Monday, 27 June 2011

Happy Canada Day!

This is the week to reminisce about our roots and be thankful for all we have here.  While many of us will sing or hear our national anthem on Friday, there's another song I think of at this time of year called Che Sara by I Ricchi e Poveri.  Do you remember that tune from the early 70s?  It's a song about someone who decides to leave their hilltop village because it's almost lifeless. Their friends have all moved away and, as they decide to follow the same path, they wonder what the future holds for them.  Many artists have released this beautiful, very moving song over the years and I've provided a link here if you want to hear Patrizio Buanne's version.
Sponsored by his Zia who had emigrated to Canada in 1928, my dad sailed for Halifax from Sicily in 1951.  He took the Nea Hellas-- a Greek-owned passenger steam ship, leaving his hometown of Trapani where he owned and managed a movie theater after the war.  No one had money to go to the movies anymore, and there were no jobs to be found.  The rebuilding of Europe was moving at a snail's pace, so he took what little money he had and bought a one-way ticket to Canada.  Final destination?  Toronto.  His first job assignment would be to remove tins of baked bread from ovens in a downtown bread factory.

My mom left her hometown of Sora (53 miles south of Rome) and sailed on the Conte Biancamano in 1953. Half her family had left two years before; the rest would follow two years afterward.  The bombing that had taken place in and around Rome had devastated much of central Italy. My mother's family lost almost everything they had. They were one of many who decided to start a new life overseas. She found work quickly as one of hundreds of seamstress workers in Toronto's garment district.  She was only 16.

Like millions of other immigrants around the world, my parents brought their culture with them and adopted some of the new.  Those of us who are children of immigrants shared in their often painful struggle, understand why outrageous humor is often necessary to survive it, and rejoice in their resilient spirits.

We have much to celebrate!  In honor of Canada Day, I have made a red-and-white Tiramisu. Mine is a low-fat version as I've learned a bit about this dessert over the years!  Many of the traditional Tiramisu recipes are heavy with mascarpone making one wonder if they shouldn't really be called Tiramigiu (meaning you get a slice of drag-me-down dessert instead of an end of the meal pick-me-up). 

When I first started making Tiramisu,  I followed the full-mascarpone version.  Eventually I cut the fat by half; then by a third, and finally I eliminated the mascarpone altogether.  I find the lower-fat version tastes just as good, but you may not agree.  If that's the case, you may want to alter it further or go back to using mascarpone.  There is no question about it-- it tastes buonissimo!  To give your taste buds a maximum treat, this dessert needs to refrigerate for 24 hours before serving. Here is what you'll need to make it:

One 300g container of extra-smooth ricotta
One 650g container of vanilla yogurt
One 5.3 oz package of lady finger biscuits
One 8 oz package of whipping cream
A full square of semi-sweet baker's chocolate
A little strong coffee (about 4 oz)
A dash of rum (about 1/2 tbsp)
Slivered almonds and fresh raspberries

Brew your coffee and let cool slightly.  In the meantime,  mix ricotta and yogurt together in a large bowl.  After they're fully blended, pour one-third of this mixture into a second bowl.  Melt chocolate and add to this second container.

Pour your coffee into a third container and mix with rum.  Dip both sides of your lady fingers into the mixture.  This is a quick dip; don't let them soak.  Place your dipped lady fingers at the bottom of your container.  (I cut mine to fit my glass bowl but you may not need to do this if your serving bowl has a wider base.)  Add some of the white ricotta-yogurt mix on top, followed by a handful of slivered almonds and some berries.  Keep working in layers in this way, reserving the chocolate mixture for the middle of your dessert.  Next, whip up your cream. Add sugar to taste.  Top your Tiramisu with whipped cream and finish with berries. If you prefer, add more slivered almonds as well.  Serves 6 to 8. 

Accompany this sweet treat with strong espresso or iced caffelatte... depending on the temperature of the day.  This summer is turning out to be much cooler than usual so who knows what highs or lows we can expect by Friday?  Buon Divertimento!  Happy celebrating!  Hook up your music; I hope you have a great time.  Here's the second part of my playlist; some of my all-time favourites  and what we'll be listening to this Canada Day.

