Sunday, September 30, 2012

The family stew

I'd like you all to meet two of my favorite people in the whole world. The handsome one (on the right) is my aunt Laura. The not-so-pretty one with the glasses? That's my cousin John, her son.

Laura (aka "Queen of Doughnuts") can make me laugh without ever speaking, and when she does speak her words are what "proper" people often refer to as "colorful." She is also one of my go-to consigliere in matters of traditional family recipes, and so Laura and I have talked a lot on the phone through the years, often while working in our kitchens.

I love my aunt a whole lot.

John makes me laugh too. His language (like mine, I'll admit) is a lot like his mother's. So are his kitchen skills. My cousin and I have always been close. As younger men we engaged in dangerous activities together, doing (let's face it, John) idiotic things that could have gotten us hurt or shuttled to a place upstate where they don't know from an aglio e olio. Even though we have grown older and more mellow, my cousin and I continue to seek each other out. This makes me happy.

Because I love him a whole lot too.

I haven't actually seen my aunt or my cousin since early in the summer, and yet they have been with me in my kitchen a lot these past couple of weeks. The "googootz" in my garden (best you click here for an explanation) have been plentiful this season; I have been cooking with them a lot. Nobody digs the 'gootz more that these two do. I can't lay eyes on one of the odd-looking Sicilian squash without thinking of Laura and John. Just isn't possible. Believe me, I've been at this a long time.

If it weren't for them, in fact, our family's oldest stew might long ago have been forgotten. They're the only two people I know who will not allow a single summer to pass without preparing at least a couple pots full of giambottaGiambotta is an Italian vegetable stew but when using googootz (all right, the squash's actual name is cucuzza) my family has always added chicken. I don't know why that is. Neither do any of them. I've asked.

Anyhow, I posted the recipe for my giambotta some time ago now, but since these two relations of mine have been so much on my mind of late, I decided to allow them to share theirs. Googootz are not very easy to find (here's a link to the cucuzza plantation in Louisiana where most of those you'll find in the U.S. come from). If you can't get your hands on a googootz, I suppose a couple large zucchini will work just fine. They just won't be nearly as much fun.

Here's a taste of the stew, by the way.

And here are my handsome relatives again, just about to cook up a new batch.

I wish that I were with them. But am guessing that maybe I am.

Laura & John's Giambotta

1 chicken breast quartered
1 medium onion (vidalia) sliced
3-4 garlic cloves, lightly crushed
4-5 carrots, sliced in good-sized chunks
2 celery stalks & their leaves, sliced
1-2 potatoes, chunked
1-2 googootz (squash)
Water or chicken broth to cover
Salt, pepper, oregano, basil, hot pepper flakes to taste
A diced fresh tomato or two if you like

Cut squash into 4"-6" lengths, then peel, seed and cut into chunks
Brown chicken in olive oil, then add onions and cook until tender
Add squash, carrots, celery, potatoes, garlic
Cover with water or broth (add more during cooking, if needed), bring to boil, then lower to a simmer and add salt, pepper, herbs
Cook partially covered for 30-40 minutes
Check water level during cooking (it should be not quite a soup, more like a stew in consistency)

A word from John: This recipe is good for 2 hungry eaters. But giambotta is even better the next day, and so I always up the ingredients and make extra.

A word from Laura: Shut up and eat already, would you please!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

How to plant garlic—today!

Want to grow your own garlic? Right now is the time to plant for next year.

All you'll need to get started is some garlic heads, because it's the cloves that go into the ground. I planted mine this past week.

I've known people (my uncle Dominic, for instance) who could grow anything, anywhere, no matter what the condition of the soil. I'm not one of those people. I add compost and organic fertilizer to my soil, both at the beginning and end of the season. On September 17th, my mother's birthday as it happens, I amended the soil where next year's garlic would be planted.

Loosening the soil is a must before starting out. I'm planting in raised beds here, but I've heard that people grow garlic in pots, too. I don't see any reason why that wouldn't work, and so if that's your preference (or best available option), I say go with it.

Punch a series of small holes in the soil about six inches apart with whatever tool you like (I just use my fingers or a stick) and you're ready to go.

This garlic came from a farm about an hour from my home. I chose it for two reasons: I've cooked with it before and like it a lot; and I know for a fact that it's been grown successfully in my area. Garlic can grow year round in mild climates, but I don't live in a mild climate, I live in Maine. In places where winters are cold, the idea is to plant early enough in the Fall that roots can establish before the ground freezes. I know plenty of people who grow whatever garlic they can get their hands on, and so I'm probably just being overly cautious on picking a garlic for planting. Do whatever you think is best and I'm sure things will turn out fine.

This garlic is also pricey ($11 a pound). However, four big heads amounted to more than 40 garlic cloves that were suitable for planting. By suitable I mean that they were large. You know those little cloves that you find near the center of many garlic heads, especially the ones most supermarkets carry? Don't plant those. Try and plant only the larger cloves, like those that are around the outer portion of the head.

Anyway, all you need to do is break apart your garlic heads. And don't bother peeling the skin off of the cloves, because it isn't necessary.

