January 26, 2010

Some Like it Hot

If you can’t take the heat…then you’re probably in the wrong kitchen.

In a family where tempers run high, feelings are often hurt and grudges can span several lifetimes, perhaps it is not surprising that we like our food hot and spicy. Nonna’s kitchen, while joyful and delicious can also be dramatic and at times downright treacherous. With a family as large as ours, it takes a sustained effort to keep track of who’s not speaking to whom, whose turn it is to boycott a family event and which heathen has most recently been condemned to Hell. In all fairness, I’ve been condemned at least three times that I know of, so I feel strongly that I’ve paid my dues. I find it particularly useful to keep track of the heathens so I know who to sit next to during dinner. And this is only at Christmas! Wait until you hear about 4th of July at Nonna’s Cottage. It answers the time honored question, how many Italians can you fit under a roof before you see blood.

Recognizing that each one of us is of different temperament and personality, Nonna’s table covers the spectrum of flavorful food. Ever the peacemaker, Nonna makes sure that there is an option for the spicy, mild and even nut free palette. She has yet to accommodate the vegetarian, although I suspect that is only because none of us are foolish enough to abstain from meat in her presence.

On the surface, it would seem that Nonna cooks the following pepper recipe to accommodate all of our tastes. Upon reflection, I suppose she might also cook these peppers so that our mouths burn and we are rendered temporarily voiceless and thus can better enjoy each other’s company.

You see, Nonna knows that when all’s said and done we’d all prefer to take the heat and stay in the kitchen than be left out of it.

Peppers in Sauce
6 spicy banana peppers
6 non-spicy banana or cubanelle
2 or 3 good sized garlic cloves, roughly chopped
1 can plum tomatoes in puree
Regular olive oil

This is one of those recipes that just tastes better when cooked by Nonna. My peppers never come out as soft or as pungent. I have no explanation for this, other than I stand by my original assertion- Nonna can do magic.

Chop the peppers, keeping the seeds for added spice, or removing them for a milder flavor.

Sautee with garlic for a good 20 minutes or so, until soft and slightly browned.

Crush the tomatoes by hand and then add with juices to the peppers. Cook for about 30 minutes.

The beauty of this dish is that is can be used in all sorts of ways. Our family likes to add a heap of these peppers to a dish of pasta and meatballs. They’re great in sandwiches or as an accompaniment to a sautéed chicken breast or pork chop and they freeze wonderfully.

January 21, 2010

A Friend Indeed

Though I have developed Nonna’s love for spice there are sadly some traits that I was not lucky enough to inherit. Nonna’s kitchen is always crowded, full of laugher and occasionally raised voices. Everyone and anyone (even republicans) are always invited in. My kitchen is not exactly like this…

There are very few people that I invite into my kitchen while I’m cooking. There are even fewer people that I actually enjoy cooking with. Apart from the fact I feel that chatting takes away from the creative process, I think most likely (and I’m guessing Tom, my husband will agree) this is an issue of control. And I’m okay with that. Don’t mess with my knives; don’t even think about handling my pink (yes pink) KitchenAid and for the love of God don’t touch the Le Creuset! My eyes start darting and I develop an irritating tick when, for example my friend Lucy (whom I love dearly) offers to help with dinner.

But sometimes you do need a companion, especially when things get intimidating. For instance, tackling Nonna’s pasta recipe for the first time without her supervision (don’t get too excited, I’m not ready to divulge THAT recipe yet) or having the audacity to fry up some sage, melt two sticks of butter and call it sauce, these things require moral support.

Enter Deanne.

Deanne is the perfect cooking buddy. Firstly, she herself has received several hours of hands-on Nonna training. Secondly, she’ll try anything no matter how difficult or scary and makes wonderful suggestions such as, “we should make our own butter for that recipe!” We always have fun cooking together.

Our most recent cooking weekend included Nonna Sauce (nope, sorry not yet), Nonna Pasta, fried eggplant, lots of cookies and since neither of us had ever successfully poached an egg nor attempted hollandaise sauce, eggs benedict.

I am happy to report that not only was the egg poaching a tremendous success, but my world was truly rocked when Deanne showed me how to make butter.

In honor of Deanne’s first fried eggplant experience, I submit to you the following:

Fried Eggplant

1 eggplant

2 eggs, lightly beaten

Kosher salt

Good Italian breadcrumbs

Mazola oil

Slice eggplant into about 1 inch circles.

Arrange eggplant on a dish towel or paper towel. Salt both sides. Cover eggplant with another towel and put some heavy dishes on top. You’re trying to extract all of the moisture and bitterness. Leave for about 45 minutes.

Coat the slices with the egg and then bread. Make sure you bread both sides and around the edge. Refrigerate breaded eggplant for 30 minutes to an hour.

Take a good size frying pan and fill it with Mazola oil so that the eggplant will be about half covered with oil. Let the oil heat up until you see smoke and/or it begins to ripple.

Add eggplant to hot oil and brown both sides- if your oil is adequately hot and your eggplant appropriately cold they will fry up very quickly. Transfer to a paper towel and sprinkle with some more kosher salt and enjoy!

Word of warning: Much like learning to make your own butter this dish will rock your world and change your entire perspective on eggplant. This is according to Liz, my other cooking buddy.

