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.

Listen Up

Ciao tutti!

My dulcet tones will once again be on Fest Italiana through Thursday at 5:00 pm:

So have fun and listen up.  It'll help you get over the Mueller report.



Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Cooking for a Holiday - Christmas, Part III - The Cookie

The cookie.  The.  Cookie.  One cookie.  Singular.

I used to make a lot of cookies.  A lot of cookies, all different kinds.  I did it because my children loved it, or maybe I was just imagining that.  Maybe I was looking to give them some memories that didn't involve me yelling at them for not doing their homework.

Then, one day, I got The Message.  It came to me suddenly, while I was meditating on the cruel fate that gave us Thanksgiving and Christmas only a month apart from each other.  It was the voice of the Blessed Mother, speaking deep in my heart.  "My child," she said, "that's why God gave us Italian bakeries."  

And she's right.  Think about it.  As happy as you were when Grandma baked cookies, you went totally bonkers when she walked through the door with a box from the bakery.

I will cite two examples from my life that carry the Mother of God's point:
  1. My daughter Nikki was little and I was heavily pregnant with her brother Nino.  I had my husband's whole entire extended family over for Christmas dinner.  I was just bringing out the coffee and the Galliano and my ABSOLUTELY PERFECTLY GORGEOUS platter of Homemade Christmas Cookies.  And my father-in-law took ONE look at it and said, "I loathe cookies."  Really?  Really?  In the dictionary of my mind, next to the word "buzzkill", will forever reside a picture of my father-in-law.  He's in heaven now.  The part where there aren't any cookies.  
  2. My children have become adults.  A couple of years ago I went to a bakery and brought home some cuccidati, which are ground zero of Sicilian Christmas cookies.  My son ate one, and said, "Mom.  I don't want to hurt your feelings.  But these are pretty close to yours."  And all those wasted years, all that time and money that I could have spent on shoes, flashed in front of my eyes.  I must have had a look on my face, because he said, real fast, "I think your filling is a little better!"  Nice save, Nino.  I was SO glad to see the look on your face when you discovered that the cuccidati from the bakery this year had chocolate chips in them. 
Not being stupid, I currently have it down to one cookie.  But this is one heck of a good cookie.  Trust me.  Everybody (which is my husband Anthony and my cousin Vita) says it's the only cookie they care about.  And I've never had one from a bakery that even came close.

The recipe is from my husband's Aunt Geraldine:

Honey Nut Cookies
Take two sticks of butter and set them out to get soft in a big bowl.  Once they're soft, beat in a quarter cup of honey and 1 1/2 teaspoons of vanilla.  In another big bowl, stir together 1/8 teaspoon of salt and two cups of flour (sift together, if you've got that gene).  Blend the flour with the butter mixture.  Then blend in 1 1/2 cups of pecan pieces (this is the only part of the recipe that's a pain in the ass).  Now you can bake the cookies, or you can put the dough in the fridge.  You've got at least a week to do something with it.

Preheat your oven to 325 degrees.  Pinch off pieces of dough about the size of a half-dollar, roll them into balls, and put them on a baking sheet.  Roll and shape the balls into crescents.  They won't spread much in the oven, so you can get around 20 of them on the sheet.  Bake about 20 minutes, or until golden brown.  (After 15 minutes, watch carefully because they can get too brown in a hurry.)

Take the cookies out of the oven and let them cool just a little bit until you can slide them off the baking sheet with a spatula without breaking them.  Carefully, put them on a plate and sift copious amounts of powdered sugar on them.  The more, the better.  And you GOTTA do this part when the cookies are still warm.

I make one exception to the cookie austerity program.  I will always, happily, host or attend a cookie-baking party (I will happily host or attend any party, actually).  Done right, a cookie-baking party will include Christmas carols, White Christmas, and lots of wine.  And of course you'll decorate the house before the company comes over.  And you can give them their presents, too.  That covers a lot of bases, plus you get your cookies done.

Just make sure you invite one adult who doesn't drink.  Somebody needs to watch the oven.

Or drive to the bakery.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

It's Showtime!

Hey, everybody, Connie Staccato is on the air!

So do me a favor.  Tune in at:

And hit the "Listen Live" button.

All week until next Wednesday:  7am, 5pm, and 10pm EST.  (For those of you who are bad at math, that's 6am, 4pm, and 9 pm CST.)

You'll hear stories about food, Chicago, and The Mob, with me and a paisan named Paul, who's pretty nice actually knows what he's talking about.

Buon appetito!


Friday, February 22, 2019

Cooking for a Holiday - Christmas, Part II - The Menu

One part of Christmas that's simple:  The Menu.

