Monday, September 17, 2018

Pasta with corn, tomato & cheese



My friend Peter is what you might call "an acquired taste."

He is brash, opinionated, often insulting to those who cross his path. I have never met a person with less skill in editing their own words. Which is saying something considering the place I am from.

This is one of the reasons the man is my friend. I never have to wonder where Peter stands on any issue. He is, without apology, who he is. I admire and respect that.

It also doesn't hurt that he can grow vegetables better than anybody that I know. With few exceptions, virtually every seedling that I plant in the spring has its beginning in Peter's greenhouses in the dead of winter. On the property around these greenhouses you'll find fruit trees of all types, as well as a large field where Peter and his wife Claudia grow potatoes, tomatoes and, of particular interest to us here, sweet corn.

A couple weeks back Peter texted saying that the corn in his field was ready to be picked.

"Come over today or tomorrow and take as much as you want," he wrote.

Before I could answer Peter was back with the kind of snarky blather that is more his custom.

"Oh, and grab a few ears for your girlfriend Marc while you're at it."

See what I mean.

Now, Marc is a regular companion of mine, I'll admit, but he certainly is not my girlfriend.

He isn't even a girl. I checked with his wife Beth just yesterday to be sure.

Nonetheless, my mission was to score a couple dozen ears of corn and so the next day my girlfriend and I were trudging through Peter's corn field stocking up.

Which is how this pretty swell concoction of pasta, tomato, corn and ricotta salata came to be.



We start out, as we do with so many good things, sauteeing some garlic (three or four cloves) and a little hot pepper in a good bit of olive oil.



Once the garlic has softened (but not browned) toss in your tomatoes. We've got around three cups' worth of fresh garden tomatoes here.



The basil plants have been growing wild this year. I figured a handful of them wouldn't hurt.



You can skip this step if you like. For some reason, probably because I am incapable of thinking about corn without thinking about butter, I found myself adding half a stick just for the hell of it.



You'll need to give it a taste, of course, but after around 15 or 20 minutes of medium-to-high heat the tomatoes are likely to have turned into a respectable sauce. At which point you can add the corn (around two cups here, blanched and cut from the cob) and lower the heat to a slow simmer.



After the corn has warmed a bit (maybe a minute or two) add a half pound of ricotta salata, cut into small pieces.



Then immediately add your pasta and incorporate.



I blanched and froze a bunch of corn and will try this with canned tomatoes in the dead of winter, when Peter is in his greenhouses getting a jump on spring.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Grilled garlic scapes



I know that this isn't going to be very much help this time of year. After all, where are you going to find garlic scapes in August?

Thing is, either I share with you this quick and easy way to prepare the things or I don't. So what if it'll have to wait til next summer before you try it. You're in a hurry or something?

These aren't the last of my garlic scapes. I harvested all 230 or so of them in late June and still haven't used them all up. They're stored in a refrigerator in the basement and so I often forget that they're there. Good thing they last a while before going bad, a good couple months if not longer actually.

For those of you who aren't familiar, the scapes are the flower bud of a garlic plant. They're removed in early summer to help strengthen the garlic bulb. If you didn't remove the scape a flower would grow out of its tip.

Garlic scapes are used in all kinds of ways, as they taste just like garlic. But my favorite way to use them is straight-up grilled or roasted and served as a vegetable. As the weather has been pretty warm these past few weeks I've been loathe to turn on the oven, so the gas grill outside has been getting a good workout.



Don't worry about paying careful attention here, okay, because there really is nothing to this at all. Just toss the scapes in olive oil, salt and freshly ground pepper.



Throw them on the grill, preheated to around 350F or so, and put the cover down.



Toss the scapes around a couple times until they're softened and a little charred, which shouldn't take more than 10 minutes or so.

And that is all there is to it.

Now all you have to do is get out your smartphone, tap into the calendar app, and put in a reminder for early next summer to give it a go.

Unless, of course, you live nearby. In which case you can just swing by. There's still a batch of scapes left in the basement fridge, and you're welcome to them.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Pasta with fava beans & mint



I can't look at a fresh fava bean without thinking of an old Japanese man, a round piece of cheese, and a long ago flight from JFK to O'Hare.

Stick with me here. It'll all make sense in a minute.

See, I was sitting in my usual aisle seat in a three-across setup. The center seat was unoccupied and at the window was the elderly man that I just mentioned. One of the items on the meal tray (remember those?) was a little round cheese snack wrapped in red wax. You know the type, I'm sure.

