Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Seat At Her Table

I'm in a great writing workshop led by Frank Bures and this week's assignment was to write a profile. Since my mom taught me everything about food , I thought I'd write one about her. Here it is:

A Seat at Her Table

Graziella Iacovino wants to feed you. Chances are, if you live in South Jersey, she already has. Graziella has been in the restaurant business for twenty years, nourishing families and making friends in the process. She attributes this longevity to one thing: sacrifice. In fact, she advises people who toy with the idea of opening a restaurant by stating, “Don’t even think of opening the door unless you are willing to sacrifice your life for the restaurant.”
But even before opening a restaurant, Graziella was no stranger to sacrifice. Born at the tail end of World War II in Salandra, a small town in Basilicata, one of Italy’s southern-most regions, Graziella’s earliest memories of food are pleasant, but tinted with sadness. “Even though there was hardly any food, my mother always found a way to make us dinner,” she remembers. “ She would wait until we were full before getting food for herself. Some nights she didn’t eat at all. But each night, she would take the few ingredients what we had and transform them into something delicious. It was magical.”
Though her mother didn’t explicitly teach her how to cook, Graziella’s passion for food developed in the small kitchen of her childhood home. “ I loved watching my mother and sisters cook. It was amazing to see what they could make out of ingredients that most people would discard. Later in life, I realized that I had retained the memory of these recipes. It was my turn to create them.”
Graziella’s first attempt to recreate her mother’s food was at twenty-one, when she was doing missionary work in Africa and missing Italian food. In Zambia, she held her first dinner party, inviting two other Italians that she had met there. The menu was simple: fettuccine alfredo and crema fritta, fried sweet custard. “I think they liked it,” she remembers, “because they left with smiles on their faces.”
Now, seeing smiling faces is her favorite part of owning a restaurant. “My greatest reward is when a customer hugs me on his way out. If people are happy, I know I did well”. It is not uncommon that Graziella receive multiple hugs and even a kiss or two per night, probably because, when people dine with Graziella, they feel like a part of her family. She is the ethereal mother with plump arms and a warm smile. She has the uncanny ability to make people feel at home, even in a crowded, noisy restaurant. She wouldn’t have it any other way.
Graziella attributes all of her success as a chef to her family. In 1973, after marrying Joe Iacovino, she moved to America and began cooking. The reason was simple; her new husband liked to eat. But up to that point, her culinary endeavors were limited to cooking for one (minus the African dinner party). Often, as a poor nursing student in Milan, she would eat stale bread rubbed with a tomato and olive oil for dinner. But Joe expected that, since she was from Italy, she would know how to cook. Rather than disappoint him, she buried her head in the one cookbook she had brought from Italy, Il Talismano della Felicita`, (The Talisman of Happiness) and cooked a new recipe each night. Inspired by the rave reviews of her husband, she began hosting dinner parties for all their friends. Still she enjoyed the intimacy of cooking dinner just for him. She advises young women “the secret to a happy marriage is to cook dinner for your husband. Even if you aren’t such a great cook the important thing is to try. If its not that good, at least something is on the table.”
Her advice worked wonders for her. She and her husband have been married for thirty-six years. Even while raising five children Graziella was happy to have dinner on the table. “Making dinner for my husband and kids really fueled my passion for cooking and learning. To me, it was never a chore, but a chance to experiment,” she explains.
When Graziella and her husband opened their first take-out store Graziella’ s in Westmont, New Jersey, in 1989 she didn’t realize how drastically her life was going to change. Her family was used to having her at home; she had been a stay at home mom for fourteen years, the kind of mother who made fresh blueberry muffins for breakfast before taking her children to school. Her older children didn’t seem to mind her absence, but her two younger children took it hard. When they resisted after-school programs and babysitters Graziella thought about closing the doors and going home for them. But after some creative thinking, she found a solution that worked; she converted the dry storage space into a playroom for the kids, stocking it with a couch, TV, video games and a big desk. She missed their family dinners so Joe bought two small card tables and placed them in the large kitchen. Each night, the family met there for dinner. So Graziella had the best of both worlds; she was an entrepreneur and a mom. Even as her kids grew, she maintained these roles.
