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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.

Love smells

14 Jun


I’m like most humans. Certain smells get to me.

Drop a nice hunk of butter onto a red-hot skillet and before it has melted I am transported to my brother Joe’s apartment in Queens, watching as he carefully prepares the special pancakes that he knows I love so much. Pour out a glass of sweet red vermouth and at the first whiff my dear Uncle Dominic and I are sitting under his grapevine, telling stories and watching the bottle slowly drain as the summer sun sets.

Recently I awoke in the middle of the night to the smell of freshly mixed wet concrete. I love having the smell of freshly mixed wet concrete inside of me—because when it is inside of me so too is Uncle Joe
From the time I was old enough to carry a handful of bricks or move a filled wheelbarrow without assistance my mother’s eldest brother made certain to put me to work. He did not need a little kid working on his crew, but the man took his job as uncle (and godfather to me) very seriously.
After my father died Uncle Joe became even more committed to watching out for me, and by the time he himself passed I had become a pretty decent laborer. I remember the last summer that I worked with my uncle, the one where I had finally gotten the hang of not just mixing but properly laying down fresh concrete. It was a fairly large bit of sidewalk on a job in downtown Brooklyn and Neil, my uncle’s best concrete man, hadn’t made it in to work.
“This one’s all yours, chief,” I heard that ever benevolent voice say from alongside me. “Time you took charge, don’t you think?”
I was by no means in charge, of course, but did manage to lay down a respectable bit of sidewalk, with the patient guidance of a man that I loved as deeply as any other. 

I’m proud to have the smell of his sand and gravel and mortar living in my brain forever.

My strongest scent memory by far involves my father. And a jar of Noxzema skin cream.

Every night, right around my bedtime, dad would be in the bathroom shaving. He always kept the door wide open and often could be heard saying this or that to my mother or to one of us boys. Before heading off to bed I would come up behind my father and tap on his leg or on the small of his back. He’d turn and bend down so that I could reach up and kiss him goodnight. His skin was smooth and moist and warm—and strongly smelling of Noxzema skin cream, his prefered beard-softening elixir.

It was my favorite daily ritual; I looked forward to it each and every evening.

On the early morning that my father died, the firemen and EMTs carried his body from our kitchen floor and into his and my mother’s bedroom, where it would lay, covered in a clean bedsheet, until the undertaker came to collect it. As the rescue team carrying dad brushed past me, unsuccessfully attempting to shield a young boy’s view, I could swear that I smelled the Noxzema that dad had shaved with only hours before.
It’s been 50 years since I last kissed my father goodnight, and I can still smell the Noxzema today.

I mean right now, at this minute, right here.

I can summon the aroma at will. Anytime. Anywhere. Just try me.

There it goes now.

Men and their gardens

5 Jun

I come from a long line of earth tenders. A very long line.

That’s Mister Bua you see there, grandfather to several of my cousins. He and Mrs. Bua lived in the ground floor apartment of Uncle Joe’s house on Berriman Street in Brooklyn. A general contractor by trade, my uncle bought the property because it had enough room for his red dump truck and assorted building materials, space for lots of family cookouts in the summer, plus a good-sized garden where he could grow vegetables.

The tree that Mister Bua is tending is a fig tree, a healthy one too. The trellis on the left is for a squash-type vegetable that we call googootz (here’s a link that explains), and the vast majority of the plants that I see are tomato plants.

I do not see a single weed. If you are at all familiar with vegetable gardening then you are likely as awestruck by this as I.

In a week or two I will have my own garden, a 24’x24′ plot of earth, fully planted. Like my uncle and Mister Bua, along with many other men I grew up admiring for their skill and loving for their generosity of spirit, tending to a garden in summer is a need, not a choice. If I didn’t have to nurse my fig trees (four now), tomatoes (a couple dozen plants, at least), googootz (always a crapshoot), garlic (230 or so this time around) and assorted other things I really do not know what else I would be doing from mid-June until September.

I know this may sound silly, or at the very least quaint, but looking at this photograph of Uncle Joe’s garden makes me all kinds of weepy. Go ahead and click on the picture, enlarge it and really take a good long look. Mister Bua, a sweet man with a kind heart, is exactly where he wants to be at this moment and doing exactly what he needs to be doing. Every single thing coming out of the ground is lush and beautiful, tended to by men who care deeply for them. Hell, even the sheets drying patiently on the clothesline, possibly Cousin Ursula’s, Mister Bua’s granddaughter, make me nostalgic.

Things just could not be more perfect.

The last (and first) supper

8 May

Only once did my parents take me and my two brothers to a restaurant. It was on a Sunday afternoon, sometime after 1 o’clock, after dad had closed our family’s fountain service store in Brooklyn for the day. Sunday afternoons were the only time he had off.

