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Cedar Plank Salmon with Hollandaise

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I can’t eat like I used to. About a year and a half ago I picked up running for some ungodly reason, and damned if it hasn’t had a fantastic effect on my health. So for Christmas Eve I’ve decided to make a wonderful dinner that’s also on the lighter side: Salmon Filets on cedar planks. Of course to aid in people feeling like they’re over-indulging I’ll be adding richness in the form of a fresh hollandaise sauce.

Cedar Plank Salmon with Hollandaise

Ingredients

4 salmon filets (4 – 6 oz each)

2 Cedar planks, roughly 6″ x 12″ or so (Optional)

Marinade

3 gloves garlic, minced

4 TBSP Olive Oil

2 TBSP fresh squeezed lemon juice

1 TBSP fresh parsley, chopped

2 tsp black pepper

1 ½ tsp salt

 

Hollandaise

4 egg yolks

1 TBSP fresh squeezed lemon juice

½ cup unsalted melted butter

1 tsp salt

¼ tsp cayenne pepper

½ tsp tarragon

½ tsp black pepper

2 tsp white vinegar

Soak your cedar planks, if you’re going that route, for at least 2 hours in lightly salted water. Meanwhile whisk marinade ingredients and pour over salmon filets. Allow to marinate in refrigerator for about 20-30 minutes, turning once.

Heat oven to 400. If not using cedar planks, spray a glass pan or cookie sheet with non-stick spray or cover in aluminum foil, and place salmon skin side down on cookie sheet or plank. Bake salmon uncovered for 12-16 minutes or until it flakes easily with a fork. Cook until the internal temp of 130-135 degrees is reached; the more you cook salmon the “fishier” tasting it will become. Me? I like my fish to lack any “fishiness” and aim for just a warm center, about 12-13 minutes of cooking.

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While the salmon is baking, get your hollandaise together. I’m not going to lie: This isn’t fun to make. Is it worth it? Yes. Will your arm whisk those yolks so much that you’ll feel it 12 hours after finishing your meal? Probably.

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Whisk the egg yolks and lemon juice together in a stainless steel or glass bowl until they’ve thickened a bit. Please the bowl over a saucepan containing water that is barely simmering (or a double boiler if you got one); make sure the water level is low enough that it does not touch the bottom of the bowl you’ve placed over it. While whisking the egg yolk mixture, drizzle in the melted butter. Once incorporated, remove the bowl from the heat and whisk in the salt, peppers, and tarragon. If the sauce becomes too thick, whisk in the white vinegar. If the sauce is too thin move it back over the simmering water for another couple of minutes while whisking constantly. It should be thick enough to nicely coat a spoon, but still be drizzled over your yummy target of fish, poached eggs, artichoke, etc.

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Once your salmon is out of the oven drizzle about ¼ TBSP of Hollandaise sauce over every 1 oz of fish. If you’ve got fillets that are roughly 4oz each, I would recommend a mere 1 TBSP of Hollandaise per filet, as you want to TASTE the salmon. Sure, there will be some who want to drown the protein in the Hollandaise, but they really just want the Hollandaise, not the fish. And, besides, if you have some Hollandaise left over, you can store it in tupperware in the fridge for up to 2 days and reheat by whisking over the double boiler again, i.e. EGGS BENEDICT FOR BREAKFAST THE NEXT MORNING!! Whoot to the Whizoot.

Serve with rice, a simple salad, or even grilled asparagus with shaves Parmesan.

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Alton Brown Bread Pudding Mashup

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This is the bread pudding recipe so good that even those claim to hate bread pudding will ask for a second helping.

In his episode The Proof is in the Bread Pudding, Alton Brown makes a spiced pudding in a bread crust, and a second chocolate version with chunks of challah bread in a pyrex dish. If I was going to attempt this whole bread pudding thing I’d want a custard that was rich and flavorful, had a relatively simple recipe and task list (i.e. pyrex over a perfectly carved crust basin), and perfect texture rather than just damp bread. I decided to balance AB’s two recipes, switch a few items, and add chewy Craisins and Ghirardelli chocolate chunks for texture.

