Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Happy 7th Birthday... My 28-Year-Old Son!

Mom and Me - Courier Post

Well over 50 years ago, when such things were relevant, a picture of my mother and I graced the front page of the local newspaper because I was the first baby born of that New Year (no need for specifics here). I came into the world a few minutes after midnight January 1, and apparently that was newsworthy. Unfortunately, my mother died when I was a very young child and I don't remember talking to her about our much heralded birth announcement. A picture and a tattered newspaper clipping are all that is left. But I am convinced that thirty years later, there was an angelic intervention when my son, Trevor and I graced the front page of the local newspaper because he was the first baby born in Burlington County on February 29th, 1984. That the two of us came into the world thirty years apart and made a mark on our very first day, still amazes me. Especially since the journey was anything but easy.

Trevor, Me (and Dad) Burlington County Times
I married at 19 and gave birth to our first child at age 30. The 11 years in between were often filled with heartache, stress, anxiety and tests…lots and lots of tests. But, thanks to answered prayers and good doctors, we were finally where we wanted to be…..and then the little one decided to come early.

My husband had just left for work, when it became instantly apparent that I was in the start of labor. No cell phones those days so I called my sister, who lived right around the corner. She was in the middle of preparing for my baby shower which was to be held about 8 hours later. It was going to be a big shower, loads of food, family and friends. She and my sister-in-law had invited all of the people whose baby showers I reluctantly went to over the last 11 years, bearing gifts and forced smiles…. all of the people who were truly celebrating, this long-sought event, with me and for me. She was decorating when I called to tell her that I needed a ride.

In seconds, she was coming through the front door. “What do you mean you’re in labor?” she questioned with the anxiousness that only a woman who had 12lbs of meatballs and sauce simmering in crock pots would ask. “My water broke and the doctor told me to go right over to the hospital”, I answered knowing full well that it was five weeks too early.

We quickly got in the car and were on our way, when she turned to me and said “You can’t have this baby today. He’ll only have a birthday every four years”! “What the hell was she talking about”, I thought to myself. I had no idea what the date was. I only knew that it wasn’t April 4th, the date I needed it to be.

Throughout that long, long day, the subject of this “date” kept coming up among nurses, my husband and my sister. Going in and out of awareness, I was picking up that the room was divided on whether having the birthday of February 29th was “unique” or a “hassle” being that the date is on the calendar only once every four years. At that time, I really didn't care. This kid was going to be born this day, even if I had to go in and get him! And he was, and all was good! Even being premature, he was almost seven pounds and deemed fit and ready to face the world.

 But it wasn't really until the next morning that the significance of his birth date was brought to my attention again when a photographer from the local newspaper came in and asked if he could take a picture of the two of us. I instantly saw my mother, with me propped in her arms, on the front page of the Courier Post 30 years earlier. I felt my first connection to her in years. "Thanks Mom", I whispered as I wiped away tears. "It's just a local paper", the somewhat embarrassed, photographer explained. "Well, it means the world to me", I answered as I propped my son in my arms.

Happy 7th Birthday Trevor!

Today, 28 years and 7 birthdays later, I am in my kitchen baking a cake and wondering if Trevor feels the same way that I do about this “special” birth date he owns. “I like it”, he answered when I called him. “I like not being like everyone else.” Well, there is truth to that statement in so many ways….good ways, unique ways. But there is still a small rub, though, when it’s not a leap year, the two of us have an ongoing debate on which day to celebrate. I say he was born the day after February 28th, “no matter was the date is.” He steadfastly maintains that he was born the last day of February, “no matter what the date is.” So, for three out of four years there is always some confusion as to what day we should light the candles on his cake.

But the fact that we even have that confusion is still viewed as a blessing to his father and I. He is here, and that is all that matters. And, ironically, his birth cured whatever fertility issues we were having, because 11 months later, his brother, Kyle was born - another February birthday. And since Kyle celebrates his birthday as if it were a national holiday, it’s probably best that he has one every year!  My husband and I celebrate them both every day. February 29th, 2012. Happy 7th Birthday, Trevor! I hope you have at least 20 more! 

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

In Search of Bread Soup......

