Monday, January 11, 2010

Someone in my lineage likely had dyslexia…

My mother’s side of the family is a classic Italian-American clan. My grandfather is a first-generation American citizen and my grandmother was second-generation. Gramps’s birth certificate reads “Umberto DiLuciano” (even though he goes by “Albert”); Gram realized she was christened “Maria” after thinking her name was “Marie” for about seventy-five years! My mother’s generation (two girls, two boys) all live within one mile of each other in the same city in which they were raised. Many of us attend Catholic Mass as a group on Sundays, taking up an entire pew. We go out for brunch after Church then meet up later that night for pizza at someone’s house. We have a family recipe for spaghetti sauce that is kept under (figurative) lock and key. Like most Italian-American families, we are very proud of our heritage and use holidays as an excuse to pull out all the stops and make traditional Italian food.

One of my favorite dishes is usually served with our New Year’s Day supper. The preparation starts in advance. People gather together a few days before the holiday to make delicate crepes filled with a secret blend of Italian cheeses. This year my Gramps and Uncle Randy made the crepes, while my Mom filled the thin pancakes and rolled them into tasty little cigar shapes. She stacked the finished product into casserole dishes, barely covering them with our homemade chicken stock. They sat in the fridge until New Year’s Day, when my Mom gently reheated them and rationed out the crepes to eagerly awaiting family members. The flour crepes absorb the flavorful stock and the cheese infuses the broth with salty, Italian goodness! This dish is the primo piatto of the meal, followed up with ham, potatoes and veggies. I’ve missed out on this meal for years, sadly, since I always return to whatever city I am calling “home” for New Year’s, but I can almost taste these delicious treats as I write this!

What are they called and where can you get them? My family calls them “scrapelle,” and have done so for as long as anyone can remember. I’ve searched high and low for this dish in restaurants and online but haven’t been able to find them anywhere. I took some Italian in college and even spent a quarter studying in Italy. I asked dozens of Italians about “scrapelle” but none had ever heard of such a thing! I was headed home for the holidays, thinking about our family traditions (including my favorite dish). Suddenly, I had an “aha” moment worthy of a cartoon light bulb illuminating over my head. The Italian word for “crepe” is “crespelle”! Somewhere along the line, someone must have mixed up the word! No wonder there was no trace of this dish anywhere! In true Italian-American fashion, we had our own bastardized pronunciation of an Italian word. Hey, the Sopranos leave the vowels off the end of every Italian word (“mozzarell” and “mortadell”), give us this one.

I’m not sharing the recipe for this one, because it’s a serious family secret and I might be disowned for doing so (well, someone would definitely give me mal'occhio). But please, enjoy the photos of my family! 

Friendly group, huh? The man on the left and the woman standing in the middle are my great-great grandparents.  It was taken circa 1919.

If you're curious about the others:
The first one is my great grandparents, my great-uncle, and great-aunt Francie, taken around 1924. I LOVE how Victorian it is!
The second picture is my grandfather on his confirmation day with his godparents, taken around 1940 (that's a guess, but it's close!).
The third photo is my great-grandparents' wedding picture, taken in 1919.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Bacon, Eggs and Toast for Dinner

I lived three blocks away from the bakery for at least six months before stopping in to investigate. There’s no shortage of little Italian bakeries in North Beach, and this one looked decidedly less inviting than the majority of them. In fact, most of the time you can’t even be sure they’re in business. They hold true bakery hours and are only open until 1:00 (or more often until they sell out of their tasty product). The only thing identifying it as a bakery at all is a sign made of a few lines of worn gold script painted onto one of the windows, barely visible from the road. These windows are usually barren - with the exception of certain holidays, when overnight there is an explosion of festive spirit. Near human-scale mannequins have startled yours truly more than once when my walk home activated a motion sensor to send a crooked-nosed witch into a fit of cackling or induce a unexpected “ho, ho, ho” from a robust Santa Clause.

