Tuesday, 13 December 2011

You want me to bring the cake?

Heaven help the hostess who asks me to bring dessert. I am not a baker, nor have I ever been.  The reasons for this are probably rooted in family medical history (a story for another day), and though I've tried my best over the years, it's probably in everyone's best interest if i dolcetti come from someone with a sweet tooth who can deliver. 

One of the worst cakes I ever baked was buried under one of the three plastic trees in our High School foyer. (Not M. High for those of you who know me...the other High School in sap country, as some of you used to call it, after I moved away.) It was a day in June and our grad year.  There were three of us. K., J. and me.  We cut the cake in the staff didn't look too good...hmmm, not cooked in the middle...but we proceeded as planned. We wandered down to the lobby to wait for our rides home and delight in some cake. One bite and K. grabbed the box from my hands, lifted the first tree beside her, and stuffed it in. There it went, never to be seen again. I still gasp when I think about it. She was that brassy and zanier than anyone I've ever met.  J. and I still talk about it.  As for K., she moved away, to our relief. She could dream up trouble just by breathing. 

Any sweets I make now don't involve baking.  It seems to work out better if I stick to this rule. My kids agree, as they've tasted enough of my half-baked disasters. The trouble is, I substitute too much in my endless search for healthier alternatives. Whole wheat flour instead of white, honey instead of white sugar, pureed prunes instead of wonder nothing ever turns out. Here's one of my favorite dolci and a recipe from my local health-food store. I make them almost every Christmas and they're as good as any regular truffle out there. Try them and, trust me, no one will want to bury these in your house plants.

1 cup peanut butter
1 cup carob
1 cup honey 
1/2 cup each sesame seeds, crushed flax seeds and unsweetened dessicated coconut 

Mix all together (in a Cuisinart works best). If the mixture seems too dry, add more honey. Shape into balls and roll in carob or coconut.  Refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving. 

So how does the buried cake story end? Well, much as I held my breath that summer, none of us got a call from the school principal, which still amazes me since there was a crowd of kids in the lobby that day and none of them with Blackberries to distract them.

Over the years I've thought of a few possibilities as to what happened after K. told me without telling me that my baking was more than unacceptable:
1. The caretakers followed their noses and found a moldy mountain of goo in a sand-covered box, cursed the kids with nothing better to do, and spent the rest of the day tidying up the planter.
2. The cake is still there.  It fossilized into a rock over the years and the plastic tree above it is a couple of inches taller than the others. No one knows why and no one cares.
3. One day while K. was baking a glorious cake for her adorable and innocent children in their new and happy home, she opened the oven door when the timer bell rang...and out sprang...a plastic tree! She then had an anxiety attack, a symptom that follows her to this day. No matter where she is in the world, every time she sees plastic vegetation, she faints. Her kids were traumatized as well and, as a result, have never tasted a morsel of cake. Think of all they've missed! Call it karma, I guess, or the perfect order of the way the universe evolves. Personally, I like this ending best. How about you?

Buon Natale a tutti!  Merry Christmas everyone. Buone Feste. Thanks so much for reading my blog this year. I wish you and yours all the best life has to offer this holiday season. May 2012 bring you much happiness, and an abundance of pasta that's cooked just to your dente.  See you next year.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Not Exactly Eggplant Parm

When my youngest was little, I was a stay-at-home mom for a few years.  Life slowed down in heaps. There was an abundance of time-- the kind that gets you moving fridges and stoves and dressers and commodes to get at dust bunnies and their babies.  There was time enough to make stuffed chickens, stuffed peppers and stuffed zucchini.  There was time for traditional Eggplant Parmesan.  The kind that's double-dipped in egg and breadcrumbs, gently fried in olive oil and topped with a homemade Ragu.  Nothing but melanzane and parmiggiano gratuggiato cotte in una barca di Ragu, then topped with mozzarella as far as the eye can see. In those days, I kept candles on my kitchen window sill and lit them every evening before starting dinner. I would read and reread my favorite cookbooks while my kids played quietly with their toys, and spent entire days dehoarding the basement til it felt as spacious as our living room.  

