Baking, Bucket List, Christmas, Christmas Eve, Cookies, Dreams, Feast of the Seven Fishes, Foodporn, Italian Cookies, Italian Traditions, Puerto Rican Heritage, Self-publishing, Uncategorized

Another Bucket List Checkmark…✓

 “She believed she could, so she did.” C.S. Lewis

Like so many of us, I have a bucket list too and while I don’t live and die by it, there is this feeling of excitement that comes over you when you can place a checkmark next to something on your life list of desires, dreams and goals. There is also this sense of accomplishment that comes with that checkmark. Actually, mine is not a written list but a mental one and I’ve been fortunate enough to mentally check off a few list items from a dream trip to Paris, to a desire of owning a BMW. Wait, this one should be on the nightmare list. The two best days of owning this car were the day I bought it and the day I sold it. Sorry, I digressed. Back to the list…to dancing on stage in front of an audience of 750 to an event planner to a personal chef…just to name a few.

A big one on that list was writing a book. Well, last year, I finally did it and I was published! After many long hours, along with many days and nights of editing and re-editing, my Christmas cookbooks are done, published and just in time for the holidays.

My original thoughts about writing and publishing a book weren’t really about writing cookbooks but more about my life story. Right now, my memoir is on the back burner but one day it will be written because I am a dreamer. It could possibly be written on the heels of my exit from this life or as I approach 60…ahhh, a new decade of life begins in 2016.

A dreamer I am but honestly, very much a realist at heart. I am well aware of the fact that my books will more than likely never make the NY Times bestseller list but it’s nice to believe, to dream and to always remain hopeful. Even with all my very own personal truths, I still feel accomplished and I can confidently say I tried, I did and I was published. It was more about self-satisfaction, self-accomplishments and responding to the many requests from friends and family, who were asking for my recipes. I also thought why not include a little bit of family history because we all know everybody loves a story.

In my first cookbook, Twelve Days of Christmas Cookies, I share a collection of my family’s traditional and non-traditional Italian Christmas baking recipes that have been passed down for many generations. I also take you on a personal journey of the history behind each recipe and I have included the precise details behind preparing and baking each one of these delectable Christmas treats.

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http://www.amazon.com/Twelve-Days-Christmas-Cookies-Delectables/dp/1490581308/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1450033828&sr=8-1&keywords=twelve+days+of+christmas+cookies

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/twelve-days-of-christmas-cookies-deborah-dematteis/1120806633?ean=9781490581309

In my second cookbook, not only do I take you on another journey of telling the stories behind my family’s Italian-American and Puerto Rican heritage, I also share with you some of the most cherished memories from my childhood Christmas’ and Sunday traditions, along with many of my family’s Italian and Puerto Rican recipes.

BookCoverPreview2II

http://www.amazon.com/Feast-Seven-Fishes-Christmas-Delectables/dp/1502498189/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1450033660&sr=1-3&keywords=feast+of+the+seven+fishes

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/feast-of-the-seven-fishes-deborah-lugo-dematteis/1120919738?ean=9781502498182

Self-publishing is not an easy task and it took a small army of supporters to bring it all together. I can’t thank each of them enough for their support, contribution, commitment, guidance and encouragement. A lot of learnings came from this experience and while I am pleased with the end result, along with the reviews and the sales to date, it’s the learnings and the entire experience in of itself that I embrace and know that I will continue to personally learn and grow from.

If you are interested in purchasing one or both, my holiday cookbooks are still available online through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Thank you in advance with any and all considerations of making a purchase.

From my home to yours…this Christmas may your home and hearts be filled with the smells, the joy and the miracles of the season.

 Buon Natale

Alzheimers, Bronx, Brothers, Dementia, Family, Harlem, Italian Traditions, Italy, Life, Mother, Mount Vernon, Naples, Relationships, Sarno, Sisters, Thoughts, Uncategorized

My Mother’s Story…A World of Silence

“My mom is a never-ending song in my heart of comfort, happiness, and being. I may sometimes forget the words but I always remember the tune.” ~ Graycie Harmon

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Some time ago, I whispered in my mother’s ear, and I promised her that I would always be her voice, and today, three years after her passing, would be no different…especially with it being Mother’s Day. She lived in a world of silence for the last five years of her life, and her life was not without heartbreak or hardship, but yet through it all she fought for herself, her family, and faced every challenge with courage, poise, and grace. She was a loving wife, mother, grandmother, and a great-grandmother. A constant guardian, and a woman who loved unconditionally, and for many years after my father’s passing, she fought a brave battle against an awful, devastating disease…Alzheimer’s. A disease that robbed her of her memory, stripped her of her dignity, along with taking away her smile, and laughter. As promised, I am here to tell a portion of her life story, and to be her voice but first a small disclaimer, for those that read this, who may dispute my version of my mother’s life, I ask, respectfully, to remember while reading this story…it’s my story, and more importantly, my mother’s.

Eighty eight years ago, my mother entered this world as Domenica, later to be known as Minnie. She was born, and raised in Harlem, New York on 116th Street by her Italian immigrant parents, and she was one of fourteen children, of which eight were from previous marriages of her fathers. Her mother, my grandmother was not my grandfather’s first wife but she was his last. His previous wives had passed away, and many of his children from his previous marriages remained in Italy, with the exception of three children from his second marriage, a son and a two daughters. They also lived in the same Harlem neighborhood. One half sister returned to Italy, and my grandmother treated the remaining two, as if they were her own, and they ate dinner with the family nearly every day.

My mother often spoke of her upbringing during the depression era, and the lifestyle during those trying times. She would tell stories of her father, and her family, which were verified by my uncle’s (her brothers) in consideration of writing this blog. My grandfather was a Blacksmith back in his small hometown of Sarno, which was outside of Naples, Italy, and when he came to this country he used the skills he learned from working with horses, and to fix the wagons, known as buggy’s. My grandfather also sold watermelons. He would rent a horse and buggy, and go to the blind uncles’ (my grandfather’s brother) store on 107th Street, to pick up the watermelons that were stored there. I always wondered why, besides the obvious, he was always referred to as the blind uncle versus his name, Dominick. Moving on…my grandfather then would proceed to steer the watermelon filled horse drawn buggy up from East Harlem to the Hunts Point section of the Bronx. This is where he would sell the watermelons through the streets, yelling, with what I am sure was with a definitive Italian accent, “get your watermelon here”, which back in the day was called “hawking”. He was once arrested for “hawking”, and was held at the 41st Precinct, known as Fort Apache, and was fined $2.00. During the off season, my grandfather used the horse and buggy to pick up junk, and was considered a junkman, which turned into a successful family junk, and demolition business that was eventually run by my mother’s brothers. She told stories of how all her siblings needed to help out with the family finances, and the meals she grew up on, were known as peasant food. Through all of that, and much more, the family was rich in history, traditions, and a strong family bond that spilled over into the many future generations to follow.

