Sunday, October 26, 2014

Meet the Parents




Nothing could have prepared me for it. I mean, I was given fair warning, but it was an event that no amount of planning would have been adequate to brace me for it: The experience of meeting Gina Radioli’s Mother!

I have known Gina Radioli for years. I even know her Father Jack (Giacomo) and her sister Laura (pronounced Lao-ra… and make sure you get that right) as well as I know my own family. But I had only heard about Graziella Radioli, or should I say Graziella Travoli Radioli Cosetta Bortoli Ostellino Mereghetti Schwartz. Gina’s Mother had married well. Six times. She had begun her serial marriage sequence in Sicily when she became betrothed to Gina’s Dad and then when that ended, she simply married her way up the boot until she hit Milan.

Gina’s parents met near the outskirts of Palermo when they were kids. And when I say kids, I mean when they were 2 years old. They had always known each other. Gina’s Dad used to say he couldn’t remember not knowing Graziella. Gina’s Dad’s family had made a very comfortable living in olives, pistachios and sheep and her Mother’s family owned the adjacent lemon grove. It only seemed natural to both families to encourage Giacomo and Graziella to marry. But encourage is really not the correct word. I’m trying to think of a better word.....forced......that’s it, forced. Gina’s parents had no choice whatsoever with regard to whom they would marry. It's just the way it was in those days. And it made perfect sense to everyone in the village, except for the couple that would eventually become Gina and Laura’s parents.

Jack used to joke, with his thick Sicilian accent, “Ita wasn’t like a we were on an ark. We had a car you know.” But both Gina’s parents knew the reason their families wanted them to stick around. Both families had a very nice life in the country. The government had left them alone for decades and they didn’t want things to change. The trucks would come in, pick up the crops and the wool, pay for the goods and be gone. Life was simple.

But when someone from town got the idea in their heads of finding an adventurous new way of life, things didn't always work out as hoped. All too often, a kid from the region would go off to the big city to make his fortune and come back either wearing far too much jewelry and cologne, return a pale, broken version of their former selves or arrive home in a pine box. Glamour was hard. Olives were easy.

So Giacomo Radioli and Graziella Travoli were pronounced man and wife.

Well, sort of.......

(To be continued........)


While we were waiting for Graziella's limousine (yes, limousine) to arrive, I made Jack Radioli's favorite lunch: Steamed Mussels with a midwestern twist. BACON! I am not Italian, but everytime he would eat them, he'd look at me and say, "Ita just like a home!" Then he would gather the fingers from his right hand to his lips and fan them out with a kiss. "Bellissimo!"




                   

 Steamed Mussels with Smoked Bacon

Ingredients:
¼ pound Smoked Bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 large shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
1 large jalapeño, seeded and thinly sliced crosswise
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
½ pound plum tomatoes, seeded and coarsely chopped
1 cup drinking quality dry white wine
4 pounds medium mussels, scrubbed and debearded
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
¼ cup chopped Italian parsley
Parmigiano-Reggiano Croustades to serve

1. In a large enameled cast-iron casserole, cook the bacon over moderate heat until crisp, about 6 to 8 minutes.
2. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of the fat. Add the shallots and jalapeño, season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened but not browned, about 4 minutes.
3. Add the tomatoes and cook for 3 minutes. Add the wine and simmer until reduced by half, about 4 minutes.
4. Increase the heat to high and add the mussels. Cover and cook, shaking the pan a few times, until the mussels open, about 5 minutes.
5. With a slotted spoon, transfer the mussels to 4 large, shallow serving bowls. Remove the casserole from the heat and stir in the lime juice, butter and chopped Italian parsley.

Ladle the sauce over the mussels and serve at once with the croustades.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

My Mom used to cook.........


.....back in the 80’s, when Reagan was President and Obama simply sounded like an exotic fish one might order in a Polynesian restaurant. (Oh, it comes with rice and a mango salsa! I’ll have the Obama!) But as time passed, she slowly gave up on it. For years she attempted to try creating a new dish, but this goal was usually achieved by adding mustard powder to something that she already made well.

