I am excited to announce that the compilation of stories and recipes has been completed and "Passions of a Restaurateur" is now available on Amazon! Get your copy at http://www.amazon.com/Passions-Restaurateur-generations-restaurant-inspired-ebook/dp/B00QZ9YIDA/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1418913458&sr=8-1&keywords=connie+ruel
Movie poster of "The Last Supper"
Franklyn D’Amore rolled a multitude of lifetimes into one. He was born in Montoro Italy in 1893 and in 1906 stowed away on a ship to America where “the streets were paved in gold” and opportunity abounded. He didn’t speak a word of English yet got a job in an Italian bakery. The repetition of throwing flour sacks and performing hard labor caused his body to develop and become defined. As he noticed his physical strength growing, he worked diligently to sculpture himself. He became handsome and chiseled and had developed the character of a showman.
He was drafted into WWI and discharged with a purple heart. When he returned from the front, Vaudeville had beckoned him to join its circuit. He preformed his acrobatic “chair act” in top billing status all over the world. In the late 1930’s, when “talking pictures” diminished the popularity of Vaudeville, he decided to “settle down” and open the “Casa D’Amore”, a restaurant in Hollywood, California. It soon became a movie stars dining haven and he developed close friendships with many Hollywood stars such as Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Durante and Dean Martin, just to name a few.
Being in the hub of the Hollywood scene, Franklyn dreamed of performing in and producing a movie. In 1944 he played a small role in Humphrey Bogart’s “Passage to Marseilles”. In 1957 he appeared in the television series “The Man called X”. He made a guest appearance as himself on the “Hollywood Palace” television show in 1968 and in the 70’s he portrayed the main character’s father in the detective series “Toma”.
In the midst of all this he had served shortly in the WWII military which bred his ideas for the birth of his movie “The Last Supper”. By 1950 he had the script written, gathered a cast (mostly British) and journeyed to his homeland to begin filming. His intention was to finance the project on his own which cost over $250,000 taken totally from his earnings in vaudeville and his restaurants. By today’s standard that would have been a million dollar project,
Little did he know, he had three major strikes against him.
The story then takes us back to the time of DaVinci as he is choosing his models for the painting. He was meticulous in searching for models, sometimes taking years to find the right face. He notices a young nobleman and his lady fair speaking in a garden. The relationship is against the wishes of the young man’s family and they must part; she discusses joining a convent. The expressions these distraught emotions cause the man, convince Leonardo that this is the perfect face for that of Jesus on the night prior to his crucifixion. Neither of the star crossed lovers realized that they had been bestowed such an honor.
The nobleman was devastated by the events of unattainable love and decides to leave town. Through a series of misfortune, he is robbed of all his money, falsely accused of murder, jailed, disfigured in a series of brawls and ultimately falls into the world of convicts, thieves and alcoholics. Three years pass, and though Leonardo has almost completed his painting, he struggles to find the right model to depict Judas. It would be a family disgrace for someone to sit for such a lowly character. He decides to search for the face of ill lifestyle. When he finds the perfect model, he is unaware that the man he had originally chosen for the face of Jesus is ultimately the same face he chooses for Judas. Irony in the story continues. The mistress of the nobleman had became a nun at the Santa Maria Della Grazie and also does not realize that she gazes upon her true love each day in the faces of her master and of his betrayer.
Though Franklyn tried to promote the film from coast to coast, his movie never sold and was never seen in public. For years he stored it in a film vault until his death in 1982. His two daughters inherited the reels and they were returned to storage. But in 2009 when the son of his youngest daughter (she was born when Franklyn was 67 years old) made the movie industry his career, she began to dream about the possibilities of fulfilling her father’s dream, through him. In 2013 her son Paul agreed to take the film and bring it into the 21st century to carry on his grandfather’s legacy. That project is in the works at the time of this writing.
I have heard it said that one can judge a person's character by their favorite candy. Some people prefer hard candy, some crave chewy, fruity sweets and others simply want chocolate... and a lot of it. But can you judge people on these preferences? I had been skeptical of this myth until I started my own quest for the answer. I asked dozens of people their candy preference, then noted their personality traits. My results were conclusive. You CAN judge a person by the candy they prefer and this is what I discovered:
As for me, I am the type who will opt for the ooey gooey sorts of sweets. My biggest weaknesses are candies that contain coconut, chocolate, nuts, caramel and marshmallow. If I was ever to find one singular confection that comprised all five of my favorite things, I would be in ecstasy. Here are a few examples of yummy confections that almost fit the bill:
I leave you with this: Look deep down inside and think of which candy you steal from your kid's trick or treat stash. How are YOU judged? Perhaps you are a lover of hard candy or maybe the Heath Toffee Bar. But, even those are your preferences, I guarantee, you will love this pie! Though it is made of MY favorite ingredients, after tasting this dessert, they may become yours too. Then perhaps you won't judge me.
My 5 favorite things, pie.
1 ¼ cup flour
¼ tsp salt
6 Tbls very cold butter
3 tsp ice water
6oz bitter sweet chocolate chips
14oz condensed milk
4 egg yolks
1 tsp Kahlua, or vanilla is you must
1 cup roasted chopped pecans
5 ounces mini marshmallows
1 Tbls water
½ tsp coconut extract
½ cup dark brown sugar
½ cup whipping cream
1/4 cup butter
2 egg yolks
1 cup flaked coconut
½ cup bitter sweet chocolate chips, chopped
½ cup whipping cream
1 tsp Rum, Kahlua, or Brandy (or if you must, vanilla)
1 tsp Irish cream
½ cup sugar
1 Tbls corn syrup
1 Tbls water
1/8 teas lemon juice
2 teas butter
Crust: In a food processor, add flour and salt, cut butter into cubes and add pulsing 4 times after each cube. Add water and pulse until incorporated. You should see pieces of butter in the dough. Empty out onto floured surface and bring into a ball, shape into flat disc, wrap in plastic and refrigerate one hour. Preheat oven to 400. Roll Dough to a 1/8 inch thick circle, and line it into a 9 inch pie pan. Trim and shape. Line the pastry with parchment and fill with pie weights. Bake 10 minutes, remove paper and weights and bake 7-8 minutes.
