cooking

Summer Charred Caesar Salad

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A misconception of Italians is that pasta is very important to us. I’m not going to lie, it was a staple in my youth growing up. But just as important, if not more so, are vegetables. Everyone in my family gardened, my uncle even had fig trees so large that they busted through his green house in Connecticut. Many of my early memories are sitting in the dirt at my grandparents house, gnawing on a cucumber I picked off the vine while they harvested the other fruits of their labors. And salad was always served at the end of the meal. After the heavy stuff was out of the way, it was onto lightly dressed lettuces, sliced pears, and shared granny smith apples. It seemed like my grandparents always had a pen knife tucked in a pocket or folded into the waist band of an apron, just to easily hand out slices of nature’s bounty.
This was a great way to be raised. If my dinner doesn’t contain a lot of vegetables today then it’s not complete, it only half done to me, or I think it’s simply not healthy. I’m always on the look out for new ways to do the same old – same old. Recently I had made some grilled corn and liked it so much I decided to expand on it. I decided my less than exciting romaine for a Caesar salad needed to be smokey, charred, a flavor you just couldn’t add to salad without real flame.
Salad (Serves 4)
2 hearts of Romaine cut in half the long way
…Yep. That’s it. This is a spin on a Caesar Salad, the magic is in the dressing and preparation, not its contents and co-stars. I also tend to look at croutons as sode: empty calories that ruin anything healthy and are the salad equivalent of a soda with a meal. It may be tasty, but you might as well have a candy bar or something. If your salad is about the croutons, you’re doing it wrong.
Summer Caesar Dressing
  • 1 shallot, thinly sliced
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard
  • 1/2 tsp Worcester sauce
  • 2 tablespoons mayonnaise
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan
  • Pepper
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 tsp anchovy paste (Optional…or, in my house, Non-existent)

Caramelize the shallots. While those are working on their golden brown deliciousness, whisk everything else in a small bowl. Once caramelized, remove the shallots to cool a bit. You want to add them to the dressing when they’re warm so they don’t cook the egg, but do help thicken the dressing; letting them sit about 4-5 minutes should be fine.

Preheat your grill to high, clean the grates, and rub them down with vegetable or olive oil. Place the cut halves of Romaine flat/cut side down and don’t touch for 1-2 minutes. They char quick and you don’t want them completely blackened.

Remove from heat, and plate grilled side up. Drizzle the Caesar-ish dressing over the grilled side, allowing the dressing to drip in between the layers of lettuce. Top with a little more Parm if you’re so inclined. Served with chicken or a grilled steak makes a memorably delicious meal.

 

Grilled Garlic & Herb Lamb T-Bones

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I prefer I high protein diet. Fat makes you fat, sure, but glucose makes you fatter. I tend to have fun coming up with replacements for pizza, bread, and potatoes. Looking for a new protein, I decided to try my hand at Lamb T-Bones. Lamb is under-rated. People tend to turn their nose up to it, thinking it’s a gamey outdated meat, but that’s just not accurate. It doesn’t have to be gamey, it doesn’t have to be anything but delicate and delicious, and it’s perfect when grilled. A simple marinade goes a long way, and a grilled Summer Caesar is a light and flavorful compliment to the charred medium rare meat.

I decided on 2 to 3 lamb t-bones per person. They’re about an inch to 1 1/2 inches thick, but we had one side to this dish, and that seemed to be the right amount to keep people full without feeling heavy after dinner.

Marinated Grilled Lamb T-Bones (Serves 2-3)

1.5 – 2lb. package of Lamb T-Bones, about 6 “steaks”

2 TBSP freshly chopped parsley

2 TBSP freshly chopped tops of fennel (the thin greenness that looks almost like dill), optional.

2 TBSP (about 6 cloves) minced garlic

juice of 1 lemon

1/2 TBSP salt

2 tsp black pepper

1/4 cup olive oil

Mix all ingredients in a plastic zip lock baggie. It’s best to marinate the lamb for a couple of hours at least, but you can do it for as long as over night if you’d like.

Take your lamb out of the fridge an hour prior to grilling and let come to room temperature in its marinade bag on the counter or in your sink. Heat your grill to high and clean your grates (which you do prior to to every time you grill, right?). Place the marinated lamb on the hot grill, close the lid, and turn the heat down to medium high. Grill for 3 minutes and then turn the lamb 1/4 turn and grill for another three minutes with the lid closed. That’s you’re “pretty” side. Flip the lamp t-bones over and grill for an additional 4-6 minutes or until the internal temperature reaches 140-145 F. That’s for medium rare lamb. Keep in mind that lamb, like salmon, has a more delicate flavor the less it’s cooked, so stay away from gamey by staying away from medium to well done. We served ours with a hunk of rustic bread and the aforementioned Caesar Salad, recipe here.

Pink and delicious – no gamey-ness! So good for summer that you’ll miss it come winter!