One summer evening, two customers asked if there was a table available for them to sit and eat their take-out. Not wanting to say no, Graziella invited them into the kitchen to sit at her family’s table. The next night they were back. “They came in every night for the ten days their wives were on vacation.” On the ninth night, the men informed her that the next day they would be bringing eight guests to join them. “We didn’t even have a table big enough,” she remembers. The men didn’t seem to mind. They brought in a piece of plywood to elongate the tables. Graziella rushed to the fish market next door to borrow some chairs then served the men drunken shrimp wrapped in prosciutto, penne puttanesca, veal topped with crabmeat, asparagus and fontina cheese, and ricotta cheesecake. That was August. Word spread and by New Year’s Eve the party was up to thirty. Alas the restaurant was born.
As soon as the lease on the first building was up, Graziella and Joe looked to by a place. They settled on a small restaurant with space for forty seats. Graziella insisted on an open kitchen; she wanted to see people enjoying her food. This personal closeness was what drove the business. A seat at Graziella’s was like at seat at mom’s kitchen table, only considerably more gourmet.
But in 1993, business took a lull. Graziella was determined to succeed. She gave up her one-day off and began teaching cooking classes on Monday nights. “Teaching was a new way for me to get to know my customers. At first, I was nervous, especially because of my accent, but as soon as I saw how fascinated the students were, I got excited.” The original course ran for five consecutive weeks during which the students were taught stocks and sauces, appetizers, pasta dishes, entrees, and desserts. The classes ran from seven to nine and concluded with everyone sitting around a table, eating what they had prepared together. “The first week was always strange because people didn’t know each other, but after eating together, people became more comfortable. By the second week we were having fun. At the end of the course, we were all friends”.
Graziella has maintained friendships with all of her students and regular customers. The back of her cookbook, La Cucina Semplice, which she published in 1994 features letters from people who took her class, detailing their experiences in her kitchen. Toni Ruggeri, one of Graziella’s first students writes, “It was delightful to meet and cook with people from all walks of life, secretaries, doctors, carpenters, plumbers, teachers, lawyers and TV personalities, who all share the same interest in cooking”. Graziella explains, “there is something about food that just brings people together. That is really why I love it.”
Eventually business turned around and Graziella and Joe needed to expand. They bought the building next door, tore down the walls and added an additional 110 seats to their restaurant. They transformed the restaurant into an Italian cultural center, merging Joe’s passion for opera with Graziella’s for food. Soon Graziella’s was known as the “opera lovers rendezvous” because people could dine on gourmet food and listen to up-and -coming opera singers perform arias in between courses. Once a month, they would perform full operas concert style on Sunday afternoons. The opera club that grew from this had nearly eight hundred members, all of whom tried to get one of the one hundred and fifty seats at the performance each month. Many of the young singers went on to great success; two are regulars at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. But the encore was usually a Neapolitan song sung by Joe himself, who brought down the house with his keen narration and charming personality.
In 2003, Graziella helped her youngest son Luciano open Ristorante Luciano, a seasonal restaurant on the Jersey Shore. Two years later, she sold Graziella’s and focused on helping her son full time. “I’m so proud of the business that he has built,” she joyfully brags.
But you won’t find Graziella in the kitchen during service hours there. “It is a closed kitchen and I like to be out with people,” she explains. Instead, she focuses on pastry and specialty items such as homemade cheese gnocchi and chocolate soufflés, making them in the early mornings so she is free at night.
“Right now I am returning back to the traditional dishes that many chefs have lost. We tend to buy everything now in order to save time. But homemade food is so much more delicious. I am focusing on making everything from scratch, the way it was done in the old days.” One such dish is her homemade lasagna; each paper-thin layer of pasta is rolled by hand and topped with béchamel and Bolognese sauce. Her cannoli are another treat; Graziella fries the shells with the same bamboo forms that her mother used when she was a child. “My father made these,’ she says, holding out the tiny tubes in her hand. They are so great for frying cannoli shells because the bamboo stays relatively cool. You can only find metal ones in the stores now, but metal gets too hot.” The result is, thin and crispy shells, the perfect complement to the sweet ricotta filling that is stuffed inside. “They sell like crazy,” she says.
In the evenings, the true Graziella shines on the dining room floor. She is and always was the perfect hostess, bouncing from table to table as if each night were her personal dinner party. At Ristorante Luciano she sees to it that all of her guests are comfortable, happy, and satisfied, just as she would at home. Although she’s given her life to the restaurant, she seems to have it pretty good there, among her family and friends, enjoying the food, sharing laughs and exchanging goodnight hugs.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Simon and Garfunkle Pasta