During 1944, at the age of eighteen, my mother, and her family moved to Mt Vernon, New York, and settled in their new home on South High St. Most, if not all of her brothers, and sisters had little to no education, and all of them went to work at a very young age. My mother first worked in a button factory, on 2nd Avenue between 22nd and 23rd Street, which is where she met my father (more on that later), and then she moved on to work for the Corn Exchange Bank. The bank merged with Chemical Bank in 1954, and ironically, 26 years later, I began a career with Chemical Bank, which lasted 26 years. My mother was extremely proud of her daughters’ career, and always said she wished she would have stayed in banking.

My mother was known for having a love for shoes, clothes, along with pocketbooks, and she always dressed well…I guess this apple didn’t fall far from that tree but she knew how to shop for bargains, and she knew how to save money…that’s where the apple did fall far from the tree. She was all of a size 2, and from many old pictures she always dressed nicely, and she was very slender. She traveled every day from Mt Vernon to Manhattan to go to work, and after she left for work, her younger sister was known to sneak into her closet, and she would wear my mother’s clothes, and shoes but she would make sure they were cleaned, pressed, and returned to their rightful place before my mother returned from work. During this era, it wasn’t unusual that most, if not all of your paycheck, went to straight to your parents, nor was it unusual for the oldest brother to take on the role of watching over the family, and to be the disciplinarian of the younger siblings or to be considered the bread winner of the family.

According to the standards of her era, my mother married late in life, at the age of twenty eight. When she met my father, while working in the button factory, he was a charming, and handsome Puerto Rican, and it goes without saying the 100% Italian family didn’t approve of the relationship nor the fact that he was married before, and had a child from his previous marriage. This was unheard of during this era to consider marrying a divorced man but my mother loved him, and her love persevered. There are several version of the story, and one thing I know for sure, at the end of the day, my grandfather approved of the marriage, my parents were married at St Mary’s Church, my grandfather walked her down the aisle, my parents had three daughters, and my mother loved my father unconditionally, and my father most certainly loved my mother. Of course, they had their ups and downs but what marriage doesn’t. They built a life together, and they were committed to their marriage for better or worse, and my mother always referred to the next generations divorce rate, as being an easy out. She said the new generation thought it was easier to give up on a marriage than it was to work on one. Today, my parents would have been married for 60 years, and they worked side by side in their luncheonette business for over 30 years.

They were married on January 30, 1954, and first lived in the Bronx on Wallace Ave, and ironically, when my older sister came into the world during February 1955, and then me, eleven months later, they moved to Wallace Ave in Mt Vernon. Eighteen months later, my younger sister was born, and yet another move, and for my mother it was back to South High Street, across the street from what was my grandparents’ house, into the 2nd floor apartment of my uncle’s three family home. Years later, my parents purchased the house from my uncle, who moved into a bigger home with his growing family, and this is where my parents remained for over 25 years.

My grandfather had passed days after my oldest sister’s second birthday, and I had just turned one, the previous month. My grandmother passed away when I was five years old, and I really have only a slight memory of her, however, I do remember my grandmother living with us for a short time. I have one vivid memory of her standing with one of those fancy brushes in her hand (the kind that were kept on a mirrored tray on top of the dresser) waiving it, and yelling at my sisters, and I, in Italian, of course, for jumping on her bed. After my grandfather died, she would live back, and forth between her children. She was diagnosed with hardening of the arteries, and more than likely today, she would have been diagnosed with dementia. While she lived with us, it was difficult for my mother to watch my grandmother, who would wonder off from time to time, and my mother had three small children but my mother loved her mother, and she did whatever she could to help her, and to keep her with us. My grandmother’s frequent wondering off days, and forgetfulness worsened over time, which required her to wear her name, and address on piece of paper, and pinned to her clothing. After some time, a family decision was made, and with the medical field not knowing what they know today about dementia, along with the care, and treatment required, my grandmother was institutionalized, at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center, Queens Village, New York. It’s my understanding that it was a place that left you with the memory of it being dreary, dark, and a place someone would hope to never end up in. My grandmother died three months later. I have such a clear memory of my mother speaking so often about this time of her life, and she always said she could never be a part of that decision, and she believed her mother died of a broken heart from being left there all alone.

When I think back about my mother, and her thoughts about own her mother, I now understand the fear, and the panic that overcame her entire being every time she forgot where she put something…she always believed she was losing her mind, like she believed her mother did. Eventually, she resorted to keeping notes as frequent reminders of things to do, and where she put things.

Growing up, my memories of my mother are of a vibrant, hard working woman, loving, and caring mother, and when she became a grandmother, her grandchildren added a newness to her life. She was always doing something from cleaning to cooking, and taking care of the house, along with caring for her daughter’s and husband. For many years, she was a stay at home mom, and those curtains, and drapes were changed, and windows were washed every three months. She had a love for music, and once she joined the Columbia Record Club, she would wait with such anticipation to see what album would come each month. Music was always playing while she was cleaning, and she would sing along with her favorites, from Connie Francis to Frank Sinatra to Jerry Vale. She kept herself busy, and while she never learned how to drive, she walked everywhere or took a bus. Nothing stopped her. There were countless amount of days that she walked with her three daughter’s to go shopping on Fourth Avenue, and she always found a way to make the trip special by taking us to the Beehive for ice cream.

During the summers, she would pack up my sisters, and I, along with lunch, and her beach chair, and we would walk to the bus stop by the 11th Avenue park, and we would take the bus to Glen Island Beach. My mother loved the beach, and it’s probably where my love for the beach came from. Years later, she went back to work to help my father with the family finances, and I remember feeling sad that she was no longer there when I came home from school. Times were changing, and we were all feeling it.

