Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thoughts for Thanksgiving



I had meant to write this last night, getting it ready to go up at the usual 6 a.m., all set for coffee-time reading. But I fell asleep on the sofa (or, more accurately, on the sofa and propped up on Craig's shoulder - I hope I didn't drool). Then I rolled over and went back to sleep with my head propped up on the arm of the sofa. Then I went to bed.

It was a looong day of proofreading a special Holiday Sweets cookie and candy section for Sunday's paper. On top of three photo shoots in a six-day period (for five stories, including eighteen recipes ... and if there's something to photograph, that's 'cause I did the schlep to the store and all the cooking, baking, and cleaning). I have one more holiday gift guide to finish; my first one, filled with ideas for kitchen mavens, comes on Tuesday.

And while it may sound like I'm whining, I don't mean to. Well ... I mean to a little! (Sometimes, you've just gotta vent, right?)

My full-time job is feeding my Tuesday pages and Sunday's Morsels column; two gift guides, Health and Living stories, the Holiday Sweets package ... that's all extra. Lately, it feels as though the only thing missing is the partridge in a pear tree. Are the holidays over yet?!?!? Getting everything ready for them, so that all my friends and readers can have beautiful meals and treats, is a tremendous investment of time and care.

But I'm going to stop whining now. Because in the midst of all the proofreading yesterday, I took time out to help serve the Thanksgiving lunch at the Martin Luther King Kitchen for the Poor. Jeremy and I did this last year, and it was such a meaningful experience that it was essential to me to do it again.

I ran in just at noon, not having been able to get out of work any sooner to help with prep. I arrived just as executive director Harvey Savage, Jr. was offering a warm welcome to the assembled group.

And by "assembled group," I mean the men and women and children who lined the entire perimeter of the large community room, the men and women and children who were lined up out the door. The men and women and children who weren't dressed in their finest holiday clothes, who didn't bring the pumpkin pie or the cranberry sauce, but instead came in old, somewhat disheveled clothing for the sustenance - both physical and spiritual - that the Kitchen was offering.

Miss Henrietta, left, and her staff and volunteers.
There seemed to be more need this year, more people seeking a hearty free meal that was made and served with love by Miss Henrietta and her regular core group of staff and volunteers. Miss Henrietta is a "no nonsense" woman. She has a heart as big as that community room that hosted so many guests; but when she calls out that she needs some strong young men to help take out the trash, several strong young men jump to attention and do as they're told.

When I had an opportunity to talk with Harvey about the number of people who'd come for lunch yesterday, he said that by 1 o'clock they'd already filled "seven or eight sheets" on the sign-in list. Each sheet holds twenty-five names, I think. (Don't quote me on that, but I know it's a lot.) The lunch was going to continue, still, for another half-hour. Harvey said that he does see more need this year; and he told me that more white people are coming in, too, to a place that is historically African-American but always welcoming to everyone.

There were older men and women, younger men and women, people who looked as though they might be wearing the only warm clothes they own. There was a young woman holding an adorable six-month-old baby on her hip. When I admired the baby and told her I missed that - having a little one - because mine is 24 years old and 6'3", she half-jokingly but half-seriously chided me for lying ... you know it has to be difficult for her, caring for a baby when her resources are undoubtedly very meager. When I saw her later, without her coat on, it looked as though she might be pregnant again; her abdomen didn't have the post-partum softness, but rather a firm bump.

One older woman came up to receive her boxed lunch and asked if she could have one to take home to her husband, who hadn't come with her. No, Miss Henrietta said; only one per person. It wasn't stated outright, but I'm guessing that this was to ensure that everyone who came in was able to eat, that there may have been calculations of the great need vs. the limits of the food supplies. As faith-centric as the Kitchen is, having been founded by Harvey's and Miss Henrietta's father, the late Rev. Harvey Savage, Sr., even they can't stretch a few fish and some loaves of bread to feed the 5,000.

As I helped to cut homemade sheet cakes that had been donated, I worked with a very nice young man whose name, unfortunately, I didn't get. (We were busy, filling boxes and plates and greeting people.) He was familiar with the work of the Cherry Street Mission, which offers food and shelter to the homeless community. He is active in his church. He clearly gives to, and supports, those in need to the best of his ability.

