Our Wild Neighbors

Hubby D and I reside in what was once a Southern Illinois coal mining town. Now the town is best described as part of the Metropolitan St. Louis area. Realtors refer to our diverse neighborhood as desirable. I like that. Most of the homes represent an architectural mix of Tudor, Bungalow, Craftsman, Dutch Colonial, Cape Cod, Contemporary, Cottages, and Mid-century Ranch such as ours. We finished raising our five offspring here and over the years have watched a continual cycle of neighboring families grow from toddlers to teens and beyond.

We’ve also observed our share of wildlife come and go or maybe stay. The cardinals stay year round; the hummingbirds come in late spring and leave in early fall. Not sure about the yellow finches. They might winter here but their feathers lose that distinctive color.

We used to have rabbits until the neighborhood cats couldn’t control their natural instincts. Groundhogs were smart enough to wait until my tomatoes were ripe before eating half the flesh and leaving the other half for me. Thanks but no thanks. Deer have been known to wonder through our yard early in the morning or in the middle of the day. Or around ten at night when recently one stood five feet from our front door.

Mustn’t forget the foxes. Such beautiful creatures. This year a male came trotting down the street with a squirrel hanging from its mouth. Like all good fathers, he made a home for his family—in our next-door neighbor’s culvert. What a sight—dad, mom, and three kits frolicking in the grass, minding their business like all good neighbors.

For some years a family of lizards has been hanging out around our swimming pool but never in it. As to where they go in the winter, I don’t have a clue but they’re always back the following spring.

This year for the first time we had some unexpected wildlife. Frogs. Make that baby frogs, not much bigger than some bugs, neither of which are welcome in my pool. Most mornings around 5:15, before my usual fifty laps, will find me skimming the pool, this year removing anywhere between two and seven frogs each day. If they’re not doing their own laps, they’re sitting on the steps of the ladder or riding the chlorine tablets floaters. Out, neighbors or not, I want the damn creatures gone! Only when they are, do I take the plunge and begin my daily routine.

Yesterday, during lap number 30, a smooth non-stop backstroke with eyes closed to the sky above, I casually brushed one hand over my face to remove … what? Yikes! A baby frog, comfortably settled on my forehead. No point in screaming loud enough to wake up the neighbors. Instead, I scooped this uninvited neighbor out of the water and with one finger, flicked it away. When it didn’t move fast enough to suit me, I pushed a little harder. With that, my swim for the day came to an abrupt end.

Ah well. There’s always tomorrow.

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Normandy, France, D-Day Plus One

Photo by Yucel Moran on Upsplash

An excerpt from The Family Angel … 

Dear God, any place but here. Not that PFC Frank Roselli had any choice as to where he would be fighting his first battle—in this case, Omaha Beach on June 7. Dawn had yet to break on D-Day Plus One when Frankie jumped from his LCI into the chest-high waters bordering Normandy’s coastline. The nineteen-year-old was one GI among the thousands of reinforcements assigned to follow General Omar Bradley’s 29th Division. Those poor bastards had landed the day before, the unfortunate casualties of Bradley’s First Army.

Frankie held his M1 Garand overhead as he waded in the direction of sand. The sun had yet to come over the horizon, not that it mattered. Sporadic mortar and sniper fire from the enemy’s rear position managed to illuminate the gray sky, giving Frankie a clear view of water strewn with the 29th, plus too many of those who had just landed. Dear God, bodies everywhere. He brushed past his dead comrades, nudged a combat boot. Shit, the foot was still inside. His stomach flipped and churned, producing an indigestible mix of disgust and shame.

Damn the flying shit. Keep moving, or wind up like these poor, broken bastards—he’d pray for them later. Frankie’s immediate concern was the beach, getting there in one piece. God willing, he wouldn’t take any shitfire, enemy or friendly, along the way. What the hell, survival boiled down to the luck of the draw. Move the wrong way and walk into a random shot. Bang, you’re dead.

Up ahead, water rolled into sand, exposing a graveyard of mutilated GIs. Their numbers too great to comprehend; their bloated remains scattered among the remains of landing crafts and military paraphernalia, an eerie testimony to what had transpired twenty-four hours earlier. Frankie hit the sand running. The stench of burnt flesh assaulted his nostrils. He stumbled and fell, onto what? Sweet Jesus, a baby-faced soldier, history now. Vacant eyes stared in astonishment, as if relaying the horror they’d been forced to witness. Frankie rolled to his knees and out of respect, turned his head. After heaving up yesterday’s k-rations, he made a sign of the cross, as much for himself as for the fallen heroes.

Their fleeting mortality reminded Frankie of a bizarre place he learned about in the eighth grade. He pictured Sister Agnes strolling around the classroom, rosary beads swinging from her ample waist. She spoke in an Irish brogue that distinguished her from the town’s other immigrants. This day she lowered her voice to a near whisper as she described a certain church in Rome.

