Have Cucuzza, Will Travel

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As the old adage goes, if you don’t like your situation, change it. If you can’t change it, change your mind. What might have been a dark, depressing weekend for me turned out to be a wonderful one, with a good bit of help from a dear friend and the timely ripening of a somewhat unusual Italian vegetable.

My friend Ann and I were supposed to have gone on a fall motorcycle tour around Lake Michigan last weekend but because I had not yet resuscitated my personal finances following the complete and utter demise of my most recent employer (see Ups and Downs – Part 2 of 3), I was forced to cancel our trip. While I’d like to think I can shake anything off like so much dust from my sandals, the fact of the matter is my mind was headed for a very dark place as the result. Mind you, this wasn’t the first time in my life I’ve had to cancel plans for practical reasons. And yes, as a rule, having to do so sucks like a top-of-the-line Dyson vacuum. But what burns me most is not that I was inconvenienced—I can deal with that all day long—but that it had affected a friend of mine. It doesn’t even matter to me that this friend didn’t really mind all that much. If you want to end up on my bad side fast, do something, anything, that adversely affects one of my friends. When that happens, you may want to step back a mile or two.

But you see, though my employer had failed, miserably so, that had occurred last July. This was September and I still hadn’t pulled out of my own tailspin. So while the time span was quite within reason given my career stage (over seven years at the director level), whom could I blame for inconveniencing one of my dearest friends more than me? Nobody. Thus my smoldering ire was turned back on myself. Fade to black… almost.

Enter the cucuzza, a type of gourd that is grown as a summer squash in southern Italy. The Americanized term for this vegetable sounds like “googootz” and thanks to the myriad of Italian dialects, you may also hear it called something that sounds like “cogozza” or “coguzzigia.” It’s all the same thing. They grow on vines and they grow rapidly to substantial lengths, often over three feet long. The skin is inedible. The flesh beneath is white and tasteless raw, but when cooked, it takes on a translucent, pale green hue and has a mild, somewhat sweet flavor.

So there I was, looking at the prospect of spending four days—the length of our planned trip around the lake—obsessing over something I could not change, and that just seemed so pointless to me. So I reached out to Ann and said as much. “Why should we write off the entire four days? Let’s take at least one of those days and do something worthwhile.” Then for good measure, I added, “I’ve got a cucuzza that will be ripe for picking by this weekend. I could bring it up if you promise not to laugh, and we could prepare something with it together.”

“Like what?” Ann seemed intrigued by that idea—such is the power of a nice cucuzza—and so we so we laid pans for one day of riding, walking, and cooking together. In addition to supplying the cucuzza, on the eve of our day together, I offered to harvest some large leaf basil and grill some Italian-marinated chicken breasts for our culinary endeavor. Ann, in turn, obtained the additional vegetables and grains, along with some bread, wine, and other assorted goodies to complete the meal. Game on!

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The following morning, I carefully wrapped my cucuzza in a favorite cotton hoodie, strapped it securely into the passenger area of Miss Scarlett, my Victory Vision touring motorcycle, and headed to Ann’s place up in Wisconsin. What I was not prepared for, one-hundred-plus miles later, was the immediate affection Atlas, one of Ann’s cats, displayed for my well-endowed squash. When it came time to peel and cook my unusual vegetable, the photogenic feline posed no issues. Still, it made us smile and laugh a bit.

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The temperature and humidity were unusually high for late September, so Ann and I opted to restrict our motorcycle outing to the morning and early afternoon hours. This meant staying relatively close to home, but I didn’t mind. We rode a relatively short distance to Oconomowoc and ever my reliable navigator, Ann directed me to Fowler Lake Park, a delightful spot on the eastern shore of Lake Fowler, right in the midst of Oconomowoc proper. Once off the bike, Ann proceeded to lead me on a walking tour of approximately three miles around the lake, pointing out all manner of man-made and natural points of interest. Sure, it was a little warm, but the day was beautiful and we had a really fun time together.