There are two critical things to make certain of when planting garlic: The cloves must go into the ground pointed side up, flat side down; and they must be buried at least two inches deep.

Leaving six inches between cloves is plenty of space for garlic to grow nicely, though I left a little more than that.

After covering the cloves with soil, I laid down a few inches of mulch as protection from the cold. I don't remove the mulch come spring because it helps to control the weeds all summer long.

And I'm hoping that late next summer I'll harvest garlic that looks just like this.

Maybe you will too.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Mister Bua's cornbread

It isn't really cornbread.

But you knew that.

It's a crispy baguette that has been soaked in melted sweet butter. The butter was neither poured over nor spread on the bread when it was warm from the oven. It was melted by something much, much better: a just-steamed, super fresh ear of local corn.

We're getting to the end of the growing season. The nights are growing cold here in Maine, leaves are beginning to turn. I'll miss the fresh corn and the bread that I always eat alongside it.

I have Vito Bua to thank for this summer tradition that I hold dear. Mr. Bua was grandfather to several of my cousins. I remember him for only two things: dancing with the ladies (boy, could he dance with the ladies!) and teaching me how to eat fresh summer corn.

Mr. Bua died long ago, and we never were what you would call close. And yet, every summer when the corn comes, there he is teaching me all over again what to do.

"Here," he says in that thick Italian accent of the immigrants of his day. "First you put your butter on your bread. Like this."

"Now, go ahead, rub the corn up and down until it all melts."

"Okay, son, the bread is the best part of all, you know. Don't ever forget that."

And I never did.

Thanks, Mr. B.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Ravioli with zucchini & leeks

According to three very close associates of mine, these here are the best ravioli that I have ever made.

Don't ask me. I've made thousands of the things, and I'm not about to pick a favorite.

Had I known this batch was gonna be such a big hit I'd have documented the recipe more precisely; at the very least, taken a few more pictures.

What are you gonna do? The recipe below is pretty close, I promise.

The ravioli filling is a combination of two fresh cheeses: ricotta and goat cheese. The fresh pasta dough you're probably all set with, but if not, here's a step-by-step look at how I usually make pasta dough.

The sauce is a mixture of sauteed zucchini and leeks. The ravioli are boiled and then added to the pan and mixed with the sauce.

A light dusting of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and you've got yourself a killer plate of ravioli.

Or so my associates say.

Two-cheese ravioli w/ zucchini & leeks

For the ravioli filling
1 lb. fresh ricotta
1/2 lb. fresh goat cheese
3 Tbsp. grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1 large egg
1 tsp. lemon zest
slight pinch of nutmeg
good pinch of salt
Mix all the ingredients together. Chill before forming the ravioli.

For the sauce
1 large zucchini, sliced and with the seeds removed
1 leek, sliced
3 Tbsp. olive oil
3/4 stick butter
1 1/4 cup homemade chicken stock
salt and pepper to taste
In a good sized saute pan (large enough to hold the ravioli) heat the olive oil and then saute the zucchini and leeks until softened.
Add the butter and saute until vegetables are slightly golden, then add the chicken stock and cook for around 10 minutes longer. Salt and pepper to taste.
Add the cooked ravioli to the pan, turn the heat up to high, and gently incorporate before serving.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A stuffed lamb leg for Shy

I cooked dinner for a very demanding woman the other evening. Her name is... Doesn't matter. You may know her as Shyster Jersey Lawyer Friend.

Shy likes her meat red. And so for her birthday dinner what was I gonna feed her, sanddabs?

This is a woman who you want on your side, at all times, if you catch my drift. One evening a while back I put a grilled chicken breast in front of my friend Shy and... Let's just say that the next day I found myself alone and dealing with an especially ugly negotiation, as the lady somehow failed to recall that her shysterly presence had been very much required.

Red meat was the only plausible option for this birthday celebration, don't you agree?

Rolled Lamb with Pecorino, Mint and Artichoke Stuffing is a recipe that comes from a restaurant in Rome called Sora Lella. I found it in a cookbook that I like a lot, Cook Italy, by Katie Caldesi.

So, you've got your boneless and butterflied leg of lamb, about a five pounder, all stretched out and seasoned with salt and pepper.

First you set down a layer of sliced Pecorino Romano.

Then 30 whole mint leaves.

And, lastly, two chopped garlic cloves and a 10-ounce jar of marinated (quartered here) artichoke hearts.

Roll it up and tie it real nice.

Sear all sides in a hot pan with about 3 tablespoons of olive oil.

Remove the lamb to an ovenproof casserole and deglaze the pan using two cups of dry white wine.

Then pour what's in the pan into the casserole with the lamb and add 1 1/4 cups of water. Cover and place in the oven preheated to 475 F for 15 minutes, then lower the temperature to 325 F and cook for another 30 minutes. Remove the lid and cook another 30 minutes, or until cooked through.

Shy seemed to like it, and that's all that mattered to me.

I'm gonna need her to show up at a thing with me pretty soon, y'know?