Look What’s Cookin’

Look What's Cookin'

It’s not impossible to find passable Italian sausage in Alabama.

Cornering the Market on Mint in Montgomery

If anyone in Montgomery was looking for mint this weekend, they were out of luck.  Mr. NewYorker bought every last package to be found in Winn-Dixie, Publix and Fresh Market.

You need a lot of mint to make mojitos for a crowd.  Lifelongnewyorker should probably have surveyed the mint situation before she invited 20 people over for a night of Mojito Madness.

Back on Staten Island, the what-to-do-this-weekend dilemma had many possible solutions.  Go out to dinner at one of many many restaurants. Catch a local play in which friends were appearing.  Head into Manhattan for music or theater or dinner.  So many activities, to be done in the company of friends or in the company of strangers.

The pickings are slimmer here.  There are a half-dozen restaurants worth eating in.  The Alabama Shakespeare Festival (ASF) puts on excellent productions, but not that many.  After a few months here in the South we realized that, if we wanted to have a social life, we were going to have to entertain.

I now believe I’m on the road to becoming the Pearl Mesta of Montgomery.  Well, of  a certain slice of Montgomery’s population.

Our first foray into entertaining was in May when we held a housewarming.  We told people to come over around 7:30.  This was our first lesson in how people here are different from those in New York.  At 7:25, the doorbell rang and our first guest walked in.  By 7:35, there were twenty people in our living room.  The folks who rang the bell at 7:40 apologized for being late.

I like to entertain, but the 25-person party is work, and I could see that Mr. NewYorker didn’t feel like doing it once a month.  So the next foray was right out of Martha Stewart: we invited about five friends over for a Make Your Own Pizza night.

This idea came to me while sitting at work and I sent the invites out without quite doing my homework.  Our crop of basil was flourishing, so we’d have pesto.  Likewise, an abundance of ripe tomatoes meant slow-roasted tomatoes would be offered as a topping.  I checked via e-mail with my old hairdresser, Jimmy, that my recollection about making a nice light pizza sauce was right (it was: crushed tomatoes, olive oil, salt, pepper and a little bit of dried oregano; cook for no more than 15-20 minutes).  To the two sauces we’d add three cheeses: goat, feta and mozzarella.  For toppings, we knew we could get pepperoni, olives, artichoke hearts, onions and red pepper.

Which left the issue of the crust.  Back in New York, I’d have visited either Johnny’s pizzeria or stopped at Moretti’s bakery and picked up pizza dough.  But that option is not available here.  So we went shopping on the Great Pizza Crust hunt.  I thought flatbreads would work nicely, but Mr. NewYorker was aghast at the idea of using pita as a pizza base.  We’ve been told that the Publix in Florida offers frozen pizza dough, so we carefully inventoried the contents of three frozen food aisles before confirming that the Publix in Alabama, alas, does not.

Near the gourmet cheeses we found a display of Mama Mary’s perfectly formed crusts, or bread disks as I came to think of them.  They were geometrically pure, and pocked at regular intervals with mysterious round indentations, clearly made by machine.  They were firm, like LPs.  But they were the right size and hey, what else were you gonna do?  But just as I moved to place them in the cart I saw the “use-by” date: December 27, 2010.

Pizza dough with a 7-month shelf life?  I put them back.

Finally, we found the Boboli, a pre-made crust we used often when the Abandoned One was small. We wanted the personal size, and visited several markets in search of it.  Finally I went online and entered my zip code.  Alas again, if I wanted personal size Boboli, I’d have to drive to Birmingham.  But the 12-inch would do.

Wanting to duplicate the crispness of New York pizza, I simply slid each pie laden with toppings directly onto oven racks, as the packaging suggested.  I then took one of my guests on a house tour, only to return to the kitchen in time to find smoke billowing from the oven.

The toppings had dripped.  A lot.  But the pies were fine, and the next day we simply put the oven into self-cleaning mode.  Four hours later, all that remained were five small ash piles on the oven floor.

Last week I decided it was time for another party.  Again, this thought happened at work.  I’ve become a disciple of spontaneity, so I dashed off an invite to a Mojito Party and asked my guests to bring some tapas.  I included Mr. NYer in the invite so he would know what to expect. Folks really liked the idea of mojitos.  A winner!

What neither of us expected was a shortage of mint.  The mint in people’s gardens? Bolted, burned and gone to seed.  Mr. NYer travelled from market to market in search of mint.  I came home on Thursday to find a few small plastic packages in the refrigerator.  I looked up recipes for mojitos by the pitcher.  According to these, I would need anywhere from six to ten cups of firmly packed mint leaves.