Spicy Coconut Curry Stir Fry with Tropical Quinoa

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In the ever constant search for something new and exciting in the kitchen, I’ve decided to start making that which I crave from restaurants. The below recipe is very similar in flavor to P.F.Chang’s/Pei Wei’s Thai Coconut Curry sauce. I made this with a teaspoon of red pepper flakes and a teaspoon of chip oil and the heat is barely noticeable, just a hint, which is nice. And my heat tolerance is not very hot at all. Filled with veggies, lean protein, and quinoa instead of rice, this is a flavorful, healthy dinner that comes together relatively quickly and is super tasty! This makes enough for 4 people. You can also use shrimp instead of chicken for extra awesomeness.

Sauce

1 TBSP Sharwood’s Mild Curry Powder (That’s what I used because it was easily found in my local grocery store, but you can use whatever you like or can find.)

1 tsp red pepper flakes

1 tsp chili oil

2 tsp ginger

juice of one lime

1 cup coconut milk (You can use Lite if you’d prefer)

1 tsp black pepper

1 tsp salt

Mix the sauce ingredients in a bowl, whisk together, and let sit for flavors to marry. Set it aside.

Stir Fry

1 20oz. can pineapple chunks, drained (reserve some liquid for the quinoa if making as below). You want to slice up a pineapple fresh? Go nuts.

1 red bell pepper cut into 1 inch pieces

1 small or 1/2 large white onion, diced

1 1/2 cups snow peas

1 8oz. can baby corn, cut or whole

6 oz. boneless skinless chicken breast

2 TBSP coconut milk

3 cloves minced garlic

In a large sauté pan, caramelize or brown the pineapple chunks over medium high heat, about 10-12 minutes. Remove pineapple from pan and set aside in a bowl for later. Add a TBSP vegetable or olive oil in the same pan without cleaning the yummy residue left over from the pineapple. Add the chicken and brown, just cooking through, about 4 minutes per side. Remove chicken from pan and set aside. In the same pan add another TBSP of oil and toss in the onion and red bell pepper. After about 2 minutes, turn the heat down to medium.

Quinoa

1 1/2 cup uncooked quinoa

1 cup chicken broth/stock

1 cup + 2 TBSP coconut milk

2 TBSP pineapple juice (bottled or from the can of pineapple chunks)

Place the quinoa and liquids into a sauce pan. Heat to a boil, cover, and then turn the heat down to a simmer and for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and leave covered for an additional 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork and try not to immediately start gorging yourself on this. It’s super tasty, slightly sweet, and a little nutty. The perfect compliment to the Stir Fry.

Homemade Fruit Roll-Ups

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I like snacking. I like fruit. And I hate spending money.

At the tail end of the season (now) strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries are hanging out in your grocery produce section at clearance level prices. With a dash of lemon, a pinch of sugar, and some dry heat, those peaked berries can reach their full potential.

And, yes, you can make this with you kids. I don’t have kids. It’s a recession, pay hasn’t nearly caught up with inflation, and there’s no way in hell I can afford spawn. So, I’m making fruit snacks for me and me alone.

Homemade Fruit Leather/Rollups

4 cups fruit, roughly chopped. I used a mix of berries, but you can also use apple and pear. If using apples and pear, be sure to peal them and omit the orange marmalade and vinegar.

3 TBSP water

1 TBSP balsamic vinegar (Optional, but it intensifies the flavor of the berries. If you leave this out use an extra TBSP of water or substitute with a TBSP of orange juice.)

2 – 3 TBSP sugar. I’m into flavor, not “sweet”. As the fruit dries their natural sugar is going to intensify, so add what you think is best, taste your fruit mixture prior to drying it, and add sugar as necessary.

1 1/2 TBSP orange marmalade

1 TBSP lemon juice

1 TBSP freshly chopped mint.

If you don’t have a dehydrator (I don’t) preheat your oven to 125-150. My oven starts at 200 with a “Warm” setting just beneath it. I set it to “Warm” and stuck a spoon in the door to keep the oven cracked. Your not cooking the fruit mixture; you just want to dry it out. In a sauce pan mix the fruit, water, and balsamic if using over medium high heat. Simmer for 10-15 minutes, until the berries soften significantly and thicken slightly. Turn off the heat. Add the marmalade and sugar, mixing until incorporated. Add the mint and blend the entire mixture in a food processor or with an immersion hand blender until mostly smooth. Cover a cookie sheet in wax paper or plastic wrap. I wanted a thicker fruit leather so I covered a large Pyrex dish in plastic wrap. If you want to roll them up for lunches, use a cookie sheet. You’ll be able to roll up the fruit leather with wax or parchment paper to snack on later and what kid wouldn’t think that it’s totally awesome to have a fruit rollup at lunch time that they themselves made?! Pour the fruit mixture into the cookie sheet or pan using a spatula to make sure it’s even. Your mixture should be 1/4-1/2 inches thick.

