Tag Archive | "Family"

An Ode to the Humble Lentil—Or, You’re Not Leaving This Table Until You Finish That

An Ode to the Humble Lentil—Or, You’re Not Leaving This Table Until You Finish That



There’s something about making lentils that always makes me feel I’m doing the right thing. They’re inexpesive, so I’m being resourceful. They’re healthy, so I’m eating smart. They’re a simple, whole food, so I’m making something from scratch. They’re boring and bland, so they call upon my kitchen creativity. And they remind me of my parents, grandparents, and every peasant before them who’s soaked a stale heel of bread in their soup. So much is accomplished through one little legume.

Oh, the irony. If my four-year-old self knew that I’d one day write an ode to lentils, she’d kick my ass. And she’d probably win. I despised lentils more than anything growing up. They’re the only food with which I managed to beat my mom in the “you’re not leaving this table until you finish that” game. I once spent an entire evening staring at a bowl of cold lentil soup, giving my mom the stink eye as she washed dishes. I remained at the table hours after everyone finished dinner, determined not to let the evil bean win. If I did, she’d make me eat them all the time! I considered myself a pretty flexible kid, but I drew the line with lentils. I just shut down and readied myself for a night at the kitchen table.

A hard film formed on the surface after the first hour. Orange bits of carrot squares peered at me through the greenish brown bog. I couldn’t imagine how my brothers could love this stuff so much. It reminded me of a toilet bowl after a long night with food poisoning. It was by far the most offensive thing I’d ever been asked to eat. Give me pigs’ feet, lamb brains, or calf livers any day. But the lentils had to go.

My mom did well, though. I see now how conflicted a mother must feel in that situation. If you give the kid her way, you’re teaching her she can get whatever she wants if she pouts long enough. You’re tired, it’s been a long day, and you really don’t want to spend your night in a staring contest with your four-year-old. But she’s not giving up. And really, at this point, are you going to force crusty, cold soup on her? It’s not about the lentils anymore, but still, this is getting old.

After a solid two-hour battle, she grabbed the plate and tossed its shriveled contents in the trash. We didn’t look at each other. She just said “go,” and I slithered out of my seat. I was relieved, but scared that I’d taken it too far. I’d picked my side and was dedicated to it, but I didn’t think it would be an all-out war. I left the table with a heavy heart, wondering if it was worth making my mom so mad. I never complained about lentils again. She never forced them on me again. I just ate them quietly when they’d come up in the dinner rotation, and I think she gave me a smaller portion each time.

Twenty-five years later, and I’m actually eating them voluntarily. Making up recipes, even! Who would have thought. Joe inspired this lentil egg salad this week, as we’re challenging ourselves to eat through whatever’s in the fridge, even if we think there’s nothing to eat. Thankfully, there’s always something to eat.

Lentil Egg Salad
1 pound dried lentils
½ bunch of parsley, chopped
3 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
1 red onion, thinly sliced
4 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
salt and pepper to taste
dried oregano, to taste
crushed red pepper flakes, to taste

Boil the lentils over medium heat until tender, about 20 to 30 minutes. Don’t let them get mushy as you would for a soup. Drain and rinse with cold water.

Add the parsley, eggs, and onions. Season with oil, vinegar, salt, pepper, oregano, and red pepper flakes until you like it. The vinegar gives this salad a nice bite that you don’t normally get in lentil dishes.

Posted in Interviews, SoupsComments (1)

(Great) Grandparents, Crab Pasta, and The Guy Who Used to Sell Seafood from an Ice Cream Truck

(Great) Grandparents, Crab Pasta, and The Guy Who Used to Sell Seafood from an Ice Cream Truck

My grandparents bring a certain magic with them wherever they go. It’s the kind of magic that comes with 85 years of living, an impeccable memory, and so many stories to tell that they jump at you before they can even walk through the door. One minute you’re talking about traffic on the Verrazano bridge, the next they’re telling you about the year it was completed, how they were still living uptown across the street from the Knickerbocker Brewery, my grandmother practicing English with her upstairs neighbor so she could help my dad with his homework. Lately, I just want to sit with them and soak up everything. They have so much in them—stories, skills, recipes, everything—that I often panic at the thought of letting that all slip away, undocumented and one day gone. And I don’t care how many times they tell the same story, because a new detail is revealed with each telling.

