March 26, 2015

March too, shall pass

My yoga instructor asked us a really interesting question last week. What was the worst year of your life? The purpose for recalling this moment was to understand just that, it was a temporary moment in time. It forced you to acknowledge that bookending this period were moments of something other than misery and despair. Each person in class had come out on the other side of their remembered year. How reassuring it is to know that Nonna’s relentless adage, “this too shall pass” is truth? Of course there is one small caveat. You have to choose to move towards happiness. You have to force yourself to make uncomfortable, often scary choices and then own them. That’s the only way to end up somewhere different from where you were.

Anyways, taking that metaphor even further during these damp, blustery winds of March I considered what was the worst food of my life. Pea. Soup. Ugh. It’s awful. The color, the texture, and oh the flavor…so not good.

Except that lately it clearly has been pea soup weather. It’s been chilly, windy and raw; all prerequisites for a comforting bowl of something steaming, thick and filling. So I considered what changes would make this, “throw-in-a-pot and you’re done” recipe appealing. With a few thoughtful adjustments I arrived to something different than what I remembered as a kid (sorry Mom).

While you’re enjoying your bowl of warm deliciousness consider this, March too will pass. Some day, it will be April.

Pea soup

Nonna and Mom both use the recipe from Joy of Cooking for pea soup. I more or less follow along with a few changes. I never make this recipe without doubling it and throwing half in the freezer. All that’s required of you is some dicing, skimming and simmering, why not get two meals from one pot?

1 lb dried green peas
8 cups cold water
1 smoked ham shank
4 carrots, small dice
1 onion, small dice
2 celery stocks, small dice
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 bay leaf
3 sprigs fresh thyme
Cayenne pepper to taste (I put at least 1 large TBSP into my pot)
Salt & pepper to taste

Put the peas in a large stockpot with the ham shank and cover with the water. Bring to a boil, skimming off the green foam that rises to the surface and reduce to a simmer, stirring occasionally.

After an hour add the carrots, onion, celery, garlic, bay leaf and thyme. Let simmer another hour, stirring often to ensure nothing sticks to the bottom.

At this point add your seasonings and check for consistency. I almost always add another 1-2 cups of water to thin out the soup. When the meat begins to fall off the shank bone the soup is ready to eat.

The absolute worst part of eating pea soup can be the consistency. If it’s not piping (like your house is on fire) hot it will take on a congealed mush-like state. So. Bad. So serve hot and eat as soon as humanly possible.

March 11, 2015

Catholic guilt with a side of eggs

Melting! It's happening. I view March as a remarkably useless month until the snow begins to melt, and only then do I admit to myself that February is over and spring will come again. Last week Boston hit 40 degrees for the first time in a record 43 days. Today I am sitting on my porch, windows open, happily listening to the sounds of ice becoming puddles. I have hope that someday soon, our chickens will be able to free range the yard again.

So, chickens happened. About a year ago Tom and I decided we wanted to be chicken owners. Tom researched coops, I researched breeds and on Easter weekend the United States Postal Office delivered a parcel of day-old chicks.

Today, our flock of seven ladies (Brenda, Goldie, Henrietta, Rosie, Annabelle, Red, and Martha) keeps us in eggs all day long. They've formed a very friendly chicken club together and enjoy throwing a dance party every time someone lays an egg.

We’ve always been an “egg happy” family and I tend to be obnoxiously specific about how I like my eggs prepared. I recently watched Moonstruck for the millionth time, which means that I've been experimenting with "eggs in a basket". The oh so Italian-American scene in the kitchen where Rose is making breakfast for Loretta, and not-so-subtly dishing out a healthy helping of Catholic guilt always makes me want to make eggs and call my mother.

Eggs a la Moonstruck

Remember when the proverbial “they” said that eggs were bad for you? Nonna got so MAD. She refused to believe it. Recently, the powers that be changed their tune, and eggs were taken off the no-fly list. This is why I say it's always good to question authority.

2 TBLS extra virgin olive oil
2 eggs
2 slices of bread
1 fire-roasted pepper, sliced thin
1 garlic glove, sliced thin
salt and pepper to taste

Using a small biscuit cutter (I use the top of a small mason jar), cut a hole in the middle of each slice of bread.