Place on the top shelf of your oven and forget about it. It’s going to have to dry out for at least 6 hours, but it will probably take closer to 8-12 hours. You’ll know when it’s done because the top won’t be sticky. Let cool and the cut (it was easier with scissors than with a knife) into the size you’d like you snacks to be. The edges may be a little crispy; just cut those off and sprinkle over a salad later. You can roll them up with wax paper to snack on throughout the week. Next time I make these I’m going to substitute the water with a red wine. If anyone does this, let me know how it turns out.

Rice Croquettes

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This is an old Depression Era throwback. It’s often the things we ate out of necessity that we cling to as comfort food. My grandmother, “Nonni”, would fry up everything if she had oil going. Left over rice never went to waste in the form of rice croquettes.

There’s no major science to this recipe. It’s an excellent excuse to make something fried if you have leftover rice from dinner or you can make it as a great appetizer on a drizzly evening. For this recipe I used:

3 cups over-cooked rice (see below)

3 TBSP finely grated NY sharp cheddar (I don’t believe in orange cheese)

1 tsp salt

1 tsp black pepper

2 tsp garlic powder

1 egg

2 TBSP milk

Boil the crap out of the rice. Keep an eye on it, let it absorb all the extra water, and stir, stir, stir. You want the rice very tender. Once the rice has boiled about ten minutes past it’s normal done time, take it off the heat and let it cool for at least 10 – 15 minutes. Mix together all the ingredients in no particular order until everything is well combined, make sure the egg is really blended into the rice mixture.

Bring 1-2 inches of vegetable or peanut oil up to 310-325 degrees in a sauce pan over high heat. While you’re waiting for the oil to reach the proper temperature, form your rice mixture into ovals about inch thick and 2-3 inches long. This mixture should make about 12. Use a small bowl of clean water to help everything from sticking to your hands, though it is a bit of a messy process. The ovals will be delicate; shape them as best you can.

Once the oil is heated carefully drop the rice croquettes into the oil. I am comfortable doing this carefully and slowly with my hands, as practice and experience has taught me how to do this without getting burned. If you’re at all nervous about dropping these delicate bites into the hot oil, place them on a spatula and then gently roll them of that into the oil using a spoon.

Fry the croquettes for 3-4 minutes or until they are golden brown on one side. Then gently turn them using two forks for support and brown the other side for an additional 3 minutes. Sprinkle with salt and parsley once they’re out of the pan.

Once you get making them down-pat, you can try stuffing them with hunks of cheese, prosciutto, or hot peppers. Use different spices in the mix based on your mood, anything goes with these really. With this recipe I recommend serving them as is or with a lemony, honey aioli. Hell, even honey mustard works well if a dipping sauce is needed. As a kid I loved them plain or with a little bit of fresh lemon squeezed over them. Delicious, simple comfort food made from leftovers from a time of an almost equally bad economy.

Hot Wings at Home – The best thing since sliced bread!

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I’m a glutton for punishment. Okay, maybe I’m just a glutton, but after hours of hardcore Ultimate frisbee in the morning (I have 2 – TWO bruises!) I really only wanted to eat what I was craving. When I want something bad I want to make it at home. More punishment. This way, though, I get to be part of the process, I get to save money (sometimes), and the tweaking – oh, the tweaking! I love it. Sometimes I need to have a dinner that screams immaturity and irresponsibility. In this instance I’m talkin’ ’bout hot wings. A whole dinner of hot wings. Screw salad, screw even cole slaw. I mean a whole dinner of wings and wet naps and beer.

Making chicken wings at home is seriously cheap and makes for wicked deliciousness.

1.5 – 2 lbs Chicken Wings, about about 14 wings (which when cut up equals 14 drumettes and 14 wind segments)

1 cup Franks Hot Sauce

2 TBSP melted butter

1/2 tsp cayenne pepper

1 tsp salt

1/2 tsp black pepper

1/2 tsp white pepper

3 TBSP flour

First step: cut up yo’ wings into three segments, the drumette, the middle wing part (the less favorable non-drumette), and that end pointy bit that has no meat and it just a waste all around.

Find the joint in each area, line your knife edge in the joint, and slip through. It’s not hard. Chuck the lame little pointy ends, the farthest left in the above picture. Then rinse the remaining pieces, dry them really well, and set them aside in a bowl.

Pour about 3 inches of oil in a stock pot or deep dutch oven and heat to about 325 degrees. I used a pasta pot. In a small bowl, mix together the flour, cayenne, peppers, and salt. Then toss the dried wings in the mixture. Once your oil is up to heat, gently -gently -drop the flour coated wing pieces into the oil and let fry for 10-12 minutes, until golden brown. If you’re oil doesn’t look like the below picture when the wings are dropped in then it’s not hot enough.