I would walk into the kitchen and ask, “What’s for dinner?”

“I’m trying something different tonight.”

And whenever she would say this, my eyes would scan the countertop looking for that little yellow metal box. If I didn’t see it, I knew I was safe. But when I did, I would resign myself to knowing I was to consume a meal in which mustard had no natural place. It would turn up in meatballs, Swiss steak and even chicken wings. I loved my mother’s meatballs, Swiss steak (especially her Swiss steak) and chicken wings, so the addition of mustard powder often led to dinnertime disappointment. My aversion to mustard became so acute that when I started to cook as an adult, if I ran across a recipe that contained even a trace of mustard powder, I would either not bother with the recipe at all or I would omit the ingredient altogether. I have since learned to embrace mustard powder and have come to appreciate its culinary value.

You see, there are two types of moms: there are cookers and there are cleaners. My Mom was a cleaner. Well, actually there is a third kind of mom who cooks and cleans, but they’re usually so angry because they are cooking and cleaning all the time that eating a delicious meal in their spotless house is ruined by the sound of their grinding molars.

Since my Mom was a cleaner, when I was little I often longed to be invited to someone else’s house for dinner. I think it came from playing outside after school and being able to smell dinners being cooked in other houses. This was when children still played outside on a regular basis and not only because their computers had frozen and World of Warcraft was temporarily unavailable. The one house I used to love to hang around back then was the house of my buddy Peter Moretti.

Peter Moretti had a Mom who cooked and Mrs. Moretti cooked constantly. Mrs. Moretti also did not clean, at least not in the way I was accustomed to. Eating at the Moretti’s was an odd catch 22: the food was delicious but the house looked like a war zone. I later learned that cooking was Mrs. Moretti’s way of dealing with stress. You see, Mrs. Moretti had a problem: Mr Moretti.

The neighborhood I grew up in was an average middle-class Midwestern neighborhood filled with three bedroom, one and one-half bath houses on maintained streets with good schools. This made Mr. Moretti’s possession of a Rolls Royce not just a little odd. I think I was only seven years old at the time, but that kind of car in a neighborhood like ours seemed odd even to a child. Everyone looked at the car constantly. Groups of adult neighbors would gather across the street and gaze endlessly upon the Rolls Royce, and then talk amongst themselves in hushed tones. All the kids just thought it was cool.

Then one day the Rolls Royce, and Mr. Moretti, disappeared. I asked Peter, but he had no idea why his Dad had to go away, but all the kids in the neighborhood did our best to piece together the story from the bits of conversation we were able to extract from our parents before being asked to leave the room. The two words I heard the most were ‘prison’ and ‘embezzlement’, but I couldn’t figure out why someone would have to go to jail for gluing rhinestones on a sweatshirt.

Then one day, the Moretti family was gone. No warning. Nothing. I later learned Mrs. Moretti moved back east to be with her family, but it would have been nice to at least say goodbye to Pete. But I will always remember the image of Mrs. Moretti in the kitchen. And while she made a lot of food I could never pronounce, the one thing I remember is her chocolate chip cookies because, to a seven-year-old, the chocolate chip cookie is the measure of a good cook. And there was no place for mustard in a chocolate chip cookie.



                           

Chocolate Chip Cookies

Ingredients:
2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 ½ teaspoon salt
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
½ cup granulated sugar
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 tablespoon water
2 large eggs

1 pound semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Line 2 rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper
2. Whisk together flour, baking soda and salt in small bowl.
3. Beat butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar, vanilla extract and water in large mixer bowl until 
    creamy. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.
4. Gradually beat in flour mixture.
5. Stir in the chopped chocolate.
6. Drop by rounded tablespoon onto parchment-lined baking sheets.
7. Bake for 9 to 11 minutes or until golden brown. Rotate the baking sheets from top to bottom and
    front to back half-way thought the cooking time to ensure even baking.

8. Cool on baking sheets for 2 minutes; remove to wire racks to cool completely.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Power of Pasta (Continued)


(Continued……..)