Heat oil in a non-stick frying pan, add peppers and garlic and sauté for about two minutes. Push the peppers off to the side. Add the two slices of bread and toast on one side for about two minutes or until golden brown, flip and wait about another minute for the second side to begin to brown. 

Crack your eggs into each hole. It's easier to crack each egg into a small bowl first and then pour into the hole. Cook for about two minutes until the whites begin to set. Salt and pepper the eggs. 

Using a spatula, flip each slice of toast and cook for approximately one more minute.

Serve with peppers on top of each egg.

March 2, 2015

Bocci and meatballs

Last night it snowed. Again. On March 1st. All I hear these days is grumble, grumble, snow, grumble.

Whenever one of her children experiences a “crisis of self”, an unforeseen life emergency or find ourselves stuck in a general pattern of “when it rains it pours” (or more appropriate perhaps, when it snows it blizzards) my mother tells us the same story. She was going through a difficult break up. She had just received her pink slip at work and then later that afternoon a drunk driver totaled her car (while she was in it). She had the police officer drive her to Nonna and Papa’s house where they of course, were hosting a neighborhood bocce party (they were always hosting bocce parties).  As my mom tells the story, she walked into the backyard, burst into tears and Nonna shook her head, told her to get herself some wine and then said, really Ann Marie, what are you going to do when you have a real problem?

So, to all of my fellow New Englanders moaning about the 100+ inches of snow, the colossal ice dams (I’m not saying I want one to land on anyone, but it would be kind of great to see a few people get a “close call”…), the impossibly cold temperatures, the inability to drive down the pothole ridden, ice covered streets, the… wait, what was my point?

Right. We could have REAL problems and winter isn’t making my list. Snow is what we do in Massachusetts. So to all the winter haters I ask you, what are you going to do when you have a real problem? Probably, you should just pour yourself another hot toddy and make some meatballs.

One last note- to this day, Nonna has yet to determine any life situation to be a “real problem”. Something to think about.

Tiny Veal Meatballs 
Adapted from Angela Catanzaro’s recipe in Mama Mia, Italian Cookbook

It takes some time to roll out these delightful little balls of deliciousness, but I assure you that they are well worth your efforts.  Being so delicate and small, there is no need to fry them; they can be cooked right in your tomato sauce.

My favorite way to prepare these meatballs is to poach them in some homemade chicken stock with leeks, kale and some Arborio rice. It’s the perfect antidote to a snowy night.

1 slice day-old bread
1 lb ground veal (if you [unlike me] have issues with eating baby cows feel free to substitute ground pork)
2 eggs
2 TBSP grated Pecorino cheese
1 tsp chopped parsley
salt and pepper

Soak the bread in warm water for 5 minutes, and then squeeze it dry with your hands. Combine bread with remaining ingredients, mixing well. Angela Catanzaro says you should then “shape the meat into balls no bigger than a filbert”, which according to our friend Wikipedia, is an alternative name for a hazelnut.

February 24, 2015

Rockin’ and rollin’

Everything is as it was, and yet everything has changed. My family is, as it’s always been, together through good times and bad. We fight. We laugh. We pick each other up. We celebrate new love, tiny babies, and any democratic victory. We humbly remind those less fortunate, who do not live in New England, that we are the home of the once again, world champion New England Patriots.

In the words of a dear friend we keep on rockin’ and rollin’.

Some things have stayed constant. Nonna still greets us from our twelve-hour drive every December with a big pot of Nonna Soup. A trip made longer with a toddler in the back seat… Spiedini and sfingel are still made at Christmas (and for people we like)...Together with my new sister we have taken over the tradition of making Uncle Danny’s cookies. My go-to dinner on cold winter nights is still Italian hamburgers and come (our super bowl worthy) football season, company chili is made per Tom’s request.

While life propels us forward, sometime with a just a bit too much force, it is comforting to have these little things to hold onto.  Because sometimes a bowl of spaghetti is the only thing that will seem familiar in the midst of new paths, broken hearts, and time’s never-ending onward march.