But then came school and homework, volunteer work, back to work, family feuds, renovations, aging parents, menopausal symptoms, and growing children who loved to store precious the basement.  

Speed has a way of pulverizing traditions don't you think?  It has a way of taking the love out of grocery shopping, meal planning and generally running a happy home. My traditional Eggplant Parm recipe died somewhere during those years. A victim of our pick-up-the-pace life, it lies in wait for its very unlikely reincarnation. I guess somewhere along the way I learned that having dinner ready during a certain time frame was better than watching starved famiglia transforming into Joe Pesce. 

These days, rather than burning all kinds of time planning meals and flawless grocery lists, dinner ideas take shape while I'm walking the grocery isles.  It's pretty spontaneous and depends largely on how the spirit moves. When I pick up eggplants every two weeks or so, I place them gently in my cart and trust something good will come from my oven-- even if I tune out the cheese by the time I get to its isle.  Despite my mental notes, formaggio gets left behind when there are seven different types of hummus to choose from.  

Has my family noticed?  Yes and no.  Comments vary.  Some nights I hear:  "The last Eggplant Parm was better."  Some nights it's: "Hmmm, sooo goood."  Sometimes I get:  "Nonna's is better."

"Of course Nonna's is better!  Nonna can spend a whole day making Eggplant Parm if she wants to!"  Kids today are bold, aren't they?  No backhand to worry about and so they just comment as they please.

While I used to plan my Ragu in advance, now it's Ragu if I have time. I layer my EP with whatever leftovers are on hand and grill the sliced eggplant, brushing with garlic and olive oil as I go.  Which leftovers have worked?  Rapini, spinach, shredded zucchini and thinly sliced potatoes have been nice surprises, as have thinly sliced carrots, onions and hot peppers. What hasn't worked?  I would stay away from shredded cabbage.  Yeah.  What was I thinking?  Plain tomato sauce on each layer tastes as good as mouthwatering Ragu, and cheese doesn't have to be Parmiggiano.  Cheddar, goat's cheese and grated Romano all taste great. I may have used others as well but nothing comes to mind right now.

This time around, I found myself grilling eggplants...and reaching for the mashed-potato-and-cheddar-cheese filling left over from Mr. BBQ's homemade peroghies. I layered sauce, eggplant, grated parmiggiano and mashed potato with cheddar cheese.  Repeat again and again til you're done.  Top with goat's cheese. I guess you could call it Melanzane a Tre Formaggi...or if you're older and your kids have left home and have their own families, you could call it something more romantic. This week I was whining to my mom: "I feel like I'm always at the kitchen sink.  I cook. I clean. I cook. I clean. Is this the life my kids are going to have one day?"

"But that is the luv for your familee!  You cook and clean because yu luv your familee and by doing dat you keep ev-ery one too-gether!"  

Well, how about that? Or you can call it love. 

Some days Nonnas give you exactly what you need, don't they?  
Now if she could just explain the ol' backhand to me. 

I think I'll go clean out my basement.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

What is the Meaning of Al Dente?

There are only two answers to that question.  One is short; the other one endless. The short one is pretty straight forward, and is an explanation most of us have heard many times: you know pasta is cooked al dente when you bite into it and it's still firm. Pretty simple isn't it?  And yet something is missing. Where's all the emotion, hand gesticulation, anxiety? And that's when the endless answer to al dente comes in. Pasta cooked al dente means...well, how much time have you got?  Because when we're asking about al dente, the best way to answer is with another question, as in whose dente is it?  Mine? Yours? Zio Nicola's?  Ask 10 different people to cook a serving of pasta al dente and you'll most likely get 10 different results.