Many years later, I think what kept her mind going, active, and alert for so long was that all of her energy, and efforts went into caring for my father in the last 10 years of his life. He suffered with heart disease, and diabetes, and eventually, kidney failure. He had open heart surgery back in 1994, which gave him a new lease on life for a number of years, and then he reverted back to his bad eating habits, he put some weight back on, and was now back to square one. My mother was relentless with taking care of him, and stood by his side every step of the way, and with every doctor appointment but he was stubborn, and she could only fight his ways of being, to an extent. It was during 1998 that he took a turn for the worse, and we weren’t sure he would make it after yet another angioplasty procedure. It took some time for him to recovery, and I remember on Father’s Day of that year, I found him in a fetal position in his bed, with silent tears rolling down his face. I laid next to him, and we spoke quietly, and he admitted he was scared, and wasn’t sure he was going to make it to his granddaughter’s wedding, which was the following month. Low and behold, the man recovered, yet again, and there he was dancing with me at his granddaughter’s wedding.

During 2000, six months after his great-granddaughter was born, he took a turn again but this time he never recovered, and he left us on January 23, 2001. My point to sharing my father’s health is that I believe this is when my mother’s life changed completely, after the loss of the love of her life, is when her memory spiraled, and eventually, she went rapidly downhill to being completely bedridden, never to see the outside world again. I truly believe taking care of him for so many years stimulated her brain, and kept her going, and after he was gone, there was nothing left for her that could keep her stimulated, and the sadness of losing the love of her life took control over her mind, and being. I often wondered if my grandmother’s rapid decline was also related to the loss of her true love, my grandfather.

It was like watching a movie that I had heard about my entire life, and history was repeating itself for my mother, as it did for my grandmother. She moved back, and forth between my two sisters, and occasionally, spent a weekend here, and there with me. At the time, my sisters lived minutes apart, they worked together, and were fortunate enough that they were able to take our mother to work with them. She would sometimes be picked up to attend activities at the senior center but she disliked it, and complained constantly about going. She lost interest in socializing with others, and especially, anyone she considered to be old. My mother was a woman of few words, and I am sure knowing what I know today, she was scared, and her rock was no longer here to help her with making decisions or to keep her safe. She did however, like being in the office with my sisters, and she would putter around the kitchen, and wait for the workers to come in at the end of the day, and make them coffee. I think she felt useful, and had a sense of purpose. She would sit with them, talk, and laugh, and occasionally play cards with a few of them. The atmosphere of the office was less intimidating to her versus a senior center, which I believe was a constant reminder to her of the aging process.

I most certainly believe she knew what was happening to her brain function, along with her memory, and things were happening to her stability but she didn’t have the ability to verbalize it, and I’m sure of it now, all the unknowns were frightening her. The times I spent alone with her, I could see the fear in her eyes, and the confusion but I did everything I could to make her feel comfortable, keep her spirits up, and gave her the space, grace and dignity she so rightfully deserved. In the beginning to mid stages of her dementia, it always amazed me how her long term memory was intact, and she could tell you anything from back in the day, and yet, her short term memory was non-existent. I think the hardest thing to witness was her unhappiness, sadness, her confusion, her depression, and the angry person she became. For me, at the end of the day, none of that matter, and my way of thanking her for all of those years she “justdid”, unconditionally, with every opportunity presented to me, I treated her like she was a Queen because in my mind, my mother was.

I owe a special debt of gratitude to my two sisters’. Our parents always stressed we could, and we should always rely on each other, and that has never been more true than during our mother’s illness. I lived in Connecticut during that time, and work was extremely demanding, along with not having the same flexibility that my sister’s did with their work. They took care of my mother 24/7, for a number of years, and then the day came when my mother was progressively getting worse, and life was changing, personally, for both of my sisters, and a decision was made that it was time to place her in a nursing home. I remember that day like it was yesterday, and again, in my mind, history was repeating itself, and all I could think of were my mother’s words about her own mother when the same decision was made for my grandmother. How could I do this, knowing how my mother felt, and I too found myself in a place where I wanted no part of that decision. I was crushed, for her, not for me. I was so angry with the decision, and yet, I had no viable solution that in my mind could save her or keep her out of a nursing home. In retrospect, it was the right decision but at the same, her being my mother, I always wished there was another option.

Over the four or so years of her being a nursing home, during each visit, I struggled to find a connection with a woman, who eventually, didn’t know my name anymore or who I was. I would say, “Hi, Mom.” Sometimes she looked at me with a blank or confused stare, as if she was thinking should I say hello back or if she was trying to figure out who I was. I would say, “How are you doing?” and there would be an occasional hello, I’m okay or just silence or a rare, “Shut up!” I would sometimes laugh, and say, “It’s me, Deborah Ann” and sometimes she would reply, “Really?” She sometimes mumbled, and I didn’t get what she said, and it just broke my heart. With every visit, on my drive back to Connecticut, more often than not, I would cry all the way home, talking or yelling at God, and asking him, why? Why wasn’t he taking her, and she didn’t deserve to live a life like this. I was told many times, she wasn’t ready, and after years of watching her go slowly, I finally came to terms with believing she worked so hard all of her life, and she was tired, and she was just resting until she was ready to go home.  

However, my sister’s dealt with our mother in a way I really couldn’t. They talked to her, she mumbled, they mumbled back. She growled, they growled back. She would refuse to do something, and they would say okay fine just sit there. It didn’t matter to them that she didn’t remember things. She was treated with such love, and acceptance. They took her everywhere. They fed her, they changed her, and they bathed her. My sisters stepped up, and stepped in. What mattered was that she was comforted by the warmth of their human connection. These are just some of the gifts they gave our mother. I was in awe of them, and they have given our family a whole new kind of role model to emulate in every part of our lives. I love, and admire them both, and I am forever grateful for what they gave our mother.

