Sunday, May 10, 2020

Ode to Sonia O. A.K.A. Mi Mamá

My Mod Mom--Many Moons Ago in Italy

“What do you notice about the line of my shoulders versus the line of my hips?” My mom asks me as she stands before me in her studio. Her hand, purposefully placed on her right raised hip is that much more pronounced due to her lowered right shoulder. Her head, in true model fashion, is slightly titled to the right. Thick dark and perfectly arched eyebrows accentuate her almond-shaped eyes above her light brown flawless skin and high cheekbones. Her straight dark brown hair is cropped carefully and closely to her head.  Her deep chocolate eyes focus fully on me. She’s exaggerating her stance as she poses in front of me. She wants me to see her with an artist’s eye. 

My sketchbook lies open on my lap and my charcoal pencil is in my right hand. I’m sitting up straight on her royal blue covered couch, observing her observing me—eyes peering into mine—as she models. Her easel and stool are behind her, as is the red French Roast coffee tin filled with different-sized paintbrushes, and the adjacent palette dotted with small piles of shiny colors. The smell of fresh oil paint breathes towards me as does the warm light from the skylight above.

“The lines of your shoulders and your hips are slanting in opposite ways?” I say—with a question in my voice to cover myself in case I’m incorrect.

“Exactly!” her Audrey Hepburn smile lights up her face and I bask in her approval. She maintains her stance.

“Now sketch me,” she commands. I know she means for me to pay attention to her position and figure, and not the details of her outfit:  black and white thinly striped turtleneck cotton and high waisted capris black pants, tapered at her skinny waste, as well as toward her thin, sockless ankles that lead into ped-cushioned feet, and her loafers.

I was probably nine years old. This was one of many art lessons she gave me. I’m sure I resisted at times.  But I tried to keep my complaints to myself, especially when she recounted how the only way to get good at anything was to keep at it—and never give up.

This class was probably given just before she put me into African dance classes with Mr. Ashangi. When I started those classes I did complain--about being the only white girl, about the other girls who wondered why I was with them—and Mr. Ashangi, who made fun of me and told me that as a white girl, I couldn’t possibly have rhythm.

In response to my whining about the class, Mom told me that I needed to work that much harder so that I could get rhythm, and that this class would be a good lesson for me.  “Now,” she claimed, “you’ll understand what it feels like to not be in a majority!”  

As for my mom, she didn’t appear to have ever struggled with rhythm. In fact, she seemed to have been born a natural dancer—as well as someone possessed by so many other attributes. We have home movies of her, from the 40s, dancing on the roof of her Brooklyn apartment. In the films, she’s about 11 years old, and imitating Carmen Miranda while being coached and coaxed by her parents.  She looks sun kissed and happy.

Mom kept her love of the sun, dance, and smiles her whole life.

As a young teen, my Brighton-Beach-Brooklyn-born-and-raised mother worked to lose her native accent. She won the argument to go to Cooper Union to study art instead of being sent to secretarial school. She worked in advertising, television, as an illustrator, a children’s book illustrator—and author, teacher and more. She often told me tales of being the first female art director, at age 23, at Young & Rubicam, and how she had to repeatedly prove herself in order to “hang out with the boys.” Apparently, she did.

Mom and Dad in the 1960s In NYC
M & D in the 1980s in North Brookfield, Massachusetts

Hostess and cook extraordinaire, those that knew my mom extol her virtues as an entertainer, as well as a quick-witted extrovert. Clever and creative are just two of the many wonderful qualities she had. Controversial could be added to that list.

Four Generations: Sonia, Sofia, Arlen, Grandma Sophie, in the 1990s, Larchmont, NY

Recently, a dear friend suggested I write a book about her. Mom was, after all, a fascinating trailblazer in many ways. I told my friend about her many accomplishments, as well as a bit about her being quite controversial, both amongst her five children (from three marriages) and their significant others, and grandchildren, as well as friends, and colleagues. He immediately retorted: “That makes the story that much more interesting.”

Well, perhaps I will dive into that in the future.

