Thursday, April 29, 2010

Cookie Monster Would Approve

If you know me personally, you know by now that my mother turned 80 on Easter Sunday. And if you are a friend on Facebook, you know that my brothers, our families, and I threw a surprise party for her on April 17.

Here’s a great picture of my mom with me and my brothers at the party:

us

Buon compleanno, Mamma!

And here’s a great picture of my mom and dad when they were young:

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I LOVE that picture, so I had it blown up for the party.

I’d have to say the surprise was a success. My mom said she thought something was up — maybe her sisters were meeting all of us for dinner…

…but she had no idea of all the family members that were traveling to help us celebrate.

The true mark of success was when my mom told me that the party was the highlight of her 80 years! I guess we did okay.

Early on in the planning, Aunt Ann offered to make all the cookies for the party — as she has been known to do before (remember I told you about my wedding?) — and my brothers and I quickly took her up on her offer. Check out this spread:

 P4170002 P4170003

The tri-color cookies were made by Ann’s daughter, my cousin Gina … and I hope to get that recipe for you someday soon, because they were fantastic! But the rest of the cookies (and all the extras hidden away in the kitchen to take home) were from Aunt Ann. She’d tell you she did it for her “siss-ter”!

Of all of Aunt Ann’s cookie recipes, I’d have to say my favorite is the one for pignoli cookies. And I think my brother, Ralph, would agree. I try to make them for him every year at Christmas. If you are unfamiliar with pignoli cookies, they look like this:

pignoli

The cookie base is made with almond paste, sugar, egg whites, and almond extract; the batter is runny and sticky. The real challenge when making these Italian treats is rolling the raw cookies in the pine nuts before placing them on parchment paper for baking. Letting them cool before taking them off the parchment paper after they’re baked is also a challenge for me, personally. How many pignoli cookies I’ve pulled off where the underside of the cookie stayed on the parchment paper … just because I couldn’t wait for them to cool! But intact or not, they always taste good … and the end product is well worth the effort.

My most vivid memories of pignoli cookies are of eating them at Aunt Barbara’s house. (She is my father’s youngest sister; her mother was Grandma Marietta. Aunt Barb and her family came to the party, too. It was so nice to have everyone there!)

We’d sit around Aunt Barb’s dining room table after a really good meal, and out would come all the Italian pastries and cookies, including these. I would carefully choose a cookie and meticulously pick off the pine nuts, eating them one at a time. When all the nuts were gone, I’d devour the cookie, then get myself another and start again. (Who am I kidding? I still eat them this way.)

The combination of flavors — the almond with the pine nuts — is unique, as is the combination of the sticky-chewy cookie and the crunch of the nut. I truly believe this could be the perfect cookie! If you like the flavor of almonds, you simply must try one.

I offer Aunt Ann’s recipe with this post, but if you’re around at Christmas, give me a call. I can whip up an extra batch — I’m always more than willing to share — and for you, I promise to be extra patient when it comes to the cooling!

(Click here to view and print Aunt Ann’s recipe for Pignoli Cookies)

Biscotti Di Pignoli on Foodista

Friday, April 23, 2010

Breaking Bread

Are you getting tired of hearing about my favorite local Italian bread store yet? ’Cause I just can’t talk enough about it.

assortment of baked bread The Saturday after Easter, I went in to pick up a fresh round loaf of bread for dinner. As I walked in the door, I was reminded why I love going there. It isn’t just for the fresh, authentic breads imported from Hoboken; it’s also the store’s welcoming atmosphere. I walk in the front door and I’m recognized and appreciated as a repeat customer. I’m greeted (as all customers are) with a friendly hello — usually “Hi there, Hon!”— and I’m made to feel that my business is truly wanted.

There is cheerful conversation (“How was your Easter?”), and the owners are thankful for each $6.50 sale. The shop is small and reminiscent of a city store – the hustle and bustle of locals seeking fresh food, made from quality ingredients. Suburbia doesn’t have near enough of these little shops to suit me (call me a snob, if you must; I can take it) … but who doesn’t want to feel welcomed and appreciated? Isn’t that why Norm and Cliff always returned to Cheers, after all? And it’s the reason why this newly opened store is already looking to expand to two additional sites in Central Pennsylvania, even in our current recession.

Speaking of bread, it isn’t often that I talk religion. My faith is held closely in my heart, and mine only. I’m not one to discuss God when I gather with friends, and you’ll never find me trying to convert another human being. Religion — I believe — is an individual journey. We all must find our place and do with it what we will. And I choose to respect others’ choices and hope that they will respect mine in return.