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Once we got back to Ann’s place, we set about to chopping, sautéeing, and simmering our food. You’ll have to wait for my book to come out to get the full non-recipe, but the essential elements are the cucuzza, some aromatics and root vegetables, tomatoes, stock, meat, grains, and seasonings. Many options and variations are possible. The end result is a hearty, flavorful stew that makes a meal in itself. A few hours later, Ann, her son, and I had eaten our fill and true to the Italian tradition into which I had been born, there were ample leftovers.

It had been such an awesome day. In the course of that day, everything wrong had quickly become overshadowed by all that was right. Still, as is often the case, the ending was bittersweet. Why? Because it was an ending. After all the pots, pans, and dishes had been washed and put away, I packed up a few leftovers on Miss Scarlett and after we had exchanged our goodbyes, I headed for home, literally riding off into the sunset before turning south.

Sometimes all you need to do, in order to understand that all is not bad, is to be willing to see the good. Thanks for hanging with me.

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My First Crack at Pineapple Grilled Pork Tenderloin

It had been a race against time since before I started. This two-plus-pound pork tenderloin had been calling to me from the fridge all day. I wanted to marinate and grill that beautiful thing, but the weather forecast had said it would begin raining sometime after 7:00 PM. I reasoned that if I began preparations as soon as I came through the door, I might be able to pull it off. Game on!

But how should I prepare the thing? That was the question. The pork tenderloin is a versatile cut of meat that lends itself to rubs, marinades, and other treatments. My personal favorite is a Mediterranean-style marinade that I learned from my mother. I’ve also done bacon-wrapped, Asian-style barbecue, bourbon-marinated, and more, but I wanted to try something different. I spent part of my lunch hour perusing recipes online. I seldom follow recipes, but I often get good ideas from them. In this particular case, I needed ideas that required little in the way of time or unusual ingredients.

I struck pay dirt with a Sweet Pineapple Soy Grilled Pork Tenderloin recipe from Slap Yo Daddy BBQ, a competitive barbecue team headed by TLC’s BBQ Pitmasters Head Cook Harry Soo. The recipe was simple enough, even though I would not be following it precisely, and I figured with a name like Slap Yo Daddy, it couldn’t miss.

The basic marinade combines brown sugar, soy sauce, pineapple juice, and Chinese five spice powder. I augmented this with a few drops of sesame oil, which seemed to work well. A word of caution to the uninitiated, sesame oil is an excellent seasoning but is also very strong mojo. Use it sparingly or you will swear you are still smelling it for weeks afterward. You mix up your marinade, pour it into a gallon freezer bag, and then after removing any silver skin, you toss the tenderloin in and let it marinate for an hour or two.

The recipe says to reserve some pineapple juice for basting, which I did. That’s fine, but I’d like to try reserving a portion of the full-on marinade next time and basting the meat with that instead.

After removing and discarding the excess marinade (never baste with marinade that has had raw meat sitting in it), the recipe says to sprinkle a light coat of Slap Yo Daddy Rub on the meat. I didn’t have any, so I used my current favorite rub, Mike’s All Purpose Seasoning,  which worked just fine. At this point I usually sear my tenderloin and then move to indirect heat and smoking. This recipe called for the reverse order, which I followed. I’m not sure which order I will follow next time; there are worthy arguments for either.

Once the pork came off, it was time to grill some fresh (as in not canned) pineapple slices. This was my first attempt at grilling a fruit, so I basically followed the recipe, brushing some oil onto the pineapple slices and then treating them with a bit of brown sugar and cinnamon before tossing them on the grill. As you may be able to tell from the photo above, I turned the slices a couple of times in order to achieve the classic criss-cross grill lines. I probably could have cooked them a little longer, but this being my first time, I was afraid of overcooking the fruit.