Today I glance around my home at her numerous paintings, sculptures, furniture designs, photos, and books;  memories of her and my dad’s parties, her taking me to so many museums, shows, and movies, her sharing of  books, tales, travels, and more come into my mind. It’s a bittersweet wave that runs through me as I write about her. I feel lucky, and hope I told her that before she passed away two years ago.

Three of Mom's Children's Books 
However, dear family and friends, my objective is here is not to be sad; on the contrary, I want to celebrate her life today. Today, after all, is Mother’s Day. And so, it’s a pleasure to share Sonia’s Blueberry Pie with you. Both of my children, Sofia and Wes, not only love this pie, but also have made it for their friends on occasion.

In conclusion, to all of you—mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children, I hope you enjoy this treat as much as we have, and do.

Blueberry Pie and Flowers 

Sonia’s Open-faced Blueberry Pie
Makes one 9-inch pie

Graham Cracker-Nut Crust:
1 1/2  cups graham cracker crumbs (you can buy them as crumbs, or crush 1 ½ packages   in a food processor)
1/2 cups pecans (I prefer) or walnuts, toasted pulverized (in a food processor) or finely chopped
1 tablespoon raw brown sugar
1/4  teaspoon ground cinnamon
4 tablespoons butter cut into ½-inch bits

Preheat the oven to 375ºF. Combine the ingredients in a food processor and process until it becomes just about smooth. Press into a buttered 9-inch pie pan. Bake until lightly toasted, 8 to 10 minutes. Let cool
For the filling:
3 cups fresh blueberries (you can add blackberries, too!)
3/4 cup blueberry jam or preserves (can be a blueberry and blackberry mixture)
1/4 teaspoon minced fresh lemon rind
1 pinch nutmeg
1 pinch cinnamon

In a medium saucepan, combine ½ of the fresh blueberries (about 1 ½ cups) with the blueberry jam or preserves. Add the lemon rind, nutmeg, and cinnamon, and cook, over medium heat, until warmed through, about five minutes.

Scrape into the cooled pie crust. Top with remaining blueberries, serve, and enjoy! 

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Inspiration from Meals, Music, and Muses: Alexander Smalls' Latest Cookbook

Not quite sure what day of the quarantine we're in, but I do know one thing: it’s time!

What is it time for?

It’s time to put the pedal to the metal, so to speak, and get back to what I started many moons ago. And so, my friends, I’m going back to one of my true loves: food writing.

To “re-inaugurate” this blog after a two-plus year hiatus, I turn to a chef, author, restaurateur, singer, dear friend/mentor whom I admire tremendously: Mr. Alexander Smalls.

With Alexander Smalls, a Few Years Ago
Now, Alexander and I met about 15 years ago, when my agent at the time thought we would not only get along well together, but that we could also collaborate on a book project. At that time, he had already published Grace the Table (which is available via Amazon and other outlets).

Well, the book Alexander and I worked on together didn’t get published, BUT others have been—and continue to be—and we are still very much connected.
Which brings me to this blog.

Alexander—in the past two years—has written and published two wonderful books (pictured below): Between Harlem and Heaven, and Meals, Music and Muses: Recipes from My African American Kitchen.

It’s Meals, Music and Muses from My African American Kitchen, published this year,  that pushed me into my Easter Sunday menu. And that, my friends, is exactly what I’m sharing with you here!
Two of Alexander's Books, with Post-Its Marking my Yet-to-Make Dishes 

As for the recipes in his book, I encourage you to buy it. Actually, you should buy both of his recently-published books to read, keep in your library, and gain inspiration from. After all, if you are lucky enough to be home, healthy, and with loved ones or neighbors who would benefit from your cooking, now is the time to cook—and share.

Speaking of sharing, some of you may recall advice I shared a while ago: when creating a new menu for family/friends, it’s a good idea to incorporate one ol’ favorite along with the new dishes. The old favorite I incorporated are the Brazilian cheese puffs, a.k.a. pão de queijo. Now—as I've also told many of you—recipes evolve and adapt depending on availability of ingredients and on what you like—or dislike, not to mention whose at the table with you. So this recipe for Brazilian cheese puffs, since first published in my cookbook Mambo Mixers,  has gone through some changes. Here, below, I send you my latest version. But first, check out the photos from our Smalls'-inspired dinner:

Our Easter Table

Icebox Lemon Pie = dreamy...

