Food is Love, Love is Food.

A blog devoted to the connection between meals, memories and the special moments in our lives.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Longing for Bread

For me, bread is the ultimate comfort food. Not just any loaf will do, though. It has to be

homemade, crusty and straight out of the oven, like the bread of my childhood. We grew up in the same house as my Italian grandmother, and part of her weekly routine was baking the bread we ate on a daily basis with meals and for sandwiches. The smell of bread rising in my house brings me right back to my grandmother’s kitchen, which was cozy, warm and filled with lovely aromas. At least once a week, this is where my sister and I would eat our after school snack. The loaves of bread would be cooling on their sides on the large wooden butcher-block board Gram put on top of the table on her major cooking days. We would slice a piece, usually fighting among ourselves and our cousin Douglas who lived across the street, over the end piece, as it was the prize. The edges were crispy from the oil that she used in the loaf pans and the inside soft and airy. Usually, the oven was still warm, so we would slather on the butter and pop the slice of bread back in the oven for a moment or two, to make it all melty and luscious. A sprinkle of salt on top was the only other thing necessary to make it perfect. I can only imagine how much kneading and mixing happened in that kitchen, since Gram always made at least 5 or 6 loaves of bread in addition to homemade pizza, followed by fried dough for dessert that evening.

Though her kitchen was not fancy, luxurious or large, she managed to create meals and memories that I still cherish. Its brown carpeted floor, the mustard yellow oven, the Formica countertops could never compete with today’s sleek and functional kitchens, but they couldn’t hold a candle to the food that my grandmother put out on a daily basis. She shared her love for us, her childhood memories, and her very self with us in that kitchen, and I long for it still.

The bread I bake at home is not the same as the bread baked by my grandmother. I do not make it nearly as often, which is a very good thing. Mine is a simple and basic dough recipe, which creates a dense loaf with a crusty exterior. It works well with add-ins, like rosemary or kalamata olives. Make sure you start the baking in a cold oven; turn it on after everything is in place and you are ready to bake. This technique is a little different, but it really works well. The pan of boiling water on the bottom shelf of the oven helps to create that chewy crust.

Crusty Bread: (barely adapted from Craig Claiborne’s The New York Times Cookbook)

2 cups lukewarm water
1 tbsp. active dry yeast
1 ½ tsp. kosher salt
1 1/4 tbsp. honey
6 – 7 cups bread flour

Dissolve yeast in warm water, then add salt and honey, stirring to combine. Add flour, 1 cup at a time, and mix until incorporated. Add enough to form a stiff bread dough. Place dough in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with dough hook, and let it run on medium speed for at least 5 minutes. This kneading can also be done by hand. Form dough into two balls, smooth on the top, and place in a greased bowl or pan. Cover with a clean, damp kitchen towel, and place in a warm spot to rise until doubled in size. Carefully roll the dough out onto a baking sheet or a pizza stone in a cold oven. Let rise about 15 minutes more. Slash the top of the dough, and then brush lightly with boiling water. Place a pan full of boiling water on the bottom rack of the oven, close the oven door, and turn the oven on to 400 degrees. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes until very golden brown.

Just see if you can keep yourself from eating it the second it comes out of the oven!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Family and Friends: Morrocan Chicken

I grew up in a very large family. On my mom’s side, there were thirteen cousins; on my dad’s, there were 9 of us, and we all lived within about 20 minutes of each other. My sister and I grew up in a two-family house, with my grandparents upstairs, an aunt and uncle and three cousins right across the street, and on the very next street over lived another aunt and uncle, two cousins, and my Nana. It was just about idyllic. As a kid, I got a lot of comfort out of the idea that I was surrounded by so many loving family members. Aside from my sister, my cousins were my first playmates. We spent summers together either at a pool club that we all belonged to (back in the days when pool clubs were not exclusive country clubs), or later, one of my aunts’ beach houses, where we were constant guests. Holidays were huge productions, with visits to multiple houses, which was so easy for my parents, because everyone was literally so close. Sunday dinners were every weekend at my Grandmother’s house, and were attended by most of the family.

Now, of course, all of these cousins, like me, are grown, and have families of their own. Some travel to in-laws for holidays, some, like my own sister, live far away, and it is not possible to get together as often as we would like. There was a time when I mourned this fact. This type of large family celebration was all I had ever known; anything else would be less, in my mind. Now, holidays are often my own immediate family, my mother and my mother in law, rather than the large, boisterous celebrations of past. I have come to appreciate the intimacy of these dinners, and furthermore, I have come to appreciate the freedom they give us. Now, when we are really lucky, we may have family friends for a Sunday dinner.

