Saturday, February 23, 2013

What should we give the bride and groom?

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue...


If you are like me, you want to give the bride and groom something special for their wedding. I've been told that cash always works, but it seems crass to put a dollar value on the start of a life together, and unless the new couple puts all the money they receive toward a big purchase, like the downpayment for a house, they won't even remember what they bought with the money gifts after the first blooms of marriage begin to fade.

February is a long time away from the traditional June wedding season, but it's a perfect time to prepare a truly memorable gift: a personalized collection of recipes. If you are a family member, you can enlist the help of other relatives to gather recipes that go back generations, holiday specialities, picnic favorites, comfort foods unique to your heritage, the foods that you love.

You don't have to be a family member to give recipes to the new couple. Diane, one of my teacher friends, gave me a box of her family favorites when we were married thirty years ago, and many of those recipes have become staples in my kitchen. Even though I haven't seen Diane is twenty-five years, I think of her every time I make lemon chicken or banana blueberry muffins.

The presentation can be as simple as a box of recipe cards or as formal as a printed book, but it should include the stories behind the recipes as well as the recipes themselves. If you decide to create a printed book, you can even scan some original, handwritten recipes and include snapshots of the people who passed each recipe along.

Of course, you can create a personal recipe book for any occasion. My daughter took the digital family recipe book that I compiled for my brothers and created an heirloom book for Mothers Day. It is hardcover, with pictures of everyone in our family.

Now is a great time to start sifting through your recipes and calling friends and family to pull together a gift that will be treasured forever.

Here is one of my very favorite recipes from Diane's wedding present. In fact, I'm making it for dinner tonight!

Lemon Chicken

3 chicken breasts (split, boned, pounded--six pieces, each about 1/2 pound)
salt, pepper
¼ pound butter
2 tablespoons sherry
2 teaspoons grated lemon peel
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 cup cream
6 thin pats butter
Parmesan cheese

Salt and pepper chicken breasts.  Heat butter in heavy skillet.  Sauté chicken in one layer for 5-8 minutes in hot butter, turning once to cook both sides.  Remove chicken to oven-proof shallow dish that is large enough to hold chicken in single layer.  Pour sherry, lemon peel and lemon juice into pan.  Cook one minute, stirring.  Add cream slowly.  Stir.  Pour sauce over chicken.  Place a pat of butter on each chicken piece and sprinkle with cheese.  Put under broiler until lightly browned and bubbly.  Serve at once.  It is delicious over rice.  Add a green vegetable and salad and it looks like you worked all day!  Serves 4 to 6.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Old dogs, new tricks: pasta

I've been making pasta for over forty years (a frightening thought in and of itself), and I didn't think there was much I could do differently. My recipe for pasta is a typical Italian non-recipe, and while most of the time the finished product is good, there have been some catastrophic failures--pasta that wouldn't cut properly, pasta that congealed in the boiling water into a huge mass, pasta that turned into mush because I got called away at a critical moment. The resulting tears are never pretty.

Cooks should never rest on their laurels, and there is always something to learn. A fall issue of La Cucina Italiana featured pasta in many forms, and each shape had its own recipe for the dough. The big difference between their dough and mine is the flour. Each recipe used some measure of "tipo 00" flour, a very soft flour not available in most grocery stores. My family has always used all-purpose white flour, nothing fancier than that. When my great-grandmother was alive, that was the only flour available, and if it was good enough for her, it was good enough for me. But I was intrigued by the "tipi 00" flour, so the last time I visited Croce's in Cherry Hill, I picked up a bag of this super soft flour. The owner gave me a nod that showed a new respect for me and my cooking prowess.

This afternoon, I didn't know what to make for dinner, and after doing an inventory of the refrigerator, I found that I had enough left-over roast beef to make gravy, and roast beef gravy deserves homemade pasta. I chopped onions, sweated them with good olive oil and a few flakes of hot pepper, then incorporated several minced cloves of garlic and some leftover roasted peppers. After a few minutes to cut the bitterness of raw garlic, I added a half cup of decent chianti, let it boil off, and then tossed in a can of San Marino tomatoes, crushed them with a potato masher before adding the leftover beef. I left that to simmer on the back of the stove.

Now was the test. I put a cup of all-purpose flour and a cup of the tipo 00 flour in the bowl of the food processor along with a generous pinch of salt. After a few pulses to combine the flours, I added three large eggs, one at a time, letting the food processor run after each addition. One it started to form a ball, I stopped the food processor and pulled the dough away from the blade, forgetting how sharp the blade is. After running for Neosporin and a bandaid and administering first aid, I kneaded the dough briefly and put it into a zip-lock bag. After a half hour, I started to roll out the dough.

