Sunday, March 27, 2011

"a happy meal"

            At the corner table in the front of Hoboken’s Hummus Bar, a little boy foregoes his fork. It looks like he is finger painting with his falafel. I am on my lunch break watching curly haired and cranky Drew whine while his patient saint of a mother insists he take just one more bite.
            Meanwhile, my cabbage and red beet salad pita has me salivating. I dote on the savory sweet yet tart treat while Drew protests finishing his chickpeas. In Drew’s defense I find myself questioning ordering falafel for a four year old.  It’s not exactly a happy meal.

            To be fair though, I start thinking back to my own childhood, wondering what I liked when I was Drew’s age. Pastina. A simple bowl of just boiled orzo looking pasta made of wheat flour and egg doused in butter and my mother’s love. That is and was my comfort food at four and fifteen on a colder night before dance classes.
            Pastina unlike its irregularly shaped counterparts tastes delicious sprinkled with butter and butter only. It absorbs broth like none other and I associate it most closely with my Nona who eats it nightly because she cannot chew most other things.
            Back in the front of the restaurant from his booster seat, Drew begrudgingly opens his mouth. Mom knows best. She knows better than to allow Drew to shovel the food into his mouth. She also knows that she can seal this deal with promise of another sip of freshly squeezed lemonade, well played Drew’s mom.
            My own lunch box never hosted lemonade or soda when I was a kid.  It boasted farina looking polenta (last night’s leftovers) or semolina bread sodden mortadella with Extra Virgin and Arnie the Butcher’s roasted red peppers. My mom picked up cold pilaf special and would serve it as a “side” with our Osso Bucco or Scaloppini on Tuesday nights.
            My lunch box did not know what a chickpea or ham sandwich was. It still cringes when it smells Annabelle’s bologna and cheese concoction or Jimmy’s mom’s leftover meatloaf. My brother and I just weren’t raised to look forward to mom’s grilled cheese and Campbell’s reheated condensed tomato. We never ate the “hot lunch” cheeseburger with a side of fries unless mom ran out of fresh Italian bread and the bus came on time, leaving us no choice.
            Even now, when I pack my lunch for work – it hosts Watercress with its peppery propensity to pair well with things like candied pecans and dried cranberries or peeled Granny Smith’s. I bring to work a last night’s cutlet or Pete’s “mutz” with its buffalo finish. I dip crackers in just sliced cheese and drizzle it with apricot. I munch on tomatoes on the vine like the fruit that they are, thrilled about their juice on my jaw. When I pack lunch, I do not think of afternoons past when Drew’s mom cut my lunch, but I do remember eating Mediterranean faire and I look at Drew and I wink.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Measuring Cups for good Measure

Everyone copes differently. After her father passed, Orangette write Molly Wizenberg writes in her Homemade Life memoir that she swam in croissants and potato salad; the food she associated most with her father. I too am swimming in chocolate and heavy cream but luckily Vittorio is still alive and well. My emotional baggage comes in the form of a breakup. Some women buy shoes, I splurge on $6 tomatoes on the vine and take up baking. Yes, baking.

Let me just say that I did not stumble upon this desire single-handedly. I did not wake up today and decide that it is time to take up the one form of culinary art I have notoriously written off as box fair or worse, have reserved for companies like Bindi to graciously supply my tiramisu. Quite frankly, the prospect of composing a cake without a box and premade mix is terrifying but all the more reason to endeavor to do away with store bought dessert in one form or another.

I want to go by Nicolette after my recent introduction to the fabulous Eric Ripert and the dinner I ate at Boston’s beautiful Mistral Bistro. I admit that my newfound obsession with everything David Lebovitz leads me to this evening’s Orange and Rum Chocolate Mousse Cake complements of his Great Book of Chocolate. I rationalize that any dessert that calls for dark spice rum cannot prove haphazard even if its creator is slightly tipsy hovering over her apartment’s not-so easy bake oven; the oven typically a makeshift pantry for baking dishes on any given night I customarily abandon in favor of casserole dishes and roasting pans; but I am suffering a breakup here. 

Call it caviar wishes or temporary insanity but I have to do something to keep my mind off of the “thing” we’re not talking about and since David and Molly are on my bookshelf, and I cannot consume a vat of potato salad for fear of my Italian roots uprooting, I opt for the measuring cups, for good measure.

The verdict’s still out. If it smells like a cake and it looks like a cake, you need to still take a taste; believe you me. I really should give myself more credit but when you are raised in a household where the closest thing to homemade dessert includes a box of J-E-L-L-O pudding mix, you’re not exactly conditioned to turn your nose up to a red Duncan Hines box if it means dessert is served.

