Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Feast of the Seven Fishes

From both a food and non-food perspective, today is my absolutely most favorite day of the year! It's Christmas Eve!!!! All year long we wait for this day and anticipate this meal. Even though the variations to the menu are few and far between we still start planning as soon as the first cool wisps of fall come into the air. There is never any meat on the table this night.It is always fish, and we always aim for seven varieties. Growing up I never knew why we did this - it was just one of those traditions that you went along with. Recently I did some research and found out that seven could be attributed to the seven days of the week, the seven pilgrimage churches in Rome or most commonly, the seven sacraments in the Catholic Church. Whatever the reason I'm sure glad for it!

As a family, we had a few traditions that went along with Christmas Eve and its preparations. Our menu always consisted of several courses that would be consumed over hours at the table but always end in time for us to go to midnight mass. The meal would always proceed in the same order and every year my Grandfather, and later my Father would start every meal by saying "This year we're going to take it SLOW!" (and every year we failed).

There would be an antipasto of baked clams and a pepper and olive salad made with jarred vinegar peppers and different kinds of olives. As a kid I would always pick out the black cerignola olives and wear them on my finger tips (OK, so maybe I still do this....). We'd also have a baccala salad made from the dried salt cod that would have been soaking in our basement sink for days beforehand. The baccala would then be boiled, flaked and then mixed with more vinegar peppers, crinkly Greek black olives, celery and enough garlic to keep away the vampires for the entire year. Mom would always make a small jar to give to my Uncle that had the super hot cherry peppers which he loved. Occasionally we'd also have a shrimp oreganata with this course. Last year I made my first seafood salad with shrimp, mussels and calamari tossed with olive oil, lemon juice and even more garlic.

After the antipasto (yes, that was still only the first course), we'd move on to the pasta. It was ALWAYS linguine (never spaghetti except for that one accidental year that we shall not talk about) served with either a crab sauce or a lobster sauce. My personal preference was for the lobster sauce. We'd make it with the tails, the sweetest and meatiest part of the creature sauteed in olive oil and garlic (more garlic) with fresh parsley. Then when the tails were red and just 'almost' cooked they'd be removed from the pot and we'd pour in can after can of crushed San Marzano tomatoes, white wine and more parsley. That would bubble and brew and then the lobster tails and all of their juices would go back in. We'd start with a bowl of linguine and then crack into the tails. If we had crab sauce (prepared in pretty much the same way), the most fun would come when it was time to crack into the crabs. Manners at the Christmas Eve table were never an issue when there were crabs. You'd rip the poor thing apart the best way you could and then suck out as much meat and juice as you could. By the time we were through everyone would be covered up to their elbows in tomato sauce - and this would be the time the doorbell would ring with unexpected guests dropping in to say Buona Natale. Hugs all around and a few more chairs squeezed into the table!

The next course varied over the years. Sometimes, if there was crab sauce served with the pasta we'd make giant lobster tails oreganata style - split down the middle and stuffed with breadcrumbs, (more) garlic, oregano, fresh parsley and olive oil then baked in a hot oven. Other years there was baccala prepared in the oven with with potatoes, olives, capers and (more) garlic in a light tomato broth. Delish! But as time went on and people became more health conscious and their appetites smaller this was one of the courses to be cut.

The next (and final) fish course was the fried fish. Generally it was shrimp and scallops and sometimes filet of sole. Always breaded and fried to golden perfection and served with some spicy cocktail sauce that my brother would inevitably whip up last minute. There was always a broccoli salad served here as well because we felt we needed something green on the table. Of course, no one ever ate it and most of the time the broccoli ended up breaded and fried as an appetizer for Christmas Day dinner but it was nice to look at.

When the fish was done and the table cleared my Aunt Judy would bellow "OH SWEETUMS! TIME TO DO THE DISHES!!!! (I was sweetums if you couldn't tell.) We'd load up the dishwasher and then do the rest by hand all the while with her yelling at me to get moving and me responding with "Yes Auntie Judy Darling!" in my sweetest voice while I (not-so) quietly grumbled under my breath.
Once everything was clear, we'd sit back down to the table for the fruit, nut and fennel course. There would be apples and oranges and pears and great big red globe grapes with seeds. Roasted hard shell nuts including almonds, walnuts and brazil nuts. We'd always have roasted castagne (chestnuts) that I didn't realize I liked until recently. And, as every good Italian feast should, we'd always have raw fennel - or - as we called it "fenuke". When raw, fennel is fresh and crunchy with strong licorice flavors. Its good for the digestion and helps get you ready for the next and final course - DESSERT!

