Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Day of the Blighted Star

"tis cause we be on a blighted star and not a sound one." 'Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D'Urbervilles

And that was the day. Some personal news I waited for came and wasn't what I hoped. An hour later I found out that the the job I applied for won't be mine. Was I going to wait to see if bad things come in threes? All of a sudden, answering the phone and checking e-mails isn't as splendid as it was yesterday. All of this to say, my resolve to work on my plays was strengthened. It is within my control. My sudden need for the easiest food in the world - could be granted. It is my choice. And given the sunny, spring day that did not match my mood, I went with cool food. Egg salad and a smoothie.

When I am in the mood for egg salad, nothing else will do. When the kids were young, they would often wake up to egg salad on Easter morning. Their eggs that had been colored a week ago - were missing. I would tell them the Easter Bunny got hungry and made egg salad.
The egg salad is simple, done to taste and contains:
hard boiled eggs,
chopped green olives with pimento,
and dill weed. Fresh dill is nice but dry will do in a pinch. Salt and pepper to taste and done.
Then, I stared into my freezer and came up with:
Pomegranate-Berry Smoothie (Inspired by other blogs and I cannot find their recipes!)

Into the blender went: 6 oz, Pomegranate juice, 10 oz. frozen mixed berries, and a pint of aging fresh strawberries.

My daughter tasted the summer in it and was happy. I liked the colors, the ease, and the sense that even "blighted star days" can bring pleasure.

Concocting Easter-bunny salad. Drinking summer. It's good for what ails you.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Great Expectations

Maybe it's because I'm working on adapting an odd little story of Charles Dickens - The Magic Fishbone that I have Dickens on the brain. I could easily have called this post Oliver Twist or - after discovering there were no mini-muffin pans to be had and the lemon glaze had to be thrown out - Bleak House.
Yesterday was our April Cover Girl Dinner. My sister and I get together once a month to cook the Cover Recipe from Bon Appetit and other assorted goodies from the same magazine. Every other month we also do Tastes of Italia. The evening has become popular in our family. I even have my daughter's boyfriend asking us what the upcoming menu is. So you see - there are expectations involved. As it involves dinner - these expectations are great.
It was:
Crab Cakes
Grilled Chicken Salad with Tarragon Pesto
Lemon Cornmeal Cake with lemon glaze and blueberry sauce
I thanked heaven for the blueberry sauce because the lemon glaze became sour-sugary-little balls that refused to become a paste. Maybe I should have spiked it with rum and served them plain hoping the alcohol would dull all wonderment as to what they actually were. As it was, the "glaze" ("Ha!" she said) went into the garbage.
The crab cakes were to be baked in a mini-muffin pan. Without going into reasons why the mini-muffin pan did not happen (this is called avoiding a family "war"), out came my huge-honking muffin pas and the recipe dwarfed into the little muffin holes. Never mind. It's better than the filling winding up in the same place as the lemon glaze.

A tad skinnier than they might have been, they were scrumptious. A savory blend of tart sweetness that to speak the truth - was really a crab dip masquerading as a "cake."
Add a bit of wine and all kitchen splatter-disasters melted. All was eaten and eaten well.
8 oz cream cheese, room temperature
3/4 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese, divided
1 large egg
1/4 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon finely grated orange peel
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon peel
4 teaspoons plus 2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives, divided
1/4 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
Large pinch of cayenne pepper
6 oz fresh lump crabmeat, picked over, patted dry, coarsely shredded
1 cup panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted, plus more for pans
Fresh chives, cut into pieces
special equipment:
2 mini muffin pans (I highly recommend that!)
Using electric mixer, beat cream cheese in medium bowl until smooth. Add 1/4 cup Parmesan and egg; beat to blend. Beat in sour cream, citrus peels, 4 teaspoons chopped chives, coarse salt, and cayenne pepper. Fold in crabmeat.
DO AHEAD Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and chill.
Preheat oven to 350°F. Generously butter 2 mini muffin pans. Toss panko, 1/2 cup Parmesan, and 2 tablespoons chopped chives in small bowl. Drizzle 1/4 cup melted butter over, tossing with fork until evenly moistened. Press 1 rounded tablespoon panko mixture into bottom of each muffin cup, forming crust. Spoon 1 generous tablespoon crab mixture into each cup. Sprinkle rounded teaspoon of panko mixture over each (some may be left over).
Bake crab cakes until golden on top and set, about 30 minutes. Cool in pans 5 minutes. Run knife around each cake and gently lift out of pan.
DO AHEAD Can be made 2 hours ahead. Arrange on baking sheet; let stand at room temperature. Rewarm in 350°F oven 6 to 8 minutes.
Arrange crab cakes on serving platter; sprinkle with chives.
Bite sized or mammoth, skinny or fat - the recipe it worked. I do so love forgiving recipes. I am not sure at this point what Dickens would say. I am quite sure Shakespeare might chime in with "All's Well that Ends well."

