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My best manicotti recipe

25 Apr

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This all began, as so many good things do, with a call to Aunt Anna in Queens. It was Easter Sunday morning and she was in her kitchen preparing dinner. I was at home here in Maine.

“What are you cooking anyway?” I asked after we’d been chatting for quite some time. “You never mentioned.”

“Right now, my meatballs,” Anna said a bit distractedly. “The manicotti I made yesterday. I’m just taking them out of the refrigerator now.”

And for days and days these were the only words that I could hear. It had been a while since I’d made manicotti. It was time.

A quick text to my friends Laura and Bob netted a nice tin of fresh ricotta from the excellent Lioni Latticini in New Jersey—and I was off and running. Thanks to my aunt.

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Thin crepes are the key to good manicotti, the thinner the better. That means the crepe mix has to be super light and so mixing it in a blender is best. (I’ve included the full list of ingredients at the end.) A super hot omelette pan doused in butter is the way to cook the crepes. I keep melted butter on the stovetop and apply it with a bristle brush before pouring out the mix for each crepe.

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To make thin crepes you must barely cover the pan’s surface with the mixture. We’re not talking pancakes here, we’re talking just-thicker-than-paper type stuff. After the mix is set and drying flip it over with a spatula. If your pan is properly heated this won’t take long at all. (I pour the mix straight from the blender into the pan, by the way. That way I can add more milk to the mix as things thicken up, which they will.)

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Here’s what the cooked side should look like. After flipping the crepe it only takes maybe 30 seconds to finish the other side.

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This is about how thick you want your crepes to be. That’s a blue spatula I’m holding behind one of the crepes; you can see the color coming through, right? Nice and thin!

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These crepes can be piled on top of each other without sticking. And if you aren’t making the manicotti right away the crepes can be refrigerated for a couple days. I refrigerated these overnight, wrapped in a roll using wax paper.

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This is a pretty traditional filling, made with fresh ricotta, fresh mozzarella and such (again, the full list of ingredients is below).

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A simple fold from one side and then the other does the trick.

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Lay a light dose of tomato sauce in a baking pan, then line the manicotti up, like so.

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Add more sauce on top, cover in aluminum foil and throw into the oven, preheated to 375 degrees F. Remove the foil after 30 minutes and continue baking for another 15 minutes or so.

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These manicotti are super light and very delicate—a real favorite around here, in fact.

The only thing that could have made them better this time would be to share them with the woman who put the idea into my head in the first place. Hopefully it won’t be too very long before we’re able to see each other again.

Manicotti Recipe

Makes at least two dozen manicotti, likely more than that

For the crepe

2 cups all-purpose flour

4 large eggs

2 1/2 cups milk to start (more as needed)

Pinch of salt

Mix ingredients together in a blender until fully incorporated. It should be the consistency of cream, NOT pancake batter. Add milk and blend more along the way if the mix thickens, which it will.

For the filling

2 lbs ricotta, preferably fresh

1 lb fresh mozzarella

1 egg

1/3 cup grated cheese (I use a blend of Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino)

Pinch of nutmeg (though a couple pinches is better)

Salt and pepper to taste

Empty ricotta into a large bowl. Grate the mozzarella into the same bowl. Add all the other ingredients and mix thoroughly. If very stiff add a little milk to soften a bit.

You gotta look sharp

9 Apr

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Easter Sunday in 1960s East New York, Brooklyn, was a day when little Roman-Catholic boys like me (r.) were made to look like men.

This was not our doing but our mothers’.

One by one these well-meaning women would drag their sons to the discount shopping district on Pitkin Avenue, a short walk from the apartment buildings where we lived. There the local shopkeepers would fit us boys into new sports coats and trousers, dress shirts and neckties, sometimes even shiny new leather shoes.

This annual ritual was very important to our church-going mothers; I know it was to mine.

I have never grasped how the grownups in our neighborhood could justify such an elaborate expense for so fleeting a moment. Once Easter had come and gone so went the fancy new duds, tossed into a dark closet or shoved under a boxspring, rarely if ever to be worn or seen again. The hard-earned monies spent to acquire the clothing simply vanished into thin (though, I should hope, this being a religious holiday, blessed) air.

The most confounding items in our Easter wardrobe, at least to me, were the hats, those fedoras and pork pies, trilbies and homburgs that our mothers would place upon our soft little noggins with purpose and, yes, pride.

These were guaranteed one-time-use-only deals, these hats. What eight year old decides to throw on a fedora when not coerced by an encouraging, God-fearing parent?

