Monday, December 27, 2010

The Spirituality of Food

I have this theory. Everybody worships something. And I’m not just talking about God or a deity of some sort. I’m talking about some THING. For everyone, at least as far as my theory goes, there’s an object or idea or activity that  is somewhat consuming and brings some sort of meaning to life. Some people love movies. Others are into figurines. Still others dig Mid-century Modern.

I worked really hard to avoid that. So hard.

I stopped collecting playing cards. I threw out sentimental memorabilia from random middle school events. I even got rid of most of the dust collectors on our shelves. Any “thing” that I have a lot of is only out of necessity: I can’t mooch all of my comic books, so I have to buy them. I have a lot of socks because I’m slow about doing laundry. I have five kinds or rice in my cupboard because—

Oh crap. I do worship something.

I think a lot of people worship food. Food is integral to our lives but also interesting and it’s nice to be dependent on something that is so enjoyable. Our society even has a name for this quasi-religion: Foodies.

Foodies care about their food. They have ideals they try to uphold. Foodies desire creative, good-tasting food that is locally sourced, humanely and sustainably raised, wholesome, unprocessed, and, at least for this Foodie, not horrifically expensive. That’s dogma if I ever saw it.

Since the weather has turned freezing (i.e. low 60s), I have switched to Finnish cooking for the next quarter year. Finnish cooking helps me to uphold several Foodie tennets, at least in theory. Specifically, it’s easier to cook Finnish food in the winter because the vegetables are all cold-weather veggies, and therefore easier to source locally.

Until I made lamb stew, that is. Yes, I have gone back to cooking meat, but trying to uphold my Foodie beliefs while doing so. And here is where I failed miserably and need to figure out which altar to kneel at for penance: My lamb was from New Zealand.

I didn’t even think about it at the store! I didn’t even look at the label, I was just glad to buy my meat somewhere I could be confident about Humane and Sustaining and Wholesome. It wasn’t until I got home that I took a closer look and saw where it was from.

Lamb Stew with Dill was amazing. It simmered for an hour and, with just some dill and salt, created a rich broth that became a slightly tangy gravy when added to a roux of butter, flour, sugar, and apple cider vinegar. We loved it, so tender and comforting but not overly heavy. An amazing winter meal. The Finns really know how to do it.

But what was the cost? Herein lies the problem—at least to me—with adhering to a belief system: Guilt is a huge motivator.  Yes, you’re supposed to do it for the love: because you want to, not because you have to. But breaking free from the guilt of not adhering every minute to one’s values is challenging. Where do you let it give a little without having it all fall apart? How do you stick to your guns without them weighing you down? (Or frightening off people who think they’re way too big to be safe?)

I’ll let you know if I figure it out.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Why I Make Ravioli

Yesterday was ravioli-making day. Butternut squash. Homemade. Delicious!
Now, I am no pasta-making expert, but I do my best, and when I make fresh pasta, I want it filled. Filled with delicious, delectable things. Which, to me, is not butternut squash. I really do not like the b-nut.

However, 1) everyone else seems to and 2) I love butter and fried sage more than I hate squash.

There seems to be no better medium to convey butter and fried sage to my mouth without feeling gross and getting a little bored (because too much goodness gets monotonous unless there’s something to counter that—that’s why we like grilled food with little burnt bits!), so a couple weeks ago I roasted a b-nut and froze it; today I conned a friend into coming over and helping me. Pasta-making is much easier with three hands. (Don’t know what to do with the fourth, but it’s always nice having an extra around.)

I always read in Italian cookbooks about how easy it is to make pasta, and how it’s an important daily ritual of every nonna feeding her clan. However, that does not jive with my Italian-American upbringing. I stole (only my mom thinks I “borrowed”) two old Italian-American cookbooks to use for inspiration (since Marcella Hazan’s book was causing me to get snarky phone calls from the library about returning it sometime soon) and neither of them have a pasta recipe! Both of my dad’s parents worked and there wasn’t the luxury of cranking out pasta every day. That, and I think dried pasta serves its purpose better than fresh. Yes, fresh is what you need for making homemade filled pasta, but fresh spaghetti or linguine? Not necessary. And making fresh shaped pasta? Not worth it.

And that is why I make homemade ravioli.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Finally, the Gravy

Jars of Italian food in my freezer, including 4 quarts of gravy.
Been putting off this post for a while. It’s kind of a little intimate.

Nearly two weeks ago now, we ate a few braciole and our first jar of tomato gravy, made from those twenty pounds of fresh tomatoes according to the best I could remember from the one time my Gramps taught me to make it when I was twelve.

