#Giving #Thanks

The Thanksgiving Day celebration is an important part of American culture. From the iconic tales of Pilgrims and Native Americans to a holiday now focused on food and excessive retail therapy. It is easy to feel caught up in the hustle and bustle of the celebration.

The wafting aromas of turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie, a house filled to the brim with family and friends and a beautifully set table. When I think about the words tied to the holiday I realize that much of our attention as a society focuses more about turning the ‘giving’ into a way to promote spending/gift giving. But what if, for just a moment, we could really make a difference by giving the gift of sustenance. I often talk to my children about how we can make a difference and an impact. I am not suggesting that we turn in all of our gifts and put it towards a fund, but I am suggesting that for a moment we focus on really giving to help make someone’s reality better.

I’ll never forget that my Grandfather, Nunzio, during the days when he ran the crab stand at Alioto’s Restaurant at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco; he was always looking for ways to help. One morning, I joined him at work and was perplexed to see him talking to the homeless people sleeping alongside the restaurant. It was even more surprising that they all knew him by name. When I asked him what he spoke with them about he said that he was asking them what kind of sandwich they would like to eat that day. I learned that he would prepare food for them, every day. I inquired further as to why he didn’t just bring out the sandwiches that he had made, and he kindly explained to me that being poor was not a crime and that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. He respected them enough to give them what they wanted to eat, he cared for them deeply, just like he cared for all of us. Years later I learned he would even go out and buy them winter jackets so that they could keep warm.

Do you ever wonder how to make an impact? There are so many ways to give and make a difference. This, one of the richest countries in the world has millions of hungry children, approximately 13 million, that go to bed hungry every day. I often ask myself, how this is possible. There are so many families that can barely make ends meet let alone plan a festive dinner.

What if you could be the difference and make a dent in the hunger crisis that plagues so many, too many, children? I know that I can, and I will. Annually I make a conscious decision to stop the foodie talk and to make this space that I covet a platform to do more. I am a supporter of No Kid Hungry. As I sit down tomorrow I hope that my donation will allow others to sit around their table with those they care about to enjoy a good meal. To be part of the celebration so many of us enjoy. So for a time, I am choosing to forgo the pricey designer coffees and that new top I saw in the magazine because I know I can happily scale back and share with others to give them the memories I think are so important – to be seated around a table, enjoying the aromas of the meal, sharing laughter and stories with those that they care about most. Perspective… $10 = 100 meals.

I hope that you too will take this is an opportunity to provide a meal for a family in need because even one match of humanity can make an explosive positive impact on the lives of others. I raise my glass to all of you, I am so very thankful for all of your support as my beloved blog family. You make the difference to me by feeding my soul.

Giardiniera (Sottaceti) or Pickled Veggie Bliss

October, formerly one of my favorite times of year, seems to trigger a ‘hunger games’ type of reaction from my very being. As the month approaches I feel a duplicative sense of anxiety and accomplishment. Two years ago, during Breast Cancer Awareness month, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. What unravels after that is a bizarre concoction of one part sanity, one part disbelief mixed with two heavy doses of fear. In my moments of clarity my goal was to make sure things were in order, smart decisions were made and that at all costs I protected those closest to me. In retrospect, I can tell you that having a goal did work.

I was luckier than many, and I managed to keep my anti-joiner resolve. I may have had to go done this path, but I did it my way. I refused to be defined by this illness – pink bows >no thank you<, hugs and long stares, wondering how I am REALLY doing >avoided at all costs<, and should anyone dare to call me a hero/warrior >I ran for the hills<. Okay, I am joking, to an extent.

I sincerely did appreciate how much people cared, and my inability to share my dark places with them was just a defect of me, being me. In many ways I wanted to press the fast forward button, and perhaps by not discussing it I was able to minimize some of the more scary elements.

Why bother discussing something that stripped away some of my memories and gave battle scars my family? It is the past, I am fine. And yet unceremonious revelations abound by the day. My tell tale signs of its aftermath are different than what I would have anticipated. For example, I appreciate the value of a smile, taking the time to laugh, a conversation that goes beyond what you may or may know about me on social media. I want to have fun; I want to feel alive; I want to just be happy. I want to spend time with people. I know this probably seems simple and hardly profound. There are other signs that I’ve changed.

I feel as if I’ve been to the dark side and back, and oddly enough, now I find that I gravitate towards natural light. Literally. In fact I crave it. I can’t seem to keep curtains or doors closed – I want the natural light to shine in.

