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Tom really was terrific

3 Sep

Tonight we received word that New York Mets legend Tom Seaver died at the age of 75. As a remembrance I’m reprinting the following article, one that I’d written for another website before Seaver’s passing.

“They were both Mets fans, and the hopelessness of that passion created a bond between them.” —Paul Auster

On October 17th, 1986, sometime in the early afternoon Rome time, I was queued up at the Alitalia check-in at Fiumicino Airport. Beside me was my newish wife Joan, in front of me a stocky man wearing a bright blue hoodie and jittering in a highly agitated state.

“Let’s hang back a couple steps,” I whispered into my wife’s ear. “Give that guy a little space.”

I do not recall the exact circumstances of the airport’s delays that day, only that they were many. This seemed a minor inconvenience to my wife and me, as neither of us was in a hurry to leave Italy and fly back home to New York. 

Not so for our hoodied friend. Anxious does not begin to describe the man’s position on catching the next flight to JFK.

“C’mon man, let’s get going,” he pleaded to no one in particular. “If I don’t get to see my Mets in the World Series tomorrow I’m gonna kill somebody.”

This is the moment that my opinion of our animated friend changed entirely.

“Excuse me,” I said, moving closer. “Did you just say the Mets are in the Series?”

As soon as he turned I had my answer. On the front of his blue hoodie was the very distinct and very orange Mets logo.

“Are you kidding me?” cried Hoodie. “Them and Boston, yeah. I’m from Jersey. Paterson. You?”

Never have I wanted so desperately to lie about my residence, which was far closer to the Mets’ home field than Hoodie’s. Worse, the Mets were my father’s, my brothers’ and therefore my team. Forever. And always. Their 1969 World Series championship—a bona fide Act of God “miracle”—ranks among the most treasured memories of all my years.

Now I would have to explain to a total stranger how, for the recent few years, baseball had occupied not a single square yard in the fabric of my life. Nearly six months into an NL championship season and I was utterly clueless about my team’s accomplishments!

“Brooklyn,” I answered sheepishly—and softly enough so that nobody but I could hear.

“Sorry, say again,” said Hoodie, moving closer. “Didn’t catch that.”

Inches now separated the man and me. I was trapped. My baseball demons had traveled across an ocean in order to torment me. Their chosen human vessel? An overweight, balding, hoodied New York Mets fan from Paterson, New Jersey.

What fresh hell is this?

“Brooklyn,” I repeated loudly and properly this time. “Born and raised.”

Hoodie’s eyes opened wider than a 747 but before he could scold me I spoke up.

“I know, I know. Just that it’s been a while since I followed the game. Once they dealt Seaver in ’77…”

This evoked an appropriate response, if you are familiar with New York Mets baseball, that is. 

“Darkest day ever!” Hoodie yelled, startling an elderly Italian couple ahead of him in line. “Seaver was God, the best. They should’ve executed the scumbag that traded him. Firing squad. Gas chamber. No, guillotine. Bring me the head of M. Donald Grant!” 

It was Grant, the team’s then chairman, who had sent George Thomas Seaver packing back in 1977, just 10 years into a Hall of Fame career that lasted twice that long. Seaver was, and is, the greatest pitcher in Mets history; he isn’t still called The Franchise for nothing. Grant’s shocking decision to trade him sent shockwaves not just through New York’s five boroughs and the tri-state region, but through all of Major League Baseball. It remains the worst move ever made by a team that to this day is best known for its ability to make all conceivable kinds of worst moves ever. 

Only Mets fans of a certain age, like Hoodie and me, have suffered through ALL of the team’s many indignities. We are brothers in this way. Lifelong, I suspect. 

Hoodie’s eyes went down to my shoes and then slowly worked their way up my body until we were again eye to eye.

“Still, no excuse for not even knowing they made it to the Series. Seriously, man, Seriously.”

My new friend was right, of course. I had been wrong on so many levels and told him so. More than a few times, as it happens, what with the hours it took for our flight to make it out of Rome. Before we said goodbye, somewhere around Customs at JFK, Hoodie grabbed me by the shoulders with both of his impressive hands.

“The past is the past, so get over it,” he told me. “Come home, brother. Just come home.”

