Monday, December 7, 2009

Mini Mushroom Cups

If you were to ask me to pick out one type of produce to eat for the rest of my life, I would without a doubt or single hesitation answer mushrooms. While I did not really acquire a true taste for them up until about five years ago, these days I love each and every bite. Mushrooms are extremely versatile, lending their buttery flavor to everything from omelets and quiches to soups and pastas, and play so nicely with many different ingredients.

I made these for Thanksgiving as a little pre-meal snack; the flavors of fresh thyme and pinot noir really team up with the sassy crème fraîche to put a spin on the traditional finger food. Since I use shallots and garlic pretty frequently in my cooking, I dice them ahead of time in a larger batch and keep the reserve in a (well-sealed!) container in the refrigerator with a touch of light olive oil. This way I can spoon out any amount as needed without the hassle of last-minute chopping. The mushroom mixture can be made ahead of time and refrigerated, and the phyllo shells can be kept frozen until needed.

Mini Mushroom Cups

Makes 30


1 tbsp olive oil

2 tbsp butter

1 1/2 lb fresh white mushrooms, cleaned and finely chopped

2 shallots, finely chopped

3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

3 tbsp pinot noir (or other dry red wine)

1 1/2 tbsp balsamic vinegar

3/4 c crème fraîche

2 tsp fresh thyme, chopped

1 tsp salt

1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper

2 packages frozen mini phyllo shells (2.1 oz each; 30 total)

Preheat oven to 400°F.

In a large skillet, heat oil and butter over medium-high heat. Stir in shallots and garlic, sautéeing until slightly transparent. Add mushrooms, toss to coat and, stirring often, cook until edges begin to brown.

Add wine and stir, allowing all liquid to be absorbed. Stir in vinegar, crème fraîche, thyme, salt and pepper. Stirring every so often, allow mixture to simmer until it takes on a thicker consistency.

Spoon hot mushroom mixture into shells and place on a cookie sheet. Bake at 400°F for 8 to 10 minutes.

Monday, November 30, 2009

For Nonno

Summer is long gone and winter is just around the bend, the smell of snow and burning wood lingering in the air. Labor Day gave way to Halloween and the beautiful fall leaves that once shivered with laughter have made their way to their earthy graves. Thanksgiving has just passed and I though it only fitting to incorporate a nice theme of — well — thanks into this blog post.

I feel that I've been rather absent these last bunch of months, as I take a look here and see that my keyboard has gathered the kind of dust that only comes with the passing of a season in what feels like the blink of an eye. I've been taking a lot more photographs these days than I have been putting my thoughts into words. I don't know if this fits here, but I suppose it's as good a place as any to talk about my grandfather.

I'll never forget the day, about 5 years ago, when I went over for Sunday dinner to find him not feeling well. I'll never forget when we found out he had Parkinson's. I'll never forget the day he went into the nursing home, the day my grandmother realized she couldn't care for him anymore by herself, the day she sold the house full of my childhood memories. I'll never forget the day I allowed myself to fully realize what was happening, breaking down in my mother's arms in the kitchen, absorbing the fact that the day I had been dreading was rapidly approaching. I'll never forget celebrating his last birthday with him on October 11th and then walking into his room on October 18th to visit him only to find my grandmother, mother and uncle standing over him as the priest read him his last rites. I'll never forget telling him about all our amazing memories and that, yes, it was ok for him to go. He needed that permission and I knew it. I'll never forget my grandmother standing over him, pulling his barely conscious body into her arms and saying, "It's time, Berto. Go to sleep's time. I love you."

And I'll never, ever forget getting the call at 2 o'clock in the morning on October 21st that it was finally over.

The next couple of days are some sort of a blur in my memory, clear and yet not. It happened pretty fast as he passed on a Wednesday, the wake was on Thursday and he was buried on Friday. I held my 8 year old cousin throughout the entire funeral mass and burial, her 13 year old brother by my side. I will tell you one thing: when we all arrived at the church, his reaction as they pulled the casket from the hearse broke me. He buried his face into his father's chest and wailed. As we went through the day I watched my whole family — cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews. I studied their faces, watching as the veil of grief settled into their individual features. I looked down at the youngest ones and, all I could think was, I only wish they had gotten a chance to know their grandfather as I knew him, young and vibrant and smart and sassy. Hahaha, what a wise ass! I miss him so much.

This was not the post I set out to write, and yet somehow this is the post that came to be. There's a part of me that wants to erase it all and write about what I originally came here to write, about Thanksgiving and yummy treats and wonderful family, but the bigger part of me is letting this be as is. Because, in truth, this is a post about Thanksgiving, about giving thanks for all that he was to me and all that he still is. Every time the wind picks up and whips through the empty space around me, I know he's there.

