New Year’s Eve

Another year is about to end and a new one, with all of it promises is upon us. Each year at this time we reassess what resolutions we’d made and plan for new ones. For 2011 I resolved to become a CMP; Certified Meeting Professional, and I did.

It was a six month mission that involved a dedication to reading all of the books, studying and joining a study group. We’d meet every Wednesday, discussing the chapters we’d read and created practice tests that turned out to be harder than the actual exam. Don’t get me wrong; the exam was very difficult! The test consisted of 165 multiple-choice situational questions that had to be completed in three hours.

Having achieved my CMP; the highest level of certification you can get in the meetings industry, my goal for 2012 is just as bold. And that is to sell my house. I’ve already begun preparing it for sale. I just had the outside of the house professionally painted a nice, bright white; completely obliterating the ugly sky blue siding with black trim, gutters and shutters. Amazingly, it looks a lot bigger. I also bought a new leaded-glass front door and immediately painted it bright red. I don’t know why, but I like a red door with a white house.

I painted many rooms inside of the house and I also had new carpeting put in the three bedrooms. The next project will be to update the kitchen. By the time March rolls around, I will list the house and hopefully, will be able to sell it and move on to the next phase of my life.

All of this activity had me thinking about how mobile we’ve all become. Years ago, the house you bought was the one you lived in till the day you died. Not so much anymore. Nowadays, people live in their houses between five and ten years, before moving on to the next house.

Nana lived in her house on Keap Street in Brooklyn for more than 30 years before the city bought up all of the brownstones and displaced us to Brentwood, Long Island. Even then, she lived in that house on Clarke Street for 20 years! My Aunt Liz has been in her house on Clarke Street (down the block from ours) for over 40 years now. Talk about putting down roots!

I guess the reason why I write so much about my memories of Brooklyn and Brentwood is because of the longevity of the principal players there.

While we lived in Brooklyn and Brentwood, New Year’s Eve was another holiday when the entire family gathered together at Nana’s house for dinner. Nana made “Menestre”; a soup made with cabbage, sausage, spare-ribs and assorted vegetables. Served with warm Italian bread, it was a meal unto itself. The menestre was the first course. By now you know that there was no way we’d eat only one course when we all got together for a holiday meal!

The second course was Nana’s home-made ravioli with meat gravy. I told you already about how Nana’s house looked like a hospital for ravioli! This was that occasion. After the ravioli, out came the usual; fruit and nuts followed by pastries and coffee.

The last time I had menestre was 1989; the year before Daddy died. It was the last time the entire family was together for New Year’s Eve dinner. Sadly, I prepared it once in the early 90’s to negative feedback. Not because it wasn’t delicious. The boys and their father weren’t crazy about it, because of the cabbage and Louis told me never to make it again.

Maybe that can be another resolution for 2012; to make Nana’s menestre again! I’ll share her recipe with you if you promise to try it!

Here we go-

Ingredients
Chop:
1 large onion
1 medium head of cabbage (your choice – I like red)
2 stalks of celery
2 carrots
A bunch of fresh Italian parsley and basil
5 or 6 medium peeled potatoes

Other Ingredients
2 cloves of garlic – minced
Olive oil
1 large can of Italian tomatoes (I use crushed)
2 pounds sweet Italian sausage sliced in half
1 pound ribs (beef or pork-your choice)
Grated Parmesan and Locatelli cheese

Directions
In a large 10 or 12 qt. stock pot, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat.
Add onions and garlic and sauté about 3 minutes.
Add the can of crushed tomatoes and let simmer for about 5 minutes.
Add celery, carrots, potatoes and 3 cups of water and simmer for 10 more minutes.
While that’s cooking – in a 10” skillet, on medium heat, cook the sausage and spare-ribs about 5 minutes on each side; then add to the pot
Add salt, pepper, spices to taste (I add Herbs du Provence)
Add 1/2 cup grated cheese

Let simmer another 10-15 minutes, until the potatoes are soft and can be pierced with a fork.

** Add another cup of water if the soup mixture becomes too thick.

Serve in soup bowls with warm Italian bread and sprinkle grated cheese over the top

Buon Appetito and Felice Anno Nuovo!