Such is the case with pasta and crabs. We’ve heard my grandmother tell a story about bringing blue crabs home one night and leaving them in the kitchen to cook the next day. The story goes that they woke up the next morning, and the crabs were all over the kitchen, climbing the walls, on top of the refrigerator, in the bathroom. My grandfather spent the morning chasing them down with gloves and tongs, everyone laughing and screaming and forgetting what they were going to do with them in the first place.

That’s the most we’d heard of the crab story, until last weekend. By an unexpected twist of fate, our whole family was in NJ for the day. Husband Joe (Joe S.) and Brother Joe (Joe G.) were scheming a crab bisque recipe first thing Sunday morning when our grandparents appeared on the front porch for a surprise visit.

After much excitement and cuddling between Nonna and my niece Sofia (they’re overwhelmed with joy at being great-grandparents), Joe S. and Joe G. unveiled the crab bisque plans. Never mind the fact that they don’t know what a bisque is. Talk of crab immediately evoked the “runaway crabs in the kitchen” story. Only this time, we got two new, crucial details:

When Nonno finally pulled the crabs off the walls, they made a pasta sauce with them.


They got the crabs from the guy who drove around Brooklyn selling local seafood from a truck. Like the ice cream man, only with crabs, clams, oysters, and other Godly creations. Can you imagine? Talk about a Brooklyn that is no more…

With the story in full force, we had to make the crab pasta sauce. Bisque Schmisque. We had Nonna right here, eager to revive a dish she hadn’t made in decades. Bisque who? And what perfect timing—we got to use our homemade sauce! Here’s the recipe, straight from Nonna, with a little help from the Joes. I stood back and discussed the philosophy of life with Sofia, who, at three months old, is quite wise. I did break for photo ops, of course.

Spaghetti with Crab Tomato Sauce
1 dozen blue crabs
¼ cup olive oil
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 large white onion, sliced into moons
salt and pepper to taste
1 32-ounce jar tomato puree
dried or fresh oregano to taste
dried or fresh basil to taste
1 pound spaghetti

First, wash the crabs. If they’re still alive and kicking, submerge them in ice water. The ice will sedate them so you can handle them without losing a finger. Leave the crabs whole and scrub off any visible dirt. A few rounds of rinsing will get rid of any hidden gunk.

While the crabs are soaking, prepare your sauce.Coat the bottom of a very large pot (big enough to hold the crabs) with olive oil. Add chopped garlic and sliced onions. Season with salt and pepper.  When the onions begin to soften, stir in the tomato puree. Season with oregano, basil and more salt and pepper to taste. Leave everything to simmer for about 15 minutes, or until the flavors start to combine.

Once the crabs are calm and clean, plop them into the sauce. Be careful! Use tongs to avoid getting splashed with boiling hot sauce. At this point, Joe G. covered the pot and shook it to coat the crabs in sauce. You can do that, or just mix them with a giant wooden spoon.

Now just leave the pot to boil so the crab flavor blends with the sauce, about 30 minutes, on low to medium heat. When the sauce is about done, cook the spaghetti. I’ll spare you these steps if you already know how. If you’re still working on your pasta-cooking skills, try these great instructions. Remove the crabs from the pot and toss the spaghetti with half of the sauce. Use the remaining sauce to top each plate of pasta before serving. We ate the crabs separately, which was fun for about five minutes. In truth, eating whole crabs covered in tomato sauce is messy and annoying. I’m sure kids would love the opportunity to coat themselves in sauce, but we boring adults gave up pretty quickly. The rest of the dish was worth every trouble, though. Especially when eaten in a houseful of family.

Posted in SaucesComments (3)

(Almost) 100 Things Recap (Things I’ve Done and Sort of Done)

(Almost) 100 Things Recap (Things I’ve Done and Sort of Done)

It’s been nearly three months since I posted my list of (almost) 100 things I want to do this year. I have to say, I nearly forgot about it for a few weeks (it’s been a distracting month) until it hit me that I was doing things on the list without even meaning to. I’d find myself pickling something, sitting by a lake, or hanging out in Georgia and realize that it all felt very familiar. My list! So I’ve come back to it and plan to take it more seriously from now on. Here’s a little recap on my progress. I’m off to a slow start (and I still need to add another 50 items to make this 100!) but some major milestones have been hit. And I have a few other things brewing…

# 5: Go to the Prospect Park lake: Done, but with room for improvement. Joe and I spent a Saturday morning at the lake with bagels and coffee, but it was freezing and even a little rainy. It was still fun, and at least we found the lake (something I hadn’t done in my four years living in Park Slope). We need a sunny replay, though.

