Tag Archive | "Dad"

Love is a Refrigerator Filled with Clams

Love is a Refrigerator Filled with Clams


My dad is a man of few words. He enjoys—truly savors—going to work, coming home, cooking with my mom, and taking it easy. His signature dishes are always full of personality, even if he’s cooking them quietly: Rabbit with capers; pasta with sardines, breadcrumbs, and olives; baked clams with paprika and garlic. Those are just the top three. Most of his dishes emerge unannounced. He’ll get an idea, and if he needs ingredients he’ll walk out to the car without a word and come back with overflowing grocery bags. It can turn into a comedy of errors if my mom already had a meal planned.

He communicates more through food than he probably ever has via conversation. This is probably most evident in the way he shows affection. I picked up on this when I was in college, still angsty, but away at school and missing my parents more than I cared to admit. It became even more apparent when I moved to New York and visited every few weekends. My dad would never say he misses me, or that he loves me, but he will make damn sure the refrigerator is filled with my favorite foods when I visit. Things that my parents wouldn’t usually buy for themselves show up fresh and plentiful on the Friday nights I arrive: hummus, blueberries, pickles, and above all, clams. My dad’s baked clams, preceded by a plate of clams on the half shell with lemon and Tobasco, are home to me. I’ve never told him, and he’s never asked me, but we’ve never had to.

A few weeks ago I was planning to visit home but ended up staying in Brooklyn at the last minute. When I told my mom I wasn’t going, her response was, “Oh, your father bought four dozen clams thinking you were coming home. What are we going to do with them all?!” I didn’t think this would bother me, but it actually killed me. I pictured his excitement at the store, buying food for three instead of two, looking forward to a nice night together. Going home suddenly sounded like the best thing in the world.

I completely see where he’s coming from with this food=love approach to life. When I love someone, all I want to do is bake for them. I’ve taken to making my friends’ wedding cakes, making my husband a loaf of bread when he’s down, baking a cake when we haven’t seen each other in a few days. I guess it’s what we all do. Friends and neighbors bring trays of food when someone dies to show we care. We bring wine, cakes, almost always something edible when meeting for celebrations. It’s universal, but always so personal. It’s a philosophy I love to live by.

My dad’s baked clams have become a sort of institution in our house. They’re only made for special occasions of the everyday variety. That is, they’d never show up on a holiday table, but there’s hardly been a birthday, a trip home from college, a straight-A report card, or a random Friday night visit without them. Now that my brothers and I are out of the house and married, the briefest weekend home is an occasion for baked clams.

These may resemble those stuffed clams you find in the supermarket freezer case, but don’t be fooled. As my dad says, those are all bread.

Baked Clams
2 dozen Cherrystone clams (or more, if you’re dedicated)
1 cup Italian-seasoned breadcrumbs (either season them yourself with parsley, garlic, salt, pepper, oregano, and Parmesan or buy them already seasoned)
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
About 2 tablespoons lemon juice

Shuck as many clams as you can manage. They’re tough, but the trick is to put them in the freezer for fifteen minutes before opening them. Once they’re sedated by the cold (I know, I’m sorry!) they won’t put up a fight. If your hand hurts, cover the shell in a dish towel while opening. Here’s a great video on how to shuck a clam if you’re new to this. Even if you’re a clam-shucking veteran, watch the video for a peek at some classic paisani in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. Gotta love those guys!

Remove the clams from their shells and wash the meat. Rinse the shells, too, and watch out for little bits that may have broken off during shucking.

Put the clams back in their shells (no skimping—put a whole clam in each shell. That all-bread-and-one-snippet-of-clam BS will not be tolerated) and lay them on a cookie sheet. If you want to be really thorough, you can cut the clams into quarters before returning them to their shell so they’re easier to eat.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees when you’re ready to start assembling.