Last year, there were nine of us sitting at our table at my niece's wedding.  We had just finished eating the antipasto and the pasta arrived, piping hot topped with a beautiful tomato sauce. We passed the grated parmesan around the table and began eating without much dialogue. Everyone was hungry.  It was a typical wedding.  The cocktail hour had gone on longer than usual and we were eager to get to the eating part of the party. I took one bite of the penne lisce and thought to myself:  "Finally, pasta cotta al dente! I can't believe someone cooked it the way I like it.  Two to three minutes past the half-cooked mark. I want to find the chef and shake his hand!"  Thirty seconds later, I understood that not everyone was sharing in my joy. You could break the tension at the table with a veal-chop mallet. There were concerto-like cries.

"It's not cooked."  
"E cruda."
"I can't eat this."

I looked up.  Dare I jump into the combat zone with my idea of what perfect pasta tastes like? This was, after all, pasta al dente. Propio al dente, the way God had intended it to be. I looked at my table mates. Emotions were raw. In this corner, my 80-year-old-uncle with daggers in his eyes. I think he was offended. What am I saying?  He's Italian!  Of course, he was offended! Across from him, our two fine-dining chefs.  Yes, my brothers-in-law, both who cook pasta (among other things) for a living and people rave about their dishes and come back for more. And then my two cousins (who lived in Italy for at least a decade) and they weren't touching theirs either. Could I risk it? Would I jump in with: "But this is what past al dente means!" Why take a chance, I thought. Why start another family feud? Haven't all of us had a lifetime of drama already? Just stay calm and consult with Mr. BBQ.

I leaned over to my husband. Before I could open my mouth he whispered in my ear: "Do you want mine? It's not cooked."  I grinned. "Is the sky blue?" Looking at my other table mates, I marveled at this situation. Where were the happy faces? There was pasta in front of us! We should have been eating and joking and pouring the wine. How could this be? Weren't we all Italian? How are we supposed to explain what al dente means to other cultures when we can't even agree amongst ourselves

That's when I decided I would be crazy to add my opinion to this magnum opus. Sing high: "I love it!"  Sing low: "I hate it!" I can't do it, I thought to myself.  If I open up that Pandora's opera box of al dente definitions, I may get a noodle in the head.  It's just not worth it. I ate in silence, contributed nothing to the conversation, traded plates quietly with my husband (cringing as I did so in case anyone noticed and confronted me with: "What, are you crazy?") and ate all of his share, too.  That was one night I definitely broke the 1/2-cup-per-person-rule.  I could have starred as Woman Versus Food at my table that night-- I know an opportunity when I see one--  but honestly, I just can't eat that much.

You know that explanation: throw pasta at the wall and when it sticks, it's cooked?  Well for me it's more like: throw pasta at the wall and if it bounces back more than a little, it's cooked.  That's how it is to my dente anyway. Which explains why my mom has this crazy way of cooking pasta. She leans to the person closest to her when the pasta is past the half-way mark and takes a filo out of the pot. It goes like this:

Mom: "Che dici, e cotta?" 
Taste tester:  "Ummm...two more minutes."
This prompts the next tester in the kitchen:  "Let me check!" Another filo goes out. Taste tester Number Two:  "Ummm...Io dico five more minutes." Other fili get distributed and while everyone is talking and tasting, mom drains the pasta and nobody notices. No one ever complains and almost everyone has seconds. But if there's ever any whining about the pasta not being al dente, we never really know whose dente mom went with. 

 In fact, in our family the only thing we agree on when it comes to Al Dente is that it's the name of one of our favorite restaurants. I mean, why expend all your energy on pasta? That would leave us no room to argue about who makes the best cannoli.  I've heard it's Francesca's Italian Bakery in Scarborough but don't hold me to it as I haven't checked out this tip yet.  In case you get there before I do, please spread the word.  If they're as good as they say they are, we want to keep them in business for as long as possible. And check out Al Dente Restaurant, too.  Here's their web site Delicious food, really good prices, a great place for private parties. Definitely worth the trip to Markham.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Life is Like a Bowl of Pasta

Random thoughts from a pasta lover

Is life like a bowl of pasta?  While gazing at the mile-long display of dried pasta in the grocery store last week, this question came to me.  Pasta was on sale, three for $5.00; a mix and match type of deal.  Do I pick farfalle, spaghettini and bowties, or penne, spaghetti and bowties?  Or maybe just two spaghetti and one bowtie?  Spaghetti is loved by all in our house and bowties are just fun. 

