Saturday, December 12, 2015

Aunt Ann's Pepperoni Roll - The coveted appetizer

          Aunt Ann was the classiest lady I knew. She and Uncle Tony ran a jewelry store in Northway Mall, Santini’s Jewelers, and every time I visited the shop, I’d take note of Aunt Ann and her two pretty sisters who either worked there or were always there for a visit. They never failed to look like fashionistas – dressed and accessorized to the nines with perfect makeup and hair. Aunt Ann was well-coiffed well into her eighties. She was barely five feet tall and had the tiniest hands, but the dazzling four carat diamond she wore never looked out of place on her little fingers. It was her calling card.

     Auntie was not only the epitome of fashion but was an avid connoisseur of the good life. She and my Uncle Tony painted the town pretty often. Their favorite restaurant was Rico’s – an old school Italian classic here in the North Hills. They graced the restaurant at least twice a week, where my uncle would embarrass Aunt Ann by snapping at the waitresses to get their attention, demanding this or that. Rico and the staff loved him though. Aunt Ann and Uncle Tony traveled to Las Vegas several times a year, where they’d do a little gambling and Uncle Tony would inevitably buy a few silk shirts for his snazzy collection. In my eyes, the two were jet setters. I never expected Aunt Ann to be a good cook. I was way off.

     Uncle Tony passed away shortly before I got married. In fact, he took my husband diamond shopping for an engagement ring just before he fell ill. My husband has fond memories of Uncle Tony showing him ginormous stones.

     “This is a nice one, eh?” Uncle Tony would say, wiping the sweat from his bifocals and nodding, as Bobby shook in his shiny black shoes. Bobby finally swayed Uncle Tony away from the four carat stones that so resembled Aunt Ann’s big rock and toward the ones that were more his (and my) speed.
      After Uncle Tony died, Aunt Ann was terribly lonely. She never really got over the loss of her one true love, her best friend. She yearned for him and spoke of him every single day of her life, even years later when dementia unfortunately set in. My mother took Aunt Ann under her wing, picking her up for Friday lunches – Rico’s of course, to the salon to get her perms, and to the mall – Auntie loved to shop. She spent more time with our family than she ever had, and I was able to get to know her even better, which was really a blessing. She was a beautiful woman inside and out and was one of my grandmother’s very best friends.

     I cannot, for the life of me, remember exactly when I asked my great Aunt Ann for her pepperoni roll recipe. I have a pretty good memory for things like this, but this one’s gone. All I remember is calling her on the phone the first time I tried to make it. I was confused about exactly how to roll out the dough. She calmly explained what to do.

     “Let it thaw until it’s easy to roll, you know,” she said. “And, Dana, make sure you put a lot of peppers in it. I mean, you don’t have to put them in, but the peppers are what make it really tasty.”

      Her words were gospel. Aunt Ann’s pepperoni roll has been a huge hit since I started making it fifteen years ago and the God’s honest truth is the trick is in the hot peppers.

     This post is for you Aunt Ann. Every time someone raves over the pepperoni roll, I swear I give you credit. I hope you’re dancing with Uncle Tony in Heaven!'

Pepperoni Roll - Bring this app to your holiday party. You'll win the prize!


1 loaf Rhodes frozen bread dough
Pepperoni- pizza slices or sandwich slices – doesn’t matter
Shredded mozzarella or provolone cheese – or a mix of both
Banana Pepper rings – hot or mild, depending on what you like

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Let the dough thaw overnight in the fridge or on the counter for a couple of hours. Roll it out into a long rectangular shape. Lay pepperoni all over the dough. Don’t skimp on this step. The more pepperoni, the better. Overlap the pieces so that every space of dough is covered. Lay shredded cheese on top. Sprinkle peppers over the cheese. Roll it up from the short end and tuck in the sides, so you have a nice loaf shaped roll.

Bake on a greased sheet for 40 minutes.

Slice and serve.


Happy holiday partying!

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Tis' the Season to Nosh!

And so we have begun the season of "The Nosh."

Nosh – to eat food enthusiastically or greedily

I love this time of year. Everything is festive, especially the food. I don't know about your house, but at holiday time, we indulge. Usually I'm not the baker extraordinaire; I much prefer cooking. Close to Christmas, I get the itch, and I end up baking at least 20 different types of treats. My cookie trays are an art form, to me, and I take painstaking care to perfect them for delivery to neighbors, friends and family every Christmas Eve morning.

 Here's a pic from one year.

Our parties revolve around food. Christmas Eve is the ultimate. Everyone brings something to my Uncle Vince's house where we have a display of noshing fit for royalty.Stuffed artichokes, Pizzachina, stuffed banana peppers, ham, marinated vegetable platter, fried cauliflower and mushrooms, pasta, etc.. etc...  The buffet is an overflowing apex of pleasure where we converge and chatter and tease and love on one another as family does.

It's so beautiful. It's so extraordinarily traditional. 

To kick off the season of the nosh, I have, as promised, the recipe for my family’s homemade Thanksgiving ravioli. My mother willingly shared the recipe, because she doesn’t believe anyone will make them to taste like ours.

     But, I believe in you!

     FYI, the measurements are questionable. We are Italian. We don’t really measure out ingredients!

     You will need a pasta machine for this recipe.

Babe’s Ravioli

In food processor mix for dough:
  3 Cups flour
  3 eggs
  1 tablespoon oil
  Add water a little at a time until dough forms into a ball.

