Tag Archives: mom

Mom’s cured green olives

6 Oct

One of my strongest childhood memories of autumn goes something like this.

Uncle Joe pulls up to our apartment building in Brooklyn in his red dump truck. He is greeted by his sister, my mother, who emerges from the family’s fountain service store onto the concrete sidewalk outside. My uncle goes to the back of the truck and drops the tailgate, his sister following close behind, but not too close.

There are wooden crates stacked along the back edge of the truck bed, eight or ten of them I would estimate. Soon my uncle begins to unload them. He carries the crates through the store, past the two small rooms behind it, ending in the backyard where my grandparents used to keep chickens, ducks, lambs and, at one point I am told by Cousin John, even a baby calf.

One by one he places the crates on the ground, underneath the huge trellised grapevine where 30-odd family members spend many hours together every summer. Being autumn many if not all of the grapes, white ones, have already been harvested, either made into Aunt Laura’s famous jellies or simply eaten straight from the vine as they have ripened.

Two or three tables are in place for the work that is ahead, sturdy ones because that is what they must be. After he unloads the last crate Uncle Joe goes back to his truck to gather the tools that will be needed once the crates have all been opened. There are several of these tools, but all are the same.

They are hammers of various shapes and weights, normally used for my uncle’s work but here put to use in order to pound away at the contents of the crates.

They are filled with hundreds of pounds of fresh raw green olives. Where the olives were grown I do not know, but they were surely purchased at the Brooklyn Terminal Market in Canarsie, about a twenty minute drive away, longer in a dump truck. My mother is the designated curer of olives in the family and as her son I am expected to lend an assist.

My work is simple, if a tad tedious. Grab one of Uncle Joe’s hammers and, one by one, crack open each and every olive until not a single whole one remains. It is impossible to finish the job without bruising my fingers, but this is the price of autumn’s work. I don’t mind paying it.

In the end I will have helped my mother produce many glass jars filled with strongly flavored cured green olives for appreciative family members and friends.

That is the memory that stays with me, not the bruises.

Anyhow, this is a very long-winded way of saying that I got my hands on some fresh olives last week when visiting my brother Joe in New York. Mixing up a batch of cured ones did not at all seem an unacceptable thing to do.

And so.

This is 4 pounds of raw green olives. They’ve been rinsed thoroughly and allowed to dry.

Though I was tempted to use my old claw hammer, for old time’s sake, I decided on a kitchen mallet instead. One by one you’ll need to give each olive a little whack in order to break open the skin and expose the inner flesh.

Like so. Now, you can see that this is a nice clean cut, but don’t worry if it isn’t. Even if some olives come completely apart they’re still okay.

Some of my olives even broke in half. Not a problem.

A fennel bulb, three carrots and a couple celery stalks.

Cut them all up, like so.

And place them in a non-reactive container along with the olives. I used a large dutch oven, as it’s lined with porcelain and also has a lid for covering the olives as they cure.

Add 2 1/2 cups of white vinegar, 1 1/2 cups water and 3 tablespoons Kosher salt. Then drizzle a bunch of olive oil on top and cover. Set aside where it won’t be in the way because the olives will remain in the mixture for a couple days or longer. Try and stir them once in a while, too.

Knowing when the olives are ready is a little bit tricky. Just-picked olives will need to stay in the vinegar mix longer than those that have travelled a bit. I’d say start checking them after two days. The color should have darkened some by then, and the olives will have softened too. Just don’t allow them to get too soft. Pick out a couple olives and give a taste. When the texture seems right then it’s time to wrap things up.

These olives were ready in three days.

Pour the olives into a colander and let them drain fully.

At this point you’re ready to jar the olives. I transferred them into a large bowl and added several sliced garlic cloves and a little hot pepper, but you don’t need to add anything at all if you don’t want to.

Either way, stuff the olives into jars and fill the jars with extra virgin olive oil.

Make sure the olives are completely covered in oil, then tighten the lids on the jars and set them aside in a cool place. Be patient because they won’t be ready to eat for a good couple months.

I filled seven pint-sized jars out of this batch. My guess is that five of them will be distributed to others at Christmas.

