Thursday, January 6, 2011

Alla Fine

Last week, when I looked at what recipes I wanted to tackle here at Mangia, Figlie, I crossed the last one off the list. That’s right, my friends, my cook-blog is complete. As I’ve pondered this day out loud with close friends, they’ve been kind enough to suggest I find a different angle to write about, to take this blog down a whole new path. That’s flattering to hear, but I never intended to write ad infinitum.  Mangia, Figlie had a definite beginning, middle, and end from the start … and we’ve arrived alla fine.

But before I go, I would like to thank all those who made this blog so much fun for me. First, of course, are the members of my family, who were good sports as I relayed old stories and posted pictures on the internet for all the world to see. My mom, my aunts, my uncles, my brothers, my husband – all played a vital role in the creation of Mangia, Figlie.

Also thanks to my children, who showed great patience when I spent extra hours at the computer trying to perfect each post, and who played along when I was taking pictures before dinner at least once a week. They ate lukewarm food on more than one occasion for the sake of authenticity.

I have my guest bloggers – Dave, Nick, Ralph, Craig, Cynthia, and Elaine – to thank for sharing a different perspective now and then, and helping to fill in when I had nothing to say. And to my blogging friends and those who took the time to comment again and again, I appreciate your enthusiasm and continued support. Your kind words and encouragement kept me going when I felt I had many more recipes to share, but nothing to say about them.

Finally, I end where I started, with my friend Beth from Dirty Laundry. If I had to write a dedication for this almost-year-long effort, I would of course salute my ancestors for the stories and recipes that allowed me to create this cook-blog. But equally, I would credit Beth for the spark that lit this journey. Thank you, dear friend, for coming to Italian Bunko Night at my house a year ago and encouraging me to do this. I am truly a more complete person for putting this on virtual paper. It’s been a dream for a very long time … and now it’s a dream come true!

Early this past fall, I was reading Rachael Ray’s magazine. The issue was full of information about Italian food – chefs’ favorite restaurants, where to find good ingredients, good Italian wine. The special section ended with a piece entitled, “How to Live Like an Italian.” It was a list of DOs and DON’Ts for an Italian lifestyle, including:

“DON’T drink a latte after dinner. In Italy, that’s considered a breakfast drink. Try a shot of espresso instead…

DO stop for gelato in the midafternoon. Because Italians eat dinner late, they snack around 3 p.m….

DON’T hurry away from the table after dessert. Serve limoncello and encourage your guests to linger.”

But the one that truly caught my eye and stuck with me for all these months was this:

“DO remember that the secret to Italian cooking is sapori e saperi,
or flavors and knowledge. Find excellent ingredients
and do very little to them.”

That, to me, sounds like the perfect recipe-for-success for any great meal.

Grazie, all my friends, and mangiare bene. It’s been a pleasure to serve you.

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Saturday, January 1, 2011

1/1/11

Most of  my New Year’s Eves growing up were spent in Westchester County, New York, visiting our extended family. I always thought it exciting to watch the ball drop on TV, knowing we were just 45 minutes from where Dick Clark was standing in the middle of Times Square. It was the same feeling I got when I would watch “Saturday Night Live” while laying in the fold-out sofa-bed in Aunt Ann’s living room in White Plains. We were so close to Manhattan, I could feel the city’s electricity floating to the northeast through the air.

These days, New Year’s always brings a different adventure. Some years are quiet at home, just the four of us and my mom. Other years we’ve been invited to parties at friends’ houses, where there is always a great spread of fabulous food to help ring in the new year.

Last year was spent with friends – just the two couples and our four kids – the adults enjoying rum drinks, and the kids playing for hours without issue. I almost felt carefree again. And every, oh I don’t know, ten years or so, Dave and I throw a party for all our friends, always inviting more people than can possibly fit into our house, but offering good food and beverage that (I hope) leaves everyone feeling glad they made the decision to venture out and maneuver our crowd.

Last night was quiet at home with my mom and the same friends from last year (though they number one more, since the birth of their third child in September – what a cutie). On the menu – among many goodies – was an old New Year’s favorite from my childhood:

wingsMrs.  M’s Chicken Wings
(Click here to view and print recipe)

We call them “Mrs. M’s Chicken Wings” because a childhood neighbor (and lifelong friend) was a big fan of the wings and dubbed them that in honor of my mom – “Mrs. M.” He requested the recipe years ago, and until last night, I hadn’t had them since a gathering at his house almost a decade ago.