When Life Hands You Lemons, Don't Make Lemon Glaze

Really. Make lemonade, lemon tarts, lemon mousse, or a lemon cake - just don't make lemon glaze. Our fourth Cover Girl Dinner started easily enough. I had done little prep and worked all morning doing drama games with little kids (it's akin to doing aerobics). Came home to find my sister reading the recipes, eating lunch and feeding the dog. (In other words: ready to cook!)

The dog doesn't desperately need feeding but she is fetching when she asks. My daughter and husband had just run a 5K. We were all in "layabout" mode.

The menu?
Crab Cakes
Grilled Chicken Salad with Tarragon Pesto
Lemon Cornbread Cake with aforementioned evil lemon glaze and blueberry sauce
Seemed simple enough. I would make the grilled chicken salad while Diane made the cornmeal cake (and scary lemon glaze). I started on the tarragon pesto. She took out a bowl and got to work. This is where two sisters seem to differ. I usually need two bowls for a cake. She seemed to be adding the liquids into the solids one at a time. I have some bossy tendencies so tried to remain quiet. ("Thinking: "Don't you want to mix the melted butter in the milk with the eggs and vanilla before you add it to the flour?") Remaining silent turned out to be one of my better ideas. The cake was wonderful.

The crab cakes were baked and seemed more like a crab dip encased in Panko.

It was covered with chives from my garden.
With creamy, savory and tart tastes mixed into one appetizer. A non-crab-cake person had one. And finished it. (A secret success!)

The Grilled Chicken Salad with tarragon pesto was quick and easy as promised in the April 2009 issue of Bon Appetit. We were at the table gathering to eat when I decided to take the photo - which is why it doesn't do justice to the dish. Everyone had their forks out. The tarragon paired well with the chicken, it was simple, all the greens were fresh (I have taken to buying the "live lettuce" at Kowalskis. It helps me live the dream of going outside my Tuscan villa as Frances Mayes does and digging up some baby lettuces just before dinner.) After playing "Think Fast," Bus Stop," "The Car," "the three w's" and "fractured fairy tales" for almost three hours, I was seduced by a Cover Recipe that said:

make pesto
slice radishes and cucumbers
toss lettuce with oil, lemon and tarragon
Grill chicken and place on top of salad

Easy-as-pie/cake/salad. That said, my sister had the cake in the oven and was laboring away with the glaze. Two ingredients: powdered sugar and a few drops of fresh lemon juice. How hard can that be?

As it turns out - really hard.

1 1/2 cups (packed) powdered sugar, sifted
2 tablespoons (or more) fresh lemon juice

We should have gotten worried at the "or more." There was a lot of "or more." About two lemons worth of "or more."

Combine powdered sugar and 2 tablespoons lemon juice in small bowl. Stir with spoon until smooth and paste-like, adding more lemon juice by 1/2 teaspoonfuls if glaze is too thick to spread. Set aside.

It never became a paste. It became little lemon-sugar balls determined to never, ever be spreadable on a warm cake. In desperation, we tried heating the concoction over the stove. (My not-so-good idea - but with eyes glazed, the glaze needed desperate measures.) That's when the rest of the sugar seized and refused to be morph into a paste. After tasting the most tart sugar confection ever devised by a human, we heaved it into the garbage can, decided the blueberry sauce would be just fine and never looked back.

And you know - it was. Lemon Cornmeal cake with blueberry sauce -a wonderful easy spring dessert. Hold the glaze.
Below is the recipe for the chicken. Make the pesto ahead of time and the dish comes together as you grill the chicken.
From Bon Appetit April 2009 Issue

1/4 cup (packed) fresh tarragon leaves plus 2 teaspoons chopped
1/4 cup (packed) fresh Italian parsley leaves
4 tablespoons pine nuts, divided
5 teaspoons fresh lemon juice, divided
2 teaspoons chopped shallot
6 tablespoons (or more) olive oil, divided, plus additional for brushing
4 boneless chicken breast halves with skin
4 1/2-inch-thick slices country-style French or sourdough bread
1 5-ounce package mixed baby greens
1 cup thinly sliced radishes (from 1 large bunch)
1 cup thinly sliced Japanese cucumbers (about 1 1/2)

Place 1/4 cup tarragon leaves, parsley, 2 tablespoons pine nuts, 1 teaspoon lemon juice, and shallot in mini processor; chop coarsely. With machine running, gradually add 3 tablespoons olive oil. Season pesto to taste with salt and pepper. Add more olive oil by teaspoonfuls to thin, if necessary.

Whisk 2 teaspoons chopped tarragon, remaining 4 teaspoons lemon juice, and 3 tablespoons oil in small bowl. Season dressing with and pepper.

Prepare barbecue (medium-high heat). Brush chicken breasts on both sides with oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Grill until grill marks form, skin is crisp, and chicken is cooked through, 7 to 8 minutes per side. Transfer to work surface; let rest 5 minutes. Using clean brush, brush both sides of bread with oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Grill until dark-brown grill marks appear on both sides, 2 to 3 minutes per side.

