:
  1. Spread some sauce (about a cup) on the bottom of the pan, so the lasagna won't stick.
  2. Layer about five noodles on top of the sauce.  They should overlap a little.  Depending on how big your pan is, you may have to tear up a few noodles to cover it all.  Like patchwork.
  3. Sprinkle the noodles with some shredded mozzarella.  How much?  How much do you like mozzarella?
  4. Cover the mozzarella with half of the ground beef.
  5. Cover the beef with half of the ricotta.  This is tricky, because the meat will stick to the ricotta, so use a very light touch. 
  6. Put another 1/2 cup of sauce over the ricotta.
  7. Noodles.
  8. Mozzarella.
  9. The other half of the beef.
  10. The other half of the ricotta.
  11. Sauce.
  12. Noodles.
  13. Sauce.
  14. Mozzarella.
  15. Sprinkle with parmesan.
Bake about 45 minutes, or until the whole thing is bubbling and the mozzarella on top starts to get a little puffy and golden.  

Take the lasagna out of the oven and let it sit for about 10 to 15 minutes.  When the pan is cool enough to touch, tip it (carefully!!) to see if there's any excess water to get rid of.  I really do recommend a turkey baster for this.

Serve the lasagna with whatever's left of the sauce.

You have now harnessed the power of lasagna.  Use it wisely.  Random, and maybe unscrupulous, men will want to marry you.  You will begin receiving an unusual number of invitations to potluck dinners.  Your children will never want to leave you.

Personally, I'd use that power to have a glass of wine and a nap.  

In fact, I think I'll go do that right now. 

Monday, March 25, 2019

Cooking for a Holiday - Christmas, Part IV - The Sauce

I make this sauce once a year.  Mainly because it has pork in it and I very seldom eat pork because pigs are nice animals.  Actually, ALL animals are nice and I promise that someday I'm going to stop eating them.  Probably when people stop asking me to cook them.

In a perfect world, you should make this sauce WEEKS in advance, and freeze it.  Once again (are you listening, Anthony?) my lack of freezer space forced me to wait until two days before Christmas last year, and it almost killed me.  Listen up, Italian girls:  The next time some jamoke tells you he loves you and promises you the moon, look deep into his eyes and say in a husky voice, "I want a freezer.  Size matters."

It's not that the sauce is hard to make.  In fact, it's easy.  It's just that on Christmas, I'm making a triple recipe because it's for the Christmas lasagna (with extra sauce on the side) AND Christmas Eve dinner, per the request of my children, who - so far - don't know what it's like to "do" Christmas.  (You know what, Nikki and Nino?  All those nice gifts and the decorations and the cookies and the meals and the nice clean sheets on the beds?  They didn't get here courtesy of the shoemaker's elves.)

This recipe is loosely based on one from "The Italian Cookbook" by the Culinary Arts Institute, which was in Chicago.  Even though it's out of print, you can get it on Amazon.  If you can't find a copy, write to me and I'll Xerox it for you.  Really.  That's how much I want you to eat good food.

Tomato Meat Sauce
Put six big cans of peeled Italian tomatoes (pelati) in the blender, one can at a time.  Pour the pureed tomatoes into a REALLY big pot.  Brown a couple of chopped onions in olive oil and add to the pot.  Now brown a chuck roast and a pork shoulder (you could do this in the oven, I suppose).  How big should the chuck roast and the pork shoulder be?  How much are your guests going to eat on Christmas Eve?  You don't use the meat to make the lasagna (the lasagna uses different meat), only the sauce.

Put the chuck roast and the pork shoulder into the pot.  Add a couple of bay leaves and a tablespoon of salt.  If you need more salt, add it later after you taste the sauce.  Bring to a simmer, turn down the heat, and cover the pot.  Let simmer over very low heat for at least a couple of hours.  Stir it once in a while.

Take the cover off the pot.  Add three small cans of tomato paste.  You can add some water if the sauce gets too thick.  Now simmer uncovered for another couple of hours, and don't forget to stir so it doesn't scorch on the bottom.  When the sauce is done (that's when the meat starts falling apart), take out the bay leaves, if you can find them.

Serve the sauce over the pasta of your choice.  My pasta of choice is usually leftover noodles from making the lasagna.  It looks fancy.  Have some fresh ricotta and some grated pecorino-romano cheese on the side for toppings.  Serve the meat on a platter and make sure you put it in the middle of the table, because it's impressive.

Of course, you're going to make your Christmas lasagna before Christmas Eve dinner, so the sauce you're serving is what's left over.  Make sure you set aside extra sauce for the Christmas lasagna.  You GOTTA have extra sauce with lasagna, because sauce junkies exist in every Italian family, and they will never let you forget the one time you didn't have extra sauce.  And by Christmas Eve dinnertime, when that lasagna is resting comfortably in the fridge, your job is DONE for the holiday, because the kids are gonna eat store-bought panettone for breakfast and like it.

So now you can pour yourself another glass of red.  And wait for Santa to drop a freezer down your chimney.