# 6: Make something on my sewing machine: I sort of did this. Or, er, I’m on my way to really doing it. Until last week, I hadn’t touched my sewing machine in 2 years. I had the genius idea to sew a projector screen for Slice’s Literary Jeopardy on the 19th. It didn’t quite work out. But in the process, I found that I DO remember how to thread the machine. I even figured out how to fix it during a few snags. I realize this is nothing for most competent crafters, but for me, it’s a serious milestone. I’m still working on sewing straight lines. One thing at a time. #’s 32 and 41 will be dominated soon. I can feel it.

#9: Discover 5 new bands I love: Yes! I’m getting there. While in Athens (see # 16) last month I stumbled on Yo Soybean at the 40 Watt Club. I bought three of their albums on the spot and did not regret it. If you can appreciate jangly twangy bluegrassy rock, please check them out. And I met a fascinating gal earlier this year, whose band Family Band brings me to tears. And dammit, the rock snob in me was embarrassed to admit this for a long time, but I fell in love with Darius Rucker this year. Yes, the former lead singer of Hootie and the Blowfish. See? You’re probably laughing. Joe went on a country kick last fall and I laughed at him the whole time. Then he bought home a Darius Rucker album and I shut right up. Yeah, it’s sad bastard country music, but damn, it’s good. And it rocks.

#10: Make my grandfather’s pickled peppers stuff with sardines: It’s funny. I made these, and I’m completely disgusted by them. They’re nothing like my grandfather’s even though I followed all of his instructions. I can’t even look at them. I’ll probably just throw them out. This is sad, considering I was more excited to make these than anything on my cooking to-do list. I realize that most people would be repulsed by just the thought of these, but believe me: when done right, they’re a salt-, hot pepper-, and sardine-lover’s dream.

#16: Go to Athens, Georgia: Check! You’ve already heard about my little REM pilgrimage. I won’t recount my craziness here, but I’ll leave you with this photo, which perfectly illustrates my madness.

# 21: Get any National album I don’t already own: I got Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers. I still need Alligator. This must be done.

# 22: Get to know the Decemberists: It’s happening! I’m currently listening to Her Majesty the Decemberists and Picaresque on repeat. I. Cant. Stop.

#28: Make marzipan Easter lambs with Mom: Done and done. Only, I can’t share the recipe with you here because it’s being published in this month’s issue of BUST magazine! Hooray! But I’ll give you a step-by-step next year. I promise.

# 46: Make pickled garlic: I sort of did this. Only problem is, they turned blue. Yes, blue (see above). Does anyone know what happened?? I’m going to try again once I figure this out.

# 56: Finish my website: Done! I’d still like to make this design a little more fun, but it gets the job done for now. If you want an overview of everything I do when I’m not eating, sleeping, obsessing over bands, or watching Mad Men, check out www.mariagagliano.com. And hey, if you need a writer or editor, call me!


Posted in Featured, Recipe IndexComments (8)

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.

Posted in DessertsComments (6)

The Secret to Adolescent Fame, and Passing Calculus: Pickled Eggplants and Peppers

The Secret to Adolescent Fame, and Passing Calculus: Pickled Eggplants and Peppers


I’m going to let you in on a family secret. It involves jars and eggplants and peppers. Sometimes green tomatoes, but not today. Lots of vinegar and salt. Garlic, garlic, garlic. And some other stuff. Sounds innocent enough, right? But these simple ingredients, when combined, create our family’s secret culinary weapon: Pickled eggplants and peppers.

It sounds strange, I’m sure. I don’t know how pickled vegetables became such an important part of our family makeup. But over the years they’ve become just as important—if not moreso—than jarred tomato sauce. They graced our dinner table every night when we were growing up. My brother Sal mastered the art of making them go with anything. I wouldn’t be surprised if he snuck them into his breakfast cereal when we weren’t looking. Tucked them under his pasta. Crammed them into his chicken rollatini. His meal of choice as an adolescent was chicken cutlets swimming in ketchup and a pile of this stuff. Much to my parents’ glee, they could get us to eat anything as long as it was accompanied by pickled vegetables. It’s probably the reason we now eat everything, with or without the pickled stuff.