Yesterday at the farmers' market, I picked up a bag of fresh shiitake mushrooms. Now, I must say, I adore mushrooms, any type, any time. It's funny because my brother Luciano, who is an amazing chef and owns his own restaurant abhors them. He even goes through the trouble of lying to waiters when he goes out for dinner, saying that he is highly allergic so that they will be left out of his dishes. I even think he dislikes truffles... come on. Who doesn't like truffles?

I think the best bite of food I've ever eaten was a tiny sliver of raw white truffle, but we don't have the means to buy them. I can, however buy different varieties of mushrooms, which is exactly what I did yesterday.

When I really love an ingredient, I want to highlight it. I want to showcase it and make it the star. And mushrooms are definitely the star of this easy pasta dish, aptly named for a great musical duo of the seventies. You'll see why.

2 cups of chopped Shiitake tops ( discard the stems, they get too chewy)
1 cup dried Porcini mushrooms, chopped and soaked in 1 cup of water
1 clove of garlic (chopped)
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp Chopped Italian Parsley
1 tbsp Chopped Sage
1 tbsp Chopped Rosemary
1 tbsp Chopped Thyme

Grated cheese to taste ( I like Grano Padano)

Heat olive oil in medium saucepan. Add garlic and saute until golden.
Add the Shiitake and Porcini mushrooms, water, and herbs. Saute together on high heat for five minutes. Reduce heat and simmer for additional fifteen minutes.

Cook pasta for two. You can used your favorite pasta since any pasta will work with this. Add cooked pasta to the saucepan. Reheat sauce with pasta for a few minutes, tossing lightly to coat the pasta. Top with cheese and serve.

*Allow Porcini mushrooms to soak in water for at least 10 minutes to rehydrate them. Save the water to add to the sauce.

** If you still don't understand why this is "Simon and Garfunkle" pasta click here

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Peaches Part 2

Gian Luca loved the wine and peaches!
Since we still have more fruit and we are going away on Saturday, I wanted to use them in a salad.
I looked at all the other perishables in the fridge that I need to use and here's what I came up with.

Hope you like it!

Spinach and Grilled Peach Salad

1 Peach (slices into 1/4 wedges)
1 tsp Sugar
1 tsp Agave Syrup ( you can just substitute this for another tsp of sugar and one of water)
2 cups Spinach
1 cup Arugula
4 chopped Dates
2 tbsp Gorgonzola Cheese

for the dressing:
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Let peaches marinade in sugar and syrup for one hour.
Grill until tender ( about one minute on each side). Let cool.

Toss Spinach, Arugula and Dates in dressing. Add cooled peaches and crumbled Gorgonzola. Toss lightly and serve.

Wine and Peaches

It seems like lately we are always celebrating, but hey, we are newlyweds after all. Tonight though we really have something to celebrate: yesterday Gian Luca got great results from his work! So today, when I was walking through the farmers’ market and saw fresh white peaches, I knew exactly what to make for him: Wine and peaches.

