Thursday, December 17, 2015

A Christmas Story

'Twas not the night before, but Christmas Day itself. Late in the day, actually. It had been dark a few hours already. I remember it being bone-chillingly cold.

I was sixteen or seventeen. The family dinner had taken place earlier in the afternoon. At around seven o'clock or so I walked over to my girlfriend's house. Her family was a lot like mine, Italian-American tight you know, and so I figured that an appearance on such a holiday would be appreciated, if not expected.

To get to her place I had to walk past the White Castle on the corner of Atlantic and Shepherd Avenues. This was in the East New York section of Brooklyn, I should mention, the place where I was raised. Going past the restaurant on Christmas Day was always both fun and spooky, because this was the only 24-hour period in the entire year that the place was closed. Often my friends and I would go by the White Castle just to witness it on Christmas Day, to see the lights out and the grills cold, to hear the quiet.

Sitting on the sidewalk, leaning against the glass door to the restaurant, was an elderly couple. Elderly to a teenager, I should say. They might have been in their fifties, as I am now. They were bundled up but not enough to my eye; their bodies were next to each other but not close enough to keep each other warm, I thought.

"Cold tonight," the woman said as I walked past.

"Sure is," the man repeated.

I nodded and kept walking. Moving was the only way I could keep warm.

After visiting a while I decided it was time to get back to my own family. Mom and Aunt Anna would be putting out an evening buffet and I wouldn't want to miss it. As I said goodnight to my girlfriend's grandmother she grabbed me tightly by the wrist and drew me toward her.

"You be good to my granddaughter," she said in the thickest Italian accent. "Understand?"

Before I could answer the old lady kissed me and said I was a nice boy and that she liked me. Then she handed me a tray of my favorite Christmas cookies: cucidati, or fig cookies. I ate one right on the spot, or maybe it was two. They were extraordinary, better than my mom's, in fact. I hugged the old lady very tightly and kissed her.

"You keep making me fig cookies like this," I told her, "and I'll be good to anybody you want."

Approaching the White Castle I could see that the couple I'd seen earlier was still on the cold ground and against the door. It was around nine o'clock by now. Three hours before the place would reopen. They were waiting for exactly that, I realized. It hadn't even occurred to me earlier.

Just as before the woman and then the man remarked upon the weather. Again I nodded and kept on my way. It seemed colder now.

After walking another half block or so I turned around and headed back to the White Castle. This time as I approached the couple I made sure to speak first.

"These are my favorite cookies, and I want you to have them," I said handing them to the lady.

"Thank you, son," the man said quickly and without looking up, most of his face buried inside the warmth of his coat.

"We'll have them with some nice hot coffee in a little while," the woman said. "Won't we dear?"

I nodded and started on my way again.

"Merry Christmas," I heard the woman say. "And good night."

Saturday, December 12, 2015


Four years ago we celebrated Frank Sinatra's birthday around here the best way I know how. By having friends over and cooking them some of Frank's favorite foods. Here is the link to that very special event. Today would be a good day to check it out. Right now, though, we simply—and quickly—mark a milestone. —MM

It was 100 years ago, on December 12, 1915, that a baby boy was born to Natalie and Antonino Sinatra, in a cold-water flat on Monroe Street, in Hoboken, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. It was a difficult birth, one that came close to ending not very well. The baby, a big one at thirteen and a half pounds, looked as if it might not make it. Little Francis Albert did not begin to move at all until his grandmother Rose interceded, carrying the baby to a sink and running water over its seemingly lifeless body until it breathed.

Frank, as he later became known, did not overstay his welcome. He lived to be 82, respectable enough, I suppose, just not long enough, not for me.

For somebody who couldn’t manage his way through high school this Sinatra fellow did better than just all right for himself. Let's face it, he ran the table pretty much anywhere he played. No musician in the history of civilization has ever attained this remarkable man's accomplishment or stature.

Not. Even. Close.

His birth, I would argue, was nothing short of a miracle. That’s right, I said miracle. Just under 3 million babies were born on United States soil the year “Dolly” Sinatra gave birth to her son a century ago. And so Frank wasn’t simply one in a million; he was one in three of them!

Take them odds with you to Vegas, baby.


