18 December 2011

The Potato Project: Potatoes, Seven Ways

I've never really liked potatoes. It's not that I dislike them. They just aren't my carb of choice.  I've established a mental carb hierarchy.  At the top is good bread (we're not talkin' sliced bread in the plastic bag- I mean rustic Italian breads and French baguettes) and really anything in the good bread family: focaccia, breadsticks, friselles, soft gourmet pretzels, naan.  A close second is pasta--not crappy, mushy, generic Italian restaurant pasta, but perfectly prepared, al dente pasta with the appropriate amount of sauce.  After that the categories form a messy and confusing chart of carbs:  french fries are superior to garbanzo beans are superior to coconut rice and so on.  There's a lot of overlapping categories and fine print so I'll leave out the details.

I do have a confession.  At the very bottom of my carb hierarchy is  . . .here goes . . .mashed potatoes.  I know, I know this doesn't evoke a lot of sympathy.  Most people go crazy for mashed potatoes.  I make them occasionally because I know that people love them, but I really just don't get it.  They're messy and mushy and sloppy and kind of gritty.  I just find them annoying, which I know makes me kind of annoying.  But there it is, out in the open, out in cyberspace:  I do not like mashed potatoes.  I am very open to having my mind changed, but for the time being, that is my mashed potato status.

Despite the fact that they do not rank highly in my carb hierarchy, we did grow potatoes this past summer.  Many potatoes.  Blue ones and yellow ones and french fingerlings, which do boost the overall potato stock, in my opinion, with their subtle flavor and creamy texture.  Now, as if I wasn't already lukewarm about potatoes, they are really dirty.  The ones you get from the store need a quick rinse, but the ones you get from the root cellar need some serious exfoliation.  All these factors combined, I've been avoiding our potato supply.  Unfortunately, they are a little temperamental and are sprouting and threatening to go bad so we have some serious potatoes to eat.

In my attempt to find some inspiration for the task, I gave myself The Potato Project: Potatoes, Seven Ways.  It's a potato second-honeymoon of sorts--fall back in love with my tried and true recipes and discover some new favorites.  So, the first three are potato recipes that rank well on my hierarchy.  The last four are new attempts at potato love.

1.   Roasted Potatoes

This is my go-to potato recipe as many go to the dreaded mashed potatoes.  And just as a side note, I know what you're doing.  You're just using the mashed potatoes as a vehicle for the gravy that goes with the meat your mashed potatoes are accompanying, which is just despicable.  I'm new to the world of gravy, but now that I've been formally introduced, your mashed potato abuse is flagrant.  You're putting mush on mush to make your original mush mushier.  And that just cuts to the heart of why I cannot handle mashed potatoes:  I need some chew, some gosh-darned resistance for my teeth!  These mashed potatoes that people rave about belong in an I.V. drip!

Anyways, my roasted potatoes are nothing unique.  Hearty and flavorful and an easy medium for gravy or sauce, but a medium that does require teeth so if you're part of the potato-drinking camp, don't bother.  Dice 'em, toss 'em with olive oil, salt, pepper, paprika, and garlic and roast in the oven at 450 degrees for about 45 minutes.  They are also great with parsley and parmesan.  Really, they are just a satisfying side dish for any roasted meat and gravy or stew.

2.  Patatas Bravas

Or in Spanish, brave (spicy) potatoes.  I have to admit that I don't have a very authentic recipe.  Patatas bravas are a Spanish tapas staple.  Roasted or crispy potato chunks adorned with a sauce consisting of tomato, garlic, paprika, and hot pepper, more or less--there are many variations.  When I lived in Spain, I ate many versions of Patatas Bravas, not by choice.  Never in a million years would I choose potatoes over calamari, eggplant, jamon serrano, queso manchego, almejas, lomo.  I'll stop.  The list could go on for several days.  The point of tapas is sharing, so I'm sure some unadventurous eater that I had the displeasure of pretending to like while I got drunk ordered these.  However, one time we had good, really good, patatas bravas.  After enduring numerous anemic, watery red sauces, we finally went somewhere that served a spicy and creamy brave sauce.  This is the instance off of which I've adapted my recipe.  It's a crispy potato shrouded in a spicy cream sauce.  If you're up for frying the potatoes, be my guest.  I like to brown them in a bit of butter and oil and then pop them in the oven for about 30 minutes on a foil-lined baking sheet.  They get crispy like a fried potato, but without standing over the hot stove, which is essential because I often made these when Nick and I lived in the city and came home late after a night of partying.  Only he would ask me to prepare a dish after midnight while inebriated that required dicing, frying, baking, and then the incorporation of a sauce.  Only I would say yes.  That's how we roll.  The sauce is just a mix of sour cream and mayo (I like a 1:1 ratio, but I've used just one or the other) with a good hot sauce mixed in, or you could mix cayenne and paprika into the cream sauce if you don't keep hot sauce regularly on hand.  We like them brave, very brave.  It's not sophisticated, but it's really good.  Go get good and snockered tonight and come home to a plate of these.  I'll look for the thank you email in my inbox tomorrow.

