Sunday, December 28, 2008

Salmon Topped with Spinach and Mixed Olive Bruschetta

My wife stepped out tonight for her annual holiday dinner with her girlfriends, so it was a good chance for me to be a little creative at home. Since I was on daddy duty, I needed to keep it somewhat simple. I also decided to do something light and healthy to counter-balance the disgusting amounts of holiday cookies that I've eaten over the past few days. I decided on salmon topped with steamed spinach.

I came across a nice jar of mixed olive bruschetta at my local Italian deli and specialty shop. I thought that this would be the perfect accent to the dish. I usually prefer to grill or pan sear my salmon, but since the oven was on to bake Julianna's chicken tenders, I went with baking the salmon. After a quick olive oil drizzle and some salt and pepper, I baked it for about 10-12 minutes. Just a few minutes before it was done, I topped it with a tablespoon of the bruschetta, just to let it warm up. Removed it from the oven, topped it with some nice steamed spinach, and enjoyed a terrific, healthy and quick meal. I'm guessing that it would go well with a nice glass of Pinot Grigio...I'll give that a shot the next time when (hopefully) I'm not home alone with just the two little ones!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Kitchen Friends

This time of year brings lots of traditions. One that I particularly look forward to is our annual holiday dinner with our close friends – Yvonne, Lorena and their families. The tradition started about 8 years ago, when Yvonne's mom (Momma Pinto), would invite a whole group of Yvonne's friends over to her house for a spectacular feast. I never understood the phrase 'soup to nuts' until my first Momma Pinto dinner. These meals were filled with not only tons of great food and wine, but lots of laughs and love as well. We particularly looked forward each year to the reaction of the newest person to attend the meal (aka - the rookie). One year that particularly sticks with me is when our friend, Sara, stood up and proudly said "oh man, that was the BEST pasta I ever tasted. I am SO FULL!!" This was after the first course. We all just shook our heads and told her, lovingly, to sit down and buckle in for the gourmet ride of her life. Later that night, our friend, John, decided to challenge Momma Pinto as to how much food she could possibly have readily available. He teased and asked if she ever made ham. Within minutes, ham appeared on the table as if Houdini himself were present. John was speechless...I just sipped my amaretto and smiled.

Momma Pinto with Julianna, 2004

Another memorable event that occurred this night was when we all discovered that we were clean out of wine. What to do?!?! Within seconds, Momma Pinto rushed to her special cabinet to produce a bottle of Pesce that was in a fish-shaped bottle. We laughed so hard, that our overstuffed bellies hurt. For the next few years, everyone showed up to the dinner with a bottle of Pesce Vino to get the festivities rolling.

Fish Wine!

A few years into the dinner, the crowd had dwindled a bit, but the fun and festivities were stronger than ever. The last time we had dinner at Momma Pinto's proved to be the most entertaining to date. Lorena's parents joined us this time, which meant lots of great stories, Ernesto's home-made wine and fresh pannetone shipped directly from Momma Pinto's cousins in Italy. The night was capped off with all of us laughing hysterically at this stuffed doll that, when you squeezed it's belly, counted down from 10 to 1 to scream "Welcome to the Year 2000!" – for some reason in a British accent. Unforgettable to say the least!

Sadly, about a year or so after that, Momma Pinto lost her long-fought battle to cancer. It was at her funeral, when her nephew was giving his beautiful eulogy, that he spoke about his aunt's special group of friends. She referred to them as 'kitchen friends,' because all of their conversations and time spent were usually done at the kitchen table. Lots of food and wine obviously included. We were all sad on the outside, but at that moment, I know that we all smiled on the inside, because we all knew that we were included in that elite group.

We still gather together every holiday, whether it be at a restaurant or at one of our houses. The meals haven't been nearly as grand, but our friendship still makes for the perfect evening. This year, Lorena and her husband Mike hosted and did a fantastic job, bringing our annual event back to full force. There was lots of laughter, delicious food, great story telling, and of course Ernesto's home-made wine. And we all know that Momma PInto was enjoying every minute of watching her kitchen friends celebrate yet another festive holiday.

Welcome to the year 2009!

Julianna and Daniella, 2008

Rosa preparing the big meal

Kitchen friends sharing their big meal!

