Thursday, December 7, 2017

A Christmas past

You would need to be pressed very hard to find a kinder, more generous, better loved, more widely respected man than Joseph Patrick Giamundo.

Though a general contractor by actual trade, his role in 65 years of life was not to renovate or repair people's homes and properties. Rather, the man's primary duty was to provide guidance, support, comfort and, most importantly, example to a family consisting of more than 30 people.

He had no children of his own. An early and rather horrific tragedy put an end to that.

Yet we were all Uncle Joe's children. And proud of it.

"Patriarch" falls pretty far short of describing the man's station in our clan. He was just completely and deservedly revered, by his family for sure, but by many others as well.

He still is. And it's been decades since he passed on.

I came across this picture not long ago and made sure to keep it in plain sight so that I could remember to share it with you for the holidays. It's one of Uncle Joe's homemade Nativity scenes, the kind he would throw together using scraps of plywood and two-by-fours leftover from his contracting jobs.

Nothing was so extraordinary about these annually assembled outdoor structures. And yet this one will stick with my entire family forever.

The hand-scribbled sign stapled to the top says it all.


Yep, Uncle Joe's nativity scene figures got heisted.

His mood after discovering the overnight theft was more wounded than angry, at least that's how it seemed to me. The few figures that you see in the picture are extras that Uncle Joe gathered up and hastily placed in the manger after all the originals had disappeared. It was an incomplete set but, well,  at least it was something for us kids to look at and feel excited about during the holidays.

For a good couple days my uncle tried to hide his melancholy. When his sign appeared, especially the DROP DEAD part of it, we were all pretty shaken up. Uncle Joe just never spoke that way to people, no matter how much they deserved it. I remember feeling really badly for him, like something uniquely precious, perhaps even like the child he'd lost, had gotten ripped away from him once again.

On Christmas Eve Uncle Joe awoke to find that his Nativity scene figures had all been returned. His mood, of course, brightened considerably, and so did the rest of the family's. Just before leaving his house to attend the midnight mass at St. Rita's Uncle Joe put up another sign on his manger.


I can't find a picture of that sign. But don't really need one either.

Merry Christmas everybody.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

How (not) to make agnolotti

It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt. — Mark Twain

I'll be straight with you, okay. If I called this stuff agnolotti in the Piedmont, the region in Italy where the pasta shape is most common, I'd be sent packing like the Brutto Americano that I am. Strictly speaking, agnolotti are filled with roasted meats or vegetables. Add cheese to the mix and, well, you've got yourself some ravioli is what you've got.

I knew this going in. A perfectly acceptable agnolotti filling (three parts roasted parsnips to one part leeks, all nicely caramelized) was resting in the food processor, waiting for me to crack open yet another bottle of vino rosso when...

I just had to notice the one-pound tub of ricotta in the fridge, thereby reaching both for it and a little lemon zest.

Just, y'know, to screw things up.

Why anybody playing with a full deck would further listen to a knucklehead who would act in such a way is a mystery.

And yet here we are.

Might as well have a go at creating the shape of agnolotti.

Take about 3 cups of flour (I use double zero) and create a well in the middle. Mix together three large eggs, three or four egg yolks, one tablespoon extra virgin olive oil and a half teaspoon salt.

Using a fork, slowly incorporate the flour into the egg mix. Don't rush it; just gradually, and in a circular motion, bring the flour into the egg a little at a time until a dough starts to form.

At this stage you're ready to work the dough with your hands.

Pasta dough isn't like pastry dough and so you don't need to worry about being delicate with it. Just keep working it until the egg and flour are fully incorporated.

Whe a nice dough ball forms scrape away any remaining flour from your work surface. On the clean surface keep working the dough until it's nice and smooth. If the dough feels too wet dust the surface with a little flour and incorporate it into the dough ball. The dough shouldn't feel sticky when you touch it, but it shouldn't be dry either. Again, don't worry about being delicate. You could work pasta dough all night long and not mess it up.

