Monday, July 15, 2019

Pasta with garlic scapes & walnuts

I get many garlic scapes each year and plenty find their way into a simple aglio e olio sauce with my pasta. I like swapping the garlic cloves for the scapes because it adds a really nice texture. One version also includes walnuts, which adds both texture and flavor. It’s a super simple pasta dish that you wind up craving over and over, so give it a try while the scapes are still around.

 Click here to read details at the new home of Mister Meatball.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Love smells


I'm like most humans. Certain smells get to me.

Drop a nice hunk of butter onto a red-hot skillet and before it has melted I am transported to my brother Joe’s apartment in Queens, watching as he carefully prepares the special pancakes that he knows I love so much. Pour out a glass of sweet red vermouth and at the first whiff my dear Uncle Dominic and I are sitting under his grapevine, telling stories and watching the bottle slowly drain as the summer sun sets.

Recently I awoke in the middle of the night to the smell of freshly mixed wet concrete. I love having the smell of freshly mixed wet concrete inside of me—because when it is inside of me so too is Uncle Joe

From the time I was old enough to carry a handful of bricks or move a filled wheelbarrow without assistance my mother’s eldest brother made certain to put me to work. He did not need a little kid working on his crew, but the man took his job as uncle (and godfather to me) very seriously.

After my father died Uncle Joe became even more committed to watching out for me, and by the time he himself passed I had become a pretty decent laborer. I remember the last summer that I worked with my uncle, the one where I had finally gotten the hang of not just mixing but properly laying down fresh concrete. It was a fairly large bit of sidewalk on a job in downtown Brooklyn and Neil, my uncle’s best concrete man, hadn't made it in to work.

“This one’s all yours, chief,” I heard that ever benevolent voice say from alongside me. “Time you took charge, don’t you think?”

I was by no means in charge, of course, but did manage to lay down a respectable bit of sidewalk, with the patient guidance of a man that I loved as deeply as any other. 

I’m proud to have the smell of his sand and gravel and mortar living in my brain forever.

My strongest scent memory by far involves my father. And a jar of Noxzema skin cream.

Every night, right around my bedtime, dad would be in the bathroom shaving. He always kept the door wide open and often could be heard saying this or that to my mother or to one of us boys. Before heading off to bed I would come up behind my father and tap on his leg or on the small of his back. He’d turn and bend down so that I could reach up and kiss him goodnight. His skin was smooth and moist and warm—and strongly smelling of Noxzema skin cream, his prefered beard-softening elixir.

It was my favorite daily ritual; I looked forward to it each and every evening.

On the early morning that my father died, the firemen and EMTs carried his body from our kitchen floor and into his and my mother's bedroom, where it would lay, covered in a clean bedsheet, until the undertaker came to collect it. As the rescue team carrying dad brushed past me, unsuccessfully attempting to shield a young boy's view, I could swear that I smelled the Noxzema that dad had shaved with only hours before.

It’s been 50 years since I last kissed my father goodnight, and I can still smell the Noxzema today.

I mean right now, at this minute, right here.

I can summon the aroma at will. Anytime. Anywhere. Just try me.

There it goes now.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Men and their gardens



I come from a long line of earth tenders. A very long line.

That's Mister Bua you see there, grandfather to several of my cousins. He and Mrs. Bua lived in the ground floor apartment of Uncle Joe's house on Berriman Street in Brooklyn. A general contractor by trade, my uncle bought the property because it had enough room for his red dump truck and assorted building materials, space for lots of family cookouts in the summer, plus a good-sized garden where he could grow vegetables.

The tree that Mister Bua is tending is a fig tree, a healthy one too. The trellis on the left is for a squash-type vegetable that we call googootz (here's a link that explains), and the vast majority of the plants that I see are tomato plants.

I do not see a single weed. If you are at all familiar with vegetable gardening then you are likely as awestruck by this as I.

In a week or two I will have my own garden, a 24'x24' plot of earth, fully planted. Like my uncle and Mister Bua, along with many other men I grew up admiring for their skill and loving for their generosity of spirit, tending to a garden in summer is a need, not a choice. If I didn't have to nurse my fig trees (four now), tomatoes (a couple dozen plants, at least), googootz (always a crapshoot), garlic (230 or so this time around) and assorted other things I really do not know what else I would be doing from mid-June until September.

