Monday, October 13, 2008

These little town blues...

Ok... if you have done any reading here at all, you already know what this is about... I am headed HOME!!! In just a few days, I will be taking a trip back to the land of all things delicious. I plan to eat my weight in "NY-only" food: bagels, pizza, bread, hot dogs, cheeses, meats, pastries- the likes of which will not be found on this Left Coast.

So who has seen The Godfather? Remember when he says "... but one day, and that day may never come, I will ask you for a favor..."? Well that day has come. My brain has become more than a little foggy and I am a little concerned that I may forget something. Tell me what it is that I need while in town... I need YOU. I am sure that YOU will have the one thing... the thing I can't live without on this trip… the thing I absolutely need. And I am sure that will be the one thing just out of the grasp of my memory... so remind me... any and all help is appreciated. Tell me about it… and when I get back I promise to tell you all about it. You know my rules… I’ll keep writing as long as you keep reading.

So, somebody call the NYPD, the FDNY and probably Animal Control too... I'm heading home and it is going to be some time!! My Fair City may be the City that Never Sleeps, but when I'm done... she's gonna need a little nap! 'Cause Johnny Tomatoes says so!!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Easy as Pie

Dad was a great guy. I don't think I ever heard anyone with a bad word to say about him... even Mom (and she divorced him after 6 years... so, you'd think...). He worked in some of the roughest areas of the Bronx and never had a problem... Dad was just a nice, soft spoken Irish guy from Inwood (that's on the northern tip of Manhattan, for the geographically challenged) He liked to read, was a gifted singer, and had a killer voice with a serious vibrato that got him some work for a breif period doing voice-overs. Apparently God has a sense of fair play, because while I got stuck looking an awful lot like him (JUST KIDDIN DAD!!), my saving grace was I got his voice too... I still remember when I'd call him at work as a kid... before he knew it was me, he would drop his voice an octave and say "Hi, this is Mike Tomatoes"...

I guess to me, like most kids, my Dad was about as cool as it got. Me and my older brother got to do so many things other kids didn't get to do- we learned all the city games Dad played growing up, like box-ball, king/queen, curb-ball, and ring-a-livio. He was teaching me and my older brother to drive in the church parking lot on Saturday afternoons when we were 11 and 12 years old. We were taught every part of the City and most of the outer-boros, and the best way to navigate them either by train or in a car (including the dreaded Cross Bronx Parking Lot). We knew how to use most of the crossings on the Hudson, East, and Harlem Rivers to avoid traffic on the West Side Highway, the Deegan or the FDR. The radio in his car was always tuned to 101.1 WCBS FM, the quintessential New York station that played the music from his youth- Dad loved doo-wop and we used to listen to Cousin Brucie, Don K Reed and the Doo-Wop Shop, and Mr Music Norm N Night... all old school "real" music. Cagney was a big favorite of his too- Angel's With Dirty Faces, Each Dawn I Die, White Heat... All in all, I am hard pressed to find a bad memory... and that's great because I have come to find that it is true- we do become our parents. (my epiphany on that came when, during a lengthy commute in some heavy traffic, I found myself yelling "Awlright pal... drive it or park it!!" at the driver in front of me... a classic line from Dad)

Much later, Dad confided in me that he never stopped loving or missing Mom... and I knew it was true. He always asked how she was and stuff... One thing he was always after was old recipes, things she had cooked for him when they were on their National Tour (courtesy of the US Army). One of Mom's old recipes that I loved was for Hamburger Pie. It was great and satisfied my carnivorous side pretty well. And it was easy to make, too. One night Dad asked what I had made for dinner, so I told him and gave him a shopping list and directions on how to put it all together.