3.  Tortilla Espanola

Techncally, this is probably more of an egg dish. Tortilla Espanola is the Spanish version of the Italian frittata or French omelette.  The most basic tortilla is filled with potatoes, but many versions include onions too.  When I lived in Sevilla, my host mother often made it with tuna.  It's another tapas staple, served hot or room temperature in small squares (at least that's how I remember it, but take into account that was during six months of a Rioja fog).    Really, it's just sliced potatoes fried in a skillet with beaten eggs thrown on top and cooked until set.  In Spain, many poeple have special skillets that allow one to flip the tortilla without making a mess.  I don't have one and after many tortilla disasters,  I found it works really well to cook it in a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet and then once it's almost completely set, to put it under the broiler to finish the top.  It's one of my favorites in a comfort food kind of way.

4.   Braised Potatoes

In effort to gain some scope for The Potato Project, I went to one of my favorite cookbooks, All About Braising, by Molly Stevens.  I felt I had already exhausted the roasted/fried potato category.  The first recipe in her braised vegetable section of the book is braised potatoes with garlic and bay leaves.  It sounded simple, and frankly, plain.  I wasn't expecting much.  I put my scrubbed french fingerlings in a non-stick shallow stock pot with several crushed cloves of garlic, two broken dried bay leaves, three tablespoons of olive oil, salt, pepper, and enough homemade chicken stock (I'm sure you could use any kind of stock, or even water) reaching halfway up the potatoes.  I covered the pot and let them simmer for about twenty minutes.  After checking that the potatoes were cooked through, I turned up the heat to evaporate the stock and glaze them in the reduction sauce.  The final dish was so shiny it looked shellacked.  I was very impressed with the punch of flavor just a few simple ingredients infused into the potatoes with this cooking method.  I will certainly come back to this recipe not only because it was quick and easy to prepare, but particularly because the result was so savory.

5.  Tortiera di Patate e Carciofi, or Potatoes Layered with Artichokes and Breadcrumbs

I found this recipe for what is essentially a potato and artichoke casserole in my Italian cooking bible--My Calabria, by Rosetta Costantino.  This is absolutely my favorite cookbook.  When I first bought it, I practically slept with it under my pillow for two weeks.  Since we moved to the country, I have used it for numerous meal preparations.  It is the source of one of the best meals I've ever prepared: ciambotta.  Typically any recipe with breadcrumbs, pecorino, and olive oil is good.  In fact, it's how I transitioned Nick into eating vegetables.  Dip them in egg, roll them in breadcrumbs and cheese, pan fry in olive oil.  It's my culinary panacea.

Maybe it was venturing out with Vivienne in the rain to get the artichokes I didn't have on hand.  Maybe it was the soaking and slicing of the potatoes.  Maybe it's the fact that the potatoes wouldn't seem to cook through even though I ended up doubling the cooking time.  It wasn't good.  Many of her recipes are simple Calabrian recipes.  They have few ingredients as Calabria doesn't have an opulent tradition. Would I have eaten it if I was living in impoverished Calabria in the first half of the twentieth century as Rosetta's parents did? Yes.  Did I want to take my casserole dish and throw it in the backyard after taking the time to prepare it? Also yes.  She's certainly more talented than I am in the kitchen so I'll give her the benefit of the doubt and say I must have done it wrong.  Regardless, next time I want the delicious crunch of Italian breadcrumbs along with artichokes, I'll go pick up my brother for a good stuffed artichoke appetizer.  It's his favorite.  Actually we'll have two so we don't have to fight over the heart.  He always wins.

Pay no attention to the casserole.  The real winner that night was the Sauvignon Blanc.