When you're through working the dough wrap it in plastic and let it rest. Most people allow the dough to sit at room temperature for a few hours before making their pasta, which is fine. However, I prefer to make my dough a day in advance and let it sit in the fridge overnight. Make sure to allow the dough to come up to room temperature before rolling out sheets of pasta for the agnolotti.

Roll a thin sheet of pasta dough around 4 inches wide and lay down a line of filling along one edge. A pastry bag is ideal but I just put the filling in a plastic bag and cut a small hole in one corner.

Fold the dough over the filling from the edge.

And fold again into a small tube.

Using your fingers press down along the tube in increments of around 1 1/2 inches.

Then use your cutting tool in the indentations you made with your fingers.

And there you have it: Agnolotti.

Or not.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

How to make porchetta

I lost a lot of sleep over this porchetta. Literally.

It was the main course for a Labor Day lunch with some friends, you see. And since I'm a big proponent of the "low and slow" method of cooking, that meant getting to work really early.

There are a lot of ways to make porchetta, from the most traditional (a whole roasted pig that's stuffed with garlic and herbs) to the more modern (belly only) variations. I leaned closer to the traditional by using (l. to r.) a pork loin, a belly, and the skin. The loin gets wrapped by the belly which is wrapped by the skin. All told the entire thing weighed in at just under 7 1/2 pounds raw. (A note about the pork: Use the best you can get your hands on. This pork is from a small family farm around half and hour from my home. The hogs are raised naturally and even work the fields, as hogs do.)

There's no one way to season porchetta. I just went out to my garden and grabbed what I could get my hands on, then chopped everything up as finely as I could. There are leaves from my celery plants, fennel fronds, rosemary and thyme, plus an entire head of this year's garlic crop. In addition there's the zest of one large lemon.

Put everything in a bowl and mix in 1/3 cup of extra virgin olive oil and the juice of half a lemon.

Lay the skin flat (outside down) and lightly cover with some of the herb mixture.

Then lay the belly over the skin.

Cover the belly with more of the herb mixture.

Then lay the loin on the edge of the belly. (My butcher butterflied the loin and also scored it so that the seasoning could be more evenly distributed.)

At this point spread the remaining herb mixture over the loin and start rolling. To roll the porchetta leave the skin laying flat and first roll the belly around the loin, starting from the loin side. Once you've done that then wrap the skin around the entire thing and tie.

Like so.

Once it's all tied up take a sharp knife and score the skin all over. Look closely and you can see all the cuts I've made throughout. You can now either start cooking right away or wait a while. (I let things marinate overnight.) When you are ready to cook place a rack in a deep oven pan and set the porchetta on top. Make sure it comes up to room temp before it goes into the oven.

As for what temperature to cook the thing at, well, "low and slow" is best. That's why I was up at 1:30 in the morning to take the meat out of the fridge, then again at 3:30 to turn on the oven, wait for it to come up to temp, and then put the porchetta in — at 225 degrees F.

Around seven and a half hours later (the last 15 minutes at 500 degrees F just to crisp the skin a little bit more) the porchetta was done. Don't cut it up right away, allow it to cool down. Honestly, I like it at room temp, which is how I served it yesterday.

Removing the skin makes things easier to slice—thin is best, I think—but if you get the skin to the right degree of crispiness it's a treat to eat.

Just one more piece of advice: Make this for dinner, not lunch.

You'll sleep a lot better. Believe me.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Veal & peas

I was in an old-school mood last night.

Veal and peas (spezzatino di vitello con piselli) isn't the kind of thing you see around very much. The last time I saw it on a menu was in Rhode Island, at a crazy place called Mike's that operates out of a VFW hall. (Don't laugh. Mike's has been a seriously good source for old-school Italian food for years. I'd give a lot to have a place like that nearby.)

Anyhow, I'd made a batch of my meatballs over the weekend and had some veal stew meat leftover (I grind the veal to make the meatballs). Next thing you know I see some fresh peas at a farmstand nearby, and, well, there you go.

When the two pounds of fresh peas that I'd gotten (for $14, by the way) only netted out at a cup of peas I decided to add frozen. No matter. Whether you go with fresh or frozen just make sure to have around two cups of peas total.

