Letting Go

Scenes from Fenway Park: A view from the grandstands; the American flag covers the Green Monster; fans swarm commentators, including former Sox slugger David Ortiz, and the media before the start of the game.

Let’s get one thing straight: I love the Boston Red Sox.

I’m a diehard fan by osmosis. The Curmudgeon has loved the Red Sox  since Ted Williams’ final year in 1960. His father and mother were rabid Red Sox fans. When the Sox won the World Series in 2004 for the first time since 1918, I was sure his recently deceased mom had something to do with it.

The Curmudgeon’s law firm has season tickets to Fenway Park in Boston. When someone wants to go to a game, I grill him about their commitment and whether they’re deserving of entering the hallowed ballpark.

“Are they real fans?” I ask. “Do they watch every single game starting with opening day to the playoffs or do they just want to say they’re going to the World Series? Because only true fans should be in Fenway right now.”

I don’t know why I care about fans’ commitment level, but I do. Real fans watch the game every time the Red Sox play from April to October. Real fans are glued to the TV for every pitch and can call balls and strikes without the little strike zone superimposed on the screen. Real fans love the team, but still scream when they play like crap. Real fans are a little sad that Joe Kelly lopped off his beautiful curls.

I am a real Red Sox fan, but guess what? I took an hour break from Game 1 of the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers to watch This is Us. And after it was over, I entertained myself watching outtakes of The Goldbergs.

This would be OK except I was busted. My friend and my son texted me during the game to get my reaction to certain plays. When I admitted that I wasn’t watching, my sanity and loyalty were immediately questioned.

“What do you mean you’re not watching?” my son asked after the three-run homer in the 7th. “I’ve been doing stuff all night at school and streaming the game on my phone. What’s wrong with you?”

“Are you watching this?” my friend John texted during the 5th inning. “Sox just went ahead 5-3. Very tense game. Both starters are out. Up to the bullpens.”

“Took a slight break. I haven’t been able to watch anything else all fall,” I texted.

“I can’t not watch. Are you kidding me?” John wrote back.

“I’m engaged in the game (not true), but needed a slight break after watching the New York Giants lose last night,” I wrote.

“Forget the Giants. It’s Red Sox time!” John texted.

Being a Giants’ fan teaches you not to pin all your hopes on your team’s win-loss record. It puts things in perspective: the fact that you can have some of the game’s best players and still be unable to make anything happen. Being a Giants’ fan teaches you humility, underscoring the fact that sometimes you win, but often you lose. And when you do, it’s not the end of the world.

Winning isn’t everything to me. If it was, I would be a New England Patriots’ fan. It’s easy to love a team that wins most of the time. But I like Eli Manning and what he represents. I’ve never seen him lose his cool, and he’s a wonderful role model for kids. He’s a class act, and I don’t throw around that term too often.

I realize that baseball and football are two different animals, but the intensity of being a sports fan is sometimes too much for me. Sometimes, I just want to be like a normal person and watch a show. Sometimes, I need a night off from keeping score.

I had no intention of cheating on the Sox at the start of the evening. I poured myself a glass of red wine and settled in front of the TV for the first inning. The Sox scored two easy runs in the first, making me feel a little emboldened. Maybe I would just turn on This Is Us and pop into the game on commercial breaks. Don’t guys channel surf all the time?

But I became engrossed in the show, and never checked in on the game. I think – no, I know – I needed a break. The team has dominated my evenings for most of the past six months. I guess I’m a little burned out. Whose idea was it to make the season so long?

The Curmudgeon promised me that he didn’t care who won the World Series, that he just didn’t want the New York Yankees to beat the Red Sox. But he was a maniac during the playoffs against the Houston Astros, every bit as crazy as he was against the Yankees. He’s nuts when he watches his team, which is why I can’t take this any more.

I am a good wife, watching when the Curmudgeon is home and sitting on my special place on the couch that he swears is good luck. But he was at the game, and would provide color commentary and behind the scenes information the next day. We watch what he wants to watch every night. What he didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him, right?

For one night, I felt like being a rebel and doing my own thing without having to apologize or justify it. I didn’t feel like watching every pitch or hanging on every call. I wanted to be a fan without the obsession. I wanted to be like the fan that I don’t think deserves to be in Fenway right now.

Some people will call my loyalty into question, and I really have no answers. All I can say is you can love your children without going to all of their games, school open houses or plays. You can love a team with all your heart, and still want to see what’s up with Toby and Kate without watching it On Demand.