Dessert is where I normally get to shine. Now this year I'm laid up with a fractured knee and haven't been able to do my usual bout of Christmas baking. But normally dessert on Christmas Eve has a cookie tray with a combination of whatever Mom and I created that year. There are always my Aunt Ida's lemon cookies, the seven layer green white and red Venetian almond cookies, and the little chocolate crackups that are crispy on the outside but soft and chewy within. Sometimes there may be pignoli macaroons or little greek butter cookies rolled in lots of powdered sugar and rum balls to really make your season bright. There would be a plate piled high with struffoli - little fried balls of dough covered in honey and decorated with chopped nuts and little sugar candies. The star of our dessert table was always the Italian-Style cheesecake. Another recipe from the famous Aunt Ida it is ricotta whipped with sugar and eggs, orange and lemon peel and a little Grand Marnier. No matter how full you were - there was always room for just a little piece of cheesecake.

When the meal was done, we'd once again clear the table (with Auntie Judy bellowing sweetly as I attempted to hide in whatever nook of the house she hadn't yet looked for me in). We'd retire to the living room and have the eternal debate over whether to go to midnight mass or get up and go to mass at dawn. Inevitably midnight usually won out.

The guest list for this night varied slightly from year to year. For the most part, it would be my family and my grandparents, our Trinidadian neighbors the Joe-Yens and my Mom's friend Terri, her mother Millie and her other friend Judy (the one who dubbed me Sweetums). Occasionally we'd have the odd guest if Judy happened to find someone who didn't have a place to go. Over the years, these ranged from an Orthodox Jewish couple (can you say traif?) to a slightly degenerate looking man who told my brother he looked like Tom Cruise to a southern gentleman (now her husband) who had never before anything remotely resembling baccala. Some years you'd find a few police cars parked out front and the couch in the living room looked like an arsenal with guns, belts, cuffs and radios as my brother's partner and other cop friends that were on duty that night would come by looking for a hot meal.

There's an old song recorded by Lou Monte, an Italian American singer popular in the 1950's and 60's that says "It's Christmas at our house, the door is open wide. It's Christmas at our house; don't knock just come inside!" And that's what it was. What a glorious night of family and friends to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Heck - if I had one choice for a birthday dinner I couldn't think of a better way to be welcomed into the world!

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good bite!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

You put WHAT in your stuffing???

Thanksgiving! It's always been one of my favorite holidays and this year is no exception. The biggest change this year is that for the first time in my 32 years of life we did not have Thanksgiving dinner at my parent's house. Instead, we gathered at the new home of my brother and sister in law. And boy, do I mean gathered. 16 Carraturo's and Nigro's gathered around an extended dining room table for one of the largest feasts I have ever seen. Everyone was responsible for something different. My sister in law's family would handle the turkey, a ham and some of the sides, my Aunt Terri would bring wine and the best Italian bread found this side of the Atlantic from Cuccio's Bakery on Avenue X in Brooklyn and I was on dessert (which incidentally was a white chocolate pumpkin cheesecake with a gingersnap crust, a maple bourbon sweet potato pie and a chocolate cream pie in case you were wondering). My mother was going to make her stuffed mushrooms but more importantly she was to make her famous stuffing.

Now, what's so special about stuffing you ask? Well - this is no ordinary stuffing. When I was a kid I'd see commericals for stove top and cringe. Bread in stuffing? Blech! My neighbors across the street made a stuffing with rice and chestnuts and sausage which puzzled me through the years. This was something Americans ate with their turkey. But we, we were Italian. Bread had its time and place at every table but NOT in stuffing. I remember every Thanksgiving morning my grandfather would come over sometime around 5am. He'd prepare the stuffing that morning and then stuff the bird, sew it up and get it in the oven before heading home to relax a bit and clean up before he and my grandmother came back for dinner that afternoon (served traditional Italian American style at 2pm and lasting until somewhere around 9pm).

So now you're probably asking what goes into this famous stuffing since there's no bread and no rice. It is the perfect blend of eggs, mozzarella, sausage meat and a few raisins. You start by browning bulk Italian sausage in a hot pan, if it doesn't already have fennel you should add some fennel seed to the meat for flavor. When its brown you add beaten eggs and let them begin to solidify. Then add cubed mozzarella and the raisins and stir till it just starts to set. We put some of the stuffing in the bird and let it roast until its all fully cooked and the rest goes into a baking dish and gets baked along side. I know I know - it sounds unnaturally simple but it really is the perfect combination of savory flavors.