So, on Saturday morning I went out in search of mint. Perhaps Publix had a delivery.  It didn’t.  I went to the Curb Market, a farmer’s market downtown.  None.  I came home and pulled the mint out of the refrigerator, and stood there gazing at it.  Mr. NYer came in, “Do you want me to go out [in this 100-degree heat] to Fresh Market?” he asked.  “I’ll do it if you think we need more mint.”  Well I did think so, and he made yet another mint run.

You know the end of this story, don’t you?  I made about 16 quarts of mojitos Saturday night.  It was good.  And I have plenty of mint for my iced tea this week.

Pathetic Single Dining at Home

Let me be perfectly clear:  Lifelongnewyorker is no stranger to the kitchen.  She began preparing family meals at age 12, won recognition in the Staten Island Advance Recipe Contest on more than one occasion (Meat Winner, 1979), and can tell a roast is done with a touch of her hands.

Despite her considerable culinary experience, however, there is one thing Lifelongnewyorker does not like to do:  cook for one, especially when the one is herself.  In fact, it might be said that her kitchen competence is in direct proportion to the number of people being served.  Cook for a crowd?  Bring it on.  Cook for one?  Where’s the take-out menu?

Before he left, Mr. NYer reminded me to eat.  We went to the supermarket together, and he pointed out the many healthy things I could easily whip up for one.  Were he in my shoes, his nightly meal would include a lean meat or fish, salad and a vegetable.  It would be home-cooked.  He would eat it at the table, not standing over the counter or sprawled on the couch.

I tried the square meal approach, but confess that the salad was the first to go.  A bag of baby carrots (just who exactly do they think they’re fooling with that label?) seems to do the trick just fine.  Munching on them as I nuke my frozen entrée provides my daily dose of fresh veggies.  Alternatively, scattering them around the bowl of heated-out-of-the-can soup offers a dash of color and a crisp alternative to crackers.

Speaking of crackers, there’s nothing really wrong with the occasional meal of carrots followed by cheese and crackers, is there?

Alas, tonight I luged down the slippery slope, bottoming out — I hope — in the land of the pathetic, suddenly single person-who-must-eat-to-survive. You’ve heard of shopping on impulse?  I combine it with eating on impulse.

My intentions were good when I stopped at Publix on the way home from work.  A scribbled shopping list included sweet potatoes, milk, cereal and wine.  Just the basics.  Back home at the apartment, I knew had a choice of two tasty frozen entrées.  I planned to supplement one of them with a hot baked sweet potato.  Nothing beats a sweet potato if virtuous eating is your goal — it’s full of fiber, beta carotene and probably potassium.

After choosing my yams, I realized I was hungry and that I really didn’t want to wait the hour or so it would  take to bake tonight’s tuber.  Mr.  NYer often cooks them in the microwave; sometimes he starts them there and finishes them in the oven.  I wondered just how he did that?  He’s been cooking nightly dinners since we started using a microwave, so this is a trick I haven’t yet figured out.  I would have to call him.

Wandering the aisles, I found myself in front of the frozen pizzas, where a Publix-brand white pizza with spinach looked rather appetizing.  Microwaved  sweet potatoes, I reminded myself, are never as good as the baked ones.  I don’t have time to bake them tonight.  I’ll bake one tomorrow night and just have this pizza tonight.  Yes, that’s the ticket.

At home, the package directed me to preheat the oven to 425 degrees.  No problem, even if it was electric.  Now, it got complicated:  I could choose between a “crispy crust” and a “softer crust” version.  Since my preference is for brick oven thin-crust Neapolitan pizza, I opted for crispy.  Besides, it baked directly on the rack.  No baking sheet to wash.

“Remove both the wrapping and the cardboard tray and place the pizza directly on the middle oven rack. Bake for 12-15 minutes.”

This oven only had two racks, but since I wanted a really crisp crust, I placed it on the bottom one, right above the glowing electic heating element.  I put up a wash and watched the clock.  After 13  minutes I cracked the door.  The crust was brown verging on burnt; it looked crunchy but edible.

“Turn off the oven and wait 3 minutes.”

OK, then.  I executed a full turn on the dial and set the table with an actual plate, fork and knife.  I folded a paper napkin and filled a glass with ice and water.  I returned to the oven, opened the door, and wondered why the heating element on top looked so red.  And the pizza looked so … black.

Yes, rather than turn the oven off I had turned the broiler on.  Undaunted I cut into the hardened disk and tried it out: crisp and snacky.  Three-quarters of a pie later (it was smallish!), I felt full.  Now a new dilemma:  could one put a quarter of an overcooked pizza in the disposal?  I thought not.  Save it?  Not unless I needed bricks the next day.  Put it in the trash?  No — I just threw the trash out, and since I do that only once a week or so, I try to avoid putting  food in it.  Best to just polish it off.