It has been a milder than normal winter here in the Northeast part of the country this year. After two brutal winters, this one has been kind to us. Most days have stayed in the 40 degree range, some even getting into the 50’s. All winter storm fronts have come in the form of rain. Days like these remind a lot of people of early spring, to me they are a reminder of San Gimignano, Italy, where on a cold, rainy day in April, I discovered the soul warming, palate orgasmic pleasure of bread soup.

Guess who said, "we won't need umbrellas today?"
Oddly enough, I don’t even remember ordering it. I, along with my husband and friends, had been wondering along the cobblestone streets of this magnificent walled city, for hours. It was raining lightly and cold - raw cold, the kind that creeps into you through the spring light-weight jacket that you bought for this trip – and were determined to wear.

And even though I kept them in my pockets, my hands were freezing when we stumbled across a small restaurant whose amber glow from the light inside sent out a warm invitation to this group of weary travelers on this dreary day. There was a rather large number of us, so we divided up and scampered to any and all available tables.

From here on, (and it may have been due to wine that is always at the ready in Italy), the details are a little foggy. I do remember rubbing my hands together and blowing on them to get rid of the sting. Then next thing I knew, the waitress was putting down a steaming hot bowl of soup in front me…in front of all of us, before we even looked at a menu. Now, it is not unusual in this country for the waitresses to take on a rather maternal instinct when serving their patrons. Only a day earlier, a friend who ordered beans with her dinner was told in strong, broken English “No, too late in the day. Too much gas.You’ll have rice”. And she did.

So it is not altogether unfathomable that the waitress just thought we all needed soup! And we did. Truth be told, had I seen “bread soup” on the menu, I probably wouldn’t have ordered it, thinking it would be thick or creamy, a soup style I simply don’t care for. This, though, was anything but. The broth was almost clear with a reddish, yellowish tint to it. I think there were small pieces of carrots and celery, and I could see specks of herbs and spices, like pepper flakes and parsley or maybe, basil. Large chunks of crusty bread were added, apparently right before it was served. Then our new Italian mother came around and swirled drops of extra virgin olive oil over each bowl. I don’t know whether it was the day’s chill, the wine, the friends, the city, the crackling fire, or the warmth of this tiny restaurant…but it was magnificent. To this day, I have never tasted such flavor from something that looked so unassuming.

I have since done a great deal of research on this elusive masterpiece, and found that the recipe for “panata” as it is known it Italy, changes from region to region, from town to town, from household to household! Everyone has their favorite version so narrowing it down to what I remember, has been a task. This comes very close:
  • 4 tablespoons quality extra-virgin olive oil
  • 5 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 teaspoon crushed dried hot peppers (or more, to your liking)
  • 2 (12-ounce) cans peeled whole tomatoes (San Marzano tomatoes, if possible)
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 cup clear chicken stock
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine
  • 1/2 loaf day old Italian bread
  • 10 fresh basil leaves, torn into small pieces
  • Good quality Parmesan cheese (should not come in a green container)
Saute garlic in olive oil easily, so as not to burn. Add crushed peppers and white wine. Pour canned tomatoes in a bowl and crush with your hands. Then add  tomatoes with juice to the pot and bring to simmer.  After 10 minutes, add chicken stock and basil. Simmer 10 more minutes and season to taste. After putting broth in bowls, add torn pieces of crusty Italian bread. Sprinkle cheese and add a couple drops of olive oil.

The soup and wine loving ladies of Tuscany!
For best results, serve on a cold rainy night. Add a gathering of friends, a few bottles of wine and if available, a crackling fire. I promise, memories will be made!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Kitchen Non-essentials??

I, like many, have a microwave oven that is mounted over the stove. And like everyone else’s it has an exhaust fan and light, features I use almost every day. The bothersome part is, when I turn the light off at night, a little digital display runs across like a movie marquee, which reads “Light is now off”. Did I pay extra for this feature? I know it’s off. I turned it off. I actually have to stop myself from and saying “duh”!! And there is no way of controlling my microwave from stating the obvious. 