Sunday, December 6, 2015

Wish you were here

This picture was texted to me this afternoon. Cousin Jennifer sent it.

"It's like you're here with us," she wrote.

"Here" would be Aunt Anna's apartment in Queens. She shares it with Aunt Rita. It's where many family gatherings have taken place through the years and judging from Jennifer's text yet another was in progress.

The picture inside the picture, the one leaning against a bowl of meatballs, is of me. It's my high-school graduation photo. I had to remember this because, well, that's how long it's been since I have seen it. 

"You're kidding me," I peck typed. "Where in Hell did THAT come from?"

Nanoseconds later, Jen's response: "Going through old family photos. You should be here."

And then, the real reason for this correspondence: "You may have some competition! Aunt Anna is teaching me to make meatballs...


I'll admit that it is times like these that are most difficult for me. My family, most of them anyway, are roughly 325 away from where I am now. They live within minutes of each other, 20 tops, in New York's outer boroughs. It's often that they spend time together, for a coffee in the afternoon or to play cards or to take a trip to the butcher or to a doctor's appointment. The best gatherings take place on Sunday afternoons, of course, for the main meal of the week, and these can take place in any number of locations. This is the event Jennifer was taking part in at Anna and Rita's when she texted today. It's what I was missing out on, in other words.

Loss comes in many forms, even joyous ones.

I was not about to allow melancholy to disturb Jennifer's day, however.

"Oh yeah," I typed, brushing off my own sadness. "What's she using, bread or breadcumbs?"

It is the question that must be asked. 

"Breadcrumbs," Jen responded. "They are really good too."

"Not possible," I shot back. "Not with breadcrumbs. Meatballs have to be made with wet bread. My aunt oughta know better. And you can tell her I said so too."

It was a few minutes and no response, then finally: "We'll have to have a contest next time you're here. Be fun."

"Nope, no contests. I'm not going to show up my aunt in front of everybody. I love her too much. Have her show you how to make tripe instead. That I know she makes the right way at least."

"No!! No tripe for me," my cousin shot back. "She says she loves you too."

Jen was right. I should have been there.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Pancetta drop biscuits

I know I'm a day late but yesterday was the first time I experimented with these biscuits. Surely you've got leftovers from Thanksgiving. Some freshly made biscuits to go along with those can't be such a bad idea, right?

The basic biscuit recipe is from Cook's Illustrated. I've made the biscuits several times before and they always turn out great. The addition of the pancetta is just something I came up with yesterday morning. And judging by the reaction from My Associate ("Holy crap, these are the BEST BISCUITS EVER!!!) I am pretty sure that I'll be making them again.

Maybe even today.

In a bowl mix together 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, 2 teaspoons baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon baking soda, 1 teaspoon sugar, and 3/4 teaspoon table salt. (The full recipe is printed below, so relax, no need to take notes.)

In a separate bowl add 1 cup cold buttermilk. Then add 8 tablespoons of melted unsalted butter that's cooled just slightly.

Stir until clumps form.

Add the buttermilk/butter mix and finely diced and fried pancetta to the flour mixture and incorporate.

The dough should pull together pretty quickly.

Drop the biscuit dough onto a parchment-lined baking sheet and place in an oven preheated to 475°F. Start checking the biscuits at 12 minutes. When they become golden brown they're done.

These took around 15 minutes. When they're out of the oven brush the tops with melted butter.

Cool on a rack for a few minutes.

And serve.

My Associate just got out of bed. And, as suspected, I am back on biscuit detail today. See ya.

Pancetta Drop Biscuits
Adapted from Cook's Illustrated's Best Drop Biscuits Recipe and provided by Serious Eats

2 cups (10 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour 
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon sugar 
3/4 teaspoon table salt
1 cup cold buttermilk
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly (about 5 minutes), plus 2 tablespoons melted butter for brushing biscuits 
1/4 lb. pancetta, diced finely and fried until lightly crispy

