Thursday, September 30, 2010

Apple Daze

My reward. Torta di Mele from Proud Italian Cook. So much for my resolve to stay away from cake. But this isn't any cake. It's an orchard cake, a rustic cake, an Italian cake, a cake containing Amaretto. Need I say more?

I started my day very early on the patio. Just me, Sadie (dog) and my coffee. It's a nice break from when I sit at the kitchen table and Pippin (cat; aka Sir Pipster, Pippadew, Pip-a-dee-do-dah, Pipadoodle, etc.) wants to share my coffee. By dipping has paws in my mug. I know where those paws have been.

And then the hawk came. And dove into the last of the Snow on the Mountain. Scurrying. Rodent-hunting. The hawk flew over me creating a ruckus and a windstorm. I went inside. And surprise - no Pippin. I worry because he's lost a few of his 9 lives already and is always by my side in the a.m. I go cat-hunting. And in the back of the basement I find a cat mouse-hunting.
I go upstairs to work. Matthew (son) goes downstairs to work. Pip may be the court jester but he has patience. We don't hear from him for 3 hours. And then Matthew notices that Pip has emerged from the basement. With a live squealing mouse. Which he intends to carry upstairs to my work room. Which is a definite "No Mouse Zone."
Matthew goes after Pip, Pipster drops the mouse. The terrified mouse feezes. Matthew covers him with tupperware (yes, probably the same tupperware Paul (husband) uses to change oil and then expects me to put food in it) and Matthew takes Mighty Mouse outside to freedom. Matthew has always practiced "catch and release" with rodents. Someday I will tell you a tale about Matthew, Kirsten and me and 1 mouse. I wrote a short play about it. It had 100 productions the first year. People relate to mouse tales. Anyway, I'm thinking the mouse beat Matthew back into the house. I flee. (The old adage, "if there's 1 mouse, there's probably 7 more...)

To the orchards. The downside of being a freelance writer/playwright is that sometimes there are very lean months. The upside is - in the middle of a perfect weekday - you can flee to the orchards.

And walk.

And sample apples.

I brought home the sweet Minnesota Honeycrisp. Cortland apples for baking and MacIntosh for sweet-tart breakfasts. In the eve I will have some with sharp cheddar cheese while the kids dip their slices in caramel.
I think these are Yeats, "Golden apples of the sun."
I want some.

So I buy a peck... or two. Enough for the requisite, healthy apple-a-day and enough for cake. Remember the cake (with Amaretto?).

I love pies but I've always had an affinity for apple cake. The lush, white meat stands out. Not hidden by spices. It's an apple and it proclaims itself in cake.
And so I made it. Not even a mouse (or 7 mice) will stand in the way of me and my kitchen.

And you should make it. One bowl, easy and did I mention it has Amaretto in it?

Look at the moist crumb. Sweet but not cloying. Light but fulfilling. Do yourself a favor, bake the cake!
I didn't change one gram of Proud Italian Cook's recipe. I didn't even add extra Amaretto. But you can always have some Amaretto on the side ...

Which is why I have linked to her. The recipe is here. And everywhere else I linked. Try it. You'll like it. Don't wait for a mouse to visit your house to have an excuse.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Sweet Chattering Dessert

Doused and folded with toasted walnuts, the nuts spoke first. The ricotta softly chimed in and the pear - while never assertive - proclaimed its entrance. It remained puffy, not cloyingly sweet and a welcome addition to my table.

My characters have been chattering away - four false starts. I'd make it to page 10 and realize nothing was going on. I scolded my characters. Can't you say something substantial? Can't you initiate a conflict?

"You created us," they sullenly told me.
And so I did. They continued to chatter away about much ado about nothing. And now they sit chattering in a file folder until they decide to tell a story. Is it a wonder I spoke with this cake? This cake that was content to be a celebratory dessert or an afternoon snack. This Ricotta-Pear-Walnut Cake had all the answers. But he wasn't giving away his secrets. So I ate him.
Ricotta-Pear-Walnut Cake Ingredients
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter - room temperature plus 1 tablespoon to grease the pan
  • 3/4 cup sugar plus 1 tablespoon
  • 3 large eggs
  • 6-8 ounces fresh ricotta cheese
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder (explains why he stayed puffed-up)
  • 1 tablespoon orange zest
  • 2/3 cup toasted walnuts
  • 2 large ripe pears, peeled and thinly sliced.
I adapted it from Chocolate and Zucchini's Daily Adventures in a Parisian Kitchen. Clotilde may think it's French but I am here to tell you - it's strictly Italian. The walnuts told me so. Whispers of fall, but afternoons of summer - fruit, cheese and nuts. Need I say more?

