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.

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!

Hearty lamb ragu

15 Dec

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This dish may look ordinary but it’s actually quite a rarity here in the United States. Of the nearly 220 pounds of meat we consume per capita in a year only about a pound of it is lamb.

Hell, there’s more than that in this one recipe alone. Fifty percent more, in fact.

Lamb is the kind of thing that you actually need to think about when planning a meal for guests. Because many people just don’t eat it.

Ever.

I guarantee you that a good number of readers aren’t even with us anymore, having moved along at the mere mention of lamb in the headline.

Their loss. Because it makes for a pretty swell ragu.

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In a good amount of olive oil brown 1 1/2 pounds of ground lamb in a pot that’s good for making sauce.

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Add in a diced carrot or two, a couple celery stalks, an onion, a couple sliced garlic cloves, and some crushed hot pepper. (There was some fennel in the fridge so I tossed in a little of that too.)

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Add at least a half cup or more of wine (white or red will do, though I used dry vermouth here), turn up the heat to high and allow the wine to evaporate.

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Add one 28-oz. can of tomatoes (I used crushed here but any will do), one cup of chicken stock, 1/2 teaspooon ground cumin, 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander, some fresh rosemary, and salt and pepper to taste. Stir it all up, lower the heat to medium or lower and let things simmer for around an hour and a half. Stir occasionally, of course, and add more stock, or even water, if needed.

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It’ll be enough to feed six lamb eaters.

If you that many.

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?

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?

Wishing and hoping

8 Nov

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If you are a follower of this blog’s Facebook page then it comes as no surprise that I have just returned home from a two-plus-week journey to Japan.

And I’ve got the (already posted) food pics to prove it.

What you don’t know is that a rather serious ailment came close to ruining things. Not mine, but my companion’s, who in this case happens to be the woman that I am married to. Every day of the trip required a Herculean effort on her part to keep going. I know for a fact that a lesser malady would have sidelined me.

The truly unfortunate thing is that traveling to Japan was her dream adventure, not mine. She had literally been planning this trip ever since she was a girl. To see her fall ill at such a moment wasn’t merely heart wrenching, it was crushing.

Not long before leaving for home we took a short stroll through the grounds of a Buddhist temple nearby our hotel in Kyoto. Housed in an open-air pavilion was a large gold-colored ball known as a “wishing precious stone.” You’re invited to write a wish on one of the many round cards provided and hang it on a kind of trellis along with all the other wishes. But first you’re to put a hand on the giant ball and circle around it three times, keeping contact with the ball’s surface at all times.

Trust me when I say this: I am not the kind of man who pays any attention to this kind of thing. And yet, there I found myself scribbling down a wish that she would be well again and walking around a big gold ball three times—in broad daylight and for all to see.

As I circled the ball I told myself not to be greedy. If there actually was something to this wishing thing, my bet was that it couldn’t be an immediate fix kind of arrangement. And so I found myself thinking that I’d settle for a more reasonable, gradual recovery, say 24 hours for every time I walked around the ball.

That was around three days ago. This morning I learned that a great deal of the ailment has passed.

I’m only hoping that the precious stone understands that when I asked for my wife to be well again, I meant for it to be permanent.

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.

On penance & pork ribs

12 Oct

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Recently I got to spend a couple of hours with a very dear childhood friend, one that I have seen only three times in forty years. Before boarding a flight from Maine back to their home in Memphis my friend and his wife stopped by for lunch at our house just outside of Portland.

I served a traditional Sunday meal, including my meatballs.

The Memphis pork ribs you see here are from Charlie Vergos Rendezvous in Memphis. They are a gift from my friend John and his lovely wife Gina, overnighted shortly after our visit together, and I enjoyed them quite a lot. Another rack is in the freezer, but probably won’t be for very long.

From the time we were infants until the day he moved away to college John and I lived half a block from each other in Brooklyn. We went to the same elementary school, played on the same baseball and basketball teams, hung with the same friends, even dated some of the same girls. My father’s sister and her family lived in an apartment just below John and his. John is also distantly related to my Aunt Rita, though I do not recall precisely in what way.

It was good to see my friend again. I only wish there had been time to apologize to him.

I have been meaning to for a very long time. And just never have found the opportunity—or the nerve.

The incident occurred somewhere between third and fifth grades. John and I were sitting next to each other in class, as often we did, when the teacher, a nun most probably, began an exercise unrelated to the standard curriculum. She would ask us general questions about all kinds of topics that children might be aware of and all we had to do was call out an answer. Things like “What’s your favorite team, Mets or Yankees?” or “Who’s the best character on TV?” It was simple stuff, really. No books, no note taking, no homework to fret over.

It was all very harmless.

Mostly.

But then the teacher committed what I now believe to have been a terrible error in judgment. In a neighborhood built and still occupied by hard-working immigrants with little education and a deep reliance on manual labor skills, she asked something along the lines of “What’s the dirtiest, worst job that you would never want to do?”

This in a classroom filled with the children and grandchildren of men who laid sewer pipe and poured concrete and rolled asphalt and put down train track to feed their families.

When I blurted out—innocently, I assure you—the words “garbage man” John’s sharp elbow crashed into my rib cage with such force that I could barely catch my breath for a while. When I asked my friend what made him do such a thing he remained silent.

I can still see the anger—but, more likely, hurt—in his face.

Some time later I learned that John’s father Tulio, a strong and decent man, made his living as a New York City sanitation worker.

I don’t know exactly when or how this knowledge came to me. I only know that John and I have never discussed the incident. Not once.

All these years later I’m still haunted by the cruelty that I showed to my friend.

It was only when my wife and I were enjoying John’s generous gift of Memphis pork ribs that our teacher’s role first entered my mind. What was she thinking, I wonder. Most if not all of the kids in her classroom lived in modest apartments headed by men who held “dirty” jobs. Not one of my friends’ fathers wore a white collar to work. And so John could not have been the only child who heard his father’s profession called out by one of their friends that day.

I just hope that the others had better friends than John had, friends who apologized for their stupidity a lot sooner than I have.