2 lbs ground Veal
1 lb. ground sausage   We use Jimmy Deans Original recipe. 
Approximately 6 cloves minced garlic
About 1 cup chopped fine parsley
10 oz. pack of chopped frozen spinach,  thawed with all of the liquid squeezed out.  
1 small chopped onion
3/4 cup Romano cheese
dash salt and pepper
3-6 eggs, depending on the consistency. Should feel a little wetter than a meatball mixture.


Mix all of the filling ingredients together. My mother uses the food processor to chop the garlic, parsley, and onion then mixes in the rest by hand in a large bowl. Once the filling feels similar to meatball mix but slightly wetter, you’re good.

Use a food processor to make the dough and then follow your pasta machine’s directions for rolling it out into sheets. With ours, we start on a high gage so that the flattened dough fits through the slot. Then, we work our way down through the thinner settings until it’s about on the second or third to thinnest notch. You want the dough to be thick enough so that the filling can be wrapped inside. You don’t want it to split apart during boiling.

After we roll the dough into sheets, we lay it flat on a floured surface and fill it, about ¾ tsp to  1 teaspoon per rav. My aunt Ceil might be shaking a finger at me from Heaven, admonishing “No it’s a ½ tsp, Dana!” She always yelled at us that we made them to big, but I like a nice, hearty ravioli. You can’t really screw them up by making them bigger.

As shown in the pic below, we fill one long strip then fold it over. 

We then use a juice glass to cut the ravioli into little half-moons.

 We press the edges closed with a fork and pierce the centers then lay them in rows on waxed paper covered baking sheets. 

The ravs are frozen, bagged and stored for Thanksgiving day, when we boil them until they float then toss them with delicious homemade sauce.

The ravs are a  treat we only get to enjoy a few times a year, but the best part about making them is the fun we have together, carrying on a delicious family tradition that would make our ancestors proud.

Good luck! If you make a batch of ravioli, please write and tell me how it works out for you. I can’t wait to hear how much your family loves them! In the coming posts, I'll be sharing more sweet and savory recipes! People are always looking for a great holiday appetizer to bring to a party. I have a few up my sleeve that I’m willing to share, and I’ll post my very favorite (and everyone else’s) next week. Later in the month, I'll have some special cookie recipes for you to include on your cookie tray!

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Beauty of Traditions

     One of my favorite songs from a musical is “Tradition” from Fiddler on the Roof. I love how the song lyrics talk about the roles of the Mamas and Papas, the daughters and sons. I also love the idea that, even as children, when we have no idea why we participate in certain customs, we build memories of togetherness that tie us to the family and friends who share in our ways. Traditions remind us of who we are and where we’ve come from. They bring to mind those who came before us, those who loved us enough to share their unique spirits, in hopes that we would carry on their traditions when they were gone.

     And we do.

     Italians, like other cultures, have so many traditions. Some customs may seem superstitious – burying a statue of St. Joseph in the yard when you’re trying to sell your house or wearing a special golden horn around your neck to ward off the evil eye. My grandmother used to say you should bury a potato to make your warts go away. I wish she were here today so I could ask her about that one.

     One custom my family has upheld since long before I was born is making homemade ravioli for Thanksgiving. My Nana - Amelia Parmigiani, my mom, and her sister would get together some time in November to make “the ravs.” My grandmother was a strong lady. My mom always talks about how she made the dough and rolled it out by hand to pasta thickness – which is pretty thin and not an easy task when you have that much dough.

     What I remember most is the three of them, all talking at once (one louder than the other,) while they worked to make one of the most special family recipes we have. They’d fight over whether someone was making the ravioli too big or using too much filling. My grandmother would taste the raw filling and sometimes declare it too cheesy or too salty. Now that my grandmother and Aunt Ceil are gone, we make the ravioli at my house, and my mother inevitably forgets the juice glasses we use to cut the ravs. She always runs back home to get the special glasses, because God forbid we use something that’s a tenth of an inch off. That would change the size of the ravs, and that is a no-no. Nana Parmigiani and Aunt Ceil always come up in conversation, and I’m sure they’re smiling down on us as we roll, fill, cut, and press. They’re probably critiquing our form, and I can bet my bottom dollar that they’re shaking their heads at all the kids around my kitchen island. When I was a kid, I was not invited to the pasta-making party. It was serious business, and I was told to skedaddle. Now, we include all of the grand-daughters in the process. My kids have been making ravioli since they were one year old, as has my eighteen-year old niece, Cassie. After years of itching for the superstar role, Cassie’s now the leading lady of the pasta machine, rolling out the dough sheets like a pro.

     “The ravs” are the most coveted dish at our Thanksgiving table. We eat turkey and all of the traditional American fare as well, but our ravioli are the piece de resistance. Every year, my mom worries that we won’t have enough, but we always do. Maybe someone’s looking down on us from above, making sure we have just what we need.

     My Nana Parmigiani could make homemade noodles in her sleep. She didn’t have a food processor or a pasta machine. She had a rolling pin, a big wooden board, and some serious upper-body strength. I was lucky enough to have my Nana live with us during my teenage years. She was a special lady, always ready for a good laugh or a heart-to-heart chat, always there to spice things up in the kitchen. My brother and I loved her homemade macaroni, but I never picked up the recipe.

     Last weekend, when we made the ravs, we had leftover dough, as usual. As we have in the past, we used it to make some homemade noodles for the kids’ lunch. What a treat. A few days later, I was getting ready to make a pot of chicken soup for my Shaia who was home sick from school. She said to me - ”Mom, let’s make homemade noodles for the soup.”   I didn’t really feel like going through all the trouble, especially with a broken dishwasher. I imagined it to be a mess, and I told Shaia that I didn’t have the recipe.