Mangia

At that point it was all over but the tasting—and let me tell you, it tasted good! My wife contributed some French-cut green beans to complement the sweetness of the pineapple and pork. This worked out very well. I will surely tweak things a little next time, but pineapple grilled pork tenderloin is definitely a dish I will be preparing again.

Rain

In case you are wondering, yes, I got everything done before the rain arrived. I had to let the grill cool a bit before covering it, so I enjoyed supper first. Then I went back outside and put everything away. Interestingly enough, the skies opened up within one minute of my going back inside after cleaning and covering the grill. Apparently somebody up there likes me.

Thanks for hanging with me.

 

 

Fun with Leftovers: Philly Meatloaf Skillet

Writer

Whether via broadcast media, print media, or social media, everybody likes to showcase their best dishes. And in that regard, I suppose I’m not much different from anybody else. I’ve made no secret about a book I’ve been working on, which includes a fair amount of cooking, but few if any actual recipes. One evening I was discussing some aspect of my book with my friend (and fellow foodie) Ann when she pointed out that I seem to have a lot of fun with leftovers—not just reheating my dishes but in many cases, repurposing the stuff. “You may have an interesting theme there,” she suggested. Well, I thought about it a little bit and realized that, as usual, she was probably right. I really do try to have fun with my leftovers and odds are you won’t find another cookbook showcasing some of the things I’ve done on day two—or day three, for that matter—after the original dish has been prepared, served, and eaten.

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For me, reheating leftovers is fine, but why not have a little fun with it and enjoy something just a little bit different than what you ate the night before? This is my premise for the whole “fun with leftovers” premise. All this requires is a sense of what ingredients go together, a little creativity, and a willingness to accept that not every experiment will end well—but that sometimes you will win. May I demonstrate?

Assume a meatloaf. It was a good meatloaf, prepared recently (no horror stories, please), and everybody has already had a meatloaf sandwich for lunch the following day. Now all you have left is this butt of a meatloaf, maybe enough for two modest slices, but you don’t want another meatloaf sandwich and if you make another one for somebody else, there’s gonna’ be trouble. So you scour the fridge and pantry, and you gather the following items, in addition to the foil-wrapped butt of meatloaf.

  •  at least half an onion
  • a good bell pepper of any (edible) color
  • one or more cloves of fresh garlic
  • two slices of sandwich cheese (American, Provolone, Swiss, etc.)
  • a little oil or butter (I prefer olive oil for this particular example)
  • salt and spices

Armed with nothing more than a cutting board, a sharp knife, a skillet, and a flipper of some sort, we are ready to begin. Heat up your skillet while you slice at least half an onion to the thickness of your choosing. When the skillet is warmed, add some oil and swirl it around. The oil will become thinner as it heats up. If it begins to smoke, quickly reduce the heat, unless you are into pyrotechnics and have a self-contained breathing apparatus handy. Otherwise, once ready, toss in those onions, season them to your liking, and toss/stir/flip them about  Then lower the heat so that the onions can clarify and caramelize a bit while you cut up your pepper and garlic.

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Toss in your sliced pepper and garlic, season a little more if necessary, and give it all a toss or stir. If the skillet loks a little dry, you can do one of two things—either add a little more oil/butter, or toss in a bit of water, wine or brandy, to loosen things up. Once loosened, toss and/or stir the contents of the skillet, then cover and set it aside. As the peppers cook a bit, you will need to toss and/or stir one more time. You will also need to cut up your meatloaf.

Ready for Cheese

At this point, everything in the skillet has already been cooked, so it largely becomes a matter of heating or browning the meatloaf pieces. This is also the time to introduce your cheese.

Cheese

What you add depends on what you like and/or what you have handy. As a rule, I use only cheese and not “processed cheese food,” but I should point out that the original Philly cheese steak was made with cheese whiz and not some genuine cheese. To melt the cheese, simply cover the skillet. if you are concerned that the contents are too dry, dribble a bit of water (or wine or brandy) into the skillet before covering. Then wait a bit.