Italian-Canadian Summer Playlist (Part 2)
1.  Che Sara-  I Ricchi e Poveri
2.  Heart of Gold-  Neil Young
3.  Gigi l'Amoroso-  Dalida
4.  I Get By with a Little Help from My Friends-  The Beatles
5.  O Sole Mio-  Luciano Pavarotti
6.  I'll be There-  Michael Jackson
7.  Mambo Italiano-  Rosemary Clooney
8. I Believe in You-  Amanda Marshall
9. Arrivederci Roma-  Robertino Loretti
10.  Share the Land-  the Guess Who
If you have any immigrant stories to share, check out the Italian-Canadian Museum.  Here is the link:  Let's safeguard this piece of history for our families.

As a final note, I just learned that I Ricchi e Poveri will be performing a the CHIN international picnic this coming weekend!  Check performance times at:  Guess where I'll be on Saturday night?!

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Party of One, Here I Come

 Breakfast is fresh fruit, cottage cheese topped with walnuts and real maple syrup, and cardamom tea.
These days I'm up earlier than usual.  School is almost out and my anxiety is rising. Heading for the back porch with my breakfast, I spend time just trying to calm myself down.  Summer brings a whole new set of parenting challenges.  But for this very moment I just want to focus on three things I won't be missing this July and August.  Making lunches...making lunches and....making lunches. No sandwich or any other healthy, and hope-they'll-like-it meal packaged in Tupperware can ever replace the taste of a fresh bowl of pasta with chicken, veggies or black beans on top.  I need summer so I can come back from the dead-lunch-ideas nest I've been roosting in since April.  This alone is reason to celebrate.

Looking at my long list of must-do's this morning, my anxiety is getting the best of me.  My party is unraveling.  I think it's because I stopped living in real time somewhere in the 90s.  Somewhere between the rise of Britney Spears and the day skank officially became a word, I entered a time warp. What happened was, I had a heart attack while I was driving my oldest to dance one night. I'm pretty sure it altered my brain permanently.  

That was the night I saw my first three-inches-above-the-lowrise-jeans thong and almost hit the car in front of me.  I felt my foot lose control of the gas pedal.  Next thing I knew, I had to slam on the breaks.  Holy Mother of God, who is walking on the sidewalk over there and is this what Nonna meant when she used to bite her hand and then wave it at us yelling Mannaggia al'America! when we wore tank tops?  Though in that first-thong-view moment I have to admit my silent thoughts went all Tony Soprano on me. WT#!!!

Lunch is anxiety served with a black bean salad that includes celery, green peppers, and lots of balsamic.

How on earth could I raise these kids in an age gone all sexo techno?  I'm not saying I want to go back to the days when we feared our parents and Nonna hovered over us praying  Dio t'aiuta e la Madonna t'accompagna--  may God help you and the Madonna walk beside you--  every time we walked out the door.  But isn't watching pop stars and their wannabes letting it all hang out about as crazy as the days when we had The Strap?

I will take wisdom wherever I can find it.  Life is complicated and who am I to judge?  I found comfort in the words of TV mob boss  Tony Soprano when he told his daughter Meadow:  "It may be 2001 out there but in this house it's still 1956!  Capish?  2001...1956."  

Those words--  and Carmela's long and often lonely hours in the kitchen--   carried me a long way.  My husband (Mr. BBQ) and I decided that for some things, it was going to be 1956 in our family. Which reminds me.  Here's something else I won't miss when school's out:  dropping off my kids  in the morning while listening to don't-hold-back pop stars like Bruno Mars singing about a day of doing nothing while having his hand in his pants.  Really?  Did you know we just had our breakfast?  I don't react. I am, after all, an older mom and there have to be some advantages to having your kids later in life.  I often push the button, though, so Mr. Mars can enjoy his hand in his pants in private.

Here are my three wishes for summer:

~ that children everywhere will be safe no matter where they roam
~ that someone somewhere would market a T-shirt that says: We could learn a lot from the 50s (or something similar) and
~ that this piece of writing can contribute in some small way to the idea of bringing back a portion of the world's lost dignity.  Are you with me on this one?   If so, please share this post with others.

