Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Cauliflower, Raisins, and Pasta?

Pasta with cauliflower, raisins and breadcrumbs!! 
If Grandmom is in my head, she's in my kitchen. Actually, she's been gone for quite some time, but once in a while I get a taste for something she made and don't know if I actually remember how she did it, or, remember someone's version of what she did. Make sense?  But in this case, I was drawing a blank. I knew the two main ingredients were cauliflower and raisins, but totally stumped on the assembling order.  I kind of remember it being a Spring dish. Could be that she made it during lent since there is no meat involved? And I'm not strong on making tomato sauce without meat for flavoring. It's why Italians call it gravy! But I'll persevere!

"Keep it simple, stupid", a writer friend jokingly said recently.(I think she was joking...) anyway, she was right. This recipe at its core is simple, so I simply had to find someone who might remember having this, or better yet, making it. So, of course, I travel to Italy (through Twitter) to my great Italian recipe source, Francis Mayes. You might remember her as the author of  "Under the Tuscan Sun" and a number of other wonderful novels and cookbooks! Francis was very helpful in my search for the "Bread Soup" recipe that I fell in love with while staying in Tuscany. She has graciously helped throughout the last few years in so many other ways as well.

Simmering sauce with raisins!
Once I described what I was looking for, she replied, "I remember having something very similar to that while vacationing in Sicily." Of course she did, Grandmom was born and raised on the island of Sicily, in the Palermo region! So, as Francis advised, I looked up "cui vroccoli arriminati", pasta with cauliflower. I found a few close versions, but all with a lot more ingredients than I remember. Along with raisins and cauliflower, most also called for pine nuts, anchovies and saffron. I have learned that "melting" anchovies into hot olive oil is a great way to add saltiness without adding sodium to recipes, so I will keep that trick for the meatless sauce, but will nix the pine nuts and saffron (as if I could afford that last item).
Cee Jay & Beth knew how!

Grandmom knew how!
Another problem with advanced Italian recipes is that they are measured in grams, not ounces, which is a problem for me since I can barely see the red lines on any of my measuring cups. As "keep it simple, stupid," swirled in my head, I decided to merge recipes with recall! Where was I when I last had this wonderful mixture of savory and sweet? It had to be with a family member who remembered Grandmom standing at the stove, wooden spoon in hand....then, a light bulb moment! A few years ago, my brother Cee Jay, and his wife Beth, made this recipe while I was staying with them in Florida. Cee Jay is older than me, so he knew Grandmom before I did, and, he is the lover of all foods Italian! (Seriously, he could eat it every night!) Of course, he would remember this! And he did!

This started a frenzy of phone calls and texts. "When do I do this, when do I add that?" And guess what? It is really simple to do! Took a look:
  1. Make favorite red sauce. (If you cheat here and purchase store bought sauce, splurge and make quality count.)
  2. Clean and chop medium-size head of cauliflower, par-boil in salted water. (Reserve the water!)
  3. Remove cauliflower pieces with slotted spoon and add to simmering sauce for about 30 minutes. 
  4. Then, add at least 1.5 cups of raisins (or more or less to your liking) and let simmer another 20 minutes or so. 
  5. Cook pasta in reserved cauliflower water (this suggestion came from every recipe I found from the Sicilian versions and is key for flavoring). Drain pasta and cover with sauce mixture. 
  6. This next step is what makes this dish so flavorful. Melt 2 Tbls. of butter in frying pan, add 1 cup of bread crumbs, and brown. 
  7. Sprinkle toasted breadcrumb over each plate of pasta. 
  8. Add sprinkling of good quality Parmesan cheese - Locatelli is my favorite!
So, after all the head banging, all the research, all of the thinking and re-thinking of this incredibly easy recipe, the result was wonderful. On a recent cold Sunday evening, I let a little bit of spring in and made my Grandmother's cauliflower and raisin pasta. A glass of wine,a few friends, and a warm fire made everything perfect.

There is, however, something I am a little worried about. After my exhaustive search, and after excitingly remembering that my brother and sister in-law had made this for me a few years earlier,  I just had to ask them where they got the recipe. They replied in unison..."you."

May be cutting back on the wine with dinner. Just saying...

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Changing Life, Changing Channels

Up until recently, as a wife and mother, I spent a good deal of time in my kitchen. Unless it was meal time, my most likely companions were Bobby Flay, Tyler Florence, and Giada from the Food Network, or my PBS favorites, Lydia Bastianich, Ming Tsai, and Mary Ann Esposito, who are my real BFF's since they have been with me  way before cable came into the picture.  In any event, the TV on top of the fridge provided many hours of camaraderie with my culinary friends as my mission was to accommodate the nutritional supply and demand of a growing family.

