“I’m not a chef, I’m Italian”- David Rocco

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Easter Pie: Part due

Ciao. Let me start by saying Buona Pasqua or Happy Easter. As soon as I had the idea for this blog, I knew I was going to post my Grandma Nettie’s Easter Pie. Pizza Rustica. Pizzaghena. Every family has their own name for it and their own special recipe. But no matter what goes into it, everybody feels theirs is the best. You know what, they’re right. Because more goes into this pie then just the ingredients.  For this post, I have my mother, Elvira, helping me out.

My mother has wonderful memories of her family baking the pies going back to when she was a small child. Days of preparation; shopping, cooking, chopping, baking, dozens and dozens of pies were made. My mother tells me how her mother and her grandmother before that would make the dough, roll out the pies and someone else would fill, a top crust would go on and into the oven they’d go. They had a large old stove and could fit as many as six or seven pies, at once, depending on the size. Small, large and even tiny ones that they would make for each child individually. The tins came in all sizes came from so many places, old bakeries that had the names stamped on the bottom. These were old, even when my mother was a child.

They’d start early on Holy Saturday morning and relatives would start filtering in around twelve, because everyone knew you weren’t allowed to eat any meat before you heard the noon church bells.   

A clean sheet was laid out over the bed, the windows opened, so as the pies came out of the oven, they could be laid out to cool, but not before each pie got an egg wash so it would be nice and shiny.

This is a picture of my grandma Nettie, myself and my brother
And then, the bells would toll; someone would go grab one of the largest pies and make the first cut. My mother told me that somehow everyone always felt that that first bite, from that first pie, that you waited a whole year for, was always the best.

By three or four in the afternoon, the baking was finished, the kitchen cleaned, the relatives on their way home, each with a pie of their own. My grandmother would wrap the cooled pies and put a little slip of paper with a nice designating who the pie was going to go to. She’d bring them to friends, neighbors and hand them out at work (she was a sewing machine operator.) But always, a good amount of pies would stay in her refrigerator and a few in the freezer to be enjoyed later on. (http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2007/04/08/the-miracle-of-my-mother-s-easter-pies.html)

By the time my mother was eight, she’d be helping. Maybe a little chopping, maybe a little filling and usually my mother was the one to brush the egg wash on the finished pies to give them a lovely sheen.

After time it was just my mother and her mother making the pies. But the same pattern of the relatives, the bells and the first bite would continue. By the time my brother and I came along, my grandmother felt it was too much work for my mother to have to come over with small children, so my grandma made the pies by herself.  

I999 was the last time my grandma made pies. My mother never wanted to bake the pies herself, even though I asked her many times. But this time she did. We made them together. The pies came out great. My grandma would be proud.

Easter Meat Pie

2 pounds of ricotta cheese
¾ pounds of hot sausage
¾ of a pound of smoked pork shoulder
8 eggs
¾ cup of grated parmesan or romano (we used a mix)
1 pound mozzarella (used fresh, chopped into little cubes)
Fresh Parsley, chopped
Freshly ground pepper

Boil sausage and pork shoulder for at least 3 hours, you want the meat of the pork to fall apart. Cool and chop coarsely. This can be done a day or two ahead. Empty ricotta into a large bowl, break it up. Add your eggs one at a time and blend. Add parmesan, mozzarella, chopped parsley, salt, pepper (these three ingredients are quanto basta.) Blend thoroughly. Fill your pie crust, top with another crust and bake slowly, 350-400 degress, depending on your oven, until a knife in the center comes out clean. It can be 45 minutes; it can be an hour and a half. Beat an egg; brush it over the top crust to give your pie a nice finish. Let it cool. These can be eaten warm or room temperature, they make a great picnic lunch. (This is one of those family recipes with no actually direction, just a lifetime of doing and remembering.)

