Tuesday, March 17, 2009

It's Not Easy Bein' Green

Six years ago, today, St Pat's... we all gathered at Mom's house for dinner. St Pat's wasn't a huge deal for us (not like Christmas Eve), but Mom always made sure we had out corned beef and cabbage that day, sort of an acknowledgment of the Irish blood from my father's side. Let's face it.. a meal like this is something even a big Guinea like me can enjoy a few times a year. My sister, all my brothers and I gathered around the old table we grew up at. Mom cooked up a serious feast for us... beef, cabbage, potatoes, soda bread (two kinds I think)...beer for the older ones- even Mom had some. We took our time going through the meal... savoring every bite; taking a lot of time to talk and share and just be together. This was a big deal for Mom, to have all of her kids together under one roof like we had always been- it was not something that happened all that often anymore.

This dinner was special for more than that though... this was the day before Mom was going back to the hospital... she had high hopes of something new that was gonna knock the crap outta what was eating at her insides. So while the atmosphere seemed a happy one... lots of laughs and joking around... there was an underlying concern. We all knew this was serious stuff...

The meal was great though... we all ate till we couldn't fit anymore and then we added just a little more. I was not all that happy to be leaving that night, but I had to work the next day, so off I went after a pot or two of coffee.

That turned out to be the last meal Mom cooked for me. We shared a few more meals... I knew she needed to eat to keep up her strength but that there was no way she'd be able to eat much of the hospital food, so I went home everyday and cooked a meal to bring to her. I still remember sitting there and having dinner with her one night when I made Chicken and Penne Arrabiata. I added a lot of hot peppers because the treatments were killing her tastebuds... the smile on her face at the first bite... brings tears to my eyes... "ahh- the fist thing I have been able to taste all week!!"

I brought her food for the first couple of weeks, but her appetite was waning as the medication and treatments took their toll. All my life, that was the only time we knew for sure when Mom was really not feeling well... lost her appetite.

And here we are, back to St Pat's again... I eat my corned beef, potatoes, and cabbage- a meal Mom and I shared many times, and remember that Last Supper. Time has a way of slipping by way too fast, but the memories never fade... like it was yesterday.

So load up your plate- get your fill of beef and cabbage and potatoes. Raise a glass- of Guinness, Harp, Pellegrino, or whatever- and toast the cook. Wear your best green and a big grin... we're all Irish today. 'Cause Johnny Tomatoes says so!!

"... And until I see you again, may God hold you in the palm of his hand..."

Miss you Mom

Monday, March 09, 2009

On a Roll

So... here we are.. coupla weeks into Lent and I'm loving it... no meat on Fridays? No problem- I love to cook fish and since Ash Wednesday I have loved pulling up the old meatless recipes. In that spirit, I decided I had to bring Eggplant Rollatine to Maryann and Marie's Italian Festa . This is one of my favorites to make- it seems so complex, but years of preparing it have turned the entire process over to muscle memory and I was able to crank out this one in about an hour and a half.

(Author's Note:Looks like no dice again this year... car started acting up, couldn't get out of the driveway to get over to the party in time... next year, my friends... but here is a peek at what was sitting next to me in the passenger's seat and for all of you who haven't seen it, here and here are the dishes that made it there... way to go everyone... guess 'll see you next year!)

I start by peeling and cutting my eggplant lengthwise (one medium eggplant will usually work out to a 9x13 baking dish) Nice thin slices are good, so make sure your knife is sharp and your eggplant is nice and firm. Get as many slices out of the center as you can and you can use the smaller ones to 'build' long slices in the construction phase. Once its cut, I leave the eggplant out on the board to let it dry out a little.

While that is in the works I next get to making my basic sauce- dice a little onion and saute in olive oil till it is nice and soft- low heat, like a match or somethin'. When its all mushada turn up the heat and add your tomatoes- I like to use whole ones. I cook them for about thirty minutes and then pass them through a mill. Not only do we get the seeds out, but the onion gets ground up very nicely too.

During the first half hour of cooking the tomatoes, I open my ricotta and get it into a bowl. I add a couple big handfuls of fresh grated Pecorino Romano, about half a Tbs of oregano and white pepper and a tsp of nutmeg. Mix it well, then add some grated mozz- I usually add about half a pound- and then one egg to help bind and give it a nice texture. Mix it all up and let it sit in the fridge.

Time to go to work on the eggplant now. Set up a big frying pan with a good amount of olive oil and start heating it. Dip the slices of eggplant into a plain egg wash and fry whatever will fit in the pan until golden brown. Drain on a cloth or paper towel to get the excess oil off of it.

Once that is done, time to move back to the sauce while the eggplant cools. I always start the sauce in a shallow fry pan (from my restaurant days) and then pass it through the mill into a medium pot. So, into a new pot now with the sauce, add about two Tbs of salt to two large (two pound+ cans), a pinch of sugar to kill any excess acid, and a tablespoon of butter for flavor and texture. I let it simmer for about 15 minutes or so.

Once the sauce is ready to go, I take down the baking dish and throw in a coupla gupinas to set a nice base. Now, like any good guinea, we come to my favorite part- construction. Hold a piece of eggplant in your left hand and spoon a good shot of the ricotta in about a third of the way from one end. I usually make that the end near my thumb- don't ask me why, just got to be a habit, part of the muscle memory. So now you take that short end, and roll it over the ricotta and keep going. Now put the roll into the baking dish with the seam down and repeat till all the eggplant or all the ricotta is gone... with a little practice you can make it all come out even.

Once the pan is loaded, hit it with a little more sauce, enough to make sure it doesn't dry out and maybe a top it with a little more shredded mozz. Cover it with foil and put it into the oven, about 375, for 25 or 30 minutes... just enough to get all the liquids boiling. Once you reach that point, draw it out and let it sit out to cool just long enough to set- about 10 minutes or so. And thats it.

This dish holds a special place in my heart. I didn't grow up eating it. In fact, I never had it until I was 15 or 16 years old and started working in my first restaurant. (That is a long story, and better to be told over glasses of Fortissimo) One day I decided I was going to make this one for Mom. It was tough to replicate at home the first time, but I managed and Mom loved it. Gramma too. Over the next ten or so years, I made this for Mom any time she asked and a lot of times when she didn't ask for it. She loved it and I was so proud to have been able to introduce a new recipe to the family and to be able to make something for my mother that she loved; like a little bit of payback for all of her great cooking. I get a little emotional every time I make this dish, because of her, because of the special connection it represents to Mom.

So... next time you find yourself looking for a special meal, for a little something different, try a little Rollatine. 'Ey!! If it was good enough for Mom, it'll be more than good enough for you... 'Cause Johnny Tomatoes says so!!