That was before life changed and I went from being a cook to an independent contractor. Literally. Never in a million years did I think I would spend more time with Hillary Farr, David Visentin, Eygpt Sherrod and Nicole Curtis of HGTV, than Ina Gardner. But I am, and, truth be told, I think I’m becoming addicted.

On a recent snowy Sunday, I watched five episodes in a row of “Love It or List”…seriously, five. (If you're not familiar with this show, it's where designer Hillary tries to entice people to stay in newly renovated homes she designed while realtor David tries to persuade them to list their house and buy one that he found.)

The Olympics were on one channel and one of my favorite movies on another...and yet I sat there watching homeowners rip Hillary apart because during a renovation, she found mold in their insulation. Cause it's her fault that there are structural problems under the impossible list of "must haves" that they gave her to complete with an impossibly low budget. I guess you had to be there. But, if the Food Network has turned us into "foodies", then Home & Garden Television will be turning us into "homies"...okay, I may have to find a different term for this.

But anyway, since buying a home that needs updating, I look for any and every design or renovation creation that just might fall into my color wheel. Which by the way is more often than you might think. You see, I am not a person who ever gets caught up with fads. Actually, by the time I start noticing something, it has usually become "so yesterday". And I'm okay with that because I'm not often impressed by what other people think is popular. But I am intrigued to see how I'm stacking up with the professional. And, to see what they can offer.

And, truth be told, I'm doing okay. The taupes and cremes  I went with when redecorating the living room seem to be "classic". Dark hardwood flooring, perfect. What I can't get into is the pops of lime greens, reds or bright yellows, in zig-zaged patterns now being used in pillows, wallpaper, and furniture. Lord knows I'm not an interior designer. And had you asked me a year ago what channel HGTV was on, the answer would have been "I don't know, but Neely's BBQ comes on at 2." But I do know what I like...and don't like.

And it's not just about design! On "Rehab Addict", I now watch a young, divorced woman, rip apart a dilapidated house with the same enthusiasm that I once watched Martha Steward knead and punch artisan bread dough. I mean, this girl goes in and starts ripping down walls, stairways, ceilings, nasty flooring and deteriorating roofs! Sawzalls and sledge hammers are her weapons of choice. Frayed wiring and corroded plumbing is the norm. She often uncovers rats, mice and roaches as well, (and sometimes while wearing sandals.) Not for the squeamish to be sure, but always stunning in the end! 

As a licensed realtor, Nicole Curtis finds and then buys homes that are barely standing and rehabs them back to grand stature. I can only assume that she flips them, although I've never heard that "f" word used on the show. If you live in an older home, you have to watch to see her resurrections. I could try to explain, but I would need an easel, charts and a slideshow. Just watch.

I'll admit, because I am not a designer or real estate mogul, I am usually blown away by the finished products of any of these shows each and every time I waste a Sunday on the couch. 
And I've noticed that a common theme among all the home redo shows is the homeowner's request for “open kitchen concept”. 

Embracing that the kitchen is the heart of the home, everyone, young or older, wants to be able to cook, entertain and congregate without the constraints of walls. That desire usually brings up the second term most used on HGTV, “load bearing”, which means if you want the second story to stay where it is, you might have to adjust your budget or ideas. Almost nothing is impossible, but everything comes with a price!  

Another popular term I've learned is “site line”.Today, everyone wants to come in their front door and see clear to the back of the house with as little restriction as possible. Obviously, some support is needed, but most are willing to make allowances with columns and posts in place of solid walls. Since this is all new to me, I’m not sure if this is a fad or not. But I will admit that what attracted me to my second floor condo unit was the ability to reach the top step and have unobstructed views of four areas. The architect had a definite “open concept” in mind and I’m so glad.

My new found fascination with HGTV does not affect my desire to cook, create new recipes, or keep tabs on its sister station, the Food Network, but I will admit to spending more time in Home Depot and Lowe's, these days, than Kitchen Kappers. Recently, I examined a lightweight cordless drill with the same intensity that I once used on a Kitchen Aid mixer attachment. I've even taken repair classes at a local home improvement store. I had an ex who could do anything and everything when it came to home repair. Now, it’s up to me. I can’t afford to hire someone for every little thing, so I’m watching, learning, doing and sometimes, re-doing. It’s still all so surreal to me…and also, so exciting!

But next week? Back into the kitchen with Grandmom!

Images supplied by ImageGoggle and are resister trademarks of HGTV and Food Network

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

"Because I Love You All" (Still)...