Growing up, my parents were very fortunate to have made some friends who were as close as family. The Abbrusezes, the Hoods, and our dear friends George and Ellen were all friends with whom we visited very often. We went on vacation with these families, and after my father died, these were all people who continued to make us part of the fabric of their own families. These were the people who demonstrated what real friendship was; being there when you were needed, sharing your life, your time, and your emotions with eachother. These were the people who showed me that it is possible to create your own extended family. George and Ellen were stand ins for my mother (who was on a previously scheduled trip to Italy) at my college orientation, came to all of our graduations, birthdays, of course our wedding, and all the major events of our own children’s lives as well. George’s sense of humor was irreverent and infectious, and a visit with the couple was more the most fun we could have. Growing up, they meant more to me than I could ever explain. We travelled to Ireland for the first time as teenagers with George and Ellen, and though we lost George several years ago to cancer, we returned to Ireland just two years ago on my daughters’ first trip there, with Ellen. She remains one of my mother’s dearest friends, occasional travel companion, and an honored guest at our house for Sunday dinner, when we are really lucky!

Today was such a day. We put together a chicken dish that can all be done ahead of time, leaving plenty of time to sit and talk with Ellen, hear about an upcoming trip, watch an imovie she recently produced, and celebrate the upcoming school vacation week. Michael and I like to experiment with flavors a bit, and we are calling this Moroccan Chicken, though I am sure it is by no means very authentic. It is a deviation from our normal spice palate. We are both typically fans of the Mediterranean (read: Italian) flavors, and our cooking usually reflects this flavor profile. This is a bit different, and is similar to many dishes we have tried at restaurants. Here we have tried to recreate those flavors. It is hearty and bright though, serves a crowd, and is very satisfying. I always put a large slice of tofu in to cook along with the chicken as well, since one member of my family is a vegetarian, and the flavors permeate the tofu really nicely.

Moroccan Chicken:
4 chicken thighs, skin removed (if you like the skin, keep it on!)
1 whole chicken breast, split, cut in half and skin removed (ditto)
½ cup flour, for dredging
2 tbsp. olive oil
1 ½ medium onions, sliced
3 celery stalks, chopped fine
1 large handful of baby carrots
1 can diced tomatoes or 1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes
1  9 oz. box frozen artichoke hearts, or 1 can artichoke hearts
½ cup pitted green Spanish olives
½ cup pitted Kalamata olives
4 large cloves garlic, minced
32 oz. chicken stock
2 cans garbanzo beans
1 dime-sized piece of crystallized ginger, chopped fine
1/2 tsp. cumin
1 ½ tsp paprika, divided
½ tsp salt
½ tsp. turmeric
¼ tsp cayenne
¼ tsp. black pepper
4 whole cloves
½ tsp cinnamon
1 lemon, washed well, and sliced thinly
Couscous, cooked

Clean the chicken and pat dry. Dredge the chicken in the flour, and sprinkle with 1 tsp. paprika and the salt. In a large dutch oven, place the olive oil, and brown chicken on both sides. Remove the chicken from the pan, and sauté the onions lightly. Add the celery and carrots, and sauté another minute or two. Place the chicken on top of the bed of vegetables. Add tomatoes, artichoke hearts, garlic, garbanzo beans and olives evenly on top of the chicken. Mix all the remaining spices into the chicken broth, and pour over chicken and vegetables. Place sliced lemons on top of the entire mixture, and cook at 325 degrees for about 2 to 2 ½ hours, or until the chicken is falling off the bone. Serve with cooked couscous. Invite your family or friends over, and enjoy!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Breakfast for Dinner: Sweet Potato Pancakes

Most of the time, I pretty much have it together. I manage to get everyone ready for school, feed the dogs, sign the permission slips, check the kids’ planners, get breakfast ready for all of us, and get out the door by 6:50 AM. I often feel like when I leave work at 3:30, though, my day is only half over. Then there is the making sure homework is done, asking all the important questions about everyone’s day, walking the dogs, checking the mail, paying the bills, getting the girls off to their sports practice or game, and of course, making the dinner. During the week, dinner is rarely anything complicated or unusual in my house. Sure, I have my bursts of creativity in the cooking department once in a while on a ‘school night,’ but mostly, dinner is grilled chicken and some vegetables, pasta with homemade sauce and meatballs (made at an earlier date and frozen for convenience, of course), or some other easy fare. But every now and then, I completely lose steam, and run out of ideas altogether. A certain ‘dinner ennui’ sets in, and even trying to think of an idea is taxing. That is where I am right now. Tonight, my husband is going out for a very rare dinner out with the boys, and I am doing dinner in, with my girls. It is a rare opportunity to have a quiet night, cook something easy, and maybe watch one of our guilty pleasure TV shows, like “Say Yes to the Dress”, or “What Not to Wear,” neither of which is something that Michael really wants to watch. So I am making “Breakfast for Supper.” Seems a little indulgent, almost frivolous. I adapted this recipe when the girls were toddlers from an old sweet potato pancake recipe I had. I used to make double batches, and freeze the pancakes in baggies for ease of use on those hectic mornings. Since they do actually contain a vegetable, they are relatively healthy, and still yummy, especially doused with a good bit of real maple syrup.