I know this may sound silly, or at the very least quaint, but looking at this photograph of Uncle Joe's garden makes me all kinds of weepy. Go ahead and click on the picture, enlarge it and really take a good long look. Mister Bua, a sweet man with a kind heart, is exactly where he wants to be at this moment and doing exactly what he needs to be doing. Every single thing coming out of the ground is lush and beautiful, tended to by men who care deeply for them. Hell, even the sheets drying patiently on the clothesline, possibly Cousin Ursula's, Mister Bua's granddaughter, make me nostalgic.

Things just could not be more perfect.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

The last (and first) supper



Only once did my parents take me and my two brothers to a restaurant. It was on a Sunday afternoon, sometime after 1 o'clock, after dad had closed our family's fountain service store in Brooklyn for the day. Sunday afternoons were the only time he had off.

I remember my father putting on a suit and tie and my mother one of her nicest dresses and even a big hat. I don't recall what my brothers and I wore, but likely we were dressed in sport coats and good slacks that my mother had bought for us at one of the many clothing shops along Pitkin Avenue.

We left our second-floor apartment on Liberty Avenue in East New York, walked down the street to Shepherd Avenue, then all the way up to Atlantic Avenue, where the 22 bus ran through much of Brooklyn and deep into Queens.

We didn't own a car. I never saw my father behind the wheel of any vehicle, in fact, and my mother never learned how to drive.

I can't say exactly how old I was at the time but as dad passed shortly after I became a teenager my guess would be eleven or twelve. The only food I knew at the time was what my Italian-American mother and all of my Italian-American aunts and uncles cooked.

Other than inside my (very) extended family's homes there were only two other places where I had sampled any foods at all: Sal Abbraciamento's restaurant a block away from our apartment, where we would sometimes get a take out pizza; and the White Castle around the corner on Atlantic and Shepherd, where a little square burger cost five cents, or maybe it was six.

Dressing up and getting on a city bus to go and eat at a "fancy" restaurant in Richmond Hill, Queens, was about the most exotic thing that my pre-teen head could wrap itself around. And only barely.

Westfal's was what you might call a "continental" restaurant, around a 30-minute bus ride away. It was at the corner of Atlantic and 111th Street, about a block from the bus stop, which itself was right in front of the Boy's Club. I remember getting off the bus and being impressed by the Club's massive white brick building and wondering about what kinds of things might go on inside. I never did find out.

I'm pretty certain that all of us were at least a little nervous about being inside a place like Westfal's. The menu had nothing on it that I knew, except for maybe a steak or a baked potato. No manicotti, no ziti, no tomato sauce, not a meatball or a sausage or an eggplant in sight.

When it was my turn to order I silently and reluctantly pointed at a strange-sounding item on the intimidating menu. "The duck then," I heard the waiter say. "Very good."

Actually, it wasn't. The meat was so tough and hard to chew that most of it wound up hidden underneath the other stuff that went unfinished on my plate.

I didn't eat duck again until I was almost 30.

And the five of us never stepped foot inside another restaurant together again.

Several years back I got word that an old family friend had passed and that the wake was being held not in Brooklyn but in Richmond Hill. It had been a long while since I'd had a reason to be in this part of Queens. And so you can imagine my surprise when the funeral home turned out to be housed in the exact same space where my parents had taken my brothers and me for our first—and only—restaurant meal together.

Standing outside the funeral home, I reminisced with some old friends about that Sunday afternoon at Westfal's with my parents and brothers.

"What was the occasion?" one wondered matter of factly. "A bus trip all the way out here, wearing your Sunday best no less. Must have been to celebrate something special, right?"

And just like decades earlier, when the fancy restaurant's waiter had pressed me to decide what to order for Sunday supper, I was completely and hopelessly flummoxed, unable to speak a word.

After what felt like a very long period of embarrassing silence, in front of old friends I had not seen in several years, all I could manage to say was, "I have no idea."

Which surprised me as much as it did them.

It still does.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Veal & mortadella agnolotti



Most of the homemade mortadella we made around the holidays got sliced up (nice and thin!) and eaten as-is. But not all of it.

The stuff makes a fine ingredient for a pasta filling, you know. And this filling is the best to come out of our recent batch of mortadella.

Of course, you don't have to make your own mortadella to put these agnolotti together. Just go out and buy some of the stuff and get to work.

Now.



Melt 3 tablespoons of butter in around a tablespoon of olive oil.



Add 1 pound ground veal.



Once the veal has browned a bit add 1/3 cup or so of either white wine or vermouth and turn up the heat.



Allow the wine to evaporate, then turn off the heat and let the veal cool a bit.



Dice 1/4 pound of mortadella (makes no difference if you use a hunk or slices).



In a food processor add the veal, mortadella, 1/2 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano and one egg, then process until completely blended.