What menu, are you kidding?  There's only one thing on the menu:  lasagna.

What else could there be?  Are you going to break with 500 years of tradition?  Are you going to risk the leverage that the Christmas lasagna gives you over la famiglia for the rest of the year?  Lasagna is the reason Italian families are matriarchies.

Now, of course, you're going to have a little something more than lasagna.  But try not to serve anything that requires cooking.  Hey, you've got presents to open!

 So here's the Staccato Family Christmas Day Menu:

Christmas Day Menu

Since YOU make the lasagna, have your husband (or kids or guests or Trader Joe's) do the salad and slice up the cheese.  Who cares?  Get the bread, and maybe some of the cookies, from a good Italian bakery.

And here's the beauty of this menu:  You can serve the meat from the sauce you make for the lasagna, with some leftover noodles and ricotta, for Christmas Eve dinner.  It's that good.  I, myself, would be happy with a little linguine with clams on Christmas Eve, but I did the meat thing one year and now that's all anybody wants.  It's my own fault.  But I think it's worth it when you consider the fact that all the work I do for the lasagna serves two purposes.

Everything can be made up ahead of time.  Lasagna freezes beautifully.  In fact, it may taste even better after it's been frozen.  But it takes up a lot of space in the freezer.  My grandmother had a six-foot-high freezer in the basement, full of lasagna.  (That's a lot of leverage.)  I don't have a freezer in the basement, which means that my Christmas seasons are generally a life-or-death struggle between the space in my refrigerator and how much food I want to make before Christmas Eve.  I need to fix that.  Because a freezer in the basement is a symbol of an Italian woman's power.  

Power, I'm realizing, that I don't have.


Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Cooking for a Holiday - Christmas, Part I - Spirit of the Season

I have a confession to make.

Here, in the presence of God, St. Anthony, and the ghost of Father Manzoni I confess:  Christmas is not my favorite holiday.

I know, it should be.  Christmas should be stars and bells and songs and bright colors, right?  And parties with your family, and/or your friends, if you don't like your family.  And fancy clothes and cookies.  And White Christmas.  With cocoa.  Or wine.  Then midnight Mass.  With a choir.  And PRESENTS ("Jonathon, hand me that gift over there.  Not the big box that looks like it's probably a frying pan.  The little box that looks like it comes from a jewelry store.  Which it better.  And I'll have another glass of red.  Thank you.")

At least, that's the Christmas I see everybody else doing.  For me it's bad weather and shopping and cleaning and my hip hurting me.  And decorating and cooking and baking and wrapping and houseguests and Mariah-freaking-Carey 24/7.  And gaining 10 lbs. and trying to find some time to get a haircut.  And those fancy clothes?  They lose a little glam under the down coat and the snow boots, you know?  Especially with the extra 10 lbs. 

Add to the fact that Italians, for whatever reason, seem to think they have to celebrate Christmas twice - Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  My grandmother was smart enough and bossy enough to demand that everybody come to her house for both days, and she just heated up leftovers.  I'm not that smart.  And when I try to get bossy, there's always somebody to smack me down.

But once Christmas is over - and that means when Baby Jesus goes back in the box, which in the Staccato household is the day after New Year - you're in January.  The days are already getting longer, which helps you to stop thinking about pouring a bowl of spaghetti over your husband's head.  I guess that's the point.  Christmas makes winter shorter.  And you're too busy to file for divorce.

Every year, I tell myself I'm going to keep it simple.  I swear I'm going to do my shopping in September when there's nothing else to do.  And every year, come December, I'm running around like a chicken with its head cut off.  Well, I'm making a vow.  Like, starting right now.  Yeah, now.  This way I'm leaving plenty of time for Love, Actually (don't judge).

It's the end of February, I'm over it, and I'm taking the first step to Merry Christmas.    

You should, too.  Go to your calendar.  Go to September.  Write "Xmas Shopping" in the box with the 1 in it.  I just did.  And here's some motivation:  The Connie Staccato Rule of Christmas Shopping says that every fourth gift you buy is one for yourself.

I got that part right.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

A Very Merry Connie Staccato Christmas

It's Christmastime, which means one thing to females of Sicilian-American persuasion:


For the benefit of you "out" people, this is pronounced koo-che-DAH-dee.  Also referred to as "Sicilian fig cookies", "Sicilian Christmas cookies", "Italian fig cookies", or simply "the figs" as in, "You gonna make the figs this year?"

I have never heard of one being referred to in the singular.

Cuccidati is an ancient recipe, if you judge by the ingredients, all of which are pre-Columbus-sailing-the-ocean-blue, except for the sugar in the dough, a modern upgrade.  Of course, there are certain people who think that everything has to be chocolate (def a New World thing) and add chocolate chips to the filling.  If you do this, stop it.  It's an infamia.  And your children will never respect you.