He told me, "This place has been here 50 years, and this is my first time doing this" - serving the Thanksgiving meal. "I feel ashamed." And he hung his head, feeling genuine embarrassment for not having been a part of this effort in previous years.

Then he waved at someone across the room, telling me, "I went to school with him." They'd started out life together, but one was serving the meal and the other was benefiting from it. The young man could have ignored his former classmate, but instead acknowledged him. They didn't speak, that I know of, to find out how life had treated them differently, how each had ended up on different sides of the serving table. It was undoubtedly difficult for both of them to have this moment of recognition.

The picture at the top of this post is of the "to go" container that each guest at the Kitchen received yesterday. There was no special china, no freshly polished silverware; the first task I was set to was the distribution of plastic forks that had been wrapped in paper napkins. People sat at the long tables eating what might be their only holiday meal out of styrofoam.

There were no second helpings. There was no choice in what was served, with the exception of serving one box with no ham to a man who doesn't eat pork. One man asked if he could have a different type of bread, rather than the roll; but in the noise and commotion of feeding such a long line of people, those in the kitchen didn't hear him. Something as simple as being able to choose what was on his plate was denied him.

And yet, prayers of thanks were offered before the meal. Throughout the service, people praised the Lord for having brought them to the Kitchen, for having brought them food either to eat when hungry or to serve to those in need. Invariably, each person who came up to the table said "Thank you," regardless of age or life situation. Everyone was polite. Every single one. There was true thanks giving.

The picture above shows a generous meal prepared and served with love; both ham and turkey are hiding under that bread roll. But it is admittedly a meager meal, without the bounty that many of us will enjoy today. There is no buffet of pound cakes and pies, no fresh salad, no sweet potato casserole with little burnished marshmallows. These are donated items, items bought on sale, canned vegetables and cranberry sauce.

There is truly, genuinely nothing wrong with this wholesome, substantial meal; I took a "to go" box for my own lunch, sharing in the bounty only after ensuring that it could be spared. Each of the staff and volunteers sampled the meal, a true community dinner. Harvey joked that if I didn't take mine he'd be eating it. You know I would never, ever take food from someone in need. But I am not too proud, or too important, or in possession of too sophisticated a palate (Cheetos lover that I am, ha!) that I wouldn't share in this generous food, too.

I go to many, many events where I get to dress up and sample a specially selected wine with each course; and there are multiple courses, served by professional waitstaff in elegant surroundings like country clubs. Oysters and foie gras and truffles have made appearances in the dinners I've been invited to.

One of the hazards of my job, if you can call it that, is that I get paid to eat. And I get paid to eat food prepared by some of the top chefs in the city, the country, the world.

But it was far more important to have shared in the Kitchen's Thanksgiving lunch yesterday, because part of my mission as Food Editor is to tell the story of food: holidays, nutrition, health, fun, silliness, trends, and need. Especially need.

I'm told fairly regularly by editors that I don't write for the "social action page." Recipes are the focus, a detente that has been grudgingly achieved as I feel important parts of the food world are left out.

It's difficult to go to the Kitchen, as much as I enjoy seeing my friends there and doing what little bit I can to help given the chaos of my schedule. And it's not difficult only because of being confronted with the realities of hunger in a country filled with so much abundance.

It's difficult because the experience is heartwarming and heartbreaking, joyous and sad, infuriating and frustrating, comforting and disturbing, all at once. There is so much laughter, so much focus on blessings and the Lord's generosity. And there's so much sadness, such a feeling of inadequacy because you can't fix it, you can't solve it, you can't wish the pain away for the Kitchen's guests. There's a muddle of confused emotions.

I think everyone should spend the day before Thanksgiving at a breakfast program, a homeless shelter's dinner, or a church's giveaway of food boxes. Because while so many of us are complaining that there's no room in the refrigerator for the turkey and the green bean casserole and the salad ingredients and the cider and all the other plentiful items we'll be gorging on at our own holiday celebrations, there are people who have nothing - no assurance of a bed, of warmth, or of another meal - who still say "thank you" when you give them so little in a styrofoam box that's accompanied by a plastic fork.