“It’s called the Chapel of the Bones, boys and girls. Housed within the Church of the Immaculate Conception is a crypt dedicated to centuries of deceased Capuchin monks.” She stopped at Frankie’s desk, opened a large book of photographs, and held it up. “As you can see, their bleached bones—too numerous to count—have been assembled into the walls and floors of various room displays. Even into chandeliers. Some skeletons remain intact and wear the Order’s coffee-colored habits.” Sister directed her plump finger to the pointed hoods concealing skulls and profiles. “Outstretched skeletal hands beckon the curious visitors to indulge themselves. No need to hurry here they seem to say.”

Frankie leaned forward for a better view, but one row over Charlotte Evans gasped and uttered two words, “How disgusting.”

“No, Charlotte, ’tis the reality of our physical existence,” Sister replied. “Now, if you please, allow me to continue. Here in the museum, among the Capuchin, time is no longer of the essence.” She turned the page to more bones. “Posted on a wall in the last room is a Latin inscription, written in flawless calligraphy. The monks left us this message; one I challenge all of you to remember.” Swishing in her long black habit, she went to the blackboard and using the Palmer Method—which none of the boys could master—she wrote in chalk, transcribing the words into English: What you are now, we used to be; what we are now, you will become.

Enough, Sister Agatha, PFC Roselli thought, someday yes, but not this day. He banished the prophetic verse from his brain and scrambled to his feet.

“Move it, soldier. Head for cover,” a voice called out from behind. “Don’t look at them. Don’t think about them. We’re not going to be them.”

The order came from Sergeant Lawrence Winters. He and Frankie first met in England, where Sarge was recuperating from an injury sustained in Sicily and Frankie from an emergency appendectomy that had separated him from his unit. Sarge had enlisted in the army the day after Pearl Harbor and Normandy would be his second tour of duty. The Montana cowboy wore a face ten years older than its twenty-one, but the early aging didn’t result from constant exposure to the Western sun or the bitter winds. “No amount of R & R could ever return my lost youth,” he once told Frankie, “not after Sicily.”

Frankie continued to dodge bullets while friendly machine guns and mortars punctured the sides of cliffs that created a natural backdrop for the beach. The barrage went on for hours, allowing the infantry to continue their steady infiltration. In the afternoon when the shelling had temporarily subsided and before the removal of bodies began, three chaplains conducted a service for the dead. Sharing a makeshift altar, they led prayers in the Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish faiths.

Frankie prayed too, for those folks back home who were praying for the safe return of their loved ones, not knowing the time had come to pray for their souls instead. Heart-wrenching reality would come in the form of regrets from the military. He made another sign of the cross for his own family—Mom and Jake, the best stepdad a guy could want, and of course for Tony. He crossed himself again, this time for Mary Ann. She wrote the day after he left, begging forgiveness for her silly behavior on their last night together. Frankie No Fun, she called him when he turned her down. He’d wanted her but she was such a kid. So was he, then.

And what was with Tony, no word from him for months. Had his first taste of war been any worse than this? Damn, Frankie missed his brother as much as he missed Mary Ann, but in a different way. Prior to enlisting, he and Tony hadn’t traveled beyond the coal mining towns of Southern Illinois. They knew their place, and had always bummed with their own kind. Not like the soldier who stood beside him now—his new best friend, PFC Ato Racine.

The half-Cherokee from Oklahoma pronounced his name A-toe but some guy had shortened it to Toe and the new handle stuck tighter than wallpaper paste. During a barroom brawl in Alva, he came to the aid of a down-and-out drunkard getting knocked around by a guy half his age and twice his size. Toe wrestled away the bully’s knife and managed to get in a few nicks before the sheriff broke up the fight. He gave Toe a choice of early enlistment or jail time. The next morning Toe signed up at the local recruiting station and by nightfall he took his first train ride to basic training.

Next to Toe, Private Gordon Dean of Bay City, Michigan was performing his usual tic, a lifting of his right shoulder to massage the neighboring ear. Rub … two, three … release. Rub … two, three … release. Once more, now scratch the nose. Again, the nose. Dean stood five feet six, same as Toe, but he could never measure up to the Cherokee. From behind coke-bottle spectacles Dean’s darting green eyes magnified fear the rest of the platoon tried to hide. To them, he spelled d-u-d, a bona fide, casualty-prone reject that had no business on the frontline. Dean didn’t seem to mind their rejection, so long as he could hang close to Toe.

Because Toe Racine allowed Dean to walk in his footsteps, Frankie tolerated him too. What the hell, so the guy ranked lower than most earthworms. Every family was cursed with some version of Dean, every family except his. This war had dumped a bunch of mismatched guys together and out of desperation they formed a pseudo family that shared one common goal—staying alive long enough to make it back to the real thing.

Frankie tuned back into the prayer service.

“We’ll close with a reading of the Twenty-third Psalm,” one of the chaplains said. Not the priest, Frankie thought maybe the rabbi.