My grandfather was from Italy (actually both of my grandfathers were, but today I am focusing on Grandpop, my dad’s dad, who moved to America when he was nineteen and started a life here). Grandpop loved wine, even after he had had a stroke he still indulged in “two fingers” per day, the doctor’s recommended limit. Although he loved wine, Grandpop was hardly a sommelier, in fact, he probably only characterized wine into two groups: forte, meaning strong wine and l’aqua sporca, or dirty water, meaning the watered down wine we tried to give him. And he always, always drank red.

My grandfather was also a great gardener, accustomed to growing his own vegetables in his large back yard. My mother often talks about how, when she and my dad were newlyweds, they never had to go grocery shopping; each Sunday they would go visit Grandmom and Grandpop and, as they were leaving, Grandpop would stock up their car with fresh produce. One summer he gave her so many tomatoes that she was forced to learn how to can them.

Of all the things I remember about his garden, the giant peach tree sticks out the most. Maybe I used to climb it, or maybe I just remember the sticky sweet fruit that we ate fresh each summer and then jarred for the cold winter months. In addition to eating the peaches raw, my grandfather used to soak them in red wine, then he and my father would drink the now sweetened vino, and afterwards, eat the fruit. It was the best of both worlds.

My dad still makes the wine and peaches each summer. At any point during the summer you can oven up the fridge and see the glass jar of peaches stewing in wine.
So when I called my dad this afternoon asking for the recipe he got really excited.
“Let me know how it turns out!” he exclaimed.

As soon as we hung up the phone I got to work, peeling and slicing the peaches (and eating one as a mid afternoon snack ), then I filled the only glass container that we own (a vase for flowers) with two spoonfuls of sugar, the peaches, and half a bottle of red wine. (like my grandfather, I’m no expert, but this bottle is definitely of the forte variety)

Now, the vase is sitting in our fridge, looking prettier than it did when it held flowers, just waiting for Gian Luca to get home so we can drink up.

Wine and Peaches

4 medium peaches, peeled and cut into wedges
3 tbsp sugar
1 bottle of dry red wine

Combine peaches, sugar and wine in a large class jar. Cover and let rest in the fridge overnight.

Serves 4

* this can stay in the fridge for up to a week, just make sure that the peaches are covered in wine.

Monday, July 20, 2009

And The Winner Is...

Last night’s food competition was so much fun, and the best part was that we both won. Gian Luca’s stuffed olives were a crispy treat to eat. Normally, the olives are stuffed with ground beef, but he wanted each bite to be a new adventure so he filled some with mozzarella, others with pork sausage, and the rest with anchovies. Then he dredged them in flour, egg and breadcrumbs and fried them up. The result: a delicious surprise with eat bite.
His gnocchi took considerably more work, but I saw how much fun he was having as he kneaded the potatoes and egg with flour. As he worked he told me about his grandmother, who used to make potato gnocchi for him when he was little. It made me see the true joy in cooking: the sharing of time and memories with the people you love.
My salmon was easy in comparison: I just dipped it in olive oil, seared it on the grill pan and served it with roasted cauliflower and an artichoke puree. It was oh so good.

Dessert was by far my favorite part of the night and not just because I have a sweet tooth. Some friends stopped by unexpectedly with Ben and Jerry’s and thankfully, I had made enough puff pastry for everyone. We layered the pastry with Nutella and ice cream and all happily licked our bowls clean. Paired with espressos and a few laughs, it was the perfect end to the perfect night.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Ready, Set, Cook!

So, I am pretty much obsessed with The Next Food Network Star and Top Chef and I’ve got Gian Luca hooked on them as well. The other night, as we were watching Top Chef, he suggested that we have our own top chef competition. I agreed.

We set some rules: he would make the appetizer and pasta while I would be in charge of entrée and dessert. We would each get 10 dollars to spend and once we got to the grocery store, only ten minutes to shop. Anything that is currently in the house is fair to use.

To make it fun, I suggested that we also make some foods off limits. I banned him from using onions in the appetizer or butter in the pasta (he always makes pasta with butter and sage so I wanted to throw off his game).