Here’s the menu (Note: All are from Meals, Music and Muses--except for the Cheese Puffs!):

·         Brazilian Cheese Puffs 
·         Deviled Eggs
·         Carolina Hoppin’ John (Rice and Peas)
·         Carolina Cabbage Slaw with Roasted Sweet Corn
·         Barbecue Ribs with Bourbon Praline Sauce
  Icebox Lemon Pie

And, with this menu, and encouragement to explore, I sign off. In the meantime, I urge you to make the additions suggested to your cookbook library—
and to play with your food!

Warmest regards,

Here's the Cheese Puff recipe: 

    Brazilian Cheese Puffs
(Adapted from Mambo Mixers,©2005, Arlen Gargagliano)

Makes about 6 dozen small cheese puffs
  • 1/2 cup canola oil
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 1/3 cup milk
  • 1 3/4 cups tapioca starch (doce) or manioc flour (available in large grocery stores and Latin markets)
  • 1/4 cup tapioca starch (azedo)
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 2 cups freshly grated Sardo (Argentine parmesan), your favorite parmesan, or Pecorino Romano cheese
  • 1/2 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
Preheat the oven to 375ºF. In a medium saucepan, combine the oil, water, and milk and bring to a boil. Meanwhile, pour the starches into a large bowl. When the liquid has boiled, add it to the starch and mix well. Let it rest for about 15 minutes. Then stir in the eggs and the cheeses and mix until well blended.

Form into medium size balls, about the circumference of a half dollar. (At this point you can refrigerate them up to three days in advance.) Just before your guests arrive, place them an inch apart on parchment paper covered sheet pans. Bake in the top rack of the oven, until they start to brown (about 15 minutes). Then flip them so that they brown on both sides. Let them cook for another three to five minutes. Serve immediately--with caution because they will be hot! Keep remaining (if you have any left!) cheese puffs in an airtight container for up to 5 days. Reheat, wrapped in a paper towel, for about 15 seconds in the microwave.

Monday, May 29, 2017

El Cubanito: The Cuban Bloody Mary

“Just keep writing, sweetheart.”

This phrase was repeated throughout my life, but especially during the last few years, when I enjoyed the privilege of spending a lot of time with my dad. Now, after a bit more than half a year, I return to the site that chronicled our last trip together just two weeks before he passed away. Because it was an honor flight honoring fellow WWII veterans, as well as Korean Vets, Memorial Day seems like the perfect time for remembrance and honor.   

Another favorite saying of my dad’s was, “Food is love!” And those of you who knew Tony, recognize that this sentiment was behind the driving force of our many dinners and fiestas. 
Yes, food is hugely important, but, as I've often done, I’m bringing cocktails into that mix! So here, mis amigos, is my first 2017 blog, written in honor of my dad, Anthony Gargagliano, who also urged me to travel, travel, travel...
The place: Havana, Cuba
The time: April 2017
The cocktail: The Cubanito, or the Cuban Bloody Mary

Maybe it’s because O’Reilly 304 shares its name with its street address—like my ol’ Mambo 64. Or maybe it’s because wandering around Old Havana makes one thirsty. But whatever the case, I found myself, after spending the day at nearby Santa Maria beach, wanting to explore something beyond mojitos and daiquiris. O’Reilly 304 fue perfecto!  

First of all, Havana Vieja had me delighted even before I set foot there; O’Reilly 304 was no different. The encantador (charming) staff and ambiente—despite the Tony Soprano reading a newspaper painting above the bar—reminded me of why I loved Havana.

After a brief discussion with the bartender,  and a “tour” of the bar menu, I opted for a Cubanito, which is a kind of Cuban Bloody Mary.  If you’re a fan of this ideal brunch drink (and hangover cure), I encourage you to try its Mexican cousins (click on the names to get to the recipes!)  the Bloody María,  a which I wrote about for LoHud a few years ago, as well as Sangrita, which I also wrote about for LoHud! Please know that if you or family members don't imbibe, you can always keep out the rum. 

So, here, my friends,  below the pictures, is the Cuban version of this brunch classic!  
I hope you’ll enjoy it—and please do let me know.
Bartender Encantador Starting the Cubanito.  (My dad's tocayo   relaxing behind him!)