Here is where I need to pause and let you know something about Dad. He was smart man... he spoke four languages... he could effectively debate almost any point... and he made helluva pot of coffee. But he was no cook. Couldn't do it if his life depended on it. This was an easy one though- a pound of ground beef, a small onion chopped, some flour, a few tablespoons Worcestershire sauce, two eggs, a package of shredded Cheddar cheese, and a frozen pie crust. That is essentially the shopping list I gave him. Then the directions: Chop the onion and start sauteing in a pan; brown the meat in the same pan with the onion, drain it; add 2 or so rounded tablespoons of flour (to help bind it) and at least three tablespoons of the W sauce (not gonna try to spell that one again!).. more if you like a little zing to our Hamburger Pie. Mix it all up in the same pan, then pour it into the pie crust. Now beat the two eggs in a bowl and throw the cheese in, then pour the whole mix over the top of the meat, spreading it out to the edges. Bake it in the oven at about 375 for a half hour or so. When you take it out, let it cool for a little while before you cut into it otherwise it will fall apart. Thats it... easy right?

So I left these directions with my very intelligent, college educated father. Next night I get a call... whaddaya know?? The Old Man actually pulled it off... he had cooked it and it was cooling by the time he called me. It turned out just right. I got another call just a little while later; he had cut into it and was tearing through his first slice. And loving it. I couldn't help but be proud of him... this was a huge step for him. We talked for a few minutes, had a few laughs, and then I got back to whatever it was I was doing and he did the same. About an hour later I get another call. It's Dad again. "Johnny, my boy... I'm not sure how to tell you this... I ate the whole thing" he said with a little guilt to his voice. I couldn't help but laugh. I had, on more than one occasion, done exactly the same. I was sure he did it just like I did: the initial meal from the first sitting would usually account for a quarter to a third of the entire pie; as the night wore on and the pie sat on the kitchen table, I would begin to nickel and dime it to death... sliver by sliver till there was just a small piece left... "How could I leave that? What am I gonna do, tease myself with a nibble tomorrow?" I would justify it to myself as I cleaned the (pie) plate.

We had a lot of laughs, me and Dad... there were times when I would call him in the morning before I left for work- he was always up early to go to work too- if I thought of something funny... just a few minutes and the day was started with a laugh for both of us. He was a great guy, my Dad.

Nine years ago today, it was a Saturday night, Dad died. The big C snuck up on him and took him just a few days after it was found. I still remember going to see him on Friday night... and then Saturday, I brought him lunch from his best buddy's restaurant: a club sandwich, some well done fries with an ice cold Pepsi. In spite of the seriousness of the situation, or maybe because of it, we shared more than our usual amount of laughs. During a rare serious moment, I apologized for the times I had acted like a stupid kid, especially when I was old enough to know better. Dad looked me straight in the eye and told me to stop right there... I was just a young man growing up and those things were bound to happen... here he was, in the state he was in, giving me a pass, offering me absolution for transgressions that I knew then had hurt him so much... hell of a guy, my Old Man- he was all Man.

I know he's off somewhere with Mom right now having the longest picnic ever heard of. He brought the radio and she brought a basket with a little bit of all the things she ever made that he loved... and they're just catching up on old times, waiting patiently for their boys to show up.

So here's one for my Dad. If you find yourself in need of an easy recipe to follow, one that even my no-cookin' Dad could manage to throw together and enjoy, then try this one. I know you're gonna love it. And set out an extra slice... you never know who may drop in. 'Cause Johnny Tomatoes says so!!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Monday, September 01, 2008

The Summer Wind...

Nothin like a little Frankie to set the tone for the season and here we are, the generally accepted end of Summer... I played Frank and so much more over the long weekend.  Like everyone else, I look forward to that bittersweet long weekend in September.  Its a great time to get together with family, friends, and friends who are family (which I sometimes think are the best of the bunch, because it is like picking your relatives).  I spent a good part of Saturday doing prep work and put out a killer spread on Sunday- the weekend included my usual list of suspects:ribs, chicken, burgers, dogs, sausage... it was all there.  Mix n a generous helping of people who I wanted to spend time with while wishing a fond farewell to Summer and of course just the right amount of liquids... it was a great party.  If you have any questions on the menu, then you need to do your homework... look into the archives- its all there... go ahead; I'll wait here for you...

I decided to take Monday for myself this year... no guests, no cookout, no entertaining.  Instead, I puttered around the house a little, took care of some local errands and enjoyed some pizza... I turned out a few (because leftovers are always so good)- I used some leftover pesto for one, sauteed a little spinach for another, and loaded a third with extra mushrooms.  The first pie went in early for an all day "mangia"... beer and pizza over the day... it was great.  