This stuffing has been known to resolve family conflicts, or, start them if the distribution of leftovers is not done evenly. My brother and I have been known to resort to low tricks such as hiding the remaining stuffing in the back of the fridge under the brussel sprouts where we think the other won't look. I had an ex-boyfriend once who years after we broke up still came around for leftover thanksgiving stuffing (in exchange he gave us jars of his homemade Irish cream). We've argued the proper egg to sausage ratio, whether it should be 6 raisins, 8 or 9....whether an even or an odd number is better luck. But we've never thought about changing the stuffing.

I was 30 years old before I tried and accepted the fact that stove top and other bread stuffings had merit. Wild rice with sausage and roasted chestnuts is absolutely delicious and makes for a wonderful side dish. But don't you dare come anywhere near my bird with anything but the stuffing of my youth. Anything else is just bread!

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Smother Me With Love

I work in fundraising so the fall season is always my busiest. Year end mailings, solicitations, lists, events, reports, all seems to be needed at once. Add to that 3 graduate courses in nonprofit administration and what you end up with is one very stressed me. After what felt like an incredibly long work day, I just couldn't handle the thought of going to class last night. My head was full of numbers and data and deadlines and the thought of sitting in a hot overcrowded classroom on the 13th floor of what is possibly the saddest building in the entire CUNY system listening to my professor drone about the wonders of strategic management did not inspire me. Nor was I in the mood to battle with the overzealous security guards who control the elevators in said sad building. "13th FLOOR EXPRESS ONLY! MOVE TO THE SIDE! TAKE YOUR BAGS OFF!" as they pack us into the little metal box like sardines into a can minus the delicious bath of olive oil.

So using an art I perfected in High School, I cut class for the evening. I was immediately filled with a heady excitement. What will I do with my night off? Should I go out and paint the town red? Pick up bad take out and curl up on the couch with a chick flick? Be productive and clean my apartment and do laundry? No. None of these would do! As I rode the subway uptown to the northern end of the world otherwise known as Washington Heights flipping through one of my favorite foodie magazines I was struck with inspiration! Smothered Pork Chops! What better way is there to spend an evening than smothering something!

I got off the train and headed to my favorite overpriced but best quality Washington Heights market on West 187th Street and picked up two bone in pork chops, cremini mushrooms, a large Spanish onion and rosemary. I also picked up the ingredients to make a cauliflower puree to go along with my chops.

I set to work immediately upon getting home. Well almost immediately, first I had to take care of the screaming kitty that was pacing around my ankles whose cries could only be translated to "Feed me! FEED ME! I'm STAARRRVVVINNNGGG". Once that was taken care of and the sounds of "nomnomnompurrrpurrrpurrnomnom" filled the kitchen, then I set to work. I sprinkled the chops with salt and pepper (both sides of course) and then gave them a light dusting of flour (and as usual gave myself, the kitchen and the cat a light dusting as well). A little olive oil in my cast iron skillet and I set the chops to browning. While they seared I sliced the onions, mushrooms and chopped up the rosemary. Once the chops were browned on both sides I removed them to a plate, added a little more olive oil and added the onions to the pan to start them cooking. After about 2 minutes I added the mushrooms and rosemary plus a little more salt and pepper and let it cook for about another 5 minutes. After the onions and mushrooms were brown and yummy looking I added the pork chops back into the pan along with any juice that had collected, added about a cup of water and let it simmer, covered for about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, as the chops simmered away I prepped the cauliflower. I broke the head down into florets and then added them to a pan with chicken stock and rosemary. I let it boil until the cauliflower was tender. Into a blender with about 1/2 - 3/4 cup of the cooking liquid and then pureed till smooth. Once its smooth I added about 1 tablespoon of butter and about 1/2 cup of grated pecorino romano.

By that time the chops were deliciously tender. Serve by spooning some of the puree on the plate, add the pork chop and top with some of the mushrooms and onions.