I my measure success by being able to help others. I want to give back to those that are the difference in my world. I want to do all of those little things that make life memorable.

Food is something at the top of my list on how to keep things special and memorable. It is not that I am the only good cook in my house, it is more about my passion for it. It is the gift of my time.

As summer slipped into fall, I thought it might be nice to put the end of summer flavors in a jar. Ergo, another metaphor for light.

Pucker Up. Pickling is one of those magical preservation methods that not only extends a food’s shelf life, but also takes its flavor profile to interesting and delicious places. Cucumbers aren’t the only thing that can be pickled. These very robust flavored veggies have a nice garlic taste and a hint of sour vinegar tang. It’s high pickling season, so pull out those mason jars and get to work!

Giardiniera, or sottaceti, are colorful pickled vegetables that make a beautiful accompaniment to a charcuterie plate or can be added to rice or salad dishes.

Giardiniera

Ingredients

5 lbs mixed vegetables; cauliflower, celery, carrots, cucumbers, fennel, green beans, red peppers, zucchini, onions

8 cups white wine vinegar

4 cups water

7 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed

3 TBS salt

French or lemon thyme

1 jalapeno, seeded (optional)

Note: I made the full recipe and then jarred half of it before adding in the jalapeño.

Note: you can also conserve the vegetables by storing the mixture in oil rather than vinegar, which will keep the flavor balanced.

Directions

Clean and prepare the vegetables. Vegetables like the celery, zucchini and peppers can be cut into strips while cauliflower should be cut into sizes that will easily fit into a jar, about the size of walnut. For variety, cut carrots into round coins. Green beans can be cut in half and onions into small slices.

In a large stock pot, add the vinegar, water salt and bring to a boil. While some recipes will suggest that you cook each separately in the vegetable mixture, I like to mix the remainder of the ingredients together; keeping the thyme aside to place a sprig in each jar. Cook approximately 3 minutes until they are bright and starting to soften but still somewhat crunchy. At this point, the vegetables are ready to be eaten. To prepare them to share at a later date, continue the canning process. If not canning, vegetables will keep for up to 3 months.

Prepare canner, jars and lids. (If you’ve never canned, then let me give you a few more details: Prep the jars and lids for canning following the procedures for boiling water canning. Place lids in a small saucepan half full of water and place on low heat. Put the metal rack in the bottom of the stock pot or boiling water canner. If using screw bands, place them top up in the bottom. The purpose of the rack is to keep the jars from direct contact with the heated metal at the bottom of the pot, which could cause them to scorch or break. Place your clean jars into the canner and fill the container (and jars) half full of water. Turn on the stove to medium heat. Remove a jar from the boiling water canner, by this point the water in the canner should be pretty hot so use the jar lifter. DON’T put the jar directly on the counter as the change in temperature between the oven and the counter will cause the jars to break. It is best to place the jars either on a folded kitchen towel or a wooden surface.)

Pack vegetables evenly and colorfully into hot sterilized jars to within a 1/2 inch of top of jar. Ladle hot vinegar mixture into jar or add olive oil to cover the vegetables, leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Creating proper headspace in each jar is essential to achieving a proper seal and being able to safely store your jam. This is where the clear plastic ruler comes in handy. Remove any air bubbles by poking down into the mixture with chopstick or skewer. Clean the rim of the jar with a damp paper towel to make sure there’s no stray juice to interfere with the seal. Center lid on jar. Cap the jar with your lid and tighten the screw band until it is fingertip tight.

Place the jar back into the boiling water canner using your jar lifter. Once all your jars are filled, make sure they are completely covered with water (you may have to add a bit of additional water to the canner). Bring the water to a boil and then set your timer for 20 minutes. (Add 1 minute onto this time for each 1,000 ft above sea level.) When the timer goes off, remove the canner lid and wait 5 minutes. Why 5 minutes? If you don’t wait a few minutes the jostling of removing them from the canner could keep the jars from sealing. Another important tip is to remember to keep your jars upright as you remove them, titling to the side can also interfere with the seal. There’s nothing more satisfying than hearing “POP!” from across the room and knowing your jars are sealing, but you can’t sit around for a whole day for that sound.