It got me thinking….how many things slip into the products we buy, that we simply don’t need? So I poured myself a third cup of coffee (didn’t really need that) and started making a list. Since I was sitting in it, the kitchen seemed a great place to start. First thing I noticed is that time was on my side….literally. To my right, both the stove and the know-it-all microwave have digital clocks. In front of me, the coffee maker, the radio/cd player and the refrigerator door also have digital clocks. To the far left, hangs a wall clock that chimes on the hour, so even if my eyes miss one of the five digital displays, my ears will at least know what time it is. I swear, I never realized how many clocks were in my kitchen until this little experiment. Not even when I have to reset them twice a year!!!

Ok, I’m calmer and back on task – almost. My train of thought has altered slightly to wondering how many duplicates are in my kitchen. How many things are shoved in cabinets and drawers that I don’t need at all? Apparently, a lot!! For the record, my husband and I are empty nesters, sort of. We still have one bird hovering that occasionally lands to sleep and bathe, but most nights, it’s just the two of us. So, I am going to allow myself some grace in that there are going to be things I’ll find that I bought when I was cooking big meals every night. Things I thought I needed at the time….

……but even I can’t explain five garlic presses. Five. Different colors and sizes, but still all with one mission, crush a bulb of garlic, something I actually do now with the flat end of a butcher knife and my fist. I found three beaters for a hand mixer that only holds two. Only one of them fit. I found two cords for an electric frying pan that I no longer have. I found the plastic scraper that went with the original George Foreman grill. The one I gave to my son when he went away to college seven years ago. It didn’t come back. The grill, I mean.

I found three cheese graters, two zesters, three potato peelers, and six bag clips. In the back of one cabinet I found the Teflon plates that went into a waffle iron I threw out last year….because I couldn’t find the Teflon plates. I started piling all the things I didn’t need any more in a box. My thought was to put the box in the garage and sell the stuff at a yard sale in spring. I knew in my heart that some, poor, misguided woman who only had three garlic presses at home, would buy one more. What I didn’t initially realize is that I would need more than one box.

At the end of the day, my kitchen was lighter and my garage was full. After removing all the “extras”, I wiped out the drawers and cabinets and organized the remains. At first, I felt a sense of accomplishment. I spent the entire day getting rid of some of the clutter in my life. If there was something I had more than one of, I kept the most effective one, and discarded the rest.

I sat down amazed at how many unnecessary kitchen tools I bought when I was cooking for my family every night. I must have viewed them as essential “little helpers” in getting dinner on the table quickly after working all day. These days, I still work, but am much more relaxed in preparing dinner for just the two of us, although admittedly, I miss the chatter that once surrounded our table.

But, still, I am so quick to stop at any culinary store containing isles of kitchen gadgets and search for that “must have” item. And sitting here, I’m stunned to realize that in spite of everything I’ve bought, all I ever really use are a sharp knife, a cutting board, a zester and my hands! I never really needed anything that is now sitting on the garage floor. This is a life altering reckoning! A true “light bulb” moment!

 Just then, my eye caught the attention of a man on TV who was slicing a tomato on, what he called, “the mandolin” Not just tomatoes, but, potatoes, onions, cucumbers, etc. How cool was this? I went to get my laptop for some online shopping and on the way out of the kitchen, I turned the light off over the stove. “Light is now off” Yeah, pretty much.   

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

At Your Request.........Tomato Pie!

It is true that, if you allow yourself, you will learn something new every day! In my last post, I mentioned how my Italian Grandmother would make tomato pie (not pizza) on Friday nights. Since, I’ve been inundated with emails, some from as far away as Ireland, asking me for her recipe. Apparently, there are a lot of lactose intolerant people who can’t eat regular pizza because of the milk-rich mozzarella cheese that is slathered on top. (Quite frankly, I received a little too much information on what happens to these people when they consume dairy products.)

Anyway, you have to remember that I was only seven or eight years old when she was making the tomato pie and wasn’t taking notes. And with my Grandmother long gone (as are most of her children, including my own mother), I had to do a little CSI’ing to help the readers who so very nicely took the time to ask me about this item that I described as “heaven”. My results surprised me.