Kate’s Mashup of AB’s Bread Puddings

Ingredients

1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon dried orange peel
15 whole cloves
15 whole peppercorns
1/2 ounce crystallized ginger, chopped
4 cups half-and-half, divided
2 large whole eggs
3 large egg yolks
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
2 ounces spiced rum

1 Challah cubed into 1 inch pieces

1/2 Dark Chocolate chips (I used Ghirardelli 60% dark cocoa chips)
1/2 cup dried cherries
1 to 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly (optional)

Directions

Place the cinnamon, nutmeg, dried orange peel, cloves, peppercorns, and ginger into 3 cups of half-and-half in a microwavable container and microwave on high for 3 minutes. Check the temperature of the mixture and microwave in 30 second increments until it reaches 180 degrees F. Cover and steep 15 minutes.

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Place the eggs and yolks in a blender with an 8-cup carafe. Blend on the lowest speed for 30 seconds. Raise the speed to quarter power and slowly add the sugars and blend until thickened slightly, about 1 minute. Add the remaining cup of half-and-half. With the machine still running, pour in the spiced half-and-half through a small hand strainer and add the rum. Use immediately, or store covered in the refrigerator for up to 36 hours.

Butter or non-stick spray a 9 by 13-inch metal pan and place the cubed bread in the pan. Sprinkle the chocolate chips and dried cranberries on top of the bread and slowly pour in the custard. Press down on the mixture with a spatula or the back of a spoon (or your hands) to thoroughly saturate. Cover and set aside at room temperature for 2 hours, or refrigerate for up to 8 hours. You can do this the night before if you want.

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Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.

Bake about 40 – 45 minutes. If you’d like your top extra crispy, set your oven to the high broil setting with the oven door slightly ajar. Remove the bread pudding from the oven. Pour the melted butter into a spray bottle and spritz the top of the bread pudding or brush on melted butter carefully. Return to the middle rack and broil for 4 to 5 minutes. Remove to a cooling rack for 15 minutes before serving.

I served mine with vanilla ice cream and leftovers kept for 3 days in the fridge.

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Crispy Artichoke Hearts with Lemon Zest Aioli

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In a month’s time I’ll be spending a week with my family. Folks, sibling, husband, cousins, etc. As we actually like each other, most of us are looking forward to this time together. It’s an anomaly, I know. I’ve been coming up with numerous recipes for us to share while visiting, and I’ve been searching far and wide for inspiration.

One of the many recipes I wanted to attempt to recreate was fried artichoke hearts. When I was in college…hmmm. You know, I was going to write “When I was in college I spent some time in Arizona…”, but now that I’m long graduated I can honestly state it more clearly: While I lived in Arizona for a few years I went to college. Like one goes to the gym when they’re not really into it. Like it was a hobby or something I told people I did to keep them off my back. Anyway, the point is that while I lived in Arizona, working odd jobs instead of attending class regularly, one of the ways I would treat myself from time to time on the great road of finding my way, was a night out at the Prescott Brewing Company. One of my faves on their menu are these little crispy artichoke hearts. I decided to make may own version, packing each bite with a little more flavor, attempting to bake them instead, and serving them a bright and lemony aioli rather than ranch dressing.

Crispy Artichoke Hearts

2 cans Large artichoke hearts (5-7), halved

1/2 cup flour

1/2 cup Panko

zest of one lemon

1 tsp garlic powder

2 tsp dried parsley

1 heaping TBSP grated Parmesan cheese

2 eggs

1 TBSP milk

Vegetable oil, if frying

Dipping Aioli

1 1/2 TBSP mayonnaise

1 1/2 TBSP sour cream

1/2 tsp dill

1 tsp dried parsley

1 tsp black pepper

juice of 1/2 lemon

Just a side note here: I’ve used both the whole and quartered artichoke hearts. I’ve found halving the whole artichoke heart makes for a much more toothsome bite than the pre-quartered options. They’re smaller, thinner, and all around less appetizing.

Drain the cans of artichoke hearts. Gently halve the hearts and lay out on a paper towel for about an hour to dry out a bit. Whisk together the eggs and milk. In a separate plate (I use an 8×8 pyrex) combine the flour, panko, lemon zest, garlic powder parsley, and Parmesan.