Just as I was mildly taunted for our tomato sauce stash, I was mildly famous at school for these pickled beauties. Around sixth grade, my girlfriends were over, poking around the refrigerator and asking what everything was, when they stumbled on a jar of pickled green tomatoes. They looked particularly revolting because the olive oil freezes in the fridge. The laughing kicked in. The “eww gross, what do you do with those” inquisitions that plagued my youth. Then they tried them. And suddenly, I wasn’t such a loser. In fact, I was even a little bit cool. The green tomatoes were such a hit that other kids started asking about them in the hallways, making requests for jars, their moms calling my mom for the recipe. When I was in high school a boy did my calculus take-home exam in exchange for a jar. I’m not kidding.

I hung out with the old gang last week for my best friend’s engagement party, and the jars actually came up in conversation. Jackie, who I hadn’t seen in a good two years, pulled me aside and said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about your mom’s pickled vegetables.” I’m glad some things never change.

Of course, I never learned how to make them. For nearly three decades, I’ve greedily inhaled my favorite condiment by the jarful, never once asking my mom for the recipe, never even caring to know. Thankfully I’ve seen the light, and I will never look back. I made three jars this week with my mom’s daily phone guidance. Two are for me, and one is for my brother Sal, the master appreciator of this fine art form.

Pickled Eggplants and Peppers

The technique for pickled green tomatoes is slightly different, but alas, we’ll have to wait until next summer for that one. I think eggplants and peppers are better anyway, but I’m sure a playground brawl would break out if I said that in certain company.

2 eggplants
2 red, orange, or yellow bell peppers
4 tablespoons salt
1 cup white vinegar
5 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 shallot, peeled and finely chopped
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
½ teaspoon dried oregano
4 tablespoons olive oil

1. Peel the eggplants and slice them into 1/2-inch rounds. Cut each round into small strips, about 1 inch long and ¼ inch wide. Slice the peppers into strips about the same size.


The eggplants will shrink to around ¾ their size after the salt extracts water from them. Peppers are heartier, so they won’t break down as drastically. Keep this in mind when deciding how small to cut your pieces. Peppers are fine at any size. Eggplants are more appetizing in smaller strips. Too big, and they start to look like slugs in the jar. Not appetizing, I promise you.

2. Put the cut eggplants and peppers in separate bowls. Cover each with 2 tablespoons of salt and toss until the vegetables are entirely coated. The eggplants start to break down within minutes. The peppers won’t look as affected, but don’t worry. Cover and set aside for 24 hours (refrigeration isn’t necessary).

3. The next day, drain the vegetables and rise briefly if you don’t want them too salty. I don’t rinse them—their saltiness is half their beauty. The other half? Vinegar.

4. Return the eggplants and peppers to their respective bowls and cover with enough white vinegar to keep them submerged, about ½ to ¾ cup for each bowl. Cover and set aside for another 24 hours.

5. Drain the vinegar and squeeze out any excess. The eggplants will have soaked up most of it; squeeze it out if you don’t want to be overwhelmed. Don’t worry about losing the vinegar flavor—it’s truly in there, no matter how much excess you squeeze away. Drain the peppers, which will still be pretty crisp.

6. Now the true magic begins. Combine the eggplants and peppers in a large bowl and season with garlic, shallots, red pepper flakes, and oregano. Top with enough olive oil to coat everything, about 4 tablespoons. I included spice quantities in my ingredients list, but that’s just a formality. It’s truly a free-for-all at this point. Season it to your liking. I personally went garlic crazy and used 10 cloves. I did not regret it. It’s your show—there’s no way to mess this up.

7. Once everything is combined, pack the mess into mason jars. One 16-ounce jar fits a little less than 1 eggplant and 1 pepper. This recipe yielded about 3 jars.