    “3 eggs, 3 cups of flour and some salt,” she said matter of factly. “A little olive oil too. And you add water as you need it to get the dough to come together.”

     Bug-eyed, I asked her. “How did you know that?”

     “I watched Nunny,” she said.

     In that moment, I was so glad I included my kids around the kitchen island to help make the ravioli.

     Sure enough, Shaia was right on the recipe. The noodles were perfect, even if they were a bit thick. Next time we will roll them a little thinner. It wasn’t that messy. I’ve included some pics of Shaia watching my mom, intently, as she makes the dough for the ravioli and also some of our homemade soup noodle day.

Here’s the recipe:

Homemade Noodles

3C flour
3 eggs
A pinch of salt
1T olive oil.
1/8 to 1/4 C water

Combine eggs flour and salt in food processor. Turn it on and drizzle oil in as it’s mixing. Add water by the tablespoon until the dough comes together like a ball inside the machine. Take the dough out and work it with your hands into a smooth ball.
Flour your work surface.
Cut the dough into pieces that are a good size for you to roll into sheets.
Slice the sheets into noodles of whatever size you like. We did about ½ inch thick.
Let them dry for about 30 minutes.
Note: These take much less time to cook than dry pasta. As soon as the start floating around, taste them. They will probably be done.

     Visit my blog next week for the Thanksgiving ravioli recipe. My mother has given me permission to share it one here. I was shocked that she’d allow it. Her reasoning was this.

     “Nobody’s gonna make it taste like ours anyway.”

     She makes me laugh so much. I love her.

     But, I bet you can make them if you try.

     Until next week, eat happy!

Monday, November 16, 2015

WARNING!!! RANT INCOMING. Why I'm annoyed at a local grocery store.

     Usually I write positive, heartfelt, pieces about things that inspire me. Food, people, travel, the theatre. Today I’m going to rant about a place that’s been bugging me for awhile.

     It’s a local grocery store that I won't name.

     It’s Giant Eagle’s snobby sister.

     Why can’t you hire some baggers, UNNAMED GROCERY STORE ? I don’t want to spend fifteen minutes in the checkout lane while your friendly cashiers study every third item they ring up from my order. I’m not interested in sharing recipes in the grocery lane. I do that on my blog. Not only do they ask what I’m going to use the Thai coconut curry sauce for, but they then take forever to file it neatly into just the right cheap plastic bag. One cashier and one bagger for each cash register. That’s all I’m asking for.

     In most people’s opinions, this UNNAMED GROCERY STORE’S prices are high compared to other stores. In fact, in April 2015, ranked Giant Eagle stores in general among the grocery store chains with the “worst prices in the nation.” With such high prices, this store should be able to afford to pay baggers. Give a high school kid a job for goodness sakes! Quit spending profit to pay the tuxedo-clad piano player who’s pounding out Beethoven’s 9th and clogging up lane 15. Use the surplus cash to pay a bagger.  Your less fancy counterpart doesn’t have a string section in the dairy aisle, but guess what they have.

     There’s a laundry list of reasons that this particular grocery store gets on my nerves.  I’ll point out just a few.

     There are always at least a bazillion workers re-stocking in every section. They tote extra-wide bins that are nearly impossible to navigate a shopping cart around. Less stockers. More baggers.

     Every lane has a ridiculous amount of minutiae piled on brand new fashionably rustic shelves, obstructing cart traffic and causing lines of shoppers to develop on either side of these super-practical things they’re offering. Things like raspberry scented dog toothpaste or toaster covers with Justin Bieber’s face silk screened onto them. Can’t live without these things.

     There’s no great magazine section and very few greeting cards to pick from, but UNNAMED GROCERY STORE sells ostrich eggs.  Giant alien-looking eggs that are draped in fake straw and marketed to shoppers in farmy-looking yellowish baskets that are probably made in China. Why such a crappy greeting card section, UNNAMED GROCERY STORE? Is your target market seriously more likely to buy an ostrich egg than a birthday card?

     Just quit purchasing the weird stuff. Quit stopping up my shopping trip with grumpy stockers. Quit training your cashiers to allay their customers’ annoyance with goofy chatter.

     Hire baggers.

     End of rant.

     DISCLAIMER: In no way am I bashing someone for buying an ostrich egg. I like exotic foods. Also, raspberry dog toothpaste is fine. Justin Bieber toaster covers – not cool.




Friday, November 13, 2015


     It is finally here! Book three and the final installment of the Whisper Trilogy is set to be released in December. To commemorate its release I am offering a free signed copy of War and Wonder to the first 10 people who review Wake, book 2, starting today.

     Here's the link for both Whisper and Wake on Amazon. If you haven't read them yet, get to it! The end is coming!

Whisper, Book 1 -

Wake, Book 2 -

     After you've posted a review on Amazon, just send me a message on Facebook or tweet me, and I'll make sure to get your address so I can send you a free copy of War and Wonder! It's easy! Hurry! Ten reviews. Ten free books.

     Have fun reading and reviewing!

Friday, November 6, 2015

Farm to Table - Southern Italian Style. Simply a Way of Life.



     If I tried to explain the term “Farm to Table” to my family in Southern Italy, they would probably end up on the floor, laughing at the concept of this “new trend.” Why? Because "Farm to Table" is not something trendy or hip to them. It’s simply how they’ve survived for decades. They probably don't use the phrase “locally sourced,” and I’m sure they don’t refer to their foods as “organic,” but when you sit at their table for a meal, you can bet your bottom dollar that every bite you take is as natural and fresh as it gets. After all, they grow or raise nearly everything they eat.