Pie: Reduce oven to 350. Melt chocolates in double boiler, cool slightly. In separate bowl add condensed milk, yolks and vanilla. Add to chocolate then add pecans. Pour into cooled crust. Bake 17 minutes until set. Cool at half hour.
First topping: Put marshmallows, water and coconut extract in microwave save bowl and microwave for 25 seconds, remove stir and return for another 25 seconds. Stir then pour over pie and refrigerate for another half hour.
Second topping: Combine brown sugar, cream and butter in a saucepan. Boil over medium heat until mixed. Remove from heat. Blend a small amount of mixture into yolks then add to saucepan (put back on heat) whisking constantly until thick (approx. 3 minutes). Remove from fire and stir in coconut and vanilla. Cool about 15 minutes. Pour over marshmallow layer. Chill 2 hours.
Ganache: Over medium heat warm milk, don’t let boil over. Pour over chocolate chips, add coffee liqueur and mix until smooth. Drizzle decoratively over pie.
Caramel: Mix sugar, corn syrup, lemon and water in microwave safe bowl until well blended. Microwave for 5 minutes, remove and let set for 3 minutes. Warm whipping cream and Irish cream together then slowly add to sugar solution (it will bubble) and mix until creamy texture. Drizzle decoratively over pie.
Refrigerate pie for another 2 hours. Enjoy! It may take time, but it is well worth it!
There is nothing I enjoy more than inventing new flavor combinations, and ultimatley, developing a recipe to see it transform from the flavors swirling in my mind, to a finished plate of artistic creation. I am thrilled to see heads tilt back in delight and diners making the "Al face" (another story I will divulge to you with a future recipe), which you may know as a "food orgasm".
My idea of a great night is spending an entire day prepping and cooking a much deliberated over menu to pair perfectly with the wines that instigated those flavor combinations. Then serving course after course until I am exhausted and my diners are satiated, which is the primary goal of a "food orgasm." Their satisfaction is mine.
One specific food event, I went totally out on a limb. As I was developing the courses for a holiday five course feast, I tasted the Renwood Viognier which I had chosen for course number two. I swirled, inhaled, savoured and spit the floral wine while my food memory was reeling with images of what would normally be insane flavor combinations. Eggplant, corn, goat cheese, sweet/savoury......craziness, but I was ready to try it.
I wasn't sure if it was all going to work, but the result was a goose bump, hair standing, "Al face" response; all the true measurements of success in my book.
The entire menu looked something like this:
Salmon Tartar in Zucchini Ribbons
Assortment of Meats and Cheeses
Manchego Stuffed Duck Pastry
1998 Saint-Hilaire Sparkling Wine, Limoux, France
Eggplant/ Plantain Stack
2011 Renwood, Viognier, California
Peach and Pistachio Arugula Salad
Pomegranate Braised Lamb in Prosciutto Cups over Smoky Polenta
2009 Humanitas, Cabernet, Dry Creek, Sonoma Valley, California
Chocolate-Date Cake with Toffee Glaze and Brandy Ice Cream
Taylor Fladgate, 10 Year Old Tawny Port
My personal favorite of the line up was the crazy combination course. How fabulously it went with that viognier...
Eggplant/ Plantain Stack
One Lb eggplant(s) (longer shape for even ½ inch thick round slices
1 Tbl extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup coconut oil for frying
1 lg shallot, diced
1 lg very ripe plantain, unpeeled
1 garlic clove thinly sliced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbls pine nuts, toasted
1 teaspooon capers
2 plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded and cut into ¼ in dice
2 Tbl golden raisins, chopped
2 Tbl basil leaves, chiffonade
1 egg beaten with 1 tbl water
2 cups corn chips, processed to crumbs
¼ cup soft goat cheese
Preheat oven to 350. Put the plantain in a small baking dish and pierce the skin with a fork. Bake it until very soft. 40 minutes. In a small skillet, heat the 1 tbl olive oil and add the shallot and garlic, cover and cook over moderate heat stirring occasionally until very soft and browned (about 7 minutes). Peel the baked plantain and add it to the skillet. Lightly mash with a fork and season with salt and pepper to taste. Then transfer it to a food processor and puree until soft. Cover the mixture and keep warm. Stir together pine nuts, capers, tomatoes, raisins and basil. Season with salt and pepper. Put the egg wash, corn chip crumbs and flour in separate bowls. Dip eggplant in flour, then egg, allowing excess to drip off, then chip crumbs. Fry in 1/8 inch coconut oil until brown and soft (3 min per side). Keep the slices warm in oven. Place one eggplant slice on each of 4 plates, spread with plantain puree and 3/4 tbl goat cheese. Repeat to form one more layer and top with remaining slice. Spoon the tomato mixture on and around the plate, drizzle truffle oil around plate. Serves 4.
The town of my heritage is Montoro Inferiore in the Campania region of southern Italy. Though a lot of my family made new lives in America in the 1900’s, many of my kin stayed behind and continued to be farmers in the countryside of Avellino, not far from Mt
Vesuvius. They are, and have been for centuries, living sustainably, which we in America think is a new concept.
Over the years I have visited the family on several occasions, but one of my favorite trips was when I learned to make the family recipe of Gnocchi and experienced the true ritual of dining in a traditional Italian family setting.
The clan had been anticipating my visit on that particular day in October, 2001 and was making plans about what the Sunday family feast would be. You see, when my family gets together, it is not simply around a table, but a group of tables that are pushed together to go through the kitchen, dining room, living room and out the front door. The
meal lasts for hours with a constant orchestra of screaming in Italian and flailing hands simply to make conversation. When I arrived, the first question posed to me was what I wanted to eat. I love Gnocchi and knew they would make it like nowhere else. I pleaded
for them to let me help. I had to get in on the “secret.”
Bubbly chatter emanated from us as we prepared and kneaded the dough, then formed and dropped hundreds of the little potato dumplings into an enormous pot over the gas fire my uncle had lit in the cantina. This only heightened my excitement for the coming meal. I feverishly scratched down lists of ingredients and processes as they created, from memory, those little potato pillows which I so adore. Then using eggplant, tomatoes, herbs, onions and other ingredients grown in their garden, they threw together a twist on traditional putenesca to spoon over the gnocchi. Delightful!