But then I got to thinking about my family (both the chosen and 'forced on me' varieties) on the East Coast; there is a huge list of people over there that I would love to be spending time with (and you know who you are! That's right... You!!)  While people like to tell you the summer is never ending out here on the Left Coast, I felt it... like Frankie said... 'I lost you to the summer wind...' and it seems he is right, things do change here (I actually start to feel it right around the Fourth of July, but do my best to work through it)  Next thing you know, people are gonna be walking around talking about how cold it is at 70 degrees, asking how I can still be in shorts and a T- shirt, like there's something wrong with me.  I used to try to hide it a little, try to be polite as the new comer, but now I laugh openly and tell them all to go spend a few days with my best girl (my city, of course) in mid February if they really wanna feel cold... 

I miss my family and friends at home; I think it is definitely time for a visit.  If I wanna keep what remains of my brains, it will have to be sooner rather than later... I can't wait- it's always nice to pop up unexpectedly, when people least expect it and give them a good surprise.  So don't any of you be surprised if you see a familiar face or hear an unexpected "Ay- how you doin'?"... you never know where or when I could pop up.  Just be ready, because you know if I'm comin to visit, we're gonna have ourselves a real time.  'Cause Johnny Tomatoes says so!!

Friday, August 15, 2008

Holy Stromboli!!

I made a little pizza... alright, alot of pizza... earlier this week and somehow wound up with one piece of dough left over. I've been feeling a little more on the carnivorous side lately, so I was looking for something to fit the mood. What could be better than Stromboli?? I mean, look at it- you have some dough wrapped around meat, cheese, some more meat, maybe some peppers and onions, or even mushrooms, and did I mention the meat? Given my limited choices for supplies out here, I decided to make use of everything I could get my hands on. (I have actually been thinking about making one of these following a recent 'discovery' in the fridge at work- someone brought one in and for some reason thought it would be safe when left alone all day... it was GREAT... that stromboli and its owner have been rooted in my mind for quite a while now)

Ok- first I assembled my ingredients- four meats, three cheeses, two peppers, and one dough. I popped the peppers in the broiler to roast for a while; I wanted a little something sweet to offset all the cured meats. While they roasted, I grated some Pecorino Romano (personal favorite), grabbed some mozzarella left from the pizza the night before, and got the rest of the ingredients out.

I began working to dough out on the board, doing my best to acheive an even depth and somewhat even dimensions on the sides. Once the dough was out, I started with a layer of Romano. I was hoping that the dry (relative to everything else) consistency of the cheese would allow it to soak up what I knew could turn into a flood of oil.

Next, I layed down a layer of mozz that had already been shredded for the pizza... a nice layer of it to help with the foundation. I figured this could only help to serve as a good base with the Romano. Next came my favorite part... the meat. I wasn't sure which to start with, whether the order would have big affect on how the flavors hit you. I realized I was over-thinking this and fished the salami off the top of the pile. I broke open the package and, after making sure it wasn't poisoned, added that as the next layer in what was beginning to be a large pile of food.

My sense of fairness (spurred by a healthy dose of OCD) dictated that following the salami there should be another layer of cheese. I almost felt as if my brick laying ancestors were standing over my shoulder, urging me to put a little mortar in there between the layers to help hold it all together. Looking at this photo, you may notice what seems to be only half a piece of slicing provolone in my hand... There is actually a funny story that goes with that. See, I as I stood there carefully adding the provolone to this artistic masterpiece, a piece fell to the counter, where the other half (not pictured) broke off, bounced up off the counter, hit the fluorescent bulbs, fell back, paused in mid-air, changed direction and flew directly into my mouth as I stood there agape and astonished... and that is exactly how it happened!! It was all I could do to avoid choking on it...