He lights rosemary--for fragrance, and his special touch! 
El Cubanito--ready to be sipped! 

El Cubanito—Cuban Bloody Mary
This is my simple home-adapted variation of the Cubanito I tried at O’Reilly 304, pictured here! 

Serves 1

Lime segment  (for rimming), plus a lime cut into  quarters
Coarse salt for rimming, and also to taste
1/2 cup ice
1/2  ounces light rum (Havana Club Añejo 3)
5 ounces tomato juice
1 teaspoon  Worcestershire sauce
1 dash hot sauce, or to taste and/or fresh-diced jalapeño (Have fun with your spice! You can add a variety here--)
Parsley leaves, plus additional for garnish (optional) 
Pickled jalapeño, for garnish (optional) 
Tomato slice for garnish (optional) 
Rosemary, for garnish (optional)

Rim your glass--or jar as done in the picture--with a lime, and roll into salt to coat. 

Muddle your limes in the bottom of the glass. Add the ice, rum, tomato juice, Worcestershire sauce, and  hot sauce (or jalapeño). 

Add your garnishes, and a colorful straw (to stir with, too!), taste, adjust, and serve. 

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Off We Went, Into the Wild Blue Yonder: Honor Flight with Dad

“Write it all down while it’s fresh, Sweetheart,” my dad says as I kiss him goodnight. He’s sitting in his chairlift, bound for his TV room, where he’ll enjoy a glass of wine and a bite before he goes to bed. He’s kissed my mom goodnight, and had one of the fullest days ever, and is too fired up to go to bed despite the 11:00 time….marking his 19th hour of being awake.  I smile, he kisses my cheek and the top of my hand, “thank you—again—for sharing this all with me,” he says, and then starts going up in the lift, singing, as always, “Off we go into the wild blue yonder, climbing high into the sun.” After spending the day with him and 61 fellow veterans, this song has a different meaning.

On October 29th, we started our day much earlier than most; we were at the Westchester County Airport prior to 6 am. We were greeted by a slew of red-shirted volunteers helped us with everything to getting Dad into his first of many wheelchairs, finding donuts and coffee, shaking hands, patting backs, smiling, supporting, and sharing a camaraderie that is so strong, so precious, and so unique.  From the first moment on, the day was an unforgettable adventure of faces, young and old, smiles, stories, remembrances, and tears.  

The travel portion of the adventure began as we boarded our police motorcycle-led bus brigade (made up  at least 10   local police officers—several bikers), which took us on a  dawn ride, past fire departments where we saw firefighters in full regalia standing at attention and saluting as we passed. As the sun rose, Dad could see our local police escorts.  He took my hand and exclaimed, “Wow…this is for us?” Yes, I smiled all for you. He held my hand tight and said,  “I’m so glad you’re with me!”

 That was one of many moments when I couldn’t help but feel that this time—this Honor Flight trip—was one that was so valuable to each and every one of us.   Despite great differences in lives, professions,  likes and dislikes, we all share the fundamental need to love, be loved, and appreciated. The Honor Flight gave both the much-deserving veterans, and us—their guardians and other volunteers—that reward: we all felt appreciated and loved.

The group—collectively—was dazzling!  Ranging in age from I think a twenty year-old grandson (guardian), to an 101 year-old WWII Vet. The journey talk was peppered   with clever quips, all kinds of tunes and tales, with many of our beloved vets enjoying the much-deserved privilege of speaking their minds on a hugely varied array of topics.  From fellow guardians,  to volunteers—the “angels” as my father termed them, like Jennifer, Marianne and Fred—and many more, to our uniformed companions, all were ever-present and tireless in their desire to assist as needed.

The day—despite its freshness—is a bit of a blur of young and old folks, reaching out their hands to my dad and the other veterans, offering praise, congratulations, and great thanks. Soldiers saluted, whole families parted to let us pass, and the warmth was way beyond that of the beautiful sun that graced our presence in Washington DC.  The visits to the memorials and Arlington National Cemetery were filled with poignant and provocative moments.

