LESSONS LEGACY AND LORE ROAD TRIPS

My Dad was quite a guy. He was a man of few words and when he spoke, we would listen. Dad was determined that we three girls would have the advantages that he and Mom had not had. He would say, “You want to see how others live?” Let’s go!” I remember many of these trips: to explore new places, to expand our horizons and to experience how other’s lived. I recall one experience. Dad reserved rooms at The Clift Hotel in San Francisco, a first class hotel. We packed our suitcases, jumped in the family car, probably a Buick and off we went to see how ‘rich people’ lived. During our stay, we rode up and down the elevators. Many of the women who rode with us wore mink coats. As we brushed up against the beautiful fur coats, my sister’s and I would say, “Z-mink!” and giggle joyously.

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LESSONS LEGACY AND LORE PASSINGS

Tough months April May and June; two years ago on Tuesday, April 21st, my dad broke his hip. That day, all would change. My parents would never reside in their family home again. Their life as it had been would be impossible to maintain; the independence they experienced all their lives, gone. After surgery, Dad spent weeks in rehab hospitals declining in weight, health and mostly attitude, “Counting time”, he would say. My sister and brother-in-law generously decided that Dad and Mom would move into their apartment connected to their home.

One year and a day later, on Wednesday, April 22nd Dad passed. My sister’s exact words when she called at 6:39 AM were, “Nancy, Dad has passed away.” Again, all would change for our family, especially Mom who had spent the last 66 years married to Dad. Profoundly sad, her life would never be the same. Thirty days later, to the day, I received a phone call from my sister, “What are you doing?” “I’m at work, I replied, come on over.” “No, she replied, I think you should come here. Mom doesn’t seem right. She is very weak.” One look at Rick and we were in the car, off to my sister’s home. Within an hour, I experienced the passing of the most important influential person in my lifetime, my Mom. Within a month of each other, both my parents had passed. 

What is it about human beings? We relive the moments: first a day later, next a week, a month and finally as the anniversary approaches, the event. April, May and June represent Dad’s passing, my last Mother’s Day with Mom spent in our family home, Mom’s passing, funerals in between and finally Father’s Day. Each day and memory, I reminisced and relived. In a way, I felt that embracing the memories would somehow bring me closer to my Mom and Dad. At the end of June, their passings were topped by another closure. My Sister’s and I convened to divide Mom’s jewelry. I didn’t want to do it. I thought if her jewelry was in tack, her presence more solid. I was wrong. Now I wear my Mom’s wedding ring and band, the stones redesigned by my Mom in a single ring. I feel honored that I wear the ring representing what Dad gave Mom on engagement and marriage. Talk about being close to my parents, there couldn’t be a better way. Although April, May and June I will remember as tough life changing months, I will reminisce with warm memories ingrained in me and caress those precious stones, all thanks to my Mom and Dad.

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Lessons Legacy and Lore Of Easter Pie and Picnics

As long as I can remember, our family gathered around the kitchen table to prepare our regional specialty, Easter Pie. Hand written by my Mom on a sheet of binder paper, we have her much used recipe. If this isn’t precious enough, even more so is her hand written message in the corner of this treasured original circa 1960, “Joan, Dad and I have gone to Merced, take care of things.”  

The recipe calls for ricotta, ham, jack or Toma cheese, hard boiled eggs, parsley and Italian sausage. Sounds simple but do not be deceived. Back in the old days, everything came from the farm.  Even our family made the sausage, another regional specialty. Mom, taught by her Mom, would direct my uncles with stern instructions to do the recipe exactly as their Mother had done it. I can see them haggling on the back porch of our cottage home and I can hear my Mom “not too much salt, not another pinch of pepperino”. Uncle Richard would answer, “Now Jess, don’t worry.”            

Generations later, we simplified the process by purchasing the products that were once made on the farm. One uncle became a butcher and had his own shop. All would buy Uncle’s sausage prepared from our family recipe. My cousin, David apprenticed with Uncle Richard and moved to another local grocery. When Uncle Richard moved to Merced, his partner Ray continued the tradition in Los Banos. All three sources had sprung from the original family recipe. The cheeses came from a local artisan source, P&M Cheese in Los Banos, famous for fresh ricotta, fresh and dried jack and teleme cheeses. We would order a good bone in cured ham from our family butchers.   

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Christmas Past – Celebrating Traditions

Note from Nancy: If you read my Thanksgiving Blog, you learned that my reason for posting the Blog (and now the Christmas Blog) well after the Holidays has to do with the passing of two parents within a short period of time. Although I wrote these months ago, I felt I had to review, edit and embrace; the sentiments and memories are heartfelt. Now, I am ready to share.

