…and a good time was had by all

Deck the antique sideboards with strings of cheap multicolored lights, fa la la la la...

I love to throw parties. No, wait, scratch that–I love to plan parties, and I love to go to parties. What I don’t love so much is all the cleaning and rearranging of furniture; the endless lists and invariable forgetting of at least one item from every list; the last-minute rush to make everything fall perfectly and seemingly effortlessly into place. Mind you, none of these things usually stop me from having parties, but being a hostess tends to bring out the worstest in me, and every time I tell Long-Suffering Husband that I’d like to entertain, I can practically see the effort it’s taking for him to not groan out loud.

This time, however, a lot of the hullaballoo and hecticness was taken care of, by none other than my very favorite grocery store, Wegmans*. In October, I was honored to be chosen as the winner of their “Family Time” contest, the prize for which was an Italian-style Sunday dinner for eight. Rather than try to decide whom among our friends we would ask to join us, LSH and I decided to throw open our doors and celebrate: my having won the contest, our upcoming anniversary, and the holiday season. To make a dinner intended to serve eight actually feed 30-40 people, we asked everyone to bring an Italian appetizer to share. The result? A convivial gathering of friends old and new, much riotous laughter, even more expressions of gustatory pleasure, and a broken wine glass or two (because it’s not a party until something gets broken).

Sorry, partygoers, but before y'all arrived, I squirreled away the summer sausage for private consumption. I love ya, but... it's summer sausage. I'm sure you understand.

But I get ahead of myself. Earlier that afternoon, a friendly fellow from Wegmans showed up with what appeared to be a normal-sized sedan, out of which he kept producing boxes and bags–a veritable parade of offerings. I took fewer trips when I moved into my college dorm. We hauled it all inside, started unpacking and taking pictures, and spent a good fifteen minutes oohing and aahing over it all.

Just like Perkins offers a bottomless cup of coffee, this seemed like the bottomless box of foccacia.

There was a fruit basket, with some cheeses, and the most darling miniature cheese board and cheese cleaver (when I’m done with it, I’m going to give it to the farmer’s wife, since it’s perfectly sized for blind mouse tails). There was a giant focaccia, and underneath that focaccia was another giant focaccia.

There were pans of sauce, pans of pasta, a beautiful long tray of nibbly things (and you know how I adore nibbly things), a box of cannoli that I had to hide from the children, a platter of salad with the same circumference as a hula hoop. Oh, it was an impressive spread, my friends.

It's a sweet little buffet of scrumptiousness. Don't eat the shiny berries in the back, though; they're poisonous

Either Wegmans had a typo, and this was supposed to be "Dinner for 18," or the lovely woman in Catering took extra special care of us.

And then I had to tart it all up with my tricolor glitter pom-pom sticks. What can I say? I am powerless when there’s glitter afoot; I have to succumb to its sparkly siren song. These little antipasto-on-a-stick numbers were my contribution to the cocktail party, above and beyond the Wegmans bounty. Clearly, I suffer from some kind of neurosis related to not having enough food. Maybe it’s in my genes, since both my grandparents lived through the Depression and, in their later years, liked to collect used light bulbs, twist ties, and toilet-paper tubes. Just in case.

It's Christmas! in Italy! and Glitterland!

My inner bag lady really wanted to fish the used sticks out of the garbage, so they could be reused. But I drowned her with wine.

Just as I finished impaling bocconcini and artyhearts on the sparkle sticks, the guests began to arrive…bearing food. Copious amounts of food. In the event that a freak, flash blizzard made the entire guest list snowbound inside our house, we would even then be eating leftovers for days. There was that much food. Our wonderful friends brought dips, chips, beer bread, more dips, baguettes, pizza bread with a dip, a red cabbage-and-sausage casserole, pate and artisanal ham from The Piggery in Ithaca, more cheeses, beer, wine, vodka and mixers.

Luckily, Dr. Atkins had a prior committment and couldn't make it.

Needless to say, it was all scrumptious. Scrump-diddly-umptious, even. After an initial lap around the living room to socialize, it seemed as though most guests stationed themselves at strategic points around the buffet, in proximity to their favorite foods. The children, who were upstairs watching movies while simultaneously tearing all the bedclothes and mattresses off the beds and playing Legos, would make occasional sallies downstairs for bread and dip, and of course for the cannolis when I eventually, reluctantly put those out.

