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Dinner with Marcella

Dinner with Marcella

It's entirely possible that, unless you are as obsessed with food, and in particular Italian food, as I, that you may never have heard the name Marcella Hazan. Even more ironically, her name is unfamiliar in her own hometown of Cesenatico, Romagna, on the Adriatic coast. Yet Marcella will be remembered forever as one of the most lasting influences on the American palate for her writings on true, regional, authentic Italian food. And sadly, she passed away at the end of September at 89 years of age. 

The food world reeled, and Cathy Barrow, community leader extraordinaire, proposed an event, an evening where folks all around the country, indeed the world, would host a dinner party in her honor, cooking from her books and sharing pictures and stories with the #dinnerwithmarcella hashtag. And so it was that we eschewed a couple Halloween parties (we had no inspiration for costumes anyway) and constructed a menu. 

However, because we're terrible at coloring within the lines, we went off script. 

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Chicken scallopine

In observation of Mother’s Day, here’s a little something from the archives. Perhaps it’s time to bottle and sell my mother’s magic seasoning? 

Emeril has his Essence™. Paul Prudhomme has his Magic™. My mother, too, has her own special seasoning. It’s called Saltpeppergarlicsaltoregano™.

It’s always the same four ingredients — salt, pepper, garlic salt, oregano — recited in the same run-on order, in more or less the same proportions, measured in the palm of the hand, and it works for everything. Sauce? Brown the meat, cook the garlic, add tomatoes and saltpeppergarlicsaltoregano. Salad dressing? Olive oil, red wine vinegar and saltpeppergarlicsaltoregano.

But here’s the thing: Each of these things ends up tasting distinct and different. Perhaps there’s a little Magic in my mother’s seasoning after all.

A greater mystery, perhaps, is understanding why and how the dish called scallopine in my family in no way resembles scallopine as it is served in Italy or anywhere else on the globe. Traditional scallopine is a thin cutlet of meat, usually veal but sometimes chicken, dredged in flour, pan-fried and served with peperonata or some kind of sauce like piccata. In my family, it’s cubes of meat, browned and then stewed in tomato puree with sautéed peppers and peas (and, of course, saltpeppergarlicsaltoregano).

What I do know is that it is good, and absolutely must be eaten with a piece or two of good, crusty Italian bread. I have yet to find a bread out here that resembles what was generically referred to as Italian bread in my hometown of Schenectady. It always had a flaky, crisp crust and a light, fluffy crumb. Out here on the west coast, there’s a propensity for hardier, more rustic breads. A ciabatta or pugliese will do, but the fluffier the crumb, the better for sopping up all that good stew.

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Stuffed artichokes, revisited

Stuffed Artichokes

Whoever first looked at a spiny orb at the end of a fibrous stem protruding from a large plant with pronged leaves as sharp as sabers and thought, "Yum, I'm gonna have me some of that" must have been very hungry indeed. By now, we of course have conquered the artichoke, learned how to tame its talons and soften its hard flesh. 

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to go to the Pebble Beach Food & Wine event for the afternoon. At the Grand Tasting, I nibbled on offerings from a variety of high-profile chefs. Not everything was great, but highlights included Hosea Rosenberg's seared beef tenderloin with ancho sauce on some delicious cheesy grits; a delightfully balanced canapé of pate, foie, crisp-fried lotus root and some kind of sweet relish from Hudson Valley Foie Gras; and a too-small but still memorable bite of crispy lamb's tongue from Seattle's Tom Douglas.

On the drive home, I passed through Castroville, the artichoke capital of the world, where 75% of the US supply of artichokes are grown. Driving alongside fields with rows and rows of shaggy thickets with green globes popping up, the siren song was too strong, and I pulled over at The Thistle Hut to buy some. There, for a mere dollar, I picked up three mighty, head-sized round buds with a good two inches of stalk still attached.

A few years ago, I wrote about my mother's stuffed artichokes, which is pretty much the only way I had ever had them until I moved to California in my 20s. When it comes to big globes like these, it's still my preferred way to eat them. However, the recipe is no longer in step with the way we stock our pantry. We don't have store-bought bread crumbs, for example, nor garlic salt, nor parm in a can. But these are all convenience ingredients, and the inconvenience in recreating them from fresh ingredients is, in my opinion, negligible. And hence today I present my updated version.

I made one other adaptation. My mother always makes these for special occasions, and therefore in large quantities. I had just three chokes, so instead of using a big roasting pan, I used my largest enamelized Dutch oven. Making them in smaller quantity and in a better-sealed cooking vessel had two effects: It shortened the overall cooking time, and created more of a steam oven. The leaves were less wizened, but the bread crumbs still crisped nicely on top.