In 24 hours go back and check all your jars. If you push down on the top and the lid gives, you didn’t get a solid seal. Immediately refrigerate or reprocess that jar. I usually take it one step further by taking off the screw band and holding the jar up by just its lid (with the other hand ready to catch, of course). If the lid doesn’t spring up and I can hold it up by just the edges of the metal lid, it has a nice seal.

Crunchy Cereal Chocolate Chip Cookies & Memories

I’ve been trying to comfort myself. I haven’t been home much over the past few weeks, as I spent most all of my free time with Ginny. Little did I know two weeks ago that these would be the last two weeks we would be physically together. It’s the kind of realization that leaves me with a difficult to swallow lump in my throat. At 104, Ginny (AKA Gram) my paternal grandmother was remarkable. She would be the first to tell you that she had lived a good life and was ready ‘to go’- but somehow that had remained well beyond her control.

Since she was in her 90’s I had wondered how I would feel on the day we were no longer together. Little did I know that we were going to be granted 14 more years to enjoy each other’s company during our weekly visits and calls. And while I know it would have been selfish to want more, there was no amount of time that was going to make it easier for me to let her go. I was never going to be ready. I just don’t do ‘good-byes’ gracefully.

In retrospect, I realize that everything about me during these past few weeks was trying to find comfort from reality and my emotions. I wanted to dress in only the softest materials – flannel hit the top of my list, and leggings weren’t too far off either. I was constantly craving my favorite comfort foods – and yet none of them satisfied me. In the past, pasta and chocolate could almost always turn the corners of my mouth upwards into a smile, until now. Sleep escaped me and it seemed that music was my only outlet to calm my otherwise inconsolable emotions.

I tried to prepare my children for the inevitable as my mother, aunt and step-mother tried to prepare me. My head understood that it was time for Ginny to go but my heart refused to cooperate. Each car ride into San Francisco to see her left me in tears as memories would sneak out of my eyes and rapidly roll down my cheeks. The return ride home was much the same. I thought there might be at least one ‘dry’ day but such a day never materialized. It seemed I was capable of providing an unending supply of tear juice.

I haven’t had much of a desire to cook or bake which makes it challenging to be a food blogger. This week I paced around the kitchen in a circular clockwise motion, for the better part of 30 minutes, until I decided that I had to try to crack the seal and figure out how to unlock my suppressed cooking gene. I pulled out my recipe archives and after a lengthy span of time, and several opportunities to be side-tracked, I finally summoned some cookies into the oven. It was not easy. My heart wasn’t in it, but I pushed through to try to find that glimmer of me that has gone suddenly missing. The cookies certainly put smiles on faces around the house and at the office, which was all I could ask for given my state of mind. It confirmed that while I may be momentarily lost in emotions, my baking abilities still work. And I am sure with a bit of food coaxing, time will help me find my stride again.

In the process of rediscovering my take on an old-time classic cookie recipe I managed to somehow feel closer to Ginny. I’ve been searching through my archives and found SO MANY of her amazing recipe creations … and there is one that I can’t wait to make (yes, I am a tease) … which we will discuss soon. Until then, I share with you this crunchy cereal infused chocolate chip cookie. While I typically tend to make chewy chocolate chip cookies there was a time when I was a “tried and true” crunchy cookie gal. Meet a cookie with some serious texture in its character– and while it is not necessarily a beauty for the eyes to behold, it does the belly good.

Crunchy Cereal Chocolate Chip Cookies

Ingredients

½ cup butter, softened

1 cup sugar

½ cup vegetable oil

1 TBS brown sugar

1 egg, slightly beaten

1 tsp vanilla

2 cups flour

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp salt

1 cup corn flakes, crushed into crumbs

½ cup raw oatmeal

1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

Directions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a medium size bowl, using a hand mixer, combine butter, sugar, vegetable oil, brown sugar, egg and vanilla together. Add in flour, baking soda and salt and mix well. Lastly add in corn flakes, oatmeal and chocolate chips. Stir by hand until well combined.

Bake 10-12 minutes.

Old World Lasagna (the real deal)

I am staring down the barrel of loosing Ginny. I am trying to be brave, trying not to be emotional and grossly failing. Most days, I avoid mentally ‘going there’, to the irreversible moment where our conversations only remain in my memories. The rational non-emotional version of me knows that I need to let her go. At 104 years old she is tired. And while her decline often feels as if it is accelerating I remind myself that until she was 103, she was remarkably sharp and able to keep tabs on most all of our comings and goings.