It’s always better when you share, no?

The letter

10 May

Some time before our mother died, back in the winter of 2006, my brother Joe and I sent her to live in a nursing home. We did this reluctantly and not entirely of clear conscience, but we did it nonetheless.

While Joe and I shared responsibility for finding a good home for mom, most of the clerical work fell to me. There were matters pertaining to her debts and to Social Security benefits, a small checking account, insurance and so on, all requiring close attention and resolution.

My best resource in navigating through the necessary legal paperwork was a worn brown folder that mom kept hidden in the bottom of a dresser drawer. In it were things like her birth certificate and my father’s honorable discharge papers from the Army. There was a yellow Western Union telegram from the Vatican in Rome marking their marriage in 1954, the deed to the cemetery plot in Brooklyn where my father had been buried in 1970, along with many other useful and not so useful items. 

Three documents, unrelated to the task at hand, stood out so far from the rest that they literally took my breath away. Each was folded and placed in a separate white envelope and each envelope had a single word written in my mother’s unsteady hand: “Michael,” “Joseph,” and “Ralph.” 

Mom had written each of her three sons a goodbye letter. 

And she didn’t seal the envelopes.

Through tears I managed to read only five words of my mother’s letter to me: “You were a beautiful boy.”

The past tense of it all was more than I could bear and so I quickly folded the letter and returned it to the envelope where it belonged. I never told my mother that I’d found the letters, and didn’t mention them to my brothers either.

Eighteen months later I finally managed my way through the rest of the letter. It was just after Joe called to say that mom had died. The night nurse had contacted him earlier in the evening to ask that he get to the nursing home as soon as he was able. But soon wasn’t soon enough. Mom died with a very lovely woman by her side but not any of the sons that she had dedicated her life to.

I delivered mom’s letters to my brothers just as soon as we were all together. My wife Joan and I had driven down from Maine to New York early the next morning, Mike and his family flew in from Ohio the following day. 

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you guys about this sooner, but I figured this is probably the way she wanted it,” I told my brothers. 

“I only read mine last night,” I assured Joe, “after you called.”

I don’t know when or under what circumstances my brothers read their letters; they didn’t read them in front of me. I don’t know what mom wrote to them either. We’ve never discussed it. 

I tell myself that that’s okay. What a mother says to her son at the end is only her business and his, nobody else’s.

Mom’s letter to me followed the same themes that defined her life: Never let anything or anybody get between you and the family; stay close to your brothers no matter what; be good to people; love one another.

I hope the letters in my brothers’ hands are at least a little bit like the one our mother wrote to me. Because it all just sounded so very much like her.

And that’s a sound worth hearing. 

Again and again.

Happy Mother’s Day everybody!

The confession

25 Jan

I’m gonna hate myself for doing this.
Months from now somebody may remind me what I have said here today. I will wonder what could I possibly have been thinking.
And yet here we are.
I was not the greatest son to my mother. An okay one, not a burden or an embarrassment, I don’t think. I managed to avoid getting arrested, for instance, or winding up in the ER after a gang brawl—neither an insignificant accomplishment where I grew up.

But nor was I the child that a person might wish for when contemplating a life of parenting. I never applied myself to schooling, failed to excel at sports, refused to participate in most organized social events. More hurtful to my mother, a devout and loving Roman Catholic, I rejected her church outright and generally did all that I could do to live by my own rules, not by hers—which is of course to say by no rules at all.
These are not the things weighing on me currently, however. It’s far worse than that. Recently I admitted—aloud and in front of more than one attentive dinner guest—that I believe myself to be a more accomplished cook today than my mother was when she was alive.
And it’s eating me up inside.

