Tuesday, July 16, 2019

In Memoriam

My cousin Vita's Aunt Connie died.

I should tell you that my cousin Vita is only my cousin in the Sicilian sense of the word:  a very close friend usually of the Sicilian persuasion whose family has known your family for at least three generations and whose house you can sleep at, whenever you want.  And who talks you down from the tree when your parents/husband/kids get on your last nerve.  Who knows the name of your high school boyfriend.  And who drags you away from a fist fight in a parking lot with a hillbilly who has a gun (we can laugh about it now).

So...more than a friend, and probably related since Sicilians have been cross-breeding on that island since the beginning of time.

At any rate, Aunt Connie - who I'm not technically related to, but vaguely remember - died last week at age 97,  Not unusual for a Sicilian; we eat well.  It's a bit of a ghost story.  Vita hadn't seen or heard from that side of her family in decades, when all of a sudden she recently had a few "chance" encounters with various members.  And on the day of the fateful event, Vita woke up at 4:00 am and her first thought was, "Aunt Connie died."  True story.  Also not unusual for a Sicilian.  Sicilian women have "the sight", which makes us way scarier than Sicilian men, who only have the Mafia.

I want to pay tribute to Aunt Connie, whose name I proudly share.  So I asked Vita, did your Aunt Connie have a dish she was famous for?  And Vita said that she remembered her Aunt Connie's tuna meatballs.

Which takes me back to my childhood, and Fridays at my grandmother's.

I am old enough, and Catholic enough, to remember not eating meat on Fridays.  Or the 40 days of Lent, for that matter.  And while all the Irish kids in the parish were eating fish sticks and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, Sicilian kids were eating tuna meatballs.  Try them and tell me who you think got the better deal.

Aunt Connie's Tuna Meatballs
Take two big cans of tuna, the kind packed in olive oil.  Drain off most of the olive oil and put the tuna in a big bowl.  Add two eggs, salt and pepper, about 2 TBL of parsley, and enough bread crumbs to make it all hang together, about a cup.  Mix well with your hands.  Form the tuna mixture into balls (add more breadcrumbs if you need to) and fry them in olive oil until very brown.  Drain the fried balls on a paper towel.  

Lock the cats in a bedroom.

Since I mentioned it, I'd like to take this opportunity say a few words about Lent.  Lent is possibly the best idea the Catholic Church ever came up with.  It lets you veg out after Christmas for a month-and-a-half and then WHAM! Throws you a party, and then the next day puts ashes on your forehead and makes you go on a diet.  No red meat or candy for 40 days, at the end of which you're ten pounds lighter, you get an Easter basket, and you can wear white shoes.  

What's not to love here?

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 (add a little olive oil if you need to).  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, I like magic food.  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.  At the risk of sounding passive/aggressive, I'd say about two hours.

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

Then you'll have five ingredients.  Oh, well.  Break up the tomatoes and serve.

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

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 mature audiences only.

Asparagus.  Guacamole.  Beets.  Olives.  Liver.  Calamari.  Grapefruit.  Sardines.  Beer.  These are definitely foods for adults, WAY beyond the comprehension of kids, except for the ones who grow up and listen to Zappa.  Then, one day, sometime after their 18th birthday, most kids will give one of these foods a try and then 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).   Pour the beans into 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.  Whatever works.

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. Cover the ricotta with a thin layer of sauce.
  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, because this sucker's heavy.

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.