And so, my Thanksgiving today is about much more than timing the side dishes to be ready when the turkey is. And I do hope that yours will be, as well.


Sunday, November 8, 2015

At the Estate Sale with Rosie


Long-time friends know that I am endlessly amused by finding In the Kitchen with Rosie at thrift stores, garage sales, and - as of yesterday - at an estate sale. EVERYONE wanted it when it was published. No one wants it now ....


Monday, November 2, 2015

Pumpkin Bread Pudding with Maple Bourbon Brown Sugar Sauce




'Tis the season ....

No, not THAT season yet. (Soon. Frighteningly soon. But not just yet.)

'Tis the season for pumpkin. And for warming, comforting foods as we watch the leaves fall and the winds blow them around. And for starting to consider holiday meals, which absolutely must include dessert.

Because even though we've stuffed ourselves more fully than the Thanksgiving turkey, dessert is mandatory, right? Just one more bite ... and then another, and another.

We can't resist. We are weak. We are helpless creatures, caught in the tractor beam that draws us to all the fat, all the sugar, all the temptation, all the deliciousness.

And I'm here to play matchmaker, introducing you to the new love of your life. You'll dream about the creaminess, the hint of spiciness, the light crunchiness of the sugary topping. Your heart will start fluttering ... or is that just the cholesterol clogging up your arteries?

You can thank me once you wake up from your food coma ... :)


Pumpkin Bread Pudding with Maple Bourbon Brown Sugar Sauce

Pudding:
3 eggs
1/3 cup powdered sugar
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1-1/2 cups 2% milk
1 teaspoon + 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup pumpkin puree
4 large day-old croissants, cut into 1-inch cubes
1/4 cup brown sugar

Sauce:
4 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1 tablespoon bourbon
1 tablespoon corn syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup half-and-half

Make pudding: Preheat oven to 350F. Grease a 9-by-13 inch baking dish.

In a large bowl, whisk together eggs, powdered sugar, sugar, vanilla, milk, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, and pumpkin puree. Stir in croissant cubes and mix well; let rest 5 minutes. Pour mixture into prepared pan.

Combine remaining 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon with brown sugar; sprinkle over pudding.

Bake for 45 to 50 minutes, until pudding is puffy and a tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Let rest 5 minutes before serving.

Make sauce: Place butter, brown sugar, maple syrup, bourbon, corn syrup, and vanilla into a small saucepan and melt together over medium-high heat. Whisk in half-and-half and bring to a boil. Cook, undisturbed, for 1 minute. Let cool 10 minutes; sauce will thicken.

Cut pudding into squares and serve with ice cream or whipped cream, along with the sauce.

Yield: 8 generous or 12 moderate servings.


Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Is This Really a Food Story?




I have a fairly expansive view of what constitutes a food story. It has to have something to do with food, and not just peripherally. But food doesn’t necessarily need to be the sole and central topic, either. Does that make sense?

If it sounds a bit vague, that’s because clarifying the criteria for a food story seems to be a bit like the infamous definition of pornography: I know it when I see it, even if I can’t quite adequately describe it. But let me try to describe it ... a food story, that is.

I think a church dinner is a fair subject for something labeled a food story. But the food, which is undoubtedly delicious, is not the point. The gathering over a meal is, by far, the more important aspect. The welcoming of those in need is the crux of it, if the particular meal is meant for those who are hungry rather than, say, being a potluck for congregants. The role of food, as it offers sustenance as well as an entree into forming friendships and creating community, is what matters more than the specific dishes or the recipes for them.

I once wrote about the ice cream vending machine in a hospital cafeteria, and how its robotic arm – which reached into a cooler to pull out the selected item – was an amusing diversion. Because when a loved one is sick, even something as simple as this can be an entertaining respite. And it can be fodder for a story that may be food-related, but really isn’t entirely about the food.

Overwhelmingly, I find that people respond better – in greater numbers but, more importantly, personally and intimately – when the story veers from the straight, narrow, and literal topic of food. Because it becomes a human story, instead, that happens to have food as an ingredient.

