Monthly Archives: August 2016

END OF SUMMER PANZANELLA STYLE SALAD

IMG_1707The last weeks of August are when tomatoes are at their peak in my region.  Jersey Tomatoes are prized for their full rich flavor after vine ripening and I happen to live in Jersey, so…there you go.  Our tomatoes are fantastic.  Truth be told I though our Staten Island, NYC tomatoes were fantastic too.  Ask my late father or my late Uncle Tony Scaramuzzi, two of Staten Island’s leading ItalianAmerican authorities and growers of tomatoes in their large home gardens.  They carried on that rivalry for years. They both grew amazing tomatoes. But I’m in Jersey where there’s a religion that worships the warm bright red orbs, big and small and this is the time of the year for them to be at their very best.  You can make sauces from them, oh yes, amazing pasta sauces but really…I’m way more interested in eating the raw product.  This is the only time of the year they will be this good.  August.  I’m not exaggerating when I say that we probably eat them raw at least once a day during the season.  While I don’t grow my own our farm markets are bulging at the seams with local tomatoes of all different varieties and your friends and neighbors who grow them in their home gardens are very generous with their bags of tomatoes as gifts for you.  I have such a neighbor.  Thanks Mike!  When I walked into the kitchen earlier today the aroma of the tomatoes I picked in his garden was floating somewhere in the air.IMG_1694That’s when I knew it’s time for ……..PANZANELLA.  Ok, Panzanella, what is it?  Well let’s start with what it’s not.  It’s not made with toasted bread.  The bread has to get stale.That means you can’t force it.  STALE. Let it sit in a paper bag for 2 days after you buy it, and buy brick oven Italian bread, no seeds, if possible.  The  toasted bread is a crouton, delicious, but not panzanella. One problem in being authentic to the Tuscan Panzanella is the bread itself. In Tuscany the bread is salt-less.  NO SALT.   When I went to Italy the first time in 1986, my maternal grandmother, a native of Avellino told me “be careful when you travel up North (in Italy)….senza sale..o’pane senza sale..no good.”  LOL.  She was right. Saltless bread must be one of those “acquired” tastes. If all the bread you’ve eaten all your life contains salt, it’s a strange taste without it.  So unless you are baking your own bread chances of finding good Italian saltless bread is going to be a problem. Even in Italy, outside of Tuscany, they use their local breads containing salt for this dish.  This salad is a balance of bits of only a few things.  There’s a small amount of red wine vinegar that helps to soften and flavor the bread and that allows the tomatoes full flavor to shine through. Imagine, I can wax poetically over a salad of stale bread and tomatoes.  If you notice in my title to this blogpost I say Panzanella “STYLE”…that’s like a get out of jail card for me.  It allows me to be close to what’s thought of as the closest to the original without misnaming the dish.  My panzanella I made tonight contains no Cucumber. Why?  I love cucumbers.  One of my daughters loves cucumbers.  My wife?  Hates them (so misguided isn’t she?). So, since one cooks to make the diners happy I always make my version of Panzanella without cucumber.  Feel free to add it, or, stick with my Panzanella STYLE.  And put down that bottle of Balsamic. It’s not , never now or ever..a substitute for Red Wine Vinegar which is what you use in this dish.  Italy generally is fiercely regional.  Balsamic is a traditional aged product of Emilia-Romagna.  Panzanella is generally a Tuscan dish.  Not the same region so pay attention here!! Alright, enough of my lecturing on this salad..let’s make it now.

TIME: 2 hours                                             SERVES: 4 people

4 thick slices of STALE (remember, Stale, plan ahead her, this isn’t a salad with seasoned croutons which is what “toasting ” them in the oven would do.  coarsely chopped

3 large tomatoes, JERSEY VINE RIPENED if possible..if not, find good local homegrown or farm market tomatoes.  Dice them and leave them in a bowl.