And after 12 minutes they’re all beautifully golden brown like this…

Now, I’m not going to lie: These are awesome just as they are and you’re going to want to eat them, but don’t do it. Don’t give in. I mean, I guess if you have kids that can’t handle the extra spice or you don’t want sauce finger prints everywhere – and I do mean everywhere – then serve them like this. But if you sauce them, it’ll be like Dorthy stepping out of Kansas into Oz. I mean freaking amazing. So don’t be a coward: Stay strong, wait 4-5 minutes to allow them to cool, and sauce ’em.

In a big bowl mix together your Frank’s, the melted butter and any other flavors you’re craving. Extra cayenne? Sure. Chili paste? Go for it. Then throw in your slightly cooled chicken and toss away, either literally toss if you have the kitchen skills or toss with your hands – but then immediately wash them. And definitely don’t touch your eyes or lick your finger tips for the duration of this recipe. Then open a beer and eat away. I recommend in front of the TV. Notice I didn’t say “sports”. I don’t care for sports.

I’m hardcore: I have my wings with a beer in front of Antiques Roadshow. Ahhh, yeah.

Okay, so I have to be honest with you: These are not health food. Are they good for your soul? Fo’ shizzle. Are they good for your heart? Absolutely not. Enough of these will be the direct reason you go into cardiac arrest while on the treadmill one day. So, in an effort to just be plain bad rather than ridiculously bad, I also made a grilled wing that honestly was just as tasty as the above Buffalo wings.

Alternative sticky, spicy Asian grilled hot wing:

1 cup La Choy Orange Ginger sauce

1/2 TBSP srirachi

1 tsp black pepper

1 cup Spicy citrus sauce, cooled (from my chicken tender recipe)

Combine the La Choy sauce, srirachi, and black pepper. Toss the rinsed and dried chicken, and let soak in the coating for about 20 minutes. Heat your grill to medium – high. Once you grill is ready to go and the chicken has marinated a bit, grill with the lid closed for 12-15 minutes or until an internal temperature of 160 has been reached, turning once half way through. Let cool about five minutes once you remove them from the grill. Once they’ve cooled a bit coat them in the spicy citrus sauce. These are messy, but very delicious, and a welcomed healthier twist on traditional fried Buffalo wings.

Pork Chops in Marinara Sauce

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I like creating something new in my kitchen, but sometimes I figure out a tasty recipe that’s a cinch to make and I just get stuck in a habit of making it regularly. In other words, new excitement has been leading to regularity. I decided to make an old family favorite to reignite the spark in my kitchen.

I’m not a big pork fan. I love a good banh mi, and ribs here or there, but that’s where my interest stops. Growing up, however, we had pork most Sunday’s at family dinner. My grandmother would make her usual marinara sauce (something I can make with my eyes closed and both hands tied behind my back), but she would a sometimes add fatty, bone-in pork chops and let them simmer low and slow for a few hours, cooking in the sauce while the sauce absorbs the delicious porkiness to make the usual Sunday meal a little more special.

I figured I’d give this a shot. Besides, cooking sauce on the weekend is great, because you have it for pasta and pizza for the rest of the week.

3 TBSP olive oil

5 large cloves garlic, minced

1 large shallot, thinly sliced or 1/2 cup diced onion

1 very ripe peach, diced into 1/2 inch pieces

1/2 cup wine, your favorite

1 28oz can crushed tomatoes

1 28oz can whole or diced peeled tomatoes

1 cup cherry tomatoes

8 large button mushrooms cut into 1/4’s or 1/8’s depending on your own bite preference

1/2 cup chicken stock

1 TBSP fresh chopped basil

1 TBSP parsley

1 TBSP kosher salt

1/2 TBSP black pepper

1 tsp red pepper flakes

1 1/2 tsp oregano

1 tsp sage

1 TBSP tomato paste

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

2.5-3 lbs center cut, bone-in loin chops

Juice of 1 lemon

Like most Italian recipes, this one starts with a shit ton of garlic. If you can’t get a shit ton, a butt ton will do. Or five large cloves. Which ever works. In 2 TBSP of the olive oil over medium heat, warm the minced garlic cloves, the shallot or onion, which ever you decide to use, and the peach. You want to sweat the garlic and onions a little, but don’t allow them to brown. After about 5 minutes add the wine (because of the pork I used a white wine I like, but anything that’s good will work), and stir. Add the tomatoes, both canned and cherry, mushrooms, chicken stock, and the spices. Sprinkle in the salt, stir, and incorporate the tomato paste. Once the paste is dissolved into the rest of the mixture, toss in the parm and mix well. Congratulations: you got yourself some marinara.  Also, just as a side note, you can make this as thin (for pizza) or as chunky (for anything else) as you want. Add green bell peppers or chunks of fresh tomato to cook down and swap the crushed canned tomatoes for a second can of whole. If you want a smoother sauce omit the mushrooms and do a second can of crushed.

I like making entrees over baking because baking is exact. Dinner is whatever the hell you want it to be.

Bring the stock pot of tomato magic up to a bubbling simmer. Then turn the heat to low, so the sauce is still very hot, but barely bubbling, and add the pork chops. Cook these on low for about 2-2 1/2 hours. You can sear them before hand, but I chose not to, simply because I was too lazy to dirty another pan. The slower you cook the chops the more juice they will retain.