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. Toast your nuts in a dry skillet for about 3 minutes.
  3. Grease a 9-inch springform pan.
  4. In a food processor combine butter and sugar and process till creamy.
  5. Add eggs one by one, pulsing in-between.
  6. Add ricotta and vanilla and process.
  7. In a medium bowl sift (I just mix) the flour, salt, baking powder and zest.
  8. Add to egg mixture. Mix until just combined. It will be thick. (I did this in a separate large bowl)
  9. Fold in half of the chopped walnuts.
  10. Pour into prepared pan.
  11. Arrange sliced pears on top in a circular pattern. Scatter the remaining walnuts, 1 tablespoon of sugar and bake for one hour (until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean).
  12. Cool for ten-minutes. Run a knife around the edges of the pan and unclasp the sides. Serve.
Will keep at room temperature. When cooled, wrap carefully and serve when ready. Will keep for two days. It's one of those puffy things that do not love refrigeration.
I passed some creme fraiche around. Somehow, I did not need to worry about refrigerating it - it disappeared. So did the creme fraiche. So did the chatter. And now I wait for new chatter, new characters and new stories. And I hope when a recipe speaks to me - it is filled with vegetables and soothing clear broth because I am gaining weight.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Shrimp Oreganata - a short one-act play

I trip over invisible objects, slip off curbs and have been known to walk into trees. I mail my keys and deliver grocery receipts to the pharmacist. And it's not like I'm texting - I only remember I own a cell phone when the car breaks down. It's a by-product of writing. You're in someone else's world. Does it matter that their world is not real?
And so it came to pass that when I realized I had not written a ten-minute play in over a year - I sat down to write one. I walked into chairs as I wrote in my head. I put dish detergent in the freezer and eggplant with the pots and pans. And didn't cook. For a week.
It's the New Year for theatricals. The new theatre season is upon us and I am in need of unproduced plays to submit. And have none. I could do a happy tarantella - all my ten-minutes, one-acts and youth plays have been produced. But I am empty when it comes to submitting to the many theatres that ask for your unproduced plays. And it's my job to submit plays.
I started small and melded both my lives - cook and playwright. And started a play about ravioli. I hope my intended audience likes to eat. Maybe the fact that I was writing a food-centric play Love in the Ravioli Season abated my appetite. I didn't cook. And when the play was finished, I looked at my family and realized they had existed on rotisserie chicken for a week. I took pity and made Shrimp Oreganata.

Shrimp Oreganata is a ten-minute play. You get to the crux of the matter immediately. Take your ingedients and cook. Simmer for ten-minutes and you have a theatrical ending worthy of company. It's so easy, I probably could have made this while writing. Onions sweetly cooked in olive oil and then - to surprise the palate and add drama - some crushed hot pepper flakes added. Tomatoes and shrimp cooked in wine to satisfy all the senses. Crunch, surprising toasted bread crumbs for comic relief.
Gather your ingredients. It's a fast recipe.

1/4 cup bread crumbs
2 tablespoons extra virgin or virgin olive oil
1 red onion, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon crushed red pepper flakes
1-1/2 cups sliced cherry or grape tomatoes or just dice the plum-shaped beauties or even the round ones
20 fresh oregano leaves or if you don't have an oregano bush 1-2 tablespoons dried oregano
1-1/2 pounds peeled, de-veined shrimp
1/2 cup white wine

In a small dry skillet, toast your breadcrumbs. 1-2 minutes.

Heat your olive oil and add your onions. Let them sweat 3-4 minutes. Add the red pepper flakes and cook 1 more minute.

Add shrimp and tomatoes and stir for 2-3 minutes to blend. Add your oregano and stir.

