Latkes

 Growing up, Sundays around our house had a fairly predictable and comfortable routine.  We weren’t church folk…the combined result of a very mixed religious background and my father’s work schedule. 

Dad worked Monday through Saturday…including many evenings. Sundays truly were his “day of rest.”  As long as you could count visiting with family and catching up on house and garden chores “rest.”  

We’d get up and go through the Sunday papers…even as a kid, I would read at least the comics; get dressed and then head intoTrenton to visit my grandmother. 

We’d pick her up and run around to Palat’s Dairy on the corner of Cooper and Market Streets. 

“And for you,” Mrs. Palat would ask, peering over the counter that was taller than she was. 

Our order was pretty standard:  ¼ pound of lox and a ¼ pound of nova (less salty); some creamed herring and a nice, plump, golden scaled, smoked whitefish. The quantities might increase depending on whom and how many were expected to be at table that morning.

Palat’s was a wonder to me.  The aroma when you walked through the door was like nothing else on earth.  I would love to have the opportunity to breathe deeply of that salty, dusty, garlic air once more.

From there, we’d walk down the street to Kohn’s bakery and then on to Kunis’ to gather the fixings for breakfast. Bagels, “half moons” and some onion rolls from one bakery; maybe a nice loaf of pumpernickel too; then some fruit or cheese Danish and some sticky buns from the next. 

I love lox anyway and how I can get them.  But lox and eggs and a bagel on a Sunday morning; sitting at the table with extended family and friends.   Now that’s heaven on earth. 

¼ pound smoked salmon chopped fine

Melt the butter in a large frying pan and add the onion.  Cook over medium heat until the onion is soft and translucent.  Add the salmon and stir.  Immediately pour the eggs into the pan, stirring to mix everything and evenly.  Reduce heat if necessary and continue to move the eggs around the pan until they are just cooked through but still moist.  Serve family style with good bagels, sweet butter and/or cream cheese.  Serves 4

Responding to the sound of pounding coming from the kitchen, I wandered from what ever it was I had been doing to see what all the noise was about.

At the kitchen table sat my father.  In front of him was a sheet of waxed paper upon which rested a thin slice of red meat.  I watched as he laid another sheet of waxed paper over the meat and proceeded to seemingly indiscriminately flail at it the rubber mallet he used when recovering chairs (a sometimes hobby of his).

I was fascinated and sat down to watch what he was doing.  He placed the nearly translucent piece of what I came to find out was beef on a plate with some others he’d already done and set up to attack a couple more.  I asked what he was doing.

“Making braciole,” was the answer.

Now I can’t remember what the occasion was, but it must have been some kind of special dinner or we were expecting special guests.  Something.

Braciole was not a common accompaniment to our meals and certainly I didn’t remember being around when Dad made them.  Hence my curiosity at the process.

I continued to study my father’s moves.  After pounding out the meat, he seasoned the pieces and then covered each with a filling he’d made up of cooked, crumbled bacon, hard-boiled egg, and breadcrumbs.  Then each piece was rolled up and painstakingly tied with heavy cotton thread.  After browning them in frying pan, the rolls of stuffed meat were plopped into the pot of sauce Mom had going on the stove; left to simmer away until dinner time.

Braciole, for those who don’t know, is the Italian version of rouladen.  Although there are many variations, the basic form is a piece of thinly sliced meat, pounded even thinner, rolled and tied around a savory filling and cooked.  I think the most common…and certainly the norm for the Carluccis…was top round steak.  This would be served along with or in place of the meatballs and sausage that accompanied ravioli or lasagna at a “company” or celebratory meal.

I don’t know if someone showed Dad how to make braciole or if he just figured it out from the experience of eating it.  That afternoon watching him was the only lesson I ever had in making them.  It was years after that I first gave it a try and I haven’t looked back.  It’s still something I reserve for special meals and one of my favorites is to make them to serve with polenta.  I kind of like the “fancy” nature of the braciole as a contrast to the humble presentation of polenta eaten right off of the board.

It’s not a particularly difficult process, just a little time-consuming but it adds a really nice touch to an Italian inspired meal.  The recipe below is based upon what I saw Dad do all those years ago but has evolved a little bit to reflect the ready availability of things like pancetta, pignoli and such.  Enjoy.

Brown off pancetta in a large skillet over medium heat.  Remove meat,reserving rendered fat.  You can set the pancetta on a piece of paper towel to absorb extra grease or just place in a mixing bowl.

In the reserved pork fat, cook the mushrooms over medium heat until tender and they’ve released all of their moisture.  Remove mushrooms from pan, leaving the fat, and add to the mixing bowl.