Of course, how to instill a sense of religion in my children is a whole different story. I was brought up Catholic, my husband Methodist, and how best to guide our children until they can make their own choices as adults is a challenge to us. So, early on we have taken the known road of Catholicism. And this year, in just a few weeks, my daughter will make her First Holy Communion.

Our church does a neat thing for First Communion — it holds a half-day retreat, where each child makes their Communion banner, goes to Confession, sings songs, eats dinner together, and my favorite part, bakes their own loaf of bread. The bread leader is iStock_000009735453XSmallamazing — walking the children through each ingredient and its importance as it relates to Jesus. For example, when the flour is added, the children are reminded of all God’s wonderful creations, “especially the wheat of the fields.” The oil is reminiscent of the holy oil received at Baptism, and with the sugar, the children give thanks to Jesus “for bringing sweetness to the world.”

Me? I don’t do any of this creative stuff. I am the worker bee, the mom who stands in the kitchen preparing the water to the proper temperature before each group comes to make their bread, the mom who puts the pans into the oven and 22 minutes later takes them out, the mom who washes dishes. It is my calling, the kitchen. That’s where you’ll always find me. Don’t ask me to lead crafts or games … I’m not very patient with glue or hula hoops. But if you need someone in an apron, taking direction and getting things done … well, then give me a call.

The night of the retreat, my daughter brought home her loaf of bread. We sat around the kitchen table, she read the prayer she received with her bread, and we cut the bread and ate it as a family, my mother included. My daughter, she will be the most religious of us all, I have no doubt. Jesus already lives in her heart; she loves the statues, the stories, the music, the prayers, and religious tradition in general. She asks about Mary and the Stations of the Cross, and doesn’t fight the system like me, her mother, who battled unsuccessfully for years in the 1970s to be an altar girl — not because I really wanted to be one, but because I wasn’t allowed to.

I always thought it was my husband’s and my job to somehow guide her, but I was wrong. That higher being embraced her a long time ago. And it’s probably a good thing. I’m really no example. But then again, perhaps she and her brother are blessed to have us as parents: no matter what religious road each chooses when they are adults, we will respect their decisions and support their journeys. And maybe that’s exactly the right thing for us to do. My daughter, my son … they may both be lucky after all.

Today, I offer the recipe for the Communion Retreat Bread. It’s relatively easy and a good deal of fun to make, especially with children. I, however, am taking the week off. I miss the purveyors of the local Italian bread store, and I just know there will be one round loaf — sliced — with my name on it. I’m thinking toast … pane tostato … for breakfast tomorrow.

(Click here to view and print recipe for Communion Retreat Bread)


For other good recipes posted today from around the globe, check out Foodie Friday at Designs by Gollum!

Easy White Bread on Foodista

Monday, April 19, 2010

Guest Post #2: Another Country Heard From

by Nick Montesano

My sister says that the writing is the hardest part.

She’s right!

But she writes with respect. Respect for writing. Respect for grammar and syntax. She even puts commas in the right place. And she writes with respect for food and tradition.

When she threw down the gauntlet to me (and some of you) to write as a guest on this blog, it was somehow intimidating. Sure, I respect writing and somehow I respect grammar and syntax and even commas. And I start sentences with the word ‘and’. And I use ellipses all the time. But … she’s an editor … she, can, worry, about, all, that.

The respect for tradition, however, I will also have to leave to her. Ask her. Ask my mother (you know her by now). Me? Baa, baa, black sheep when it comes to tradition. I DON’T worry if I don’t eat Broccoli and Macs on the day after Thanksgiving. I DON’T worry if I don’t eat pork on New Year’s Day. And that Christmas Eve seven fish dishes starving artistthing … well … I do that … just because I love the challenge of it … and I love to eat … not because it is tradition.

Food is our lives. Ask my doctor. He has been trying to get me to lose 20 pounds for the last five years.

My partner owns The Starving Artist at Days Restaurant and Ice Cream Parlor in Ocean Grove, NJ. (Shameless plug. Get over it and stop by when you are in town.) And I love to cook. Perfect match.

I love to cook for lots of people at once. I am happiest knowing 6 to 87 people are coming for dinner. Mix in a batch of vegetarians (a whole group of my friends toured Europe in the musical HAIR and all these years later they perpetuate that lifestyle) with a few food-issue friends (one who doesn’t eat balsamic vinegar, one who doesn’t like mayonnaise, one who only likes raw vegetables) and it is more fun planning a menu that can please all of them.

But where did I learn to cook?

My sister introduced you to some of the family. I started learning from them. I grew up making deals with my mom that she would cut the grass while I cooked dinner. She would tell me what to do before she revved the engine and would come back to find beef stew cooking. (Boil the veggies separately!) I would be sneeze-free.

