Tomatoes, tomatoes, tomatoes!


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“Hi Teresa, I figured you would know where I can get bushels of tomatoes.”  “Oh sorry Teresa, we can’t! We are swimming in tomatoes here!” “Hello Teresa, I have brought you a bushel of tomatoes.” So.much talk of tomatoes!! What can I say it’s tomato season in the Hudson Valley!

I always teased my kids and told them I am just not any ordinary mamma but a pasta mamma!  To this day I still can’t get this vision that I have of a pasta mamma out of my head!  I am not quite sure how old I was, but one summer in Italy I came across what I believed was a pasta mamma.  Thank goodness it wasn’t anybody I was related to.  While we were on our way to visit my aunt, we came across a neighbor.  The neighbor upon seeing my dad, ran over screaming in her Neapolitan dialect to give my dad this really exaggerated big hug. It wasn’t because she was short, robust and splattered with tomato sauce that I took notice, but it was her apron!  Her apron had two conspicuously placed well-worn patches across her chest! Mind you the apron was intact except for those two patches.  While my parents were all smiles greeting this woman, my brother and I just stood there looking on with puzzled looks on our faces. Why this well-endowed woman would want to bring more attention to herself by wearing that apron was beyond us!  Unabashed she stood so proud wearing that remarkable apron bragging about the number of jars of tomatoes she had just canned.

I keep thinking about that woman lately every time the subject of tomatoes comes up in discussions this past week. The Hudson Valley farmers as I am sure many of the farmers from where you are from are also busy harvesting tomatoes.  If you don’t have the luxury of picking your tomatoes out of your own garden, I hope you are all taking advantage of those beautiful vine ripened tomatoes from your local farmers.  I just called my co-packer who makes the 825 MAIN Marinara Sauce to order more pallets.   They work with the local farms in our area.  They told me, “Teresa, have a little patience for we are swimming in tomatoes and we are busy!”.

I remember when I was a little girl, my mom, her five sisters and Nonna, would be gathered together wearing aprons (thankfully with no patches across their chests) and their hair tied up in kerchiefs at this time of the year.  My grandfather would start the fire in the pit while all the girls were busy preparing the tomatoes.  Such a happy chore with all of them laughing and singing while sorting, cutting, straining, cooking, pouring, and jarring.  I remember hearing the joyful pop of the lids as the sauce cooled and witnessing the satisfaction on everyone’s faces.

In Italy, my father’s sisters would do the same thing. There were times that we would be in Italy during tomato harvest and the canning of the delicious tomatoes. The tomatoes were so different in Monte di Procida.  The Mediterranean sun is strong and growing tomatoes in the volcanic soil yields the sweetest juiciest tomatoes! All my aunts had their own wood fired ovens to bake bread, pizza and to seal all of those jars of tomatoes.  The ovens were located in cantinas and a whole side of the building was designated for the ovens made of blocks and concrete. The cantinas were free standing buildings away from the house.   My Zia Gilda would bake so much bread that she even had customers!  A summer treat was pizza! The pizza that came out of those wood fired ovens was incomparable to anything I have ever eaten. The crust had a touch of char covered with a few really ripe garden  tomatoes, a basil leaf, sea salt, extra virgin olive oil and fresh mozzarella. The pizza was unbelievably delicious! Mind you, my Zia would only make the pizza with the extra dough left over from the bread.    She never thought much of this pizza.  I couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t make more of it! But she would often tell me that bread was her first priority.  The pizza was just a little snack. I am still searching for a comparable pizza!  The typical NY pizza we are accustomed to is not the same.

In a town not too far from my dad’s town of Monte di Procida is the ancient town of Baia where Julius Caesar had a villa there (The Castello Aragonese di Baia is open to the public now with museums). The mineral springs in Baia attracted the elite during the Roman Empire.  Most of the ancient town is under water now as a result from a volcanic eruption.  A couple of years ago my brother, sister and I met in Italy.  We decided to go to a historic pizzeria in Baia. What was unusual about this pizzeria was that it was located inside the town bread oven. Yes, you read right!  It was a bread oven so huge that there was a pizzeria built inside of it.  During the Roman Empire it was used to bake bread for the whole town.   We sat inside of this huge hollowed out oven and ate pizza and imagined Caesar eating pizza here.