Note: These pancakes turn out pretty dense and a little sticky on the inside, which is perfect for a dinner for breakfast. Make them small, like “silver dollar pancakes,” as my Dad used to call them.

Sweet Potato Pancakes

I large sweet potato, baked earlier, then cooled, skin taken off and mashed
1 ¼ cups flour (sometimes I use oat flour)
¼ cup chopped pecans (optional)
2 ¼ tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. cinnamon
¼ tsp. salt
1 cup milk
¼ cup brown sugar
1 tbsp. vegetable oil
1 tsp. vanilla
2 eggs

Mix all ingredients well, and pour a small amount in a non stick frying pan over medium heat. Repeat until you have used up all the batter. Great served with maple syrup and some berries on the side.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Pumpkin Bread: Home is Where Your Story Begins

I have been a working mother for just about as long as I have been a mother. I returned to my teaching career when each of my daughters was eight months old, which, I realize, is a longer maternity leave than most. In addition, as a teacher, I have had regular breaks in the forms of school vacations and summers off (excuse me if I chose well, people!). And yet, I have experienced what many refer to as ‘working mother’s guilt,’ especially when my children were younger.

While both girls were in elementary school, I would wake them up a little early, so as to have time to spend with them in the morning before we all went off to school, me leaving earlier than they, my husband getting them off in the morning on the school bus. I once saw a sign that proclaimed: “Home is where your story begins,” and I knew that to be true not only for the long term, but for each day as well. I wanted the morning routine to be a peaceful one, starting their day off with a little song, a little chatting together, a nice breakfast, a warm hug before setting out. With limited time in the morning, I needed something quick and easy to serve for breakfast, so I would have the time to sit and be with my girls. I also wanted something healthy and delicious. So, I developed a couple of quick bread recipes, which could be made in advance, would last for a few days, were healthy and enjoyable for the whole family. The following recipe for Pumpkin Bread is my go-to breakfast. It is a dense and moist bread, filled with fiber, low in fat and sugar, and still yummy. I use whole oats and oat or spelt flour for a little boost in nutrition, but you can substitute any whole-grain flour you have on hand. If you choose to use whole wheat flour, I would go half and half with all purpose flour so that the bread is not too heavy. Toasted and spread with a little cream cheese, paired with some sliced strawberries, it feels like a treat, but is totally sound nutrition. It always makes me feel like I am sending my children into the world with something warm, homemade, and delicious in their tummies, and helps to alleviate that working mother’s guilt!

Pumpkin Bread

1 cup sugar
1 cup applesauce
4 eggs
1 14 ½ oz can of pumpkin
1 ½ tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. nutmeg
1 cup whole rolled oats
2 cups oat flour (or spelt flour)
½ cup milled flax seed
2 tsp. baking soda
1/3 cup orange juice
1/3 cup water
1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts, optional

Put all ingredients in a large bowl, and mix well. Pour into two well-greased loaf pans, and bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour, until golden brown.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Nonna's Pizzelle

Friday is Immigration Day at my daughter's elementary school. Over the course of the last month or so, the fifth graders have been researching and studying the great waves of immigration in this country. On the culminating day, each student takes on the persona of an immigrant from the country they have chosen, they pack their bags and dress as a traveler, and will go through a simulation of the process by which immigrants entered this country through Ellis Island. My youngest daughter is really into it. My kids love history, and this particular project had special significance for her because she chose a real life immigrant upon which to model herself; her great-grandmother, my grandmother, who emigrated to the United States, coming from Italy through Ellis Island in 1932.  Her name was Vincenzella Lamarra Tosti, and she was such a vibrant and dynamic part of all of our lives. She lived the American Dream, coming to this country with nothing, building a beautiful life with her husband and her family.

My grandmother died at age 98, just six months ago, and Anna has felt the loss of her Nonna quite deeply.  She is really looking forward to this day. I, of course, wouldn't miss it for the world. Parents have been asked to send cookies from the country of origin of the simulated immigrants, and I will be making pizzelle, using my grandmother's pizzelle iron. When we were kids, we had them at every family gathering. Pizzelle were the ubiquitous cookie, and we didn’t really give them a second thought.  As an adult, I crave them; their sweet crunch, the smell of vanilla they leave behind. They have always been Anna's favorite; Nonna used to make them quite often, and cover them with confectioner's sugar. She never once got upset when the kids would walk around the house eating them, sprinkling the powdered sugar everywhere they went. These pizzelle are the best snack ever. They are crispy and sweet, and they melt in your mouth as soon as you bite into them. The recipe doubles well, and they will last for several days, stored in an airtight container, as long as the humidity is not too high. You can really use any extract you like; anise is traditional, but my girls like almond or vanilla best. They used to be made using a cast iron mold, but these days it is so easy to plug in the pizzelle iron, which is not expensive.  The smell of the cookies baking in the kitchen brings me back to my childhood in an instant.


