Tag Archive: baking


Happy St. Jo-Pat’s Day!

I volunteered to bring snack for tonight’s choir rehearsal, which fell on the fallow day between St. Patrick’s Day (and its drying pools of green sidewalk vomit) and St. Joseph’s Day (and its decadent ricotta-filled southern Italian doughnuts). I wore a red t-shirt and red socks (St. Joseph) and a green-and-white striped button-down shirt (St. Patrick). I bridged the gap.

I decided to bring both Irish Soda Bread <http://www.kingarthurflour.com/recipes/irish-soda-bread-recipe> 

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and zeppole

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<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeppole&gt;, which I bought at Il Giardino del Dolce (“The Garden of Dessert”), in Chicago’s Elmwood Park neighborhood <http://www.ilgiardinodeldolce.com&gt;, to build a sweet culinary bridge between the two feasts, too.

•••

It’s too bad that St. Joseph’s Day isn’t better known as an Italian American feast, so much less fraught is it than Columbus Day, tainted by the disease and suffering inflicted on native peoples following Columbus’s “discovery” of America. The consumption of zeppole alone would make Italophiles out of everyone—and unlike the elixir of St. Patrick, you needn’t be 21 to consume them.

I grew up in and around Utica, NY, which to this day has a strong Italian American community, and several thriving Italian bakeries, pastry shops and markets. I remember eating zeppole every year, though I only knew them as “St. Joseph’s Day pastries” until I met the Italian Americans of New Haven, CT. I think one of the reasons I grew to love New Haven so was that many of the foodways that I treasured from my childhood in Utica remained strong there, too. I didn’t have to drive back home every time I wanted a taste of my old world.

•••

Laying out both of these traditional foods side by side, with their strong cultural associations, reminded me of the way in which my mother’s family was a living example of this spread. My Poppa was Irish American, or at least the Dowdall family claimed Irish as their predominant ethnic strain. My Nana was first generation Italian American, both her parents having emigrated from two tiny villages in Lazio (Selvacava & Ausonia), near Formia. (By the way, the scenery is mountainous, dramatic and beautiful, and I just discovered that there’s an agriturismo in Selvacava: <http://www.lortotragliulivi.it/agriturismo%20italia.html&gt;!)

When Poppa (Jack) told his eldest brother, Jim, that he was dating an Italian girl (Amelia), Jim punched him. Italians and Irish didn’t mix in the 1930s.

By the time I was a kid, though, things were calmer on the multiethnic front lines of 1016 Rutger Street in Utica. For St. Patrick’s Day, we wore green and hung Hallmark® leprechauns in the windows. My Italian Nana would cook corned beef and cabbage and bake soda bread for my Irish Poppa et al. Two days later, on St. Joseph’s Day, my Irish Poppa would buy the zeppole at the Florentine Pastry Shop on Bleeker Street in the heart of Italian East Utica for my Italian Nana et al. (We didn’t think to wear red, though, and Hallmark® didn’t sell St. Joseph’s Day decorations.)

The father of a dear friend of mine was named Joseph Patrick. He was Pat to us, but others in town knew him as Joe. I was confused the first time I heard him called Joe. That’s when I learned his full name. Only later did I get it: he was Italian Irish American. He married a Polish Italian American. 

Nowadays, people are both fascinated, yet unbothered, by many of these ethnic distinctions. Are we thus richer or poorer? As in Andersonville, just down the street from me in Chicago, which bears only the palest shadow of its earlier “Swedishness”, what have we lost as our ethnic enclaves have been assimilated and their children dispersed?

On St. Patrick’s Day, they say, we are all Irish. If so, then on St. Joseph’s Day, let’s all be Italian, and on Pulaski Day, let’s all be Polish, and on Chinese New Year, let’s all be Chinese, and on and on.

But, even more importantly, cherish your own heritage; nurture and share it. If you don’t, who will? And who would be poorer without it? You would be. And so would everyone around you.

Happy St. Jo-Pat’s Day, friends!

 

 

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I Grow I Cook I Eat I Am

Recently, I was asked what in my life makes me feel “fully alive”, as in Irenaeus’s aphorism, “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.”

My early relationship with food was confusing, really. I grew up a child of parents who are products of the “better living through chemistry” generation. And, in fact, they are both pharmacists, so chemistry was very present in their lives. A few years ago, my mother observed that, when I was growing up, her culinary repertoire was pretty limited: Shake-n-Bake pork chops, Hamburger Helper, and also a number of nice, yet straightforward, homemade dishes. My greatest influences in the realm of food and its delights came from my grandparents.

When I was a small boy, my dad’s parents, both of whom had grown up with agrarian roots in New York’s rural North Country, moved out of town up onto a hill in the country, where they dug a pond and planted a HUGE vegetable garden. I visited them several times throughout the year for a few nights in a row, joining the rhythm of their days. Both Grandma and Grandpa spent the summer tending the garden, even planning their retirement travels around their agriculture. Grandma canned and froze vegetables enough to get them through the entire winter with almost no supermarket purchases. I even remember helping as Grandpa dispatched an old hen, who went into a soup right away. I loved the harvest. And, I loved the Ox Heart-brand natural peanut butter Grandma combined with her homemade strawberry jam on her homemade oatmeal bread for the best PB&Js in the whole wide world. Nothing artificial, everything simple, local and handcrafted.

My mom’s family were urban through and through. No kitchen garden in the backyard then, but I recall walking up the street with my great-grandmother, who had emigrated from Italy, to the local produce market to buy greens and fruit. My grandmother (her daughter) cooked the most wonderfully flavorful fresh vegetables. My grandfather didn’t ever cook, but baked some of my favorite treats. He also was the purveyor of the local specialties, whether from the neighborhood bakery or from the several Italian feasts at the local Roman Catholic churches. And, OMG, those Italian cream cakes from “the café”!