Add your white wine and simmer for 12-15 minutes. You don't want to toughen the shrimp so make sure the heat is on low and it's not boiling away.

Put into serving platter and top with bread crumbs. Add chives if you wish for garnish. Serve with pasta or rice. I served this with brown rice to soak up the delicate juices.
Now it's time to devise another play. Dreaming of an anthology of ten-minute "food" plays. What do you think of Bake, Broil and Roll for a title? Ten-minute plays won't keep my pantry stocked in truffles and the good Parmigiano-Reggiano. But they shake up the brain, keep you honest and succinct and are - dare I say it - just plain fun. Yes, even this middle-aged playwright/food blogger/laundry queen/basil-keeper/guardian-of-the-cat and-dog needs a little fun.

And a happily ever after with shrimp.

Friday, September 10, 2010

September 11

Remembrance. A beautiful word to help you cope with grief.
My grandparents Maria Theresa Laviano and Egidio Gresio came to America for economic freedom.

My friend's parents came to America for true freedom. They were survivor's of the Holocaust.
In 2005, I wrote a play about my friend "Lanie" titled By Candlelight. Lessons learned from her enthusiastic embracing of life. Lessons learned about the Holocaust. Lessons learned about terror and the ability to still cherish all that is good.

Months after 9/11, the City was a gentler place. Scarred but standing, the talk was of rebuilding and renewal.

"In the deserts of the heart, let the healing fountain start." - Auden

Cope. Heal. And remember. And then - renew.

My friend and I "visited" each others religion. I was welcome to seders at her home, fasted on Yom Kippur and she spent Christmas with me. I attended her services. She attended my mass.
Below is a scene from the first production of Candlelight. The scene is from the Christmas Eve spent together. Before we found different lives. Before we grew apart. Portrayed by the loveliest of young performers. Whose lifes are now intertwined with mine.

In 2008, after By Candlelight was published, my friend's brother found me. We shared memories, photos, thoughts. Exchanged news of our families. News of my friend's children and how they were coping with the loss of their mother. My friend. His sister and best friend.
I sent him the play which he would give to his mother. It is autobiographical based on my remembrances of our childhood friendship. Based on the years our names were so intertwined - they were one. Written too late - written in remembrance years after 9/11.
And so finally - they knew. My friend never knew the goodness she added to my life. The luminesence. I never did get to tell her. But her mother and brother finally knew.
Last year on September 10, "Lanie's" brother called me. With him was his mother - whom I had not spoken to in decades. September days are hard for her. "Hello." And there it was. The gentle Romanian accent, the emotion, the knowledge that many years have passed. Welling with tears, speaking as if I had been at their home yesterday, I was able to finally tell my friend's mother things I didn't know when I was young. That their family changed my life forever and for good. That empathy is necessary. Compassion must be a piece of the pie. And I thanked her for being part of my life. I took so many things for granted.
At age 9, I thought sharing our religion and different cultural life was something everyone did. I was an adult before I found out that I was given a blessing - a mitzvah.

September 11. Please remember. And when you do, think gentle thoughts in honor of all whose lives were irretrievably changed that day.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Cooking tales with zucchini crumble and roasted tomato tarts

Why do you blog? Is it the community? The hope for something more in the competitive world of food writing? The adventure?

For my parents 50th, I recreated their Wedding Cake - it was an Italian Cookie Cake. I took photos. I always took photos of food. A few years ago, my husband took me along on a business trip to Toulouse. I came home with over a hundred photos.
"They're all of cheese," my friend exclaimed. And so they were. Cheeses and breads mostly and an occasional pretty sight. I had no blog. I am not a gifted photographer but I have CD's filled with food.

There were sixteen first cousins in all. Most of us in New York. Eight of us living in the Italian -manner - within a few blocks of each other. All at the same school. All living in each others backyard. We are hither and yonder these days - but we can still finish each others sentences. We still have the same sense of humor. And most of us got the cooking gene. I think that's why I now blog about food. I think it's genetic.

