Saturday, June 16, 2018

The godfather



When you are thirteen and wake before dawn to the sound of a parent dying, odds are short that things are gonna suck pretty bad for a while.

And they did.

But I was luckier than most. I didn't grow up in a family, I grew up in a clan.

Big difference.

Imagine this: Six families, all blood related through siblings, living upstairs, downstairs, and next door to each other in side-by-side apartment houses, three apartments per. My twelve cousins and I didn't have only two parents apiece; aunts and uncles counted too, because they watched over all of us just like we were their own.

I know. Hard to imagine. Different times.

The head of our clan was Uncle Joe. That's him at his house on Berriman Street in Brooklyn. When he bought his own home, late in life actually, he made sure that it had four things: close proximity to the rest of us (only a block and a half away from his brothers' and sisters' families); ample yard space for his dump truck and assorted building materials (he was a general contractor); a generous outdoor area where the whole family could gather for barbecues and parties; and last, but by no means least, a garden.

Uncle Joe had no children of his own, but he was godfather to the majority of his nieces and nephews, me included. The man wasn't merely loved by those of us who knew him. He was adored, idolized even.

My godfather didn't live a lot longer than my father, but I was fortunate to have him around for what the shrinks might call a young man's formative years. He taught me how to use hand tools and mix concrete, how to level a piece of wood before driving a nail into it, how to lay brick, and the proper way to let out a clutch.

More important, and strictly by observing the man, I learned how to be fair and kind to people while at the same time being firm in what I believe.

At least I hope that I did.

It would break my heart to think that I let him down.

Happy Father's Day everybody!

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

What are friends for?


Over the next couple of weeks many of these corn kernels will be planted in several undisclosed locations around the Northeast. I know this because I am personally dispersing them as we speak.

In the interest of plausibly denying the specific whereabouts of the crops I have chosen to not ask any questions.

Neither should you.

See, back in 2012, I came into possession of a handful of seeds meant to grow corn not for eating but for manufacturing polenta. (Here's the original post, showing how to make your own polenta at home.)

Though the seed was at one time available in the United States it hasn't been for several years now. I never was able to find out why it was banned, not definitively, though a well-informed friend and I have long suspected that The Evil Monsanto might have something to do with it. (You know, the Monsanto that controls around 80 percent of the country's corn crop.)

This friend—let's call him "Tony"—surprised and delighted me the other day by slipping me a couple ears just in time for this year's planting season. I had stopped growing the polenta corn three years ago but Tony has kept it up ever since I gifted him with the seed to start his own crop.

Tony makes his living... Scratch that, nobody needs to know what he does. And he lives in... Actually, best we not reveal this information either. The point I'm trying to make is that the guy knows about growing stuff. And he's become committed to keeping this strain of polenta corn around for as long as he is able, no matter what Big Ag does to kill off such noble efforts.

Sadly, I had somehow managed to lose sight of my responsibility in this mission.

I'm lucky to have a friend who could set me straight.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The letter


Some time before our mother died, back in the winter of 2006, my brother Joe and I sent her to live in a nursing home. We did this reluctantly and not entirely of clear conscience, but we did it nonetheless.

While Joe and I shared responsibility for finding a good home for mom, most of the clerical work fell to me. There were matters pertaining to her debts and to Social Security benefits, a small checking account, insurance and so on, all requiring close attention and resolution.

My best resource in navigating through the necessary legal paperwork was a worn brown folder that mom kept hidden in the bottom of a dresser drawer. In it were things like her birth certificate and my father’s honorable discharge papers from the Army. There was a yellow Western Union telegram from the Vatican in Rome marking their marriage in 1954, the deed to the cemetery plot in Brooklyn where my father had been buried in 1970, along with many other useful and not so useful items. 

Three documents, unrelated to the task at hand, stood out so far from the rest that they literally took my breath away. Each was folded and placed in a separate white envelope and each envelope had a single word written in my mother’s unsteady hand: “Michael,” “Joseph,” and “Ralph.” 

Mom had written each of her three sons a goodbye letter. 

And she didn’t seal the envelopes.

Through tears I managed to read only five words of my mother's letter to me: “You were a beautiful boy.”

The past tense of it all was more than I could bear and so I quickly folded the letter and returned it to the envelope where it belonged. I never told my mother that I'd found the letters, and didn't mention them to my brothers either.

Eighteen months later I finally managed my way through the rest of the letter. It was just after Joe called to say that mom had died. The night nurse had contacted him earlier in the evening to ask that he get to the nursing home as soon as he was able. But soon wasn’t soon enough. Mom died with a very lovely woman by her side but not any of the sons that she had dedicated her life to.

I delivered mom's letters to my brothers just as soon as we were all together. My wife Joan and I had driven down from Maine to New York early the next morning, Mike and his family flew in from Ohio the following day. 

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you guys about this sooner, but I figured this is probably the way she wanted it,” I told my brothers. 

“I only read mine last night,” I assured Joe, “after you called.”