When the chokes are in and plentiful, there's no reason to save this for a special occasion. We normally ate them after the main meal on a holiday, just before or sometimes alongside dessert. I enjoyed these three as three consecutive days of lunch; I also think they'd make a pleasant surprise as a brunch entrée. They're fine warm or room temperature, but I like them best cold, right from the fridge, especially when you finally reach the ultimate quarry, the cool, creamy heart.

Stuffed artichoke aftermath

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Cannoli, an unexpected family secret

Every holiday has its food. Easter of course means ham, hard-boiled eggs, cheap chocolate and Peeps, but for me it also means cannoli.

The other day, we were cocktailing with our friend Michael, a fellow paisano albeit of Sicilian extraction. I mentioned I wanted to revisit my post on cannoli from a few years back. Michael said in his family they called them Aunt Mary Cookies, for fairly self-evident reasons, and lamented how much of a pain the shells were to make — getting the dough thin enough, frying them off, and so on. I mentioned that in my family, we didn’t do the fried shells, but used pizzelle and rolled them while still hot and pliable. “Yes, well, that’s cheating,” he said, to which I rebuffed, half-feigning indignity: “It’s not cheating, Michael, it’s regional.” But as soon as the words spilled from my mouth, I was suddenly filled with doubt.

So, yes, the cannoli I grew up with are made with pizzelle, the delicate, rose-window-patterned cookies, rolled into tubes. I blindly assumed that this was derived from some old-world tradition carried over from one of my forebears from the motherland. But I was also aware that I have never known anyone else to make their cannoli in this fashion.

When I mentioned to my mother that I was making a batch, she remarked that her grandmother didn’t use pizzelle; she had a curling iron-like device with which she wrapped dough around and dipped into frying oil. Somehow, this detail had eluded me for four decades. When I asked her how our family came by the tradition of using the pizzelle, she said she didn’t know. After Great-Grandma Battaglia passed in the 1960s, the cookies seem to have dropped out of our culinary tradition for a bit, then magically reappeared with this new technique. 

I then went on to ask my Aunt Barb, my mother’s younger sister, who has long taken an interest in the family recipes, desserts in particular. She was also unsure where the pizzelle came in, though she in fact didn’t even remember her grandmother making the fried shells; she was rather young when Grandma Battaglia passed away. But she noted that Aunt Chris may have been the source of the recipe.

Aunt Chris is my mother’s sister-in-law. Of French and Irish descent, she married my Uncle Joe in the late ’60s, and right away took to adopting the family recipes to please him. I called her and asked who provided the cannoli recipe. She flipped through her recipe folio, and found the original recipe for the filling … which in fact came from her neighbor Ida Iovanella. As for the shells, she surmised that at the time she was not versed in frying, and came up with the idea to use pizzelle instead. In other words, it sort of was cheating.

But if it is a cheat, it’s a damn good one. For me and the other kids of my generation, this was the only cannoli we ever knew. My cousin Nicolle and I both prefer this version to the traditional fried shells. Plus it’s easier and a lot less messy to boot. It’s a tradition, no matter how recent, I think is worth carrying on.

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Guanciale and spaghetti all’amatriciana

Homemade guanciale ©DPaul Brown

“You wouldn’t be interested in hog jowls, would you?”

It’s the sort of question that stops you in your tracks. There I was, at the Noe Valley Farmers Market, chatting up the good fellas at the Prather Ranch stand, when one of them popped that question. When my eyebrow went up, he went on to say that a local restaurant had ordered them, but decided they didn’t need them upon delivery. The jowls were now taking up valuable space in their freezer cart, and he had no intention of bringing them back at the end of the day. He offered them to me for two dollars a pound. And just like that, they were mine.

As I sauntered into the house, DPaul asked how the market was. “I got hog jowls!” I squealed, to which he replied with a nonplussed, “oh?” The unspoken reply, I suspect, was “but did you pick up anything we can make for dinner?”

Sure, we could have rendered them then and there, made some chicharrones, but that would be a terrible waste, for hog jowls are the source of one of the most precious and coveted cured pork products: Guanciale. Like pancetta, guanciale (pron. gwan-CHA-leh) is an unsmoked bacon, but it’s got a richer flavor and tends to have a higher fat-to-meat ratio. It’s what’s most traditionally used in the classic Italian dishes pasta alla carbonara and bucatini all’amatriciana. But, it’s relatively rare here in the states, so when you order these dishes, you’re more likely getting it with pancetta — or, criminally, American bacon.

And so I knew I wanted to make guanciale with my lovely pig face fat, but I wasn’t really prepared to undertake that project in the moment. The jowls went into the freezer, and stayed there for a few weeks while I got things in order.

