February 23, 2020


Here’s what I learned from my Nonna:

You can’t teach someone how to make pasta sauce. You can tell them the ingredients, and give them the steps. Then the poor soul can go forth and attempt to follow the instructions as outlined by Nonna. Two problems with that: Nonna constantly improvised (2 parts beef + 1 part pork = meatballs UNLESS the pork is too watery and then, who on earth would put pork in meatballs?!) Second problem: Nonna lied. All. Of. The.Time. Never put the rendered salt pork bits back into the sauce, nobody likes them….ten minutes later when no one is paying attention- into the pot go a handful of salt pork bits with a smile to me “well I  like them”. 

No, you can’t teach someone that one pot of sauce requires a minimum of five trips to DIFFERENT food markets plus one border crossing to Canada for the right tomatoes. Or that the ratio of tomatoes to paste is relative to the amount of pork chops and meatballs added. Nonna knew it was impossible to teach us all of this. And quite frankly, I think she realized that no one would listen. So instead, she showed us. Nonna’s legacy is not in what she taught us. Her true legacy, her lasting gift to each of us is in what she showed us. And she showed us so much.

She showed us that even in your darkest hour, if you look for it you will find moments of joy. And if you don’t find them, you make them. Those moments will carry you through the rest. Nonna knew a lot about heartbreak. But she also knew just about anything could be made better with chocolate chip cookies, a shot of anisette and a lifetime movie marathon.

Strong in her faith, Nonna implicitly understood that it could not be taught. You cannot instruct it, you cannot preach it, you cannot put on a show of it. You live it. Long after lapsing/ fleeing from my catholic upbringing I would walk with her into churches, lighting candles in silent prayer. It was a ritual we practiced every time we traveled seeking out the oldest and smallest of churches. She showed me, when we lit those candles the path to the next life is lit by our memories of those lost.

When Nonna got sick I knew I had to be by her side. I also knew that this was an important moment for my daughter. I couldn’t just tell her “this is what you do for someone you love”. I had to show her, I needed her to see. And yes she saw me cry too many tears to count and spent too much time in hospital wait rooms. But she also saw how we took small moments of joy and clung to them- arts and crafts soirees, midnight dance parties with our cousins, reconnecting and leaning on family members we hadn’t seen for years. She saw us come together for Nonna. And in the depths of my sorrow it was my daughter who hugged me and insisted “Nonna’s not gone, Nonna’s hugging us right now. Just like when we light the candles.” As Nonna intuitively understood, the smallest among us are the ones who understand best the truths we show them. 

So here we are. Left to navigate this world without our best friend. Without the one person who loved us not despite, but because of our flaws- our whole self. Who’s simple acceptance of each of us was all we ever really needed. She’s gone. But she showed us how to like ourselves. She showed us how to be kind to each other. She showed us how to look for the joy and to have faith that we will one day meet again. And yes, she showed us how to make the sauce.

I love you, my Nonna.

December 5, 2019

Terrible Chianti and Politics

I wouldn’t be me without him, and we wouldn’t be us. My Uncle Angelo has left this world and though I am thankful he’s no longer suffering the effects of the beast that is Alzheimer’s, I feel that we are collectively less without him.

Throughout my childhood my Nonna stood flanked by her two brothers, one on each side. Literally. One as conservative as the other was liberal. Both with hearts of a lion. They put each other through college. Spent the better part of every antipasta arguing over who got the better deal on the truly terrible straw covered jug of Chianti. They were a living lesson in values- nothing, not politics, not religion, not bad taste in wine, nothing stood above coming together as a family and accepting each other if only for the duration of the pasta course. Uncle Angelo and Uncle Danny were our pillars.

