29 September 2013

Channeling Nonna ... Ranting On Kitchen Creativity


So .... the dishes and background suck given the food colors ... get over it. Our grandparents had to! That's exactly what I said to myself, as I shot this gorgeous plate of food ... and the food is what it's all about ... right?

This post involves small chapters (or free association interludes) that unfold to the food on that plate...

Chapter 1 - Fantasizing and Cooking

I am the Queen of Kitchen Ingredients - the Empress of  Set Aside Small Bits - the Princess of Use It Up. Today is a day for wielding my powers and challenging myself a bit. What can I do with four chicken legs, some peppers, some onions, garlic, two cans of cannellini beans, a half-used can of tomato paste, some chopped herbs that are beginning to dry out, small rinds of Parmesan, the back end of a container of heavy cream, some black olives that need using, ... and a row of kale that is becoming a backyard jungle? Oh ... I know! I'll do what Nonna would do! I'll make do!

Chapter 2 - Channeling Nonna

Every kid I know has gone through a phase in their life when they fantasized that they were separated at birth from their 'true family'. Sometimes the phase repeats itself later in life (like when you're prepping a meal and the family is sitting in front of the ball game or swilling wine and chomping crackers while you're absorbed with slice and dice). In my fantasy, there is a big crowd of boisterous Italians wishing they knew what ever became of Susan. There's a Nonna who stands over a stove and thinks of the missing grandchild, as she stirs onions and garlic into hot olive oil and butter, as she wafts her hand over the pot to judge the spice level on the braising liquid, as she rinses beans and thinks about how she will make them creamy and garlicky and smooth. Sometimes the Nonna must project herself through time and space. She surely did today, as I looked at a mish-mash of ingredients in my fridge and slowly worked my way toward a slow cooked stew of chicken legs, red and yellow peppers, canned tomatoes, leftover tomato paste, cheese, bits of herbs from the garden, some leftover white wine, some broth, and an afternoon of soft cooking. Yes, Nonna was surely looking over my shoulder.

Chapter 2 - On A Leg and A Prayer

Slow cooking lends itself to Italian dishes, I think. That slow bubble of a pot of gravy is such a tradition in the Italian kitchen. Initial ingredients can get a fast sear in the bottom of the pot. Good wine and stock can be added, then herbs and incidental ingredients that help build depth. The whole thing can sit there and develop at a slow bubble to a thing of beauty. And then, just when you think it can't get better, one can add those soft vegetables that will add just the right accent, just the right soft crunch or salty hit of flavour. The key is knowing when to stop puttering with things ... and that means keeping a spoon next to the pot and tasting.  Than, you just have to move on and create the sides that will make the perfect palate for the main event. Sip some wine and move on to the sides ...

Chapter 3 - Kale and Male Pride

SB grows a good garden. That needs to be said. I run a tight kitchen; do what I say or get out of the way. That needs to be said, too. When I ask if there's kale and you say, "Yup, how much do you want?", and I say, "Cut just enough for two servings. There's no room for extra in the fridge.", don't bring in a freakin' bushel ! That being said, you KNOW what he did, right?  His parting shot, as he dumped it on the counter top was, "Just pitch what you don't want."

It's Sunday. I'm feeling very righteous. Don't throttle him, Susan. He's proud of his garden. He's unsure what is too big and what is good for cooking. He's just happy to show off the big green leafy stuff that has no blemishes and looks like a garden catalog photo ... never mind that there's a two foot haystack of kale sitting the counter top!

Chapter 4 - Buono Apetito ! Pay No Attention to the Dishes! Mangia ! Kiss the Cook !

Long before food blogging and food styling and food photography became all the rage, folks made killer food and plopped it on whatever dish they were fortunate enough to have. They still do in lots of places on this Earth. I held that thought as I plopped this absolutely killer meal onto dishes that clashed so dramatically that I gasped. However, when I gasped, the smell of that sauce and the garlicky creaminess of the beans made its way into my nose and mouth and that magical thing called gustatory taste overpowered that other snooty thing called aesthetic taste. I got over it ... know what  I mean ? Then, came the dilemma ... do I share this meal with people I love or do I let is slide by the wayside ?

Well? What would Nonna do? She'd probably borrow white dishes and give the neighbors the recipes.