February 20, 2015

Being brave

When will you pick up your blog again? What happened to Nonna’s Kitchen? What’s your plan? What are you doing these days? Oh the questions. My answer? I have been doing lots and lots of things. Now I humbly return to you dear reader, to report on my journey and the practice of being brave.

The last few years have catapulted me to the very edge of my comfort zone. I earned my Master’s in Gastronomy. I completed certificates in Culinary Arts, Wine, and Cheese (yes you read that correctly, a certificate in cheese). I learned from culinary legends Jacques Pepin and Mary Ann Esposito and observed and worked for many chefs who are the fabric of the Boston food scene. I started a small business and sold soup at local farmers markets, I helped teach children how to make pasta, adults how to pipe macaroons, boxed 1,000 Bibimbap lunches for international super star Psy, assisted in the baking, frosting and assembling of 725 lamingtons for charity and participated in countless other such culinary adventures. To my amazement I found myself belonging to a new community of mentors and friends for whom I am so grateful.  And yet, surrounded by those who where achieving such extraordinary culinary accolades, my ordinary stories of family and food seemed to fall too easily into the category of inconsequential.

While navigating through my culinary journey, Tom and I have made room for new adventures together. We spent a few weeks in Italy doing absolutely nothing except eating and drinking wine.

We packed up our adorable apartment in Cambridge and became honest to goodness homeowners in Belmont. I embraced yoga. We raised chickens.

And then, together we held our breaths, closed our eyes and leapt into the terrifying world of parenthood, welcoming our beautiful daughter, Lucia Marie into the world in August 2013. She is named for Nonna’s mother, my Great Nonna Lucia. She is quite simply, our joy.

A good friend once told me her greatest regret had been that she spent the majority of her life reacting; to emergencies, change, and the day-to-day challenges that life throws at us. I know only too well how easy it is to settle into that reactionary role and stay permanently in survival mode. I have spent the last few years extracting myself from that state of being and have worked hard to cultivate a space where I can approach change without necessarily reacting to it. That space allowed me the autonomy to run a soup business, teach a cheese class, and work with the best people in the world at Boston University. It also gave me the freedom to spend the last eighteen months watching my daughter grow. Somewhere in this space I have also reclaimed my stories.

At the end of the day I am not a culinary genius, I’m not a five star chef, and all evidence suggests that I am not an outstanding teacher to whom students will someday owe their careers. But I do cook good food. And I still have stories to tell and recipes to share.

Most importantly, my greatest happiness still comes from cooking with Nonna and for my family. So here I am, returning to my narrative, picking back up “My Nonna’s Kitchen”, dusting it off and turning to a new page. I hope you will join me.

October 9, 2011

Absent without leave

Guilty as charged. I left with no explanation and have no good excuse for my prolonged silence. It started as writer’s block, morphed into procrastination, and ultimately succumbed to the persistent happenings of day-to-day life.   However, this I promise - though I stopped writing, I by no means stopped cooking. There is much to share with you, and I guess the best place to start is with zucchini.

When I first moved to Boston, Tom had just started graduate school and I was desperately looking for a permanent job that did not involve me scheduling meetings for over-educated, middle aged, white men, in the steam pipe room, in the bowels of Harvard University (yes, best temp job EVER). This marked the beginning of a five-year slog, of what I understood to be a college graduate worthy career track- making a living in a cubicle and putting up with incompetent, self-important, no good bosses.

It never really occurred to me that the best part of my day was coming home to make dinner. The best part of my week was grocery shopping and Sunday cooking projects. My favorite thing to do was to cook food for my family and friends. When I was home sick with a cold, I would make spiced zucchini bread to stimulate the senses. When the meltdown the day before I took the GRE’s ended in pencil throwing and tears, Tom promptly took me to Whole Foods, and I spent the rest of the day making risotto and stuffed artichokes.

One day, not so long ago, I left the rat maze of cubicles for good. In the world of gastronomy, I’m learning that I can do more with food than just write about it. At the risk of sounding like the ideological, bleeding heart that I am, I believe that we can do good with food.  I’m sure that not even Nonna realizes the impact her cooking has had on the people around her.  I want to multiply that impact. I’m not ready to share with you my latest project, but here’s a hint: Soup. Lots and lots of soup.