Posted in Recipe IndexComments (3)

On Family Tables, Upstairs (and Downstairs) Neighbors, and Insatiable Clam Obsessions (Spaghetti with Clams)

On Family Tables, Upstairs (and Downstairs) Neighbors, and Insatiable Clam Obsessions (Spaghetti with Clams)


I’ve talked about clams before. I like them. A lot. Okay, more than a lot. It’s a problem. Sometimes, they’re all I can think about. When I get it in my mind that I want them, nothing else will suffice. It’s like a nervous tick. I’m sure it has to do with my childhood. I’ve mentioned how clams are always on my family’s table for mini celebrations—so much so that we can hardly celebrate anything without them. They’re more essential than a birthday cake. And I don’t like eating them with anyone other than my family. It’s just not the same without my dad cutting lemon wedges at the kitchen counter, digging the Tobasco bottle from that dark corner of the fridge before he sits down. A very special meal will include the triple header: raw clams for an appetizer, then pasta with clams, followed by baked clams.

My husband Joe has experienced the Gagliano clam extravaganza at my parents’ house, but I decided recently that I have to master this fine art now, before we have a family of our own to continue the madness with. I was also feeling a little homesick, so I broke my own rule and made spaghetti with clams without my parents. It was amazing, but I really did miss the big family table, my mom scrunching her nose at the raw clams, and the inevitable stories that emerge over dinner. It often goes back to Brooklyn, sharing memories of clam nights with the neighbors who lived above and below us. Mr. Joe and his wife Marie lived upstairs. Mr. Joe loved clams–almost as much as me. He would call us up for clam dinners at least once a month. And what could be better? Tony and Helen, who lived downstairs, and also shared the love.

They were all elderly and treated my parents like their own kids. My brothers and I were their honorary grandkids, even though our grandparents lived right across the street. We didn’t mind. We had so much in common—our love for clams most of all. We’d all gather in our cramped kitchens, noses running from too much Tobasco, pasta water boiling over, shouting at one another, men arguing over shucking methods, like one big dysfunctional neighborly family.

Tony, Helen, Mr. Joe, Marie, this one’s for you, wherever you are.

Spaghetti with Clams
1 dozen fresh cherrystone clams
3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil
½ medium white onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, diced
Approximately 10 sprigs of fresh parsley, chopped
1 pound spaghetti
Romano cheese, grated
freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Shuck the clams, taking special care to reserve the juice. This is the trickiest part. I use a neurotic two-bowl method created by my mom. Keep one large bowl, where all the juice will eventually end up. But open each clam over a smaller, separate bowl. Catch the juice in the small bowl and give it a good sniff. If it doesn’t smell funky, pour it into the large bowl. That way, if you happen upon a bad clam you won’t ruin the entire batch.

Set the actual clams in a separate dish for later. If you need a quick lesson in clam-shucking, I refer you once again to our good friends in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn.

Once you have a good bowl of juice, filter out the sand. The fine pores in a plain cotton handkerchief are perfect for this. Line a new bowl with a (clean!) handkerchief large enough to cover the entire bowl, with room to fold over the rim. With the handkerchief securely in place, pour the clam juice into the bowl, making sure the cloth doesn’t fall in.



Gather the handkerchief’s four corners and lift, creating a sack. The juice will drip slowly through the fabric, leaving the sand behind. Set aside.



You can adjust your clammy levels depending on the severity of your clam obsession. I, for one, would name my firtborn Littleneck if it were socially acceptable. But seeing as how it’s not, I choose, instead, to make a super clammy pasta. If you’re like me, cut the dozen clams you’d set aside into bite-size pieces. If you want a slightly less clammy experience, use half the clams (or however many you want, really). You can bake the rest, or call me and I’ll come pick them up.

In a large saucepan, sauté the onions and garlic in the olive oil. Add ¾ of the parsley and sauté until it begins to soften, then add the clam juice. Cover the pot and let it simmer on low heat for about 15 minutes. In the meantime, get your pasta water boiling and make the spaghetti. I’ll spare you the step-by-step on how to boil pasta, but if you need help, visit this lovely blog.

Set the cooked spaghetti aside and tend to your sauce again. Its base is essentially ocean water, so it’s going to be really salty. Taste it and add water as needed. Your pasta water is perfect for this if you haven’t already dumped it. Once you get the liquid to your liking, add the chopped clams. They only need about a minute to cook, so add them at this very last stage. Overcooked clams will get rubbery.

