Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Spaghetti All'Amatriciana - January's Cover Girl Dinner

On June 1, 1907, a 20-year-old young woman was left at Battery Park. It was damp and and an all-time low temperature of 28 degrees F would be posted for that late spring evening. Possibly illiterate, speaking no English and in peasant garb, she had few possessions. She clutched a piece of paper in her hand that said: "Francesco Laviano, 30 Thompson Street." Francesco did not meet her at Ellis island. The powers-that-be sent her alone into Manhattan. She stopped a couple and showed them the address in her hand. "Scusi...." They pointed at her and laughed and went on their merry way. So began my grandmother's first day in America.
After an emotional week of digging through records, arguing about the age of my grandmother and nagging my mother, I decided that an exact age wasn't important. What was and is important is the humanity in my heritage - in your heritage. What shaped us. What continues to be with us.
Why I decided on the spur of the moment to cook the "Cover Girl Dinner" at the end of the week is beyond me. Perhaps because the cover recipe for Bon Appetit was spaghetti and meatballs in a spicy, smoky tomato sauce. The kind of sauce that my family has been making for generations. My thru-line.

I'll start with the dessert - because it didn't come out. In-between combining the 47 ingredients needed for the meatballs (yes, I exaggerate - but just a tad), I made a ricotta pound cake. Simple and not too heavy. It fell. In the middle. Around the time I was browning 72 meatballs (and that is no exaggeration), I watched my ricotta pound cake cave in. I combined some blueberries I had frozen last July with a little sugar and dumped it over the cave-in spot. I then moved it so I wouldn't have to look at it. I knew I would serve it.
Meanwhile, I am pureeing tomatoes, browning meatballs, adding a little bit of garlic and a touch of marjoran. I am fierce. I am my grandmother - only five inches taller. Three hours later, I am tired. Appetizers would be thrown together. These biscuits are at my grocers. Raisins, almonds and a spicy cracker base - perfect for a tangy cheese.

I mindlessly eat a couple as I make a small cheese torte.

Try them - they are sweet, spicy, tangy, chewy, crispy delectables.

I combined leftover goat cheese with leftover mascarpone (oh how I threw this dinner together). I put half into a small ramekin, topped it with some olive tapenade and covered it with the other half of the cheese. And put it into the fridge to set.

I threw together some lettuces, toasted some pecans, sauteed a pear and combined it all. A little bit of Minnesota's own Northern Lights blue cheese was crumbled on top for the salad. Grandma and Grandpa liked their fruits and cheeses. A tbl of white balsamic with a few tbls of olive oil and the salad was set.
One hour later, the cheese was served and demolished. Cracker bag lays empty. Salad's on the table being a temptress and the dishes of spaghetti went out.

The 47-ingredient meatball was worth the time, the forming, the browning, the simmering. Grandma smiled. Ladies and gentleman, I bring you Bon Appetit's Spaghetti All'Amatriciana. Find the recipe here. It was worth every stir.

Spicy without being instrusive, smoky, tomato-sweet, herb-infused meatballs. Harmony. On the plate and on your palette. Dancing in synch.

I'm digging out a forkful for you. Trust me, after this dish, you wouldn't care what the ricotta pound cake looked like.
Last year's New Year's resolution was to make the cover recipe of Bon Appeit each month - no matter what. It was such a success, it continues. I do not know if I should stick with Bon Appetit only. Add a new magazine or add a host of magazines? What do you think?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Shaking my brain with Grandma, clams and an award

I'm researching. And writing. The thing is I'm supposed to be researching and writing The Grimms Brothers Unplugged which is slated for production at Lakeshore Players in July 2010. And I am. Sort of. I've read over 300 tales, made a cast list, did the opening, changed my mind as to how and why I would compile the tales. Changed the theme from growing up to the ways and means of enchantment. And then.... this....

Grandma Gresio. She has been gone since I was 11. She rarely spoke of Italy and I am shaking my brain every which way to figure her out. To figure me out. We found Grandpa Gresio's manifest through the Ellis Island site fifteen years ago. Why could we not find Grandma's? Then a discovery: her name was not Theresa - but Maria Theresa. I typed in her birthdate, her hometown of Stigliano and her name - and I was guided right to it.
Of course there are the dissenters. "It can't be her," said one cousin. "It says she was twenty when she was landed. My mother always said she was nineteen." (Nevermind that my mother told me she was sixteen.)
"Laviano is a very common name. It may not be her. And I don't think her name was Maria."
Well, it's Maria on her marriage license. Do you know how hard those manifests are to read? It has her hometown, height, her destination (Uncle Francesco - her brother) and Francesco's correct address. Yes. I think it's her.
There is the tale of Francesco never showing up. And Grandma (illiterate and speaking only Italian) wandering around downtown with the address (why they let her off Ellis Island, we'll never know) asking people to direct her. Many people made fun of her. That upsets my mother to this day. I can only imagine Grandma telling the story with humiliation which is why something that happened in 1907 strikes such an emotional chord with my mother today. I can also gather from my mother's emotion - that Grandma must have been a proud woman. Not arrogant - but self-respecting. Grandma must have told that story with tremors if it still upsets my mother. A woman from an impoverished town, peasant stock (Francesco's occupation was listed as "peasant."), who cannot read or write can still feel her worth.
Fast forward nine hours later. I've been on the computer all day and calling my mother. The family will be home soon. I scour the fridge for leftovers. I think - I should make something nice for my family. Grandma revered family. It's too late. But it's not too late for an appetizer. I run to the store, pick up a pound of clams and act like I've been thinking of their welfare all day.