When writing last Thanksgiving about fractured families that don’t gather together for the holiday because of various misunderstandings and grudges and traumas, the story was about how to overcome the sense of loss as others celebrated festively. My planned menu was barely acknowledged, an aside that was irrelevant to the admission that my family wouldn’t qualify for a Norman Rockwell painting. The column may have mentioned a meal, but the story wasn’t at all about the turkey, the stuffing, or even the pie.

And when I wrote about Hobbesie, whose real name is Hobbit, I told of having found a scrawny, crying cat wandering in my neighborhood and how he proceeded to earn his name by eating several breakfasts, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, and evening and bedtime snacks, too. (Hobbesie is now hefty enough that he might make a hearty meal, himself, if he lived in a different community.) Ostensibly a story about a cat, it was really about rescuing a new family member by sharing food and love ... and more food.

I don’t think readers look to me for stories that are strictly about food or recipes or cooking or shopping or restaurants. Rather, it seems my friends stop by to share in a conversation about the varied and myriad roles that food plays in our lives, the ways that it is a part of our story – individually and collectively – beyond merely what we’re serving for dinner tonight.

Folks may read what I write, some days, and wonder, “What does this have to do with food?”

But to me, the stories are always about food. I might talk very specifically about Oreos and the glut of newfangled models that don’t quite qualify for Oreo-dom. But then I’ll also write about sharing some of those new Oreos and making a friend in the process, using the cookies as a supporting player rather than casting them in a starring role.

So what constitutes a food story? I’m not sure if I’ve necessarily clarified that. A friend once told me that he thinks anything and everything could potentially be a food story, even World War II if you looked at it in terms of rationing, Spam, and victory gardens.

Simply put, I think there are far more ingredients to a food story than merely, and literally, the food.


Wednesday, September 9, 2015

A Cat, a Kitten, and Coming Home




My poor, sorry blog has been neglected ever since I started my job as Food Editor at The Toledo Blade in February of 2014. Deadlines, stories, and not enough time have kept me from stopping by here very often. And I've missed everyone!

So today, after chatting with a couple of our editors, the suggestion was made that I could use this space for random stories, for stories that aren't quite what the paper wants on the food pages, for stories that deserve to be read but need a different space.

Here's the first installment, then: a story about Craig's and my new kitten. It's a sequel to an earlier story, and I've included a link. I'm hoping to do this fairly regularly ... we shall see. Time is elusive, and there's not enough of it. But I'm going to try!!! (If you want to follow my writings and adventures, the best bet is still The Toledo Blade Food Page, on Facebook.)


--------------------------


In January, I introduced everyone to my cat, Hobbesie. (Here's the story.)

His proper name is Hobbit because, as I noted, “he likes to eat breakfast. And second breakfast. And a mid-morning snack. And brunch, followed by lunch, second lunch, and afternoon tea. He wants ’linner’: a lunch/dinner combo. He likes supper, dinner, an evening snack and a midnight snack.”

Hobbesie has filled out nicely (perhaps just a touch too nicely, as he’s a sturdy 10-pounder now), compared to the scrawny little thing he was when we found him wandering in our neighborhood last fall.

Given how popular he seemed to be after his introduction, with lots of feline fans telling me about their own cats’ quirky names and unusual eating habits, I thought you’d like to know that Hobbiesie now has a baby sister, Graycie. Needless to say, we called her that because she’s gray with a light-colored striped stomach.

Graycie was living under the deck behind our house, and we’d see her with two other cats who were much bigger than she was. Neither seemed to care for her efforts at snuggling; one of them actually swatted her when she tried to cuddle up. The three would come up for the food we’d started providing once we realized they were there. A very round raccoon also enjoyed joining the party. The buffet was served every night.

We checked with several rescue organizations, and it became clear that the older cats wouldn’t be domesticated very readily. But Graycie was very little, so we tried to capture her.

She was skittish and afraid, but gradually would come out to eat some soft canned food even if we sat close by, hoping to make her comfortable with our presence. As a skinny little scavenger, Graycie didn’t have a particularly discriminating palate and happily ate everything we offered.

Very quickly, the older cats seemed to have left her alone. It was as though they’d completed their mission, dropping her off at a new home where someone would take care of her. Graycie would sit alone in the middle of our deck and cry, but then run back under the slats any time we gently tried to get close.