While I don't have a guitarra, I do have a hand-crank pasta machine that gets its fair share of use. They last forever, unless you happen to have a husband of German descent who couldn't believe that one would not take APART the pasta machine to clean it, but that's another story. The usual procedure is to  roll the pasta into a thick coil, and cut it into the same number of pieces as the number of eggs used, plus one. In this case, I cut it into four pieces and covered them with a vintage cotton tablecloth that serves to help clean up the flour and to cover the dough while it rests.

The next step is to roll the pasta through the rollers at the widest setting several times, folding it in three like a business letter between each pass, and sending it through with the open end first  (that's a trick I learned a long time ago--it makes for silkier pasta). Once I'm satisfied that the dough is really ready, then I dial the rollers one step closer together and run each piece through the machine. My machine goes from 1 (widest) to 7 (closest). Usually, I take the pasta through the rollers all the way to step 6, and the dough is paper thin. However, when I do this, the pasta doesn't always cut when I go to the next step, but that's the way we always did it.

Again, according to La Cucina Italiana, neither angel hair (my favorite) nor linguine (the other size on my pasta machine), should use dough that thin. I gritted my teeth (after all, change is difficult), and stopped myself at step 5. In a leap of faith, I started to put the first pasta sheet through the narrower cutting side and started to crank.

It was amazing. The dough separated into perfect strands, and it was the fastest I've ever been able to cut pasta. I repeated this step with the other sheets of pasta, and as soon as the water (salted generously) came to a rolling boil, I carefully transferred the pasta to the pot. If you are used to making dried pasta, you will be astounded at how quickly fresh pasta cooks. Let it come to a full rolling boil and IMMEDIATELY (I can't stress this enough), dump the pasta into a large colander to drain. It shouldn't take more than a minute. Seriously. Trust me on this one!

Sauce the pasta and put it on the table quickly. Fresh pasta is ephemeral!

When I served the pasta with the melt-in-your-mouth beef, my husband of German heritage noticed that the pasta looked different, almost extruded, and I agreed, but when we twirled our first forkfuls and put them in our mouths, we were pleasantly surprised at the taste and texture.

Take home lessons: 1) Substitute 1/2 tipo 00 flour for the all purpose stuff. 2) Don't make the dough paper thin.

See, even an old dog like me can learn a new trick or two!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

When I was little, and when I say little, I mean four or five, snow was serious business. Unlike today, when we know in advance how much snow we are going to get and when, the storm 0f March, 1958 came as a surprise. The forecasters had called for flurries, but some places (like Morgantown) had 50 inches of fresh snow. The high winds were responsible for drifts as high as two stories. In addition to closing roads, the storm brought down power lines, and it took several days for the emergency workers to restore some semblance of normal to our lives.

Our house in Caln township saw snow so deep that my father had to dig a tunnel from the cellar door to get to the back yard. We still had a coal stove to heat the house, so at least we were warm, but the neighbors who had converted to oil heat were freezing. My parents invited everyone to stay with us while the power was out, so it was like a jumbo pajama party, with adults and children sleeping all over the house.

My great-grandmother was still alive then. A snowstorm of this magnitude was occasion for her to make vanilla snow. Pennsylvania's winter weather never seemed to bother her, even though growing up in a small village between Rome and Naples, she had never experienced snow and ice when she was a child. She showed her ingenuity during the storm. She gathered fresh, fluffy snow in a big ceramic bowl, added vanilla extract, and gave me a big bowl. I'm sure she told me, "Mangia, mangia, picollina." I had to eat it right away because this treat had no shelf life whatsoever. I remember it being sweet and cold and delicious.

When my own children were little, I wanted to treat them to vanilla snow. It had to be the right consistency, fluffy and fresh. Vanilla alone didn't seem to do the trick, so I bought a bottle of Toroni vanilla syrup in anticipation of the perfect snow. Finally the day came that the stars were in alignment. The snow was fluffy, and there was no time for any critters to spoil it. The kids were home from school, and I didn't have to work. It was afternoon, time for a treat, so I ran out into the storm. I packed big scoops of snow lightly into a ceramic mixing bowl, rushed inside, added the syrup, and served it to the kids. They weren't quite sure what to make of my insistence that they eat it quickly before it melted.

I closed my eyes and put a spoon into the vanilla snow, expecting to savor a taste of childhood. Of course, it wasn't the same. It wasn't creamy or sweet. The syrup formed rough lumps, and any attempt to mix it turned the snow to water. We dumped the melting, lumpy snow into the sink, and the kids could see my disappointment.

We all went outside to build a snowman, and when their cheeks were red and noses were runny, we trouped back indoors, shrugged off snow pants and parkas and mittens and hats and scarves and boots. I put on a pot of cocoa, and we watched the snow continue to fall as we sipped our cocoa and nibbled on graham crackers. They won't have vanilla snow to remember, but they will remember going sledding with their cousins at Nonna and PopPop's house, building snow forts, and hosting monumental snowball fights with their friends. And I hope those memories will bring smiles whenever snow flakes start to fall.