Place greens, radishes, and cucumbers in large bowl. Toss with dressing. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Divide salad among 4 plates.
Cut grilled chicken breasts crosswise into 1/3-inch-thick slices. Arrange 1 sliced chicken breast atop salad on each plate. Spoon tarragon pesto over chicken. Sprinkle remaining 2 tablespoons pine nuts over salads. Serve with grilled bread slices.
Serves 4. We served five with no leftovers. Drink wine, move on to dessert, hold the glaze and serve the sauce.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Best Laid Plans ...

Two years ago, our family began discussions about the four of us travelling to Italy.
One year ago, we started making plans.
Three months ago, we realized - it wasn't going to happen. The costs were far more than anticipated. The four of us are only free at the same time in August (when Italy is closed and on vacation.)
We got on the Internet and investigated Alaska, Vancouver, San Francisco and Seattle.
Ultimately we are landing in the:
"Land of Heart's Desire,
Where beauty has no ebb, decay, no flood,
But joy is wisdom, time an endless song,"

We are going to to Ireland! Land of Joyce, leprechauns, Yeats, Synge and fine cheddar. Where history is embroiled with myth, and faeries dance on Midsummer's Eve.
To celebrate finally making a decision, I devised an appetizer plate for today. Something simple:

Fresh apples, Irish Cheddar with a little Irish whiskey thrown in for what ails you, bread and currant scones.

Dinner was from Bon Appetit's May's 1996 (yes, I do tend to keep things and I'm glad I do) The Romance of Ireland.

Salmon with Lemon and Chive Cream Sauce
(and of course, I altered a few things)
4 servings
3/4 cup fish stock or bottled clam juice
1/3 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup finely chopped shallots (you strain them so you don't have to go crazy with the mincing)
1 T dry vermouth
1/2 cup whipping cream (I used 1/4 cup)
1 T fresh lemon juice
1 T chopped chives (I used about three! - I love them and they're sitting in my garden)
1 1-pound center cut skinless salmon fillet (I skinned it) about 1-1/2 inches thick
2 T butter (I did use the 2T but I didn't need it - 1T would have worked)
Ground nutmeg
Whole chives (optional) for garnish
Combine stock, wine, shallots and vermouth in small saucepan. Boil until liquid is reduced to 1/3 cup (about ten minutes - for me it was 8). Add cream; boil until sauce coats spoon. Add lemon juice. Strain sauce. Return to saucepan. Add chopped chives. Season with salt and pepper. The sauce came together in no time - it was very easy.
Cut salmon into scallops (I cut the fillet in half and then did about 2 inch pieces down the fillet; I found it easy to skin after it was cut.) Sprinkle salt and pepper on the salmon and then lightly sprinkle some nutmeg. (Easy to do if you grate it right over the salmon-scallops.) Melt butter in large non-stick skillet and add salmon. Cook until just opaque in center - about 30 seconds per side.
Pour sauce onto plates (or platter; I reserved some for on top of the salmon), place salmon in sauce and garnish with chives.
I was able to receive my first taste of the Irish Sea! (Even if they were Norwegian fillets!) It was grand. With some quick substitutions (chicken broth for fish stock) this would work on chicken. I also think it would be nice - as is - on halibut. My husband chimed in with the idea of adding a little Gorgonzola or blue cheese and putting it atop a steak. All in all a fun beginning for my Irish journey. As someone more literal than visual (you've seen my photos), going to Ireland is a playwright's dream.
Until then I shall dream:
" till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun."
And read my beloved Yeats.
P.S. Matthew signed a lease for a one bedroom in south Fargo - a little further from the U than wished for but the price was right, he did get a garage and he claims it has a gourmet kitchen!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Cooking from Blogs is as Good as it Gets

Our Fargo-apartment search continues today. Matthew is "running" to Fargo with the intention of signing a lease - somewhere. I guess the "somewhere" is always worrisome. He wants to know he has a place to live come July 1. I want to know he has (ahem) a safe, well-kept place to live. It's the hovering-helicopter-Mom in me and I don't apologize for it. I was handed the Gresio worry gene and I have stopped fighting it.
So to avoid further thoughts on apartments and the fact that people could only meet with him between 4 and 5 p.m. (how many apartments can you see - miles apart in the space of an hour?), my thoughts turn to food. I am a classic case of someone using food for every emotional reason that exists.
I was thinking of all the meals I have made this past winter that came from blogs. I thought I would do a brief wrap-up of the joys of cooking from blogs. I am thinking I will do it monthly now. I did not take many photos (I remain photo-challenged. This along with emotional eating and worry genes just serves up my flaws on a huge dinner platter - but there you are.) I will strive to do better. If anyone would like to join me during the third week in May writing of some wonderful meals created from other blogs, join in the fun. I will only post monthly (third week of the month so we can wrap up the month with some new recipes) so if inclined - by all means send your stuff along! It is not a commitment - just drop by if you wish. Coffee will be brewing and wine uncorked - depending (or not) on the time of day.
Heather's Orange Shrimp (from Diary of a Fanatic Foodie) was a hit. Nothing left. Not one piece of shrimp. I served it over rice and there was nary a morsel of grain to be found.

The addictive Orange/Walnut/Chocolate Chip Muffins from Food Blogga disappeared as well.