It was a nice surprise. No frowns occurred when I warmed Monday's soup. There were suspicions as to why I made something that I usually reserve for special occasions. But actually if you think about it - today was pretty special.

Clams with Garlic-Butter Sauce - serves 3-4 as an appetizer
1 lb clams
6 tbl butter (I used Earth Balance to offset the buttery Julia Child syndrome)
4 tsp minced garlic (I do confess to using the jarred - I was in a hurry)
6 tbl fresh sliced basil

Clams with Garlic-Butter Sauce Preparation
Soak clams for ten minutes in salted water to help get rid of impurities. Scrub them well. Melt your butter and garlic. When all is melted and garlic starts to cook, add the clams. Cover and simmer for 5-10 minutes (until the clams open). Discard any clams that don't open. Put clams on plate, pour butter-garlic sauce over them and scatter basil on top of sauce and clams. Serve with crusty bread to soak up this wonderful creamy, smooth briny sauce.

Cover and simmer.

Uncover and find sea-filled deliciousness.

A little basil never hurts anything.

My easy New Year's Eve appetizer allowed me to reheat soup for dinner.

And after dinner, I went on to my computer to find this from Gera at Sweets Foods.

If you do not know Gera' Sweets Foods Blog - you should. He brings a ton of research weekly - with gatherings of blogs and why they might interest you. And of course there are delectables - sweet and savory to tempt and entice you. Thank-you so much Gera for thinking of me.
In keeping with the "sweet friendship," I am supposed to post the award (happily done), mention ten things that make me happy and pass this on to ten people who brighten my day.
With gratitude, I can attest that there are many more than ten things that make me happy and many more than ten people who brighten my day. How lucky am I.
10 Things:
family, friends, feeding people, writing, the first crocus, mornings (and I'm a night person! go figure), reading, my four-legged loved ones, my personal inner life, the ability to pay-it-forward.
In keeping with paying-it-forward and love of feeding people - I want to give a big shout-out to the 20and 30-somethings out there who - because of social networking and texting, an unprecedented amount of money for Haiti was raised in a short amount of time. The idea of texting a donation through your cell phone to the Red Cross makes it so easy to give. And the main cell phone companies have waived all their fees and have pledged to give 100% of the donations to their intended charity. With the aftershocks, the need remains great and will continue. Food for thought. And love.
Today, I shall pass the award to:
Stirring the Pot - for culinary obsessions and "throwdowns"
My Little Space - in honor of her 200th post and delectables
Five Star Foodie - for taking ingredients and creating art
The Ungourmet - whose name belies her scrumptious creations
Figtree Appetizers - whose recipes I cook again and again
I Love Flavour Me - I don't know what I love more - her adventures or her food! Both, I guess
My Food and Life Encounters - whose spirit of love shines through every post
Lynda's Recipe Box - for her combining of traditional beloved recipes with the new
Chow and Chatter - for delivering nourishment in a most delicious manner
Just Joyce - for doing all with heart and love
I shall return to the ship's manifests. Call my mother yet again and wonder why I have been avidly searching for Grandma for many decades. To learn more about her? To learn more about me? To write? To acknowledge the debt? More food for thought.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Celebrating with Savory Jazzed-up Italian Quinoa Cake

