Family Treasures

Joe is working on a unit at school that involves family treasures from home, especially those having to do with families and nationalities. I wracked my brain trying to think of something that he could bring in to school to talk about his Irish, English or German heritage. Do I send him in with a fisherman sweater on and make him talk about Ireland? Snore…he’d be itchy and bored with the subject matter. Clearly sending him in with a few pints of Guinness is illegal. Do I send him in with some of my English china? Not so much. A German cuckoo clock and a keg of Dinkel Acker? Sauerkraut and some bratwurst? Nothing seemed quite right.

I stood gazing at my little toothless Joe while I made dinner last night. I was boiling the last of the homemade pasta that we’d made on Easter Sunday and tossing it with lemon and asparagus when it dawned on me. (DUH!) One of our biggest family treasures was handed down to me by my Uncle Joe. I’ve written about him often here at Narragansett No. 7. He was a one in a million kind of guy whose parents came to America from Italy. He was the first child of theirs to be born in the United States and he became a beautiful mixture of America and Italy. He played baseball, almost professionally, until he was drafted to serve in WW2. He told me stories of hiding in a basement in Holland as German bombs dropped on the city above their heads. He told me about a time when, through a grapevine of messages, he learned that his brother’s company was near enough for them to find bicycles and ride across the European countryside to just to see one another again in the middle of that war. His eyes took on a glazed far-off quality as he recalled to me the day that he saw concentration camp victims being liberated by the army.

Uncle Joe – kneeling, holding the baseball bat

 My Aunt Lorraine passed his pasta board on to me this winter. It’s simply a large butcher block board that he made years ago specifically for making his homemade pasta. I cried when she handed it to me. As stupid as it seems, that pasta board holds his essence. The wood holds his weight, love and our combined memories. I spent hours with him at that pasta board, coated in dusty flour and sticky dough. Over the years, I watched his hands slowly age as they mixed that pile of flour and eggs into an enormous pile of dough for Christmas Eve or a random Sunday dinner. The size of the meal was always gauged by the number of eggs that he had added to the mountain of flour. In the end, the kitchen would be a jungle of pasta noodles handing to dry.

He taught me how to make homemade pasta and now I make it with my own children. They love the whole messy process, but something tells me they’d love it more if it was Uncle Joe who was rolling the noodles out with them.

Homemade Pasta

3 and 1/2 cups of flour
3 eggs
dash of salt
1/3 cup semolina

Mix the flour, salt and semolina into a mound then create a hole in the middle…as Joe says, “so it looks like a volcano mom!” Crack the eggs into the middle and then using a fork, beat the eggs as if you are scrambling them. Bits of the flour mixture will fall into the middle, mixing with the eggs but you will also stop scrambling to pull flour into the eggs. Keep going until a sticky dough forms and at some point, you’ll being kneading the dough. Don’t make it too dry and flaky! It should stay slightly tacky. Knead the dough until smooth and wrap in plastic wrap until you’re ready to create your noodles.

Here’s where I’m lucky. I have the original pasta machine that my aunt and uncle gave to my mother years ago. I use the pasta machine for the final bit of kneading. You can use a rolling pin to make your noodles but get ready for a workout!

I cut my dough into sections and wrap the sections that I’m not using to let them rest and keep them moist. The section that I’m using goes through my pasta machine’s rollers on the highest setting (8) and we keep rolling until we can get to the setting that we prefer, a “2” which gives a fairly thin noodle. Then the long noodle is finally ready to run through the machine to be cut and hung to dry.

Here is a delicious topping for pasta like papparedelle (wide noodles) that celebrates springtime and the fresh asparagus that is in season.

Pasta with asparagus and lemon
1 1/2 pounds asparagus
1 pound pasta (pappardelle is nice, but penne or casarecce is good too!)
1/4 fresh lemon juice
1/4 extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 freshly grated Parmesan
*bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
*Rinse the asparagus, snap off the tough lower stems and discard. Cut of 11/2 inches of the asparagus tips and reserve. Chop the rest of the stems. Cook the asparagus tips in the boiling water for 3-4 minutes, until tender. Using a slotted spoon, remove the tips and set aside. In the same pot of boiling water, blanch the asparagus stems for 6-7 minutes, until tender. Remove with the slotted spoon and rinse in cold water.
*Cook the pasta in the same pot of boiling water until al dente. While the pasta cooks, puree the asparagus stems, lemon juice and olive oil in a blender or food processor until smooth. If necessary, add a bit of hot pasta water to thicken. Add salt and pepper to taste.
*Drain the pasta and transfer to a large bowl. Stir in the asparagus puree, the asparagus tips and grated Parmesan.

CHECK IT OUT! I got a new award today. Seriously, it’s like brand-spanking new and created by Bernie at One Mixed Bag and Michele from Living on Less. Such a great idea for an award. Here are the “rules”:

This is a very simple award, you don’t have to do anything if you don’t want to. You can give it to 1 blog, 300 blogs or no blogs. That is up to you. Some ideas of what you could do with the award if you wanted to:

Give it to your favorite blog that has thousands of followers. You know they won’t have this award. I know when I started blogging and I would get awards I want to give them out. Most of the blogs I read already had at least one of them. This award is new today, so you know they won’t have it.