Katie was fascinated by the fact I made my own pasta. “How is that even possible?! Does everybody in Italy make their own pasta?”

It’s hard not to romanticize the idea of making your own pasta, or making your own anything for that matter. We live in an era where a great deal of our food comes out of a box because CONVENIENCE IS EVERYTHING! But people are trying to cook at home more. Maybe it’s because they want to develop their craft. Maybe they want to spend more time with their family. Maybe it’s because their house is in foreclosure and their already strained relationship with CitiBank Visa does not permit them to go to Chili’s nearly often as they used to. But whatever the reason, people are cooking and that’s a good thing.

The food shows reflect a bit of this change. There are shows for every taste and skill level. I watch some chefs and am simply in awe. The creativity and finesse are astounding. These people are truly inspiring. And then I see others and I wonder who they had to know……….or do……..to even get a show.

There’s one, I can’t think of her name right now, it’s something like Candee Boxx, or something like that (oddly appropriate). I want to have an open mind, so I try to think of her recipes like culinary training wheels. Many people have an innate fear of cooking, not only due to the possibility of failure, but the fact that this failure will be up for inspection, and consumption by people you love and may or may not care for. So from that perspective, Candee provides a good entrée to the idea of cooking.

I watch Candee tear open boxes and rip open packages, toss it all in the microwave and then present a serviceable, if not slightly under-thought dish. She always seems so proud of herself at the end, when she’s making herself a cocktail. But maybe it’s all good. Seeing as she likes to drink so much, it’s probably best the recipes don’t have a lot of instructions.

So, while not everyone in Italy makes their own pasta, a bit more thought goes into the idea of what a meal is. It is a bit different in other parts of the world because I think food just means more in other parts of the planet. But it really does bring people together. And it’s not just the quality of the food; it’s the idea of sitting down with people you love and sharing something. Hopefully we are getting past the idea that food is something you order through a drive-thru window and should be easy to eat while you are texting. Here’s hopin’!

So Katie was thrilled she was going to eat homemade pasta for the first time.

“My God! He makes the best Fettuccine Alfredo! Gina said. But she was biased as this was her favorite pasta dish.

Katie wrinkled her nose as if she had just smelled a 16 year old boy’s gym shoes

“You don’t like Fettuccine Alfredo?” I asked, a little disappointed.

“It’s just so thick and gloppy!”

Gina put her hands on her hips, “Don’t tell me, Olive Garden?”

“No, Applebee’s.”

Gina and I both roared with laughter. Using Applebee’s as the yardstick by which to measure the standard of Fettuccine Alfredo was like giving a person a McDouble and saying, “So, how do you like hamburgers?” It could ruin you for life.

That next Saturday, we spent the day making dough and rolling it out in the machine. Katie watched with rapt attention as the rough mass of pasta dough was transformed into smooth sheets with just a little effort. Some of our friends at the party were more adventurous than others and were making bow tie shapes while most were happy simply to roll it and cut it. Katie’s enthusiasm made it feel like we were all making pasta for the first time. It was fun to have a new member of the clan and Katie really did fit. It’s always nice when all of your old friends adore the new one.

We made marinara, pesto and grated more Parmigiano-Reggiano than was really necessary, but it gave us an excuse to eat it!

As we sat down to eat, Katie’s trepidation was tangible. She started at the bowl of Fettuccine Alfredo in a combination of curiosity and fear. It didn’t help that we were all staring at her. She stabbed her fork into the dish, twirled that pasta with surprising skill and gave it a go. I had a feeling I was going to change Katie’s mind about Fettuccine Alfredo, but her reaction upon trying it seemed disproportionate to the simplicity dish.


She placed the fork in her mouth and closed her eyes. It seemed like the entire moment was in slow motion until Katie’s eyes flew open and she exclaimed, “Oh my God, this is GOOD! Who would’ve thought? I love this” The woman was moaning. Mission accomplished.

I wasn’t sure if she was more satisfied or relived that she liked it. But the girl kept eating and nothing could have made me happier. Nothing feels as good as having people you care for love your food. Nothing.