I have fallen in love with quinoa. I must give a nod to Chocolate and Zucchini's Daily Adventures in a Parisian Kitchen which inspired this recipe. I lightened it up - no cream, reduced the bacon slices to from 6 to 2 and changed some of the additions. But the basic cake recipe is Clotilde Dusoulier's. She inspired me to play with the additions and changes.
It's been a nice mellow week. Grains and vegetables (with a little bacon) comforts. I am part of the "pajama brigade" (Clotilde's term) for the winter. My work is at home and I am savoring it - even if working for yourself means you work 12 hours per day.
Scheme Space ( my play about cyber-bullying) has been picked up by a small outfit - YouthPLAYS. I know the work of the playwrights involved and it is a good fit.
And then Frigidaire contacted me and asked about sending a recipe for their site. As I am a woman of "a certain age," I know them well. Frigidaire was founded in 1916 and is the originator of the first electric self-contained refrigerator, home food freezer, and room air conditioner. The company prides itself on offering customers exceptional and affordable home appliances and products.
For those we know me, I am not a huge marketer of my blog. I comment sincerely on blogs I cook from, am a member of Food buzz and leave it at that. My work is playwrighting so I am not looking for that "cookbook" contract. So, of course I am honored when someone seeks me out. ("Really? Are you sure you want me?") I sent them my tortoni recipe for their recipe page because I thought it was timeless and vintage as they are.
Quinoa cake. A savory, delectable mixture of grains, bacon, mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes... are you comforted yet? The perfect way to celebrate a warming, winter week. An ancient South American grain that used to be found only in health food stores (yes, it's that good for you) is a perfect protein and adaptable to most cuisines. And if you are meatless, simply omit the bacon.
Savory Jazzed-up Italian Quinoa Cake
1 12 oz box Quinoa
1 tsp + 1 tbls extra-virgin olive oil
1 large shallot minced
8-16 oz of your favorite mushrooms (I plumped up and added some dry porcinis)
*optional: 2 slices bacon, crumbled
1 small jar sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil (you can use dried and soak them for 30 minutes)
1 small bunch fresh basil - sliced
1/2 cup freshly shredded Parmesan
3 eggs
1/4 cup milk (I used 2%)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Oil a 9-inch spring form cake pan (see, it really is a cake). Cook your quinoa according to package directions and set aside. If using, cook your bacon.

Saute your shallot in either 1 tsp of bacon grease or (as I did) 1 tsp olive oil till soft. (2-3 minutes)

Add your mushrooms and drizzle 1 tbs on top. Saute till soft and mushrooms have rendered their juices. (5 minutes)

Add your sun-dried tomatoes

Saute till combined - about 1 minute.

Add your sliced basil and just combine. Beat your eggs and milk together and mix thoroughly with quinoa. Add your mushroom mixture.

Crumple your bacon on top.

Add your Parmesan.

Mix well.

Pour into prepared pan. If desired (I desire) sprinkle with more Parmesan. Cook about 35 minutes till top and edges are brown.

Like this.

And this.

Serve while warm. If making ahead of time, simply cover and store in fridge. Cook for 10-15 minutes in 350 degree F oven to rewarm. Could be a main dish with a salad. A light lunch. A buffet item. In fact - it could be whatever you want it to be. Next week, I am making this with turkey sausage, rapini and sage. And later with goat cheese, thyme and tomatoes. And the beat goes on. Mangiamo.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Pride, Prejudice and Pace Picante Sauce

First, this really is a blog about Pace Picante sauce. Truly. As a member of the Tastemaker Program in Foodbuzz, I do occasionally get some delectables in the mail. I then devise a recipe.
And the sauce does look enticing, does it not?
But then there's some other news.

Pride and Prejudice has been published by Eldridge Plays and Musicals and is on their website! Why the excitement? It took me three years to adapt it. Six months to fix it and then three months to edit it. You'd think since Jane Austen already wrote the book, adapting it would be a cinch. Well, no. There's the matter of fifty locales which a film can do - but theatre does not look kindly on constant set changes. Producers much prefer a set of three walls, a table and two chairs. If they're feeling charitable, they may allow a couch. Info on the play is here.
But it's done! Adapted! Published! And my dream of making this wonderful accessible for high schools to do is a reality. Of course, now I need to wait and see if any high schools actually do it.... so back to Pace Picante Sauce - and how does one make it Italian?

There's my stand-by - good old Mascarpone cheese. Spray a 9-inch pie plate and shmear Mascarpone (or cream cheese) on the bottom.

Empty your jar of Pace Picante Sauce on top of it.
Add 1 cup of shredded cheddar cheese, 1-1/2 cups of mozzarella cheese or a blend of shredded Italian cheeses.

Cover with sliced black olives...

or sliced scallions ....

... or both.
Cover with plastic wrap and microwave on high for 5-6 minutes.

Don't burn yourself as you unwrap the dip.

And dig in. Just a touch Italian and more than a touch hearty enough for the football fans in your home.


