‘A’ is for Autumn and for Apples

Nothing hails the onset of autumn as does warm apple pie.-tangledpasta.net

Nothing hails the onset of autumn as does warm apple pie.-tangledpasta.net

By Mary Anna Violi | @Mary Anna Violi

October is now upon us and the air has turned crisp. I now don my corduroy coat, layering it underneath with a sweater and a blouse. Yesterday I even deigned to wear socks, not with my usual black flats, but with my heavier, yet stylish black strap shoes. I complain not about this change of seasons. All those years I lived in Houston, I relished the sunshine with the big, blue Texas sky as its backdrop. Yet I longed for the panorama of a Midwest autumn. Besides my family, I greatly missed autumn. The vibrant yellows, orange, and reds of the trees never failed to make me smile. They still do.

Another magnificent feature of autumn in my Midwest is apple season. This conjures up images of apple pie, apple crisp, applesauce, apple butter, apples baked, apple apple galette, apple kugel, apple salad, apple tart, and even a raw apple itself. Apple orchards abound in nearby Southwestern Michigan. Harvesting apples in apple orchards always reminds me of picking apples with my grandfather in his very own orchard. We lived on the other side of his orchard, which made it easy to race from our backdoor out into the orchard to help him with the apples. My mother made the best apple pie, though I am sure that quite a few people make the same claim about their own mother’s apple pies. However, I have not tasted other mothers’ apple pies, so I can attest only to my own mother’s pie. We have a penchant for apple pie in my family. Throughout the years I have been told that my grandmother was an apple pie genius; sadly, my grandmother suffered a stroke that left her with little speech, but a with beatific smile and her sweet disposition in tact. Alas, her pie-making days were thus over before I had a memory of them. Here is a tasty apple pie recipe from Martha Stewart’s online website:


I must admit that I used to make apple pie; however, I detest peeling apples. Although I have made apple pie with the apple skin intact, I prefer a more classic version of said pie. My sister-in-law makes a lovely apple pie with a crumbly brown sugar and walnut crust, which is on the dessert table at Thanksgiving. Ever since Whole Foods opened here over almost three years ago, I find myself purchasing the occasional apple pie from WF. An excellent apple pie is also to be had at enterprising Amish establishments in nearby towns. There is no shortage of apples every which way in this part of the Midwest. Chastise me if one will, but I cook and bake throughout the week – in fact, yesterday morning I baked two loaves of pumpkin bread, one of which I took to my daughter. Thus is my justification for rarely making an apple pie, though I love making cream pies with mile high merengue! All this talk about apples has now put me in mind of toast with apple butter. Yummy!

Ciao for now.

Italian Food Cravings

No matter which version one makes, Pasta e Fagioli is delizioso! - tangledpasta.net

No matter which version one makes, Pasta e Fagioli is delizioso! – tangledpasta.net

By Mary Anna Violi | @Mary Anna Violi

Lately, I have had a penchant for the traditional Southern Italian food of my parents’ preference. Talk about cheap eats: pasta, fagioli [beans], greens [endive, mustard greens, chicory], marinara sauce, ricotta, fresh mozzarella, peppers, potatoes, asparagus, eggplant, sardines, anchovies, olive oil, and eggs, all add up to fabulous meals, and none with meat. In fact, it is food I rarely tire of because it is possible to reinvent Italian dishes using these deceptively simple ingredients.

I was sixteen years old before my gustatory senses were awakened to the fact that not all pasta was drenched in a red sauce. This revelation occurred when my parents took my brother and me to Italy for the first time. In Northern Italy I at pesto for the first time, as well as green lasagna with béchamel sauce. In Tuscany I feasted on Linguine with Clams, baked fennel with potatoes and cheese; all my previous notions of Italian food underwent a catharsis. By the time we arrived in Calabria, at my father’s family’s doorstep, I was back to pasta with marinara sauce, but it tasted very good after several weeks of Northern and Tuscan cuisine.

On this Sunday afternoon, I am making a Calabrese Pasta e Fagioli [pasta and beans]. There are numerous variations on this peasant classic. It may be as thick as a stew, my personal preference, or as thin as a zuppa [soup]. Some years ago, my brother was in Manhattan on business. When he saw Pasta e Fagioli on the menu at a swanky New York restaurant, his interest was piqued. He declared the purchased version inferior to our mother’s, and it was expensive to boot. Among its shortcomings: the restaurant version was like a thin soup. In my family, we like to cut our Pasta e Fagioli with a knife, for it is as thick as can be.