I’ve been thinking we set too much store in labels. Why is it that “great uncle” seems akin to “distant relative of little importance”? And “second cousin” what IS that? My daughter has several second cousins who would be better described as aunts. And great aunts who really should be labeled awesome aunts. My “Great Uncle” Angelo shaped me as much as any grandfather. Not one, but two great uncles made me understand my value, even in those awkward, angst filled teenage years, they made it clear- my thoughts and opinions mattered. It was my Uncle Angelo who raced to my mom’s rescue as quick as any father, who opened his home to her and six became seven...with only one bathroom! Without Uncle Angelo the world would appreciate Bob Dylan just a little bit less and I probably wouldn’t own THREE copies of Machiavelli’s The Prince. And (most importantly) if not for my Uncle Angelo I *might* very well have turned out to be a republican (I was well on my way at 17 and very taken with some catholic Texan boys with exceptional charm and conservative ideals).

We want more time, we ache for it. But since more time will never, ever be enough we have no choice but to let our memories propel us forward. And how rich we are in those memories.

Uncle Angelo is present when I patiently listen to my six year old’s opinion on world events. Or when my brother pushes my argumentative buttons over dinner. He has shaped me just as surely as the books I have read and the food I have cooked. My aunt suggested that this Christmas we find a protest to attend in his honor. The odds of us all being on the same side of any protest are slim to none but I have a feeling this would delight my uncle all the more.

Our pillars are gone, but the foundation they laid, one terrible jug of Chianti at a time remains, I think in tact. And at the very least, I am told by Nonna that when she took over the Christmas meal and was faced with the choice of choosing spiedini from her husband’s Sicilian side over the fried veal from her Southern Italian side, it was Uncle Angelo who insisted she make both. And for that we will be forever thankful.

You have left us in peace my sweet Uncle. Until next we meet.

November 12, 2015

We are the music makers

Lately, I’ve been mindful of the overwhelming goodness that encircles my life. Friends, family, colleagues all make it possible for our little family unit to move in a rhythm that is often chaotic but still finds time for closeness. This necessitates gratitude. 

Sure, the day-to-day, minute-to-minute schedules, activities and juggling often make us feel less than adequate. Some days I don’t feel good enough. Like when I piss the head chef off at work because I chopped the parsley wrong. FAIL. Or when Lucia is the only kid on the field trip without mittens. FAIL. Or when I forget to tell the neighbors that we’re out of town for the weekend and the chickens have to fend for themselves (not something they’re great at). FAIL. 

And then I take a deep breath and look around and realize how far reaching our cheering section is. And it’s incredible. The arsenal of people who share in our burdens and in our joys is humbling. I don’t think we’re alone in this. We, each and every one of us, have a responsibility to notice the goodness that prevails around us and to be thankful. 

To fully experience joy, you have to sincerely want to give joy. Nonna does this by making meatballs. And by telling all of us that we are perfect just the way we are… and then bribing the small kids with candy. She bribes the grown up kids with cognac. Making meatballs gives Nonna the greatest happiness, but only because we are there to eat the meatballs. All of the meatballs.

You have to show up. Our voices, our being, our differences are all that make up our crazy, loud, often politically obnoxious family. It is this collective energy of family and friendship that carry us through the hard days, and makes us want to sing songs on the good days. It is what makes me want to cook all of the food and feed everyone all of the time. 

We are the music makers. And the meatball eaters. 

Nonna’s meatballs 

A quick word on this recipe. Nonna lies. She will tell you to use 4 eggs, and two years later you’ll notice she uses five eggs. For about 3 years she was using 1.5 lbs beef with .5 lb pork. Then she switched back to just beef and all she had to say was “Oh, I changed it. Keep up.”. So here is the recipe as last I witnessed it this past October. Also, it should be noted that Nonna has never made just 2 lbs of meatballs in her entire life. She almost always triples this recipe. 

“If you’re going to make meatballs, then make meatballs!”