Rabbi got as far as, ‘Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us,’ when a shot erupted from a fissure in the bluff. Some second lieutenant—who once bummed a cigarette from Frankie the non-smoker—dropped with a hole between his eyes. A machine gunner fired his round into the narrow opening. The sniper fell screaming from his bushy perch while several more ground shots, including one from Toe, nailed Jerry before he hit the sand. A chorus of simultaneous amens concluded the ceremony as units hurried to the base of the cliff.

“Dig those foxholes deep, twice as deep as you think they ought to be,” ordered Lieutenant Lancaster. “Later tonight we’ll work our way up the bluff. When we reach the plateau, there’s less than a quarter mile between them and us. Those Jerries are bottled up in what’s known as hedgerows, or as I prefer—hellrows. Our job is to flush out the enemy, like shit from a toilet.”

“How we gonna do that, sir?”

“Rush and attack, soldier. Rush and attack.”

“How many of these hedgerows we gotta take, sir?”

“All of them, however long it takes.”

Everybody knew the lieutenant had graduated from Yale and taught European history, not that he bragged about either. He did acknowledge some understanding of hedgerows and a fair amount of experience fighting Germans, but when it came to fighting Germans holed up in French hedgerows, he didn’t have much to offer. According to certain scuttlebutt, neither did any other American officer leading troops in this invasion.

“Sir, about these hedgerows—”

“Dammit, Dean. Shut up and keep digging.”

“I am, but I just thought—”

“Don’t think,” Sarge growled through the Camel dangling from his mouth. “It’s bad for morale.

“He’s twitching again.”

“About the hedgerows,” Lieutenant Lancaster said in his teacher voice. “Think square, rectangular or irregular land boundaries and cattle holdings. Centuries-old mounds of earth, taller than most of you and covered by vegetation. And tunnels and mazes with singular entrances.”

“What’s our chance of penetrating them, Sir?” Frankie asked.

“Nearly impossible but that never stopped hell-bent GIs before.”

***

Two days and a quarter mile later Frankie counted himself among twelve men advancing on their first hedgerow. While artillery from both sides lit up a sky gone dark with the setting sun, rifle and machine gun coverage from the rear failed to budge the enemy from within. Three lead soldiers dashed in a zigzag pattern through the open area, trying to get close enough to launch an assault. Frankie nearly shit when the first two scattered into the wind, blown away by their own grenades. The third lay moaning in the open field. “My legs … dear god, help me, my legs. Somebody ….”

“Cover, me, Frankie” Toe Racine took off on his belly. “I’m going after him.”

“Dammit, PFC, stay where you are!” shouted Sarge over the steady barrage of artillery.

Toe kept moving.

“Bastard Krauts!” Dean yelled while Frankie continued firing. Other than Toe, Frankie considered himself the platoon’s best marksman but shooting into an overgrown brush fortress was no way to show off.

While machine gunfire sprayed within inches of his helmet, Toe crawled toward the injured soldier. He grabbed Kern under one arm and retraced his route, ignoring an endless volley of bullets erupting from the hedgerow. Not once did he look back. When he reached the safety of his trench, he cracked a half-smile. “Damn rough out there, Sarge, but I got him.”

“Let go, soldier.” Sarge said. Frankie knew why but couldn’t bring himself to speak up.

“He’ll be okay, don’t you think?” When Sarge didn’t answer, Toe glanced around, and realized he’d been pulling a dead man.

“Don’t ever do a stupid-ass thing like that again, Racine,” Sarge said, loud enough for every soldier within earshot. “You’ll get plenty of chances to play the hero when it counts.”

The aborted first charge served its purpose by drawing enemy fire and locating their positions. The rear retaliated with an all-out offense of mortar and machine gun fire. Meanwhile, Frankie, Toe, and five others repeated their advance—first running, then creeping, moving closer and closer until they gained enough ground to toss grenades into the hedgerow sides and open them up. With help from a constant barrage of artillery and hand grenades, they finally charged the barricade.

Frankie went in screaming senseless obscenities, as much to fuel his courage as to distract the Jerries. When he looked into the face of a young German, the soldier’s fear mirrored his own. Like gunfighters out of a B Western, both men froze, each waiting for the other to make the first move. Frankie couldn’t pull the trigger, not like this. In his moment of doubt a shot fired from behind. Ato Racine had relieved him of his first kill. Frankie would not have the luxury of hesitation the next time, or the next. Soon after he killed two Jerries, the skirmish ended. He slumped down and ran his hand over beads of sweat prickling his face. Squinting through cloudy eyes, he checked out his hand. Blood! At least it wasn’t his. He rubbed his hand into the dirt, clawed his nails even deeper.

“First time’s always the roughest,” said the Lieutenant. “After that, you learn not to think about it.”

Frankie couldn’t even muster a nod. Already he felt nothing but fatigue and overwhelming relief. He was still alive. Seven of his comrades were dead. His squad had captured its first hedgerow. They took no prisoners.