When our mother passed, I again was my mother’s voice, and I thanked my sister’s for taking such good care of her, for being her strength, and her courage when she was weak, and for loving her unconditionally. Our mother rests peacefully now, and is back in the arms of the love of her life, my Dad. Not sure I have done her a justice with celebrating her life but this Mother’s Day seemed like a perfect time to tell a portion of her life story. There is never a day that my mother doesn’t pass through my thoughts, and I am sure she is looking down upon her family, smiling with happiness, and with a tremendous amount of unconditional love, and pride. For me, I am so proud to call Domenica Squillante Lugo, my mother. She will always be my hero, my mother, and a woman, who silently had incredible strength, courage, perseverance, devotion, commitment, and an enormous amount of unconditional love for her family.

My Mother’s Day message to my mother…while it has been a long time since I have seen your beautiful smile or smelled your beautiful perfume or received your hugs and kisses…thank you for passing on all your love, wisdom, strength, and courage, which have made me the woman I am today. With this message, I send you this song, which was always one of your favorites, and I can still hear your sweet voice singing the words. I love you, miss you but I find comfort in knowing you are at peace, with your true love, and always remember…I will be your whisper, and I will always be your voice.

 

Family, Foodporn, Grandchildren, Gravy, Italian Traditions, Lasagna, Meatballs, Uncategorized

Lasagna…An Italian Love Story

“As you get older, you find out that true happiness is not in how much you make or how many degrees you have or how big your house is or how fancy your car is. It’s finding peace, and joy, and a calmness in your life that will soon become the most important thing to you. Your family is what really matters to you, love is what matters to you. Things that are of quality, not quantity.” ~ Life Lessons Learned

I have been away from writing since before Christmas, and for some unknown reason or maybe one that I am not willing to admit out loud, recovery from the holidays took a little longer, this year. I also allowed the grayness of the long, cold winter take away my creativity, along with being preoccupied with the harsh realities of my life, I, unfortunately, somewhat deviated away from my life passion. With Spring approaching, and with a few days of feeling it in the air, there is this sense of renewal that comes with the season, and I’m back!

Lately, I have been thinking about my all-time favorite Italian dish, Lasagna. A favorite, for as far back as I can remember, and in my research of this rich, and flavorful Italian classic, believe it or not, it comes with a history lesson. There are a few theories, but here’s the Italian one…Lasagna originated in Italy, in the region of Emilia-Romagna. Traditional lasagna is made by layering pasta with layers of sauce, made with a ragù or a béchamel, and Parmigiano-Reggiano. In other regions, it is common to find lasagna made with ricotta or mozzarella cheese, tomato sauce, various meats (ground beef, pork or chicken), a variation of vegetables (spinach, zucchini, and mushrooms), and typically flavored with wine, garlic, onion, and oregano. In all cases the lasagna is baked in the oven.

Lasagne calde, calde le lasagne, caldeee! History states that forty years ago, you could hear vendors bellow those words from the busy platform of the Bologna railway station. Though lasagna vendors don’t exist today, Lasagna alla Bolognese remains the most famous recipe in Italy, and throughout Europe. In Italy, there are countless regional variations of lasagna. Ingredients differ according to place, and local custom but the distinctive character of lasagna remains the same…layers of flat or curly noodles, separated by layers of rich gravy or sauces, a focus ingredient like meat, fish or vegetables, all baked up into one glorious masterpiece of flavor. While lasagna was born in Italy, a familiar hot slice of this cheesy, rich comfort food makes it one of the most commonly craved Italian dishes in homes, and restaurants all around the world.

As a child, I was totally addicted to lasagna, and it was a regular dish served on Easter, Christmas Day, and as a special birthday dinner. In between those special occasions, as an adult, it was always my main entrée selection at specific Italian restaurants, who I knew made an outstanding version of this Italian classic, and in my opinion, there were very few restaurants who could accomplish this feat. My first introduction to learning how to prepare, and master an outstanding lasagna was by watching my Aunt Fanny, who besides my father, was one of the first great influences in my life with perfecting my cooking skills. Staying true to our Napolitano decent, her Lasagna Napoletana included layers of curly lasagna noodles, gravy (again, not sauce, gravy!), ricotta cheese, mozzarella, grated cheese, and these tiny meatballs, which were the size of a marble. As tedious as it was to make those tiny meatballs, Aunt Fanny never faltered from putting every ounce of love, and perfection into her lasagna. And as a child, to a teenager to a young adult to a grown up, you couldn’t wait to cut into Aunt Fanny’s lasagna to find those delicious tiny meatballs. A Sunday morning lesson at Aunt Fanny’s always included her masterpiece of a Sunday gravy. Her gravy, more often than not, always included meatballs, Italian sausage, pork, braciole pelle di maiale (pig skin braciole), and beef braciole, which is pretty much what mine is today, with a bit of a variation, and absolutely, no braciole pelle di maiale…only because my children, and grandchildren won’t eat it, and it’s not at the top of the health conscious favorite food list.

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Lasagna Napoletana

Another great cooking influence in my life is Nanny Angie. Honestly, she is, by far, the most talented cook I know. I have watched this woman for over 40 years, turn out food from the smallest to the largest of kitchens that made your mouth salivate just watching it being placed on the table to your mouth humming with absolute pleasure while you ate her food. You walk away from her table completely intoxicated from the experience, and with a belly so satisfied. If I learned anything from Nanny, cooking was about pleasing people. A lot of love is a must, and it will always come through in your food. Presentation was crucial, and sitting back, watching people eat your food with complete, and utter enjoyment would be your reward. She taught me cooking was a labor of love, which took planning, creativity, patience, and precision. Amongst her many masterpiece dishes, her lasagna was right at the top of my all-time favorites. For Nanny, lasagna wasn’t a regular everyday dish, it was saved for holidays, and special occasions. Her lasagna wasn’t much different than Aunt Fanny’s, with the exception that hers did not include any meat. Exact and pure precision went into the amount of ricotta cheese, mozzarella, and grated cheese that was used in her lasagna. You can easily overdo it with the cheese, which would create a runny, cheesy mess on your plate but not Nanny’s…perfection every time. Her lasagna took time, patience, and precision with each layer. It’s hard to describe what it was like watching her make this masterpiece, and the only words that come to mind…it was an artistic creation being prepared right before your eyes. There was a rhythm, a glow, and a sense of pride surrounding her with everything she cooked. Cooking is truly an art, and you have to love it, and have a complete passion for cooking to turn out mouthwatering, and tasteful delicacies, such as Nanny Angie’s lasagna.

lasagna

Lasagna

Passing on family traditions is so important to me, and I must admit, with great pride, over the years, my daughter must have been paying attention to the preparation, and skills that went into making a lasagna because she too has mastered the art of making a perfect dish of lasagna. My only hope is that she continues to pay attention, and for as long as I am able, I will continue to teach my granddaughters, too. Cooking together in the kitchen, as a family, and sharing family recipes, along with secrets passed from one generation to the next. may be a lost art for some but not in this Nana’s kitchen.

