The Literate Chef

Posts Tagged ‘Inwood’

Tommy T and Me

In General Articles on April 30, 2012 at 2:06 PM

Me and Tommy T - June 2000

I met Tommy T on our first day of high school 56 years ago. We were assigned seats in alphabetical order, and as luck would have it, I sat next to him. We were from different neighborhoods, I from Inwood in Northern Manhattan and he from Highbridge in the Bronx.

Both neighborhoods, and in particular the parishes within them, Good Shepherd in my case and Sacred Heart in his, were populated predominantly by first and second generation Americans of Irish extraction. We were both second generation Americans of Italian extraction. Besides that commonality, we shared an interest in books and movies and appreciated a well-told story, particularly if it contained a humorous proclivity. One of the major pastimes in both of our neighborhoods was the imbibing of alcoholic beverages, another mutual interest of ours.

As we progressed through high school and college, Tom into an early marriage with Pat and the raising of three sons and I into military service to be followed a few years later with marriage to Betty and the raising of two daughters, our friendship grew and matured; expanding into good food, fine wine and the enjoyment of a Single Malt Scotch accompanied by a pleasant cigar.

We frequently got together for dinner, either alone, with our classmates, or with our wives and we attended our children’s weddings and welcomed his and Pat’s grandchildren into the world. This idyllic friendship lasted until Tom’s untimely death five years ago on May 10, 2007, so he never had the chance to meet our grandchildren.

In the intervening years, Betty and I became friends with Tom’s older brother Bill and his wife Kathy, who were frequent guests of Tom & Pat. This was a natural, as Bill, or Uncle Bill as he was often referred to, shared the same interest in books, movies, jokes, food, wine, single malts and cigars as did Tommy T and I, and the 3 wives all got along as well.

Recently Betty and I visited Bill and Kathy, and Bill prepared an excellent Penne a la Vodka as a first course for dinner. Having had this pasta dish on only one or two other occasions, I was curious to see how it was done, particularly the pink part. I watched Bill masterly prepare it and he was kind enough to write down his recipe.

This past weekend with our daughter and her family visiting, we invited my cousin Virginia and Peter to dinner to share in my adaptation of Uncle Bill’s Penne a la Vodka. Bill’s recipe calls for parsley, but having a beautiful bunch of basil on hand, I decided to substitute it for the parsley. Everyone raved about it and the next day, I asked my four–year old granddaughter if she would like to try some of Grandpa’s ‘Macaroni & Cheese’ for lunch. She did and devoured it saying ‘Grandpa, you are a good cook!’ It turns out that Uncle Bill’s Penne a la Vodka is also the perfect Mac & Cheese. Tommy T would have loved that!

Grandma Loved Ceci Beans

In General Articles on October 23, 2011 at 6:09 PM

Grandma, who crossed the Atlantic 101 years ago on the Principe di Piemonte, with three children aged 7 and younger, loved ceci beans (chech-ee), which are also known as chick peas and garbanzo beans. As a callow youth with an unsophisticated palate, I hated them. To me, they were mealy and dry and I never tasted them again until about 10 years ago, when I had a ceci-based soup at a restaurant in Vagliagli, in the Chianti district of Tuscany.  After that, I began to appreciate their texture, flavor and adaptability to a variety of uses. One such use is in Garbanzo Bean Soup.

Recently, I had occasion to have lunch with some friends at the Indian Road Café, in my old neighborhood of Inwood in northern Manhattan.  I ordered a delicious shrimp sandwich, which came with a side salad of chick peas dressed with pesto. Having some pesto sauce remaining from the batch of Uncle Fred’s Homemade Pesto Sauce that I had made several weeks ago, as well as several cans of garbanzos in the pantry, I had an epiphany and headed out to the market to pick up a red onion, cucumber and lemon. The first of two of those items were visible in the salad as well as the chick peas and pesto, but I had no idea about the lemon, it just seemed the right addition.

The serendipitous result was Insalata de Ceci, named in honor of Grandma, who I believe would have loved this dish. The moral of this tale is ‘Listen to your grandma, as she is always right!’