[Before going further I should mention here that by hat I mean, well, hat. Baseball caps certainly are not hats; that’s why they’re called caps and not hats. Newsboy and other types of caps, far more stylish and wholly more respectable than the baseball variety, also are not hats. I’m glad we cleared that up, aren’t you?]

Hat wearing takes a voluntary turn only after a boy becomes a man. And even then it’s a crapshoot. I haven’t been a churchgoer since I was old enough to make my own decision, and so Easter headgear hasn’t been in play for decades.

It wasn’t until I was in my fifties that I voluntarily started to wear a hat, the first being a brown felt fedora from the famed Borsalino of Italy. The hat was a gift from my swell wife Joan, and is still very much in use today. She says that in it I appear more distinguished than is actually so.

My hat collection has grown quite substantially since then, moreso than makes good sense in the place where I live. Maine is more rugged and countrified, more casual than prime hat-wearing cities like New York; a fine felt fedora can often be out of place, if not downright ill advised. Hell, there are some places and events up here that I’d sooner wear a dress.

My father did not have a hat collection. He wore an old fedora on Easter Sunday and for other special occasions, but strictly out of utility and obligation, not by style choice. He was a man who might have benefited from regular hat wearing, as he was just shy of a cue ball on the balding scale. Some fine felt might have looked rather swell on him, and could certainly have helped to keep his bald head warm in winter.

I do not need a hat to keep my head warm, not even here in the wilds of Maine. I have my mother’s hair. Lots and lots and lots of it.

I also inherited from her a desire to, on occasion at least, and with the aid of a very fine hat, look sharp. And so this Easter Sunday, as every other, I will tip one of my finest fedoras to her memory.

The wrath of mom

2 Apr

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My mother was not a hateful woman. Very far from it. If you don’t believe me then go ahead and ask, well, anybody who ever knew her.

She was a sweetheart, my mom. Honest, hard-working, wide open-hearted, generous to an absolutely beautiful fault. I can’t say that I have ever personally known an individual who was more beloved, and by so many.

The idea that a simple peasant dish might push a woman like mom to the very darkest side of rage would seem incomprehensible.

And yet it did.

The dish that you see above is known as zuppa di suffritto. My mother used to make suffritto all the time when I was a boy. It was her favorite, in fact. Mine too. Paired not with pasta but a hearty, crusty bread nothing could be more satisfying. At least not to my mom or to me.

I did not prepare the suffritto pictured here and for one very simple reason: It would be against the law for me to do so in the United States of America.

See, I couldn’t legally get my hands on the main ingredient to make a proper suffritto, that being (sorry, people, I know this will be hard on many of you) an animal’s lungs. Other things that go into a traditional suffritto (kidneys, heart, spleen, your basic offal) can be gotten. But not the lungs.

Which brings us back to my mother. And to her rage.

The year was 1971. I was fourteen. Joe Frazier defeated Muhammad Ali in a unanimous, thrilling 15-round decision at the Garden. Jim Morrison was found dead in a bathtub in Paris. A California jury came back with a much-deserved guilty verdict for The Manson Family. Cigarette ads were banned from T.V. and radio. The New York Times published the Pentagon Papers. Not one but two Apollo moon missions were launched and completed. And 42 people died in the Attica prison riots in upstate New York, just outside the city where my grandfather’s brother settled after becoming a U.S. citizen.

It was also the year that the U.S. Department of Agriculture banned the use of “livestock lungs… as human food.”

In the City of New York news of this ban funneled through the Commissioner of the Department of Consumer Affairs, Bess Myerson, who had been appointed to the job a couple of years earlier by Mayor John Lindsay. Though this was her first political job Myerson was well-known, not only in New York but around the country as well. She’d been a regular panelist on the T.V. game show “I’ve Got a Secret,” and often filled in as co-host of the “Today Show.” Born in the Bronx, Myerson is also the first and only Jewish woman ever to hold the crown of Miss America.

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If not for her position at Consumer Affairs, Myerson would have no connection to USDA’s ban on animal lungs, none whatsoever. It was a federal mandate, not a local one. The announcement, in New York anyway, logically came out of the office that she headed.

But to my mother no such distinction existed. It was Myerson who was quoted in the brief announcement of the ban in the Daily News. And so it was she who deserved my mother’s wrath. For preventing her from making suffritto ever again.

“That bitch!” mom screeched, slapping an open palm on the newspaper resting flat on the kitchen table, spilling her morning coffee. “I hope she dies.”

It was the first and only time that I can recall my mother saying such a thing.

