Friday, January 30, 2009

Gramma's Magical Bell Pepper Salad (& the saga of Julie and the stray Siberian Husky)

It's Sunday and Sundays inevitably make me think of two things: my dad's pancakes and breakfast at Matt's Gramma's house in New Haven (well, Hamden technically, but whatever). This morning Matt and I couldn't help but recall one particularly memorable occasion at Gramma's that included not only good food, but an unforgettable story and very good example of my general inability to control laughter at the most inappropriate of times.

One of the highlights of our trip to Connecticut in December (besides Matt obsessing over the fire like some kind of HFA child), was the dinner we had at his Gramma's house. I love Gramma, who I affectionately like to refer to as The Sheriff, for many reasons, among those her tendency to be brutally honest, to curse unexpectedly, to wear big 80s Italian-style sunglasses whenever she's outside, and because she is one of the few people who I think really knows the meaning of working hard. But I have to say, the reason I love her the most are the meals she prepares for us.

From an outsider's perspective, depending on what part of the country he grew up in, this particular dinner might have seemed either like a perfectly normal Italian American family dinner, or like a display of excessive, marathon-like force feeding by an otherwise seemingly pleasant old woman with a heavy Italian accent. Having now spent the past six years of my life being introduced to the Italian American ways of the Northeast, I revel in these visits and repasts.
Plus I just love to eat a lot. :)

Matt, being Italian in his Gramma's hometown in San Martino, Italy

The table on this last night of December in 2008 featured a lot of the usual Gramma staples, generally to be had at her Sunday morning breakfasts, and some other but nonetheless fortuitous, dinner-esque dishes.

A selection, if you please:
- Breaded chicken cutlets, fried and cooled ahead of time
- Fried chunks of
Baccalà (salt Cod)
- A cold
Baccalà salad that had capers, I think
- Chicken broth with dandelion greens (if you've never heard dandelion greens or "Horta" in Greek cuisine, you've never lived)
- Baked manicotti stuffed with ricotta & covered in homemade marinara
- The prerequisite boiled string beans with nothing but olive oil drizzled on them
- Generous chunks of parmesan cheese in a ceramic bowl (I say generous because we all know what highway robbery good parmigiano reggiano is in the US)
- Large, unpitted, and very green olives cured in salt water or vinegar - never have I had fleshier, fresher olives than those!
- Succulently chewy oyster mushrooms fried with pepperoncino a
nd olive oil (my personal fav)
- Ciabatta rolls, warmed in the oven to soften them slightly (Gramma s
ays the only reason she still has all her teeth at the ripe age of 80 is that she ate really hard bread all her life)
- Fresh mozzarella and slices of Italian prosciutto (offered after we'd already eaten dinner)
- Freshly roasted chestnuts (we helped pierce them to let the steam escape)
- Slices of cantelope
- A bottle of Frascati wine, tap water, orange juice, a couple of shots of Strega, and of course, Italian espresso
[NOTE: This smörgåsbord made for a real fight for self-control on my part and Matt's and explains why it is also traditional for Matt (and any other family member who may have partaken) to take a nap in the living room after most of the meals at Gramma's house.]

All of this, a deviation from the norm or not, was to be expected. But two things threw me off a little bit that night at Gramma's house as we conversed with her and Matt's uncle.

1. The unassuming bell pepper and cauliflower salad sitting on the table next to me, whose vibrant colors and mysteriously simple yet delicious flavor entranced me from start to finish (literally, to the point that I actually ate all of it except a piece I grudgingly gave to Matt)

2. The story Matt's uncle told concerning Julie, their cat, who also happens to be the oldest adopted cat on the books at the Hamden animal shelter (20 yrs in case you were wondering)

I am severely allergic to cats (hence #11) and pregnant, so when we walked in Matt's uncle graciously insisted he would put the old and feeble Julie in the basement to offer me a comfortable atmosphere in which to break bread. Throughout the meal the conversation flowed like wine (or was it the other way around?), but was nevertheless occasionally interrupted by various thumping, whining and howling sounds coming from the basement, and therefore presumably being made by Julie. Matt's uncle looked pretty uncomfortable about having exiled her in such sharp contrast from her usual pampered lifestyle, and so from time to me he would get up and go talk to her or bribe her into silence with bits of food. Gramma generally received the uncle's gestures with a dismissive wave of her hand and a click of her tongue, thereby signaling that she was glad the cat was in the basement .