And so we find ourselves at 1/1/11. My grandfather, Ralph, was a New Year’s baby … born in 1904. Buon compleanno, Poppy!

Food wise, today we are skipping the usual slow cooker pork and sauerkraut (a New Year’s favorite here in Central Pennsylvania), as my husband, the kids, and I aren’t huge fans. Instead, I’ve found a lovely recipe for Sausage and Lentils with Fennel (cotechino con lenticchie), which not only gives us the good-luck pork, but follows an Italian tradition of eating legumes on New Year’s Day for prosperity. I’m anxious to get cooking. But before I do, just a little reflection, if I may.

This past year, thanks to this blog effort, I’ve been caught in a whirlwind of memories. Though I’ve always thought I should have parented in the 1950s – I can be pretty strict and old fashioned when it comes to raising children – I’ve never regretted being a child in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. We had “The Brady Bunch” and early “SNL,” as I mentioned above, and when high school came around, we had Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” and all those great British Invasion bands. We had bell bottoms and halter tops, mood rings and “big” hair, and generally life was good all around … well, at least until 1983. That was the year my father died.

As I was writing this post, I realized I’d managed to get through almost an entire year without relaying many memories of my dad or even posting a picture of him. I suppose that’s because 27-and-a-half years later, it’s still a difficult subject for me. Sure, I cry less than every day, like I used to, and I have managed over the years to make some peace with God for having taken my daddy away from me so early in my life. But I still miss him, and when my mother last week was talking about him to my son, at the end of the conversation, my son said: “You’re making me just want to meet him more now than ever.”

Someday, my son, someday (I hope). But let’s not hurry that along.

The stories? Well, those are mine, and I will selfishly keep them for myself. But I surely can share one photo.

dad and me

I like this one from my high school graduation – June 10, 1982. It was taken exactly one year and one day before his death. Certainly it’s how I remember him most, but also it’s how I remember me with him … happy.

But as I often say, “That was three lifetimes ago” … and alas, 2011 is here. Time has moved forward and continues to do so. I started on my New Year’s resolution to eat healthier and exercise more before Christmas even came, and I’ll continue my effort to be healthier at age 50 than I was at age 40. I still have almost four years to meet that goal, but there’s no harm in getting there early, now is there?

Happy New Year, my friendsFelice Anno Nuovo. May you have a healthy and prosperous year – eating good (and good-for-you) food, making great memories … living your life to its fullest.

Cheddar & Parm Chicken Wings on Foodista

Monday, December 27, 2010

One More (Christmas) Thing…

The presents are opened…

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…but before we say goodbye to Christmas 2010, there’s one more holiday recipe I’d like to share … our traditional Christmas morning breakfast: Chocolate Chip Holiday Muffins!

 muffins

An old Hershey Foods recipe (when the company was still called Hershey Foods), these muffins are best served with whipped cream cheese on top.

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You can wait a year to try them for breakfast one morning next  holiday season … or you can try them sooner. It really doesn’t matter – they are festive any old day of the year! Here’s hoping your holiday weekend was just splendido!

(Click here to print and view recipe)

Chocolate Chip Holiday Muffins on Foodista

Saturday, December 25, 2010

My Favorite Day of the Year!

The Baby Jesus has been placed in the manger, and Santa is on his way. As promised earlier in the week, here’s a quick peek at our Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes.

We started our day with cheese and olives…

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…then prepped for the meal ahead. (You will recognize my mom in the bottom right, but that handsome guy up top in the middle is making his first appearance here on Mangia, Figlie. Welcome my nephew, Marc. We heart him so much!)

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Ralph roasted chestnuts on the grill. (They were a tender treat!)

chestnuts

And then we sat down for our 7 fishes (top row, l-r: She-Crab Soup, Mom’s Hot Baked Stuffed Clams, Calamari Salad; bottom row, l-r: Fried Oysters, Broiled Salmon and Codfish [with a caper sauce on the side], Shrimp and Grits). Uh … YUM!

fishes

Finally, we opened presents. Look at this wonderful gift from my brother and sister-in-law. Perfect, right?

book

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I loved sharing this special day and this special feast with my family. But alas, it is past midnight and I can hear Santa on the roof. Must go help out! Until next week, my friends:

Buon Natale!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Beautiful World

Editor’s Note: This post was written before our trip to New York last week, but I was waiting to hear back from my aunt before posting it. I’ve just heard back from her tonight. Though I’ve already talked a bit about our trip to my uncle’s funeral, here’s what was on my mind on December 12, the day before we headed northeast to our family.

