Monthly Archives: January 2009

mashed potatoes…i don’t think so.

Here’s the deal, sometime around Junior High, Gran Fran began adding leeks to the mashed potatoes. Even though I was a fairly easygoing pre-teen and teenager, for that matter, but the addition of leeks brought out my full-fledged wrath of pre-teen-dom in all its glory.

What in the heck was she thinking? How could you improve upon the creamy goodness of a nice batch of russet potatoes, boiled, dried over the flame, salt, butter and milk added, and mashed? Now, she had added some soft, green things, that made the potatoes taste downright wrong.

The bigger issue was, you had to eat what was on your plate, which should be expected. Now, I know in my heart this is wrong, but with my own daughter, we’ll call her Iz, I make modified versions of what I’m eating, with less spice, or none at all. This was an okay solution when she was small, but she has just turned 10 and it is sort of crazy to serve two meals in a household of two.

To be fair, Iz will always try new things and sometimes discovers dishes she likes. But, this is only at other people’s houses, not mine. Yes, I know, it’s my own doing, but I still like to talk about it. And, the odd thing is, she loves to cook and will make all sorts of things that she will not eat. Final thought on Iz is that she has a good palate and will eat lots of different things, including sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, and all manner of veggies, meats and carbs, just not with any sauce or spices. But, how could I not love a kid who counts bacon as a food group?

Last night, a friend showed up to cook dinner and brought along potatoes and leeks. I cornered him and grilled him on how he was going to prepare them, warning him that he’d have to leave if he planned on making them into a smushy mess of mashed-like potatoes. He assured me that he would be making a gratin of some sort, and was then allowed to stay.

Gran Fran was kind enough to share her recipe with me, which, as now that I’m an adult, actually sounds like something I might like. But, I don’t have the courage to make it, for fear that Gran Fran’s look of disappointment (from back in the ‘80s) will come back to haunt me. And, I’m probably just a little bit too stubborn to admit she might be right on this one.

Mashed Potatoes with Leeks and Vegetables

Serves 6 as a side dish


• 5 Russet Potatoes, peeled, washed, and cubed
• 3 cloves of Garlic
• 2 Leeks, white and light green parts only, thoroughly washed, dried, and diced
• 4 Carrots, peeled, washed, sliced into discs
• 4 Stalks of Celery, peeled, washed, and sliced
• 4 Tbsps. Butter
• 1/2 cup milk or cream, slightly warmed
• Salt to add to water


  1. • Place potatoes and vegetables, garlic and salt in a non-reactive pot; add enogh cold water to come to the top of the vegetables, cover pot, and cook until they are soft, about 25 minutes.
  2. • Remove from the heat, strain the water out and put the vegetables back in the pan.
  3. • Place the pan back over high heat, to dry the ingredients out, for 4 minutes. Then turn off the heat.
  4. • Add the butter and milk (or cream) and mash them all together until they are the consistency you like (the more you mash the mixture, the smoother it becomes).
  5. • Taste the mixture and add salt to taste.

Mashed Potatoes Without Leeks

(the right way, as far as I’m concerned)
Serves 8/Serves 6 as a side dish


• 5 Russet Potatoes peeled, washed, sliced
• 4 Tbsps Butter
• 1/2 cup milk or cream, slightly warmed
• Salt to add to water


  1. • Place potatoes in pot; add cold water to some to top of potatoes, add salt; cover pot. Cook until they are soft, about 25 minutes.
  2. • Remove from the heat, strain the water out and put the vegetables back in the pan.
  3. • Place the pan back over a high heat, to dry the ingredients out, for 4 minutes. Then turn off the heat.
  4. • Add the butter and milk (or cream) and mash them all together until they are the consistency you like (the more you mash the mixture, the smoother it becomes).
  5. • Taste the mixture and add salt to taste.
Posted in butter, celery, home cooking, italian-american, leeks, mashed potatoes, milk, pans, pasta, potatoes, pots, recipe | Leave a comment

dipping sauce? no, no, that’s frosting.

Gran Fran and Joe always honored our birthdays with a special meal (ask for anything, and they’d make it for the birthday kid in question) and an excellent homemade cake. In honor of my recent birthday (no, I won’t tell you how old I am) and my daughter’s (she turned 10), I found it fitting to recount my first attempt at frosting, which, until this past week, was known as dipping sauce here on the West Coast.