He came back hard. Garlic was off limits for my entrée, cinnamon for dessert. Living without cinnamon is easy, but no garlic? Come on! I really needed to be creative for this one.

This morning, at the grocery store I blew my entire budget on two items: fresh salmon and puff pastry, but still I’m sure that I’ll pull it through. Now, with only fifteen minutes till go time, I’ll plan my menu out for you.

For the entrée I’ll make grilled salmon on a white bean and cauliflower cake, topped with artichoke sauce. Dessert will be less complicated: Ice Cream Napoleons with Nutella and Strawberries.

Gian Luca’s dishes are way more involved. He’s making stuffed, fried olives for an appetizer and homemade potato gnocchi with a fresh tomato and gorgonzola sauce. Yum!

I’ll let you know who is Top Chef!

Friday, July 17, 2009

A Second Helping

Since I have not written in a week ( sorry!!) I figured I would double dip tonight.

I love cheese, (almost as much as my best friend Mary does), and I could easily make a meal out of a hunk of cheese and some fruit. But since my oven is already on ( see posting below) I would like to play around a bit.

Fruit and cheese are a classing paring, and almost any fruit will match any cheese. Tonight I’m working with what I’ve got in the fridge, so pears and Grana Padano it is.

Grana Padano
, is similar to Parmigiana Reggiano but has a more subtle flavor which works nicely with pears. It is also amazing shaved over an arugula salad, or added to pasta dishes. Or you can just leave a hunk on a plate, add some fruit and make a meal out of it.

Pear and Grana Padano Toast

2 slices of multi grain bread
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 pear (peeled and sliced into 1/4 inch slivers)
1/4 cup grated Grana Padano cheese
2 tbsp honey

Preheat oven to 400 degrees
Cut bread into triangles ( diagonally in half, then in quarters). Place triangles on a baking sheet, brush with olive oil, and toast for 3 minutes.

Remove from oven. Layer each piece with pears and top with grated cheese. Place baking sheet back in the oven until the cheese melts, (about 8 minutes).

Let cool and drizzle with honey.

These toasts would also be great hor d’oeurves for cocktail parties!

A Cold Day in July

I know by January I will be eating my words, but I must say: I love a cold day once in a while, especially when it is unexpected. Today Minneapolis reached 60 degrees as its high, the sky is cloudy and it currently looks like it will rain. I love this weather.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a summer girl through and through. I love lying on the beach in the hot sun, barbeques, wearing flip flops and eating ice cream on cool evenings. But every once in a while I like a change of pace, so today at work I declared: “This is my favorite type of weather!” Not exactly true but I’ve been known to exaggerate.

One of the reasons why I’m loving the cool weather is that I get to turn on the oven without overheating our tiny apartment. So among other things, tonight we’ll be having roasted potatoes.

These potatoes were a favorite of just about every one of my mom’s regular take-out customers. Everyday my mom would make four types of vegetables, three pasta dishes and seven entrees for the tavola calda. At 3 pm, after the lunch rush, she’d set up the display on steam tables. Customers could come in to get a quick dinner until eight pm, but the dishes sold out so fast that the regular customers began calling ahead. Even though my mom tried to make new things everyday the demand for these roasted potatoes was so high that they remained a staple.

Today, in our kitchen, the demand for potatoes is equally as high. Gian Luca could eat them every night. And if the weather is right, I’m happy to make them.

Roasted Potatoes with Rosemary.

4 Russet potatoes *
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp rosemary ( fresh or dried)
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees
Peel potatoes and boil in 5 cups salted water. Cook until tender ( about 10 minutes) Drain and cool slightly.
Cut potatoes in half and slice each half into three long wedges.
Place potatoes on a baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with rosemary, salt and pepper.

Bake in oven for 25-30 minutes, or until golden brown.