One of the positive side effects from the labor of making the meatballs, frying the gravy meat, stirring the gravy, and layering the intoxicating goodness of the lasagna noodles, the cheeses, and the gravy on top of each other is the guaranteed knowledge of knowing…there will always be leftovers!

As I have stated many times, it’s extremely hard for me to recite or write my recipes down on paper. I learned from the best of them, and exact measurements were rarely used. I can do all of the recipes below by osmosis but in the spirit of giving back, I have done my best to capture all of the steps, and I hope you enjoy all of them.

Lastly, when in the kitchen, always remember Julia Childs words, “Cooking is one failure after another, and that’s how you finally learn…no one is born a great cook, one learns by doing.”

Buon appetito!

Lasagna

  • 5 cups gravy (Nana’s Sunday Pot of Love, recipe below)
  • 1 (32 oz.) container whole milk Polly~O Ricotta Cheese
  • 1 cup grated Locatelli Pecorino Romano cheese (my preference but if you prefer, you can use Parmigiano-Reggiano)
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 box lasagna (15 sheets, cooked al dente) *see note below
  • 4 1/2 cups shredded Polly~O Mozzarella Cheese
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine ricotta, 3/4 cup Pecorino Romano cheese, and parsley in a bowl. Season, to taste, with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. Add the eggs and mix all together.

Spread 1/2 cup gravy over bottom of 13 by 9 inch baking dish. Place 5 lasagna sheets over gravy, overlapping to fit. Spread half of ricotta mixture evenly over the sheets. Sprinkle 2 cups of mozzarella cheese evenly over ricotta mixture. Then, spoon 1 1/2 cups of gravy over cheese, spreading with spatula to cover. Repeat layering with remaining lasagna sheets, ricotta mixture, 2 cups mozzarella and 1 1/2 cups gravy. Once you have arranged remaining 5 sheets, top with remaining gravy, 1/2 cup of mozzarella, and 1/4 cup Pecorino Romano cheese.

Cover the baking dish with aluminum foil, and bake for about 40 minutes. Uncover, then bake until hot, and bubbly, about 20 minutes. Let the lasagna stand 15 minutes before serving.

Note: A trick to keep the lasagna sheets from sticking to each other, add a little olive oil to the boiling pot of salted water, and once drained, run them under cold water, and carefully hang over the side of a colander or a pot, without touching each other completely. Another quick option is to use the No Boil lasagna sheets, which also produces a perfect lasagna, and saves a lot of time. Barilla puts out a good quality No Boil lasagna.

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Lasagna

Nana’s Sunday Pot of Love (Gravy)

  • 1 1/2 lbs. Italian sausage (sweet or hot or combination of both)
  • 10 – 12 pork spare ribs (small but meaty)
  • Bunch of fresh basil (stems removed)
  • 1 onion (peeled and cut in half)
  • 2 -3 (35 oz. can) Scalfani Italian Whole Peeled Tomatoes (This is my preference. I find them to be the most consistent canned tomatoes but feel free to use your favorite.)
  • 3  (28 oz. can) Scalfani Crushed Tomatoes
  • 1  (6 oz. can) Scalfani Tomato Paste
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
  • Olive oil (enough for frying)
  • Sugar (handful)

Season both sides of pork spare ribs with kosher salt, and freshly ground pepper. Heat oil, over medium heat, in an 8 quart Dutch oven or heavy pot. Add pork spare ribs, and fry until there is a nice sear on all sides. Remove from pot, and set aside. In same pan, brown Italian sausage until they are just cooked through (approx. 15 min). Remove from pot, and set aside. Add additional oil, if needed. Prepare meatballs (recipe below), and fry meatballs, in batches (do not overcrowd) until cooked all the way through. Add onion, and brown. Drain off excess oil. Do not wash pot. Reduce heat to low, and add all meat (pork, sausage, and meatballs) back into the pot.

Pulse whole peeled tomatoes in blender for a 5 second count, and add to the pot. Add crushed tomatoes, and tomato paste. Take one empty can of crushed tomatoes, fill it to the top with water, and transfer back, and forth between all cans of tomatoes, including tomato paste. Add water to the pot of gravy, and stir.

Add a bunch of basil leaves (handful, not chopped). Add a handful of sugar, and season with kosher salt, to taste. Stir and simmer on low heat for 3 hours.

Note: Keep in mind, you will need extra gravy for the lasagna. A thought to take into consideration when thinking about how many cans of tomatoes you will need or use.

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Pork Spare Ribs

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Italian Sausage

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Scalfani Whole Peeled Tomatoes

Meatballs

  • 1 1/2 lbs. ground meat (combination of pork, veal and beef)
  • 1 egg
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely minced
  • 6 – 8 large slices of Terranova bread, crust removed and cubed (2 day old bread)
  • Milk (enough to coat bread)
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
  •  1/4 cup chopped Italian flat leaf parsley
  • 2 large handfuls of Pecorino Romano grated cheese

Place cubed terranova bread in a large bowl, and cover with milk (don’t overdo the milk). Let bread soak for approx. 15 min. Squeeze out bread, and drain off excess milk. Add ground meat, egg, finely minced garlic, parsley, cheese, kosher salt (approx. 1 tsp.), and freshly ground pepper. Mix altogether until well incorporated. To form consistent sized meatballs, I use an ice cream scooper. Roll each scoop into a ball, and fry, as noted above.

Note: The meatball mixture should be a tight consistency, otherwise, the meatballs will fall apart in the gravy, and that’s an Italian cook’s worst nightmare!

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Meatballs

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Nana’s Sunday Pot of Love

Bacon, Baking, Donuts, Family, Foodporn, Grandchildren, Italian Traditions, Maple Syrup, Uncategorized

Doesn’t Everything Taste Better With Bacon?