Fettuccine Alfredo

Ingredients:

1 tablespoon kosher salt
¾ pound egg fettuccine
8 tablespoons unsalted butter,
divided into 3 tablespoon and 5 tablespoon portions, cut into pieces
¾ cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, finely grated, divided into ½ cup and ¼ cup portions
⅔ cup heavy cream
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons Italian parsley, chopped


1. Bring 6 quarts of water to a boil in a large stock pot. Add 1 tablespoon of
salt. Cook the pasta until al dente. Reserve ¼ cup of the cooking water for the
sauce. Drain the pasta.
2. In a heat-proof gratin dish or an enameled cast iron casserole dish. Heat 3
tablespoons of the butter over low heat. Add the cooked pasta and toss to fully
coat.
3. Add the ½ cup of the cheese, reserved cooking water, cream, the remaining 5
tablespoons butter, salt and pepper to taste. Toss to combine well.
Place Fettuccine Alfredo on a serving plate or divide among 4 entrée plates.
4. Sprinkle remaining ¼ cup cheese over pasta and garnish with chopped
Italian parsley.

Serve immediately


Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Power of Pasta

Home Made Pasta






It’s essential to allow the dough to rest before rolling. And, make sure the dough is smooth and supple before adjusting your machine in increments to thin the pasta dough out before cutting. Do not rush this...you will not be happy with the results.

Fresh Pasta

Serves 4
Special equipment: Pasta Machine, parchment or waxed paper
Ingredients:
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
Up to 3 teaspoons of water (if needed)
Coarse sea salt

On a clean work surface, mound flour and form a well in the center. Sprinkle with the ½ teaspoon salt. Place the eggs and egg yolks into a small mixing bowl and whisk to blend. Add the beaten eggs and yolks to the well.


Using a fork, slowly incorporate flour from inside rim of well. Continue until liquid is absorbed. It the dough is not coming together in a mass, sprinkle some water, 1 teaspoon at a time, over the dough and knead to incorporate. When dough forms a mass, knead for 10 minutes. Wrap dough tightly in plastic and let rest for 30 minutes and up to 2 hours in the refrigerator.


Divide dough into 4 pieces. Cover 3 pieces with plastic wrap. Flatten remaining dough piece so that it will fit through the rollers of a pasta machine. Set rollers of pasta machine at the widest setting, then feed pasta through rollers 6 or 7 times, folding and turning pasta until it is smooth and the width of the machine.


Roll pasta through machine, decreasing the setting, one notch at a time (At this point, do not fold or turn pasta), until pasta sheet is scant 1/16th of an inch thick. Cut sheet in half widthwise; dust both sides of sheets with flour. Layer sheets between floured pieces of parchment or wax paper. Cover with paper and repeat with remaining dough.


Work with one sheet of pasta at a time: With the short end of 1 pasta sheet facing you, loosely fold up sheet, folding sheet over three or four times from short ends toward the center.


With a large chef’s knife, cut folded sheet into ribbons, a scant ¼ inch wide. Unroll strips and lightly dust with flour; spread on a lightly floured baking sheet. Repeat with remaining pasta sheets.


To cook the pasta: Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook until tender, about 3 minutes. Drain pasta, transfer to a large serving bowl and toss with pasta sauce of your choosing.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

This is what Charlie must have felt like when Willy Wonka gave him the Golden Ticket

(Continued………..) As I stared down on the hundred-dollar gift certificate, my mind filled with visions of the culinary joy it would bring.

“Well, I suppose we all can stock up on Bounty and Tide now.” She went and broke the spell. Gina just had to burst my bubble. To Gina, the glass wasn't half-full or half-empty. It was just water in a glass. But her straight-forward way of thinking made her a practical balance to my occasional fleets of fancy. Also, Gina knew her culinary dreams were not to come true here. And of course, as usual, she was right. The sterility of my local grocery store made Bounty and Tide alarmingly appropriate choices. And after having to deal with Leon, our foul grocery clerk, I was feeling a bit dirty, and not in the good way.