Everyone had their thing: my grandmother buried him in his favorite newsboy cap (so typical of an Italian immigrant), my mother put a photo of him as a baby surrounded by his four siblings, mother and grandparents, and my aunt held on tight to his masonry trowel. I wanted him to be buried with the photo book that I had made the previous Christmas, one for him to keep in the nursing home and one for Nonna to keep with her at home. It held pictures of all of us, young and old through the years, with an inscription in the very beginning that read:

Siamo tutti angeli con una sola ala, possiamo volare solo se ci abbracciamo l'uno con l'altro.

We are each of us angels with only one wing, and we can only fly by embracing one another.

He's there now, buried under the shade of a beautiful and grand oak tree. We've been back several times to visit and each time my eyes find his spot, that hole in my heart burns, like wind on embers, with as much intensity as it did that early October morning. I guess that's how strong a love like that operates.

I love you.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Back to Basics

Well I have been teetering on the edge of vegetarianism for about a year or so now and, with the exception of fish, I have pretty much cut out all other animals from my diet. Trust me, there are still times when some remnants will surreptitiously make their way into my risotto. My father is known for doing this, as if desperately trying to find ways of feeding his malnourished child from some fictitious third-world country. Have you ever heard of Naboombu? I certainly have not. Well yes, actually, I have. But it’s from a semi-animated children’s movie. Any takers? Anyone? Bueller?

One of the main things I must point out here is that I am not a vegetarian (or pescatarian, for that matter) for ‘typical’ ethical reasons. Yes, I know, the poor animals and all. Listen here, I’m not cold-hearted! I am human, and a very emotional one at that. Yet I had never been a big meat eater to begin with, which is quite the feat when your father is an Argentinean chef. I began with the intention of creating a healthier diet for myself because, truth be told, I simply don’t believe that humans were ever meant to eat animals in the first place. But that is another story for another day.

I certainly do not go around promoting my beliefs or scoff loudly when friends of mine order their double bacon, meaty mcmeat burgers. My choice is my choice and yours is yours and I respect that. And I’m sure there are many out there who will emphatically state, chest puffed out like a proud cockatoo, that being a vegetarian doesn’t necessarily mean eating healthy. And guess what? I wholeheartedly agree. I know all too well that you certainly eat crappy, crappy, crappy even sans animal products — my first bout with being veggie went exactly that-a-way.

Ask anybody who knew me as a child, teenager and young adult: If it was green, I would not touch it. I had a fleeting love affair with iceberg lettuce (which we all know is really a giant science experiment to get water to be solid without the freezing process), and did carrots here and there (but good heavens!Those are ORANGE!). Flash forward x-number of years and here I am! And I’ve come a long way, baby!

So, as to make sure that I did not make the same mistake again, I decided to pay more attention to exactly what I was eating this time around. And in doing so, very quickly realized that I too often stuck to one type of food for weeks at a time. Now, I have always been akin to this little quirk for pretty much my entire life: one week it will be yellow bell peppers, and two weeks later it’s hummus. Not exactly balanced.

Weeks go by, then months, and my initially refreshed and energized system is now dragging. I’m exhausted. My nails are brittle. I’m losing hair. I. Don’t. GET IT! Well, in looking back, I now surmise that I knew the answer all along and it only took some sleuth investigation for things to be come clear. The food that I had been eating was indeed healthy, but I didn’t have the balance my body needed to thrive. And because of this, I was starving my body of some very real vital nutrients. I had been so concerned about finding those foods that provided protein that I forgot about iron. And calcium. And, well, the very detailed list goes on. And herein lies the challenge of many a vegetarian.

I’ve been on a quest during these recent months to start enjoying a diverse selection of Mother Nature's earthly wonders, from one end of the color scale to the other. I get so excited over discovering new, exotic produce that I’ve never laid eyes on before (Buddha’s Hand? Still not sure exactly what to do with it). I love my baby spinach, but I’m also aware of the levels of oxalic acid that could hinder the body’s calcium absorption. And ohhhh lentils and quinoa. Near and perfect proteins and yet, somehow, so delicious.

Mother Nature has provided us with an incredible array of amazing food. The problem is that, these days, the timeline between ground and plate has become too long. There is too much intervention, too much adding and too much subtracting. What once was a perfect specimen of nutrition is now a chemically-altered counterpart. We have fed our bodies simulated copies of the real things and our bodies have adapted to the non-food. I'm pretty sure I could go on for miles here, but the simple fact still remains that we need to get back to basics, back to what Mother Nature intended us to eat. We need to be human again.

A Weekend in Newport

With a love affair of the New England coastline, my girlfriends and I decided to get together for a weekend in Newport, Rhode Island. We make it a point to get together at least once a summer, since busy schedules and altogether hectic lives tend to keep us separated between Boston and New York. A couple weeks of synchronizing schedules told us that, among the three of us, we only had a weekend to spare. So no flights. No cruises. Someplace simple and grand at the same time.