     On one visit to my grandmother’s relatives in the mountain town of Tronca near Reggio Calabria, my cousin, Antonio took my brother and I and our families on a walking tour of his “gardens,” as he called them. We strolled from the broken cement steps of his humble home, past apricot trees that hung heavy with fruit outside his kitchen window. Lemon, prickly pear, and olive trees dotted either side of his property, lacing the air with pungent sweetness. Continuing along a gravel road where random chickens crossed without hurry, Antonio spoke in heavy dialect of his passion – farming.

     We came to a fenced in area that housed rows upon rows of plants. Tomatoes of every variety, squash, peppers, beans, basil, all types of greens and lettuces. I could go on and on. Our mouths hung open, and our eyes bulged at the abundance of goodness at our feet. We walked up and down the rows, admonishing the children not to pick the pretty red tomatoes. At one point, my brother innocently asked Antonio a question.

     “Do you sell this at market?”

     Antonio pushed a breath of laughter through his nose and shook his head.

     “Sell it? No, no.” He wagged his finger at my brother’s face then gestured toward his plants. “This is how I feed my family.”

     I suddenly remembered the overturned milk crates I’d marveled at earlier on Antonio’s rooftop and the ones lining the stairwells in his house. They were blanketed with dried tomatoes, dried herbs. The jars that stood in his cellar were filled with an assortment of vegetables – the vegetables he’d tended to with his own wrinkled hands. He and his wife had surely picked and jarred and stored. Why? Not to be trendy. No, no.

     To feed their family.

     Beyond the vast array of vegetables and herbs in his garden stood a rickety whitewashed building. The closer we moved toward it, the riper the waft of animal waste became. Our children began to moan over the stink, and the skin around Antonio’s black eyes wrinkled with amusement.

     “Those are the pigs and the goats,” he told us. He went on to explain that he raises the animals to make sausage, salami, cheeses, and other things. As a sing-song braying and snorting lit the air, I thought of the delicious mortadella and tomato sandwich I’d eaten on my last visit to Tronca. I remembered thinking that the mortadella tasted different from what I was used to at home. Fresher. Brighter.

     No wonder.

     It was “Farm to Table.”

      Because it was on the way back, Antonio led us past the rubble of rock that was once my grandmother’s childhood home. We climbed the craggy hill, me in non-functional high wedge sandals, my young children in flip flops, and explored among the uneven ruins. Antonio explained that my grandmother had lived in the two or three room structure with no electricity or running water. She and her family had had to walk down to the stream once every few weeks or so to bathe. I didn’t ask how they’d kept warm though the mountain winters.

     For all of the nights of my youth, when I’d lain beside my grandmother in her bed, listening to the stories of her childhood as I drifted off to sleep, she had never once told me anything about these hardships. She’d talked endlessly about her family’s farm – the goats, the pigs, the harvesting. She talked about celebrations and food. Always food.

     Maybe she’d purposely chosen not to talk about the impoverished nature of her early life, but I don’t think that was it. I think that she was just sharing the essence of her spirit – hard work, family, and the joy of breaking bread together – these things were what mattered to her.

     I loved her stories, and I loved her food. I’ll never forget picking green beans at her side in the garden. We’d wash them, snap the ends off, and she’d make a waxy green bean salad with olive oil and chopped garlic that was to die for.  Even though she’d told me hundreds of stories about her family’s farm in Italy, my adolescent mind couldn’t fathom how she’d managed to create a little slice of Eden in the heart of the city. Everything around her Pittsburgh row house was cement and gravel, but Nana’s backyard burst with the green of her garden. She even had a grape arbor that my brother and I loved to climb when we were kids. My grandfather made wine from the grapes, which was used as wine vinegar for years after his death in the nineteen-seventies. Farm to table, right? My grandmother was a forward-thinker.

      Seeing Antonio’s “garden,” with its rows upon rows of vegetables, connected the dots for me. I understood that my grandmother must have arrived in Pittsburgh, a place she knew nothing of, and just done what came naturally to her.

     She planted a garden.


     Not to sell produce or to be hip.

     No, no, of course not.
     With her overworked hands and strong arms, she dug up the plot of land that was barely a tenth of what she’d had to work with in Italy. She sifted and raked and prepared the ground. She sowed the seeds and tended to the plants. She created a lush slice of paradise within the urban boundaries of her new home. I bet the garden stirred happy memories for her, but that wasn’t why she cared for it.  

     She did it to feed her family.

     In memory of that wonderful day with Antonio and my grandmother’s family, I would like to share my recipe for Tronca pasta – a dish that my cousin whipped up in no time when we showed up, unannounced on her doorstep one August afternoon. I will never forget how my children happily gobbled down helping after helping, while my cousin Carmela watched them contentedly, living to refill their bowls.  When we got back to Pittsburgh, I worked hard to recreate the dish, and, although it’s close, nothing can truly compare to the freshness and simplicity of eating in Italy. Nevertheless, my children cheer when Tronca pasta is what’s for dinner.

Tronca Pasta


1 lb short pasta – our favorite to use with this is a specialty pasta called Spaccatelle. My cousin Carmela sent us home from Italy with a few bags of this pasta. It’s hard to find here, but some Italian specialty stores have it. Either way, this dish works with penne, rigatoni, etc… Any short pasta will do.
2 T olive oil
1 fennel bulb, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
6 cloves garlic, minced
A large handful of fresh basil, torn
Salt and pepper to taste
2 lbs ground sweet Italian sausage, not in casings
2 28 oz cans tomato puree
Locatelli Romano Cheese for topping


Boil the pasta until it is al dente
Saute the fennel, onion, garlic in olive oil with salt, pepper, and basil
Once the vegetables are translucent, add the sausage and cook until browned
Add the sauce and let it simmer for at least 30 min and up to 2 hours
Toss the cooked pasta with the sauce and top with some grated Locatelli.