My family has obsessed over this next step for years and we each have our method. This is where you add the breadcrumbs and top them with olive oil and lemon juice. But if you do it in that order you’ll discover that the olive oil just rolls over the surface of the breadcrumbs. So you end up with a pan of olive oil and dry breadcrumbs, which takes all the joy out of eating baked clams. My mom came up with the perfect solution: First mix the breadcrumbs with two or three tablespoons of olive oil. They’ll absorb the oil and you’ll end up with a mixture resembling wet sand. Perfect.

Cover each clam with the wet sand mixture (about 1 tablespoon per clam) and squirt each one with lemon juice. Then sprinkle with paprika (don’t worry about overdoing it—even better) and bake for 15 minutes.

Top these with more lemon juice and Tobasco sauce. Follow with wine and peaches.

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Behold the Almighty Cucuzza

Behold the Almighty Cucuzza


I know, I can’t stop talking about my grandfather’s garden. For one thing, ’tis the season. And, well, there’s just so much to talk about. All quirkiness aside, his garden has all the gems one comes to expect from a Sicilian grandfather’s garden–fennel, basil, tomatoes, figs, eggplants, garlic. It’s our family’s most coveted source for produce. Joe and I welcome a helping from the Bensonhurst harvest over any CSA or coop purchase Park Slope has to offer.

So when my dad called last week saying he was stopping by his parents’ house on the way to visit us, I promptly asked him to bring some surprises from the garden. “Oh, sure. Let me see what they have here…” he said. I thought I heard him chuckle on the other end of the line. Strange. Maybe we’ll get hit with another wave of basil, I thought. He’s probably laughing at us for making so much pesto.

But no. My dad approached our front gate, all grins and still chuckling, with the Garden Loot of all garden loot. The holy grail of Sicilian summer harvests, if there ever was one.



Yes, that’s right. It’s the Almighty Cucuzza. Known by some as googoots, but really, not known by many at all, this is one of the most confusing and coveted vegetables made legendary by our Italian families. Conversations about cucuzza with the uninitiated often go like this:

“Um, what is that?”

“Oh, that? Heh. It’s a cucuzza.”

“What’s a cucuzza?”

“Well, uh, it’s sort of like a squash.”

That’s a squash? What does it taste like? Where do you get it? I’ve never seen it in stores.”

“I guess it’s a squash. Or more like a zucchini. It tastes like…cucuzza. I don’t know where you get it. I’ve never seen it outside of our garden.”

Right around this time, I either start to feel like a freak (like the time in kindergarten when some girl picked on me for eating “black jelly”–that is, Nutella), or kind of cool. This is cucuzza, people! It looks like a freakin’ baseball bat. It’s taller than a small child. It has graced the tables of our family barbecues for generations, and we barely know what it is. Upon further research, I’ve learned that cucuzza is actually a gourd. Good to know, for the next time I’m in one of those awkward conversations.

Cucuzza is also a slang term in Italian, usually referring to a lazy or useless person. Keep that one up your sleeve. It’s more fun to use than you might think.

All excitement aside, this was the first time I’d been confronted with cooking a cucuzza on my own. It was a little scary. My dad suggested I just slice it up and grill it with olive oil, salt, and pepper. A noble approach, yes, but this cucuzza inspired me to revive an old standby from my grandparents’ summer table: Cucuzza Stew. It was the least I could do after they handed over one of their best crops.

The Almighty Cucuzza Stew

This summer stew has been a staple on our picnic tables for decades. Cucuzza’s flavor is so mild that it turns into a rather light stew. Just as good are cold leftovers the next day, which take on a whole new personality.

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large white or yellow onion, sliced in quarters
as many cloves of garlic as you can handle (3 or 4, if you want an average amount)
1 16-ounce can or jar of crushed tomatoes
1 cucuzza, peeled, sliced, and cut into half moons
(I used ½ of the tremendous cucuzza in these pictures. Just eyeball it based on how much your pan can fit. Grill the rest.)
salt and pepper to taste
oregano to taste 

As with most stews, quantities and spices can be adapted based on your preferences.

