Last Monday I returned from what has become an annual trip home to visit my Zia. She lives in a house she and Uncle built about 1970, retiring there a few years later, in a rural community along Michigan’s Lake Huron shore. I was about 15 when I first went “up North” with them. Back then, the property was used as a weekend get-away, with Zia & Uncle using a camper-trailer for their lodging and the rest of us in tents. Within a couple of years, Uncle began building their home, as did many of their current neighbors. (Because so many of them bought multiple lots, this will remain a sparsely populated area.) When my Parents were preparing for retirement, they bought the home “next door” to Zia’s. With only 2 lots separating the homes, Grandpa’s lifelong wish that his Girls remain together was once again fulfilled.
In the years since, we’ve seen private phone lines come to the area, although modern services like call waiting and caller I.D. were made available only recently. About 10 years ago, running water was made available to the communities that wanted it. Surprisingly, not everyone does and the water mains slowly continue to spread to those that do. Most importantly, however, was the community that the residents built together. As their homes went up, neighbors became friends and the families mingled. Today, the kids have all grown and have families of their own, some even have their own grandkids. My Brother and his Wife raised their 2 Sons in a small community about 10 miles up the road. Two of Zia’s Sons remain in the Detroit Metropolitan area, less than a 2 hour drive away, as does my Sister and her 2 kids.
All of this means that a visit with Zia is so much more than just that. My Brother and his Wife are sure to stop by for a visit. Most often, when he’s not playing with his grandkids here in suburban Chicago, Zia’s Eldest Son and the bane of my fantasy sports teams will visit for a few days. Don’t be fooled. He’s not there to visit with me. He’s come to play with Max. The two are inseparable as long as he’s there. And of course, her neighbors will be sure to stop by to visit and we’ll often have Sunday brunch together, meeting at one of the area’s restaurants after they’ve attended Mass. In between the visits, Zia and I will cook for each other. When she’s not teaching me a family recipe, I’m showing her one that I’ve found, often from my WP “family”. This is the routine, for lack of a better word, followed during my visits home. Well, for all except my yearly visit in late Summer or early Fall.
This time of year my visit home is to help Zia fill her freezer. I bring my KitchenAid mixer, my pasta-making equipment, and, of course, my ice cream maker, although I very often forget some critical piece of equipment. (Once, I arrived without the door to Max’s crate; another time the paddle to my ice cream maker was left behind; and, most recently, I forgot my ravioli dies.) Still, we “make do” and spend a few afternoons working together.
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This year, we spent 2 afternoons making ravioli. When all was said and done, we used 16 eggs worth of dough (you pasta makers will know how much that is) to make almost 900 of the pasta pillows. Not only that, but I used the leftover dough to make well over a pound of hand-cut fettuccine. All of this was accomplished under the watchful eye of Max who was able to snag 3 ravioli that fell off the table. This was a disappointing year for him. Last year he somehow stole 5 ravioli as we worked and literally vacuumed up another 30 as we sat a mere 10 feet away. Despite Max, these are some of my favorite times with Zia. We often reminisce, “filling in the blanks” to each other’s memories, and I’ve also learned a great deal of my family’s history during these work sessions. And, of course, sooner or later Grandpa’s name is sure to come up and we’ll laugh as we recall some incident involving the Bartolini Patriarch. Don’t worry. I’ll get to those tales eventually.
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On another afternoon during this visit, the two of us turned our attention to sausage production. Although you sausage purists may object, a couple of years ago I convinced Zia to put away her casings and to make patties instead of links. Aside from being far easier and less time-consuming to make, sausage patties can be stacked for storage and are more easily used in sauces or whenever sausage meat is needed. To make things even easier, on yet another sleepless night a few years ago, I bought a patty press. Armed with a kitchen scale and my press, Zia and I whipped up a batch of 20 identical sausage patties in no time. And once again, Max was thwarted and unable to get to any of the ingredients. He did, however, try to pull off what has become his signature move when I’m working in the kitchen. As he has always done, he stayed close to where the action is, waiting for some morsel to hit the floor. This time, though, he waited for me to put my hand to my side and when I did, he gave it a good licking. Of course, that meant I had to stop and wash my hands — and herein lies the beauty of his plan. Up until I caught on, once I left the work area, he would “clean up”, gobbling as much as he could while my back was turned. This time, with Zia right there, his plan was foiled and, when we’re at home, he either accompanies me to the sink or I move the object(s) of his desire to higher ground while I wash.
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September is Honey Time in her area of Michigan. A local man has 20 hives — that I saw — and on one or two weekends in September, he sells his honey to the locals for $2.25/lb. His honey is also available year-round at a couple of the local stores. I bought some for people back here in Chi-town and Zia bought more for her family. All told, we bought 3 gallons of honey from the man — and Zia said she was going back for more. Unfortunately, while I was taking pictures of the hives, a number of customers arrived and I never did get permission to publish photos of anything else. Next year!
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As dedicated foodies, no narrative of a vacation would be complete without at least a mention of the meals served. When I visit Zia, there are 2 things that I know will be waiting for me: a Manhattan and a risotto dinner. I’ve yet to see anyone prepare risotto the Bartolini way, so, I’ll be posting that recipe later in the year. When Mom was still with us, upon my arrival, she’d serve me a Manhattan while she prepared soup for our dinner. I don’t know why I drink Manhattans back home for I rarely, if ever, drink them anywhere else. Nevertheless, for decades, Manhattans are the house cocktail when I visit. In fact, one afternoon, about 20 years ago, I’d gone down to the beach to get some sun. I was there about 30 minutes when Zia appeared, carrying a pitcher of Manhattans with 2 glasses. After about 15 minutes, as we sat, sipping our cocktails, Mom appeared carrying another pitcher of Manhattans with 2 glasses. After a good laugh, the 3 of us spent the afternoon together, sitting on the beach, sipping Manhattans. Thank heavens this took place before smartphones and the Video Age for there is no footage of the 3 of us struggling to get up that hill, empty pitchers in hand.
Now, back to the food …
My 2nd night there, I took over the kitchen, preparing Mom’s Chicken Cacciatore and serving it over a bed of polenta. Zia fired back on the 3rd night, fixing broiled pork chops and serving them with a side of spaghetti dressed with her meat sauce. Peace reigned on the 4th night, a Friday, and we went to a local restaurant’s fish fry. I was back at the stove top the next night and I prepared Pappa al Pomodoro, a kind of tomato soup, the recipe for which I’ll be sharing next week. My final night, Zia prepared my farewell dinner, baked shells stuffed with homemade ricotta & spinach. Once the dust had settled, the judges rendered their verdict. Zia had won September’s Battle in the Kitchen. Though they appreciated my efforts, including the 6 quarts of blueberry cheesecake ice cream I’d prepared and the frozen cobbler I’d brought from home, I’d not done enough to overcome Zia’s home court advantage. You see, she’d kept the Manhattans flowing at the judges’ table. I never did stand a chance.
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So ends my essay on what I did on my Summer vacation. As you can see, not only did I have a wonderful time but Zia’s freezer is well-stocked for the cold months ahead. And, rest assured, the next time I visit, I’m going to insist on judges who are teetotalers.
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It’s déjà vu all over again …
Since I mentioned it in the post above, I thought this post’s blast from the past would be the recipe for Mom’s Chicken (that’s not really) Cacciatore. I really enjoy this dish. It can be served as-is or atop a bed of polenta or buttered noodles. Best of all, no matter how it’s served, your kitchen will be filled with the irresistible aroma of the rosemary & garlic used in this dish’s preparation. Mom hit this one out of the park and you can view the recipe by clicking HERE.
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