cooking


Not long ago, I was part of a TV focus group.  A team of interviewers came to my home and reviewed my television-viewing spreadsheet, then asked me all kinds of questions about my feelings as I watched TV. 

I bring this up because I cooked “homesick food” this evening; I love Italian food under any circumstances, but I had peppers to pick and to use up, so I made peperonata, which is assorted peppers and onions, sauteed and then simmered with tomatoes.  I make mine agrodolce, which translates to “sweet and sour,” by adding some red wine vinegar during the last 15 minutes of cooking.  I found artichokes at a reasonable price, so we ate those as appetizers.  A bit of bread and pasta, and dinner was complete.  I feel completely satisfied.

As I told the focus group people, for me, cooking is vicarious travel.  When I cook German food, we celebrate our many trips to visit our dear friends who live near Heidelberg and we talk about the fun times we’ve shared with them.  (Last Halloween, we carved pumpkins and took our children trick-or-treating…what a crazy experience!)

After spending nearly five years in southern Italy, slow-cooked Italian food brings back so many wonderful images…sitting by the water in Gaeta, enjoying pizza and sharing experiences with new friends…celebrating a one-of-a-kind Valentine’s Day with my family in a Sicilian restaurant stuffed with families feasting on seafood mousse, pizzas, and happiness…watching my husband and his good buddy Gene grilling 40 Euros’ worth of lamb spiedini on the now-infamous charcoal-fired spiedini grill…

This is why parenting experts tell us to share meals with our family, both immediate and extended.  The memories last forever, and one whiff of a favorite dish brings them rushing back.  As my son puts it, “Travel’s all about the view and the food.  There isn’t anything else.”

With family in view and delicious food to enjoy, we can’t possibly go wrong.

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We’ve all seen them.  The men and women holding up hand-lettered signs, saying, “Homeless – need help.”  We look away or hand them a dollar.  We wonder if they are really homeless or if they’re pulling a scam.

Yesterday, my son came home from attending Mass at a friend’s church with an aluminum pan and a recipe.  In our area, churches participate in several cooperative programs to help the homeless.  One is cooking for Our Daily Bread, a Catholic Charities outreach program in Baltimore.  Each church has several days during the month where church members cook and serve pre-made casseroles at ODB’s facility downtown.  Of course, someone has to make and freeze all that food, and that’s where the aluminum pan comes into the story.

My daughter helped me shop and cook for two pans’ worth of hot dog casserole.  It was easy for her to slice up the hot dogs, mix spices and beans and soup, and help with cleanup.  As we cooked, we talked about whether homeless people really like hot dog casserole or chicken and broccoli casserole (the dish we usually cook during our parish’s ODB weeks).  I’m guessing that they do.

We had the chance to see the ODB building last November when we went to Mass at the Baltimore Basilica.  ODB’s building is right next door.  Long before the doors were scheduled to open, homeless people were lining up for that hot meal.  It was a cold November day, and I’m sure it wasn’t a comfortable wait.  Suddenly, the chicken and broccoli casserole connected with faces, with people who were too cold to return my smile, with people just like me who somehow ended up on the streets.

So, next time you see one of those signs, you still might not want to pass money out your window.  Don’t worry – there is something else you can do.  Find out who’s feeding the homeless, and give them some help.

On my blog stats, I’ve noticed several references to “lamb spiedini.”  “Spiedini” is an Italian word that refers to tiny cubes of meat, threaded onto a skewer and then grilled.  I think it’s very interesting to see the combinations of Italian and English words that bring people to this blog.

My memories of lamb spiedini (spiedini d’agnello) are very, very specific.  I don’t normally eat lamb, because my childhood food allergies ensured that strong-tasting lamb was one of the few “safe” meats for me.  When my husband rented a mountain house in the Abruzzo for us and our dear friends, I was not happy to discover that he thought 40 Euros’ worth of lamb chunks was a great dinner purchase.

Boy, was I wrong.  The tiny lamb cubes (maybe 3/4″ square), cooked on a special spiedini grill over charcoal, were succulent and flavorful.  We ate them with bread and salad and wine, not much else.  The kids slurped down peach nectar.  Next day at noon, some of the leftover grilled lamb cubes found their way onto a cool, green salad.  The second day, we made sandwiches with lamb cubes in yogurt sauce (thank you, Penzeys, for your lovely Turkish seasoning blend!).  By the last day, we were piling lamb cubes into sandwiches at a roadside picnic area, next to a river, in some unknown Abruzzese town.  Pure bliss.

Since moving back to the U. S. A., we haven’t made spiedini.  It’s almost painful to pry the food memory away from the trip memory, and I doubt we’ll ever try.

I told a group of near-strangers recently that, to me, cooking is vicarious travel.  I love to re-create travel memories by making the dishes we enjoy at restaurants and in rental cottages.  In the case of lamb spiedini, though, I think I need a mountain house to make the meal complete.