I stood in the isle pondering my options and asked myself why I was taking so long.  I mean, why sweat the small stuff, as the book says.  (I read that book by the way-- a couple of times, maybe more-- but still agonize over three for $5.00 deals and other simple options.) And so, the question had to be answered.  Is life like a bowl of pasta?  I think it is.  I have an even 10 answers that tell me so. I went with 10 because 8 or 9 (or even 11) would be a little odd to me, someone who insists on sweating over the little things, even though she read the book a couple of times and maybe even more. If you have thoughts about how life is like a bowl of pasta, please share. Random thoughts are good as 3 for $5.00 deals. 

How life is like a bowl of pasta:

  1. Sometimes you feel like a wet noodle.
  2. Sometimes good luck drops into your life like grated parmesan on your plate.
  3. Variety makes the heart sing.
  4. Don't take more than your share.
  5. Be thankful for what's in front of you-- don't wish for something  nobody cooked!
  6. Fussing over the details makes all the difference. (If you disagree, ask yourself why you're still making tomato sauce from scratch when you can buy it at the store.)
  7. There are days when all you really want is pasta but all you have is tomatoes.
  8. Sometimes it seems everyone is getting a bigger portion than you...and times when your bowl is overflowing with the best ingredients life has to offer.
  9. It's best to work together to clean up our messes.
  10. Savor every bite-- it's over before you know it.
More about pasta next week. How can this basic dish start an argument in most families?  It can and it does.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Nectar of the Neighborhoods

Eight years ago, a friend of ours bought a wine-making business. We were happy to support him, though I was skeptical about making our own wine. Despite the wonderful smells that lingered for weeks in and around our neighborhood every Fall when I was growing up, I couldn't erase the thought of fresh grapes fermenting into a stiff and unsavory turpentine-like-beverage that never seemed to bother our fathers-- a joke that kept many of us laughing for at least a decade. Come to think of it, I remember a gathering with friends last year when we were still howling about that wine and how, out of desperation, one of us discovered it was perfect for clearing the bathroom-sink drain one day.

 The wine-making business has changed a great deal from those 
early-immigrant days. It's not as much fun as it used to be back when our dads rearranged our cement-block garages for at least a month every Fall...though there's no question today's end product tastes a lot better! Driving in and around Toronto, we'd see the signs Uva per Musto outside Darrigo's grocery store and that's when we knew the grapes had come to town. Our fathers lined up their wine-making equipment in the garage and hustled in the crates. We neighborhood kids would move from garage to garage (our makeshift outdoor living rooms) where activities were infinitely more entertaining than staring at the TV.  

We'd gather around the wine presses like they were Christmas trees and circle around the thundering damigiane.  Our dads would swap notes and press the grapes. We'd show our strength by adding some muscle. My dad would make red, our Friulano neighbors would make white and share their grappa-making secrets. We'd visit uncles in their cement-block garages and wood sheds and listen to more wine-making secrets.  It was a time of great excitement; one that lasted weeks from start to finish with us kids drinking a fresh and bubbly grape juice and our dads tasting, testing, waiting, and hoping for the best. Of course many times we got the worst but that only led to more adult conversations that lasted all winter long and a decisive determination to do better next Fall. 

Today, larger-than-life damigiane collect dust in city garages and we no longer see the luscious grapes that turn into musto.  Instead, we start with the musto and we're bottled and done in less than an hour. But before I get too nostalgic, did I mention that today's wine tastes a lot better?  Our wine-making memories will always be with us, and while we're reminiscing, it's nice to enjoy a glass that pleases the palette! Here's how we made it this year:

Inside a beautifully decorated store, we sanitize and prepare our bottles. We choose seals and discuss labels. The fermenting grape juice moves from the easy-to-manage jug into the bottles.  

It's corked and the loose seals placed on top. Extreme heat shrinks the seals into place and the bottles are set aside to be labeled.  

