It’s getting’ Italian up in here. There are some inherent comfort foods in my life spawning from my upbringing and a really good pasta sauce is one of them. To Italian households your tomato sauce is a family recipe; other sauces, restaurants, etc just don’t taste right. As cold weather has finally started to settle in to Austin, I needed something filling and hot to warm my soul. When you want all the flavors without so much fat you can substitute the ground beef with ground turkey and serve with spaghetti squash instead of pasta.
1 lb 80/20 ground beef, preferable chili beef, a thicker grind (If you substitute ground turkey for this, be sure to add a cube of beef boullion when add the cans of tomatoes, stirring to dissolve.)
1 TBSP olive oil
1 TBSP butter
1 diced white onion
3 cloves minced garlic
1 1/2 TBSP Tomato paste
2 tsp dried basil
2 tsp dried oregano
2 28oz. cans of crushed or diced tomatoes
1/2 TBSP red pepper flakes
3/4 cup dry red wine (I used Cabernet Sauvignon, you can also use a good white for this)
1 TBSP low sodium soy sauce
The zest of 1 lemon
1 lbs prepared linguini, rotini, or 2 lbs prepared spaghetti squash
1 minced anchovy (strictly for glutamate flavor, adds no fishiness, but optional none the less)
Saute the beef over medium high heat in a deep pot or sauce pan for about 5 minutes, stirring constantly. You don’t want to cook it through, but you definitely want it to give up a lot of its fat. After few minutes, when a significant amount of grease has been rendered, but the meat has yet to really brown, turn off the heat and strain the meat with a slotted spoon into a bowl and set aside. Dispose of the rendered fat. If you want some added flavor, you can also do 1/2 lb beef with 1/2 pound ground pork, and you can use ground turkey for a healthier option, of course, skipping the step to render any fat.
In a deep pot over medium heat, add the olive oil and butter. Once the butter is melted and bubbling a bit, add the onion and garlic. Cook over medium heat until the onions are just transparent and the garlic is no longer raw, about 5-7minutes. Move the onions to one side of the pot, exposing a bare area and dollop the tomato paste there, to toast a bit, about 1-2 minutes. Stir the tomato paste with the onions and garlic, and then add the oregano and basil. Stir, letting the flavors marry and carmelize, about 3 minutes. Add the 2 cans of tomatoes, red pepper flakes, wine, and soy sauce, stirring well. Add the meat back to the sauce and let it simmer over medium heat for 10 minutes. Stir in the lemon zest, and allow the pot to continue to simmer over medium heat for another 10 minutes or so or until the sauce has thickened.
Serve over your favorite pasta or spaghetti squash and top with shredded fresh basil and Parmesan cheese.
You don’t need a bread maker. You don’t need any special flour. All you need is some water, a couple of cups of all purpose unbleached, and a packet of yeast.
I generally make a loaf of this each weekend to give my household its bread fix through most of the week.
Depending on what’s planned for lunches, I’ll use the same dough to make rolls as well. This is very versatile and can be used in a number of ways, whether you’re planning on drizzling it with honey, smothering with jam, turning it into chewy garlic knots, or making a Dagwood. I always use King Arthur’s All Purpose Unbleached flour, but really you can use pretty much anything with this. That’s one of the greatest things about bread – mix together roughly the right ingredients and you’ll still wind up with bread.
Easy Peasant Bread
2 cups luke warm water
1 packet yeast (regular or rapid rise, it really doesn’t matter)
1 TBSP sugar or honey (your preference and, yes, the honey flavor will come through)
2 tsp salt
4 1/2 cups flour
1 TBSP Herbs de Provence (optional)
Heat up one cup of the water by either microwaving it for 1 minute or simmering on the stove until bubbles just barely begin to form at the bottom. Remove the water from the heat, pour into a small mixing bowl, and add in the sugar or honey to dissolve. Add the remaining cup of water (room temperature/straight from the tap) to the 1 cup heated water. Ideally, the two cups of sugared water should be between 95-110 degrees once combined. I stick my finger into the bowl and if it’s slightly warmer than room temperature, it’s good to go. You can also use a cup of your favorite beer in lieu of the cup of cold water to add a little more flavor to your bread. Sprinkle the packet of yeast over the top of the warm water and let it proof for 10 minutes are so. It should get a bit bubbly. If it all sinks to the bottom, the water was too warm and you’ve murdered your yeast. My condolences.
While your yeast is proofing, set to work on the dry ingredients. In a large bowl whisk together the salt, flour, and herbs if using. If you want to make garlic knots, now would be the time to swap out the Herbs de Provence with Italian seasoning or basil & oregano, add 1 TBSP garlic powder, and 1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese. Once the yeast is nice and bubble-tastic pour it over the flour mixture. You can use a mixer with a dough hook attachment if you’d like, but really the best tool for the job is your hands. Using your fingers and palm like a spatula, mix and fold the ingredients together until if forms a ragged dough. It should be fairly wet and sticky. Make sure you run the side of your hand around the edge of the bowl as well as incorporating all the flour at the bottom. Do not over mix the dough with a hook or your palm, otherwise it will get tough. You can still use it to make bread, but it will have a far less pleasing texture.
Once all the ingredients are mixed well and you have a nice, cohesive, albeit sticky dough, let it rest in the bowl, covered with a damp towel or plastic wrap in a warm area for an hour or so. It should puff up quite a bit, if not double in size. Once this happens, the dough is proofed and you have a few options.
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.
You can spray a pyrex (8″ x8″) with non-stick spray or butter it and turn your dough right into it to rise a second time. That’s what I’ve done in these pictures. Allow the dough to sit about 20-30 minutes or until your oven is heated. It will rise during baking. Before putting the dough into the oven, slice the top about 1/2 inch down with a sharp knife or cut the corners toward the center, make 4 slashes that ultimately look like an X. This is optional, but adds to a golden brown crispy crust. Bake for 35-40 minutes.
You can also flour your counter top, turn your dough out, flour the top, and cut into rolls or knots.
If you do rolls, tear off a small ball of dough from the bowl, about 2-3 inches or so in diameter, and pat to the desired shape. Space each roll on a cookie sheet sprayed with non-stick or with parchment paper about 1 inch apart and bake at 400 degrees for 25-30 minutes.
If you decide to do knots, roll out the dough into logs about 6-8 inches long and about 3/4 inch thick. Loosely tie in a knot, and place on a cookie sheet the same as directed with the rolls. Brush with 2 TBSP melted butter mixed with 3 tsps garlic powder, 2 tsp dried parsley, salt, and pepper or sprinkle with shredded Parmesan cheese. Bake at 400 degrees for about 22 minutes or until lightly golden brown. I made the below ones a little crisper than normal this time, but they’re nice and chewy when they’re a little less done.
Which ever shape you choose, do your best to allow your bread to cool for 20 minutes or so. It’s hard to wait this out, believe me. And your house will smell amazing.
Use you bread to accompany an Italian food feast, eggs in the morning, ham & swiss for lunch, or just with a little butter and drizzle of honey for a snack.
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.
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.