Which I did.

Right on schedule, the junk-food guilt began. “I can’t believe I ate an entire, overcooked frozen pizza,” I thought.  “No salad, no sweet potato.  I wonder just how many calories it was?”

Right.  Apparently I didn’t feel as bad as I possibly could.  Might as well pile it on.  One serving — a third of the pie — was 270 calories.  I’ll let  you do the math, but I’m wondering:  does turning the crust into carbon cut the overall caloric load?

I’m hoping I’ve hit bottom.  How much worse could it get, really?  Please.  Don’t answer that.  I don’t need any ideas.

Of fish and Christmas, traditions and change

Do something once, it becomes a precedent.  Do it twice and it’s a tradition, especially at Christmas time.  

Lifelongnewyorker knew that the move to Alabama meant that many holiday traditions would change next year, but it turns out the big changes are happening now.  Truth be told, traditions have been shifting — at least in this family — for years. 

My mother’s parents came to America in 1913 from a seacoast town in southern Italy.  Like many Italians, their big holiday was Christmas Eve, with a meal of fish and the exchange of very small gifts.

I grew up in my grandfather’s house, and all I really remember of the holidays was the crowds.  My aunts and uncles and their kids visited at the holidays to see my grandfather.  My mother cooked.  Memories of Christmas in Red Hook are simple:

  • Crowds of loud relatives in our dining room who would switch to Italian when they got to the good parts of stories;
  • My uncle’s appearance at the door one evening on his way home from work, with a Christmas tree that he would set up and string the lights on because my postal worker father disappeared after Thanksgiving and this was not something my mother did;
  • My older sisters criticizing my tinsel-hanging skills; 
  • The cheery seasonal stencils my mother put on the windows with Glass Wax (whoever thought of this had the perfect consumer in my mother who thought that combining decoration with cleaning was simply brilliant);
  • The hanging in an upstairs window of a string of extremely small lights (now the main kind available) that for some reason we called the “Italian Christmas lights”;
  • Under my mother’s guidance, presenting my grandfather with wrapped boxes of Gem single-edge razor blades or a cake of Old Spice shaving soap, which she assured us were perfect gifts;
  • The exchange of family gifts just before going to bed on Christmas Eve; 
  • At a certain age, being given the proceeds from the $25 Christmas Club my mother had set up for me to buy presents for the rest of the family;
  • The arrangement of the nativity scene on the hi-fi cabinet, with camels arriving from across the room via the mantel;  
  • Waking up on Christmas morning to find the toys that Santa had left;
  • More crowds of loud relatives in our dining room who would switch to Italian when they got to the good parts of stories;
     

What I don’t remember is the fish dinner on Christmas Eve, although I’m sure it happened.  Once we moved to Staten Island and my excitement over toys waned, I became more enthusiastic about the food.  Our traditional Christmas Eve feast featured octopus (pulpo), baccala cakes, squid and, the centerpiece, spaghetti with crab sauce, followed by the crabs themselves.  Funochio (fennel), chestnuts, fresh fruit, dates, nuts and, finally, pastry, finished the meal.  My father, having reappeared on Christmas Eve after working 30 days straight, passed on the crabs, claiming they “illustrated the law of diminishing returns.”  The rest of us dug in. 

In Staten Island, we continued to have a crowd as several sets of cousins, aunts and uncles would join us each year.  More than anyone else, and probably because she cooked for my grandfather, my mother had preserved the fish tradition long after some of her siblings abandoned it.  But even she introduced occasional innovation.  

One of the first innovations was the crab sauce itself which replaced a simple white anchovy sauce made with garlic, olive oil and parsley.  But this happened during my grandmother’s time.  Soon after she took a full time job, mom’s meal included lobster tails, a short-lived tradition that didn’t survive once my parents began paying college tuition.  Later, with the arrival of grandchildren who wouldn’t eat what was on the menu, mom added breaded filet of flounder, much to the disgust of those of us who were not offered this alternative when we were small.  “How will they learn to appreciate the good stuff?” we wondered.  When Mr. NYer joined the family, his homemade garlic bread, with lots of butter and fresh garlic, became part of the deal.  Later, I added clams and mussels with wine sauce.   And somewhere along the line chilled shrimp appeared and the octopus took its leave.    

Whatever else came and went around the edges, the centerpiece of the meal remained the crabs.  Two separate worries began as Christmas approached:  first, how much fish should we buy?  and second, would we be able to get crabs?

No matter how many years my mother cooked that meal, she was always convinced she didn’t make enough.  Part of our ritual was the annual review of the fish order, in which we did an immediate post-mortem, adjusted the quantities for next year and saved our notes.  The more pressing issue, though, was whether we’d be able to find fresh, live crabs.  