*Sweet potatoes also work nicely for this dish.
Serves four

Friday, July 10, 2009

An Anniversary Dinner

Yesterday was Gian Luca and my two- month anniversary. Some people may think its silly to celebrate by the month, but hey, why not. Really, I would like to celebrate everyday that we are together, because each day, when I look at him, I am reminded that he was given to me, that he is a gift.

So, how did we celebrate our two months of newlywed bliss? With food of course!

For our one-month anniversary, Gian Luca took me for sushi at our favorite Japanese place, Tiger Sushi. Going out for dinner is an amazing luxury, much like the first month of marriage; everything is new and special and seemingly better than ordinary. But this month, when he asked where I wanted to go, I just pointed to our kitchen, because, through our daily life, I have learned that the ordinary is more precious than the special.

The thing I love best about marriage is the everyday living; waking up to listen to the birds singing outside of our bedroom window, the rush to leave the house for work together in the morning, the way we set the table for dinner and our communal forgetfulness. Sure, these are all things that I could do alone, but together, everything is better, because I am reminded that there is someone else in my life, someone else to look at, to count on, to love.

Of course, staying in does not mean skimping on luxury. Last night’s dinner took planning and it all started with a phone call.

“Mom, I need help,” I said as I walked to work. Besides being an amazing mother, she is also my dial- a- chef, giving me recipes and ideas when I am at a loss. Like yesterday morning, when I knew I wanted to do something special, but just couldn’t figure out what.
Before making the phone call I had searched through Mario Batali’s cookbook, looking for the recipe for Pici, thick strands of hand rolled pasta that is native to Tuscany. But the recipe called for Semolina flour and I had no idea where to find that here.
Next, I looked for the recipe for Zuppa Inglese, Gian Luca’s favorite dessert, but that too seemed impossible to recreate in Minneapolis. (If we were in New York, I could probably get the stuff delivered to the apartment).
But, as usual, my mom was full of ideas. “Make drunken shrimp,” she said, stopping me in the middle of the street. That would be perfect. She quickly recited the recipe to me and as I walked in to work I was excited.
Working in a restaurant only engages the foodie imagination in me, and by the end of my lunch shift, I had coordinated the rest of the menu. We’d have dates stuffed with gorgonzola cheese and wrapped in prosciutto for an appetizer, porcini mushroom ravioli for a first course, then the drunken shrimp. Dessert would be light: mixed berries with a bitter chocolate sauce.
I am great at procrastinating (which is why this blog is a day late!) and if I am not on a strict deadline, I will put things off. By the time I was finished making a few phone calls, checking email, and strolling dreamily through the supermarket I only had 45 minutes to work. Luckily, one of the reasons that Gian Luca and I work so well together is that he is perpetually late as well.
When he arrived home, I was almost finished cooking. Together, we dropped the ravioli in boiling water and began setting the table as we do every night. He sliced the bread while I set out the plates, folded the napkins into small triangles, and laid out the flatware. It was only then that we realized we had forgotten to buy wine.
“Oh well,” he shrugged, “we don’t need it.”
He was right, we didn’t. The dinner was just as special without it.

Drunken Shrimp

8 jumbo shrimp
8 thin slices of prosciutto
1/4 cup of flour
4 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp butter
8 button mushrooms, sliced
1/4 cup of brandy

1/4 cup clam juice
1 tsp Dijon mustard

2 tbsp fresh basil, chopped
salt and pepper to taste

Peel and devein shrimp. Wrap each shrimp in a thin slice of prosciutto, lightly dredge in flour and set aside.
Saute mushrooms in 2 tbsp of olive oil for five minutes, remove from pan and set aside. Heat 2 tbsp olive oil on medium heat. Add shrimp and cook until red, roughly two minutes on each side. Once cooked, remove the pan from heat and add brandy, ( if you add the brandy while the pan is on the heat it will flame up momentarily). Evaporate the brandy and add mushrooms, mustard, clam juice, basil and salt and pepper to taste ( note that the prosciutto and clam juice are both fairly salty, so go easy on the salt). Saute together for a few minutes.