Taste and adjust seasoning as you like. (You could add more cheese, or a little salt, perhaps a dash of nutmeg.)



Instead of using a pastry bag I always put my pasta fillings in a strong plastic bag that can be thrown away after I'm finished. (Of course, you'll need to cut the tip off in order to allow the filling to be squeezed out.)



Roll out your pasta dough on the thin side and around 3 or 4 inches wides.



If your dough is very moist you can skip this step; otherwise brush a little egg wash along the far edge before rolling the dough around the filling.



Use your finger to press down and form the individual agnolotti (I made these on the longish side, but smaller works great too).



This is basically what it will look like once you've worked your way along the entire roll.



All that's left to do now is cut the individual agnolotti.



I boiled and served these in freshly made chicken broth (or brodo) and topped the agnolotti with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and freshly ground black pepper. The reason I chose to go with a classic and simple brodo is so that the veal and mortadella filling can really stand out.

And it did.

Which is a very good thing.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Love stinks



They don't call radio the "intimate medium" for nothing. 

Unlike television or movies or even (gasp!) social media, listening to the radio provides the most personal gratification of any other form of entertainment. (If you don't believe me just look it up. Study after study has reached the same conclusion.)

There's a downside to this intimacy, of course. Just ask the thousands of people who have come to know and genuinely love a man named Kenneth Green of Kearny, New Jersey. Radio intimates often refer to him by his "professional" name, X.Ray Burns.

That's him in the holiday photograph above, in the Santa Clown outfit he was so fond of wearing and in the loving embrace of his lifelong friend and devoted companion Glen Jones, also a son of Kearny. For the better part of 30 years the pair has hosted a three-hour Sunday afternoon radio show on the excellent non-commercial WFMU-FM out of Jersey City, New Jersey. The show is titled, aptly, The Glen Jones Radio Programme Featuring X.Ray Burns

Or so it has been.

Last Sunday, during the pair's regular weekly air slot as fate would have it, Kenneth Green died in a hospice facility not 30 miles from the WFMU studios, as his friend hosted their show alone. He was just 57 years old.

I used to live in Jersey City. It's where I became aware of these enormously talented radio men. Since moving to Maine in the mid-1990s the Internet has allowed me to keep up with their weekly show. I religiously download each and every one of the three-hour broadcasts and listen to them during my morning walks. I have hundreds of their shows stored away in MP3 files. I suspect it will be some time before I can summon the courage to listen to any of them again.

Several years back, and through a series of unlikely and somewhat mysterious encounters, X.Ray and I became friends. The friendship started, as many modern ones do, on Facebook, but very quickly moved beyond that. A proud Scot (he once schooled me on where and how to purchase a kilt), X.Ray was too a great lover of Italian food and often peppered me with questions about my recipes and the foods that I love best. Ever sensitive and intelligent, the man devoured my stories about family and traditions, never missing an opportunity to respond to me in some way—and almost always sharing my writings with his thousands of listeners.

I can honestly—and very proudly—say that no other individual has been a greater champion of this personal blog than Kenneth Green of Kearny, New Jersey. 

And that includes me.

Back in November it became apparent that something might be terribly wrong. More and more often Glen hosted the show without his friend. Over time the music he played, always themed to his mood or circumstances surrounding us all, grew darker and more brooding, yearning even. When Ken and I exchanged our usual Thanksgiving greeting, it was loving, yes, but all too brief. Then somewhere around Christmastime he'd stopped communicating at all.

As is my custom, I was not listening to last Sunday's broadcast live and so I did not hear Glen announce to the brotherhood of WFMU listeners that his best and dearest friend had slipped away. The MP3 file of the show now sits in my iPhone. I see it but cannot click and press play. 

I don't know that I ever will.



Godspeed my beautiful friend. 

You were—and are—loved by many. 

The loss of you won't soon be overcome.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

8-hour pork belly



I am a patient man.

When my friend Fredo announced one recent morning that he would be driving from New York to my home in Maine later in the day, I decided that there are worse things than having the oven working all day on a low-and-slow roast to feed him for dinner.



This is just under 5 pounds of pork belly, skin off. I've liberally seasoned the meat side with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, then added chopped garlic, thyme and rosemary.



Layer the bottom of a fairly deep roasting pan with large hunks of celery, carrots and fennel, along with plenty of crushed garlic cloves and sprigs of thyme and rosemary.



Roll and tie the pork belly, place it over the vegetables and herbs, then add a generous amount of white wine and/or broth (I used nearly a bottle of chenin blanc and homemade chicken stock).