December 23, 2011

On December 9th, three days after Jeffrey’s anniversary, my friend Lynn died unexpectedly. Lynn was only 52 years old, and left behind a 20-year-old daughter, Jenny. Last week I went to her viewing service to pay my respects to Jenny, Lynn’s mother and family. I stood at the casket and said my goodbye to Lynn; still in disbelief. I told her how I was going to miss talking and laughing with her, and then I placed a little dachshund puppy statue (she had two dachshund dogs as pets; they were her favorite dogs) next to her. I told her I’ll miss her, and will hold her in my heart the rest of my life. One of the things I loved about her was how straight-forward she was, and said whatever was on her mind; but in a funny way. She used to say “You’ve heard of ‘good ol’ boys’; well, I’m a good ol’ girl”; and she was.

Since Jeffrey’s death, for me, Christmas has been tinged with sadness. So I’ve decided to avoid all future Christmases. I’m going to take my show on the road and go to the beach. I’d rather sit there in solitude and watch the calm, blue horizon than rush around trying to make Christmas something it no longer is; happy. Instead, I’m going to focus on happier Christmases past. No, I’m not Scrooge; I still wish others a Merry Christmas, it’s just not going to be merry for me.

Christmas Eve is tomorrow. My mind is filled with memories of Christmases of my childhood. Memories that hearken back to happier times with my family and Nana, as always at the core. Who says you can’t go home again? I do it in my mind, and it’s a better place.

Christmas Eve was the time when Nana prepared the feast of the seven fishes. This is a tradition that goes back to her life growing up in Naples, Italy. Each fish represented one of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church which were; Baptism, Communion, Penance, Confirmation, Marriage, Anointing of the Sick; sometimes called Extreme Unction because it also encompassed Last Rites, and Holy Orders; when a priest became a bishop, etc.

As usual, Nana and I would go shopping for all of the food she’d need. We went to the fish monger to get all of her seven different fresh fish. Then to the Italian bread store, Pastry shop, and vegetable store. She would begin her preparations early in the morning after mass.

Nana made a huge pot of her famous marinara sauce, which was the base for the first course. She would then separate the sauce into smaller pots; one was plain marinara sauce, another contained baccala’, yet another had tuna. Sometimes she’d make an additional pot of sauce with shrimp, scungilli or anchovies. Then she’d prepare about five pounds of spaghetti.

The first floor of our house in Brooklyn was split into three rooms. From the front door, there was a long, narrow hallway that led to the kitchen at the back of the house. There also were French doors that opened to the front parlor, but Nana kept them closed. There was a bathroom on the side of the kitchen, and a back door that led out to the backyard where she had her vegetable garden, fig trees and roses. The middle room used to be the dining room; but was converted into a TV room with a trundle-bed that my parents slept on. The third room was the parlor at the front of the house where at Christmas time, the big and freshly cut Christmas tree stood in all its decorated glory.

We would all sit down to eat the first course around one o’clock in the afternoon; the adults at the big dining table in the kitchen, and we cousins at the smaller table in the middle room. First course was spaghetti with the various sauces and warm Italian bread. Wine for the adults, and a treat; soda for us.

Once we finished the first course, the table would be cleared and all of the women would start washing dishes and preparing the next course while the men went into the parlor and us kids went upstairs to play “Rush Hour”, which I previously told you about.

About an hour later, we’d all go back to the table to begin the second course which consisted of the seven fishes. Usually it was fried baccala’ (cod), eel, calamari (squid), pulpo (octopus), shrimp, flounder and scallops. There also would be her delicious potato croquettes, assorted vegetables and salad. I’d usually fill up on flounder and potato croquettes. Once we were done with the second course, everyone repeated the routine of women clearing up, men in the parlor and kids playing. This routine played-out throughout all of our holiday gatherings, until I was older and graduated to clearing the dishes while everyone else played.

The third course came out; fruit and nuts. Finally, the fourth course of pastries, brown and black coffee and Italian liqueurs; Amaretto, Sambuca and Galliano would be placed on the table. It was usually around seven o’clock when the last course was completed. A whole day was spent eating and everyone was so stuffed, we couldn’t move!

Sometimes, around eight o’clock we would be allowed to open one present. We’d all gather in the parlor and open our one present. It was usually a piece of clothing, like socks or underwear. The big gifts had to wait until Christmas morning. Then it was time for all of us to get ready to go to bed and wait for Christmas morning.

Jeffrey usually had to give up his room for Uncle Tommy, Aunt Fran and little John, and he’d have to go sleep in Uncle Steve’s room. Roseann either slept with me and Nana, or upstairs with Valarie and Jodi. Joe would be with Stevie boy. Then we’d all settle down in anticipation of the next morning; Christmas! Everyone that is, except us kids.