We lost our Dad and our Mom this year, within a month of each other. This would be our first Christmas without them: Dad at the head of the dining room table, gently smiling, taking it all in, proud Father, quietly embracing the family. As for Mom, the spark and sparkler, the hearth and fire; she would have been at the center holding ‘Mom court’—sovereign of family and cooking, without a doubt a magnet. I can’t be sad, not for them. I am accepting of their passing. No doubt they are watching, triumphant that they have accomplished their goal. This year, we were together, celebrating family, food and Holiday traditions. I love our family, an eclectic mix of personalities and preferences.

This brings me to the subject of our Holiday Traditions, the Draw, emerging Traditions, Tasting and our Menu, old and new. Several years ago, Joan and Jim suggested that instead of exchanging gifts, we do a draw. Everyone that participates brings a gift. We draw numbers and select a gift, number one goes first. However, there is one caveat. The next one to retrieve a gift is entitled instead to steal any opened gift. This is when the fun begins. Each year, one or two gifts are popular and as a result will pass from one to other causing roars of laughter and competitive spirit. Some years participants claimed they walked away with duds and others, treasures. After a time, we opted to ‘theme’ the draw gifts. I do not recall the themes we chose, but I do recall a year of uproar. Certain members of our family considered the draw gifts politically incorrect. After all, we had raised generation 3 who did not see the humor in including shotgun shells in the draw (although many of my nephews duck hunt). Others felt it had become frivolous. Others dished it with joke gifts. Finally, we came to the decision to cease the draw and try something new. We submitted our ideas and voted. We voted for a blind tasting of wines. Ouch, a blind tasting? A chance for anonymity, bum wines and lackluster participation, let alone, leave many with no interest because they do not enjoy wine! We participated, but many were not satisfied.

Poignantly, the last Christmas we would be with our parents, two sisters and family were together, however, we missed one sister and her family. This year we were ready.  After twenty-two e-mails, the Draw was redefined!  My sister’s and I decided on a book draw and a tasting. Newly wed Jay has a yen for salami.  Mother-in-law Joan organized ‘The Big Salami’, created an announcement and score card. Father-in-law Jim paired the tasting with crisp pinots and rose’s. We savored nine varieties of salami, local artisan, bay area and even Seattle (the winner!). The tasting was a success. The tradition will continue, the Family Book Draw and Tasting Society.  

As for our meal, we always start with pasta; this year, a winner from my sister, Papparadelli in Smoked Salmon Cream w/Pomegranate ‘caviar’. It was a great start, followed by an apple salad with baked goat cheese encrusted with walnuts. For the entrée, we served rack of lamb, sautéed chard and grilled balsamic portabellas. We always have a fine selection of wines, Cab the wine of choice for this meal. The highlight was a Reserve Far Niente. Mom’s love for dessert lives on with many of us. Can you imagine Cream Puffs specially made by a restaurant on the Pacheco Pass?

We embraced this meal with the legacy of our family, memories, laughter and the Celebration of our Parents who will always be at the center of our Holiday Traditions.  

Love and Garlic, celebrating Lessons, Legacy, Lore & Family Traditions!

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Thanksgiving Traditions

Seems odd that I would post our Thanksgiving recipes on Sunday after the four day holiday, but I have a reason. This Thanksgiving would be a first for our family; we would celebrate the traditions our parents established, however, this year our parents were not at our family table. They were present spiritually and we celebrated them, our heritage, our family recipes and the great stories of the Vajretti Family legacy. Our greatest legacy, of course, is our Mom’s cooking. This Thanksgiving was our maiden voyage, no Mom to instruct us. After all, Mom always made the turkey, stuffing and gravy. Not to say that we cannot cook but like my sis said, “You don’t know how it is to look around to get Mom’s reinforcement and realize, she’s not there.” Her lessons resonate, however, and the stories we tell. 

This is the reason I started this blog. I want to share the stories, the ‘lessons, legacy and lore’ from my heritage and the history of growing up in the great Central San Joaquin Valley. The ‘Cooking Secrets of the Lazy V’ are my Mom’s teachings and recipes. I hope to tell these stories as well as all the great ‘stories’! of growing up in the great San Joaquin Valley.   

Here are our essential Thanksgiving recipes and one Mom Thanksgiving story:

“From here to Fresno”

Several years ago, I was writing the recipe for roasting a turkey. I recalled that Mom would ‘hold’ her turkey for a set time, one of her ‘cooking secrets’. At a point, we moved our family dinners to Fresno since John our brother-in-law would be ‘on call’. With Dad as Mom’s prep chef and helper, Mom would dress her turkey Thursday mornings, roast the turkey and come to Fresno with the turkey, dressing and gravy. Typical of the cooking relationship we had and curious as to how long Mom would hold the turkey, I called my Mother, “Ma!”  She would answer, “What!?” “I have a cooking question.” “What is it?” she would say. I explained to her my question, how long would you hold the turkey? She simply answered, “Well, Nancy, I hold the turkey ‘from here to Fresno’!” Yes, I thought. This is true according to the tradition and ‘story’. Mom would take the turkey out of the oven, wrap the roasting pan in a blanket, place it in the trunk of the car and allow it to rest ‘from here to Fresno!’ We tested the recipes with our Mother’s blessings. They worked! We applied  Mom’s techniques and lessons. Perhaps you will honor Mom and her ‘tried and true’ recipes next year.