 It takes three seconds for the heat coil to shrink each seal.  End result?  The final product looks as good as any bottle at the LCBO.

Today's wine jugs are one-third the size of a classic damigiana.
A corking machine makes it easy.
We repeat the procedure. First white; then red. We load up the car, pay the bill and go for lunch where we discuss politics and globalization and the complex issues the world faces today. We stop to buy Halloween candy and a few chocolate-covered raisins to chew on for our trip home and I think about how our kids used to come with us when they were younger. How we'd stop by the lake to breathe in the view and look for interesting stones and driftwood before riding back home.  I think about the prosperity they've known in their young lives-- one we couldn't even dream about as early immigrant kids. I tell these stories with the hopes that one day, when they're enjoying a glass of fine wine, they'll tell their children about a generation of nonni who worked so hard to make a nectar that wouldn't taste like turpentine. And how, despite their disappointments in their efforts most years, they drank it with great pride and with the hopes that their children would have a better life one day. One better than anything they could ever dream of.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Bye for now my Sweet Shepherd's Peppers

At this time of year I silently mourn the end of Shepherd's peppers. Not to be seen in any grocery store around here til sometime late next summer, they disappear quiet ceremony bidding them goodbye, no poem to describe how unique and glorious they are.  Am I the only one wondering why these heavenly sweet-tasting peppers can't be available year-round? Assuming they can be grown in local greenhouses, I figure my wish is well within the 100-mile radius for food lovers so I don't understand why we're bombarded with the other variety of red pepper for the rest of the year, a pepper which I find so ill-tasting I can't even bear to bring one home anymore.  

I know I've roasted and preserved a bushel of Shepherd's and they're protected by my cantina walls right now but it's not the same. Fresh is fresh. And so this spoiled brat said a silent prayer in her kitchen this past weekend to keep all local farmers--  especially those who grow Shepherd's peppers--  safe over the winter months until we enjoy their precious produce again next year. My quiet ceremony paired a few Shepherd's with other favorite veggies for a macedonia, a mix of veggies for a stir-fry that goes great with steak, chicken, meatballs-- even pizza and pasta. 

Here's my recipe: along with your peppers, wash and cut up celery, mushrooms and rapini. Add a generous amount of olive oil to a heavy-bottomed skillet. Once warm, add two to three large cloves of minced garlic and peperoncino to your taste.  Cook and stir for a minute or two. Add rapini and celery and cook, (always stirring on medium heat) for a few more minutes. Add mushrooms and peppers, and when almost fully cooked,  half a cup of finely grated parmigiano.  I add an onion or two to almost everything I cook but I didn't this time.  I think onion would add great flavor as would other veggies.  See what works for you, the combinations are endless. I'll be looking for substitutes til I spot the first of the Shepherd's peppers next year.  God bless farmers everywhere. Buon appetito! Buon pranzo.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Giving Thanks for Turkey Leftovers

Turkey was the main ingredient for many of us last week.  I hope 
you had a happy holiday. We had a couple of lively and memorable Thanksgiving gatherings stuffing ourselves like a bunch of turkeys.  Our appetites for several rounds of nutrition and fine wine reminds me of that lively song La Societa dei Mangnaccioni, do you remember that one?  It's the story of a group of young people who call themselves The Society of Big Eaters. They live to eat, drink and enjoy life to the fullest not caring about much else. My sister and I used to sing it a lot many lunas ago when we were teens and too young to fully appreciate all the work that goes on before the food arrives at the dinner table! 

I don't know any songs about leftovers but I do remember a funny commercial on TV about a young boy who can't wait to eat dinner, then upon seeing it, he sighs heavily and groans:  "Leftovers again?"  As a kid, I used to laugh. As an adult I think: "Leftovers--alright! Now how can I rearrange them so I'm not on the receiving end of those heavy sighs?"  This year, I used my Thanksgiving kitchen harvest to make a couple of turkey pot pies. Number of groans: I thought I'd share my recipe with you. 