Back in my High School days cutting class meant sitting in the courtyard, smoking cigarettes and wondering if my guidance counselor was going to tell my mother I cut when she made her weekly call to make sure I was going to class. Last night I called my mother myself to let her know I skipped and told her exactly what I was doing and was still somewhat surprised when she said she understood completely. My things have changed!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


Today was not a good day. It wasn't exactly in the realm of Alexander and his terrible, horrible, no good very bad day. But it still was not a good one. It was one of those days where even though nothing went terribly wrong, nothing seemed to go quite right either. By the time my class ended this evening not even a trip to my favorite watering hole to torment my favorite aussie could help pick my spirits up.

In a taxi on the way home, my mind started to wander to the produce I had picked up this past weekend that I had yet to use. Waiting for me at home was a butternut squash, an ingredient i've been itching to use since the air has begun to take on that cool fall chill. I knew it wouldn't survive the weekend since I probably wouldn't be around to cook it then, and since I have both class and dinner plans tomorrow night there would be no cooking then either. I hated the thought of throwing it out but couldn't seem to find the time to do something creative with it. And then, as my cab swerved in and out of traffic going much too fast on the West Side Highway, inspiration struck! I could put together a Morroccon style stew with the butternut squash tonight, let it cook overnight and then have a gorgeous lunch to take to work tomorrow.

When I got in I immediately began breaking down the squash because I knew if I didn't start right away I wouldn't do it. I still had my work clothes on, a dress, tights and high heeled boots that were really beginning to hurt the balls of my feet but I pressed on. Within minutes I had the squash peeled, seeded and chopped into half inch cubes. I also diced a sweet potato I had in my produce basket as well as 3 carrots that needed to be cooked or tossed. All of this went into the cooker. I sauted an onion and a few cloves of garlic in a bit of olive oil till just soft and added that to pretty orange mix. A little vegetable stock and some crushed tomatoes gave me a good bit of liquid (but not too much) and then cumin, cinnamon, chili flakes, salt and pepper for flavor. I covered it and set the timer for 8 hours. Tomorrow morning just as I'm getting out of the shower I'll add a can of chick peas and let it just heat through and pick up some of the flavorings.

Somewhere between the rhythm of the chopping and the sauteing and the seasoning, I realized that the tension had just melted away from my limbs. I didn't care about work or school. I wasn't stressing about family or friends. All I could think about was this beautiful orange bowl that was coming to life before my eyes. When the heat began to hit the cumin and the cinnamon the whole apartment took on this warm luscious feeling. I can't wait to wake up in the morning and see the finished product! But in the meantime, I'm going to enjoy falling asleep in this cocoon of warmth I've created. The cat seems a tad confused by all the activity, but I think even he's pleased with how good it smells in here.

Goodnight all.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Channeling Julia

A few years ago, before Meryl Streep so perfectly took on the role of Julia Child, I read the book Julie and Julia and was tempted to make Julia's famous Bouef a la Bourguinonne. Tempted...but not quite ready. Working with ingredients like pearl onions intimidated me and at that point I'm fairly certain my kitchen equipment did not contain anything close to a dutch oven. My other concern with such a dish was that I would have no one to serve it too. If bouef is being made into bourguinonne in a kitchen but no one is around to taste it is it really bourguinonne?

Fast forward to the present. On a cold Saturday afternoon in the land of senior developments otherwise known as southern New Jersey, I asked my father what he wanted for his birthday dinner. Having just seen the movie that past Tuesday (it was senior day at the local theatre which means tickets, soda and popcorn for only $10 - which incidentally still makes my father twitch....) his reply was "beef bourguinonne". He said it so matter-of-factly that I knew he had been thinking about it for a while and a momentary panic set in. Having just seen the movie myself, I immediately conjured up images of burning the casserole and serving dad a pizza for his birthday. I quickly stuffed the fear down and thought to myself if Julie could do it then damn well so could I!

Finally the big weekend arose. I headed down to NJ with my copy of the recipe straight out of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and a lengthy shopping list. First thing on my to do list: buy dutch oven. I have one but Mom doesn't and since I'm cooking at their place we had to procure one quickly. A quick stop at TJ Maxx and after I revived Dad from the $49 cost of the pot, I loaded my wares into the trunk and headed home to prep.