Go ahead and laugh if you want. Only don’t come crying to me when yourspiritual crisis comes. A man is not supposed to think such a thing, let alone share it with others.
It’s disgraceful. 
I blame two people for driving me to this crisis of character: the woman with whom I share a home (and a kitchen) and, to a lesser but still substantial degree, my friend Joe.
I’ll deal with my friend first.
Long before my recent public indiscretion, months ago in fact, Joe made it his business to irritate me—by insisting that I rate my own Sunday Gravy against the one that my mother so lovingly produced for her family thousands of times. We were, as often happens, lounging in his backyard at the time, drinking Sicilian wines and watching boats of varying size and shape sail slowly and soundlessly past his home overlooking the Hudson River.
“Leave me alone,” I barked at my friend. “What does it matter whose Gravy is better? Mine’s mine and hers was hers, end of story.”
Joe was once a fearsome, if perhaps hairless, wild predator beast in some past life, I’m sure of it. Tenacious does not begin to touch upon his manner.
“Of course it matters,” he prodded, uncorking one of the Nero d’Avolas that I had brought to him for sampling. “And you know it does.”
One of the great frustrations with being a friend to me, as Joe will no doubt attest, is that when a topic arises that troubles me greatly, my ability to quash its progression fully is unmatched.
“Fine,” I said to my friend, as he refilled both of our glasses, mine a bit moreso than his own. “Debate this with yourself for a while and let me know how things turn out.”
At this point I wandered inside Joe’s house, which he shares with his lovely wife Joel, and downed a couple of beers with Ev, Joel’s father and a man whose company I enjoy quite a lot. Joe and I never discussed my mother’s Sunday Gravy again.
Then the other evening, over—what else?—a meal of ziti and meatballs and sausage and pork skin braciole, which I had prepared for several friends who’d come to dinner, the topic arose yet again.
“I know you would never admit to this,” said the all too familiar voice from the far end of the table, “but your meatballs and gravy really are better than your Sainted Mother’s.
“I loved that woman dearly,” the voice went on, “but at some point you need to own up to the fact that you’ve surpassed her as a cook. It really is okay, you know.”
Here I will argue, however cowardly and unconvincingly, that a man who wishes his feelings to remain private has no business consuming alcohol while in the presence of others. This can only lead to heartache and, I would argue strenuously, woe.
“Yes, mine are better,” I heard myself say, a burst of red rushing to ears and face and neck, I’m told. “Are you happy now?”
I, of course, have not been happy since. And may never be again. I tell myself that the shame will pass, hope that confession will, as mom might say, heal the soul. 

But I don’t believe any of that. I’m just not the man I was before. 

I’ll have to learn to live with this.

Mom’s left hand

10 May

My mother’s meatballs brought people together. In a way, they still do.

Cousin John an I were reminiscing just the other day, and when the subject of mom’s meatballs came up, as it sometimes will, tears formed in his eyes. John grew up in the apartment right above ours. On Sunday mornings he would come and visit Zia Mary, whose stovetop always overflowed with Sunday Gravy and sausage and braciole and, of course, plenty of meatballs.

“Hey Zia,” John would say to my mother, reaching for the plate of fried meatballs as he kissed her cheek. “Mmmm. Love you Zia, you’re the best.”

John’s mother Laura, not unlike all the other women in our family, was a wonderful cook, and made splendid meatballs. And yet my mother’s were everybody’s favorite. John, after all, wasn’t the only one who passed through our kitchen on Sundays. On a slow day, a dozen family members and friends might swing by. More often it was twice that many. We’re not talking holidays here, or just every once in a while. This was every Sunday.

I once asked my mother’s sister Anna what made mom’s meatballs so difficult to replicate. I knew that for decades Anna, Laura, everybody in our family attempted her recipe, to no avail. All my aunt could point to was one thing.

“It was her left hand, we’re sure of it,” Anna told me. “Nobody else used their left hand to form the meatballs, only your mother. So that has to be it.”

We were sitting at her dining room table, sipping coffee and eating Italian cookies that cousin Josephine had made.

“Laura used to get so angry at your mother,” my aunt said. “She even used her left hand once, but they still weren’t as good. She said your mother must not have given her the whole recipe.”

At this point Anna and I began to laugh uncontrollably. After we settled down she went to get another pot of coffee going, but first stopped at my chair and put both hands on my shoulders.

She didn’t say a word, but didn’t need to.

A mother’s memory had brought members of her family together once again.

Happy Mother’s Day everybody!