2 lb ground beef (85% lean)
5 eggs
1 cup bread crumbs
1 cup Pecorino Romano, grated
2 tsp salt
black pepper to taste
1 tsp oregano 
1 large garlic clove, minced
1/2 cup parsley, chopped
Olive oil, for frying

Combine all of the ingredients in a large bowl. Using your hands, mix until just combined. Do not over mix the meat, it will become dense and make for really heavy meatballs. Nonna would make you taste mixture for seasoning. We have no issues with eating raw beef. 

Rub your hands with a little olive oil. Roll out the balls to your desired size.

My mother is notorious for making teeny, tiny meatballs and it drives Nonna crazy. Grandma Tocco would make her meatballs the size and shape of eggs so that she only had to turn them once in the frying pan.

In a large [preferably nonstick] frying pan, heat up the olive oil. The oil should cover the pan and come up about an inch to the sides. 

Place the meatballs in the pan and fry until lightly browned, turning them over with a fork. They will fry quickly so be ready to remove them from the pan with a slotted spoon. They will not be fully cooked at this point.

Simmer the fried meatballs in your pasta sauce to finish cooking them. 

August 13, 2015

So there.

There are three things that [I feel] New England does better than anyone else. Football, strawberries and corn. Actually, it’s a much longer list but for the purposes of getting to the point of this post, I will stick with three.

Here’s the thing. You can hate our politics, abhor our plethora of higher education liberal think bubbles, loathe our contempt for neighborhood gatherings and shake your head at our utter lack of Olympic spirit. But let’s face it, when it comes to our four [count em’] Superbowl Championships the haters will hate [and we’ll shout scientific proof, lack of due process, and the fact that Tom Brady is a God and The Organization is corrupt in response*] and still we will have the best damn football team in the league and the most succulent strawberries and corn in the country.  So there.

Growing up in Western Massachusetts surrounded by cornfields and cows meant that you learned the rules of corn buying at a young age: You do not buy corn if it is not in season. You do not buy corn in the grocery store. You do not buy corn that has not been picked that morning. And for the love of all things delicious, you do not shuck your corn at the farm stand. Tom and I walk through the farmer’s markets in Boston shaking our heads in confusion as we watch hoards of people crowding the produce tents so that they can shuck their corn there. This practice is baffling.

If you follow my country bumpkin “rules of corn” you will understand how special and fleeting corn season is. So as these summer days of August roll steadily towards fall, I urge you to eat corn every day. Steam it; grill it; salsa it; soup it. Or fry it into fritters and top it with a poached egg, freshly laid by your backyard chickens.

Corn fritters 
Recipe adapted by Jacques Pepin’s 'Essential Pepin: More Than 700 All-Time Favorites from My Life in Food'

Before I share this recipe let’s take a minute and talk about Nonna growing corn in her garden. In Detroit. Seriously? I get funny looks when people discover I have a chicken coop seven miles outside of downtown Boston. Personally, I think having your very own, successful backyard corn crop in Detroit is a greater feat by far. She could only plant enough for one harvest and it would all come in at once, giving she and my Papa yet another excuse to throw a bocce party. Not being New Englanders, they apparently enjoyed socializing with their fellow neighbors.

Makes 12 fritters

4 TBSP flour
3 TBSP cornstarch
1 teaspoon baking powder
1⁄2 tsp salt
1 large egg
1/2 cup ice-cold water
4 large ears corn, husked and kernels cut off
6 TBSP grape seed oil

Mix the flour, cornstarch, baking powder and salt together in a bowl. Add the egg and 1⁄4 cup of the water and whisk until smooth. Add more of the water, until you achieve a consistency slightly thicker than pancake batter and then mix in the corn.

Heat 3 tablespoons of the oil in a large nonstick skillet until hot. Drop a generous tablespoon of batter into the skillet for each fritter (I fry 4-5 fritters at the same time in a 12” frying pan) and cook over medium-high heat for about 4 minutes on each side, until golden brown. Transfer to paper towels to remove any excess oil and repeat with the remaining batter and oil. Sprinkle fritters with kosher salt and serve immediately.

*Special thanks to my brother, @JKostecki for providing the appropriate articles in support of our beloved New England Patriots.

