Paella Bliss in New York

13 01 2010

I’m not the best person for eating paella. While I do like the dish (a lot) it is generally a seafood-laden dish, so my dislike of seafood is a bit of a hindrance.Thus, it’s a yummy dish, and when in Spain… But it’s never really been something I sought out. Until Socarrat.

This past weekend, my good friend Becky visited from Baltimore. Since we hadn’t seen each other in over a year, and on account of the frigid temperature outside, New York exploring came second to lots of chatting and enjoying each other’s company (and trying to stay warm). But Saturday evening, we decided to try a new restaurant, and given the chill outside, a cozy Spanish restaurant with a sizzling pan of gooey rice seemed just the thing.

We were not disappointed. The restaurant is  two rooms, both long and narrow. The first is more of a bar-ish area, though there is no actual bar: high tables where folks can enjoy wine or a perfect sangria while waiting to sit in the main room, that is one long communal table. The menu has a number of tapas options, but the main event is certainly the paella, which is served family style in its huge cast iron pan.

There are eight different options including a paella de carne, which includes every type of meat one could want and no seafood. Amazing seems too small a word. It was rich and full of flavor and decadent. The  name Socarrat means, literally, the “crust that forms on the bottom of the paella pan when the liquid is rendered and the rice reaches its peak of succulence.” And that socarrat was, in our pan, crispy to perfection, a dining experience close to nirvana, and I’m not exaggerating. Certainly going on my list of favorite restaurants, and my list to take guests, for that matter.

Good Luck Foods and Traditions for 2010

2 01 2010

I’m back from a lovely holiday in California. It was sunny and comfortable and full of family and laughter. And food. Lots of food. Remember all those holiday cookies? Mom didn’t make those, but about a million others, and I certainly did my share of indulging. My sister Kristen made our favorite cookies (made only, oddly, at holiday time): Almond Crescents. This was a Gaga recipe, and for kicks I did a little digging, but was unable to find any information on a traditional almond crescent cookie, at least one that looked like ours.

However, since I seem to be so focused on food these days, I thought I’d share this fun little tidbit I found on Delish: Good Luck Foods for New Year’s Day. It’s a little international inspiration for starting a new year off right. My favorite is the Spanish tradition of eating 12 grapes at midnight, but mainly because it came out of a surplus of grapes one wine harvest.

Some other fun non-food traditions I found:

  • In Venezuela, it’s tradition to enact on New Year’s Eve what you want for the year. If travel is the thing, go out carrying a suitcase, or, even better, if love is what you’re after, you should wear red underwear on New Year’s Eve. Check out this Venezuelan video.
  • In Italy the red underwear is for luck (noticing a trend) and items are thrown out of windows out midnight as a sort of “out with the old…” thing. Sounds like fun, if you watch out for flying nightstands.
  • In Suriname it’s all about loud noises (think horns honking and drums banging) and the burning of effigies to symbolize a fresh start.

And here in New York we have the thrilling tradition of freezing to death and bumping into millions of strangers while we wait for a shiny ball to drop. (And then there are the smart ones of us who just find a warm place to watch thew whole fun spectacle on TV.) It seems there is a little insanity in every culture when it comes to ushering in the New year.

Recipe: Pizelle (Italian Waffle Cookies)

18 12 2009

I’ve been giving some more thought to all those international holiday cookies. Another on that list is one of my family’s favorite traditional cookies: the waffle cookie. Pizzelle is said to be the oldest, most prevalent cookie in Italy. It’s a thin wafer cookie made on a special cookie iron, which gives it the look of a very thin waffle.

Pizelle is the primary cookie in myriad festivals throughout Italy, as well as at weddings, birthdays, anniversaries and all holidays. In short, they are so tasty that Italians look for any excuse to eat them.