Christmas morning started out like any other Christmas across the US; all of us kids waking up too early, eager to open our presents and making the adults get up earlier than they want to. Christmas morning and our amazing food feast will be another entry. Suffice it to say, those memories are just as wonderful as Christmas Eve.

Some say that our memories have become romanticized. I’ll take those memories any day, whether or not they are romanticized. Those years of my youth are filled with so much joy and happiness. I’d rather play them over and over in my mind; they bring a bitter-sweet feeling, but the sweet outweighs the bitter.

And now for your eating pleasure, Nana’s potato croquettes.

Ingredients:
3 pounds boiled peeled, cubed potatoes
6 eggs
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Locatelli Romano (I use a combination of both)
1/4 cup whole milk
1 cup Italian breadcrumbs
1/4 cup fresh chopped basil
1 tsp minced garlic
Salt and pepper to taste
Flour for dredging
Oil for frying

Directions:
In a 10 quart pot boil potatoes – once done, drain and cool
Place the cooled potatoes in a large mixing bowl.
Add 4 beaten egg, cheese, garlic, basil, salt and pepper and mix well.
Pour flour onto a large plate and the breadcrumbs onto another large plate.
Beat the last two eggs with milk and pour into a round pie plate.
Take a small handful of the potato mixture and roll into a ball (like you would for meatballs)
Next, dredge the croquettes in the flour, then dip in the egg mixture then roll in the breadcrumbs.
Continue until all of the croquettes are made.
Heat oil in a 12” frying pan
Once oil is hot, add croquettes and fry about 2 minutes on each side until all are done. Don’t crowd too many croquettes in the pan.

Drain on paper towels or a brown paper bag; cool and enjoy~

I say to you all; Buon Natale~

Anniversaries

Lately, I’ve been thinking about anniversaries. Why, you may ask? I’ve asked myself the very same question. I also asked myself, “Why do we celebrate or acknowledge anniversaries in the first place”? I couldn’t answer that question. By definition, an anniversary is “the annual recurrence of a date, marking a notable event.” I understand celebrating a happy occasion; like a birthday or a wedding. But, we’re not talking about a happy occasion; we’re talking about a sad one.

Jeffrey’s second anniversary is Tuesday, December 6th. It’s the second anniversary of his death. This time, the marking of this event is filled with sadness. Let me explain.

Yesterday I decided to take some of my Christmas decorations out of the shed and decorate the house in anticipation of Andrew’s coming home for Christmas. I wanted the house to look festive for him. As I was rummaging through the containers, I came across a manila envelope filled with cards. As I was sifting through the cards, I found two that were from Jeffrey to me. One of them had a picture of a dog wearing a Santa hat, driving a convertible and wishing me a “Wild ride this holiday season”. It made me smile. The second card was more sentimental. It stated to “To My Sister” on the front. Inside it stated, “A Beautiful person. A lifelong friend. A wonderful sister.” That’s what I meant to him. I know this because Jeffrey wasn’t the kind of person who just grabbed any card. He’d look at them and read what was written inside before deciding on just the right one.

Reading that card, and seeing Jeffrey’s handwriting, suddenly brought forth a flood of emotions; and the tears flowed like a waterfall streaming down my cheeks. I suddenly felt myself getting smaller; like Alice after drinking that potion from “Alice in Wonderland”. Everything around me seemed to expand and become kind of outer-worldly. The pain in my heart became so pronounced, I couldn’t breathe. All I could think about was how much I miss my brother and wish he were here.

I thought about the little things I miss; I miss the way he threw his head back and rolled his eyes when mother would say something to him. I miss his laugh. I miss talking with him about music and traveling. If it wasn’t for him, I’d never enjoy the sounds of Nnenna Freelon, Billie Holiday or Carmen McRae. I’d never have seen Italy, Brussels or Paris. Jeffrey introduced me to so many things; too many to mention.

I miss his cooking. I miss going to the beach with him. I miss talking to him, and knowing that whatever I told him stayed with him.

The other day, I ordered a dozen roses to be placed at his grave. Honestly, I’d rather hand him the roses in person than to have them delivered to a place in a cemetery that contains a granite stone plaque with his name, and dates of life and death engraved on it. It kills me to have to do this twice a year; on his birthday and on the anniversary of his death.