Pour the clam sauce over the cooked pasta, mix, and serve. Top each serving with a dash of the remaining parsley, Romano cheese, and pepper. Call and invite me over for dinner.

Posted in SaucesComments (0)

Getting a Little Territorial Over Tomato Cucumber Salad

Getting a Little Territorial Over Tomato Cucumber Salad


A kid’s universe really unfolds when they start to see things in the world that they’d previously only known at home. Like the first time I’d heard people speaking Sicilian who weren’t my family or neighbors. Obviously, I knew we hadn’t invented the language. I understood that millions of immigrants brought it with them from Sicily. But still, hearing it outside my little bubble was unsettling. Even worse was hearing other variations—dialects from other regions that were similar enough for me to understand, but certainly not the Sicilian I knew. Something primal and territorial would kick in. Who are you, and what do you know about that world? I’d wonder.

I’ve moved on from such childish reactions, but I often surprise myself when I get “what do you mean this wasn’t invented in my house?” feelings. They still creep up, but now I’m more shocked at myself than I am at the world. Who am I kidding? It’s all been done before. And I say that with affection for all those who share traditions. It’s nice to remember that even though we don’t know one another, the same dishes cover our tables; the same values bind our families; and the same roots brought us to where we are.

I wasn’t expecting to feel that territorial response toward my Netflix queue. But there it was, smack in the middle of a No Reservations episode. There was Tony, hanging out in the fields of Sicily with some old caper farmers when they sat down to lunch. And right there, among the pasta and wine and bread was my parents’ tomato, onion, and cucumber salad. The salad they’d invented in our kitchen for Sunday lunches back in the ’80s. Hmph. My world. Shattered again. Oh, well.

In truth, I’m happy to see this masterpiece out and about. It deserves the credit. It reminds me of Sunday nights growing up, when we’d flip meals and have lunch at dinnertime since “Sunday dinner” was at noon. This salad was always on our Sunday night lunch table.

Maybe my parents and those caper farmers knew the same guy—the guy in Sicily who invented this. Or maybe it’s just one of those things that we all share without knowing.

Tomato Cucumber Salad
I didn’t have capers and olives when I made this recently, so they’re not in the picture. But if you can, add them! It wouldn’t be Sunday night lunch without them.

For the salad:
2 ripe tomatoes (vine tomatoes are great, but anything will do)
½ red or sweet white onion, sliced into thin moons
2 cucumbers, peeled and sliced into half moons
1 tablespoon capers, rinsed
1 handful cracked green olives

For the dressing:
1 to 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons olive oil
dried oregano, to taste
salt, to taste

Throw it all together. Taste. Adjust any ingredients until you love it. And please don’t let that vinaigrette at the bottom of the bowl go to waste! Something happens after the vegetables have been hanging out in it for a while. It would be a mortal sin if you didn’t soak it up with a hunk of crusty bread. A sin. What would your grandparents think? Please, don’t let us down. Get the bread. Make us proud.

Posted in SaladsComments (2)

Sunday Football Apple Crisp

Sunday Football Apple Crisp

It’s September, and although it’s still pushing 80 degrees outside, we’re eager for fall in our house. Let’s just ignore the weather, shall we? There’s so much more to get excited about. For one thing, football is here. While I don’t care about the sport at all, I love the cozy feeling that a football game brings to a home. Everyone’s gathered ’round the couch, troubles and responsibilities temporarily on hold, snacks on the table, beers in hand, Thanksgiving almost here (almost). Right around now, I want my house to be filled with the smell of cinnamon and nutmeg. And I don’t want it to go away until March.

I went on my first quest for cinnamon-nutmeg-bliss during this week’s Sunday football. I’d tell you what game was on, but frankly, I wasn’t even paying attention enough to notice. But I did know that I had a husband on the couch, a drink on the table, and 6 mealy apples begging for help. What would any decent person do? Make apple crisp, of course.

I strayed quite a bit from the recipe I started with, ending with something all my own. For my improv version, I tossed the apples in honey and cinnamon, added a pinch of salt to the crumble, threw in some walnuts, and ditched the white sugar. I only used half a stick of butter, which I strongly advise against. I often fall into this trap—trying to make a dessert recipe healthier. Sometimes there’s just no substitute for globs of butter. Lean from my mistake, friends. Just use all the butter. It will be worth it. Eat a salad for lunch tomorrow if you’re so worried about it.