Only joking about Caesar eating pizza.  The Pizza Margherita became famous in 1889, 28 years after the unification of Italy.  History has it that when Queen Margherita of Savoy, the wife of King Umberto I, visited Naples, a chef and his wife created a pizza resembling the colors of the Italian flag, tomato, mozzarella and basil! To this day it is still called Pizza Margherita!

Sadly, I don’t own a wood fired oven.  Using the garden cherry tomatoes, the pizza comes out pretty good minus the char.  I have that wood fired oven on my bucket list. I did get Jim, my husband, to make me a fire pit, though!  So I am getting closer.

I hope you enjoy the following pizza recipe as much as as my family and I do.  I used the delicious tomatoes from the garden! No worries if you don’t have a garden, just be sure to visit  farm markets to get those delicious tomatoes that are all the rage.  There is nothing like fresh vine ripened tomatoes.  Even though I am in the business of selling tomato sauce, I won’t lie to you there is nothing like a fresh tomato right off the vine.  Don’t get confused with those grocery store, hot house tomatoes, though! I also have available the jarred 825 MAIN Pizza Margherita Sauce for those months of the year when we can’t get those super delicious garden tomatoes. Even tough I don’t can my own tomatoes, Continue reading

Italian Easter Bread (Casatiello Dolce)

DSC_0113 (1)I just can’t let Easter go by without writing about my family’s Easter tradition of Easter Bread. It is a paschal ritual in my dad’s hometown of Monte di Procida in Italy. The old fashioned way is to start with a mother yeast that everyone makes themselves called “criscito” which is mixed into sweet bread dough that needs to rise for three days and finally sweet fragrant loaves are baked in a wood burning oven. The name of this bread was called “casatiello” aka panettone. But growing up in my large Italian/American family this old tradition turned into a competitive baking contest. In my family, Lent was not only regarded as a Christian event where we fast and give up stuff (never panettone recipes!) but we also 40 days of planning the art of baking panettone (Easter bread).
One year my dad brought us to Italy to experience Easter in Monte di Procida. While we there we made sure to visit our very large family. Every house we visited the matriarch of the house brought us into a warm room specially heated for the revered panetone. We were shown rows and rows of pans filled with rising dough covered under blankets waiting for Holy Saturday to be baked. Now mind you the judging starts even before the bread is baked. Everyone is eagerly watching their breads rise. If it rises too fast that it will be a big flop. If it rises too slow it will be hard as a rock. At twelve years old I thought this was comical as we all peered into all these pans. We were made to look at these pans as if was the latest discovery! It left quite a mark in my memory because I am chuckling as I envision this in my mind. Every household had their own secret recipe. You may ask why all these pans and pans of breads. Every family makes a large one for themselves. And then several smaller ones for each of the children. And let us not forget the fiancés. The mother-in-law has to show off her baking expertise to her future daughter-in-law/
Here in America my whole extended family practiced this tradition. So you can imagine the amount of Easter bread that was made. But what was even funnier is that my father, the chef, made Easter bread and also my mother made her own batch. It ended up being a contest within our own household. My dad’s brothers and their wives also made Easter bread. And guess what? Yup! Our Italian customers and employees got into the act too!! And you can’t leave out Cafe Aurora the Italian Bakery in our town. They also brought in their own bread to add to the collection!! So by Easter Sunday the restaurant was wall to wall Easter Bread.
The competition itself was not a formal competition but was just informal tastings. It was like “Hey Joe, taste my Easter Bread how good it came out!”. And my dad would proudly encourage the competitor to try his too. Let me share with you all a secret. Lean closer! I am going to whisper. I don’t want anyone to hear me. I don’t know if any of you have ever tried their Easter bread. It’s not that good! Oh my!! I can’t believe I actually said it. Actually it’s an acquired taste. It comes in a variety of ways its either really dry and flavorful or it is moist and light. (Most of my family’s panettone/casatiello was dry! I think they drank it with lots of wine to wash it down!) Some are braided with colored eggs. Always with bits of dried fruit throughout. The custom is to eat this bread at the end of their meal with jugs of wine. That year we went to Italy for Easter I witnessed something that we don’t do in America. The Monday after Easter is also a national holiday. It’s called Lunedi in Albis. In Monte di Procida, the townspeople all go out and have picnics to celebrate spring! I remember Lunedi Albis quite vividly! My cousins and I had a picnic in the vineyards. There are no open fields in Monte di Procida only vineyards. Guess what we ate? Yes, that dry casatiello along with hard boiled eggs! But you know what? It was actually a delicious picnic sitting there on the mountain side amidst the grape vines with the sun overhead!
Over the years our competitors have given up the challenge but I continue on. The craziness that I experienced growing up with this informal Panettone/Casatiello competition has rubbed off on me. With no competition I still keep making loaves and loaves of it myself trying to get the perfect recipe. I always try a new recipe every year. I am still trying to find the perfect recipe that everyone can actually enjoy. It’s not Easter without a battle of the Easter Breads even if it just with myself now. Happy Easter everyone! I need to run to put another batch in the oven!