Her mom, Grandma Lucy, would teach me to cook and would always start with the phrase, “First, put the Nucco in the pan.” Nucco was apparently some sort of heavily saturated animal fat that came in sticks like butter. “First, put the Nucco in the pan, and then add slices of pepperoni and scrambled eggs.” Maybe if I explain THAT to my doctor he would better understand.

Oh yeah, and ask Grandma Marietta why a tossed salad always has radishes in it and she would have told you that she added them so that you couldn’t see if her nail polish chipped off into the salad. (Toss the salad with your hands. Best method ever!)

That wasn’t all, though. My cooking skills today are a result of endless hours of watching cooking TV — in my earliest years on public television: Julia Child (enough said?), The Galloping Gourmet (as a teen I yearned for one of those flat wooden spatulas and might actually have had one of my first TV crushes; I think it was the accent), and Yan Can Cook (and so can I).

One day, the clouds parted, the heavens opened, the angels sang, and in a scene reminiscent of the Sistine Chapel, God reached out his hand and created the Food Television Network.

WHAAAAAAAAT?

I was an apt pupil … early on with Sarah Moulton, Emeril Lagasse, How To Boil Water, the Two Hot Tamales, and later semesters with Tyler, Bobby, Giada, Paula, Michael, and Jamie, while still keeping an eye on public television for Ming, Wolfgang, Daisy, Jacques, and in my eyes, the queen of all things cooking … Lidia.

One more point to note: we travel. Everywhere and every country we visit is as much about learning the foods as taking in the sights and history and people. Our recent visit to Tuscany included a full-day cooking course at a villa with Simone Biancalani. You may not have heard of him … yet … but he is a cooking star.

So walk into my home and hint at hunger … the refrigerator door flies open, the pans hit the stove, and the creating begins. When my mom plows into a plate of pasta with √©lan for some fresh sauce I have ‘thrown together’, I am ecstatic. (Thanks Sicily and Lidia!) When my friend Jay arrives at a party looking for the pesto chicken salad, I beam. (Thanks, Giada!) When a change of vegetable at dinner turns out to be grilled radicchio instead of steamed broccoli and my partner says “yum,” I grin. (Thanks Osteria da Mario in Rome and Michael.)

So that’s me, one of the brothers. I offer two things. First, a recipe for Sicilian Pasta that I created based on a dish we enjoyed on the shores in Palermo.

Nick’s Sicilian Pastamosaic34f9e3dd1a76bb732ee31b14081749a2e5bb9356(Click here to view and print recipe)

And a request. I’d love to return as a guest and tell you about the cooking class in Tuscany. Interested?

Sicilian Pasta on Foodista

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Oh, Dear Gertrude…

I’ve started this week’s post four times now. The hardest part of all of this for me is the writing. Cooking and baking are most enjoyable, and transferring the recipes to my online Recipe Collection is just busy work. But the writing … always the writing.

The great Gertrude Stein once wrote:

“To

write

is to

write

is to

write

is to

write

is

to write is to write is

to write is to write.”

Anyone who has ever written for a living knows the burden built into that seemingly simple and redundant statement. And it is exactly that burden that led me to give up writing more than a decade ago and move to copyediting for a living.

But many years have passed since that decision, and I again find myself with an audience full of excitement (thank you, all) and expectation. So here I am, draft #4, asking myself what this blog is all about. I want it to be about the food, but the reality is, it’s about the memories and feelings the recipes invoke.

I had a really wonderful weekend. On Friday night, I gathered at the local bar with a bunch of friends from high school for what turned out to be an incredibly fun night. Some of these people I hadn’t seen in 28 years. We talked and we hugged and we laughed and we ate and we drank … and I realized how good so many of these people were then and still are today. I sometimes bad-mouth my small hometown, just because I am an adventurer at heart who still lives where she grew up. But in reality, it is a good town, full of good people. And Friday was a treat. Thank you to each of my friends there – old and new – for the warmth in my heart when I left our gathering.

On Saturday night, my husband and I invited our website guru extraordinaire/friend to dinner with his family. It was a special little treat to thank him for his work on the Mangia, Figlie page design. My, how their children have grown since we’d seen them last! It had been so long!

We had a lovely evening, and I think they liked the food – which consisted of spaghetti with braciole cooked in tomato sauce, a spinach/arugula salad with Italian dressing, a fresh round loaf from my favorite local Italian bread store, and for dessert, my mom’s infamous Wilson Chocolate Cake, topped with a classic butter icing.

mosaic06ce0455238c54043fc10b1ca20493e5557e55a8 Click here to view and print my mom’s recipe for braciole.