Moving on... I continued to add my layers- some capicola, more mozz, and some pepperoni... I wanted to add more to it, but, as I mentioned, my supplies are limited... heathens don't even have a decent ham around here (someone in NY wanna send me a nice pound of thin sliced Boar's Head?). So I threw down one more layer of salami, topped it with one more layer of provolone to provide a solid casing all around within the dough, and there she was... ready to go

Carefully, I folded the top over the meat and cheese and meat delight I had created. I tucked the edges together, methodically kneading the ends of dough together, until they melded into a single piece. Quick... someone tell me what I forgot!!?!? OK- all of you who were paying attention know its the roasted peppers. I couldn't believe it... I really wanted to get those in there to offset the salt from the meat, but once the dough was sealed, there was no opening it. So I did the next best thing... I laid them on top...

I cut the dough (the way a good corner man can cut a fighter's eye) to allow any excessive liquids or air to bleed out in the cooking process, brushed it with some egg, and got it into the oven.

What came out later, besides an unbelievably great aroma of meat cooking, was nothing short
of encapsulated golden perfection- at least as far as I was concerned... but I was hungry, so that may have slanted my perspective a little bit. Tell the truth though... it does look good, doesn't it? And those peppers... niiiice, hmmm?

I had some left over tomato sauce from the weekend and it seemed like a natural pair... Bogey and Bacall, if you will. So I set it out and cut into the 'boli. The hot 'boli with the cold sauce... what a combo.. it was fantastic.

Now the beauty of the stromboli is that, when wrapped and refrigerated, it can last a few days. In theory. I had visions of showing up with mine at work for breakfast (any mo-mo could have it for lunch), watching my co workers turn green with envy. It would have been perfect. But, alas, it was not to be. That 'boli stood about as much chance of staying safe as a fat-cheeked little boy in a room of Grandmothers... it was gonna get pinched. I say with more than a little pride, I finished that beautiful work of carnivorous art in one day. It was fantastic and I have no regrets. Between the meats, the sauce, and those peppers... Mamma Mia... what a day I had!!

So... if you find yourself with a little extra dough and you want to throw together something that will really keep you going all week (remember- 'In Theory'), get all the makings and put together a nice artistic 'boli for yourself. This one is worth all the time and effort involved. 'Cause Johnny Tomatoes says so!!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

A Meal Fit for a King

When I was a kid, there was nothing like walking up the block and seeing my Grandfather's car in the driveway.  Gramps is the King of all grandfathers (just ask any of his 10 grandkids!!), and with him at the house, we had a really good chance of getting Genovese for dinner.   It is still Rennie's favorite dish and Mom always loved to make it for him.  Quick sniff when you walked in the door would confirm it, cause Mom always cooked this one long and slow during the day and the smell... well it was really somthin' else.  It always hit you like a freight train when you walked in the door, especially on a fall or winter day.  On days when I'm missing home or thinking of Mom, nothin really hits the spot like a big dish of Genovese.  This is a great dish that gets even better when you take your time cooking it.  I usually like to give myself at least 3-4 hours. I keep it going over a tiny flame (about the size of a match will do) and walk out of the house and then back in every now and then, just to judge the scent.

I like to start with a nice roast- a bottom round or a chuck roast with plenty of good marbling.   In a heavy bottomed pot, I braise the meat in some olive oil.  While it starts searing on the first side, I start peeling and cutting my onions, usually a half a dozen, maybe a little more if they are small.  (To this day, in his 80's, Rennie still cuts the onions for this dish every time Gramma makes it) 
Once the meat has been turned for the last time, the onions go in and get a little time to sweat it out.  I hit it with some salt and fresh ground pepper and a secret ingredient that I will probably get into trouble for sharing (sorry Gramma, but they're practically family!!)- a couple of quick turns around the pot with a pour of soy sauce.   Last thing to do is fill the pot with water till the meat is almost covered.   After that, turn down the heat till it is just enough to maintain a little steam coming off the surface.   Since the gravy that comes from this is like liquid gold, I like to vent the cover off the side, but still leave it mostly covered, keeping as much as possible for dinner.

And now, we move to our breif intermission.  This is about the time I like to pop open a bottle of Fortissimo and maybe turn on a good classic movie- something with Frank and the boys... Robin and the Seven Hoods or Ocean's Eleven- or maybe some Cagney- Angels with Dirty Faces or Each Dawn I Die...

