Sunday, April 28, 2013

Italian Wedding Soup...No Longer an Invited Guest

As most of you know, there is a wedding rapidly approaching in our family. Preparations are well under way and as I listen to the details of the upcoming event, I realize that the cost of today's weddings is staggering. Years ago, you could have bought a house to live in for thirty years for the price of  what this one day event is now. In fact, our first house cost less then my son and his bride's wedding will. And trust me, this is not an "over the top" extravaganza! The bride and groom have made every attempt to keep it sensible while achieving elegance. And successfully so, but venues, catering, photographers, music, and transportation, come at a price these days. And it makes me think of how it use to be.

Old pictures of my mother's wedding day made me realize that at one time, most weddings were done at home, and were not just family events, but neighborhood gatherings as well. And everyone contributed food and wine to mark the festive occasion. The caterer was usually the mother and aunts of the bride, and in an Italian family, the menu always included Wedding Soup! A flavorful concoction of chicken broth, pasta and meatballs. Slightly labor intensive, its making was usually reserved for special weddings.

Growing up on the apron strings of immigrants from Palermo, Italy, my Grandmother and aunt, did everything to enhance my culinary curiosity. Great cooks both, they never used recipes. Ingredients were thrown into a pot, magically coming out wonderful and I learned early on to pay attention or be forever lost on recreating some of my favorite childhood memories.

I once asked my grandmother how she made chicken broth and she looked at me like I had lost my mind. "You put chicken wings, celery, carrots, tomatoes and onions in a pot, cover it with water and turn the stove on." Even with her thick Italian accent, I sensed the last part  as being a little condescending, but I got her point. Not rocket science, just wholesome, common ingredients.
The base of great homemade chicken stock!

So here we go, my take on a timeless recipe. I know you've had it, but if you haven't made it, spend a Saturday afternoon creating something you will want to have at least twice during the week!


For the meatballs:
3/4 pound ground chicken
1/4 pound chicken sausage, casings removed
(Grandmom used a mixture of beef, veal and pork, but I think ground chicken
 is not only healthier, but more flavorful as well!)
2/3 cup seasoned bread crumbs

2 teaspoons minced garlic (2 cloves)
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley leaves
1/4 cup freshly grated Locatelli cheese
(grate a little for broth and to sprinkle on top once served)
3 tablespoons milk
1 extra-large egg, lightly beaten
Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper and mix with your hands and roll into small balls!
Two ways to cook! Saute meatballs in frying pan, (caution - you may start eating them!) OR, bake on parchment lined baking sheet at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes.  
For the soup:
2 tablespoons good olive oil
1 cup minced yellow onion
1 cup diced carrots (3 carrots),
3/4 cup diced celery (2 stalks), 
1 12 oz. can of chopped tomatoes with juice

2 pounds of chicken thighs (removing skin from half the package)
1/4 cup of freshly grated Locatelli cheese
1 stalk of escarole, cleaned and chopped (Do not use spinach, it is just too strong)

Start by just slightly "sweating" vegetables in the olive oil.  Add the chicken and tomatoes, then add enough water to cover about 2/3 of pot. Season with salt or add 3 chicken bouillon cubes (as I do) after it reaches a soft boil. Lower heat, partially cover, and let it simmer for about an 1.5 - 2 hrs. When finished, drain all ingredients through colander into clean pot. Pull some meat from the skinned thighs and add back to broth. Discard remaining ingredients. Bring broth back to soft boil, add chopped escarole and cooked meatballs, and let simmer another 20 minutes or so.

Pasta! While you can add any type of noodle that you prefer, the traditional pasta for this dish is Anici de Pepe. They are like tiny little balls that, if spilled, will take forever to clean up! Cook about 3/4 of the box in salted water, drain and add to soup. Cooking them directly in the broth is doable, but adds a starchiness that you just don't need. 

And there you have it! Serve in your prettiest bowls and top with freshly grated cheese. It does take a little more effort than your average homemade soup, but is so worth the it. And since you probably won't be having this at your next wedding, making Italian Wedding Soup for yourself is a well deserved treat!