FARM TABLE FRESH    LESSONS LEGACY & LORE  

THANKSGIVING TRADITIONS                             

ROASTING A TURKEY  (#96)

I AM VERY LUCKY TO HAVE BEEN RAISED BY A WOMAN WHO WAS THE BEST COOK EVER AND MY MENTOR AND TEACHER. OUR THANKSGIVING TRADITION IS PREPARING A FEAST FROM RECIPES THAT THEN AS NOW ARE THE BEST. THANK THE LORD FOR MY MOM.  

PREHEAT OVEN TO 400 DEGREES

THE INGREDIENTS

JUICE FROM 1 LEMON
1 CUBE BUTTER

SALT AND FRESH GROUND PEPPER

1 TURKEY 18-22 POUNDS

 

THE METHOD OF COOKING

  1. SELECT A TURKEY OF YOUR CHOOSING. FRESH IS ALWAYS BEST. TOMS ARE PREFERRED. REMOVE THE PLASTIC WRAPPING AND THE NECK AND INNARDS FROM THE CAVITY. REMOVE ANY FAT AND THE WING TIPS. RESERVE FOR BROTH.
  2. SPRINKLE THE TURKEY WITH SALT AND MASSAGE INTO THE TURKEY. LET THE
    TURKEY SET FOR THIRTY MINUTES. RINSE THE TURKEY WITH COLD WATER.
    DRAIN BY SETTING THE TURKEY UP ON ITS HIND QUARTERS.
  3. RUB LEMON JUICE ON THE INSIDE AND OUTSIDE OF THE TURKEY INCLUDING THE CAVITY AND THE NECK CAVITY. AT THIS POINT YOU CAN COVER AND REFRIGERATE.
  4. TO STUFF THE TURKEY, LIGHTLY SALT AND PEPPER THE TURKEY INCLUDING THE CAVITY. LIGHTLY STUFF THE CAVITY AND THE NECK WITH MOM’S DRESSING.
  5. TRUSS THE TURKEY USING STAINLESS PINS. INSERT THE PINS ACROSS THE OPENING    HORIZONTALLY, ONE INCH APART. WITH KITCHEN STRING, LACE UP THE OPENING
    WEAVING THE STRING THROUGH THE PINS.
  6. TUCK THE TURKEY TAIL INTO THE END OPENING. INSERT TWO NEEDLES VERTICALLY ON EITHER SIDE OF THE OPENING. THIS SHOULD HOLD THE TAIL IN PLACE AND THE STUFFING INSIDE.
  7. MELT 1 CUBE OF BUTTER. COVER THE TURKEY WITH THE MELTED BUTTER. GENEROUSLY PEPPER THE TURKEY
  8. PLACE A TURKEY ROASTING RACK IN THE BOTTOM OF A ROASTING PAN. PLACE THE TURKEY BREAST SIDE DOWN INTO THE RACK. ADD 2 CUPS WATER OR BROTH IN THE ROASTING PAN. 
  9. TENT WITH FOIL SEALING THE EDGES AROUND THE ROASTING PAN.
  10.  PLACE THE TURKEY IN THE PRE-HEATED 400 DEGREE OVEN AND ROAST FOR ONE HOUR.
  11. AFTER ONE HOUR, CHECK THE LIQUID IN THE ROASTING PAN. ADD ½ CUP BROTH OR WATER IF LESS THAN ONE CUP.
  12.  LOWER THE HEAT TO 325 DEGREES. ROAST FOR UP TO 4 HOURS FOR A 22 LB TURKEY. BASTE WITH THE JUICES FROM THE ROASTING PAN EVERY HALF HOUR. ADD BROTH OR WATER AS THE LIQUID REDUCES.
  13. REMOVE THE FOIL TENT THE LAST HALF HOUR OF COOKING AND BASTE.
  14. AFTER 3 ½ TO 4 HOURS DEPENDING ON THE WEIGHT OF THE TURKEY (18-22 LBS) REGISTERING 165 DEGREES FOR THE BREAST AND STUFFING AND 175 FOR THE DARK MEAT, REMOVE THE TURKEY FROM THE OVEN.
  15. COVER WITH FOIL.  ALLOW TO REST FOR AT LEAST 30 MINUTES (OR FROM LOS BANOS TO FRESNO). THE TURKEY WILL CONTINUE TO COOK AND RESULT IN EXTRA TURKEY!

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

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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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