Truly, the Last Supper

To even speak of one’s last supper is pretty quirky. But when it comes to food, every supper for me is a last supper experience. It sounds a bit morbid, but when my Dad passed this year, my sister and Mercedes, care giver for my parents spoke of Dad’s last meal and how much he and everyone had enjoyed it. The day he died, my sister’s had to go to Los Banos to make funeral arrangements.

I stayed with Mom. We sat by the pool in the warm sun. Mom, very much in shock, innocently showed her great humor. She said, “I can’t imagine your Dad passing. After all, he is younger than me. I always thought I would go first.” He was 90, she 95.

Eventually, lunchtime came and like usual, Mercedes served leftovers, usually last eve’s meal. I knew I would be eating my Dad’s Last Supper. I savored every bite, every morsel, vividly knowing that I was eating his last supper. Somehow, I felt close to him. The very best was Mercedes spinach soup. Here is her recipe.

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Los Banos Autumn & Tourist season

Autumn brings memories of Los Banos, the end of melon season and cotton harvest. The colors of the foothills turn golden and, although the weather is warm, it is definitely Fall. I would joke that we have two tourist seasons in Los Banos, melon season and duck season. We would get the most influx of ‘tourists’. Out of state melon buyers would spend the summer, stay in our motels and eat in our local eateries. Pickers and packers as well would stay until the end of melon season, mid-September. Just about the time melon season would end, bird hunting season would begin, dove, pheasant and then duck, Los Banos’ second ‘tourist’ season of the year. Not to say that the locals did not hunt, but ‘tourist’ hunters would come to Los Banos Tuesday and Friday evenings before hunt days. The bars and restaurants were packed, Carlos, Danny’s, Canal Farm Inn, Espanas, The Basque Restaurant, Woolgrowers were all hopping. Even the Bowling Alley bar was busy. I recall sons speaking of their Fathers coming; it was a real tradition. I haven’t lived in Los Banos since 1986 so I don’t know if the tourist seasons are still, so much has changed. There is no more Carlos, Basque Restaurant or Danny’s. The Bowling Alley was torn down and Espanas replaced the Canal Farm Inn. One thing remains, our memories and our recipes. Every Autumn, I crave polenta and game sauce. Here are the recipes:  

AUTUMN GAME SAUCE WITH POLENTA (347)

Autumn brings lovely things to mind–game, mushrooms, wine, corn and polenta.  Try this Game Sauce with Polenta, a family tradition, when the leaves turn to gold.

 THE INGREDIENTS for GAME SAUCE

6 links Northern style Italian sausage

2 pheasant, 4 pigeon, 6 quail, 8 dove or a combination or 4 Cornish game hens

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon coarse ground black pepper

1 rounded teaspoon fresh dried rosemary and thyme

2 1/2 tablespoons coarse chop fresh garlic, reserving 2 tablespoons

2 medium onion

1 large carrot

1/4 head celery, heart and leaves included

1/2 bunch fresh Italian parsley

1/4 cup good quality olive oil

1/4 cup tomato paste

2 2 1/2 pound can size whole plum tomatoes in juice

1 ounce imported dried Porcini mushrooms, also called cepes

1 teaspoon fresh dried oregano

1/4 cup basil leaves, packed tight, chopped

1 teaspoon sugar

1 cup red wine

1 cup chicken broth

1 pound assorted sliced wild and domestic mushroom, portobello, porcini

2 ounces, 1/2 cube butter

salt and pepper to taste         

THE METHOD

1.         Prick the sausages with a fork and sauté them in a large sauce pan on medium heat. When  the sausage is golden,  remove and reserve.

2.         While the sausage is cooking, quarter the larger birds and halve the smaller ones.   Remove any fat.  Wash with salt or lemon juice, rinse and pat dry.

3.         Add 1/8 cup olive oil. Add the game and sauté until golden. Season the game with salt,      coarse ground black pepper and the dried herbs. Continue cooking until the fats are absorbed and brown bits cling to the pan.

4.         While the meats are cooking, quarter the onions, carrots, celery. Add to a food processor with the garlic and parsley leaves. Using the pulse switch, process until finely chopped.

5.         Remove and reserve the game with the sausages. Add 1/8 cup olive oil to the pan.  Add the processed vegetables. Sauté the vegetables, scraping and incorporating the brown bits.

