Monday, September 12, 2011

End of Summer Small Bites

Rome-Florence-Prata-Bologna-Ravenna-Perugia-Rome. With lots of stops in-between. It's heady stuff and I am way behind my time. Clothes to sort, hair to dye, plays to edit, learn to speak Italian and lots of late summer vegetables to use up. I have Mister Meatballs's roasted-green-and-red tomato sauce recipe memorized. (Yes, you'd like it.) I suspect my 20-something children will not be gardening.

This slightly sweet, a wee bit savory zucchini snack cake from Mary Ann Esposito is the perfect recipe for using up late summer zucchini and pleasing the nibblers in the house. Called "Zucchini Cake Viareggio Style," by Ms. Esposito, she does mention that when you take it from the oven don't be surprised if you see that it is well-cooked, like a well-worn shoe. And indeed it is. It is also scrumptious enough that I had to keep it out of sight because I was in danger of nibbling it into extinction before anyone else could partake.

 Zucchini Snack Cake Ingredients - serves 8
(From Tastes of Italia, August 2011)
butter and flour for pan
1 pound small zucchini
4 tablespoons butter, melted
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup unbleached, all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

  1. Butter and flour a 9x12x2-1/2 or 7x11-inch baking dish and set aside. 
  2. Cut zucchini into thin rounds. Layer them in a colander and sprinkle salt between each layer. Place a "weight" (I used cans) on the zucchini and let it sweat for 1 hour. 
  3. Rinse and dry slices and proceed.
  4.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. 
  5. In a large bowl whisk melted butter, sugar and vanilla until smooth. Stir in milk, salt and flour until a better forms.  Fold in zucchini. 
  6. Pour mixture into prepared baking dish. Drizzle top with olive oil. 
  7. Bake for 40 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Cool a few minutes and cut into squares. 
  8. Serve warm or at room temperature.
It has restorative powers. I was able to bake this while learning how to say "I don't speak Italian," do laundry, answer e-mails while prepping the roasted green tomato sauce.

My tomatoes are finally coming in. What date is today? My plants clearly have not read their gardening books. They just march or ripen to the beat of a different drummer.

End of season plum tomatoes? Hollow them out and stuff them with bread crumbs, pitted Kalamata olives, Parmesan,some tomato pulp and oregano mixed with a little olive oil. Salt and pepper top taste. Bake them in a 375-degree oven till softened and the stuffing bubbles (about 30-35 minutes).  Make sure you use the Kalamata olives - they add tang and nuance to contrast the sweetness.

And my wonderful stand-by. Zucchini carpaccio. Best with small-medium zucchini. Save the big honkers for bread or soup.

Thinly slice your zucchini (important). Make a simple vinaigrette with lemon and olive oil or some champagne vinegar and olive oil. Salt and pepper to taste. Toss zucchini with your vinaigrette. Shave some Pecorino cheese over it. I did have more blossoms - so I sliced them thinly and tossed with the zucchini. You can also add thinly sliced leeks, red onions or shallots for some pungency.

I am printing all of your suggestions for Italy. Husband and I are wanderers so I may not make it to all the restaurants. If you know of certain foods in the different regions I must try - please let me know. (Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, Umbria and Lazio).

I will try to visit you before I leave. Keep your forgiveness light open if I don't - I kept thinking I had all this time and I don't. Meanwhile, my 20-somethings have assured me that they will have a weekly kegger and the police will be called to our home once a week. Ciao for now. See you... in October.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

September 11

 I am 50% Italian. 25% Scottish and 25% Latvian. My children are 100% Minnesotan. Their mother is 100% New York. We are all 100% Americans.  And we all are citizens of the world.  I cook a lot of pasta but detour into cold noodles with sesame sauce. I chronicle what I cook and eat. And how I feel during my cooking journey. And I reflect how food, family and friends form a fabric of your life. Today is not a cooking day but one of reflection. Of friends and family. Of country. Of the day. Of remembrance.

"The Trade Centers - in time - became a presence. It was how I gave directions when I lived in the Village. "Come up out of the subway at 14th Street, look at the towers and follow them downtown two blocks. Then take a right and you are at my building." They were supposed to always be there. On the day of the attacks, I finally reached my cousin. "Pati, I know people in that building." She said, "Dorrie everyone knows someone in those buildings."
 "This came to be. During the evacuation. Cantor Fitzgerald - where they were all "lost." I just thought - someone was holding this a few minutes before it floated down to me and I grabbed it. I take it everywhere. I don't know why."
 "It's surreal. When we were evacuating, all I could think of was - we must be in a movie - with amazing special effects. Because nothing this horrible could be real."

"You should have seen my mother - when I asked if we could visit each other's religion. She had tears. She never has tears. It's like all the tears were cried out of her a long time ago - in the camps. She said, "Oh Lanie - imagine if everyone visited other religious services. There wouldn't be so much hate."

(They light the candles)

"Do you know what this means, Dorrie? We're spirit sisters. So if anything ever happens to one of us, we have to be there for each other. And if we disappear, we have to look for each other, okay?"

"What are you talking about? That stuff can't happen here. We are the land of the free and the brave."

 "Do you have a guardian angel, Dorrie"

I do, Lanie. You're my guardian angel."

In memory of Lanie, April 21 - September 11, 2001. Godspeed Lanie, you light my way.

Excerpts from By Candlelight.
"How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world." - Anne Frank

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Ricotta and Spinach Gnocchi Badly Made

As soon as I saw the nickname of the gnocchi "malfatti" (badly made), I thought in all my under-achieving glory, "I could make that." And so I did. And it was ugly. I then served it with heaps of  fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano and made it uglier still.