I am not in the practice of taking advice from strangers, certainly not agitated ones who wear logoed MLB merch when traveling abroad, but in this case I decided to make an exception. Between October 18th and 27th, 1986, the New York Mets and Boston Red Sox played a full best-of-seven series. I watched nearly every inning of every game, and when the last out was recorded—a strikeout in the top of the ninth at Shea Stadium—my Mets had won their second (and last, to this date) World Series. 

As it happens Tom Seaver wore a Red Sox uniform that year, his last as a professional baseball player. A knee injury prevented the 42-year-old from pitching against the team that he had led to the 1969 World Series that I had watched with my father and my brothers. 

I am forever grateful that Seaver did not end his career by taking the mound that October.

I could not—and would not—have rooted against him.

Even Hoodie would have to back me up on this.

Into the woods

20 Aug

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I don’t go into the woods much anymore. Not since we lost Otis seven years ago.

It’s too quiet out there. Memories of the two of us trekking through the trails and brush together, day after day after day after day, for a dozen years, lurk behind every oak and maple, poplar and hemlock, like it was Tuesday.

I am not as strong as it sometimes appears.

A few days ago I found myself in the woods just to the north of our house. A project that I was working on required an amount of natural stone; collecting them is easy because they are more plentiful around here than the trees.

After a couple of hours of scavenging I’d collected enough stones to complete my project and started back to the house with the last of them. The sun was shining brightly and for an instant I spied a brief but colorful reflection at the base of a giant oak.

It never occurred to me that the shining purple and blue light might be my old friend.

Rambunctious may begin to describe Otis’s spirit but that’s all it does. Don’t worry, I’m not a man who forces others to suffer through “the cute.” Let’s just say that I loved my constant companion deeply and leave it at that, shall we.

As I bent down to inspect the shiny objects the few stones that I was carrying slid out of my hands and onto the ground. I found myself grabbing the oak and trying to catch my breath.

Otis never cared much for collars and leashes. Over his all too brief time with us we replaced several of both. The purple and blue tags shining in the sunlight that day were the very first ones that he wore, very reluctantly, as a pup.

After a good cry I scooped up the tags and left the last few stones behind. My wife Joan was having a pretty bad day and so I decided to wait a bit before showing them to her. When Otis died, you see, a very important part of her died too.

Last evening, after finishing the stonework, an outdoor fire pit that Joan had been wanting me to build for some time, I brought out Otis’s tags. Turns out she had already discovered them hidden behind the garden tools that I thought she never paid any attention to.

And, like me, couldn’t quite find the right moment to mention it.

My go-to sauteed escarole

17 Aug

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I had a nice crop of escarole in the garden this year. And no matter how hard I try to get creative with using it I always come back to this old favorite.

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In a large pan saute four or five garlic cloves, as many anchovy fillets, some hot pepper and a handful of pine nuts in olive oil, until the garlic has softened.

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This is escarole that was first chopped and blanched for around five minutes, then drained very well. As I mentioned, it’s from my garden, but I’d say it’s the equivalent of two bunches that you’d find in the supermarket. Add the blanched escarole and a little stock (I used chicken stock) and cook until the escarole is completely tender.

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It’s my favorite vegetable side dish.

Nothing even comes close.

Pickled garlic scapes

11 Jul

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It’s getting a little late in the season to be finding garlic scapes and so I’ll be quick and simply pass along a recipe that I’ve been experimenting with the past week or so.

If you enjoy a strong taste of vinegar then follow the instructions to the letter and you won’t be disappointed.

However, if you are like me and prefer a less pronounced vinegar taste, then I suggest using a 50/50 mix of vinegar and water (as suggested in the notes of the original recipe).

I also added some hot pepper to half the jars that I prepared. My instinct would be to add the pepper to all of the jars, but a certain housemate of mine often frowns upon this preference and with age I have learned to compromise.

Good luck.

ZOLLE SOTT’OLIO (Pickled Garlic Scapes)

Recipe by Domenica Marchetti

Makes 2 pints

Ingredients
1 pound garlic scapes
2 cups white wine vinegar (see NOTES)
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
Extra-virgin olive oil

Instructions
Have on hand 4 sterilized half-pint jars (or 2 pint-size jars) and their lids (see NOTES).