Many years later Myerson held another position in New York City government, that of Commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs, under Mayor Ed Koch. But she was forced to resign over a scandal that led to her being indicted on federal charges of conspiracy, mail fraud, and obstruction of justice. Before the trial even began she was arrested and pleaded guilty to shoplifting in Pennsylvania. Myerson was acquitted of federal crimes but “The Bess Mess,” as the sordid tale became widely known, finished her politically and ruined a once enviable reputation.

I had moved out on my own by then but followed the affair closely and, I’ll admit, with no small amount of glee.

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I am my mother’s son, after all.

And I still miss her suffritto.

Uncle Chick

11 Feb

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I had many fathers growing up. Four, to be sure.

There was, albeit briefly, the man whose name that I carry. Then, and in some ways even more importantly, there were my mother’s brothers. Throughout my formative years three of these men lived steps away from my mother and brothers and me.

Honorable, hard-working and very decent men all, none were aligned with the warm & fuzzy school of male role modeling.

Least of all Uncle Chick.

Chick made his living delivering home heating oil and servicing the furnaces that burned it, demanding work considering that his street route literally spanned the whole of Brooklyn. His actual birth name is John, though nobody ever called him that.

As a very young boy I was certain that Uncle Chick didn’t much care for me. If he cared for me at all. Of all the uncles in my closely knit universe Chick seemed the hardest-edged and, frankly, the least interested in being a role model to the likes of me. Besides, he and his wife Frances had four of my cousins to raise.

A few hours after my father died Chick came up beside me. There were tears in both of our eyes.

“C’mon,” he said putting an arm around me, for the first time ever I am pretty certain. “Let’s go for a ride.”

And that is the moment when I realized how wrong I had been about my very dear uncle.

Chick passed away yesterday afternoon. We haven’t lived next door to each other in a lot of years now and so I was unable to visit with him in his final hours.

The last time Chick and I spent any quality time together was a couple summers ago, in the backyard of his home in Long Island. He proudly showed me the hundreds of tomatoes ripening in his garden, and a fig tree with more fruit on it than seemed plausible. Though no longer able to operate his small powerboat it nonetheless sat berthed at a dock where he could put eyes on it whenever he pleased.

For a couple hours that day it was only the two of us, just like on the ride we had taken in his black and white DeSoto so many years ago. Approaching 90 at the time Chick seemed much quicker to emotion than I was accustomed to witnessing. He surprised and delighted me by freely reminiscing about his elder brother Joe, the revered patriarch of our entire family.

When he finished telling a particularly heartwrenching story about his brother, one that I had never heard before and have not repeated, both of us were in tears.

Again.

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Rest easy, uncle.

And thanks for the ride.

The eggplant that saved Christmas

19 Dec

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Christmas Eve is spent with my extended family in New York, but Christmas Day is for my wife Joan’s outside of Boston. Only three of us are in attendance, and so we’re talking about a much, much quieter affair.

Two Christmases ago my mother-in-law Gin shocked us by announcing that Christmas dinner would be supplied not by her but by a nearby Chinese restaurant known as Su Chang’s. I was informed of this well before the Christmas-morning drive from New York to Massachusetts, allowing ample time to brood over so enormous a break in holiday protocol.

Never had I eaten a Christmas dinner that wasn’t prepared by someone I loved and who loved me. Ms. Chang, if such a person exists, could not possibly be included in this group.

At around 4 pm Gin asked me to call over to the restaurant and place our order. The line, however, was busy. Very busy.

One hundred seventy redials on multiple phones and several other attempts at reaching the restaurant later it became apparent that Ms. Chang would not be providing our Christmas dinner after all. 

“I don’t think this is gonna work,” I announced finally, aware that Gin’s infrequently used kitchen housed none of the provisions required to prepare a meal, let alone one suited to a holiday.

The three of us just sat there in silence.

After a few uncomfortable moments I went to the kitchen and had a look around. There was milk, butter, a few other odds and ends in the fridge; the cupboards were pretty much bare. Alone in a small clay bowl next to a pristine toaster oven were three garlic cloves.

That’s when it hit me.

“I can make an aglio e olio,” I announced. “There’s plenty of pasta out in the car.”

There was indeed. No visit to New York at Christmastime (or most any other time, for that matter) does not include a food run to D. Coluccio & Sons in Brooklyn, and so the trunk of our car was overflowing with staples of all types. These included (but by no means were limited to) dried pastas, some lovely anchovies, and several tins of fine olive oils, all that was necessary to make an aglio e olio.

Not exactly a Christmas feast, I know.