Here's to finding the middle ground!  I think it's somewhere between the 50s and where we are today.  To ease my anxiety this summer, Mr. BBQ and I will be spending a lot of time just hanging out with our kids.  I have a playlist of both Italian and English songs from a time when the world had a lot more class and they'll be playing in our backyard. There are current pop songs with lyrics worth singing, and I've included a couple of those here, too.  

Summer Playlist (Part One)
1.  Come Prima-  Mario Marini
2.  How Fragile We Are-  Isaac Hayes
3.  Ciao, Ciao Bambina-  Domenico Modugno
4.  My Life Story-  Gladys Knight and The Pips
5.  Gloria-  Umberto Tozzi
6. Price Tag-   Jesse J.
7. Rose Rosse-  Massimo Ranieri
8. Sail Away-  Styx
9. Parlami d'Amore Mariu-  Mario Lanza
10. This One's For the Girls-  Martina McBride

Black Bean Salad
Two to three cans of your favorite beans (I use mostly the Black and Red Kidney variety).  Rinse well under cold water and place in large bowl.  Dice and add the following: two to three ribs of, red or green onion to your taste, a large green pepper, some red or orange pepper, and balsamic vinegar to taste.  Refrigerate for an hour before serving so the flavors mix together.  Serve on a bed of mixed greens with cherry tomatoes, your favorite cheese and a few olives on top.  Tastes great with a piece of grilled bread!

What Oldie Goldies are on your summer playlist?

Monday, 20 June 2011

The Night a Stranger Knocked on our Door

When we were playing with cousins, it was hard to leave any of our outdoor games to head for the kitchen table.  

"Can't we just eat out here, Ma?  Why do we have to come in?"

We had all the family we needed outside-- and besides, didn't she know how hard it was to cut short a game of hide and seek?  Even if it was for pasta?  It was no trouble for any of us to declare someone  "it" with one hand while balancing pizza in the other.

"Tutti a tavola! Right now!"

Right now was another way my mother had of saying:  "You're gonna get it!"  and we'd march inside on the triple after that.  

There were countless gatherings with cousins and cousins of cousins when we were growing up.  It didn't have to be a birthday or special occasion, it just had to be the weekend and there would be a gathering.  For years, every Saturday night, we would drive to my Uncle Joe's or he and his family would come to our house.  We'd feast on mountains of food; then our parents would stay in the kitchen to talk while we kids found something more creative to do.  We'd trade Batman-card doubles, play Crazy Eights, and laugh so loud we'd finally be banished to the basement. 

One night, when the party was at our house, my cousins, sister and I decided our entertainment was going to come from making crank phone calls.  I don't remember how old we were.  Old enough to be left alone but not quite teens.  We were entertained alright--  but not in the way we had expected.  

Paying tribute to our dual culture, we started with our Mother Tongue, and it went like this:


"E! Signo!  Do you have Pasta e Fashooo?!"

Barely containing ourselves, we'd hang up and roar with laughter.

And then in English:  


"Hello?  Do you have Aunt Jemima in a box?

"Pardon me?"

"Well, you'd better go catch her!"

Huge guffaws.

And back to our roots:


"E Cumpa, pisce fritte baccala!"

Children of the 60s and 70s, take a bow.  You are the geniuses behind call display and call back services.  My gang of dialers can't take credit for any of it, however.  Our prank-calling careers ended almost as quickly as they began.  In the midst of our thrills, which lasted quite some time, there was a knock on the door.  We didn't hear it, of course, as our noses were furrowed deep in the phone book.  My aunt came midway down the stairs to quiet us down.  

"Shhhh! Someone is at the door and you're making too much noise!"

Someone was at the door?  Live entertainment was much more exciting than dialing-up trouble so we followed her up the stairs to see who it might be.  I looked up and the rest unfolded in slow motion.  A hulky police officer stood in the doorway.  His shirt was crispy blue; his shoes big and shiny. He was talking to my parents, my aunt walked up beside my uncle who stood next to my dad.  We kids froze by the kitchen door.     

Eyes bulging, I can remember thinking:  Someone must have recognized our voices!  What's going to happen to us?  Will the police talk to us, or will it be our parents?  Doesn't matter.  Either way, we're dead.  I looked over at my sister and cousins to see what they might be thinking. They were lifeless.  I quaked in my slippers and prepared for the worst. 

