Growing up in an Italian household means a lot of things: lots of tomatoes, left over meatball sandwiches from Nonna’s Sunday sauce, smelly lunches, pasta with almost anything in it, stories of poor immigrants and how much polenta they consumed. The red, white and green list is endless. But, I do remember how magical Christmas always was. Christmas Eve was celebrated to the extent of a non-Italian’s New Year’s Eve, and it was just magical. Except for, well, all the fish.
As years went by, my tastebuds matured and I was not only able to stomach baccala’, but actually enjoy it, and Christmas miracle of Christmas miracle, cook it now for my family. Yet, I remember one dish I did eat, and that was fried spearing. What is a spearing? It looks like chum, or bait for a bluefish, but it’s cheap and when it’s fried, it’s as yummy as a McDonald’s fry.
And, in typical Italian fashion, it’s incredibly easy to prepare:
In a colander, throw a handful of clean fish, as dry as possible, with a handful of flour, salt and pepper.
Shake the fish and the flour until there is only a coating on the fish.
Have a VERY HOT deep fryer ready to go.
Fry the fish until golden brown and crunchy. Salt to taste.
These little babies were my seafood gateway. I still hate baccala’, but you can’t have everything! LOL. Buon Natale!!!!
As time marches on, I find myself digging very deeply into the depths of a magical time in my life, my childhood. And, as every child does from January 1st of the new year, until December 24th, 11 long months of the same year, I dreamed of Christmas. Italian Christmas is filled with a lot of fun and edible stuff, but mainly fish. However, my mother was an immigrant from Vasto, Italy and there is one Christmas season Sunday which will forever be embedded in my head just like sugar plums and the Polly Puff house I got when I was six, the making of the cicerchiata. (CHEE CHER KIATA).
It's actually a very simple dessert, similar to the more popular Italian recipe of struffoli.
Both are made of fried dough balls, glued together with epoxied honey and the cici with melted chocolate. The cici (as we so lovingly called it) could break off a denture or filling if it wasn’t made correctly, but Nonna, the Cici lieutenant, carabieniere, and overall supervisor made sure you didn’t make crap. She oversaw every ball dimension, every sprinkle, every drop of honey.
At the end of the process, it was formed into a wreath, and if you needed a trip to the burn unit while trying to form hot dough balls and honey into a perfectly frozen wreath, well, then you did your job.
As most Italian recipes go, the simple yet tasty combination of just a few simple ingredients epiphany themselves into something rather delicious.
Mix when frying dough:
Basically, the dough is refrigerated and then rolled into snake like tubes with your hands. Then you cut them into balls or little cushions.
Once they are at room temperature, heat the honey and the chocolate in a HUGE pot until boiling. Really boiling. Then add the dough balls, and with all your might, and a huge wooden spoon, you stir, stir, stir until it all makes a very sticky, large honey ball.
While it is still extremely hot, dump the pot’s contents onto a big table, preferable a kitchen island which is easily cleaned. Then, start making wreaths. Any size you like. Once the concoction is in the shape and size you prefer, decorate with Christmas sprinkles and let cool.
My memory, my favorite, which always brought my family together … every one of them, was more cherished than this delicacy. Make food … make memories, and always teach your kids to make both. Buon Natale!!
The night before last, my mother came to me in a dream. Usually she comes to me when she’s mad or upset, so in the 22 years she’s been gone, she only came to me twice … but one of them was two nights ago, and last night Jean Nidetch came to me, too. Now I know why.
If you know me at all, you know that as much as I am a “foodie”, I am also a “watchie”, and portion control is my greatest weapon against hip enlargement. But last night’s dinner, I mean come on Sunny Anderson, ravioli for the crust of a cheeseburger casserole? Swiss cheese and American … with heavy cream and beef? Holy shit. Yup, welcome to hog heaven, and boy was it good.
Now, I’m pretty quick on the draw when it comes to a weeknight meal. I did find this recipe a bit time consuming because it was step-heavy, but can I assure you, after you slobber all over it when it comes out of the oven, you will be happy you slaved a little. I had two casserole dissenters … but I consider this a worthy hit time wise and taste bud wise. I also loved the little pickle juice side salad.
Side salad … lol
Here’s the link!
Give it a sauté … I bet you will love it more than your Aunt Helen’s tuna casserole.
If you knew my father, his Leo persona was quite in contrast with his underlying simplicity. After my mom passed away, I would invite him for dinner.
Me: Dad, what do you want to eat.
Dad: I’m happy with a him sandwich…and a martini.
There was always a martini on every menu with him, but his entrée desires were so simple: pasta, pasta, pasta, and sometimes a steak. He was not a huge eater, and I think his culinary desires branched back to his immigrant roots, which bordered on extreme simplicity.
So, since my holiday cooking break is over, I started out slowly this week. I made a slow cooker, (we are having an affair again, lol) tangy pot roast, and this side, one of my father’s favorites:
PEAS and PANCETTA (or ham) with ONIONS.