“Well, actually,” I heard my wife say, to my ear rather tentatively. “Hm, I wonder…”

I poked my head out from the kitchen.

“You wonder what?”

She smiled.

“We’ve got Anna’s Christmas gifts in the freezer, remember?”

And out of nowhere a peaceful calm came to me. Someone that I love very dearly, and who loves me, would be providing this holiday’s meal after all.

Christmas had been saved!

Inside Gin’s freezer, you see, were the Christmas presents Aunt Anna had given to us only the night before. One was a whole stuffed chicken that she had stewed in tomato sauce, the other a tray of her fantabulous eggplant parm.

“I’m tired of running around trying to buy you two presents,” Anna sighed, fetching the unwrapped gifts from her freezer. “So I decided to give you what i know you really like.”

Both the chicken and the eggplant were frozen when Anna gave them to us, and our intention was to keep them that way until we were ready to devour them. Gin’s freezer was merely a place to store the gifts before returning home to Maine the following day.

However, and as they say, desperate times…

“I’ll run out to the car and get what I need for the pasta,” I said putting on my hat and coat. “You guys can decide what else you want to eat.”

My money was on them choosing the stuffed chicken but when I returned the bird was still cooped up in the Frigidaire. Anna’s eggplant parm was in the microwave defrosting.

I have never known my aunt’s eggplant to garner tepid reviews and this time was no different. Gin liked it quite a lot; she even kept the leftovers. Dammit!

Still, she was far more amused by the eggplant’s mere presence in her freezer—and on her dinner table.

“We’re eating Christmas dinner from the trunk of a car,” she laughed. And laughed. And then laughed some more.

After we’d finished eating I called Anna to tell her what had happened and to thank her for saving our holiday. As is so often the case our conversation was brief but very much to the point.

“You’re not supposed to eat Chinese on Christmas anyway,” she scolded me. “What’s wrong with you? Sei pazzo?

“I love you too, Anna,” I told my aunt before the line went dead and she was gone.

Merry Christmas everybody!

The measure of a man

11 Dec

Note: The following is a feel good Holiday story (well, kind of—okay, not really) that has nothing whatever to do with food.

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My friend Joe has been trying to size me up for more than 30 years.

Often unsuccessfully.

Joe first formed an (incorrect) opinion of my character before we had ever met, or even heard of each other.

My new wife and I had just returned home from a hastily planned elopement only to be met by an endless string of urgent messages on my answering machine. All the calls originated from a magazine that I worked with at the time, but the man on the tape was a stranger to me.

His first message was plain enough. The man introduced himself as a new editor on staff. His name was Joe and, he said, I should call him at my earliest convenience regarding a freelance assignment that was already on my docket for a later date.

By the eleventh and final message his demeanor had substantially darkened.

“If I don’t hear back from you by end of business TODAY then don’t bother calling me back at all,” the man huffed. “You can also forget about ever working here again.”

I noted that the threat had been made a full two days earlier. The angry new editor’s hard deadline had long since passed.

When we finally did catch up, three days after “end of business TODAY,” neither the man nor I showed the slightest interest in civility.

“You’ve got some nerve calling me back now,” he growled as I introduced myself.

The man had remained as pissed off with me as I had gradually come to be with him.

“Maybe you should get your facts straight before going off on somebody,” I charged back. “I was on vacation. Getting married, in fact. I told everybody at the magazine that I’d be gone and when I’d be back in my office. Multiple times. So do me a favor and break somebody else’s balls, not mine.”

Several additional volleys, and no small number of colorful expletives later, Joe and I settled down and accepted that we had each been victim to a miscommunication that was neither of our doing. Still, there was no taking back the viciousness with which a couple of hard-headed Brooklyn street guys had attacked one another.

We have been very good friends ever since.

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That’s Joe right there, in the bathrobe that he wears with far greater frequency and zeal than is reasonable for a man not confined to a hospital or a nursing home. The photo was taken during a recent (and annual) Holiday visit to the home Joe shares with his wife Joel in the Hudson Valley.

He is in the process of trying to size me up. Yet again.

This time my friend is using an actual tool to get the measure of me. It is called a Brannock Device, and Joe has wanted to use it on me for some time. His motives are anything but pure, however. All my friend really wants to do is to prove me wrong.

For decades I have worn a size 13 shoe. There’s no reason why anybody but me should care about this. Joe, apparently, cares. Deeply.

“You’re not a thirteen, you should be wearing a twelve,” he lectured me at some length and some time ago, studying my shoes from a distance of many yards, mind you. “I’ll measure you next time you’re at the house and you’ll see that I’m right.”