Then he was gone. My mother closed the door behind him.  Our parents exchanged a few words.  Someone had to go outside. My dad took off his slippers and opened the closet door for his shoes.  And we, the four statues, awaited our fate.  "Zambo is barking too much," said my mom.  "Someone called the police.  Go downstairs and don't make too much noise!  It could be upsetting the dog and we don't want any more complaints."

Don't worry, Ma.  You don't have to tell us to be quiet.  Seeing a police officer at our door took care of that.

 This summer, I'll be listening for noise levels.  If they're too low, there may be trouble brewing, and if they're too may be pretty much the same thing.  These last two weeks of school, I'm taking a break from elaborate cooking.  The end of the year crunch means schedules conflict more than usual for us.  Although I rarely buy them, only cold cuts can save me now.  Lots of veggies, a little summer-squash dip and formaggio di Bufala (we finally tried it and is it ever good).  Some whole-wheat or multigrain bread and olives and it's dinner.  

I keep a platter of fruit kabobs in the fridge so there is a healthy-and-easy snack for later in the evening.  ~  I'm looking forward to a slower-paced summer and the different cooking this season brings.  How about you?  How are you changing your cooking routine now that summer is here?   

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

limoncello.jpg (901×1504)

There is an Italian blog I like to follow called Over A Tuscan Stove.   It's full of authentic pictures and recipes; not just from Tuscany.  Recently the stories and pictures were from Sicily, a place I visited only once many years ago, and one that's very dear to me as that's where my dad emigrated from. 

I learned today that Judy, the chef and blogger behind Over A Tuscan Stove,  lost her mom last Friday night.  Judy's mom, known to many as La Contessa, liked to make limoncello for her friends and family from the lemon tree in her yard in California.

Why not remember her mom in this special way?  In honor of La Contessa's life,  Judy asked her family in California to print memorial cards that will feature her mom's picture along with the recipe for the limoncello she liked to make for her family and friends.  Judy's nephew has already harvested lemons from his grandmother's tree and is making limoncello for her memorial service.  What a beautiful way to celebrate her life!

I raise a glass to La Contessa this evening--  long may her memory and her recipes live.  Here is the one she will be remembered for:

Soak the zest of 5 organic lemons in 2 cups of whole grain alcohol for 3 days.  Make a simple syrup by heating 2 cups of water and     1-1/2 cups of sugar. Mix together and strain out the lemon peels.  Keep in the freezer (it won't freeze but thicken instead and will pour out as an icy drink). Share with family and friends and enjoy.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Peaches, tomatoes and other summer stories

We had two kitchens in our house when I was growing up, like many families we knew in and around our neighbourhood.  One upstairs and one downstairs.  Mostly we used the upstairs kitchen but come July, August, and every festa--  and there seemed to be a lot of those--  we migrated to the basement.  It was twice as big as the one we squeezed into everyday on the main floor of our modest bungalow, and I liked the calm colour of blue we had down there.

Anna and Danny lived next door and Ornella lived across the street.  Together with my sister and me, the five of us hung out on most summer days.  Sometimes we'd be in our backyard (offering a swing set, picnic table, and a view of my Uncle's huge tomato garden next door).  Some days we'd be at Ornella's where there were no fences across three family yards and we'd run from cherry tree to the radicchio patch in her aunt's backyard, to cherry tree again. Her Aunt Dina grew the biggest radicchio patch in the neighbourhood and I couldn't wait to taste some of its bittersweetness every year.  She'd knock on our door with a big bunch in her hand at least a couple of times each summer and to me it was as good as ice cream. 

 At times we'd hang out in Anna and Danny's backyard where the grape vines grew above the porch.  I spent a lot of time gazing at the perfectly shaped leaves and followed the pathways of the vines.  By September, Anna's dad would be passing out handfuls of green grapes for all of us kids to enjoy.

Unless it was raining, on summer days we were outside riding bikes, skipping, and playing handball along the wall.  At least once each summer, we'd write our own plays and put on a theatrical performance in our garage (next to the wine damigiane) taking what our mother's would shell out for costumes. 