When I saw perfectly ripe figs (from Minnesota!) at Surdyk's Cheese Shop - I grew weak. And scarfed them up. I ran my fingers over them. I instantly left Minnesota and went into Cookingland. Who does that? And then I went home and adapted Clotilde Dusoulier's Daily Adventure's in a Parisian Kitchen's Zucchini Crumble. I had been waiting for the figs. I lowered the fat quotient - but you know - it's a crumble. (Read: not low-fat). And the notion of a vegetable crumble invites me to cook.
The sweet goodness of figs, the mellow zucchini absorbing all, the creamy softness of fresh mozzarella with the sharp earthiness of fresh Parmigiano. Does it get any better than that?

Zucchini Crumble - serves 4 as a meal, 6-8 as a side dish/buffet item
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium zucchini - sliced into fairly thin disks, donb't break out the mandoline
4 teaspoons fresh thyme - divided - can use fresh basil
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese
1/4 cup whole wheat Panko (can use regular, unflavored breadcrumbs)
2 tablespoons Earth Balance Butter
4-5 ounces fresh mozzarella - sliced thin
2 figs sliced into 6 pieces each
*optional: salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Spray a 9-inch pie pan. In a medium-large skillet, heat your olive oil until almost sizzling. Add zucchini and 2 tablespoons of thyme. Salt and pepper to taste. Saute till lightly browned (7-8 minutes). In a small bowl, combine Parmigiano and Panko. Slice butter and add in. With fingers, work all together until they resemble a coarse meal - all enticingly crumbly. Work remaining thyme into crumb mixture. Layer zucchini in pie plate. Then layer your mozzarella and then your figs. Top with crumb mixture. Bake 25-30 minutes until all is beautifully browned and ozzing cheese. Serve warm or at room temperature. Can do ahead rewarm in at 325 degree oven for 10-12 minutes prior to serving.
Roasted Tomato, Goat Cheese Tartelettes - serves 16
While 3 of my tomato plants have been affected by blight, the cherry tomato bush has been the gift that keeps on giving. I eat them like candy. And then I cook.

Roasted Tomato, Goat Cheese Tartelette Ingredients
1 sheet of Pepperidge Farm Puff Pastry (you may always make your own - I don't), defrosted
16 cherry tomatoes
1 tablespoon of olive oil
salt to taste
pepper to taste
1 teaspoon fresh thyme
1 teaspoon fresh basil - or 1 tablespoon Italian seasoning instead of the fresh herbs
16 small pieces of goat cheese
8 nicoise or kalamata olives
*Optional: chives for garlic
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. In a bowl, toss tomatoes with oil, herbs, salt and pepper. Lay on sprayed baking sheet and roast for 20-25 minutes. You want them wrinkled but not mushy. Preheat oven according to puff pastry package directions. Very lightly spray a baking sheet. With a 1 to 1-1/2-inch biscuit or cookie cutter, cut out 16 rounds of dough. Place on baking sheet.
With your thumb, make an indentation into the center of each pastry round. Place a roasted tomato in the center. Partially bake for 6-8 minutes. Remove from oven and add a goat cheese sliver or crumble to each round. Bake for another 3-4 minutes. Remove and add half of a nicoise or kalamata olive to each round. Garnish with chives and serve.
Roasted, candy-tasting tomatoes with the smooth tang of goat cheese and the brine of the olives - all in one bite. Your palate will dance. And sing. And ask for more. Come to think of that, roasted red peppers instead of tomatoes would also sing. Maybe with provolone...

And because I cannot resist a ripe tomato, I bring home more every day. Slice them with herbes de provence, salt and pepper, sliced red onion soaked in red wine vinegar and then cover them with basil and thyme. Cut some ricotta salata on top. Leave it out to entice with small plates and forks for an afternoon and watch it disappear.
In the days of yore, I spent many hours in my grandmother's and aunts and uncles kitchens. They didn't teach me to cook. They never had a recipe. I was always greeted with an anisette toast or an offer of what was simmering on the stove. And when my mother made liver for dinner, I somehow found my way to another Gresio kitchen knowing full well I'd be invited to stay. It's no wonder I cook - it's really the same reason that I write - it's ingrained, yes, genetic. I have no choice. What draws you into the kitchen and into blogosphere?
NOTE: Thanks for visiting Kirsten's new blog. She smiled at the support and dreamed of new sweets.