Two days and four hedgerows later after settling into a recently commandeered maze, the GIs understood why their attacks had been so frustrating and the natural defense of the hedgerows so valuable. Every man listened when Lieutenant Lancaster reiterated his earlier objective. They were going to push back the German front by taking the damn hellrows one by one. However long it took.

***

For the next seven weeks the GIs captured two hedgerows a day, each time advancing further into the German occupation. Besides the hedgerows, they fought for control of any structure dotting the fertile countryside—stone farmhouses, stone barns, and stone walls—whatever provided protection. Their aggression improved with experience and the arrival of Sherman tanks. These American vehicles lacked the power of German Tigers or Panthers, but were more plentiful, and their smaller size proved advantageous for maneuvering in compact areas separating the hedgerows. By the end of the eighth week Frankie considered himself a seasoned infantryman, one who knew his fate rested on the whim of enemy fire. He was one of twelve riflemen from his original platoon of thirty-six. The rest were either dead or hospitalized with serious injuries.

On one overcast day the battle-weary survivors trudged behind a Sherman as it advanced on the next hedgerow. A radioman rode low on the tank’s back and transmitted target areas he spotted from the enemy’s return fire. The Sherman repeatedly took aim and fired, creating gaping holes in what once had seemed impenetrable. After the band of men got closer, Frankie pulled the first pin and hurled his grenade into the stronghold. More grenades followed, creating a chaotic scene of dismemberment and agonizing screams amid artillery fire from overhead. The Sherman started ramming the barrier at ground level, and GIs rushed over the crumbling mound to finish off those Jerries who refused to lay down their weapons. When the skirmish ended, two of Frankie’s comrades were dead along with five Jerries. Four others raised their arms and surrendered.

Every fear and uncertainty plaguing Frankie accelerated as dusk eased into dark. A full moon or clear night could become a soldier’s best friend or his worst enemy, especially with the Krauts playing their unnerving games. One night after a quick but sincere Our Father Frankie burrowed into his coffin-like foxhole, five feet deep and six feet long, and next to the men he knew—Sarge, Toe, and even Dean. God bless the little shit.

By now Dean’s shoulder tic had evolved into a rhythmic shrug of cocking head and bunny-twitching nose. Somehow the spastic d-u-d had managed to stay alive, bringing up the rear while Toe and Frankie took care of the forefront. In fact, Dean had gained a minute degree of acceptance. When not in immediate danger, he operated a successful barter service by negotiating K rations. Usually his cigarettes, which he never could inhale, for everyone else’s canned egg yolks, a product so foul it was rumored to have been the brainchild of upper echelon—to keep the troops lean and mean. Anyone brave enough to ingest the eggs developed acute halitosis. Naturally, Dean’s case proved by far the worse.

“Psst, Frankie,” he whispered. ”What’re you doing?”

“Drying out my stinking feet, you oughta do the same.”

“Like I told you before,” Sarge said. “Healthy feet are a foot soldier’s best defense.”

“Yeah, but what if we get hit.”

“Then we die with our pissing boots off,” Toe said. “It ain’t like we’re living in the Old West.”

At least we’re living, Frankie thought. He yanked off his boots, massaged his feet, and changed his socks. With the boots back on, he now wanted some shut-eye. Dammit, he deserved some shut-eye. His catnaps were usually as sporadic as the distinctive shelling erupting from both sides. This time a loud, wailing missile sailed overhead from the other side.

“A fucking Moaning Minnie,” Toe said.

No one challenged him. They all knew friendly fire from enemy fire. So did the Jerries. Minnie landed two hedgerows away. Frankie curled up and waited. Cries of the injured and dying violated the night.

“Damn the Krauts.”

***

During the third week of July Lieutenant Lancaster gathered his men in the remains of an old farmhouse. A hunk of cheese sitting on the plank table reminded Frankie of his mom’s kitchen. He could almost taste her home-baked bread. “Listen up,” he heard the Lieutenant say. “I just received word from command headquarters. We’re pulling back.”

“What?” said a guy who rarely complained. “After busting our rear ends to take this ground?”

“General Bradley’s orders. He needs a wide buffer zone between our lines and the Kraut’s. We’re getting help to open the remaining hellrows so Patton’s men can access the paved roads.”

“What kind of help, sir?” Dean asked.

“Expect all all-out air attack from P-47s and B-17s, with Piper cubs targeting radio points. This could be the start of something big.”

“As in THE END.”

A loud cheer went up and Frankie offered a silent prayer of thanks.

As soon as Frankie stirred on July 25, he grabbed his pocket calendar and circled the date. He was thinking about Mary Ann when the P-47s piloted by young daredevils appeared in the sky. He smacked a kiss from his fingertips when those planes began dropping five hundred-pound bombs over the German occupied countryside. With each precision dive their target zone moved closer to the American lines.

“Whoa! Don’t they know which side we’re on?”

“To hell with this.”

“Ain’t cha glad we pulled back, Toe?”

“Everybody down!” Sarge yelled, an order he didn’t have to repeat.