I remember my father putting on a suit and tie and my mother one of her nicest dresses and even a big hat. I don’t recall what my brothers and I wore, but likely we were dressed in sport coats and good slacks that my mother had bought for us at one of the many clothing shops along Pitkin Avenue.

We left our second-floor apartment on Liberty Avenue in East New York, walked down the street to Shepherd Avenue, then all the way up to Atlantic Avenue, where the 22 bus ran through much of Brooklyn and deep into Queens.

We didn’t own a car. I never saw my father behind the wheel of any vehicle, in fact, and my mother never learned how to drive.

I can’t say exactly how old I was at the time but as dad passed shortly after I became a teenager my guess would be eleven or twelve. The only food I knew at the time was what my Italian-American mother and all of my Italian-American aunts and uncles cooked.

Other than inside my (very) extended family’s homes there were only two other places where I had sampled any foods at all: Sal Abbraciamento’s restaurant a block away from our apartment, where we would sometimes get a take out pizza; and the White Castle around the corner on Atlantic and Shepherd, where a little square burger cost five cents, or maybe it was six.

Dressing up and getting on a city bus to go and eat at a “fancy” restaurant in Richmond Hill, Queens, was about the most exotic thing that my pre-teen head could wrap itself around. And only barely.

Westfal’s was what you might call a “continental” restaurant, around a 30-minute bus ride away. It was at the corner of Atlantic and 111th Street, about a block from the bus stop, which itself was right in front of the Boy’s Club. I remember getting off the bus and being impressed by the Club’s massive white brick building and wondering about what kinds of things might go on inside. I never did find out.

I’m pretty certain that all of us were at least a little nervous about being inside a place like Westfal’s. The menu had nothing on it that I knew, except for maybe a steak or a baked potato. No manicotti, no ziti, no tomato sauce, not a meatball or a sausage or an eggplant in sight.

When it was my turn to order I silently and reluctantly pointed at a strange-sounding item on the intimidating menu. “The duck then,” I heard the waiter say. “Very good.”

Actually, it wasn’t. The meat was so tough and hard to chew that most of it wound up hidden underneath the other stuff that went unfinished on my plate.

I didn’t eat duck again until I was almost 30.

And the five of us never stepped foot inside another restaurant together again.

Several years back I got word that an old family friend had passed and that the wake was being held not in Brooklyn but in Richmond Hill. It had been a long while since I’d had a reason to be in this part of Queens. And so you can imagine my surprise when the funeral home turned out to be housed in the exact same space where my parents had taken my brothers and me for our first—and only—restaurant meal together.

Standing outside the funeral home, I reminisced with some old friends about that Sunday afternoon at Westfal’s with my parents and brothers.

“What was the occasion?” one wondered matter of factly. “A bus trip all the way out here, wearing your Sunday best no less. Must have been to celebrate something special, right?”

And just like decades earlier, when the fancy restaurant’s waiter had pressed me to decide what to order for Sunday supper, I was completely and hopelessly flummoxed, unable to speak a word.

After what felt like a very long period of embarrassing silence, in front of old friends I had not seen in several years, all I could manage to say was, “I have no idea.”

Which surprised me as much as it did them.

It still does.

Veal & mortadella agnolotti

24 Apr

Most of the homemade mortadella we made around the holidays got sliced up (nice and thin!) and eaten as-is. But not all of it.

The stuff makes a fine ingredient for a pasta filling, you know. And this filling is the best to come out of our recent batch of mortadella.

Of course, you don’t have to make your own mortadella to put these agnolotti together. Just go out and buy some of the stuff and get to work.

Now.

Melt 3 tablespoons of butter in around a tablespoon of olive oil.

Add 1 pound ground veal.

Once the veal has browned a bit add 1/3 cup or so of either white wine or vermouth and turn up the heat.

Allow the wine to evaporate, then turn off the heat and let the veal cool a bit.

Dice 1/4 pound of mortadella (makes no difference if you use a hunk or slices).

In a food processor add the veal, mortadella, 1/2 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano and one egg, then process until completely blended.

Taste and adjust seasoning as you like. (You could add more cheese, or a little salt, perhaps a dash of nutmeg.)

Instead of using a pastry bag I always put my pasta fillings in a strong plastic bag that can be thrown away after I’m finished. (Of course, you’ll need to cut the tip off in order to allow the filling to be squeezed out.)

Roll out your pasta dough on the thin side and around 3 or 4 inches wides.

If your dough is very moist you can skip this step; otherwise brush a little egg wash along the far edge before rolling the dough around the filling.

Use your finger to press down and form the individual agnolotti (I made these on the longish side, but smaller works great too).

This is basically what it will look like once you’ve worked your way along the entire roll.

All that’s left to do now is cut the individual agnolotti.

I boiled and served these in freshly made chicken broth (or brodo) and topped the agnolotti with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and freshly ground black pepper. The reason I chose to go with a classic and simple brodo is so that the veal and mortadella filling can really stand out.

And it did.

Which is a very good thing.