Thursday, December 29, 2016

"The Wiseguy Cookbook - My Favorite Recipes From My Life As a Goodfella to Cooking on the Run" by Henry Hill - Sunday Gravy with Aunt Milly's Meatballs and Aunt Nina's Caponatina (eggplant) appetizer - Christmas Eve 2016

Date I made this recipe:  December 24, 2016 – Christmas Eve

The Wiseguy Cookbook – My Favorite Recipes From My Life as A Goodfella to Cooking on the Run (Recipes You Can't Refuse – From America's Most Famous Wiseguy) by Henry Hill and Priscilla David; foreword by Nicholas Pileggi
Published by New American Library
ISBN: 0-451-20706-8; © 2002
Recipes:  Aunt Nina's Caponatina (a/k/a Caponata, an eggplant appetizer) – p. 32-33; Sunday Gravy [Meat Sauce] – p. 33-34; Milly's Meatballs [Brooklyn, 1950] – p. 38-39; Basic Tomato Sauce – p. 13-14

In case you didn't know, a "wiseguy" is a person who belongs to the Mafia or is a smartass.  Sometimes they are one in the same thing.

One of my father's frequent sayings was "What are you, a wiseguy?"  I'm pretty sure he meant the later definition seeing as how he often directed it at me or my brother or other younger family members when we were smarting off.  But given that he was 100% Sicilian American, he might have also been talking about a wiseguy as in a member of the Mob.

That's a stretch though – kind of.  Not that dad was in the Mob (perish the thought!) but he was born and raised on the east coast, your unofficial HQ for all things mafioso.  And his aunt, my great-aunt, Antoinette, used to joke all the time that she was the "Godfather's godmother."

So we're sticking with "wiseguy" as in "smartass."

"Henry Hill" though, was a wiseguy as in mobster, and possibly a wiseguy as in smartass, and this cookbook tells about his life on the run (from the law) where the real punishment was lack of access to his favorite Italian foodstuffs.

I have to tell you, that would get to me as well.  I mean, to not have pasta or sauce is a sacrilege.  To be without the other accoutrements such as meatballs or sausage or Italian cookies would render me useless.  And so I feel this man's pain! 

The Wiseguy cookbook is a good read as Henry tells us all about trying to cook while in prison and later, the Witness Protection Program.  His life of crime was chronicled in the book Wiseguy:  Life in a Mafia Family by Nicholas Pileggi (who wrote the cookbook's foreword) and this book became the basis for the movie, Goodfellas.  Actor Ray Liotta played Henry's character.  And so now, of course, I want to watch the movie again just to pull it all together. And to check out the food of course, because there are some great food scenes.

And there are also some great recipes in this book and I say "great" without having tried them all because I can pretty much tell by the ingredients that many of these dishes could have graced my family's table with just a few tweaks here and there.  And of course, my family dishes are the best and if you say otherwise, I may have to take you out and I do not mean to a restaurant, capisce?

Henry divided this book into two sections:  Section One:  Brooklyn and the Mob, and Section Two:  On the Run (in Omaha, Kentucky, Cincinnati, Seattle and Washington State and California – man the guy got around!)  And stories, like the one I'm telling you, accompany the recipes and I swear to you, a lot of them sound like my family stories save for the part about being in the mob and all.

Now there were many, many things I could have made from this book but I was on a mission and that was to find a pasta recipe to serve up on Christmas Eve.  It was tradition in my immediate family to make spaghetti and meatballs before going to Christmas Eve mass and even though my parents are gone, I still carry on the pasta tradition in my house.  In the years where we weren't allowed to eat meat, we skipped the meatballs.  Some years (early on) we even had to fast which was ridiculous.  I mean mass goes long on any given Sunday and ridiculously long on Christmas Eve, and does the Lord really mean for us to pass out from hunger?  No.

This year, I decided to keep things simple and make the recipe for "Sunday Gravy," otherwise known as sauce, and to be clear that means "red sauce."  There is no other kind of sauce if you are southern Italian or Sicilian. "White" is not a sauce, it's a....something else.