Let’s take the way-back machine to 1980, when, for my tenth birthday (oops, if you can do the math, you now know how old I am!), I requested a chocolate cake with mocha frosting. Our house was one of the few in the neighborhood with a Kitchen Aid stand mixer in it, and let me tell you, Gran Fran got a lot of use out of it. I say Gran Fran got a lot of use out of it, because the rest of us were not allowed to use it. If one of us did go near it, she would scream, in her high-pitched voice-of-fear “Don’t you dare go near that! It’ll cut your fingers off!” (Think back to the movie A Christmas Story…”you’ll put your eye out”, and you get the picture.)

Now, let’s talk about the stand mixer for a minute. There was a guard around the outside of the bowl and a lock on the machine that had to be closed for it to mix. Unless one of us actually tried to climb into the mixer, I really don’t believe there was much to fear. But, you will learn, as you read these posts, that there were many things in the kitchen to be a-feared of, from Gran Fran’s perspective, and it’s a wonder the five of us ended up cooking at all!!

But, for all of the screaming and words of caution, Gran Fran makes a mean frosting and cake, to boot. To this day, I have yet to find a frosting I prefer to hers, even at the fanciest of fancy bakeries. She whipped up that mocha frosting in a matter of minutes, cooled it and frosted the cake. Delicious!

OK, back to the dipping sauce scenario. Fast-forward to 1993, San Francisco. It was the first year I was out on my own, and I had made a birthday cake, for which I needed frosting. Store-bought was never offered in my house growing up, so it never even crossed my mind to buy it, rather than attempt to make it. How hard could it be? I mean, Gran Fran would whip it up in no time at all, so I figured I could handle it.

Oh, I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was all going well, the baker’s chocolate was melting away with the sugar and butter in the double boiler, the very strong coffee was brewed and it all smelled right. But, once I got it off the stove and tried it, it was liquid. No amount of cold would get it to set. The cake came out great, but the frosting just wasn’t right.

There was no time left to fix work up another frosting, so I packed up the cake, covered the “frosting” and headed over to my friend Dennis’ house. Once there, candles were put on the cake, a loud and rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday to You!” was sung, and then it was time for serving. Out came the “frosting”. Dennis took one look at it, and asked “What’s with the dipping sauce for the cake? No frosting?”

At this point, the whole thing was so laughable, that I simply served the cake with the “sauce” on the side, which people did end up dipping the cake in. Over the next 15 years, I attempted frosting after frosting sometimes resorting to whipped cream, since you can’t mess that up, and even managed to make the dipping sauce work well with flourless chocolate tortes.

But, in 2009, my daughter, Iz specified that she would like me to try one more time to make actual frosting and not dipping sauce (which my “frosting” had become known as over the intervening years). How could I disappoint her on her big 1-0? So, back to the kitchen I went. But this time, I had Gran Fran on the phone consulting on the frosting, and Joe e-mailing me recipes from New York. Well, ladies and gentlemen, I am proud to report that the frosting was a success. I have no idea if it was the family support, Iz’s very heartfelt request, or if the stars were aligned that day, but I made an excellent frosting.

Hats off to Gran Fran for showing me as a child how to make the frosting, and for keeping my fingers intact and out of harm’s way (also known as the evil Kitchen Aid). And, Iz thanks you, too.

Craig Claiborne’s Recipe for Mocha Frosting
Frosts tops and sides of three 8-inch layers

You will need a candy thermometer and a hand or stand mixer

• 2/3 cup granulated sugar
• ½ cup water
• 2 egg yolks
• 1 cup soft butter
• 1 ½ squares (ounces) unsweetened chocolate, melted
• 1 tablespoon very strong coffee
• 1 ½ tablespoons rum

• Boil sugar and water to 240 F. (Syrup forms a soft ball in cold water.)
• Beat the egg yolks until fluffy. While beating add the syrup gradually, and continue beating until the mixture is cool.
• Add the butter bit by bit, until it has all been beaten in. Beat in the chocolate, coffee and rum.

Real Red Devils Food Cake
Makes three 8-inch layers

You will need 3 8 inch cake pans, preferably shallow, and a hand or stand mixer

(nope, no Non-reactive Pan or Pot to be seen in this recipe!!)

• 1 3/4 cups flour
• 1 1/2 cups sugar
• 1 1/4 tsp. soda
• 1 tsp. salt
• 1/3 cup cocoa
• 1/2 cup soft butter
• 1 cup milk
• 2 eggs
• 1 tsp. vanilla

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

• Butter the bottoms but not the sides of the baking pans.
• Cut a waxed paper or parchment round to fit in the center-bottom of the pan, leaving a 1/4-inch uncovered around the edge. Butter paper.
• Sift together into bowl the flour, sugar, baking soda, salt and cocoa
• Add the butter, and 2/3 cup of the milk
• Beat 2 min.
• Add the remaining 1/3 cup of the milk, the eggs and the vanilla.
• Beat 2 more min.
• Pour into prepared pans. Bake until cake tests done about 30 minutes. Place pans on rack. Then turn onto cooling rack after 10 minutes

Posted in baking, birthday, butter, cake, celebration, chocolate cake, devil's food, food, frosting, home cooking, kids, milk, mocha, recipe, sugar | Leave a comment

pasta fa-what now??