Frankie pushed further into the deepest foxhole he’d ever dug. The unrelenting bombardment played havoc with his eardrums. He mouthed his next words. “Dear God, please keep this helmet on my head.”

During a brief interlude the band of GIs surfaced again.

“God, what I wouldn’t give for a one-way ticket back to Oklahoma.”

“When it’s over, I’m going home.”

“He’s going to his Mary Ann.”

“Ain’t this beautiful, Toe?” Dean twitched. His eyes grew round as pancakes “We got front row seats in the final game of the World Series.”

“More like the Fourth of July.”

“A Busby Berkley musical.”

“Remarkable aerial choreography.”

Toe grinned with pride. “Just look at that sky. It’s like swarms of bees buzzing and swooping in formation.”

Somewhere behind American lines a friendly bomb exploded into the ground. “What the shit!” Sarge yelled. “They’re bombing short! They’re bombing short! Everybody down!”

First came the deafening noise, worse than any before. Then the good earth shot into the sky and rained down like a summer shower. Shrapnel crisscrossed in all directions, cutting and slicing whatever blocked its path.

“Toe, you okay? Toe? Answer me.”

“Dammit Dean, get your ass down! Toe’s okay.”

Frankie lied but what the hell, Dean would never know.

Every second counted, so little time before another B-47 dropped its load. Frankie shouted his next prayer, an act of contrition.

“Oh my God, I am heartily sorry….”

He couldn’t hear the rest but he did see the Capuchin monk, its hand of polished bones reaching out and inviting him to join the holy order of dead. The words, what were the words? Frankie shouldn’t have banished them from his memory. He tried to resurrect the prophetic inscription but his brain wouldn’t let him.

Or maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t his time to go.

End of Excerpt from The Family Angel.

 

 

 

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Priorities and Then Some, as in Chicken Stock

Life has been more than hectic these past two months, what with Hubby D’s open-heart surgery and his subsequent ahead-of-schedule recovery. Our from-the-heart thanks goes to the amazing cardiothoracic team of physicians, nurses, and staff at Washington University School of Medicine and Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis.

So what if we missed one granddaughter’s graduation from Ol’ Miss, and another’s from Chicago Medical School. Or, an entire season of the offspring of Offspring #5’s high school baseball and soccer. Or time at the lake with Offspring #1 and his Wyoming family. It’s all about priorities and health tops that list.

And yes, I fell way behind on my blog so here’s one of my favorites from 2014.

 Let Nothing Go to Waste

There’s something about the process of making soup that inspires my creative juices, much like starting a new work of fiction and not quite knowing where the story will eventually take me. Of course, no two stories I write are alike, nor any dish I prepare more than once. Or the humongous pots of soup, those potpourris I make after developing a sudden case of writer’s block. Need I say more? Our freezer is well stocked.

Culinary efforts I consider remarkable have been known to elicit an equally remarkable compliment from Hubby D, one that borders on the oxymoron of diplomatic innuendo, as in “Do you think you could duplicate this again?”

No, I cannot and even if I wanted to, I wouldn’t, so there. It’s a one-time enjoyment only to be surpassed by another I have yet to create. I’ve tried explaining this to D more than once but he has the mindset of a professional trained in the science and technology of baking; whereas I, who continue to find my way around the kitchen by trial and error, consider cooking to be an art and not a science.

My soup du jour, as the name implies, depends on what ingredients happen to be in the fridge on any given day; and, depending on the time of year, what herbs are thriving in the garden outside my kitchen door. However, the one constant in whatever soup begins with the stock. Since I am incredibly cheap … uh, make that frugal, I make my stock from scratch, as in chicken although turkey would work just as well. Beef too, but that’s a whole different animal for a different blog.

Anyway, my main ingredients come from those poultry parts that never make it to the Giacoletto table—the back, neck, tail, wing tips plus the heart, gizzard, and liver I have no desire to cook properly because I’d feel obliged to then eat them. Whole chickens and chicken quarters work well too, if not that entire section, the back portion and skin add lots of flavor. And should I feel extra ambitious, I will take a cleaver to the drumsticks and hack off the knuckles/ankles. What better use for the stockpot unless someone in the family enjoys sucking on bones.

Decision time: light or dark-colored stock.

For dark-colored stock, use a large pot with a thick bottom suitable for sautéing.

2T Olive oil, 2 T butter or margarine

Sauté chicken parts on all sides until parts turn the color of roasted chicken.

For light-colored stock, omit sauté step; instead place chicken parts in a large pot.

Cover chicken with cold water

Bring to boil

Skim off foam from top of liquid

Add essential scraps

Huh? You may ask.

Don’t get excited. Here’s my answer:

Within the freezer portion of my side-by-side fridge I keep a plastic storage bag filled with essentials (a.k.a. garbage, a.k.a. toss, a.k.a. get-rid-of-that-crap), a plastic storage/freezer receptacle for storing ever bit of veggie scraps that might otherwise get dispatched to the Insinkerator© or garbage can or compost heap we never got the hang of using. Below are examples of my freezer essentials but yours will probably differ from mine.