PS- You could certainly disagree with everything I've just said. In which case, I am the honey badger.

June 19, 2015

To like or hate

“I have found out that there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.” So said Mark Twain, and so say I.

After college Tom and I rented a tiny little car and drove through Austria, Germany, Switzerland, France and Italy. For weeks we lived on salami, bread, cheese and two euro wine. On that trip, we figured out how to navigate the unfamiliar and the unplanned together. We learned how to get lost, try new things, and tolerate each other’s lesser qualities. Ten years later, we’re still traveling, still planning next adventures. It’s something [we think] we do really well together.

On our last trip to Italy, Tom and I began in Venice. Its beauty was haunting, its romance inescapable. There is a magic that runs through its canals that makes every corner turned prettier than the last.

Yes there were crowds. Our only glimpse of St. Mark’s Basilica was fleeting, as we quickly retreated from the hordes of cruise travelers that had no interest in maintaining personal space.  But there are far worse things than having to hide away within the inland waterways of Venice, enjoying a carafe of wine in a small osteria for a few hours in the afternoon.

The thing that we both remember best about Venice is a plate of calf ‘s liver with onions- slightly greasy, sweet and sour, perfectly caramelized by a still steaming sear. Whenever one of us needs to go back to Venice, I make sautéed calf’s liver for dinner.

This weekend Tom and I celebrate seven years of marriage. It’s an adventure that only gets better and I am thankful each day to share this journey with such a remarkable travel partner.

Sautéed calf’s liver with onions 
Adapted from Lidia Bastianich’s recipe in Lidia’s Italian Table

5 TBSP extra virgin olive oil
1 large sweet onion, thinly sliced
2 bay leaves
2 TBSP red wine vinegar
.6 lb calf’s liver
salt and pepper

Nonna loves calf liver. The glee in her voice when she’s happened across a beautiful piece of calf’s liver is palpable, “It’s so good!” Equally exciting to her is the fact that no one else (who is not me) will eat it. When Nonna makes calf’s liver, she makes it for herself.

To begin, take a sharp knife and clean the liver of any membrane or blood vessels before slicing into 1-inch thick strips. Season the strips of liver with salt and pepper.

In a large non-stick skillet heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the sliced onion, bay leaves and a good pinch of salt. Cook over medium high heat, stirring occasionally until the onions begin to caramelize and take on a deep golden hue, about 10 minutes. Reduce heat to medium, and cook for about 5 minutes more, letting the onions take on a darker color. Add the red wine vinegar. Continue cooking for 2-3 minutes. At this point check for seasoning, adding more salt, pepper or vinegar to your taste.

Push the onions off the direct heat, to the side of the pan. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil to the skillet and adjust the heat to high. Add the sliced liver and carefully brown on all sides, cooking for 1-2 minutes. The liver should still be pink in the center when cut with a knife. Not overcooking the liver is crucial to enjoying this dish. Nobody should ever have to eat well-done liver. It should not be allowed.

Serve with a simple salad and crusty bread. This recipe makes enough dinner for two willing adults and one brave toddler.

March 26, 2015

March too, shall pass

My yoga instructor asked us a really interesting question last week. What was the worst year of your life? The purpose for recalling this moment was to understand just that, it was a temporary moment in time. It forced you to acknowledge that bookending this period were moments of something other than misery and despair. Each person in class had come out on the other side of their remembered year. How reassuring it is to know that Nonna’s relentless adage, “this too shall pass” is truth? Of course there is one small caveat. You have to choose to move towards happiness. You have to force yourself to make uncomfortable, often scary choices and then own them. That’s the only way to end up somewhere different from where you were.

Anyways, taking that metaphor even further during these damp, blustery winds of March I considered what was the worst food of my life. Pea. Soup. Ugh. It’s awful. The color, the texture, and oh the flavor…so not good.