January 10, 2010

Twelve Hours Before Christmas

The first piece of advice my Dad gave to my husband - then new fiancé was this: Don’t do once what you’re not prepared to do for the rest of your life. Sage guidance indeed.

Every year we drive the family Toyota from Massachusetts to Detroit to have Christmas at Nonna’s house (this Christmas marked my Dad’s 30th passage). Probably to the family’s dismay, though they’ve never verbally confirmed this, my Mom married a Polish guy from Massachusetts. After completing his doctorate at U of M he promptly moved her out of Michigan and they raised their children to be a good, New England liberals with a healthy distrust of authority. We never got the Boston accent, but Dad “nevah” lost his.

Yet every December since that blessed move, we journey to the Midwest to share in the holiday festivities and family drama and help to pound out a shitload of spiedinis. And every year, waiting for us at the end of the twelve hour car ride is a big, beautiful pot of Nonna Soup.

Incidentally, this tradition continues. I also married a Polish guy from Massachusetts and make him drive our Toyota the twelve hours to Detroit once a year. Like my mother, I tell people, he does this because he loves me; however, it is quite possible the motivating factor here for both him and my Dad, is the soup. It’s not our fault. As my Dad says, never do once…

Nonna Soup

The first thing we need to discuss is bones. Good bones are essential to good soup. It sounds simple right? Well, good luck trying to find a “knuckle bone” at your name brand supermarket. I have yet to find the elusive knuckle bone to which Nonna claims is the secret to this soup in any of my Cambridge markets.

Secondly, as I fear we will find with most of my cooking endeavors, the measurements here are guess work. As Nonna likes to remind me, her mother didn’t use such fancy tools as measuring spoons and never wrote anything down. Ever. My advice for this recipe? If you like carrots, put in a lot of carrots. If you don’t like tomatoes (in which case you may not care to follow this blog), simply omit the tomatoes. Do as Nonna suggests and make the flavor your own.

3-4 beef marrow bones
1 knuckle bone (or substitute 2 more marrow bones if, like me, you are unsuccessful in your bone purchases)
1 good size beef shank
Good olive oil
1 carrot
1 celery stalk
1 large onion
1 bunch of Italian parsley
10 pepper corns
3 or 4 bay leaves
3-4 garlic cloves, peeled
Cold water

4-6 zucchini chopped sliced
2-3 onions chopped
3 celery stalks chopped
1 bunch of carrots chopped
1 can plum tomatoes, drained and roughly chopped
1 box of pastina (or any small pasta of your liking)
Good Parmigiano-Reggiano
Preheat the oven to 415*

Rub some olive oil to coat the bones and beef shank, season with salt and roast. Turn 30 to 45 minutes until nicely browned.

Take the largest stockpot you own (as a reference point I use a 16 quart…I really like soup) and place the bones and all of the lovely fat drippings from the roasting process into the pot. Add the carrot, celery, onion, parsley, garlic and peppercorns and fill the pot with cold water roughly three quarters up the pot. Add a good chug of olive oil and a couple more bay leaves. Boil for about an hour, hour and a half. Let cool and refrigerate overnight.

Skim off the layer of fat, which will have inevitably settled on the top of the stock. At this point you are welcome to remove the bones and vegetables that have been used to flavor the stock.

Bring stock to a boil. Add the zucchini, onion, celery, carrots, and tomatoes. Let simmer for 45 minutes to an hour until the vegetables have softened.

While the soup is simmering make the pastina. Drain and put back into the pot you cooked it in. Add to this some soup broth and olive oil. Grate in a good amount of cheese.

Do not, I repeat, do not, put the cooked pastina into the pot of soup. It will proceed to eat up all of the broth and become bloated and chewy. I promise it will.

Serve with some grated cheese and a quick dash of olive oil.

*I enjoy spice because, as Nonna puts it, I take after her side of the family. So I also add a couple of habanero peppers, chopped and a generous pinch of red pepper flakes along with the other vegetables.

January 4, 2010

La Buona Vita

Hello out there…

I think this niche I’ve started to carve out for myself just echoed. We will have to see what we can do to fix that.

Before we begin, I have a confession to make. Blogging is not something I’m terribly comfortable with, especially as it relates to the delicate matter of sharing family recipes. But you see, I have this Nonna, a lovely, rather short Italian grandmother who can do magic with tomatoes, garlic and olive oil. She will be 81 in February, a young 81 mind you, but none the less, I think it is about time that someone start documenting her magic. It is necessary I believe, to create a space where her ravioli’s may exist in eternity. It is essential that the spiedini and the cucidati be shared, even with those who are not blessed with Italian genealogy and therefore have probably not come to appreciate fully the flavor of anise.

After all, there is nothing more rewarding than taking the time to cook a beautiful, flavorful meal and gathering your family (regardless of who’s not speaking to whom) around the dinner table to enjoy a heartwarming meal. So says Nonna.

Helpful hint: in my experience, it’s best to leave God and Ted Kennedy out of the dinnertime discussion, although for the rebels out there, I’ve had good results simply sporting my “I Heart Ted” tee shirt in the kitchen.

Nonna has taught me that food is an adventure that needs to be experienced with la famiglia and shared with friends. It is, very much the secret to the good life. So are you ready? Let’s begin.