Now plenty of east coast Italians refer to their red sauce as "Sunday Gravy" but I don't know why that is.  Maybe it's a translation thing?  And then there's your "macaroni" which is how most Italians referred to the vehicle for the sauce, that morphed overnight into the slightly more snotty "pasta, this the result of the homemade pasta craze of the 90's.  I have only ever made homemade "pasta" in cooking classes.  If boxed pasta was good enough for my family, it was good enough for me.  (Back in the day, we were always "Buitoni" brand people and failing that, Creamette® which was everywhere—still is!)

So "pasta" + "Sunday Gravy"/red sauce was the dish of the day.  Although I'm including the cookbook's recipe for a basic tomato sauce, I made my family's version to which I  added meatballs and Italian sausage.  I decided to give Henry Hill's meatball recipe a try and it was quite good, but I purchased the sausage rather than try my hand at grinding my own meat and adding my own seasoning.  Tis the season to draw the line on a few things in the interest of time.

On a side note, there is another Christmas Eve tradition mostly enjoyed by your east coast Italians called the Feast of the Seven Fishes.  Since we couldn't get our hands on a lot of fish or seafood where I grew up, we never "observed" this feast.  And I don't think my extended family on the east coast did, either.  As you might have surmised, seven separate fish dishes are made and eaten on Christmas Eve.  Given that we are only a two-person household, and I am not that fond of fish, I have never had the urge to make seven fish dishes because I'm picturing leftovers for days and that will simply not do. (And we all know the classic rule, right:  Thou shalt not reheat fish in the microwave, particularly at the office, or there will be consequences.)

And so Sunday Gravy and pasta in four parts:  make the sauce, make the meatballs, make the gravy, boil the pasta – piece of cake.  Well, except there are always little hiccups and this time, the hiccup was otherwise known as a "meatball."

The meatball recipe calls for you to fry the meatballs but I haven't fried a meatball in who knows how long, preferring instead to bake them (or sometimes put them in the sauce to "poach").  And so I decided to bake these and then I thought myself to be some kind of genius for using a mini-cupcake pan for the meatballs as the size was just perfect. Normally, I just put them on a baking sheet and have at it.

So I put the meatball mixture into the pans, turned on the oven, set the timer and almost over-baked them; the word "crunchy" comes to mind.  Well, crap, now what?

So channeling The Grinch, I decided "I must save these meatballs, but how?"

I'll tell you how:  you "reconstitute" the meatballs by giving them a broth bath. I used chicken broth as I had that on hand but you could use beef as well.  Lucky for me, I decided to make the meatballs the night before so I put the meatballs and broth in the refrigerator and the next day they were perfect.

So that's the whole Sunday Sauce/Meatball thing and now let's talk about a bonus recipe - Aunt Nina's Caponatina.  To clarify, this is not my Aunt Nina as I don't have an Aunt Nina, and "caponatina" is a diminutive of the word caponata which is an eggplant appetizer that I love.

This recipe promises to come close to the Progresso brand caponata my family grew up eating.  And it was good attempt to be sure, but believe it or not, the canned caponata won the day.

I think it comes down to this:  the eggplant was a bit too crunchy in the homemade version, and the Progresso brand was slightly sweeter and this is necessary to offset the tartness of the red wine vinegar.

In all likelihood, the sweetness is what caused us to inhale this stuff the minute my mom put it out on a tray table, along with other snacks, during Christmas week.  We inhaled this stuff such that mom finally figured out to stock up rather than deal with the proverbial "Is there any more?"  "No?"  "Waaaaaaaaaaa."

During the early years of my childhood, Progresso's caponata was included in a care package my grandma put together during our summertime visits, along with canned tomatoes, boxes of dry pasta and Stella Doro cookies and biscotti.  The trunk of our car always rode ridiculously low to the ground on the way back from New Jersey but it was worth it, save for the times the muffler fell off (almost annually and almost always in Pennsylvania on our way home) in which case, dad had to unpack all those heavy bags to get at a coat hanger to rig up the muffler until we got to a gas station.  I feel like Facebook with its "Like" and "Share" if this ever happened to your family (the muffler falling off, that is). (Every time this happened, my dad, of course, just about went ballistic, but every year thereafter on our road trip back east, he would laugh when my brother and I commented, upon seeing the "Pennsylvania Welcomes You" sign,"It's about time for the muffler to fall off, don't you think?")