Serves 2.

* this dish can be used as an appetizer as well.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Better Than Fish Sticks

I have a confession: Gian Luca and I love frozen fish sticks. Yes, the over-processed, kid friendly, little treats that we were probably forced to eat as children are among our favorite indulgences. But, since I refuse to buy them, I had to create an alternative that was just as easy and tasty (though not as portable).

Fresh fish is sometimes expensive, and, since fish sticks are generally quite cheap, I decided to use frozen fish for this dish. Any frozen white fish will do, but I used Whiting for its ability to absorb the different flavors.

I must confess again: this creation is not exactly totally my own. Often, when I can’t think of what to make for dinner, I pick up the phone and call my mom. She gave me this idea and the first time I made this, she coached me through, giving me the recipe as only she can, not by measurements of exact proportions, but by feel. “Throw in this. Sprinkle on that,” she said as I balanced the phone on my shoulder trying to shake on salt, sprinkle in pepper and squeeze lemon all at the same time.

But, slowly, I’m getting the hang of it and last night I made this all on my own. It was easy, really, and almost as fast as fish sticks.

Pesce Gratinato al Forno

Baked Fish or (Pesce gratinato al forno)

4 frozen fish filets (defrosted according to package instructions-* note, I recommend defrosting the fish under a stream of cold water. It only takes about five minutes)
Juice of one small lemon (about 2 tbsp)
2 small cloves of garlic (finely chopped)
2 tbsp flat leaf parsley (chopped)
4 tbsp breadcrumbs
2tbsp olive oil
1/4 cup of water
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 370 degrees. Place fish on a nonstick baking sheet and top with garlic, parsley, breadcrumbs and salt and pepper. Squeeze on 1/2 of the lemon juice. Mix the remaining lemon juice with water and set aside. Drizzle with olive oil.
Bake fish for 12 minutes. Halfway through baking add the lemon water to the baking sheet, being careful not to pour it directly on the fish.

Serve warm with your favorite sides.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Happy Fourth of July

Today, most Americans will be grilling and BBQing. Unfortunately, we will not be (we don’t have a grill so we’ll be picnicking with pasta salad instead). If you find that you are in the same boat as us, don’t worry, I have a creative recipe for hot dogs that are actually better than any that you’d get off of a grill and can be made right on your stove top: Italian Style Hot Dogs

My dad seldom cooked, but on the rare occasion that he was in charge of dinner, we ate one of two things, Chinese Take-out or Italian Style Hot Dogs, a recipe that my dad created back in the eighties when my four brothers and I were young.

There was a period when I scoffed at the Italian Style Hot Dogs, thinking that hot dogs were inedible and mildly poisonous. This coincided with my brief vegetarian period, which I (thankfully) have outgrown. Now, on occasion, I revert back to my childhood and crave my dad’s old stand by.

He had a philosophy for cooking. “Everything is better with onions,” he’d say, and I’m sure this still holds true. My dad loves onions in any way, shape, or form. From caramelized Vadalias to raw reds, he can eat onions every night. And of course, being Italian, his love for onions is only superseded by his love for tomatoes.

These two staples, tomatoes and onions, are the basis for the dish. I can still picture him slicing the onions on a small cutting board while my brothers waited skeptically at the table, banging their forks and fighting with each other. I, being the youngest, preferred to stay right by his side, so I followed him like a miniature shadow.

The onions would sizzle as they hit the hot oil and my dad would stand at the stove, holding his arm out to block me from the heat. Next he’d slice the hot dogs on a diagonal, making them look like bits of Italian sausage. As soon as the onions were caramelized the hot dogs would join them in the pan, browning together in perfect harmony. In went a can of tomato puree; then he’d give it all a stir, cover it, and let it simmer.