The Warm Spinach and Frisee Salad from Sara's Kitchen is the best I have ever had. As were her Scallops with Fennel Pollen - although I never did find the fennel pollen. It will need to be mail ordered.
I celebrated St. Patrick's Day with Five Star Foodie's Glazed Corned Beef and ended a dinner party with her Meyer Lemon Cream Crepes (people wept).
The Chicken Tortilla Soup at Cinnamon Spice and Everything Nice has been made twice in the last two weeks. I love the lime. I love the ease and I love that it gets scarfed up. I am eyeing her spaghetti and meatballs today - it is likely to start getting warmer and that dish disappears until fall. So, maybe the red sauce has its last hurrah today!
Elyse's Strawberry Bread (a Bread to Bring you Luck) at Confectionary Creations was the perfect introduction of spring food to my table. And I never turn down a little luck.
The Big Fat Chocolate Chip Cookies from Donna FFW's My Tasty Treasures was the first thing I cooked from that wonderful blog. I'm still cooking and the barbecue ribs on the same posting are great.
Cheese Tortellini with Walnut Pesto from Cooking in Cleveland was devoured. And it is so easy to make. I am currently watching her gardening process - she has so many clever ideas.
I was inspired by Cream Puffs in Venice to go back to my magazines and create my own Hummus. It did not disappoint. My kids had no idea I could make hummus! (After it finally made its way into the Midwest - I bought it instead of making it. It is so easy. I am back to making it.)
The easy, healthy and scrumptious Carrot Salad accompanied a simple pork dish last week. It is from a lovely posting of "sides" from Proud Italian Cook. There isn't a tastier way to get your vegetables.
And the so-mouth-watering-delicious Pizza Rustica from Finding La Dolce Vita found its way to the table for dinner, breakfast and lunch and has travelled to two colleges.
The open-faced Tuesdays Tacos from Gloria Chadwick's The Food and Flavors of San Antonio - had to be almost doubled the after I made them the first time. I love that all is fresh!
Head over to the Smoky Mountain Cafe for a tasty Rice Casserole. It warmed hearts and tummies at this dinner table. I used it as a side dish. My family used it as thier meal.
And finally, the Banana Chocolate Bread from Orangette has become a staple in this house. For many reasons - but the fact that you can stick it in the freezer and eat it frozen certainly gives it extra points.
Appetizers, desserts, breads, soups, salads - the world of food is literally at my fingertips and I'm enjoying every moment of it. Now if only I get news that Matthew's found an apartment .... just a clean one-bedroom. A garage would be nice .... near a bus line to the university ...

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

In Sweet Remembrance

April 21st is the birthday of my childhood best friend, Arlene. She was - effervescent, highly intelligent - a mixture of someone who always did what was right peppered with a huge ability to thoroughly enjoy the moment. If it wasn't for her - I would never have learned to dance the Mashed Potatoes. She was also the daughter of Holocaust survivors. She handed me The Diary of Anne Frank to read one summer - at a time when it was not required reading the schools. We were barely ten. I learned first-hand about a dark period in human history through her. I also learned that there was a world of music outside of my beloved Broadway shows, that Bobby Rydell was cute and that the show American Bandstand was how you learned to dance.

We visited each others' religions. I was with her on Purim, Passover and Hannukah. She spent Christmases and Easters with me. As we aged (13 years old!), I fasted with her on Yom Kippur. Because it seemed to cruel to eat in front of her. When we announced we wanted to visit each others religious services, her mother called my mother on the phone. She told my mother, "Imagine if everyone did this. How wonderful it would be. There would be no more hate."
We didn't set out to change the world - we just wanted a deeper understanding of each other. As it happened, this deeper understanding changed my life in ways I did not recognize until adulthood. I did go to her Saturday Children's service at her Synagogue. I was honored by being permitted to bring out the Torah for their reading. She came to mass with me. I was later criticized by a nun for bringing someone who did not kneel at the appropriate place and time. I explained she was Jewish and just visiting. The nun mentioned I was better off hanging out with Catholics. And that's another story.

The sweet smiling youngster is Arlene. The gangly, scowling one - is me. I think I didn't want to show off my braces! It was Junior High Graduation. Jamaica High School lay ahead - a mammoth high school of 4,500 students. The time of finding each other in the hallways would be gone. She would soon move to Jamaica Estates. Walks together to and from school would cease. Life gives you forks, detours, and curved roads. When you reach your destination, you expect it to be as it was. And it never can be.

Today I remember - many, many meals shared. Birthdays, holidays, everydays.

Everyone tragically lost on 9/11 had a story. Loved ones. People they impacted. When I read Diary of Anne Frank, I was devastated by how many broken hearts there were. When I wrote By Candlelight to honor our friendship, I wanted to give the gift of Arlene to the world. Once upon a time, as "the new girl" in 4th Grade, she befriended me. She walked me home. She invited me to her home. She reached out. We did eventually go our separate ways. She married straight after college and I went into my odd little path of theatre.
There are so many stories, so much laughter, so much learning from those early years. Eating in a kosher home - meant no milk with the meat. Oh! Did I love to eat at her house! They had black-raspberry soda with every supper. After helping myself to ice cream at her home, I reached into the silverware drawer and plunged a spoon into the treat. Eyes widened. It was a meat spoon. "That's all right," they said. "we'll bury it in the ground for two weeks to purify it." I learned a lot.
Yes - this is a food blog - but a food blog dedicated to how enriching it is to break bread with others.