1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 475°F. Whisk flour, baking powder, baking soda, sugar, and salt in large bowl. Combine buttermilk and 8 tablespoons melted butter in medium bowl, stirring until butter forms small clumps.
2. Add buttermilk mixture and pancetta to dry ingredients and stir with rubber spatula until just incorporated and batter pulls away from sides of bowl. Using greased 1/4-cup dry measure, scoop level amount of batter and drop onto parchment-lined rimmed baking sheet (biscuits should measure about 2 1/4 inches in diameter and 1 1/4 inches high). Repeat with remaining batter, spacing biscuits about 1 1/2 inches apart. Bake until tops are golden brown and crisp, 12 to 14 minutes.
3. Brush biscuit tops with remaining 2 tablespoons melted butter. Transfer to wire rack and let cool 5 minutes before serving.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Candied orange in syrup

We're deep in Thanksgiving prep mode around here (not one but two turkeys, along with, well, all the things that go with two turkeys) and so I'll have to be quick.

These oranges are the first thing I got done today. I like them all by themselves but they're most useful for accompanying desserts, like a slice of pie or cake or even ice cream or gelato, even biscotti.

They take no time at all. You should make them.

Unless you've got something against oranges. In which case, we've got nothing to talk about.

These are extra large navel oranges. I've used two here. If you're using smaller oranges then use three instead; that way you won't need to alter the other ingredients.

First cut off the ends, then slice the oranges like so.

In a pan place 2 cups sugar, 3 whole cloves, 6 all-spice berries, and a cinnamon stick.

Add four cups of water and turn the heat to medium high.

When it comes to a boil add the orange slices and turn the heat down to medium or lower. Allow to boil for around an hour. (Rotate the orange slices from time to time so that they cook evenly.)

Turn off the heat and allow to cool. These cooked for exactly one hour. The syrup was tasty and thickened just slightly, the way I like it. The rind had softened nicely. If the rind is still too tough boil a little longer.

I'll be serving them with Thanksgiving Day desserts this week—if we still have room.

You can also put them in a jar with the syrup and keep in the fridge for a while.

If we don't talk before, have a real good holiday.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Hamana-hamana… hummus?

I don’t know about these other two Stooges, but lately I’ve been missing our marathon group texting sessions. The first of the hours-long events took place October 27, the last November 1. Five entire evenings in all. One for each of the 2015 MLB World Series games between the Kansas City Royals and the New York Mets.

Textathons began around 15 minutes prior to game time and ended shortly after the last out was recorded. I did not keep score of how many total hours the five-game series took to complete, but the first game alone, in Kansas City, went on for more than five hours. Throw in the Series’ four other games and, well, my friends and I were joined at the smartphone for quite a while. 

Like me, Fred (at the left) and Joe (next to me, in the center) are lifelong NY Mets fans. All three of us were reared in Brooklyn and so our allegiance to the team that replaced the Brooklyn Dodgers should not surprise. I won’t bore you with all of the Inside Baseball (and Brooklyn) chatter that took place in the hours and days that we watched the games together from various locations. Well, okay, maybe a little:

Fred (responding to one of the many costly fielding errors committed by our team throughout the entire Series): Mets showing their aglio y olio defense… very slippery.

Joe (answering a text from yours truly, stating that I am stuck in the men’s room at a restaurant and want to know the score): Meatball: The gun is behind the flush box. I left it loud to scare away any pain in the ass innocent bystanders.

My brother Joe (making a very brief appearance one evening and reacting to a photo I’d shared of an anchovy potion I’d whipped up to bring much-needed luck to our hapless—and down two games to none—Mets): They win tonight and you eat that crap the rest of the Series.

Late in Game 5, it being clear that our Mutts were going down, I noticed an email come in from my friend Joe. “Time to move on to more pressing matters,” the subject line read.

I was sure that Joe had compiled one of his famously thorough reports, this one regarding the 2016 baseball season and the prospects for our team to return to the post-season. But then I saw that Fred was not copied; the email was sent to me and me alone.

“I simplified my hummus recipe,” Joe wrote. “When you’re finished crying over the Series maybe you oughta try it finally.”


Joe’s New & Improved Hummus

1 can chickpeas (I prefer the 19-ounce Progresso version)
1/4 cup tahini (I prefer the Roland brand in the white container)
1 lemon juiced
2 cloves garlic run through a garlic press or minced
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3/4 teaspoon Kosher salt or red Hawaiian sea salt
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1) Drain the chickpeas. Rinse well in a colander until the water runs clear. Shake dry to eliminate remaining water.