1 SMALL RED ONION, DICED

4 BASIL LEAVES

(1 PEELED AND THIN SLICED CUCUMBER IF USING)

SEA SALT

3 TBS. EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL

2 TBS RED WINE VINEGAR

WATER

1 TSP SEA SALT

FRESH GROUND BLACK PEPPER

Soak the bread in about 1/8 cup of water for 15 minutes, then gently squeeze out the water. Then season with 1/2 tsp Sea salt, 1/2 tsp Black pepper, 2 tbs, Red Wine Vinegar, blend, then add 2 tbs. of the Extra Virgin Olive oil. Let this sit for 15 minutes.  Now add all the other ingredients:IMG_1697Then mix gently with…YOUR HANDS.  It’s how it’s done.  There are 2 methods, mine and then everyone elses, lol.  In Tuscany the bread is mixed by hand FIRST and then the other ingredients blended in.  I mix it all together, let it sit for 1/2 hour. Then I mix it again making sure the bread is well soaked.  Let it sit for 1/2 hour again, check for seasoning then serve. It’s that simple.  Add a drizzle of Extra Virgin Olive oil before mixing prior to serving. Fresh ground pepper over everything.

It’s hard to enjoy this out of season which is why I’m highlighting it now.  If you attempt this in the winter months,  no matter how hard you try those winter tomatoes will stay rock hard and NOT give up the juices they do in the Summer.  Those juices are the real flavor in this salad and the soaked bread delivers it to you.  Note: seasoning. At every step give the salad a taste and if something is not quite right, a little salt and pepper will correct it.IMG_1700

 

 

ZEPPOLE…THE ITALIAN AMERICAN STREET FEAST TREAT, MY STYLE

001The smell of the ItalianAmerican Summer…Zeppole frying in oil..big vats of them…their steam wafting in every direction pulling you closer to the stand.  You are mesmerized by the bobbing of the hand pulled balls of dough sizzling on their sides in the molten oil.  You await, impatiently for the fresh hot balls to be drained.  Then with the deft hands of a master the Zeppolaio places your hot zeppole into a paper bag, brown or white, and adds a blizzard of powdered sugar.  Next they fold the bag and SHAKE SHAKE SHAKE and hand it over to you.  Your heart is pounding (isn’t it??) and you reach with childlike anticipation at what’s waiting for you in that little sack.  You reach in and without hesitation bite long and hard on one and for a moment you’re impervious to the scorching heat from the steam that’s scalding your tongue.  Who cares?  It’s worth it. Every blister is worth it soothed by the chilly feel of the powdered sugar with a sweet finish.  Deep breath, of course not with a zeppole by your mouth or you’ll asphyxiate from the sugar dust…deep breath and then another bite, damn it just eat the whole thing.  Now you’re happy.  Sound familiar?  Please don’t tell me this is a unique experience for me, lol.  I KNOW you are with me.  Now just so you know, I like them with powdered sugar which is how most street feast vendors make them, or with granulated sugar which is how many restaurants and home cooks make them.  They are great both ways, infact they are awesome with a pinch of cinnamon in the coarser sugar.  What’s a zeppole anyway?

Well it’s simply a regional Italian term for a type of fried dough THAT IS usually ring shaped or a roundish ball. Zeppole come in many varieties.  This blog will make the one’s similar to the street feasts, but other zeppole contain lemon and ricotta in the dough, some use mostly eggs and pipe it through a bag to create a French cruller like small ring.  That is a more specific type of Zeppole that is cut and filled with Italian pastry cream and topped with an Amarena cherry for March 19th’s  St.Joseph Day. It’s a very Napoletana thing. There are also many savory types of zeppole.  So take away from this that there’s more zeppole than the one you may be used to.  In other parts of the  USA Italian Americans call zeppole by different names, like Pizza Fritta, or Fried Dough.  I’m from NYC so I use our regional term.  Here’s a beautiful tray of zeppole hot out of the fryer at NYC’s San Gennaro Feast:008 Now today is Aug.15, it’s Ferragosto the Italian End of Summer celebration that coincides with the religious FESTA DELL’ASSUNTA, or Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  The ASSUNTA is a national holiday in Italy and it’s a popular girls’ name.  My great grandmother on my mom’s mom side was named Assunta…006 Assunta Prisco Melito, born in Castelbaronia, Avellino and died in Napoli. My grandma passed this name onto my mom, Assunta Scaramuzzi Battaglia, but she went by Susan as most first generationers did to fit in more in America.  We used to celebrate her NAME DAY each August 15, here’s a picture from the 1976 celebration.0002 A delicious Cassata from Alfonso’s in Staten Island helped make it a festive day!  Zeppole are not specific to Ferragosto but they are fun and celebratory and you CAN make them in you own kitchen in a regular pan.  Here’s how I make them…:

