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Saturday Night Fever: Grape Jelly

1 Sep

With the “help” of five neighborhood boys (including three of my own) I gleaned my neighbor’s Concord grape vines today. By “help,” I mean that I looked over while teetering (one-footed sometimes) on a crappy old stepstool trying to reach the bunches that had grown into a pine tree—and noticed them all lounging in lawn chairs around the pool, looking at the alpacas in the back property. Thanks guys!

I kept things as simple as possible for my first foray into grape jelly making. I simmered the grapes in a big pot and tried my best to crush them as they were cooking. I was surprised at how much liquid was available after the initial heating step.

After straining all the liquid off, I was left with 5 cups of juice. Miraculously, the exact amount needed per the Sure-Gel recipe I was using. Sweet! This is the setup I needed to do the whole process. In the end, I only got around 8 cups of jelly, but it’s all I’ll be able to use in a year.

Late in the evening, one of the kids was chomping at the bit to use this homemade jelly for a PB&J sandwich. Although not totally set up, I let him have at it. He told me that it was delicious and tasted *exactly* like “real” grape jelly. Success!

Marrying into an Italian family: baptism by sauce

31 Aug

Jars of sauce, ready to boil.

I married a first-generation Italian boy. In my youth–usually enamored by the loud, showy, unreliable, ebullient jackass-type–I found solace in his quiet reserve. His complete and unabashed loyalty. His work ethic. His handsomeness. His amazing family.

Although I am half Italian, I am not Italian Italian like my husband’s family. My in-laws came here in 1968, shortly before my husband was born. They did not know the language. They did not know any other “Americans.” They did not have anything but what they could carry over. But they had each other. Many people from the same part of Italy settled in a particular part of Pittsburgh called Bloomfield. I was lucky enough to start out my married life in this neighborhood, and many of my husband’s relatives still live here. I felt like I had become a member of a magical and cloistered society. Where Italian was still spoken around the table, prosciutto (made by my father-in-law) was hanging from garage rafters, where homemade wine was placed on the table for every meal, and every supper had a pasta course, then a meat and vegetable, followed by a salad–and of course an espresso to finish it all off.

Unidentified relatives of mine from Calabria.

My mother is Italian and I grew up learning how to cook from her and her mother, my Grandma Rizzo–also a first generation Italian born in 1918. I learned how to bake bread for Easter, always rolling out two small dough strips before covering the bread to rise, using the strips to make a cross over the dough to bless it and, according to my gram, help it to raise. My grandma would make bread each year on the feast day of Saint Anthony and get it blessed at the church in Sharpsburg, Pennsylvania. Sometimes when I was looking in one of her buffet drawers for something, I would find little stale frizenes (a crunchy anise-flavored type of bread, typically eaten buttered and then dipped in coffee) from previous years, tucked neatly away into socks. Kept safe since they were blessed, not to be eaten.

Saint Anthony

An interesting thing happens in many immigrant families. Oftentimes, the people from the origin country culturally progress and give up “the old ways,” but those that emigrate to another country hold onto the traditions of their home. So, even though the customs and lifestyle of the mother country have changed, the immigrants hold on to the ways that they left. It is what ties them to home. It is how they remember.

On my in-law’s most recent trip to Italy, my mother-in-law lamented that many of her friends and family still living there had given up on many of the labor-intensive traditions. The fine lace work to embellish tablecloths, the pasta from scratch–even the canning of fresh tomato sauce. I am so blessed that my husband’s family, my family, has held on to the old ways.

So every year in August, we travel to a local farm to pick tomatoes. This year we brought home 11 bushels.

It’s a family job and everyone pitches in. What makes things particularly effective, is that we process everything outside. My father-in-law has acquired steel drums and large burners that run from propane tanks. Pots and utensils travel between homes when it’s a family’s particular day to do their canning (sisters-in-law, parents, etc.). The tomatoes are usually left to ripen for a few days before processing. Calls are exchanged between family to discuss the ripeness. The final decision is always made by my husband’s parents on what day we should finally jar everything.