As I sliced onions and garlic and carrots and tried to get my beef into even 2" cubes I had another moment of panic. What if I'm really not good enough to do this? What if it doesn't turn out right? I'm only on step 3 and there are 45 steps in this process. At this point it wasn't so much about my dad's birthday dinner as it was my own pride in the kitchen. I gathered my head and channeled my energy. I browned the bacon (ok so I used pancetta - shoot me for a tiny improvisation) and the beef, softened the veggies, coated everything with flour and toasted it in a high oven for four minutes at a time. I agnoized over the wine choice and finally settled on a Pinot Noir from my parents wine rack. While the casserole was bubbled away in a low oven I prepared the smothered pearl onions and sauteed the mushrooms. As it simmered it started to smell phenomenally good in the house. I peeked at the under the lid of the casserole and thought "I just might pull this off".

By the time evening rolled around and I was on step 37 I began to care less about how it turned out and just wanted to get the damn thing over with. Pour the contents of the casserole into a strainer over a sauce pan. What???? Do you know how heavy that dutch oven is???? Now wash out the casserole and put the meat back in it. What? Why am I washing it out if I'm going to just get it dirty again???? Ok, fine. If Julia says so. Add my smothered onions and mushrooms to the meat. Now simmer the sauce until its just the right consistency to coat the back of a spoon. Ok....two minutes on a high boil. Nope...not coating. Ok, two more minutes...nope...still not coating. AAAGGGHHHH. Two more minutes! FINALLY COATING!!!!! I pull it off the heat, pour it back over the meat and veggies and take the whole thing off the heat to cool so I can put it in the fridge overnight.

Sunday morning in Jersey brought the usual routine of early mass with the parents and breakfast. All I can think of while the priest is giving his sermon is "what happened to the beef?" "What if its not good?" "Can I ever cook again?" Later at breakfast when the waiter asked for my order I almost requested beef borguinon. I was a mess and completely obsessed. Thankfully I was distracted by Sunday afternoon football. Finally the moment of truth came. I heated up the casserole on a low flame and cooked up some noodles to help sop up the sauce. The smell coming from the pot was amazing. Even my Mom who has been severely under the weather these past few weeks came poking into the kitchen. I tossed the noodles with a little butter and fresh pepper, set the table and called in the troops.

Now my dad is a hard one to please food wise. If you make something light he thinks it was too light. If you make something rich he'll want it lighter. If it's sweet he'll say it should be saltier and if its spicy he'll want it bland. There are a few dishes I have prepared for him that have left him without criticism. One is my osso bucco with risotto Milanese. Another was when I made him a quick chicken and vegetable stir fry with a brown sauce of a bunch of different Asian sounding ingredients I had in the fridge that I will never again be able to recreate in its exact original form. I had no idea what he would say about the beef. I sat with baited breath, my own plate steaming up before me tempting me with its rich scent of beef and wine and herbs. He stabbed some noodles with his fork and followed it with some meat and vegetables and placed the fork in his mouth. Through his glasses I could see his eyes begin to twinkle. The corner of his mouth turned up a bit as he chewed. He paused, swallowed and looked across the table at my mother. Very quietly he grunted and I vaguely heard him say something like "Mitsy....this is.....really good." After that we sat in silence until our plates were empty.

Ha! Take that Julie Powell!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Sunday Dinner Memories

When I was a kid, every Sunday we had a traditional Italian-American style Sunday dinner. I remember waking up early to the strains of Jerry Vale singing Mala Femina or Lou Monte singing about Pepino the Italian Mouse. As I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes my nose would catch the fantastic smell of pork sausages being browned in a pan and garlic sautéing in olive oil. I'd come downstairs and find Mom at the stove and my Grandmother at the kitchen table rolling meatballs (each one of course gradually getting bigger and bigger until finally Mom would yell "Ma!!!!! They're meatballs not basketballs!" and Grandma would giggle and reroll them smaller.
My job was to take the cans of peeled tomatoes and run them through the food mill to crush them and get out the seeds. I loved the way the handle fit perfectly in my small hands and the sound the blade made as it scraped against the bowl. When I was finished with the tomatoes I'd help Grandma with the meatballs.

Inevitably either Mom or Grandma would start telling stories of the past and suddenly those would bring to life long gone family members. The kitchen began to feel crowded with family I never had the chance to meet. It didn't matter (and still doesn't) how many times I'd heard the stories. I'd sit on Grandma's lap, Mom would be at the stove and they'd tell stories about Maruzielle, the Italian Bulldog who was bested by a french poodle or of the time that tiny Uncle Jimmy beat up a kid twice his size and half his age. I don't think I was ever happier then when I was in that kitchen.