6.  Pasta e Patate 'Santo Janni' or Spaghetti with Creamy Potato and Pancetta Sauce

Why would I take carbs and put more carbs on top? Because the recipe sounded interesting and because I obviously hate being able to button my jeans.  This is another recipe featured in My Calabria and comes from an agriturismo in southern Italy.  The authentic version of this recipe calls for guanciale, cured pork jowl, which is hard to find.  Unfortunately, it wasn't at my favorite small, specialty Italian deli back home.  I would have loved to search for it at Caputo's, but we were on a timeline and I get sucked into a deli vortex when I enter that grocery heaven. Forget going to heaven and having the seventy-two virgins waiting for you.  Mine has a deli counter complete with prosciuttos, olives, and cheeses . . . and a serious gelato cooler.

As a quick side note, you may be wondering why I'll eat pork jowl, but not mashed potatoes (probably not, actually, but I'll explore it for you anyways).  That's covered in a separate section of my more complete food hierarchy of which the carb hierarchy is just a small module.  If my food hierarchy were a transparency overlay on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, cured meats would perfectly overlap the self-actualization section at the very top of the pyramid.  In fact, the meaning of life itself may lie in a jamon iberico.

Concisely, this recipe is spaghetti in a pancetta mashed potato sauce with lots of pepper and grated ricotta salata.  It is good--much better than I expected.  Pancetta is quite persuasive.  There were a lot of satisfied grunts from across the table.  The potatoes create a creamy sauce that really adheres to the pasta.  I probably wouldn't use it in place of a basic cream sauce, but if you don't do dairy (you'd drop the grated cheese too) it's a great way to get something creamy and satisfying.  I bet there's even a way to do a nice vegan version of this, not that I'll be exploring that option, but it doesn't seem like a leap from the original recipe.  Overall, a pleasant surprise.

7.  Traditional Gnocchi

I'm not fluent in Italian, but I'm pretty sure gnocchi's literal translation is pain in my ass.  There's scrubbing and boiling and peeling and mashing and mixing.  Then there's the rolling and cutting and shaping of the dough to form perfect little dumplings with ridges to hold the sauce.  Then there's more boiling and straining and plating and dressing with sauce.  I had to take a nap during the prep. Twice.  I even had to stop for a Powerbar just to have the energy to make it through.  And I did it the fast way!  I didn't have any patience left to assemble the food mill, use it per the instructions, and then wash it.  Someone would have gotten seriously hurt.

The ingredient list for the gnocchi is simple: potatoes, flour, egg, salt.  The process is laborious and time consuming.  I probably wouldn't have cared if it were something that excited me.  Once when I returned from New Orleans, I bought pounds of uncleaned, whole shrimp and did the whole deveining, cleaning process myself.  It too was laborious and time consuming.  And gross.  But it was fun because I love etouffee.  I don't think a potato is ever going to hold that same inspiration for me.

I do have to admit that once my little army of gnocchi were formed and ready for boiling, I was a little excited. Something about rows of food gets me giddy.  And for gnocchi, they were good.  These were light and tender, too tender.  If I ever decide again to devote an afternoon to a heartless meal, I will add more flour to create a tougher dumpling.

What did I learn from The Potato Project?  My cuticles look terrible after a week of scrubbing potatoes.  I certainly do not like them enough to deviate far from my old standards.  And, I'll keep to stealing a few gnocchi off of my sister's plate when we go out to eat as a reminder of my indifference.  I'm always up for a tray of patatas bravas after an ungodly amount of sangria, but I'll keep future projects up a little higher on the carb hierarchy.

Patatas Bravas
as prepared by The Redneck Paisana
Dice potatoes into 1/2-1-inch cubes.  Sautee in extra virgin olive oil and butter (about 2 Tbsp of each for a pound of potatoes).  Add more oil if it seems dry.  Once potatoes are coated in fat, spread them on a foil-lined cookie sheet in a single layer, generously salt and pepper them, and bake at 400 degrees until crisp on the outside and tender on the inside, about 30-45 minutes.  After about 20 minutes, carefully turn them with a large spoon or pancake turner.  While cooking, prepare the sauce.  Mix equal parts of mayonnaise and sour cream (about 1/3 cup of each for a pound) with hot sauce to taste.  Remove potatoes from the oven and let cool for about ten minutes.  Then toss them in a large bowl with the sauce.  Serve immediately.