There’s one sure way to lure a little frightened cat, though.

You call it tuna. I call it kitten kryptonite.

We put a small bowl of it into a carrier one evening and she soon tiptoed out in search of the treat. At which point we shut the door, brought her inside (to Hobbesie’s great delight as he sat on top of the handle), and then took her to a vet the next morning. He guessed that she was about eight weeks old.

Some creeping crud in her eye, a bad smell, fleas, and being hungry were the only medical issues. Eye drops, oral meds, death-to-fleas treatment. Then Graycie was discharged to come home. Our home.

Ravenous as she was, it didn’t matter whether we fed her Hobbesie’s kibble for indoor cats or her own kitten chow. Cans of chicken, turkey, tuna with egg, salmon, pate (which Hobbesie loathes) or tidbits or filets ... Graycie ate it all.

Until a few days later, when she snubbed the beef shreds.

Beggars can’t be choosers, as they say. But apparently Graycie had realized that she didn’t need to beg anymore. She didn’t need to share her food with the mean cats or with Rocky Raccoon.

Sure, Hobbesie ate out of her bowl because it somehow seemed new and exotic, and he was likely teaching her who the Alpha Male was. But Graycie just retaliated by eating out of Hobbesie’s bowl. It all worked out and no one was going hungry.

And so, with the new-found comfort of knowing more food would be available, Graycie let us know she didn’t want beef. She waited ’til her minions served her something better.

I used to joke that Hobbesie was our starter cat, and happily he likes having Graycie around.

Maybe the next cat will be beige. I already have a name picked out: Matzah Ball.


Friday, February 27, 2015

Hamantaschen for Purim




If it's Purim - which it will be at sundown on Wednesday - then it's time to make hamantaschen. A perfect weekend project!

Hamantaschen are the filled, triangular cookies that are a tradition for this holiday which celebrates the story of Queen Esther. Purim is the happiest day on the Jewish calendar.

Esther was married to King Asahuerus, whose evil Vizier, Haman, wanted to have the Jews killed. It wasn't known that Esther was Jewish, and she agonized over whether to risk death by telling her husband; she fasted and prayed. Her uncle Mordecai supported her, and Esther ultimately decided to inform the king that if he killed the Jews then he would be killing her, as well. In the end, the old Jewish adage proved true: They tried to kill us, we survived ... let's eat!

Because there was no kosher food in the king's court, Esther is said to have eaten seeds and nuts; therefore, it's traditional to cook with poppy seeds at Purim, in Esther's honor. The triangular hamantaschen - shaped to resemble the ears or the hat (or both) of the evil Haman - often contain a poppy seed filling. Others feel that prune, an Old World favorite, is the most authentic and their favorite.

And then others, like me, always have to tweak traditions.

So this year's flavors are my classic cherry, made with Balaton cherries that I pitted myself in July. And also a new one: s'mores. Yup - s'mores. Why didn't I do this before??? They don't look pretty, as the marshmallows puff up and push on the dough before melting, leaving it a bit distorted; but who cares how they look when they taste so good???

It's traditional to give mishloach manot [mish-loh-AHCK mah-NOHT] to loved ones - small goodie bags filled with hamantaschen and at least one other ready-to-eat treat. Many people add tea bags, candies, even stickers ... just something fun. And even more importantly, it's a mitzvah - commandment, good deed - to give money to the poor, as well.

Chag sameach! [hahg sah-MAY-ahck] Happy holiday!





Hamantaschen

Dough:
1 cup butter or margarine
4 ounces cream cheese (dairy or soy)
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg
splash of vanilla extract
pinch of kosher salt
2 cups flour

In a large bowl, cream together butter and cream cheese; stir in sugar. Stir in egg, vanilla, and salt until well combined. Stir in flour, and knead until the dough comes together.

Divide the dough in half and wrap each portion in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

To finish cookies:
1 egg
1 tablespoon water
filling of choice
sugar
mini marshmallows

Preheat oven to 350F.

Take one piece of dough at a time and roll it out thin (not paper thin) on a floured countertop. Using a 2-1/2" cookie cutter, cut out circles; place them onto a baking sheet lined with parchment or with silicone liners.