Our crust was made differently than any traditional pie crust and it’s a recipe that remains in our family. But you can use any hearty crust to put your filling in. You can even bake this crust less, if you eat a gluten free diet or you can even fill an omelet or add more eggs and bake into a frittata.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Easter Pie: Part Uno

Ciao everyone. As I promised from the beginning, I will be sharing my Grandma Nettie’s Easter Pie recipe within the next few days. In the meantime, I would like to share with you an article that my loving mother, Elvira, wrote for Newsweek, all about the memory of my grandma and the Easter pies. Here is the original link: http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2007/04/08/the-miracle-of-my-mother-s-easter-pies.html

The Miracle of My Mother's Easter Pies

In early spring, my mother would make an announcement from her kitchen in Brooklyn. "I'm making the Easter pies," she would say. "Going to be busy, so nobody bother me."

The pie was an Italian specialty known as pizza rustica. Her mother had once made the same pies from a recipe her family brought to America from a small town near Naples, Italy. My mother had watched her mother prepare the pies for Holy Saturday, slicing the smoked ham and hot sausage into bits, filling the dish with fresh ricotta and Romano cheese, brushing the beaten egg wash onto the crust to give it a glaze.

By the time I came along, my mother and grandmother were making the pies together, so I never got a chance to taste one of my grandmother's original creations. I don't know if my mother followed her recipe exactly, or added her own touches. I do know that everyone in the family agreed that my mother's pies were the best they'd ever tasted, hands down.

My mother made 15 or 20 pies every April for more than 40 years. She would stand in our kitchen pressing the dough with her mother's 50-year-old rolling pin, her cheek smudged with flour, her hair in disarray. The resulting pies resembled two-inch-thick omelets—stuffed with cheese and flecked with meat, topped by a heavy, flaky, dimpled crust baked golden brown.

She wrapped the pies in foil and labeled them for their recipients. (The size of the pie you got was a measure of her affection for you.) The doorbell would start ringing at noon—Uncle Nick from Bethpage, Aunt Carmella and cousin Barbara from around the corner—all eager for a pie still warm from the oven. I was an only child, but each spring our house filled with family as relatives came from Long Island, Queens and Brooklyn to collect this family dividend.

Then, when she was 78, my mother went in for open-heart surgery. She suffered complications, and on a sweltering day in late June almost eight years ago, she died. My husband and I drove from the cemetery to her apartment and started the routine of going through her belongings. We emptied her drawers, cabinets and shelves, deciding what to keep, give away and throw out. We left behind her furniture, her clothes, and her pots and pans for the building's superintendent to discard or donate to charity. There wasn't much else. She had lived on next to nothing her whole life, so we weren't expecting hidden fortunes.

How mistaken we were. We opened the freezer and looked in, and there they were. My mother's pies. She had saved a few, including one for herself, labeled nettie. My husband and I looked at each other in surprise, saying nothing. Then we took out the pies from the icy mist and put each in a plastic bag.

In moments, we left her apartment for the last time and walked out into the hot, still afternoon for the drive home, holding the residue of my mother's life. That Sunday night, gathered with our 15-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter at our dining-room table, I brought in one of the pies, now steaming hot and emitting a savory aroma. I sliced a wedge for each of us, and we ate, scraping our plates for crumbs.

I'd eaten my mother's pies every spring my whole life, and they always tasted good. But now, flavored with grief, the pie somehow tasted better than it ever had. With each bite I recalled with fresh clarity everything Nettie had meant to me over the years, had meant to all of us. How she had raised me without a husband around, all the while toiling as a seamstress, and especially how she had lavished love and attention on her adoring grandchildren.

I'd never in my life felt so grateful to anyone. Through the pies she had expressed her love for family and friends, nourishing body and soul. Eating the pie that night felt almost sacramental, as if I could taste her very spirit.

Afterward, I waved our family into the kitchen. I opened the door to our freezer and pointed toward the back. And there it was: one last slice of one of Nettie's pies. The one labeled Nettie. "This one we're saving," I said.

And so we have. The slice has stayed back there, wrapped in foil, for almost eight years now, untouched, unseen, but never forgotten. Other families leave insurance policies behind, or furniture, or jewelry. But Nettie left us her pie. That's her legacy, her heirloom. We celebrate the holidays to remind ourselves that the past deserves a future. We'll never starve for my mother's memory as long as that single slice is in there. It will feed our hearts all year round.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Cacio e pepe, coffee rubbed steak and eggplant arancini

Ciao! Today’s enticing meal will be angel hair cacio e pepe, coffee rubbed steak and eggplant arancini.