I still remember classmates’ parents preparing baked goods to drop off for the holiday parties and begging my mom to assemble a cake like the cake Katie Miller’s mom whipped up for the third grade Halloween party. Ever the negotiator, my mom tells me that Katie Miller’s mom is a “stay at home mom” and that if Little Debbie’s are not good enough for the third grade Halloween party, I can always go empty-handed or worse, not at all. All these years later, still not above Little Debbie’s, I cannot justify unwrapping those prepackaged pastries in my apartment where I readily compose fresh sauces and chicken marsala late night with hardly any effort. At some point, we all graduate, with a little luck I can finally separate myself from boxed mixes.

Currently, the mousse cake sits in the middle of the bottom oven rack surrounded by a bath of warm water beneath it; David takes his cake making seriously, I will give him that. I yearn to churn out a flawless tart as effortlessly as his memoir eludes a tart can be prepared. Regardless of whether or not the chocolate mixes with the butter mixes with the sugar and eggs, I must say this endeavor proved as therapeutic as any other cannellini recipe I’ve shared; even if hovering over measuring cups is not as natural to me as it is to others.  

Sunday, March 6, 2011

A Sauce by any other Name would be Blasphemous, would be Gravy

I am consistently floored by the amount of ingredients and sheer preparation cookbooks tout when including a recipe for marinara. Made from fresh essentials like garlic and basil, marinara does not require the same kind of attention needed in piecing together gravy used in Shepherd’s pie or smothers a turkey dinner. Marinara is after all, a sauce.

I know Italians who take their marinara very seriously. They swoon and they fill their gravy bowls with well, gravy – real Bolognese Ragu chock full of stock and one to two glasses of wine and/or milk. The very essence of this gravy suggests that it lingers happily between the fibers of tagliatelle or pappardelle, which is usually layered in pieces of lamb. Gravy in and of itself serves a purpose only if paired with something equally hearty.

Marinara though, glides across a dish of spaghettini like none other, soaks up a ziti likening it to it a penne on a good night and festoons ravioli with a kind of reprieve. Marinara does a dance all of its own. It sits atop a cutlet without overpowering the cutlet’s breadcrumbs, without diminishing its taste. Marinara would never be caught dead on top of a biscuit. Marinara does not play well with other cuisines.

In my apartment, marinara starts with a cutting board, a knife and ideally, a generous eyeballing of garlic. If you’re anything like me though, you do not garnish your marinara liberally otherwise you will be in serious need of an anti acid like the Pink Stuff; not quite a Limón cello finish to a beautifully rendered dinner.  Indigestion aside, the bear minimum is needed to craft an ambrosial array of tangy and sweet red syrup.

In my humble opinion, marinara should taste like beloved Nona’s famed recipe – it should surprise your palette with the subtle hints of balsamic vinegar and the prevalent presence of delicious tomatoes. It should never be jarred or reheated in a microwave. It should compel you to double dip and find yourself fighting the urge to sip it as though it were a soup.

My love affair with marinara comes full circle once I introduce the sauce to my friend Parmesan. Though somewhat of a gastronomical nightmare amidst my mozzarella and tomato side salad, I suffer in ravenous radiance at my countertop with stools for two every time I serendipitously prepare myself a marinara.

Sauce (the way it was intended)
  •      Olive Oil – personally I recommend investing in a bottle of
  •      Have Morton Salt nearby and black pepper to spare
  •      Fresh garlic (eyeball it, you typically need less than you think unless you enjoy tasting it the next morning)
  •      Fresh Basil
  •     Tomato paste – any type will do
  •     Crushed tomatoes – San Marzano aren’t half bad and sometimes the grocery store carries them. If you live near a specialty food store, stock up on whichever can your pork store manager carries. His suggestions are always welcome.
  •     Parmesan cheese – steer clear of Kraft's container. 
  •     Balsamic Vinegar – only to be added after the crushed tomatoes and only pour about a tbsp into your sauce
  •    Optional: diced yellow onion – again, not to be overdone otherwise it will drastically change the taste of your marinara

Oil needs time to heat the pot before it can marinate the garlic and basil. Do not add the Parmesan or the vinegar without first cooking the paste and tomatoes together for several minutes. The sauce should only be set on medium heat and should be stirred often. Ideally, give the sauce anywhere from half an hour to an hour to blend nicely enough to serve. Bon appétit.


From the Beginning...