During the Christmas holiday school break, my 11 year old grandson spent a few days with me, and he had Nana’s kitchen shaking, and baking for as many hours as he was awake. Once you see the pictures of him, you will understand why I continually ask…”Where does he put all of the food he consumes?” It’s amazing to me the amount of food he can put into his thin frame of a body, and by the end of Day 3, Nana told him, “I would need more than a job just to feed you alone or I might need to rob a bank to keep up with your appetite!(Only kidding!)

After a two day marathon of eating, between Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day, along with the holiday excitement, and late nights, I think the exhaustion finally caught up with him, and the day after Christmas he didn’t wake up until around 12:30pm….starving, of course! As usual, the ritual of a typical dialogue between the two of us began, “What do you have to eat, Nana?” As I ran down the endless list of things I could whip up for him, from bacon and eggs with home fries, to challah bread French toast to pancakes to homemade waffles…he proceeds to tell me about this video he watched. Two young guys, who make these Candy Bacon Maple Donuts. The animation in my grandson’s vioce, along with his facial expressions, had captivated this Nana’s undivided attention.

Honestly, though, my first thought, “Are you kidding me, buddy?”…DONUTS! Especially after a Nana marathon of cooking, for days, in preparation of our Italian traditional Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day feast of food! He excitedly ran to get my iPad to show me the YouTube video, “How to Make Candy Bacon Maple Donuts – Handle It” by Epic Meal Time. We watched the video, several times, me with disbelief, and him with pure excitement, and enthusiasm. After the third run through, he asked if I had all of the ingredients, and tools. Being a true Nana, who loves to cook, of course I did! He was so excited, and more surprised than anything else that his Nana had all of the ingredients in the house.

Nana’s kitchen got busy…out came the tools, a large, heavy Dutch oven, a whisk, a cooking thermometer, three mixing bowls, a knife, a slotted spoon, cutting board, baking pan, rolling pin, and a circular cookie cutter. Then the ingredients…cooking oil, flour, bacon, brown sugar, baking soda, vanilla, white vinegar, maple syrup, cinnamon, salt, confectionary sugar, milk, heavy cream, shortening (butter), and pure cane sugar. As I pulled out all of the tools, and ingredients, there was this priceless grin on his face, from ear to ear. One that would capture any Nana’s heart, and we were actually going to make donuts!

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This was my first time making donuts, and to my amazement with all the flour flying, oil heating up, bacon being candied, the glaze coming together…it smelled ridiculously delicious in Nana’s kitchen! Honestly now…doesn’t everything taste better with bacon? If you take bacon, and slather it with brown sugar, cinnamon, and bake it in the oven until it is all gooey, and sticky, the aroma in the house is indescribable, and then you cool it in the refrigerator until it hardens like a candy…are you feeling me, yet? It was off the chart delicious!

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As you will see, he enjoyed every moment of rolling that dough, cutting out donuts, and the donut holes, which by the way we fried up those donut holes, too, and dipped them in the maple glaze. They were our taste test, and there was only one word to describe the donut holes dipped in the maple glaze…yum! He tells Nana, “The best donuts I ever had!” I was amazed how easy they were to make, how they puffed up when they hit the oil, and they were cooked to perfection, I might add.

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Once they were done, and cooled down, we chopped up the candied bacon, the maple glaze was ready to go, and my grandson formed an assembly line of all of the completed items. He dipped each cooled donut into the maple glaze, and then carefully placed them on a serving dish because he absolutely gets, and understands presentation is key. After he dipped, and coated each donut with the maple glaze, with complete precision, he covered each donut with the candied bacon. Once completed, the real taste test began, and there were barely any words being spoken, just a lot of humming….mmmmmmm!

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The end result, I applaud the two gentlemen in the video, and my sous chef of a grandson for a job well done, and to quote my grandson, again….”The best donuts I ever had!”, which made the clean-up, and the flour everywhere, along with a sticky, small disaster in my kitchen, well worth it just to see the huge smile on his face!

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If you are anywhere as structured as I am with cooking or baking, pausing the video with each step, can interrupt the creative process. While the video is quite entertaining, and I do recommend watching it, I took the liberty of writing down the recipe for future use.

Tools

3 mixing bowls

Baking sheet

Large, heavy deep pot for frying

Frying thermometer (recommended)

Cutting board

Slotted spoon

Tongs

Rolling pin

Chef knife

Large circular cookie cutter or a plastic container

Small cylinder cookie cutter or a small bottle cap

Whisk (my addition)

Candied Bacon

1 lb bacon

1/2 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup cinnamon

Mix the brown sugar, and cinnamon together in a small bowl. Lay the strips of bacon on a cookie sheet lined with aluminum foil (easier clean up) or use a throw away aluminum pan. Gently, and generously apply half of the brown sugar mixture to one side of the bacon, and bake in a 375 degree oven for 15 minutes. Flip the bacon, and reapply the remainder of the brown sugar mixture, and cook for an additional 10-15 minutes. Remove the bacon, immediately, from the cookie sheet to a plate, and place in the refrigerator to cool completely. Once cooled, chop the bacon into small bits, and set aside.

Maple Glaze

1/2 cup heavy cream

2 cups confectionary sugar

1/3 cup maple syrup

Pinch of salt

Using a whisk, mix all of the ingredients, in a bowl, until thickened, and smooth. Set aside until you are ready to glaze the donuts.

Donuts

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/4 tsp salt

1/2 cup milk

1 egg

1/2 tsp vanilla

2 tbsp shortening or unsalted butter (softened)

2 tbsp white vinegar

1/2 cup sugar

4 cups cooking oil for frying

Mix the milk, egg, vanilla, shortening or unsalted butter (I used butter), and white vinegar, together in a bowl, add the sugar, mix well, and set aside. Mix the flour, baking soda, and salt in a separate bowl. Add the wet ingredients to the flour mixture. Once the dough forms, knead on a lightly, floured surfaced. Let the dough rest in a bowl for 10 minutes.