I don’t know when or under what circumstances my brothers read their letters; they didn't read them in front of me. I don't know what mom wrote to them either. We’ve never discussed it. 

I tell myself that that’s okay. What a mother says to her son at the end is only her business and his, nobody else’s.

Mom's letter to me followed the same themes that defined her life: Never let anything or anybody get between you and the family; stay close to your brothers no matter what; be good to people; love one another.

I hope the letters in my brothers' hands are at least a little bit like the one our mother wrote to me. Because it all just sounded so very much like her.

And that's a sound worth hearing. 

Again and again.

Happy Mother's Day everybody!

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Braised short ribs with pine nuts



This is one of those cook-it-today-but-maybe-eat-it-tomorrow kinda deals. The flavors knit together even better with time.

I had it both ways. The batch of short ribs I prepared the other day were eaten that same evening, but there were enough leftovers for another couple of meals.

I ain't as dumb as I look.



Very liberally salt the ribs (4 1/2 pounds here), and don't forget some freshly ground black pepper.



Then dredge in all-purpose flour.



In a large dutch oven brown the ribs in a plenty of olive oil, then remove and set aside.



Add one diced onion, two celery stalks, two carrots, one leek, eight garlic cloves, a few anchovy filets, some thyme, and half a cup of pine nuts, and saute until softened.



Then add a bottle (750 ml) of red wine (I used an inexpensive Sangiovese but most any dry red will do) and turn up the heat to high. Note: If you prefer to use a dry white wine instead, nobody's stopping you.



After the wine has boiled for five minutes or so add a quart of homemade stock (I had chicken stock around but beef or even vegetable stock would be fine). Cover and put in the oven, preheated to 350-375 degrees F. The ribs should cook for around three hours, but every 45 minutes or so turn the ribs.



These short ribs were in the oven exactly three hours. When I put a fork to the meat it was about as soft and tender as it gets, which is what you want.



Remove the ribs and toss the bones.



Then slice the meat into inch or so pieces.



And serve with some of the sauce. On this particular occasion My Associate had prepared a very nice mashed potato and celery root combo, which turned out to be a pretty much perfect match. However, most anything will work here (egg noodles, spaetzle, polenta, whatever).

Just be sure to make enough for those leftovers.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Homemade passatelli in brodo



This is one of those good news/bad news kinda deals.

The good news is that this dish turned out way better than I had hoped for on a first try.

The bad news is that it took me nearly two years to make.

Don't worry, it won't take you as long.

The only reason it took me so much time to make my first batch of passatelli in brodo is because I'm too damned stubborn for my own good. I'd neglected to pick up the correct attachment for my new solid brass pasta extruder the last time I was in Bologna, and simply refused to make passatelli until the proper attachment was firmly in hand. (This despite the fact that the potato ricer sitting in a drawer in my kitchen might have done the job just fine.)

No matter. Thanks to the actions of a committed and dear friend the correct attachment for making passatelli finally came into my possession a couple weeks back. This link explains the entire sordid tale, if you care.

And so here we go.

Finally.

Passatelli is not a flour-based pasta. Rather, it's made with breadcrumbs and grated cheese. Northern Italy is where you'll find it. The name refers to the word passare (to pass), because in order to form the pasta the dough must pass through the holes of a die or a masher. In Italy's Emilia-Romagna region passatelli in brodo is a traditional Christmas soup. (I'm going to lobby for a soup course this Christmas, but best you keep that to yourself.)



First thing you need to do is make the brodo, or broth. Traditionally that means a meat broth of some kind, and here I've gone with chicken. To start things off I sautéed a whole (halved) onion, a couple celery stalks, a couple carrots and four or five garlic cloves in plenty of olive oil.

By the way, if you're looking for permission to use a good store-bought broth instead of making your own then you've come to the wrong place. C'mon, there's like two main ingredients in this recipe: the passatelli and the brodo. Make your own broth. You'll be much happier, trust me.



After the vegetables have softened a bit add in four bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs and let them brown a bit too. After the thighs have browned a little throw in some Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese rind (my freezer is full of the stuff, so stop by if you need any) and a few black peppercorns.



Fill the pot with water and a decent hit of salt, then simmer at low-medium heat for a good couple hours or so. Then either remove all the chicken and vegetables with a slotted spoon or use a strainer if you like. You'll wind up with a pot filled with very tasty broth to cook the passatelli in later on.



Okay, now for the star of the show, the passatelli. Yes, I made my own breadcrumbs, using bread from a very good bakery here in town. A few days before making the passatelli I ripped apart a baguette and let it dry out, then turned it into breadcrumbs in the food processor.



You can prepare the passatelli in a bowl or on a work surface, as I did here. All you'll need is 1 1/2 cups breadcrumbs, 1 1/2 cups grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, a good pinch of freshly ground nutmeg and the zest of half a lemon. Mix them all together thoroughly before moving ahead.



Add four large eggs and incorporate until a dough forms.

Actually, I need to say something here. Every passatelli recipe that I've ever looked at, including from Italy's most respected chefs, calls for just three eggs in a batch this size. Never have I seen a variation, not once.