I hope you won’t mind one more hungry stomach eager to sit beside you at your dinner table and relish in your blogosphere. I do not come empty handed though. I bring with me a couple of anecdotes and some recipes that I hope will keep you coming back for more Zucchero.
Given that Christmas Eve is now a thing of the past, I decide tonight to relish in my craving for fish. On colder winter evenings such as this, when I am feeling slightly homesick, I remember watching my mother and grandmother effortlessly pouring over dishes like Zuppa di Pesce throughout my childhood and suddenly, wafts of freshly peeled garlic tickle my taste buds. Soon, I find myself scouring the grocery store for whole grain linguine to help recreate this family favorite. Scampi. Although it can be prepared a multitude of ways, scampi has always been reserved for those special occasions where company was expected or an entire evening could be devoted to the preparation involved in concocting such a gratuitous dish. At home in my kitchen, Rock N’ Roll High School blares through the nearby stereo and I remember my mother and grandmother and I remember…
        the smell of sautéing shrimp and garlic the way my mother remembers seeing Joey Ramone for the first time in a rundown bar in Manhattan at age fifteen. The picturesque staple of rock n roll’s riches for an impressionable New Yorker, I admire the sight of a dishrag strewn on a flour covered kitchen counter. At fifteen, Joey Ramone lulls my mother’s teenage inhibitions. At sixteen, I whisk an egg and ask my Joey Ramone of a grandmother how to prevent the breadcrumbs from escaping the uncooked cutlets we prepare at sunset.
Her fingers enchant a skillet the way Joey’s stroke a mic. She too is a crowd pleaser, preparing potatoes in a pool of extra virgin olive oil. Peeled and poised for garnishing with pepper, my Nonna’s hands which age with each knead and stoke, proudly display the remnants of a once live chicken beside a bowl filled with beautifully browned carbohydrates.
No longer sixteen and able to take cues from a woman well versed in peeling garlic, it is my turn to finesse an ordinary package of pasta into a masterful mantra of flavor and forgotten pastimes. I mosey around my third floor kitchen in knitted socks not unlike my Nonna who swore by isotones slippers in the winter, hunger propelling my menacing attention to detail. Even the paprika is measured. The salt tossed in sparingly, it represents the faith all Italian cooks have in boiling water. The pot a host for transformation from otherwise inedible grains to serendipitous scampi.
Tonight is a resurrection. I unscrew the top to the sherry, squeeze the lemon and welcome the aromas of familiar dry and sweet components coming alive in an iron caste skillet. I bite my lip in anticipation and almost reading my uneasiness, the shrimp winks at me. She stands in the kitchen, hovering over the cutting board and later scrubs each dish by hand. And later I wink at my isotones slippers, the shoes I feebly fill on Monday nights while Maxwell’s around the corner hosts the next Levi wearing Johnny. It is lonely in my kitchen while Dee Dee Ramone is off banging on his drums but somewhere, Nonna stirs up appetites with her wooden spoon in a frying pan in someone else’s domain, acting as the model hostess.   
       … Like the Sunday dinners I learned to appreciate at an early age, this blog is represents my hosting a myopic array of flavors and fiction – memory and memoir. I hope you’ll digest and return for more Zucchero very so

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Beans, it's what's for Dinner

When I was younger, I thought I had the strangest palette of any fourteen years old I knew. While friends my age sat down to dinner tables littered with hamburger helper or homemade meatloaf, I was served escarole and cannellini. It was embarrassing especially since looking back – I had carnivores for friends who swore that the absence of meat in any dish prevented the dish itself from standing as a meal.

Years later I realize how unfortunate it was that I didn’t appreciate the finer things in life when they were served me to me atop a silver platter – literally; to this day my mother still decorates the kitchen and dining room tables with silver colored chargers. 

In the spirit of reconnecting with my younger self and my love of all things green, I decided to cook up a special recommendation from Eric Ripert’s, Avec Eric: A Culinary Journey, a deliciously narrated collection of recipes and stories stemming from all part of the world’s finest gardens.

Here is Eric's Tuscan Bean Soup Recipe:

  • 1 can of cannellini beans
  • salt & pepper
  • 40z. prosciutto 
  • 4 cups of chicken stock 
  • 1 small onion diced
  • 1 cup of peeled and diced carrots/ celery
  • 2 garlic cloves thinly sliced (omit for those with easily aggravated tummies)
  • 1 small bunch of kale
  • 3 plum tomatoes, cored, seeded and roughly chopped
  • 2 thyme springs
  • 3 tbsp. Italian parsley

  • Place the beans in a cold pot and add enough water so that the beans are covered. Season with salt. Bring the water to a boil and lower the heat to simmer (for about 20 min). 
  • Heat oil and add prosciutto, onion, celery, carrot and garlic. Cook 6 to 8 min. 
  • Add the chicken stock, kale, tomatoes, thyme, parsley, and Parmesan cheese to the pot. 
  • Add 2 cups of water additionally. 
  • Bring the soup to a summer - cooking for about 30 min.