In my family, every Christmas season we baked cuccidati at my grandmother's house.  When I say "we", I mean every last donna of the famiglia and the male children under the age of twelve.  My grandfather would hide.  The non-Sicilian daughters-in-law were expected to participate, but were closely monitored.  Adult males were not invited to this gathering, even if they wanted to be, which they did not.  In fact, most of them resented the invasion, because it took over the kitchen, which is the main room of a Sicilian household.  I once even heard my grandfather snarl, "Big deal.  Buy some Fig Newtons and put some frosting on them."  This sentiment was greeted by the mal occhio from my grandmother, but was otherwise ignored.  Take into consideration that my grandfather didn't like ricotta in his lasagna, and was therefore probably insane, and that baking cuccidati is a leisurely activity spread out over 2-3 days, and that's sort of an explanation.

I'm going to share the family recipe with you.  Yes, it's long and yes, it will probably take you three days, unless you have absolutely nothing else to do and that includes brushing your teeth.  But learn to make cuccidati and you can have your pick of handsome Sicilian men to marry (check their work history first).

Call your sisters and your cousins.  Put on your hoop earrings and your red aprons.  Leave plenty of time to argue about who's got the "right" recipe.

Part I:  The Dough


3 lbs of cake flour (13 1/2 cups.  I looked it up.)
6 tsp of baking powder (yes, six)
1 1/2 cups of sugar
1 tsp of salt (Never leave this out.  Never.  I did.  Once.  I will do time in Purgatory for it.)
3 sticks of cold butter (really)
1 cup of Crisco or lard
2 cups of milk

Sift together (or stir together; I'm not the kind of girl who "sifts") the flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt, in a really big-ass bowl.  With a pastry cutter, cut in the butter and Crisco until crumbly.  Gradually add enough of the milk to make a medium-soft dough.  Knead the dough until smooth, about 10 minutes.  Place in a covered container and put in the fridge for at least an hour.  Overnight is better.  Bring to room temperature when you're ready to use.

Part II:  The Filling


1/2 lb of dates
1 1/2 lbs of dried figs, as soft as you can find them, hard tips trimmed
1 cup of blanched, slivered almonds
1/4 cup of candied, chopped citron
1/3 cup of raisins
1 small jar of orange marmalade (or a cut-up orange, peel and all, wash it first)
3 Tbl of honey
1 tsp of ground cinnamon
A little whiskey  (The good stuff.  And just a splash, because you get to drink the rest.  My grandmother liked Manhattans.)

Toast your almonds in a 300 degree oven until they're golden and you can smell them.  Roughly chop the dates and figs.  Mix everything in a big bowl, the best you can.  Take this mixture and put it through a food grinder, using a coarse blade.  (A few words about food grinders.  I'm talking about the kind that my grandmother used that looks like something that would make Dick Cheney's eyes light up.  They are easy to find in thrift stores, and probably will be until they become a yuppie kitchen boutique "discovery" and they start selling them for the equivalent of a down payment on a car.)  Gather the filling into a ball, wrap in Saran Wrap, and put it in the fridge.  It will keep for at least a week.  Probably longer.  I am of the opinion that you could put this stuff in a time capsule and bury it somewhere in Boston's North End and three hundred years from now somebody could dig it up and make cuccidati.

Part III:  Baking and Icing

Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees.  Break off a ball of dough and roll thin.  Cut into rectangles about the size of an index card.  Put a teaspoon (more or less) of filling, and shape it like a Tootsie Roll on top of each rectangle.  Close the dough over the filling and pinch the ends shut.  Make 2-3 little slashes on one side of the cookie and shape into a "C".  Bake on an ungreased (thank God!) cookie sheet for 17 to 20 minutes, or until cookies are very lightly browned.  Let cool.  

Part IV:  Icing


1 box of powdered sugar
6 Tbl of warm milk
2 tsp of vanilla extract
2 tsp of lemon extract

Mix all ingredients in a bowl.  Add a little more milk if the icing is too thick.  Spoon icing on each cookie and shake some sprinkles on top.  Fast.  While the icing is still moist.  This is one of the times of life when small children come in handy.  They know sprinkles.  Do ten or so cookies at a time.  You may need more than one batch of icing.  

That's it.  Trust me, it's easier than it sounds.  The Manhattans help.  If you have extra dough, just roll it up and bake it without the filling.  Which your man will probably like better than the figs because, as you well know, he doesn't appreciate anything.

Buon Natale.  And, BTW, nobody sings "Ave Maria" like Perry Como.