Ok, when you grow up in Queens, NY, you hear accents that you may not hear everywhere, which, I guess is true of any regional accents. You know the herb basil, you hear BAY-sil instead of BAH-sil, you get the idea. Well, who knew that the name of one of my favorite Italian dishes would open up a whole world of regional dialect discussion?

The dish in question was always known in our house as Pasta Fazool. Essentially, it’s a nice mix of garbanzo beans (chick peas) or cannelini beans, garlic, and pasta. Being quick, inexpensive, and easy to make, it was a family pleaser that appeared often on Gran Fran’s table.

The first time I realized there was some sort of issue with the name, was in my Italian language class in 11th grade. I was sitting there when Signora asked me what the word “Fagioli” meant. Immediately, I answered “Beans”, having studied the vocabulary list the night earlier. Good work, I was told, and class ended.

That night, we had Pasta Fazool for dinner. I told Gran Fran about Italian class, and she said, “Oh yes, that’s what we’re eating.” Huh? “The word I learned in school was Fagioli,” I said, somewhat bewildered. “Right,” she said, “Fazool.” Okay, now it was becoming an Abbott and Costello routine and I was waiting for my Dad to chime in with “What’s on second!” As the meal progressed and I became more befuddled, Gran Fran finally got to the root of the issue, which was really the root of the dialect, I should say.

Gran Fran’s family emigrated from the region of Campania, from towns near Naples, in Italy in the early 1900’s. They brought along with them a Neapolitan dialect, which was then mixed with Brooklyn English. Hence, words like fagioli became “fazool.” Making the soft “gio” sound into a harder “double z” sound. For some words, they left the end off completely: mozzarella became “mozzarel”; ricotta, “ricot.” Who would have thought that high school Italian would shed light on this, and shatter a family-wide identifier for a much-loved dish?

The years have gone by now, and we all still call it Pasta Fazool, when we’re together, but have given in to calling it Pasta Fagioli if in public, so as to be better understood. I know Gran Fran’s shoulders are raised and she is slightly abashed at my admitting the above, but someone had to tell her.

Pasta Fazool (or Fagioli)
Serves 6
(You can use fresh beans for this recipe, but allow an extra 24 hours for soaking and rinsing. If using canned beans, look for ones with little or lower sodium.)

You will need 1 heavy non-reactive skillet and 1 pasta or stock pot with a lid


• 1 pound pasta (elbows, ditali, or any small pasta)
• 2 carrots diced
• 2 stalks celery diced
• 2 cloves garlic, minced
• 1 can beans (cannelini, chick peas, or kidney)
• ½ cup olive oil
• generous sprinkle of dried rosemary
• 1 bay leaf
• salt and freshly ground pepper

• Bring five quarts of well-salted water to a boil in a covered pot.
• Heat olive oil in a wide, shallow non-reactive skillet. When oil is hot, add carrots, garlic, celery, salt pepper, and spices. Sauté over medium heat until all ingredients turn golden.
• Toss the pasta into the rapidly boiling water and stir. Do not cover.
• Drain beans in a colander (use the same one to drain the pasta) and rinse under cold, running water. Shake colander to remove excess water from beans.
• Gently fold beans into carrot/celery sauce. Cook over medium heat until beans are heated through.
• Test pasta for doneness. Add 1/4 cup pasta water to bean mixture. Drain pasta and fold into the bean mixture. Cook about 4 or 5 minutes over medium heat, shaking the pan until all ingredients are distributed. Serves 4 as a main dish, 6 as a side.

The Pasta Fazool can be served warm or cold. It’s great with salad, and also with broccoli rabe on the side.

Posted in beans, canellini, carrots, celery, chick peas, fagioli, fazool, food, garbanzo, home cooking, italian-american, onions, pans, pasta, pots, recipe | Leave a comment

It’s 2 AM, Pot Roast Anyone?

There is a trend with at least three members of my family. We like to cook at odd hours of the day and night. Actually, I don’t know if “like” is the right word; for me, at least, it is a habit borne of necessity. The habit does, though, make it possible to create full-fledged meals any day of the week, but at the expense of less sleep than a normal person should require. And, Gran Fran is the reigning queen of this domain.