As we get closer to "go time", I get my big pot of water going- at least two pounds of spaghetti or linguini for this one- if there are any leftovers, they are worth fighting over.   I'm like Joe over at I like some good macaroni.  If I don't make it, or get it fresh, I like my DeCecco- great texture, perfect body... boiled up a little al dente in some nice salty water-mmmmm- just thinking about it, I can taste it and feel the strands coming off that first big fork.   (I still remember fighting with my older brother in that Bronx appartment about who got to be Gramma's 'taster' when it was almost done... sweeet memories.)

While the mac's are cookin' away, I throw together a basic salad- romaine, cucumber, and tomato, as long as the season is right; dress it wih a little olive oil and red wine vinegar, maybe a cap or two of the balsamic, and toss it into the fridge for the time being.

Get the cheese out of the fridge at the same time.   I know everyone is high on Parmigianno, but not me- I can't do it; feels too much like betting the favorite.    For me, it has always been Pecorino Romano with dinner.  Big chunks of it, with a small hand grater on the table.  Now, slice that bread, get it in a basket (if it's yesterday's, give it a few minutes in a hot oven to hide it) and get it on the table.  I'm gettin hungry here!!!

Ok- so, now with your macaroni cooked, drained, and appropriately dressed in gravy (like a kid after Sunday dinner!!), let's get this thing going.  Get the meat out of the gravy and give it some time to rest on that big wooden cutting board.  Get the macaroni in a big bowl with plenty of gravy and tell everyone to sit down so you can start dishing it up.  We always start with a couple of dishes of macaroni (do any of "us" eat our secondi piatti with our primi piatti?? I hope not!!).  I can still hear my brother "Gramma, can I have some more?"... "OK Michael, give me your dish, but keep your fork"- more of those sweeet memories.

Next, bring out the salad and get your meat sliced and onto a platter, with a good amount of gravy and onions over it.  Time for round two.   I love to get my fork in there and grab an end cut- and don't you try to fight me for it!   Some fresh gravy and a good sprinkle of cheese and we're off to the races... Don't forget to hold onto some bread for the gravy in your dish.  Better yet- get a spoon!

I like to eat my salad last, a little vinegar to help cleanse the palate and aid in the digestion. And I like it in the same dish.   I love getting all those flavors together... you get the dressed salad, the gravy, the cheese left in your dish... mmmmm- I can 't get enough.

A little caveat on this dish- most of the time, you either get a great, flavorful gravy, or a very tender piece of meat.  It is a rarity to get both, even my Gramma who has been cookin' this dish up for the last 60+ years would tell you that.  But sometimes, just on a blue moon... you could get both. The evidence you are looking at here was just such a time and I am glad you could be here to share it with me- but don't think you're entitled to leftovers!!

OK- not sure I could feel any more hungry than I do right now... occupational hazard of writing about all of this.  Sadly, this post was finished long afer the leftovers were gone so we're all in the same boat as far as being able to enjoy more than a few good pictures.

One disclaimer- the meat you saw on that dish of macaroni?... just there for purposes of the photo op... that was put back on the board and eaten later, in its proper order.

And there you have it- a meal truly fit for a King... This one (like so many others) is worth all the time that goes into it.  Get the people that matter the most to you together for a sit down and enjoy- even if it doesn't come out so good, it will still be great.  'Cause Johnny Tomatoes says so!

Grampa and Gramma

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

In Progress

I think I have almost forgotten how to write...

I have one in the works, and it will be ready VERY soon... don't give up on me, amici...

Johnny T

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Be it ever so humble...

Ok- another late posting... this one is from early December. Business has been good though; it's always tough to get these posted because down time at work is my best time for writing. Anyway- read on; it is worth all your waiting.

I just got back from a whirlwind tour of Home. Even in the cold, my City is as unbelieveable as ever. And she welcomed me with wide open arms...

