April 21, 2010

The Sicilians and Italians Can Be Friends

I am told that my Great Grandpa Tocco could do amazing things with seafood.  Great Grandma Tocco was a chef among chefs; the kitchen was her domain, but the grill, that was Grandpa Tocco’s territory. My mom has memories of him cooking fish outside on a make shift grill over hot coals. Using long strands of oregano, he would baste the fish with moiggi- a Sicilian salsa made with tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, oregano and parsley that has been left to sit for a good couple of hours so that the flavors intensify then meld together to create a harmonious experience for the taste buds. How good does that sound?

I guess I should explain that Grandpa and Grandma Tocco were my Papa’s parents- not Nonna’s.  A remarkable cook in her own right, Nonna’s mother passed away when Nonna was first married. It was Grandma Tocco who took Nonnna under her wing and trained her in Sicilian cooking. That’s right. Nonna married a Sicilian. For those of you who may be unaware, an Italian marrying a Sicilian is something akin to a Red Sox fan marrying a Yankee.  Pure treachery. Well, Nonna and Papa somehow pulled it off and the worst that happened is that the so-called “Sicilian temper” was indeed passed down to the kids… and to the grandkids for the matter.


I know someone else who can do amazing things with seafood, and he’s not even Sicilian. Both seafood and grilling are my Dad’s domain at home. He is, in my humble opinion, quite the master.  He will tell you that the best way to cook fish with moiggi is to grill the fish until it’s slightly underdone, transfer it to a tinfoil tray, with the moiggi on the bottom, place the fish on top, add a little more sauce and set it back on the grill, cover and finish cooking. This way the fish doesn’t take on too much of the flavor of the moiggi and everyone gets along. Swordfish, halibut, sea bass, and blue fish are all excellent with moiggi. If you don’t feel like grilling, you can always bake the fish in the moiggi in the oven (just don’t tell my Dad!).

There is one more thing to note about the following recipe. I have absolutely no idea how to spell it. I have consulted my cookbooks, the web, my mother, and Nonna herself. No one knows how to spell “moiggie”. I reminded Nonna that she speaks Italian and should know this. Her response? "Moggie is Sicilian; I never could understand a word of Sicilian!"

1 can whole Italian plum tomatoes, crushed by hand
Extra virgin olive oil
1 large handful Italian parsley, chopped
2-3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
Good quality dried oregano to taste 
Optional: A couple shakes of hot pepper

If there is a dominant flavor to this “sauce” it really should be the oregano. Not that it should over power the other flavors. The end result should be brightly flavored. What makes moiggi so refreshing is that you can actually taste each ingredient, and it doesn’t steal the show away from the fish.

In a large bowl combine the crushed tomatoes with a couple of good “glugs” of olive oil. Add the parsley, garlic and oregano. Stir to combine, and salt and pepper to taste. Cover and let sit for at least 2 hours before using.

April 15, 2010

It Can't Always be about the Pasta and Spiedini

Today I am going to tell you about Nonna’s stuffed mushrooms. I have been thinking about this for awhile and had been trying to come up with a significant family story to go along with this recipe, and I have to tell you I’m at a loss. Then I thought, well at least I can give a detailed description of the mushrooms deliciousness…except that for some inexplicable reason, I don’t particularly love these mushrooms.

Don’t misunderstand me; this is a wonderful, simple, well flavored recipe. And certainly, stuffed mushrooms are not insignificant when it comes to our family meals. I mean, they are always there. Never does a holiday go by that a stuffed mushroom doesn’t find its way onto my plate. And who do you think is usually put on mushroom stuffing duty? That’s right. Yours truly.

The reason for my sharing with you this recipe now is because we recently celebrated Easter, and in addition to the roast leg of lamb, artichokes and pasta, of course we had to make the mushrooms. Despite the fact that I don’t adore the stuffed mushrooms, I admit, I would be very sad if they disappeared and I suppose it can't always be about the pasta and the spiedini. Stuffed mushrooms are, after all tradition. And you just don’t mess with tradition.