In the years since that visit, I have recreated this dish time and again, yet I will never quite enjoy it as much as I did that fall day in the Italian countryside with my cousins, aunts and uncles. To this day the dish still brings to mind the meaning of family.
Homemade Gnocchi with Puttanesca D’Amore
2lbs + 4oz floury potatoes, unpeeled
2 egg yolks
2 Tbls Parmesan, grated
1 to 1 1/2 cups AP flour
Prick the potatoes all over and bake for one hour at 350 degrees. Leave to cool for 15
min, then peel and mash or put through a ricer or food mill (do not use blender or food processor). Blend in yolks and cheese then gradually stir in flour ¼ cup at a time. Put on lightly floured surface and knead gently. Work in enough flour to make a soft dough that is damp but not sticky. Divide the dough into six pieces and make a rope from each piece about 1 inch thick. Cut the rope into one inch pieces. Take each piece and press your finger into it to form a concave shape, then roll the outside of it with a folk to make ridges. Fold the outer lips toward each other to make a hollow middle. Do the same with remaining dough. Set Aside.
12 roma tomatoes
6 Tbls olive oil
3 ounces pancetta, chopped
2 med eggplant, yellow if available, small diced
1 med yellow onion, small diced
1 Tbls garlic, chopped
1 1/2 tsp Salt
½ tsp black pepper to taste
1 cup white wine
¼ Cup brandy
½ Cup kalamata olives pitted and halved
2 Tbls capers
1 Tbls fresh oregano, chopped
1 Tbls fresh Italian parsley, chopped
1 whole bay leaf
1 Cup chicken stock
1 Tbls honey
¼ tsp chili flakes
6 large fresh basil leaves, chiffonade
½ Cup parmesan, shredded
Slice tomatoes in half lengthwise and place, skin down, on a large oven safe sauté pan
that has been coated with 3 Tbls olive oil. Bake in a 400 degree oven until roasted (About 25 minutes, you can combine with process in oven with your potatoes for the gnocchi to save time).Remove tomatoes from pan and reserve liquid. Let cool, then discard skin and chop tomatoes. In same pan add 3 Tbls olive oil and over a med high flame, sauté pancetta, onions, garlic, eggplant salt and pepper until vegetables are cooked through (about 8 minutes). Deglaze with wine and brandy and reduce for three to five minutes, add remaining ingredients including roasted tomatoes and their liquid. Simmer
over a med/low flame for 40 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Add gnocchi in batches, about 20 at a time. Cook for 1-2 minutes or until they rise to the surface. Remove with a slotted spoon, drain and put on a greased pan.
Divide gnocchi on 4 plates and spoon putenesca over them. Garnish with shredded
parmesan and basil chiffonade.
Do you recall that feeling in the pit of your stomach on the morning of September 11, 2001? You were probably sleeping, getting ready for work, making breakfast or completing another task one might do on an average day. For most of you, the phone rang and someone on the other end said frantically, “Turn on your TV!” You did…and your world changed forever.
Do you remember that horrible feeling of doom, sadness and disbelief? I do. But by the time it happened to me, I was numb to the emotion as it was already familiar. You see, I had experienced that same emptiness, the same sour feeling, just one year earlier. It was November 23, 2000, Thanksgiving day. I was preparing my restaurant for dinner service, at “Laslow’s Northwest,” when the phone rang. It was my cousin Filomena, one of my Uncle Patsy’s children. She had always been like a sister to me.
“Something horrible has happened to our cousins…!” She cried hysterically.
Before I tell this story, let me back up to introduce the characters and what impact they had on my early life.
In 1906, at the age of thirteen, my father came to America from Southern Italy. Seventeen years later his brother, pasquale (Patsy), followed him and after that, they began to sponsor other family members. Their sister Vicenza, who they left in Italy, had ten children: Yolanda, Anna, Anita, Sabatino, Antonio, Vincenza(jr.), Fortunate, Filomena, Pasqualina and Josefina. Though Vincenza chose to stay with her family, my father found ways to bring some of his nephews and nieces to the “Land of Opportunity”. It wasn’t long
before Sabatino, Antonio and Vicenza(jr.) came to build their lives in America. Vicenza married and had two children. Antonio married a wonderful German woman named Ursula. They opened an Italian restaurant in the famous Farmer’s Market in Los Angeles. The third nephew, Sabatino, who this story focuses on, was the catalyst to my passion for pastry and cake design and his demise is a devastation that my family will never overcome.
We lovingly referred to Sabatino as “Sabby.” He was a small framed man with strikingly handsome features, a raspy voice and a thick Italian accent. When he came to Los Angeles, he worked in our restaurants. He was a natural pastry chef. His breads and cookies were reminiscent of the old country and while he worked at “The Villa Capri,” he was called upon to make celebration cakes for “stars of the silver screen”. He made confections for Jimmy Durante, Ursula Andress, Natalie Woods, Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams and many more.
I was a young girl during these years. I frequently accompanied my father to the restaurant. I was so little that my eyes could barely peek above the prep counters of the bakery area, but I remember witnessing Sabby’s art in awe. I swayed with every stroke as he would knead the bread dough and I swooned at the smells and sights that the raising dough emanated. What fascinated me most was his amazing command of the pastry bag. His touch of butter cream in magical swirls, his rosettes of cookies and the creations of sweet words atop a decadent birthday cake were magical. I would watch with wide eyes as his small hands grasped the bag with light, at first, then tense, pressure to squeeze out a perfect amount of cream or batter for the result he desired. He made the bag an extension of himself. I knew then, that there was a place for me in this world of sweet delights and artistic confectionary creation.
Italian Butter Rosettes
½ Cup unsalted butter, room temp
½ cup shortening
1 cup plus 2 Tbl powered sugar, sifted
4 egg whites
½ cup almonds, soaked in ¼ cup amaretto
¼ tsp salt
2 tsp vanilla
3 ¼ cup AP flour
¼ tsp baking powder
Soak almonds a couple of hours up to overnight. Put them with the liquid in a food
processor and grind until smooth, set aside.