2 CUPS SIFTED FLOUR

1/2 TBS KOSHER SALT

1 1/4 CUP WARM WATER

2 PACKAGE YEAST

SOY, VEGETABLE OR PEANUT OIL at least 1 gallon

2 CUPS POWDERED SUGAR OR GRANULATED SUGAR

In a large stainless steel bowl add the water, salt , and yeast.  Mix.  Let this sit for at least 15 minutes. It should be frothy on top by then.  Now add the flour and blend well until all the flour is incorporated.  This is almost a bread dough BUT you are not going to tighten this up or knead the dough.  Cover and let this rise for no less than 2 hours.  You should have a yeasty aroma dough that’s not quite as tight as many bread doughs.  Spongy and sort of loose.  Heat in a deep high sided heavy flameproof pot or cast iron pan (pot better, less chance of oil spillage and the ensuing disaster and/or mess.) and fill 1/2 way with the oil you’ve chosen and place on medium to high heat.  Most feasts use those large soybean oil containers. I use what I have on hand.  When the temp gets up to 350 degrees F, or when you gently place a small ball of the dough into the oil and it immediately starts to sizzle frantically your oil is ready.  Have a tray lined with paper towels ready to receive the hot zeppole.  This recipe should make about 36.  Using a damp hand pinch a small ball of dough and add to the hot oil. repeat until you are almost full in the pot, don’t overcrowd though.  Flip them as they turn golden brownish. When both sides are the same color it’s time to gently remove them using a kitchen spider or similar long handled implement that lets the hot oil drip out.  Remove the finished zeppole to the lined tray.  Now  continue to make more zeppole until you’ve used up all the dough.  Here’s when you need a kitchen assistant, it’s sugar time.  While the zeppole are still hot. add them to a bowl filled with 1/2 of the sugar. Roll the zeppole in batches in the sugar.  THEN in a paper bag, add the rest of the sugar and shake the zeppole  until they are all coated again, certainly you will do that in batches.  If needed, use more sugar. EAT. delicious.

TIPS or SIDE NOTES:  Every pan/pot and stove top are different so..while i’m giving you directions here PLEASE let your common sense guide you.  You may have the oil too hot, or too cool. So you may need to play around till you get the hang of it. PLEASE DON’T GET DISCOURAGED!! If it’s your first time HOW ARE YOU SUPPOSED TO BE A PRO AT IT?? Be patient and you’ll find your way. As always, have fun cooking!!!

 

 

 

 

 