We lost touch. And in planning a trip to NYC, I decided to try and find her. It was March 2002, six months after 9/11. I was too late. I never did get to thank her for what she brought into my life. I always hope she knew.
I am grateful for all those meals shared at her home. The gifts of new holidays, new perspectives, new foods and new understandings. This is in sweet remembrance for all she gave me. Happy Birthday, Arlene.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Aren't we Lucky to be Italian?

That statement was announced by my Uncle Rocky every Sunday. Sunday's were for visiting. Italian pastries mixed with crumb cakes. The NY Times and the Long Island Press were in pieces all over the home. The coffee was on - both black and brown. We were gathered at "some" home and when it was time to take our leave, a booming voice would call out: "Aren't we lucky to be Italian! Some people are going home to a roast. We are going home to pasta!" That would be Rocky Gresio - one of my mother's older brothers.

Yesterday was Sunday. A low-key day. Sundays are not just for visiting anymore. Sports games are scheduled, stores are opened and there are a myriad of choices for your time. But it is still "Pasta Day!"

And I had a half-pound of shrimp to use up and some leftover vegetables from salads, so here we go:
This recipe begs for substitutions and amounts according to taste. (So ... maybe it's not a recipe?)
olive oil - about 1/8 cup - maybe a little more as you want to later coat all the pasta
garlic - a few cloves - minced
10-15 grape tomatoes sliced in half (any tomatoes will do)
sliced black olives - whatever amount you like
1/2 pound shrimp
one pound rigatoni (any tubular pasta)
feta cheese - about 1/2 cup crumbled
fresh Italian parsley - about 1/4 cup chopped
Bring a pot of water to boil. Cook pasta according to package directions. Reserve 1/2 cup before draining.
Saute garlic, tomatoes and olives in the olive oil. Add shrimp. Saute for 3-5 minutes - until shrimp turns pink. Set aside. Drain pasta and add to pot with shrimp and vegetables. Coat. Add a bit of pasta water if the mixture seems dry. Put on platter and add feta cheese and chopped parsley. Serve. Uncle Rocky would be pleased.
Meanwhile, the apartment hunting in Fargo continues. The pricey one we thought Matthew might take is even pricier than we thought. Matthew has about four hours to find an apartment in Fargo on Wednesday afternoon. Stay tuned. Meanwhile, I'm eating pasta. It lowers stress.

Thursday, April 16, 2009


Famiglia: We are blessed. My children have grown up with four grandparents who live twenty minutes away. Four grandparents who raised their children and can just give their grandchildren unconditional love in the way of chocolates, Easter Wheat Pie and affirmations that everything they say is of the upmost importance to them.
Both my husband and I remember two of our grandparents. The fact that my children will always know who their grandparents are is a great joy. I know how lucky we all are. My husband and I are in our fifties. We are - ageing. Our parents also are. They are battling challenges. My father has battled something for three years and is still carrying on the fight. This Easter he couldn't be in great crowds. And my husband's lovely family - is a great crowd. Having not hosted a Haas family celebration in three years, I decided it was time. The downside being - my father could not come. So, the day before Easter, my kids and I went over to Woodbury to color Easter eggs and I brought them a sampling of our appetizers and desserts. My father was so sweet - while we were coloring Easter eggs, he kept peeking under the wrapings to see what goodies were on the platter.
And even though my husband's family is not Italian, I could not have an Easter without an antipasti platter. And - because there are so many of them - I wanted to divide the goodies so the platters could be accessible to more hands. I went Italian - but not extremely Italian. They are German/English Midwesterners. There are some things they don't understand! But even when they don't understand - they are appreciative.
This is what my parents got a platter of:

Sicilian olives, pepperdew, prosciutto, salame, provolone, asiago, mushrooms marinated in lemon, oil and herbs, tomatoes marinated in a champagne vinaigrette, fresh mozzarella marinated in olive oil and Italian herbs. If I was serving a roomful of Italians - I might have been more adventuresome. But I wanted it eaten up - that's my role as cook - to please my guests. As it turns out, it was gobbled up both here and in Woodbury.
Today - the Thursday after Easter, I was craving something - not Italian. And found it on Gloria Chadwick's site - The Foods and Flavors of San Antonio. We had some mighty fine tacos. And they, too disappeared. I am off to Fargo for the weekend (yes, I saw the movie). My son is going to graduate school at North Dakota State University and we are scoping out apartments. Another stage in our life. Another milestone in our famiglia.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Seek and Ye Shall Find

This is what my daughter covets. We call it "Pizza di Grane." Others call it "Pastiera di Grano" - probably more correct - my grandmother spoke an odd dialect. My daughter is used to hiding sweets. She has a brother that forages and will demolish all treats in one evening. When he's home for the weekend, her treats are hidden in her room - not my favorite spot for them. He seeks - but he may not search her closet.
Her father (my husband) will also demolish treats - but he is not a good seeker. If you put something behind the milk - it is safe. He will never move the milk. You just don't want anything in plain sight.
But the Pizza di Grane is for the family - and I am as guilty as any of cutting sliver after sliver (really - just "credit-card" slices) until half the pie is gone. There are many recipes for this - my mother's is a tad on the sweet side. My Aunt Fay's was a bit more wheat-like. It doesn't matter - it only comes once a year and we enjoy it. By the time the photo was taken - most of it had been demolished. (Pies were not made to be cut into credit-card slivers.)
Our family recipe is here. Finding La Dolce Vita's recipe is here. There are others and I'd be happy to post links. Otherwise: "seek and ye shall find."