Here's how I layered them from the bottom up:  start with a generous layer of cooked turkey, cut into cubes and top with gravy.  
I added some peperoncino. Layer your stuffing next (if you're lucky enough to have any left) followed by whatever vegetable you've got. I used leftover garlic mashed cauliflower. Next I organized a layer of sliced sweet potatoes and topped it all off with traditional mashed potatoes.  Bake in the oven for 30 minutes at 375 degrees. Easy, delizioso, and works well for any society of big eaters. Try layering your leftover chicken, fish, beans or simply vegetables. I'm looking forward to exploring a few creative combinations over the winter months when warm pies are welcomed most.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

It's a Good Day for Harvest Soup

Rather than wishing for the rainy weather to go away, I gathered some of my market veggies to make a chill-defying soup this morning.  This miserable weather calls for some comfort food.  Soup, zuppa, minestra, and plain, delicious many memories come to my mind beginning with my mom's steamy stracciatella.  I used to watch her beat the eggs and grated cheese with a fork and wondered if I could ever master that technique. She often added tiny meatballs to her brodo that were so drenched in parmiggiano, inhaling its fumes was almost as good as savouring it. 
And then there was the dreaded Green Goober Soup, as my sister called it, concocted by our vita-sana (healthy-living) mother when the Osterizer came to roost in our kitchen.  It was the enemy of all Children Against Veggies. My Ma's blender phase of pureed greens lasted longer than my sister could stand and was served piping hot to her loud protests much too often.  As my Uncle Tony used to say: "Chi santo mi salva?" (Which saint is going to save me?")

This harvest soup is always welcomed in our home and great for school lunches, as long as you have a reliable thermos.  We've tried a few models, once again having to relearn the lesson that you get what you pay for.  Here is my recipe.

Harvest Soup
2 to 3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 bunch of leeks, chopped (bottoms only)
4 or 5 carrots
2 sweet potatoes
Fresh ginger
4 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1 to 1 1/2 cups of milk

Set a medium-sized pot with water on the stove to boil your sweet potatoes for five minutes. This will make them easier to peel and chop. Peel and roughly chop carrots and cut up a piece of ginger (roughly the size of a tablespoon). Next, add one to two tablespoons of olive oil to a heavy soup pot.  Add minced garlic and chopped up leeks.  Stir-fry for a few minutes, then add carrots and ginger.  Mix well.  Drain sweet potatoes and run under cold water so they're easy to handle.  Peel, chop, and add them to the mix. Cook for one to two minutes, then add broth and cover.  Cook on low to medium heat for roughly 30 minutes.  Puree using your favourite blender (I use one similar to the old Green-Goober machine). Stir in one to one-and-a-half cups of milk and keep on low heat.  Do not boil. Add salt and pepper to taste.  Garnish with either  parsley, sour cream or nutmeg and savour.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Fresh is Beautiful at the Market

We spent some of our morning at the Farmer's Market.  We walk there often on Saturday mornings from spring to fall.  It's a chance to visit with neighbors, exchange recipe information with total strangers and bump into old friends who live on the other side of town.  Today we joked with friends who asked us to try the new variety of Strawberries called the "trymes".  What are those we asked?  "See the small sign over the berries there?  It says "Try Me!"  
Oh...abbiamo capito...

This month we'll make a point of bundling up and going to the market every Saturday.  There are only four fresh market days left until spring.  

It was unusually cold today; a sign of things to come.  Although I'm Canadian, my Mediterranean blood protests at the wintry winds that blow this time of year. Wearing my fingerless gloves, I wondered how many days are left before the first snow falls.  I will relish these fall days and enjoy every bit of sunshine that comes our way.

It took a while to decide which one of these crusty masterpieces we would take home.  Look at them...aren't they gorgeous?  To me, baked bread is art as fine as any Chagall in the gallery. 

When I see freshly baked bread, I often think of my Zio Peppino who used to bake the best bread every week.  I watched him braid the loaves and push the tins into the oven; then wait with little patience 'til they emerged golden-brown delicious.  They always looked so perfect and so did these loaves I saw today.  