MOM’S PARTY BAKED BEANS

Memories make foods taste better, that’s a fact.  Case in point are these simple baked beans that my late mom used to parade out for BBQ’s in the Summer and special occasions where she was the “caterer”.  Now before you go getting food snob on me I must tell you that these are made with canned beans.  If that offends you..this is not your recipe.  HOWEVER I will tell you that they are fantastic and unless your tastebuds just do not care for American baked bean dishes, you HAVE to make a tray of these.  Delicious and addictive.  Now truth be told it’s not EXACT to my Mom’s.  It’s close.  My Food Snobbery actually embellishes the dish without recipe OVERKILL.  I think Mom would be proud, happy, and like them. Basically I don’t add anything different then she did, but I add more of a few things.  Now keep reading and you’ll find out.  Back in May for Memorial Day my sister Liza made them.  I saw the pan and of course got a lump in my throat wishing my Mom was in the kitchen with us.  “These are Mommy’s party and BBQ in the back yard cabana (it was a screened in porch deal) Baked Beans aren’t they?” My sister replied, yes they are.  They had that deep rich color with the bacon top that Mom’s did. Unmistakably these were Mom’s.  For some reason, you don’t make these for just a  nightly dinner.  Instead they are festive…party buffet food…Summer BBQ in the backyard food.  I’m sure there are foods/dishes that you all love that remind you of a now gone loved one and memories of good times.  In my very ItalianAmerican home this version of American Baked Beans meant a good time or big party was happening.  Oh, I also changed the brand of beans, Mom used Campbells..most available, most popular.  This was in the pre Bush’s Beans days… B & M was the most expensive competition. My wife LOVES B & M so for a family party last week I made a tray using the B & M beans.  So I’m not straying from her formula..too much.  AND here’s the proof..my sisters saw them and said …”AHHH MOM’S!!”  Then confirm too (as if my own tastebuds are not the last word  LOL), my 46 year old nephew PROCLAIMED, “Wow, Grandma’s Baked Beans..it’s been too long..Spot on Uncle Pete”.. Just an FYI, when Mom made REAL BAKED BEANS, not for parties or BBQ, she’d soak the dry beans and layer them with salt pork and other ingrdients and in a New England Bean Pot, covered into the oven they’d go for hours.  That’s a different dish of hers.    OK, let’s cook.

 

MOM’S “PARTY” OR BBQ BAKED BEANS

TIME: 2 hours                   SERVES: 8-10

12 STRIPS OF BACON

1 MEDIUM VIDALIA ONION (SWEET) DICED

2 28 oz CANS B & M BAKED BEANS (no, i’m not getting sponsored here, it’s what I use, so….if you like use any other 28 oz cans of beans)

2 TBS BROWN MUSTARD

1/4 cup KETCHUP

1/8 CUP BROWN SUGAR

1 TBS MOLASSES

1/2 TSP TABASCO SAUCE

1 TSP WORCHESTERSHIRE SAUCE

2 TSP REAL MAPLE SYRUP

Start by pre heating your oven to 300 degrees F.   Dice 5 slices of the bacon and in a cast iron or heavy pan, saute’ the bacon on medium heat.  When you see bacon grease rendering into the pan then add the onions.  Stir well to make sure the bacon grease is on all the onion.  Let this slowly cook until the bacon is just about to the crisp stage and the onions are soft. Takes at least 15 minutes, more or less.

Remove from the heat when it looks like that picture above and drain off all that residual bacon fat.  Let it rest.  In a bowl or simply the baking pan you’re going to use add everything else except the remaining bacon strips and blend well.  THEN fold in the bacon/onion mixture.  Top with the bacon strips.    

Now into the oven for 1 1/2 hours.  TIP: place the pan on a sheet pan.  JUST in case there’s bubbling and spillage, this tomato and sugar and bacon blend will make a nasty mess if it hits the bottom of your oven. The sheet pan is insurance.  Pay your premium!!

When the pan looks like the picture below, you are done.  Resist the urge to move it along with a higher oven temp. Your BAKING the beans. They will taste and feel different than if you simple heat them up out of the can.

Let the hot beans sit for 15 minutes at least before serving.  Now, here’s one of my ALL TIME FAVORITE things to eat.  See those bacon strips?  They are ridiculously amazing…is that even proper grammar?  I don’t care.  It’s amazing. Make sure you sneak a few before the rest of the diners get to dig in.  You made it, you deserve it.  I can probably show you when my Mom used to slap my hand when she’d catch me lifting a strip before they were served.  My sister and I would always fight over them.  If you notice in the ingredient list there is no SALT or PEPPER  added.  Why? You are using canned beans in tomato sauce cooked with Pork, salt, seasonings, etc.  You are using bacon which releases salt into the baking beans.  Ketchup, mustard,Worchestershire all have salt so DO NOT ADD ANY MORE TO THIS DISH.  The sweet caramelizing of the dish balances the salty in it..IT’S FANTASTIC. Maybe because it’s a direct link to MOM? or simply because it just tastes that good?? I conclude, it’s both.  Happy Cooking.