Pasta e Fagioli

2 tablespoons olive oil                               2 15-oz. cans Cannellini beans, drained

I medium onion, chopped                         8 oz. ditalini, or small shells, or elbows pasta

3 garlic cloves, chopped                                        Salt and pepper to taste

1 28-oz. can Italian crushed tomatoes                Grated Parmesan cheese

1 teaspoon Italian herbs,                                       Italian bread

or 1 teaspoon dried oregano

2 cups chicken stock, or less for a thicker consistency

Bring a large, heavy pot of water to a boil. Add a teaspoon of salt and a teaspoon of olive oil, and add the ditalini. Cook for 5 minutes. Drain pasta.

In a large, heavy pan, heat olive oil over medium heat, and then add onion and cook until softened, 2-3 minutes. Add garlic and cook an additional minute. Add tomatoes, oregano, and chicken stock. Cover and cook until heated through, 5-8 minutes. Add Cannellini beans and bring mixture to a simmer, approximately 10 minutes. Add ditalini, and then cook for 20 minutes to meld the flavors, and to finish cooking the ditalini. Season with salt and pepper.

Ladle the Pasta e Fagioli into pasta bowls. Serve with grated Parmesan cheese and Italian bread on the side. Buon Appetito!

*Variation:  Add 1 small carrot, chopped; 1 rib celery, chopped; and 1 large dried bay leaf; saute the carrot and celery in olive oil until tender, then add to the pasta e fagioli.

Ciao for now.


Tea, fruit, and a thermometer help with my malady - tangledpasta.net

Tea, fruit, and a thermometer help with my malady – tangledpasta.net


By Mary Anna Violi | @Mary Anna Violi

The weather turned cold this week and even had the audacity to snow.

Now I have a cold.

I notice the tissue supply is running dangerously low. This means I will be forced to trek to the store, which means I will end up purchasing throat lozenges, Vick’s inhaler, and boxes or cans of chicken noodle soup.  Of course, this translates into trudging to two different stores:  Target for the paper products and lozenges, and Whole Foods for the soup.  As I stare bleakly into the pantry, I realize the bread needs to be replenished.  Peering into the refrigerator [Do I have a fever?  My face feels hot and the chilliness of the ‘fridge feels good.], it is evident eggs and soymilk will need to be bought too.  The mango slices I neglected to finish were the only fresh fruit in the house.  Fruit is added to the list of What Is Needed.  The Brown Cow Maple Yogurt is gone too.

Thanksgiving is next Thursday, November 28, two days before my birthday.  I prefer to be in the pink for my birthday.  My birthday is a special day that is mine, alone, even if no party has been planned.  It would be lovely to be able to taste the Thanksgiving dinner too, minus the stuffy head and clogged nasal passages.  Sneezing and blowing one’s nose into a handkerchief, which is sturdier than a tissue, and has a nicer ring to it, while coughing uncontrollably over the Thanksgiving repast has a tendency to suppress the appetites of the others at the table.

If only this cold would vanish, I would feel like swooping up those ten items at Whole Foods, thereby giving me access to the “10 Items or Less” aisle for a speedy checkout.  Instead of attempting a run to Target, I’ll swing by the pharmacy that is much closer to home.

On the other hand, maybe I will indulge in a quick nap to refresh myself.

Lime green Jello sounds good now too.  I jot Jello down on the list before I drift off into the Land of Nod.

Ciao for now.



September Song

The lake's September Song - tangledpasta.net

The lake’s September Song – tangledpasta.net

By Mary Anna Violi | @MaryAnnaVioli

This evening, after a long workday, after giving in to the unrelenting clamor of Fellini and Coco Chanel for their evening cat treats, I realized the patio flowers needed watering.  The clock showed 7:05 p.m., and already the sun was setting.  Donning long black comfy pants and my favorite blue Life is Good hoodie, I filled the summer iced tea pitcher with water multiple times as I offered liquid refreshment to the large pots of orange, white, and magenta chrysanthemums.  The vibrant pink Mandeville is still blooming its trumpet-shaped flowers.  It too partook of a pitcher of water.  I pulled weeds that had the audacity to infringe upon the elegant Mandeville’s territory.  By the time I had made multiple trips up and down the steps to refill the pitcher and then pull the weeds, the sky had darkened into the gloaming.