On one such occasion, halfway through the dinner, Matt's uncle came back to the table looking particularly upset. As I nibbled on the bell peppers and cauliflower (and shoved other food onto Matt's plate as a diversion from the salad), he explained why. (Caveat (PILP Alert!): what follows was cause fo
r uncontrollable and probably highly inappropriate laughter on my part. This is not the first time I've done it, nor shall it be the last, but at the very least I will try to use this posting as my better-late-than-never mea culpa (wow, another PILP) in honor of Julie).

"One day about a month ago I was sitting in the kitchen drinking my coffe
e. I usually let Julie out into the backyard before I go to work. So I'm going about my business drinking my mug of coffee when I hear Julie scream. I mean, I was in the kitchen and I had my coffee in my hand, but as soon as I heard her I just jumped outside through the screen door - it was already open, thank God or I may not have made it - and saw a giant Siberian husky going after Julie!--"

*insert first stifled laughter-snort on Brenda's part
followed by a uncomfortable smile from the uncle*

"I was looking for Julie and screaming her name when I realized that vicious dog had her in his mouth! He had her in his mouth and was waving her around like a rag doll--"

*uncle imitates the Siberian husky wildly thrashing its head around with Julie in its powerful hyena-like jaws as I determinedly but less successfully stifle another laughter-snort this time receiving a kick under the table from Matt*

"So he's waving Julie around like a rag doll and I'm like 'What do I do? What do I do?' and then suddenly, instinctively - almost like it was in slow motion - I drop my mug - I mean at this point I didn't care what happened to the mug I just knew I had to get Julie - and I reach over and punch the dog in the back of the head! I mean, I just punched it, right in the head!--"

*full-fledged laughter-snort escapes Brenda's mouth followed by uncontrollable but somewhat stifled giggling, incredulous glare from uncle*

"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry -"
I manage to stammer. "Please go on. I don't know why I'm laughing. I think maybe I'm just in shock, um, just relieved that you got the dog."

*big old involuntary laughter-snort*

*uncomfortable pause followed by slightly incredulous chuckle on uncle's part*

"No, it's ok, I mean I understand it's kind of an unbelievable story. It was really scary. Yeah, I mean, he saw it coming but I still hit him and he let go of Julie. I didn't do any permanent damage really, but I mean, who's dog is roaming in other peoples' yards anyway? Poor Julie she just laid there for a second and then she got up and ran and I was looking for rocks and yelling at the dog but it ran away and so did Julie. I had to call in to work and take the day off to find her, I even had to call the game warden...and then we had to take her to the hospital to have her fixed was awful."

*amused laughter from the sheriff, hand-gestures from uncle, full-on laughter from Brenda*

"You know Brenda, now I'm really starting to wonder why you're laughing. I mean, it was pretty awful what happened to Julie--"

*continued involuntary laughter from Brenda, awkward laughter from Matt, sardonic chuckles from the Sheriff*

"No, I know, I know. I don't know what's wrong with me...I, I am sorry. I'm really sorry. Yes, that's awful."

He shortly thereafter excused himself to go check on Julie. It was a long five minutes in between though, let me tell ya. The awkwardness and inappropriateness was mitigated only by what I now refer to as Gramma's Magical Bell Pepper Salad. To change the subject I asked her how she made it. It is so easy it hurts, and definitely one of those dishes that just proves simple is always best.

She offered to let me take several jars of it home with us to London, but even after we explained the whole "international customs" concept to her she continued to try to force it upon us,
inherently suspicious of any so-called international airport procedures.

Here's the recipe in case you ever want to taste a lit
tle of what I tasted that night at Gramma's:

Gramma's Magical Bell Pepper Salad
Serves 4

I didn't have cauliflower at home this morning - so sue me.

- 6
(preferably red, orange or yellow) bell peppers, washed and chopped into large squares
- half a h
ead of cauliflower, chopped into medium sized florettes
- 1/2
cup largeish pickled capers (not caperberries), rinsed
- 1/2 cup (or so) of white wine or rice wine vinegar

- salt and pepper to taste

- Matt adds some dried oregano, but I consider that blasphemous


Mix all ingredients in a bowl and allow to stand and soak for half a day, mixing occasionally. Serve as a side salad or snack. Can be put into jars and stored for later consumption, as long as you know the whole sanitary procedure for doing that and you're not trying to smuggle it across the Atlantic Ocean.

The Sheriff (on the right) with her cousin back in the old days
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  1. dude.
    stop being such a writer :P

    <3 Isaac

  2. I love the Brenda snort.
    I wish I could be there to share a laugh or two with you right now...