Sauté the onions and garlic in olive oil over medium heat until they begin to soften. Add the tomatoes, then the cucuzza slices, and mix until the cucuzza is coated in sauce.

Season with salt, pepper, oregan, and hot pepper flakes to taste. Cover the pan and cook until the cucuzza is soft, 15 to 20 minutes. Serve with a hunk of bread to soak up the sauce.

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The Healing Powers of Brownie Pudding

The Healing Powers of Brownie Pudding


I baked something for you. I think you’re going to like it. It’s sort of a cake, sort of a pudding, with more butter than I’d ever admit to using in one small dish.

The first time I made this, Joe and I had recently moved to our new apartment. We were finally getting around to hanging things: pictures, shelves, kitchen hooks, and most exciting of all, a knife magnet. He’d been pining for a knife magnet for years. It was one of those little things you dream up for your ideal kitchen that never happens for arbitrary reasons—limited wall space, paranoid landlords, crumbling drywall in your century-old building. It was always something.

But we were in our new place now, with a bare, newly renovated wall begging to host Joe’s dream magnet. He charged up the drill. I moved my clutter from the countertop. He put on his shoes for better leverage. We had no idea what we were doing. Between the two of us, we’d probably used a drill three times. We’d usually have my dad on the phone at this point during a project if he wasn’t over doing it for us. But not this time. We were set on installing this thing tonight. We’d be one step closer to our perfect kitchen. Two screws, one strip of metal. It was happening.

Then the blood emerged. The drill had been going for a good four seconds when I heard the slip, the “AGH!”, and the tinny crash of falling metal. I guess you’re supposed to find out what a wall is made of before drilling into it, huh? Well, this one is made of concrete. We can definitely tell you that. And it doesn’t take well to drilling.

Joe was fine after a speedy first aid session, and this brownie pudding. This was the sort of injury that could only truly heal with butter, sugar, flour, cocoa, and eggs. Throw in a little of my brother and sister-in-law’s homemade Kahlua, a scraped vanilla bean, and the importance of knife magnets starts to quickly fade. My dad did end up installing it, giving us a much-needed Drilling 101 session in the process. We still need work.

Meanwhile, I’ve mastered the art of healing minor flesh wounds with this dessert. I’m sure I’ll use this superpower many times over. Try it. Don’t underestimate its influence in any situation.

Brownie Pudding
Adapted from Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics by Ina Garten 

½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, plus extra for buttering the dish
4 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
2 cups sugar
¾ cup good cocoa powder
½ cup all-purpose flour
seeds scraped from 1 vanilla bean
1 tablespoon Kahlua, or other liqueur (optional)

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Lightly butter a 2-quart oval (9 x 12 x 2-inch) or round (9 x 2-inch) baking dish. Melt the butter and set aside to cool.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the eggs and sugar on medium-high speed for 5 to 10 minutes, until very thick and light yellow.

Meanwhile, sift the cocoa powder and flour together and set aside.


When the egg and sugar mixture is ready, lower the speed to low and add the vanilla seeds, liqueur (if using), and the cocoa powder and flour mixture. Mix only until combined. With the mixer still on low, slowly pour in the cooled butter and mix again just until combined.



Pour the brownie mixture into the prepared dish and place it in a larger baking pan. I used a 9-inch round baking dish and placed that inside a bigger, round Le Creuset Dutch Oven (leave it uncovered). Any larger pan will do, as long as you can fit the baking dish inside it and have room to add water so the baking dish is submerged.

Add enough of the hottest tap water to the pan to come halfway up the side of the dish and bake for exactly 1 hour. A cake tester inserted 2 inches from the side will come out three-quarters clean. The center will appear very under-baked; this dessert is between a brownie and a pudding.


Allow to cool and serve with vanilla ice cream.