Onion ends and skins (for lighter broth don’t use dark skins)

Garlic ends and skins

Carrot shavings, tips and ends

Celery tips and ends

Asparagus tips and woody ends

Pepper stems and ends

Tomato skins and stems

Lettuce slightly past its prime

Cabbage core

Broccoli shavings

After adding essentials, again bring contents to boil.

Turn heat down to a slo-o-w simmer (bubble … one, two, three … bubble … one, two, three … bubble)

If using a whole chicken or leg quarters, after 45 minutes of simmering, remove some prime meat from the bones and reserve for soup or other dishes.

Allow contents in pot to continue simmering for another two or more hours, until solids have turned to mush.

Turn off heat and remove pot from burner.

Pour contents from pot into a colander placed over a large mixing bowl (stainless steel works well).

Pour liquid from container through a tight mesh strainer placed over a second bowl (again stainless steel).

Refrigerate second bowl overnight.

Next day, skim fat that has solidified on top of the contents. See Photo

What’s left in the container will have transformed into a gelatinous stock or a rich broth, depending on the amount of water used and the ratio of meat to bones. Either way, the results will bring tons of flavors to soup, risotto, sauces, gravy, or braised meats.

Use immediately or ladle contents into various sizes of freezer bags and containers. Freeze until needed. For proportional amounts, ladle into cupcake tins and freeze. When frozen solid, pop out, load into freezer bags and return to freezer until needed.

Soup’s On: Tune into a future blog (maybe my next one) for tips on making soup like your mom or grandma used to make, that is, if either of them could cook like mine did. If not, learn how to make soup that’ll keep you and yours going back for more. Yum!

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Antipasto, Family Recipe

Every region of Italy has its own version of antipasto, depending on local products that are readily available, and if the desired end result is a quick first course to a meal or if it’s preserving a huge batch to keep on hand for personal use and/or to share with extended family and friends. The antipasto recipe I use came via my Aunt D (her source unknown) who passed it on to my sister-in-law M who passed it on to me and generously provided hands-on training during my first attempt. Over the years I’ve made a number of adjustments to Aunt D’s and M’s recipe because I can never leave well enough alone. In any case, here’s the standard recipe, along with a variety of options. By all means, add your own …

Antipasto, Family Recipe

¼ pound butter

1 bottle catsup (family size)

1 quart olive oil

½ cup sugar

1 quart white vinegar

2T salt

1 quart sweet pickles

1 quart or more canned mushrooms

1 quart string beans

1 quart celery

1 quart cauliflower

1 quart pearl onions

1 quart carrots (optional)

1 quart peppers

1 quart olives

1 quart anchovies

1 pint tomatoes

Other veggies to add or substitute: baby ears of corn, hearts of palm, hearts of artichokes, assorted varieties of mushrooms, olives, etc.

3 or more cans tuna (large family size)

2 cans sardines in tomato sauce (regular small size)

Blanche raw veggies

Drain all canned items (do not reserve liquid)

Cut all ingredients into small pieces (2 to 3 per tablespoon)

In a very large kettle add oil, vinegar, butter, catsup, and sugar. Heat.

When hot, add blanched veggies and all other ingredients. Bring to a simmering boil. Spoon into sterilized jars and seal. Should produce around 30 to 40 pints, depending on total ingredients. Although original recipe does not require cold-packing, I process sealed jars in boiling water for 20 minutes for added safety.

Allow to sit for at least 3 weeks before using. Eat with a fork or on top of bruschetta or crackers.

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Posted in Cooking, Dining, Family, Food, Italian American, Italy, Lifestyle, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

What’s for Dinner?

How about bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin served alongside prune and walnut filled ravioli? That’s right–prune, p-r-u-n-e. And no screwing up of faces please. Don’t knock what you’ve never tasted. Trust me. Two or three of these Italian agnolotti will give you a whole new perspective on good eats.

 Prune and Walnut-Filled Ravioli My Way, Loretta Giacoletto

 (Note: This is a variation of my basic ravioli recipe. Filling and sauce ingredients have been changed for the Prune and Walnut version. These ravioli pair nicely with turkey or pork.)

Here’s the Ravioli My Way tools you’ll need, the ingredients, and step-by instructions for 50 ravioli, give or take, depending on their size.

Tools

  • Food Processor (unless you prefer to hand-mix your dough and hand-grind your filling)
  • Rolling pin (D prefers with handles; I prefer without)
  • Large work surface for rolling out dough and assembling ravioli
  • Pastry crimper or ravioli cutter to seal ravioli (no need to moisten the edges first)
  • Cookie sheet or two (on which to set ravioli while they dry out and/or later while they freeze)
  • Plastic freezer bag or two (unless you plan to cook right away)

Ravioli dough

  • 2 C all-purpose unbleached flour
  • 1 C fine 00 semolina flour
  • 1 t salt
  • ½ C water
  • ¼ C olive oil (I prefer extra virgin)
  • 3 extra large eggs

From the above ingredients, add to your food processor:

  • 1 C of the all-purpose flour
  • 1 t salt
  • ½ C water
  • Pulsate and then blend into a wet dough

Add the remaining ingredients to the wet dough:

  • Flour, semolina flour, olive oil and eggs
  • Pulsate again and blend until dough combines and moves away from the side of the processor, eventually forming a soft, pliable ball.
  • Remove dough from processor, knead briefly into a disc about 1” thick, wrap loosely in plastic wrap or a kitchen towel and set aside.