Evidently, my traveling companion did not. Through the corner of my eye I watched as the man picked up the cheese. He ran his fingers over the shiny red wax, tapped at it a couple of times and then quickly popped the whole thing into his mouth and began to chew.

And chew.

And chew.

I didn't have the heart to risk having the old man see me unwrap the cheese and eat it the proper way. Why embarrass the guy? And so when the flight attendant came to collect our emptied trays my wax-encased cheese snack was still on it, untouched.

Which is to say that fresh fava beans must first be unwrapped before you make this pretty swell pasta dish with them.

Hey, I'm just trying to help.



This is around two pounds of fresh favas.



When you open the pod this is what you'll find. Just pop all the beans out and toss the pods.



Rinse the beans in cold water.



Blanch them in well-salted water for a minute. Make sure not to toss the water because you are planning to cook the pasta in it. You are planning on doing that, right?



Using a slotted spoon remove the beans from the boiling water and toss them into an ice bath. This will prevent the favas from becoming overcooked and mushy, which can happen pretty quickly.



What you need to do now is pop the edible bean out from inside the shell, like so.



Just in case you haven't seen it before, this is what we're dealing with. The bright green bean on the left is the edible fava; on the right is a bean that's still in its outer shell.



What I wound up with is around a cup's worth of cooked favas.



In a large pan saute one large shallot, four or five garlic cloves and some hot pepper in olive oil until softened but not browned.



Add the beans, a dozen or so chopped mint leaves and the zest of one small lemon. Stir and saute for a minute.



Then just stir in your pasta (a half pound here), some pasta water to moisten things (a half cup or so), and maybe 3/4 cup of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.

And that is that.

Ready to serve. And no unnecessary chewing.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

The godfather



When you are thirteen and wake before dawn to the sound of a parent dying, odds are short that things are gonna suck pretty bad for a while.

And they did.

But I was luckier than most. I didn't grow up in a family, I grew up in a clan.

Big difference.

Imagine this: Six families, all blood related through siblings, living upstairs, downstairs, and next door to each other in side-by-side apartment houses, three apartments per. My twelve cousins and I didn't have only two parents apiece; aunts and uncles counted too, because they watched over all of us just like we were their own.

I know. Hard to imagine. Different times.

The head of our clan was Uncle Joe. That's him at his house on Berriman Street in Brooklyn. When he bought his own home, late in life actually, he made sure that it had four things: close proximity to the rest of us (only a block and a half away from his brothers' and sisters' families); ample yard space for his dump truck and assorted building materials (he was a general contractor); a generous outdoor area where the whole family could gather for barbecues and parties; and last, but by no means least, a garden.

Uncle Joe had no children of his own, but he was godfather to the majority of his nieces and nephews, me included. The man wasn't merely loved by those of us who knew him. He was adored, idolized even.

My godfather didn't live a lot longer than my father, but I was fortunate to have him around for what the shrinks might call a young man's formative years. He taught me how to use hand tools and mix concrete, how to level a piece of wood before driving a nail into it, how to lay brick, and the proper way to let out a clutch.

More important, and strictly by observing the man, I learned how to be fair and kind to people while at the same time being firm in what I believe.

At least I hope that I did.

It would break my heart to think that I let him down.

Happy Father's Day everybody!

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

What are friends for?


Over the next couple of weeks many of these corn kernels will be planted in several undisclosed locations around the Northeast. I know this because I am personally dispersing them as we speak.

In the interest of plausibly denying the specific whereabouts of the crops I have chosen to not ask any questions.

Neither should you.

See, back in 2012, I came into possession of a handful of seeds meant to grow corn not for eating but for manufacturing polenta. (Here's the original post, showing how to make your own polenta at home.)

Though the seed was at one time available in the United States it hasn't been for several years now. I never was able to find out why it was banned, not definitively, though a well-informed friend and I have long suspected that The Evil Monsanto might have something to do with it. (You know, the Monsanto that controls around 80 percent of the country's corn crop.)

This friend—let's call him "Tony"—surprised and delighted me the other day by slipping me a couple ears just in time for this year's planting season. I had stopped growing the polenta corn three years ago but Tony has kept it up ever since I gifted him with the seed to start his own crop.

Tony makes his living... Scratch that, nobody needs to know what he does. And he lives in... Actually, best we not reveal this information either. The point I'm trying to make is that the guy knows about growing stuff. And he's become committed to keeping this strain of polenta corn around for as long as he is able, no matter what Big Ag does to kill off such noble efforts.