Side note: It doesn’t help that it’s really hard to make a stuffed mushroom look pretty.

Stuffed Mushrooms

Once again, the measurements for this recipe are approximations/wild guesses. Particularly with the breadcrumbs and cheese, we tend to eye ball the amounts until we get the texture we’re looking for- not to bread crumbly, not too cheesy. I wish I could better articulate this balance, but then that would just be giving away too much information. Sorry.

1 package of large white mushrooms
1 package of baby bella mushrooms, stems removed and discarded
About 1 cup of Italian breadcrumbs
About 1 cup of good Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
A large handful of Italian parsley, chopped
2-3 large garlic cloves minced
Good quality olive oil

Preheat the oven to 350*

With a damp paper towel, gently wipe the mushrooms. Remove the stems of the white mushrooms, reserving for later use.

Roughly chop the reserved stems and baby bella mushrooms. I like to use my Cuisinart for this. In a medium bowl mix together the chopped mushrooms, breadcrumbs, cheese, garlic and parsley. Slowly add some olive oil just to bind the ingredients together, not so much that the mixture becomes oily.

Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Stuff the mushrooms, using all of the mixture (never let the mixture go to waste!).

Bake for about 15 to 20 minutes.

April 7, 2010

The First of Many

I suppose it was inevitable that as we journeyed through my family’s culinary repertoire, we would eventually arrive at the Cookie Collection. And I have to tell you, I find the prospect of tackling this collection daunting. I knew it was coming, and I knew there would be no way to avoid it, because Nonna is nothing, if not a master cookie maker. A full inventory of the cookie recipes is forthcoming, but to name the highlights we have, cuccidata, pine nut, almond paste, pizzelle, honey, sesame, chocolate chip, and of course the infamous “S Cookie”.

It probably has something to do with lack of patience, but I’m not a baker. Apart from the fact that I get to use my KitchenAid to make the dough, I find it hard to motivate myself to get into cookie-making mode.

Yet, this past week I decided that it was time to begin chipping away at the cookie archive and, in celebration of springtime and flowers, I chose to start with “S” cookies because you get to use sprinkles.

The “S” cookie really is a fun cookie (once you get past all of the rolling it entails) and a definite crowd pleaser. I think it is because the cookie itself is not sweet. The sweetness is in the frosting, but it doesn’t overwhelm the palette with a sugary stickiness.

When I called for the recipe, I asked Nonna to explain to me why these cookies are shaped like an S and had she ever tried a using a different shape. I expected her to have some fascinating explanation about the significance and religious meaning of the serpentine shape. Instead, she told me point blank that she had absolutely no idea, that Grandma Tocco never told her, and you don’t go changing the shape of a cookie just because you feel like it… at least not if you expect people to eat them. Right. Got it.

I adhered to the “S” shape ruled, and brought a batch to my parents for Easter, and people did in fact eat them. Who am I to question success? An “S” shape it is.

“S” Cookies

So I think we need to take a minute and discuss lard. Try not to overreact and substitute butter or even shortening for this ingredient. IT WILL NOT TASTE RIGHT. I’m sorry, there’s really no getting around it. Trust me, we’ve tried. For the right consistency and taste it has to be lard. It just does.

5 cups of flour
1 ½ cups confectioners sugar
1 cup lard
2 TBLS baking powder
3 eggs
1 TBLS vanilla (the real stuff)
Preheat oven to 375*

Mix your dry ingredients together in a medium bowl.

With an electronic mixer, beat the lard and add eggs one at a time. Add vanilla.

Slowly incorporate the dry ingredients. Mix until the dough comes together.

Grease your cookie sheets.

To form the “S” shape, take about a tablespoon of dough and form a ball, roll out to form an “S”.

Bake for 8-10 minutes until the bottoms of the cookies have just turned golden.

3 cups confectioners sugar
3 TBLS butter (room temperature)
1 TBLS vanilla
¼ cup warm milk
Sprinkles (colorful ones)

Beat the butter with an electronic mixer, add sugar, milk and vanilla.

When cookies cool, frost the tops and using a spoon, sprinkle on the sprinkles!