Joe likes to be right. Even when he isn’t.

I should probably mention that my friend grew up working in his father’s shoe store in Brooklyn. The Brannock Device that he is using on my feet (above) is the very same tool that his father used on his customers, decades ago now. It happens to also be a treasured family heirloom that helps to define the man that Joe has become.

Which is the only reason why I finally allowed him the pleasure of using it on me this time.

What can I say? I tend to get pretty soft around the Holidays—and not just in the waistline.

As it turns out we were both right about me this time.

Just as Joe had predicted his father’s measuring device did indeed slot me closer to the size 12 range that to 13. But, Joe informed me, a EEE width is the reason that a size larger provides greater comfort. And so, he allowed, I have indeed been wise when choosing the larger-sized shoes lo these many years.

To celebrate our rarely achieved consensus I decided to take my friend out to the nearest bar and buy him a couple of drinks for the Holidays.

But he was still in his bathrobe and so we just stayed in.

Fig cookies revisited

8 Dec

These cookies got me in a lot of trouble last year. For a while it was touch and go whether Cousin Josephine would ever speak to me again.

We had just finished our Christmas Eve dinner and the desserts were coming out, the most crucial, as always, being Jo’s outstanding cookies and biscotti. As my cousin began to uncover one particular tray of baked goods I noticed her eyeing me with purpose and more than a little wariness.

“We’ve NEVER put frosting on our fig cookies,” she announced to me and to no one else.

My cousin was referring to a recipe for fig cookies (aka cuccidati) that I had earlier posted right here on this blog. In it I accused Jo, her mother Anna, our Aunt Laura, and even My Sainted Mother of topping the traditional Christmas cookies with sweet white frosting and colorful rainbow non pareils, not a simple dusting of confectioners sugar, as I prefer and as my recipe suggested.

“Honestly,” Jo added with a look of disappointment that still cuts me a year later, “I don’t know where you get your ideas sometimes.”

This is not how Christmas Eve is supposed to end.

Josephine is more a sister to me than a cousin, and I love her very much. The idea that I would accuse her and all the other bakers in our family of sweet white frosticide on so important a Christmas tradition is not an excusable offense. Not where I come from it isn’t.

I won’t defend myself here. Despite a clear, though evidently flawed memory to the contrary, if Josephine says that she has never used frosting on her Christmas fig cookies then she has never used frosting on her Christmas fig cookies.

I cannot be more sorry for suggesting otherwise.

And wish to dedicate this recipe to my beloved cousin.

For starters, this recipe will make around 5 dozen cookies. Mix together 4 cups all-purpose flour, 3/4 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon baking powder, and 1 teaspoon salt. Add two sticks of cold unsalted butter (cut into small cubes) and work the butter into the flour mixture using your hands.

After a couple minutes the flour and butter will kind of clump together, like so.

Add 2 extra large eggs (beaten), 1/2 cup milk, and 2 tablespoons Anisette. Mix together thoroughly by hand until a dough forms.

The dough will be on the moist side, which is okay, that’s what you want. Wrap it in plastic and chill in the fridge for a good couple hours or more before making the cookies. (I actually kept the dough chilling overnight and made the cookies the following day.)

For the filling we’ve got one ring of dried figs (pinch off the hard ends), 1/4 pound pitted dates, 1/2 cup raisins, 1 cup pecans, 2/3 cup walnuts, 1/2 cup candied orange peel, 1/2 cup honey, 1/3 cup whiskey (I went with Jack Daniel’s), 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, and 1 teaspoon cinnamon. Put them all together in a food processor and mix into a paste.

Like so.

Cut the dough ball into quarters (put the dough you aren’t working with back in the fridge until ready to use, so it keeps cold). On a well-floured surface roll out one of the pieces of dough until it’s roughly 4 inches wide by maybe 18 or 20 inches long. The rolled dough should be around 1/8-inch thick, give or take. Take a quarter of the filling and roll it along the center of the dough.

Brush the dough with an egg wash and then roll it from one side to the other.

Make sure to pinch along the seam when you’re done rolling.

Making sure that the seam is on the bottom, brush more egg wash along the entire roll.

With a pastry cutter or sharp knife cut the roll into pieces that are around an inch and a half wide. At this point all that’s left to do is put them on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. The cookies should bake in a 350 degree F oven for around 20 minutes, give or take. At the halfway mark rotate the baking sheet so the cookies cook evenly. Allow to cool thoroughly.

Then you can sprinkle some confectioners sugar on top before serving. Or not.

Just don’t be pouring no thick white frosting on top of them.

Right, Jo?