Cut the scapes into 1 1/2- to 2-inch lengths, removing any tought parts at the bottom and the thinnest part above the small bulbous tip.

In a saucepan large enough to hold all the scapes, bring the vinegar to a boil over medium-high heat. Stir in the salt and let it dissolve. Add the scapes to the pot and cover. Return the vinegar to a boil and boil, stirring once or twice, until the scapes have lost their bright green color and are just tender, 4 to 5 minutes.

Drain the scapes in a colander set in the sink. Spread on a clean kitchen towel and let dry for 1 hour. Shuffle them around once or twice during this time to make sure they dry on all sides.

Pack the scapes into the jars, leaving 1 inch head space. Pour enough olive oil into the jars to cover the scapes completely. Use a bubble remover or a clean chopstick to dislodge any air bubbles and press down on the scapes to submerge them.

Screw the lids on tightly and let sit at room temperature for 24 hours. Let the scapes cure in the refrigerator for 1 week before using, then store them in the refrigerator for up to 1 month. To serve, remove from the jar only as much as you plan to use and let it come to room temperature. Top off the jar with more oil as necessary to keep the remaining scapes submerged.

NOTES
These pickles have a pronounced vinegar flavor. If you want to soften the flavor, substitute up to 1 cup water for up to 1 cup of the vinegar ~ no more, as you do not want to dilute the preserving ability of the vinegar. You can also add a little sugar to the brine, if you like.

These pickles do not call for sealing in a water bath; they are stored in the refrigerator. However, to minimize the growth of mold or other micro-organisms, I prefer to sterilize the jars and lids. To sterilize jars, wash them with soapy water, rinse, and then boil in a water bath for 10 minutes; or wash in soapy water, rinse, and heat in a 285 F oven for 30 minutes. Wash the lids in hot soapy water, rinse, submerge in simmering water for a few minutes.

Night of the grizzly

23 Mar

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I am a world-class sleeper.

Once, I slumbered right through an overnight five-alarm fire that occurred at a house just 75 feet from my bed. This was in the middle of summer and with all three bedroom windows wide open and looking straight out onto the blaze. The firefighters, police officers, emergency personnel, all of my neighbors, and even my wife were outside on the street and making a hell of a racket—for hours.

I was only informed of this after waking the next morning, while silently glancing out the window and wondering what on earth looked so very different on our narrow Jersey City street.

“You’re impossible,” my wife Joan huffed, hurling a bed pillow at the back of my head as hard as she could manage in her weakened, sleepless state. “What is wrong with you? Do you have any idea what went on around here last night?”

Lately, though, I have not been sleeping quite so soundly. And when sleep does come it is neither restful nor regenerative. I suspect this is a condition that many of us share at the moment.

For me the witching hour is right around 3 a.m. It’s the time when I must decide whether to stay in bed and hope that sleep returns or give up trying and start yet another worrisome day.

This morning was a no brainer. When a giant grizzly bear that’s been chasing you all around New Jersey is about to close in and make a meal of you, well, it is time to get the hell out of bed while the getting is still good.

To safer, happier days.

For us all.

Sorta Swedish meatballs

19 Jan

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When the woman that you love is ailing and informs you, in the most certain possible terms, that a very particular comfort food will make everything all better, well…

Swedish meatballs?” I muttered. “What’s the matter, my meatballs won’t make you feel better?”

The most grownup of grownups I am not.

I know this.

Nonetheless.

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My beloved’s Swedish meatballs are, I will admit, quite wonderful. I just haven’t made them before—and she chose not to provide me with a recipe. I know that she always includes mushrooms in her sauce and so to start things off I sauteed 8 ounces of sliced mushrooms in plenty of butter until browned, then set them aside until later.

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I have no idea how she makes her meatballs but strongly suspect that they include very finely diced onion. And so, in olive oil this time, I sauteed one medium onion diced very finely until completely softened.

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At this point I was on my own, and so you’re just gonna have to follow along with me here: Mix together 1 lb. of chopped veal and 1 lb. beef, then form a ring on a work surface. In the center add a few slices of white bread that’s soaked in milk and torn apart; one egg; the cooked onion; a very good dose of nutmeg; and salt and pepper to taste. Gently mix everything together by hand. The mixture should be moist, not dry; add more milk if necessary.