I carried the biggest bunch of celery home like a football.  It was grande, grande and a challenge to fit it comfortably into the fridge. 

In this vegetable heaven, I feel a Mediterranean stir-fry coming on.  Wonder what it will be?  Something that shaves down that Capo di Celery I wrestled with...and something with no tomatoes. We've been submerged in red sauce for weeks now.  Time to enjoy the color green.  I will see what comes together in my cucina and share my recipe with you next week.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Covered in Tomatoes

Can you hear the Tarantella music in the air?  It's Tomato High Holy Season.

Please forgive me for disappearing for a while.  I've been covered in tomato sauce as have many of my friends and other family members.  I've taken breaks from canning and preserving to help my kids back into their fall routines, a juggling challenge molto supremo.

Yes, it's party time for those of us who love tomatoes and all of the memories they bring.  And even though this time of year makes my pasta-loving heart sing, I struggle with the same questions every year.  Do I or do I not can tomatoes this year?  School is about to start, can I manage it all? Will I end up at the mall back-to-school-clothes-shopping with my kids when I finally notice sauce on my shoe, even though I've checked all garments and accessories before leaving home?  No matter. Tomatoes win out.  And they did again this year.  As a friend of my says:  you can buy tomato sauce at the store!  I know.  But when Mother Nature shows us how generous she is, I'm in awe of her majestic ways, and I bow down to her in thanks.  Then I spend weeks wiping down my kitchen in an exhausted, exhilarated state.  Was it worth it?  I come up with the same answer year after year.  "YES!"

It's not just the sauce.  It's the bonding that preserving tomatoes brings.  We swap stories with neighbors and friends and laugh about which distractions caused an unforeseen turn of events.  We hear about the time a batch burnt...we sympathize about the occasional cracked jar...and then there are those few son-of-a-badda-bing seals that don't take every year and so we have to start over.  I love this time of year.

When I was a little girl, my dad sold pasta and pasta-related products, including tomato sauce.  Since the company he worked for offered employees a special discounted rate, we didn't jar our own tomato sauce. That was the case for numerous years, until we moved out to the country and my Ciociari grandparents came with us.  Though my mom was pretty traditional, her parents taught us many more of the old country ways and I loved it.   My nonno grew a huge and wonderful vegetable garden and taught me many of the gardening tips I use today, though I no longer grow my own tomatoes.  But many of the old country traditions are still with me and I enjoy knowing that my oldest is already interested in learning how to make eggplant parm.  You need lots of jarred tomatoes for that and so this weekend will be dedicated to canning our final bushel.  After I've wiped down my kitchen and raked a few leaves (yes, they're already piling up in my backyard) I'll share more recipes with you.  In the meantime, if your kitchen is filled with all that canning tomatoes and other vegetables brings, I hope you're having fun. ~

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Zen and the Art of Roasted Peppers

If I didn't have my kitchen, I'm pretty sure I would be a Tibetan monk by now. I get more and more breathless as I age.  Enter my breath again as I lean over my kitchen counter in one of my favorite yoga di cucina positions: reaching for the eggplant with one hand while extending my fingers to grasp the cutting board with the other. I'm pretty sure this is because I feel the need for school to start again.  Routines are good.  They can lead to enlightenment. 

And so for now, I'm practicing deep breathing in my Kundalini Kitchen.  Here, I am one with the Universe without even trying. Other favorite kitchen yoga positions: dropping handfuls of pasta into boiling water after I've mindlessly stirred my sauce one more time, or nursing a morning frittata til it's fluffy and just done. Without those rituals keeping my chakras open, it's Tibet here I come. And I won't be stopping to pack my prayer shawl either.
This week, I maintained Universal Consciousness by canning a bushel of roasted red peppers, though I admit I was out of breath by the time I had finished.  Still,  it was worth it as was the trip to our local farm, a place I love to visit this time of year.  We will go often from now til the end of Tomato High Holy Season in September. It is Zen at its finest for me.