By dinner time, we were ready for a rest.  And anyway, we knew we'd be back out on the street in an hour or two to meet up with the rest of the kids in the neighbourhood for a huge game of hide-and-seek or baseball in the big field at the end of the road.

Dinner meant peaches in wine for my parents and milk for us (a beverage I detest to this day!)  The different shades of purple, red and orange in the wine glasses reminded me of the evening sun.  I was fascinated by the nuances of the colours.  We got to eat the peaches after the wine was gone, though I found they looked better than they tasted and usually stopped after a couple of bites. 

Summertime meant less pasta and more bread.  Bread with cheese.  Bread with olives.  Bread with salami, prosciutto and capicollo.  And my mom's tomatoes with homemade mayonnaise and capperi.  Her mayonnaise was fresh, tangy and delicious.   The capers, a salty bite of heaven that I'd sneak from the jar every chance I got.  Here is the recipe:

Place an egg yolk in the blender with one tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar (I prefer vinegar), and a 1/2 teaspoon of salt.  Blend together, adding a 1/2 cup of olive oil very slowly.  Blend until it thickens.  If your mayonnaise is too thick, thin with a little lemon or vinegar (whichever you used earlier on in your mix).  Pour onto freshly sliced tomatoes and top with a few capers. 

P.S.  I did it!  I made the gnocchi.  And they were good.  I had to get it out of my system.  I didn't use the cream sauce, though.  I took a bit of a detour, as is the way of the kitchen. 

My parents were coming over for dinner that night and I had planned to make stacks of Veal Parmigiana (which I did) with rice, steamed broccoli and a mixed green salad.  Instead of cooking the rice, I said a Hail Mary and tried my hand at gnocchi with tomato sauce on the side.  Success at last.  They were easier to whip up than I thought they'd be and making them again helped me see where I had gone wrong before.  Using baking potatoes and a potato ricer makes a huge difference.   Everyone liked them.
It was a happy day.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

How to Make Gnocchi Your Family Will Love to Eat

                                                                                                            Original artwork by Flavia

It takes a village to raise a gnocch-ista.  And since it’s my mission to make delectable gnocchi during my lifetime, I consulted with the matriarchs in my famiglia— plus searched through my cookbooks— for all-things-gnocchi this week.  So, how do you make mouth-watering potato delicacies everyone will be happy to eat?  I could tell by the initial sighs; then smiles that came my isn’t easy. Through the laughter and tears shed in my extended family’s kitchens over the years, come these essential tips.  I am so grateful  for their stories.  As the saying goes:  learn from other people’s mistakes, you can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.  And besides, it’s a huge waste of flour and potatoes. 

Study these six tips before you start mixing.  You’ll be happy you did when you’re elbow-deep in sticky dough wondering what possessed you to take on this maddening challenge.

1.  Resist the temptation to boil potatoes in the morning with the intention of making your gnocchi in the afternoon.  Gnocchi is old school.  There is no place you need to be for a few hours other than in the kitchen.  Refrigerating potatoes to knead into a dough on another day will yield poor results.  For optimum fluffiness, this high-maintenance dish calls for fresh, warm potatoes.

2.  Great gnocchi begin and end with dry potatoes.  No exceptions. Potatoes must be warm and dry, dry, dry.  Baking potatoes (also known as Russets or Idahos, or whatever the baked variety is called where you live) are best.  Boil them with their skins on and drain immediately after they’re cooked.  Then put them back into the same (now waterless) pot and onto the hot burner they came from to dry them out completely.  (Just a note here about dry potatoes:  one of my cookbooks suggests baking rather than boiling.  I have trouble with this only because gnocchi come from the humble beginnings I still like to honor today.  My nonna would have turned on the oven for a roast with potatoes but it wouldn’t have made economic sense to her to turn on the oven just for potatoes. So I’m holding the frugal flag up high on this one.  Also, it was suggested to me that microwaving potatoes ensures optimum dryness but I’m old-school here, too.  I use my microwave for reheating and not for cooking.  If you’re a microwave chef, however, I say: why not do as you please?)

3.  When mashing, it’s best to use a potato ricer.  If you don’t have a ricer and wish not to buy one, you can force your cooked potatoes through an ordinary kitchen strainer— a proposal that seems exhausting to me— or mash them very finely with a fork ensuring you have absolutely no lumps.  Just don’t tell my mom or my aunts. You’d be amazed at what starts an argument in my family.