After about two hours, or when the chops reach an internal temperature of 160-165 remove them from the pot. Add the lemon juice to the tomato sauce. Stir and taste; add any additional salt or pepper. And viola!

I served mine with penne & salad. Classic Italian dinner.

Ribs, Ribs Everywhere, So Let’s All Sit & Eat!

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I love ribs. I love eating them so much that it’s been many a year since I’ve been able to see my own, if you catch my drift. And after two hours of hitting the ultimate frisbee field I want to gnaw on ribs a whole hell of a lot more.

I maintain my love of ribs by having them once every two months or less. As we all know, absence makes the heart grow fonder…or less clogged with rib fat, one of the two. The real problem with ribs is that from the moment you decide you’re going to cook them, you hunger for them, and they are not the fastest meal to be had. And there’s a million ways to flavor and cook them!

Should I baste with beer? Apple juice? Cider?

To mop or not to mop?

To grill or use ye olde oven?

What’s a girl to do?!

Well, this girl likes her ribs differently than her boyfriend, so it’s easy. Every time my guy and I make ribs, we make two racks and cook them completely differently. And then we share because that’s true love.

I love St. Louis ribs. This is a particular cut that’s a little less fatty than the spare rib cut, but still thick and meaty. Chip, the aforementioned boyfriend, prefers spare ribs, but today he decided to go with a baby back rack. I like my ribs moist but not sauced so I use a mop. Chip prefers his ribs juicy, but likes a smokier flavor, so he sticks to a grill and periodically uses a spray bottle to wet his ribs, using less liquid and frequency than my mopping.

These are my ribs (in the rub) versus Chip’s naked baby backs.

We’ll start with the break down of my St. Louis cut ribs:

Rub:

1 TBSP Paprika

1 TBSP Garlic powder

1 TBSP salt

1/2 TBSP ground pepper

1 tsp red pepper flakes

1 TBSP Ginger

2 TBSP brown sugar

To prep my ribs I washed and dried them. I did not trim them at all, choosing to leave the silver skin on the bottom of the ribs keeps the ribs together while I slowly cook the crap out of them. I then rubbed every last molecule of the spice mixture over the back and top of my ribs; I want a nice crust.

After the rub, came the assembling of my mop.

Playing off the Asian theme the ginger in the rub adds, I went with…

The juice of one lemon

The juice of one lime

1/4 cup Rice vinegar

1/4 cup white wine

To cook my ribs I went with a fairly unorthodox method. As I mentioned, Boyfriend does his ribs on our gas grill. I’m not anti-grill, but I do like slow and low ribs – slow cooked at a low temperature. I don’t want to meat to fall off the bone; I want it to pull away. But I also like a dark crust. Remedy: I got my ribs all rubbed up and put them meat side down on a hot, hot grill for 5 minutes. That’s all it takes. Put those ribs down, close the lid, and don’t touch for 5 minutes.

Once they got a char I pulled them, put them meat side up in a cookie sheet on a flat rack and mopped away, about 2 tablespoons of my mop to coat the ribs. This means I’ll have char, I’ll have a crust, and the rib coating will be glossy and tasty. I put an additional 3 tables spoon of my rub onto the cookie sheet and covered in tin foil in order to maintain a moist cooking environment. You can also use beer or apple juice; either, like my mop, will add extra flavor.

After the 5 minute stint on the grill I baked my ribs at 500 for 15 minutes and then turned the oven down to 250. I continued cooking for an addition 1 1/2, mopping every 20 minutes. You want the internal temperature of the ribs to be 180-200 degrees. Yes, I spent the afternoon being a slave to my ribs.

And it was worth it.

And then there were Chip’s ribs, the man ribs. Chip cooked his baby backs on a hot gas grill. Prep went the same way: wash, dry, and season; he seasoned, meaning he sprinkled each on top of the rack, rather than making a thick rub. Chip season with…

1/2 TBSP of the following: Paprika, salt, black pepper, and garlic.

Then Chip made a moisturizer:

1/4 cup apple juice

1/4 cup apple cider vinegar

3 TBSP yellow mustard

1 1/2 TBSP ketchup

He whisked everything together and poured into a spray bottle. To create a moist and smokey environment on the grill, Chip put mesquite chips into a small tin pan and soaked them in red wine, which he placed on the bars directly above the burners at the back left of the grill. The grill was heated to 500 and he placed his ribs meat side down, closed the lid, and let them go for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, Chip turned the heat down to 400, flipped the ribs meat side up, sprayed them with the moisturizer and closed the lid. Every 15 minutes Chip sprayed.

…And there was one flare up, but he kept the paparazzi at bay.

Chip is no stranger to fire. Below is a picture of a tater tot from the last time he made them with dinner. It was honestly glowing red hot when I found it.

