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).