When I reflect back, I realize that in many ways she has been gradually leaving us. For years after my grandfather passed we had our nightly 6pm calls but those faded away as she forgot how to engage with electronics, in response my father and I migrated to increased visits and she remained happy for the interaction. As her physical stability became more limited at 102, she tried to remain engaged by having us tell her stories. Up until she was 103, we had been girlfriends kibitzing about every day life, but these last few months we’ve seen a rather quick slide backwards in her cognitive abilities as her short and long term memories have been stolen away. Stories and conversations are difficult to sustain, so often times we just sit and smile and hold hands.

As I walk into her apartment I am filled with anticipation, as I wonder if she will remember my name. There are visits of complete and total clarity, and then there is the opposite of that. Her dementia has progressed from occasional memory lapses to occasionally remembering key things and people. I look for glimmers of her in her somewhat vacant eyes. And I live for those visits when she calls out my name upon seeing my face, and quickly grabs my hand and holds it to her face and kisses it.

I’ve stopped planning the every other week visit with my children as I know they would be crushed to see how much she has changed. They have such wonderful vivid interactive memories of her that I want to hold those sacred for them. I try to get all my tears out before and after each visit. Attempting to mentally prepare for what is the unavoidable and anticipated outcome – yet it NEVER gets any easier to imagine a life without her. I understand that it must be so but in my heart I can’t find the calm acceptance I need to have.

Letting go of Ginny, is one of the most difficult things I could ever imagine because against all odds she has been an active participant in all of our lives. I remember when her first great grandchild was born and she wept – happy to have been able to meet this new person and sad that she would never see her grow-up; and yet, she has seen her the first 16 years of her life and the first 14 years of her great grandson’s life – I won’t bore you with the tawdry details of how old she’s seen me grow as that would require numerous Campari’s on my part!

For me Ginny will always illicit food memories. She was a fantastic gourmet cook. She would tell me stories about when she first married and how awful of a cook she was, yet she was determined to become better. Growing up her mother had always done all of the cooking and she and her sister were not allowed to participate for fear of getting dirty. So when she married as a 29 year old, quite late for someone at that time, she was up for a bit of a challenge. My Grandfather’s sister Ida was her guide to better cooking; or at least she was so brutally honest that she encouraged my Grandmother to subscribe to ‘Bon Appetite’ Magazine to up her game. And the headstrong determined Ginny, did just that. It was commonly known by the time that I can recall my birthday party’s at their home on Telegraph Hill that she was an amazing cook, having surpassed both of her sister-in-laws and then expanded into elaborate cakes and cake decoration. Everything she made from pastas to birthday cakes was a work of art.

Born in San Francisco, in 1913 Virginia ‘Ginny’ Dora’s parents originated in Northern Italy up near the Alps in Valtellina. They were proud mountain folk that took pride in their polenta and lasagna. Lasagna was one of the dishes that she prepared that my maternal side of the family never made as it was not as prevalent of a dish where they originated from in Sicily. Ginny had numerous recipes for lasagna, but her favorite was the one she learned from our dear Maria Rosa from Montecatini. It has been years since I’ve made my Grandmother’s recipe, having migrated to a more American version, but recently we had our good friend from Parma, Tobia, staying with us and he offered to make lasagna. I can tell you, at first bite I was taken back to Ginny’s adaptation of Maria Rosa’s delicious recipe. Without knowing it, Tobia had given me the sensory boost I needed to reconnect and chin-up emotionally. And while I know the road ahead for Ginny will remain filled with a few peaks and numerous nadirs I also know that through the recipes she has shared with me, as well as her passion for cake decoration, she will always be a part of our lives.

The main difference between American style lasagna and Italian lasagna is the lack of copious amounts of cheese and in its place a buttery layer of béchamel sauce. If you don’t have all day to make your ragu (meat sauce) then make it ahead and allow the flavors to set up for a day or two. And if you want to really leverage your time investment then I recommend doubling the recipe, assembling two lasagnas, and freezing one of these meals to be enjoyed at another time.

Lasagna

There are three sets of ingredients and directions to this recipe – Ragu, Béchamel Sauce and Lasagna ingredients plus assembly.