Finis

The steam melts the cheese and gets everything warm and cozy. As the melted cheese hits the skillet, it begins to bubble and brown a bit, which changes the flavor and texture of the cheese. Once that happens, this baby is done—and it looks nothing like the original dish you served a day or two ago.

At this point, you can serve this skillet dish on a roll or bun, or you can serve it up on a plate and enjoy it as is. The flavor is such that it stands on its own.

Needless to say, you could pull this off with chicken, with sandwich steaks, leftover beef, or (big surprise here) leftover meatloaf. Just imagine the possibilities and let your imagination be your guide.

Thank you for hanging with me.

The Pizza That Ann and Michael Built

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The culinary exercise I am about to describe will undoubtedly end up in my book, the working title of which is What Recipe.  It’s sort of a cookbook, but also a celebration of intuitive cooking, a collection of humorous anecdotes and more. I think you’ll like it, but right now I want to tell you about this pizza, if only because we received a lot of positive feedback when my friend Ann and I began sharing some of our photos on facebook last weekend. Neither Ann nor I had ever made pizza quite like this before, which made everything seem sort of tentative, but we laughed our way through this intuitive experiment, from start to finish and ended up with a couple of large, tasty pizzas.

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I have made many pizzas before, most of them in the tradition taught to me by my mother.This one, however, was a little bit unique. For openers, we made the crust from scratch, using a “Tipo 00” flour imported from Italy. I had never used this extra fine flour before but had read that it was excellent for making pizza crusts. This turned out to be quite true. Double zero is a grade of Italian-milled flour that is ground very fine and is also highly refined. I believe it is lower in protein, starch, and gluten than standard flour, although what’s left in there I have no idea. Angelo Caputo’s Fresh Markets, with eight locations in suburban Chicagoland, carries a few different brands of Tipo 00 flour. I selected their house brand, which is labeled as a pizza flour and it worked fabulously for us in that capacity.

We double-raised our dough before dividing and stretching it out into two pizza crusts. We didn’t use a thermometer, just a little warm water in which to proof the yeast, and a lot of room temperature water to make the dough. And salt. When I would ask how much salt I needed to use for making bread, my late mother used to tell me, “If you don’t put enough salt, your bread isn’t gonna’ taste of anything, but if you put too much, you’ll ruin it just the same.” It ultimately came down to trial and error, but a half palmful of kosher or sea salt mixed into a 2.2 lb bag of flour (roughly six cups) will put you in the ballpark.

fresh-slices

We used sliced fresh mozzarella, also from Caputo’s, instead of the low-moisture, part skim variety, which I usually buy pre-shredded. The cheese was so fresh, we had to dry the one-ounce slices with paper towels before using them. Otherwise, the bread crust would get wet and mushy from all the moisture. Fresh mozzarella has a creamier texture than does it’s dry counterpart, and also a very mild flavor. Ann and I had used fresh mozzarella on a Caprese-style garlic bread with stellar results, so we expected this to work okay on our pizza, too.

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The bulk mild Italian sausage that we used came from, you guessed it, Caputo’s. As good as their standard recipe is, I augmented it with some extra fennel seeds and a dash or two of red pepper flakes—not enough to make it hot, but just enough to impart some additional flavor. We formed little bite-size chunks and browned them up to add even more flavor while removing some of the fat. The result was magnificent!

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Rather than use a canned product—some of which are just fine— or even my family’s homemade jarred sauce, Ann and I opted to make a fresco pizza sauce. I went shopping for the best tomatoes I could find in late February and brought them with me. Then Ann and I proceeded to peel, seed, and dice those babies just for this occasion.