Sometimes, you must love something enough to step away, and if it’s true love, you will return. Game 2 is on tonight and I’ll be back on the couch. I guess it’s the real thing.

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Fresh Pasta

Better late than never: the Imperia Noodle Maker finally comes out of its box.

We have a Dumpster, a 30-yarder, in our driveway.

We’re purging, tossing things that we don’t want and no one would use like broken furniture and tattered clothes. The good stuff like mountain bikes and scooters will go to the Vietnam Veterans of America and Goodwill.

A Dumpster forces you to take stock, making an honest assessment of what you use and what needs to go. Some items are no brainers – the Battleship game missing half its pieces, the moldy tennis bag stuffed in the back of a closet. But other items, including the Imperia Noodle Maker in the pantry, require deliberation.

I haven’t used the old-fashioned pasta maker from Italy since my mother gave it to me about 15 years ago. I remember asking to borrow it with the intention of someday making pasta, but I’ve never actually gotten around to using it.

I’ve not only not used it, but I’ve never had the desire or motivation to make homemade pasta – not once since 2003. The machine is like the fondue pot Mom gave me from the 1970s – a nice thing to have around should the desire overcome me to melt cheese and dip squares of bread into it. So far, it hasn’t.

Mom apparently had the same feelings about the Imperia because she gladly relinquished it. “Keep it,” she said. “I’m not going to use it.”

My mother’s pasta making began in 1968 shortly after she gave birth to my youngest sister Marianne. Mom met a nice nurse in the hospital who described her homemade pasta, and offered to show her how to make it. A few months later, the nurse kept her word, showing up with her Imperia pasta maker under her arm.

I was only 10, but I clearly remember the first pasta making operation. The nurse set up shop at our kitchen table, affixing the simple steel machine to the wooden tabletop with a few twists of her wrist. After mixing, kneading and rolling out the dough, she fed it through the machine by turning a primitive crank.

Once the dough was flattened, she put it through the machine again, using a special attachment that cut it into spaghetti and fettuccine. It was very chaotic and messy as my mom and the nurse spirited pasta from the flour-covered table across the kitchen into the dining room. They placed it on the cloth-covered dining room table to dry. I’d never seen so much flour or pasta in my life.

My mother was captivated by her pasta-making experience, eventually buying her own Imperia Noodle Maker so she could make it any time she wanted. But making pasta for my father and seven kids was a little more challenging than she thought. She ended up using her machine only a few times before setting her sights on homemade bread.

“I felt really bad about it because I couldn’t wait to buy it,” she said. “But I don’t think I used it more than three times. It was just too much work. Your grandmother never made her own pasta. I don’t even think Daddy’s grandmother made her own pasta. I guess your reluctance to use it must be genetic.”

Given my current purging mode, I decided that I must use the Imperia or consider giving it away. I’m sure there are any number of cooks who are dying to make their own pasta and would love to have this iconic machine, so I had to give it a try.

I began by taking it out of its faded red box and affixing it to my counter. That wasn’t so bad. It was smaller and a lot less intimidating than I remembered. Actually, it was kind of cute, a grown-up version of a Play-doh machine. I swiped it with a wet rag and polished the works, marveling at its simple design. I attached the crank and gave it a few turns. It still worked well, despite being mothballed for 50 years.

I got a simple pasta recipe from the Internet and decided to make gluten-free pasta. Making the dough was the easy part: two cups of flour, three eggs at room temperature (not), two tablespoons of olive oil and a bit of water. The hard part was kneading. The recipe called for 10 minutes of kneading, which may be the most boring cooking task in the world.

After kneading the dough for five minutes, I decided to take my chances. I shaped it into a ball, covered it in plastic and put it into the refrigerator overnight. I then set about an equally taxing task, watching the Boston Red Sox take on the Houston Astros in Game 4 of the American League playoffs until 1:30 a.m.

Upon awakening bleary eyed this morning, I decided to make the pasta before I lost my courage. I took out the dough and floured the counter, quickly realizing that messing up your kitchen is a key part of this operation. Within minutes, flour was everywhere: the floor, kitchen stools, cabinets, my sweatshirt and the dog.

I sliced the dough into three-inch sections, flattening it with a rolling pin until it was thin enough to feed into the machine. I soon learned that there isn’t a lot of room of error: too thick and the dough won’t fit into the machine’s rollers; too thin and it will fall apart in your hands.