For a couple of years when I was in elementary school, we had a vegetable garden at home. Mom loved the garden. It was a novelty for her. The problem was that her love was limited to the delivery, by others, of its bounty to the kitchen. I thinned a lot of carrots.

I loved to go to the edge of the field behind our house and pick wild blackberries. To this day, berries are one of the greatest gifts I receive from the earth (See my two earlier blog posts about picking wild berries a few years ago at <https://18pockets.wordpress.com/tag/berries/&gt;). Late last summer, I picked an apple from every feral tree I passed. Now I am a budding forager.

I started cooking for myself in earnest in grad school after spending some time in Italy. Over the past twenty years, I have gotten good at understanding, or guessing, what flavors are complimentary, what products are best at which times of year. I had a small, struggling vegetable garden in Maryland (too many trees on our lot for adequate sun). When times got tough at work, digging in the dirt was definitely therapeutic, and the smell of the fragrant herbs, which thrived despite too much shade, was a gift.

As is baking with yeast, too. Yeast is godlike. It is forgiving. It gives life. It grows. It shares. I love bringing dough to life. I get excited when I return to my little loaf to find it twice its original size. And it doesn’t give me any lip!

Among the greatest joys for me, though, is sharing the output of my “amateur” creativity. Chopping, mixing, seasoning, stirring, these are heart work, taking me out of thinking into sensing. Perhaps there is no greater joy or fulfillment for me than creating a meal to be savored and celebrated. It is pure joy, without the performance anxiety of professional music-making.

God provides the bounty, helped by our labors and our creative spark. Grow, harvest, plan, prepare, cook, serve, sense, savor, celebrate. It is my choicest metaphor for a life lived fully. When I consider the person I want to be continually becoming, I want most to be like a great meal. Not showy, but complex, fresh, pure, and a delight to all who behold it.

29 February 2012

I’ve got lots to say about moving to a new, huge city, about leaving a partner behind, about braving the winter wind and taking a risk on working in the church in yet another place.

But tonight, I want to talk about cooking.

I am (well, Putney and I are) staying as long-term guests of a parishioner in my new church while we look for a suitable apartment to rent. It’s great – companionship, hospitality, assistance in learning the lay of the land, etc. My host suggested that we could take turns cooking on weeknights, and tonight – the fourth night – was my first time wearing the chef’s hat.

As the evening approached, I lacked inspiration. I worried about having enough time. I wandered around the supermarket yesterday searching for the ingredients that would inspire a search for the right recipe.

Yesterday, I bought asparagus and broccoli crowns. Hardly a full meal, but at least we would get our vitamins.

At the office today, as the cooking deadline loomed ever closer, and the workload got heavier, foreshadowing a late departure for home, I began to sweat. What would be healthy, tasty, easy? And swear. Will I fail to impress with my first culinary test? #$%#^! Sweat’n’Swear. Like the Buffalo Wings we feared back in Rochester.

Then, Pizza. No, I didn’t eat one, whole, in a panic. My little chef voice whispered the word. A one-dish meal. With chicken breast (lean protein) and a bit of mildly pungent cheese and broccoli. I walked back to the market. “Do you sell pizza dough?” He led me to the Pillsbury tubes. Ack.

In the end, panic led to inspiration. I made this up. It was awesome, at least for a first attempt. Try, and enjoy.

Caramelized Red Onion, Broccoli and Chicken White Pizza

pizza dough
about 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into small strips about 1/2-inch wide and 1 inch long
2 broccoli crowns, cut into bit-size florets, stems ad lib. (I give the stems to Putney, who loves them, and who doesn’t like the crowns; it’s a symbiotic relationship.)
1 medium red onion, or half large red onion, divided
3-4 cloves garlic, sliced, divided
4 ounces lite Swiss cheese (e.g., Jarlsburg) or other moderately-flavorful soft cheese such as gouda or Havarti, shredded
extra-virgin olive oil
a few peppercorns
salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 450ºF.

Prepare your favorite pizza dough, either homemade or acquired. I made mine from scratch, following a simple recipe on http://www.allrecipes.com, but there are innumerable options. Mine came together in half an hour, and was perfect. I would have made it with whole-wheat flour if there had been some in the house. I used SAF Instant Yeast (the red one), recommended by The Baker’s Catalog. Let the dough rest before attempting to roll it out.

Bring 1 quart water to a boil in a 2-quart saucepan. Add about 1/4 of the sliced onion, 1 clove sliced garlic, the peppercorns and the cut-up chicken. Return to a boil and parboil, about 5 minutes. Remove chicken and vegetables from the water and set aside.

Heat 1-2 tablespoons olive oil in frying pan over medium heat. Sauté remaining sliced red onion until soft. Add remaining sliced garlic. Continue cooking until all are gently browned. Remove from heat.

Toss raw broccoli florets with 2 tablespoons olive oil to coat.

Add chicken and broccoli to frying pan with onions. Stir all together, adding salt and pepper to taste.

Roll out the dough on a pizza pan, baking sheet or pizza stone to your desired shape. Brush the dough with a little extra-virgin olive oil. Spread the chicken-and-vegetable mixture evenly across the dough, then sprinkle with the cheese.

Bake 15 to 20 minutes until lightly browned. Remove from oven and let rest for five minutes before cutting. Serves 4, give or take.

We had a side of steamed asparagus tossed with EVOO, salt, pepper and toasted pine nuts. A nice white wine would go well, or a fragrant light (not necessarily ‘lite’) beer.

Let me know if you try it, and if you have any questions, comments, improvements. I’ve never before written down a recipe for a dish I created. It’s not the world’s most unique food offering, but it’s a start, maybe, and it really was good.