The detailed guidelines for this sauce have already been written for the book, but in a nutshell, you need hot oil, the proper seasoning, and just enough time to lose the excess moisture, which just like the water in our fresh mozzarella, would have wrecked the heavenly crust we created.

ready-to-bake

We had been at this for a few hours. After all, double-raised homemade bread dough takes time. Let me be the first to admit, this was not fast food. A frozen pizza could have been heated up and ready to eat within 20 minutes. Ordering from a pizzeria normally yields results in 20 to 50 minutes, depending on the establishment and on what you order. Ann and I both buy frozen, from time to time, and we each have our favorite pizzerias in our respective markets, which happen to be over 100 miles apart. 

Now believe what I tell you next: What we created that day cannot be found in your grocer’s frozen food section, nor will you likely find it on the menu at your local pizzeria. What Ann and I set out to create was heads above all that. This hand-crafted pizza involved four different kinds of cheese, a fresco sauce, a sausage blend that cannot be found in any store, and a homemade crust made from triple-raised Italian milled flour. You can’t buy this! But you can make it yourself, with the right ingredients, a little time, and a bit of guidance, say from a book that describes all the ingredients and the various steps involved in bringing them all together.

cooked

 Yeah, that’s right. We took our sweet time, debated our choices, and cooked the best pizza pies we could possibly create together—two really big rectangular ones, in fact, way more than three people could ever have eaten. So much food that I was able to take an entire pie home with me.My apologies to Ann and her son for the overage, but I produced no more food than any good Italian would have brought forth. This I learned from my mother.

And you know what? I have no regrets. None. Ann and I laughed all day while working on this, ate our fill afterward, and it was epic.The flavors and textures all came together in a way that mere words cannot fully capture. To learn more about this culinary adventure and others like it, please keep an eye out for my book, which with any luck will be out before the end of this year.

Thanks for hanging with me!

Burnt Offerings of the Culinary Kind

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If you spend enough time cooking, sooner or later you’ll burn something. Trust me, I know. If you’re lucky, nobody will see you do it. But really, what are the odds of that happening?

Once when I was in college, sometime after the dinosaurs had died off, I was trying to cook a steak that had been given to me by a dear relative. And what a beautiful steak it was, nearly two inches thick and very well marbled. Problem is it was still frozen. Well, I reasoned, if I began cooking it, the steak would cook thoroughly on the outside and maintain some red in the center by the time it was finished. What can I say, I was young, foolish, and inexperienced. So I placed the steak in a pan, shoved it under the broiler and went to the living room to have a cocktail while my supper cooked.

Moments later, one of my housemates came through the front door and greeted me, “Hey, Mike.” He looked up the hallway, toward the kitchen, and then back at me. “Everything okay?”

“Hi, Rick,” I replied, “yeah, sure.” Rick shrugged and headed off in the other direction, to his room. Moments later, the smoke reached the living room, where I was still seated.  I leapt from my chair and ran to the hallway, peering through the light smoke only to see much heavier smoke billowing from the kitchen. My steak!

I ran to the kitchen, threw open the broiler door, and was greeted by blazing flames that appeared to be coming from a black, oily slab that had once been my steak. First I tossed some water on it… bad idea. The flaming and smoking only grew worse. Then I shut off the gas and slammed the broiler door shut, which seemed to do the trick. I opened the door again to find that the flames had gone out, but the billowing smoke had become ten times worse. I turned on every fan and opened every window in the house, before heading up the street to get a sub sandwich.

corn

Have you ever set corn on fire? I have.

Have you ever set pork ribs on fire? I have.

Have you ever almost set your wooden back porch on fire? I’m not telling!

Needless to say, I have more stories to tell regarding my culinary pyrotechnics. But you will have to wait until the book comes out before you can read about them. Ha! Thanks for hanging with me.

My Unfortunate Baking Misadventure

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As I continue compiling material for my first cookbook, I am reminded of the best and worst of my bread baking endeavors. I don’t bake bread often and what little I do, I learned from my mother, an Italian immigrant who make almost everything from scratch—and made it very well, I might add.