Flour the working surface, and roll out the dough to about 1/3 of an inch thickness. Cut the dough with a large round cookie cutter or round plastic container. Lift the donuts circles, and set aside on a lightly floured surface. Recombine the excess dough, and repeat the process to make more large circles rounds. Use a small cylinder or bottle cap to cut a hole in the middle of each donut. Save the small circles to make the donut holes.

Heat the cooking oil in large, heavy deep pot, over medium heat, until a frying thermometer reads 375 degrees. Carefully place a few donuts at a time (3 – 4 donuts) into the hot oil. Do not overcrowd. Cook until the donuts are golden brown on one side, and carefully flip them over, once, with a slotted spoon (1-2 minutes total time). Remove the cooked donuts with tongs or a slotted spoon, and place the donuts on a plate lined with paper towels.

Cool the donuts for 10 minutes. Dip one side of each donut into the maple glaze, and allow the excess to drip off. Place the glazed donut on a serving plate, and apply the candy bacon to the top of each donut. Ready to serve, and eat!

NOTE: Carefully place the small saved circles of dough (donut holes), with the slotted spoon, into the hot oil, and fry until golden brown (about 30 to 45 seconds). Drain, and cool on paper towels. Dip the donut holes into the maple glaze. Pop in your mouth!

Donuts! Enjoy!

Family, Food, Italian Traditions

Nana’s Sunday Pot of Love

Since I was a little girl, Sunday’s have always had a special meaning. When you’re fortunate enough to grow up in a multi-cultural family, like myself, you are born into a world of some magnificent foods, and family traditions that stay with you for a lifetime. My only wish has always been to pass on those childhood memories, traditions, recipes, and for them to be replicated for generations to come. Today, I am going to take you on a journey on how I got to a place that I call…”Nana’s Sunday Pot of Love.”

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My dad was born, and raised in Puerto Rico, and he came to New York at the age of 16. My mother was born in Harlem, and her parents, (my grandparents) were Italian immigrants from Naples, Italy, who eventually settled in Mt. Vernon, New York. Me, an American, born, and raised into a family of Puerto Rican, and Napolitano descent…I call it, “the best of both worlds.” I feel cheated in a sense that I wasn’t fortunate enough to grow up with grandparents. My maternal grandparents died when I was very young, and I only have small bits, and pieces of a memory of my grandmother, who died when I was 6 years old. My paternal grandparents lived in Puerto Rico, and my grandfather would never get on a plane to come to New York, to visit or anywhere else, for that matter…his famous words were, “If God meant for me to fly, he would have made me a bird.” I did have the opportunity to visit them, twice in their lifetime, but that’s a story for another day.

While Puerto Rican, and Italian food cultures are completely different, family bonds, and family meals were extremely important, and strong in both cultures. Interestingly enough, my father was a better cook than my mother, however, we would never tell her this…she would have been crushed. My dad was probably the first influence in my life, where I learned to be completely passionate about food, and the art of cooking. His belief with cooking…”cooking took time, and you just couldn’t rush it.”

First, let me start with my Puerto Rican heritage. I have memories of waking up, on Saturday mornings, to my dad just coming back from somewhere in the Bronx (I always regretted not asking where, exactly), with this fabulous Spanish bread, Pan de Agua (Puerto Rican Water Bread), which was always still warm, and the butter would just melt right into it. Heavenly!

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Then there was always that little white box that contained Budin (Puerto Rican Bread Pudding). It was so delicious, and it’s nearly impossible for me to describe its flavor, and taste but I can tell you this, I have never found a replication of it that can come even close to it. I have searched, and searched, and that flavor, smell, and taste are burned into my childhood memory, and I am still hopeful that one day we will meet again.

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Some Puerto Rican dishes that were pretty much a staple in our house…pernil (Puerto Rican slow roasted pork), rice with gandules (pigeon peas), arroz con pollo (chicken and rice), tostones (fried plantains), and flan that delicious vanilla custard, with just a touch of a caramel flavor.

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However, there are three dishes that hold the fondest memories for me, from my childhood until today. Paella was a special treat, and my dad would take us to a restaurant in City Island (again, regrettably, I don’t remember the name) but the length of time it took to make this one pot meal, which includes chicken, chorizo, mussels, clams, shrimp, pork, and some other great ingredients, and flavors, was well worth the wait.

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Then there were pasteles, which is a cherished culinary recipe, and they are typically made only around the holidays (most often, Christmas). I wouldn’t even attempt to recite what the ingredients are…I don’t have the knowledge or the experience with making them to give them the justice they so rightfully deserve. What I do know, is they are extremely labor intensive, and are made in batches of a hundred or more, and when you receive these culinary treasures, as a gift, sharing is something you really think about, and most often, you don’t want to part with them.

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Lastly, I think the meal cooked by my father that we still talk about till this day, my children, sister’s, and nephew included, is Bistec Encebollado, which is fondly known as Poppy’s Steak & Onions. It is strips of shoulder beef medallions (pounded thinly), and sliced onions, which were marinated together for hours in garlic, oregano, olive oil, vinegar, and Poppy’s secret sofrito, and adobo (well, he thought it was a secret). He would sauté everything, and stew all of it for hours, and then it was served with white rice, and beans. While it may not sound like much…trust me, after the bread dipping into the juices, and the fighting for the last piece of succulent steak, everyone left that meal extremely satisfied. This was just one of many dishes that I wished I paid closer attention too. Even though we all know the ingredients or we think we do, no one has perfected it nor has anyone come close to replicating Poppy’s Steak and Onions.

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Typically, they say your mother’s heritage, and traditions dominate your upbringing. For me, while my father had a great influence in my life, he had very little family in New York, and with my mother being one of eight children (4 sisters, 4 brothers), it was her Italian side that dominated my upbringing. Since our home was fairly small (a 2nd floor apartment), most Sunday dinners were spent with one of my relatives on my mother’s side but that’s not to say there weren’t meals at my mother’s table. She always found room, and there was always enough.

Growing up in a large Italian family, (4 generations of 90 or more, and growing), there is such a wealth of knowledge around cooking. I learned from many, if not, from all of my aunts, who I consider to be some of the best home cooks, how to perfect my cooking skills, and the precision, along with the finesse in presenting food. They truly cooked with love, a lot of passion, and for each one of them, it was always about pleasing those sitting at their table, and the gratification they received from your enjoyment of their food.