Pasta Memories

In General Articles on April 9, 2011 at 3:00 PM

My earliest Pasta Memory, one filled with nostalgia for the simpler times in life, is Spaghetti with Del Monte Sauce. This was a ritual many Friday nights in our 3½ room apartment in the Inwood neighborhood of northern Manhattan, when I was growing up in the 1940s and 50s. First came the savory aroma of sliced garlic sautéed in hot olive oil, then the pungency of dried oregano added to the pan, finally the sizzling sound of canned Del Monte tomato sauce as it hit the hot oil and the fragrant aroma of tomato was released into the apartment. With the water for the spaghetti already at a boil, dinner was less than 15 minutes away.

My father, Big Mike, the designated Friday night cook, (he learned to cook from his mother, but I suspect that he perfected this meal while serving with the CCC out West) would sample the macaroni (he never called it ‘pasta’) after about 9 minutes of boiling and announce that it was al dente; that was the signal that we should take our seats at the table. After draining the spaghetti in a colander, (a ‘skoola pasta‘, in the Sicilian dialect he learned from his immigrant mother) he would return it to the pot, mix in the sauce, stir it well and scoop it into bowls. The spaghetti was always accompanied by freshly grated Locatelli Romano cheese, which was to be sprinkled liberally over it, by all. All that is, except my mother, Dorothea, who disdained cheese on her macaroni, as she claimed it detracted from the flavor of the sauce. Instead, she would heap one or two teaspoonfuls of her homemade Hot Pepper Sauce onto her bowl, as if that did not detract from the flavor of the sauce! She then proceeded to cut the spaghetti with a knife and fork and eat it with a spoon, so as to ‘get the spaghetti together with the sauce in one mouthful’.

Big Mike working for the CCC (circa 1934)

After my wife and I married, Spaghetti with Del Monte Sauce became a regular meal in our household, though not every Friday night, as it was quick, easy, inexpensive and delicious. Big Mike had another pasta dish that he enjoyed cooking and eating, and Another of Big Mike’s Favorites was also a regular Friday night dinner.

How to Cook Like an Italian Grandmother

In General Articles on April 9, 2011 at 2:48 PM

Food, from its raw state to its ultimate consumption, is a sensual journey. From the acquisition of the ingredients, through the process of preparation, presentation and consumption, the senses of sight, smell and taste, almost always come into play. However, the two other senses, sound and touch, are no less important to our overall enjoyment of food, even though they are not always present during each food experience.

As more of us dine out, or purchase prepared foods, the sense of sound usually experienced in the preparation of food is lost, unless of course, you are eating in a restaurant with an open kitchen. Similarly, in many dining out experiences, formal or otherwise, unless it is finger-food like passed hors d’oeuvres, or hand-food such as barbecued ribs, the sense of touch is not necessarily evident.

Certain foods frequently take us back through time to our childhood, or to particularly memorable moments in our lives. Who among us having grown up in a large city, has not, when walking past a ‘Jewish’ deli, and inhaling that heady aroma of a combination of grilled frankfurters, steamed corned beef and pastrami, mixed with the pungency of dill and new pickles, recalled a time from their childhood when they were treated to a similar experience?

Having grown up in the northern Manhattan neighborhood of Inwood in the 1940s and 50s, living with my parents and younger sister, I, like many of my friends and contemporaries was fortunate to have had those food experiences, as well as others, many times over. I can still recall hot summer afternoons and the Jewish deli that used to be on the southwest corner of Vermilyea Avenue and 207th Street. Its aroma would hit me full in the face as I walked into the store, awakening my salivary glands in anticipation to the treats ahead. Then the crunch, the heat, the powerful salty taste, moderated by the yeasty freshness of the bun, as I first bit into a sizzling hot dog, just off the grill. To be followed by the greasy yet crisp feel of French fries served in a paper cup, each of which was coated with salt grains that clung to it and ketchup that cooled its heat. As I savored this combination of flavors, all five senses were certainly going strong!

Equally vivid in my memory bank  is walking into the Pizza Haven, inhaling the aroma of garlic, fresh basil, tomato sauce and yeast. I can still recall the sensation of that first slice of ‘fresh from the oven’ hot pizza, as the mozzarella clung to and burned the roof my mouth!

My forays into the pizza parlor were a secret kept from my grandmother and mother, each of whom took great pride in her ability to create a memorable meal for her family.

What we have attempted to do with is to entertain and share with you some of our memories while giving you some cooking ideas to introduce to your family and friends. Hopefully you will find them easy to implement and they will become part of your memories as well.

Please Continue to: Everybody Has a Story   

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