Grief is so insidious; it encompasses your entire being. It totally envelopes you and takes total control of your thoughts and emotions. It completely crippled me yesterday, and I was unable to pull myself out of it. I called my mother; wrong thing to do. She can’t help me because she’s in the same boat as I am. While she’s grieving the recent loss of her mother; she’s also still grieving the loss of her son. Although I’m grieving the loss of my beloved Nana as well; I’m better able to deal with it because I wasn’t her principal caretaker as my mother was. Mother spent the last four years at Nana’s bedside; feeding her, turning her, washing her, etc. I’d visit twice a year and helped where I could, but my mother was “in the trenches” on a daily basis without a break.

I know that after Tuesday I’ll feel a little better. But for now, I’m what you’d call “wallowing”. I’m rolling around in sorrow and loss. You may say I’m filled with self-pity; and you may be right. I can’t help it right now; I’m missing the one person who most understood where I’m coming from; because he lived it with me. My history is forever linked with Jeffrey. Everything in my life leading up to and culminating with December 6, 2009 is forever connected to my only sibling.

As I was lying in bed, trying my best to fall asleep; I remembered our first Christmas in St. Thomas. I was 1963; I was seven and Jeffrey was ten years old. We woke up on Christmas morning to find our presents under the tree. There were board games, clothes, a Barbie doll for me and a GI Joe for Jeffrey. We went to Church, and later on we went to Lindbergh Beach. Imagine, living on a tropical island and being able to swim on Christmas Day! We were so young, and we had our whole lives ahead of us! Who’d have thought that nearly 30 years later, that would become more than just a memory; more than just a chapter in our lives?

I know this blog is supposed be about recipes connected to happy memories; but sometimes it’s the other way around. Sometimes it’s about sad memories connected to happy memories without a recipe. I have 53 1/2 years of happy memories connected to one year of a sad memory. For the most part, the sad memory stays in the shadows; with the exception of Jeffrey’s birthday in August and now. It’s the same thing with my dad; he died just before Thanksgiving, so the sad memory of his death tends to over-shadow the good memories of many Thanksgiving’s ago. I guess it’s part of the human condition.

But fear not, readers! I’m going to try to salvage this blog with another happy memory. That happy memory is of me and Jeffrey going to Emerald Beach two months before he died.

I’d gone to St. Thomas in October for Mother’s birthday. Jeffrey and I went to Emerald Beach the Sunday of Mother’s birthday. I bought us a couple of beers from the bar and Jeffrey went back to the car to get the bag of potato chips. As he was walking to our spot, I pulled out my phone and took a picture of him walking towards me. We laid on the beach munching on chips and drinking our beer while listening to music. We talked and swam, soaked up some rays and had a great time.

Afterwards, we went to the Dockside Galley; a gourmet min-mart and bought a bottle of merlot for dinner. We made another stop to buy Mother a nice pair of flip-flops for her birthday. When we got home, the first words out of Mother’s mouth were directed at Jeffrey. “You got red!” Jeffrey simply replied, “Don’t start”, and that stopped her in her tracks.

For dinner, Jeffrey made bruschetta and Mother’s favorite; fusilli with his famous puttanesca sauce, with a merlot chaser. We polished off that bottle with dinner! Later on, we had not one, but three cakes; one for each of our birthdays. We sang “Happy Birthday” to each other and toasted “A la famiglia” “Cent’ anni”!

There you have it, a happy memory! And here you have Jeffrey with the bag of chips~

Jeffrey at Emerald Beach

I know you want a recipe. So here it is; Jeffrey’s Bruschetta.

Bruschetta

INGREDIENTS:
1 load fresh Italian bread – sliced
5 or 6 ripe plum tomatoes – chopped – remove seeds first
2-3 cloves of garlic-minced
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 Tsp balsamic vinegar
6 large, fresh basil leaves – chopped

DIRECTIONS:

Heat oven to 400º
Place sliced bread on a non-stick baking sheet and drizzle with a little olive oil.
Bake for 3 minutes on each side.
While the bread is baking:
Slice tomatoes and remove seeds – then chop
In a separate bowl, mix together garlic, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, basil – salt and pepper to taste.
Add the tomatoes
When bread is done, remove and place on a serving platter
Spoon tomato mixture on top.
Sprinkle a little parmigiano reggiano or locatelli romano cheese on top

Serve and Buon appetito!