Inside the first hour of my arrival I was sitting down with a slice, a real honest-to-goodness slice (ok, I guess 'a slice' isn't completely accurate) and, of course, my favorite chaser: a Manhattan Special. Ahhhhhh- it feels good to be home. Everyone I saw was walking around shivering, but I couldn't have been happier. After I dropped my bags off at a friend's house in Brooklyn, I went right back to the train . Two transfers later- and what beeee-you-tee-ful, perfectly timed transfers they were- I was walking around, just taking in everything there was to see and hear and, most of all, feel on a December night in my fair city. It was exactly how I spent much of my trip. Everywhere I went- Union Square, Wall Street, Rockefeller Plaza, Times Square, Hells Kitchen- I could feel the electricity, the raw energy just flowing through me. If you've never walked around my City at night by yourself, just looking at everyone and everything, you may not get this. For me though, it was like White Heat- "Made it Ma! Top of the world!"

I had only a few food highlights while in town. I didn't get back to many of the old haunts; instead I nibbled everywhere I went. Since street food is tough to come by in southern Cal, I took advantage of everything I could-coffee and buttered rolls, pretzels, dogs, knish, ka-bobs- everything was fair game. Outside of all that, I think I ate my weight in pizza, bagels, and bread that weekend, more than I have had in a month in California.

Saturday morning, I stopped in to see the Keeper of the Wisdom (see "Time to Get My Guinea Up") and after spending a little time catching up, I went to my brother's place where we had a great spread covering just about all of his table- and for those of you 'in the know' use your imagination- if you can think of it, then it was on that table somewhere. Fresh roasted peppers, fresh mozz, provolone, prosciuto, cappicola, mortadella, soppresata... the list goes on and on. To me, though, the best part was the bread (all three kinds). I haven't had good bread since my last trip. But this wasn't good bread... this was great bread! Crisp crust, soft interiors, GREAT, GREAT flavor.

What else could I ask for?? Here I was having the quintessential Italian experience. Of course, so much of what it is we do is centered around a good meal... but that is always a great place to start- after all, good food=love, doesn't it? In so many ways, it was about the food, but more important was the company. I was with all of my brothers, my aunt came by with my cousins, and even my baby sister made an appearance (she is a tough one!!). We talked, laughed, shouted, ATE... if that isn't what being a good Guinea is all about, if that isn't the real Italian experience, then don't bother trying to tell me what is- I don't want it. There aren't many ways the day could have been any better than it was.

Even though we had spent the whole day eating, I was able to convince my younger brothers to drive me back to Brooklyn and join me for another meal. I had to get back to Schnack... I had to have more of those fries, that delicious, perfectly messy burger, and most of all, a Beer Milkshake. I skipped it last time I was in town and had regrets ever since. Let me tell you- even on a full stomach, Schnack was perfect... and I do mean perfect. I hooked up with a bunch of friends I hadn't seen in a while and about 15 of us stopped in to see Harry and the crew at Schnack. They accomodated our loud, raucous bunch with a nice long table and another great round of food. After my burger, fries, onion rings, and a couple of the RC Ribs I took from my brother's plate (older brother prerogative), I was ready to try my first Beer Milkshake. Everyone else was a little hesitant. Tell you what though, after one sip I knew I could file this one under the heading "Glad you don't like it- more for me". It was great. The taste was deep and rich. The sweet ice cream was the perfect foil to the beer... I immediately kicked myself for waiting so long.

We spent a good amount of time at Schnack doing more of what I had done all day... eat, drink, laugh, and share. What a great, great time.Schnack was a perfect final meal before I had to get on that plane. (Well, almost final- I'm sure you will be shocked to know that I managed to sneak in a little more Sunday morning on the way to the airport; I put down 2 everything bagels with lox and cream cheese and a loaf of lard bread from Mazzola with a big cup of coffee on the drive over)

I came back to Southern California with my batteries fully recharged after just 72 hours at home- happy head, happy heart, and happy stomach. Its like that nice little girl from Kansas once said, 'There ain't no place like home'... well- it was somethin' like that.

Home is not a house... home is a lot deeper than that (and some of us have more than one). If you want to be happy, then go "home"- wherever and whatever that means to YOU- and spend some time there doing the things that are important and with the people that are important. It's the only way. 'Cause Johnny Tomatoes says so!!