Toast the pignoli in a clean, dry skillet over medium high heat.  Watch them closely and keep shaking the pan so the nuts don’t burn.  When you can smell the fragrance of the toasting nuts, remove from heat and add to mixture in bowl.

Add the cheese, parsley, chopped egg, garlic, bread crumbs and some fresh ground black pepper.  Mix thoroughly and set aside.

Working between two sheets of plastic wrap or waxed paper, take each slice of top round and pound it to a uniform thickness of approximately 1/8 of an inch. (NOTE: you can use a heavy skillet, pounding disk, or a rubber mallet as I still do.  Just be sure to strike the meat and draw the mallet towards the edges in one motion).  Repeat until each slice has been tenderized and stretched.

Take one of the pounded slices and lay it out on the counter or a cutting board.  Make sure it is flat.  Salt and pepper the top side.  Spread some of the filling mixture over the steak, leaving a small border (1/2 inch or so) all around.

Starting with one of the short ends, tightly roll the steak up, tucking in the sides to enclose the filling.  Using a piece of butcher string, tie the bundle snuggly.  Repeat for each piece of meat.

Once you’ve got all the braciole rolled and tied, reheat the pan with the pancetta drippings in it.  If needed, add a little olive oil to make sure there is enough fat and brown off the braciole on all sides (3 minutes or so a side). Don’t forget the ends! Use a pair of tongs to hold each roll on end for a couple of minutes. 

Once they are completely browned off, add to a simmering pot of your favorite tomato sauce and let cook on low for three hours.  Remove the strings before serving.

Yeah. Summer in Jersey, what are you going to eat?

And you don’t have to go to a whole lot of fuss with them. 

Slice, season, savor.

This past Saturday was a hectic day.

I had some errands in the morning.  Then we ran out to Mainland, PA for lunch with Ann’s family to celebrate my mother-in-law’s birthday.  Back home, take care of the dogs and then I was off to the Thunder game.

By time I got home, I was tired but a little hungry and it was heading towards 10 pm.

What to do?

Then I remembered something I’d heard on the radio earlier in the day.  During a segment on NPR’s weekend edition chef/restaurateur Scott Conant said:

A good tomato raw, with a little bit of salt and a touch of olive oil, is just one of the world’s most simple pleasures…

(to hear Conant’s interview, click here; to read a transcript, click here.)

So that’s what I did.  Sliced a perfectly ripe local tomato, sprinkled on a little sea salt and drizzled on the olive oil. 

Light, refreshing and satisfying.

Martha Ruth “Tark” Devillers Smith Moss, October 20, 1919  – April 20, 2010, R.I.P.

This past Friday we buried my maternal aunt, Martha Ruth “Tark” Moss.  

Aunt Tark was a huge influence on my attitude about cooking, food, and the joy of sharing both with friends and family. 

Tark was what today might be called a “Foodie” but without the connotation of affectation or pretention that term might conjure.  She owned a KitchenAid Mixer decades before they showed up as standard set dressing on Food TV.  She was the first person I knew who belonged to a “dinner club” wherein the members of the group would gather at regular intervals to share meals and experience foods from outside of their normal cuisine.

Tark and her first husband, Aron Smith, for awhile lived on and worked a farm where they raised their own chickens, hogs and steers.  Later in their lives, before Uncle Aron passed away,  they acquired a small piece of land on which they planted an extensive garden and could again raise a pig and/or steer for slaughter and their own consumption. She baked; cooked down-home, family style foods and gourmet fare with equal ease and success; and preserved all manner of fruits and vegetables in season. 

Decades before there was a “Slow Food” movement, Aunt Tark followed the tenets of using locally produced, seasonal items to feed family and friends.  She did this not because it was popular or “cool.”  Rather she was merely carrying on the tradition she had grown up with; not out of necessity, but because it was better tasting, better for us (the consumers) and the land and because it just made sense.

During a visit one summer during my childhood, Aunt Tark and Uncle Aron took us to a “trout farm” where you could (and we did) pay to catch live trout right out of the ponds.  The fish were filleted and pan fried in the adjacent picnic area just minutes after being hooked.  It was an experience that taught just how wonderful truly fresh fish can be. This was also the meal that introduced me to hush puppies.

Using Tark’s recipe for what some call a “beer-rita” I once won a friendly neighborhood competition for the best Margarita.

As my interest in cooking and eating grew, I always found that I could engage Tark in discussions of food items and preparation.  Her appreciation for and proficiency at preparing fine food has always been an inspiration to me.   I only hope that those I have cooked for and supped with over the years could know just a fraction of the joy that I have received from sharing the bounty of her table… seasoned with the preparer’s love and spiced with a sense of humor. 