My girlfriend Sam and I drove up together from New York, meeting our other friend Christina waiting at the hotel. It was a typically humid and partly cloudy late-August Saturday. We had originally planned for sailing lessons, but it seemed that Hurricane Bill had made up his mind and that was subsequently nixed from the agenda. With a quick stroll around Newport’s downtown shopping area, we grabbed some refreshing frozen lemonade at Del’s and some sinfully delicious fudge at Country Kettle (my favorite was the Vanilla Nut), and decided to hop back in the car and go explore.

Newport is very much known for its historic mansions, equipped with sprawling grounds and a delicately preserved sense of American royalty. The drive took us down roads of stone walls and ivy, and we found ourselves sitting in silence as we slowly passed one after the other. The cars, bikers and pedestrians alike all seemed to cower under the shade of the immense elm trees that stood like soldiers guarding their compounds.

Nearing the end of Narragansett Avenue, we decided to park and go investigate another of Newport’s alluring features, the Cliff Walk. We began at The Forty Steps, a breathtaking stone stairway offering a steep descent to the rocky cliffs and crashing waves below. There is a turn at the bottom landing, offering you the opportunity to marvel up close at Poseidon’s (i.e., Bill’s) display of vigor and play — carefully — on the rocky plateaus below.

Emerging from the stone chasm we continued northbound on the path, stopping every once in a while to admire the view and the every so often the enthusiastic surfers braving the crushing swells below. At the farthest point north, the Cliff Walk disperses out onto Memorial Boulevard and we three, sweating and grinning, decided to head to the beach.

Easton’s Beach is typical of New England, rocky and defined, and although the clouds had begun to swallow the sky we were eager to get our feet wet at the very least.

Thoroughly wind-blown and salty, we made our way back to the car and, in an effort to avoid cross-town traffic, decided to take the scenic route along the entire southern coast of Newport. The whole mood of the day felt leisurely, so why rush it now? We had many coves to peer into, many grand houses to discover along that drive.

At the southernmost point of the drive, we turned a corner and the sky seemed to open up in all its glory. Breton Point on its own must be majestic, especially on a clear sunny day. Needless to say, however, we had stumbled upon it at exactly the right moment. A sunset desperately trying to break through a stormy atmosphere. Hues of oranges and blues. Magnificent waves crashing in threefold. In the distance, a lonely sailboat was cutting through the fog. Awe.

We parked and I ran towards the surreal image, towards the onlookers and professional photographers. I took pictures along the way of the black rock patios nestled in the waves that didn’t stand a chance of being remembered by tourists on that day. I was so close to that strange utopia — and then my camera battery failed me.

This was the closest I came to capturing that scene — you can just make out that sailboat. The only thing that consoles me is knowing that a picture would never have done that awesome sight justice.

Later that evening, freshly showered down, blown out and made up, we hit the town for some fresh seafood and Newport Storm Summer Ale. Back into town, traversing the narrow streets of downtown once more, we came upon a happy little — at the risk of sounding like Bob Ross — gelateria and I blissfully concluded my night with a splendid scoop of Cold Fusion’s Maple Walnut.

The next morning, the sun was out and to the beach we were headed. After a brief stop for essential caffeinated beverages and an unintended minor detour, we arrived back at Easton’s Beach. Parking fee paid, we happily made our way towards the sand only to discover that no one was actually allowed on the beach (at the moment) thanks to Billy Boy’s charming combination of killer waves and thigh-high tide. Lifeguard chair #8 had flirted with danger and lost.

Before we knew it almost an hour had passed and we finally were allowed access to the beach. We sunned ourselves for another hour and a half before it was decided that our little beach getaway was truly coming to a close. If it weren’t for foreboding thoughts of traffic-laden Sunday drives on i-95, I would have stayed to see another sunset.

Newport, I miss you already.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

One Day at a Time

Welcome back, me.

I have spent the past couple of weeks weeding through recipes. Well, working and weeding through recipes. Okay, working, mid-summer cleaning and weeding through recipes. Sigh.

In any case, I have been working my way slowly through my collection of recipes that have accumulated from years of printing from websites, snipping from newspapers, and the ever-popular ripping from magazines. They have all found themselves loosely filed (read: stuffed) into a giant hard-cover spiral journal which I had geniously converted into my "recipe book" back in college. Few and far between are the days when I actually muster up the motivation to organize that glorified Trapper Keeper. Pardon me, my 80's are showing.

So in honest efforts to truly get the task done, I have decided to tackle a little bit at a time, day by day. And, in doing so, have discovered how I have changed. Perhaps I have fallen victim to the recently popularized green movement. Perhaps I simply am fine-tuning my choices. Perhaps, oh just perhaps, I have simply become more conscious of the world around me, more sensitive and yet somehow more determined. Perhaps.