The process, although time- and labor-intensive, is quite simple. The tomatoes are washed, cored, squeezed (of water and seeds), boiled, machine processed, canned, and boiled.

Tatone, Paulie, and Uncle Ronnie processing the tomatoes.

We don’t add anything but some fresh basil to the top of the jars before canning. We flavor the sauce when we use it.

Making the final sauce is pretty subjective, and is all about what you like. Your sauce will end up being great if you just try your best and add what you like. Personally, I shred up a carrot and onion and fry in olive oil. Then brown some lamb and add the tomatoes to that. I flavor with salt, basil, oregeno, and parsley, but like to go very easy on the garlic.

Believe me when I tell you, there is nothing like the taste of sauce on the day the tomatoes are crushed. Nothing. Of course, after a day of canning, a big dinner is prepared where you taste the fruits of your labor.

Happiness is when you finally sit down after canning and cooking all day, look over to your youngest son, and watch him doing this:

Anthony enjoying his pasta.

Happy Halloween: Cookie Edition

1 Nov

Some people meditate. Others paint along with Bob Ross. Me, my self-prescribed therapy is making and decorating sugar cookies. I’ve always appreciated beautifully decorated sugar cookies. As I kid, I remember one of my favorite parts of any holiday prep and anticipation was rifling through my Mom’s cookie cutter collection. President’s Day cookies? Bust of George Washington and axe cutouts, check.

While I always loved making and decorating sugar cookies, I was a novice. I only started my way to mastering the art with the guidance of my friend Eric. You see, there are sugar cookies…and then, there are *Eric’s sugar cookies.* I had only seen the type of cookies that Eric would make in magazines. Glossy magazines. And how lucky was I that he took me under his little sugarcrafting wing and taught me his art? Very.

I enjoy every part of the process. And it IS quite a process: usually a three day one. I make the cookie dough on day one, day two is reserved for baking, and then, I finally decorate the shapes on day three. Sometimes, there is a day four: when the cookies call for packaging, either individually cello wrapped, or in boxes with clear plastic covers. Oh, and bows. Lets not forget bows.

I like the almost zen state that I enter when I decorate. I like the solitude. I like the meticulous nature of the work. I like the process of creativity. I like the steps taken to make these beautiful little works of art out of staples found in my kitchen. I dig the whole thing.

Cookie making is a passion. Wait, truth be told (if that last paragraph is telling in any way), it’s really a bit of a compulsion. Along with the praise and delight elicited when I give people my final products, my gifts have also been met with quiet disdain and not-so-faux mocking. I am called “Martha Stewart”…and this is not meant to be “a good thing (TM).” I think people feel like I have spent entirely too much time on something that will be consumed. And to be honest: they are super annoyed. I get it. I see the eyes rolling. I feel a strange guilt. I have been told that I am crazy. (Well, they could be on to something there, but, that’s for another post.)

Usually the negative nellies come around after they realize my cookies are meant to make other people happy, not make them feel like less of a baker or mother because they don’t go nuts like I do. We are united in our joy after they take their first bite. They get over it. I confess that I think they are crazy people for their copious knitting projects! We hug. We bond over our obsessions that others judge. We share recipes. We laugh over people that have taken up a mid-life roller derby crisis. We talk about never really liking the movie “The Polar Express.” We are united in cookies!

One of my favorite holidays for cookie making is Halloween. Silly, fun, bright, and overall awesome for treats. The last few years I have been doing the same designs. I order many of my cutters online ( and and have bought them at my local bake shop, Make-A-Cake. I use a really simple cookie recipe (substituting one cup of butter with butter flavored Crisco), and always use Martha Stewart’s recipe for royal icing. Here are my Halloween cookies…look out for the next holiday, it’ll be equally as insane.

Yours in crazy cookie making,


Spooky Halloween Soup!

30 Oct

Leaves are falling, the sweet smell of burning wood is making its way up chimneys and wafting throughout the neighborhood, the kids are all hopped up on sugar from the 17 parties they have attended while dressed up as giant hot dogs: yup, must be Halloween time.

Along with Halloween comes the beginning of soup season. Soup season is a frame of time that runs concurrently between the months of October and March. Not that soup can’t be enjoyed outside of soup season, but it seriously helps.