Italian Easter Bread (Casatiello Dolce)

    Ingredients:
    3-3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
    2/3 cup sugar
    1/2 teaspoon salt
    1/2 teaspoon active dry yeast
    1/4 teaspoon lemon zest
    1 teaspoon of dry vanilla
    1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon
    3 large eggs, room temperature
    ¼ cup lukewarm water
    1/3 cup of orange juice
    1 tablespoon warm honey
    2 oz of Strega Liquor
    11-1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter (10-1/2 tablespoons softened and cut into tablespoons; 1 tablespoon chilled)
    DSC_0106

    Preparation:
    1. In the bowl of the stand mixer, mix the flour, sugar, salt, yeast, lemon zest, vanilla and cinnamon at low speed.
    2. In a small bowl, whisk together the eggs, 1/4 cup lukewarm water, 1/3 cup warm orange juice and honey.
    3. While the mixer runs at low speed, pour the egg mixture into the dry ingredients. Increase speed to medium-low and continue mixing.
    4. Add the softened butter, 1 tablespoon at a time, mixing completely before adding each. Increase the speed to medium-high and mix until the dough is smooth and elastic, about 8 minutes. DSC_0107 (1)
    5. Place the dough in the large bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise in a cold oven with the door closed for about 12 to 15 hours, until the dough is nearly tripled in volume.DSC_0108DSC_0110 (1)
    Rub your hands with flour, sprinkle the top of the dough lightly with some flour, and turn out onto a floured board. Sprinkle a little more flour onto the dough. Divide in half
    6. Prepare 2 small pans with a high edge. Line with parchment paper.
    7. Fold the edges of the dough into the center and place seam side down into the prepared pans. Cover with a damp tea towel (not terry cloth) and let rise in a draft-free spot at room temperature about 3 to 5 hours, until dough is just above the top of the mold. DSC_0111
    8. Place the rack in the lower third (closer to the bottom than the middle) of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. (If the dough is too high in the oven, the top will brown before the middle is cooked, resulting in a burned top crust.)
    9. Use a serrated knife to score and X across the entire surface of the dough. Place 1/2 tablespoon chilled butter in the center of the X in each dough.
    10. Bake in the preheated oven about 45 minutes to an hour, until a wooden skewer inserted in the center comes out slightly moist but not wet or doughy. To keep the Easter bread from getting too dark I put a piece of parchment over each loaf and then remove the last 15 minutes.
    11. After its cooled you can frost with a meringue and sprinkles. Or you can make a glaze heating anisette with sugar and then glazing with sprinkles. Or plain with just some powdered sugar.
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    Buona Pasqua! Happy Easter!
    Continue reading