1 bag frozen, defrosted sweet peas
1 c. chopped Pancetta (or ham can work, too).
1 c. chopped onions
Sautee the pancetta until crisp in olive oil. Not too much olive oil since the pancetta has its own fat to clog your arteries.
Then add the onions and cook until they are soft.
Throw in the peas and cook until they are heated through.
That is IT!!!!! His favorite side dish. I miss him. When I made this…I could smell his cologne. I think he came for dinner.
Doesn’t it sound just super gross? Remember I come from a long line of cooks and survivors who did not let an animal die in vain. We use all the parts … every single one. In reality, that’s what post Thanksgiving turkey soup is … turkey carcass soup.
I cook a feast on Thanksgiving. It’s quite the catharsis, and rewarding. I also lose about five lbs. every holiday because I get full picking.So, it’s really a symbiotic relationship, the bird and me. When Thanksgiving Monday comes and we are back to the grind before Christmas, I keep it simple, and really, it gets no simpler than shoving a turkey rib cage into some flavored water and letting it boil for a few hours. Let the stove do all the work. What you will need:
Saute all the veggies with some olive oil and kosher salt. (Except the bay leaves). When they are tender, throw in your turkey body. (IF there is meat on the bones, leave it alone. Fill the pot up about ¾ of the way with cold water. Throw in the bay leaves, bouillon, season with some salt and pepper and stir.
Turn the pot on simmer.
Stir every hour or so, and let cook for a minimum of three hours. You will know you have accomplished this herculean task of making soup when your house smells like, well, turkey soup.
You may have to turn it off earlier than dinnertime, and reheat it. That is fine.
When you are ready to reheat, or eat, get another pot, and dump everything in the soup pot into a large strainer positioned on the extra pot. Now the fun begins. Pull the meat off the bones and throw it back into the broth, and search for any bones and ditch them. Throw all the veggies and the meat back in the broth. Throw away the bay leaves.
Cook your tortellini separately. If you cook them in the broth, the pasta absorbs all the liquid and you have very swollen tortellini and no broth.
I put them aside to be eaten when you eat the soup.
Decorate with a little Parmigiano and there’s dinner. EASY, EASY EASY.
My mother used to laugh at the New York Times cooking section on Sundays. She was a well accomplished cook, and her roots came from eating tripe and veal brain from my grandmother’s kitchen. The reason she ate tripe and brain was obvious: immigrants wasted no part of the animal. The Italian mantra: if we have it, we cook it, whatever the F it is. So, when she saw the recipe of the week was stuff like Spaghetti Carbonara or Fu-Fu Polenta, she would always rebuke the culinary selection with comments like, “Really, we ate this stuff because we were poor, and now it’s on the front page of the food section?” Hey, everything old is new again, even in the kitchen.
She had an issue with Carbonara because it was something that she could throw together when she didn’t know what to throw together that night.
It’s so painfully simple; pasta, eggs, cheese, bacon; that it’s frustrating what a culinary delicacy it has become. “Carbonara,” in it’s simplicity means relating to coal, or in this case, the burnt bacon more than likely. Some say it’s origins go back to the prostitutes who beckoned the soldiers during WWII ... oh no, wait, that’s another recipe ... alla Puttanesca. But they say the soldiers had few rations that they took bacon and eggs and threw them on the pasta.
The key to authentic carbonara is you need to cook the bacon or pancetta (even better) till it’s sizzling, burn your hand off hot, and mix it with a mixture of raw egg and Parmigiano cheese. The hot oil from the bacon will cook the egg, and the whole thing takes like twenty minutes, including boiling the water.
However, Americans, unlike the Italians, will bathe in fat and grease, so nothing better than adding cream to your grease for good measure. Giada does give in to the American way here, but I will admit, it was fat-cell amazing.
Click here for the link.
It’s soup season. One of the reasons I do embrace soups (just not soup season) is the one pot/tummy filler concept. Soups can be a big dump in one pot, add some bread and a salad, and the tummy is filled quickly, and you spent almost no time laboring over your dinner.
A lot of soups can be done in the slow cooker, but I threw this one together in about 20 minutes, and reheated it for dinner. The cheese and the ham combined with a flour and milk base create a stick to your ribs consistency, and a fun, kiddie-like crowd pleaser, combining cheese and corn.
This is from TASTE OF HOME magazine:
2c cubed peeled potatoes
½ c sliced carrots
½ c sliced celery
¼ c chopped onion
1 tsp salt
¼ tsp pepper
¼ c butter
2c whole milk
2c shredded sharp cheddar
1 can (15oz) whole kernel corn, drained
1 ½ c cubed cooked ham
In a large saucepan, bring the water, potatoes, carrots, celery, onion, salt and pepper to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer 8-10 min or until veggies are just tender. Remove from heat, but do not drain.
In another saucepan while the veggies boil, melt the butter and stir in the flour till smooth. Gradually add the milk, and bring to a boil. Cook and stir until thickened. Add the cheese and stir until melted. Add this to the veggie mixture and turn up the heat.