After cleansing my hands of the weed dirt, I turned my attention to my gnawing hunger.  Canvassing the freezer, I decided upon collard greens and spinach.  I nixed the Swiss chard until another meal.  Noting there were small potatoes waiting to grace a dish, I fashioned a repast of a mixture of dark leafy greens, potatoes, onion, garlic, and olive oil with Italian bread on the side.  With the promise of a bit of cheese and fresh red raspberries for dessert, and a glass of vino bianco in hand, I nestled into the old green leather wingback easy chair, embracing the close of a lovely September day.

Ciao for now.


Labor Day Weekend



Summer's end, The Grand Hotel, Mackinac Island - tangledpasta.net

Summer’s end, The Grand Hotel, Mackinac Island, one of my favorite places tangledpasta.net

By Mary Anna Violi | @Mary Anna Violi

When I was a young sprig, the last hurrah of summer was spent swimming, fishing, and boating at our summer-house on the lake.  Amid whoops and splashes, diving, and floating, we frolicked throughout most of those sun-drenched summer days. We also feasted in between swims.  At least one Labor Day Weekend dinner included hamburgers and hot dogs on the old brick grill my grandfather had built.  There was Mama’s homemade coleslaw [light on the mayonnaise], Aunt Agnes’ potatoes and side dishes, and Aunt Adelaide’s homemade German chocolate cake.  Life was good and mighty tasty too.

We cousins knew that after we bade one another adieu on Labor Day itself, the school year commenced the next day.  Labor Day heralded the end of summer; it placed the cherry on the cake of summer.  Labor Day also paved the way to autumn.  We donned new school attire, and polished saddle shoes and penny loafers, we headed for the classroom, armed with our metal lunch boxes, and new pencil cases in hand. In an uncertain world, we could count on school commencing the day after Labor Day.  There seemed a kind of security in knowing that.

Back then we understood the cyclic nature of the seasons:  Autumn equated with school; Winter meant snowy white nights and Christmas; Spring reminded us Nature awakened; and Summer beckoned with the lure of languid days at the lake. My daughter fell prey to the lunacy of the extended school day, the elongated school year, and the mania of increased standardized testing.  School began for her in the oppressive heat and humidity of the August dog days of summer.  I haven’t observed youth getting any smarter or adept at the traditional 3 R’s of writing, reading, and arithmetic with this prolonged school year. A wave of sadness overtakes me to know that the young cannot partake in the ritual of summer’s end that Labor Day used to offer my cousins and me.

Ciao for now.



Spring Among “The Greens”

Swiss chard like my father used to grow in his garden - tangledpasta.net

Swiss chard like my father used to grow in his garden – tangledpasta.net

 By Mary Anna Violi | @Mary Anna Violi

The happy hoopla of early May college graduation has abated.  The pomp and circumstance of that halcyon graduation weekend has been replaced with the internalized terrors of “Oh, my god!  I am starting law school in two-and-a-half months!”  The summer job hunt, once discouraging in early May when promised work failed to materialize, has borne fruit with several promising interviews.

The contour of my work changes as the university’s academic year draws nigh.  Summer transfer students from other colleges around the state return home and provide fresh faces among the student population.  These quieter rhythms are no less demanding while helping shake off the winter doldrums, the routine, the mundane.

I prepare more dinners with “minestre”, “the greens” as they are affectionately called in my family.  The “greens” are made up of whatever tickles my Italian fancy:  A mixture of mustard greens, kale, and Swiss chard one night; a concoction of endive, collard greens, and Swiss chard another evening [I confess to having an affinity for colorful Swiss chard].  “The greens” are simmered slowly with generous portions of olive oil, garlic, onion, potatoes, salt, and pepper.  I slice chunks of cheese, Asiago or Parmesan, set out a small ceramic bowl brimming with black Calamata and green Sicilian olives, accompanied by thick slices of crusty Italian bread.  Once the vino rosso is poured, a sultry evening’s dinner `e pronta  [is ready].

May reminds me of when my father would fire up his rotatiller to churn the garden dirt for planting.  Inevitably the Toro rotatiller broke down and had to be serviced before thorough soil preparation could commence.  Once all systems were a go, we did not see much of my father until early September.  After a full day of work in his shoe shop, he dined with us, and then hastily changed into his garden clothes [“Even the St. Vincent de Paul Society would want those rags,” lamented Mama], burning a trail into the garden.  It was most satisfying both for my father and for us when “the greens” sprouted up and were soon ready to be plucked and prepared to eat.

To this day, I concur with my beloved Papa that “Minestre is-a food fit-a for-a king-a!”

Ciao for now.