Preheat Oven to 350 Degrees F. In a mixer using paddle attachment, blend butter and shortening until smooth. Add sugar all at once, and mix on medium speed just until combined. Add the almond paste.
Combine the egg whites and vanilla in separate bowl then add to mixer and on medium speed small amounts at a time scrape down the sides of your bowl to get it all evenly incorporated. Once all of the whites have been added, you will add the flour and salt and baking powder sifted together all at once and mix just until it comes together, being careful not to over mix. Scoop the dough into a very sturdy pastry bag fitted with a large star tip and proceed to pipe shells onto a parchment lined sheet pan, spacing each cookie approximately 1″ apart. Bake for about 12-15 minutes or until the cookies start to brown on the edges. Sprinkle with powdered sugar or chocolate powder or even sprinkles. If you want to mix it up, once the cookies are cooled you can sandwich them together with Jam, Nutella, ganache or butter cream. Makes approximately 4 dozen cookies
In the mid 1950’s, it was my mother (born in the USA) who had been chosen to go to Italy, marry Sabby and bring him back with a green card. But a pregnancy with my sister changed that prospect and Eugenia, who we knew as Ginny, was sent in her stead. Ginny was one of the kindest people I have ever met. She and Sabby married quickly and later had one child, Rosetta. On holidays we would go to their home for the celebratory dinner. Of course, there were always more people than their home could hold. They would set a table that went through every room in the house. There were always a lot of hand gestures throughout the day, Italian and English were both spoken and everyone yelled at each other to show their love. Food was always more than abundant. The tables were lined with Italian holiday fare as well as the American traditional dishes of turkey, stuffing, yams, etc. As if that was not enough, Sabby had bread, cookies and cakes galore. These childhood holiday memories are some of my fondest.
The years passed, restaurants came and went. My father and uncle passed away in the mid 70’s and early 80’s. Sabby and Ginny opened their own Italian restaurant, “Sabatino’s Italian Bakery and Café,” in North Hollywood. It was a small casual place that was a neighborhood favorite which focused on immigrant Italian food and, of course,
his fabulous pastries. He was famous for giving out his Italian rosettes to children and anyone who craved one…gratis. He was a hard worker who loved his restaurant and his customers.
Many of his regulars were with the LAPD and the LAFD. Uniformed men and women were frequently seen lapping up plates of pasta or diving into Sabby’s decadent lasagna and taking Italian rosettes to-go. Forget the donuts; these police officers were addicted to Sabby’s pastries.
Through the years I visited Sabby’s restaurant on many occasions. It remained my touchstone to restaurants and loved ones of my past.
Now that you have a grasp on their history, I will tell you about the tragedy that happened on November 22, 2000. This part of the story is difficult to tell. It is what bad Hollywood movies are made of. It is everyman’s nightmare, the unthinkable. I still get a hard lump in my throat when I think of the senselessness of it all.
Sabby and Ginny had purchased a home in Belair, California; they were both seventy three years old and ready to begin thinking about retirement. They wanted to renovate their home to reflect their personalities, which meant tearing up their carpet and lying hardwood floor. They hired day worker and Mexican illegal alien, Israel Cebrera Pulido, only 23 years old, for the task. While he was ripping up the carpet, he found drop safes hidden in the floor. Having financial difficulties of his own, he decided to return to my cousins’ home a week later to convince them to open the safes. Unfortunately, for all involved, Sabby and Ginny were unaware that the safes even existed, let alone have the combinations to open them. Without divulging painful and gory details, I will only tell you that Mr. Pulido proceeded to torture, and then kill my two elderly loved ones to a point that, at the wake, the caskets were not able to be open for viewing.
Needless to say, this devastated our family and the community. I am not here to tell you what ultimately happened to the murderer except that he got life in prison. For the purpose of this story, I wanted to share what culinary impact my sweet relatives’ deaths had on me and my family.
The wake was heart wrenching and the funeral devastating. Family came from everywhere. Two of Sabby’s sisters, Anita and Anna, flew in from Italy, not able to speak a word of English. The procession on the L.A. highways was extensive and lead by the LAPD and LAFD. More than 600 people attended the ceremony. We all were in shock.
At the cemetery, I hooked arms for support with my sister and my cousins as the coffins, which lay side by side at the mausoleum, were prepped to be entered into the plot. They began with Ginny’s coffin. Words of grace were spoken as the box was slowly
pushed into the deep dark tunnel. Sabby’s coffin was then raised (the man is always on the outside to protect his woman for eternity) and slid in behind his wife. We sobbed louder and held onto each other tighter. The grave keeper then lifted the square cement “door” and placed it at the entry of the plot. Though the sadness at this point was undeniably intense, the next moment was surreal and ridden with irony beyond belief. When the grave keeper had the cement block in place, he proceeded to raise the decorative marble façade that sealed the tomb. To our shock, he raised a pastry bag filled with cement grout in order to seal the seam. Immediate visions of Sabby’s graceful hand grasping the pastry bag of butter cream filled my mind as I am sure it did in everyone around me. We all clutched each other and fell to the ground sobbing.
When I returned to Portland, I felt different; as if something within me had broken. I had the desire to make a profound statement to the world, but had no idea how. I felt helpless. I decided to study the food and wine history of my southern Italian ancestors. I needed to do a big celebration of dear Sabby and Ginny’s lives and the only way I knew how was through culinary means.
We did a five course dinner at “Laslow’s Nothwest” which we called “Ancient Dinner, in memory of Sabby and Ginny.” It sold out quickly. We featured historical fare and paired it to ancient wines. The people who attended did not know my cousins, but felt like they did once the dinner was over. I told brief stories as we raised our glasses of Aglianico to them and the highlight of the evening was when we darkened the dining room and each person’s flaming Sambuca danced as they raised it in one last toast to the lives of Sabby and Ginny.
Though many years have passed, my life has never been the same since that fateful November day. Though 9-11 was a tragedy on a world scale, 11-22 was a tragedy in our family of equal, perhaps greater, proportion.
Here is a story to honor one of our most precious senses without which, this blog could not be possible.