Start heating up your vegetable oil to 325 degrees.

Delicately spear an artichoke halve with a fork. I found it best to poke from the side out, which helps the petals remaining on the choke stay together. Dip your speared piece into the egg/milk mixture quickly, allowing the excess to drip off a second before coating in the panko mixture. I found it easiest to drop the artichoke heart piece off of the fork into the center of the panko and flour, and then tossing the dry ingredients over the heart. You want the artichoke chunks to be evenly coated, but you don’t want that coating to be very thick. Once coated, set aside until you have an full batch to start frying.

Once your oil reaches temperature, fry the artichoke hearts halves for 2-3 minutes per side or until golden brown. They do brown very quickly. Once golden and crisp move to a paper-towel covered cooling rack and sprinkle lightly with salt. Let rest about 5 minutes.
For the dipping aioli, whisk all the ingredients together and serve with the artichokes. This creamy dip is extremely addicting. You may want to double the dip recipe if you’re serving these at a dinner party.  I served mine as an appetizer to a vegetarian dinner and the crispy artichokes, with the bright creamy sauce went beautifully with both our chilled white wine (I think it was a Pinot Grigio) and a crisp hard cider.

Reverse Reese’s: Chocolate Stuffed Peanut Butter Cookies!

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Okay, life has been so stressful and overwhelming lately, that I’ve gotten away from the fun things. I have only been to the gym twice this week, I’ve barely been eating (let alone eating well), and I’ve allowed what brings me joy to be pushed away by things that already deserve less of my time than I give them.

So today I am reclaiming my life just for me: I went to the gym this morning, had a light and bright brunch, cleaned my house while my hubby did laundry, carved a pumpkin and NOW I’m going to make some peanut butter cookies!

My Jack Skellington Jack-O-Lantern

Chip looooooves peanut butter cookies, but I find them to often be salty and lacking…probably because they don’t have any chocolate in them. Well, I’m changing that today, dammit. This afternoon I’ll be making what I call a Reverse Reese’s, that is I peanut butter cookie stuffed with chocolate. 1. Are these healthy? No. 2. Do I care? See the answer to the first question.

Reverse Reese’s Peanut Butter Chocolate Cookies

1/2 cup butter, room temperature
1/2 cup peanut butter (Smooth or crunchy. I use smooth, because, like a child, I think crunchy is gross.)
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/4 cups flour (You want to sift it? What are you, an over-acheiver?)
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt (Optional. I find there’s enough salt in the peanut butter that this isn’t necessary.)                     1 cup Ghirardelli Bittersweet Chocolate Chips

Use Jiff peanut butter. Or Peter Pan. Or your local grocery store’s generic brand. I know, I know, these are processed, but it’s much harder to get the correct consistency both before and after cooking if you use something organic that often separates. Also, spritz your measuring cup with a little non-stick spray so your peanut butter doesn’t wind up being obnoxious to get out of there. Whip together the butter, peanut butter, sugars, and vanilla. Incorporate the egg. Sprinkle in the flour with your mixer on low in 2-3 batches. Add the baking soda and salt if using, and mix for an additional 30 seconds. or until everything is well combined. It will pull cleanly away from the sides of your bowl when complete.

If your kitchen is warm or it’s a hot day, stick the dough in the fridge for 5-10 minutes. Preheat your oven to 350 (F). Use this time to clean up. I gave my KitchenAid mixer a good cleaning, tossed most stuff in the sink and wiped down the counter. My KitchenAid is my dream boat, which I inherited from my grandmother. It’s from the 70’s, just look at the plug on the thing, and it works like a champ! Love. It.

Once your dough is ready, take a heaping tablespoon of the peanut butter goodness and flatten in the palm of your hand. Smoosh (that’s the medical term) 8-10 chocolate chips into the center and fold the dough over and seal. Try and keep the chocolate chips in a cluster in the center if you want a Reverse Reese’s. Worst case scenario is you wind up with chocolate chip peanut butter cookies, so you can’t really mess this up. Place on a cookie sheet (these are oily enough that you don’t need to spray your pan) and gently press to about a half inch thick.