My first thought was to search “tomato pie recipe” and see what was out there; and let me tell you, they didn’t come close to what I was writing about. Most of the modern recipes start with using pre-made pie crusts and placing tomato slices around the bottom. At that point, each recipe took different variations, using everything; bacon, onions, peppers, eggs, mushrooms, and always, always cheese. They looked great, and I guess because they are in a pie crust and have tomatoes, they can technically be called a “tomato pie”. But most of them looked like a quiche, and nothing at all like what I remembered.

Not Grandmom's!
Time to go to plan B and call my 85-year-old aunt, one of my Grandmother’s few surviving offspring. Now, I love my Aunt Angelina (Lee to family), but talking to her on the phone is, well, rather difficult since every conversation starts with “this damn hearing aid isn’t working……who is this?” But, because I wrote the article that readers were asking about, I decided to take one for the team and call her. It went something like this:
“Aunt Lee, do you remember when Grandmom made tomato pie?”
“What….wait a minute, let me turn down this damn TV….okay, made what?”
“Tomato pie. How did Grandmom make the tomato pie?”
“Wait…..let me get my glasses….okay, tomato pie? Why are you asking?”
“I want to make it. I need the recipe”
“Recipe, what recipe? You make the dough, a little gravy, a little olive oil….what recipe? Anybody with half a brain can make it…..wait a minute, this damn hearing aid….”
 Plan C.  We will now use the trial and error method of making Grandmom’s tomato pie. The one thing I know for sure, it wasn't made in a pie dish of any kind. And I wish I could say that I took out my Kitchen Aid mixer and made homemade pizza dough, but instead, I walked down the street and bought it for $2. (That’s right, a lot of pizza restaurants will sell balls of dough, cheap!) The other thing I remembered is that there really wasn't much to it. So after just one attempt, I think I nailed it:
Mangiare a Nonne!!!!
Grandmom’s Tomato Pie:
Roll dough out to desired thickness (Grandmom’s was thin)
Brush entire surface of dough with extra virgin olive oil
Sprinkle gently with a good quality parmesan cheese (much less milk fat than mozzarella)
Spread favorite tomato sauce thinly over dough - thin being key to making a great tomato pie. (I use my grandmother’s recipe for “gravy”, so if not using homemade, use a good quality jar sauce).
Top with an additional dusting Parmesan and a sprinkle of garlic salt.
Put in 400 degree oven (on pizza stone, if one is available) and bake about 15 minutes or until crust is browning and sauce is slightly bubbling.

There it is! Easy as pie! (sorry). Maybe Aunt Lee was right, anyone with half a brain can make this, just use the other half to decide which vino goes best with it! And enjoy! Also, thanks for asking. Grandmom would be happy.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

9th Street, Rocky and My Grandmother.....

There is a scene in the first Rocky movie where the fighter in training runs down the middle of the 9th Street Italian Market in Philadelphia, and one of the fruit vendors throws him an orange. I thought about that recently as I walked down 9th St., that was 37 years ago and not much has changed, In fact, not much has changed since my grandmother, an Italian immigrant, shopped here over 50 years ago.

The market, in the heart of South Philly, was actually formed in the late1800’s, as masses of Italian laborers migrated from Italy to work in the shipyards and factories along the Delaware River. Sadly, most, if not all,  of those jobs are gone now, but the market of vendors, who sell produce from wooden carts on wheels, and  line the street in front of butcher shops, bakery's, cheese and spice merchants, remains as vibrant as ever. While many other immigrant nationalities have joined the ranks now, its roots remain Italian. This is still a neighborhood where pasta sauce is simply known only as “gravy”!  

My grandmother, Rose, worked in one of the area factories that manufactured men’s pants, trousers, as they were called then, and did most of her grocery shopping on 9th St. before heading home. As she would say, “acquistare prodotti freschi, cucinare prodotti freschi”, meaning; buy fresh produce, cook fresh produce, and she did, every day. Grandmom was born in Palermo, Italy where marketing was done on a daily basis. And on a recent trip to Tuscany, I discovered that this is an age-old practice that continues there today.

She was a rather large woman, my Grandmother, and could usually handle the bags of peppers, onions, eggplants and fresh sausage (when her budget allowed) in a canvas sack that she carried on the bus to New Jersey. On days that her stamina would exceed her 10-hour shifts, she would walk a little further down 9th St. and get fresh, crusty bread at Sarcones Bakery, which would eventually get stuffed with fried peppers, onions and eggplants.