3 eggs, beaten
¾ cup sugar
¾ cup butter, melted and cooled slightly
¾ cup flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
2-3 tsp vanilla

Beat the eggs and sugar together well. Add the butter and continue to mix. Add the dry ingredients and the extracts, and mix well. Batter will be stiff, but come off the spoon easily. Preheat the pizzelle iron according to instructions, then place about 1 tbsp. of the batter (depending on the size of the pizzelle maker) in the center of the iron. Close the lid and cook for about 45 seconds. Remove carefully, and allow to cool on a wire cooling rack. When they are completely cool, cover with confectioners sugar, stack and seal in an airtight container. They will last as long as you can resist them, which will not be long. Makes about 2 dozen.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Bolognese Meets Brazil

Everyone was really excited in my house this week. Our friend Ary came to visit. He used to be my husband’s roommate, and about 12 years ago, he moved back to Brazil, where he was born and raised. The last time we saw him was about 4 years ago. He stopped by hoping to surprise us, and he succeeded, since, as I mentioned, he lives in Brazil now, and he was probably the last person we expected to see that evening. So of course, we invited him to stay for supper, but as we had not planned on having a dinner guest, I threw together whatever I could. Dinner turned out to be carmelized onions and goat cheese on one of those pre-made supermarket pizza shells. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t enough for dinner, either. We opened a bottle of wine, and Ary brought 2 more along, and the long and the short of it is that we were all pretty looped by the end of the evening, what with eating so little and drinking so much. Honestly, though, aside from the mortification I felt not having a better meal to feed a dear friend who we were so delighted to see, it was a lovely evening. We laughed and talked far into the night. That is the way it is with old friends like Ary. No matter how many years have gone by between visits, or what else is going on in your life, when one becomes reacquainted with a true friend, it is like picking up where you left off.

We haven’t seen Ary since that last visit, but every once in a while we are in touch with him. This time around, Ary sent us an e-mail several weeks ago that he was coming to visit, so I had time to redeem myself in the dinner department. He was recently married, and he brought his wife along as well, and we loved her. This visit was at least as good as the last one, with two major improvements: the food was yummy and plentiful, and Ary’s wife Marilia became a new ‘old friend.’

We decided to make a pasta dish with a sauce that could be made ahead of time and left to simmer on the stovetop. Making homemade fettuccini took the dinner from good to extra special, and was really quite simple to do. My only advice is that when drying the pasta sheets, make sure to keep them far above the ground, especially if you have pets, as we do. In the picture you can see that our pasta is well above Schnauzer level. The best thing about this meal, aside from the company, was that the pasta dough was made 3 days before, was run through the pasta machine and turned into fettuccini the night before, and the Bolognese sauce was made that afternoon. When our guests arrived, all that was left to do was open the wine and visit. About 10 minutes before we wanted to eat, we turned the stovetop on to boil the water, and then, presto! Dinner was served.

The Bolognese sauce was liberally adapted from Saveur magazine and will feed four hungry people:

2 tbs. olive oil
2 ribs of celery, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
½ yellow onion, finely chopped
1 lb ground beef, veal or pork (I use some of each)
½ cup dry white or red wine (I use whichever I have opened, usually red)
2 tbs. tomato paste
2 cups half and half
14 oz canned San Marzano tomatoes, diced

Put the olive oil in the bottom of a large cast iron skillet or dutch oven on medium heat. Add carrots, onions and celery, and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes until they begin to brown. Add the ground meat and cook, breaking it up as you stir for about 5 to 10 minutes. Ann the wine and the tomatoes, and continue to stir, breaking up the meat as you stir. Add the tomato paste and stir to incorporate. Lower heat to low, and stir from time to time as the sauce thickens and reduces. After about ½ hour, add the half and half, stir to combine and continue to simmer at least another hour, or longer. Add salt and pepper to taste. If the sauce needs more liquid, you can add more tomato.

I will sometimes add the juice from one more can of whole tomatoes, and then save the actual tomatoes for another purpose. In my case, that purpose would be to make a non-meat sauce for my vegetarian daughter, so it works out quite well. I am sure you can find something else to do with those tomatoes if you do not have a daughter who is a vegetarian. Buon Appetito!