So, the point of all this is simply to remind you to do what you love.  And if you have time, make this zucchini bread. Especially if like me, you are currently suffering from, The Cold That Would Not End. It will fill your home with warmth and spices, and will give you something to do with the bounty of zucchinis that are currently taking over the local farmers markets.

Zucchini Bread

Nonna stumbled across this recipe in a newspaper years ago. I don’t know how Italian it is, but it continues to be a fall staple in three generations of my family’s households.

*Note: Nonna and my mom make this recipe with vegetable oil. I substituted olive oil this past time with wonderful results. Be sure not to use extra virgin olive oil when baking- you will run the risk of turning your batter bitter.

2 cups shredded zucchini
3 eggs
1 cup olive oil
2 cups sugar
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
8 oz crushed pineapple drained
3 cups flour
2 tsp baking soda
¼ tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 ½ tsp cinnamon
¾ tsp nutmeg
1 cup dates, pitted and chopped
1 cup walnuts, chopped

Preheat the oven to 350*

Peal zucchini. Finely chop or pulse in a cuisnart for about 1 minute. Empty zucchini onto a paper towel and let drain.

With an electronic mixer, beat together eggs, sugar and vanilla until creamy. Beat in olive oil.

Stir in zucchini and pineapple.

In a separate bowl, whisk together baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Stir into wet ingredients.

Fold in dates and walnuts.

Pour into loaf pans (I usually have enough batter for two).

Bake for 1 hour or until the edges of the bread turn golden brown and start to pull away from the pan.

April 3, 2011

False counsel from Mr. Twain

March, in like a lion, out like a lamb.  Such lies. Friday morning I awoke to the sound of wet, icy snow sliding down the roof.  There was no April fooling about it.  Who wants to be thinking of warming their bones on the first of April? Sometimes the price we New Englanders pay for living in the best place on earth is mighty high.

Mark Twain once said, “If you don’t like the weather in New England, just wait a few minutes. “ I feel that he should have been more specific. I waited all day and watched the snow change to sleet and then to rain. Thank you Mr. Twain for the false optimism.

Tom and I were naïvely hoping that this weekend would be just warm enough to pack a lunch and visit our rock at Halibut Point. Wishful thinking my friends. I was even prepared to finally share with you that wonderful chicken recipe that works so well for picnics. 

To be fair, even though there was no outdoor picnicking this weekend the sun did shine warm enough to sweep off the back porch and air out the apartment. I suppose that’s reason enough to go forward with making this spring chicken. It certainly does not require a picnic, just enough sunshine to have faith that April snow showers will eventually bring May flowers.

Oven Baked Rosemary Chicken

Nonna has been fooling people with this recipe forever.  When done right, it looks and tastes better than the fried stuff.

Before we begin, I would like to take this opportunity to document the fact that after several decades of making this dish, Nonna officially changed the recipe about two years ago by omitting the butter and upping the olive oil. After some reluctance (I’m never one to readily accept change) I tried the updated version. The result? The Nonna is always right.

2 lbs. chicken thighs
1 ¼ lbs. chicken drumsticks
1 ½ cups Italian breadcrumbs
½ cup flour
Extra virgin olive oil
3 sprigs rosemary

Preheat the oven to 400*

In a medium bowl combine breadcrumbs and flour. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Pat the chicken dry. Dip the chicken in the olive oil, wiping off the excess oil. Place the chicken in the breadcrumb/flour mixture and thoroughly cover. Shake of excess and place in an oven safe baking dish.  Repeat until all the chicken is breaded.

It’s okay and even preferable for the chicken to fit snugly into the baking dish. Place the sprigs of rosemary on top of the chicken.

Bake for 30 minutes and then turn chicken over. Bake until golden and crisp, about 25 more minutes depending on your oven.

As previously noted, this chicken is the perfect picnic food because it tastes even better cold! Or serve with mashed potatoes and enjoy a lovely Sunday dinner.