Sometime during the 4th or 5th grade, we all learn about the five senses. As children it seems clear to us what they are:
The soft cuddly stuffed bear that tickles our skin as we nuzzle it to fall asleep.
The tender feeling of our mother’s skin when we wrap our arms around her.
The sting across our butts left by a leather strap to teach us a lesson.
The scent of our grandmother’s (my grandmother wore Tabu) perfume as she bends down to kiss us.
The aroma of bacon wafting into our rooms from the kitchen as we open our eyes unto a new day.
The putrid scent of garbage bins behind the restaurant which oddly transforms into the glorious smells of garlic, basil and tomatoes simmering in a pot as you enter the back door.
The brilliant colors of paint at the county fair as it hits paper in a swirl of splattered design.
The green grass against a colored horizon giving way to blue sky on a bright spring day.
The bright peach glow of our Easter dress bought solely for the purpose of looking especially girlie on that spring Sunday
morning when we search for those pastel eggs we dipped the night before.
The soft purr of a kitten as we gently rub his belly
The intensely shrill ring of the recess bell that springs us to our feet and out the door for a moment on the monkey bars.
The slightly off tune crackly voice of the woman in the pew behind us trying to belt out “bringing in the sheaves”, in hopes that her sins might be forgiven.
The sweetness of a snow cone’s syrup left after the ice is long melted.
The pungency of liver and onions that our mother would not let us discard, but force to eat, if we ever wanted to be excused from the table. We, of course, secretly fed it to the whining pup underfoot. Who would have known Foie Gras would become our favorite food?
Dairy Queen’s rich hot fudge and creamy vanilla ice cream, with a juicy red cherry balancing decadently on top, made summer all the more enjoyable.
Yes, at an early age we have a fundamental understanding of God’s gift of senses, and as the years pass we learn to develop that gift through life’s experiences. Yet as a “foodie” I believe there is one sense most often left behind, not developed or fully appreciated; a sense most taken for granted. It is the restaurateur’s most precious (and sometimes detrimental) commodity…the sense of taste.
All my life I've been surrounded with culinary awareness; passionate cooks who shared with me the fresh bounty of their home gardens' or their obsessions with the diversity of liquid delicacies. They shared the importance of the balance of flavor, texture, aroma and presentation, all which are a part of honing the sense of taste. They weren’t aware of this legacy, sharing this came natural. I was one of the very fortunate who learned from this culinary history. I continue to pass this passion to my children, who I hope will follow the tradition. We are the chosen ones, the blessed ones who've had a door opened at a young age. We are lucky enough to have been given a head start above those family trees of bland unaware diners, horrible cooks and alcohol fearing misfortunate beings. It is our job to educate and enrich the lives of those poor unfortunate “tasteless” souls by introducing the world of olfactory and taste bud tantalization. The epiphany of this calling came to me when I met my husband, the epitome of a taste-poor family legacy.
It was not that he didn’t like many foods such as cheese (really?), mustard, pickles, vinegar, mushrooms, capers, cream sauces, bitter greens, Swiss chard, lamb, sushi, (anything raw was unthinkable), duck, olives, licorice…the list was endliess, it was the inability or unwillingness to venture into the world past meat, potatoes and Captain Crunch. Many of those aforementioned disliked foods, hadn’t even sampled to shun, only assumed to be unsavory. It was the year 2006 when my quest to enlighten him began. I knew it would be a long journey.
Learning to understand his handicap has developed a tolerance in me to be patient with those less fortunate and to realize that honing the sense of taste after years of neglect is a very slow and gradual process. I was determined to show him the way.
It started on our first date at a tapas bar. Not realizing his being culinary challenged, he asked me to order. Of course I went for the delectable diverse samplings, thinking I was sure to delight him. When our food was presented, I assumed he was just nervous as he pushed the morsels around the plate (which I, of course, scarfed lake a starved rabid pup). Later that night he confessed that he didn’t like cheese. I had never met anyone who didn’t like cheese. It was, and still is, inconceivable. On our second date, I cooked. I was too smitten and distracted to notice whether he ate or not. When we moved to the fireside couch after dinner (a truly romantic setting), I poured two snifters of Sambuca, with 3 beans of course. I settled in next to him to sip and revel in the anise fragrance. I closed my eyes to take in the aroma and as I opened them, peering over the rim of my glass, I was aghast to witness the remnants of a headtilt as he “shot” the pricey delectable liqueur. I lowered my glass slowly and asked, “Did you just shoot that?” With a deer in the headlight blank stare he finally replied in his deep resonant voice, “What!?”
This act of “shots” has always been foreign me. If I am drinking an alcoholic beverage, it is because I revel in its fragrance, flavor and appreciate the passion that the vintner or distiller has portrayed in his art. Shooting is merely for the “buzz” and an insult to any aforementioned artist, unless, of course, that “artist” is Mr. Everclear. These days though, I’ve been known to throw back a Jaeger Meister or two, equally enjoying its taste. My husband has had some reverse training on me as well.
A few dates later (I love a challenge), I took him to a popular Boulder restaurant and asked him if he trusted me. He said he did, so I ordered and told him he MUST at least try a little of everything and afterwards we would discuss what it was. I ordered cured duck, lamb kabobs, carpaccio and tuna tartare. He looked at the food with an expression of what appeared to be shear fear, but manned up and took a nibble from each plate. To my surprise, he liked them all except the tuna, but he did try it. Together we ate every last bite. He didn’t even balk when I divulged what he had just consumed. After that evening, every meal was an education and an adventure for both of us. I made it a point to challenge his palate every chance I got.
I have officially created a monster. Today, not only does he order carpaccio for himself every time we do Italian, he is now pairing wines with his courses to have the ultimate dining experience. He can even detect if a wine is oxidized or corked. Though he still does shots, they are usually shots of artisanal whiskeys or imported liqueurs, and he savors every drop.
He still doesn’t like pickles, cheese, mushrooms and other foods, but now he can almost present himself as a late bloomer “foodie”. I am proud of how he has refined his palate. I feel as though I have given him a gift of his 5th sense which in turn gives me pure joy.