6.         Add the wine to deglaze the pan.   After the wine has been absorbed, add the tomato paste, lower the heat and simmer for 10-15 minutes.

6.         Rinse the tomato cans with 1-1/2 cups water. Check the dried mushrooms, rinse if necessary. Place the juices and dried mushrooms into the liquid. Bring to a boil. Turn off the heat and allow the dried mushrooms to reconstitute. Cool, mince in the food    processor. Add to the pan along with the chicken broth. Continue to cook for 10-15   minutes.

7.         Without rinsing the food processor, place the canned tomatoes in the bowl and process. Add to the sauce. Add the basil and oregano, sugar and salt to taste. Add the game and sausages. Simmer for about one hour. After one hour, check the game, the joints should move easily.

8.         Slice and sauté the mushrooms in butter. Salt and pepper to    taste. Add to the sauce.   Taste and adjust seasoning.

 THE INGREDIENTS for POLENTA

4 quarts water

1/4 cup olive oil

1 Tablespoon salt

1 pound polenta, coarse grained corn meal

1 cube butter

1 cup chicken broth, optional

2 cups shredded Parmesan cheese, reserving 1 cup for garnish

1 pound teleme cheese, cubed

 The Method

1.         Bring water to a boil. Add salt and olive oil.  Add the polenta in a steady stream stirring constantly with a long handled wooden spoon. Continue stirring and cook for 45 minutes. When the polenta pulls away from the sides of the pan, add butter, optional broth and  Parmesan, stir. Add the teleme just before serving for the marbleized effect.

2.         To serve, arrange the game and sausages on a platter. Garnish with fresh chopped herbs. Mound the polenta on individual plates. Ladle the game sauce over the polenta.  Pass the Parmesan.

 Love and Garlic, Nancy Vajretti

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Lunch at the Round Table

In the early years, bankers, farmers, salesmen and businessmen met at the Cup N’ Saucer, a downtown coffee shop in my hometown of Los Banos. They joined each other mainly at Lunch at the ‘Round Table’, a large round table on the right as you entered. After the Cup and Saucer closed, they found other dining ‘conference’ tables, Tiny’s, Denny’s and at my ristorante and delicatessen, La Familglia. They sat in the back at the antique poker table. This was a farmer’s exchange, farmers, fertilizer salesman, trucker, packers, they were all there: Joe Vajretti, Shawn Moosekian, Bugs Haumea, Peter LoBue, Tony Mogolio, Ralph Palazzo, and more.

My interest was to feed them. Favorite meals were perfectly cooked roast beef, served room temp with thick sliced vine-ripened tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and topped with chopped capers, onions and anchovies; on the side, good crusty bread. 

All of us welcomed the season’s freshest pick. We could never get enough of one favorite,   squash flowers. One day my Dad commented to Peter LoBue, “Peter, why don’t you plant a row of pumpkins so Nancy has squash flowers to prepare?” Peter responded, “OK, Papa Joe, I’ll see what I can do.” I grew up with Peter; he’s always been a big thinker. Shortly thereafter, at lunch at the Round Table Peter announced that he had planted 13 acres of pumpkins! I would have squash blossoms and he would have the pumpkins for sale 

 The Recipe:  Fior d’ Italia  Squash Blossoms

Mornings are the best time to pick because the flowers are wide open. Every day I traveled with my dog Lester to the pumpkin patch. While Lester romped in the field, I picked squash blossoms. To pick them doesn’t require much skill; just to know the ones with the stamen are the males. They will not produce fruit.  I would pick the flower at its stem including the green webbed bell shaped base. Once picked, I placed them upside down and side by side in a basket. For me, to come away from the field with forty blossoms is a victory for my farmer’s lunch. Off to the deli I would go.

To prepare, remove the stamen, peel away the base of the flower, gently rinse the inside and outside with water and place upside down in a large colander. At this point the flowers can be placed in the refrigerator covered with a damp cloth. 

For the crepe batter, we use Mom’s sweet crepe batter eliminating the sugar for a savory rendition. For the filling, I tried several types of cheese; my favorite is the original Jack cheese.