Il Primo (first course)

Cacio e Pepe is a classic Roman pasta dish. It translates to "cheese and pepper" in Italian. This dish was made for someone who doesn’t have a lot of time, as its main ingredients are black pepper and Pecorino Romano cheese. It is typically made with a long, thin pasta, I like mine with angel hair. The sauce is nice and creamy from the perfect mix of cheese and starchy pasta water. 

Cacio e pepe
1 box angel hair
1/4 freshly ground black pepper
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup Pecorino Romano cheese, grated 

Bring 6 quarts water to a boil in a large pot. Add pepper to a sauté pan and toast until fragrant, about 20 seconds. Add oil and butter and stir occasionally until the butter has melted. Remove from the heat. Cook pasta al dente. Drain, saving about 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water. Add 1/4 cup of the reserved pasta water to the oil and butter mixture, then add the pasta and mix. Toss until the angel hair is well coated. Stir in the cheese (add a splash or two more of the reserved pasta water if necessary) and serve immediately. You don’t want the sauce to sit too long; it’s nice and fresh, so eat it now!
Il Secondo (main course)
I know what you’re thinking, coffee and steak? Sounds strange, no? But let me tell you, there is something about the way coffee and meat taste when combined that is just divine. There is enough of a coffee taste to flavor the steak but not overpower it. I also prepare my steaks with smoked olive oil, which adds to the intensity. Smoked olive oil and coffee flavored salt can be found at gourmet shops. If you can’t find these items, you can substitute regular olive oil of course and in place of coffee salt, you can use coffee powder.
Coffee rubbed steak
4 tablespoons of smoked olive oil
4 tenderloin steaks
Coffee salt
Prepare a flat grill with 4 tablespoons of smoked olive oil. Rub your steaks with coffee salt, use as much of as little as you like. Put on the grill. Some people like there steaks rare, some medium, some medium well, this part is up to you. You may cook them as long or as little as you like to get it the way you want. I am one of the few people that actually like my meat well done, including steaks.
Il Contorno (side dish)
Okay, so technically these are not arancini. Arancini are rice balls that are coated in breadcrumbs, stuffed with mozzarella and fried. There is no rice in this recipe, but they look just like arancini and there are similarities as far as taste. The middle of an arancini is creamy and cheesy, as is this. And the outside is crispy and crunchy. My recipe is made with seasoned eggplant, which is then shaped into a ball and then stuffed with cheese, breaded and fried. Have I won you over yet?
Eggplant arancini
2 large eggplants
1 1/4 teaspoons salt, divided
Olive oil
2 eggs       
3/4 cup grated Parmesan  
1 1/4 cups whole wheat bread crumbs, divided
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons chickpea flour
4 ounces mozzarella cheese, cut into little cubes
Preheat oven to 350°F. Cut eggplants crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Place on paper towels. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt; let stand 30 minutes. Brush 2 baking sheets with oil. Pat eggplant dry; put on prepared sheets. Brush lightly with oil. Bake until eggplant is tender and dry, about 1 hour. Cool slightly; chop coarsely. Whisk 1 egg, Parmesan, 1/4 cup breadcrumbs, parsley, thyme, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, and 1/4 teaspoon salt in bowl. Stir in chopped eggplant (mixture will be soft). Spread 1 cup breadcrumbs on plate. Whisk 1 egg and chickpea flour in another bowl. Press and shape eggplant mixture into balls. Press 1 piece mozzarella into center of each ball, making sure eggplant mixture covers cheese. Dip balls into egg batter; roll in breadcrumbs. Pour oil into large skillet heat over medium-high heat. Add balls to skillet; sauté until browned, turning often, about 4 minutes. Move to paper towels to drain. Sprinkle with salt and serve.
This is a lovely Sunday dinner for the family. Meat, pasta and “vegetables” (well, the eggplant kind of counts, right?). Buon Appetito!
Pasta Cacio e Pepe