So anyway, now that I have this homemade recipe under my belt, I'm going to recommend that you find some way to slow-cook the eggplant so that it's very soft, almost mushy.  This might be as easy as cooking it longer on the stovetop but you're going to have to play with the liquid ratio so it doesn't dry out. And I would probably not peel the eggplant because it seems to me that Progresso didn't although I could be wrong.  I also think you need to add more cooking time to the celery and onions so that they too, become very soft. Finally, instead of regular sugar, substitute brown sugar as I think it brings the flavor closer to that of the canned product.

So that's the word on Henry Hill and his recipes and this cookbook.  Had I the time, I could certainly eat my way through the rest of the book as his recipes are making me both hungry and nostalgic.   My dad always called us to the table with an "A mangia" (Basically, "let's eat") where we inhaled our "spaghets" (dad's term) and our caponata and life was good.

PS—It looks like Progresso no longer makes caponata and damn it all, why not?  And two years ago, Jane Parker, an A&P grocery store brand, discontinued it's fabulous fruitcake.  To quote my mother, "What is this world coming to!"

Sunday Gravy (Meat Sauce) – serves 8-10 generously
6 cups Basic Tomato Sauce (p. 13 or below)
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 hot sausages or 2 hot and 2 mild (about ½ pound)
1 recipe Milly's Meatballs (p. 38 or below)
2 pounds cooked pasta of your choice

Begin preparing Basic Tomato Sauce. While it is simmering, heat the olive oil in a large saucepan.  Poke holes in the sausages with a fork and put in the pan.  Cook on low to medium heat, turning occasionally until lightly brown, about 8-10 minutes.  You don't have to cook them all the way through because they'll cook more in the sauce.  Drain on paper towels.  Cut in half and add to tomato sauce.  While sauce simmers, prepare meatballs.

When meatballs are browned, spoon them carefully into the sauce.  Continue simmering until meatballs are cooked through, about 10-15 minutes.  Adjust seasoning.  Serve family style over pasta in a large bowl.  Have plenty of bread to sop up the sauce.

Basic Tomato Sauce  – Makes 3 cups of sauce (enough sauce for 4-6 people) (Ann's Note:  I made my own family's recipe.  If you don't want to make it, a basic store-bought tomato basil sauce will do)
6-8 cloves garlic, minced or thinly sliced (about 2 tablespoons)
¼ cup olive oil
½ cup chopped brown or white onions or shallots
2 28-ounce cans peeled plum tomatoes with basil, drained, reserving juice
12 large basil leaves, torn in large pieces, or 1 tablespoon dried
¼ cup finely chopped fresh Italian parsley, or 2 teaspoons to 1 tablespoon dried parsley
½ teaspoon each salt and pepper

In a large skillet or medium-large wide pot, cook garlic briefly in olive oil over medium-low heat.  Do not brown, or it will get bitter.  If using optional onions, cook them 3-5 minutes in olive oil, then add garlic and cook 1 minute.  Add the juice from the canned tomatoes to stop the garlic cooking.  Crush tomatoes with your hands or chop well no a cutting board and add to the pan.  Add basil, parsley, and ¼ teaspoon each of the salt and pepper.  Bring to a boil, stir thoroughly once, then reduce heat to a low simmer.  As the acid from the tomatoes flows to the top, skim it off every 10-15 minutes.  Sauce is ready in half an hour, but cook up to 1 hour if you want it thicker. Check for seasoning and add the rest of the salt and pepper, if desired.