Cover with aluminum foil and place in the oven pre-heated to 225 degrees F.



Every so often make sure to baste the belly. I did every half hour or so.

At around the 6-hour mark I removed the aluminum foil and turned the heat up to around 350 degrees F.



And after another couple hours (that's 8 total, if you're counting) this is what I wound up with.

Fredo had just arrived from his journey and so we enjoyed cocktails and then a first course while the pork belly rested a bit.

That was around the time that my friend shocked and delighted me by revealing the true nature of his visit. He had overheard me bemoaning the lack of my favorite morning baked good in the place that I live, and made it his duty to lend an assist.



These are some very fine New York bialys, and the very excellent friend who delivered them to me.

Grazie Fredo!

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Toni's Portuguese sweet bread



I wish that I had baked this bread before Toni passed. 

She would have gotten a big kick out of it.

Truth is, I have never baked Toni's massa sovada. The Portuguese sweet bread that you see here was a gift from Toni's daughter, Theresa. She surprised me with it last weekend in New Bedford, Massachussetts, after dinner at a fine Portuguese restaurant where a group of friends gather once a year.



I'm trying to figure out a way to sufficiently thank Theresa for her thoughtful gift. But keep coming up woefully short on commensurate ideas.

Though available in Portuguese communities year round massa sovada is often associated with religious holidays, particularly Christmas and Easter. The bread is not unlike the sweet breads that we Italians prepare around the holidays. In fact, they are nearly identical.

Toni had sent me her recipe some time ago, hoping that I might try making the sweet bread for myself. She'd once mailed me her recipe for salt cod with cauliflower & potatoes and when I prepared it — and even put the recipe on the blog — Theresa told me that her mother was completely thrilled to have been acknowledged in so public a fashion.

I'm certain that Toni was hoping for a similar experience when she sent me her massa recipe, and had reason to be hopeful based on our past experiences together.

But I am not a bread baker. The idea of tackling Toni's massa recipe thoroughly intimidated me, and so this very sweet old lady's hand-written correspondence stayed tucked away where I could at once access and ignore it at the same time.

When I heard that she had died last year, Toni's letter and bread recipe were only feet away in a pile of papers atop my desk. I quickly thumbed through the stack and read through Toni's letter again, with a mix of sadness and guilt for having let her down. I kept the letter where I could see it for a week or two, but then it disappeared into the pile again, neglected as in the past.

Until now.



I'm sorry that I wasn't man enough to try your massa recipe, Toni.

But somebody out there is going to give it a go now that you'e shared it with them. 

I just know it.

Toni's massa sovada
(Not being a baker I found this recipe a bit confusing. But as it was written in Toni's hand I am reluctant to amend it. Perhaps those with more experience will find greater clarity in Toni's instructions. She would have liked that, I am sure.)

5 lbs. all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon salt
3 cups sugar
3 yeast cakes
12 extra large eggs, well beaten
1 cup lukewarm water
2 cups lukewarm milk

Dissolve yeast in water and set aside
Mix the sugar and eggs together and then add to the milk; mix until sugar is dissolved
Add the mixture to the flour and yeast and incorporate
Lastly, add melted butter (approx. two sticks) and incorporate
Cover and let rise until doubled
Divide into 5 greased bread pans and let rise 2 to 3 hours
Bake at 350 degrees F for 35-40 minutes

Thursday, January 3, 2019

How to make mortadella



I've waited a long time for this.

Every year that the entire crew gathers together at my house, for a weeklong visit between Christmas and New Year's, I say the same thing.

"How about we make us some mortadella this year?"

And, well... You are familiar with the expression "crickets," yes?

Tom always finds this an ideal time to shut his eyes and pretend to be asleep (even when standing upright and carrying a drink in his hand). Beth Queen of Bakers often rushes to check what's cooking in the oven, despite the oven's not even being in use. Scott and Giovani's iPhones suddenly turn silent and out of text range. My (long-suffering) Associate, ever the practical member of the group, simply ignores me altogether.

Not this time.

Weeks before our annual gathering this year I circulated the following missive:

Per my repeated (and, to date, scorned) appeals to enlist your assistance in the manufacture and distribution of an authentic Mortadella di Bologna, you are hereby informed that:

Your aid in this project is considered mandatory and non-negotiable.  

In other words, this is no longer a democracy. 

Deal with it.

Ever the consensus builder I provided my friends an authentic recipe with which to familiarize themselves, as well as a video based on that recipe.

The ingredients were awaiting their arrival. I allowed them a good night's sleep, but in the morning it was time to go to work.