I grew up watching, and standing, side by side with many of my aunts, at their stoves, mentally absorbing their skills, and techniques. With the exception of baking, which is pure science, they were cooks who measured nothing, and they could never really recite a recipe without saying, a pinch, a handful or palm full measurement. Everything was measured visually, and by taste. It’s a talent that’s hard to learn unless you really enjoy cooking or more importantly, paid attention.

I grew up on Italian favorites such as, pasta fagioli (macaroni and beans), bistecca alla pizzaiola (steak, marinara, garlic, oregano, mushrooms, onions, and stewed in one pot), and pasta e piselli con carne macinata – sauté onions, and garlic with ground beef, add peas, penne, small elbow macaroni or ditalini, and meld everything together. Serve with grated cheese, and crushed red pepper flakes…ahhh, a feast!

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One of my lasting memories is of my aunt’s famous, patate e uova frittata (potato and egg omelet), which included five pounds of potatoes, and at least a dozen or more eggs. She cooked the potatoes in this old cast iron pan, which she still has today, and when the potatoes were nearly cooked, she added the beaten eggs. Once the frittata was done, it was about 3 inches high, and the potatoes always had a crisp to them. Visually, it is an absolute work of art, and since the pan is so heavy, my uncle is in charge of turning it over so that it can continue to cook, and once done, onto a serving dish, and he would carefully place that masterpiece on the table.

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Sunday’s were always about family visits, eating, and playing with your cousins, who lived near, or far. It could be any one of your relatives house that you would visit…traveling to the Bronx or to Flushing or to Brooklyn or to somewhere in between. Whoever’s house it was, it was almost a guarantee the smell of frying meatballs would immediately hit your senses once you walked through the front door, and that Sunday pot of gravy (yes, we call it gravy, not sauce) would be simmering on the stove. The Sunday meal was considered a feast, and that pot of gravy included meatballs, pork, braciole, and pelle di maiale (pig skin), which while today it is considered so unhealthy (I agree)…back then it was so delicious, and it just melted in your mouth after being cooked for hours in the gravy.

Before we ventured out to visit family, my dad always took a ride, after Sunday mass, of course…to the Italian deli, Zuccarelli’s, on Gramatan Ave, and to Dante’s Italian Bakery on 241st Street in the Bronx. It was a given, you never visited family without bringing pastries. I can remember walking into that deli, and even as a child, you were immediately intoxicated by the aroma of the delicacies on display. The Italian cold cuts, specialties, and breads that were purchased were either for the weeks lunches or if you were still hungry when you arrived home from the Sunday family dinner, which usually started at 1pm (on Sunday’s, lunch was dinner), you had an early evening sandwich. And as for the Italian pastries, who could resist a cannoli or a chocolate éclair or a sfogliatelle or a pasticiotto…just to name a few.

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All of these influences have added to my current day traditional Italian Sunday dinners, and holiday’s with my family. Sadly, my parents are no longer with us but the traditions they instilled in me live on. When my children were growing up, my son would smell those Sunday morning meatballs in his sleep, and he would immediately wake up to eat a few of them, just fried, before they went into the pot of gravy. As he got older, and those teenage years rolled around, he didn’t get up as easily but Mom always made sure there was a small bowl of fried meatballs left on the kitchen counter for him.

Before becoming a Nana, my dream had always been for my grandchildren to wake up on a Sunday morning, and say, “I want to go to Nana’s to eat her meatballs.” Today, with the busy lives that many people lead, and with both parents in the workplace, along with keeping up with children’s sports activities, school work, social events, just to name a few…Sunday dinners, as I grew up knowing them to be, has changed. Maybe it’s too much work or maybe people have become very health conscious (everything in moderation is my motto) or maybe families just decided to change, and start making their own new Sunday traditions. However, for me, a Sunday dinner, any holiday or any meal, for that matter, will never be anything less than it was for me growing up…not for this Nana.

Today, my sisters, and I have grown our immediate family into 16, which now includes our own children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews to great nieces and nephews. Last year, when I moved into my new home, my first priority purchase was my dream dining room table…one that seats 12, and then there is always that folding table for 4, which is fondly known as the kids table. Most Sunday’s, Nana’s table is filled with family, and whoever shows up, shows up. It’s a given that there is always enough, there is always room, and an invite is not necessary.

Over the years, the biggest self-gratification, and compliments I could ever receive have been endless. My 11 year old grandson is truly convinced that his Nana once had a cooking show on Food Network, and my 4 year old nephew says, “Aunt Deb’s meatballs are the best.” With every Christmas Eve, in the past, that was hosted at another family members house, it was a given that I would receive a frantic call from my son or nephew confirming I was still doing the cooking, and lastly, my cooking being referred to as “gourmet” is the ultimate compliment I could ever receive.

I always tell my daughter, and now I include my daughter-in-law, and granddaughter’s…“pay attention because I am not going to be around forever” (reality) but for as long as I am here, and I am physically able, Nana’s stove will always have a Sunday Pot of Love simmering on it, and it will always be filled with my famous meatballs, sausage, and succulent pork that falls off the bone.

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The meal will always begin with antipasti, which typically includes fresh mozzarella, fried sweet and hot peppers, an assortment of Italian olives, and soppressata.

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There will always be fresh Italian bread or a homemade focaccia, along with one of Nana’s famous dessert creations. Dessert can be anything from a puffed pastry apple tart served warm with vanilla ice cream to chocolate lava cake to zeppoles with apricot dipping sauce.

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Cooking together as a family builds strong family bonds, memories, and it brings everyone together for laughter, sharing old and new stories, learning, and teaching old family traditions. So surround yourself with family, pour a cup of coffee or espresso or a glass of wine…break out the flour, and dust off that mixer, chop some garlic, and take out the hidden cast iron or frying pan. Get yourself some extra virgin olive oil, and some great Italian cheese, olives, bread, and put on your mad scientist hat!

When you’re passionate about food, the possibilities are endless. In the end there will always be a tasteful surprise, and more importantly, it’s a feast with the people you love, family! The family this Nana loves, will always have a place at her stove, and her table, and unconditionally, they will always hold a special place in her heart, and in her life, along with “Nana’s Sunday Pot of Love.”

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La famiglia e mangiare!