Monday, April 13, 2009

'twas the day after Easter ...

... and I'm still recovering. The Haas tornado whipped through the home in the afternoon and we certainly made merry. Now, today - too many chocolate eggs and cannolis later - I feel a biscotti and a cafe are in order - only the biscottis are gone. I sent Easter sweets - including three types of dessert up to Collegeville - with my son today. This is to ensure that I do not make too many trips to the refrigerator this week.

Now, my mother's Wheat Pie is another story. The Pizza du Grane remains in the fridge - carefully hidden by Kirsten. It is my daughter's favorite dessert and she guards it as a She-Bear guards her cub. It somehow did not make it to the dessert buffet table yesterday! In fact, when my husband peeked into the fridge yesterday and exclaimed, "Oh no - we forgot to put out the Easter Wheat Pie" and indeed - started to actually take it out - my daughter rushed into the kitchen, grabbed the pie from his hands and carefully sneaked it back in- and covered with "stuff." More on that tomorrow. Happily, there were at least 8 desserts on the table. It was not missed. Really.

As I bemoan the loss of my biscottis which disappeared quickly, I am cheered by the knowledge that I have the recipe and the ingredients! And now you will, too.

From: Sweet Sicily: A Story of an Island and Her Pastries by Victoria Granof
8 T unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
2 egg yolks
1/2 cup milk
Grated zest of 1 lemon
2-1/2 cup flour
2 t baking powder
3/4 cup sesame seeds

In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar together until just combined. Beat in the yolks, milk and zest. (The mixture will seem curdled and that is fine) Sift the flour with the baking powder and stir into the butter mixture. Mix until the dough comes together in ball. Cover and refrigerate for at least one hour or up to 1 day (being a lazybones I always refrigerate overnight). It makes the dough easier to handle.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Grease two large baking sheets.

Ms. Granof has you rinse the sesame seeds in a fine mesh strainer and dry. I did not do that. I did turn them out in a shallow baking pan.

Divide dough into eight equal parts. Shape each one into a ball and then roll each ball with the palm of your hands on a lightly floured ball into a rope about 8 inches long. With a sharp knife, cut each rope into 4 pieces. Roll each piece in the sesame seeds and place 2 inches apart on the greased baking sheet. (I needed to brush them with milk so that the sesame seeds would adhere.)

Bake for 20-25 minutes until browned. Let cool for five minutes and then place on baking racks.

I probably ate 2 piping hot! Sweet Sicily is a sumptuous book - containing mouth-watering photos and some history behind each of the pastries and the various cultures that have influenced Sicilian desserts. I may need to write a play about a dessert. And it won't be a drama! Happy Easter Monday, all!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Happy Easter

Wishing all of you the happiest of Easters. Hope the Easter Bunny comes by to sweeten your day!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Spring Hopes Eternal

With the sad news from Italy and other worldwide events that make you reflect, I am reminded of gratitude. In the last few weeks, I have felt as if I dwelled in a land that lost their spring. So instead of sighing continuously about it, I decided it was time to search for it.

I cleared a few leaves and under a Norwegian maple - I found the tips of a tulip breaking ground.

It nourishes the soul.

My garden had two inches of chives leaning towards the sun.

It will nourish our bodies.

And the patio brings our first dandelion of the season.

A touch of reality.
Inside the home, my tomatoes, basil and arugula thrive.

Leaving me with the knowledge that this summer, I will have a generous Caperese salad.

Small harbingers that show me that Spring is not lost. And I am grateful for what I have.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Magical Cake