Then it was my turn to help. My dad would slice the hoagie rolls in half, leaving only a bit of connective tissue to hold them together and I’d dig my little fingers into the rolls scraping out the soft insides so more hot dogs could fit. After a few minutes we’d scoop the hot dogs onto the bread in abundance. After cutting each sandwich in half, he’d serve them to my brothers who, after one bite, were no longer skeptics.

Sometimes, my mother would return mid-dinner and find us covered with sticky sauce, big smiles on our faces. Those nights, it was her turn to clean us all up.

Italian Style Hot Dogs

My dad's recipe

12 ballpark hot dogs ( cut in 1/2 inch slices)
1 medium onion ( chopped)
1 can tomato puree
5 tablespoons olive oil
6 Italian hoagie rolls

Heat olive oil in a medium saucepan. Add onions and cook for 5 minutes ( or until caramelized) stirring occasionally. Add chopped hot dogs and cook until brown.
Add tomato puree and cover the pan. Cook over medium heat for 10 minutes.
Spoon hot dogs and sauce into slice hoagie rolls. Serve warm.

Yield 6 sandwiches

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A Two Burner Dinner

I spent a chunk of the afternoon talking to my fabulous friend Shelby. She and I grew up across the street from each other in New Jersey and, for the first time ever, neither one of us are there now. We are both living in tiny apartments with even smaller kitchens (mine is so narrow that when the oven door is open it hits the cabinets on the opposite wall, but I shouldn’t complain, she doesn’t even have an oven in hers). Today, as we were talking she asked me to give her a recipe that she can cook on her sorry two-burner stove. When we hung up, I headed to the kitchen to see what I could do.

Shelby and I have been friends since we were born (or more accurately, since we were eight months old and her family moved into the house across the street from ours). We are both the youngest of large families and, because of this, we got into our fair share of mischief. One of our favorite elementary school games was making “magic potions”, bubbling combinations of water, chocolate sauce, talc powder and shaving cream. We’d empty out her brother’s Stridex pad containers, pour the liquid into them and hide them in various spots in her sister’s bedroom.

Luckily, our mixtures progressed to more edible pursuits, when, in junior high, we went on a sugar cookie binge. Almost everyday after school we’d rush home and mix together sugar cookies from scratch. To curb the effects of the cookies, we’d work out to Richard Simmons’s Sweatin’ to the Oldies videos while the dough chilled in the fridge. Once we’d worked up a marginal sweat (from laughing at the videos, not from actually doing them) we’d roll out the dough, cut it, sprinkle on sugar, and bake it.

Through the years she and I had various food phases; we spent most of our lunches consuming peanut butter (no jelly!) sandwiches; we would munch on Tostitos and salsa after school; and, at one time we were both vegetarians. While my stint as a vegetarian didn’t last too long, Shelby kept strong for almost twelve years. To this day she doesn’t eat red meat, and I think she still prefers fish and vegetables to meat.

Remembering this, I cooked tonight’s dinner in honor of Shelby. Pasta con Tonno is perfect for a two burner stove; use one burner to cook the pasta, the other for the sauce and revel in the simplicity ( even if you have a few burners to spare).

Pasta con Tonno

Pasta with Tuna

For this recipe I prefer tuna canned in olive oil and, if you can find it, use tuna imported from Italy. The flavor of the olive oil is superb.

For the sauce
1 can tuna packed in olive oil.
1 1/2 cups of marinara sauce
2 Tbsp fresh Italian parsley, chopped
salt and pepper to taste

Bring five cups of water to boil in a medium pot. Add salt to flavor the water. Add 5 ounces of pasta to the boiling water (I like Rotini for this dish but use whatever you like). Cook until pasta is al dente (soft on the outside but with a slight bite on the inside).

Add the diced tomatoes to a medium saucepan. Heat on medium-high heat for five minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the tuna and half of the oil from the can. Stir and simmer for an additional five minutes, adding salt and pepper to taste.

Drain the pasta and immediately add to the saucepan. Cook on low heat for another minute, tossing the pasta to coat each piece with sauce.
Top with chopped parsley and serve immediately.

Yields 2 servings