Mom’s stuffed mushrooms

23 Apr
There are some things you just don’t mess with. If you’ve got any sense in your head at all, that is.
I wouldn’t screw around with My Sainted Mother’s stuffed mushroom recipe if God him-or-herself commanded it.
They’re perfect. Whatever would be the point?
An associate who once sampled the stuffed mushrooms in my mother’s kitchen years ago recently whispered to me (indelicately, I thought) that my mushrooms are actually better. Trust me, they aren’t.
How could they be? I often must buy mushrooms packed in blue foam containers, from a soulless supermarket the size of a giant aircraft hangar. Mom bought hers from a man named Vinny, in a store no bigger than my living room. The mushrooms were packed in wooden boxes with iron handles, and the boxes always sat next to big metal cans filled with fresh, creamy ricotta that Vinny would scoop out in whatever quantity you needed.
Vinny’s shop was across the street from our apartment and so Sunday mornings I’d invariably be sent there for one thing or another.
“If he’s got mushrooms get a box,” mom would say, even though she didn’t need to, I already knew. “But tell Vinny that I don’t want them if they’re not white, white.”
Vinny and I played out this weekly ritual throughout most of my childhood. I don’t ever remember him giving me mushrooms that didn’t meet my mother’s standards. And I can’t ever recall not loving what mom did to the white, white mushrooms once I’d brought them home to her.
So, anyway, about that recipe. You clean the mushrooms under cool running water and then dry them in a kitchen towel.
Gently remove the stems and chop finely for use in the stuffing. (The full recipe is below, but there’s really nothing to it at all.)
Pack the mushrooms with the stuffing, like so.
And make sure to drizzle olive oil over every single one of them before baking.
Around 40 minutes later and you’ve got yourself some very fine funghi indeed.
If I were you I wouldn’t change a thing.
Mom’s stuffed mushrooms
1 lb. whole mushrooms
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
4 Tbsp. butter
1 Tbsp. parsley, finely chopped
3 Tbsp. grated Pecorino Romano cheese
3 Tbsp. breadcrumbs
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Wash the mushrooms and then dry thoroughly in a kitchen towel.
Remove the stems and chop finely.
Melt the butter in a saucepan, then add the stems, onion and garlic. Saute for about five minutes.
Remove from heat and empty into a mixing bowl. Add the breadcrumbs, parsley, cheese, salt and pepper, and mix well.
Stuff the mushroom caps and place on a baking sheet. Sprinkle olive oil over all the mushrooms, then place in the oven and bake for about 40 minutes.
Allow to rest a few minutes before serving. (Mom always served Vinny’s mushrooms at room temperature, which is the way I still like to eat them.)

The colors of coffee

7 Feb
These are my parents. It is their wedding day. Mom wore a blue dress, dad a grey sport jacket. Nothing fancy.
You can see by the classic Neopolitan (flip and drip) espresso pot that their celebration is nearing its completion. It is how a lot of our family gatherings end, even today.
You may not think anything mysterious or unusual here. However, listen to the language and then decide.
“Do you want brown coffee,” members of my family will ask at meal’s end, “or demitasse?”
This is when first-time guests begin to scour the room, searching for a kindly face who might provide them with a freaking clue.
Literally, you are being asked to choose between a hot American coffee and an empty “half cup,” or demitasse. It’s a French word. Why my Italian-American family used it so determinedly I cannot say.
Practically, of course, my people would never be so rude as to offer a person, well, nothing. What they are really asking is whether you would like a regular coffee or an espresso that is served in a demitasse.
As time has passed the language has changed somewhat. Rarely is the French term employed, but neither is the proper espresso.
“Brown coffee or black?” became quite commonly used, or the even simpler “Brown or black?” Once it became evident that brown attracted more takers, a simple “Black?” whispered to those who exhibited such tendencies sufficed.
I align myself strongly with the whispered-to crowd. Even my house “brown,” sourced from the same small coffee roaster in Brooklyn for many years, is, at my direction, 80 percent espresso beans.
Which, as you might imagine, can make the brown versus black coffee debate a murky topic around my house. 
And don’t even get me started again on the whole demitasse thing.