I also wanted to share this picture of the fountain that delivers mountain fresh drinking water to the town of Valanidi, where my father lived as an infant. The water fountain remains in the square outside of his father's family's property. It's a meeting place for old men and women to gossip and a place where young people gather to flirt in the evenings. I spent many moments alone at this fountain during my last trip to Italy, when over twenty family members, including all of my first cousins, traveled from Pittsburgh to Calabria together. Battaglias from America, France and Italy came together in a magical experience. Every night, there were at least 45 people around the dinner table. There were moments when I was overwhelmed by the joy I felt at having my entire family - American, Italian and French - all together in the birthplace of my father. When I needed a breath of fresh air or a second to pinch myself, I escaped to this fountain, where I always found a measure of peace in its constant flow.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Trick or Treat! A few great recipes for your Halloween parties.

Happy Halloween to all of my readers! I’m not so much into tricks, but, as you know, I do love treats. This week I would love to share some recipes that are perfect for the witching hour. I have included a couple of my favorite Trick or Treat after party snacks as well as a fun one you can make with your little ones.

Bloody Buffalo Fingers - These are basically a variation on my Buffalo Chicken.Just added a few spooky accessories. 

2 lbs chicken tenders – sliced in half long ways
1 C Panko bread crumbs
1 C Parmesan cheese
1 stick butter
1/2 C Frank’s red hot sauce plus more for garnish
Red food coloring
A package or 2 of long fake fingernails – I prefer black or red

Preheat oven to 400 degrees
In a mixing bowl, combine the breadcrumbs and cheese.
Dredge the tenders in the cheese/breadcrumb mixture and lay in a baking pan
Melt the butter and Frank’s Red Hot together in the microwave
Add some red food coloring to the butter mixture after it’s melted
Drizzle the mixture over the chicken
Bake uncovered for 45 minutes.
While chicken is baking, mix a little red food coloring and hot sauce together – about ¼ cup
After you plate the chicken tenders, drip the red hot sauce around them on the plate. Place a fingernail at the top of each tender. There you have bloody fingers! They’re spooky and yummy too. Just make sure nobody chokes on a fingernail!

Harvest  Dip  –  A sweet and sassy dip that’s great for fall. It’s delicious with sliced apples, pretzels, or graham sticks, and reheats so easily in the microwave. I’ve been making this dip since college. Yikes. My then boss, Laura Root, shared this recipe with me, and I have been making it for family parties ever since! Thanks Mrs. Root!

1 bag butterscotch chips
1 can sweetened condensed milk
2t cinnamon or more to taste
2T white vinegar.
Apples, pretzel sticks, and/or graham sticks for dipping

In a saucepan, melt the chips and condensed milk, stirring constantly. You want to watch this, because the chips can burn. When the mixture is melted and gooey, turn off the heat, and add the cinnamon and vinegar. Stir until combined. You can adjust the cinnamon and white vinegar amounts for tartness/sweetness. You can't really mess it up.

Dip away!

Ho-Ho Spiders- I’ve been making these with my kids for years at Halloween time. They are the perfect edible craft for a preschool Halloween party, because they are SO EASY. The kids love to get creative with the icing and sprinkles, as you can see by my pictures.

1 box Ho-Hos or other packaged chocolate cake treat
1 bag small pretzel sticks
Candy corn or tiny red cinnamon discs
Icing and sprinkles for decorating if you want it

Push 4 pretzel sticks into each side of the Ho Ho, giving the spider 8 legs.
Push 2 candy corns into the front of the Ho Ho for eyes
Or use icing and cinnamon discs to give the spider red eyes.
Decorate with icing or sprinkles if you’re feeling creative!

May you all have a safe and fun Halloween. May the weather in the Northeast remain dry and above 50 degrees for once so that the kids and parents don’t freeze. May you receive lots and lots of treats and no tricks!

Until next time – mangia!

Friday, October 23, 2015

2 Great Soups for Fall. And... Cake Mix Cookies - here's your chance!

     Fall is synonymous with pumpkin flavored everything - coffee, cookies, even ravioli.  I’m not a huge fan of pumpkin, but I do like Pumpkin Soup. Lots of area restaurants serve it this time of year. When you order Pumpkin Soup, you usually get the creamy version. I like this, but my favorite is a spicy Rachael Ray creation that I tweaked a few years ago. Today I’m going to share that recipe with you, and I’d love to hear from you if you try it!
     I’m also going to post the recipe for Italian Meatball Soup – an easy weeknight meal with only 5 ingredients. This is the easiest dinner I make, hands down, and definitely one of my daughters’ favorites. They were certainly happy last night when they heard that they were having it for dinner. Thursday nights are hectic for us – my oldest daughter has singing rehearsal at church from 4:30-5:30, and my middle one has guitar lesson from 630-7:00. Then the oldest has voice lesson at 8:00. Sound familiar? I need something that I can throw together quickly, and I sure don’t have time to fight anyone to get them to the table. My mother-in-law’s Italian Meatball Soup is the answer on these busy nights. Thank you Lori Faletti!