Bake for 13-16 minutes. I like mine soft and chewy, so these came out after 14 minutes. Let rest 3-5 minutes before moving off the cookies sheet because they are very delicate when they first come out.  

Serve with milk and a cool Autumn night. 

Scared into Love

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This isn’t a story about being scared to love. This is quite the opposite.

On a bit of a whim last summer my husband and I decided to join a couple of friends on a trip to New Orleans. I made Will, the planner, promise that the hotel would be nice and clean, and everything else I couldn’t give a damn about. I had decided to visit my folks alone for few days before the trip and flew into to NOLA after my husband and friends had been there for a couple of days. It was raining when I arrived and, as Austin was experiencing a record drought, it was the first time I had seen a drizzle in months.

As I moved through the airport I smiled at the gas lamps and live musicians. I was used to stray guitarists and full bands within airports from living in Austin, but the internal gas lamps had the exact romantic affect on me that they were supposed to incur. I was tired from traveling, but ready to be out and about in a new place.

Will and I are not people who waste time; we dropped off my things at the airport and immediately went right back out to explore. I find the best way to become intimate with a strange city is to walk it’s streets. We wandered through rich areas and poor areas, as well as the French Quarter. Our hotel was a single block from Du Monde’s and I’d stay there again in a heartbeat, even knowing the amount of children that died within its walls.

We walked down cobblestone, by 200 year old homes and areas that had been ravaged by Katrina. Eventually, we found ourselves in a cemetery, all white marble and above the earth. If it’s one thing New Orleans knows well, it’s that buried bodies float. Many of the tombs were beautiful, a handful ornate, a few were vandalized, and some forgotten. I’m not particularly melancholy, but the cemeteries of Louisiana embody a sullen beauty that New England doesn’t quite get to. Spanish moss and bright stone rather than dark earth and old rock.

We passed through Bourbon Street without incident; I appreciate the architecture and I love a good drink, but I can do without wading through puddles of vomit at 10am. We went to the aquarium and even the zoo. There were hat shops, and usual tourist crap vendors, flowers for sale, and plenty of sidewalk performers and artists. Most of all, though, you could smell how old the city was. I felt her past through each cell of my body and the more I explored the more she sunk into my bones. She had been beaten, diseased, dishonored, and raped, and still New Orleans holds her head high, unembarrassed and rather proud by what has made her.

After a couple of days, we decided to take an evening historical tour of New Orleans’ alleys within the French Quarter. The second stop on our night adventure was our own hotel, where we were informed that dozens of school children burned to death in the areas that were now the rooms we had been sleeping in. We learned about paying a man to duel for you on church grounds and of nuns who smothered hundreds of babies to keep their orphanages from becoming overrun with the unwanted. We listened to tales of Civil War atrocities, of slaves burning themselves rather than being torn from their families. We already knew about Delphine DeLaurie and her bizarre bloodlust, but we were surprised to hear that Nicolas Cage eventually purchased her home…and then had to sell fast when his own money ran out. Needless to say, we went back to our hotel in the evening with a shiver down out spines.

But as I leaned on the hotel balcony late that night, I wasn’t bothered by the remnants of the man who hung himself in the floor below me or the children who had burned around me. I felt the cool air, smelled the river, and tried to stare into the apartment across the way, loved so much by it’s residents that they didn’t bother with window dressings. I thought of what it would be to live in such a place. A city flooded and reflooded, burned and buried. Diseased and destroyed. And so very, very beautiful and beloved. It was a city who made those who cared for it even stronger.

For the first time in my life my body and mind ached to be apart of a place I barely knew.

We weren’t in New Orleans long, and we left feeling incomplete. We drove the trip from Nola to Austin, weaving in and out of plantation areas and stark highway. I’ve enjoyed previous vacations, missed the romance or a pretty sunset, remembered an incredible restaurant or a neat day trip. New Orleans was different. We left New Orleans feeling different.

And I’ve been unable to stop thinking about her since.