Among the resources I found on how to cure guanciale was one from a veritable master of salumi, Mario Batali. The technique was simple enough: Create a rub of salt and sugar, with pepper and thyme. Coat the jowls, let rest in the fridge for a week, then tie and hang them in a cool, dry place for a few weeks. Luckily, we have a basement that manages to stay under the recommended 60ºF during these cool winter months.

Having never cured meat before, I was both fascinated and trepidacious. Would I botulize both us and our friends with my lovingly cured guanciale? I then came across an excellently written account of one other man’s guanciale-making expedition, and took comfort in knowing that he survived to tell his story. 

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The even greater tomato canning of 2009

Canned tomatoes ©DPaul Brown

Gluttons for punishment, we are. As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, we undertook our greatest processing and canning feat to date, dispatching with 200 pounds of tomatoes across two weeks. Thanks to our experiences over the past couple years, we’ve learned a few things that help speed the process and move things along.

For our purposes, as we were looking to get as much sauce out of the fruit as possible, two extremely large stock pots were of the essence. In addition, 23-quart pressure canners*
were required so we could process multiple batches in parallel. A 36″ range helped, but was not strictly necessary. Snacks and wine, however, were.

Whereas last year we merely scored the bottoms of the tomatoes and then blanched and cored them, this year we had an epiphany: If we cored the tomatoes first, then blanched them, the skins came away more easily, and we didn’t need to handle the slippery devils with a paring knife in one hand. Good-quality rubber gloves prevented our skin from cracking from the constant exposure to acid. Our ducks were in a row.

Our first day of canning by the numbers:

  • 100 lbs of tomatoes
  • 2 large stockpots and 2 23-quart pressure canners
  • 42 quart jars, lids and rings
  • 12 hours
  • 4 grown men
  • 3 underfoot dogs
  • 2 flaming kitchen towels

On the second Saturday, at our friends Nick & Russ‘s place in the East Bay, Nick mused on how we all enjoy this activity, and wondered how we as a society moved away from such labors. The answer, of course, is World War II.

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Giambotta, Italian summer vegetable stew

Giambotta ©DPaul Brown

I don't know about you, but I would have thought that a cookbook that was spun off from a foul-mouthed primetime premium cable drama series should be nothing more than a schlocky gimmick, a way to squeeze a few extra bucks out of a fawning audience. So imagine my surprise when my great aunt back in Schenectady said that the recipes in The Sopranos Family Cookbook
were nearly identical to our family's repertory. Knowing I have an interest in documenting our Italian-American culinary heritage, she sent me a copy of the book, with hand-written notes slotted in alongside certain recipes, with an introductory note:

Hope you enjoy this cookbook. I never watched The Sopranos. The recipes are the closest I've ever seen to the peasant meals my mother cooked. She did not use a lot of hot stuff like red pepper or pepperoncini. The red pepper would be on the table along with the grated cheese for all meals.

Love as always,

Aunt Anne

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Better than the real thing

Chicken Parmesan
Having been mostly vegetarian for some 15 years, I am well versed in the ways of substitution. Non-meat eaters often have to go to great lengths to satisfy their protein cravings. Many meat substitute products are frighteningly bad (vegetarian bacon? No thank you …), but sometimes, these products actually excel: To this day DPaul and I still purchase veggie dogs (Yves brand are a particular favorite), and I am here to tell you that vanilla Tofutti Cuties truly are better than the real thing.

Giving up meat was one thing, but most recipes that eschew natural fats or sugars leave me utterly cold. It's not that I don't appreciate the desire to reduce calories and cholesterol (having, as I do, hereditary hypercholesteremia), but all too often these sacrifices are made at too high a price.

But once in a while, a recipe comes along that changes the way I think about low-whatever foods. It is, after all, possible to rethink a recipe totally, deconstruct it and rethink its elements, and return a newly engineered product that surpasses its predecessor. And thanks to America's Test Kitchen, chicken parmesan has been born again.

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Coppa-wrapped persimmon

Coppa-wrapped persimmons
Prosciutto and melon is one of the greatest hits in Italian appetizers, and with good reason. In two simple ingredients you get a masterful array of sensual contrasts: Earthy and fruity, salty and sweet, tough and tender. We've gone on to wrap plenty of other fruits in prosciutto; figs are a winning choice, for example. But when we wrapped crisp fuyu persimmons in prosciutto, the combination was less than stellar. The meat overpowered the delicately cinnamony sweetness of the fruit. I just love the sweet coppa at Lucca, so I thought I'd give that a whirl. What an improvement! The coppa has a fine crust of spices around the edges that played very nicely with the persimmons.

In his zeal preparing the salad for the party, DPaul diced up all the persimmons I had set out, intending a few of them to be cut into wedges for the appie. He recovered it by intertwining the coppa with dice of persimmons on a skewer. It's not just a clever save; it worked out to be an improvement on presentation and eatability. Then again, I'll eat almost anything at the end of a pick.

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