Because Chip’s baby back rack was smaller and he used a higher heat, they were only on the grill for 1 hour and fifteen minutes. Again, he went with internal temperature over a specific cook time.

So, that’s it! We cooked the crap out of our ribs, two separate ways, both came out delicious. We ate entirely too much with salad as a side, and beer for refreshment.

Raccoon: It’s What Nobody Knows is for Dinner

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This isn’t exactly a Christmas or New Year’s tale, but it has all the feeling and warmth of a family holiday dinner, so I choose to share it with you now.

I was once the absolute definitive example of a New York-Italian child. I grew up just outside the Big Apple with an extended family that rivaled the population of Rhode Island. My dark frizzy hair could blot out the sun and that was just what was on my head. As I lacked a Long Island (or Long Islant) accent and a plastic cover on my mother’s couch, I was just shy of a Guidette. If you’re thinking of MTV’s Jersey Shore be aware: those people are a representation of Jerseyites, not Italian Americans. As a youth, I spent an inordinate amount of time with my cousins, aunts, uncles, and Nonni and Popi. Due to the whole Catholic thing, there were a lot of family members to hang with; hundreds, maybe even millions. It was kind of like an Olive Garden commercial, only significantly less campy and far more tan.

My grandparents were from hardy stock; they came here separately from their small towns in Italy to a world they struggled to understand for the rest of their lives. My grandmother came from a teenie tiny village in which a woman who wandered the streets and spoke with the dead was revered and laundry day was a neighborhood affair in the local river. When Nonni came here, to Massachusetts specifically, she was put to work as a waitress in a family restaurant. She didn’t speak English, she liked people about as much as I do, and had left everyone she knew behind. Eventually my grandfather, who had come to America to find his fortune in New York, the unexciting stereotype, found my grandmother (I can only assume in personal ads in a 1930’s version of Craigslist) and put in a bid to marry her. When I asked Nonni about romance when I was a nosy teenager she looked at me in this “stupid American” sort of way and grunted a “Yeah”…or it could have been “nah”. I could never really decipher her grunts. When I asked my mother or aunts and uncles about it, they thought for a moment and then nodded slowly:

“Sure, there must have been some kind of romance. Pop would drive all the way from New York to Mass to see her in a time when cars maxed out at, like, forty miles per hour.”

“Really?”, I beamed. “He’d drive all the way to see her? How often?”

“Like… twice,” Pop replied. I don’t think he was kidding.

Nonni and Pop bought this big old, drab farmhouse, as intimidating and large as an old Victorian with none of the flare, built in 1905. Sure, a passerby might say it was painted white, but I’m sure my grandparents never even considered the color. It was as if the house could have been a vibrant rainbow of light and excitement from the color spectrum, but as soon as my super focused, hardworking grandparents moved in, the house suddenly had no time for the nonsense of color. The upstairs consisted of three bedrooms, one bathroom, a sitting room, small kitchen, and an undersized dining/living area for a family of seven. It was set up like a glorified shotgun or railcar apartment: long and narrow, with all its rooms off an even narrower hallway. The house was separated into two apartments by previous owners in the 1930’s, one upstairs and one downstairs. The downstairs apartment had been restructured and updated so many times that it was unrecognizable from its upstairs counterpart. To add excitement to the downstairs apartment, I will also add that a lady died in it. But I was also conceived in it, so, based on the properties of Algebra, any ghosts get cancelled out. When I was old enough to rent that space, I would have friends over and bring them traipsing through my grandparents home upstairs because the difference was like stepping back in time. My grandfather preferred it that way, right up until his passing at 97 years old this past summer. He died almost a year to the day my grandmother died. And he planned it that way.

Photo credit Joey Tarzia

By the time I was old enough to have memory Pop had gotten rid of the pool in the backyard and had turned the chlorine sodden ground into a garden. This was in Stamford, Connecticut, mind you. The suburb-turned-city just outside of New York City. He was as apt to find squirrels in his garden as beer cans and lord knows what other kind of trash. It wasn’t a farm; it was a lot not a half mile from the center of a very bustling and cramped metropolis. The house was on Cold Spring Road, which, by the time I was born, was four lanes wide with a median divider and a speed limit of 45 miles per hour, but you’d think it was Mach ten. There was a big old garage in back of the house that looked like it would collapse at any moment and dry salami hanging from its ceiling pretty much all the time. Lots of spiders, rusted tools, jars with nails and twine, and a big, blue Cadillac.

My grandfather’s success was due to the fact that he owned a liquor store. The Package Store. Kind of like calling the local market the Milk and Fruit House. One day my grandmother was working, leaning on the bar with her arms folded. In walked a man who took out a knife and stuck it straight through the meaty part of her forearm, right down to the wooden counter.  And then obbed the joint. That was before I was born. I guess that’s learning the hard way that your family shop has become part of the bad neighborhood.