So, just as I was about to resign myself to a bulk purchase of cake flour, non-stick aluminum foil and several 12-packs of TaB® cola, Katie announced, “I don’t know about you two, but I’m buying MEAT! Let’s go!”

Gina just looked at me, shrugged her shoulders and we followed our feisty new companion as she bounded towards butcher’s counter.

“Excuse me sir, do you have a rack of lamb? And if you do, can I get it Frenched. And could you remove the meat, fat and membranes that connect the individual rib bones? I’ll wait. Thank you!”

Katie may not have known a great deal about cheese, but it was obvious that girl knew meat! With Gina’s dairy addiction and my pastry obsession, Katie fit right in. It was if she was sent from above to complement our culinary lives. Besides the lamb, she ordered two Filet Mignon and an enormous rack of baby back ribs and, with her arms full of butcher paper-wrapped treasures, she turned towards us and said, “I’m sorry, I never introduced myself. My name’s Katie.”

“I’m Gina.”

“Terry here.”

The introductions almost seemed odd because it felt as if we had known Katie forever.

“Now, are you two Italian? I heard the two of you talking”

I could feel Gina looking at me and smirking, “Wipe that smile off your face.” She said.

Gina knew I loved it when people thought I was Italian. She grew up speaking Italian and I could manage fairly well with the language, but not like Gina. She had a way of combining lingual elegance with just the right amount of cultural vulgarity as only a true Italian could do. I knew enough to know that it was best if I continued to speak my linguistically proper, if not a bit too grammatically rigid, Italian. It allowed me to be looked upon with respect by Italians and retain what little dignity I had.

“We really need to get together. Do you like pasta? We’re making some next week and having a big pasta party. Would you like to come?” I asked.

Katie looked puzzled, “You mean like, make it make it?”

“Yeah. I like, make it all the time.”

“Wow, you really are Italian!”
I was beaming. And Gina just smiled.


To be continued……………

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Continued............Never pick a fight with Gina Radioli.



(Continued…...)...Katie planted her legs in a wide stance, dug her fists firmly into her hips and glared at the startled clerk. She was mad! But the problem was that she was just so darned cute that she was more reminiscent of Wonder Woman’s younger sister, Drusilla, played with amazing conviction by a young Debra Winger, than the fierce customer service advocate I think she had intended.

"....I...I’m...I don’t....” the clerk stammered while looking around trying to locate the final resting place for his airborne glasses.

Then the clerk’s face froze as all we heard what sounded like a pocket full of change getting louder and louder. Gina, Katie and I all turned in the direction of the clerk’s stare and saw a man dressed in dark slacks and a pressed white shirt bounding towards us. I knew he was the manager because one, he was wearing a name tag and two, he had keys. A lot of keys. And he had keys that jingled, jangled, jingled. Keys were a grocery store manager’s equivalent to war medals....and he looked as though he was heading towards his Waterloo, and he couldn’t have escaped if he wanted to.

“Leon,” the manager yelled, “what did you say now?”
“Why do you automatically think it wa………..” the clerk started.
“Because it is ALWAYS you, Leon. Always! Leon, just go!  I’ll deal with you later”

So, apparently this was not the first time Leon said the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person. And as the manager turned towards us, it was obvious he was about to give an explanation that he had given a few too many times before, possibly even that day.

“My name is Chuck Sorenson and I’m the store manager. I truly apologize for whatever Leon might have said to you. I won’t ask you to repeat it as I’m sure I have heard it before.”

Now I was curious and I had to ask, “If this is a common occurrence, why do you keep him on staff? I don’t understand.”

“Because Leon is the owner’s son.”

Now I understood. If fact we all understood, nodding to each other as if we just found out the answer to a test question we all had missed.

“We try to keep him busy in back, but eventually he wanders out. And it’s not like we can keep him chained up...legally. But it has been better since we turned off FOX News in the break room. That seemed to help. If I may,” he continued, “I would like to offer you all $100 gift certificates for the store with our most sincere apologies.”

“That’d be great!” I said.
“….Yes!” Katie added.
“Fine by me!” agreed Gina.