PS. To be honest, today's post is also the result of a nasty spring cold that has taken over my chest. Homemade chicken soup on the stove is just what is needed to get me through! In fact, I am adding crushed red pepper flakes to meatball mixture. It can only help! Mangiare!

Photos by ImageGoggle and Jo Ann Phelps

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Groom’s Side Part VII... Foundations of Dress Shopping

 Overwhelming view to the fashionably challenged
Her name was Marie and she “got” me. A short, stocky African-American woman with a big smile and a hearty laugh followed me into the dressing room and said “Now, what can I do for you Sugar?” She just seemed to know that spending a beautiful spring Saturday morning in a dress shop would never be my first choice. She understood that once I passed the particular task of choosing a dress for my son’s wedding, I could relax and enjoy the rest of the planned wedding activities.

My sister Betty ran around on the other side of the dressing door hanging up dresses she thought I’d like.  If you have followed the Groom’s Side at all (and I hope you have), you know that my body type is a challenge. Long torso with short legs puts my thick waist about 4” lower than a dress requires it to be. So…I avoid them. Completely. But about five minutes after my son got engaged; he leaned over and whispered in my ear “you’re wearing a dress”. And so I am.
As sisters, Betty and I have spent a lifetime watching each other’s backs, even though we are polar opposites. She’s thin, I’m not. She’s more aggressive, I’m more laid back. She’s black and white, I’m earth tones. So every time I heard a hanger clink on the hook outside of the dressing room, I wondered what was hanging out there. “Relax, Sugar, we’re going to get you into something you’ll love” Marie said sensing my anxiety. I had grabbed a couple of dresses on the way in so at least I had a starting point.
What I didn't have was a mirror. Seriously…there was not one mirror in this small closet. This forced me to try on a dress and go out to the showroom mirror, where I, a plus-sized, middle-aged mother of the groom, lined up next to amazingly built young girls trying on prom dresses. We looked like a line-up in the fashion police station and I looked like the guilty one who would get picked out every time.

Marie, got this too! "Come here Sugar", she said pointing to the dressing room. "Now. Do you have good foundation?" I rolled my eyes, "Marie, if I had good foundation I would be out there wearing one of those strapless mini's!" She laughed so hard that there was no sound coming out of her mouth. Just a hand waving in the air. "I'm not talking about your body, honey. I'm talking about your under garments." Oh.

I didn't think to wear my new Spanx, and Marie was quick to point out "You, need a little less here", she said pointing to my middle, "and a little more here", she added pointing north. "I will get something to fix that" she said exiting the dressing room. When I looked outside, Betty had several dresses hanging, waiting for my inspection. Amazingly, we seemed to be in sync with the selection. And oddly enough, it was a black dress with a white and black jacket (her signature colors) that I fell in love with first. 

Marie returned to the dressing room with what looked to me like a mummy wrap. Something I think they use to call a corset. "Here we go Sugar, turn towards the wall and watch this." (Did she forget there wasn't a mirror?) Seconds later, my mid section was inches smaller and, upper sections were definitely bigger. And higher! "Holy shit, are these mine?" I heard myself saying out loud as I looked down. Again, Marie was lost to silent laughter while waving a hand. "I don't care how much this cost. I'm buying it." I told her, not realizing it was $89 till I got to the register. But as my sister told the commission based sales woman "money is no object when it comes to her dress".

I then tried on the black and white dress, but I seemed to be the only one in the room who loved it. Betty was trying her best to be complimentary while not shaking my tender confidence  "It looks great from the front, but from the back, it's not really doing it for you." The words "wide load" came to mind. A young girl, about 16 yrs old was looking at me and silently shaking her head "no".  "Here" Betty said handing me a color I loved but a style I wouldn't have picked out. "Please, just try this on," she said pushing me toward the dressing room.

I obliged, mumbling to myself about buying the dress I wanted to wear, but was so glad I put on the dress she picked out. It was the last dress I had to try on. Surprisingly enough. This was it! This dress style gave me definition and made me feel good about wearing it. I had Betty text a picture of it to my niece in Florida, while I sent one to my future daughter in-law, the bride. She was kind enough to include me when she picked out her special dress, I wanted her to see this one. Besides, I knew I could count on their honesty and got quick responses of approval. Sold. Marie hurried me over to the seamstress for some minor alterations and parked me in a private booth. I thanked her for the attention and she turned and gave me a small hug "Sugar, I've been dealing with young divas in here for weeks. It was fun to have someone my age and size to play dress up with. Thank you for coming in."