One place I would call heaven on earth is my family’s home in Montoro Italy, not far from Mount Vesuvius in the province of Avellino (the name I chose for my LLC). After the great earthquake of 1980, the cousins had to rebuild their home which they turned into a wonderful haven, marble tile by marble tile. They are farmers and live an almost totally sustainable life style. They have cows, chickens, pigs and a farm on which they slave from dawn until dusk. Their “garage," is where the magic is. Marinara, caponata and every vegetable indigenous to the southern Italian region are in jars waiting for winter to sustain the family. Charcuterie hangs everywhere. The smell of aging dried Sausage, cured ham and salami permeate the air. The freezers are filled with butchered offspring of the farm’s livestock. The only staples they seem to buy from market are coffee, flour and sugar.
But in all the splendor of the farm, my favorite feature is the giant mission fig tree that adorns the entry to their home. Netting spreads from one end of the front eave to the other to catch any fig that has become too heavy with ripeness to hold onto its branch. The sweet smell of fig sap fills the air and bees seem to be in constant euphoria. Every time I look at this tree wonderful thoughts of my father float through my mind and fill my heart. He was a great lover of figs and, of course, his mother land. This was the town in which he was born in a far away time prior to motor vehicles and telephones. He came into this world in 1893 when it was the norm to be sustainable, not a trend. I learned a tremendous amount growing up with a father who had already lived 67 years the day I was born. So much history wrapped up in one man. His passion for food and hospitality oozed out of him and I was fortunate to have been born to such an amazing man. He was an entertainer and an amazing chef. He and his brother have even been given the credit as the first men to bring pizza to California. I have him to thank for giving me the passion of food, beverage and living life to its fullest.
I followed in my father’s footsteps as an entrepreneur. He owned and ran quite a few restaurants in which I grew up; so it was no surprise that I myself would own a few. Each of my restaurants had personalities of their own. My fourth and, to this day, last restaurant, which I named “TUTTI" presented many opportunities to share my culinary passion with a community who was in the infancy of the “foodie” world. I think my culinary concept was ahead of their time. I only owned this fourth “child” for a little less than 3 years, from 2010-2012, but those years were filled with food memories worth a lifetime. One memory in particular happened toward the end of 2011. As summer began to wind down, I decided to theme an event around the change of season by doing a patio soiree with Renwood Winery. Picture a babbling fountain, live Spanish guitar and four 'fruit forward' California wines paired with great care to four fabulous courses that would hit the diner on a visceral level. That was my goal anyway.
Putting together a wine, beer or spirit pairing menu is one of my favorite things about cooking. I always start with tasting the beverage and developing the courses using my flavor memory. This is a God given gift that I have been graciously blessed with. As I taste each liquid my senses are overwhelmed with textures, aromas, flavors and beauty. My taste memory sets in and I match every nuance of the wine to its perfect food partner. One September afternoon, I sat down to develop the menu for the upcoming Renwood dinner. The first wine I tasted was Renwood chardonnay, a creamy and tropical wine that screamed for corn, but also spoke to the texture and sweet delicateness of diver scallops. The slight vegetal qualities begged for basil...so, from the corners of my mind I developed the perfect food and wine marriage: "A seared diver scallop balancing on rich savory corn flan, finished with Basil oil, topped with delicate fried leeks." I dubbed this as course number two.
The pairings went on and I got goose bumps as the imaginary flavors melded together and I sipped the wines. When it came to developing the dessert course, I chose the luscious Zinfandel. I sipped, swirled and sipped again. I aerated the wine on my tongue, closed my eyes and my mind wandered. Suddenly, there I was under the fig tree in Avellino, breathing in the aromas of the luscious fruit above me! Yes, this wine took me back to the old country. I knew I had to put together a dessert course that paid homage to that marvelous fig tree. I opened my eyes and it came to me. I could stuff a fresh fig with ground almonds, amaretto laced ricotta and cinnamon, then dip it in five spice honey and bake it. Ah, but how could I take it a step further? How could I bake it without losing its juices? It was September, what was in season? I contemplated for a while longer and the answer was obvious. It was close to grape harvest time...grape leaves! Now the challenge was how to get my hands on some fresh leaves? I jotted down all these ideas and put them aside for the moment. Time had flown by and I had a restaurant to open.
As the evening wound down and the last guest departed, my thoughts went back to the figs. Yes, they had to be wrapped in grape leaves. I proceeded to write down the beginning of a recipe but became weary with sleepiness and decided to put it off until the next day. I locked up the restaurant and headed for my car. I began to back out of the parking lot and looked over my right shoulder when out of the corner of my eye I spotted the answer to my prayers. It was a large colonial house a stones throw from the restaurant. It had a full garden surrounded by a chain link fence and a trellis covered with...you guessed it, grape vines! I found my source! The fence was covered with the vine and the leaves were enormous. The grapes were nearing ripeness and I was sure the owner of this garden had no need for the leaves. I had to get my hands on them for my dinner. I had met the owner of this house in passing when he and his wife dined in my restaurant, but I didn’t know them well enough to ask them for their garden’s bounty.
After this discovery the weeks passed quickly and reservations trickled it. We capped the dinner reservations at 30 guests. By the day before the event, we were sold out. That evening, after most of the prep for the dinner was complete, the only missing component was the grape leaves. I calculated three figs per plate which meant I needed 90 leaves. Seemed like a lot to pilfer, but they were prolific on my neighbors fence and I was sure he wouldn’t miss them. I donned a fresh apron and grabbed some kitchen shears. It was about 11:30pm. I tiptoed across the back lot feeling kind of sneaky but had no guilt because I was taking something of which there was abundance.
“What else would they be used for anyway?” I justified to myself.
I got to the fence and started to clip. 1, 2, 3 leaves. I folded my apron to fill it. 43, 44, 45 grapes leaves, my apron was getting full and I was only half way there. 86, 87….a dog started barking with a “huge dog's bark.” 88, 89, I began to clip faster; I knew I had better get a couple extra in case some would tear. The dog lunged toward the fence. It was a large Rottweiler! I fell back, clinging to my leaf filled apron. I only needed a couple more leaves. 90, 91...the back porch light came on.