Soft Shell Crabs

includes soft shel crab parissienne 023

 Soft Shell Crabs Parisienne Styleincludes soft shel crab parissienne 023

   “Papa”

“To talk about soft shell crabs I am always reminded of my dad.  He loved the ocean.  My dad taught us everything about the ocean, seafood and how to enjoy them both! Before I go on to discuss soft shell crabs as promised I would like to share my memories of my dad.  I will refer him as Papa! 

   Papa had the biggest smile I had ever seen!  In fact everything about Papa was big except in stature.  He was only 5’7”.  Not only was he always impeccably dressed, he always had a tan.  He wore lots of rings and his pinkie ring was a huge diamond!  As far as I can remember he always owned a red convertible.   

   It wasn’t always like this for my Dad.  He was born in the little town of Monte di Procida.  It has an area of less than 1 ½ square miles. Located on the southern coast of Italy near Naples, this little panoramic town is almost isolated from the rest of the towns.  It sits on a perch overlooking the Gulf of Naples, the many towns below it and if you stand at my uncle’s house one can even see Sorrento and Gaeta as your eyes follow the coastline.  The islands of Procida and Ischia are so close you can almost reach out to touch them and on a clear day Capri too!  Its unique harbor has been utilized in ancient times since the Greeks.  Now the harbor is filled with a fleet of fishing boats!   My father grew up during WWII.  During this time the beautiful town was also a strategic point for the Germans.  It was used as a base for torpedo practice.  Papa would often tell us some scary stories about that time. It was because of WWII and it’s destruction that my dad was determined to come to America for a better life.  America changed my Dad’s life for the better and he became this bigger than life character that we looked up to!

   One year when I was 9 years old he took all of us on a transcontinental cruise. Not only did he take his family but he also brought along his red Pontiac convertible. So my dad,  along with my mom, my brother, my sister, I and the red Pontiac convertible crossed the Atlantic making several stops including,  Portugal, the rock of Gibraltar, Spain, Genoa and finally Naples.  I still can picture him and Nonna (his mom) driving with the top down in the little town of Monte di Procida.  Nonna with a kerchief on her head to protect her hair from the wind sat so proudly next to her son.  The red Pontiac convertible was as big as my dad’s ego!  But unfortunately the fancy American car was not made for the narrow ancient streets that St. Paul once crossed on his way to Rome to see Caesar. Without a care in the world my dad squeezed through those streets waving to all the towns’ people, greeting them all by name.  By the end of the trip the red Pontiac convertible sides were so dented in that we were barely able to open the doors. But no worries…my dad packed the red Pontiac convertible with us as we travelled back across the Atlantic to New York.  When we arrived home he went and bought himself another one!

    Traveling though Italy with my dad was such an experience.  People were drawn to him.  He had such a big personality.  So warm and gracious!  It was always such excitement when my dad went to visit his hometown. Everyone came over to greet him.  Our house was like a café.  We were always brewing espresso.  It got to be as soon as I saw a car coming I wouldn’t even wait for my Nonna to ask me to make coffee.  I immediately took out the moka pot and started the process.   I also set out the little crystal aperitif glasses for the vermouth.  Espresso, vermouth and limoncello were served!   Before they left my dad would always give the guests a big chunk of American milk chocolate as a souvenir from America. My dad loved American milk chocolate so much so that he wanted to share with his family and friends back in Italy.  As he does things so big he would order 40 pound slabs of milk chocolate from his favorite Italian bakery, Caffe Aurora, here in Poughkeepsie to bring back to Italy!  