This was still good, especially with ice cream. And it launched my houseful-of-cinnamon-and-nutmeg season perfectly.

Sunday Football Apple Crisp

For the crisp:
¾ cup dark brown sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for greasing the pan
1 cup rolled oats
¼ cup chopped walnuts
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon nutmeg
¼ teaspoon salt

For the apples:
5 to 7 medium apples, peeled, cored, and sliced
¼ cup honey
¼ cup dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon

Preheat your over to 350 degrees. Grease a casserole dish or any deep pan with butter.

Prepare the crisp by mixing the brown sugar, flour, butter, oats, walnuts, and spices in a large bowl until combined. I learned the hard way that a whisk is not the way to go here—everything just gets stuck inside. Use a fork.

In a separate bowl, toss the apple slices with the brown sugar, honey, and cinnamon.



Assemble the whole thing like a lasagna: Line the bottom of your pan with 1/3 of the crisp mixture, then ½ of the apple slices. Then another 1/3 of the crisp and the remaining apples. Top with the remaining crisp.


Bake for 35 to 45 minutes, or until the apples are golden.

Posted in DessertsComments (5)

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.

Posted in Recipe IndexComments (2)

The Highlight of Every Bensonhurst Kid’s Summer: The Santa Rosalia Feast

The Highlight of Every Bensonhurst Kid’s Summer: The Santa Rosalia Feast

This week I introduced my dear friend C to the Feast of Santa Rosalia, Bensonhurt’s annual street fair honoring the patron saint of Palermo, Sicily. “The feast” was the highlight of our summers growing up. Yes, we loved getting out of the city, hiking, swimming, etc., but nothing thrilled us more than a sticky August evening at the feast. It was just a few blocks from my Nonna Rosalia’s house (yes, she had an entire feast dedicated to her), so we’d go on Sundays after everyone–all 18 cousins, plus aunts and uncles–piled into her apartment for dinner. We’d spend the night trying to win goldfish; eating fried dough, gelato, sausage, and clams; listening to terrible Sicilian folk bands; watching people tuck dollar bills into the Santa Rosalia status. It was chaotic, ridiculous, and delicious: like most good things in my life.

It’s amazing how differently things from childhood look after so many years. This feast was HUGE when I was a kid. Walking up those seven blocks of 18th Avenue took all night, it seemed. You were always sandwiched by people; getting poked in the back by someone’s canolli, some stranger’s gelato dripping on your shoe. I once lost track of my family thanks to the fat guy with that giant snake draped over his shoulders every year. They were gone for a full few seconds (i.e., eternity) when I found my brother Sal and attached myself to him. I don’t think they realized I was missing.

Snake guy wasn’t there this year, and the crowds were a little thinner than I remembered. The neighborhood’s changed—immigrant groups come and go and the Sicilians are fewer and fewer—but it was still as magical as ever. Only this time, those seven blocks took about 30 minutes to cover, and that included a stop at the venerable Villabate Bakery. I know I’ve gotten bigger, but did the feast also get smaller? No matter. Here’s our night, in pictures.

First stop, stuffing dollar bills into Santa Rosalia’s skirt. C and I didn’t do this, nor did my family ever do it. Seems like a strange ritual, no?

First on the menu, some high-quality cheese sauce and sausages. We didn’t partake in this, though, because we were saving ourselves for…..

THIS thing of beauty. We call them sfingi in Sicilian, but they’re also known as zeppole by some.  (Another pastry with the same name is made for St. Joseph’s day. It’s confusing.) Call them what you want, they’re fried dough balls. Funnel cake in ball form, if you will.

You can’t walk 18th Avenue in Bensonhurst without a stop at Villabate, the best bakery in town. After sfingi, our dinner consisted of….

Chocolate and coffee gelato. But not just any old gelato cup…

Gelato on a brioche roll. If you’re going to do gelato for dinner, this is really the only way to do it.

We decided to be nice and bring something home for our boys…

The canolli won. They fly in their ricotta  from Palermo for these babies every day. Not exactly eco-friendly, but….still a beautiful end to an evening.

Posted in Recipe IndexComments (2)

Say Hello