The name itself simply means “little pizza” (pizza in Italian means “round” or “flat”), but it’s also known as ferratelle (after ferro, the heated iron on which the cookies are baked). The first pizzelle makers were made of iron,and were held over the open fire by long handles. Most bore the family crest and were passed down through the generations.  Today, pizelle irons are made with aluminum alloy and tend toward electric, with floral or snowflake patterns.

The basic recipe is based with eggs flour and sugar, but beyond this, pizzelles are flavored with anything from vanilla to anise to rum. The Russo family version uses orange flavoring:


6 eggs

1 ½ cups sugar

1 cup oil

Juice of 1 orange

½ bottle orange extract

1 ½ cups flour

1 ½ tsp baking powder

Beat eggs, then add sugar, oil, juice and extract. Sift flour, salt and baking powder and add slowly to the egg mixture, mixing well. The batter should be thick enough to drop from a spoon in a ribbon within two to three seconds. If too stiff, add a few drops of water, or if too thin add more flour slowly.

Substitution options for the orange flavoring

1)      2 tsp Vanilla extract and 2 tsp anise extract.

2)      1 ½ tsp anise extract, plus the zest from 1 orange and the zest from 1 lemon

3)      1 shot whiskey, 1 tsp anise extract, 1 tsp vanilla

Before each use, coat your iron with vegetable oil or melted shortening and then heat for a few minutes prior to cooking. Fante’s Kitchen Wares Shop sells both types of irons, and in the old tradition allows for the possibility of personalizing them with an etching.

Christmas Cookies Around the World

15 12 2009

A round-up. The season is in full swing and I’m getting more and more excited for my impending trip home to California. My father informed me this morning that he has already stocked up on Peppermint Stick ice cream, my all-time favorite ice cream flavor and a holiday tradition, one, I’ve found to my dismay,  that does not exist in New York I’ve visited countless markets to reach the sad conclusion that the seasonal flavor is not sold here).

And so this week I’ve been thinking about all the yumminess that is the holiday season, namely peppermint stick ice cream, and all the cookies my father and I would turn out year after year, far more cookies than even our massive brood could eat. And so, in honor of our cookie tradition, I thought I’d take a look at some of the Christmas cookie traditions around the world.

I found an extensive  list, and was not surprised to discover that the best cookie of all time, the alfajor of South America (about which, I just discovered, I’m not the only one to write an ode, of sorts), was present on it. I found nine recipes for my favorite cookie, so perhaps I’ll have to attempt  a second go at making them. Some others on the list:

  • Pepparkakor (Sweden):  a ginger-flavored cookie, traditionally cut into heart shapes. One recipe calls these Sugar and Spice cookies, and is very similar to a Russo-family recipe of the same name. Ours, however, are sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar, and it was always my happy duty to sprinkle the cooled cookies.
  • Kourabiedes (Greece): each of these powdered sugar-covered cookies is garnished with a clove to add a savory element and recall the wise men and their spices.
  • Zimtsterne (Germany): You don’t get much prettier than these star-shaped cinnamon-nut meringues, also called erstesternen.
  • Nanaimo Bars (Canada): decadent (no bake!) bars with three decadent layers: a crumb base, topped by custard buttercream and finished off with smooth chocolate.
  • Galletas Maria (Costa Rica):I’m not a particular fan of coconut, but the peanut butter in these may just be enough to win me over. They’re named, according to the Food Network, for a grand duchess of Russia (how this correlates to their popularity in South America and Spain is not a question I can answer).

More holiday cookie traditions

Christmas cookie hub

Local Love, and Yumminess

12 10 2009

Food is great. It’s also necessary. But what goes into creating a good meal can sometimes not be so good for the environment, or local industry for that matter. In that vein, my friend and co-worker, the amazing Liz Griffin, decided to tackle the task of creating a delicious meal made entirely from local ingredients. It was more of a challenge than she thought it would be (sitting across from her, I got to witness the kinks), but the outcome was fantastic. Or at least looks as though it was… (I guess I wasn’t cool enough to warrant an invite!) Read about the adventure and get tips on planning a Home State Plate of your own. I have every intention of weaseling my way into her next one…

Regarding the Kindness of Strangers

10 09 2009

One of the loveliest things about travel is the aspect of connecting with strangers. This is pretty much a constant in foreign travel, especially when you are traveling solo and even more especially when you are a solo female traveler. But in general, if you are open to “communing with the natives,” locals tend to be open to communing right back. It is my general experience that people are proud of their country/city/home, and eager to share it with those who are eager to really experience the life and culture there.