“Who’s out there? I own a gun," yelled the man from the deck. I hid behind the vines. “I will call the police," he shouted.
The dog growled and I could see saliva glistening in the moonlight. Clip, 92,93...enough! Bent over, clutching my apron, I ran back to the restaurant, pretty sure the man did not catch a glimpse of me. Back in the kitchen, panting more from fear than fatigue, I dumped the leaves into some ice water and put them in the walk in. That was enough excitement for one day. This thief needed to go home, I started to feel guilty. I locked up the restaurant and quietly backed my car out of the parking lot exiting from the side away from the colonial house.
The next day TUTTI was open for lunch. As I was seating guests I glanced up and my heart fell. The man from the colonial house walked up the front step with his wife. My stomach ached.
“Maybe he had seen me and wants to make a citizen’s arrest." I thought. I suddenly felt dirty, like a criminal.
“Did you see anyone last night behind your restaurant?” he asked me. Was he egging me on? “I think someone was trying to break into my house." he added.
“Perhaps he really hadn’t seen me.“ I thought. My voice cracked, “No, not that I recall," I felt my cheeks burn. They must have been crimson.
“I think we should watch out for each other”, his wife interjected. I felt so much guilt.
I couldn’t hold back… ”IT WAS ME!” I blurted out and heads turned from every table to stare my way. I was sorry for the confession the moment it came out. Then the words started to flow like a babbling brook. “I am having this dinner, you see, and the last course needed grape leaves and I couldn’t find anyone who carried fresh, only canned, and well that’s not what I wanted so I saw your vines and thought you wouldn’t miss them I suppose I should have asked but...” my run-on statement was cut off by laughter. The couple’s roar made my cheeks burn even more.
Between fits of laughter the man exclaimed, “I called off the dog when I saw it was you. White chef coats and aprons glow in the moonlight don’t you know? Thought I could get a spot in the sold out dinner if I played you……”.
My shoulders dropped and my head lowered.
“I am sorry for stealing your leaves. Can I offer you a complementary seat for the dinner to pay for my sins?” I asked.
“We’d love to!” the couple chimed in unison.
“Looks like I will need a few more leaves.” I said with a grin
“Come on over and get them, in the day light.” the man said as he walked down the patio sidewalk.
“We will see you at 6.” his wife added.
That night the dinner was a success and I had to tell my guests the story of how their dessert almost made a felon out of me. Of course this was after I told them the story of the big mission fig tree in the town of Montoro, Italy, My family’s homeland.
During the 50’s and 60’s, in addition to being the mayor of the small town Cornelius, Oregon, my stepfather owned and operated a slaughterhouse and meat packing plant. Throughout my younger years, I am certain that I had consumed every organ, muscle and body part that a heifer had to offer…and enjoyed it!
I remember my classmates asking, “What’s for dinner at your house tonight?” I would roll my eyes and moan. ”Steak…..again!” They would just look at each other and shake their heads in envy thinking about the hamburger helper that was certain to be awaiting them at home.
The preparation of my favorite “body part” was when my mother, the master of the pressure cooker, made oxtail stew. She would throw everything in the pot; carrots, onions, potatoes, garlic and herbs and let it blow steam for a couple of hours until we had amazing oxtail stew. Savoring the succulent sections of tail, I loved gnawing on every inch of the bone sucking the juices from it’s pores.
One day, as I was prepping in my restaurant, I daydreamed about this meaty treat. I decided to recreate this culinary delight to run as a special. I headed for the local meat supply store in search of “some tail” and was excited to find a large case of the delicacy, ready for cooking. I carted the 25 pound, cord sealed box back to the restaurant, thinking that if I got it into the oven to braise by noon, surely it would be ready for our opening at 4pm. As I was driving from the meat vendor, I contemplated each individual packaged section of tail and how I would braise them, season them and with what I might accompany them.
Arriving at TUTTI’s kitchen, I ripped open the carton to find the expected oxtail. I was miffed not to find the individually cut and packaged segments, but five whole raw tails; which had to be bent to fit the box. “What do I do with these?” I said aloud to no one but the pale back ends of cows, long gone. I certainly didn’t have the proper tools or time to butcher such things down to the neat little sections that ended up in our kitchen as a child. I couldn’t worry about such things. These were going to take far more than 4 hours to braise, so time was wasting. I grabbed a large rondeuax and proceeded to sear the grotesque tails. I threw in all the appropriate ingredients, got it to where it needed to be and after covering it, I put it in the convection oven at 300 degrees. I prepped all the ingredients for the accompaniments and all that was left to do was wait. It was noon, maybe they would be ready to be served by 5.
I checked the tails at 4, still hard, needed more liquid. I added veal stock. Checked them at 5, still not done. I informed the staff that the special was still some time out. At 7:30 pm, I did one last check, the aromas were fantastic and the meat was tender. I pulled it from the oven, l removed the fat from the meat and the meat from the bone. It was 8pm and now the special was finally ready!
Our last dinner guests were excited and we sold 6 specials in an hour. Well worth the wait. I served it with mushroom risotto and sautéed arugula topped with fried shallots. Delightful! Mama would be proud.
8 cups chicken stock
3Tbls olive oil
1 yellow onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 lb fresh Portobello and crimini mushrooms, sliced
2 Tbls fresh thyme, chopped
2 Tbls fresh Italian parsley, chopped
2 Tbls butter
Salt and pepper
1 oz dried porcini mushrooms
2 cups carnoroli rice
½ cup dry white wine
½ cup Parmesan cheese, grated
Heat the chicken broth in a medium saucepan and keep warm over low heat. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add 1/2 onion and 1 clove garlic, cook, stirring, until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the fresh mushrooms, herbs and butter. Sauté for 3 to 5 minutes until lightly browned, season with salt and pepper. Add the dried porcini mushrooms which were reconstituted in1 cup of warm chicken broth (grit removed). Season again with salt and fresh cracked pepper. Sauté 1 minute then remove from heat and set aside.
Coat a saucepan with remaining 2 tablespoons of oil. Sauté the remaining 1/2 onion and garlic clove. Add the rice and stir quickly until it is well-coated and opaque, 1 minute. This step cooks the starchy coating and prevents the grains from sticking. Stir in wine and cook until it is nearly all evaporated.