It took some time, but I finally found the right thickness, and decided to make fettuccine. Well, actually the machine decided I would make it. After I tried to make spaghetti, I realized that was above my pay grade. I needed the thickest noodle possible, something with a little heft.

The Imperia requires a measure of dexterity and hand-eye coordination to master, what with all the cranking and catching of pasta. I realized I probably should have done this project with my friend “Johnny Pasta” and his wife Barbara as originally planned. They could have caught the pasta and spirited it to the table for drying while I rolled and cranked. Making pasta can be done solo, but like many things in life is best done with friends. Live and learn.

After letting the pasta sit on parchment paper for about a half hour, I scooped up a handful of noodles and tossed them into boiling water with a little salt. I let it cook for about two minutes, draining the noodles and plopping them on a plate without so much as butter or olive oil.

The pasta was incredibly fresh and satisfying, like the difference between homemade chocolate chip cookies and Chip’s Ahoy or Minute Maid and fresh squeezed orange juice. I wondered why it had taken me so long to use my Imperia: within an hour or so, I had enough fresh pasta for two meals. The only downside my kitchen was a mess, and I was the only one on cleanup duty.

I cleaned the machine and put it back in its red box, returning it to its rightful spot in the pantry. The Imperia has made the cut, and will be there if I decide to make homemade pasta again. I just hope I don’t wait another 15 years.

Peas & Macaroni

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Doris Roberts played Marie Barone on Everybody Loves Raymond. Here, she’s pictured with her macaroni and sauce.

My Sunday Sauce post generated lots of comments, including some on the subject of sharing recipes.

Some readers took exception with two Italian American matrons’ refusal to share their Sunday sauce recipe with their daughters-in-law, saying they sounded like Raymond’s overbearing mom on Everyone Loves Raymond.

Marie Barone wasn’t on my mind when I wrote the piece, but I agree. I’ve never understood people’s refusal to divulge recipes because they deserve to be shared and enjoyed by as many people as possible.

Several years ago, I asked a neighbor for her recipe for her delicious shortbread cookies,  which she brought to a party at my house. She shook her head, simply stating, “No, I never give it out. Ever.”  And while one blogger noted that the first rule of Italian sauce is not sharing the recipe, someone must have shared the recipe with her. It seems a little selfish not to pass it along.

Old family recipes often die with the cook unless they’re shared, jotted down and put in a safe place. One of the first things I learned in my food blogging class at Gateway Community College in New Haven, CT., was the importance of preserving recipes because food plays such a major role in our families and traditions.

We often think of food as sustenance, providing us with fuel to navigate our day. But food plays a much bigger role in our lives. It’s center stage in family celebrations and holidays, an intricate part of our gatherings, traditions and deepest memories.

Christmas Eve dinner is my favorite night of the year, and has been since I was a teen-ager. My mother does her own take on the traditional Italian Seven Fishes meal, serving shrimp cocktail, stuffed clams, linguine with white clam sauce and baked stuffed lobster for nearly 40 people.

It’s only four courses, but it feels like seven. And more than once, I’ve pigged out so much on the clams that I’ve had to pack up my lobster and freeze it for a later date. I don’t eat stuffed clams often, but I make up for it that night. I gobble up to 16 clams, stacking the empty shells like poker chips. I might feel bad about it if everyone else didn’t have a similar pile.

One of my blogging classmates Annette used the class to gather all of her family’s recipes and put them into a booklet to share with her clan. In addition to writing down recipes, Annette researched the origins of various recipes and how they made it into family lore.

A native of Texas, Annette was also privy to some antique cooking tools, equipment and textiles that will be featured in her booklet. Every family needs a historian: someone willing to take the time and trouble to gather family recipes so they live on.

I love the easy access to recipes on the Internet, but it’s changed the way I cook. I almost never write down recipes any more. Whenever I want a family recipe (see below), I call my mom, who is only too happy to share it with me.

Mom said she learned most of my Italian American grandmother’s recipes by watching her cook. Like many great cooks, my grandmother almost never used recipes, relying on memory to make most of her meals. But she was picky about her ingredients, underscoring the importance of using certain brands of tomatoes and other basics.

I asked my food blogging teacher Priscilla Martel for her take on “secret” recipes. A noted chef, former restaurant owner and cookbook author, Martel was characteristically frank with her assessment.

“On the subject of people hoarding their recipes, I say fie on them,” Priscilla writes. “Food is for sharing. If it’s cooked with love why not share the recipe? There are many tropes about people from the “old country” coveting their recipes to the point of misdirecting anyone who asks for their secret. These are people I don’t want to know.”