Fairy tales need a magical occurrence. More and more, I wonder why these occurrences are not related to food. Last night, I had 5 friends over dinner. A few directors, designers, and other assorted theatricals. We spoke of casting Lakeshore Players Ten-Minute Play Festival, a set design for Pinocchio, the continuing snow, visiting opossums and whatever clicked into our brains. And so the conversation remained - electric currents that buzzed about the arts, the news, science and the weather. The baked brie smothered in porcinis and shiitakes that spent the day swimming in wine helped keep conversation flowing. The fresh baby lettuce was consumed and our brains stayed on track. Even though the ravioli called for way too much burnt butter and pignoli nuts (note to self: alter recipe), we touched on owning cats, raising children, cycling, playwrighting and expectations in life. Even the Pinot Grigio, Newcastle Ale and Pellegrino had no influence on the ebb and flow of conversation.
And then I brought out Molly Winzeberg's "Winning Hearts and Mind" chocolate cake. She knows from where she speaks. Part torte, part fudge, part brownie and part magic, conversation ceased. One hearty soul had a second piece. Dollops of cream made it's way around the table. Thicker than a mousse, lighter than a cake, more soul-satisfying than a piece of artisan chocolate, hearts and mind were won. And the conversation took an interesting turn. After consuming the cake, we discussed Facebook. Seven people over the age of forty (who are all "member friends") conversing about the innuendo involved if you send someone "a poke." One slice of a chocolate-cloud of a pie and our brains switched from somewhat intelligent to the inane.
For the finale, all gathered around the stairs to watch "Pippin the Kitten" fly through railings playing with a stuffed mouse. For twenty minutes. The chocolate cake had worked its magic and reduced seven adults to an an altered state of complete silliness. The cake couldn't be easier. It's foolproof. And ending a dinner party in the silly-zone is like taking a mini-vacation from everyday life.
Molly's recipe is here. Take the journey. It's worth the calories.

Friday, April 3, 2009

When Simple is Just Enough - Aunt Fay's Mushrooms

Aunt Fay was fiercely devoted to her home. According to Aunt Fay, there were two careers open for women: teacher and nurse. In both cases, these were careers that gave you enough flexibility to keep a proper home and raise a family. Then the 60's and 70's came and the world whirled. Teen adolescents could dream of being anything. But Aunt Fay was adamant. You want work that allows for family. Aunt Fay claimed to want the simple life and I believe she did. She never veered from her childhood home. She visited Italy because her husband's family still lived there. But she was never going to winter in Vegas or Florida or Arizona. She liked being home. I was touched when she made the trip to Minnesota for my wedding. (Pictured below: Aunt Fay in pink, then that force of nature - my Aunt Rose and then my Aunt Annette.) Aunt Fay was not a traveller.

When I visited New York with husband and kids in tow, there were appetizers, dinner, wine and she invited the family for a huge dinner so I could see everyone at once. When I awoke in the morning, she had already done her 30 minutes on the bicycle in the basement, scrubbed the floors on her hands and knees and had the laundry going. And she was in her 80's! She was prepared with brown coffee or black and some morning biscuits were always nearby.

Nobody could accuse her of being "easy going." She was capable of holding a leg-of-lamb (perfectly cooked) over the garbage can - threatening to throw away Easter dinner because someone was late and the lamb was now too well done to serve.

When, my family had arranged to go down the block to visit Aunt Rose for a night, Aunt Fay wouldn't hear of it. We had already dirtied two sets of sheets. Did it make sense to go two blocks away and dirty two more sets?

Growing up, when she uttered the exclamation heard in many Italian families, "If you do that again, I'll cut your heart out!" - you believed her. And someday, I will relate the Easter "mutton" story.

It is a wonder then that she supported my career choice of "actress" and never did refer to it as "one step off of the street." She was hugely indignant when she found out an actress in her favorite soap opera who was playing an Italian woman - wasn't Italian! She insisted I go straight to the casting director and offer them my services because at least I was Italian! She was sure the other actress would be instantly fired and they would recast with me.

That's the support you get in an Italian family. We may (and do!) war at each other and get our noses out of joint, hold a leg of lamb over the garbage pail, throw out flowers and complain about dirty sheets, but when it comes time for the world to take a peek at us - we present a united front.

Last New Years when I was in New York with my family, my cousin made some stuffed mushrooms - Aunt Fay's recipe. My daughter - who is adept at picking mushrooms out of appetizers, soups, salads, etc. had ten!

They're not gorgeous and they're really basic - simple - but most importantly they're really, really tasty.

I asked my cousin for the recipe - and I got the typical answer: onions, breadcrumbs, olive oil, mushrooms - do it to taste. And mince the onion really fine (mine are never as fine as Aunt Fay's) - you can see some gawky strips sticking up this way and that - they are my errant, dishevelled mushrooms - but they always get eaten. The lamb may hover close to a garbage can. The mushrooms never do.

So without further ado: a typical Italian recipe:

Wipe some button mushrooms with a paper towel. Take out the stems. Chop "some" of them and put in a bowl. Add "some" bread crumbs. Add "some" minced onion - chopped very, very, very, very, fine. Ignore my picture and chop them finer. Add "some" oil - just moisten. Stuff the mushrooms. Bake in 350-400 F until they are cooked. (You'll know when they're cooked. You have to - because that's all the directions I ever had.) And you know what - you do know.

I've done sausage stuffed mushrooms. Sometimes I add cheese, garlic, Italian parsley. I change at whim. But there are times when you just want the vegetable, some bread and some oil - the simple stuff. And people gravitate to it. I'll make them for my family on a snowy Sunday - just because. Or I'll turn out a whole tray at a family gathering. I've never had to throw one out. Simple always works.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

April is the Cruelest Month

April Fool's?

No, I am afraid this is the view White Bear Lake woke up to this morning. It would be pretty - if it was the Winter Holiday Season. But there are no carols dreaming of a White Easter. I decided the snowy-sleety-in-your-face-white-stuff was not conducive to planting (how bright I am) but as an enforced indoor day, I should be able to get a lot of writing and cooking done.