Julianna and Yvonne

Yvonne, Lorena, Julianna and Daria

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Good Gravy!

Is it gravy? Is it sauce? A debate as big as which came first, the chicken or the egg? My vote, of course, goes to gravy. And I someday plan to elaborate on my answer.

As you may have already read on my blog, I do not usually depend on measurements when I cook. My Sunday gravy is, perhaps, my most cherished dish. Red gold. However, if I am going to post my gravy recipe, I want to make sure that it is accurate. This isn't a quick marinara. We're talking meatballs, sausage, country spare ribs....a very complicated and pain staking Sunday afternoon. But one that is rewarding and fulfilling. So, once we get through the holidays and I actually have an open Sunday, I will gladly delve into it and document what it is that I actually do!

Until then, you HAVE to check out Lorraine Ranalli's new website, It is a very entertaining and well put together, true representation of one of South Philly's biggest passions. I am anxiously looking forward to reading her book, and encourage you to do the same! Kudos Lorraine!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Stuffed Calamari

I was in a coffee shop not long ago and overheard a conversation between two men. One was saying how proud he was of his seven year old son who loves eating the calamari rings from his local pizza shop. The other guy said "wow, that's terrific that he enjoys eating calamari at such a young age." I thought to myself, "Yeah, that's great. Your son enjoys eating deep fried rubber bands. Congratulations, pal."

I think it's wonderful that a youngster would enjoy calamari. I've been eating it since I was probably around the age of four. However, I was not eating those cute little bite-size portions that have become a standard on most menus. No sir. What I was introduced to has become, to this day, one of my all-time favorite dishes which is served at my all-time favorite meal. I'm talking about Stuffed Calamari. And in just a few short weeks, I will once again be able to enjoy this delectable dish.

Every Christmas Eve, we gather together with all of my cousins, aunts, uncles and Grandmother to celebrate the Feast of the Seven Fishes. Since more of us are contributing to the dinner these days, we're probably up to about 11 or 12 fishes. New dishes, such as coconut shrimp, talapia and king crab legs appear every year. But we still carry quite a few of the traditional dishes as well (smelts, whiting, bacala, and of course stuffed calamari). Now, if you never had stuffed calamari, it's quite different from the standard fried ringlets. It's the entire calamari tube, probably about the size of an manicotti tube, filled with a bread stuffing, and served in a red sauce. Think stuffed shells, but much more complex in taste and texture.

I have nothing against fried calamari, as long as it's properly prepared. In fact, it's a dish that my wife and I enjoy tremendously. Most of our favorite restaurants are ranked on the tenderness and tastiness of their fried calamari alone! But there is not a dish in the world that I would trade for my holiday stuffed calamari.

While I do not have my family's exact recipe (as my Aunt Marie is not yet willing to give up the calamri duties), below is a recipe that I found online a few years back that is very close, and is quite delicious. And if you're ever in the area of Collingswood, NJ, pay a visit to Nunzio's and enjoy an order of their Calamari Dorati.

Stuffed Calamari

• 2 pounds of calamari tubes (cleaned)
• 2 cans of crushed tomatoes (28 oz. Cans)
• 2 cloves of garlic (chopped)
• 1 teaspoon of sugar
• 1 can (28 oz.) of water (use the crushed tomatoes can to measure)
• Salt and pepper to taste
• 1/4 pound of grated cheese of your choice
• 2 teaspoons garlic powder
• 2 teaspoons of accent

Stuffing Ingredients
• 1/2 loaf of bread
• 2 teaspoons parsley
• 1/4 cup of grated cheese
• Salt and pepper to taste
• Oil (enough to moisten mixture)
• 1 clove of fresh garlic
Optional Ingredients
• 1 egg
• Clams, lobster, shrimp or fish of your choice chopped can be added to the stuffing

In a large pot, sauté garlic in heated oil. Add crushed tomatoes and season these tomatoes with all the other ingredients (excluding the stuffing ingredients). Add water a little at a time till the sauce thickens to your liking. Wash calamari tubes thoroughly and drain well. Take the stuffing ingredients and mix well until it is of a nice consistency. Stuff each tube halfway full. Use toothpicks at the opening of each filled tube. Add these tubes to the tomato sauce and cook about 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
Serves 4-6.