To prepare the flowers, open the flower and fill with a piece of Jack cheese. Reserve them on a damp towel. We eliminated frying and adopted the griddle. Preheat the griddle and brush with vegetable oil. Dip the filled flowers in the batter, lay on the griddle. If the batter is too thick, thin with milk. The look of the stuffed squash blossom is to see the flowers lightly coated so the veins are visible. Cook until the color and consistency of a cooked pancake or crepe.  Flip over and cook on the other side.  Serve as a hors d’oeuvre, side dish, vegetable or at brunch.

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The ‘Portugy’ & the Italian Part II The Italian

If you’ve read the first install of The ‘Portugy’ & The Italian, you have learned that I believe the Portuguese way of thinking is cautious, one of counting and weighing and knowing at the beginning what you will receive.  

For me, the Italian way of thinking, or mine, is different. Rather than caution, the approach is inviting, one of hospitality and generosity. Call it a salesman’s approach, “Try it, take it home.”   “Don’t worry about it.” In fact, the cost may not be monetary. The idea is to obligate the buyer in a way that they will ‘owe’ you something, a trade, a favor. The deal is more than fine with the ‘buyer’ for it builds a relationship of give and take. Our reward is not necessarily defined at the beginning, more likely at the outcome.

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The ‘Portugy’ and the Italian

I grew up in Los Banos, a small town in the San Joaquin Valley, a town made up mainly of four ethnic groups, Portuguese, Italian, Hispanic and Basque. Rick Freitas, my husband, also from Los Banos, is of Portuguese descent and I, of Italian descent. We constantly kid and joke, calling ourselves the ‘Portugy’ and the Italian.

About three years into our relationship, Rick said to me, “I really like the way you think, you think like a Portugy.” I responded, “I can’t imagine why, I am Italian!” My mother and father are Italian. My parents are friends with many of the local Portuguese families but no blood ties. And by the way, how do Portuguese people think? We left it at that and went onto another subject.

About three years later (That’s the way it is with certain relationships, we pick-up our conversations weeks, months, even years later), it occurred to me and I said to Rick, “Rick, Rick, my Father was raised by Portuguese people. That’s probably why you think I think like a Portugy!” I have been influenced by the Portuguese way of thinking. So the question remains, how do the Portuguese think?

‘Festa Scuntas’

This story may give insight into the Portuguese way of thinking. On the occasion of my Mom and Dad’s 50th Wedding Anniversary, my sisters and I decided to celebrate with a party in their honor. We decided we would share the cost; our treat for Mom and Dad. That did not set well with my Dad because he wanted to pay. My Dad was an extremely gracious and generous man and our Father and Provider. Later, Dad asked me how he could contribute. I thought how about the bar, the wines? He liked it!

At the end of the party, my Dad was standing in the back garden of my sister’s house. He motioned me over and said, “Festa Scuntas”. “What are you talking about?” I replied. He repeated, “Festas Scuntas, how much?” He quipped, “You don’t think the Portugys get together to just eat sopas at their festas? They come together to celebrate the harvest and their share of the crop. It’s the ‘festival of the counting’!. Could this be a revelation? Are the Portuguese counters by culture? I have observed that the Portuguese do thoughtfully weigh and measure all things; that when they enter into an agreement, they have already evaluated what they will get for what they will do. No criticism here, it is merely a way of thinking. To continue…the Italian way of thinking.

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If You Cook It in Water It Will Taste Like Water

My Mom, like her Mom, had a great sense of humor. Telling her stories will for me and I hope for you, embrace her incredible humor. I can’t recall my Mom’s first cooking secret although having us taste everything was our first lesson about food. I can still see her with a twinkle in her eye saying, “If you cook it in water, it’ll taste like water!” Mom may not have used today’s culinary term ‘infusion’, but she knew well to season her waters, pasta water, polenta water, even to rinse cans of tomato paste for tomato water. She instructed us to rinse dried mushrooms, soak and save the mushroom water for the sauce. She said her Mom would boil apple peels to use the apple water for syrups, juices and fruit sauces. I surely applied her theory. Years later, at my deli, La Famiglia, people who ate my minestrone soup would often comment at its great flavor. If they only knew, I would reserve the outside dark leafy greens of the head lettuce, romaine lettuce and green cabbage and boil them in water, save the juice from the garbanzo beans and use the tomato water rinsed from cans of tomato paste. Guaranteed the ‘flavored’ water was the secret foundation for our minestrone soup. Here’s the recipe.