When I got home, my friends were calling to hear about the dress. I really didn't want to go into too much detail, trying to keep it a surprise. Besides, I didn't even know how to describe it. But that problem was solved when the next morning on Twitter I saw my sister tweeting to the curious. "It's a copper brown empire with tiered fabric." And, now I know. Next up? The Shower!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Weekends, Friends...And a Quick (60 seconds?) Cake!

Cape May Sunset on the Bay
The 48 hours wedged between Friday and Monday are never long enough, and yet, they can be amazing if you jam the right people, the right activities and the right recipe into the 2880 minutes that we wait for all week long. And if you add the word “girls” in front of “weekend” you know that it is going to be something very special. As Sunday evening closed in on me, I sat exhausted and grateful that I spent the last two days with five of the most amazing women I fortunately get to call my friends.

We met up in Cape May, NJ, where our longtime friend Pam recently purchased a summer home and needed a little help with the nasty chore of scraping off wallpaper. Since most of us will be spending occasional weekends with her there, we figured it’s the least we could do. Three of us, Pam, Lynne and myself, are of mostly Italian heritage and it is our job to make sure that everyone has enough to eat…and we do our job well. 

Hey, at least we let her wear her robe!
Funny lady Judy, the tallest of the group, provided the right arm span we needed to reach the ugly boarder that was hiding under the first layer of metallic laced paper. It was our friend Karen’s first weekend away since suffering a serious stroke last summer. We were excited to get her back but cut her no slack when it came to pulling her own weight and pulling wallpaper off of the wall!  (i.e. see picture to the right). 

After a morning of work, we headed into historical downtown Cape May for an afternoon of shopping, followed by dinner. It was a great spring afternoon. Perfect weather and companionship. While browsing in a card shop I found one with a picture of two little girls holding hands. It read "Girlfriends are the ones who hold you up when the world has fallen from beneath you". So true. There isn't one of us who hasn't needed to be "caught" at one time or another, and it was the arms of friends that formed the safety net. And that makes fun weekend gatherings even more special!

After a fabulous dinner, followed by an amazing sunset, we headed home to our pajamas and the anticipation of a new found recipe for a 60 second cake. That's it! One minute and done! When a friend emailed me the recipe, I did a little research and found it under "1-2-3" cake, and a Weight Watchers, "No points" cake recipe. So a tip of the hat to who ever came up with this because it is pretty good. And if your not a baker, or are someone who is hesitant to whip up fancy desserts, this one is for you, because all it takes is two boxes of cake mix, a little water and a microwave. That's right!


Purchase one box of Angel food cake mix and another box of whatever variety you chose, but one of the two boxes has to be Angel food cake. Now, mix the two boxes together to store in an air tight container.

Next, grab a coffee mug and mix in 3 tbs of cake mix with 2 tbs of water. Place the mug and the microwave and cook on high for 60 seconds. Viola! A warm spongy cake in seconds. No oil (no fat), no eggs (no cholesterol) no points (for those of us on Weight Watchers)! But, just to be honest, it needs a fabulous topping to make it almost decadent. The five of us opted to add a small scoop of Breyer's Rocky Road Ice Cream. (Okay, now we have some fat and points - but not that much). The cold ice cream melted slightly on the warm cake and made for a mighty fine small dessert.

Another friend who made this, used a vanilla cake mix with the angel food mix and then added chopped strawberries, when it was done, she added whipped cream for a mock strawberry short cake. She said it was delicious! The only thing stopping you from creating a very lo-cal concoction is your imagination! As blueberries come into season, I'm planning on making some 60 second blueberry muffins.

The weekend seemed to end almost in the time it took me to introduce my friends to my new found one minute dessert. I thought of them on the way home, curled on the couch, in their pajamas, under afghans, eating from a coffee mug, all talking at once! Ya gotta love 'em!

The wind-blown ladies of Cape May!

Photos by Jo Ann Phelps and ImageGoggle