This is a little over a pound of veal stew meat, trimmed and cut into small pieces. 

In a pan saute one chopped onion, a finely diced carrot and two cloves of garlic in olive oil. Do this at a low to medium flame so that things don't brown too much, if at all.

Once the onions and carrots have softened add around 1/3 cup of dry white wine or vermouth (which is what I used here).

I also added a little fresh thyme at this point.

After the wine has evaporated add around 3/4 cup of chopped tomatoes. These are fresh from the garden but canned is fine too.

Then add in the veal.

Now add enough stock to cover things up (I used around 3/4 quart of homemade chicken stock). Add a little salt and freshly ground pepper and make sure the flame is on low so that the veal can simmer for a while.

The quality and age of the veal will affect how long it needs to cook, but figure on around 90 minutes or so, possible even two hours. I tasted the veal at the 70-minute mark and it was pretty much all there, and so I stirred in the peas and just a little more stock and let things simmer another 10 minutes before turning off the heat.

As I said, old school.

Just how I like it.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Finding love in the back of a car

I don't look forward to summers the way I used to. Not since August 2013.

That's when Cousin John delivered this case of Manhattan Special to me. He'd packed it in the trunk of his car before he and Cousin Susie, his wife of 40-plus years, left their home on Long Island and made their annual summer drive to Maine. John always made a point of bringing something meaningful along on his visits and knew that, to me, a major stash of Manhattan Special surely qualified as that.

The sweet espresso soda has been one of my favorite indulgences since I was five and swiped my first little glass bottle of the stuff from my parents' candy store in Brooklyn. It tastes exactly the same today as it did then. And is still manufactured in Brooklyn, just as it's been since 1895. By the same family no less.

But they don't sell Manhattan Special in Maine. Worse, nobody here has even heard of the stuff, let alone tasted it. In the winter of 2012, I went so far as to prepare (and report on right here) a homemade batch of the soft drink. This desperate attempt did not go unnoticed by my cousin, as the case of real Manhattan Special arrived shortly afterward.

John's delivery in the summer of 2013 was much more than a thoughtful gift from an appreciative (and, let's face it, lobster-loving) houseguest: It was an extraordinary kindness, rooted in history, tradition and, most important of all, love.

Which didn't surprise me in the slightest.

John and I are as close as any cousins I know, and have been since I was in my late teens and he in his latter twenties. Of the many things I regret about moving away from my home and family in New York, 20-odd years ago now, a close proximity to this particular family member ranks high. For many years anticipating John's and Susie's weeklong summer visits went a good ways toward making the harsh Maine winters seem a little more bearable.

But he hasn't been back since. And I fear he won't again.

My cousin hasn't been well. He goes in and out of hospitals and doctors offices and testing facilities the way most of us run errands to the grocery store or the ATM. He's even taken up with mystics and healers hoping that they might have the answers that traditional medicine does not.

Even when John is feeling well he isn't feeling well enough to break the chains of his afflictions. The idea of traveling, to Maine or anyplace else where his known healthcare providers are not within immediate reach, has become, to his mind, just another risk that requires prudent avoidance.

And so we've learned to talk more on the phone and grab a quick lunch or dinner when I'm in New York. We reminisce about how we have missed our summer tradition, and John assures me that the next year will be different, and I tell him that that would be just sweller than swell, hoping that each next year will be different from the last one but not hoping so much as to be too disappointed when it isn't.

Driving my own case of soda from New York to Maine just doesn't cut it.

And it will never, ever feel as good.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Garlic scape aglio e olio

When you have more than 200 head of garlic growing in the garden this is the time of year people start showing up.

"What you doing there?" asked a neighbor I had not seen since early winter. "Those garlic scapes you're cutting?"

The woman left with a bag filled with 20 or so of my scapes. She said that she would make a pesto, which is what many people will do. I said that she ought to try this aglio e olio with a few of the scapes, but I'm pretty certain that she wasn't paying any attention.