The writing came in fits and starts. Pippin is still teething. But I did manage a credible version of The Bread, the Necklace and the Dove. Mary Ann Esposito has a lovely story of why Dove Bread is made every Easter in Italy. It is in her Ciao Italia cookbook - a cookbook I have mauled with use. I took some of that story and combined it with Lynne Rossetto Kasper's story of the fury that ensued when the Academy of Italian Cooking in Bologna announced an "official" Ragu recipe that did not include nutmeg! Newspaper editorials carried denouncements and all over Bologna, people sat in piazzas, cafes and probably bars - hotly debating the "official" recipe. She talks about it in The Splendid Table and I quickly tuned into the passion about food. In the USA, it is genuinely thought that one must avoid talk about religion and politics if you want gentle diner conversation. (We ignore those rules.) But it seems in Italy, one must be careful about talking of food! But how can you not speak of food at the dinner table?
I am now finding inspiration for my plays from cookbooks! I wonder if that means I can deduct their purchase from my taxes? So, yesterday was spent removing Pippin's teeth from my computer, sighing at the snow, cooking "sausage braised in wine with penne" and finishing The Bread, the Bracelet and the Dove. The play is geared to middle-school performers. It was once part of Ciao Cinderella ( re-telling of the Italian Cinderella -La Cenerentola - based on Rossini's opera.) As I changed, added, adapted, deleted, I had a zippingly-sweet memory of the eleven-
year old actor who played the emotional baker - Dario. He nailed it. Perfectly.
"(TANEO moves to the BAKER. SIGNOR DARIO meets him part way and is literally weeping over the bread.)

Why, Signor Dario! Why do you weep? Did something happen to the bread?

Oh! The bread, Taneo! The bread!

Did it fall down?

It rose! And it rose again! It was as high as the two towers of Bologna! Never has a bread risen to such greatness in my oven! It is a work of art! Behold!

(DARIO uncovers the bread. It is indeed “magnifico!”)

DARIO (cont’d)
It should be painted gold and put in a Museum for all to see. Such bread!


Take it to the Academy of Cooking! All of Bologna should know of such bread!

It will be on Signora Gisella’s table tonight. There will be nothing left but crumbs.

I know.

My Mistress will pay you on Monday.

No! No payment! It was an honor to bake this bread. It is my present to her.

Grazie, Signor.

Now. I must prepare for the “other one.” For Serafina and her lopsided creations. It is not a pretty sight. Her bread – is not good enough for the pigeons. Scusi."
Happily, in-between writing and saving the computer from sharp-kitten-teeth, I was also able to cook at the same time. The recipe is from Lynne Rossetto Kasper's The Splendid Table. See? I also cook from my cookbooks.

WINE BRAISED SAUSAGE WITH PENNE (Ms. Rossetto-Kasper used homemade Gramigna)
1 to 1-1/2 lbs mild Italian sausage (preferably without fennel) sliced into 1/2 inch rounds (here we go: I used bulk sausage so it was crumbled)
2 T extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, minced
6 T Italian parsley, minced
3T minced carrot (I used more)
1 large garlic clove, minced (I used 3)
3 large sage leaves (I used 6)
Generous pinch ground cloves
1 T imported Italian tomato paste (I used 2 and it was not imported - I don't think!)
1 cup dry white wine (sounds right!)
1 pound vine-ripened tomatoes peeled and chopped or 14-16 oz can of tomatoes with their juices (You see the photo above. There are no vine-ripened tomatoes - I used canned)
16 oz Pasta - any tubular would do.
1 to 1-1/2 cups freshly grated Parmiggiano-Reggiano cheese
For the pasta - you know the drill. Cook according to package instructions or what you will.
In a large, heavy skillet slowly saute the sausage over medium-medium low heat for about 15 minutes. (Until the fat is released and the pieces are browned.) Turn the pieces often. When browned, remove sausage to another plate. Pour out all but 1 T of the drippings. Add the olive oil to the skillet over medium heat. Stir in the onion, parsley and carrot. Cook ten minutes (till golden) - taking care not to burn crusty brown bits at bottom of pot - you want them in your sauce.
Return the sausage and add the garlic and sage and cook about 2 minutes. Add the cloves, tomato paste and half the wine. Bring to a gentle bubble, scraping up the brown bits you didn't burn from the bottom of the pan. Cook about 8 minutes - until all the wine is evaporated. Add the remaining wine and simmer very, very gently until the sauce has a rich, deep aroma - about ten minutes.
The sauce can keep for awhile. When you are ready to serve the pasta, bring the sauce back to a gentle simmer and stir in the tomatoes. Let it bubble about five minutes - until thickened. Toss the sauce with the pasta and about 1/3 of the cheese. Serve.
I did not add the cheese - I always let each individual do their own. But I had plenty on hand and it was served hot so everyone's desired amount of cheese melted blissfully into the pasta. Just the way I wish the snow would melt happily into the ground. Serves 6-8 as a main course. (6 in my home.) Chin-chin.