Now, with a ladle, add 1 cup of the warm broth and cook, stirring, until the rice has absorbed the liquid. Add the remaining broth, 1 cup at a time. Continue to cook and stir, allowing the rice to absorb each addition of broth before adding more.
The risotto should be slightly firm and creamy, not mushy. Transfer the mushrooms to the rice mixture. Stir in Parmesan cheese, cook briefly until melted.
12 lbs oxtail
8 cloves garlic
1 red onion diced
4 bay leaves
6 thyme sprigs
3 sprigs oregano
750 ml red wine
2 cups veal or beef stock (1-2 cups more during cooking)
Salt and pepper
4 Tbls olive oil
1 tsp chili flakes
Preheat oven to 300. In a very large skillet, heat oil over medium heatl Pat oxtail dry with clean cloth, dust with salt and pepper. Sear until golden brown, remove from pan. Add thyme, oregano, bay leaves, garlic, chili, onions cook until tender. Deglaze with red wine, add oxtail, then add stock. Cover and cook until tender and coming off bone. Make sure they are always covered with liquid, add more stock as needed. May take up to 5 hours depending on size of tail. Remove at from meat then meat from bone. Strain juice, remove fat from top and reduce down to rich consistency. Add back to meat, serve.
One of the advantages of owning a restaurant is that any food item you purchase is tax free since you will be reselling and charging tax at that time. BUT, the only way to get it without taxation is to purchase through a wholesaler. A disadvantage of working with wholesalers is that they only work in bulk so if you need a small amount of a specific product, you will have get it at a retail shop where you must pay sales tax, not to mention the higher retail prices. I guess they’ve got us by the balls, so to speak, to bulk up or pay up...This is what brings me to the topic of beans.
Cinco de Mayo only comes once a year (really?) and though my restaurant "TUTTI" was a contemporary American restaurant with an Italian twist, we liked to show our support by running Mexican specials for the week of the fifth. One particular year we wanted to feature “Frijoes Borracho” (drunken beans) for which we needed to have pinto beans. Unfortunately, the smallest quantity we could get through our vendor was 100 lbs, ONE HUNDRED POUNDS of beans.
Well, cinco de Mayo came and went and the specials were fabulous, but we only went through 40 lbs of beans. It doesn’t take a math genius to figure that left us with 60 lbs of beans to somehow incorporate into an Italian/American menu. Not black beans or canelli beans or even lentil…no, these were pinto beans, as un-Italian as you could get.
Though this was a small annoyance, it was frustrating me daily. It seemed that every time I would walk by the dry storage shelves these six 10 lb cans of beans would stare at me, beckoning me to come up with some creative idea to relieve them of their feelings of neglect. They begged me to take away the pain each time the boxes of carnoroli rice were chosen off the shelf over them; or when they were pushed aside for easy reach of the whole artichokes that were fortunate to be in three different menu items. I was tired of counting the bean cans every time I did inventory. I thought of donating them to the soup kitchen but that would mean they had defeated me. No, I had to come up with a way to make them work into our menu, or at least on to our special sheet.
The first venture was to use them in soup. We made, Tuscan bean soup, (hope nobody noticed that the Italian beans were mixed with pinto beans) not very Tuscan. Then it was puree of bean soup with a basil oil drizzle. Then came the vegetable brothy soup with beans. Ten pounds down, 50 to go! The next creation was obvious, cassoulet. I purchased some beautiful venison loin and made a chorizo cassoulet with grilled venison fanned atop. It was rich and delicious and made a great special. In the meantime, I started doing research on what pinto beans could be made into that wasn’t of Mexican origin. I found some old southern recipes that utilized pinto beans in pie. PIE? So I thought I would experiment. A little of this, a little of that with the absolutely perfect butter pastry crust and out came a coconut/ pecan pinto bean pie. Of course if I wrote pinto bean pie on the menu, surely no one would order it. So I called it Pecan/ coconut custard tart.
I drizzled it with house made caramel, topped it with whipped cream and candied pecans...WOW! The service staff sampled it and we went through 20 pieces in two days. It was drop dead delicious. I tried to translate "a little of this, little of that" into a recipe and made it again. Two tarts sold again in less than two days. The staff had so much fun watching people’s eyes roll back in delight, then took pleasure divulging to them that it was mostly pinto beans! You could hear outbursts of “NO WAY” echoing throughout the dining room all night long. I had fun with it too. I would make bets with some of my regular guests, If they could tell me the main ingredient, I would offer the dessert complimentary...I always won!
A couple of weeks passed and we were down to 10 lbs of beans. It was clear to me that the tart needed to make its way onto our permanent menu. That meant that pinto beans would stare me down forever, only they were able to do it purpose; they had found their home at last.
Who Knew? Pinot Bean Pie
All butter crust
2 ½ cups ap flour, sifted
1 cup butter, very cold cut into ½ in cubes
1 teas salt
1 teas sugar
6-8 tbls ice water
Combine flour, salt and sugar in food processor, pulse to mix. Add butter pulse 6-8 times until mixture resembles coarse meal with pea size pieces of butter. Add ice water 1 Tbls at a time, pulsing until mixture just begins to clump together. If you pinch some of the dough and it holds together, its ready. If not, add a little more water and pulse again.
Remove dough from machine and place in a mound on a clean surface. Gently shape into 2 discs. Kneed the dough just enough to form the discs, do not over knead. You should be able to see clumps of butter in the dough. Wrap each disc in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 1 hour, and up to 2 days. Let soften 5-10 minutes before rolling.
Makes 2- 9 inch crusts
Pecan coconut custard filling
2 cups cooked pinto beans (canned work best) mashed with ¼ cup coco lopez (creamed coconut)
2 2/3 cups sweetened coconut
2 2/3 cup chopped pecans
4 ½ cups granulated sugar
2 Tbls rum
4 sticks melted butter
Mix all ingredients together and pour into unbaked pie shells. Bake for 1 hr 10 minutes at 350F.
Makes filling for 2-9 inch pies