     Last, I’m going to share my cake mix cookie recipe. No matter where I bring these shamefully simple cookies, people LOVE them. They ask for the recipe. They ask again and again, and I always say “3 ingredients plus whatever you like to add in.” My cousins beg me to bring them to birthday parties. My neighbors devour them. I make these on weekdays when my kids are on their way home from school, and they love to walk in the door and smell cookies.  I think the act of mixing the batter also calms my pre-homework nerves and makes me feel like I’m a good mom even though can’t quite understand my sixth grader’s math assignments. Ha!
     Enjoy the recipes, peeps!

Italian Meatball Soup


2 large 48 oz cans or cartons of chicken broth
1 28 oz can diced or crushed tomatoes
3 C frozen mini meatballs – these can be homemade or store bought. I get mine from the local Italian store
1 bag fresh, bagged pre-washed spinach
½ boz Ditalini or Elbow Macaroni

In a soup pot, bring broth and tomatoes to a boil.
Add meatballs and spinach.
Add noodles and cook until noodles are al dente.

Seriously. It’s that easy.

The pumpkin soup takes a little longer and has a few more ethnic ingredients, but it’s really worth a try if you like pumpkin and spicy foods. Now’s the time of year to do it!

Spicy Pumpkin Soup 


2T olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
3-4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp salt
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp cinnamon
1 canned chile in adobo sauce, chopped.
1 14.5 oz can pumpkin
1 bottle of pumpkin beer or regular lite beer
1 large 48 oz can chicken broth
1 can black beans
Shredded rotisserie chicken
Sour cream
Chopped green onions
Shredded Mexcian cheese
Tortilla chips

In a dutch oven, saute your onion and garlic in olive oil. Season with salt, cumin and cinnamon.
Once onions are translucent, add the chopped chile in adobo. The adobo sauce is pretty spicy, so add more for extra kick or less for a milder bite.
Add in the pumpkin, the beer, the chicken broth, and black beans and let simmer for 30 minutes.
Stir in the shredded rotisserie chicken.
Ladle the soup into bowls and top with cheese, sour cream, onions and some chips.

Cake Mix Cookies

     I don’t love to bake, and I don’t love sweets. I’m much more likely to devour a bag of chips before a bag of chocolates, and I would much prefer to make a five course dinner than one fancy dessert. My mother-in-law, Lori, however, is the dessert queen. My husband once informed me that when he was a kid, they had a different homemade dessert every night after family dinner.
     I snort laughed at that one, because I definitely don’t make homemade desserts every night.
     I just make cake mix cookies. Often.
     Lori, the dessert queen, also introduced me to these easy cookies. She swears by using oil, but I NEVER use oil in cookies. Or margarine. I don't use margarine for anything. It's butter all the way for me.

1 box regular cake mix – any flavor
2 eggs
1 stick of butter

Preheat oven to 350 degrees
Melt butter in a large microwave safe bowl
Add cake mix and eggs
Add whatever you want – choc chips, white chips, nuts, craisins, etc…
Bake for 10 minutes

NOTE: My family’s favorite is simple yellow cake mix with chocolate chips. I also make chocolate cake mix with chocolate chips, strawberry cake mix with white chips for Valentine’s day. I’ve used white cake mix and add pistachio pudding mix to the batter then add white chips. The cookies are green and cute for Christmas or St. Patrick’s day.

Bottom line – you really can’t mess these up. Be creative, and your family will love them.
Last week I used a white cake mix. I didn't add anything, but made them into sandwich cookies with Nutella filling.
Because everything is better with Nutella. EVERYTHING.

This week I made pumpkin ones with cinnamon chips! ‘Tis the season!

Next time, I’ll be posting my Halloween party snack ideas. Until, then, MANGIA!!!!

Friday, October 9, 2015

Aromas of Fall


      I love walking up to my front door and being greeted by the aroma of roasting garlic and herbs. It’s  like a big yummy welcome home, the scent wafting along the air and making me eager to step inside. Everywhere I’ve lived, my neighbors have commented that when they walk outside, they can smell my cooking. I love that. It reminds me of my childhood, when I could tell what my mom or Nana was making for dinner from halfway up the street.
     This week’s recipes are a tribute to fall, when Brussels Sprouts are sprouting and hearty greens like kale are filling on chilly days. These are easy and quick to prepare.  The roast pork recipe can be thrown together in the morning and put in the oven a few hours before dinner. The longer the flavors mingle during the day, the better the meat will taste later, so feel free to prep the pork roast before work and pop it into the fridge until cooking time. The salad is best when made ahead as well.
     Warning – the aroma of this dish is like an invitation to all who pass by. It will perfume your street with garlic and herb goodness.

Garlic Studded Pork with Aromatic Herbs
1 3-5 lb pork roast (pork loin is great)
12-15 cloves of garlic
A handful of each - fresh sage, rosemary, and thyme, loosely chopped
1 tsp. each of salt, pepper and garlic powder
1 onion, sliced round
2 T Olive oil to drizzle

Preheat oven to 375 degrees
Poke small holes into the roast with a knife, then stuff the roast with the whole garlic cloves and herbs, reserving some of the chopped herbs for the top of the roast.
Season the roast with the salt, pepper and garlic powder all over. Place in a roasting pan.
Lay the sliced onion on top of the roast.
Drizzle olive oil all over top of the roast.
Roast, uncovered, for 2-2 1/2 hours or until juices run clear.
Slice into 2 inch thick pieces and serve with mashed potatoes or buttered noodles for the kids. 

If your children are anything like my brother and I were, they will search for and then fight over the roasted garlic gems that reveal themselves once the meat is sliced down. Yummmmm!! This roast will make the entire neighborhood smell like Heaven!