   It was only one year that he brought over his red convertible I think he learned his lesson with the big American car because after that he would usually rent a FIAT 500! It was funny watching him load up his FIAT with watermelons because one thing about my father if he bought something for himself he always bought for his sisters too.  He made everyone smile and laugh when they saw him pull up with his little Fiat and pull out watermelon after watermelon!    The big smiles from everyone made my heart melt!  And he was so funny teasing the market people.  I love listening to his Montese sing song accent.   The dad that I loved was the dad I saw in Italy.  One summer he brought just my brother and me to visit Nonna in Italy.  As a treat he brought my brother and I to Capri.  It was so fun!  It was such a special trip!  But the best part was when we stopped for lunch at this rooftop restaurant overlooking the beautiful views of Capri.  The waiter gazing at my dad’s bigger than life personality along with his striking blue eyes (all the more impressive with his dark tan) asked if he was Raff Vallone. As I watched my dad’s already broad smile get bigger, Papa asked the waiter, “tell me more who this Raff Vallone is!” All impressed that he looked like a movie star who was known for his rugged good looks my father just beamed! And my brother and I just sat a little taller thinking how handsome our father really was that other people thought so too!”


Soft Shell Crabs

Soft Shell Crabs are available at your seafood market from April to September. It’s during this time that crabs molt their old exoskeletons.  These soft shell crabs are removed from the ocean as soon as they shed their shells to prevent hardening. The famous Maryland blue crabs that we are accustomed to hammering the outer shell and picking it apart to get to the delicious meat are now soft.  After removing the mouthparts, the gills and the abdomen, the whole crab is now edible, shell and all!  No work is involved in eating soft shell crabs! Soft shell crabs were a much anticipated menu item every spring at “the restaurant”!  We had people from all over come for our Soft Shell Crabs.   As you read on I will share all the secrets of cooking the soft shell crabs so you can make them just as good at home.  Typically Soft Shell Crabs are fried but at “the restaurant” sautéed was the most popular.  One of the ways we served them was in a Parisienne Sauce (please read recipe #11 blog post) for the home cook please understands that these crabs only survive a few days out of water.  So when picking out your soft shell crabs make sure they are fresh!  You can’t tell just by looking at them.

Secret #1   not only do you need to make sure they are plump don’t be embarrassed to give it the smell test too! They should smell clean and astringent!

Secret #2   refuse to have the fish monger clean the crabs for you or the crabs will lose all their liquid. Liquid is important so the crabs are very plump.  Wait until you are ready to cook the crabs to clean.  It’s easy to clean them!

Secret #3 I have given you step by step process for cleaning the crabs.  And showed you how to prepare then with an egg batter.  But you can also prepare them with just flour.  Putting a floured soft shell crab (no egg batter) in hot oil results in the plumpest crabs ever.

 

 Cleaning and preparing soft shell crabs for the Parisienne Sauce

 

  1. Flip the soft shell crab oversoft shell crab underneath

  1. Remove the stomach flap on the center back of the crabsoft shell crab stomach flap

  1. Underneath the flaps on the front of the crab are the lungs.soft shell crab flap for lungs

  1. Remove the lungssoft shel crab lung

  2. Remove the eyessoft shel crab eyes

  3. Remove the beard underneath the eyesspft shel crab beard

  1. Prepare batter for the egg battered soft shell crabs. Beat 3 eggs with a pinch of saltsoft shel crab prep

  2. Rinse soft shell crabs in water.

  3. Dredge in flour on both sides and underneath the flaps toosoft shell crab in flour

  4. Dip floured crabs into beaten eggs and coat well.soft shel crab in egge batter

  5. Heat a pan with oil until very hot.

  6. Place back of crab into the frying pansoft shel crab dredged

  1. Lower heat and fry 5-8 minutes on each side. There will be a lot of splatter so keep a splatter guard on pan.

  1. Drain the crabs on paper towels and now they are ready for the Parissiene sauce!

  2. Place soft shell crabs in the Parisienne sauceincludes soft shel crab parissienne 045

      16. Cook until sauce is thickened and serve!

Buon Appetito!