In fact, I was thinking I would have been glad to give Leon a detailed list of names he could call me if more gift certificates came my way when the manager said, “You know it’s funny, we have to keep moving Leon around from store to store because people always try to come back hoping Leon will be rude to them so they can get free groceries.”

“But really, who would do that?” I said……….mildly disappointed.

To be continued………..


Friday, September 12, 2014

Never pick a fight with Gina Radioli (Continued)



(Continued....) There were a few things in life Gina Radioli was passionate about and one of them was cheese. I also have a very good relationship with dairy products and we often enjoyed them together to the fullest extent of the law. And we do enjoy cheese!

Fantastic cheese is like great sex; you really don’t know what you’re missing until you’ve had it. Sex is nice, but cheese is easier. Although the afterglow with cheese is a bit more difficult as the cuddling can prove to be problematic. And I’ll leave it at that.

Anyway, when Gina heard the misinformed store clerk tell that poor, innocent cheese novice that there was no difference between domestic parmesan and Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano, she really wasn’t as angry as much as she knew it was time to release her inner cheese advocate. Or better said, she wasn’t angry yet.

Gina knew her enthusiasm with regard to certain things did not match that of the general public, but sometimes she just could not hold back. Knowing that her intensity could frighten the disinterested the way flash photography startles captive animals, she would always try to be gentle on her first approach. Using a calm, soothing tone, she tried to explain to the clerk and our soon-to-be new best friend that domestic parmesan was a poor imitation of its Italian counterpart. She talked about the Italian standard for the product and how, no matter where you were in Italy, Parmigiano-Reggiano was a cheese the Italians regarded with a uniform level of utmost respect.

It all seemed to be going so well until Gina tried to explain that the salinity of domestic parmesan could be twice that of Parmigiano-Reggiano and could result in a wonderful dish being ruined.

“Salinity?” the clerk interrupted, “you know cheese don’t come from the ocean lady!” he smirked.

Now, Gina could have taken this if the clerk hadn’t added “you stupid #$%” under his breath. While it’s easy to forgive ignorance, forgiving becomes more difficult when a man uses a certain word to a woman that identifies her with a specific body part in the basest terms in a condescending tone that lets it be known exactly what he thinks of women in general. At this point, there really is no turning back.

I had fully expected Gina to lunge at the clerk full throttle until a five-foot-two, blonde-haired, blue-eyed 24-year-old Norwegian angel intervened. Our new best friend, or Katie as we would find out later, cranked her arm back and slapped the clerk so hard across the face his glasses catapulted across the deli case.

“You son-of-a-bitch! Who do you think you are talking to her like that!?! Your filthy mouth just let the whole world know you were raised in a barn. A rundown shack of a barn. A rundown, cheese-less shack of a barn!”

Gina glanced over at me, placed her hand underneath my jaw and gently closed it.

To be continued.......

Here is Parmigiano-Reggiano in one its purest, unadulterated forms: CRISPS!

Parmigiano-Reggiano Crisps
About 12-16 crisps

These are really fun and super easy. The key is to use a good quality Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese with good moisture content. You don't want to make Gina mad.

Ingredients: 1 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese
Special equipment: Silpat baking mats
2 ½ to 3 inch ring molds
Rimmed baking sheets

1. Pre-heat oven to 325°F
2. Line the baking sheet with a Silpat. Place the ring mold on a corner of the mat
and sprinkle about 1 tablespoon of the grated cheese into the mold and, using
your finger,spread the grated cheese evenly over the area inside the ring.
Remove the ring and repeat until you have 8 rounds.
3. Bake for about 8 to 10 minutes, making sure these do not over bake. Over-baking
any type of parmesan cheese can leave the crisps with a bitter taste. Allow the
crisps to set for about 20-30 seconds, until they are form enough to remove
from the Silpat with a spatula. Place the crisps on paper towels
4. Repeat with the remaining cheese.

NOTE! Don’t be tempted to use more than a tablespoon of cheese for each of these
rounds. If you use too much cheese, you lose that delicate crunch and the
resulting product is tough and chewy rather than light and crisp.