Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Baci Il Cuoco

Much to my family's chagrin, I often remind them to thank the cook. They scoff, not because they are inconvenienced, but because they believe that the simple act of devouring a meal is indication enough that they enjoyed it. I disagree.
In this case, words just might speak louder than actions.

Several years ago, I stumbled upon a three-foot sign that reads
"Baci Il Cuoco." It means "kiss the cook" in Italian. I had to have the sign, not only because I believe in its message but because my beloved grandmother's maiden name was Cuoco, and any connection I have to her or my Italian roots is a good one. And so, the sign hangs high in my kitchen, not far from the one that reads "Mangia e statti zitto!" (loosely translated: "shut up and eat!"). For those of you who haven't already figured it out--I am an Italian-Italian wannabe. I am an Italian-American waiting for the genie to emerge from his lamp, so he can grant my first wish; the one that has my parents living in Italy, birthing and raising their brood of five above a pizzeria in Naples.
But alas, that is fodder for another post.

So let me get back to the subject of thanking the cook...
Surely, I need not remind you that cooking is as much an act of love as it is one of obligation.
I think we all need to take time out to thank not only the cook who prepares the meal, but also the one who found time to shop for groceries in between daily commitments and chaos. And while we're at it, shouldn't we thank everyone involved in getting our meals to the table?
We mustn't forget that from the farmer who rises early to pick our produce at its peak, to the cashier who works the late shift and carefully bags last-minute rotisserie chickens for harried, hungry, commuters, each plays a significant role.
The fact that we have any meal at all to share in these trying economic times is a blessing worthy of pause and gratitude.

I spent a significant amount of time this past week reflecting upon all that I have to be thankful for, specifically the blessings I have been afforded in 2008. Although it seems I was foolishly short-sighted in my own annual resolutions, so many others rose to the occasion and made me proud to call them my friends or relatives (or both).
I didn't follow through on Oprah's advice to start my own gratitude journal, and perhaps that will be something to consider for 2009. Instead, I made it my mission to thank a few special people on their birthdays and remind them (in many, many words) of their qualities and contributions for which I am so grateful. These are the people who remain oblivious to the fact that they consistently teach me valuable life lessons because they teach by example (and for the record, they remain oblivious because they are too busy helping others to notice). They provide me with a higher education of sorts; one that exceeds the parameters of professional development--they are the ones who simply make me want to be a better person.

And where education is concerned, I am no longer afraid to admit that I am still learning how to learn. At forty-something, I struggle with a not-so-reliable memory and I've had to face the cold hard truth that whatever education I seek will likely be limited to short-term retention. I am an avid reader and most of what I choose to read is culinary in nature. My failing memory has turned out to be a blessing at times because there are many kitchen experiments I'd rather forget. Sadly, the same condition has not befallen those who dine with me regularly, and perhaps this is the true reason they occasionally neglect to thank the cook. Nonetheless, I remain mindful of the basic tenets of good cookery; using the freshest ingredients and the best tools available.

Recently I was reminded of the value of great cookware. I was hosting a holiday gathering with friends when a curious neighbor inquired about my pantry cabinet and why I chose to store cookware inside, instead of the obvious non-perishables. I responded with a wordy complaint about the cookware's heft and size and my need to have it in close proximity to my stove. Our dialogue prompted me to demonstrate and lift the largest enamel-over-cast iron dutch oven I owned onto the stove, where it sat for two days until I was inspired to put on a pot of hearty soup. Quite honestly, making gallons of
pasta e fagioli seemed easier to me than the prospect of wrestling with the pot to return it to its rightful place. The soup was a huge success but the thought of storing leftovers and washing that pot was daunting at best. I used every last Tupperware within my arsenal to freeze the leftovers and filled the dutch oven with warm soapy water to soak, dreading the task of scrubbing the pot clean.
A short time later, much to my amazement, that pot cleaned up like a dream, with no elbow grease involved.
For a moment, I stood alone in my kitchen, embarrassed. When did I become a middle-aged, kitchen wimp with a failing memory?
Really, I can't answer that because I can't remember. Had I recalled why I shelled out top dollar for these pots in the first place (superior heat conduction, low maintenance, easy to clean), I might have been more motivated to use them. But there is a greater lesson to be learned here. I soon realized that on more than one occasion in my life, I have avoided tasks that, while rewarding at their completion, are difficult in their execution.
Simply stated and as shameful as it is for me to admit it, I dislike hard work. But who doesn't?