I came across much of this in South America, and most of the highlights of that trip, not surprisingly, have to do with random conversation or experiences with friendly strangers. This is less the case in the U.S., however. Nice as Americans are, we are generally a bit more closed off, going about our own lives and in general far too busy to show off our homes to folks we do not know. It’s  difficult to imagine, for example, that a strange girl with no place to stay might knock on the door of a vacation rental somewhere in Anywhere, USA and have the family on the other side take her in as the lovely parents of Octavio and Julia did for me in Humahuaca.

Emphasis, here, on in general. Not all Americans are skeptical of random strangers. Especially, it turns out, on the idyllic roads of Long Island, where we recently went wine tasting and were treated not only to lush scenery, but some of the nicest people one can imagine.

Corey Creek

Picture this:

Four ladies arrive in Mattituck, LI after a two and a half hour train ride and decide to walk to the first winery since their bus is nowhere in sight. It’s sweltering, and after a half hour of walking they are sweaty and trudging, but nearly there, when a car pulls to the side and the woman inside offers them a ride, explaining emphatically when the very relieved ladies climb into the car that  she never does this, then gushing over the area and suggesting countless wineries to try, insisting that she drive them further than their original destination and drop them at one of her favorite wineries.

Savior Sasha bids the ladies adieu at Croteaux, a tiny mom and pop winery that rather perfectly for the idyllic setting only serves rosés.

Croteaux bottle

There is much drinking of pink wine, but there is also some petting of Sargent, the resident pup, and best of all some great conversation with the proprietor, Croteaux himself, who shares that he and his wife moved to the property without the intention of making wine, but saved the historic neighboring farm by purchasing it. After much conversation, and in the second act of kindness of the day, Croteaux offers the ladies the use of his family bicycles to make their way to the next few wineries.

The ladies discover there is little more picturesque than biking on North Fork roads. Unless, perhaps, it’s the sight of bikes against rows of grape vines.


As the day passes there is dancing (with strangers), playing the sunglasses game (more strangers) and finally the kind stranger who gives the ladies a ride back to the train station. Long Islanders, it is clear, are some of the friendliest (and most helpful) folks in all the land. Perhaps it’s the wine?

For more on how to wine hop in Long Island, click here (warning: shameless self-promotion link). More of the mayhem, and a clearer idea of the sunglasses game (mind bafflingly complicated) here.

Recipe: Wandi, Guanti, Farfatelle, Etc…

2 09 2009

I decided a little more research was necessary on Wandi. My Google search, it turns out, yielded very little in the way of information, but I did learn that Wandi is an Americanized Italian form of the word Guanti (there is no “w” in the Italian language), which translates to gloves. According to this helpful description/recipe, the cookies were popular at celebrations, from marriages to random festivals. Indeed, another search uncovered this article, about 100 dozen (that’s right 100 dozen) Wandi being made as part of a Sicilian festival in Iowa (if for nothing else, check out the article for the photo).

That, believe it or not, was nearly the extent of what I managed to dig up on these elusive cookies. I did find this: scroll about halfway down and there is a rather poignant (and coincidental) note from a granddaughter who cannot get the recipe from her grandmother, who happens to have Alzheimer’s. The answer here, however, is that the cookies are something altogether different, called Farfallette, though also referred to as Lovers’ Knots and “Bow Ties” and the recipe is relatively similar.