What I usually bake can best be described as a rustic Italian loaf. Long and somewhat oval in shape, it’s a somewhat hearty bread with a substantial crust, very well suited to dipping or eating with soups and salads. I tend to use unbleached and/or whole wheat flour, which makes for a more dense product than one would get by using bread-specific flour, which tends to contain more glutens. When it turns out right, my bread is a nice addition to the dinner table.

But alas, things do not always turn out as planned. Some years ago, when my parents were still alive, we were planning to have the family over to celebrate my young son’s birthday. In the tradition of my mother’s kitchen, where I learned so much about cooking, I had planned an abundant meal involving way more food than even this group of eleven people would ever be able to eat. I thought it might be nice to have a fresh-baked loaf of my homemade bread, but I would not have enough time to prepare and raise the dough. So I got this great idea to make up some dough, raise it once, then freeze it. On the day of our celebration, I would defrost the dough, let it rise one more time, and then bake it in time to serve fresh, warm bread for dinner.

To put it mildly, something went wrong. My guess would be that I hadn’t allowed nearly enough time for defrosting, so when I expected my loaf to be rising, some colder parts were still struggling just to reach room temperature. At some point, time had run out for rising because I needed to bake the loaf and let it cool a little prior to serving. My loaf looked okay on the outside, if a bit smaller than I’d hoped for. So into the oven it went.

I waited. I watched. The bread looked okay as far as the color and general appearance of the crust, but it was too small. That should have been my first clue. The second clue came when I picked up the loaf, wearing oven mitts, to place it on a cooling rack. Though slim, almost like a baguette, my bread loaf weighed as much as a loaf twice its size would weigh.

All the other foods we had prepared—grilled meats, pasta, veggies, salad, etc.—came off as planned. But when I set that loaf of bread down on the table, it looked and sounded like a wooden club landing. When my father first picked it up, he immediately looked over at me with his eyebrows raised, gently raising and lowering the loaf as if he were judging its weight. He cut off a hunk and set the loaf back down. Then it was my brother-in-law’s turn. He hoisted my loaf of bread, holding it at one end with both hands, and took a few practice swings, smiling at me as he did so, before slicing off another few pieces. I got the message.

Eventually, the bread came around to me. With only half a loaf remaining, the thing still felt heavy for its size. I turned the end cut toward me and examined the cross-section. Amidst the usual internals, I saw darker portions with none of the usual holes one expects to find in a slice of bread. Solids in my bread? Apparently so!

Some of the more dedicated eaters in my family took a few bites out of sheer courtesy. Others just passed. I was embarrassed, to say the least. But I learned a valuable lesson about cooking: No matter what your schedule says, every dish you prepare takes exactly as much time as it needs to be properly finished. If you need it sooner, begin sooner.

Nowadays I look back on these culinary setbacks and laugh, even though I assure you I wasn’t laughing at the time. You’ll learn more about these endeavors when this book becomes available. Until then, thanks for hanging with me.

Likes to Play with Food

italian

I like to cook, but sometimes I can’t leave well enough alone. I like foods a certain way and seldom follow a recipe to the letter. Most of what I learned about cooking, putting certain foods together, etc., I learned by watching my mother. She seldom followed a recipe, either. I don’t go crazy yet ordinary often isn’t quite good enough. My arena, therefore, falls somewhere between the two.

shrimp_diavolo

About a year ago, I began toying with the idea for an unconventional cookbook that, despite having no conventional recipes per se, explores my approach to a variety of dishes, including creative uses for the leftovers. All of this would be interspersed with anecdotes relating to the food and the people who caused them to happen, whether directly or indirectly. The working title of this book continues to be What Recipe?

During most of 2016, What Recipe? remained essentially an idea and nothing more. I developed a preliminary outline and penned a chapter or two, but that was it… until last December. Since then, thanks to the constant encouragement (okay, pestering) of a close friend, this book is actually taking shape.

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I can’t say how soon What Recipe? will become available for order, but it’s a safe bet that my online followers will be among the first to hear about it. Wish me luck, and thanks for hanging with me.