And although we were very nearly literally pressing food upon people (“Hold still; I’m just going to tuck this meatball into your neckline, OK? It’ll make a great little snack later”), and despite the fact that more than once I was heard to exclaim, in my best Italian nonna voice, “Mangia! Mangia! Eat, you’re too skinny…” we were still left with a staggering amount of food. It was like Thanksgiving all over again; we ate leftovers for lunch and dinner for the next three days, then finally cried Uncle and packed up the rest for the freezer. It’s going to be a long, long time before I have to buy sauce. Or focaccia. But you know what? I’m just fine with that.

*N.B.: I am not professionally affiliated with Wegmans, although it is my devout wish to be so, especially since they recently were named #3 on Fortune‘s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list. Nay, I just adore (and spend way too much money at) Wegmans.


Back in the Saddle Again

My ego was recently punched in the nuts. It started with an article I wrote and published (for money, I might add–well, PayPal, but same diff) and which got some — how shall I say this? oh, gloves off, I suppose — sanctimonious, snippy, unkind and just plain wrong criticism. I made the large-marge mistake of Googling myself and found this post criticizing not just my writing, but me (again, same diff); I won’t recap the whole thing. Suffice it to say that one participant said I had no more grasp of satire than a duck.

Because, as everyone knows, ducks suck at satire. Wait, what?

Several glasses of wine later, my blood pressure’s nearly back to normal and I have almost ceased trying to think of clever retorts that have a creamy, well-reasoned center underneath a deliciously snarky shell. So I’ma get back in the saddle again, out where a friend is a friend, and do some preachin’ to the choir of the church of Nick.

Let’s talk about zucchini. Much loved, much maligned, far too often the subject of corny Garrison Keillor jokes (“Hahaha, we’re unemployed Lutheran English majors with too much local produce”), zucchini is nevertheless one of my favorite veg. I like to have it on hand at all times. It can be a snack (raw, with ranch), a side dish, a soup component (minestrone, anyone? Well, that will have to wait for fall), an entree (stay tuned for the Nickmas Corn and Zucchini Fritters, which I promise are forthcoming), a quick bread or a dessert (throw some frosting on them thar zucchini muffins and children under the age of 8 call ’em cupcakes. Motherhood — it’s all in the marketing).

The first batch of zucchini from either our garden, the CSA or the local market, I like to do Gram’s Way. Or, if you’re feeling continental, Zucchini ala Gram. This is the way my Grandmother made it, and probably her mom before her. I don’t remember my mom making it this way, but maybe zucchini skips a generation, like twins?

So my stove's dirty. You wanna make something of it? I've knocked a woman to the floor before, and I'd do it again.

Anyway, so easy you would think I was patronizing you if I posted an actual recipe. All you do is put a general pat/chunk/stick (your choice!) of butter in a skillet. Iffen you’re feeling health-conscious, use half butter and half EVOO or regular OO. Let it melt a bit. Throw in some sliced sweet onion. Vidalias are nice. Throw in some sliced zucchini (here I used a mixture of zucchini and yellow zucchini. You could also use yellow squash. Same diff yet again? Maybe. I don’t know, I got my info from the Mennonite veggie stand) or pattpan squash or whatever crazily shaped summer squash your CSA throws at you. Throw in a cup or so of water. Sprinkle generously with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Let it bubble, stew and sing in your kitchen until most of the water’s gone and the squash is soft and lovely. Pour it into a dish and fork up some summer. Try not to eat the whole thing in one sitting.

Forgot to pepper after I plated. Use the Photoshop in your brain to add some flecks of black pepper, will you please? Thanks.

What recipes did you inherit from your Grandmother — or wish you had?

(Part of) The Legacy Lives On

fresh from the fryin' pan

Picture it: Lower Manhattan, 1988. I was a wide-eyed naif, fresh off the bus from a small Upstate town, enrolled at NYU but getting my real education on the streets of the big city. It was a year of many firsts: my first iced coffee, my first gay friends, my first VISA card, my first pair of $140 shoes, my first time doing cocaine with drag queens in the men’s room of an exclusive Manhattan nightclub.