Throw in the corn and ham and howdy! You are back on the farm!
As fall crept its way into my house last night, summer kept it’s arm around my shoulder and whispered, “It’s all gonna be alright….I’ll be back soon. It’s 85 degrees outside … I’m here for a little while. Don’t cry. It will all be fine.”
But, as I turned on my oven to make one of my favorite one dish wonders, I realized in order for summer to come back to me, my true love, I would have to part with lost leaves, short, dark days, frozen pipes, the after school routine, and grilling. We have returned to the ugliness of pre winter and the renaissance of the creative casserole, cooking dinner before 11 a.m., and making my menu for the following week on a Thursday.
So, let me introduce to you, to one of my favorite, therapeutic, comfort foods … pastina. Isn’t that everyone’s favorite comfort food, or do you have to be Italian? Giada’s Baked Pastina Casserole is a cure all for the autumn blues.
This covers four hungry apple pickers. Adjust the recipe for your clan.
You will need:
Bring a medium pot of salted water to a boil, and cook the pastina until al dente. Drain and transfer to a large mixing bowl. (Even if there is still a “bite” to the stars, pasta cooks even after you drain it).
While you are waiting for the pasta to cook, sauté the chicken breast with the olive oil, and after a few minutes, add the onion and garlic, cooking until onion is soft, and chicken is cooked.
Dump everything: the pasta, chicken mixture, diced tomatoes, mozzarella, parsley, salt and pepper into a large bowl and combine.
Butter an approximately 8x8x2 baking dish with butter or spray, and spread your pasta mixture in the dish.
In a small dish, combine the breadcrumbs and Parmesan cheese, and sprinkle on top. This can remain at room temperature until you are ready to bake it.
When you are ready to bake, cut up some of the butter and dot on top of the casserole.
Bake at 400 until golden brown, probably about 30 min.
HIP MOM HINTS:
1.I use prepared chicken breast like Perdue Short Cuts so nothing has to cook through. It’s much faster and I still sautee’ the meat with the other ingredients to get the flavors to mesh.
2. If your budget allows, try purchasing items like, onions that are already chopped or peeled. What a time and an eye-saver! I would make a terrible sous chef because I hate all the prep. Sometimes I get chopped celery, carrots, etc, depending on what I’m making. Many grocery stores have already cut up stuff just for this purpose.
I cried as I took my first spoonful, but my kids were happy, and in the end, that’s all that counts, right??? Questionable.
I think I told you I really found a compadre last year with my slow cooker. We do like each other, now. And since it’s back to school time, it means back to the cooking grind. So, I found her in my pantry, gave her a light kiss on her little chrome cheek and started to fill her with stuff to make the first Tuesday back to school feast.
Introducing, one of my kids favorites, tacos, in a “dump” form: Slow-Cooker Shredded Beef Tacos with Pico de Gallo from www.eatingwell.com
You will need:
Easy: Mix the first five ingredients in a bowl, spread on the meat, and brown each side just for a few minutes, a total of five minutes just about. Save half the mixture.
Throw the onion in the slow cooker. Add the browned beef. Whisk the broth, tomato paste and remaining spice mixture together and pour over the beef.
Cook on high for 4 hours, or low for 8 hours. Shred the beef with a fork, and stir back into the liquid.
Serve your shredded little Mexican mixture with Pico de Gallo and Lime wedges, with sour cream, shredded cheese and some shredded lettuce ...or your favorite taco toppings.
HIP MOM HINT: Rice and beans on the side will make this a fiesta.
Back to school? OLE’!!!!
It’s getting to be that time of year again … time to sharpen the Ginsu collection, study Food Network Magazine for the spice of life to make my kids happy, and get back in the weekly culinary game. I decided to start early since the complainers are done with the chef being on vacation.
I do 95% of my grocery shopping online. I’m far from a tightwad…as a matter of fact, I am a total over spender, but this saves me oodles and oodles of time, and I get what I need for the week, rather than eating my way through aisles 6 and 14 and buying all sorts of crap because the new packaging looked really edible. But, when I DO get to that gluttonous mecca called the food store, I am a check out magazine addict, especially cooking ones. I think my drool has hit the cashier a few times as I turn the pages while shoveling hot Cheetos into my mouth waiting for the customer in front of me to realize it’s totally ok to bag your own stuff.
Jackpot of the summer: Food Network’s Summer Pasta Cookbook. And, it’s sexy cover girl, Pappardelle with Fresh Corn is my choice for the hottest summer pasta recipe.
Pappardelle is one of my all time favorite pastas. Everyone has their favorite pasta, but no one can really tell you why. They kind of all taste the same, so it must be a texture thing, a fork thing, or a childhood memory thing. I like the thickness and ease of eating and twirling on my fork .. very unladylike.
You will need:
Here is the full recipe:
You can make this your summer pasta swan song, or extend your summer into your winter … I like to do that.
Winter bites. Totally.