Ingredients for prune and walnut filling

  • 1 C pitted prunes
  • 1 C walnut pieces
  • 1 C ricotta cheese (drained)
  • 6 amaretto cookies or ½ C wafer crumbs
  • ½ C raisins or currants (optional)

Add the above ingredients to food processor and pulsate until well-combined without turning into a pate.

Remove filling from processor and add:

  • 3/4 C good-quality grated cheese and/or
  • 1 or 2 T olive oil, if needed to hold mixture together.

Put filling in a container and store in fridge while rolling out dough.

Note: I don’t use a pasta machine but if you have one, go for it.

Rolling out dough

  • Lightly flour a large work surface. Your ergonomic preference may vary but mine is waist-high.
  • Divide dough in two pieces, unless you are really good at rolling out a monstrous piece, which is why I use Hubby D for this task.
  • Lightly flour rolling pin.
  • Lightly flour the disc of dough, only if it’s sticky.
  • Start rolling from the center toward you and from the center away from you.
  • Use light pressure to keep the dough even as you roll.
  • Roll to the edge of the dough, using the same amount of pressure with each stroke.
  • Lightly flour top of rolled dough, gently lift the dough and again flour the work surface underneath to prevent the dough from sticking. Increase pressure on rolling pin to achieve a thin layer of dough.
  • When dough is rolled to about 1/16 of an inch, it’s time to assemble the ravioli, one row at a time.

Assembling Ravioli

  • Starting one inch from the bottom of the rolled out layer and ½ inch from the left edge, place one teaspoon of filling every two inches until you reach the right side. (Lefties, reverse.)
  • Fold the one-inch border over the row of fillings and lightly press down with your fingers all the way across.
  • Still using your fingers, press firmly between each filling, making sure to release any air pockets. Again with your fingers, press firmly along the entire row, again making sure to release any air pockets as you go.
  • Using a pastry crimper, or ravioli cutter, cut across the row and then between each section. Bingo! You have made your first row of ravioli.
  • Set those ravioli on a lightly floured cookie sheet and continue the process until all the filling has been used.

If you don’t plan on cooking the ravioli that same day:

  • Set the cookie trays of ravioli in the freezer.
  • Hours later, or the next day, place the frozen ravioli in plastic freezer bags and return to the freezer until ready to use.

Cooking the ravioli

(About 8 ravioli per serving)

  • Drop ravioli in a large pot of gently boiling water containing 2T salt.
  • When ravioli float to the top, they’re done (about 3 minutes)
  • Remove ravioli from water, using a strainer or spider wire or large slotted spoon.

While the ravioli are cooking, make a simple sauce

  • Melt in a large skillet ½ C (one stick) unsalted butter
  • Add ½ C raisins or currants (Optional: soaked in rum or brandy)

Stir cooked ravioli into sauce, assemble both on a large platter.

Or:

  • Arrange cooked ravioli without sauce on a large platter and
  • Drizzle with a mixture of melted butter and honey.

Too much trouble, you say? Come on, you won’t know for sure unless you try.

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See One, Do One, Teach One

See one, do one, teach one. I first heard this surgical term during my years as an administrative coordinator at one of the most prestigious medical schools in the country. It’s an adage that works just as well with any number of life’s lessons. In my case, the kitchen. To be quite honest, I’ve never cared one iota about cooking. Growing up, I left the cooking to my mother, a task she actually enjoyed, especially with me cleaning up afterwards and in spite of her working outside the home 48 hours a week. After I married and had children to feed plus a husband who grew up loving local diner food when he wasn’t eating his immigrant grandma’s cooking, I finally took a half-hearted interest in preparing a few dishes well. Okay, one dish—ravioli, which over the years has become my go-to staple.

Eons ago it was my mother who taught Hubby D and me how to make ravioli. She learned from her mother or maybe her sister-in-law or maybe both of them. After that one and only lesson from my mother, I became the official ravioli maker in my home, in spite of HD having an extensive background in baking—hands-on, formal training, and later management. Baking vs. Cooking. Never the twain shall meet without the proverbial locking horns since baking is a science and cooking is an art. Translation: D believes in following recipes to the letter whereas I prefer a bit of a bit of recipe tinkering to satisfy my creative juices.