Lasagna Ingredients

Lasagna pasta sheets, fresh preferred, Buitoni in the refrigerated section

1/2 lb Ethmental cheese, sliced or torn into small pieces

1 cup Parmesan cheese

Ragu Ingredients

1/2 lb sausage

1 lb ground beef

3(15.5 oz) cans tomato sauce

2 carrots, finely diced

1/2 yellow onion, finely diced

2 celery stalks, finely diced

1 1/2 cups of milk

2 TBS olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

1 cup dry white wine

Béchamel Sauce Ingredients

10.5 TBS butter (6 oz or 150 g butter)

1 1/8 cup (150 g ) flour

6 cups whole milk

dash of nutmeg

1/2 tsp salt

Ragu Directions</p>

In a medium pot, over medium heat, add olive oil and carrots, onions and celery and cook until translucent.

In a bowl, combine the ground beef and sausage and mix until well combined. Then add this into the vegetable mixture. Cook stirring frequently until meat changes color from red to a light gray color. Add in white wine and tomato sauce and bring mixture to a low boil. Once boiling reduce heat and cover with a lid, leaving it slightly offset so that some evaporation will take place. Cook sauce for 2-3 hours, stirring every 20 minutes. The last 20 minutes of cooking, while stirring, add in milk.

Béchamel Sauce Directions

In a small pot over medium low heat, add butter and stir continuously until melted. Add in the flour slowly, stirring constantly until well combined and the mixture turns a slightly yellow color. Gradually begin to add in the milk 2 cups at a time, stirring with a whisk. Once all milk has been added continue to stir until sauce noticeably thickens. It should thickly coat the back of a spoon when ready.

Lasagna assembly Direction

Using a 9×11 baking dish, put ¼ inch generous layer of béchamel sauce, layer the uncooked fresh lasagna sheets next, then béchamel sauce, ragu and then Emmethal cheese and a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese. Repeat for two more layers finishing with béchamel and ragu and a generous amount of Parmesan cheese.

Extra sauce can be frozen for use with pasta.

Spicy Blackout Eclipse Cake & The Little Things

I recently read an article that in the end of our lives we will realize that it is probably all of the little moments that were the most important ones. It encouraged me to take a step back, to realize that even when I am rushing through my day to meet all of the expectations placed on me that maybe I should take a second to appreciate what I have- wonderful family, friends and health. Continue reading ‘Spicy Blackout Eclipse Cake & The Little Things’

Roasted Tomato Bucatini

I have a way of getting swept up in summer. I suppose it is something I never fully realized or appreciated until now. The long summer days that feel like you can squeeze three, possibly even four, chapters into your day are definitely worth smiling about. Relaxed lazy dinners followed by trips to the ice cream store or a dunk in the pool give me that feeling I had as a child growing up in the summer. The feeling that I have time: a release from the regimented deadlines and time frames that can seem all consuming and important. Weekends without sports schedules and endless commitments can be amended to include a slightly fluid plan to BBQ and indulge in a few cocktails.

Continue reading ‘Roasted Tomato Bucatini’

Sloppy Joe-lene (Italian Ice Cream Sandwich- Focaccia Gelato)

I am often asked how I got started with my passion for cooking and yet when I reflect back it was more of an evolution than one life changing revelation.

I wasn’t any sort of prodigy in the kitchen. I certainly enjoyed good food and that is probably what eventually led me down this path. Continue reading ‘Sloppy Joe-lene (Italian Ice Cream Sandwich- Focaccia Gelato)’

Cherry Berry Campari Spritzer

I’ve changed

The thing about having been ill is that you do things differently, maybe not right away, but then you look back and realize that you’ve changed. I’ve changed.

You laugh harder, live larger, love more deeply, and take more chances. The focus is on living and doing so memorably. Continue reading ‘Cherry Berry Campari Spritzer’

Acquafaba Chocolate Coffee Coconut Mousse

About a week ago, I was having dinner with my family when my daughter shared a conversation that she had with one of her friends about my food blogging that was spot on. We laughed until tears streamed down our cheeks. It was a moment that still makes me laugh. Because when you explain this recipe, and well, maybe a few of my others, it fits into the category of intriguing and bizarre (and down right delicious!). Continue reading ‘Acquafaba Chocolate Coffee Coconut Mousse’

Tea and Pineapple Infused Blood Oranges

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Lessons learned. Sometimes I feel that despite my age, I remain a student of life’s lessons. There is an inherent energy that comes with this type of continual adrenalin rush that toggles the line between invigorating and insurmountable.

Continue reading ‘Tea and Pineapple Infused Blood Oranges’