Mix together the egg and water to make a wash. Brush lightly onto one row of dough circles at a time (so the others don't dry out while you work on filling and shaping cookies).



Take a scant tablespoon of chosen filling (see below) and place onto the center of one circle of dough. Fold two sides up and pinch them, to form a corner. Bring up the third side and pinch at the corners, forming a triangle. Repeat with more filling and the rest of the dough circles on the baking sheet.

When the cookies are filled and shaped, brush them lightly with egg wash and sprinkle with sugar. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until just golden at the edges. Remove to a rack to cool and continue with remaining dough and fillings.

Makes 3-1/2 dozen hamantaschen.

If making s'mores hamantaschen, let the cookies cool; the fillings will sink, leaving a cavernous hole. Fill the hole with 3 mini marshmallows each, and place the cookies back on the cookie sheet. Bake at 350F for 5 minutes, just to burnish the marshmallows a bit and toast them very lightly. Remove to a rack and cool completely.

S'mores filling:
1 cup chocolate chips
1/8 cup half-and-half
1 cup marshmallow Fluff, slightly warmed to soften it
1 cup mini marshmallows
8 graham cracker squares, crushed fine

In a medium saucepan, melt the chocolate chips and the half-and-half over very low heat, stirring frequently, until smooth. Stir in the Fluff, marshmallows, and graham cracker crumbs.

Yield: enough for 3-1/2 dozen hamantaschen.

Cherry filling:
2-2/3 cups cherries, chopped
2/3 cup sugar
splash of almond extract
4 tablespoons cornstarch

In a small saucepan, combine all ingredients. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. As soon as the mixture turns thick and gelatinous, remove from heat and stir until thickened. Place into a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate 30 minutes or until cool.

Yield: enough for 3-1/2 dozen hamantaschen.


Friday, February 20, 2015

Mushroom Barley Soup



Tryin' to be a little more present, here on ye olde blog!

Here's some comfort food extraordinaire, perfect for a cold, winter's day. Spring is coming soon! But unfortunately, it's still not here.

So, warm yourselves with a hot, hearty helping of homemade ... soup. (No "h"-word for that, to keep up the alliteration!)

I'd never made Mushroom Barley Soup before, despite having eaten lots of it. It's so simple! It's so good!


Mushroom Barley Soup

Barley:
1-3/4 cups water
pinch of kosher salt
3/4 cup pearled barley

Soup:
2 tablespoons oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 large carrot, finely diced
1 large celery stalk, finely diced
1 small yellow onion, finely diced
2 large Portobello mushrooms, chopped
6 ounces white mushrooms, chopped
pinch of red pepper flakes
2-1/2 cups beef broth
1/4 cup red wine
1 tablespoon kosher salt
generous sprinkling of freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon all-purpose seasoning
1 tablespoon soy sauce
sour cream, for serving

Prepare barley: In a small saucepan, bring water and salt to a boil. Stir in barley, cover, lower heat to simmer, and cook for 45 minutes, until water is absorbed and barley is just tender.

Prepare soup: Heat oil over medium-high heat in a soup pot. Add garlic, carrot, celery, and onion; cook for 2 minutes, until vegetables are becoming translucent. Add all the mushrooms and the red pepper flakes; cook, stirring frequently, for 6-7 minutes until the mushrooms are browning.

Add broth, wine, salt, pepper, seasoning, and soy sauce; bring to a boil, then simmer for 15 minutes. Add barley and simmer for 30 more minutes.

Serve hot, with a dollop of sour cream stirred in.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings.




Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Orecchiette



And old post, but a good one!

(Originally published March 4, 2013.)

I read Frank Bruni's autobiography, Born Round, a couple of summers ago. Although it tells a tantalizing tale of his years in the seemingly enviable, but complicated and stressful, position of New York Times restaurant critic, more importantly it's a story of finding oneself, of a difficult relationship with food, and of a loving family.