Pasta e Patate "Santo Janni"
Spaghetti with a Creamy Potato and Pancetta Sauce
from My Calabria, by Rosetta Costantino

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 ounces pancetta or guanciale, minced
3/4 pound russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
Kosher salt
1/2 pound spaghetti, broken in half lengthwise
1/3 cup finely grated ricotta salata, plus more for sprinkling
Freshly ground black pepper

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil and pancetta over medium heat, stirring until the pancetta renders its fat.  Do not let it become brown or crisp.  Add the potatoes and stir for about one minute to coat them with the fat, then add 2 cups water.  Bring to a simmer and cook uncovered until the potatoes are soft enough to mash with a fork or potato masher, about 10 minutes.  Mash them to a near-puree and set the skillet aside.
In a 4-quart pot, bring 3 quarts water and 2 tablespoons salt to a rolling boil over high heat.  Add the spaghetti and cook until al dente.

Just before the pasta is done, return the skillet to medium heat.  With tongs, lift the pasta out of the pot and transfer it, dripping wet, to the skillet.  Reserve a cup of cooking water.  Toss the pasta with tongs, coating the pasta evenly with the creamy sauce.  Add the ricotta salata and a generous amount of black pepper and toss again, thinning the sauce as needed with enough of the pasta water to make a creamy but not soupy dish.  The sauce must cling to the pasta, but it should not seem starchy.  Taste for seasoning; if the pancetta is salty, the dish may not need more salt.  Serve at once, topping each portion with a little additional cheese.

Braised Potatoes with Garlic & Bay Leaves
from All About Braising, by Molly Stevens

1 1/2 pounds small red or white potatoes, scrubbed
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup water or chicken stock
2 bay leaves, fresh if you can find them
2 to 3 garlic cloves , peeled and bruised
coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Evaluate the potatoes: if the potatoes are larger than a golf ball, cut them in half.  If you are leaving them whole, check to see if they have thick skins by scraping your thumb-nail across the skin.  If the skin doesn't tear, remove a strip of skin around the circumference of each potato with a vegetable peeler--this will allow the flavors of the braising liquid to penetrate the potato better.  If the skins are relatively thin, leave  them intact.

2.  The braise:  Place the potatoes in a saucepan large enough to hold them in a snug single layer without crowding.  Add the olive oil and pour in enough water or stock to come halfway up the sides of the potatoes.  Tear the bay leaves in half and add them along with the garlic.  Season with salt and pepper.  Cover and bring to a simmer over medium heat.  When the water is simmering, lower the heat to medium-low so the liquid simmers gently.  Braise, lifting the lid and turning the potatoes with a spoon once halfway through, until the potatoes are just tender when pierced with a thin skewer, about 20 minutes.

3.  The finish:  Remove the lid, increase the heat to high, and boil, gently shaking the pan back and forth, until the water evaporates and you can hear the oil sizzle, about 5 minutes.  The braised garlic cloves will break down and coat the potatoes as you shake the pan.  Serve hot.

Serves 4 to 6
Braising time: about 25 minutes

10 December 2011

City Mouse, Country Mouse

It's been a long week.  A miserable, sick, coughing mess of a two-year-old tends to erode a mother's patience. After a persistent 48-hour crying and coughing marathon, I finally got the poor thing to sleep and defeatedly entered my kitchen to attempt a brief cleaning session before it resumed.  There, on my oven standing on its hind legs, was a mouse.  I stared at it; it stared back at me.  I yelled at it; it ran back to its home behind my cabinets.  The audacity of mice today.

This is not our first mouse, but I hadn't seen one in months and hoped we had seen our last rodent of the 2011 season.  I thought maybe they'd be easy on me since it's my first winter here. Y'know, sell me the idea of country living a little.  I don't like any creature in my house, but I particularly dislike mice because they make me squeal like a big, sissy girl when they scamper across the floor.  Oh, and they're diease-harboring, destructive, pooping vermin.  After my trying week, Fievel was gonna get it.

The next night Vivienne's fever had broke.  She seemed in better spirits and had become significantly less velcro-ey.  I took my first respite and drove to the gym for a very hurried and pretty much pointless workout.  I had bigger fish to fry, or more literally, bigger mice to catch.  I called my good friend, Lorna, to catch up on some chatting while in the car.  After greeting each other, we exchanged the following:

Giana: "What are you doing?"
Lorna: "Getting ready for my salsa dancing lesson. What are you doing?"
Giana: "Going to Walmart to get mousetraps."