Before I share my red pepper recipe with you, here are a few pictures of my favorite farm stand, about half an hour's drive from our house. 
I took one of these bellezze home with me this week. Aren't they beautiful?

I'll be going back for these soon and some fagiolini and melanzane 
Peppers tempting visitors to preserve even more 

You know you're aging when you're more interested in the arrival of vegetable preserving season than the high-healed pumps you fell in love with at the mall!  And to roast and preserve red peppers: clean your jars thoroughly, ensure you have the proper amount of jar lids and rims and prepare all your canning equipment. Wash and dry peppers. Rub with a little olive oil and place in a roasting pan or heavy baking tin. Grill on your BBQ or broil in your oven until blackened on one side; turn and repeat. When peppers are mostly blackened, place them in a large bowl and cover with a plate.  Let them sit for about 20 to 30 minutes while they steam in their own juices. Using a large bowl covered with a plate will help you catch and preserve all the pepper juices.

When cool enough to handle comfortably, remove the stem, skins and seeds.  Resist the temptation to run the peppers under water.  Those seeds are malandrini...harder to remove than bread crumbs in butter...but if you run your peppers under water all your efforts will be undone.  Keep the flavor and run your hands under running water from time to time instead to eliminate seeds. Remove as many of them as possible. The work you put in now will result in a better tomato and red pepper sauce or pizza topping down the road.

When each pepper is cleaned up, cut into half-inch by four-inch strips and drop them into another bowl. After you've cleaned and cut up your last pepper, drizzle the juices from your tin and first bowl to this bowl.  Season with salt, olive oil, a little red wine vinegar, chopped up garlic and mix thoroughly. I use roughly three to four cloves of garlic, two tablespoons of oil to one tablespoon of vinegar for each 10-12 pepper batch.  Preserve in Mason Jars following proper canning instructions. If you've never preserved food in Mason Jars before, this is a good web site to begin with:  

I boil the jars for 10 minutes.  Once cool, I keep them on my counter undisturbed for 24 hours so I can check the seal one last time before placing them in my cantina, another place where I am well, happy, calm and peaceful.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Sicilian Orange Salad with a Twist

We were all home for two weeks and-- when we weren't getting on each others' nerves--  it was very nice.  As my mother often said when she tried to get us all moving in the same direction: Ogni Testa e Tribunale.  Roughly translated:  Too many Chiefs, not enough Indians.  What can you do?  Family. Can't live with them...can't live without them.

We hung out mostly in and around our backa yarda and shared lots of laughs and food with other family, friends and neighbors.  We also discovered Torroncino, a new gelato.  Mannaggia. Between rounds of gardening, the Torroncino whispered to me and the hot sun whispered back.  A break is what you need right now.  And something icy cold.

We had Aunt Josie's chocolate cake when she came for dinner, Mr. BBQ's peach cobbler when family was here, and for neighbors:  a dish of Torroncino gelato topped with two tablespoons of freshly brewed espresso, two tablespoons of brandy, a chocolate biscotto and a few brandied cherries preserved by nonna last summer.  I've had more sugar these past two weeks than I've had since Christmas. We can't do this anymore. Sitting at my kitchen table this morning browsing through a cookbook, I came across this quote from a woman named Judith Viorst: "Strength is the capacity to break a chocolate bar into four pieces with your bare hands-- and then eat just one of the pieces."  Uh-huh.  Holidays and strength just don't go together.  But it's time to get back to the way we normally eat around here or someone is going to get sick.  I haven't had a Sicilian salad yet this summer and since I'm alone all day today for the first time in a very long time, I made one for lunch. 
Here's my recipe. Work in layers from bottom to top:
6 to 8 leaves,  Romaine lettuce
Two handfuls, sunflower sprouts
A handful of chopped red onion
A handful of cherry slices, walnuts and sunflower seeds
Top with slices of half a large orange 
Dress with a mix of olive oil, organic, unfiltered apple cider vinegar, a little orange juice and organic sea salt

The Torroncino is all gone. I'm cooking lots of vegetables for dinner.