A hunt for Farfallette then unearthed the tradition of St. Joseph’s Table, the same St. Joseph’s Day (March 19, the feast of St. Joseph. In America it’s overshadowed by the beloved patron saint of green beer, but Sicilians feast and recreate the Holy Family) tradition described in the above Iowa article, meaning that bow ties or Farfatelle or Wandi or gloves or whatever else is all one in the same. And, it seems it’s a tradition that needs to little umph from the next generation. And so, in that spirit, The Russo Wandi recipe, as passed down from my father, and from his mother:

Bow Cookies

1-1/2 Cups sifted flour

1-1/4 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp salt

1 tblsp sugar

3 tblsp Crisco

2 eggs, slightly beaten

1 Cup powdered sugar

Oil for deep frying

Sift flour, salt, baking powder and sugar into a bowl. Cut in Crisco until well blended. Stir in eggs and mix thoroughly. Knead on floured board until pliable. Let dough rest for at least one hour.

Divide dough and roll out to an 8×10 rectangle, 1/8″ thick. Cut into strips, 8″ long x 3/4″ wide. Tie into loose knots and drop into hot oil until golden brown.

Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on a paper towel. Then sprinkle with powdered sugar. (This last, incidentally, was always my favorite part, perhaps because Grandma Russo never re-sprinkled.)

***I add, at this time, that while this blog is usually about the ties of females, and while this recipe was handed down from my grandmother, the bulk of my nostalgia for it should be credited to my father, who spent countless patient hours teaching me this and other recipes. And who never once refolded my bow ties.


These aren't Wandi, but another Italian cookie, so the sentiment is there...

Thoughts on Origins

31 08 2009

In the past on this blog, I’ve  credited much of my obsession with travel and cultures to my maternal grandmother, Gaga. But, while Gaga did speak seven languages and travel extensively, it’s not entirely fair not to give some of the credit to my Grandma Russo, my paternal grandmother, and the grandmother I actually knew.

For my whole life, Grandma Russo was a little old Italian lady (my mother tells me that, even long before I was born, and perhaps for her whole life, Grandma Russo was a little old Italian lady—and I’m inclined to believe her). She spouted crazy old adages like, “You eat mushrooms when your body craves wood” and was constantly “God willing” she would be around to see whatever event was coming up in a year, month or even a day. In a sense, she may have been Gaga’s polar opposite.

And yet, though she didn’t move to the U.S. on her own at age 22 or throw crazy 48-hour parties, Grandma Russo was fascinating in her own right, a real window into another time and another world. Not only was she a traditional New England woman but a representative of the “Old Country,” carrying on the traditions of Italy and passing them on to her children and grandchildren.

Unfortunately, Grandma Russo was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s when I was young, and by the time I was old enough to really appreciate and want to hear all her stories about Italy and Rhode Island, she wasn’t all there to tell them. But I still managed to retain a lot from her, including an obsession with our culture, through the songs and the food and the little sayings. All this came back this past week when I walked into Trattoria del’ Arte to have dinner with a friend, and there by the host stand were long strips of powdered cookie, curled and bubbled in the frying process, a cookie that I used to make with my grandmother. We called them Wandi but the host at the restaurant called them Guanti (I’ve since learned that the words are somewhat interchangeable and translate to something like “gloves.”

This brought back memories of visits to Grandma’s house, visits characterized by what might be everyone’s (Italian or not) stereotype of the Italian grandmother: little old lady rushing around whipping out a feast, all while saying she had nothing to serve you. But more importantly it brought back memories of cooking with Grandma, and with my father: pizza, pasta and, of course various types of cookies, including Wandi.  Our family’s English word for them was “bows,” because after cutting the very thin batter into strips and we tied them into knots before frying them and sprinkling the powdered sugar. Whenever I’d make them with Grandma, she would re-tie all my bows, to the ever-increasing anger of my father.

This never bothered me, though. For me it was all about the process of making cookies with my grandmother, and today it’s all about the inspiration that experience instilled in me: a love of my heritage, which has translated into a love (and desire to explore all aspects) of Italy.

