Monday, May 26, 2014

Road trip!

WARNING: The following is an off-topic collection of photographs snapped during a just-completed Nevada-to-Utah road trip. Like the trip itself, these pics haven't a thing to do with food, and so will likely be of no interest whatever to certain readers. Apologies. I'll get cracking on a new recipe ASAP.

Despite the despicable United Airlines' best — and multiple — attempts to thwart our group's plans, we managed to will ourselves to Las Vegas, pick up our vehicles and ride into Arizona.

We call this shot "The Ironic Road Trip of 2014."

The next morning's ride could not have commenced without Gorilla Glue and duct tape.

A couple days in and we arrived at a canyon that is indeed as Grand as they say.

Good thing we were all wearing thick leather boots and clothing with armor.

There is a town in Utah called Mexican Hat. It was a good staging area for our much-anticipated tour of Monument Valley.

And our lodge employed a couple of excellent barkeeps.

The beer wasn't bad either. It's Utah. Get it?

Here's a food shot for you. Steaks cooked outdoors on a swinging grill.

Good advice.

If you have never been to Monument Valley, Utah, you really must think long and hard about altering your status.

It is everything that I anticipated.

Much, much more, actually.

We were all in agreement on this. (The bandanas are for dust protection, so save the snarky remarks.)

Sadly, we ran into forest fires back in Arizona.

And a United Airlines executive too, just before being treated to his company's dreadful "service" from Vegas back home to Maine.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Mom's left hand

My mother's meatballs brought people together. In a way, they still do.

Cousin John an I were reminiscing just the other day, and when the subject of mom's meatballs came up, as it sometimes will, tears formed in his eyes. John grew up in the apartment right above ours. On Sunday mornings he would come and visit Zia Mary, whose stovetop always overflowed with Sunday Gravy and sausage and braciole and, of course, plenty of meatballs.

"Hey Zia," John would say to my mother, reaching for the plate of fried meatballs as he kissed her cheek. "Mmmm. Love you Zia, you're the best."

John's mother Laura, not unlike all the other women in our family, was a wonderful cook, and made splendid meatballs. And yet my mother's were everybody's favorite. John, after all, wasn't the only one who passed through our kitchen on Sundays. On a slow day, a dozen family members and friends might swing by. More often it was twice that many. We're not talking holidays here, or just every once in a while. This was every Sunday.

I once asked my mother's sister Anna what made mom's meatballs so difficult to replicate. I knew that for decades Anna, Laura, everybody in our family attempted her recipe, to no avail. All my aunt could point to was one thing.

"It was her left hand, we're sure of it," Anna told me. "Nobody else used their left hand to form the meatballs, only your mother. So that has to be it."

We were sitting at her dining room table, sipping coffee and eating Italian cookies that cousin Josephine had made.

"Laura used to get so angry at your mother," my aunt said. "She even used her left hand once, but they still weren't as good. She said your mother must not have given her the whole recipe."

At this point Anna and I began to laugh uncontrollably. After we settled down she went to get another pot of coffee going, but first stopped at my chair and put both hands on my shoulders.

She didn't say a word, but didn't need to.

A mother's memory had brought members of her family together once again.

Happy Mother's Day everybody!

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Beth's famous pie crust

It's as good as it looks, yeah.

Nobody — and I mean nobody — makes a pie crust like Beth, Queen of Bakers. Nobody that I've met, anyway. And I've met a few. There's a reason why people are always asking for her recipe. I'd ask for it myself if I didn't have my friend Beth around to make it for me every once in a while.

Just look at this thing! Is it the most gorgeous pie that you have ever laid eyes on or what? Inside there is ground pork and beef and lamb and lots of spices. A wonderful filling, to be sure, made expertly by my closest associate. But let's not kid ourselves. In the matter of pies, be they savory or sweet or anywhere in between, Crust Rules! We don't call our Bethie "Queen" for nothing.

So swell a pal is she that, whenever I am in the vicinity on pie-baking days, Beth makes sure to prepare plenty of extra dough for use in other things. My favorite extra has to be her empanadas, the tastiest, flakiest ones on this Earth. Every year she and her no-good companion Tom spend a week visiting. Lots of cooking goes on at the house, contributing to a dizzying variety of leftovers. Perfect fillings for perfect half-moon-shaped pastries. Beth freezes them for me, to enjoy after she has gone. I love this woman.

I emailed Beth a couple days back to tell her that I might be down for a visit soon. When the subject of food came up, as it so often does, I asked if she would mind sharing her recipe here. She said that would be okay.

Lucky for you.

Beth's Famous Pie Crust
Yields one 9-inch crust

1 ¼ cup all purpose flour (I prefer King Arthur)
¼ tsp salt
¼ tsp baking powder
1 tbsp buttermilk powder (optional, but I prefer using it)
6 tbsp unsalted butter, cut into small pieces and chilled in the freezer to make it super cold
4 tbsp rendered leaf lard, cut into small pieces and chilled (also in the freezer)
3-5 tbsp cold water with 1 tsp chilled cider vinegar added (Note: mix and chill a little extra in case you need more; chill these in the freezer also)

In a large bowl combine until evenly distributed: flour, salt, baking powder, and buttermilk powder (if using).

With a pastry cutter, cut in half of the shortening into the flour mix; then cut in the other half. The dough should look like clumpy sand. From this point on, it's very important to handle the dough gently to avoid winding up with a tough crust.

Add the chilled water/vinegar one tbsp. at a time, mixing very gently with a fork.

When mixture will hold together into a ball (but is not wet) it is done.

Gather it into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap and flatten into a disk.

Chill before rolling out and preparing the pie of your choice.

When pie is finished, make sure to give a little taste to my friend Meatball. He loves the stuff.