As one of the many grandchildren who would sometimes spend weekends with her, the best days for us would be when she would stop by Di Bruno’s Brothers Cheese Shop and buy a wedge of Locatelli Romano Cheese, a sharp form of parmesan that has a salty bite. She would grate it into small, fluffy mounds, and we would scramble over who would get to eat the last tiny piece that was too small for her to use. To this day, I can’t eat chicken soup without it.

On Friday nights, she would roll out dough, spread on the gravy and load the top with the Locatelli before putting it in her oven. This was tomato pie, not pizza, and it was heaven. While it was baking, five, sometimes six, chattering cousins would roll the leftover dough into balls for her to fry and then roll in sugar. This was dinner and dessert at Grandmom’s and it just didn’t get any better.

On Sunday’s, the day our parents would come to gather us up; we would stand at her apron and roll meatballs to go with the pasta, veal cutlets, sausage, and antipasti that would soon fill the dining room table. Chianti and orange soda were the beverages of choice. The meal would end when my mother and aunts would put out the cannolis and cookies from Isgro’s Bakery, along with an ample arrangement of fresh fruit; all bought in the Italian Market, carried in canvas, on a bus to New Jersey.

It was the sites, the sounds, the smells of 9th street that brought these memories back to me on a recent winter day. The aroma of garlic sautéing in olive oil from restaurants, the warming scent of bread coming from bakeries, and the waft of hickory-filled smoke coming from wood burning in large metal drums along the street, helps keeps the atmosphere of this historic area in a magic type of time capsule. I can’t see it ever changing.

As I walked back to my car, I saw an old women standing at the bus stop with a bag of groceries in each hand. When she set them down momentarily to pull her collar up against the wind….I thought, oh, I hope she has grandchildren waiting for her. 

Monday, February 6, 2012

Valentines and Shadows.......

Sometimes it’s hard to be married, even harder to be happily married. And not because being with the same person year after year gets monotonous or stale at times, because it does….and that’s okay. After several years together, you learn to accept that even though the new car smell is gone, it still runs fine! No, what can make it hard is that sometimes, as a long-time married couple, you almost cease to exist in a world where everything has an expiration date.

Over the past holiday season, we hosted an annual gathering of friends and neighbors. As always, most conversations took place as people gathered in the kitchen and adjacent dining area. As I worked my way through, I caught bits of conversation here and there, familiar with all the stories. We are a 50-something’s bunch that have travelled together for many years; through the vineyards of Tuscany, the hills of Ireland, the castles of Spain, the glaciers of Alaska, etc. It is a group I cherish. But as I think back, there are very few trips with the same cast of characters.

Divorce and separations have altered the “group” pictures throughout the years. The women are a constant – our dynamics are female driven, so we choose who gets to stay in the group after a breakup, and it is never the men. Our numbers vary, ranging from 10 to 18 strong, depending upon where we are going and personal availability. But there is one number that stays the same. Only three of us are with our original partners. Now, math is not my strong suit, but even I can see that the odds against a sustainable marriage are huge.

So as we gather around kitchen, restaurant, dining room or patio tables now, (yes, there is always food…and drink),  a lot of our conversations surrounds, who is in a new relationship, what is the best online dating site for women of a certain age, the possibility of a singles cruise (I’m out). And quite honestly, it is sometimes exciting to vicariously live through tantalizing details of the new relationships of our friends. But recently I heard….”we have only been out four times, what should I do about Valentine’s Day?”

Valentine’s Day. Now there is a subject I can speak to. I have gone through 45 years of “Valentines Days”, 38 of them married, to my current husband (actually, my only husband but current seems to be the adjective that now describes relationships.). He is my original travel partner. And since these days, I don’t always feel that I have a lot to contribute to conversations that I often stay on the edge of; I am coming out of the shadows to address this one!

Because I don’t think that Valentine’s Day is only for those “new” relationships where lust is confused with love. I think it’s especially for those of us who go through each day as travel companions; the ordinary days, the extraordinary days, the days where you can’t stand the sight of each other, countered by the days where a familiar but unexpected gesture can make you feel love so strong it takes your breath in a gasp.