 Grandma Russo and her legacy

Grandma Russo and her legacy

Hola Mate

18 06 2009

One of my favorite things about Argentina was the mate ritual. In South America, yerba mate has been known as the “drink of the gods” for centuries. The bitter tea takes a little getting used to, but it is packed with vitamins and insanely healthy. It is also a tradition in itself.

Mate is the national drink of Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Southern Brazil. And drinking mate is not just healthy, it’s ritual. Mate gourds, usually metal or wood or a combination, are gorgeous, artful creations.  The gourd is shared between a group, filled with hot water each time and passed from person to person, each of whom drinks the entire gourdful of tea through the bombilla (straw filter) before pouring more water and passing the gourd. It’s a sharing of friendship and an honor to share another’s mate.

All this is a long way of explaining that mate is yet another thing I wish I could have brought back from Argentina in unlimited supply. But now I’ve discovered the next bet thing: Guayakí is a company that not only sells gourds and mate but that does so with a larger purpose in mind. The company partners with small farmers and indigenous communities, aiding in conservation and community development in the sub-tropic cultures of South America. Named for the Aché Guayakí people native to the mate forest, the company practices a business model called Market Driven Restoration, allowing consumer purchases of yerba mate in North America to support indigenous communities and sustainable agriculture and reforestation projects in Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil.

Namely, not only can I feel good about enjoying my mate again, I feel good about helping save the South American landscape I’ve come to love so much.

A Few of My Favorite Peeps

14 04 2009

Another Easter come and gone, and this sweet-loving girl is finding herself in a self-induced “no-one-around-to-indulge-with-me-so-I’ll-eat-it-all-myself” candy coma. Because Easter isn’t Easter without some Jolly Rancher jelly beans and Reese’s Peanut Butter Eggs.

Then leave it to my mother to really pack a doozy. The other day I came home to find an Easter tradition in my mailbox: anyone who’s been to a mall in California has been to the mainstay See’s Candies, and anyone who’s spent an Easter in California has experienced See’s eggs, or at least they should have. Like the Reese’s eggs, these are the traditional See’s truffles, all grown up and Easter-ified. In our family it was tradition to get the variety pack and cut them up so everyone could have a bit of each, but Mom sent me a full-size of my favorite. The Bordeaux is a milk chocolate (sprinkle-covered) “brown sugar butter cream” filled truffle that is sinfully sweet with an odd little bit of crunch to it.

But all this sweet talk merely a lead-in to the fact that on Easter I find there are far too many sweet pleasures to bother myself with sugar-coated marshmallows. The peep might be a cute diversion, but give me See’s or Reese’s any day over that neon puffy creation. This year, however, I became a fan of the peep, not so much to eat as to look at. I discovered National Geographic’s “Peeps in Places” contest, in which readers were invited to send in their photos of peeps in their favorite travel destinations, resulting in a series of whimsical, comical and all-around amusing pictures of the little marshmallow guys in, well, places. I love it because it’s reminiscent of one of my all-time favorite movies, Amelie, in which the young French heroine cheers up her depressed father by sending postcards of his garden gnome, who she’s sent around the world with a flight attendant friend. Perhaps a random reference, but anyone who hasn’t seen it should.

At any rate, this year—especially since I’m swearing off sugar for at least a week—it’s all about the (in my opinion, inedible) peeps and, of course, the places they go. Check out the photo pool here. 15,000 and counting. Too bad I didn’t know of this last week: I could have taken my peeps to the beach after all. But surely peeps in paradise wouldn’t have held a candle to Cowboy Peep, Tired, Poor, Hungry Masses Peeps or Vincent van Peep.  Guess I’ll just have to wait patiently for the winner to be announced. They sure could hurry it up though…

This peep's looking at San Francisco from Twin Peaks. He must be looking for a See's Candy store... Photo by elmoizme.

This peep's looking at San Francisco from Twin Peaks. He must be looking for a See's Candy store... Photo by elmoizme.