Prime Rib like Butter

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For Thanksgiving I always do a Prime Rib Roast. Screw turkey; it’s dry and boring and literally puts people to sleep.

Thanksgiving of 2011 I made a roast that I just was not pleased with. It had NO flavor and the cooking method I used was less then desireable. I like my meat medium-rare, which is mostly pink, but warm through. I tried that old method of setting the oven to 500 degrees, cooking for five minutes per pound, and then turning the over off and letting the roast sit in there for 2 hours. Yeah, guess who had to recook her roast two hours later? Not fun. My father uses the Showtime Rotisserie, Ron Popeil’s thing, which Dad just refers to as the “SetItAndForgetIt”, and it does normally do a good job. I, however, do not own one of those. So, last night, on my husband’s 30th birthday, I decided to use a tried and true method: low and slow. Placed in a 200 degree Fahrenheit oven, I cooked the roast until it reached 130 degrees. That’s it.

Time here doesn’t matter. You need a meat thermometer, period. Seriously. You want time, though? Fine. If your roast is room temperature it will probably take about 30 minutes per pound at 200. If it’s not completely room temperature, then it might take 35-40 minutes a pound. Personally, I don’t like to screw around with such an expensive piece of meat, so I bought a $10 meat thermometer and never looked back.

This recipe is about appreciating the cut known as the prime rib for what it is, ultra meaty deliciousness that’s meant to be served rare, with sauces or butters, that melts in your mouth and tastes fabulously of cow.

I didn’t get a bone-in roast only because the dinner was just for Chip and I. I found a prime roast that weighed 3.8 lbs, cost $28, and felt it would be good for us. If we wanted to have a couple of friends over for an impromptu dinner, there would be enough, and at the same time it was the right size to allow for a long, slow cooking. An hour before cooking, I took the roast out of the fridge. In hindsight I should have taken the roast out about three hours prior to cooking, but, thanks to my thermometer, it didn’t really matter. After an hour of sitting out, I put my roasting pan on my stove top and over high heat I seared each side of my roast for about four minutes per side.

Once seared, I let the meat cool for about 10 minutes and then I rubbed kosher salt, black pepper, and crushed garlic on all its sides, but especially on the fat on top. Once seasoned, I placed the rack into the roasting pan and placed the Prime Rib into the rack, fat side up. I placed the meat thermometer into the center at a decent angle so it could be read periodically without having to pull the entire roast from the over. As it roasts fat side up in a rack all that salt, pepper, and garlic would mingle with the liquifying juices and pour down through the meat while slowly cooking. A. Mae. Zing.

Once the roast reached an internal temperature of 130 degrees Fahrenheit, I let the Prime Rib rest uncovered on a cutting board for 30 minutes. The roast isn’t going to gain much in terms of heat after cooking so slowly, but those juices will be reabsorbed into the meat. I realize that my old, out-dated thermometer in the picture above states that medium meat has a temperature of 160, but I disagree. America’s Test Kitchen recommends removing a rib roast at 130, many chefs I know remove their beef at 123-127, and all of us agree meat done to the point of 160 is dry and over well, let alone mere medium. 130 degrees is more then enough to kill the bacteria we worry about.

Cooking this for so low a temperature and so long a period meant the juices stayed within the meat and that the proteins had extra time to break down. This was the juiciest, tenderest slice of steak I’d ever eaten. Husband and I were both blown away. We’d had filet mignon that was four times the price that wasn’t nearly has delicate and flavorful as this prime rib.

I’m not a fan of horseradish, so with this I made a seasoned butter, using have a stick of room temperature unsalted butter, 1 tsp kosher salt, 1 tsp black pepper, 1 clove of crushed garlic, 1 half a minced shallot, and 1 1/2 tsp dried parsley. The steak really didn’t need it, but it certainly didn’t hurt!

Our meal was served with a salad with bleu cheese, sauteed fennel, and fresh bread. No potatoes necessary! I apologize now for the photo, however; I was more then half way through stuffing my face when I realized I didn’t have a picture of the final product, and my husband had gone back for seconds and unceremoniously hacked away at the meat rather than slicing prettily as I had done for his first serving.

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.