Thursday, May 30, 2013

Pasta with garlic & hazelnuts

I just couldn't not think about Christmas. Last night, I mean. As I was cooking this stuff.

See, nine out of ten times Aunt Rita serves a version of this pasta to start off our big family meal on Christmas Eve. That would be right after we've plowed through a couple trays of Anna's baked clams, of course.

First thing to do is lightly toast the hazelnuts, either in a pan (as shown) or on a baking sheet in the oven. This is around two-thirds of a cup of nuts and it took less than five minutes to toast them. Then set them aside for later.

Saute a couple good-sized garlic cloves and a little crushed hot pepper in extra virgin olive oil.

Okay, you can consider this next step optional. Those are anchovy fillets I've added, but I know a lot of you don't go for that and so skip this step if you want. (I'd up the amount of garlic, though.)

Add the hazelnuts and turn up the heat to high. (I've left the nuts whole here but you can lightly crush them too if you like.)

Add your pasta of choice (angel hair here) and enough of the pasta water (be sure to save a couple cups) to keep things moist. This is around a half pound of pasta and I used a good half cup of the pasta water. (About the water: It's a pretty important ingredient in this dish, so make sure that it's very well salted.)

And there you go. Christmas in May.

Aunt Rita would've liked this version, I'm pretty sure.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Grilled eggplant caponata

It being a holiday weekend I'm figuring the outdoor grills are getting a good workout. This may not look like something that can cook next to the burgers and the sausages but just be patient, all right.

What you do is throw some whole eggplant on the grill, along with a cut red onion and a head of garlic wrapped in foil.

When the eggplant is cooked through peel off the skin, shred the flesh and put it in a colander to allow the moisture to run out (weight it with something heavy and it'll dry out faster). Then chop the onion and remove the cooked garlic flesh from the skins.

Saute some celery and pine nuts in olive oil for a couple minutes, then quickly add a chopped tomato and some drained capers for another minute (not shown). In a bowl add the contents of the pan to the eggplant, onion and garlic, toss with some extra virgin olive oil, a little balsamic vinegar and salt and pepper to taste.

Not exactly a traditional Memorial Day snack, but it works just fine. For me.

Have a good holiday everybody!

Monday, May 20, 2013

Time to plant the tomatoes

Nobody asked me but... I decided to throw a couple cents into this season's tomato-planting discussion. (Whaddaya mean, you weren't discussing it! You have looked at a calendar, yes?)

My best advice on getting tomatoes started is this:

Buy plants that are around a foot tall and that have plenty of suckers growing from the lower portion. This one is around 11 inches, and has plenty of leaves and suckers throughout the entire plant.

Why is that so important? Because the first thing I'm going to urge you to do is cut off all that beautiful growth, about halfway up the stem, in fact.

Then dig a deep enough hole to bury the stem to the first sucker that's left.

Yes, your plants will look pretty scrawny compared to when you bought them at the garden center. But your odds of having a more productive plant just got a ton better than had you dropped the plant into the ground as-is. What's happening here is that all those areas where you pruned will develop into a more substantial root system for the plant, which makes it stronger and, in turn, able to produce better fruit.

One other thing: Tomato plants don't require frequent watering, so unless you live in a dry climate, try and leave the things alone until they need moisture. Under normal conditions I only water my tomato plants (20 or 30 of them, and all different varieties) a couple times a week.

I'll shut up now.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Mom's left hand

All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his.
— Oscar Wilde

I wouldn't put this one in the bank.

Because long ago, and in a most important way, I became exactly like my own mother. The woman belonged in her kitchen. She was happiest when preparing tradition-rich foods for the people she loved, and most contented when with them at her three-leaf dining table as they ate and drank and gabbed and laughed and sometimes, yes, even cried.

Sound familiar?

I am especially like my mother in the important business of making meatballs. This is a woman so known for her cooking that, two days before leaving for an audience with Pope John Paul II in Rome, no less a person than my trusted associate thought to ask mom if she had planned on bringing the Holy Father a batch of her meatballs. (For the record, she was planning no such thing. "I'm on vacation," she said. "Besides, he has his own cook. Doesn't he?")

My mother and I did not share the same recipe for meatballs (hard to believe, I know) but the seriousness with which I approach the process (seen here) is a very deliberate nod to the woman who reared me.

"Nobody made meatballs like Aunt Mary," my cousin John has said of my mother thousands of times. "I'd give a lot to have just one more Sunday that had her in it — and her meatballs."

It has been alleged — though never by mom — that the secret lay not in a recipe but in her left hand.

"Your mother wasn't a lefty but she was when she made her meatballs," Aunt Laura has told me. "That's why nobody could ever duplicate them; we were all right-handed. You could follow her recipe to the letter but if you weren't able to comfortably form the balls in your left hand it didn't work."

Mom's sister Anna, also a fine maker of meatballs, tells me that many of the women in our family, as well as others outside of it, often studied alongside my mother trying to mirror both her recipe and her technique. To no avail.

"You want a better explanation than the left hand? Well, I don't have one," Aunt Anna tells me. "What do you want from me? My sister had her own way. She always did."

Should you study the details of my own meatball recipe (principally veal whereas mom's was mostly beef) you will see no mention of a left hand, my mother's or mine. That is because a parent's job is to encourage their children to cut their own path, and in this regard my mother must be judged a success.

Still, confident as I might be in my own kitchen, I stand firmly alongside cousin John here:

This coming Sunday, Mother's Day as it happens, would be a whole lot better if mom and her meatballs were around.