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Gone Fig Pickin’

Gone Fig Pickin’

The figs keep flowing in my parents’ New Jersey garden, and this week we finally went to the source. Joe had never been fig picking, and my dear, short parents (Mom is 4′ 10″ and Dad is 5′ 3″) had a surplus of overripe figs on the tree that they just couldn’t reach. So it was a perfect meeting. Fig picking in the suburbs on a bright sunny day…it’s that perfect time of year.

The tree of life.

Close-up in the sun.

Joe’s first picked fig!

Making the tall guy do the dirty work.

Dad’s latest harvest. Yes!

Nothing better than a bowl of figs on a September afternoon.

Remember when I said we never use figs in recipes? I take it back. My sis-in-law invented the perfect meal: Provolone, fig, and mortadella sandwich.

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Figs are here!

Figs are here!

It’s that glorious time of year….figs have arrived! My parents just picked these plump babies from their tree in New Jersey. We wait all year for them, then spend August and September eating figs full-time. I feel a subtle obligation to make something fancy and then share my prolific recipe. But honestly, we never let them last long enough to even think of doing anything but eat them straight-up. You can certainly find a slew of creative recipes involving ricotta, honey, balsamic vinegar, goat cheese, etc. I’m sure they’re all swell, but listen: if you should ever find yourself in the presence of figs, do yourself a favor. Pop one in your mouth. That’s all you need. They’ll sing their own song, without the help of anyone.

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Let’s Start Small

Let’s Start Small

Some of my favorite traditions are the simplest ones: Wine-and-cheese dinners on my birthday; grilling sausage at midnight at family parties (no matter what time of year); playing cards with my grandparents on Christmas Eve. These rituals will often sneak up in tiny bursts, just when I’ve almost forgotten how great they are.

One that I often forget-then-remember at just the right times is my dad’s wine and peaches. This little number still emerges at holiday dinners and occasional family barbecues. The meal winds down as fruit trays and nut bowls replace dinner dishes. Wine glasses stay put, although most are abandoned as people wander from their place at the table. The men usually stay to argue and crack nuts while the ladies make coffee and kids escape to other rooms.

My dad isn’t much of a talker, so it isn’t unusual for him to sit back, listen to the banter, and just eat fruit. As a kid, this is when I’d end up on his lap. And it’s how I was introduced to his legendary wine and peaches. It’s as easy as it sounds: Peel a peach, cut it up, and plop the pieces in a glass of wine.

You might call this a lazy person’s sangria, but it’s hardly that. Nothing should interfere with the simplicity of a peach wedge soaked in red wine. Just try it. No rum, no berries cluttering things up. Just tart fruit and inexpensive table wine. It’s the only way I was allowed to consume wine as a child, and it never occurred that I might want it in any other context. The Fourth of July version requires a plastic Dixie cup for full effect. You can do this at Christmas, too, if you don’t mind out-of-season fruit. Just fancy it up with a proper wine goblet.

It’s almost silly how simple this is. And in a way, it’s a perfect note on which to start this little blog. I think I’ll come to find that most of the traditions, recipes, projects, stories, or whatevers that I share with you will be simple. Because it’s usually the culmination of little things weaved together that create a culture. It’s reassuring, but also a little scary. It’s so easy to remember something like wine and peaches and keep doing it. Maybe you’ll have kids, they’ll see you whip it together, and they’ll do the same one day. Boom. It keeps going.

But these things are just as easy to forget, and no one would probably notice. They’re just small enough to slip through the cracks. And it’s true: On their own, they’re not important. Who cares about fruit and wine? We need these little things, though. Our fathers’ micro recipes, our grandparents’ card games, our mothers’ special way of making a bed. Glued together, they make a family, a culture, a way of life that can only exist in our homes. Sometimes the traditions take more work. God help me as I try to teach myself sewing, or attempt to jar bushels of tomatoes in late August. But we have to remember the silly little things too. Let’s start passing things on in baby steps. Maybe we’ll be surprised at how much we can accomplish.

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