2) In the bowl of a food processor, add the lemon juice and tahini. Process for about a minute. Scrape the sides and bottom of bowl. Process for another minute. This step will ensure that your hummus will be smooth and that the tahini will be evenly distributed.

3) Add olive oil, garlic, salt, cumin and cayenne. Process for about 30 seconds. Scrap the sides and bottom of the bowl. Process for another 30 seconds.

4) Add the chickpeas. Process for a minute. Scrap sides and bottom of bowl. Process for another 1-2 minutes.

5) If you want a thinner hummus, add some water (about a teaspoon should do) and process for another minute or so. If not, simply process until it reaches your preferred thickness and smoothness.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Beef short rib ragu

The furnace has been running lately. So has the living room fireplace.

It's braising season.

Not a lot of things are better for braising than short ribs. They're terrific served whole, of course, but I was in the mood for a hearty ragu the other evening, and so that's the direction I went in.

Nobody complained.

I started out with 3 pounds of beef short ribs. After liberally seasoning the ribs with kosher salt and black pepper I dredged them in all-purpose flour and then tossed them into a dutch oven with plenty of olive oil.

After the ribs have browned on all sides, remove and set aside.

Add one large chopped carrot, two celery stalks, one medium onion, one leek, four garlic cloves, and some thyme. Saute until the vegetables have softened.

Return the ribs to the dutch oven and add one quart of stock (beef here), 2 cups of red wine, and one can of tomatoes. Let the liquid come to a boil, then cover the pot and place in an oven preheated to 375 degrees F.

After around two hours check that the meat is tender. If it isn't tender continue to cook until it is. Once tender remove from the oven and allow things to cool.

Once cool enough to handle, remove the ribs from the sauce and pick away all the meat from the bones.

All that's left to do now is add the meat back into the sauce, reheat and serve.

As you can see by the picture up top I served the ragu over polenta the first night. The next night I went with cavatelli.

It feels like winter tonight. I only wish there was still some of the stuff left.

Monday, October 19, 2015

You gotta break some eggs...

See this? It's a classic French omelet. Made by an authentic French chef.

The real deal. Both of them.

I was hoping to present to you my version of the venerable classic but a funny thing happened on the way to the stovetop: I discovered just how lacking in kitchen skills I am. Manufacturing the classic French omelet, it turns out, only looks easy.

The man who did create the four-egg-and-chive masterpiece that you see here is none other than Jacques Pepin. "If I have to judge how good technically a chef is," explains the célèbre chef français in a video that I highly recommend you watch, "I probably would ask him to do an omelet."

Luckily Chef Pepin asked no such thing of my Italian-American mother's middle son. I have attempted making a perfect French omelet on several occasions this past week and, well, you don't see any pictures of them around here, now do you?

What got me started on this Perfect French Omelet Quest was a recent trip to Paris. For lunch one day I'd ordered a simple omelette au fromage and a plate of beautifully cured (and nicely fatty) jamon. The omelet, in the classic not country style, wasn't the finest that I have had but still it was excellent, super light both in appearance and texture, moist in the way that many Americans would find underdone. (Yes, Cousin cook-my-scrambled-eggs-til-they're-like-packing-material Frank, I mean you!)

Mostly what I recall about the omelet is the thought I had as it slowly disappeared from the plate: Why don't I ever make this at home?

Now I know why. 

If your kitchen skills roughly mirror my own then maybe you do too.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Zucchini & eggs

This won't take but a minute. That's the way comfort foods work. Time-wise you're in and you're out in a flash. It's the feelings that linger on.

To my way of thinking few foods provide more comfort than Zucchini & Eggs. It's right up there with Pasta & Peas on the warm-and-fuzzy scale — and precious few things ever make it into that territory.

I am not alone in this. Many of the people that I grew up with in Brooklyn will back me up here, I am sure. Their mothers and grandmothers and aunts sliced many summer zucchini from their family gardens, and even cracked eggs fresh from the chicken coops in their backyards. The olive oils that they lovingly fried the zucchini and the eggs in were fresh and fragrant, the breads accompanying the completed scramble crusty and fresh from the bakeries down the street.

It would be an unprofitable use of time trying to estimate how often I have gone running to zucchini & eggs for nourishment. I wouldn't even try.