As far back as I can remember, I heard the sounds of pound cakes being whacked out of baking tins, Kitchen Aid mixers whirring, and caught the smells of roasting meats at any hour of the day or night. If there was a need for a big dinner on a Friday, for instance, Gran Fran would stay up the night before until at least 3AM and then get up again at 6 AM to leave for work. She was always pleasant about it, but with a bit of “…No, no, that’s ok, I can do it myself,” whenever she was asked if she wanted help.

The results were always great, and made all five of us the envy of our friends, since we got food cooked from scratch that was better than you could get in most restaurants. As the years went by and most of us moved out, the cooking marathons became less frequent, usually revolving around homecomings of the older kids.

Being the youngest, I got to see the preparations for these events firsthand. The most memorable was one night when I was in college (yes, I lived with my parents through most of college, bless them for taking me in), I came home late with a friend, around 2AM. There was Gran Fran sacked out on the couch, still wearing her apron and headscarf (circa 1973 by home textile designer, Vera), glasses on, “watching” TV. Once I closed the kitchen door, she was roused enough to utter these two statements:
“I was just resting my eyes. The pot roast on the stove is ready. Want some?”

The friend I was with had not experienced the Gran Fran way before and was astounded to be asked this not only at 2AM but by someone who was seemingly asleep. Of course, the pot roast (served with steamed potatoes, naturally) was fantastic and my friend stated she would come back any time of the day or night to see what Gran Fran would produce.

So, in an effort to continue Gran Fran’s legacy of cooking all-nighters, I now do the same. Mine are usually at 6AM before my daughter wakes up and we have to go to school and work, but the results are the same. And, I hope that Gran Fran will see that for me, it’s also just a little bit of trouble, but that’s ok, I can do it myself.

Pot Roast a la Gran Fran
Serves 8
(You may have noticed by now that all of the recipes on the site “serve 8”. Think about it; we were a family of 7, so this was the necessary serving size for everything we made. You can’t imagine how hard it was to relearn how to cook all of this stuff in smaller batches when I moved out!)

You will need 1 heavy skillet and 1 heavy, deep Non-Reactive stew pan with a lid

• 3 to 3 ½ lbs Bottom Round Beef, whole
• ¼ lb double smoked bacon, diced
• 2 Tbsp Olive Oil
• 2 Carrots, sliced into small pieces
• 1 White Onion, diced
• 2 cloves Garlic, minced
• 3 cups Dry Red Wine
• Salt and Pepper to taste
• ½ Tbsp Thyme (dried or a little less if using fresh)
• 1 Bay Leaf
• 1 Tbsp Tomato Paste
• 2 Tbsp Flour

• Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
• Boil diced bacon in 3 cups of water for 10 minutes.
• Refresh bacon under cold water by rinsing it briefly. Then, pat dry.
• Heat Olive Oil in large skillet.
• Add bacon, browning well on all sides.
• When bacon browns, remove from pan and set aside.
• Dry Beef well. Add to pan of hot oil.
• Brown well on all sides.
• In heavy stew pan, add some oil from the skillet.
• Sauté onions and carrots until golden.
• Sprinkle the vegetables with flour.
• Brown until golden over medium heat, 3 – 5 minutes.
• Add the browned meat to the vegetables.
• Pour wine into the empty skillet, bring to a boil, while scrapping the browned bits off the bottom.
• Add wine and vegetable scrapings to the Beef stew pot.
• If there is not enough liquid to cover the Beef, add water to barely cover the meat.
• Stir in tomato paste, thyme, bay leaf and garlic.
• Bring to a boil once more on the stovetop.
• Cover closely (Hi, Gran Fran)
• Place on lower rack of oven. Leave pan undisturbed in oven for 1½ hours, stir, put cover back on and simmer another 1½ hours.
• Before serving add braised pearl onions (see below) and sautéed mushrooms

Braised Onions a la Gran Fran
To be served in Pot Roast

• 1 lb Tiny Onions
• 3 Tbsp Olive Oil
• 1 Bay Leaf
• Salt and Pepper to taste
• ½ cup Red Wine

• Peel onions by dipping in boiling water for 1 minute to loosen skins. Slip skins off.
• Heat olive oil in sauté pan and add Onions.
• Toss until golden brown.
• Sprinkle with salt, pepper, thyme and bay leaf.
• Add wine and bring to a boil.
• Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer 35 minutes.
• Remove from heat, add to Pot Roast and enjoy!!

The Pot Roast is best if served a day after you make it, since it absorbs all of the lovely flavors the spices and wine broth have let off. Serve with mashed or steamed potatoes.

Posted in beef, food, home cooking, italian-american, onions, pans, pasta, pot roast, pots, recipe, stew | Leave a comment