Use baking potatoes and a schiacciapatate (potato ricer) for best results
 4.  Stickiness guarantees ickiness.  Let your fingers guide you here. Use all-purpose or bread flour and don’t worry about the exact amount called for in whatever gnocchi recipe you’re exploring.  The amount of flour will vary each time, as it’s determined by the water content in your potatoes. Your sticky hands will tell you how much flour you require as you knead.  Stop when your dough is smooth and just slightly sticky.  Add too much flour and you’ll have bricks.

5.  Use the Goldilocks Test.  After you’ve rolled out, cut, and shaped your gnocchi, boil water in a 2-quart pot and test 5 or 6 of them for firmness.  This is a good way to save yourself from a family-sized serving of cement pellets or a dinner that’s simply invisible.  As they pop up, remove your gnocchi with a slotted spoon and taste them. Are they too soft?  Too hard?  Or just right?  A warning to first-timers: stand back after you put your inaugural batch into the test pot. My Zia Anna’s first-time gnocchi exploded like hand granades as they rose up due to too much flour!  If yours pop up like firecrackers, I’m not sure what to suggest as removing flour from dough is an impossible task.  Start over, or stop and pour yourself a glass of wine while considering your options.  If your gnocchi are too soft, on the other hand, this is your chance to knead more flour into the mix and retest until your dough is just right.

Use your thumb and carefully roll your gnocchi on the back of a fork

6.  To combat stickiness, use semolina or corn flour rather than regular flour when rolling and shaping your gnocchi.  This should firm them up without yielding tough little nuggets.  Below is one of our old family recipes.  I hope these tips help you achieve excellent results.  I send my good wishes to all gnocchi makers out there, especially those brave enough to try this for the first time.  In bocca al lupo
  may the Roman goddesses of the kitchen guide us!
Potato Gnocchi alla Panna (with cream sauce)

Serves 4
2 lbs (5 or 6) Potatoes
2 Eggs
1 cup Flour (Use all-purpose or bread variety)
½ tsp Nutmeg
Semolina or corn flour as needed
Salt and pepper to taste

Boil the potatoes in their skins until tender, about 35 minutes.  Drain and allow to cool in the pot as explained in tip #1 until you can handle them.  Peel skins with a fork and place through ricer and into a large bowl.  Whisk your eggs separately and add to potatoes along with salt, pepper and nutmeg.  Add flour gradually and knead until dough is soft and smooth enough to hold a shape.  Don’t add more flour unless it’s necessary! Sprinkle your counter with some semolina or corn flour and place a handful of dough on top.  Roll into a long strip, then cut into a few 1-inch-wide pieces. Shape them along the back edge of a fork.  Now try the Goldilocks Test.  Make any necessary adjustments to your dough and test again if necessary.  Once your dough is perfect, divide it into smaller portions. Take each ball and roll it into long strips, using semolina and corn flour as necessary. Cut these strips into inch-long pieces and shape until your dough is all used up. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil and start your cream sauce. Add gnocchi (20 to 25 at a time) to boiling water and stir gently.  Remove each one with a slotted spoon when it bobs to the surface, placing them in individual plates.  Top with sauce. 

My husband, who is the wine connoisseur in our family, suggests one of two Italian wines with this dish. The fruity, lively red Barbera, or the white and earthy Soave.  After all the work you’ve done, you will enjoy it!
Cream Sauce
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp flour
Two handfuls of diced green onion
A little diced cooked ham
½ cup heavy cream
½ cup chicken broth
¼ cup of parmesan, pecorino or whatever hard cheese you have on hand

Heat butter and oil in a skillet and add onion, and ham.  Stir for two to three minutes. Mix in flour.  Add remaining ingredients except for cheese and simmer to reduce. Stir in cheese and remove from heat immediately.  Spoon onto each plate and serve.

I look forward to hearing about how your gnocchi turn out.  How did you do?  What did you find most challenging?  Would you make them again?  How was the wine?  And finally, what tips can you share with others?  Tutti a tavola...dinner is ready!  Buon Appetito!