It is for those of us who could walk into a Hallmark shop blindfolded, pick up any card and know that whatever it says inside will apply. It is for those of us who don’t use Valentine’s Day to celebrate a relationship, but rather as a gentle reminder of what we already have. So, to my friends, who are also the loves of my life, if you any have questions on how to handle February 14th, ask me. I’ve got this!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Everything but the kitchen sync!

Bud, my Dad, was a man who always let you know what was on his mind. Even when you didn’t want to know.  He was a man who liked things done his way, or at least the way he would do them.  This put us at odds, at times, and he would often end up describing my efforts as doing things “ass backwards”. “Meaning?” I would question just to annoy him, “You do things the hard way. Like walking into a room backwards.” I was never really sure what my ass had to do with it, but years later, I got his analogy. And Bud, if you were looking down when we renovated the kitchen a few years back you would have crowned me the Queen of Ass Backwards Land!

I need to preference this story by saying “It wasn’t my fault” (a claim Bud would never accept. If you were even standing near a problem – you owned it). But in this case, it really wasn’t my fault. About five years ago, we were enjoying a lovely Sunday in late August on a friend’s boat, when my cell phone rang. I heard my youngest son use words like “broken pipe” and “wet floor” and handed the cell to my husband. He listened and then told him where the main water shutoff valve was and handed the phone back to me. He didn’t seem upset, so I sat back to finish my glass of wine. In retrospect, I should have chugged the bottle.

When we finally returned home several hours later, most of our second floor bathroom was in our first floor kitchen…..and my son was watching TV. To this day, the actions that lead to this near catastrophic event are unclear. But the chaos that followed included; trash cans, shovels, crowbars, mops, buckets and cursing. The latter part being my contribution. Every one of my white cabinets was filled with water, the wall separating the kitchen and powder room was swollen to twice its normal size. The wooden floors had started to buckle. We all spent that Sunday night bagging up the kitchen ceiling which was now our kitchen floor. We opened the walls to let some of the water out. My husband removed the wainscot paneling we had just installed and I bagged up all of the debris. In the morning, I called the insurance company and was told that our policy included 24/7 damage clean-up and that I should have called them first. Ass backwards.

In the daylight, everything looked worse. The only things left untouched were the refrigerator and the TV that sat on top of it. As I glanced heartbroken around the empty shell that once was my kitchen, I looked up at the news where they were reporting that Katrina’s storm surge had breached the levies and New Orleans was all but gone. Perspective can heal a heart quickly.

As I said, my cabinets were white and my appliances matched. I had always wanted stainless steel appliances so maybe this would be the time to change. But the insurance contractor anointed my current stove, refrigerator and dishwasher as “excluded” from damaged goods and did not include replacing them in the claim. Since two of them were newer, we decided not to “challenge” his decision. (The fact that I did not research our rights with the insurance company until well after the renovation was completed was big time – Ass Backwards.)

But continuing……We decided to throw some of our own money into the remodel and upgraded to high oak cabinets with crown molding and a unique “chocolate cranberry” granite countertop that we hand selected from a stone yard. Once completed, I was thrilled. And besides my scheduling the cabinets to go in before the new floor was installed, I thought things were going very well.  Right up until I told my very patient husband that I had always wanted a center island. “Why didn't you say that before they put the counter top in? We will never be able to match that granite!  However, he came up with a design that used the remaining tiles from the backsplash as a top for the island while chiding me on my inability to make decisions in a logical manner. I’ve heard. Ass backwards.  

I thought of all of this recently as my husband was installing my new dishwasher. I again (regretfully) went with white to keep with the color scheme of the other appliances. “You know”, he said sensing my disappointment. “You could have picked out a stainless steel dishwasher and just caught up as we replaced the other appliances.” He was with me at the store, why didn’t he mention this then? “You are now in an appliance replacement cycle that is totally out of sync with what you want!”….. I saw his mouth moving, but I swear I heard Bud saying, “You do things the hard way, it’s like walking into a room backwards”. Ass backwards, I’m sure. I hear you, Bud. I hear you.