And my first taste of falafel, late at night, from the incomparable Mahmoun’s on St. Mark’s Place. Bear in mind that I grew up eating middle-class, Midwestern food: tuna sandwiches, meatloaf, various casseroles combining chicken and Campbell’s Soups. Falafel was a revelation to me, as was Indian food, real Chinese (by “real” I mean “not canned LaChoy from the grocery store”), gyros, Ukrainian fare, and half-moon cookies from the 2nd Avenue Deli.

But, oh, that late-night falafel. We would take the plump little foil-wrapped packets back to our dorm rooms and picnic on the floor in the hallway outside our rooms. After eating, we’d smoke one last cigarette, putting them out on the carpet–the mind reels. What teenage hubris. What insufferable pricks we were! Remember when you could smoke indoors and use the floor as an ashtray?

A lot has changed since then. I don’t smoke anymore, I don’t do cocaine anymore, and I don’t do credit cards. I still have lots of gay friends and I still love falafel. Only now, living some 440 miles from Mahmoun’s, I have learned to make my own. For a while I used those boxed mixes, but I have recently discovered how crazy easy it is to make falafel from scratch, from real honest-to-goodness dried chickpeas. It helps to have a kickass blender, like my Vitamix, but a regular blender and some patience might do the trick. I don’t know; I don’t have either of those things.

Use My Favorite Falafel from Epicurious as a jumping off point, like I did. But, listen, this is so simple it’s laughable. Soak the chickpeas, drain, throw them in your blender, grind. Add some spices and a bit of flour to make a workable dough. Chill. Form into balls or patties. Bake or fry. Stuff into pitas. Devour.

Pita, or as we like to call it, "pouffy bread"--and lest you think I'm closed-minded, some of my best breads are pouffy

Yeah, I’m that kind of pretentious poseur who makes her own pita bread. Sometimes–I do also buy it in the store. But again, this is so easy it’s almost painful. If you have flour and time, you can make pita.

I got this recipe from Pete Bakes! His introductory blurb says, “Hello, my name is Pete, and I like to bake stuff.” Doesn’t that alone make you want to marry him, sight unseen?

An impossible-to-eat-daintily sandwich. But who cares?

We stuffed our homemade pita with the homemade falafel, tomato, cucumber, something called Yoga Sprouts that I bought on a whim from the co-op (and yes, I bought them because they were called Yoga Sprouts, and somewhere in the back of my mind I thought that if I ate them, I would be able to hold Tree Pose a little longer. Long-Suffering Husband doesn’t call me “Madison Avenue’s Bitch” for nothing) and tahini sauce, made from whizzing together tahini paste, some low-fat yogurt, and lemon juice. If I weren’t so exhausted from making every damn thing from scratch, I would’ve thrown some garlic in there too.

It was delicious, though. If I had closed my eyes, I might almost have imagined that I was back in the dorms at NYU, balling up my foil and napkin, inhaling the unmistakable smell of smouldering industrial carpet.

Where the Magic Happens

Greetings and salutations! I thought I’d kick things off by showing y’all where I do my cooking. This is a gen-u-wine 1928 Barstow stove, which the Long-Suffering Husband either bought at an estate sale or found on the side of the street (hey, it was before I met him; I can’t clutter up my already fragmented memory with these sorts of details) and then painstakingly reconstructed.

Not only does it look purty, it actually works!

“Y’all”? “Purty”? Apparently there’s something about Depression-era appliances that makes me channel my inner Ozark housewife.

Anyway, the nifty thing about this stove is that it has no oven temperature setting; you can’t just turn it to 350°. You have to open the broiler, light the gas, and guesstimate how hot the oven will get based on the size of the flames. For the first year that I lived and cooked here, everything I baked was charred on the outside and raw on the inside. I felt like a much less successful Ma Ingalls.

That’s our little kosher-salt container on the wall above the tea kettle. Because, of course, no self-respecting self-styled 1928 Ozark housewife cooks without kosher salt. L’chaim, y’all.

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