Is there a new blogger you discovered with only a handful of readers? Pass it on to them. They will be thrilled to receive their first award.

Just slap it up on your blog and so say nothing.

Don’t slap it on your blog and do nothing.

Fat Pants and Pasta

I’ve done it. I pulled my fat pants out of the closet. Over the next week, maybe two, I’ll don my fat pants everyday and admonish myself for eating all of those sweets and decadent foods that never used to amount to extra pounds. Was it the antipasto platter on Christmas Eve? Perhaps it was our Christmas day roast beef and piles of butter-laden sweet potato casserole, which by the way, was far too delish to pass up. I made chocolate bark and ate at least 20 pieces. I baked chocolate cheesecake brownies and helped myself to approximately 10 of them as they cooled. Those brownies are killer with their light and fluffy mascarpone cheese topping. I make them just once each year and they are gone so quickly that you have to act fast or risk missing out for another 364 days. Here is a picture that some nice lady took of her delicious looking chocolate cheesecake brownies. Clearly, she is able to exercise much more self-control in their presence than I am, after all she kept some around long enough to capture them on film. Mine were far too elusive this year and are now but a sweet memory.

Last night I made an enormous pile of homemade pasta with flour, semolina and eggs. Not exactly the entree one would normally turn to in order to maintain her svelte figure, but so magically delicious. Homemade pasta is a family affair, full of love and sweet memories. I spent many hours along-side my Uncle Joe learning how to make pasta. He showed me how to build a volcano-sized pile of flour and tutored me on the correct number of eggs one used to feed a crowd. (There was always a crowd for his pasta.) He would carefully mix the dough, deftly mixing and kneading it to the proper consistency. We’d roll it through the pasta machine, over and over again. He’d allow me to turn the handle as that ball of dough was worked into one long, smooth shape ready to run through the machine just once more and sliced into mounds of pale yellow noodles. All the while, his hands worked the dough, adding flour when needed and hanging the pasta on drying racks throughout the kitchen. I’d catch the stray noodles and eat them raw, making him laugh that infectious, happy laugh. His eyes would sparkle as he gazed at me with love.

I can see his hands now when I close my eyes. Each age spot and scar and that thumb that he broke playing baseball before he went off to fight in World War II. His hands were the hands of a life-long stone mason. His hands were the most gentle hands in the world. I loved sitting on top of his big, round belly as he watched television and taught me how to say “bicycle” in Italian. I loved inspecting his hands, turning them over and over and inquiring about each cut, scrape or scar. He would jokingly declare, “You did it!” when I wondered over his injuries, old and new. His hands taught me to cast a lure and catch a nice bass. His hands taught me how to play slap-jack, swing a golf club and eat butterscotch sundaes from Carvel. His hands lovingly prepared hundreds of delicious meals.

Uncle Joe isn’t here to make pasta with me anymore and each year, I miss him so. Yet, I’ve kept his tradition alive and I often make homemade pasta with the children. Last night, Cookie and I cranked out a heap of pasta. I kneaded each piece of dough and fed it through the pasta machine as Cookie turned the handle. We made enough noodles for an army. She caught the stray noodles and stuffed them into her little mouth while her beautiful eyes sparkled with delight and we laughed together. I wished that Uncle Joe was there to see her. I don’t think he’d mind seeing me in my fat pants either.

My One Special Guy

This morning I watered this year’s pitiful excuse for a garden and, as is often the case, I watered in silence as the kids played inside. Silence. It makes me think of Frank Costanza screaming, “SERENITY NOW!”

Actually, I do my best thinking when I’m watering the plants. There is something about the trickling water and the morning sun warming my skin that always brings me back to my first special guy. He watered his garden in the morning, letting me spray the tomatoes and play in the water that dripped from the hose. He rarely scolded and often chuckled. He taught me to make homemade pasta, how to fish, and eat an entire bag of cherries in one sitting. He taught me how to say “bicycle” in Italian. He taught me to sit quietly with my own thoughts. From him I learned the fine art of comfortable silence. He taught me how to laugh. He was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of person, who you longed to be around for no real reason except that he was good. He taught me so much about life and I never said thank you.

Uncle Joe, kneeling with baseball bat

All summer, I’ve continued watering the sad, fruitless plants in the gardens, despite the fact that they have yet to produce a single thing. Uncle Joe was with me as I watered the gardens today. As I fell into into my serene, thoughtful chore he entered my thoughts. I miss him.

I moved the hose to the children’s garden that we started earlier in the summer, and began watering the (bean-less) bean plants that are slowly crawling up the tee-pee. I laughed to myself as I recalled one of the rhymes Uncle Joe taught us as children. Beans, beans the magical fruit, the more you eat, the more… And there they were. Beans. Yes, he was there with me. I hope that he heard me say thank you.