Which brings me round to the see one, do one, teach one. While the offspring were growing up, they all took a turn or three helping to make the ravioli. Some more so than others—the old-fashioned way, using a hand-cranked meat grinder for the filling and mixing flour and eggs by hand for the dough before rolling it out by hand. Fast forward to the present Son #1 as well as daughter D have been making their own ravioli for years, using the simplified method I passed on to them. That would be a food processor for not only the filling but the dough too, although we still roll out our dough by hand—with a rolling pin instead of a pasta machine.

Several years ago Hubby D and I gave Daughter a hand with her first ravioli school. More like a half day with her longtime friend and her friend’s longtime friend, but school sounds much more impressive than a three-plus-hour class. And we did, after all, squeeze in a lot of technique in a short period of time, including the occasional locking of horns between D and me. Otherwise known as the entertainment break.

Around that same time, while Hubby D and I were visiting #1 Son and family in Wyoming, I wound up helping #1 make a batch of ravioli—whoa! Somehow he veered off course in the assembling process, which resulted in a spirited discussion on the proper and practical way to assemble—as in my tried and true method. Such a racket we must’ve made since #1’s youngest son and a friend came running up from the basement to make sure no blood was being shed. Of course there wasn’t. Mother and Grasshopper were merely engaging in a bit of misremembered nostalgia. Recently, that same concerned grandson called me on his way back from college, bringing with him a batch of frozen ravioli he’d made at home (technique taught by his dad). He wanted to know how to convert those babies into toasted ravioli. I gave him explicit instructions and several days later he called to say his toasted ravioli were a hit with his college friends. Way to go, Giac!

Then #2 Offspring of our #4 Offspring came home from college. Per #2’s earlier request, D and I had another ravioli school for her and her mom J. What quick studies those were—no yelling, no whining, no grumbling. They left with enough ravioli to cover a number of small meals. Or a big one for special friends, which #2 quickly vetoed.

Now on a roll, Hubby D, Daughter, and I recently conducted another ravioli school, this time at Casalago, our family retreat at Lake of the Ozarks. Again, two students—Grandson #1 (Offspring #1 of our #2 Offspring) and his bride K. Another set of quick learners who never gave us any lip, except for kisses goodbye. They took home a very generous batch of ravioli and served them at K’s family Thanksgiving. Perhaps another tradition in the works?

And the beat goes on. That same Thanksgiving weekend, Daughter D and her hubby traveled to Albuquerque to visit their daughter E who couldn’t come home for the holiday when she usually gets a helping or two of my sweet potato ravioli. So, instead of bringing the leftovers on the plane, D spent a few hours teaching E how to make another version, this one using pumpkin instead of sweet potatoes.

So the tradition of learning continues but with a slight twist in the Giacoletto family. Eat one, do one, teach one. Eat again.

What about you? Is there a how-to passed on to you that you’ve passed on to others?

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Proud to be an American

Proud to be an American, you bet. And so very thankful, especially on this and every Veteran’s Day, what my parents always referred to as Armistice Day. The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918 that for all purposes signaled the end of The Great War that was supposed to end all wars. My dad, who had turned eighteen that August of 1918 in Marinette, Wisconsin, was inducted into the army one morning and along with a group of his peers put on a train headed for basic training. During their journey word came through that the expected armistice with Germany to cease fire had indeed been signed in France; and when he and the other inductees disembarked, they were mustered out of the army and sent back home.

My heartfelt thanks go out to all the veterans who have served our great country over the many wars since. I’m old enough to have a few sketchy memories of WWII, including the tears our family shed for the handsome young airman who would never come home. And for the one who did return, having spent six months in hiding after the plane he was piloting went down in the Netherlands. Sixty-five years later my cousin still cried when he told me about his fallen comrades and the Dutch farm family who aided him and another airman. The head of that family paid the ultimate price, dragged away by the Germans and never seen again. Vietnam—like so many others, my brother-in-law returned with memories that haunt him to this day. And now our more recent battles: Iraq and Afghanistan, a nephew who served his second tour of duty there; a grandson who enlisted at the age of 18, trained at Fort Drum, and spent nine months in Afghanistan before returning with some disabilities, non-life threatening but serious enough to never leave him.

Proud and thankful to be an American, yes indeed. I’ve had the privilege to visit the U.S. cemetery at Ardennes Belgium where many of our military who died during the Battle of the Bulge are buried, their 5,000-plus headstones forming a Greek cross spread across acres and acres of impressive lawn. How well I remember Ann Frank’s house in Amsterdam, the tiny space she shared with other Jews in hiding; the Holocaust children’s museum in Budapest, its walls lined with crayon drawings by children in concentration camps, children who would never grow into adults. Nor will I ever forget others who died in the name of freedom: in Thailand the war museum in Kanchanaburi, dedicated to thousands of British, Australian, and other POWs who died during WWII while building what later became known as the Bridge of the River Kwai; and their final resting place, the Don Rak Cemetery nearby where almost 7,000 POWs are buried, the epitaphs on their headstones written by grieving families so far away. Thank you, Freedom Fighters everywhere.

Proud, indeed I am, and so very thankful to be an American, this and every day.

Reprinted and updated from November 11, 2012

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