Crabs, it turns out, are really summer food.  In winter, they dig into the mud of the Chesapeake Bay and don’t find their way to market as easily.  You could take the precaution of ordering them in advance, but if they weren’t available, they weren’t available.  In that case, you needed to go with Plan B, which was stuffed squid.  It’s okay, but not if you’ve been dreaming of crabs. 

Worrying about the crabs became an essential part of the tradition. Actually getting the meal on the table for the 14 to 20 people joining us combined art, science and drop-dead timing.  Step One:  Buy the dried baccala a week ahead and take it home to soak.  Hope not to oversoak it (too bland) or undersoak it (too salty).  Step Two: Go to the most reliable fish market and, using that list from last year, order the fish at least a week in advance.  Step Three: Pick up the fish order and hope that they had crabs.  Step Four: Return home and clean the crabs without losing a finger or drawing blood.  Defensive wounds from snapping claws can ruin the meal, not because blood contaminates the crabs, but because the cuts sting like the dickens when you try to eat the crabs.  I became the crab-cleaning expert once I figured out how to apply garden tools to the task.  Step Five: Start the crab sauce in a large pot.  Step Six: Put the nearest male to work shredding the baccala.  Step Seven: Mix up the batter and begin frying the baccala cakes in the ancestral 12-inch cast iron frying pan.  Continue for six hours.  Exclaim to every guest as they arrive that you spent six hours frying the baccala.  Step Eight: Cook the squid and the octopus and make salads.  Step Nine: Have Mr. NYer make the garlic bread.  Step Ten:  Boil the shrimp and refrigerate them.  Step Eleven: Start to make the cocktail sauce and discover you don’t have horseradish.  Send a spare male out to the store.  Step Twelve: Send the newly arrived grandchildren off to a bedroom to practice their Christmas pageant.  Step Thirteen: Have an unoccupied male slit the chestnuts.  Step Fourteen: Scrub the clams and mussels.  Step Fifteen:  Juggle the pots on the stove to make room for the GIANT spaghetti pot.  Continue with steps sixteen through twenty-four until dinner is ready, kids are hyper, and most of the baccala has been filched by grazers. 

As traditions go, this one held steady for nearly twenty years at my mother’s house, until she was nearly 80 and decided enough was enough.  Lifelongnewyorker was ready to take it on, since she knew the recipes and had been the chief crab-killer and cook for more than two decades, but her sisters (you remember, the ones who criticized her tinsel skills) wanted to learn how to cook the meal themselves, which was, of course, the beginning of the end. Thus began the Rotation, when each year a different sister would host the meal, first under mom’s tutelage and later on her own.  But only after first checking with Lifelongnewyorker about a recipe, or asking her to buy the crabs which were, apparently, unobtainable in New Jersey.

This year is Lifelongnewyorkers turn in the rotation, but it’s already changed.  Five of the six grandchildren are married and there are babies.  They live in Boston, Virginia, Maryland and Minnesota, and they want to host Christmas.  There will be only five guests at the fish fest this year.  A satellite feast will be held in Maryland.  At least Maryland niece should be able to get crabs.  

To top it off, the reliable fish market that we’ve depended on for years went out of business this summer.  We found another place to buy the fish but they won’t take orders.  I still haven’t figured out how to cook the meal for only five people, and I suspect I won’t.  Tonight I begin soaking the baccala.  On Wednesday, we’ll go to the market and hope they have crabs. 

Oh.  One last thought.  In recent years, I’ve heard it called the Feast of the Seven Fishes.  This is new to me.  We never counted the fishes, or called it anything besides Christmas Eve.  The best meal in the year.

The Food I’ll do Without

I went to a local pizza joint with a friend last night.  We shared a calamari pie with hot peppers and a crispy crust.  It came piping hot out of a brick oven right behind the counter.  

I am guessing I’m not going to be getting pizza like that in Alabama. 

I’ll also miss being able to buy Italian sausage in all its forms:  link, cheese & parsley ring, hot, sweet, with or without fennel.

How many varieties of extra virgin olive oil will the markets have?  Probably Berio and Bertolli only.  At least I won’t be tempted by the array of $30 bottles I see every day at Dean & Deluca, where I currently go for my lunchtime soup.

Bet there won’t be a butcher’s where I can buy pinwheels (rolls of skirt steak stuffed with parsley and romano cheese ready to put on the grill). 

And veggies … will I be able to get artichokes, either fresh or frozen?  Eggplant? 

Cilantro, fresh mozzarella, Italian canned plum tomatoes, Barilla pasta?

Arborio rice, balsamic vinegar, French sea salt, roasted green olives, Italian bread, chestnuts and finnochio, cannolis and sfogliatelle  …

Cheesecake?