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Fry up a little bit of the mixture and make sure that things taste good before making the meatballs. If you want to make adjustments to the seasoning now’s the time.

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Swedish meatballs are pretty small and so this mix netted 50 meatballs exactly.

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Fry them in olive oil until almost cooked through, in batches of course, then set aside.

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Drain off some of the oil but leave enough to nicely coat the pan. Add a little all-purpose flour and incorporate, making sure to scrape up the bits of meat that will have stuck to the pan.

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After a couple minutes of scraping and cooking the flour with the oil you’re ready to move along.

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Add a quart of stock (I used veal stock but most any will do) and incorporate with the flour and the oil. Cook for a couple minutes, stirring often.

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Then add the sauteed mushrooms.

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And then the meatballs.

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The only other ingredient that I knew I must use is sour cream (not heavy cream, which is more common in Swedish meatballs). And so after the meatballs have warmed in the sauce turn off the heat and stir in 4 ounces of sour cream (at room temperature) until fully incorporated.

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Personally I might have gone with a homemade pappardelle but the woman who needed the comforting is of the store-bought egg noodle persuasion—at least under these particular circumstances. And so that is what her Swedish meatballs are resting atop here.

See, I can be a grownup too. Sometimes.

Stuffed veal breast

5 Jan

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I won’t lie to you. This takes a bit of doing.

Just getting your hands on a proper veal breast requires planning—better still, close proximity to a good butcher. I needed to order this one through friends who own a restaurant here in Maine; they had to get it from a supplier that’s two hours away, in Boston.

So, you’ve been warned.

If you live in a place like New York or Philadelphia or Boston there’s likely a butcher nearby who can set you up quick, fast, and in a hurry. Otherwise you’ll need to strategize a bit, that’s all.

You won’t be sorry, though. Few things are as satisying as a well-prepared stuffed veal breast. Before we became legally conjoined My Associate, a finer cook than I’ll ever be, prepared for me some very fine ones, and in a kitchen no bigger than a broom closet. I would be remiss to not mention her able assistance in this, my first attempt at stuffing the breast.

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Saute a couple of onions and as many celery stalks in olive oil until softened, then set aside and allow to cool thoroughly. (You may be interested in this two-part video from a Julia Child show; what I’ve done here is follow much of the technique and some of the recipe, altering things as I saw fit.)

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For the stuffing I went with a mixture of ground veal and pork (1 lb. of the veal, about 1 1/2 lbs. of the pork), then added 1/2 lb. of diced mortadella and 1/2 cup of raw pistachios.

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Then went in 3/4 cup of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, 1/2 cup grated Pecorino, 1/2 cup breadcrumbs, a healthy dose of chopped thyme, marjoram and sage, salt and pepper to taste, a few dashes of nutmeg, plus the sauteed onion and celery. Mix it all up and—this is very important—fry up a little bit and taste the mixture to make sure it’s to your liking. Now would be the time to adjust the seasonings before moving forward.

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Layer the bottom of a large roasting pan with carrots, the cloves of an entire head of garlic, some shallots (or onions), leeks and plenty of fresh herbs.

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Lay your veal breast over the roasting pan so that you can determine how much of it will fit into the pan. The veal breast that I scored from my friends was nearly 20 pounds and so I had to cut several ribs off and save them for another day. (Tip: When ordering a veal breast make sure to tell the butcher what you’re planning on doing with it. You don’t want a breast that’s been trimmed too close to the ribs because that will make it difficult to pull this off; it’s important to have a good layer of meat on the bone.)

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Using a sharp knife carefully cut along the ribs to create a pocket for the stuffing. Make sure to cut along the entire length and depth of the breast so that the stuffing can fill as much of the inner surface area as possible. Stop cutting around half an inch from the edges so that the stuffing won’t escape from the pocket while the breast is cooking.

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Liberally salt both the inside and outside of the breast, then fill the pocket with the stuffing.

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Tie the breast with butcher’s twine, place in the roasting pan and put it in an oven that’s preheated to 400 degrees F, uncovered, for 30 minutes. This will allow the breast to brown just a bit.