This past week was one of those weeks that offers more than one person should be asked to handle, culminating with sad news on Friday that my Uncle Sam in New York has joined my father and other family members now “bowling in Heaven.”

You met Aunt Barbara, my father’s younger sister, the week I blogged about Mom’s 80th birthday party. Aunt Barb and Uncle Sam married on June 16, 1963 – forty-seven-and-a-half years ago – and they parented two beautiful girls, my cousins Anamarie and Sandra.

Uncle Sam had been ill for a number of years, and in the past few months things had taken a turn for the worse. Nobody was surprised by the news, I don’t think, but that doesn’t take away one ounce of ache, especially for Aunt Barb, my cousins, and their families. Please keep them in your thoughts and prayers in the weeks and months ahead as they work through this difficult time.

Thinking about Uncle Sam most certainly brings a smile to my face. He was exactly what you think of when you think of an Italian uncle. He wasn’t a tall man, and he did gray nicely with a good head of thick hair. He was a wonderful gardener and most importantly a hard samworker. But it was his broken English that stands out most in my mind. I’d be lying if I said I understood everything he said to me over the years. Though he came with his family to America while still a young man, they all continued to speak the “language of music” at home.

It’s difficult to describe the way Uncle Sam pronounced the word beautiful – the “beau” was more of a “boo” … boo-tiful. Nah, that doesn’t do it justice – but it was a word he used often, and in my head I will hear him saying it till the end of time. It was, after all, a testament to the beauty he saw in his wife, in his daughters, in his grandchildren … in all of us.

Italian grandmas and grandpas and aunts and uncles are known for slipping a few bucks in your hand when you hug them goodbye prior to a long journey. Aunt Barb would hand me a couple bucks, saying “Shh, don’t tell anyone.” Then Uncle Sam would turn around and hand me a couple more. Sometimes it was the other way around. Either way, I usually protested – I may well be the only niece who would say, “But Aunt Barb already….” “No, no, no,” was the response. They were just that generous; that was just how it was done.

Rest in peace, Uncle Sam. Ti vogliamo bene. Oh, and here’s a few bucks for your journey… Shh….

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Lucky Number 7

Christmas Week is well upon us and my heart is beginning to pound. Of all the traditions of my ancestors and my childhood, my favorite without doubt is celebrating the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve.

As I’ve noted before, I am not necessarily a fan of Wikipedia – I never rely on it for anything work related – but when it comes to certain topics related to this blog, I find its explanations concise and accurate. So, with props to Wikipedia, here’s what you need to know about the Feast of the Seven Fishes:

The Feast of the Seven Fishes … is believed to have originated in Southern Italy and is not a known tradition in many parts of Italy. Today, it is a completely Italian-American feast that typically consists of seven different seafood dishes. Some Italian-American families have been known to celebrate with 9, 11, or 13 different seafood dishes. This celebration is a commemoration of the wait, Vigilia di Natale, for the midnight birth of the baby Jesus.

The long tradition of eating seafood on Christmas Eve dates from the medieval Roman Catholic tradition of abstinence — in this case, refraining from the consumption of meat or milk products — on Fridays and specific holy days. As no meat or butter could be used, observant Catholics would instead eat fish, typically fried in oil.

There are many hypotheses for what the number "7" relates to, one being the number of Sacraments in the Roman Catholic Church. Another theory is that seven is a number representing perfection: the traditional Biblical number for divinity is three, and for Earth is four, and the combination of these numbers, seven, represents God on Earth, or Jesus Christ.

The most famous dish Southern Italians are known for is Baccalà (salted cod fish) … Celebrating with such a simple fish as Baccalà is attributed to the greatly impoverished regions of Southern Italy. Fried smelts, calamari, and other types of seafood have [also] been incorporated into the Christmas Eve dinner over the years.

In our tradition that celebrated annually by my husband, my children, my mother, and me, generally at my house (with a nice fire in the wood-burning fireplace, and a walk around our neighborhood Methodist church, which lines its four square blocks with luminaries) – the fishes and dishes change from year to year. Some years we create seven different fish dishes; other years we make cioppino, a fish and seafood stew that we serve over spaghetti.

This year for Christmas Eve we’re changing the venue and celebrating the Feast of the Seven Fishes with my brother Ralph, my sister-in-law Vicki, and their family. I can’t wait! I am slated to make shrimp and grits and she-crab soup, and to help my mom with a calamari salad.  My mother’s other contribution is her baked clams, and my brother and his wife are making whitefish and salmon, and frying up oysters. (Oh, and I’m bringing the pignoli cookies, too! Yay.)