First, a little history:

All of my grandparents lived on the other side of the country from my family, which means I only saw them about once a year, for two weeks at a time. What that means is I feel like I didn’t really know them that well. But there are three things that I always think of when I think of my Gramps.

He was an alcoholic. This made him a little peculiar and hard to understand, especially since my parents always hid the alcohol when he and my grandma would come to visit and he’d be going through withdrawal. It wasn’t until years later that I realized why he shook so much and always worked on latchhook rugs (to distract himself) when he came to visit.

He had other habits, too. A habit of walking. He never learned to drive and so when he visited us in our suburban town he would walk, every day, two miles each way to the grocery store. He made friends with the butcher, which was another habit. My Gramps always knew people. Baseball was another habit. The Yankees, to be exact. He watched the Yankees, bought Yankees memorabilia, even named his mini poodle after one of them.

He cooked up a storm. My dad told me he had learned to cook in the Navy during World War II and then got a job working in the kitchen at the company from where he’d eventually retire. He eventually moved up to being the electrician he had trained to be, but my Gramps was always a good cook, especially for crowds.

A large part of his visits would be spent cooking, packing our freezer with sauce and meatballs and lasagna and braciole. We’d have his food for months afterward.

In fact, he passed away shortly after he had visited us. It was like a temporary resurrection eating the food he had made for us. It was like he had died again when we ate the last meatball.

It wasn’t until just a few weeks ago, when my parents pointed out my own penchant for cooking for large groups of people, that I realized the connection I had to Gramps. I always knew we both loved to cook, but the ability to cook for crowds just made it that much deeper.

But I need to get back to the gravy. There’s a problem with it.

I can’t remember.

I think it tastes like what it did. At the very least, I think my gravy tastes good.

But I am not sure that it is his sauce.

And that’s okay. Because even if it’s not, even if it’s been too many years and I don’t hold flavors in my head as well as I would like to, when I made that gravy I was thinking about him and what he would do and trying to remember what he had taught me. I think it came pretty close.

It’s hard not to just let it sit in my freezer forever, since now there are only four quarts left.

The braciole, on the other hand, was exactly like I remembered.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Refrigerator Transitions

Things that currently reside in my fridge until I use them up:

  • Tortillas (only corn right now, and they are soooo handy for making last minute quesadilla lunches! Will the cheddar cheese become a memory, too?)
  • Arepas (in the freezer; they’re little masa and cotija cakes that you fry up. Tasty with black bean soup. Will need to see if there are any Italian black bean recipes, as I heart frijoles negros er, fagioli neri so hard.)
  • Empenadas (also in the freezer. They’re filled with sweet potatoes and pinto beans and make a great quick lunch when you’re desperate.)

Hmm… I’m seeing a Latin trend here. I can’t say that I make a lot of Latin-American food, but it definitely has been a recurring theme in my repertoire. I just recently mastered Mexican rice and I have half a bottle of annatto seeds that’ll just sit for a while, I guess. Unless someone wants them?

  • Potato-cheddar pasty (there we go! On to a different culture! This thing is so poorly wrapped, though, that it's probably freezer-bitten as all get-out. Note to self: consume this week. Thanks.)
  • Coconut milk and curry paste (cupboard and fridge door, respectively. I have been wanting to make a coconut milk-based dessert, so that’ll be easy to use up. The curry? Hmm… not sure what to do.)
  • Udon and rice vermicelli but no other pasta right now! Isn’t that strange? I actually have been out of the habit of cooking pasta because… well, huh. Don’t know why. Now that I’ve got my five quarts of gravy in the freezer, though, I definitely need to be sure to keep a supply on hand.
Stay tuned for next week's post in which one week's planned menu gets turned into two!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Of smoke alarms, mold, and forgetfulness

Sunday: Pizza dough

Plan my meals for the week. Realize that this is turning out to be harder than I thought.

(One, I am way too stubborn. I’ve got my guns to stick to and I’m not quite willing to let go yet. Soon, local tomatoes, bell peppers, and other joyous veggie-fruits will be gone and I will be left high and dry with only canned varieties (or none at all!) to turn to. How do you cook Italian food without the nightshade family? I guess when I get desperate, that’s when my Finnish three months will start. But I gotta put that off long enough for the Finn months to get me *back* to tomato season!

Two, is this going to get repetitive? I feel like right now there’s risotto, polenta, pasta, and that’s not really enough to get through the week. At this point, I can’t afford cooking more meat, even if I wanted to. Gotta find a veg Italian cookbook!)