Mortadella is, to put it simply, a giant cured pork sausage. Its main ingredients are lean pork (here we have two boneless pork loin roasts weighing in at a little over 3 1/2 pounds combined); 1 pound of pork belly; and 1/2 pound of pork back fat. (The complete list of ingredients is printed at the end.)



Grinding meat is always easier when it's ice cold, or even frozen. Cut all the meat into slices and place in the freezer for a good couple hours. At the same time start getting your grinding equipment as cold as possible. (I put the whole grinding attachment to our KitchenAid mixer in the freezer.)



Mix together 1/2 cup of red wine and 1/2 cup of water and place in the freezer as well.



When the lean pork and pork belly are nearly frozen remove them from the freezer, cut them into cubes and mix together. DO NOT add the back fat at this time; it will be cut into cubes later on but it will not ever be ground.



While the meat is still ice cold run it through a large grinding plate for a coursely ground mixture and return the ground meat to the freezer. Put the grinding attachment back in the freezer too, as well as the smallest size grinding plate you've got, as you'll be needing it soon.

While the meat and grinder are chilling you can put together your spice mix. You'll need 3 tablespoons salt; 1 teaspoon Insta Cure No. 1 (pink curing salt); 2 teaspoons white pepper; 1/2 teaspoon coriander; 1 teaspoon garlic powder; 1 teaspoon anise; 1 teaspoon mace; and 1/2 teaspoon ground caraway. Make the spice mix as fine as possible. I ground everything together into a fine powder, using a spice grinder.



When the meat is nice and cold add the salt and spice mix and thorougly incorporate. (This being our first time making mortadella we fried up a tiny bit to taste and make sure that the seasoning was okay. It was perfect.)



Grind the meat again, using your smallest grinding plate this time.



At this point you'll need a food processor. Place the ground meat in the processor and add the semi-frozen wine/water mixture. Process the mixture until smooth. (You may need to do this in a couple batches; that's what we did.)



Here's where the half pound of back fat that's been chilling in the freezer comes into play. Cube it up like so.



Then quickly blanch it by pouring a little boiling water over it.



Also run boiling water over 1/2 cup pistachios and 3 teaspoons of whole black peppercorns.



Add the blanched fat cubes, pistachios and peppercorns to the meat.



And thoroughly mix with your hands.



Get yourself an 8" x 11" plastic bag that's suitable for boiling and tie the sealed end with a cable tie; this will allow for a rounded shape to form.



Then stuff the bag with the meat mixture. (I did this by hand because the extruder attachment on the KitchenAid wasn't up to the task.)



Close the bag's open end with cable ties as well, then wrap the bag in buther's twine (this helps keep the shape intact while cooking). Put the whole thing in the fridge and let it rest for several hours or even overnight, as we did.



The traditional way to cook mortadella is slowly and in a water bath, with the oven set at around 170 degrees F. This is the method most people continue to use today. It will take around 7 or 8 hours before the mortadella reaches an internal temperature of 158 degrees F, the point at which it is fully cooked.

Due to the quick thinking of My Associate, we decided to take another path. A sous vide cooker resides in our kitchen, you see, and we couldn't think of a reason why we shouldn't use it. Set at 170 degrees F it took less than 5 hours to cook the mortadella this way.



No matter which cooking method you use, once the internal temperature reaches around 158 degrees F, remove the mortadella from the heat source and plunge it into ice-cold water to quickly cool it down.

Then comes the really hard part: Toss the still-wrapped mortadella in the fridge and forget about it for a couple days. I know how hard that'll be, but the flavors will develop over that time.

Since this was our first attempt we cut into the mortadella right away in order to test it, but then it went into the fridge for two days before we tasted it again. The difference was clearly noticeable.



Here's an outside view.



And the inside.

The flavor was spot on; everybody in the house was in agreement on this.

More important, the next time I suggest making mortadella to the crew, I won't be hearing any of those crickets again.

Of that I am pretty sure.


What you'll need
A meat grinder
A food processor
An 8" x 11" plastic bag suitable for boiling
Butcher's twine

The ingredients
3 1/2 pounds lean pork
1 pound pork belly
1/2 pound pork back fat

3 tablespoons salt
1 teaspoon Insta Cure No. 1 (pink curing salt)
2 teaspoons white pepper
1/2 teaspoon coriander
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon anise
1 teaspoon mace
1/2 teaspoon ground caraway

1/2 cup chilled red wine
1/2 cup ice water

3 teaspoons whole black peppercorns
1/2 cup whole pistachios (unsalted)