After the meat and the gravy (NEVER call it sauce) were happily perking together on the stove Mom would rush us upstairs to get ready for church. After Mass we'd drive to the bakery to pick up a loaf of bread and maybe a cake or some pastry for dessert from Cuccio's bakery on Avenue X. I think that to this very day, Cuccio's has the best bread in the world. We'd sit in the car and stare at the long crusty loaf that smelled so good eventually Mom would tear into it (we almost always had to get two) and hand out pieces to each of us. If we were exceptionally lucky, there would be a loaf of lard bread to share on the ride home loaded with spices bits of salami and bits of creamy pork fat.

Dinner was always early on Sundays, usually sometime between 2 and 3pm. My Dad was bartending and worked Sunday nights so this also allowed all of us to have dinner together. The hardest part of Sundays was trying to stay out of the kitchen while the gravy warmed and perfmed the air with tomatoey garlicky goodness. It smelled so good that it was nearly impossible not to go in and dip a hunk of that delicious bread into the pot. My mother's hearing became supersonic on those Sundays and as soon as we'd walk anywhere near the pot of gravy you'd hear "GET OUT OF THAT POT! AND DON'T EVEN THINK OF DIPPING A PIECE OF BREAD IN THERE!" The thought of crumbs in the gravy made my mother crazy. Years later we finally learned that if we spooned it onto the bread it was ok. Topped with a little (or a lot) of grated cheese there was absolutely nothing better.

My brother and I would set the table (and sometimes succeed in not fighting) and Mom would throw in the macaroni of the day. My favorite was - and still is - a long fusilli. And then finally, when we thought we could stand it no more Mom would call us to the table. Dad would say Grace, inevitably some variation of "Thank you God for this food. Take care of our family. Amen." Short, sweet and to the point. And then we'd dig in!

First came the macaroni followed by the meat in the gravy. If it was a regular Sunday it would be meatballs and sausages. If it was a special occasion the gravy would also have spare ribs and braccioles (or a spinelle - a large piece of beef stuffed with parsley, grated cheese, pine nuts and garlic) and if it was a big holiday like Easter then it would also have the pork skin bracciole (I have no idea how to spell out how my family says this in Italian. It sounds something like a'godon. The actual term in Italian is 'cotina' - and I've found as many dialect translations as there are shapes of pasta so for now, pork skin bracciole will suffice. ) This is one of my favorite indulgences. Its probably one of the worst things healthwise but it's incredibly delicious and find it gives a velvety richness to the sau....oops...gravy. :) Last thing to hit the plates was always a green salad. No salad dish necessary. I learned from Mom and Grandpa to use the lettuce to sop up the last of the gravy on the plate (sounds strange I know but its good, trust me!). And of course, there was the bread! Lots of bread dipped in the gravy and not a drop of butter to be seen on the table unless there was a "Medigan" (American) present.

It took hours to prepare and less than 30 minutes to eat. As a family we'd talk before and after eating - but when the food was out you ate! Inevitably Mom or Grandma would say "I can't believe I'm getting full already!" signaling the near end of the meal. When it was over my brother and I would split the duties of clearing and washing and Mom would take a well deserved rest. Grandma would stay in the dining room until the last of the food had been cleared sneaking little tastes and nibbles that Mom wouldn't see - or perhaps she just pretended not to.

Looking back, I can't even begin to express how much I miss those days. When Grandma was in the nursing home in what turned out to be her last few months here on earth I had the chance to spend an evening alone with her. I made her macaroni and meatballs (sadly not my best effort) and we sat and talked like old times. I remember how beautiful she looked that day in her favorite pink sundress with matching jewelery and her hair freshly coiffed. The gravy and macaroni made up for the tough meatballs and we sat for hours talking and telling stories of the past. I'm sorry that my last chance to cook for her turned out to not be my best, but I think that it definitely helped me to never make that mistake again. Every time I prepare a meatball I hear her voice in my head going "Not your best effort kid...." and I make sure they come out perfect just for her.

Today I came home from church, put on Jerry Vale and made my own Sunday gravy. The meatballs came perfect and are happily bubbling in the sauce while I write. I thought I had made 10 but now see there are only 9 floating in the pot. Grandma, I hope you're enjoying it!