I've received more than a few requests to re-post last year’s Valentine’s Day blog. I will do that, but I first needed to find out why it resonated with so many people. I re-read it, trying to recognize the person that wrote it. And I realized that the popularity of this post was that it had nothing to do with romance and everything to do with love. Let’s go back a year…

I was still living with my then husband in a house that was for sale, a marriage that was over and walls that separated our bedrooms. It was horrible. We had always celebrated Valentine’s Day with flowers, gifts and dinners out. Though we agreed to live together until the house sold, it took 10 long months from his request for a divorce, and this particular day was the hardest for me. A few days before the dreaded February 14th,  I suggested that since we obviously wouldn't be going out, maybe we could just order some Chinese and somehow get through the night. His reply was “No, I’m not celebrating Valentine’s Day with you.” In spite of the many previous verbal blows, this was a throat-punch I didn't see coming.

And then…the most amazing email came from my friend Judy that started with “Because I love you all”. She was throwing a Valentine’s Day dinner party to celebrate the love of family and friends. The only kind of love that can’t be ended by the banging of gavel. It was truly a game changer. When the night finally came, while my soon-to-be ex sat watching TV, I got up, showered, put on a low-cut red sweater, and left the house without saying a word. I so wanted the waft of perfume that he gave me to linger behind as if to say "I won't be celebrating Valentine's Day with you."...either. I had been drowning and Judy's invitation was just the life line I needed. I got in my car and felt the first wave of relief since this whole thing had started months before.

One year later, Judy's email comes for the second time and I am surviving and thriving on the love that surrounded me then, and still. I looked up the current divorce rate but quite frankly the statistics are too sad to report here. But it is no wonder why so many people need to find alternative reasons to celebrate Valentine's Day minus the flowers, candy and romantic dinners for two.

Don't get me wrong. I still believe in romance and will someday gladly except it back into my life...just not now.  I'm on a rather personal adventure of experiencing an independence I've never known, while still steadying a shaky equilibrium that comes from being blindsided. The downfall is that I sometimes question my own judgement. The upside is that I see so many loving relationships around me, I will in time give it another go. It's a precarious situation to be sure.

But, if last years Valentine post in someway helps you to regain your balance, I'm obliged and honored by the many request and will run it again. To the thousands of Kitchen Clatter readers, if you receive only one gift this Valentine's Day, I hope it is the ability to celebrate, appreciate and nurture love in any, and every, way that it comes to you. I'm so grateful for this gift and for the many people who fill my heart every day...

(Kitchen Clatter, February 12th, 2013) 
...“Because I love you all”, the email began, “I am having a Valentine’s Day dinner to celebrate our years together!”

What a lovely thought. Celebrating the love and warmth of friendship is a concept that is under looked. And Valentine’s Day may just be the day to do that. Since so many in our group are on the single side of cupid, February 14th is a day where it is so easy to look the other way for 24 hours. It took my friend Judy to see that all types of love should not only be recognized, but celebrated and thoroughly enjoyed as well.

Our group embodies the celebration of life itself. We have traveled the world together. Through the pubs of Ireland, the hills of the Tuscany countryside, the tapas bars of Spain, the wine vineyards of the Napa Valley to four-wheeling in the Alaskan mountains, we have laughed till we cried. And at times, we have cried till we laughed. It is the best kind of laughter. The break down the walls, kick the door open, change your underwear kind of humor that gets to us every time.

But even more important are the times when life is not so funny. The times when you need a friend to take your arm and guide you down an unknown path; it is certain that someone will step in and prevent the other one from hitting the ground face first. The presence of this friendship is a constant. It is a blessing I will be forever grateful for.

So with that in mind, I will take Judy’s advice this coming Valentine’s Day and celebrate all the loves of my life! To my sons, Trevor and Kyle who monopolize every chamber in my heart, and to the girls that they hold in theirs, to my sisters, who have proven their rock solid devotion over the last several months, to my brothers and their wives, who've been there even through the miles, to my nieces and nephews, all of whom I love as my own, I send the best that Valentine's Day has to offer. 

Through my friend, I have been reminded to celebrate life this Thursday and all of the different types of love that it encumbers. I will have dinner, drink wine and laugh, I'm sure. And I wish, the same for my family and friends, along with the ability to embrace all that your heart can hold...because I love you all.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Three Generations, Two Weeks, One House!

She is so tiny and we are not a tiny baby family!
Using the pricing analogy that $1.99 looks a whole lot cheaper than $2.00, accurately describes the way I feel about being 59 years of age, instead of 60. Not cheaper, exactly, but on paper it just looks a lot less. I know this is truly a delusional state of mind I’m living in, but I’m savoring every day of my last year in my fifth decade.  I don’t feel old.  And if it wasn’t for the damn mirror, I’m not sure I’d be aging at all!

