Saturday, January 03, 2009

'Twas the night before Christmas...

'Twas the night before Christmas and all through the condo, not a Guinea was stirring, not even Uncle Armando.

Not a bad start, huh? Christmas Eve, the biggest dinner in the year of a Guinea like me, is upon us. I got started late; most years I would have my menu well in advance and my fish bought too. This year, not so much...

Talked to Gramma and my brothers about it and it seems everyone is cutting back. Not so much an economic thing; this stuff's just not getting eaten like it was... I was really a little surprised, but Gramma said she wasn't even making the Octopus Salad this year. What's the world coming to??

So in my cutback, I killed half the normal menu too... This year was easy- shrimp cocktail, octopus salad, fish cakes (with Bacala), some raw clams, and some macaroni. I am really glad I made the Octopus salad this year. Even though I can never find scungilli, which is texturally my favorite part, I have been honing my skills over the last few years and this time, I really knocked it out of the park. Everything was tender and had great flavor... lots of garlic, lemon, good olive oil. I made it 2 days ahead and let all those great flavors flow together... Brought a little sample to some of my local Guinea friends and got back some good reviews.

Centerpiece this year was Shrimp and Clams over fresh linguine. I bought a pound each of fresh regular and squid ink... made for a nice presentation. The fish cooked up nicely- shrimp were bigger than I usually use and the clams were smaller than I usually use, but I cooked them in some tomatoes I crushed in my hand and used a lot of garlic. I dished it all up and, being a crazy diavolo, hit the whole thing with a nice coating of grated Pecorino Romano. I know my Aunt Marie can't read that without getting upset- fish and cheese don't mix in her world... but I could never have a plate of macaroni without it. (recipe, if you care was 3lbs shrimp sauted in Garlic and oil, 3lbs little neck clams scrubbed and thrown in once the shrimp get their color; steam the calms open and then open 2 big cans of tomatoes and crush the tomatoes one by one over the pan, adding the juice from the can last, then a little salt and fresh basil; let it cook about 20 mins or so just for the tomatoes... that's it... put it over pasta if you want, or serve it in a bowl with a good loaf of bread)

Christmas Eve... this dinner hasn't been the same without my brothers around to eat everything in sight; next year, I'm gonna make 'em all visit and hit all seven courses.  Putting out dishes like this, I don't think they'll be able to say no.  And even if they try to, they'll HAFTA come... 'Cause Johnny Tomatoes says so!!

Home again, home again, jiggity jig...

I got into town on Wednesday and within 90 minutes was putting down a couple of slices and a Manhattan Special at Francesco's (former Nino's on Henry St... across from Mazzola's)... that was about 5 o'clock. I took up a good amount of space- hadn't bothered waiting till after I dropped by my friend's place and still had my bags with me. Heaven... they make a good plain slice here- crisp bottom and a little bit of dough between that and the sauce. The Manhattan Special... perfect, just like it has been for the last 50 or so years... I had a smile on my face and it seemed like all the weight had been lifted from my shoulders... I was home... I was among family, some of "my own" and the stress of my day-to-day existence on the Left Coast just melted away.

After a quick call, I met up with some "family" two blocks away. I haven't seen them in what seems like forever and it was a great reunion. We dropped my bag at the apartment and headed right back out. As we walked and talked, I brushed my feet through crispy dead leaves... colors I never get to see in my new home. It is still strange to me to see the NY plates; I get a little excited when I see them in LA, but to see one after the other all the way down each block... it was... hmmm... comforting. We walked a little way to a place I had never been before, a place I had only read about. Lucali's, a brick oven challenger that stepped up to face the old champ, Grimaldi's. It couldn't have been any better than it was... I won't go into details here, Lucali's has earned its own post. I will say that I am very excited about my next opportunity to get there and I have a new "must visit" when people tell me they are going to NY.

Overall, a great trip (could there be a bad trip home?) The weather was typical of the season... somewhere beteween warm and cold, the sun out just enough to keep you warm when the cool breeze blew... that smell in the air- damp with almost a tangible quality to it, the scent put out by the decomposing leaves... one of the great smells of my city in the fall. I had four days to squeeze it all in again, to get those batteries to take a charge, and I was as excited as I could be. Somehow, I ate less on this trip than I normally do- don't get me wrong, I still ate more than the average tourist, just not as much as I think I should, would, or could have... just another reason to go back soon.