It is never easy to lose a loved one, especially those with whom we share a special bond.  I take comfort in knowing she most assuredly will be with me whenever I am at work in the kitchen and I hope I can achieve but a small portion of the talent she demonstrated for living a good life.

The annual article appeared in the newspaper a few weeks ago.  The Allfather’s coconut eggs were back in the stores.

I’m not much for candy and, frankly, never have been.  But Halloween and Easter were candy filled holidays when I was a kid.  And I have to admit, I sort of looked forward to a brief overload of chocolate and sugar and the like.

While we would go door to door to score the candy in October, the chocolate treats just showed up in baskets on Easter; first, at home, then later in the day at my grandmother’s house.

Some years it was solid chocolate bunnies; some years hollow; sometimes eggs or chocolate covered marshmallow figures on a stick.

And some years there would be an Allfather’s egg.

The Allfather’s Candy Company is a century old Trenton tradition best remembered for their “Easter Egg” product.  The coconut cream eggs were known for their “yolk” center of filling dyed yellow.  I can remember discussion and debate between those who were fond of them and looked forward to them each spring and those who weren’t crazy about them.  I seem to recall being in the latter camp.

So, there it was, firmly planted in my subconscious…Easter is Allfather’s Egg time.

I was running through the Wegmans market outside of Princeton when I happened upon a stash of the Allfather’s eggs.

“Cool,” I thought to myself, “Wegmans is stocking a local product.”

Without any hesitation, I picked up one of the traditional coconut cream eggs to bring home to Ann (she of the sweet tooth).

Just as soon as I got home and put the rest of the groceries away, I cut into the egg and sliced off samples for Ann and myself. We savored the sweet chocolate and coconut confection.  Although that was my only taste, the remainder of the eight ounce egg disappeared over the course of the next few days.

Last Friday, during my weekly trip to the Trenton Farmers Market on Spruce Street, I stopped by the Honey of A Nut store and picked up another egg.  This time, I got the one pound size to ensure it would last until Easter.  And I grabbed an eight ounce vanilla cream egg, just to sample.

As I write this, they are half gone.  And when we’ve finished them, I will have more than satisfied my curiosity.  I’m pretty sure I wasn’t all that keen on these eggs when I was a kid; and I know that I’m not that fond of them now.

I don’t know…I was maybe 11 or 12 and my father told me we were going to dinner at his aunt’s house.  Aunt Della would be serving “buh-lend” (that’s how I heard it).  My questioning face prompted Dad to follow up with a definition, “Corn meal mush.”

The thought of eating ‘mush’ didn’t sound so appealing, but I was curious. 

At Aunt Della and Uncle Joe’s house maybe 18 to 24 people representing four generations of the Carlucci clan had gathered.  The kitchen was buzzing and Aunt Della was, of course, supervising everything. 

When it came time, I was called to the stove where there was a large stockpot of boiling water.  I was given spoon and told to stir as cornmeal was “rained in”: poured, deliberately, steadily and with a measured hand, into the bubbling water. 

“Stir!” Aunt Della commanded.  “No lumps!” 

It wasn’t as severe as it reads.  But if you didn’t know Aunt Della…her abrupt delivery of such lines and the fact that her voice could hit some shrill notes might lead you to think otherwise. 

I didn’t care.  The task at hand was stirring the corn meal into the pot of boiling water.  And then to continue stirring. What I didn’t know was that the stirring would take a good 45 minutes and I was cautioned not to stop 

Our dinner apparently depended upon the job of stirring the polenta properly.  If I failed, my family was going to go unfed…and that wasn’t something I wanted on my young head.  So I stirred. 

I followed as best I could the directions given by my Great Aunt.  And I listened she discussed and discarded various approaches to making polenta: which grind of corn meal was best; whether to start in cold water or hot or make a slurry of the first to add to the second; use some milk or just plain water.  It was a serious and studied debate.  All the time I stirred the pot of slowly thickening porridge. 

When the “mush” was deemed done, the pot was carried to the table and poured out.  Then the tomato gravy poured over it and the meat (meatballs and sausage) placed in the middle. 

The boisterous and happy gathering was also a way to fill up one’s soul.  

My enjoyment was heightened by the fact that I was chosen to help prepare the meal.  I had proven my worth…at least in the kitchen. As a reward, I was offered of a small taste of Uncle Joe’s homemade wine. The offer was made via silent nods and gestures between him and my father.  Uncle Joe never said too much. 