Brussels Sprouts Napolitano
     So Named for my BFF who taught me to like the only vegetable I ever refused to eat. As my readers are well aware, I rave about my mother’s cooking. She is a genius in the kitchen almost always. The only exception is Brussels sprouts. She used to make steamed or boiled Brussels sprouts with butter and salt, and I HATED them. I hated the way they smelled and tasted. I hated their texture. So, when Brussels sprouts became a popular menu item at restaurants over the past couple of years, I was in no way up for ordering the stinky little mini cabbage balls. That is, until my fab friend, Jeni Napolitano, taught me how to make them taste yummy. I never thought it was possible, but it is! Now, not only do I love these veggies, but my kids do too. In fact, my finicky six-year-old can’t get enough of them. Brussels sprouts are in season right now, so go to your local farm market and get some!

1 lb fresh Brussels sprouts, sliced in half
2T Olive oil
1t Salt
½ t Paprika
3T Balsamic glaze

Heat olive oil in a pan on medium low. Add Brussels sprouts,salt, and paprika. Saute until sprouts are brown and slightly crispy on the outside. Remove from heat. Add balsamic glaze and stir to coat.

Kale and Cranberry Salad
This salad is best after it sits in the fridge for awhile, so make it ahead. It’s even good the next day. Kale does not wilt as easily as other greens; its thicker leaves are on the hearty side. This is so healthy and simple, and the pretty red cranberries look like candy. Your kids will want to try it.

5-6 C Fresh Kale leaves – you can buy the pre-chopped bags or chop it yourself. Either way is great.
½ C dried cranberries
1 medium red onion, sliced
1 can mandarin oranges in juice
½ C crumbled feta cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
3T olive oil

Drain mandarin oranges and reserve the juice.
Toss together the kale, cranberries, red onion and mandarin oranges.
Top with feta cheese.
Season salad with salt and pepper to taste.
Drizzle with olive oil.
Drizzle with the reserved mandarin juice.

This salad makes kale yummalicious, I promise. It’s a great party salad as well, if you want to use it as a side dish. Also, you can make this a filling lunch salad by adding some store-bought rotisserie chicken.  Superfoods rock!

Until next week, mangia!

Friday, October 2, 2015

Be Brave. Eat Ceci. My Favorite One Pot Meal - Ceci and Pasta.


~Just some yummies from my garden!!!

     Fall is a great time for one-pot-meals. Soups and stews that you can throw together fairly quickly for family dinners are great. To be honest though, I’m often a little suspicious of the one-pot phenomenon. I find that it more than occasionally can lead to mushy vegetables floating around in a soupy mix with meat that’s either gummy or tough. Nobody wants to dig into beef stew where you can’t tell the carrots from the potatoes.

    On a side note – I don’t make beef stew. I just can’t. 

    I make Ceci and Pasta, instead.

    This was my favorite meal as a kid. My brother’s too. The second we arrived home after school, and opened the front door, the aroma of garlic and basil would greet us with a sweet and spicy hello, and, oh mama, we knew what was for dinner. I felt grateful on those days, and, now, as a mom of three, I know it can take a lot to make your kids feel grateful. 

     This is a simple peasant dish from Italy, but it packs a ton of flavor and as much spice as you want. If you or your kids want to tone the crushed red pepper down, by all means do so. I even have a version of this that uses cumin and cinnamon to give the meal more of a Middle Eastern flair. My great Italian friend, Carly Abruzzo, shared her Turkish version of Ceci and Pasta with me, years ago, and my family loved it.

     Some of you are wondering right now – what the heck is a ceci? How do you even say it? It’s pronounced like sketchy but “chetchy,” and ceci is the Italian word for chick pea. Now, over the web waves I can hear you closed-minded eaters saying “oh hell no,” and imagining your kids gagging on the little beans. Please don’t despair. Don’t stop reading.

     Chick peas are an excellent source of protein and fiber.
     They are inexpensive and easy to find, and you can get them canned or dried.
     They don’t have strong flavor, so kids will keep eating them if you get them to try just one.

     My kids dig the balsamic coated ceci out of our salads at dinner. I’m always chastising them to use a fork. My dear friend, Rachel Spirer used to call me a chick pea whore, because every time she came down for lunch with her then preschooler, there were chick peas on the table. And my daughter was inhaling them. They are a staple in my pantry, and if you introduce them the right way, your kids will like them too.

     Enjoy the recipes below. As promised, Ceci and Pasta is a quick weeknight meal. I added my recipe for roasted ceci – great for a little snacking and especially for my Aunt Lina who also loves ceci. Also, I’ve included a recipe for an awesome ceci salad –great for a picnic or party.

Ceci and Pasta
     This hearty Italian stoup, served with a side salad and some crusty bread is the perfect weeknight meal. It’s also a Lenten favorite, because it’s protein packed, but meatless.

2T olive oil
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 large onion or 1 bag frozen onions
2T chopped fresh basil
1t crushed red pepper seeds
1t each Salt and pepper
1 28 oz can tomato sauce
1 C hot water
1 can ceci beans
1 C uncooked short pasta (elbows or ditalini work well)
Grated Parm or Romano to serve

In stock pot or dutch oven, fry garlic and onions in olive oil with salt, pepper, basil and crushed red pepper. Cook until onions and garlic are translucent.
Add sauce and water and let simmer for 20-30 minutes.
Add ceci and noodles and cook until noodles are al dente.
Ladle into soup bowls and serve with grated cheese on top.

NOTE: If you’d like to make the Middle Eastern version of this soup, substitute ½ tsp cinnamon and ¼ tsp cumin for the basil and crushed red pepper. This is wonderful as well, and your kids will love the flavors, especially the cinnamon.

