Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Breakfast for Two at a Jersey Diner

Empty plates and a generous tip for our Greek waitress who waited on all diners with the grace of a figure skater - what a pro.

Jersey loves its greasy pizza, cheesy-steaks and roasted red peppers, but last weekend, at the Suburban Diner in Paramus, my husband was introduced to an ingredient that goes into the Jersey Sandwich. A “Jersey” combines egg, cheese and Taylor’s Ham. Charlie didn’t know about Taylor’s Ham, having grown up in Buffalo, but as a staple in my childhood home, my experience and expertise and the promise of salty, fatty meat substance provided my husband with enough drool-factor to go ahead and order Taylor’s ham with his eggs over-easy.

Sold in a wide roll like salami, or available pre-sliced in a small box, my mother would skillfully insert three tiny slits around the circumference of each slice. As a kid, I imagined this was to prevent the meat from curling at the edge; I looked it up on wiki to confirm that this is true. Or maybe she told me about the curling; I forget. But my mom definitely had a knack for explaining food stuffs.  Like when she told my sisters and me that an egg is a chicken’s period. Ewwww no way! Thanks, Mom. 

Full shot of diner with me hiding on the right

I recently bought an iPhone. As I waited for my order at the Suburban, I got carried away and took a few photos inside the diner; Charlie helped. Smartphones make photographing strangers easily incognito, not that easy makes the photo-taking appropriate behavior.  Our waitress, a big Greek woman with a mop of wild dark hair, a sweet smile and an adorable accent would have wowed any 70-year old guy . . . the space between her front teeth and faint mustache, in this imaginary older man’s mind, might even be considered “sexy.” I haven’t included a photo of her here – that’s just inappropriate AND rude. 

But when three gentlemen with shiny black hair strode by our table wearing polyester jackets and took their seats at the back of the diner, they were far enough away to make photographing strangers seem legal. I clicked like a model’s photographer.  Work with me, baby, work with me. 

“Paramus crew” brunch. Were they eating a Jersey Sandwich?

These men seemed as close to being a crew as if I were on the set of the Soprano’s; or hanging out on the Philly streets in 1980.  But they didn’t seem scary; they were, after all, only eating breakfast. If they were real tough guys as I imagined, they would have ordered Taylor’s ham, egg and cheese all stuffed inside a hard roll, a Jersey Sandwich. 

 Big Breakfast

Getting back to our own breakfasts, Charlie greatly enjoyed his Taylor’s ham served with eggs, rye toast and giant mound of hash browns covered in a crispy scrim of carcinogenic delicioso. Over-sized breakfasts are the norm in Jersey. Charlie ate it all. He’s not part of the “Paramus crew,” but that’s okay 'cause my guy has it all over those wise guys.  (Happy Anniversary, Charlie.)

Monday, April 8, 2013

Spaghetti, Special and Different

In my twenties and thirties, my friends and I talked about the various ways we cooked spaghetti sauce. Although we lived in an area of South Jersey populated predominantly with people of Italian descent, many of us were of Celtic background, blue-eyed and beyond the pale. We had no intimate knowledge of sauce (a/k/a gravy.)  But as young wives and mothers and because we were so amicably settled amongst our Italian friends and neighbors, sauce became a rite of passage. 

When it came to good food, I gave a nod (and still do) to the Italians; creating good sauce was a way to become honorary "familia locale'".

  an unknown, but real Italian mama.
Borrowed from foodloversodyssey

My friend, Michele, stood at her stove while I sat at her kitchen table. Curious about her sauce recipe, I asked her to reel off the ingredients.  "I use only pureed tomatoes," said Michele. Yes, yes! I thought. I prefer those, too. "Then, I add a small can, or maybe two, of paste." "Garlic, of course." Do you saute it, or just throw it in? Onion? "Yep, a little." Do you fry your meatballs or carmelize them in the oven? My mother-in-law placed them directly in the sauce. I made them that way for years because I admired her cooking. And my meatballs were popular, but my audience was more a meat and potatoes crowd, so my Italian offerings probably would have been a hit if I'd browned a packet of ground beef and added Ragu.  I've since learned that plunking the meatballs into sauce to cook is blasphemy, according to my husband and his mama, a natural Sicilian cook. 

As a novitiate to meatball-making, I used ground beef only.  I soon learned that a respectable meatball requires a combination of beef, pork and veal, or at least beef and pork, which provided way more flavor.  Michele turned to me and said, "I only put cheese in the meatballs, not in the sauce."  She seemed proud, as if she had made a decision on her own, a process that arose from trust in her own taste buds and preferences - what worked for her. 

I now live in Vermont where good Italian food is not readily available, but there are a few places that dedicate their menus and kitchens to meals as authentic as possible. Burrata (a type of mozzarella) is sourced from milk obtained from local dairies. The beef and pork used in ragu' comes from cows and pigs who graze on local farmland. Vermont delis are not capable of offering a single dish that compares to Philly eggplant parm sandwich, but in Vermont, we try. We start with fresh food; it seems a good path to follow. New generations come with new attitudes. Trust in old methods melds with the progressive for cooking is art. We admire an original, but there is always space for exploration.

My cat, Bessi, waiting for a taste (no garlic or onion for cats.)

My husband now makes the sauce in the family.  In a future post, perhaps he'll let me share his recipe. But back in 1980, I learned from a friend. I experimented and tried out new things. I combined my preferences with a friend's sensibilities, plus a little help from an Italian friend or two.

Monday, April 1, 2013

You say Potato, I say “Cap-i-co-la.”

When I visit Jersey, I always stop here.

The clerks at the Jersey deli’s where I bought hoagies, cheesesteaks and take-out lasagna would  never miss an opportunity to correct my pronunciation. There’d be a little snicker, a sympathetic nod toward my lack of Sicilian suave as I asked for a half pound of provolone cheese. I wasn’t a student of the Italian language, but I’d always heard that it was proper to pronounce every vowel.  “A half pound of provolon-eh, please.”  The reply echoed across  the deli counter, which was usually higher than my head like a mountain I would never scale,  “That’s a half pound of provalon, miss?  You got it!”  The Modern Italian/American deli clerk who said “mozzarelle” instead of “mozzarella” knew no different.  It was how his Mama and her Mama pronounced it, no vowel allowed;  it seemed a secret language belonging only to them.  Mortadella became mortadelle.  Drop those vowels unless you want everyone to know how Italian-ignorant you are, or so they made me believe.  I’d order the ham, spelled (and pronounced by me) c-a-p-i-c-o-l-a.    

Gobagool .  Say it right, damn it!  You live in South Jersey, the land where a beautiful language has been purposely bastardized and it’s OK, It’s called evolution, an evolution  of the citizens’ free will, driven by ancestors who dropped a vowel – or two or three along their journey across the Atlantic Ocean or many years ago on the streets of New York City and Philly. No one is to blame, not the deli clerks and certainly not me.

Jersey means well.  The lack of vowels has never seemed to interfere with the beauty of the food. At Aversa's bakery and deli, the chicken parm is still fantastically yummy.