Then decide to make pizza for dinner. Beg dog park friends to come over. They’ve already got plans. This turns out to be a good thing when the entire apartment fills with smoke from the butter that dripped onto the bottom of the oven after the risotto timbalo from last week. Make calzone instead, since those can be fried. Hope particulate matter doesn’t accumulate too much in bebe’s lungs. Smoke alarm doesn’t go off only because I turned it off when I started. Big dog quivers in her proverbial boots anyway. She knows it's expected.

Monday: Italian enchiladas.

Okay, that’s not what they’re called.  They’re crespelle, but they are essentially Italian enchiladas. You make these little crepes, fill them with a mixture of parm and spinach, cover them in bechemel and bake.

Oh. Yum.

Friends come over and eat them all. As I question whether I will ever invite these two over again, I realize the better option is to make a double batch next time.

Tuesday: Bean and red cabbage soup. More stuffed bell peppers.
Discover cabbage can grow mold inside its leaves. Wasn’t quite sure that it was mold at first, since it was so smoothly integrated and there was no smell. But it was definitely fuzzy. Not surprising, since I think it was in the veggies drawer for almost two months. So, no bean and red cabbage soup.

Instead, I pull out the dozen bell peppers from the farmers market, cut off the moldy bits (will not be keeping them in the “moisture” veggie drawer next time) and stuff them with rice (out of arborio, though), chopped mozzy (soooo much better than shredded!), and BACON. Freeze them for easy dinner later.

Too much filling is left over, so bebe boy and I eat the rest for dinner.

Wednesday: Do Italians make tacos?

The husband cons a friend into bringing us Taco Bell. I don’t mind a day off from cooking.

Thursday: My Italian cookbook from England uses French words.

Aubergine fritters are on my list. Get the idea to make some focaccia as a side, too.

(While the dough is kneading in the mixer, I get on my hands and knees and de-grease the oven. A good scrubbing with baking soda does the trick. I turn the oven on and poof! Or rather, un-poof! There’s no more smoke!)

Slice the eggplant and bake it, but when I check it, it looks like it needs a little more time. So I shut off the oven and walk the woofs.

First rising for focaccia is over after the girls are walked and watered, time to crank the oven to 450 so it’ll heat up nice and hot for baking. I play with the boy for a bit, then decide it’s time to put together the fritters.

But where’s the eggplant?

I look high and low. How do you lose eggplant?!?

And then realize that the burning I smell is not just a little bit of residual butter but THE EGGPLANT.

It’s not quite a charred mess. More like a leathery one.

No eggplant fritters for me.

As I have already assembled the rest of the ingredients for the fritters, I just add another egg for binding and instead enjoy feta/parm/breadcrumb fritters. Delish!

Friday: Today.

Gonna buy another red cabbage for some soup. It’s better soup weather now anyway. And I've got focaccia.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

This week's menu

So a few things y'all should know about this endeaver:

First, we are on a budget. There's an envelope for groceries, and at the beginning of the month it gets $300 put in it. So, this Italian cooking thing is not going to be super high end. But of course, that's not my aim. My aim is to learn how to cook like an Italian does every day, not just on special days.

Also, I put together a menu every week. It's really helped my sanity and our pocketbook to do this because then I'm never caught of guard not having what I thought I needed to cook something and I also never get home after and exhausting day and have to solve the dilemma of what to cook. I just look at my list and pick what looks good. I highly recommend it.

When I plan, I try to get some variety. I like to try for a bean dish, a fish dish ($$ permitting), a bread-y dish (like something in a dough) and often an egg dish. I don't cook non-fish meat very often (in fact the braciole from last night was the first real meat I've cooked in a while! There's only been occasional sausage coming out of my kitchen for a couple years now), so it usually doesn't get consideration in my quest for variety.

And since March of this year I have been keeping a fairly diligent notebook of what I've cooked in the past. It's great because I can always look at past weeks for inspiration! Nothing complicated, but boy does it help my planning.

Right now, all I have is the Italian Cooking Encyclopedia, published by a British company (which is fun when they talk about "aubergine" and "corgettes" instead of "eggplant" and "zucchini"), but I'm going to stop by the library today and pick up a couple other books to try before I purchase something. All of these recipes are from the ICE.

Last night, I made baked cod with garlic mayonaise. Wow! That was delicious! And very easy. Have I told you how much I love anchovies? They are so fabulous and full of flavor. My mayonnaise was not a perfect success, but it was quite tasty indeed. I will try making it in the blender next time (the food processor failed me).