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Remove the breast from the oven and lower the temperature to 350 degrees F. Add a bottle of white wine (I used an inexpensive Trebbiano) and around four cups of stock (I used chicken stock).

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Cover tightly with foil and return to the oven. After four hours check to see that the meat is super tender. It should be. At this point remove the foil, raise the oven temperature to 400 degrees F, and return the breast to the oven, uncovered, for another 30 minutes. This will allow the crust to brown a bit more.

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This is pretty much what you’ll be looking at when you’re finished. Plenty of liquid will remain, which can be strained, de-fatted and ladled over the meat before serving.

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Speaking of serving, you can either slice off individual ribs and serve with the bone and all. Or, just pull the ribs away from the meat and stuffing and slice portions of whatever thickness you like.

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It all worked out pretty well.

For a first timer.

They call me Mr. Meatloaf

10 Nov

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I know, I know. Nobody needs me to tell them how to make a meatloaf.

When did that ever stop me from running my mouth off?

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I usually start out with potatoes, carrots and whole garlic cloves in a roasting pan with olive oil. This goes into the oven at 350 degrees F.

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While the vegetables are roasting I throw together the meatloaf mix. This is around a pound of ground veal. That’s what I always use. No beef, no pork, just veal.

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An egg, some milk, a little bit of breadcrumb, some Parmigiano-Reggiano, and freshly ground black pepper.

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Mix it all up by hand and then form it into a loaf, like so.

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After the vegetables have roasted for around 40 minutes or so place the meat right on top and return to the oven.

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And in around 30 minutes you should be all set.

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What was I gonna do, not share?

The cheese matters

19 Oct

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I didn’t need to buy this hunk of cheese.

But I wanted to.

Real bad.

All this nonsense about slapping a 25 percent tariff on Italian cheeses just burns my ass. 

Don’t worry, I promise not to get all political on you here. I simply want to say that, for this one very brief moment yesterday, before those Trump tariffs were to go into effect, I stuck it to the man by proudly purchasing five pounds of 24-month Parmigiano-Reggiano. 

Small victories, I know, but still…

The cheese block was sourced by my friends (and swell restaurateurs) Laura and Bob, and for the very nice un-Trumpian-screw-your-longtime European allies (not to mention your own citizens) price of $11 a pound. 

Going forward the cheese, along with a number of other products that are made by our friends in Italy and elsewhere in Europe, will unnecessarily cost a good deal more. 

All because a small man with little knowledge and no respect for others decided that it must.

Seriously. Isn’t it about time this guy went back to doing what he’s good at. Like bankrupting casinos or running phony charities and colleges, or maybe just acting like a smart businessperson on TV?

Oops. Think I just broke my promise.

Aunt Laura

25 Jul

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When I was an infant, or thereabouts, young enough to be spending nights trapped inside the confines of a baby’s crib, I found it necessary, on at least one occasion, to break free of both my sleeping station and the apartment that housed it.

I like to think of this as the first time I ran away from home.

After making my way to the living room and out the door I crawled up a flight of stairs to the apartment above ours and scratched at the door until somebody let me in.

The person who welcomed me in that pre-dawn hour was my mother’s brother Dominic’s wife, Laura. Aunt Laura scooped me up and cared for me like her own until mom woke up and came to collect me a short while later.

I hadn’t run away at all, you see. I’d simply gone from one of my homes in a six-apartment building crammed with family members to another one, that’s all. Every door to every apartment was home to each and every one of us, around 30 people give or take.

Laura died this morning, seven years to the day that Dominic left us. True to our family’s stubborn insistence on staying close, a couple of her loved ones made sure that she didn’t have to go it alone.

Dominic has been visiting Laura a lot lately; so has my mother. The only thing that Laura wasn’t quite able to fathom is why only she could see her husband and his sister near her bedside these past weeks, why only she could hear them talking about the place where they soon would be taking her.

I hope that our inability to see or hear what she saw and heard didn’t frustrate Laura too very much. I would just hate to think that it troubled her in any way.

All of us would hate that.

She was a dearly loved and vital member of our family, and is already horribly, horribly missed.