Except that lately it clearly has been pea soup weather. It’s been chilly, windy and raw; all prerequisites for a comforting bowl of something steaming, thick and filling. So I considered what changes would make this, “throw-in-a-pot and you’re done” recipe appealing. With a few thoughtful adjustments I arrived to something different than what I remembered as a kid (sorry Mom).

While you’re enjoying your bowl of warm deliciousness consider this, March too will pass. Some day, it will be April.

Pea soup

Nonna and Mom both use the recipe from Joy of Cooking for pea soup. I more or less follow along with a few changes. I never make this recipe without doubling it and throwing half in the freezer. All that’s required of you is some dicing, skimming and simmering, why not get two meals from one pot?

1 lb dried green peas
8 cups cold water
1 smoked ham shank
4 carrots, small dice
1 onion, small dice
2 celery stocks, small dice
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 bay leaf
3 sprigs fresh thyme
Cayenne pepper to taste (I put at least 1 large TBSP into my pot)
Salt and pepper to taste

Put the peas in a large stockpot with the ham shank and cover with the water. Bring to a boil, skimming off the green foam that rises to the surface and reduce to a simmer, stirring occasionally.

After an hour add the carrots, onion, celery, garlic, bay leaf and thyme. Let simmer another hour, stirring often to ensure nothing sticks to the bottom.

At this point add your seasonings and check for consistency. I almost always add another 1-2 cups of water to thin out the soup. When the meat begins to fall off the shank bone the soup is ready to eat.

The absolute worst part of eating pea soup can be the consistency. If it’s not piping (like your house is on fire) hot it will take on a congealed mush-like state. So. Bad. So serve hot and eat as soon as humanly possible.

March 11, 2015

Catholic guilt with a side of eggs

Melting! It's happening. I view March as a remarkably useless month until the snow begins to melt, and only then do I admit to myself that February is over and spring will come again. Last week Boston hit 40 degrees for the first time in a record 43 days. Today I am sitting on my porch, windows open, happily listening to the sounds of ice becoming puddles. I have hope that someday soon, our chickens will be able to free range the yard again.

So, chickens happened. About a year ago Tom and I decided we wanted to be chicken owners. Tom researched coops, I researched breeds and on Easter weekend the United States Postal Office delivered a parcel of day-old chicks.

Today, our flock of seven ladies (Brenda, Goldie, Henrietta, Rosie, Annabelle, Red, and Martha) keeps us in eggs all day long. They've formed a very friendly chicken club together and enjoy throwing a dance party every time someone lays an egg.

We’ve always been an “egg happy” family and I tend to be obnoxiously specific about how I like my eggs prepared. I recently watched Moonstruck for the millionth time, which means that I've been experimenting with "eggs in a basket". The oh so Italian-American scene in the kitchen where Rose is making breakfast for Loretta, and not-so-subtly dishing out a healthy helping of Catholic guilt always makes me want to make eggs and call my mother.

Eggs a la Moonstruck

Remember when the proverbial “they” said that eggs were bad for you? Nonna got so MAD. She refused to believe it. Recently, the powers that be changed their tune, and eggs were taken off the no-fly list. This is why I say it's always good to question authority.

2 TBLS extra virgin olive oil
2 eggs
2 slices of bread
1 fire-roasted pepper, sliced thin
1 garlic glove, sliced thin
salt and pepper to taste

Using a small biscuit cutter (I use the top of a small mason jar), cut a hole in the middle of each slice of bread.

Heat oil in a non-stick frying pan, add peppers and garlic and sauté for about two minutes. Push the peppers off to the side. Add the two slices of bread and toast on one side for about two minutes or until golden brown, flip and wait about another minute for the second side to begin to brown. 

Crack your eggs into each hole. It's easier to crack each egg into a small bowl first and then pour into the hole. Cook for about two minutes until the whites begin to set. Salt and pepper the eggs. 

Using a spatula, flip each slice of toast and cook for approximately one more minute.

Serve with peppers on top of each egg.