LA FAMIGLIA MINESTRONE SOUP

For Mom, Wednesdays were clean the fridge and soup day. We could always count on her soups, rich with the backbone of her cooking, flavored waters evolving into full-bodied, complex broths ready to embrace the vegetables, beans, meats and pasta.  What better meal to serve our family. Satisfied that she had not only accomplished the Wednesday soup and fridge ritual, but that she had also ’infused’ our growing bodies with vitamins and minerals. Ladle this soup into big bowls over thick crusts of day old Italian bread. Top with fresh grated cheeses, ours was equal parts dry jack and pecorino Romano.�

THE INGREDIENTS
I advanced from the home refrigerator to the delicatessen’s two walk-ins. We saved the trimmings from our daily prep and made minestrone, sometimes with beef and sometimes vegetarian. 

For the vegetable broth
Collect the outer leaves of head lettuce, romaine lettuce, green cabbage, stems of parsley, spinach, the outer stalks of celery and tops as well as heart trimmed, outer layers of onions, carrot trimmings and peels, (but not too much as too many carrots will ’sweeten’ the water), stems and stalks of leeks, green onions, tips of shallots and garlic, tomato skins, tops and bottoms and their juices. Rinse and place in a large soup kettle, cover with water and simmer for at least 1 ½ to two hours. Taste, add salt. Reduce broth until the flavor emerges. Strain. 

For the beef broth
3-5 pounds beef soup bones, brisket, or boiling beef
2 bay leaves
4 stalks celery, including leaves, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 yellow onion, stuck with 4 cloves
1 large carrot
few sprigs fresh Italian parsley
salt and peppercorns

To make the soup broth, add the soup bones to a kettle, cover with water. Place on the stove and bring to a boil. Skim the water of any fat or scum. Reduce the heat to low, add the aromatic vegetables, herbs, carrot, celery, parsley, onion, garlic, bay leaf, salt and peppercorns. Simmer for 1 1/2 to two hours or until the beef is tender. Strain, reserving the broth to chill. Skim the fat. Trim and chop the beef. Reserve.

For the beans and broth
1 pound dried beans, pinto, kidney, garbonzo, white bean or other dried bean of your liking. Soak for two hours and drain. For a quick method, cover beans with water, bring to a boil, turn off flame and soak for one hour. Cook beans with onion, garlic, bay leaf, salt and pepper until tender. Cool and reserve including broth

For the soup
2 quarts vegetable broth
2 quarts beans and broth
2 quarts beef broth
1 cup sliced celery including the tops
1 cup sliced carrots
3 cups coarse chop green cabbage
1 cup sliced yellow onion
4 Tablespoon fresh chop parsley
8 cloves fresh chop garlic
1 cup diced zucchini
1 cup chopped fresh string beans
2 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
1 cup diced turnips and their greens trimmed and chopped
1 cup diced russet potatoes
1 head spinach, chopped
1 Tablespoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
salt to taste and freshly ground pepper
meat, trimmed of fat and chopped
1 cup red wine
1/2 pound cooked al dente pasta

Combine the vegetable broth, beans and juices, beef broth in a soup kettle. Bring to a simmer and add the celery, cabbage, onion, parsley, garlic, turnips, turnip greens, potatoes and tomato paste. Simmer for approximately twenty minutes. Next add the beef, carrots, string beans, zucchini, red pepper flakes, spinach and fresh basil. Simmer uncovered until the vegetables are tender. Taste and correct for seasoning. Add the red wine.

The final addition will be the cooked pasta. Add and simmer the few minutes that it takes to reheat the pasta. Taste for final seasonings and correct if needed.

Think of my Mom when you eat this soup and enjoy! And let me know how you flavor the waters.

Love and Garlic, Nancy Vajretti

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Burgers and Fries in Heaven

Whether I possess my extreme spirituality because of my nature or by the example of my parents, I do. How I came to be a believer in Heaven and the Lord may have come to me through my love for food. I remember my Mom saying that if I was a really good girl, practiced good acts and prayed every night, I would go to Heaven. “But what is Heaven?” I asked. Again, she said, “If you pray every night, believe in the Lord, you will be rewarded with burgers and fries in Heaven”. That’s it! I said, “I’m in!” There was no doubt in my mind that I would do anything to attain a Last Supper such as burgers and fries in Heaven.