But a recent trip to Tennessee with my sister to help lend a hand with her daughter (my niece) Beth who had just had her second child, made me realize, I am old…der.

The plan was simple. Betty would tend to her daughter, who needed a little extra help because she had a Cesarean, and her new granddaughter, Jocelyn. I would see to the needs of Drew, my 4-yr-old great nephew. The two of us have a long-standing relationship. We are buddies and have been since the day he was born. With Betty and I there, Beth’s husband Andy could work as much as he needed to and then be more available when we left. Perfect plan, until it wasn’t

Only hours after our arrival, my sister Betty came down with a fever, chills, aches and severe cough. Not wanting to be around a newborn or, anyone, for that matter, sick and heartbroken, she retreated to her room for the first few days requesting that I make a pot of chicken soup. Which I did. Beth was having some post-operative issues which were preventing her from doing what she wanted to for the baby, having to keep her swollen feet elevated. Andy, Beth's husband, helped when he was home, Drew and I chipped in for the rest.

At five days old, she studied my face with such curiosity...
Now, thirty years ago I had two babies in one year, so you can imagine my surprise at how intimidated I was when it came to handling a newborn. She is so tiny and we are not a tiny baby family! I had trouble manipulating her little arms into the long sleeved Onesie. 

For an experienced mom, I felt like I was all thumbs. Trying to hold her little legs from kicking while putting on a diaper was harder than any multi-tasking I had done in years. Adding to my anxiety was that this little beauty was not a real crier. She made just enough noise to let me know she wasn’t happy, but otherwise she seemed to study my face with pure intent, as if to ask “who are you?” I would lean close and whisper "I'm your aunt". Great aunt, actually, I just can't say that word out loud. It makes me sound older. 

After gently maneuvering to get everything on without breaking something, I scooped her up and smiled. Drew walked in and asked what I was doing. I tilted Jocelyn forward and looked in her face. "I'm having a conversation with your sister. I think she thinks I'm a little crazy." He patted me reassuringly, "Don't worry, JoJo. I'll explain you to her when she is older." I'm not even sure what that meant.

After a few days, we couldn't contain Betty in her bedroom anymore and we let her out. Even wearing a mask, she was so happy to hold her granddaughter. With my sister rebounding, I became Drew's full time chauffeur. School was easy, it's not even a mile away. McDonald's was just a little further. He convinced me that his mother always took him for a milkshake after school. By the third milkshake, I asked her about it. Beth looked at me as if I had two heads. "Really, JoJo, do you think I do that?" I'm such a sucker. An old sucker.  

With school and McDonald's down pat, my niece asked if I could take Drew to swim lessons. No problem! I've got this! Beth explained the directions and off we went. As I headed to the first light, I moved over to the middle lane to turn left.  “What are you doing?” Drew asked. “Your Mom told me to make a left at the first light.” I answered with the confidence of someone who had never been to Tennessee in her life.
“No, you need to make a right here,” he insisted.
My buddy always knows where he is going!
“No, your Mom told me to turn left here. Now Drew understood that the light was still red but that it was going to turn green soon and that I had a decision to make. The timing of the situation caused him to raise his arms like an air traffic controller and then repeatedly pointed both of them to the right. I could see in the rear mirror that this little man was totally exasperated with me. 

“I speak the true, I speak the true!” 
He kept yelling. “We are going to get lost if you don’t turn right!” At this point, it didn't matter what Beth said or even what I heard. What made sense to me was that this kid knew where he was going and I didn't. I turned right and he then gave a blow by blow description of how to get to swim lessons, including "stop at the next light." "Why," I asked. "Are we turning?" "No", he replied. "It's red." 

I listened quietly and did everything he said because, after all, he speaks “the true”. When we pulled into the university parking lot he pointed out the door to the pool entrance. I couldn't help smiling. “Boy, Drew, you know everything!” He unbuckled his seat, grabbed his swim bag and replied, “I don’t know everything JoJo. I am only 4.” That is the true. I'm 59 and don't know everything. 

So for a couple of weeks, I had more to think about then myself. I must admit, it felt good to be needed. Tiring, but good. Each morning, Drew would come out of his bedroom, climb on the couch and snuggle with me. A few minutes later, Beth would come out and hand me the baby to feed as she got Drew's breakfast. It was flannel haven. Great training to be a grandmother. Now I know that title will permanently force me out of hiding behind $1.99 priceline, but somehow, I don't think I'll mind.