Chapter 5  Three Small Recipes

Cheap Chicken with Peppers and Olives for 2


1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp. butter
4 pieces of chicken , legs and thighs
half a large onion, chunked
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 c. white wine
1 c. chicken broth
three sprigs fresh rosemary
1 sweet red pepper, seeded, deveined and sliced
1 sweet yellow pepper , same as above
a big handful black olives, pitted and halved
a handful fresh basil, parsley, and cilantro, chopped
1 can (14.5 oz) fire-roasted tomatoes and juices
2 tbsp. tomato paste
black pepper

Making the Dish:

1. Heat the oil and butter in a fry pan, over medium heat, until it bubbles. Add the chicken pieces and brown on all sides.
2. Place the chicken in the bottom of a slow cooker. Set the temperature for "LOW".
3. Add the garlic and onion to the hot pan and saute until golden. Deglaze the pan with the white wine. Let the wine boil with the onions and garlic for a minute. Then, pour everything over the chicken in the slow cooker. Scrape out the pan well - get all the goodness.
4. Pour the chicken stock over the chicken and wine. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, rosemary, herbs, and black pepper.
5. After a couple hours, add the peppers and olives. Poke them down into the sauce and let the stew continue to cook for another couple hours.
6. To serve, spoon a generous serving of Creamy Cannellini Beans on a plate. Place a piece of the chicken on top and spoon on the vegetables and juices. Have warm greens on the side.

Creamy Cannellini Beans


2 cans (14 oz) cannellini beans, drained and rinsed well
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 tbsp. butter
4 small cloves garlic, minced
5 -6 leaves fresh sage
black pepper
heavy cream
a handful grated Parmesan cheese

Making the Dish:

1. One half hour before you want to eat, heat the oil and butter in a heavy saucepan. When it has melted, add the garlic and sage leaves and let them sizzle until the garlic begins to brown at the edges.
2. Add the drained and rinsed beans. Stir the beans gently to mix the oil and butter through them.
3. When the beans begin to sizzle a bit, add enough cream to coat the bottom of the pan and come up the sides by about half an inch. Let the cream come to a boil, then, lower the heat, cover the pan and let the beans simmer for a couple minutes. Turn the heat off, add the Parmesan cheese and black pepper. Toss gently. Cover the pan and set it aside to let the garlic and sage work their magic.
4. Just before serving, return the pan to the stove, turn the heat up, add a bit more cream, and heat the beans until the sauce is soft and creamy.
5. Taste the beans and add salt and more black pepper if needed ... or a bit more cheese ... or a bit more cream ... get the consistency nice and smooth and warm.

Wilted Kale with Balsamic Vinegar

8  c. fresh kale, washed, drained and sliced into thin ribbons
1 tbsp. olive oil
2 tbsp. salted butter
2 tsp. balsamic vinegar
black pepper and Kosher salt, to taste

Heat the oil in the bottom of a deep fry pan. Add the rinsed and prepped kale. Toss to coat with the oil. Add about a quarter cup of water, cover and steam/wilt the kale. Toss the kale every couple minutes until it is well wilted, but still bright green. Toss in the butter and balsamic vinegar. Correct the salt and pepper. Serve immediately.


  1. A perfect post for today. As I was reading my better half told me of the passing of Marcellus Hazen. She transformed the way I approach cooking, and especially Italian food. She was a stickler for cooking what was fresh and looked good that day, and was incredibly creative about making those finds into a meal. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/30/dining/Marcella-Hazan-dies-changed-the-way-americans-cook-italian-food.html?_r=1&

    1. Oh! What a loss! Marcella really did bring northern Italian cuisine home for me ... this is such a sad loss for the foodie world! Perhaps I really was channeling Nonna Marcella yesterday afternoon!

  2. can I down load this novella from amazon?... I love the clash of colours and sometimes, in design, a mix of madness creates its own style of eclectic flair.. beautiful x

  3. Your post made me cry. I lost my grandma yesterday, and I was just imagining her in her little kitchen, finding everything and ordering her girls about. She grew up with very little and making do was second nature to her. I miss her so much :(

  4. It may be inexpensive but there is no way it is lacking in flavour.

  5. Wrong, I love all of the colors. It reminds me of a restaurant called the European kitchen which was in an old Victorian house in the city of Kalamazoo. Everyone customer sat in front of a unique place setting and every time I was there we ate 5 or more courses of the most wonderful food you can imagine. Sure miss that place.


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