This does not make me feel good about myself.  Lorna is the quintessential city mouse: beautiful, successful, sophisticated.  Her life is something off the E! network; mine was falling somewhere in the general vicinity of Man vs. Wild.  I swear it's over if I'm ever faced with drinking my own pee. That show always had the same highlights: eat an eyeball, drink some pee.  I think he should take Rachael Ray on an excursion.  Now you've got show.  Let's see her pour some E.V.O.O. on that.

After purchasing my weaponry, I returned home for the showdown.  I am having a special guest this weekend, a friend and pastry chef.  My ego barely made it through the salsa dancing/mousetrap buying juxtaposition.  My pastry chef will NOT see a mouse in my house as we make our macarons.

We had been using these black disk traps that lure the mice in with bait and trap them inside so you don't have to witness the caught, writhing creature.  I had little confidence in this contraption and bought the sticky traps, which seemed to be more promising along with more graphic.  We put Viv to bed.  We set the sticky traps by their favorite spots.  Nick retreated to his mancave in the basement, but I was too excited to relax.  I turned off the kitchen lights, sat at my post at the dining room table, and opened the laptop.  My eyes went back and forth from computer screen to the dim kitchen, my anticipation palpable.  Only my face was illuminated by the screen of the computer as I waited and watched in the dark.  It's as sinister as I've ever felt, waiting for that mouse in my odd version of Ratatuoille meets The Tell-Tale Heart.

Then I got distracted:  the baby started crying; Nick came in to talk to me; I started looking at junk on the internet.  I would be a terrible hunter.  Later, I was about to scold Nick for being in the kitchen during my mouse-hunting expedition when it occurred to me that the noise in the kitchen was not Nick!  It was the mouse desperately trying to free himself from the sticky trap. That was pretty quick--maybe my victim also had cataracts.  Victory!

I yelled to the basement, "We caught it! We caught it!".  Nick came up, displeased by his pending role of disposing of the pest.  He said something along the lines of "*@#$%^&disgusting*@#$%^&". Then he looked at me and said, "I guess this is the point where I have to man up and find something long enough to shove it in a bag so I don't have to touch or look at it."  He's tough.

He managed to push the trap in a box in order to throw it outside.  "Do you want to see a field mouse up close? They're cute."  I peered in the box.  We had already become acquainted during our staring match the night before.  It was kind of cute, like one of those furry designer broaches. I felt a vague pang of guilt as Nick threw it outside to its demise.

He retreated again to the basement and I sat back at the dining room table with a sense of relief. We caught it. Game over.  Whew.

Not yet.  Just as I settled back in my chair, I saw the very familiar scurry across the kitchen floor. My vague guilt pang immediately dissolved.  "You've got to be @#$%^&*kidding me!!".  I ran into the kitchen just to find mouse #2 slipping back into his hole.  Now it was on.  I moved another sticky trap under the hole to catch him as we did the last.  But this little sucker was smart.  Soon enough I heard something hit the trap.  I ran into the kitchen to discover he had pushed it to the side and escaped.  Then he darted back to the hole, hurdled the trap, and landed securely in his home.  I was dealing with an Olympic mouse.  I ran to get another trap, placed them side by side, and secured them right under his hole.  Let's see if he can hurdle two.

I waited for a few hours, hoping to finish the job before bed, but he didn't return.  I started feeling a little hopeless, like I had missed my shot, and went to bed a little uneasy.  What if he was plotting his revenge?

Then, in the middle of the night, I was lucky enough to be jolted awake by Vivienne's piercing screams.  Just a typical call for juice.  I ran into the kitchen to fetch the queen her goblet and discovered we had another hit! He will not be making it to London for the 2012 Summer Games.  I gave Viv her juice, calmed her down, and cuddled her as we both fell into a restful, contented sleep.  For the rest of the night I was nestled snug in my bed while visions of a pestilence-free kitchen danced in my head.  Mice, you've met your match.

My kitchen is clean, nary a sign of the mouse massacre and I can confidently receive my pastry chef friend.  And I think I've sent my message.  These country mice better think twice before messing with this city mouse.

04 December 2011


Upon our return from Thanksgiving in the suburbs, the lens through which I watch our life on the farm has been recalibrated.  It’s impossible to ignore the disparity in our origins.  While we come from similar families and similar values, the manifestations from the separation of just 100 miles can be quite different.  Please understand when I say different, I don’t intend it in a hierarchical sense.  There is no better or worse, just appropriate for each lifestyle.  People often ask me if I prefer living in the city or country.  I prefer both, but for different purposes.  Country living is appropriate for our current lifestyle for many reasons which are unnecessary to explore here.