Dinner, like the rest of the day, was unlike any I’ve had in quite some time. Part sitcom, other time adventure, just when I was thinking about how tired this crowd must be, they would shine with a look, a smile, a tear—a remembrance. They never ceased to effuse, amaze—and entertain!

During mealtime I gave Dad the chance to sit with our dear friend/family pal Steve, and I sat with a  “new” group of delightful companions who, I’m sure could also double as stand-up comedians.

“I love having this lady next to me!” said one of the vets when I spooned the Italian dressing on his salad,  adjusted his coffee cup so it wouldn’t spill, and spread out his napkin. “Look at her attention to detail!” he exclaimed to the rest of the table. 

“Of course you love the attention," remarked another from across the table.  And I knew I  wasn’t the first “young” woman he’d flirted with that day! Then, when his guardian, I’m guessing about 20 years younger than the 90+ vet he was responsible for, started taking his charge out for a visit to the men’s room, he leaned over to me and asked in a stage whisper, “So, tell me: What did General Douglas MacArthur say to his troops?” 

“I’ll be back?” I asked, sheepishly.
They both smiled and declared in unison, “I shall return!” They made a dramatic u-turn, the guardian swirling (gently!) his charge around—while both managing to wave to me.

Then the dinnertime speeches at the podium, which were both reflective and thankful, commenced. Discussion of pictures (ah, that would be how my grandparents referred to movies!) was paired with talk  about things going viral! And then came the Hollywood finish: Michael (A.K.A. Isaac) recounting—interrupted by an emotion that resonated in all of us there listening—the tale of the wonderful coincidence of reuniting, at our pre-flight Meet and Greet, with his friend Russ after 73 years. Not a dry eye was in that dining room, and we were stamped with a smile/image we’ll all feel in our hearts forever. Appreciated and loved.

Like our evening speeches, that whole day was about presence, gratitude, and honor. To every person that shook my dad’s hand and said, “Thank you for your service,” he returned with a shake (okay, with the women it was a kiss on the hand!) and profound thankfulness. Appreciated and loved.

After landing back at Westchester County airport, on the plane and waiting (to get my dad back on a wheelchair).  I stood near the exiting aisle, and enjoyed the privilege of asking each and every one of the passengers, as they filed by,  if they had enjoyed their day. I was acutely aware that this was so not like any other flight; they were not pushing to get off, but rather taking the time to savor those last moments on the Honor Flight plane.  

I guess the veterans must have thought I was one of the organizers, since they were so effusive  with me in their appreciation. One man took my hand in both of his, looked me in the eyes— and I could see his tears (which of course inspired my own), and said, “This day was so beautiful. I’ve never had a day like this. Even when I came back from the army, I never felt like this. Thank you so very much for all you did.”  I just held his hand, smiled, and then hugged him a thank you, for all he did. Though the words were different with each passerby, the gratefulness, and smiles remained a constant.

When we finally exited the plane and arrived, once again, at Westchester County Airport, we received yet another hero’s welcome: we were greeted by an array of welcomers—from girl scouts, and family members,  to cadets.

“Look!” I said as I pushed Dad’s wheelchair towards the welcoming crowd so he could once again shake hands, and hear the heartfelt “Thank you for your service” declarations. But I stopped pushing—just for a moment and leaned over.

 “Dad,” I said—close and loud enough so I was sure he could hear me over the din, “they’re all here for you!”  

As I kissed his cheek, I could feel his smile, and his tear. 

Singing, "Off We go..." with Bill and our Beautiful Flight Attendant
(with HVHF Founder the Wonderful, Frank Kimler, the Man Behind the Curtain!) 

With Steve...the One Who Introduced Us to the Hudson Valley Honor Flight!

With Lovely Ian 
With Our Beloved Steve Scholem and His Sister, Sharon Scholem

With Fellow HV Honor Flight Friends: Veteran Bruce Gavril and Daughter Liz Gavril 

With Steve, and our Charming and Helpful Guide, Technical Sargent Jason 

Dad and His Angels: Marianne Mutoli-Schmidt and Jennifer D'Elia-DeFrancesco 
Dad Teaching An HVHF Guardian
Nora's  (His Great Granddaughter's!)
Special Handshake 

In the Airport--Talking about the Day!