I enjoy Priscilla for her honesty and candor. And though I didn’t ask for it, she suggested a few edits to Sunday Sauce, including lopping off a few paragraphs in the middle. As a writer, I must remember to be careful what I ask for, and be able to accept criticism. I hope recipe hoarders will be open-minded and reconsider their position.

Writing Sunday Sauce has taught me a few things. The first is that people love their sauce, and most are only too happy to share their secret ingredients. My buddy Danielle throws in a little whiskey while my cousin Bob out in Fresno uses a little red wine. For my paisan Johnny B, it’s a dash of vermouth.

My high school classmate Jamie even forwarded me her sauce recipe from her cooking trip to Italy. My friends and blog followers are generous with their recipes, but equally generous in spirit. It’s really what makes blogging so fun.

I’ve also learned that I have to get my act together with my recipe collection, which is scrawled on everything from old envelopes to tattered index cards. I am maybe the most disorganized person around, so this may take some effort. But I know it will be worth it.

One of my favorite recipes from my Grandma Rose is Peas & Macaroni, which is the definition of comfort food. Since there are only a few ingredients, it’s important to buy good quality tomato juice and peas. This recipe is gluten-free too.

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GRANDMA ROSE’S PEAS & MACARONI

INGREDIENTS

1/4 cup olive oil

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1 large can Sacramento tomato juice (or any other good quality brand)

2 cans Delmonte peas (or any other good quality brand. Use canned peas, not frozen)

1/2-pound cooked elbow macaroni (gluten-free)

salt and pepper to taste

METHOD

Saute onion in olive oil for about 5 minutes until onion begins to soften. Add tomato juice and liquid from the peas. Put aside strained peas. Season with salt and pepper, and cover and simmer over low heat for about an hour. Meanwhile, cook pasta in a separate pot until al dente. Add peas and pasta and stir to combine about five minutes before serving. 

Sunday Sauce

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For the pasta lover: Cavallini & Co. Pasta Chart/  Italiana Decorative Decoupage Poster Wrapping Paper. Photo courtesy of Amazon.com.

It’s rare that I don’t feel Italian, but two women discussing their tomato sauce last week made me question my heritage.

As I sat in a packed dermatologist’s waiting room in Branford, CT., two women who just met began discussing their Sunday sauce. I don’t know how the conversation turned from pleasantries to sauce, but it quickly became clear that these two are out of my league.

Both seemed to take immense pride that their grown sons prefer their sauce to their wives’ versions, often sneaking over to eat their sauce when their wives aren’t looking. Both also confessed to keeping their recipes a secret, noting no one, including the aforementioned wives, would ever know the precise ingredients.

The pair discussed their sauce with love and reverence usually reserved for grandkids or the pope. I was a little envious because my sauce is nothing to brag about or discuss in a waiting room. In fact, I don’t think anything I make is worthy of an extended conversation with a stranger, but that’s another story.

I knew this pair was the real deal when they used the term macaroni instead of pasta. I haven’t heard macaroni used in connection with red sauce since the mid-80s. Today, everything is lumped under the general term pasta, though I suspect true Italians never stopped saying macaroni.

“My son came over before this appointment to help me get his father here,” the older of the two women said. “He asked me for lunch and what do you think I made him? A bowl of macaroni, and then another one.” I now knew why her son was so quiet. He was in a mid-afternoon pasta coma.

I never used the word pasta until I married my Irish husband and began eating dinner with the Murphys. Growing up in an Italian family, we said macaroni to describe short-cut lengths of pasta like rigatoni, penne, wagon wheels or bow ties. Macaroni lets people know where they stand – they will be having something other than spaghetti.

Speaking of which, I know plenty of people who use spoons to roll their spaghetti onto their forks, but we never did this in our house. You rolled your spaghetti onto your fork, or used a knife to cut it into manageable sections. I know this is anathema to some Italians, but my Italian father did it so go figure.

As the women talked, I abandoned even the pretense of being preoccupied or uninterested in their conversation. I sat and openly eavesdropped, hoping to glean a secret ingredient or two to improve my sauce. I bristled and screwed my face when one of them mentioned she puts raisins in her meatballs. Yuck.

The best thing I came away with is they throw any and all meat into their sauce for flavoring, including chicken. Who knew? Based on their conversation, I dumped a browned strip steak into my sauce on Sunday. It didn’t do much, but I felt immensely more Italian doing it and thought they’d approve.