Sadly, I had somehow managed to lose sight of my responsibility in this mission.

I'm lucky to have a friend who could set me straight.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The letter


Some time before our mother died, back in the winter of 2006, my brother Joe and I sent her to live in a nursing home. We did this reluctantly and not entirely of clear conscience, but we did it nonetheless.

While Joe and I shared responsibility for finding a good home for mom, most of the clerical work fell to me. There were matters pertaining to her debts and to Social Security benefits, a small checking account, insurance and so on, all requiring close attention and resolution.

My best resource in navigating through the necessary legal paperwork was a worn brown folder that mom kept hidden in the bottom of a dresser drawer. In it were things like her birth certificate and my father’s honorable discharge papers from the Army. There was a yellow Western Union telegram from the Vatican in Rome marking their marriage in 1954, the deed to the cemetery plot in Brooklyn where my father had been buried in 1970, along with many other useful and not so useful items. 

Three documents, unrelated to the task at hand, stood out so far from the rest that they literally took my breath away. Each was folded and placed in a separate white envelope and each envelope had a single word written in my mother’s unsteady hand: “Michael,” “Joseph,” and “Ralph.” 

Mom had written each of her three sons a goodbye letter. 

And she didn’t seal the envelopes.

Through tears I managed to read only five words of my mother's letter to me: “You were a beautiful boy.”

The past tense of it all was more than I could bear and so I quickly folded the letter and returned it to the envelope where it belonged. I never told my mother that I'd found the letters, and didn't mention them to my brothers either.

Eighteen months later I finally managed my way through the rest of the letter. It was just after Joe called to say that mom had died. The night nurse had contacted him earlier in the evening to ask that he get to the nursing home as soon as he was able. But soon wasn’t soon enough. Mom died with a very lovely woman by her side but not any of the sons that she had dedicated her life to.

I delivered mom's letters to my brothers just as soon as we were all together. My wife Joan and I had driven down from Maine to New York early the next morning, Mike and his family flew in from Ohio the following day. 

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you guys about this sooner, but I figured this is probably the way she wanted it,” I told my brothers. 

“I only read mine last night,” I assured Joe, “after you called.”

I don’t know when or under what circumstances my brothers read their letters; they didn't read them in front of me. I don't know what mom wrote to them either. We’ve never discussed it. 

I tell myself that that’s okay. What a mother says to her son at the end is only her business and his, nobody else’s.

Mom's letter to me followed the same themes that defined her life: Never let anything or anybody get between you and the family; stay close to your brothers no matter what; be good to people; love one another.

I hope the letters in my brothers' hands are at least a little bit like the one our mother wrote to me. Because it all just sounded so very much like her.

And that's a sound worth hearing. 

Again and again.

Happy Mother's Day everybody!

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Braised short ribs with pine nuts



This is one of those cook-it-today-but-maybe-eat-it-tomorrow kinda deals. The flavors knit together even better with time.

I had it both ways. The batch of short ribs I prepared the other day were eaten that same evening, but there were enough leftovers for another couple of meals.

I ain't as dumb as I look.



Very liberally salt the ribs (4 1/2 pounds here), and don't forget some freshly ground black pepper.



Then dredge in all-purpose flour.



In a large dutch oven brown the ribs in a plenty of olive oil, then remove and set aside.



Add one diced onion, two celery stalks, two carrots, one leek, eight garlic cloves, a few anchovy filets, some thyme, and half a cup of pine nuts, and saute until softened.



Then add a bottle (750 ml) of red wine (I used an inexpensive Sangiovese but most any dry red will do) and turn up the heat to high. Note: If you prefer to use a dry white wine instead, nobody's stopping you.



After the wine has boiled for five minutes or so add a quart of homemade stock (I had chicken stock around but beef or even vegetable stock would be fine). Cover and put in the oven, preheated to 350-375 degrees F. The ribs should cook for around three hours, but every 45 minutes or so turn the ribs.



These short ribs were in the oven exactly three hours. When I put a fork to the meat it was about as soft and tender as it gets, which is what you want.



Remove the ribs and toss the bones.



Then slice the meat into inch or so pieces.



And serve with some of the sauce. On this particular occasion My Associate had prepared a very nice mashed potato and celery root combo, which turned out to be a pretty much perfect match. However, most anything will work here (egg noodles, spaetzle, polenta, whatever).

Just be sure to make enough for those leftovers.
 
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