Friday, July 19, 2019

The Jewel in the Crown

Lasagna inspires fear and awe.  If you make the best lasagna in your clan, you will probably never spend Christmas alone.  But the real measure of an Italian cook's skills?

Meatballs.  Remember in the movie Prizzi's Honor, when Jack Nicholson told Anjelica Huston to go home and practice her meatballs?  All the non-Italians in the theater laughed.

A perfect meatball is the jewel in the Italian cook's crown.  Second only to sauce, meatballs rule.  Like sauce, meatballs are unique to the Italian person making them.  (Swedish meatballs don't count.  Yes, they are made of meat and they are balls, but that's where the similarity ends.  You eat them with toothpicks, for God's sake.)  And like sauce, nothing will ever taste as good as the meatballs you grew up eating on Sundays.  Your mother's sauce and meatballs will program you genetically as far as Italian food goes, which is why Italians don't eat in Italian restaurants and Italian couples yell at each other a lot.

Me, I had a conundrum when I married my husband Anthony, because his father-the-restaurateur's meatballs were better than my grandmother's meatballs.  Or let's just say, so my grandmother doesn't give me the malocchio from Beyond, that the two recipes are very different.  Were I to choose, I would make my grandmother's recipe for Christmas, and my father-in-law's recipe for everyday, which should appease their spirits without me having to get up and go light a candle.  

I'm giving you my father-in-law's recipe here because there is one awesome advantage to this recipe:  You can also use it to make a meatloaf.   For this alone, you should make a shrine to me in your dining room. 

Meatballs

2 lbs. of meat loaf mix, which means half beef/half pork
6 slices of bread (trim the crusts, run the bread under water, and then squeeze the excess water out with your hands)
1/2 cup of grated romano cheese
3 egg yolks
1/2 cup of milk
1 big clove of crushed garlic
2 tsp of loose beef bouillon, NOT the cubes!
3 TBL of parsley
1 tsp of salt
1/2 tsp of black pepper
1/2 tsp of basil

Mix all the ingredients in a big bowl with your nice clean hands.  When it's mixed, you got two choices:
  1. Roll into balls and fry the balls in olive oil until they're real brown,
  2. OR pack it all together and throw it into a meatloaf pan and bake it.  Depending on the size of your pan, this recipe will make one or two meatloafs. (Should that be meatloaves? Doesn't sound right.)  Bake in a 350 degree oven for an hour.
If you choose to fry them, here's a tip my father-in-law gave me:  flatten out the balls a little, so they cook better.  And for the record, we never put these babies in sauce.  They're always on-the-side.

And one last piece of advice:  If you're out to impress somebody, like you're in a meatball contest or something, use fresh-grated romano cheese and fresh parsley.  You'll win.




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.

 Successfully.

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.

Ricotta
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. 




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.

Love,

Connie

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!

Connie



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
Lasagna
Salad
Bread
Cheese
Cookies
Coffee
Wine

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 seriously 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.

Yet.





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 is 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 on DVD.  With cocoa.  Or wine.  Then midnight Mass.  With a choir.  And PRESENTS ("Nino, 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, for your father's sake, I hope it did.  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 all this 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, everybody stops taking to me.

But once Christmas is over - and that means once Baby Jesus goes back in the box, which in the Staccato household is the day after New Year - you're already in January.  This is important.  The days start getting noticeably 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, too.  Don't judge

At this writing, it's the end of February, I'm over it, and I'm taking the first step to this year's Merry Christmas.  

You should, too.  Go to your calendar.  I'm serious.  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 fifth gift you buy is one for yourself.

I got that part right.