But what struck me most when their visit was over was how comfortable the whole evening was. I know you know what I’m talking about. That friend you haven’t seen for 10 years walks in the front door and you feel like it was only yesterday that you were P4100006together. These are those kind of people. And the fact that I could put a nice meal on our table for them and keep the kids up past their bedtimes because we just didn’t want the evening to end … well that was the true butter icing on the chocolate cake, and on my weekend.

Click here to view and print
my mom’s recipe for Wilson Chocolate Cake.


Food has always been about more than just ingredients to me. It’s about the tastes and the textures and the feelings and my family … and it’s put on the table to celebrate small events, major milestones, and gatherings of good friends.

I can envision the spread of food my brother created for my wedding shower, as well as the spaghetti dinner my mother made at my childhood home for my college friends when we were all seniors. I vividly remember the conversation when I was maybe 10 years old about whether my mother did in fact make Easter bread every year or not.

I remember the many years we sat around the table after Thanksgiving dinner, just talking and cracking open walnuts and eating them, broken shells neatly in piles in front of each of us. And I remember the demitasse cups coming out, the anisette bottle on the table, little strips of lemon rind on a plate, all for that after-dinner shot of dark Italian coffee.

Yes, food is a comfort for me, far beyond its nutritional value. It feeds my soul daily, whether it is sharing old recipes with old friends or trying new recipes with my kids, who recognize that Mommy is happiest while chopping up veggies in the kitchen and who so lovingly want to be a part of that. Dio, io li amo!

Oh, dear Gertrude, you were so right: “to write is to write is to write is to write.” But to write about how food continues to touch my life … where do I sign up?

Braciole Calabrese on Foodista

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

You Say Potato (Soup)…

A Note from Maria: I’ve made the offer to several people to guest-post here on Mangia, Figlie. Finally, we have a taker – my husband, Dave, who writes about his signature recipe, passed down from his mother. “Grama,” as we all called her, died a little over a year ago at the respectable age of 94. Here, Dave reminisces:

I remember my mother’s dinners when I was growing up as mostly one-pot meals that were hearty, delicious, and comforting. One of my favorites was her made-from-scratch potato soup. How much better could it get than to have a wonderful bowl of her soup one night, and — knowing her tendency to make too much — to enjoy it again the next day, after the flavors had even more time to meld?

One day back in middle school, we had a substitute teacher. As was always the case, we tried our best to get the “sub” off lesson plan, to avoid actually doing any real schoolwork. Part of that day’s discussion: this teacher had committed to living the remainder of his life potato-soup-free! When I heard this, I questioned the school nurse’s earlier assertion that my hearing test had come back okay.

The sub explained that, while growing up in the Great Depression, he’d been forced to dine on potato soup one too many times, and he upheld his promise that, once economically able, he’d never eat it again. He told us of his belief — which proved him delusional, at least to me — that potato soup was something you ate only when you had to … only when forced to by tough economic times that were to be left behind and forgotten as soon as possible.

Considering my age, this was like telling me he’d been “forced” to open too many Christmas presents as a child … and that now I should feel both sympathy for his past sufferings, while also commending him for his steadfast refusal to go back on his own promise to himself. Frankly, I thought he was crazy.

I mentioned this incident to my mother, both to see if she could make any sense of it and also as a casual way to bring up potato soup … to see if I could get her to subliminally realize that it might be a good time to make, you guessed it, more potato soup.

Mom said that some other Pennsylvania Dutch cooks made a variant of potato soup with bacon fat in the rivels instead of eggs. She referred to this as “brown potato soup” and told me it was to be avoided at all costs. Thus, Mom concluded, this teacher was obviously a poor, misguided soul who’d never experienced the joys of “real” potato soup, like she made — hence his aversion to and lack of appreciation for something both thrifty ... and delicious.

Did I mention that no meal passed from my mother’s stove to our table without her knowing exactly how much each of our portions cost … and how much we were saving by not purchasing the same meal at the local diner? Yes, my mom may have been a tad bit miserly, but in her defense, she and my dad never had a mortgage, financed a car, or had a credit card. Instead, they both worked hard in their respective factories and saved up cash before they bought anything.

Even in better times, my mother never stopped making potato soup — thank you, God — not only because we all loved it, but also because she wanted to remember that even though the house, its contents, and our car were paid for and there were a few bucks in the bank ... all my parents’ hard work would somehow be for naught if they were to forsake where they came from, let their guard down, and start squandering what they’d saved. In today’s world, that is a lesson for us all.

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Grama’s Potato Soup
(Click here to view
and print recipe)





Pennsylvania Dutch Potato Soup on Foodista