Love and Garlic, Nancy Vajretti

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Last Supper Smells

The other day, in the midst of getting ready for a catering job, I had a Last Supper ‘Smells’ experience. I agreed to supply the rosemary for my bride’s napkin rings for her wedding reception. Rick, my husband went to ‘our walk’ rosemary patch and clipped 160 branches, washed and placed them in a plastic container and set them in the hallway of our house. When it was time to leave for work, Rick did as he usually does, loaded our computers, my briefcase and in this case, the box of rosemary. I, as usual, gathered my cell phone, glasses, watch and water. As I passed thru the hallway, I caught a whiff of the rosemary. At once, the smell reminded me of my Mom’s roasted chicken with rosemary, Chicken Lombardo. Mom’s chicken, the smell, the taste, the memory of her cooking this dish is for me, a Last Supper experience. If I were to pass and had eaten my Mom’s roasted chicken as my last, it would truly have been the best Last Supper.

Here’s the recipe:

Chicken Lombardo

Referred to as the snooty relatives, Lombardo is the family name of our Northern Italian relatives. Nevertheless, Mom said that this recipe stems from them.

The ingredients and method:

Start with chicken halves, breast and leg quarters connected. Cut off any fat nodules, skin or gristle. Rub with salt or baking soda, rinse and pat dry. Squeeze fresh lemon on the chicken halves. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Place the chicken halves skin side up in a Pyrex dish or roasting pan. Sprinkle with olive oil, salt, fresh garlic and Italian seasonings*. Squeeze fresh lemon juice over the chicken. Turn over and repeat the process. Place in the preheated oven and roast for 25 minutes. Remove, turn skin side up. Roast for another 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and check. The skin should be golden, the juices are clear and the legs move easily. To serve, cut thru the joint legs and quarters and place  on a platter. Cut the breasts lengthwise, one with the wing joint included, about a third of the breast. The other piece will be about 2/3rd’s of the breast length. Garnish with fresh rosemay.

Occasionally, Mom would alter ingredients. I am certain her original recipe called for Italian seasonings from a jar! Later, these mixed herbs were replaced with fresh rosemary. If I do choose to use the mixed Italian herbs, I cut them fresh from my herb garden and dry.

 

Love and Garlic, Nancy Vajretti celebrating The Cooking Secrets of the Lazy V!

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Pancakes At Midnight

My parents established a tradition in high school, Pancakes at Midnight. No matter where we were, at the Prom, at the High School Dance, at the game, my Dad would say to me, I’ll see you and your friends for pancakes at midnight. Smart folks for no matter what we were doing, we would all walk across the front door threshold, sit at the family dining room table and eat “pancakes at midnight.”
Mom’s pancakes were special, a real tradition in our family. After she made the batter and let it sit for a few minutes, she would cook the pancakes on her cast aluminum griddle. Before she would ladle the batter, she would drop water on the pre-heated griddle. If the water bubbled and danced, the griddle was ready. Ladle by ladle, Mom would puddle the batter onto the griddle, leaving enough room in between for them to rise properly. Mom would arrange these well-risen cakes on a platter and place them in a slightly warm oven to hold while she finished.
The tradition doesn’t stop here. From the beginning, we would top Mom’s buttermilk pancakes with sour cream and home-made apricot jam. It was up to you what was on the bottom or the top. Mom’s recipe is included, along with her method, a true cooking secret of the Lazy V

Mom’s Buttermilk Pancakes

The ingredients:

1 ¼ cups flour

1 Tablespoon sugar

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

1 beaten egg

2 Tablespoons vegetable oil or melted butter*

1 cup buttermilk

The method:

  1. Preheat pancake griddle over low flame.
  2. Sift together the dry ingredients.
  3. Combine egg, buttermilk and salad oil* I recall distinctly that Mom would use melted butter, a key and secret ingredient to her pancakes, but when I asked my sister, Jolene, she recalls “always vegetable oil and as far back as Houston”. Just the other day, when discussing with Sister Joan, she confirmed that Mom used melted butter.
  4. Add to the dry ingredients stirring until just moistened.
  5. Bake on a greased griddle using vegetable oil.
  6. Reserve on a platter in a warm 200 degree oven.
  7. To serve, top with jam and sour cream or fresh berries and lo-fat yogurt. For the purists, top with melted butter and warmed maple syrup.

Love and Garlic, Nancy Vajretti celebrating The Cooking Secrets of the Lazy V!

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