Milly's Meatballs [Brooklyn, 1950] – serves 6
1 ½ pounds ground beef + ½ pound ground pork – OR – 1 pound ground beef + ¾ pound ground veal + ¼ pound ground pork
2 eggs
1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley
1 tablespoon minced fresh basil
¼ cup chopped white or brown onions or shallots
3 cloves of garlic, chopped fine
¼ cup grated fresh Romano or Parmesan cheese
½ cup dried, seasoned bread crumbs (Ann's Note:  if you only have plain breadcrumbs, add a bit of the following to it to make "seasoned" crumbs – garlic salt, dried parsley, dried basil, dried oregano and/or a bit of Italian seasoning spice mix)
½ teaspoon each salt and pepper (to taste)
2 tablespoons chopped canned tomatoes, tomato sauce, or Basic Tomato Sauce (optional)
3 tablespoons olive oil (or more if needed)

Combine ground meats in a large bowl and mix together well with your hands.  Add in eggs one at a time, mixing after each addition.  Add in all other ingredients except tomatoes or sauce and olive oil, and combine to form a mixture that is soft but still sticks together.  If meatballs are too hard or dry, add chopped tomatoes or sauce.

Heat olive oil in frying pan.  Place a small bowl of water and a plate near meatball mixture.  While oil is heating, roll approximately 3 tablespoons of meatball mixture at a time into walnut-size balls in palm of hand, adding a small amount of water if they don't roll well.  Place each completed ball on the plate.  Continue forming until all meatballs are done (you can place them on top of each other like a tower).  Test the oil temperature – a drop of water should sizzle when it hits the oil.  Fry meatballs in batches, turning until browned on all sides and cooked through.  Drain on paper towels.  Can be served plain, as main dish in any tomato sauce, on an Italian roll with Parmesan, provolone, or mozzarella as a sandwich, or sliced and put on pizza.

  1. Add ½ cup golden raisins.  This is from Tommy DiSimone's father.  This makes a sweet meatball.  Ann's Note: Sicilian meatballs often contain raisins although nobody in my family does that.
  2. Add ¼ cup chopped pine nuts. Toast them lightly if you want, but keep in mind they'll also get cooked when the meatballs do.

Ann's Note:  to fry or not to fry, that is the question.  I used to fry my meatballs and then quit doing that in favor of baking them as it's far less messy.  As I mentioned above, I baked them at either 400 or 425 (I can't recall), for either 20 or 25 minutes (I can't recall that either!).  But since I almost incinerated them, check for doneness after 15 minutes.

Aunt Nina's Caponatina – makes about 3 cups (Ann's Note:  even a half recipe made quite a bit of "caponata")
2 tablespoons salt
2 medium eggplants (about 1 pound each)
½ cup olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped fine (about 1 cup)
3 stalks celery, thinly sliced (about 1 ½ cups)
½ cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons sugar (Ann's Note:  I recommend brown sugar)
2-3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
¾ cup tomato puree
¼ cup chopped pitted black olives
½ cup capers

Fill a large bowl two-thirds full of water, add salt, and stir to dissolve.  Peel and slice eggplant into ½-inch slices.  Place slices in  the bowl and let soak for 1-2 hours (weight them with a pan or plate so they stay in the water).  Drain off the liquid and pat dry with paper towels.  Cut slices into ½-inch thick cubes.

Heat ¼ of the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Fry eggplant 1-2 minutes, stirring constantly, and drain on paper towels.  Cook, stirring occasionally over low to medium heat until soft, approximately 10 minutes.  Add wine and cook until wine has almost evaporated.  Return eggplant to pan.

Dissolve sugar in the red wine vinegar and pour over eggplant.  Add tomato puree, olives, and capers; stir and add salt and pepper to taste.  Simmer over low heat 5 minutes, until well-blended.  Cool to room temperature and serve.

Refrigerated, this will last up to two weeks.  If it's not gobbled up sooner.

Ann's Notes:  The jury is still out on whether or not pre-soaking the eggplant in a salt bath makes any difference in cooking but I was a good solider and followed the directive.  I can't say it made any difference though, as it still took a long time to soften and I did not achieve the nearly-mush texture I wanted (or was used to).  The vegetables (onions and celery) also need more time.  They need to be just on the shy side of "soft."  And as I already mentioned, were I to make this again, I think I would use brown sugar instead of regular as it more closely approximates the Progresso brand I know and love.

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