Apparently, these women’s sauce is so good that their sons demanded they pack it up in plastic containers and bring it to them while they were in college. “He didn’t miss home, but he missed the sauce,” the younger of the two moms bragged. “He would heat it up on Sunday and his whole dorm smelled like sauce. Everyone in the dorm wanted some.”

I sat there and sighed. My son, a college junior, often requests that I not make sauce while he’s home. It’s not that it’s bad, but it’s just not special or anything that anyone is dying to eat. It’s not the kind of sauce that he’s packing into plastic containers and shoving into his mini refrigerator between the Bud Light cans.

In fact, given the choice between my sauce and Annie’s Macaroni & Cheese, the kid chose Annie’s.

“Do you think I can boil water in a plastic container and cook pasta in a microwave to make this?” he asked. “No. You will need to get a microwave safe glass bowl if you want to do that,” I said. “OK, I’ll hit Walmart and get a bowl.”

He stuffed the box into his backpack and turned to leave. At that moment, I remembered that there was a full container of tomato sauce from the previous night in the refrigerator that he had no interest in packing up and bringing to college. I thought about asking him why, but it was pretty obvious. My sauce isn’t the kind of thing you want wafting through your dorm on a Sunday afternoon.

Some Italian sauces are waft-worthy, and just by listening to those two women discuss their sauce, I have a feeling theirs qualifies. Growing up, I had a friend named Dominic whose house always smelled like heavenly tomato sauce. His mother, who was from Italy, always wore her hair in a beehive and red lipstick as she went about her daily tasks. I think she always had a pot of sauce simmering on the stove, or at least it seemed that way.

Tomato sauce is very important to Italians, and we take it very seriously. Your sauce is sort of your signature, and everyone’s is a little different. The only thing worse than bad homemade sauce is commercial jarred sauce. Most Italians don’t understand people buying jarred sauce when it only takes about 15 minutes to whip up a quick marinara.

My paternal grandmother Rose passed her recipe down to my Irish mother Gerry, who is one of the best Italian cooks around. I follow Grandma Rose’s basic recipe, but my sauce isn’t great. I don’t have a lot of confidence in it, and certainly don’t want other Italians tasting it and giving me their opinion. Years ago when cooking a meal for a friend with a picky Italian husband, I refused to make any Italian dishes.

“Just make some spaghetti and sauce,” the Curmudgeon urged. “Are you crazy? There’s no way I’m cooking sauce for that guy. He’s Italian, and he’s used to really good sauce. I’m not going there.”

And I didn’t. I played it safe with roasted chicken, which can be criticized for being dry and flavorless, but not poorly assembled or executed. Making tomato sauce for guests requires a certain amount of confidence that I don’t have, and doubt I ever will.

A few weeks ago, we hosted a pasta party for my daughter’s cross country team. I made a simple marinara sauce for vegans, but ordered baked ziti and macaroni and cheese for the majority of the kids. The mom of one of the kids kindly texted me to tell me that her son had been raving about my pasta ever since.

I felt a swell of pride until I realized that the kid was raving about the stuff I ordered out. No matter. At least I have the good sense to realize my limitations. At this stage of the game, sometimes that’s the best you can do.

My mother insists that if you follow this recipe, you will have good sauce. When I told her that mine never tastes like Grandma’s, she insists that no one likes her own sauce as much as other people’s. I guess this is a little like writers and editors: I always enjoy other people’s stories and layouts more than mine. So here it goes:

GRANDMA MILAZZO’S TOMATO SAUCE

INGREDIENTS:

1/4-cup olive oil

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1-pound lean (90 percent) ground beef

4 sweet sausages

2 32 oz. cans crushed tomatoes

About a cup or two of water

1/2 can tomato paste

1/2 tsp. sugar

salt and pepper to taste

METHOD

Brown sausages over low heat in a heavy skillet for about 30 minutes or until they are cooked through. Drain on paper towels and set aside.

Use a heavy pot and add olive oil and onions, simmering over low heat until they begin to soften. Add the ground beef and brown. Drain the meat to remove fat and return meat to pot. Add sausages, crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, sugar, salt and pepper. Pour some water into the crushed tomato cans, swirl and add to sauce. Cover and simmer over low heat for about two to three hours. Serve with macaroni. Sauce should be enough to feed a family of four for at least two nights. It can also be frozen for a quick mid-week meal.