The disparity provides me with endless material.   It was just last weekend Vivienne and I spent the morning shopping at Oak Brook Shopping Center with my mom and brother.  That would be the mecca for those brought up in the tradition of suburban materialism.  I'm greatly enjoying the fruits of our excursion (new jacket, tunic, sweater, knit top, and bohemian blouse-thank you mom! I’m cute again!)  Just a few days later, my father-in-law was watching Vivienne and decided to bring her along for a morning of tractor-shopping.  I guess one does that at some sort of mecca for those brought up in the tradition of rural commercial agriculture.  In order to transport her safely, he installed her car seat in the cab of his pick up.  Now that’s something one doesn’t get to experience growing up in Hondas.

My life is the perpetual alternating of redneck and paisana.  For example:

Nick stacked the functional DVD player on top of the old, broken DVD player.  I had the sudden realization that I was living a Jeff Foxworthy monologue.

I finally indulged myself in my ideal Christmas tree:  white tree, white lights, silver and blue decorations.  I like to call it European.  Nick calls it Jersey guinea.  I’m fine with either description.  I know it’s tacky.  I can’t help it!  There are somethings that will always look right to me even though society tells me otherwise:  many bracelets stacked on the same arm, excessive liquid eyeliner, and a white Christmas tree.  I think it’s beautiful and it makes me very happy.  

And then there is the garden, the biproduct of the redneck and the paisana, that is still kickin'. Yesterday, I had a very humble salad.

There is nothing remarkable about this salad other than it was harvested from my backyard on December 2nd in Northern Illinois.  Most of our lettuces couldn't withstand the frosts, but this curly cultivar is in its best condition yet.  Through September, October, and November, I mostly passed it opting for the peppery baby arugula, then the crisp romaine-like head lettuce, and lastly the burgundy and deep green leaves.  It always looked too dirty to bother cleaning, but now that there is little debris and no leaves on the ground, the curly lettuce is clean, in its prime, and has the spotlight.  It's the last lettuce standing, which is a great lesson in biodiversity.  Had we not chosen to plant six or seven lettuces, I would have never learned that each peaks in ripeness at different times, nor that each has a different resistance to the approaching hard freeze.

Also, upon getting reaquainted with the garden after a few weeks of neglect, I discovered we have broccoli.  I had relinquished any hope of harvesting the brassicas we sowed from seed this fall, but the two rows of broccoli that managed to germinate and grow through the changing weather of summer to fall have each produced a small, green head.

Along with the season's last bastion of greens, we had a meal that is a very good marriage of redneck and paisana.  If I were from the country, I might call it macaroni casserole (casseroles, I've learned, are very popular in the country).  But, since I contribute the paisana to the household, we call it pasta al forno, literally 'pasta in the oven', or baked pasta.  This came about mainly because we were seriously out of food other than our meager garden pickings and a crapload of turnips for which I have yet to find a good use--turns out there is something that isn't delicious roasted in garlic and olive oil.

We had copious amounts of milk because regardless of our schedule, we get two gallons from our local cow each week.  So upon our return from our Thanksgiving weekend, we came home to last week's two gallons and this week's two gallons.  Other than Viv, we are not big milk drinkers and I think it would be somewhat irresponsible to allow that to be her only source of nutrition for the next week, so I made a huge batch of ricotta.  Three quarters of a pound of slightly undercooked penne mixed with a generous amount of ricotta, a splash of milk, and salt and pepper baked with a romano-polenta crust made for a rustic and hearty macaroni casserole, ahem, pasta al forno.  If I had set out to make that meal, I probably would have chosen very different ingredients, but I think it made good use of our exorbitant amount of milk (there's still plenty of ricotta) and the last bit of grated romano and polenta hiding in the back of the refrigerator.

The cultural amalgam that is my life contains beauty from both parts.  Just as I once sighed at the sight of the Chicago skyline while coming South on the Edens into the city, I sigh at the silhouettes of the black cows against the caramel background of the harvested fields as they find the remaining bits of corn for their bovine breakfast.  Perhaps one day I'll come our with my own Redneck Paisana product line: Mountain Dew cannoli, a pickup truck decked out with fleck paint and a scapular on the rearview mirror, maybe some bedazzled gardening tools.  Until then, we'll watch our well-worn Anniversary Collection of The Godfather on our working DVD player nestled on top of the broken one.