What I will try is to get you to give it a go and see how it feels.

Just slice up a zucchini and fry it in olive oil until golden.

Add a couple eggs (three here) and salt and pepper to taste.

Once the eggs start to set, lightly toss into a scramble and then serve.

Feels pretty good, am I right?

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Little boxes

This package arrived via overnight express the other day. Wrapped inside the white and brown plastic bag were two very hefty, not to mention delicious, deli sandwiches. I was expecting the package's arrival because one of my oldest friends, a man that I have known and loved since kindergarden, had alerted me both to its contents and whereabouts.

"Enjoy, my brother," Louis had texted from Manhattan's Lower East Side. "Nobody does pastrami the way Katz's does.

"Wish you were HERE!"

Like many wonderful people in my life Louis knows about and takes enormous pleasure in good food. Eating is an important part of the pleasure, but it isn't the biggest part. Sharing is. It's everything, actually.

Lou's carefully packed two-pound box of deli meats (half pastrami, half corned beef) was one old friend's way of showing another how fond of him he is. Katz's Delicatessen holds a special place in Lou's life. Always has. Eating there makes him enormously happy, joyous even. Being 300 miles away from each other on the afternoon he'd gone in for lunch, Lou decided that the next best thing to breaking (rye) bread together was to rush representative samples of his midday meal to my door.

And his plan worked. Splendidly. From the moment I accepted the FedEx package until my very last bite of thickly cut Katz's pastrami late that evening Lou was right there beside me.

He still is. And it's been days.

Boxes like this one are not entirely new to me, as the family and friends that surround me are of a similarly generous mind.

Cousin Josephine, a woman as close to me as any sister would be, has brightened many of my days with surprise packages of her extraordinary baked goods and confections. (Jo's homemade torrone immediately comes to mind. Awesome!)

Only recently a parcel meant to bring me back to my youth turned up in the mailbox. It was a package of Brooklyn chewing gum sent by my very dear cousin John and I still smile—widely—whenever I recall it.

Some 20 years ago now, only weeks after moving from my hometown New York to Maine, a package arrived early one Saturday morning. The box had been shipped from Alleva, a cheese shop in Little Italy that I know well. It was lined with thick hard foam, lots of dry ice—and around ten pounds of fresh mozzarella!

My friend Joe had arranged for the delivery after hearing me bitterly complain of the lack of decent food in my new home. It had been less than a month and already I was heartsick. What had I done? Could I liberate myself from the job I'd accepted and return home to New York where I belonged?

"I don't know how people can live this way," I told my friend when he called to check in on me one afternoon. "If I stay here I'll just wither and die."

Joe's package that Saturday—like Lou's and Josephine's and John's and so many others through the years—lifted me. High. Two decades later and just thinking about it still does.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Zucchini pie

To a gardener there's no better way to use up summer zucchini than having a couple of house guests show up for a few days. And so the day that Lou and Deb arrived from Florida I got to work on some zucchini pies. The idea here is that the pies could hold up in the fridge throughout their four-day visit and be gone to whenever the mood struck, mostly as a snack or for breakfast.

I'm really glad they showed up when they did. My zucchini plants have been so prolific the past few years that I finally decided to cut back to only one of them this year. And yet even with just this single plant I can't seem to keep up. Every other day I harvest another couple of these babies.

I'm guessing that many of you know somebody like me, so I suggest getting your hands on some of their zukes and commencing with the pie-making pronto.

Shred the zucchini like so.

Just one very large zucchini netted six cups' worth of the shredded stuff. This would be just enough to make two pies, and so half all the proportions here to make only one pie. To the shredded zucchini add one large chopped onion, 2 chopped garlic cloves, 1/3 cup chopped fresh basil, 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, five to six large eggs, 1/2 cup grated Romano cheese, and salt and pepper.

After thoroughly mixing the ingredients add 2 cups all-purpose flour and 2 teaspoons baking powder, then thoroughly mix again.

Coat two 9-inch pie pans with olive oil (or butter if you prefer) and evenly distribute the mixture into each pan. Place in an oven that's been preheated to 350 degrees F for around 45 minutes.

This batch of pies baked for just a little over 45 minutes.

And, I am told, turned out pretty good.