And it was delicious. I fell in love with "no-fuss, earthy, plain but delicious." I had been in a new adventure with rodents - and was in no mood for fuss. Pippin (the non-mouse killing cat) had chased mouse-breath into the hall closet where I promptly shut the door, stuffed the bottom with towels and went back to work. Later I realized the mouse had been confined with 8 pounds of cat food. It was suggested to me that when I opened the door, I would find a fat mouse with an identity crisis.

I wanted food that I could roll and thump and form - badly. I didn't want pretty crimped edges. I wanted to swallow - the earth (sans rodents). This peasant-hearty, better if you have been mushroom-foraging all day (as opposed to mouse-foraging) - meal fit the bill.

My mother came over and kept swiping them from the baking pan. I finally heated some up, poured a few tablespoons of melted butter and scattered some Parmesan on top and made her a proper plate. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Ingredients - 8 first-course servings
(From Bon Appetit's May 2000 issue - I seem to be working my way through it)
4-6 ounce bags ready-to-use spinach (I used two large bags and a some handfuls of arugula)
2 cups whole milk ricotta
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano- Reggiano
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 large egg yolks
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground peppers
Generous pinch of ground nutmeg

For serving:
1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup freshly-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Cook spinach in salted, boiling water until just wilted - about two minutes (really 1 minute will do it). Drain and squeeze out liquid (the hardest part of the process). Chop spinach.

Mix spinach, ricotta. 1/2 cup Parmesan, 1/2 cup flour, egg yolks, salt, pepper and nutmeg in bowl until sticky dough forms. Dust baking sheet with flour. (I over-dusted. I know that surprises you.) Using floured hands, roll 1/4 cup dough into 5 inch-long rope. Cut rope into 1-inch pieces. (I did this for awhile and then just started rolling 1-inch balls.) Roll each piece between hands to form an oval. (I formed a rectangle - it tastes the same.)

Working in batches, add gnocchi to a large pot of salted, boiling water. Boil until gnocchi rise to the surface and then cook 4 minutes longer. (I cooked about 8 at a time). Remove with slotted spoon.

Pour butter over gnocchi and toss with 1/2 cup Parmesan. Serve. Peasant food at its best.

(Can be made ahead: cover gnocchi, chill. Reheat in 400 degree F oven for about ten minutes).

In Tuscany these are also called "topini verdi." (Little green mice). No irony there.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Prosciutto and Plums Wards off Playwright Dementia

 I was going to post small bites every Thursday - in fact even develop a "Small Bites" day. Sigh. It's not Thursday anymore, is it? I am bingeing. With plays not food. (Although I have had my share of gnawing on pretzel rods and popping delectable McElrath dark chocolate-toffee medallions into my mouth - artisan chocolate - local - worth getting out of bed for - remind me to do a giveaway.)

 After two days of the binge, my husband comes home and I serve him an assortment of small bites. (My favorite way to eat, "I'm not hungry, honey - I'll just pick." Decidedly not his favorite way to eat.)

But when you spread creamy goat cheese over a fig spread on thick bread and top it with prosciutto, thinly sliced plums and a touch of arugula - he doesn't argue.

And when he sees the pile of manila envelops ready for the mail - he knows I'm in "business mode." And one of these days he will come home to the words "takeout, please." I belong to a marketing "playwrightbinge" website where every six months we pledge to send out a play-a-day and share the opportunities with others. Playwrights don't market well. The binge helps. And the daily e-mails from playwrights reminds me that there are humans out there. My days seem to consist of a cat and an errant mouse.

You may think sending out a play a day wouldn't be too stressful - but they have guidelines. Guidelines that cross your eyes and send you crawling through your cabinets searching for chocolate. After 30 days of guidelines you start to crave raw meat.

1. No contact info. Send in separate cover contact info.
2. Name on every page
3. No name - only your e-mail (only.... my e-mail IS my name)
4. Must be of Irish descent and live in PA, NJ or CT.
5. Must address human misery in a heightened, poetical neo-classical theatrical manner.
(True guidelines; I decided not to post the improbable ones out there; some guidelines are a treatise.)

Guidelines sneak up on playwrights. Have you ever found in your work that there is always a gorilla in the room? And you found out too late?

Writing the play is the satisfying part. Having different versions of the play (contact info, where the page numbers go, which has headers, which has footers) and keeping them straight for submitting  is a test of surviving "playwright guideline dementia.".

That's where small bites come in handy. I can "cook" this in five minutes and then return to my deconstructed, poetically sturm and drang play that addresses the diaspora of growing up in Queens, that has a header stating my name and a footer stating the title of the play with pages arranged in a sequential order where you need to guess the sequence.

From Cooking Light and you need:
Some grand, thickly sliced bread - toasted
goat cheese at room temperature
Your favorite jam
thin slices of prosciutto

Toast your bread. I used a dense, seven-grain, thickly sliced bread. There was joy in that bread. Spread some jam (fig jam or date jam is particularly good with this) on the bread. Spread your goat cheese over it. Top with prosciutto and arugula leaves. One slice satisfies. During a binge - five slices retain sanity.

Don't you love this? No amounts, no emulsifying, no pots, no oven temperature. It's sane. It's a buffet - it's the perfect small bite. And somehow with this open-faced sandwich at my side, I finished a short play - Before the Gathering - about 3 sisters sneaking shrimp toast and sorting shoes ten years after their mother's death on 9/11 (I know - upbeat). It fits none of the guidelines beyond having my name on every page. But I have sent out 8 submissions already. And received word that Under a Midsummer Moon took 2nd place in a contest - which only strengthened my resolve to make it better. And pop another chocolate and make another open-faced prosciutto sandwich. And maybe pour a glass of wine.