Coming up soon is an egg and carmelized onion frittata which I'm planning to serve with a broccoli soup, a timbalo of rice and peas (think risotto made in to a cake and layered with cheese), and stuffed peppers. Stuffed peppers is an adventure for me. My mom made them growing up, but I didn't really like them. However, I am willing to try them again, and maybe the stuffing I make will do them justice.

I highly doubt I will keep up my current daily pace. Plus, I don't want to just write about the food, but also my thoughts about the food and my culture. I think I'll shoot for a weekly update with my menu and reflection. We'll see!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Gravy's simmering

So I really need to use our real camera rather than my phone. Five megapixels doesn't do you much good when you have neither a stash nor an ultra-steady hand. But here are the tomatoes, waiting to be blended down into gravy!

Of course, that's not all that makes gravy. I bought some milanese cutlets at Whole Foods (I've only recently started cooking meat again, and I like to try to be a little more responsible when I can), pounded them flat, sprinkled on the parm, parsley, salt and pepper, rolled them, tied them, and plop! In went six beautiful braciole!

The sausage is another case. My darling husband, despite ten glorious years together, still has not learned to read my mind! Yesterday, when I bought my cutlets, I did not buy and sausage because they only had hot. Today, when I asked him to pick some up while I tended the gravy, I suggested he go to a different Whole Foods. But I did not specify why. Well, he went to the same store I went to yesterday, since it was close to another errand he had to run and proudly returned with hot Italian sausage. Well, I like spicy sausage. It is definitely tasty. But not what I want my gravy to taste of! So into the freezer wen the sausage and out went the husband again, and this time success was his! I have to say, I appreciate his perseverance. Yes, he's doing it for himself (and his stomach) as well as for me, but it's not like he was gonna get to eat it tonight!

So now the gravy's been simmering three and a half hours. I think I'm gonna pull the meat out and put that in the fridge, then let the pot cool before I stick it in there, too.

Bubble bubble toil and trouble... but boy does it smell good in here!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Here goes nothing!

So, those of you who know me probably know these three things about me: I am Italian. I am Finnish. I like to cook.

To be more precise, though, I am three-quarters Italian (half of it siciliana, the other half napolitana for those of you who like to get that deep and can appreciate the irony), one-quarter Finnish (if we actually spoke Finnish, I could tell you, in one word, that my mother's father was Finnish), and finally, I "like" to cook as in I "like" to breathe.

My heritage has always been important to me. My grandparents were the first of my family to be born here, and I feel like I've been raised with some aspects of the immigrant mentality. I'm working hard to not forget my roots. But growing up across the country from those roots meant that some of our family traditions didn't really get preserved, but hopefully I can re-establish them in my own little family and hand them down to my son. Once he gets old enough to chop, of course.

On the heritage note, I've always liked that my maiden name, when taken together, is three-quarters Italian and one-quarter Finnish, like me! So, I got this crazy idea in my head. Maybe--and we'll see how long this lasts--I will cook Italian food for nine months of the year and Finnish food for the other three. I'm hoping that if I dedicate myself thoroughly, I will be able to absorb each style of cooking as one might absorb a language, and be able to use it fluently to feed my family and share my culture with those who come to break bread in our home.

First thing up is gravy! Noooo, not the brown stuff you put on turkey or the white stuff you put on biscuits. Sicilians call tomato sauce gravy, and I purchased TWENTY POUNDS (yow!) of tomatoes at the farmers market today to make it from scratch. Eek!

So far, I have blanched, peeled (which was much more fun than I was expecting) and cored those mo-fos and they are now in a giant bowl in my fridge, waiting for the next step.

But what *is* the next step? I was thinking of doing some canning, but I'm still a little freaked out about that. All that acidity stuff and botulism totally freaks me out. So methinks we will freeze this. But am I going to go crazy traditional? That would mean making meatballs or getting sausage and cooking them in the sauce, to flavor it. But what I'm really pondering doing to make my very most favorite thing my gramps used to make: braciole.

Now, to my college Italian-trained ear that word looks like bra-CHO-lay. Which is why it took me forever to learn how it was really spelled, since it's actually said bra-- uh, hmm, how do I explain this? bra-ZHOL? Bra-JOLE? Bra-SHOL? the second consonant sound is like the J in "bonjour." You know, you kinda let it slide a little as you say it. Does that help?

But do you really care how it's pronounced? I'm sure what you're really wondering is: What in tarnation is it?

And that, m'dears, is for another day.