Wednesday, January 6, 2010


Epiphany. The last celebration of the Christmas season in Italy. Defined as " a Christian festival commemorating the manifestation of Christ to the gentiles in the person of the Magi." It also has come to mean in our vernacular a sudden understanding of the essence of something. I have had epiphanys - both in celebration of the day and in sudden understandings. They have been gratefully received. Especially when I have been dense!
Yesterday, La Befana visited the children of Italy. Sometimes described as a wizened, witch-like old woman on a broomstick and other times thought to be lovely, she is beloved by young Italians. For it is La Befana who decides who gets presents and who gets coal. La Befana was visited by the Three Wise Men. She invited them into her kitchen (even though she was very
busy cleaning) and offered them some water. The Three Wise men invited her on the journey, but she declined. Couldn't they see she had cleaning to do? The Three Wise Men went on their way and La Befana swept. Later as she swept the dust outside, she glanced up at the sky and saw the Star of Bethlehem. And had her own epiphany. She instantly knew she had made a mistake and apparently got on her broomstick to find them and of course - never did. She roams the world searching for the Wise Men and the Baby Jesus.
One day I shall write a play about La Befana. She roams the world. What has she seen? What has she done?
Tonight we had sausages braised in wine for Epiphany. And blood oranges. And bugies... otherwise known as cencis... frappes or as we would say: fried pastry strips.

In a food processor combine these ingredients:
(Adapted from Tastes of Italia)
2-1/2 cups flour
2 eggs
1/2 t baking powder
1/4 t salt
1/4 cup sugar
4 T olive oil
1/4 cup Marsala wine
4 T orange zest
2 t vanilla

You will also need about 2 cups of olive oil for frying (I use way less and do it in a skillet - I do not deep fry) and powdered sugar for dusting at the end.

Pulse until the ingredients combine. If the dough is dry, add water 1 T at a time. Remove from processor and form into a shiny ball, gently kneading. Break the dough in fourths and roll out each piece on a lightly floured surface until about 1/8 inch thick.
With a pastry wheel (or knife or ravioli cutter) cut your strips to any length (mine were about 4 inches by 1-1/2 inches). Traditionally, they are a wee bit shorter.

Lay on waxed paper until ready to use. In a large skillet (or deep fryer - I don't own one of those), heat oil until a drop of water sizzles when dropped in the oil. Fry the strips in batches until golden - turning at least once.

Remove with slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.

Sift powdered sugar over them and serve.

So, while I am posting this a wee bit late for Epiphany, these are also traditionally served during Carnevale - which is happily - just around the corner!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Tortoni from my Childhood

White Bear Lake is frozen - a good three-four feet. We have been waking up to fifteen below zero F. I will not speak of wind chill. Seems hardly the time for a frozen dessert.

But there's something about the New Year that makes me reflect on life, days, family, past and somehow my meandering mind has been obsessing on my favorite childhood dessert. A tortoni. Almondy-creamy, semi-freddo, simple, luscious.

Once upon a time in days of yore, New York City Italian restaurants all had red-checkered tablecloths, a Chianti bottle with a candle growing out of it and a simple menu of pastas with red sauces. Sometimes, a Chicken Parmigiana dinner would be thrown in. But basically it was spaghetti, manicotti or lasagne with red sauce. Linguine with white clam sauce and sometimes a Veal Marsala.

There wasn't even pizza! Pizza was reserved for the Pizza Parlours! Dessert was always a choice of spumoni or a tortoni. I always had the tortoni. Always. And now I have been craving one. I find souped-up versions of tortoni - laden with dried fruits, chocolate or whole eggs. They're not my childhood tortoni.

I pared down recipes and this was the closest I could find. Simple, easy, creamy-white (no egg yolks!) and when frozen, it is still warmer than the outdoors.

Tortoni Recipe - serves 8
2 egg whites

4 cups of heavy cream

1/4 cup confectioner's sugar

1 tsp almond extract

1 tsp vanilla extract

20 amaretti cookies crushed

garnish: toasted sliced almonds and crushed amaretti cookies

Whip your cream with the sugar and extracts till it is whipped cream consistency. Separately whip your egg whites till glossy and soft peaks form. Fold your egg whites into your whipped cream. Cover the bottom of 8 ramekins with 3/4 of the amaretti crushed cookies. Add the egg-white-almond cream. Freeze for four hours or more. Take out about ten minutes before serving. Garnish with toasted almonds and more amaretti cookies.

Clouds of egg whites folded into the cream keep it feeling light (even though we know it's not)

The crushed amaretti cookies add almond to the tortoni - but I don't think it's necessary. I am wondering about toasting almonds, grinding them and using that as a base.

I love the clouds of cream. Warmer than my clouds of snow.

Kirsten was a wee bit slow eating her tortoni. She was joined by hungry reinderr.

Although I think her brother and boyfriend had something to do with that! I find I still love the dessert of my childhood. It's vintage - as I am. And a wee bit nutty. Happy 2010 all. May it be sweet and nutty and a vintage year!