Buona Pasqua!

Italian Easter bread - tangledpasta.net

Italian Easter bread – tangledpasta.net

By Mary Anna Violi |  @Mary Anna Violi

Today I suddenly realized this is the first Easter Sunday I have not shared with my daughter.  For the past twenty-one years we have attended Easter Sunday Mass together, followed by a sumptuous dinner with family.  The good news is that this Easter, Anjelica is commemorating Easter with her uncle, aunt, and cousins.  My brother lives only 75 miles from the Big 12 college campus, while our own home clocks in four hours north.  75 miles to my brother’s sounded far more appealing, particularly since Easter is early this year, on March 31.

The other reason is that I lacked the wherewithal to go out-of-town a fifth weekend in a row.  Frankly, I am weary.  My darling daughter and my dear nephew will graduate with their undergraduate degrees in May.  In June, my sweet niece will marry.  Before my soon-to-be college graduate graduates, there is Mom’s Weekend at her sorority house in April.  These three milestones all are far south from this Italian American’s residence in the Heartland.  Ergo, I opted to relinquish travel over Easter weekend.

This does not equate with me sadly ingesting a frozen Lean Cuisine Easter dinner.  Far from it.  I will be joining my sprightly local uncle and lively cousins for an Italian Pasqua dinner.  After dining with my family, a close friend who happens to be a nun, and I will be celebrating Easter, too.  I am grateful for my family and friends, yet I yearn for my daughter to join in these Easter festivities.

Today I went to a local Italian bakery, purchased Easter bread, an Italian lamb cake, and wished I could transport these traditional delicacies to my daughter.  How she loves the roasted leg of lamb and potatoes that I make, the asparagus, salad, Easter bread and lamb cake!  To assuage my conscience, I have placed some of the lamb cake in the freezer, along with pink sugar-sprinkled bunny cutout cookies, and Easter bread.  I will take these to her on Mom’s Weekend, for the Italian mama in me cannot bear to have her denied some of her favorite Easter delights.  After all, liturgically speaking, Easter season continues through May 12 this year. J

Ciao for now.

The Ubiquitous Christmas Letter

Deck the halls, or at least our front porch - tangledpasta.net

Deck the halls, or at least our front porch – tangledpasta.net

After my mother’s sudden death, the following Christmas I found myself, for the first time, penning a Christmas letter to insert with Christmas cards to family and friends.  We are a large family with a wide circle of friends and because so many constantly inquired about my father, who was 92 at the time, I felt a Christmas letter might be a most expeditious way of conveying news of him and our family.

Yet writing a letter of this sort was one of the last things I envisioned myself doing.  In the avalanche of Christmas cards my parents annually received, I chortled over badly written letters, those that droned on endlessly about trivia, and those that bragged shamelessly about their so-called brilliant offspring.  Mostly I howled over the wretched writing.  Far be it from me to set myself up for such critiques, I thought, as a young teen.  One can afford to be cavalier when one is still a young student who knows little of how the world really works, let alone what drives people to crank out the annual Christmas letter.

Thus, with a full heart at the prospect of the first Christmas without Mama to brighten the landscape of our sorrow, I managed to concoct a one-page letter full of news of my father and of my daughter.  Of myself, I felt I would only bring down the house with tears were I to reveal the extent of my sadness.  Therefore, in lieu of news of me, I inserted updates on our cats, Sparkle [now deceased] and Fellini [then a kitten].  At least I could mask my true feelings while doting on those about whom I happily had full care.

The twist was that after I had edited, re-edited, and edited my letter again, I began to fill better.  My daughter and I plunged into making Mama’s soft, moist fudge.  We experimented with pizzelles, using the pizzelle griddle Mama had bequeathed me.  We tried to emulate her classic Christmas cut out sugar cookie recipe, but she had written over it and crossed-out ingredients, tweaking it as she made the cookies year after year.  Finally, we turned to Aunt Adelaide’s Pillsbury sugar cookie recipe instead.  They were tasty, but missing Mama’s lightness of half-butter, half-shortening.

Within me, Christmas joy was gradually unleashed.  I took delight in baking with my daughter, in making pasta e fagiole for my father, and listening to Christmas carols. Now, for the past ten years, I too craft a Christmas letter.  Perhaps those reading it smirk and guffaw, but I suspect they press on to the end of the page as I used to do as a young sprig.  No matter the reason why, concocting the Christmas letter brings a smile to my face and keeps Christmas in my heart.

Ciao for now.