I was waiting for a ride to work one morning from my Beau, who was running quite behind. In order to kill some time I decided to run down to Liguria Bakery. Looking at the menu, it quickly became clear that this was not your ordinary bakery. There were no glass display cases with flaky pastries, and no shiny espresso machines. No tables to sit down and read the morning paper or check your email on free Wi-Fi. As my eyes searched the small shop for the menu, it became clear that this was not the place to pick up a morning latte and some biscotti. The “menu” consisted of a list of ingredients: rosemary, garlic, mushroom, raisin, etc. Although the staff was quite curt and definitely not in the mood for a chat, I was able to ascertain that this was a very specific bakery, specializing in focaccia bread. The list of ingredients was a list of the different toppings on their bread. And that is all they serve. Focaccia. Just focaccia.

They serve around ten different types, but my personal favorite is rosemary. And apparently I’m not the only one who dreams about this bread! If you can’t make it into the shop early enough it’s sold out; then you have to settle for one of the other delicious toppings, like garlic, mushroom or green onion. I know, life’s rough.

I bought a slab of rosemary focaccia last week and wasn’t able to finish it because some last minute dinner plans popped up. A few days later, I noticed the pretty package wrapped in white butcher’s paper and tied with twine sitting in my bread basket. I just couldn’t bear to throw it away, even though it was as hard as a rock. What’s the best use for bread that’s a few days old? Bread crumbs, of course! One of my favorite America’s Test Kitchen recipes is spaghetti with garlic, breadcrumbs and a fried egg. I modified it a little bit to make bacon and rosemary bread crumbs with my beloved focaccia (yes, I’m always trying to make recipes healthier…).

Pasta and over-easy eggs are an amazing combination. The yolks break to coat the noodles in a thick sauce. In this dish, the toasty breadcrumbs add a bit of crunch to contrast with the creamy sauce and toothy pasta. Parmesan contributes its characteristically nutty flavor; the garlic adds an earthy, mellow layer; the red pepper flakes give a tiny kick. Top it off with a hint of salty, meaty bacon and you have a satisfying dinner using the components of a traditional breakfast – bacon, eggs and toast.

Spaghetti with Rosemary-Bacon Breadcrumbs and Egg
Serves 4
Adapted from America’s Test Kitchen (The Best of America’s Test Kitchen 2008)

You can use any kind of bread for bread crumbs, or if you’re feeling a little lazy then use panko. And you can always drop the bacon and use olive oil (that's what the original recipe calls for).

1 lb spaghetti (use dried, fresh doesn't have the right texture for this recipe)
4 eggs
4 cloves garlic, minced
½ sheet pan of day-old rosemary focaccia (can substitute day old bread or panko crumbs), torn into 1 inch pieces
4 slices bacon, cut into matchsticks
Pinch of red pepper flakes
½ c grated Parmesan cheese
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
Optional: Chopped Italian parsley

1. Cook the bacon until crisp in a medium non-stick skillet, about 5-10 minutes. Keep the oil in the pan but drain the bacon onto a paper towel.
2. Pulse the bread in a food processor into fine crumbs. Add the crumbs to the bacon fat and toast over medium-low heat on the stovetop until golden brown. Set breadcrumbs aside to cool.
3. Cook the pasta according to instructions on the box. While the water coming to a boil and the pasta cooks, prepare the rest of the ingredients. Reserve 1 c of cooking water when draining.
4. Heat 3 T olive oil in the skillet over low heat. Add garlic, pepper flakes, and a pinch of salt. Cook slowly to mellow the garlic. This will take around 10 minutes, but be careful not to burn the garlic or you’ll have to start all over! Set this mixture aside and return the pan to low heat with 2 T oil.
5. 1 minute before the pasta is done cooking, add the eggs to the skillet. Season with salt and pepper and cover. Cook until the whites are just cooked but the yolks are runny (2-3 minutes).
6. While the eggs are cooking, mix the pasta, the garlic/oil mixture, 3 T olive oil, and Parmesan in the cooking pot. Add ½ c of the reserved cooking water, adding more if the pasta is too dry. You can add chopped Italian parsley in this step if you want.
7. Plate the pasta, top with a cooked egg, and sprinkle the dish with the breadcrumbs, bacon and additional grated cheese.