Reality dictates however, that most of us are strangers to what hard work really is. The majority of us will complain about the day job, the rush-hour traffic that follows and the self-inflicted, organized chaos we impose upon our children for fear of 'downtime'. There will never be enough paid vacation or sick days to appease us and the minor catastrophes we classify as "crisis" pale in comparison to what others endure. It shames me to think that I complained about lifting a
too-heavy pot in the comfort of my own kitchen, blessed to have more than enough ingredients to feed a not-too-hungry family, because this has been a painful year for so many, both financially and emotionally.
I have to believe that things will get better, but until they do, I can't think of a better time for us to practice being better people and put words into action.

In addition to the ones that hang on plaques in my kitchen, I am reminded of adages I heard throughout my childhood but didn't fully understand until not so long ago.
Perhaps these will serve as guideposts as I navigate through a new year of hope and possibility.
I invite you to join me and make any or all of these your own:

Many Hands Make Light Work

If You Won't Help, Don't Hinder

A Simple Life is its Own Greatest Reward

Dirty Hands = Clean Money

If we all gathered, formed a circle, and placed our problems in the center, when asked to pick one out of the center to keep, each of us would likely take back our own.

Kiss the Cook

Shut Up and Eat

Until next time,

Make Life Delicious
Share Your Food


Sunday, December 21, 2008

Food Forethought

My long hiatus from blogging has officially ended.
While it was imperative that I focus my attention on health and family, the subject of great food was never far from my mind.

Presently, while the visions in my head aren't necessarily of sugarplums, I find myself distracted from my annual holiday
bake-a-thon (one contestant, no spectators, and A LOT of butter), as I contemplate a menu for Christmas Eve.

For years, I have wanted to recreate the traditional Christmas Eve
Feast of the Seven Fishes.
It is quite possible that I totally made up the name of that feast. There might have been more or less than seven fishes and if my memory serves me correctly, it's more of a seafood fiasco than a feast. Nonetheless, I want it, whatever it's called, and no matter how many crustaceans have to be sacrificed--I WANT IT.

There is a foggy childhood memory that haunts me to this day; one Christmas Eve, my mother presented me with an early gift. It was a rabbit fur coat with a matching hand muff, to be worn over my Sunday best. I knew we were going someplace special because an early gift was a rare occurrence.
We left holiday mass and headed for an unfamiliar address. When we arrived at the crowded house, we were ushered to a finished basement crammed with plastic-covered banquet tables, at which were seated more blue haired relatives than I had met in my lifetime. Most spoke Italian (quickly), while few spoke the same broken English as my live-in grandmothers. I was immediately taken by the smell of the basement. It was intoxicating. It was spicy and familiar and it made me hungry. As I looked around however, I was terrified of what stared back at me from huge silver bowls placed at the center of each table. Creatures I thought I recognized from encyclopedia photographs sat rigid and lifeless in pools of red velvet sauce. A feeling of panic set in and I prayed hard and fast for a slice of pizza that never materialized. I am haunted by this vivid memory, not for the sake of dead sea life, but instead because I was too young and too foolish to let such gastronomic pleasure pass me by. If only I could time-travel backward to that feted night, I would refuse the compensatory bowl of spaghetti and instead indulge, elbow to elbow, with the blue haired and the bibbed, savoring every morsel of such briny fare. But alas, it must remain only as a distant memory, rife with missed opportunities.
I long to mimic that night and play hostess to a bevy of tentacled treats.
Sadly however, I seem to be the only one in my family excited by this prospect and would likely be left to face the cracking of crustaceans alone. Each year I propose we make this tradition our own, and each year the Christmas Committee (a.k.a. my own Italian American fish-phobic family) rejects my proposal.
Had I been more diligent in my search to find a true-to-tradition Italian family, willing to adopt me for Christmas Eve, I wouldn't be faced with the daunting task of whipping up an impressive meal on the Eve of the year's most gastro-spectacular holiday.
Oy, the pressure.

While others might be content to compromise, my stubborn,
all-or-none mentality, won't allow me to.
I want the whole Italian shebang. If I can't have it all, then I don't
want ANY of it.

And so, I have decided upon a prime rib roast for dinner.
No shrimp cocktail.
No lobster tail with bland, American butter sauce.
Not even baked clams on the half shell.
No surf. Just turf.

Let them eat steak.

Until Next Time,

Make Life Delicious
Share Your Food