Mitsy's, Mom's and Grandma's Meatballs:
1/2 lb. each Ground Pork, Beef and Veal (or your choice of ground meat - turkey works well too)
3 cloves of garlic - chopped fine
2/3 cup of grated Pecorino Romano Cheese
1/2 cup breadcrumbs
1/4 chopped fresh parsley
1-2 eggs to bind (sometimes I find one is enough. Sometimes you need 2).
Salt and Pepper to taste

Mix all of the ingredients together (being careful not to overmix the meat - you'll end up with tough meatballs!!!!). Roll the mixture into balls (slightly larger than a golf ball works well). You can either fry the meatballs in a little olive oil or bake them in a 450 degree oven for 20-25 minutes. Serve with your favorite sauce (just please don't tell me if its jarred).

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ride em Cowgirl! Or .... perhaps not.

Last night I met up with a few friends for dinner at Cowgirl Sea Horse, the new South Street Seaport outpost of the famed West Village destination Cowgirl Hall of Fame. I had read a number of very mixed reviews on Yelp and Menu Pages and other assorted web sites so was eager to form my own opinion.

I arrived a few minutes late (which for those of you who know me is practically on time) and found myself wandering down Front Street amongst a sea of new restaurants. Nowhere did I see a Cowgirl or the giant sea horse hanging out front. A quick phone call and I was directed to cross Peck Slip and go all the way down Front stopping just before I slammed into the Brooklyn Bridge. There it was on the corner, looking very cute and very kitsch. The place was about half full with a smattering of patrons at the bar and a few tables occupied. I joined my friends at their table already halfway into their frozen cocktails and picked up where the gossip had left off at our last night out (nearly two years ago!).

Not in the mood for a margarita I tried something very unlike me off the cocktail menu - The Cowgirl Coolada. A mixture of pineapple and coconut juices and 3 kinds of rum blended with ice to a creamy froth and served in a mason jar with the requisite non-eco friendly plastic toys. The drink is definitely sweet but went down fairly easy. I definitely could not have more than one of those in a night but it was a fun start to the meal and the sweetness was nicely offset by the chips and Texas caviar on the table. One of my dining companions tried the margarita - both on the rocks and frozen and determined the frozen margarita won the day although commented that both tasted like they were from a pre-made mix.

Onto the food. The Oyster Po'boy basket looked beautiful albeit a bit beige when it arrived. It was loaded with huge sweet plump oysters. Slightly over-battered but still surprisingly crispy with no heavy oil taste. The roll they were served on left me a little disappointed - it wasn't the crispy french bread that I usually associate with a po'boy but was instead a plain hamburger roll. Oh well. Less carbs to ingest. It came with a side of cole slaw which was tasty albeit a bit soggy, a sort of odd piece of lettuce, an unripe tomato slice and some pickle chips. The corn-on-the-cob was just ok. It was sweet and buttery but the somehow felt overcooked with the kernels slightly shriveled and dry not plump and juicy. And then there were the hush puppies. I love hush puppies. I'm fond of picking one up, staring at it closely and yelling "HUSH! [Pause] PUPPY! " before popping it into my mouth. (I don't know why. I just do. You all have strange habits too.) But sadly these just didn't inspire me in the same way. They were solid massive blocks of cornmeal flecked with something that might have been bell pepper. I found them too dense to enjoy particularly after the heavy breading on the oysters. Other menu options also left us feeling cold. The clam fritters had very little clam and were very heavy on the bread and seasoning. I'm all for flavor but that much seasoning on my shellfish leaves me wondering exactly what they're trying to cover up. The veggie burger had a texture that made it similar to baby food and the too smooth guacamole served on the side only added to that. Most of it was left behind.

A highlight of the menu were the onion rings which were buttermilk battered and fried to a beautiful golden crisp. We saw a plate of nachos go by to the table next to us which also looked (and sounded) quite good. And one of my dining companions highly recommends the fish tacos that she has enjoyed at many a few lunches since she works in the area.

Service was quick and friendly. I think our food order took less time to arrive than our drinks but that's understandable when there's a blender involved.

Ultimately I think this place still has potential. It's cute. It's in a great location off the beaten path just enough to steer clear of the tourists but relatively easy to get too as long as you don't wear stilettos on the cobblestones. Dinner and drinks with tip came to about $30 per person which really isn't bad. I'd recommend it for drinks and maybe appetizers before or after a walk in the Seaport. I'd just skip the entrees until they work out a few more of the kinks.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

A Terrible Confession!