The issues that really killed me about my grandparents moving to America were the little things, the traditions they viewed as necessities that they didn’t drop, but were no longer really needed. For example, my grandfather would eat anything he caught, which was all fine and good for the wilds and majestic beauty of Italy, but that didn’t change when he moved to Stamford. It didn’t matter if it was a gopher with two tails and a nervous twitch from heroin withdrawal: if Pop found it in the garden it was dinner. As kids we had all seen him kill animals. And the killing wasn’t ever in a cruel or lustful manner… though I distinctly remember him holding a vendetta toward the same rabbit was eating his garden, because he didn’t see it as eating for survival, but just to piss him off. It was with a morbid, but entirely childlike curiosity that I watched him step on the back of a lettuce-eating groundhog and drive a shovel into the back of its neck. More humane I suppose then the drowning pool (a 50 gallon drum he kept at the garden gate) and less buckshot then a gun. In fact, I don’t remember ever seeing my grandfather with a gun, as he seemed more of a finder-feeder then hunter. He acted this way because that’s what he was taught, it’s what it father did, and his own grandfather. He wasn’t wasteful, he wasn’t cruel, and he loved providing for his family more than he loved the sun.

When the family swelled and grandchildren (my cousins) started popping out left and right, Nonni insisted on having Sunday dinner at their place. It was Nonni, Pop, their five kids and their children’s children, so this cramped dining area for seven miraculously became a table for twenty. Catholics, man. My family was the original Anthony Bordain or Andrew Zimmern, trying exotic foods as character building exercises and larks. Most people have words of wisdom in their heads from their childhood. I merely have the all too constant comment “Eat that. It’ll put hair on your chest.”  Delightful.

Every Sunday the same meal: really good homemade bread, home made meat sauce over pasta, ending with salad, fruit, and poker. And the meat was always beef or pork. Always. I was the youngest child of the youngest child and quite possibly the most annoying. Be that as it may, my older cousins and brother were not above using my youthful cuteness as scapegoat extraordinaire. If it’s one thing you learn even before puberty, it’s that youth is fleeting, and younger means cuter and more valuable. That’s why manipulation is one of the first things, almost instinctively, that children seem to catch on to.

Photo credit Joey Tarzia

One Sunday we were all there, huddled around the table, food in bowls and baskets and any other vessel that could be found, mismatched silverware chucked on the table along with glasses, jugs of wine and plates, more limbs and voices then there seemed people on the earth. Somewhere in the house a Yankees game was on, the noise and clamor of twenty people and children akin only to the Whos down in Whoville on Christmas day. Dinner was called and you never had so many people find seats so fast. Spaghetti and sauce got doled out, bread slices were grabbed and we dug in with gusto, the same meal we’d all had a hundred times and never tired of!…except this time something was different.

Something was wrong.

My cousins’ gulping and chewing began to slow as they stared into their plates and bowls, their eyes relaying all our thoughts in unison: Ewwwww. I got nudged by my older brother who is sitting next to our older cousin Cristina, sitting next to older Cathy and even older still Paul.

“You have to tell Mom this is gross.”

They were all looking at me. I gulped, not from food intake, but from fear. To talk ill of Nonni’s food was to be banished or, worse, yelled at. I looked at my mother chewing; I couldn’t tell if she knew. Had she realized something isn’t right? Was she continuing eating only because the sudden dip in food meant her own mother had lost it and she was coming to terms with the demise of the family? Had Nonni gotten so senile that she’s dropped boogers and fingernails into our food? What was happening?!?

“Mom, I don’t like dinner.”

“Katie, you do this all the time. Eat it.”

To be fair, I did not, do this all the time.

“Mom, it tastes funny.”

“Katie, it tastes exactly like it always does! Look, your cousins are eating it!”

I turned to see them beaming at my mother and nodding as if to say ‘Yeah, we have no idea what she’s talking about, and we would never throw her to the wolves.’

My grandmother never sat during these meals. She was forever bringing us water and more food and filling empty plates, the usual Nonni stuff. It was at this time that she brought in the giant sauce pot. I mean, huge. Le Crueset had nothing on this thing. She stood with it, teetering on the corner of the tabletop next to my grandfather, who was sitting in his usual Italian dinner jacket, at the head of the table.

“Do ya wanit now?” Nonni asked Pop.

“No, no! I have enough. Just leave it there!” Pop answered, food bulging from inside his cheek, as he motioned a fist full of bread toward a small empty bowl in front of him.

“Okay,” Nonni replied. She then proceeded to draw a ladle from the pot containing the biggest meatball I had ever seen.

Only it wasn’t a meatball. Though it was an entirely new sight to me, I knew instantly what it was:

There, hairless and cocked slightly in the spoon, staring eyeless right down the table, its lips peeled back and teeth gleaming through drips and globs of tomato and basil, was the head of a rabbit, its face meat and brain cooked ever so slowly out into our pasta sauce.

Plunk! Into Pop’s bowl. Much like being in a car accident, I only remember forks hitting porcelain plates then silence, a dull hum, everything in slow motion and everyone forgetting that exhibiting shock at dinner is breaking table manners.