Central Park looks beautiful this time of year... the colors, the leaves are everywhere, the sun seems to have a different affect on everything. There were more people in the park than I expected on a weekday. I spent some time sitting on a bench in The Mall (if you don't know, google it) under a long archway of trees. The amount of satisfaction gained from just sitting and watching people walk by... I felt like I was there again. It is actually pretty amazing how you can sit among all those people and still get a sense of solitude... I didn't talk to anyone, I simply drank my coffee and had some alone time with my city and the little piece of nature that was there. Thinking back on it, I can't find anything that even begins to compare to the feeling.

I spent more time with family on this trip than I have in the past. I introduced my youngest brother to a lot of what the city has to offer; he has spent very little time here and I think it was an eye-opening couple of days. As usual, I spent the days leading up to the trip thinking about what I would have while I was home, especially the things that I can only get there. I got to most of them- bagels (GREAT everything bagels from Mazzola), buttered rolls with coffee from one of the fabled silver coffee carts downtown, dogs, pretzels, more pizza than you woulda thought possible... sushi over at Tomoe- they still make the best salmon skin roll I have ever had... and the city was just great. I know I felt better for walking around for those few days than on any sunny day here in LA.

The days seemed to pass in a hurry... A couple of days in Brooklyn and then I spent a couple of days at my brother's place... we had our usual Italian Feast of Meats- I was hard pressed to make sure I tried a little bit of everything with all the deli paper open on the table... I kept thinking there was something under the cappicola wrapping, or maybe something sitting under the mortadella that hadn't even been opened yet... The fresh mozz, as usual, was perfect- smooth and creamy with just the right amount of salt... and the bread... crispy-doughy bits of heaven covered in sesame seeds... chased with a Yeungling or two...or three... hmmmmmm... how many was that? So easy to lose count when I am with my brothers and sister... talk, eat, drink.. it becomes circular.

Lunch rolled right into dinner, and next thing I know, the youngest was frying up some chicken cutlets... I haven't had a proper chicken cutlet in... well far too long... made with the breadcrumbs I grew up with, fried in the olive oil Mom always used... the kid did good... I was sorta proud of him (could never tell him that though- make him too comfortable, he'll get lazy and stop improving)

We got out to see some family I haven't seen in way too long- since before my last trip, you know-a million years ago.  I started to feel better and better about being home. Nothing like seeing extended family to keep things in perspective... being around people who had been a such a huge part of my youth almost felt like it was taking responsibility off my shoulders... I didn't have to be the oldest, the guide, the example... I felt younger than I have in a long long time.

I had thought about getting over to Philly... coupla friends over that way that need a visit... and God knows I could use a quick stop into Jim's for a cheesesteak or two... hmmmmmmmmm...  but that is going to have to wait for next time... but then, you know I'll be there.

Next thing I know, it's a cold dark Sunday morning and I'm on my way back to Kennedy for an early flight. Can someone tell me where all the time went? It seems like every trip home... no wait- it isn't the trip there, it's when I have to leave- every time I leave, I think more about pulling the chain and getting off the Left coast... This trip more than any of the others, I felt it. I think it may have been the way I spent my time, doing 'regular' things, doing things I would actually be doing if NY was still my daily grind- seeing my brothers and sisters, regular 'home'-type meals, just spending the day wandering through the City...

Sometimes being away from home is tough. Sometimes going home can be tougher. I serve an important function though; I am a missionary, an emissary from NY, spreading the word about my beautiful city. It's never easy being away from the things you know... but when the pain comes, you rub a little dirt in it and play hurt... Me? I like to make a dish of macaroni, maybe some fried meatballs on the side- a little Guinea comfort food always helps; then a phone call to tell someone about it that can really appreciate it... whether they are around the corner or three thousand miles away... hey it's only a quick flight away! So salt that pot of water on the stove and let's get it started. Time for another great meal. 'Cause Johnny Tomatoes says so!!