I became a huge fan of the communal polenta meal.  We had polenta at Aunt Della’s a few more times before she passed.  And we also had it at the home of Cousin Eddie and his wife Gloria.  Each time, I was given the “honor” of stirring…sometimes by myself, sometimes spelled by Eddie’s brother, Luke. 

Even in college, placing a sheet of plywood over the dining room table in a friend’s apartment, I managed to feed a group of us polenta as a prelude to an evening out. 

Polenta was historically peasant food. The rustic quality of the meal shared literally from the table itself was always a comfort.  Imagine my surprise at reading a story in the New York Times about polenta being served on “the board” at La Cirque 2000.

By the time that article was published (March of 1998), family gatherings around the polenta board had dwindled to precious few.  Yet each fall, as the weather turned cool, I would start thinking about the simple pleasure of polenta and wishing I had a board large enough to serve it from.

A few years ago, we were given a very old, seasoned board by good friends so I could finally prepare and serve this treat to small gathering of up to six people. That winter we introduced my brother-in-law Dave and niece Maloree to the meal…not letting on in advance that they would be eating “mush” right off of a board.  My niece, especially, took a fancy to it and each year asks when we might get together so I can again make polenta.  It’s good to know that the tradition is likely to carry on through another generation.

Bring the water to boil in a large pot.  Slowly add the corn meal in a stream, stirring completely to ensure there are no lumps (Use a whisk, it helps).  Once all the corn meal has been added, reduce the heat low enough to just keep the porridge slowly bubbling.  Stir until the desired consistency is reached.  For eating off the board, I like a fairly firm polenta.  You’ll know it’s done when it pulls away from the side of the pan as you stir it.

Sprinkle some corn meal over a clean dry board or wooden bread/pizza peel.  Top with your preferred sauce and some meatballs, sausage, and/or braciole.

Polenta can also be served as an accompaniment to roasted meats or fowl. Or it can spread to cool and set up and then sliced for grilling or browning in a pan.

(more…)

We were halfway through Hanukkah this year when I got around to making my annual batch of latkes.  This is something I do in honor of my grandmother, Bessie Cohen Carlucci. 

Grandmom may have married into an Italian family and adopted many of the foods and traditions of that culture, but she maintained some of her Jewish traditions as well.  Every year the holiday decorations in her house on Ferry Street included an electric menorah that was lit for Hanukkah. 

When we were dealing with my late Aunt’s estate a decade or so ago, I was thrilled to come across that menorah in its original box. I kept it and have it still.   But even before that, I had picked up a brass menorah in a shop in Indianapolis because I wanted to keep the Hanukkah tradition going.

So one night every year, I would find myself cooking a brisket and preparing a batch of potato pancakes.

It’s a shame that I only think to make these wonderful treats once a year.  They really are tasty and deserve to appear on the table more often.  And I could use the practice.

Cooking, like any skill/craft requires repetition if one wishes to become proficient.  Certainly that is the case with my latkes.

Now I am not referring to the tarted up potato-turnip-duck fat versions.  Or ones made with sweet potatoes.  We’re talking plain old potato pancakes.

I’ve tried a number of versions from cookbooks, newspaper articles, and consults with family and friends. My results have varied from poor to mediocre.  Since the recipes are all so similar, I have to assume I am the inconsistent factor.

The important thing is I keep trying.

The basic recipe is the same: grated potatoes, some grated onion, drained of as much water as possible, seasoned with salt and pepper and bound with beaten egg.  Some add matzo meal, or chopped herbs.  Make patties, pressing out still more moisture, and fry in oil. 

Simple, right?

Or not.

Things I’ve learned over the years…

I did find an interesting tip that I applied to this year’s batch. It came in an email from the people at America’s Test Kitchen(see the recipe below). 

After grating the potatoes in the food processor, switch to the regular steel blade, add back half of the grated potatoes to the bowl along with the onion and pulse until you have a uniform crumbly mixture.  The idea is that the mixture of shredded and coarsely chopped potato gives the latkes a softer center, somewhat reminiscent of the Irish boxty.   

I did get a little “fancy” in that I swapped a touch of chopped, fresh rosemary for the scallions in the recipe.  I happened to have rosemary sitting on the counter from another culinary adventure earlier in the day and figured, “why not?”

We decided that this batch of latkes was pretty good.  And that we needn’t wait and have them only once a year.

I think Grandmom would approve.

Thick and Creamy Potato Latkes

Makes approximately 14 3-inch pancakes.  

Matzo meal is a traditional binder, though we found that the pancake’s texture does not suffer without it. Applesauce and sour cream are classic accompaniments for potato latkes.

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