My parents have always kept a compost pile, and our garden has certainly expanded its selection to include cucumbers, zucchini, pumpkins, watermelon, leaf lettuce and string beans. I know we've always had a red currant bush, although those perfectly round little berries had always been a little too tart for my liking. We turn off the AC when not needed and open windows throughout the house to, as my father would say, "get some cross-ventilation."

But these days, I find myself thinking beyond and perhaps ahead. Chlorine-free bleach, natural organic sugar, olive oil instead of butter. Organic cotton and glass replacing synthetics and plastics. I'm sure I could keep a running tab of all of the different little changes that occur to me throughout the day. And I know that there are probably people out there that might roll their eyes at this type of, um, stuff. But in all honesty, we are responsible for our own bodies. And I will one day be responsible for some other little bodies. To strengthen. To protect. To fill with the goodness of the world. Because we all know there is enough bad out there.

I believe in whole foods, in pure foods. I believe in fresh fruit and vegetables, more so ones that haven't been subjected to harmful pesticides and chemicals. I don't believe in diets — I believe in being healthy, living healthy. I believe in good old fashioned exercise, but I also believe in yoga and mediation. I believe in strengthening the body and the mind. I don't necessarily believe in religion per se, but I believe in faith and spirituality. I believe in happiness, but I also believe in sadness. Because without heartbreak and despair our souls would never get a chance to grow, strengthen and thrive. Without experiencing the darkness of life, we could never fully appreciate the light.

So as I continue to work, clean, organize and, ultimately, live, I find it appropriate that I leave off here: I believe in balance.

♥ D

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

For the Love of Food

I enjoy cooking. No — scratch that — I love cooking. I beam at the thought of preparing extravagant and delicious Saturday breakfasts. I daydream of having friends over for small, intimate dinner parties. Fresh flowers, bottles of wine, delicate aromas of savory herbs and spices. You get the idea. If you're going to drool, please drool with class.

My love for food has not always been such, however. Granted I am the daughter of a chef and most people, for this reason, are convinced that I must have always loved that. Wrong. In all honestly, it was less because my father was a chef and more despite it that I found my culinary roots. To best explain this thought process, please rudely awaken your inner 6 year old child, typically sweet and certainly stubborn. It's dinner time. What are you most looking forward to having? Spaghetti and meatballs? Macaroni and cheese? Ohmigoodness...PIZZA??? No. Sorry. Tonight we will be having filet of sole in a white wine sauce with sautéed broccoli rabe. Right. Ok. I think I'll make my own food, thanks. And that's how it started.

I have come a long way since my coupe de la cuisine. (I also apparently have come a long way from my french classes as well!) I love broccoli rabe (and spinach, and swiss chard, and kale). I drool over the smell of fresh onion and garlic sautéeing in a pan. (It's pretty much one of my most favorite smells in the world.) I had always been known as "She who does not eat anything green — ever." Cute nickname, huh? My grandmother to this day still makes a scene anytime I eat a salad. "Wooooow...I connn bolief it!!" (Meant to read, "Wow, I can't believe it!" — thick Italian accents do not translate well phonetically.) And every now and then I experience moments of clarity and sheer awe that I am where I am considering I was where I was. Now, don't get me wrong...I went through periods where I pretty much ate Ramen Noodles for a month straight. And I love Burger King french fries. But I can certainly do without cakes and cookies and all the other frilly baked goods out there. Apple pies make me shrug my shoulders, even though I've made more than I can count. And muffins don't even get a second glance. Chocolate however, I'm convinced, is an entirely different species of sugary treat altogether. It's pretty much an emotion.

But, oh for the love of food, that is. From the fresh ingredients, to the chopping, stirring, sautéeing and deglazing, to the plate presentation and wine choices, I have amassed a wealth of appreciation and affection for all of it. As I stated earlier, I am not a chef. Would I like to ever be a chef? I'm not quite sure. I have always discussed taking culinary classes with my father, but as far as actually being behind the lines, I've always been hesitant. Hesitant because I know the hours he has always kept...leaving in what felt like the middle of the night as a child (in reality, 5:30 am), coming home sometime around 11 pm, burnt, toasted, Dom DeLuise says in Robin Hood: Men In Tights, "D-E-D, dead."

So, to commence this great journey of blogdom, I leave off with some quotes starting with the remarkably spunky queen of the cuisine:

  • "You don't have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces - just good food from fresh ingredients. " Julia Childs

  • "The most remarkable thing about my mother is that for thirty years she served the family nothing but leftovers. The original meal has never been found." Calvin Trillin

  • "My doctor told me to stop having intimate dinners for four. Unless there are three other people." Orson Welles

Cin-cin and cent'anni!
♥ D

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