Roasted Ceci
     The trick to this awesome and healthy snack is to let the beans dry for at least ½ hour after you drain them. They need to be completely dry to get the crunchy texture that makes them a favorite for munching.

1 can ceci
1 tsp each of salt, cumin, chili powder, garlic powder, pepper
2 T olive oil

Drain ceci and lay on a paper towel to dry completely. Once the beans are totally dry, place them ina  bowl and toss with olive oil and spices. You can really use any spices you like. The ones above are just my fave. Roast in a 400 degree oven for 45 minutes or until browned and crispy. These are way tastier than microwave popcorn and a healthier choice for family movie night.

Minty Fresh Ceci and Tomato salad
     This salad pairs well with everything. If you’re having a cookout, this is a great, healthy alternative to things like potato or mac salad. The lemon juice and herbs mingle to create a burst of fresh flavor that everyone will love. And, if you have leftovers, it’s even yummier the next day.

3 garlic cloves, minced
6 scallions – white and green parts, chopped
4 plum tomatoes, chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
1 can ceci beans
1T chopped fresh mint
½ C chopped fresh parsley
Salt and pepper to taste
¼ C olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
½ C feta cheese

Directions – Toss veggies, herbs, and beans in a large bowl. Add seasonings, olive oil and lemon juice and stir. Add feta cheese and toss again. Voila!

I hope these recipes turn you and your family into chick pea fans (or as Rachel would put it – chick pea whores.) Happy ceci eating.


Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Give Your Kids Vodka... Sauce. A quick and easy Italian recipe that will make everyone happy, especially the kids!


     So, my eleven-year-old daughter is becoming quite the mini-foodie. She expects a good, fresh mozzarella for the Margarita pizza she makes from scratch. She’s choosy about her prosciutto and prefers imported Parma, of course. And, when we are at a restaurant, she often asks the waitress if the chef can make Vodka sauce, even if it’s not on the menu. When she does get to order it, her reaction is often– “it’s amahhhhzing,” spoken with the dramatic flair of a tween. Other times, she scrunches up her nose and says, “not as good as yours, Mom.”

     My kids have been eating Vodka sauce since they were babies, because I cooked so much of it when I ran my catering business. Those days, we ate whatever I sold on any given day, and I sold a ton of Vodka sauce. It’s probably their favorite, and although I don’t make it as much these days, it’s always a treat when the creamy, pink pasta makes its way to the table.  The kids cheer, as they wait expectantly at the table. Come to think of it, when I make Vodka pasta, their bums actually stay on their chairs throughout the entire dinner. Miraculous, I know.

    One night last summer, the two older ones questioned me about the vodka in the sauce.

     “Can we get drunk on that pasta?”

     I explained to them that the alcohol cooks out of the sauce but leaves the flavor. I assured them it was totally okay and that they wouldn’t get drunk from eating the pasta. Then, as we were sitting out on the deck that evening, chowing down on pappardelle, my taste buds detected a little too much vodka in this particular batch. I thought to myself – Crap. Maybe I didn’t cook it quite long enough
     Of course, super taster eleven-year-old also picked up on the subtle difference in flavor and began to fret over it. Family conversation ensued, as the five year old drank the extra sauce from her plate and licked her fingers clean without a care in the world.

     In the end, nobody got drunk off of the pasta. At least, I don’t think so. We were all tremendously happy and full, and there was no pappardelle left in the bowl.

     Moral of the story – give your kids vodka. They’ll sit through dinner.

     Now for today’s recipes

     Pasta with vodka sauce - with grilled chicken if you’d like to add a protein


     Balsamic Roasted asparagus    

Vodka Pasta      
3T olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic
Handful fresh basil
Salt and pepper
1 28 oz can crushed tomatoes
1 28 oz can tomato sauce
1 C vodka
1 pint heavy cream

Heat olive oil in a dutch oven or sauce pot. Add onions, garlic, salt, pepper and basil, and saute on low heat for a few minutes, until onions are translucent. Don’t let the garlic burn. Add sauce and tomatoes and let cook for about 15 minutes so that the flavors meld. At this point, you have a nice marinara sauce. Next, add the vodka, and let it cook for 30 minutes, so that the alcohol burns off and your kids don’t end up drunk. Last, add the cream and stir just until it’s incorporated. The sauce will have a pinky orange color – kind of like a sunrise J

Serve over your favorite pasta with some good Parmesan cheese on top.

You can also add protein to this. Grilled chicken or shrimp – either are a great addition. My trick to grilled chicken is marinating. I use Ken’s Steakhouse Caesar dressing to marinate my chicken. Toss the meat in a plastic baggie or bowl filled with the dressing before you leave for work in the morning or for a few hours before you grill it, and I promise you, it will be the moistest, tastiest chicken you’ve ever had. I don’t know what it is about this dressing, but it’s like magic.

A nice vegetable to pair with this meal is roasted asparagus. FYI - in summer, I do the exact same thing with the asparagus, but grill them instead of roasting them. Either way it's easy, quick, and super yummy!

Balsamic Roasted Asparagus
1 bunch asparagus
¾ tsp salt
¾ tsp pepper
¾ tsp garlic powder
3T olive oil
3T balsamic vinegar
Slice the ends off of a bunch of asparagus and lay them out on a baking sheet. Sprinkle them with seasonings and drizzle with oil and vinegar. Roast in a 400 degree oven for 30-45 minutes or until the ends of the asparagus are brown and crispy.

Serve this meal with crusty bread and tossed salad, and it is the perfect family meal.

Hope your family enjoys it!