My smart ass cousin Joey broke the silence with a nervous chuckle.

“Pop, what is that, raccoon?”

“No,” groaned Pop. “The raccoon’s ova there,” he said this still chewing, not joking, fist apathetically waved, roughly pointed to the bowl of meatballs.

This second wave of shock and nausea was shattered only by my mother, who leaned over and gasped “You’re excused!” At least I think that’s what she said. My memory is determined to tell me she turned to us children and screamed “RUN!”, but I simply don’t think that can be true.

But I do remember quite clearly the Hershey bars we were given for dinner in lieu of Nonni’s cooking that night.

And to this day I just don’t really like Hershey bars.

Christmas Dinner: Braised Short Ribs & Yorkshire Pudding

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Finally.

Dinner time!

Tonight’s entree was braised short ribs with a red wine reduction. And because that’s simply not fattening enough, my husband made Yorkshire pudding out of the drippings. A meal so dripping in its own fat that the eaters will have shiny faces by the time the plates are empty.

This recipe takes 3 – 4 hours, so start a while before you want to eat.

3 1/2 pounds short ribs. Debone those suckers and brown ’em.

1 large onion chopped, white, yellow, or sweet. I don’t recommend red.

1 tablespoon tomato paste

Lots of fresh minced garlic. I used 8 or 9 cloves, at least 4 of them rather larger.

3 cups red wine (And one for the chef!…I mean just finish off the bottle by pouring it in a glass and drinking it. Do a little something for you in all this.)

1 cup low sodium beef broth

6 carrots sliced into 2-3 inch pieces

2 – 4 sprigs of Thyme if you got it. I did not.

1 bay leaf

1/2 Tbsp ginger

1/4 cup cold water

1/2 teaspoon unflavored gelatin

I bought 3 1/2 pounds of short ribs, cut them off the bone, and browned the meat. I chose to debone to cut out a ton of greasy fat I didn’t want to have deal with later. The gelatin in the recipe will retain the bone flavor, however, and makes for a silky, smooth sauce in the end.

Once I browned the meat I poured all, but about a tablespoon of the drippings out of the cast iron pan into a separate bowl for Yorkshire pudding. We’ll get to this later on. It’s best to use a dutch oven for this recipe, but I don’t own one, so I used a regular stock pot. In the stock pot I browned 1 large, chopped onion in that last remaining tablespoon of drippings I mentioned two sentences earlier. I didn’t want the onion to brown too quickly so I sauteed, stirring quite a bit, for 10 minutes or so. Next came the tomato paste, which browned fairly quickly. I added the garlic cloves, stirring until they were just aromatic. At that point I preheated my oven to 300 degrees. I then poured in the red wine over the onion, tomato paste, and garlic and deglazed the pot. I let the red wine simmer away and reduce to about half.

Once the red wine got nice and thick, I added a cup of low sodium beef broth, the bay leaf, ginger, and, finally, the boneless and browned short ribs. Once this mixture was at a simmer, I covered it and slipped it into the preheated oven for 2 hours. While waiting I read most of The World According to Clarkson while Chip put together the LEGO White House.

Those 2 hours took forever. I took the stock pot out of the oven and set it aside while I bloomed the gelatin. In the 1/4 cup of cold water I sprinkled the gelatin and let sit for 5 minutes or so. Gelatin needs to bloom in cold water for at least five minutes, other wise the consistency won’t be as smooth. While the gelatin was doing it’s thing I removed the short ribs and carrots from the pot, plated them and tented the dish with aluminum foil. I then strained the remainder of the stock pot contents in to a large pyrex measuring up and placed it into the fridge, chucking the solids left in the mesh strainer. I let the fat rise in the pyrex for about 10 minutes. After straining the fat from the liquid I poured the liquid back into the stockpot and heated it over medium high heat until it reduced to about 1 cup, just a few minutes. Removing from heat, I whisked in the gelatin. This is a perfect time to taste the sauce and make sure it has enough salt and pepper to your liking.

While I was making the sauce, Chip was making the Yorkshire pudding from a family 2-2-4 recipe.

2 cups milk

2 cups flour

4 eggs

1/2 – 3/4 cups drippings, what ever you got

a pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Beat together the milk, flour, eggs, and salt. In a 3 quart rectangle glass dish pour the meat drippings and place in the oven. Get those drippings smoking hot – super, sizzling hot, about 8 – 10 minutes. Remove the pan frm the oven and Carefully pour the custard mixture of milk, flour, and eggs into the sizzling hot drippings.

Replace the rectangle dish back into the oven to cook at 450 for another 10 minutes or until it reaches your preferred pudding texture. You can make it as chewing or as crisp as you like. When it’s done it’ll look like…

Once the yorkshire pudding was out of the oven, we de-tented the short ribs and carrots, poured the reduced sauce over the top, added basic mashed potatoes and steamed asparagus to the mix, and sat down to an awesome Christmas dinner.