My Dear Friends and Family,

It is with utmost shame that I admit to you that this evening, I came very close to giving into a horrible temptation. I have no idea what came over me. Perhaps it was the heat, or the result of a somewhat stressful day in the office, or perhaps it was the last effects of that stupid rum and diet coke I thought was a good idea after a half bottle of wine late last night? More likely it was an evil combination of all three, clouding my judgement and making me momentarily forget myself.

What was it that was so terrible you ask? Tonight, I, Maryanne Lorraine Theresa Nigro, held a jar of a factory produced tomato sauce in my hands AND considered purchasing it. Jarred sauce!!! Me! In my kitchen! Those of you who know me know how absolutely shocking this is. For a split second even I thought it was possible. I argued with myself, out loud, in the middle of Frank's Market up here in Washington Heights. "People do it all the time. No one has to know. It's too hot to really cook. Mom will kill me if she finds out..." All of this and more was rushing through my head. I was giddy with defiance and was close to putting it in my shopping basket. Suddenly, out of nowhere I heard my grandfather's voice, so close as if he were right behind me say "Kid what the hell are you doing with that???" That was when the price tag of $8.99 caught my eye. Seriously? $8.99???? Thanks Grandpa! After a quick scan of the ingredient list I was mystified as to what could have possibly cost $9. Tomatoes, garlic, onion (yuck - anyone who knows me knows I don't believe onion has a place in marinara sauce), oregano, basil and salt.

After replacing the jar on the shelf and resolving to flog myself later for the mishap, the reality of the season hit me. Here we are at peak tomato season and I was about to commit a mortal food sin! I quickly remembered myself and set about gathering ingredients for my own sauce that would kick that jarred product's oniony behind any day!
Fresh, ripe plum tomatoes, garlic, sweet basil, chicken sausage (for a lean protein boost) and broccolini because Produce Pete said it was in season (ahh Pete. I have long harbored a secret..and not so secret crush on him and his eggplants, tomatoes, squashes, and whatever else he recommends that week).

I set to work as soon as I got in slicing 4 cloves of garlic, chopping tomatoes, cleaning the broccolini and slicing up the sausages. In a hot pan I sautéd the garlic with a good pinch of hot red pepper flakes. Just as it turned golden I added the broccolini and cooked that until crisp tender then added the sausage to brown up a bit. I deglazed the pan with a portugese white wine that was open in the fridge (and helped myself to a glass as well - of course) and finally added the rough chopped tomato and some torn basil. While this perked away ever so lightly I cooked up some whole wheat penne in salted water. In a method I picked up from watching many episodes of Lidia's Italy, I let the pasta finish cooking in the sauce and finished it all off with a (large) handful of grated Pecorino Romano and some more fresh basil.

One bite assured me that there was no way anything in a jar could come close to this. Don't tell my Mom - but she was right. Jarred sauce is something 'other' people do. Next time you're ready to pick up that jar I hope you'll consider making your own instead. You'd be surprised how easy it is.

Happy Eating!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

One Day Delay Arroz Con Pollo

All day long I sit in the office and think about what I'm going to have for dinner that night. Yesterday, I could only think about the cut up chicken I had taken out to defrost the night before. An arroz con pollo was calling my name. With saffron rice and smoked spanish paprika it was perfect for what ailed me. And since I accidentally ordered double the amount of chicken I had needed for the weekend picnic would be a perfect way to use it up. You can imagine my distress when I came home and discovered that the chicken wasn't defrosted yet!

Fast forward to this evening. At 5:25 pm I abandon the office and my import files still waiting to be uploaded. In the high heat and humidity I rush home thinking only of the culinary adventures that await. When I get in I momentarily falter as I am suddenly overwhelmed by the heat, my clothing sticking to me in places that I didn't even realizes existed. I turn on the A/C, get into something comfy and let the adventures begin.

First I prep my veggies - chopping up red pepper, yellow onion, lots of garlic and some briney pimento stuffed green olives. I brown the chicken pieces in a little olive oil and when they are golden all over I pull them from the pan, wipe out the excess grease and saute the veggies until soft and starting to brown. Then add the paprika (I like spanish smokey paprika for its complexity here), garlic and rice. For this one I didn't have enough long grain or arborio so used a combination of the two. White wine, chicken stock, diced tomatoes (with juice), bay leaf and saffron all bubble together. Then the chicken goes back in with a lid while it bubbles and brews and becomes a vat of delicousness. Just before its done I add a cup of frozen peas and some chopped green olives and let them just heat through. Before serving a sprinkle of fresh parsley for color and zip.

Was it worth the wait? Most definitely!