Her loss.

A simple aglio e olio using garlic scapes instead of cloves is a great change of pace. And this is the only time of year that we get to do it.

Get yourself around four or five scapes.

Chop them up like so. (Get your pasta going, by the way, because this won't take very long at all.)

Saute at medium heat in plenty of olive oil with three or four anchovy filets and a little chopped hot pepper.

When your pasta is al dente add it to the pan, along with some of the well-salted pasta water, then turn up the heat to high and incorporate.

If only my neighbor had been listening.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Sometimes we cry

Things are finally getting back to normal around here. For a while I wondered if they would.

It was chaos from the latter part of May through the middle portion of June. Two, sometimes three times a day I would find myself sobbing like a two-year-old. The reasons might not have been always apparent—but on reflection they always were good.

I blame a handful of people for disrupting my life in this manner, five to be precise, and I am willing to name names. There is Giovani Twigge, Scott Tyree, Joe Brancatelli, Joel Ann Rea, and lastly but by no means leastly a woman whose official station around here is My Associate but whose legal tender documents point to one Joan M. Lang.

I hope they're all very happy with themselves.

What happened, you see, is I had a birthday, a notable one, if you must know, though by no means a welcome one, at least not by me. In order to celebrate the occasion these five individuals conspired—for nearly a year, mind you, and behind my back—to substantially inconvenience their own very busy lives for the purpose of (gasp!) demonstrating their affection for me.

They did this by organizing a secret 15-day food- and wine-intense journey to Italy. All I was told was to pack a bag and to carry a passport.

I was informed of this by Ms. Lang alone. The trip was a gift from her to me and, like the majority of our vacations, we would be traveling alone. I simply didn't know where to.

And so you can imagine my surprise when, not 24 hours after landing in Milan, and in the middle of a romantic outdoor lunch of burrata and coppa and risotto and vitello tonnato and a fine bottle of Roero Arneis, two of the aforementioned conspirators—Messrs. Twigge and Tyree in this case—sat themselves down at our table unannounced and demanded to be fed. (It's worth mention that they arrived bearing gifts from two other dear friends, Jimmy and Mary, some swell bubbly to be precise.)

Overwhelmed does not in the slightest give this magical moment its due. It required more than two long minutes for me to get a word out.

The tears came a lot faster than that, of course.

And they hung around for the several days that our foursome was together. Not only was I treated to a night at the world's most famous opera house, La Scala in Milan, a bucket list item I felt sure would never be crossed off...

But the next morning we loaded a couple cars and headed to one of the world's most prized wine regions, the Piedmont, where we ate and drank and explored in ways that stay with you for a lifetime. I mean, what could be better than drinking a fine Barolo at lunch—in Barolo!

About a week later Ms. Lang and I were alone again, this time enjoying an afternoon snack at an outdoor cafe in Genoa. We were missing our dear friends Scott and Giovani, who had gone off to Venice. I was just in the  middle of explaining how I could never repay them for their generosity and love (did I mention the surprise birthday lunch at a 3-star Michelin in Alba?) when...

"Is this seat taken?" asked my friend Joe as his wife Joel navigated around another side of our table.

Now, you should know something about these very dear friends of ours. Joel's father Ev is in his 90s and has been living with Joe and Joel for a few years now. He's a good guy, Ev, but his health isn't so good and it's important that he have around-the-clock care. Because of this Joe and Joel don't get to travel together these days.

To make this trip to Italy happen they needed to hire not one but two home healthcare workers. As if that weren't enough they also asked their goddaughter Julia to move into their house so that Ev would have a familiar family member around to keep him company.

The few days we spent discovering Genoa together is among the most memorable experiences I've had. But it pales in comparison to what I know these two wonderful people had to go through just in order to show up.

Talk about owing people.

While we're on the subject...

May I present to you the capo di tutt'i capi of astoundingly well executed, extraordinarily generous, completely unforgettable birthday travel.

This woman I can never repay, not for as long as I stand upright, and for reasons too great in number to explore.

Dammit. Here comes that two-year-old again.