Ralph, my techie brother, has suggested we try to video blog on Friday. We’re just off the phone, undecided if that would detract from our enjoyment of being together or add to it. At very least, I’ll take lots of photos, so that either way, you can check back here Christmas Eve night for a peek at our authentic Italian-American tradition.

In the meantime, to get your taste buds going, click here to view and print my mom’s recipe for Hot Baked Stuffed Clams, which she brings to the table every year. And if you’d like to read more about the Feast of the Seven Fishes and baccalà, might I suggest this very informative book:

strega nona

It’s one of our Christmas favorites!! (Simply click on the book cover above for more information from Amazon.com.)

In closing, I wish you all a safe and productive week ahead. And to quote a good friend and a follower here at Mangia, Figlie who, earlier this week, sent these words to my email Inbox: “Have a joyous holiday filled with love….”

Buona Vigilia di Natale!

Hot Baked Stuffed Clams on Foodista

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Playing Catch-Up

Things most certainly didn’t go as I had hoped the past two weeks, which is why I completely missed week 2 of holiday cookies. I guess that’s what I get for promising.

But life is back in full swing after visiting la famiglia in New York for the most solemn of occasions. If a burial service can be lovely, it was, and though it was a freezing day at the cemetery, the sun did manage to peek through the clouds, assuring my uncle’s safe journey up to our family of bowlers in Heaven. May you rest in peace, Uncle Sam. Please tell my dad I miss him.

The visit was a whirlwind – we were there just over 24 hours total – and I always leave wishing we’d had more time to visit.

So, now you are asking yourself: “But, Maria, what does this have to do with the cookie recipes you promised?” Well, as I’m sure you know by now, any gathering with my family always promises good Italian food … and lots of it. For instance, just look what Aunt Ann put on the table for dessert after breakfast:

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It’s true. When was the last time you were offered dessert after bacon and eggs? More importantly, see those cookies? Those are homemade toralle! My week 2 cookie!!

Though Aunt Ann created this very festive batch, the recipe in my recipe box originates with my Aunt Santa – appropriate for the season, wouldn’t you say? She was married to Uncle Joe, my mother’s oldest (and only) brother. Aunt Santa and Uncle Joe spent their life together in the lovely town of Port Chester, New York, raising three beautiful daughters. Though older than I, my cousins were always kind to that little brat (that would be me, of course) that visited from Pennsylvania.

My memories of sitting around Uncle Joe and Aunt Santa’s dining room table, cracking nuts, drinking coffee (the adults) and milk (me), and eating cookies – those are as vivid as if they happened yesterday. I remember plastic covers on white sofas at their house … and being allowed to swim in their new pool when the water temperature was much too cold for any sane human. They had the coolest laundry shoot ever – my Barbie could fall two stories into a basket of laundry without any limb damage! And since Aunt Santa worked for Avon, headquartered just down the road from them, there were also free samples of new Avon products. I’m a sucker for Avon, even to this day, thanks to Aunt Santa.

But that was a long time ago. The little things remain in my memory, but much has happened since that time and that house. Uncle Joe died in 1983, just a few weeks before my dad. Thankfully, their widows continue to grace us with their presence in our lives. My mom, of course … you know what she’s been up to. As for Aunt Santa, she’s now in her 90s, doing the best she can with a fading memory. Sadly, I haven’t seen her in years, but thanks to Facebook, my cousins and I are in better touch than we have been in quite some time.

Coincidentally, my week 3 cookie recipe also originated with Aunt Santa. If I could make just one cookie for Christmas every year (and there are years I have), what would it be? Pecan tassies, of course!

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Aunt Santa’s Pecan Tassies
(Click here to view and print recipe)

 

 

 


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When I pull out that recipe and the one for “Aunt Santa’s Sugar Cookies (Toralle)”…

(Click here to view and print recipe)

…I feel a rush of comfort in my heart for the good old days, when my dad and uncles were still with us, and we could all gather at a table loaded with food … loaded with love.

Uncle Joe and Daddy, I trust you’ve ushered Uncle Sam into the great bowling alley in the sky with open arms. Next time it lightning and thunders, I’ll be looking up with a smile on my face … knowing full well you are all  having the time of your afterlives. Vi vogliamo bene.

Toralle on Foodista