One portion has stayed with me since reading the book:

"Adele's (Frank's grandmother's) specialty was what most Italian food lovers know as orecchiette, which means 'little ears.' Her name for them, strascinat, pronounced something like strah-zshi-NOT, came from her southern Italian dialect. It alluded to the Italian verbs for 'to trail' and 'to drag' (strascicare and trascinare), because to make this pasta, you'd drag a knife along a sheet of dough, repeatedly pressing down and pinching off just enough of the dough to make an ear-shaped nub of pasta ....

Adele used her thumb as the mold for each strascinat. She would sit at a sizable table, an enormous rectangle of dough before her, and pinch and mold and then flick, the concave nubs landing in a nearby heap. She'd sit for hours, because there was no reliable machine for this endeavor, no dried pasta from a box that could emulate the density and pliancy of her strascinat, no alternative to doing the work, no matter how numbing it was. And even if there had been an alternative, she wouldn't have taken advantage of it. Dried pasta from a box didn't advertise how long and hard you had labored. Dried pasta from a box didn't say love. When you ate a bowl of Grandma's strascinat, covered in the thick red sauce that she and most other Italians simply called 'gravy,' you knew that every piece of pasta had the imprint of her flesh, that the curve of each nub matched the curve of her thumb."

Most people would read this and think, "Wow, Frank's nonna really loved her family. Good thing you can buy so many different pasta shapes at the grocery store, now!"

I, of course - you know what's coming! - read that and immediately thought, "I've gotta try making these some time!" The love infused into the pasta, the passion for preparing real food from scratch ... I was seduced.

Well, last week we had a snow day: 6+ inches of snow coupled with messy roads and no power at work. We didn't have any power at home, either, but Jeremy and I made the very best of it. He played Nirvana, the Ramones, and the Pixies on his Kindle, and - thankfully! - our gas stove worked as long as we lit the burners ourselves.

And so, the day had come. Jeremy and I made our own pasta!

I mixed the dough, then Jeremy came to help me with the shaping. After reading a number of recipes for strascinat, which - as Frank noted - I've always known as orecchiette [ohr-ay-keeAY-tay], I saw that many involve rolling the dough into a cylinder and then cutting pieces which are then formed, as described above, by imprinting one's thumb into them. So, that's what we did. One by one by one by one ... over and over again. To some, it might be boring. To some, it might be futile.

To us - yes, even to Jeremy (though if we'd been making enough to feed an entire family, rather than just ourselves, he might have had a different opinion!) - it was fun. We chatted, we compared homely samples to ideal ones. We made dinner and a memory, all at once.

Throughout the afternoon, Jeremy and I checked on our "babies" as they dried. I cooked up some diced tomatoes, red onion, garlic, hot Italian sausage, and kale, because the beauty of orecchiette is that the little scoops hold bits of the sauce. Different pasta shapes are designed for different toppings. The sturdier and heartier the base, the sturdier and heartier the sauce should be; thus, a light marinara is lovely served over angel hair pasta, but our orecchiette required something substantial.

And then, as the sun went down and the house was cold and every candle I own was burning, Jeremy and I ate an amazing hot and heart-warming meal.


Orecchiette

2 cups flour, plus more for dusting
1/2 cup white whole wheat flour
pinch of kosher salt
1 cup water
1 egg

In a large mixing bowl, combine the flours and the salt.

In a measuring cup, combine the water and the egg; pour over the dry ingredients and stir to mix.

Sprinkle flour on the countertop and knead the dough until it is no longer sticky, incorporating a bit more flour as needed. Divide dough into quarters, wrapping the unused portions in plastic.

Take one piece of dough at a time and roll it out into a 1/2"-long cylinder.


Cut pieces of dough about the size of a chickpea.

Roll the small pieces of dough into balls, rolling in a touch of flour if needed; then press down with your thumb to make a flat disc that curves slightly like the shape of an ear. Continue until you've used all of the dough.


Let the discs rest for 30 minutes, then re-press each one to reinforce the shape. Let rest for 1 hour to dry.

Flip the discs over and let them rest for 1 hour or more, until almost dry.  They won't be hard like boxed pasta, but they'll be drier than when you first formed them.

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add the orrecchiette and cook for 6 minutes or so, until they float to the top and are just "al dente" - slight resistance to the tooth.

Drain. Serve topped with a chunky tomato sauce.

Serves 4.



Looking for Something ...?