Why not make some chicken noodle soup and add a special little touch for Halloween: spooky cutout dumplings.

Start with a basic broth. I boiled a few chicken breasts in a pot with bouillon, carrots and onions. Next add some noodles. Barilla makes these cool little noodles like the kind you find in those little Mrs. Grass chicken soup boxes.

Next make the dumplings. I put 6 eggs, 3 cups of flour, salt, and some Italian seasoning into a food processor and mixed using the dough hook. Add flour until you get a piece of dough you can easily roll out. You don’t need a food processor for this step, but it definitely helps.

After you make the dumpling dough, roll it out onto a floured surface (to about 1/4 inch thickness).

Next, you’ll need some miniature cookie cutters. These cutters are also used to cut decorative pieces for pie crusts. I used ghosts for this particular soup. If you don’t have cutters, you can cut a few out by hand, but it’s not going to be easy.

After you cut a bunch of ghouls out, put them into the boiling soup.

We also put the “extra” dumplings parts into the soup (the large “holey” pieces left over from cutting out the little dumpling shapes) and pull them out to eat separately. My kids especially love to eat these pieces (see below).

Let the dumplings boil for about 2 minutes; they’ll be done when they float to the top of the soup.

The kids really enjoyed helping to make the little ghost cutouts and they loved to eat the finished soup. This “spooky” soup would be a nice dish to serve at a little Halloween get together for friends and family or a meal for the kids before trick-or-treating.

Enjoy your spooky Halloween soup!

Trash-Mex Cuisine: “Tortilla Lasagna”

18 Mar

I just finished a four day fast. I like to do this type of thing a few times a year and it just seemed right to start it on Monday. Sometimes, I go longer than four days, but this time I didn’t. Every now and then, I like to let food know that it I’m not its bitch. To commemorate my foray back into eating again, I would like to share the most excellent concoction I’ve made in the last month. The nice thing is, if you want to make this totally meatless on a Friday (heya fellow Catholics), then bake away.

And with the help of an amalgam of about 100 recipes, I bring to you:

Allison’s Trash-Mex Tortilla Casserole

(Oh, I’ve got a WHOLE repertoire of self-proclaimed Trash-Mex recipes. And they all rock.)

First off, I want you to think of this like a lasagna: it’s got (repeated) layers of  “starch,” “sauce,” and cheese.

Here’s what you’ll need:

Optional meat layer

Cooked chicken (about 4 chicken breasts, diced)

Starch layer

One package of soft tortillas

Cheese layer

3-4 cups of any cheese you like (we used a Monterrey jack blend)

Sauce layer


2 T oil

1 onion

2 peppers (I used a red and a yellow)


One jar of salsa

One can of mexi-corn (or any corn with a jar of green chiles)

One can of crushed tomatoes


Spoon some of the mexi-sauce layer in the bottom of a 9 x 13 pan

On top of the mexi-sauce, layer some soft tortillas like so (I’ve also ALWAYS wanted to say “like so”)
Layer each subsequent tortilla layer with the mexi-sauce, cheese, and (optionally) some cooked chicken and repeat until you can’t anymore.

Cover with aluminum foil to cook.


350 for about 45 minutes. Take off the foil to make the top cheese all melty the last 10 minutes.

Additional notes:

  • You will want to let this cool a WHILE before you eat it. If not, it will 1. be hot as magma 2. not stay together very well, and therefore 3. not look very visually pleasing on your plate. I’d say at least 1/2 hour, an hour if you can keep your mitts off of it.
  • I have found this dish to be exceptionally good (or better) the next day. I even like it cold, but I’m weird that way.
  • You can add anything else you want to your sauce. Like jalapenos? Throw ’em in that sauce. Honestly, I think this rocks with whatever *you* like in your “Trash-Mex” cooking.
  • ENJOY. I’ve always wanted to add that word to a direction/recipe. I like when that is the last step of anything. It’s a nice touch.
  • If you don’t like it, the next time I see you, I will hug you. That’s a promise, not a threat.
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