But three eggs just didn't work. The dough turned out way too dry to form proper strands of pasta, and so I added a fourth egg, which fixed everything right up.



The dough should be stiff but still moist. If it's too dry the passatelli won't form properly. Wrap the dough in plastic and let it rest for an hour or so.



As for how to form the passatelli, I used the brass tool that I was telling you about earlier. It's a fine tool and it did a swell job. I can't wait to use it again.

Your best bet, however, is to use an inexpensive potato ricer, with the largest die that comes along with it. Here's a link to the exact tool that you'll need.



This is the entire batch of passatelli, which is enough for four primi pasta courses.



Just add the passatelli to your boiling broth and cook for around two minutes.



Then ladle the pasta and some of the broth into warmed bowls, grate a little cheese on top and serve right away.

It was totally worth the wait.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

A friend in deed



For purposes of this discussion the man above, known to many of you as "my friend Joe," shall heretofore be referred to as San Giuseppe.


That's right, the man's a freaking saint. And I can prove it.


He just traveled all the way from Cold Spring, New York, to Bologna, Italy, just to do me a favor. If you're counting that's roughly 4,100 miles—each way.


Why would a man do such a thing?


Simple. So that I could shut up already and start producing a pasta shape that I have been yelling about—very often in his earshot—for nearly two years now.

You see, the last time I was in Bologna I came into possession of this totally awesome solid brass pasta extruder known as a torchietto.



Here is the torchietto right here, equipped with the spaghetti die that it came with.

Nice, huh? And the spaghetti that it makes ain't too shabby either.

What I neglected to put hands on when picking up the torchietto in Bologna was an accompanying die for making passatelli. Passatelli is a simple pasta, in the shape of spaghetti only thicker in width and much shorter in length. It's not made with flour but with breadcrumbs, egg and cheese. Traditionally it's served very simply in a clear broth, or brodo



Like so. 

This, in fact, is a truly authentic passatelli en brodo, the one that I very much enjoyed at Ristorante Cesarina on Via Santo Stefano in Bologna the last time I was there. 


I love passatelli en brodo. And really want to make the stuff right here in my kitchen. 

But I couldn't. Not without the solid brass die that I had so knuckeheadedly left behind at the ancient shop where the torchietto was discovered and purchased.

When he heard about this my friend Joe—at this point he had not yet achieved sainthood—was as ticked off about my oversight as I was. Not so much because he craved a taste of homemade passatelli but because, well, Joe is even more obsessive about getting things right the first time than I am.

"How could you even think of leaving that place without the passatelli die in hand?" he squawked. "You make me crazy sometimes, you know that."

It is sometimes said that having friends who speak their mind freely is a blessing.

I suppose.



Only moments ago I received this photograph via email. It's the passatelli die that San Giuseppe just picked up for me in Bologna. 

"I'm overnighting it as soon as I get home next week," he wrote. "If I had any trust in the Italian postal system, believe me, I'd have overnighted it from here already.”

I informed my recently beatified friend that overnighting the die would not be necessary, that I had waited this long for the die and surely could wait a bit longer. 

"You're already eating passatelli in your head," he shot back, knowing how closely I had been following his movements around Italy these past weeks, anticipating the exact date and time that the die and he would come together. "No reason to torture you by making you wait any longer." 

And so there you have it. Soon a package will arrive and in probably no time at all I'll be at work preparing what will hopefully be a successful passatelli en brodo—in my own kitchen.


Thanks to my very dear friend Saint Joe.


Stay tuned.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Escarole, sausage & bean soup



Okay, so this isn't the lowest-cal soup that's come out of the kitchen this winter.

What, are you on a diet or something?

Escarole, sausage and beans are on this earth to give us pleasure. And everybody knows that they do this best when they are together.

That's a fact, by the way. If you don't believe me, just look it up.

So if you're still in winter soup-making mode give this one a try. In Maine we'll be in soup-making mode until around mid-June, so there's still plenty of time to let me know how things turn out.



Finely dice two carrots, two celery stalks, one onion, five or six garlic cloves and a little hot pepper and saute in olive oil until softened but not browned.



Then stir in a pound of sweet Italian sausage meat.



After just a few minutes the sausage meat should be cooked enough.



At this point add 12 cups of water, one pound of thoroughly rinsed dried beans (I used a small white varietal but most any bean will do) and a piece of cheese rind (Parmigiano-Reggiano of course!). Cover the pot and allow to simmer at medium-high heat.



Cooking beans is an inexact science and so at this stage you're kind of on your own. I did not presoak these beans (if I had they would have cooked faster), so at the one-hour mark I tested them to find they were around 45 minutes away from being done.



After another 15 minutes or so I added a full head of cleaned and chopped escarole, as well as salt and pepper to taste, then returned the cover to the pot and let things simmer for another half hour.



The total cooking time of your soup may vary but this one simmered for a little under two hours.



At which point you can have at it right away or let the soup sit in the fridge overnight and eat it the following day.

Since this batch will feed 4-6 people My Associate and I chose to do both.